Analysis from Israel


The required quid pro quo would be ruinous to security, and without security, no economy can function.

The European Union is offended: After offering a package of “extraordinary” economic benefits last month if Israel would only sign a final-status deal with the Palestinians, it hasn’t even received an official response. Germany, France and Britain have all reportedly informed Jerusalem of their disappointment at this silence; French Ambassador Patrick Maisonnave even did so publicly, via an op-ed in Haaretz.

Since the offer was explicitly conditioned on an Israel-Palestinian accord that almost nobody on either side considers achievable, Jerusalem probably doesn’t consider the issue high priority: Proposals that haven’t a chance of being realized rarely are. But there’s also a substantive reason for Israel’s non-response, which Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon voiced, unofficially, during a meeting with Israeli business leaders last month.

The EU offer was meant to encourage Israel to accept the framework agreement now being drafted by US Secretary of State John Kerry. But this framework, Ya’alon warned, “will destroy the economy … If we lose freedom of military action, the West Bank will turn into Hamastan, missiles will be fired at Tel Aviv and the economy will be destroyed.” In other words, the “extraordinary” package the EU offered requires concessions on security whose economic harm will far outweigh the putative benefits.

This isn’t mere speculation on Ya’alon’s part; he was speaking from personal experience of the very recent past. Barely a decade ago, the second intifada’s suicide bombing campaign in Israel’s major cities sparked a deep recession: two years of negative growth, 11 percent unemployment, a debt-to-GDP ratio of 103%. And the combination of terror and recession made international markets so downbeat on Israel that it could no longer borrow overseas to finance its mammoth debt, raising the specter of imminent default – a disaster averted only thanks to $9 billion in US loan guarantees.

The guarantees were offered for ten years, but Israel needed them only for two: By 2005, it was able to borrow independently again. Not coincidentally, 2005 is also when it became clear the intifada had been beaten: Thanks to a counter-terrorism offensive launched in March 2002, bolstered by construction of the West Bank security barrier, Israeli deaths from Palestinian terror fell by roughly 50% a year in 2002-05, from a peak of about 450 to 51.

Major economic reforms also contributed significantly to the recovery, but alone, they wouldn’t have sufficed. It’s simply not possible to maintain a flourishing economy when locals are afraid to leave their houses and tourists and investors are afraid to come.

That lesson was relearned following the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. Over the next three years, Palestinians launched 6,000 rockets at southern Israel, sending the south into an economic tailspin that government aid failed to halt. But in late 2008, a major military operation significantly reduced the rocket fire. Within a year, housing prices in communities near Gaza had jumped by 20% to 50% due to surging demand: With security restored, the economy revived.

Nor is this pattern unique to Israel: The same thing happened during the US war in Iraq. For years after the 2003 invasion, America tried to reduce the violence by investing in Iraq’s economy, thinking that if young men had jobs, they would lay down their arms. But the bloodletting just kept getting worse – Iraqi casualties peaked at 29,000 in 2006 – and the economy languished accordingly, with negative real growth of 3% in 2005 and positive growth of just 2.4% in 2006. In 2007, however, Washington reversed course, announcing a troop surge whose goal was to significantly reduce the violence. Casualties plummeted, and over the next five years, real growth averaged 5.8% a year. 

Granted, security concerns are irrelevant if you buy the fantasy that Palestinian terror will end the day an Israeli-Palestinian deal is signed. But after 20 years of territorial withdrawals, few Israelis believe that anymore. In the two and a half years after the 1993 Oslo Accord was signed, Palestinians killed more Israelis than in the entire preceding decade, mainly via attacks from territory Israel vacated pursuant to that accord. In the 20 years since Oslo, Palestinians have killed some 1, 200 Israelis – fully two-thirds of all the Israelis killed by Palestinian terror in Israel’s 65 years of existence. These attacks, too, came mainly from territory Israel vacated under Oslo’s successor agreements. And the disengagement produced an almost seven-fold increase in rocket launches from Gaza, from 424 in 2002-04 to 2,916 in 2006-08.

This experience is compounded by real concern that Israel’s negotiating partner, Mahmoud Abbas’ government, won’t long survive an Israeli withdrawal. Hamas, which adamantly rejects any peace with Israel, ousted Abbas’ government from Gaza in a bloody coup less than two years after the IDF left. And as Ya’alon noted last week, that scenario could easily repeat following an IDF withdrawal from the West Bank.

Whether Abbas would sign a deal with Israel under any circumstances is doubtful. But he certainly won’t sign one without Israeli concessions that Israel considers untenable from a security perspective (withdrawing to the 1967 lines, dividing Jerusalem, quitting the Jordan Valley, etc.), since Europe and America both support him on these issues. Hence the “extraordinary” benefits Europe offered Israel were conditioned on steps that Israel considers devastating to its own security – and therefore, to its economy as well.

As Ya’alon put it on another occasion last month, if an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would lead to rockets on Ben-Gurion Airport, “I would rather have a European boycott.” For devastating though a European boycott would be, Israel would at least still have other trading partners. But nobody will do business with a country whose only international airport and major economic centers are under constant threat of rocket fire.

This is the truth that Europe, facing no comparable threat to its economic centers, willfully refuses to see: All the economic incentives in the world can’t compensate for loss of security, because security is the necessary precondition for any modern economy to flourish. And that’s why Jerusalem has tactfully remained silent on the EU’s “extraordinary” offer: Because the only answer any responsible Israeli government could give is “thanks, but no thanks – the price is just too high.”

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.

As an explanation for Israel’s global unpopularity, this thesis simply doesn’t fit the facts.
When a theory unsupported even by minimal evidence becomes accepted as truth, it’s time to worry. And you know it’s happened when it’s cited as unchallenged fact even by people outside its political home base. That’s why I was appalled by Gil Troy’s Jerusalem Post column last week, in which he attributed Israel’s unpopularity overseas partly to “Likud’s rise and Labor’s decline” and the existence of “ideological” settlements deep in the West Bank.

Troy is no radical leftist; he’s a political centrist, ardent Zionist and tireless defender of Israel. He’s also a professor of history at McGill University, which makes his lack of historical memory doubly distressing.

Take, for instance, his claim that “millions toasted” Israel’s victory in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but subsequently, “The Likud’s rise and Labor’s decline made Israel less popular in Europe and with Social Democrats,” a trend exacerbated by “escalating the settlement project.”

Can Troy really have forgotten that during the Yom Kippur War, when Israel came perilously near annihilation due to lack of arms with which to continue fighting, not one European country would even allow American planes bearing these vital supplies to land in its territory for refueling? Nothing Europe has done to Israel in the 40 years since – including the recent economic boycott efforts – even comes close to this collective complicity in Israel’s attempted eradication. Yet back then, Labor was still the unchallenged ruling party (Likud took power only in 1977) and “ideological” settlement hadn’t yet begun. As then-Prime Minister Golda Meir complained bitterly at the next Socialist International meeting, the “good” old Labor-led Israel won no support from European social democrats, either. 

Then there’s Europe’s longstanding relationship with the PLO, which dates to the “Euro-Arab Dialogue” of 1975 – long before the PLO officially (if insincerely) renounced “armed struggle” in 1988, and just a year after it adopted its famous “phased plan” for Israel’s ultimate eradication. France, Italy, Luxembourg and Ireland supported making the PLO a full partner in the newly launched dialogue. Other European Community members weren’t quite ready for that, but they did agree to the PLO’s inclusion in a pan-Arab delegation.

In short, far from cheering Israel’s survival in 1973, Europe promptly sought to undermine that survival by recognizing an organization whose 1968 charter made no secret of its genocidal goals. And this, again, happened while Labor was still firmly in power and no “ideological” settlements had yet been built.

Nor should we forget the UN’s infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution of 1975. As delegitimization goes, it’s hard to beat having two-thirds of the world’s countries declare that while self-determination is laudable for other people, it’s “racist” when practiced by Jewish people.

Troy does mention this resolution, but fails to note that it, too, was adopted when Labor still reigned supreme and no ideological settlements yet existed. Indeed, as Yossi Klein Halevi perceptively noted, the first such settlement, Sebastia, was authorized three weeks after this resolution passed – and might not have been had many Israelis not been so revolted by  the resolution that they saw Sebastia as a fitting “Zionist answer.”

The thesis that Likud and the settlements are responsible for Israel’s unpopularity has an equally counter-factual corollary: If Israel would just elect left-wing governments and evacuate settlements, its popularity would increase. Troy trots out that fallacy as well, declaring that the 2005 disengagement from Gaza “helped staunch” the “exorbitant military and diplomatic price Israel was paying for staying in Gaza.”

Really? Has he forgotten that three years and 6,000 rockets later, when Israel finally took military action to end Gaza’s nonstop bombardment of the Negev, it was slapped with the Goldstone Report accusing it of war crimes (including deliberately targeting civilians) and recommending its indictment in the International Criminal Court? That slanderous document, ultimately repudiated even by its lead author, won overwhelming backing not only in the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly, but also in Europe: Only eight European countries voted against it.

Thus when a prime minister considered a super-dove – Ehud Olmert, the man responsible for Israel’s most far-reaching peace offer ever – launched a three-week incursion to stop rocket fire from territory Israel had fully evacuated three years earlier, Israel’s reward was the Goldstone Report. Yet nothing comparable occurred in 2002, when a premier then considered an uber-hawk (Ariel Sharon) permanently reoccupied much of the West Bank to stop the intifada. In short, far from being staunched by Israel’s pullout from Gaza and election of a left-wing premier, the diplomatic bleeding only got worse.

As even leftist Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit subsequently admitted in a moment of candor, “When Ehud Olmert’s Israel turns out to be less legitimate than [hardline Likud premier] Yitzhak Shamir’s Israel, there is no true incentive to continue to give in.” And there’s no intellectually honest way to keep blaming Likud and the settlements for Israel’s unpopularity.

One can certainly understand why leftists keep doing so anyway: Propagating the myth that Likud and the settlements are to blame furthers their goal of persuading Israelis to abandon both. One can even understand why many non-leftists buy this myth: Quite aside from the fact that anything people hear often enough starts sounding plausible, the delusion that it’s “only” Likud and the settlements the world hates – that if we just got rid of both, the world would love us again – is much less unpleasant than acknowledging that much of the world will hate us no matter what. Yet the evidence simply doesn’t support this theory.

The good news is that most Israelis seem to grasp this intuitively: In a 2010 poll, 77% of Israeli Jews agreed that “no matter what Israel does or how far it goes towards resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, the world will continue to criticize Israel.” The bad news is that this myth nevertheless continues to dominate the public discourse, thanks to the silent majority’s failure to challenge it publicly and consistently.

So next time someone tells you Likud and the settlements are to blame, challenge them to explain how this thesis fits the facts. Europe’s behavior in 1973 might be a good place to start.

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.

One reason Israel has struggled to muster international support for its demand for defensible borders is that one can always find some former senior Israeli defense official to proclaim this unnecessary. A typical example was former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s statement this weekend that Israel no longer needs to retain the Jordan Valley for security purposes, because “there is no eastern front”: Israel is at peace with Jordan, and “there is no longer an Iraqi army.”

What made this statement truly remarkable was the timing: On the very same weekend that Dagan made this categorical pronouncement, al-Qaeda in Iraq largely completed its takeover of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. As the New York Times reported, this means that “Sunni insurgents essentially control most of Anbar”–a province bordering directly on Jordan. Since Qaeda-linked groups also control large swathes of eastern Syria, Jordan now has al-Qaeda sitting on two of its borders: Syria to the north and Anbar to the east. Granted, al-Qaeda’s forces are currently busy fighting Syrian and Iraqi troops, but if they prevail in these battles, Jordan, which al-Qaeda has targeted in the past, will clearly be next in line.

In other words, Dagan is correct that “there is no eastern front” at this minute. But given the massive instability in the region and the marked gains that hostile forces like al-Qaeda have made just in the last few months, only a fool would be willing to gamble that the eastern front won’t reappear in another year, or two or three–especially given the likelihood (as I explained last week) that Israel’s withdrawal from the Jordan Valley would actively contribute to destabilizing Jordan, just as its withdrawal from Gaza destabilized Sinai. Yet this is precisely the gamble Dagan is advocating: Wager Israel’s security on the hope that even with the region in the midst of convulsive upheaval, the eastern front will nevertheless remain dormant for the foreseeable future.

All this speaks to a larger point about the validity of senior defense officials’ pronouncements: Their field of expertise is fairly narrow, and outside it, their assessments have no more validity than those of anyone else–and sometimes less. Dagan, a senior IDF officer before taking over the Mossad, certainly knows what’s needed to stop columns of tanks from invading Israel; had he said the Jordan Valley was unnecessary for this purpose, it would have to be taken seriously. But he didn’t; indeed, by saying it’s unnecessary specifically because the “eastern front” no longer exists, he clearly implied that the valley would be needed were the eastern front to reappear.

Rather, Dagan’s assertion rests on a political assessment: that nothing is likely to happen in the foreseeable future to turn either Jordan or Iraq into a threat. But when it comes to predicting future political developments, defense officials have no special expertise whatsoever. In fact, their track record is notoriously poor (think, for instance, of intelligence agencies’ failure to predict the intifadas, the Arab Spring, the Iranian revolution, etc.).

So when defense experts say that “defensible borders” aren’t necessary, consider whether their pronouncements are based on military or political assessments. And if it’s the latter, anything they say should be taken with whole buckets of salt.

It all goes on perks for civil servants, whose average pay is twice that of private-sector workers.
Last Wednesday’s headline was the crowning outrage: “Israeli tax burden to rise in 2014 for fifth year in a row.” Granted, there’s nothing wrong in principle with paying higher taxes in exchange for more and better services; many Europeans willingly make that trade-off, and many Israelis might, too. But too many recent media reports have shown us what our tax shekels are really used for, and it isn’t more and better services. Rather, it’s perks for government workers.

Just two weeks ago, for instance, the Finance Ministry issued its annual report on public-sector wages for 2012, which showed that full-time public-sector workers earn an average gross monthly salary of NIS 14,109. That’s over 50% higher than the mean for the economy as a whole (NIS 9,200) and more than double the median (NIS 6,500).

The public sector includes some justifiably well-paid workers – think heart surgeons or the defense industry’s high-tech whizzes. But so does the private sector. And the vast majority of public-sector workers, like their private-sector counterparts, perform far less exalted functions. So does anyone really think the average government employee is so vastly more productive and efficient, or performs so vastly more valuable a service, that he deserves an average wage twice that of his private-sector counterparts?

Last month also brought a reminder of how government workers obtain such inflated salaries: by using their monopoly over vital infrastructure to extort automatic annual raises. That’s a benefit private-sector workers can only dream of: Many go years without a raise, and even suffer pay cuts if their company is ailing. Are public-sector workers really so much more valuable and productive than their private-sector counterparts that they deserve guaranteed annual raises even when their employer, the government, is facing mammoth deficits?

Moreover, excessive salaries are just the tip of the iceberg, as last month’s damning report by the Public Utilities Authority once again revealed. The report said the Israel Electric Corporation’s wasteful practices have cost taxpayers about NIS 1 billion a year over the last decade, and will continue to cost billions for many years to come. But based on the report’s own data, that actually seems like an underestimate.

Inter alia, it noted, the IEC has 2,500 workers who are superfluous by the company’s own admission. Since the average monthly wage cost of an IEC employee came to NIS 35,362 in 2012, those extra workers alone cost almost NIS 1.1 billion a year. The company also expanded its pension obligations by NIS 10 billion beyond what is legally or contractually required, and made excess payments of NIS 12 billion to an employee pension fund to compensate. All this contributed to the company’s massive NIS 70 billion debt, for which the government – i.e., the taxpayer – is on the hook. And of course, we also pay for it through our electricity rates, which have jumped 30% over the last two years alone.

Last month also brought the news that a ballyhooed cut in the 2013-14 defense budget has just been eliminated, so defense spending will once again rise. Clearly, Israel needs a strong army, especially given the growing instability on all our borders. But as other recent news reports show, much of the defense budget doesn’t actually go toward bolstering our defenses.

In 2012, for instance, the IDF overspent its budget for salaries by NIS 1.9 billion. That alone accounts for more than two-thirds of the extra NIS 2.79 billion it received last month. In other words, the IDF gave its officers excess payments that it hadn’t budgeted for, and taxpayers got stuck with the bill.

Additionally, the IDF funds dental care for tens of thousands of its soldiers’ civilian relatives, though this decision was never approved by the General Staff, as required by law. We have no idea how much it costs, since the army itself has no idea, the State Comptroller’s Report revealed. But needless to say, other civilians don’t enjoy free dental care at the taxpayer’s expense.

The really big money, however, lies in salaries, pensions, and payments to disabled veterans, war widows and orphans, which total more than NIS 18.6 billion. That’s over 43% of the entire defense budget, and more than the total budget allotted either the Public Security Ministry or the Social Affairs Ministry. Much of this spending is obviously justified. But a sizable portion isn’t.

There’s no reason on earth, for instance, why soldiers injured in car accidents while on leave should be given the benefits of a disabled veteran rather than the far more modest benefits given other victims of traffic accidents, since the injury was unrelated to their service. This unwarranted decision has significantly inflated the army’s rehabilitation budget. There’s also no reason why accountants, engineers and other noncombatants sitting in IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv should be able to retire with full pension 20 years before their civilian counterparts. Add the fact that an officer’s average monthly pension is 2.5 times that of the average nonmilitary civil servant, and it’s easy to understand how the army’s pension budget has ballooned to astronomical levels.

The above are just a few examples of the unjustified perks given government workers. And this situation imposes real costs: With so much money going into employee perks, little is left over for actual service to the public.

Consequently, Israel’s public services are often subpar. That is why, for instance, Israeli families spend an estimated NIS 1 billion a year – thousands or even tens of thousands of shekels per family – on private tutors to supplement their children’s mediocre public-school education. It’s also why, despite a taxpayer-funded national health insurance system, out-of-pocket healthcare costs have soared in recent years, to 25% of total healthcare spending in 2011 – more than double the percentage in many other OECD countries.

Given this reality, there’s simply no justification for yet another tax hike. True, Israelis have been demanding improved public services. But until the government can show that our tax money is really being used to that end rather than simply to give ever more perks to public-sector workers, it has no business taking any more of the private sector’s hard-earned money.

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.

In the run-up to John Kerry’s arrival in Jerusalem today for yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, media attention naturally focused less on real obstacles to peace than on an Israeli bill to annex the Jordan Valley that supporters and opponents agree hasn’t a prayer of becoming law. Yet despite this coverage, the most interesting fact about the bill has been largely overlooked: One of the biggest behind-the-scenes fans of Israel retaining control of this strategic location is none other than the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Last month, the Israeli daily Maariv reported that Jordan has been urging Kerry to support Israel’s demand for a permanent IDF presence in the valley under any deal with the Palestinians. Three months earlier, the Jerusalem Post‘s Khaled Abu Toameh quoted a senior Jordanian official’s response when asked in a closed briefing how Amman viewed the possibility of Palestinians replacing Israel along the Jordan border:

“May God forbid!” the official retorted. “We have repeatedly made it clear to the Israeli side that we will not agree to the presence of a third party at our border.”

The Jordanian official claimed this has been Jordan’s position ever since 1967. But it was undoubtedly reinforced by watching the deleterious effects on Egypt’s security of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

With the IDF no longer there to impede the flow, radical ideology, terrorists, and weaponry began pouring from into Sinai, providing local terrorists not only with enhanced resources (as I explain in more detail here and here), but also with valuable training. As a result, Sinai quickly became a terrorist hotbed that poses a major threat not only to Israel–whose Shin Bet security service now devotes the same resources to monitoring Sinai that it does to the northern West Bank–but also to Egypt itself. A Sinai terrorist group, for instance, claimed responsibility for last week’s deadly bombing in Mansoura.

The last thing Jordan needs is a similar influx of arms, radicalism, and veteran Palestinian terrorists pouring over its border, especially given its large Palestinian population. Already destabilized by a massive influx of Syrian refugees and rumblings of homegrown discontent, such an influx would surely send it over the edge. And unless Israel remains in the Jordan Valley permanently (or at least for many decades to come), that’s exactly what will happen. Allowing the IDF to stay there merely for another few years, as Kerry is reportedly proposing, does nothing but temporarily postpone the inevitable.

Western leaders repeatedly say they want Israel out of the territories because its presence there is “a major source of instability” in the region, as President Obama put it his UN address in September. Yet experience shows that Israeli withdrawals may well be a far greater source of instability. The Gaza pullout certainly turned out that way for Egypt (as well as for Israel), and Amman clearly fears a Jordan Valley pullout would have a similarly negative impact on Jordan.

If the West truly cares about stability, pushing for an Israeli withdrawal that would destabilize Jordan, one of the region’s last remaining islands of stability, seems highly counterproductive. Indeed, given how often Israeli pullouts have had negative results, the West might do better to abandon this paradigm altogether and start searching for a new one. Supporting a permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley would be a good place to start.

What a strategy of confrontation would look like in practice on the Iranian and Palestinian issues.
A reader posed a relevant question regarding last week’s column on the value of confrontation in achieving Israel’s diplomatic goals: Granted, confrontation sometimes works, but how could it work today to persuade the West to address Israeli concerns on either the Iranian or the Palestinian issues?

Regarding Iran’s nuclear program, the answer is relatively simple: Israel must make clear that its military option remains on the table if the current talks either drag on too long or produce a deal that doesn’t address Jerusalem’s concerns. Since Western leaders have repeatedly proven their deep desire to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran, a credible threat to attack creates a powerful incentive to take Israel’s interests into account.

A credible threat obviously requires countering the widespread view that Israel wouldn’t dare attack in defiance of Washington. This demands clear, consistent, public messaging, so the government made a good start by vocally denouncing the interim deal with Iran and declaring that Jerusalem won’t consider itself bound by a deal it opposes. But no less important is reminding the world of the relevant historical precedents – because contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Israel has repeatedly proven willing to defy superpower patrons when faced with something it deems an existential threat.

One particularly salient example, as I’ve noted before, is Israel’s preemptive strike on the Egyptian air force during the 1967 Six-Day War. At that time, France was Israel’s superpower patron, principal arms supplier and sole source of vitally needed fighter jets; Washington assumed those roles only post-1967. And Paris warned unequivocally that if Israel preempted, the French alliance – including those all-important arms sales – was over. Since Israel had no alternative arms source, that was a potent deterrent. Yet facing what it deemed an existential threat from three Arab armies, Israel defied Paris and preempted anyway. By contrast, defying Washington to attack Iran would probably be less costly, since Israel’s support on Capitol Hill makes an American arms embargo unlikely.

The Palestinian issue is more complex, because confrontation would entail reversing a 20-year-old policy: Israel would have to publicly reassert its own legal rights in the West Bank, which successive governments have shamefully allowed the world to forget.

This doesn’t require doing anything that could permanently stymie a two-state solution, like annexing Area C or embarking on massive construction in places the government envisions as part of a future Palestinian state. But the West has consistently opposed even steps aimed solely at protecting Israel’s negotiating interests, which Jerusalem should have taken long since. Thus Israel should make clear that it will finally do so if it’s pressured to accept a deal it deems unacceptable or if it’s blamed for the talks’ breakdown because it refuses to concede its red lines.

Step one is for the government to finally adopt the Levy Report. This document, drafted by a blue-ribbon panel of jurists in 2012, lays out Israel’s legal claim to the West Bank and refutes the canard that this is “occupied territory.” Adopting the report wouldn’t preclude ceding land for peace. But by putting Israel’s legal case in the public domain and forcing government officials to publicly defend it, it would change the negotiating dynamic (as I explain in detail here): Israel can legitimately demand concessions for ceding its own land that it can’t demand for returning “occupied territory.”  

Second, Israel should exercise its legal rights via massive construction in areas that it intends to retain under any agreement: Jerusalem, the settlement blocs, the E-1 corridor linking Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim, and perhaps the Jordan Valley. Construction reinforces Israel’s hold on these areas, since the more Israelis live there, the harder uprooting them becomes. Yet building in areas Israel would keep under any deal clearly doesn’t preclude a deal, and every peace plan ever proposed has assigned the settlement blocs, E-1 and Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to Israel.

One might ask why the West would seek to forestall such measures if they don’t undermine prospects for a deal. The answer is that Western leaders have adopted two key elements of the Palestinian narrative: First, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are “occupied Palestinian territory” to which Israel has no claim whatsoever; and second, despite being the ones ostensibly suffering under occupation, Palestinians are the ones who must be coaxed to negotiate by ever greater Israeli concessions.

Clearly, any assertion of Israel’s rights undermines this narrative and strengthens Israel’s negotiating position: If Israel has a valid claim to the land, it can legitimately impose conditions for ceding it, and is thus less likely to make the egregious concessions the West deems necessary to appease the Palestinians. This, of course, is why Israel should have been making its case forcefully all along. But it’s also why the West vociferously opposes any Israeli attempt to do so.

In short, precisely because both Europe and the current US administration back maximalist Palestinian positions, they see any Israeli move to counter Palestinian demands as contrary to their own interests. And this, ironically, provides Israel with leverage. Indeed, the efficacy of such pushback can be seen on the issue of security arrangements, where Washington has reportedly moved toward Israel recently – but only after being convinced that on this issue, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wouldn’t budge.

Until now, Israel has largely capitulated to Western pressure and refrained from taking steps such as building in E-1 or adopting the Levy Report, fearing to be accused of thwarting prospects for peace and slapped with financial sanctions. But both Washington and the EU have made clear that virtually regardless of why the talks break down, they intend to blame Israel and penalize it accordingly. If so, Israel would have no reason to continue refraining from these steps, which would bolster its negotiating position in the long run. And it should make this clear to its Western interlocutors.

For far too long, Israel has tried to appease the West’s pro-Palestinian sensibilities, even at the cost of seeing its international standing steadily erode. It’s therefore long past time to try a different tactic. For if Israel doesn’t stand up for its own interests, assuredly no one else will.

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.

Christmas this year brought the usual spate of Palestinian historical revisionism, including the by-now routine claim that Jesus was a Palestinian. This, as Jonathan Tobin noted, tells us a lot about the Palestinian mindset and prospects for peace. But to me, the most striking aspect of this story is that objections to such historical revision come almost exclusively from Jews, whereas many Christian churches and organizations seem to have no problem with it. After all, it’s not only Jewish history and the Jewish religion Palestinians thereby erase; they are also erasing Christian history and the Christian religion.

What, for instance, becomes of the famous scene of Jesus evicting money-changers from the Temple if, as Palestinian officials claim, the Temple never existed? (They refer to it strictly as “the alleged Temple”; for examples, see here and here.) Or what becomes of Mary’s husband Joseph, who was “of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4), if, as Palestinians claim, the Davidic kingdom never existed?

Even if you want to claim, in defiance of all the evidence, that Jesus himself wasn’t a Jew, his entire story as related in the Gospels takes place in a Jewish state with a largely autonomous Jewish political and religious leadership, albeit subject to some control from the Roman Empire. According to the Gospels, it is this Jewish leadership that arrests and tries Jesus, though the Romans ultimately crucify him. If no Jewish state with the power to arrest and try ever existed (as Palestinians, again, routinely claim; see here or here, for instance), how did this most foundational of all Christian stories ever occur?

Granted, the Christians most sympathetic to this Palestinian revisionism generally represent liberal churches that aren’t wedded to a literal reading of the Bible. Nevertheless, belief in Jesus is ostensibly fundamental even for liberal Christians–and absent the historic Jewish kingdom of the Gospels, there quite literally is no Jesus.

This ties in with a related issue: Many of these same liberal Christian groups have also turned a blind eye to the ongoing slaughter of Christians in Syria and Iraq, the worsening persecution of Christians in Egypt and various other anti-Christian atrocities worldwide, preferring to focus all their energies on vilifying the one Middle Eastern country where, to quote Israeli Arab priest Father Gabriel Nadaf, “We feel secure” as Christians. As I’ve noted before, this contrast between the terrible plight of other Middle Eastern Christians and the safety they enjoy in Israel is increasingly leading Israel’s Arab Christians to rethink their former identification with the state’s opponents; one result is that the number of Arab Christians volunteering for service in the IDF shot up more than 60 percent this year (though given the minuscule starting point, the absolute numbers remain small). But no such rethinking has occurred among anti-Israel Christians in the West.

In short, the leadership of groups like the Church of Scotland or the Presbyterian Church seem prepared to sacrifice both historical Christianity and real live Christians on the altar of their single-minded obsession with undermining the Jewish state. The million-dollar question is how long their rank-and-file memberships will continue tolerating this travesty.

Surprisingly, the latter may serve Israel better in both its key foreign policy challenges.
Over the coming months, two foreign-policy issues will predominate: the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the six powers over its nuclear program; and American efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal. In both cases, Israel has vital interests at stake, yet in both cases, these interests don’t necessarily coincide with those of its American and European allies. This raises the question of how Israel can best protect its interests: through quiet diplomacy or public confrontation?

Among both Israel’s chattering classes and American Jewry, the dominant view seems to be that quiet diplomacy would be best. And at first glance, this makes intuitive sense. Israel’s alliance with the US is one of its greatest assets, so a public rupture with Washington could seriously undermine its diplomatic and military deterrence. And while Europe provides neither diplomatic nor military backing, it remains Israel’s largest trading partner; hence an open rupture could undermine Israel’s economic well-being.

Yet Israel’s own recent history demonstrates that public confrontation is sometimes vital to secure diplomatic achievements. To understand why, it’s worth studying two examples.

One is Israel’s acceptance earlier this month into the Western European and Others Group at the UN in Geneva. Previously, Israel was the only country excluded from any regional grouping in Geneva, which meant it was automatically barred from various UN posts that rotate among the different regional groups. Israel was also the only country to which the UN Human Rights Council had dedicated a permanent agenda item – meaning Israel’s alleged human rights violations were criticized at every council session, whereas other countries’ records were scrutinized only every few years. In short, Israel was discriminated against twice over compared to every other UN member.

For years, Israel tried to rectify this situation through quiet diplomacy, but in vain. Though Western allies agreed the situation was unfair, it didn’t negatively affect their own interests, whereas solving the problem would have antagonized Arab and Islamic states that some Western countries had invested heavily in cultivating. Israel’s interests thus diverged fundamentally from those of some of its natural allies – and in that situation, quiet diplomacy is of limited value.

Yet the West’s calculus changed dramatically once Israel switched to open confrontation. Infuriated over the HRC’s decision to launch yet another investigation of Israel even as it ignored massive abuses like the Syrian regime’s slaughter of its own citizens, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman persuaded the government to sever all ties with the council and refuse to participate in its Universal Periodic Review process.

Israel’s Western allies feared this boycott could lead other states to follow suit, thereby emptying the UPR of all content. And since they are deeply committed to this process, they suddenly had a real interest of their own in accommodating Israel’s longstanding concerns. Feverish negotiations thus ensued, and eventually, a compromise emerged. First, Israel would finally be admitted to the WEOG. Second, for the next two years, members of this group would refuse to participate in any debate held under the auspices of the permanent agenda item on Israel (which they don’t command enough votes to repeal). In short, confrontation had achieved what years of quiet diplomacy failed to do.

The second example is sanctions on Iran. Two previous prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, adopted a low-profile approach to Iran’s nuclear program. They considered it crucial for Iran to be seen as the world’s problem rather than Israel’s, and therefore believed Israel’s interests were best served by working behind the scenes and letting the West lead the public battle. Yet this approach produced meager results. It took four years after Iran’s secret nuclear program was discovered for the UN Security Council to impose its first sanctions, and even then, they were largely toothless – as were additional rounds approved in the following years.

But when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took office in 2009, he scrapped the quiet-diplomacy approach and adopted a much more confrontational posture, including vocal threats of Israeli military action against Iran. This ultimately produced the first truly biting sanctions ever imposed on Tehran: America and Europe effectively disconnected Iran from the global banking system, and the European Union also imposed an oil embargo.

Here, too, quiet diplomacy had failed because Israel’s interests diverged fundamentally from those of its allies. First, Israel viewed a nuclear Iran as a much greater threat than they did. As chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey admitted in a rare moment of candor, Israelis “are living with an existential concern that we are not living with.” Second, Europe had a major economic interest in continuing to do business with Iran. Hence to much of the West, the costs of stiff sanctions simply outweighed their benefits.

These calculations changed only when the West concluded that Netanyahu’s threats to attack Iran were serious. Since they believed an Israeli attack would be destabilizing to Western interests, they had a strong interest in trying to forestall it by offering an alternative form of pressure on Iran – stiff sanctions. A senior French official acknowledged this openly last year when he explained why his country now supported an oil embargo it had previously opposed: “We must do everything possible to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran, even if it means a rise in the price of oil and gasoline,” he said.

This history is important for understanding how Israel should deal with its current challenges, since in both the Iranian nuclear talks and negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel’s interests once again appear to diverge fundamentally from those of its allies. The West now seems more interested in reaching a deal with Iran – any deal – than in actually halting Tehran’s nuclear program. And it appears far more interested in creating a Palestinian state than in ensuring that this state doesn’t threaten Israel’s existence.

In short, on both issues, quiet diplomacy is liable to prove ineffective. Hence Israel must be prepared to stand up for its own interests via confrontation. For only if the West has something to lose by not accommodating Israel’s interests will it consider such an accommodation to be in its own interests as well.

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.

Speaking at the Saban Forum last weekend, President Barack Obama reiterated that the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani heralded a new direction in Iran that Washington would be irresponsible to ignore. “The Iranian people responded [to the sanctions] by saying, we need a new direction in how we interact with the international community and how we deal with this sanctions regime,” Obama declared. “And that’s what brought President Rouhani to power. He was not necessarily the first choice of the hardliners inside of Iran … And we should not underestimate or entirely dismiss a shift in how the Iranian people want to interact with the world.”

This explanation has been enthusiastically echoed by the media for months. But while it might have been possible for reasonable people of goodwill to believe it initially, today we know it’s a brazen lie. Obama didn’t start negotiating with Tehran because Rouhani’s election signaled an Iranian change of direction; his secret talks with Tehran started in March, three months before Rouhani’s election. Nor did Rouhani’s election in fact signal a public demand for change. On the contrary, it was deliberately engineered by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself–a fact that even the Iranians now admit, as the New York Times reported just last week: “A Tehran-based analyst with ties to the senior leadership, Amir Mohebbian, has said that Ayatollah Khamenei ushered Mr. Rouhani into power with the idea of shifting course from the Ahmadinejad years and testing President Obama’s sincerity about reaching a nuclear deal,” the paper wrote.

There was, of course, ample evidence of this even back in June, which I detailed at the time. But we now have the missing link in this evidence–the motive for Khamenei’s ostensible about-face in ensuring the victory of the most “moderate” of the eight regime-approved candidates allowed to run, after having backed the most conservative candidate in the previous election. Having opened exploratory talks with Washington three months earlier and concluded that the Obama administration was prepared to give him the kind of deal he wanted, Khamenei naturally sought to put his best negotiator at the helm to conduct the talks.

Rouhani was unquestionably that. Prior to his election, he boasted–correctly–that as chief negotiator with the West a decade earlier, he secured a deal that enabled Iran to dramatically expand its nuclear program: The number of centrifuges grew from 150 to 1,700, and the Isfahan facility for yellowcake conversion was completed. What Khamenei and Rouhani understood was that even when Westerners are dying to sign a rotten deal, you still have to give them the fig leaf of a smiling face rather than a brazen Holocaust denier like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thus once he decided to pursue the talks, Khamenei ensured Rouhani’s election.

One can understand why Obama seeks to portray the nuclear deal as a response to growing anti-regime sentiment among the Iranian public; that’s something most Americans (and Israelis) would obviously like to encourage. But nobody should be fooled by this transparent lie. The deal Obama made is one that the worst elements of the Iranian regime consider to be in their own interests, and they deliberately engineered Rouhani’s election to secure it. All the administration’s talk of how the Iranian people brought Rouhani to power is nothing but a smokescreen thrown up in a desperate effort to obscure just how bad the deal really is.

Science helps explain Israelis’ anomalous optimism; Hanukkah shows how to preserve it
In a column last year titled “Israelis’ anomalous optimism,” I discussed the surprising fact that Israelis consistently score high on surveys of wellbeing despite many problems that would seem inimical to wellbeing. According to the Gallup polling company, for instance, peace and stability usually correlate strongly with feelings of wellbeing, but Israel ranks high in wellbeing despite lack of peace and an unstable neighborhood. Similarly, high scores on Gallup’s Negative Experience Index, which measures whether respondents experienced physical pain, worry, sadness, stress or anger over the past day, often correlate with lower wellbeing, yet Israel ranks high in wellbeing despite also ranking high in negative experiences.

At the time, I posited that this anomaly stems from Israelis’ commitment to something bigger than themselves, for which “they are willing to pay in the coin of pain, worry, sadness, stress, anger and lack of peace” – the grand project of building, developing and improving the first sovereign Jewish state in 2,000 years. It now turns out that there’s scientific evidence for this thesis.

In an article in The Atlantic in August, which I discovered last week thanks to my colleague Jonathan Rosenblum, author Emily Esfahani Smith describes a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that examined whether and how wellbeing is expressed at the genetic level. First, researchers Barbara Fredrickson and Steve Cole interviewed participants to assess their levels of happiness and meaning, defined respectively as “feeling good” and “an orientation to something bigger than the self.” Happiness was measured by questions like “How often did you feel happy,” “How often did you feel interested in life” and “How often did you feel satisfied,” and meaning by questions like “How often did you feel that your life has a sense of direction or meaning to it,” “How often did you feel that you had something to contribute to society” and “How often did you feel that you belonged to a community/social group.”

Next, they examined the participants’ genes. Cole had previously found that loneliness, grief and various other types of adversity produce increased activity in proinflammatory genes (which prepare the body to fight bacterial infections, but can lead to serious illness if activated chronically) and decreased activity in genes involved in fighting viruses. The researchers therefore expected to find the opposite pattern in people who scored high in either happiness or meaning.

Yet that turned out to be true only for people who scored high in meaning. People with high happiness but low meaning, in contrast, had gene expression patterns identical to those of people suffering chronic adversity. In other words, at the genetic level, mere hedonistic pleasure is indistinguishable from adversity. But “an orientation to something bigger than the self” corresponds directly with wellbeing.

This obviously doesn’t mean more mundane issues are irrelevant. “Struggling to make ends meet,” for instance, is one of the problems that can trigger a negative gene expression pattern. Hence bread-and-butter issues like the increasing unaffordability of housing will inevitably take a toll on Israeli wellbeing if left unaddressed.

But such mundane issues can also affect Israelis’ sense of meaning, because a Jewish state isn’t just a state where Jews happen to live; it’s a state where Jewish ideals of what constitutes a good society can be given tangible form. People can and do disagree about what this means in practice. But when too many Israelis feel these ideals have been betrayed – by governmental corruption, yawning gaps between rich and poor, inadequate schools and more – that can undermine their belief in the value and/or viability of the statehood enterprise.

Ironically, Israel’s manifold successes to date are precisely what make this problem especially acute today. As Jerusalem city councilwoman Rachel Azaria perceptively noted in October, previous generations built the state and ensured its military and economic viability; that freed the current generation to focus on the necessary next step: creating “a societal structure” appropriate to a Jewish state.

This also helps explain why Gallup’s latest wellbeing poll showed a sharp 11-point drop in the proportion of Israelis who define themselves as “thriving,” from 65% in 2011 to 54% in 2012. The 2012 figure still tops more than half the countries of Western Europe. But the 2011 figure was exceptionally high because the poll was taken shortly after that summer’s social protests, which Israelis optimistically believed would produce swift progress in addressing long-neglected societal ills. Given these problems’ complexity, that expectation was never realistic. Hence by 2012, the inevitable backlash of despondency had set in: Israelis were much less confident than they had been a year earlier of their ability to boost the statehood project in which they’ve invested so heavily to the necessary next level – a country that not only provides physical security and a refuge for Jews worldwide, but also reflects Jewish values.

Hanukkah, which we celebrate this week, is the perfect moment to rededicate ourselves to this goal in a more sober, clear-eyed fashion. South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein once offered a lovely explanation for why Jewish tradition commemorates not the holiday’s seemingly greater miracle – the Maccabees’ defeat of the mighty Greek empire and restoration of Jewish sovereignty – but a comparatively minor one: A quantity of oil thought sufficient for only one day enabled the newly rekindled Temple menorah to burn for eight. Our emphasis, Goldstein explained, must always be not on what we’re against, but on what we’re for – not merely on defeating our enemies, necessary though that obviously is, but on using this victory “to light the flames of Torah values,” as symbolized by the menorah.

The modern Jewish state unfortunately still has no lack of enemies. But it has won enough security that we can and must begin focusing on the next step – turning our state into a true “light unto the nations” by imbuing it with Jewish values and content, with justice and charity and righteousness, in every walk of life. That won’t happen overnight; it’s a job that will take generations. But if we can make even modest progress, Israel will continue scoring anomalously high on global wellbeing indexes for many years to come.

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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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