The Middle East Is A Mess

Donald Trump has expressed he wants to succeed where every former President has failed in the Middle East; creating a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors.  He should probably just settle for stability in the Middle East for the remainder of his term.

The fun began less than a month ago when the Saudis hosted Donald Trump and 50 Muslim leaders in Ridayh.  Showing their economic and cultural power, the Saudis were able to rope almost every major Muslim nation to come to the summit.  The summit was meant to show the Muslim world stands in solidarity with Trump and the West in opposing Iran and terrorism.  Instead, it simply notched a foreign policy visit checkbox for Trump and foreshadowed a splintering in the Muslim world.

The United States has always occupied a slightly awkward position between two major Muslim states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  In fact, these are the only two Wahhabi states in the Middle East.  Needless to say, they do not like each other much.

Qatar has always been an annoyance to the Saudi Royal Family.  Qatar has crushed dissent at home but encouraged it abroad.  The Saudi Royal Family blames Qatar for domestic terrorism problems at home.

Qatar shares a major natural gas deposit with Iran and as a result has been a major voice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for keeping ties with Iran.  Saudi Arabia has always viewed Iranian hegemony as a threat to regional and national stability.  Thus, Qatar’s alliance with Iran is a threat to Saudi interests.

The Trump administration has yet to publicly take a side in this spat and for good reason.  The Trump administration needs Saudi support to curb Iranian influence but the US also has a major base in Qatar.  Talk about being in between a rock and a hard place.

Regionally, it seems you can break down the various factions in this spat into three camps.  The first is the Saudi-Bahrain-UAE camp, which has severed ties and closed their borders to Qatar.  The second faction are Kuwait and Oman, the neutral parties trying to mediate this dispute.  Being so small and westernized, Kuwait has good reason to be playing the moderator.  The last faction is the Qatar-Iranian camp.

Reflecting the factional nature of the Middle East, Iran was quick to offer its support to Qatar.  The move was Iranian officials way of sticking it to the Saudis who they blame for the ISIS terrorist attack in Tehran.  Iran has also accused the Saudis of supporting Sunni dissidents in Kurdish and Arab communities in Iran against the government.

The Saudis in turn have their reasons for wanting to quell Iranian expansionist tendencies.  Along with threatening Saudi control of the region, Iran has been offering increasing support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Saudis have been unable to help the local government gain full control of the country.  Additionally, Iran has been involved in exploiting Saudi weaknesses in Iraq and elsewhere.

Further muddling the picture is Turkey taking the unprecedented step of deploying troops in defense of Qatar.  Ironically, a century ago a former Saudi King, Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, helped engineer the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire from the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf in coordination with the British.  Now, following Saudi action in Yemen and Qatar, the return of the Turkish army seems assured.

Another player in this divide is Egypt who has backed Saudi Arabia.  This is mostly self-interest.  The Saudis have largely backed the Muslim Brotherhood’s community efforts and fully support the latest government in place.

Due to their power and cultural dominance, many poor African nations such as Eritrea and The Maldives have backed the Saudis.  But, beyond geographic proximity, many Muslim nations are staying out of the fray.  Despite signing friendship agreements with Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia are not ending ties with Qatar.

Pakistan is trying to play mediator just as Kuwait is.  Pakistan has thousands of its citizens living and working in Qatar and Saudi Arabia so they have a vested interest in the resolving the crisis.  Good luck with that.

Saudi foreign policy has historically been cautious and risk averse.  The nation has preferred to use its economic and military might in indirect ways to collect victories.  Money resolved most issues the latter could not.

But the Saudi Royal Family recently underwent a changing of the guard so to speak and new King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has let his more hawkish son, Muhammad bin Salmon, adopt a much more belligerent defense policy.  The signature action of this policy change has been the two years plus old war in Yemen that drags on.  The UN calls it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world as millions of civilians are caught in the cross-hairs and lack access to food and clean water.  Saudi Arabia cannot walk away from the conflict, otherwise it would lose face, but the longer the conflict drags on the more Iran wins by siphoning off Saudi resources and attention in a fruitless effort.

Trump does not have a ton of clout in the Muslim world.  He has the solid backing of Israel, but other than that the US is largely isolated in the region.  Even the Afghan government is keeping the new administration at arm’s length.

Still, Trump has tried to make inroads.  His meeting with the Saudis last month was designed to show allies in the region the US has their backs.  Since Trump has criticized the Iranian Nuclear Deal, it makes sense the Saudis would embrace him on that alone.  But, Trump also okayed a $350 billion arms deal over 10 years, partly to show Iran they do not have an any semblance of an ally in the White House anymore.

Unlike Obama, Trump has shown little interest to date in pushing Saudi Arabia to expand civil rights.  He also has been more willing to back traditional US foreign policy doctrine that operates on “backing the devil you know over the one you don’t.”  Just more reasons why the Saudis would embrace Trump.

But while Trump is more friendly to Saudi Arabia than his predecessor, Congress is not.  Case in point, when the last Saudi arms deal was approved last year in the Senate , over 70 Senators voted yes.  Less than a week ago, 20 Senators switched sides and the chamber only approved a modest half billion dollar deal to the Saudis by a 53-47 margin.

Saudi Arabia is not doing itself any PR favors in the US by continuing the war in Yemen.  By contrast, Qatar has very publicly withdrawn from Yemen and recently inked a deal for 36 F-35 fighter jets from the Pentagon.

In a likely bid to promote unity in the region the administration has backed Saudi Arabia.  But, at the same time, Trump’s national security team is trying to keep their base in Qatar open and preserve existing air access agreements that are allowing them to bomb ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

Nobody is perfect in this scenario.  Saudi Arabia supports secretarian and extremist groups when it suits their interests.  So does Iran.  So does Qatar.  But this puts the US in an extremely untenable position.

The US has been allied with Saudi Arabia since 1945, an alliance with origins in preventing Nazi and then Communist expansion into the region.  The alliance has allowed the US to confront many issues from Communist expansion to Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda.  The US cannot throw away such an alliance.

Nor can it ignore the mistakes the Saudis are making or the strategic disadvantage it would find itself in if Qatar closes down the US base in the nation.  Mideast peace is a pipe dream if we cannot even maintain a solid presence in the region.

Things may get worse before they get better.  The Middle East has always been a mess but Saudi bullying and incompetence combined with Qatari game-playing and Iranian meddling has made this situation potentially explosive.  Right now, closing borders and fighting proxy wars in other counties is as far as the scenario has gone.  But that could change if Saudi Arabia feels it needs to use its military and believes it can rope the US into the conflict.  In such a scenario, all parties involved lose!



What’s Behind Teresa May’s Surprise June Election Announcement

In 2015, Conservatives (the Tories) roared to a majority in Parliament.  Labor, led by the feckless Jeremy Corbyn, finished well below its final polling average.  During the campaign. then Prime Minister David Cameron in a bid to appease UKIP supporters, promised a vote on leaving the European Union (Brexit).  Ultimately Cameron acquiesced and the country is reeling from the consequences.

Despite Cameron abiding by his promise he stepped down in late last year after Brexit.  He had backed staying in the EU and many loyal, Conservative supporters did not trust him as a result.  His replacement, Theresa May, also initially backed staying in the EU but has 100 percent backed the will of the voters.

May has not had an easy initial go of it.  She only maintains a nominal majority of 10 seats (330 out of 650) and her efforts to implement Brexit have been stymied by the Courts and members of her own party.  Unlike UKIP, Conservatives have long been divided on the issue of the EU which is why they have shed voters in local elections to UKIP.

This is probably why May was even considering holding a snap election at all.  Two recent polls released this weekend, showing the Tories with massive 21 point leads, probably pushed her the rest of the way.  If these polls hold all the way up to June 8th, the Tories stand to gain a 100 to 200 seat majority in Parliament (their biggest ever).

The unpopularity of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also has to be playing a big part.  According to the polls almost or 50 percent of voters see Teresa May as the right leader for Prime Minister.  But Corbyn is third behind the “Don’t Knows.”  His party is divided between his far left acolytes and a more centrist Parliamentary contingent of which 90 percent do not recognize him as the leader of their party.

It is possible after this election Labour becomes the third largest party in Parliament after shedding seats in Scottland to the SNP and dozens of seats to the Tories and Liberal Democrats (the last pro-EU party in the UK proper) in June.  Corbyn’s relentless drive to make his party adopt his left-wing cultural and fiscal policies has made Labour blue-collar seats ripe for the plucking.

Further benefiting the Tories is UKIP is disorganized.  May’s full throated endorsement and pursuit of Brexit has made the independent, nationalist UKIP lose its appeal to many Tory voters.  Further, without Brexit to campaign on the party is now left to reorganize and decide what issues it wants to campaign on moving forward.

Ultimately though, while all these factors might have influenced May to hold an election, the biggest factor might be that May feels she needs an election under her belt to guide the party.  Specifically, an election victory of sufficient magnitude would give her a mandate to govern the UK.  Further, the June election will coincide with elections in France and Germany and a Tory victory could give her the leverage she needs to negotiate with these countries leaders and get a better deal for her nation.

It is also possible May be deciding it is smart to hold an election when the economy is doing well.  Brexit could have destabilizing effects and her party would probably be blamed.  Before that happens, it would be foolish not to bolster her party’s majority and her power.

The political and international context of this election aside, it is interesting this election will feature two firsts for the nation in a generation.  May, 60, and Corbyn, 67, are septuagenarians.  This is the first time in over 60 years the UK is faced with a choice between two septuagenarian major party leaders.  The nation has had a generation of young leaders from Tony Blair to David Cameron guiding its sails since the 90’s and the political battles fought have largely been over a matter of degrees.

There is no matter of degrees between Corbyn and May.  Corbyn is a left-wing ideologue fighting for trillions in new spending and an eternal rebel in his party.  May, is the eptiome of a small “C” conservative Englander and is fighting to streamline government.  When voters go to the polls in June they may never have faced such a stark choice.




The Media Really Has No Idea What the Public Wants After Orlando

Friends and family of the victims of The Pulse Massacre mourn.

Sunday morning, most Americans woke up (myself included) to hearing about a gunman opening fire on a crowded gay nightclub in Orlando.  The death toll currently stands at 49.  Not content to merely slaughter members of the community, the gunman took hostages and held out for 3 hours until he was killed by SWAT members.

The gunman, positively identified as Omar Mateen,was college educated, an American citizen and Muslim.  He had twice been investigated by the FBI for having terrorist ties but both times was deemed no threat.  The firearms he used, a pistol and a semi-auto AR-15 (the media thinks any rifle is a full-auto) were both purchased legally and he passed background checks with flying colors.

By all accounts, Mateen was clearly radicalized at some point (his father disagrees).  He made a call to the Islamic State during the attack and posted supportive posts of ISIS on Twitter and Facebook before the attack.  It has come out he visited Saudi Arabia twice before the attack.

Such a heinous attack could not be left alone by talking heads or politicians and sure enough the two biggest headliners of 2016, Clinton and Trump, waded in.  Clinton took to issuing a statement of condolence and waiting for more of the facts to come out.  Trump, well, he was Trump.

Trump used his Twitter to congratulate himself on the fact he was right that terror attacks by Muslims will continue.  Soon after though, he issued several follow-up tweets focused on sounding tough on national security and terrorism.  Ironically, the President agrees with Trump for once and said, “Although it’s still early in the investigation, we know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate and as Americans, we are united in grief, in outrage, and in resolve to defend our people.”

Unsurprisingly, the media condemned Trump’s self-congratulatory comments and came down on the side of Clinton.  Trump’s lack of empathy seemed to be many outlets primary concern.  They appreciated Clinton’s nuanced statements vs. the Donald’s “reckless” calls for banning Muslims and saying the President should resign for not saying this attack was due to Radical Islam.

Here’s the thing.  I don’t think the media has the faintest clue what the public wants or how it will react.  They can read polls and interview people until they are blue in the face but there is limited precedent for what the public will do or how it feels.

However, some observations can be gleaned.  More likely than not the public will gravitate towards the candidate that sounds tougher on terror and Radical Islam (Trump wins there).  A cool and calm approach, manifested over and over by Obama, has been praised by the media but rarely has the public given him high marks on handling a crisis.

This is not an assumption made in a vacuum.  Political scientists have studied the impacts of terrorist attacks on elections and discovered it makes the public act in 3 relevant ways.  First, the public becomes less trusting of each other.  Second, they rally around a sitting executive (witness Bush and 9/11 and Clinton and the Oklahoma City Bombing).  Lastly, they tend to become more hawkish at the expense of civil liberties.

This should benefit the bombastic Trump despite the overwhelmingly negative perception of the media regarding his response.  Empathy is great and all, but empathy does not keep the public safe from external threats.  Nor does it make the threats go away.

Another observation, perhaps more obvious than the first, is that the tragedy will be used as a political tool by both pro-gun and pro-gun control groups.  The Daily Mail, New York’s hometown newspaper, printed a paper with the headline, “Thanks NRA.  Because of your continued opposition to an assault rifle ban, terrorists like this Lunatic can legally buy a killing machine and perpetrate the worst mass shooting in US history.”  Never-mind, he passed background checks and used a semi-automatic rifle, not a full out assault rifle making the Mail’s rant of an article irrelevant.

Pro-gun advocates have not been as stupid in their responses and have kept a low profile since the incident.  At least as of yet they have not blamed the nightclub being a gun-free zone as the culprit.

The Daily Mail is not widely representative of the media but combined with the responses of the many media elites (like Chris Cillizza here) it does form a pattern.  A pattern where their personal opinions bias their responses and their judgement.  In turn, they show they have no idea what the public thinks, will do, or respond when the time comes to vote due to tragedies like Orlando.  As I said before, empathy is great and voters want their leaders to have it, but they also want their leaders to be strong and able to defend them and their loves ones.




The Election is Over: What’s Next for the UK?

Nicola Sturgeon, head of the SNP, represents  perhaps the UK's greatest struggle yet to survive.
Nicola Sturgeon, head of the SNP, represents perhaps the UK’s greatest struggle yet to survive.

The Conservatives commanding victory in England speaks to the cultural appeal they have with with ethnic English voters.  The SNP’s dominating performance in Scotland is a reaffirmation that Scotland wants to retain its nationalist heritage.  Labour and the LDP’s poor showings show just how damaged their brands are. But 2015’s election results also signify something else; the UK as we know it is dying.  It didn’t happen overnight and neither will it fall apart overnight.  For the UK to survive it must undergo some deep soul-searching about where it wants to go amid changing demographics and the cultural/political shocks it is causing.

To understand what has happened to the UK we must look back at what has transpired in recent years.   The modern governmental apparatus of the UK was formed in 1707 with the first Acts of the Union which eliminated the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of Scotland and created one Parliament to be based in London.  Scotland assented largely because of the large number of MPs they could have in Parliament (45) and the benefits of free trade with England.  The first Acts of the Union was followed by a second in 1800 that united the UK with the Kingdom of Ireland.

However, many Catholic Irish resented the union and from 1916-1921 violence broke out between UK troops and the Irish.  Seeking to avoid a war the UK Parliament opted to allow a vote of Independence for Ireland.  Majority Catholic Ireland opted out while Protestant heavy Northern Ireland decided to stay with the UK for religious and cultural reasons.

This past is present today.  The total control governments have enjoyed in Parliament have led them to make decisions that have alienated members of the United Kingdom.  Discovery of oil in the Bering Sea near Scotland allowed for the UK to reap significant benefits.  But many Scots felt they should have reaped more.  More importantly, lack of representation and political power have meant that UK members like Scotland have had to forge nationalistic identities to stay relevant.

In Northern Ireland this took the form of various versions of the IRA-but also an extension of the dislike Irish Catholics had for Irish Protestants and vice-versa.  In Scotland, while not exactly as violent or vocal as Ireland, Scots have harbored a simmering resentment for governments in Parliament.

This is especially pertinent when one considers the Deevolution of Powers under Labor Party leader Tony Blair gave more to Ireland than Scotland.  Sure, Scotland gained the ability to form a regional council but that council lacks even the most basic function of American states; the ability to raise revenue and thus set a budget of their choosing. Instead, both Scottish and Irish parliaments get to set budgets on revenue sent to them by the UK Parliament.

Clamoring for more local control is not a new phenomenon in the UK.  In the 1950’s, today virulently anti-Tory had a majority of Conservative representing its constituencies because Conservatives called for more local control.  That situation switched around with the 1980’s and Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher is often heralded as the Tory’s greatest leader in not just England but also the US.  Sharing the stage with Ronald Reagan and confronting the evil that was the USSR probably helped solidify this image here in the US.  But not all pockets of the UK loved the Iron lady.  Thatcher might have loved deregulation but her government sure was centralized.  During her tenure her party’s tone on local autonomy and control shifted and as a result Irish and Scottish Nationalists rejected the Conservative Party in droves.  Conservatives have largely been banished from Ireland and Scotland since.

Tony Blair’s promise of devolution was the largest plug of his campaign and it allowed a disheveled Labour Party to reintroduce itself to voters in the UK.  The Good Friday Agreement in Belfast in 1998 under Blair formed the framework for giving Northern Ireland its own Parliament on the caveat the violence between Irish Catholics and Protestants end.  In Scotland, a 1997 Referendum asking voters if they wanted to create a Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly passed.  In 1998, Parliament passed the Scotland Act of 1998 allowing such an act.  But there were limits to the power regional parliaments had.  The biggest being able to exercise the ability to raise revenue and spend it accordingly.

Meanwhile, devolution for England has not occurred.  By far the largest and most powerful political body in the UK it enjoys the least control of its own power.  This can be summed up by the West Lothian question which posits that devolution for Scotland and Wales without devolution for England, has created a situation where MPs in the British parliament, including Welsh and Scottish MPs, can vote on matters affecting England alone but on those same matters Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can make their own decisions.

Such a criticism is not without merits.  However, considering a solid majority of MPs in any Parliament hail from England the issue of devolution has had less impact.  However, a Commission to study the West Lothian question was created in 2012.  Their findings pleased nobody when they were released in 2013.  The McKay Report as it was called suggested English only laws needed a majority of English Constituency members support and this should be enshrined in a resolution. But such an idea, a resolution, does not have the force of law and a ruling government could ignore it at any time.

Devolution in Scotland has satisfied few critics.  Resentment in Scotland grew to historic proportions in 2014 when a Referendum of Independence was placed on the ballot.  With over 80% turnout, 55% of Scottish voters opted to stay in the UK.  But any hope this would minimize Scottish nationalistic sentiment has been dashed by 2015. The massive margins in total votes and seats the SNP just garnered in Scotland tells a tale of a people unsure of the future but wanting representation that knows them.  Indeed, the SNP basically pitched its entire campaign platform on being the party that understands Scotland.

But 2015’s impacts don’t end there.  The Conservative majority now rests on almost total domination of England.  This almost makes them an England First party in the eyes of voters elsewhere in the UK.  Yet, it is almost assured Cameron will have to do something to address the Scottish situation.

Whatever Cameron does he will have to do it soon.  The SNP has all but made clear it has no problem with Scotland becoming an Independent State.  Worse for Cameron is trouble is brewing among his own party faithful.  UKIP’s 12% of the vote came predominately from England and it represents an anti-EU nationalistic sentiment.  Cameron is no friend of the EU but he recognizes the benefits the UK has if they stay in the EU.

There are no good options for Cameron.  Either he can recognize more power for Scotland and England or one and the other or he can watch the UK come crumbling down around him.  This all but assures Cameron’s government will be consumed with trying to hold the UK together.  Even though by now it may all but be impossible.



How About Those British Elections?

cameron-tories-slash-benefitsWhat follows below is a brief description of the UK election results.  Most of this is taken from assorted websites and the like.  The second piece, soon to follow, will focus much more on the issues impacting the UK and what the election results and Conservative victory portend for the UK.

The UK’s election results were supposed to represent a public unhappy with every party.  Polls on the eve of the election had Labor and the Conservatives neck and neck with the LDP a distant third.  UKIP, a nationalist party offshoot of the Conservative Party was in fourth.  The irrelevant Scottish Nationalist Party in fifth.

Well, the results are in and the biggest result is the polls were wrong.  Below is a brief snapshot of what happened to the five major players in the election and a sixth category for the Green Party and regional players.  Enjoy.

SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party): On the eve of the election nobody could have predicted the results in Scotland.  Scotland, a Labour and LDP stronghold was expected to be tough for both parties.  The region’s 59 constituneices were split between 41 for Labour, 11 for the LDP, a mere six for the SNP and 1 Conservative constituency.  The SNP, representing Scottish national sentiment was garnering support with a Scotland First message.  But nobody could have imagined the carnage.

The first sign of the carnage was the BBC’s exit poll that found SNP gaining an unimaginable 58 seats.  All in Scotland.  Labour and LDP leaders dismissed the exit poll.  But it proved to be eerily accurate.  SNP gained a whopping 50 seats, capitalizing on nationalistic sentiment left over from the 2014 Independence Referendum.  When the dust settled the SNP had 56 seats in the region while Labour had 1 (-40 seats), LDP 1 (-10) and the Conservatives held their lone constituency.  This now means the SNP is a major player in UK politics but other results ensure they are locked out of the halls of power in Parliament.

Labour: Labour was buoyant heading into the election.  Despite the weakness of their leader, Ed, Millibrand, the party believed it had wounded the LDP-Conservative government enough to win a hung parliament. Instead, two events occurred to conspire against them.

The first was the destruction of their contingent in the Scotland.  The second was their inability to make major gains around London and Southeast England.  Labor gained seven seats in the London area bringing their total to 45 but it came from a weakened LDP Party and Conservatives lost only a single seat.  These seven seats did little to help Labor buttress their losses in Scotland or the Southeast (-4).

Liberal Democrats Party: If there was one party that had the worst election outcomes of the night it was the LDP party.  A center-left party with an American ideological equivalent of a Blue Dog Democrat the party is now as relevant as Blue Dog Democrats.  Crushing losses UK wide sent their membership tumbling from 57 to 8.

It was not supposed to be this way.  The LDP, founded in 1992, believed it had finally found a way to power with the formation of a Coalition Government with the Conservative plurality 2010.  Instead, they sullied their brand.  Tied to a Conservative Government the LDP was forced to sign off on a number of unpopular austerity measures including tax cuts for the wealthy and domestic spending cuts.  The LDP, a party founded on being fiscally moderate but socially diverse could not keep up pretenses.  As a result, they were decimated in Scotland (-10), wiped out around London (-6) and eliminated in Southeast England (-4).  Indeed, 8 total constituencies is the fewest the party has held since its creation in 1992.  That year the LDP captured 20 constituencies.

Conservatives: The biggest winners of the night by far were the Conservatives.  Despite capturing only 37% of the vote they managed to win 51% of all Constituencies and gain enough seats to form a Majority Government, marginalizing the SNP and Labour.

How Conservatives accomplished such a feat when you consider what has arrayed against them.  First, polls showed the public split on the election.  Second, UKIP was promising to pilfer their most conservative voters.  Third, the austerity programs the Conservative Government had instituted were unpopular nationwide.  However, the destruction of the LDP in England sent some of their voters the Tories way.

The Conservatives gained a total of 29 seats, almost all coming from England (+21).  The party also managed to hold a surprising number of its marginal seats and gain several seats from the severely weakened LDP.  But with victory now comes power and the Conservative government will need to decide soon what to do with Scotland (more on this later).

UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party): From a vote standpoint the anti-EU party had a great night. They won over 12% of the popular vote.  But due to the Single Member District system the UK bases its elections on the party becomes only a single constituency party.  Further, the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, lost his constituency to the Conservative candidate.

With a single seat UKIP remains irrelevant in the halls of Parliament.  But it’s 12% showing in the popular vote shows the party has a base of support to build on.  Considering most of its support came from 2010 LDP voters swinging their way UKIP  must now find a way to court Conservative voters who do not share their anti-EU views.

Other: Other parties scored some successes.  The Green Party held its single constituency and scored several second place finishes.  Other regional parties held serve or pretty close in Ireland and Wales.

Summary: The UK’s election results must simultaneously thrill the new Conservative government and fill them with dread.  The new Conservative Government will now have to tackle solo a nagging recession, ethnic tensions and brewing nationalistic sentiment not just in Scotland but Wales and Ireland as well.  In short, David Cameron’s tenure as Prime Minister is about to get a lot rockier than it was under his Coalition Government.


Israel’s Election Results Are In

downloadIt’s no secret there is little love lost between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration.  If you need proof just look at Netanyahu’s past tense history with the White House.  Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress enraged the White House and critics of the hawkish Israeli government.  A government that could have come toppling down and been replaced by a centrist, left leaning government domestically but no less hawkish on foreign policy.

Like much of the industrialized world, Israeli has been struggled under the weight of a continually sluggish economy. Netanyahu’s Likud Party attempted to paint the election as a referendum on his foreign policy and the results suggest they succeeded.  Despite preelection polls shows Likud falling three to five seats behind the Zionist Union Party Likud earned 30 seats in the Knesset to ZU’s 24.

But despite the victory it is important to understand that Israel’s system is vastly different from the US’s.  Israel operates under a parliamentary system and they have a multitude of political parties that can gain seats in the Knesset (their version of our Congress).  Even if Likud had fallen behind Zionist Union once the votes were tallied they could have form a coalition government assuming they can get a coalition of 61 seats (Knesset has 120).  Also important to understand is unlike in some other parliamentary democracies, Israelis don’t vote for a specific geographic constituency: Rather, they vote for a slate of candidates represented by a party or coalition of parties.

In the run-up to the election the mood of the Israeli public could easily be described as disgruntled.  Scandals plagued the Likud coalition government, the cost of living has soared and ethnic tensions between Orthodox Jews, secularists, and Palestinian Jews have increased.  The continuing issue of settlement has yet to be resolved as well.  The surge in the polls by the Zionist Union Party right before the election reflected such a trend.  But those that showed up to vote were quite different from what the polls had indicated.

So how did Netanyahu pull it off?  And how did ZU blow it?  Simply put, Netanyahu successfully made the campaign a referendum on his foreign policy and took a scorched earth approach to win as many hawkish Israeli votes as he could.

His speech in the US Congress was just the start.  Soon after he came home he promised no Palestinian state would be created and supported the idea of more settlements.  The results speak for themselves.  Likud dominated in predominately traditional areas of the country.  Netanyahu’s move also might have benefited right leaning parties likely to join a new coalition government.

The Zionist Union party did not so much blow it as they simply were outflanked.  They did not take on Netanyahu’s scorched earth tactics and allowed the Arab Alliance, a coalition of Arab Israeli parties, to eat into their minority support.  The result was a drop in support on election day.

Unsurprisingly, this promises to continue an antagonistic relationship between the Obama administration and Israeli government. Of course, this assumes Netanyahu can forge a coalition government though odds are good he can with nationalist and right-wing parties.

Yet, President Reuven Rivlin said after the election results were mostly in, “I am convinced that only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel’s democracy and new elections in the near future.”  Needless to say, the idea that ZU and Likud join together to create a unity government is far from likely.

Because of the multitude of parties involved one party may get to play kingmaker.  That party, Kulanu — Hebrew for “All of Us, is headed by Moshe Kahlon, a popular former Likud minister who broke away from Netanyahu.  Kahlon is generally right leaning but could be swung to support a ZU coalition government.  However, it is likely Kahlon will join a Likud government.

The White House issued a murky and lukewarm reaction which is not surprising considering their issues with Netanyahu.  Congress Republicans could barely hide their glee.  Regardless of these results however the relationship between DC and Israel is unlikely to be friendly over the next two years.





Is Normalizing Relations with Cuba A Gamechanger in Florida?

0417-marco-rubio_standard_600x400Well, we know how Marco Rubio feels about the US “normalizing” relations with Cuba.  His anger is understandable.  Rubio’s parents fled Cuba and he feels as many older Cubans do that negotiating with the Communist state validates its human rights violations.  Oh, and than there is the little fact Cuba has a cop-killer living in their country.  Foreign policy implications aside for the moment the Obama administration’s announcement could rock the Florida electoral map.

Florida’s Hispanic population has largely been more conservative than their counterparts nationally.  This is due to the historically large Cuban-American exile population in the state.  But younger Cuban-Americans who have never grown up under Communism and a growing Puerto-Rican population based around Orlando have slowly been turning the Floridan Hispanic vote blue, if not at least purple.

Look at the results from prior elections.  Since 2000, Orlando based Orange and Osceola counties have been turned a dark shade of blue.  Meanwhile, exit polls from 2008 and 2012 suggest the Cuban-American electorate is becoming more swingy.  Most recently, 2014 exit polls show Charlie Crist won Cuban-Americans by 4% in the Governor’s race.  Rick Scott’s campaign disputes the claim and say their internal polling showed them winning the demographic up to election day.

As ideological and partisan realignment continues nationally and in Florida it is crucial for both parties to retain and build on their existing coalitions.  Hispanic Puerto-Ricans are unlikely to be significantly impacted by the Obama decision.  But for whites and Cuban-Americans the policy decision could be profound.

It is notable that support and opposition for “normalizing” relations with Cuba has been a bipartisan affair.  New Jersey Democratic Senator Rob Menendez has never been a fan of changing Cuba’s embargo status.  Rubio made his stance clear in an op-ed he recently penned.  Still, views on the issue are partisan as well.  Charlie Crist was a fan of “normalizing” relations with Cuba in the Governor’s race.  Rick Scott, in both 2010 and 2014, was firmly opposed.  The Cuban-American vote has largely been split on the issue.

The Obama administraion’s actions could also shake up the GOP Presidential nominating contest.  Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, in a Facebook post stated, “The Obama Administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President, and another dramatic overreach of his executive authority. It undermines America’s credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba.” Other potential 2016 Republicans have been less direct on the issue, minus Rubio.

Hill Republicans have been more direct.  According to Politico, Senator Lindsey Graham warned on Twitter, “I will do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba. Normalizing relations with Cuba is bad idea at a bad time.”  Ted Cruz is not a fan of a policy change and John Boehner has made clear he will not revisit the issue in the 114th Congress.  Only Rand Paul seems to be a fan of the policy decision.

This suggests that Obama’s ability to change America’s relations with Cuba are extremely limited.  With this limitation may come limits on its electoral outcomes.  Hispanics in Florida vote on more than just the issue.  As more Puerto-Ricans and Cuban-Americans are integrated into the American political system the potential for the set of issues they vote on to change is significant.  Hence, the relationship change may only have a short term impact.

Regardless, we know which side the 2016 contenders are likely to line up on.  Hillary Clinton is on baord with the plan.  Meanwhile, Rubio, Cruz and Bush, three prospective 2016 prospective candidates, certainly are not.  It does not appear that will change anytime soon.