Analysis from Israel

Here’s the scariest part of events at the UN during the last week: In its obsession with the Palestinian statehood bid, the world seems quite prepared to let the entire rest of the Middle East implode.

Tunisia, Libya  and Egypt all underwent revolutions this year and are struggling to rebuild their countries; revolutions in progress are convulsing Syria and Yemen. Not only is the Israeli-Palestinian arena stable by comparison, but most of these countries, and especially Egypt and Syria, are far more important to the region’s future than the backwater of the West Bank and Gaza. Yet as Lilia Labidi, Tunisia’s new minister of women’s affairs, discovered, nobody at the UN had any attention to spare for their problems:

Her own appeal to the gathering for help in consolidating gains for women in Tunisia elicited little reaction, with [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and various other female heads of state sweeping out of the meeting on empowering women without stopping for even a hello … She found it frustrating that the question she was asked the most by people had little bearing on her projects, like improving girls’ access to elementary school. The  question she heard over and over: What effect will the revolution have on Tunisian attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general, conducts a version of political speed-dating during the gathering, holding a 15-minute meeting with each delegation. Virtually every leader has brought up the need to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, said a senior aide, while he could not remember any discussions about the Arab revolution.

This inattention also translates into a shortage of  much-needed cash. Earlier this month, the G-8 pledged $38 billion in aid to Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. But while the recipients appreciated the gesture, they pointed out that of the $20 billion the G-8 promised Tunisia and Egypt in May, Tunisia has yet to receive a penny and Egypt has received only $500 million.

By contrast, Palestinians are deluged with Western aid. In 2008 and 2009, for instance, they received $2.6 billion and $3.1 billion, respectively, making the Palestinian Authority the world’s top aid recipient per capita–$725 in 2009, almost triple the $273 the G-8 just pledged the five other states.

The West has a vital interest in ensuring stability in the Arab Spring states. If these states implode, not only will hordes of migrants flood Europe’s shores, but global Islamism – and the terror it spawns – will get a tremendous boost, having “proven” because democracy failed to solve these countries’ problems, Islam must be the answer. In contrast, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict threatens no vital Western interest: The world has lived with it quite successfully for decades, and can easily do so for decades to come. But in its obsession with the unimportant and non-urgent, the West is ignoring a problem that is both important and urgent.

The primary victims of this strategic myopia are obviously the Arab Spring countries themselves. But the West is liable to pay dearly for it down the road.


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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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