Analysis from Israel

Israel’s Knesset took two important steps yesterday. First, a committee forwarded a bill to the plenum for final reading that, if passed, would for the first time subject territorial concessions to real ratification requirements. Second, the plenum gave preliminary approval to a bill that would, for the first time, impose sanctions on those who promote anti-Israel boycotts.

The boycott bill, which will now proceed to committee, would make Israelis who “instigate,” “encourage,” or “assist” boycotts against Israel or Israeli institutions subject to fines of up to NIS 30,000 even if no damage is proved, and more if damage is proved. Foreigners or foreign entities that do the same could be barred from the country and denied the right to use Israeli banks, land, or stocks. The bill would also allow boycott damages to be deducted from Israel’s remittances to the Palestinian Authority should the latter continue promoting anti-Israel boycotts.

The bill, co-sponsored by 27 MKs from seven parties, is modeled on America’s anti-boycott laws. Ironically, those laws were passed in the 1970s in response to the Arab boycott of Israel. But at that time, Israel saw no need to imitate them: what Israeli then would have promoted a boycott of his own country?

It is a sad comment that today such a law is necessary, as Israelis are at the forefront of the anti-Israel boycott movement. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that mainstream Israel is finally fighting back: if enacted, boycott promoters would finally be forced to weigh the acclaim and lucrative awards their behavior wins from like-minded peers abroad against a real price.

The other bill would require that any withdrawal from territory annexed by Israel be approved by either a referendum or a special two-thirds Knesset majority. Currently, such concessions need approval by a mere 61 members of the 120-member Knesset.

That the bill applies only to annexed territory is a flaw; that means it covers the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem but not the West Bank. Moreover, it has a dangerous loophole: the referendum could be waived if elections are held within six months, as the election would be seen as a referendum. That is problematic, because any new government would assuredly come under enormous international pressure to approve the concession, and there would be no referendum to stop it. Nevertheless, the bill would significantly improve the existing situation.

Unnamed “sources close to” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will work to delay the bill’s final reading for “as long as possible.” But the truth is that successive governments all opposed the bill; none of them liked the idea that they could no longer make any agreement they saw fit, with no need to muster widespread popular support. It has nevertheless steadily advanced over the course of two Knessets, with support from both coalition and opposition MKs.

Thus I predict it will ultimately pass this final hurdle too. And Israel’s democratic system will only benefit from ensuring that future withdrawals enjoy strong popular support instead of passing, as previous ones have, by razor-thin majorities that tear the country apart.

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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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