Analysis from Israel

Aside from avoiding outrageous gaffes, is there anything Israel can do to improve its miserable public relations? The BBC poll Alana cited this week, which once again showed Israel to be one of the world’s least-popular countries, actually points the way: Israel must start making a long-term investment in cultivating ties with Russia, China, and India.

Clearly, Jerusalem shouldn’t delude itself that it can change the hostile policies of these countries’ current governments. Indeed, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s effort to “reset” Israel’s relations with Moscow has failed spectacularly; Russia’s decision to sell cruise missiles to Syria is merely the latest example.

But as the unrest now sweeping the Arab world amply proves, authoritarian governments don’t last forever. Someday, the autocratic regimes in Russia and China will fall, and Israel must prepare for that day now by cultivating ties with the Russian and Chinese peoples — not merely because both countries are superpowers, but because, as the poll showed, they are actually Israel’s best prospects for future allies.

According to the poll, the countries with “the most positive view of Israel were the United States, Russia, Ghana, and China.” At first glance, that is shocking. One would expect Israel to draw the most support from other Western democracies, not the Russian and Chinese autocracies. But in reality, it’s eminently natural.

In Russia’s case, a million Russian-speakers have immigrated to Israel since 1991, one-seventh of Israel’s total population, and the strong network of cultural and interpersonal ties they have created provides a natural springboard on which to build. The two countries also share a common threat: Islamic terrorism.

In China’s case, both countries are products of ancient civilizations that place a strong emphasis on education and family ties. Indeed, Chinese curiosity about Judaism has been surging; it shouldn’t be hard to translate that into interest in Israel. Unfortunately, Israel has yet to reciprocate this interest; it remains focused almost exclusively on the West.

As for India, it was one of the few countries in the poll where positive views of Israel outweighed negative ones. The absolute numbers (21 percent positive, 18 percent negative) were lower than in Russia or China, but that merely means more Indians are still undecided.

Despite its lack of a Security Council seat, India is clearly one of the world’s up-and-coming powers by dint of sheer size. Like Israel, it faces a major security threat from Islamic terror; like Israel, it is proud of its dual identity as both an ancient civilization and a flourishing modern democracy. For historical reasons, it was traditionally in the pro-Arab camp, but that has begun changing in recent years. Yet while Israel has invested some effort in improving ties with India, it has not invested nearly enough.

The silver lining in the BBC poll is that despite Israel’s current grim international situation, it potentially has some powerful natural allies down the road. But to actualize this potential, Israel must begin making the necessary investments now. Come the Russian and Chinese revolutions, it will already be too late.

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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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