Analysis from Israel
The pursuit of a white knight who will finally solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has repeatedly led to disaster.

After reading my column on Tzipi Livni last month, a colleague commented: “I gather you don’t think she’s our white knight, either. So who is?”

This question epitomizes the problem that has afflicted Israel’s leadership for 15 years now. Contrary to popular belief, however, that problem is not the lack of a white knight. Rather, it is the public’s frantic pursuit of such a savior – specifically, someone who will finally solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The truth is that white knights are rare even in the best-governed countries. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, was a great president. Yet he was merely an interlude between 25 years of undistinguished predecessors and 35 years of equally undistinguished successors. Similarly, Winston Churchill was an interlude between 18 years of unmemorable (or infamous) predecessors and 34 years of unmemorable successors. That is the norm in all democracies: occasional great leaders enlivening long lists of mediocrities who merely mind the store. Some of the latter are better shopkeepers and some worse, but most keep their countries lurching along on a more or less even keel.

Moreover, even genuine white knights seldom provide easy and painless solutions. Lincoln, for instance, preserved the United States and ended slavery, but at the cost of a four-year civil war with almost a million casualties. Similarly, Churchill enabled the Nazis’ defeat, but only by rallying his people to stand firm despite heavy casualties during a year when Britain faced a triumphal Germany alone.

In 1992, however, Israelis lost patience with normality and its largely mediocre leaders and began pursuing a fantasy – not merely a white knight, but one with a magic bullet that would solve the Palestinian problem now. And the results have been far worse than mere mediocrity.

THE VICIOUS cycle began when Yitzhak Shamir, a quintessential shopkeeper, was ousted in favor of Yitzhak Rabin’s grandiose promises of peace and an end to terror. A year later, Rabin signed the Oslo Accords. But not only did terror not disappear, it surged: Within two and a half years after Oslo, Palestinian terrorists killed more Israelis than during the entire preceding decade. And, as a “bonus,” internal hatreds hit new heights, culminating in Rabin’s assassination.

Seeking salvation from Oslo’s carnage, Israelis then elected Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996. And by storekeeping standards, he was reasonably successful: Deaths from terrorism dropped from 211 in 1993-96 to 63 in 1996-99, and his economic policies reined in the rampant deficits inherited from Rabin, laying the groundwork for rapid growth under his successor. But Netanyahu made no attempt to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he merely managed it. And so, in 1999, Israelis replaced him with a new white knight, Ehud Barak.

Like Rabin, Barak won by promising dramatic moves. And he quickly delivered, withdrawing unilaterally from Lebanon in May 2000 and holding final-status talks with the Palestinians that July.

The results of the former became clear only with last summer’s war, which killed as many Israelis in one month as, on average, six years of pre-withdrawal fighting in Lebanon, with the added “bonus” of Hizbullah rocket fire paralyzing the north and inflicting major economic damage.

The results of Barak’s Palestinian policy, in contrast, were quickly evident: The intifada broke out in September 2000, and over the next six years, Palestinian terror killed more Israelis than during the entire previous half-century, while also sparking a deep recession.

The intifada persuaded Israelis to replace Barak with Ariel Sharon in 2001. And Sharon proved a first-class shopkeeper: His conflict-management strategy reduced Israeli fatalities by about 50 percent a year from mid-2002 on, and that, combined with economic reforms launched by his finance minister, Netanyahu, enabled the rapid growth and falling unemployment of the past two years.

BUT THAT was not enough for Israelis: By autumn 2003, with the decline in terror produced by Sharon’s conflict-management strategy already evident and the immediate danger therefore past, they began seeking another white knight, who would not merely manage the conflict, but solve it. Demands for such a solution proliferated: Yossi Beilin’s Geneva Initiative, a press conference by four former Shin Bet chiefs who slammed Sharon for managing the conflict rather than seeking to end it, a numerically small but high-profile campaign of refusal to serve by IDF reservists. The media hammered him. And his approval ratings plummeted.

Sharon, a master politician, responded by transforming himself into what the public wanted: a white knight with a new plan for solving the conflict, known as unilateral disengagement. And it worked: He became the media’s darling, he was feted internationally and his approval ratings soared. Indeed, his promise of a solution was so enthralling that his successor, Ehud Olmert, won election in 2006 on a pledge to repeat it in the West Bank.

But, like all the previous grand plans, the mid-2005 disengagement soon proved a disaster: Palestinians, viewing it as a terror-induced retreat, responded by electing Hamas and quadrupling rocket launches at southern Israel from evacuated Gaza.

The desperate quest for a white knight had another negative consequence as well: Governmental corruption soared, because the media, and the public, were willing to tolerate venality in any leader who promised that magical solution to the conflict. After Sharon announced the disengagement, for instance, the media suddenly stopped accusing him of corruption and became his staunchest defender. And the public, as his skyrocketing approval ratings showed, followed suit.

Similarly, the multiple police investigations in Olmert’s past (as opposed to the new ones launched since) were well-known during last year’s election campaign. But the public did not care, as long as he offered a plan to solve the conflict.

Thus the last thing Israel needs now is yet another would-be white knight. Instead, it needs a long stretch of competent shopkeepers: people who will keep terror within tolerable bounds, hold the economy on course, perhaps address some long-neglected domestic problems and give us all time to lick our wounds. Over the past 15 years, the quest for a white knight has brought nothing but disaster. By any reasonable criteria, the uninspiring shopkeepers have done much better.

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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