Analysis from Israel

The past month provides a textbook example of one of the major flaws in Western efforts to promote a two-state solution: a tendency to focus on all the wrong issues. The peace processing community is currently in a tizzy over something that ought to be an irrelevancy: the possibility that the Trump Administration might actually move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. But it had nothing whatsoever to say about a far more significant development: the outcome of recent elections for the governing organs of the Fatah party, aka Israel’s “peace partner.”

As Jonathan Tobin correctly pointed out earlier this week, the idea that moving the embassy would destroy the peace process is ludicrous. If Palestinians were willing to recognize Israel within the 1949 armistice lines, as they claim, they would have no reason to care where the embassy is located as long as it’s inside those lines, which the proposed Jerusalem locale would be.

Moreover, judging by a report in the Jerusalem Post on Thursday, ordinary Palestinians (as opposed to the Palestinian leadership) genuinely don’t care. Reporter Daniel Eisenbud wandered around East Jerusalem asking random Palestinians what they thought about relocating the embassy, and couldn’t find even one who thought it worth getting upset over. “Why should I care about where the US Embassy is located?” one asked. “They want to move it to Jerusalem? So what?” said another. “I don’t understand why it matters,” added a third. “Don’t waste my time with such unimportant things,” a fourth demanded. Indeed, the only people Eisenbud found who did care were Israeli leftists, who offered patronizing explanations for why ordinary Palestinians seemed incapable of understanding the magnitude of the impending disaster.

In short, this is strictly a manufactured crisis–one that wouldn’t actually impede prospects for peace at all, and that ordinary Palestinians consider a nonissue. Yet Western peace processers are obsessed with it.

In contrast, I haven’t heard any veteran peace processers voicing concern over the outcome of Fatah’s elections three weeks ago. Yet those results matter, because Fatah is both the main component of the PLO–the organization with which Israel signed the Oslo Accords–and the Palestinian Authority’s ruling party.

So who came in first in the election for Fatah’s top governing organ, the Central Committee? Marwan Barghouti, a man currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for murdering five Israeli civilians. And these weren’t murders committed back when Israel and the PLO were still officially at war; they were committed in 2001-02, almost a decade after the Oslo Accords were signed.

In other words, the 1,311 delegates who attended Fatah’s seventh General Conference thought the best choice to head their party was a man who had repeatedly violated the one key promise the PLO made under the Oslo Accords: to stop anti-Israel terror. And if Israel’s official peace partner believes a serial violator of signed agreements is the ideal choice to lead the Palestinian people, why exactly would Israel want to risk signing another agreement with it?

Nor was Barghouti’s involvement in terrorism incidental to his election. On the contrary, his overwhelming popularity stems primarily from the leading role he played in orchestrating anti-Israel terror during the second intifada (Israeli intelligence considers him responsible for many more attacks than the crimes for which he was convicted). And if Israel’s official peace partner believes a mass murderer is an ideal choice to lead the Palestinian people, why exactly would Israel believe it wants any kind of peace, other than the peace of the grave?

But Barghouti’s first-place finish wasn’t the only problematic outcome of the vote; no less significant was the second-place finisher, who is now well-positioned to become PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s heir as long as Barghouti remains in jail. The second-place slot was won by Jibril Rajoub, who is famous, inter alia, for saying that if he had a nuclear bomb, he’d drop it on Israel tomorrow. And that was in 2013–fully two decades after the PLO supposedly recognized Israel’s right to exist. In other words, in the eyes of Israel’s official peace partner, even openly voicing a desire to commit genocide doesn’t disqualify you from leadership.

No less significant, however, is how Rajoub has conducted himself in his current role, as head of the Palestinian Football Association. Aside from doing everything he can to get Israel expelled from FIFA, the governing body of international soccer (which probably upsets soccer-mad Israelis more than his genocidal threats do), he has spent his tenure vigorously thwarting attempts to arrange soccer matches between Israeli and Palestinian youth teams.

In 2013, for instance, the Barcelona FC soccer team thought it could use its popularity on both sides of the Green Line to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace: It offered to host separate soccer clinics for Israeli and Palestinian youth, culminating in an exhibition match between the two sides. The clinics took place, but the match was canceled because Rajoub refused to allow Palestinian youth to participate.

In other words, in the eyes of Israel’s official peace partner, the ideal choice to be Abbas’s heir apparent is someone so opposed to “normalization” with Israel that he won’t even let Palestinian and Israeli kids play soccer together. And if someone won’t let children play soccer together, how exactly is he supposed to make peace?

No two-state solution will ever be possible as long as Israel’s “peace partner” sees men like Barghouti and Rajoub–men whose conduct is the antithesis of peace–as its preferred leaders. Hence, any effective Western policy to promote peace would focus first and foremost on education to change Palestinian attitudes. Instead, the West ignores the all-important issue of Palestinian attitudes and behavior while obsessing over issues with zero impact on the prospects for peace, like the location of the U.S. embassy. And then it wonders why more than two decades of efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace have produced no progress at all.

Originally published in Commentary on December 23, 2016

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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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