Analysis from Israel

EU bureaucrats won’t like the comparison, but in one significant respect, the officials who approved discriminatory labeling requirements for Israeli products earlier this month bear a marked resemblance to the Palestinians who have been knifing Jews throughout Israel for weeks now. Clearly, there’s no similarity between labeling requirements and murder; the two aren’t remotely comparable. But the underlying attitude is remarkably similar: Neither the EU bureaucrats nor the Palestinian stabbers seem to care how many Palestinians they hurt as long as they can hurt a few Jews in the process.

Both the stabbings and the labeling promise to wreak havoc on the Palestinian economy – or to be more specific, on the ability of thousands of Palestinians to support themselves and their children. With regard to the violence, this ought to be self-evident. In an article earlier this month, for instance, reporter Brett Kline described the despondent mood in tourism-dependent Bethlehem now that clashes between slingshot-wielding Palestinians and Israeli soldiers have driven the tourists away. But the angriest comment, Kline reported, came from Hamadah, a construction foreman working in the Betar Ilit settlement:

He has just been informed that following the attempted stabbing of a soldier at the entrance to the settlement by a 22-year-old mother of two from Husan village across the road, work has been suspended indefinitely. And residents of Husan, home to thriving construction material depots and auto repair shops, cannot leave the village.

“What was she thinking,” he fumes, referring to the stabber. “Who the hell is she? … The woman is being fed in hospital. But how will I feed my family?

Indeed, the situation has gotten so bad that Palestinian businessmen in Hebron have begun trying to stop the violence on their own. And it could easily get worse. Last week, following a deadly attack in Tel Aviv perpetrated by a Palestinian who had just received a permit to work in Israel, the Israeli government suspended 1,200 other recently issued entry permits pending a security review. Should more permit-holders perpetrate attacks, Israel could eventually be driven to bar Palestinian laborers almost entirely, as it did during the second intifada. The impact on the Palestinian economy would be devastating: According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 92,000 Palestinians work in Israel (not including the settlements). That’s 13 percent of all employed Palestinians in the West Bank.

Yet the labeling requirement could prove almost as deadly for the West Bank economy, because for all the EU’s claims that it simply wants to “give consumers accurate information,” it’s obvious that the goal is to ultimately shut down Israeli businesses in the territories, either by making them unprofitable or simply by persuading owners that the new labeling rules are more hassle than relocating would be. Indeed, several companies have already reached that very conclusion in recent years, the most famous being SodaStream, which relocated from the West Bank to the Negev in September.

Israeli businesses in the territories, however, rely almost exclusively on Palestinian labor. Around 20,300 Palestinians are employed in the settlements, according to the PCBS; that’s almost 3 percent of the West Bank’s employed Palestinians. And other Palestinians work as suppliers to Israeli businesses. Thus every business closure or relocation throws hundreds of Palestinians out of work; the Israeli Foreign Ministry estimates that in total, 30,000 Palestinians could lose their jobs.

That price might be justifiable if Palestinians themselves considered it worth paying. But, in fact, they don’t. Just this past June, a poll commissioned by the Washington Institute found that fully 55 percent of West Bank residents wanted “to see Israeli companies offer more jobs inside” the West Bank (emphasis added).

Granted, both the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian NGOs back the EU’s move. But that’s because neither PA officials nor NGO officials have to worry about making a living; both enjoy lavish European funding.

Ordinary Palestinians, in contrast, do have to worry about how they’re going to feed their families. That’s why Shaher Saad, secretary general of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, publicly urged PA President Mahmoud Abbas to prevent the closure of Israeli industrial parks in the West Bank as long as no suitable employment alternatives exist: He was reflecting the views of the people he represents – ordinary workers.

K., a Palestinian employed by an Israeli date farm in the West Bank who says everyone in his village works for Israelis, summed up the problem succinctly in a recent newspaper interview:

“Labeling is a mistake, because workers will have a problem with it,” he said. “If products won’t be sold, where will we work? A marketing problem means a problem for us with employment.”

But for all the similarity in the economic impact of their actions, there’s one important difference between the knife-wielding Palestinians and the EU bureaucrats. The stabbers are overwhelmingly teenagers, and nobody seriously expects teenagers to think through the consequences of their actions. The EU bureaucrats, in contrast, are ostensibly responsible adults, who are supposed to know better.

Originally published in Commentary on November 25, 2015

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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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