Analysis from Israel

One of the most disturbing things I’ve read in a long time was Haaretz’s report last Friday that the government has ruled out military aid to Syrian Druse, who are under serious threat from extremist Sunni groups like Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. Maybe this is merely a smokescreen, meant to allow Israel to provide aid while retaining plausible deniability. But if the report is true, it’s a horrendous error, both morally and strategically.

Ordinarily, I don’t think Israel has any obligation to prevent potential Mideast massacres. Not only does it have no moral duty to rescue people who for the most part would happily kill us if they could, but even if it did, it lacks the capacity. Israel may be the Mideast’s strongest military power, but it has nowhere near the power necessary to be the region’s policeman.

Nor do I entertain fantasies about creating a friendly Druse statelet to our north, though that idea has some proponents. In an essay in Mosaic Magazine last year, for instance, Ofir Haivry argued that Israel should support “the Christians and Druse of both Lebanon and Syria, and above all the Kurds,” in an effort to forge a bloc of Mideast minorities that could counterbalance both Shi’ites and Sunnis.

But as Dr. Guy Bechor of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya noted last week, Israel’s experience with this idea – primarily in Lebanon in the 1980s – hasn’t been encouraging. The region’s other non-Muslim minorities are vastly outnumbered by their Muslim antagonists; they are hampered by being scattered among several different states; and aside from the Kurds, none have even shown any particular desire for independence. Thus just as Christian autonomy in Lebanon couldn’t survive without a continuous Israeli military presence, Druse autonomy in Syria probably couldn’t either, and such a presence wouldn’t be in Israel’s interests. So Syrian Druse would probably do what Lebanese Christians did after Israel left Lebanon in 2000: reach an accommodation with the dominant Sunnis and/or Shi’ites.

But if we can’t expect any lasting gain in the form of a friendly neighbor, why should Israel help the Druse? Quite simply, because their Israeli kinsmen want it, and because those kinsmen are Israel’s most loyal non-Jewish citizens. The community’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Maufak Tarif, the head of the Druse and Circassian Local Councils Forum, Jaber Hamoud, and senior Druse officers in the Israel Defense Forces have all issued pleas for help. Additionally, thousands of ordinary Druse demonstrated over the issue Saturday night.

Refusing to help their relatives – when everyone knows Israel would surely help Jews in a similar situation – would essentially tell the Druse that they will never be anything but second-class citizens, that their decades of loyalty to the state are worth nothing. And that’s not only a moral atrocity, it’s a massive strategic error.

Non-Jews constitute 25 percent of Israel’s population, so it is strategically vital for Israel that they be loyal citizens rather than an irreconcilable fifth column. And the Druse, precisely because of their decades-long loyalty, are seen by other minorities as the test case for whether such loyalty pays. As Tarif put it in a media interview in 2004, “Even the Arabs are constantly saying, ‘the Druse give everything, yet Druse villages are in even worse shape than Arab villages.’”

This doesn’t mean Israel should invade Syria for the Druse’s sake. But the Druse aren’t asking for that. All they have asked is that Israel provide their Syrian kinsmen with the weaponry needed to defend themselves. And that’s well within Israel’s power.

In contrast, Israel’s proposed alternatives are fatuous: According to Haaretz, it asked America to arm the Syrian Druse and hopes Jordan will do so as well.

But years of US promises to aid moderate Sunnis in Syria have produced only paltry amounts of weaponry, and even its aerial campaign against Islamic State has been half-hearted. Washington basically wants nothing to do with the Syrian quagmire, and it is unlikely to ditch this aversion for the sake of the Druse. As for Jordan, it is so averse to intervening in Syria that it initially refused to help even its fellow Sunnis, thereby infuriating its main financial patron, Saudi Arabia. Thus it’s hard to imagine it intervening now on behalf of the Druse, who have hitherto been allied with the Sunni rebels’ nemesis, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Nor are any of the reasons advanced for not arming the Druse convincing. First, the fear that this would provoke extremist groups like Nusra or Islamic State to attack Israel is overblown. All these groups are ideologically committed to Israel’s destruction; they haven’t attacked Israel so far only because they’re too busy fighting on other fronts to want to tangle with Israel as well. And that would remain true even if Israel armed the Druse.

Second, Israel wouldn’t be tilting the Syrian balance of power in Assad’s favor, because the regime has essentially abandoned the Druse to focus on protecting its coastal heartland. Thus despite their former alliance with Assad, the Druse are now unlikely to use their weapons for anything beyond protecting their own villages, leaving Sunni rebels free to pursue their war against Assad as long as they leave Druse areas alone.

Finally, it’s highly unlikely that Syrian Druse would turn any weapons we gave them against us. With a few rare exceptions, Druse in Syria and Lebanon haven’t engaged in anti-Israel attacks the way both Sunnis and Shi’ites have; they allied with Assad and Hezbollah only because they considered the Shi’ite alliance a lesser evil than radical Sunnis.

It is possible that action is unwarranted because the danger to Syrian Druse is being exaggerated. On Saturday, Nusra said its members had violated orders by killing 20 Druse last week and would be punished accordingly; that may indicate that it doesn’t want conflict with the Druse right now.

But if the danger proves real, then Israel must help. To do otherwise would be to betray the trust of Israeli Druse, who have been loyal citizens for 67 years and never before asked anything in return. And that would be both a moral and a strategic catastrophe.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on June 17, 2015

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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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