Analysis from Israel

Domestic Policy

At first glance, Sunday’s Arab riots on the Temple Mount fit nicely into the media storyline that Israel’s “extremist right-wing nationalist” government is undermining relations between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority. Yet the most notable element of those riots was how many Israeli Arab religious leaders rejected the Jerusalem Waqf’s all-out effort to foment them. In mosque after mosque throughout Israel, imams preferred to send a message of peace, thereby underscoring the true story of the past few years—not a breakdown of Jewish-Arab relations, but growing Arab integration.

The Jerusalem Waqf, which runs the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, isn’t Israeli at all. It’s jointly controlled by Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and diligently disseminates both countries’ anti-Israel incitement. Hence it’s no surprise that anti-Israel riots periodically erupt there.

On Sunday, it sought to exploit a calendrical anomaly: The Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av coincided with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice). Since both holidays commemorate events that occurred on the Mount (Abraham’s sacrifice of Ishmael, in Muslim tradition; the destruction of the First and Second Temples, in Jewish tradition), some members of both faiths like visiting the mount on that day. The Waqf therefore called a mass prayer rally at Al-Aqsa to prevent Jews from “defiling” it with their “filthy feet,” as Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas once famously said.

To ensure mass attendance, it took two unusual steps. First, it ordered all other Jerusalem mosques closed on Sunday, so that Jerusalem Muslims who wanted to attend services on one of the holiest days of the Muslim year would have nowhere else to go. Second, it asked imams throughout Israel to spread the message to their congregants.

So Haaretz decided to ask some imams what they thought of this. Here are some of the responses:

“Gathering in a religious space is not meant to cause escalation, much the opposite, we stress that we all must live in peace,” said Sheikh Mohammad al-Quran, imam of Kseifa’s mosque, adding that sermons and prayers at his mosque would focus on alms to the needy and the growing problem of violence within the Arab community.

Ahmad Abdullah, imam of Ein Naqquba’s mosque, said that Friday’s prayers were mainly spiritual preparation for Saturday’s fast, which precedes Sunday’s holiday. “The topics brought up in the mosque are at the discretion of the imam,” he added.

Sheikh Amar Walid, imam of Kafr Qassem’s mosque, said Eid al-Adha is meant to foster unity among peoples and deter violence, and that violence within the Arab community would top his agenda that Friday, as it does every Friday. Then, referring to last week’s murder of a 19-year-old Jewish yeshivah student by Palestinians, he added, “We are tired of the conflict, we need to end it already, the idea behind slaughtering an animal for the Feast of the Sacrifice is that it is upon us to avoid bloodshed among people.”

Nor are these imams unusual; most Israeli Arabs shun violence. Indeed, just last month, defense officials reported that terrorist activity among Israeli Arabs—never high to begin with—has dropped sharply (with the worrying exception of the Bedouin community, where it’s on the rise). In 2015, Israel arrested 120 Israeli Arabs suspected of terrorist activity. By 2018, that number had halved to just 60 arrests.

No less significant, Israeli Arabs increasingly identify as Israeli. In one survey conducted shortly before Israel’s April election—nine months after the passage of the controversial nation-state law, which critics wrongly claimed made Arabs second-class citizens—46 percent of respondents self-identified as “Israeli Arab,” 22 percent as “Arab,” 19 percent as “Israeli Palestinian” and 14 percent as “Palestinian.” Thus 65 percent included “Israeli” in their self-definition, almost double the 33 percent who included “Palestinian.” And the most integrationist option, “Israeli Arab,” was chosen by more than twice as many people as the second-place contender. This is a sharp contrast to how Israeli Arabs self-identified a decade ago.

The same survey found that 76 percent of Israeli Arabs termed Jewish-Arab relations in daily life “mostly positive,” while just 18 percent termed them negative. Moreover, fully 94 percent recognized the existence of a Jewish people, unlike the Palestinian Authority, which vehemently denies Jewish peoplehood. And in a separate poll, a majority of Arab respondents said they were “proud to be Israeli.”

Equally notable is the recent change in Arab voting patterns. In April’s election, 30 percent of Arab voters cast ballots for Jewish parties, almost double the 17 percent who did so in 2015. Granted, this was partly to protest the petty bickering that led Arab parties to dismantle their joint ticket; now that the Joint List has reconstituted itself, many Arab voters may return to it in September’s do-over election. But some experts think the movement towards Jewish parties could actually intensify, and so do the parties themselves: Left-leaning parties are courting Arab voters in a manner that Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives coexistence organization, termed “unprecedented.”

“The center-left Zionist parties are basically going over the heads of the Arab parties to appeal directly to Arab voters in a very genuine manner,” he said, “and that is because they have identified the growing frustration of Arab voters with the parties that are meant to represent them.”

Even more surprising, some center-rightists have urged their parties to do the same. Former Benjamin Netanyahu aide Nathan Eshel and Israel Hayom columnist Professor Eyal Zisser both recently published columns arguing that the time is ripe for this since repeated polls have shown that Arab voters overwhelmingly prioritize domestic issues—jobs, crime, education and housing—over the Palestinian conflict. And successive Netanyahu governments have worked hard to address such issues in the Arab community.

None of this means there aren’t real problems in Arab-Jewish relations, including unconscionable anti-Arab broadsides by too many rightist politicians and vicious anti-Israel incitement by Arab Knesset members and Islamist clerics. But overall, the story of the past decade—under Israel’s “most right-wing government ever”—has been one of increasing Arab integration. Whatever government is formed after September’s election must continue that trend.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 14, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

On June 24, Haaretz columnist Amira Hass compared the case of Mahmoud Qatusa to the infamous Leo Frank case in Atlanta. The comparison was suggested by Qatusa’s lawyer, but Hass enthusiastically seconded it.

One day later, the dramatic denouement of Qatusa’s case proved them both wrong. And the story convincingly refutes claims that Israel has become increasingly racist and “anti-democratic” because it shows that the sine qua non of a flourishing democracy is alive and well—not the absence of problems, but the existence of self-correcting mechanisms to resolve those problems.

To understand why, a recap of both cases is needed. Frank, a Jew, was convicted in 1913 of murdering a 13-year-old Christian employed at the Atlanta factory where he was superintendent. Rumors said the girl was also raped. During the trial, crowds outside the courthouse shouted “Hang the Jew”; he was duly sentenced to death. Multiple appeals were rejected. But Georgia’s governor, disturbed by flaws in the case and the anti-Semitic incitement, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Two years later, vigilantes broke into Frank’s prison and murdered him.

Qatusa, a resident of the West Bank village of Deir Qaddis, was arrested on May 1 and held without bail on suspicion of raping a 7-year-old girl from the nearby Jewish settlement of Modi’in Ilit, where he was a janitor at the girl’s school. After his indictment hit the headlines on June 17, social media erupted with anti-Arab incitement, including from several politicians who accused him—with zero evidence—of intending the rape as a terror attack.

But then, Israeli democracy’s self-correcting mechanisms kicked in. Senior officials from Israel’s independent police and prosecution, who weren’t previously involved in the case, reviewed it and discovered numerous problems. The country’s free press investigated and reported additional problems. On June 25, after top law-enforcement officials concluded the evidence was insufficient, charges were dropped, and Qatusa was freed.

Additionally, while anti-Arab racism undoubtedly exists in Israel, it doesn’t seem to have been a factor in Qatusa’s case. Even the senior legal officials who withdrew the charges remain convinced that a rape occurred and that some evidence points to him, just not enough for criminal conviction. Moreover, he was just one of several Palestinians employed at the girl’s school; many others worked elsewhere in the settlement. Modi’in Ilit residents regularly patronized Deir Qaddis garages and relations between the towns were good, as evidenced both by the Modi’in Ilit residents who publicly protested Qatusa’s innocence and by those who danced at the wedding of the Deir Qaddis mayor’s son on June 13.

The case did highlight one real problem: the notorious incompetence of the police’s West Bank division. Back in 2011, Haaretz reported that the division consistently failed to follow basic investigative procedures; consequently, “case after case—against settlers and Palestinians alike—is either closed without going to trial or thrown out of court.” Evidently, not much has improved since then.

But no country anywhere is devoid of problems. What distinguishes democracies from dictatorships is that democracies have self-correcting mechanisms to try to address these problems. And Qatusa’s case shows that despite a real problem of police incompetence, Israel’s self-correcting mechanisms work; consequently, Leo Frank-style travesties of justice don’t happen. Nor, incidentally, do lynchings.

This is also worth remembering with regard to another case that recently made headlines in Israel—the shooting of 18-year-old Solomon Teka on June 30 by an off-duty policeman trying to break up a fight in a park. In this case, racism can’t be dismissed as a factor; many Israelis don’t believe that the incident would have ended with Teka dead had he not been an Ethiopian Israeli. Moreover, police have a history of racism against Ethiopian Israelis: See, for instance, the brutal beating of soldier Damas Pakada in 2017 (in that case, the abusive cop was at least dismissed from the force; Pakada later became a decorated officer in the army’s cyber corps).

Once again, the case highlights real problems—not just racism, but police brutality. The latter affects many demographics: Ethiopian Israelis, Arabs, settlers, migrant workers, demonstrators both right-wing and left-wing, etc. And it too often goes unpunished.

But if Teka’s shooting shows that progress in addressing these problems is clearly insufficient, a government report published in April shows that it is nevertheless occurring. Following Ethiopian-Israeli demonstrations against police brutality in 2015, the government appointed an interministerial committee to propose ways to eradicate racism against Ethiopian Israelis. And since 2016, the Justice Ministry has issued annual reports on implementation of these proposals.

The latest report documented insufficient but nevertheless real progress on the critical problem of over-policing. For instance, while arrests of minors overall were down 29.5 percent in 2018 compared to 2015, arrests of Ethiopian-Israeli minors fell 50.4 percent during this period. Ethiopian Israelis are still arrested disproportionately, accounting for 5.4 percent of all minors arrested in 2018 despite constituting only 1.6 percent of the population. But that’s down from 7.7 percent in 2015.

Insufficient but real progress has also been made on other issues, like the percentage of Ethiopian Israelis graduating high school (still low at 62 percent, but up from 35 percent in 2008). Moreover, as former Knesset member Dov Lipman noted, Israelis stuck in traffic for hours due to Ethiopian-Israeli protests over Teka’s death largely reacted with understanding rather than racist outbursts, indicating that racism, though real, isn’t endemic.

No country has ever managed to eliminate racism, and Teka’s case shows that Israel still has a ways to go. Yet at the same time, the Justice Ministry report shows that democracy’s usual self-correcting mechanisms—demonstrations, media reports, political action, etc.—are having an impact.

Democracy can’t turn human beings into angels, and all democracies fall short of their highest ideals. But they remain much better than non-democracies at creating mechanisms to counter the harm done by our worst impulses, and thereby, over time, to improve society as a whole.

Thus, the true measure of whether a democracy is functioning properly isn’t whether problems exist; they always will. Rather, it’s whether democracy’s self-correcting mechanisms are working effectively to mitigate those problems. And by that standard, Israel’s democracy is doing just fine.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on July 17, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unexpected failure to form a new government, which indicates that his political end may be nearing, has prompted much speculation about what changes a post-Netanyahu era might bring. But here’s one thing that won’t change—the right’s efforts to reform the legal system. And nothing better explains why than the about-face of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, previously one of the system’s ardent defenders.

Reform efforts have been widely depicted for months as nothing but a way for Netanyahu to avoid standing trial. Thus many people seem to think they’ll dissipate once Netanyahu goes. As columnist Chemi Shalev wrote in Haaretz on May 28, “Without Netanyahu and his urgent need to avoid indictment, the right-wing crusade against Israel’s Supreme Court in particular and the rule of law in general would falter … without Netanyahu’s personal stake and drive, even a right-wing coalition would find it hard to muster the anti-court majority needed for such a drastic constitutional upheaval.”

In fact, the opposite is true. Legal reform has long enjoyed widespread support in both Netanyahu’s Likud and other rightist parties; the main reason it never happened is that Netanyahu himself repeatedly stymied it throughout his decade as prime minister. His sudden change of heart indeed stems from his own legal problems, but that isn’t true of most rightist politicians or of rightist voters.

Kahlon used to be a major exception. He entered the cabinet in 2015 vowing to thwart any effort to curb the legal system’s power. In his coalition agreement with Likud, he even demanded and received veto power over such legislation. And he exercised his veto repeatedly, inter alia killing bills to change the judicial appointments system and to let the Knesset reenact legislation overruled by the courts.

But after April’s election, Kahlon’s Kulanu Party signaled that it would no longer thwart such efforts. As Revital Hovel reported in Haaretz last month, there are two reasons for this.

First, even Kulanu voters—the most moderate segment of the center-right electorate—objected to Kahlon’s defense of the legal status quo. In April’s election, Kulanu dropped from 10 Knesset seats to four, and the party’s internal polling found that its repeated vetoes of legal reforms were a major reason why. Many rightists simply won’t vote for anyone opposed to legal reform.

Second, Kahlon got mugged by reality. As finance minister, he acquired firsthand experience of the way the Supreme Court prevents governments from governing by repeatedly overturning decisions it deems “unreasonable”—a judgment other democracies leave to voters.

Most dramatically, the court overruled Kahlon’s flagship policy on what even Hovel, a court supporter, admitted were “novel grounds.” Kahlon won election by promising to lower Israel’s cost of living, particularly its astronomical housing prices. He therefore enacted a special tax on third apartments, arguing that making it more expensive to buy housing for investment purposes would cool demand and thereby lower prices.

The tax was part of the annual Economic Arrangements Law, an omnibus bill enacted together with the state budget because the government deems its provisions necessary to meet budgetary targets. It passed all necessary votes in both the Knesset Finance Committee and the full Knesset. Nevertheless, the court overturned it, claiming the legislative process was flawed.

Here, according to the ruling, are the justices’ objections: The Finance Committee’s overnight discussion wasn’t in-depth enough. Knesset members didn’t receive the bill’s final revisions in time, so they relied on treasury officials’ oral explanation of the changes. Government representatives, the committee chairman and some Knesset members repeatedly urged other committee members to stop asking questions and just pass the bill already. In short, the court said, the process was characterized by “haste, pressure and panic,” thereby depriving MKs of the chance to form an “educated opinion” of a bill with significant financial ramifications.

Or in other words, as anyone familiar with the Knesset would know, it was situation normal for the final stage of the annual budget debate, in which MKs must approve thousands of pages of legislation within days to meet the end-of-year deadline (I know this firsthand, having covered the proceedings for years as a reporter). The budget passes less through reasoned debate than through standard legislative horse trading, in which all MKs support certain items they dislike so that other MKs will support their budgetary priorities.

Nevertheless, the court decided that in this particular case, standard practice had suddenly become so unreasonable as to be unconstitutional, and overturned the law. That effectively killed Kahlon’s tax, which, like many tax hikes, was too unpopular to pass outside the annual budgetary horse-trading.

Kahlon also repeatedly fell victim to another of the Supreme Court’s unique interpretations of the “rule of law”—that a government has no right to representation in court if the attorney general disagrees with its position. For instance, as finance minister, Kahlon is ostensibly in charge of taxes. Yet the court overruled his decision to maintain differential taxes on cigarettes and rolling tobacco without his position even being granted legal representation.

The same happened when the court ordered Kahlon to raise the price of price-controlled milk (a vestige of Israel’s socialist past). To be clear, I consider price controls bad policy, especially when, as in this case, higher production costs probably justified raising prices. But by law, the price of price-controlled milk is set by the finance and agriculture ministers, not the attorney general or the court. Thus by overruling Kahlon on the grounds that his decision was unreasonable, the attorney general and the justices effectively usurped the minister’s legal authority and forced him to violate his campaign promise to keep prices down, all without his position even being represented in court.

After more than three decades of such rampant judicial activism, too many rightist legislators and voters have similar stories of policies they cared about being nixed not because they violated any law or constitutional provision, but merely because unelected justices or an unelected attorney general decided to substitute their own policy judgments for those of the elected government.

That’s what’s truly driving the movement for legal reform. And it won’t disappear when Netanyahu does.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on June 5, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

Among Ḥaredim, violent anti-government demonstrations take place in neighborhoods whose residents don’t vote, not in neighborhoods that vote en masse for United Torah Judaism. As for the violent fringe of the settler movement, it doesn’t vote for pro-settlement parties like Jewish Home or even the extremist Otzmah Yehudit; it doesn’t vote at all. Instead, as revealed in documents made public by the Shin Bet security service in 2015, it seeks to replace democracy in Israel with a religious monarchy.

Among Israeli Arabs, those in eastern Jerusalem—most of whom cannot vote since they are permanent residents rather than citizens—commit a proportionately much greater amount of violent acts than do other Israeli Arabs. Similarly, the northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, which boycotts elections, foments far more violence than the southern branch, which regularly runs as part of the United Arab List.

True, there is one striking counterexample: the Balad party, whose past members of Knesset (MKs) have included one who fled the country to avoid charges of spying for Hizballah, one convicted of smuggling cellphones to jailed terrorists, and one convicted of threatening fellow Arabs serving in the police. But I can’t think of any other significant exceptions.

By contrast,niche parties not only reduce the incidence of extremist violence but actually help move alienated communities closer to the mainstream.

As Gur observes, the main reason Yisrael Beytenu has risked falling below the electoral threshold in this election is that, as its Russian-immigrant voters have come to feel more at home in Israel, they’ve increasingly switched to more mainstream parties. Another good example is Jewish Home: the principal reason it was polling below the threshold before it hooked up with Otzmah Yehudit is that religious Zionists, too, have migrated to mainstream parties as they have become more integrated.

The same trend is now emerging, albeit slowly, among Ḥaredim. According to Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute, the proportion of Ḥaredim voting for non-ḥaredi parties rose from 10 percent in 2006 to 17 percent in 2015; this year, Malach expects it to reach 20 percent. One noteworthy sign of the change: in 2018, the ḥaredi city of Bnei Brak elected a city councilman from a non-ḥaredi party; the last time this happened was more than three decades ago, when Bnei Brak still had a sizable non-ḥaredi population.

This shift is propelled primarily by broader changes within ḥaredi society itself, where more and more people are working, attending college, and serving in the army. But it has been facilitated by the presence of ḥaredi parties in the Knesset.

As a Knesset reporter in the 1990s, I watched those parties evolve from caring only about religious issues to speaking out on broader societal ones as well. Their presence in the Knesset—where ḥaredi members advanced to chair powerful committees and became ministers and deputy ministers—meant they couldn’t avoid taking stands on economic, diplomatic, and security issues. This in turn sent a moderating message to their constituents: that Ḥaredim can and should care about Israel’s broader concerns, The logical corollary is that voting on the basis of those broader concerns—that is, voting for mainstream parties—isn’t illegitimate.

Unfortunately,the dynamic is different in the Arab community, where Arab parties routinely win a sweeping majority of the vote. Even as, by many measures, Arab voters have become more integrated in Israeli society, Arab MKs have remained militantly separatist.

Polls over the past few years have repeatedly shown that Israeli Arabs’ main concerns are not the Israel-Palestinian conflict but bread-and-butter issues like crime, housing, and jobs, and that roughly two-thirds of Arab voters want their MKs to join the governing coalition, where they would have more power to address these issues. But the Arab parties have different priorities.

When it comes those priorities, contrary to the picture drawn by Gur, there’s little that distinguishes one Arab party from another. All of them, even the “moderate” Ḥadash-Ta’al, vocally accuse Israel of being an apartheid, criminal state that indiscriminately murders Palestinians; all defend Palestinian terror; and all stridently support maximalist Palestinian demands (including the “right of return,” a euphemism for destroying the Jewish state demographically).

Ayman Odeh, for instance, the chairman of Ḥadash, has refused to condemn Palestinian terror, saying, “I cannot tell the nation how to struggle. . . . I do not put red lines on the Arab Palestinian nation.” In 2015, Odeh went so far as to cancel a meeting with American Jewish leaders because he refused to set foot in a “Zionist” office. (Evidently he makes an exception for the Zionist Knesset.) Ahmad Tibi, the chairman of Ta’al, has written op-eds in American newspapers accusing Israel of running a Jim Crow regime, ignoring the irony of signing these pieces as deputy speaker of Israel’s parliament.

These parties often preemptively declare themselves unwilling to join any government. But they needn’t bother: their embrace of outspokenly anti-Israel positions puts them beyond the pale as coalition partners. It also nourishes feelings on both sides that Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews are enemies rather than partners who, despite differences of opinion, share common concerns.

Given all this, it’s unsurprising that a 2015 poll found almost half of Arab respondents voicing dissatisfaction with their MKs, or that voting rates among Arabs, unlike among Ḥaredim, are consistently and significantly lower than the national rate. What is surprising, and encouraging, is that according to one recent poll, over 75 percent of Israeli Arabs still consider Knesset representation important. But most would still not consider voting for non-Arab parties. Like many Ḥaredim, they still feel themselves to be a separate community, and want to vote for people with lived experience of their unique circumstances.

What, then,might be done to further the mainstreaming of both haredi and Arab voters? Perhaps counterintuitively, one solution might be to allow even more niche parties into the Knesset.

For a party to gain entry into the Knesset today, as Gur notes, it must win 3.25 percent of the total vote, which in the 120-seat Knesset works out to four seats. If that electoral threshold were lowered to its pre-2015 level of 2 percent (2.4 seats), or even lower, it would become easier for new Arab and ḥaredi parties favoring integration to get elected, join a government, and be in a position to deliver what their constituents want, and thereby to serve as gateways to further integration (just as Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home did for their voters).

As it happens, Arab and ḥaredi parties along those lines tried running both in 2015 and again this year, but the four-seat threshold has proved insurmountable.

A lower threshold might also reduce the extortionate power exercised by small parties, vividly described by Gur in his essay. In a government coalition that included several two- or three-seat parties, no single one of them would wield enough electoral clout to mount a challenge to the government’s survival. When, however, every party in a coalition holds at least four seats, it’s easier for one to topple,  or to threaten to topple, the government on its own.

But the foremost reason to reduce the threshold is that making it easier for niche parties to enter the Knesset would give more non-voters an incentive to make their concerns heard through voting. People inside the political system are more likely to feel they have a stake in the country and less likely to resort to violence. In a country as diverse and as contentious as Israel, everyone would benefit from the presence of greater numbers of such people.

Originally published in Mosaic on April 8, 2019

Many Israelis are willing to tolerate a racist party in the Knesset because they fear that the alternative is a government that will make life-threatening territorial concessions. And when voters think human life is at stake, telling them to “just say no” won’t work.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s midwifing of a joint ticket that will bring a far-right extremist party into the Knesset was quickly superseded by new scandals. Yet the fundamental problem that prompted his move remains, and contrary to popular belief, that problem isn’t growing racism. Rather, it’s Israel’s electoral system.

The party in question, Otzma Yehudit, has run for Knesset several times under various names and never gotten in. On its own, it wouldn’t make it into the next Knesset either. In other words, its positions are no more popular than they ever were.

What has changed is Israel’s electoral threshold—the minimum number of votes a party must receive to enter the Knesset. In 2014, it was raised to 3.25 percent of the total vote, equivalent to 3.9 Knesset seats. That sounds like a minor increase from the previous threshold of 2 percent (2.4 seats), but it’s enough that in both the last election and this one, a small mainstream party which could easily have passed the old threshold found itself hovering just below the new one, and consequently hooked up with Otzma in an effort to boost itself over.

The higher threshold also threatens the entire bloc to which an at-risk party belongs since the main electoral blocs are fairly evenly balanced. Either bloc might be able to afford two seats’ worth of wasted votes. But neither can afford almost four seats.

That’s why Netanyahu used a combination of arm-twisting and sweeteners to persuade a veteran religious Zionist party, Jewish Home, to partner with Otzma this election (last election, Otzma’s partner was Yachad, a breakaway from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party led by former Shas leader and six-time minister Eli Yishai; their joint ticket still failed to clear the threshold). Jewish Home was in danger of falling below the threshold because its former leaders, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, jumped ship in December to form their own party.

With a lower threshold, Netanyahu would have no interest in promoting a merger between Jewish Home and Otzma: By definition, any party that couldn’t get elected on its own would win few enough votes that the bloc could probably spare them. Today, however, Jewish Home could easily fail to pass the threshold while still wasting enough votes to cost the right its majority. So for anyone who considers a continuation of rightist policy essential, as Netanyahu and Jewish Home both do, shoring up the latter through a joint ticket suddenly looks essential as well.

Many people would obviously argue that partisan interests can never justify mainstreaming an extremist party like Otzma. Others might dismiss the policy justification as a pretext, given that Netanyahu and his main rival, former general Benny Gantz, largely seem to agree on key issues like security and the peace process.

The problem is that a critical mass of Israelis patently disagrees. When Netanyahu staked his prestige on the Otzma merger, he was betting that the number of votes his bloc would gain by boosting Jewish Home over the threshold would outweigh the number he’d lose from people disgusted by Otzma. And so far, the polls have proved him right.

To understand why, some history is needed. In the 17 years preceding Netanyahu’s 2009 victory, Israelis thrice elected former generals who campaigned against diplomatic concessions, which they promptly turned around and implemented once in office. Yitzhak Rabin promised no negotiations with the PLO in 1992, then signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. Ehud Barak promised not to divide Jerusalem in 1999, then offered the Palestinians half the city at the Camp David summit in 2000. Ariel Sharon campaigned against a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2003, then implemented one in 2005.

These U-turns reflect a fundamental fact of Israeli life: All prime ministers are under massive, continuous international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. Premiers with leftist coalition partners—which Rabin, Barak and Sharon all had, and Gantz almost certainly would as well—are also under pressure from their own coalitions to make such concessions. And most people simply can’t withstand such immense pressure.

But Netanyahu has proven for 10 years now that he can. Thus anyone fearful of further territorial concessions has good reason to stick with him rather than gambling on Gantz.

And given what previous withdrawals have cost, such fear is unquestionably justified. Rabin’s Oslo Accords and Barak’s failed summit both sparked upsurges of terror that together killed some 1,500 Israelis. Sharon’s disengagement led to 20,000 rockets being launched on Israel’s south.

In short, voters who worry that Gantz will be unable to withstand pressure for concessions see Otzma as the lesser evil because they believe that the alternative entails against a significant risk of many dead Israelis. And when voters think human lives are at stake, expecting them to “just say no to racism” won’t work. The only way to return Otzma to the political fringes where it belongs is by lowering the electoral threshold.

I’ve long favored a lower threshold for other reasons as well. First, as researcher Shany Mor persuasively argued in 2013, a low threshold provides a safety valve for fractured societies like Israel’s. By offering the possibility that even small groups can win representation in parliament, it encourages them to pursue their goals through politics as opposed to violence.

Second, as I’ve explained in more detail elsewhere, a lower threshold would facilitate the entry of new parties that Israel actually needs, like a moderate Arab party and a moderate haredi one. Demand exists for such parties in both communities. But a higher threshold discourages voters from taking a flyer on a new party, since it means the party will have less chance of getting in and will waste more votes if it fails.

Yet as the last two elections have counterintuitively proven, a lower threshold also reduces the likelihood of extremists entering the Knesset by eliminating a powerful incentive to merge with them. Thus anyone who wants to see Otzma relegated back to the sidelines should lobby for lowering the threshold. That would be far more effective than expecting voters to nobly shun extremists, even if they think doing so risks Israeli lives.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 13, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

Israel is currently preoccupied with its election campaign and America with its newly divided government, leaving both countries little attention to spare for issues beyond day-to-day politics. But moments of change are excellent times to pause and consider the fundamentals of the Western political tradition. And as a recent contribution to the growing scholarly genre of political Hebraism reminds us, one of those fundamentals is the surprisingly large role the Hebrew Bible has played in Western political thought.

In John Locke’s Political Philosophy and the Hebrew Bible, Yechiel Leiter (full disclosure: a friend and neighbor) convincingly argues that the Bible heavily influenced Locke’s thought. Since Locke’s work, especially his Second Treatise on Government, is widely considered to have significantly influenced America’s founding fathers, this is further evidence that when people talk about America’s “Judeo-Christian” roots, the “Judeo” half is no mere courtesy. Judaism in fact contributed significantly to America’s political traditions.

Nevertheless, this raises an obvious question. Locke and his fellow 17th-century political Hebraists (including John Selden, Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes) were Christians, not Jews. So why, in developing their political thought, did they rely far more on the Hebrew Bible than the Christian New Testament?

In Locke’s First Treatise on Government, for instance, he “quotes the Hebrew Bible more than 80 times,” yet there’s a “near total absence of quotes from the New Testament,” Leiter writes. And even in the Second Treatise, which has fewer biblical quotes, “nothing is quoted with any comparable frequency as the Hebrew Bible.”

Nor are these biblical references mere padding, Leiter argues. Locke uses them to develop several key concepts.

For instance, Locke posits a “natural law” superior to any human law—one man can grasp through ordinary reason—and argues that men are entitled to overthrow governments that violate this natural law. The Second Treatise illustrates this concept with the Cain and Abel story, in which Cain, having just murdered his brother, complains to God that “everyone that findeth me, shall slay me.” Yet God only explicitly prohibits murder five chapters later. This, Locke explains, is how natural law works: No explicit prohibition was needed because Cain’s own reason sufficed to understand that murder is unacceptable.

Locke uses this same story in developing his doctrine of individual executive power, which holds that in the absence of a legitimate governing authority, anyone has the right to punish crimes like murder (“everyone that findeth me, shall slay me”). By extension, people are entitled to punish tyrannical governments (which are inherently illegitimate) by toppling them.

Indeed, as Leiter notes, Locke’s belief in the legitimacy of rebelling against tyrants is a recurrent theme in the Hebrew Bible, yet contrasts markedly with the New Testament’s doctrine of obedience to authority. The latter is epitomized by Paul’s dictum, “The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:1-2).

Leiter argues that Locke’s view of human equality similarly derives not from the New Testament—where equality, to quote the Book of Galatians, stems from being “One in Jesus Christ,” seemingly excluding anyone who doesn’t accept Christianity—but from the creation story in Genesis, where all people are created by “one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker,” in Locke’s words.

The Jephthah story bolsters Locke’s argument that unless God directly appoints a leader, this power devolves to the people: Jephthah, unlike most biblical judges, was appointed by the people rather than God. The transfer of kingship from Saul to David, rather than to Saul’s son Jonathan, is cited as evidence that a ruler’s son has no inherent right to succeed him.

Locke uses Jephthah again to claim that it’s legitimate to appeal to higher authority against an unjust government; Jephthah’s “appeal to heaven: before going to war to evict a foreign occupier thus serves him as a precedent for the English Revolution. And so forth.

So why does Locke rely so heavily on the Hebrew Bible rather than the Christian one? Leiter shows that Locke himself answered this question in an earlier work, Two Tracts on Government. The New Testament, Locke wrote, “is for the most part silent as to governmental and civil power,” since Jesus “seems to refuse deliberately to involve himself in civil affairs” and left “the civil government of the commonwealth … unchanged.”

The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, is anything but silent regarding “governmental and civil power.” A significant portion of the Pentateuch consists of laws that are supposed to govern the soon-to-be-established Jewish commonwealth. And a significant portion of the subsequent books describes how Jewish self-government played out in practice.

These biblical stories explore various types of government, from anarchy through limited monarchy to tyranny, and show the pitfalls or benefits of each. Nor are they simplistic morality tales; they show politics in all its complexity. One of the Bible’s greatest moral and political leaders, the prophet Samuel, sees his model of leadership rejected towards the end of his life, when the people demand a king. One of its wickedest kings—Ahab, who famously had a subject murdered in order to steal his vineyard—presides over a flourishing, prosperous kingdom. King Solomon’s dominion reaches unparalleled heights of both hard and soft power, but collapses into civil war under his son. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Thus for anyone interested in how politics works, the Hebrew Bible is a treasure trove. Nor is belief in God necessary to derive insights from it, just as faith isn’t necessary to derive insights from Locke or Shakespeare. As with any great work of literature or philosophy—and the Bible, quite aside from its religious significance, is both—all that’s needed is close and careful reading of the text.

Leiter’s book thus reinforces what should already have been obvious: The Bible is too important to the Western political tradition to be as widely ignored by serious students of politics, as it currently is in both America and Israel. The West’s greatest political philosophers believed that the Hebrew Bible had something worthwhile to say about politics. Both countries’ dysfunctional political systems might benefit from following those philosophers’ lead.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on February 27, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

It’s easy to see why political polarization is so bitter today in both Israel and America these days: Moderation is a “lose-lose” proposition, winning politicians no credit from their opponents while alienating elements of their own base. This problem exists on both sides of the aisle. But two unusually candid left-wing assessments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provide a particularly clear example of how it works and why it’s bad for both sides.

In an interview with Haaretz last month, senior opposition politician Tzipi Livni noted (as I have repeatedly) that Netanyahu built very little in the settlements during his 10 years in office. “Why hasn’t Netanyahu built up until now? Because he gets it,” she said, referring to the Palestinian issue.

Moreover, she continued, “Bibi will not go out and start a war. In that respect, he is responsible.”

His problem, she charged, is that he’s under pressure from his rightist base on various issues, and sometimes, “he caves in to them. I’ll say it again, it isn’t him. I’ve spent hundreds of hours with him [as justice minister in the previous Netanyahu government, in which she was responsible for diplomatic negotiations]—his actual positions are different.”

What makes this astounding is that Livni and her compatriots on the left have spent most of the past decade saying exactly the opposite—that Netanyahu is responsible for massive settlement construction, that he’s anti-peace. And this has serious real-world consequences.

The first and worst is that this narrative, which Livni now admits is false, has been widely embraced by American Jews and the Democratic Party. That’s bad for Israel as a whole, as it has contributed to growing anti-Israel sentiment among both groups.

To be clear, I don’t think either group’s alienation stems primarily from Israel’s policies, whether real or alleged. Nevertheless, had prominent Israeli leftists told the truth—that Netanyahu was doing very little settlement building, that his “actual positions” are far from his hardline image—it might have slowed the process.

Second, this false narrative hurts leftists themselves since it impedes Netanyahu’s ability to adopt policies they favor. Many such policies, like the dearth of settlement construction, are indeed very unpopular with his base, but he could justify them if they were achieving something important for Israel, like maintaining its bipartisan support in America.

In reality, however, they don’t achieve anything. For instance, despite his restraint on settlements, the Obama administration repeatedly accused him of “aggressive” settlement construction, with full-throated backing from Israeli leftists. That makes it impossible for Netanyahu to justify restraint to his unhappy base, which is precisely why he sometimes “caves in to them.”

Finally, this false narrative hinders his ability to form a broader-based government. Far from being the “right-wing extremist” leftists term him, Netanyahu is a center-rightist, and he desperately wanted the Labor Party in his current government to balance the right-wing parties. But after months of negotiations with former Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog, it became clear that Herzog had no support for such a move within his own party. So Netanyahu ultimately brought in the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu instead.

Nor is this surprising. Having told its own voters for years that Netanyahu was anti-democratic and anti-peace, Labor would have trouble persuading them that joining the government was justified. But had it instead told the truth about issues like Netanyahu’s settlement restraint and diplomatic moderation, joining the government (and thereby pulling it further to the left) might have been an option.

Two days after Livni’s interview ran, Jerusalem Post columnist Susan Hattis Rolef, who has worked for various senior Labor politicians, published a column lamenting that “in the past Netanyahu could be trusted to block legislative proposals that were blatantly undemocratic,” but today, he “no longer seems to bother himself with acting as a barrier against threats to democracy coming from the direction of his own coalition.”

Here, too, what’s shocking is that Rolef and her compatriots on the left have spent the last decade saying exactly the opposite. Netanyahu has indeed allowed legislation in his current term that he would previously have quashed (most of which isn’t actually undemocratic, but that’s a separate argument). Nevertheless, the claim that he’s responsible for “anti-democratic” legislation didn’t just arise this term; prominent leftists have accused him of that for the last 10 years, even though, as Rolef now admits, he spent most of those years blocking proposals the left considered “anti-democratic.”

Again, the damage is threefold. First and worst, the false narrative that Israel is becoming increasingly undemocratic has contributed to growing anti-Israel sentiment among American Jews and the Democratic Party.

Second, it hurts leftists themselves, by reducing Netanyahu’s ability to adopt policies they would prefer. It’s hard for him to justify killing legislation his base supports unless doing so achieves something useful for the country. But in fact, his years of quashing bills the left disliked accomplished nothing since Israeli leftists still accused his government of being anti-democratic, and American Jews and non-Jewish leftists believed them.

Finally, this false narrative impedes his ability to form a broader-based government. Had Labor joined the government, it would have been able to kill any legislation it considered undemocratic, as coalition agreements usually give every party veto power over issues particularly important to it. But after falsely telling its voters for years that Netanyahu himself was anti-democratic, how could it justify doing so?

Many of the same evils obviously derive from Israeli rightists’ favorite trick of calling left-wing opponents “anti-Zionist,” though most Israeli leftists are no such thing. Inter alia, the false narrative that anti-Zionism is widespread on the Israeli left helps legitimatize anti-Zionism as a normative left-wing position overseas.

But since Netanyahu has led Israel for the last decade, the greatest damage has come from the left’s false narratives about his beliefs and conduct. And in the end, everyone has lost by it. Netanyahu, and by extension the entire center-right, has been unjustly tarred as anti-democratic and anti-peace. The left has forfeited its ability to block policies it opposes and promote those it supports. And Israel as a whole has seen its image overseas undeservedly tarnished.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on January 16, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being assailed by his own base for his restraint last week following Hamas’s massive bombardment of southern Israel. But in considering what Israel’s policy should be, it’s important to realize that for now, the option of permanently ending Hamas terror doesn’t exist—not because it’s beyond Israel’s capability, but because it lacks sufficient public support.

If someone came up with an idea for destroying Hamas that could be executed quickly and with minimal casualties, Israelis obviously would support that, but nobody has. Thus the only plan with proven capability to suppress terror over the long term remains the one Israel executed in the West Bank in 2002 in response to the second intifada: The army goes in, and it never leaves. That’s how Israel defeated the second intifada, and how it has kept West Bank terror within tolerable limits ever since.

But doing the same in Gaza would have very high costs—in soldiers’ lives, in international opprobrium and possibly in saddling Israel with responsibility for Gaza’s civilian problems. It would be far more costly than it was to reoccupy the West Bank because Hamas has used its 11 years of total control over Gaza to become far better armed and far more deeply entrenched than West Bank terrorists were in 2002.

No democracy could undertake such a costly plan without widespread public support, but especially not Israel, because any major military operation requires a massive call-up of reservists, and Israeli reservists tend to vote with their feet. They’ll show up in droves for an operation with broad support, but an operation widely considered unjustified will spark major protests.

That’s exactly what happened when, during the second intifada, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thought Israelis’ overwhelming support for reoccupying the West Bank created a golden opportunity to do the same in Gaza. He was forced to scrap that idea after a massive public outcry, especially from reservists.

The crucial difference Sharon had overlooked was the level of pain that Israelis were experiencing. The West Bank was wreaking havoc nationwide at that time. A wave of suicide bombings and other attacks in cities throughout Israel killed 452 Israelis in 2002, including 130 in March 2002 alone. But Gaza was causing most Israelis very little pain. Though there were attacks on soldiers and settlers in Gaza itself, there were almost no attacks from Gaza inside Israel. Consequently, most Israelis weren’t willing to pay the price that a major operation in Gaza would have entailed.

And for all the differences in today’s situation, that same basic fact remains true: Gaza isn’t causing most Israelis enough pain to make them willing to reoccupy the territory. It has made life hell for residents of communities near the border for the last seven months, and it did the same for the entire south during last week’s rocket barrage. But the vast majority of Israelis have been completely unaffected. For people in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and most other major population centers, life continued as normal.

Hamas understands this very well. That’s why it deliberately confined itself to bombarding the south, despite having missiles capable of reaching most of Israel. It wanted to cause as much pain as possible without crossing the threshold that would provoke Israel into war—and it succeeded.

But with the option of reoccupying Gaza unavailable, the two main options left are both short-term fixes.

One is a smaller-scale military operation. The last such operation, in 2014, bought the south three-and-a-half years of almost total quiet, but at a price (for Israel) of 72 dead and massive international opprobrium. Another such operation might buy a similar period of calm, but at a similar or even higher cost. And it would have to be repeated again in another few years, by which time Hamas may be better armed and capable of exacting an even higher price.

The second option, which Netanyahu evidently favors, is to negotiate a long-term ceasefire. This might buy a similar period of quiet, though since it hasn’t been tried before, there’s no guarantee. And it has several obvious advantages: no deaths, no international opprobrium, and most likely, greater support within Israel (though judging by past experience, not abroad) for a more forceful response once the ceasefire collapses, as it will at some point.

But it also has some obvious downsides. First, it’s devastating to Israeli deterrence, since it shows that firing rockets is a good way to get Israel to capitulate to your demands. Second, it ensures that when the inevitable next round arrives, Hamas will be able to inflict much more damage than it could today.

To grasp just how much, consider that since the 2014 war, Hamas has been under a tight Israeli and Egyptian blockade. Yet according to Israeli intelligence, it has nevertheless managed to completely rebuild and perhaps even exceed the arsenal it had then. Indeed, Hamas fired more than 450 rockets in just two days last week, almost three times the daily average of 85 rockets during the 2014 war. If it managed such a massive rearmament despite the blockade, one can only imagine how much more military materiel it would acquire under a long-term truce that would relax the blockade and pour cash into Gaza (ostensibly for civilian projects, but Hamas makes sure to take a cut of every dollar that enters).

Either of these options would only postpone the inevitable: Barring a miracle, Hamas will eventually become overconfident and cause Israel enough anguish to provoke it to reoccupy Gaza. By postponing that day, and thereby allowing Hamas to further arm and entrench itself, Israel merely ensures that when it comes, it will come at a much higher price—in Israeli casualties, in Palestinian casualties and in international opprobrium.

But knowing that doesn’t change the political reality that such an operation isn’t possible now. In today’s reality, the most that Netanyahu can do is buy a few more years of quiet. And his only choice is whether to do so via a ceasefire or a limited military operation, each of which carries its own major price tag.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on November 21, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

Ever since Israel’s nation-state law was enacted in July, one constant refrain has sounded: The law should have included a provision guaranteeing equality to all Israelis. It’s not only the law’s opponents who say this; so do many of its supporters, liberals and conservatives alike. But they are wrong.

Adding a provision about equality to the nation-state law sounds innocuous because civic and political equality is already implicitly guaranteed through the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Basic Laws are Israel’s closest approximation to constitutional legislation, and the 1992 law, which protects the “dignity of any person as such,” has been consistently interpreted by the courts as enshrining equality on the grounds that discrimination violates a person’s dignity. So what harm could it do to offer an explicit guarantee in the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People?

The answer is that doing so would elevate Israel’s democratic character above its Jewish one. And that would negate the entire purpose of the nation-state law, which was to restore Israel’s Jewish character to parity with its democratic one—not superiority, but merely parity.

To understand why this is so, it’s first necessary to understand why adding an equality provision would violate basic constitutional logic. This argument was cogently made from the liberal side of the political spectrum by Haim Ramon, a former senior Labor Party Knesset member and former justice minister. Writing in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition last month, Ramon argued that if anyone thinks equality isn’t sufficiently protected by the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, they should work to amend that law rather than the nation-state law, as the former is where any provision on equality belongs.

This isn’t mere semantic quibbling. A constitution, being a country’s supreme instrument of governance, isn’t supposed to be a jumble of random provisions thrown together with no more thought than a monkey sitting at a keyboard might provide; it’s supposed to be a carefully crafted document. That’s why constitutions typically group all provisions relating to a given topic into a single article or chapter. Each article has equal status; none is more or less important than the others. And together, they create a comprehensive document that addresses all the basic questions of governance.

Israel has largely followed this logic to date. It doesn’t have a finished constitution, but every Basic Law is considered to be one article of a future constitution. So Israel has, inter alia, a Basic Law on the legislature, one on the executive, one on the judiciary, one on basic human rights, and now, one on Israel’s Jewish character: the nation-state law. And just as details of how to choose the prime minister belong in the article on the executive rather than the article on the judiciary, so, too, provisions on universal human rights, like equality, belong in the article on human rights, not the one on Israel’s particularistic Jewish character.

But precisely because this is the normal constitutional procedure, any glaring deviation from this norm would have moral and legal significance. So what would it tell us if, contrary to all constitutional logic, a provision on equality—something already implicitly guaranteed in an earlier article of Israel’s constitution-to-be—were to be explicitly restated in a subsequent article dealing with Israel’s Jewish character?

It would tell us that Israel’s universalist democratic character trumps its Jewish character. That would be the natural implication of equality being the only principle deemed worthy of being stated not once, but twice—not just in the article where it naturally belongs, but also in an article dealing with a completely unrelated topic. That would also be the natural implication of Israel’s Jewish character being the only constitutional issue deemed unworthy of a Basic Law entirely to itself, the only one forced to share its Basic Law with material that properly belongs, and in fact already exists, in a different one. Indeed, the implication would be that Israel’s Jewish character is so illegitimate that it can be allowed in the constitution at all only if its legal significance is diluted by adding a restatement of Israel’s universalist character.

In short, the clear message of adding “equality” to the nation-state law would be that Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities aren’t equal; rather, its democratic identity has primacy and its Jewish identity is subordinate. That’s exactly the situation that existed prior to the nation-state law’s enactment, when Israel had several Basic Laws setting out its democratic character but none at all setting out its Jewish character. And that’s the very situation the nation-state law was meant to correct.

Nothing in the nation-state law gives Israel’s Jewish identity priority over its democratic one; the law was intended merely to put these dual identities back on an equal footing. Adding “equality” to it would thus be antithetical to its purpose.

In one sense, this entire discussion is moot. As Ramon noted, an explicit mention of equality was omitted from the Human Dignity and Liberty law due to haredi opposition, and almost certainly couldn’t be enacted today for the same reason, regardless of whether it were proposed for that law or the nation-state law.

But the broader issue of parity between Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities isn’t moot at all. It’s an ongoing battle, and a crucial one.

The vast majority of Israelis wants Israel to be both Jewish and democratic, and a plurality believes that these two elements should be equally balanced. But being a democracy isn’t Israel’s raison d’être; there are plenty of other democracies around. There would be no reason to have made the effort of establishing and sustaining Israel in the teeth of regional and, often, international hostility in order to have just one more democracy, indistinguishable from all the others.

Israel’s raison d’être is that it’s the world’s only Jewish state—the only place in the world where the Jewish people can determine their own fate. That’s what makes it worth having. Thus a Basic Law that contradicts this raison d’être by subordinating its Jewish character to its democratic one is something no one who values Israel should want in its constitution.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on September 12, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

With the Trump Administration reportedly planning various steps against UNRWA—the U.N. aid agency devoted solely to Palestinian refugees—Israeli defense officials have leaped to UNRWA’s defense. A rapid cutback of U.S. funding would create a vacuum in basic services, especially in Gaza, that Hamas might fill, and could even spark violence, they warned.

But their argument is wrong on at least three counts. First, U.S. cutbacks won’t actually cause a financial crisis. Second, forcing Hamas to provide basic services in UNRWA’s stead would be a plus, not a minus. Third, their policy would sacrifice long-term strategic interests for minuscule tactical gains.

As I’ve written before, I’d support plunging UNRWA into financial crisis, since that might force it to reform. But Washington can’t cut its donations much more than it already has—from $360 million last year to just $60 million this year. And judging by the results, it hasn’t caused a crisis at all.

Admittedly, you wouldn’t guess this from listening to UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Kraehenbuehl or from reading the numerous media reports that uncritically parrot his claims. Kraehenbuehl has repeatedly said the organization faces “its worst crisis ever,” a genuinely “existential” danger. He even threatened not to open UNRWA schools this year, though he later backtracked.

But in real life, the agency has laid off 113 workers in Gaza, 154 in the West Bank and around 100 in Jordan—about 370 in total. If that sounds like a lot, then you haven’t read UNRWA’s website, which proudly declares the agency “one of the largest United Nations programs, with over 30,000 personnel.” In short, these “extensive” cutbacks, as one media report termed them, total a little more than 1 percent of UNRWA’s enormous staff. That’s not something most organizations would label a crisis.

Moreover, UNRWA wouldn’t have any crisis at all if it weren’t outrageously overstaffed. It has almost three times as many employees as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, though the latter agency, which cares for all non-Palestinian refugees and displaced people worldwide, serves 12 times as many people. In other words, UNRWA has one employee for every 167 “refugees,” while UNHCR has one for every 5,200.

Nor would UNRWA have any problem if it didn’t endlessly expand its refugee rolls by including every refugee’s descendent for all eternity, even though most aren’t refugees at all, since they’re either citizens of other countries or residents of the West Bank and Gaza, which the United Nations itself deems the “State of Palestine.” The agency doesn’t even bother delisting many who are dead. In short, it has many ways to cut costs without causing a crisis.

Defense officials’ second fallacy is that Hamas providing services in UNRWA’s stead would somehow be bad. In reality, if Hamas had to provide services to the people it governs, it would have less money to spend on its endless military build-up, which would improve Israel’s security.

That’s exactly what happened last year, when the Palestinian Authority, which had previously financed all civilian services in Hamas-run Gaza not provided by UNRWA, stopped doing so. For the first time, Hamas had to pay for civilian needs like fuel for Gaza’s only power plant out of its own pocket. Consequently, according to Israeli intelligence, it slashed its annual military budget from $200 million in 2014 (the year of the last Hamas-Israel war) to $50 million last year. Even $70 million in military aid from Iran, then still flush with cash from the 2015 nuclear deal, couldn’t make up that shortfall.

UNRWA cutbacks would force Hamas to spend even more on civilian needs in order to preserve its rule in Gaza. And that would further reduce its ability to invest in rockets and cross-border tunnels.

Granted, Hamas-run schools and summer camps would indoctrinate children in anti-Israel propaganda. But so do UNRWA-run schools and summer camps. UNRWA textbooks teach that Jews have no right even to pre-1967 Israel, that all Jewish holy sites are actually Muslim, that Molotov cocktail attacks on Jewish civilians are a “barbecue party.” UNRWA summer camps teach that even pre-1967 Israel belongs to the Palestinians, and they should seek to “liberate” it through force of arms. Thus on this score, Israel would be no worse off than it is now.

The final fallacy is defense officials’ desire to postpone conflict at any cost. Obviously, preventing war is usually desirable. But war with Hamas isn’t an existential threat, and in any case, virtually all Israeli analysts consider it inevitable at some point.

The refugee crisis, in contrast, remains a potentially existential threat. Should the Palestinians ever succeed in mobilizing international support behind their demand that all 5 million “refugees” relocate to Israel, this would eradicate the Jewish state.

Hence Israel has a major interest in defusing this crisis by taking most of these “refugees” off the rolls—where, as noted, they don’t belong in any case—and permanently shuttering UNRWA, whose main mission in life is to endlessly expand those rolls. Since no previous U.S. administration has ever been willing to address this issue, Israel would be foolish not to take advantage of the Trump administration’s apparent desire to do so, even at the price of war with Hamas.

But that’s especially true given that defense officials think war will happen anyway. They merely seek to postpone it so that Israel can finish building its anti-tunnel barrier. And for a few months (or even years) of delay and the minor tactical advantage of an anti-tunnel barrier, they’re willing to sacrifice an existential Israeli interest.

It’s foolish beyond belief. But unfortunately, it’s not surprising. As Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz argue in a new book, the defense establishment has been UNRWA’s top lobbyist for decades.

All this merely proves a point I’ve made before: Military men are good at solving militarily problems, but they’re no better than anyone else, and often worse, at understanding political problems. Yet their facade of expertise often cows politicians into deferring to them.

Let’s hope Israel’s current government resists this temptation and takes full advantage of the Trump administration’s plan. It’s an opportunity that may not recur for a very long time.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 29, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

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Israel can’t treat its own destruction as a legitimate aim

When Israel barred two U.S. congresswomen from entering the country earlier this month, I initially thought it a stupid decision. But after hearing the reactions from both American politicians and American Jews, I’ve started to think it may have been necessary.

This isn’t to deny the substantial damage it has caused. Pro-Israel Democrats felt betrayed, and even some pro-Israel Republicans were outraged. Most of the organized Jewish community was horrified. And the BDS movement received media exposure it could never have gained on its own.

But nobody would have felt outraged or betrayed had Israel barred, say, white-supremacist politicians. Thus the underlying message of these reactions was that unlike white supremacism, advocating Israel’s destruction is a legitimate opinion, entitled to the same respectful treatment as the view that Israel should continue to exist. Yet no country can or should treat its own erasure as a legitimate option.

To understand why this was the issue at stake, a brief review of the facts is needed. When Israel originally agreed to allow a visit by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), it knew they enthusiastically supported BDS, a movement unambiguously committed to eliminating the Jewish state. It also knew they would use the visit to tar Israel in every possible way.

However, it assumed that they would at least pay lip service to Israel’s existence by following the standard protocol for official visitors—meeting Israeli officials and visiting some Israeli sites. On that assumption, and since the law banning entry to prominent BDS supporters permits exceptions for the sake of Israel’s foreign relations, Israel decided to admit them “out of respect for the U.S. Congress,” as Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said at the time.

A few days before the visit, however, the proposed itinerary arrived and proved that assumption wrong. Far from paying lip service to Israel’s existence, the trip literally erased the country from the map.

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