Analysis from Israel

In the almost two weeks since Jewish Israelis allegedly killed two Palestinians and a Gay Pride marcher in two separate attacks, much has been written about the hypocrisy of the international response. COMMENTARY contributor Jonathan Neumann offered another incisive contribution to this genre in the Times of Israel this Tuesday. But in my view, the prize for most hypocritical reaction goes to Etgar Keret’s essay in the New York Times last week. And the problem with it goes far deeper than mere double standards about terrorism.

In a piece entitled “Do Israelis Still Care About Justice?” Keret lamented the relatively sparse attendance at an anti-violence rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square after the murders and concluded that Israelis must not see anything too terrible about hate crimes. “How is it possible that fewer people would come to demonstrate against the murder of children and innocent people than to demonstrate against the high cost of housing or the halt to building in the settlements?” he asked.

But the answer to that disingenuous question is evident in the very photo the Times chose to illustrate the piece, and it has nothing to do with indifference to murder. It has to do with the left’s decree that nobody is allowed to object to murder unless they’re willing to check any non-leftist political and religious convictions at the door.

The picture prominently featured two English-language signs reading “Settlements destroy Israel” and “Settlements create violence.” And this accurately reflects the nature of the demonstration. It was organized by Peace Now, which believes Israel must quit the West Bank immediately. The only invited speakers were left-wing politicians who share this view. Then, not content with merely excluding Israel’s center-right majority, the speakers actively declared it persona non grata. “I say to Netanyahu and to MKs from the right: We don’t want your condemnations, and we don’t want your soul-searching,” Meretz party chairwoman Zehava Galon declared.

Benjamin Netanyahu just won his third consecutive election; in pre-election polls, an absolute majority of Israelis repeatedly deemed him the most qualified candidate for prime minister. In that same election, center-right politicians won 56 percent of all Knesset seats, and 63 percent of those won by Jewish parties. Years of polling have found that most Israelis no longer consider “peace now” feasible in light of serial Palestinian rejectionism and the rampant terror sparked by previous withdrawals.

Yet this absolute majority of Israelis was unwelcome in Rabin Square unless they were willing to spend an entire evening being ostracized, collectively accused of murder and told their political views were beyond the pale – and this was made completely clear in advance. And Keret wonders why most of them chose to forgo this pleasure?

Nor were things any different at the anti-violence rally organized by the LGBT community in Tel Aviv’s Gan Meir that same night. Organizers nixed a planned appearance by Naftali Bennett, head of the religious Zionist Jewish Home party. They refused to let another MK from his party take the stand. And while they did let a secular MK from the ruling center-right Likud party address the crowd, he “was booed incessantly during his speech and protesters waved red-stained gloves at him, which were meant to indicate he had blood on his hands,” the Jerusalem Post reported.

In short, here, too, the center-right majority was both excluded and vilified. And then Keret wonders why many chose not to attend.

In the left’s view, it seems, you can’t oppose the murder of Palestinians if you aren’t prepared to recant your political and/or religious concerns about territorial withdrawals. And you can’t oppose the murder of Gay Pride marchers if you aren’t prepared to recant your political/religious concerns about some or all of the LGBT community’s demands. To be blunt, this is ridiculous: People shouldn’t have to agree on policy in order to join hands in condemning murder.

Nor, unfortunately, is this particular sickness confined to the left. I’ve heard plenty of rightists condemn political opponents as “anti-Zionists,” even if said opponents have long track records of contributing to or advocating for the Jewish state.

Any decent person should denounce Keret’s effort to paint Israelis who don’t share his politics as acquiescing in murder. But the center-right should also learn from his mistake. Accomplishing anything usually requires building coalitions among people who may disagree fiercely on other issues. People who insist on political purism are liable to find themselves exactly where Keret did: standing in a half-empty square and wondering why so few other people chose to join them.

Originally published in Commentary on August 13, 2105

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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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