Analysis from Israel

Several commentators have pointed out recently that, had the West not spent decades treating terror against Jews and Israel as an “understandable” outgrowth of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it might have less of a terrorism problem today.

Liel Leibovitz of Tablet detailed links between people who perpetrated attacks on Jews and people who later perpetrated attacks on non-Jews in the same countries. His analysis suggests that, had the original attacks on Jews been investigated more thoroughly, the later attacks might have been preventable. Gil Troy argued in the Jerusalem Post that the West’s consistent response to Palestinian terror – capitulating to the terrorists’ demands and pressuring Israel to do the same – persuaded subsequent generations of Islamic terrorists that terror is an effective means of furthering their goals. But there’s a third way in which the West’s attitudes toward Israel have contributed to its terrorism problem: Its conviction – in defiance of all evidence – that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was the Mideast’s central problem led it to focus obsessively on this issue, at the expense of all the real problems that are coming back to haunt it now. And nothing better illustrates this than the seemingly trivial issue of NGO funding.

Both Europe and America, but especially the former, grant tens of millions of dollars a year to Israeli NGOs for the ostensible purpose of promoting “democracy” and “human rights” in the one Middle Eastern country that already does a reasonable job of protecting both. However, they spend far less on promoting democracy and human rights in other Mideast countries. A document obtained by the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, for instance, showed that in 2010, the British government gave £600,000 to Israeli NGOs; if you exclude Iraq, that’s six times as much as it gave NGOs in all other Arab countries combined. Nor does the West lavish this kind of money on NGOs in other fellow democracies: According to NGO Monitor, “No other democracy gets nearly as much foreign government funding” as Israel does.

Why this peculiar obsession with democracy and human rights in Israel, alone of all the world’s countries? The answer, of course, is that the donations aren’t primarily motivated by concern for democracy and human rights at all. They go almost exclusively to organizations dealing in some way with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – or, to be precise, organizations striving in some way to get Israel to adopt the West’s recipe for solving it: ever more concessions to the Palestinians.

After 20 years in which repeated territorial concessions have brought only more terror rather than peace, most Israelis can no longer be persuaded to buy this nostrum. So instead, these foreign-funded NGOs work to drum up anti-Israel sentiment overseas in the hope of generating international pressure and sanctions on it (see, for instance, Breaking the Silence, which travels worldwide to accuse Israel of “war crimes” but refuses to cooperate with Israeli law enforcement agencies so its allegations could actually be investigated, or B’Tselem, which eagerly cooperated in UN efforts to smear Israel as a war criminal, inter alia, by supplying inflated statistics about civilian casualties). In other words, this money goes mainly toward trying to circumvent Israeli democracy by forcing its government to do something most voters oppose.

Despicable though this is from a democratic standpoint, it’s understandable from a foreign policy standpoint. Western countries believed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was the Mideast’s main problem, so focusing their resources on it made sense.

The problem, as recent events have amply proven, is that this belief was simply false. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict had nothing to do with the Syrian civil war, which has flooded Europe with refugees and created a power vacuum that the Islamic State has now filled with its terror-exporting “caliphate.” The Palestinian-Israeli conflict had nothing to do with the Libyan civil war, which is also flooding Europe with refugees and created another power vacuum that Islamic State is similarly moving to fill. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict had nothing to do with the Iraqi government’s exclusion of its Sunni citizens, which led them to view Islamic State as a protector and provide it with the initial base from which it later expanded. In short, this conflict had nothing to do with any of the real problems now preoccupying the West.

But those problems might not be the metastasizing crises they are had the West not spent decades ignoring all the region’s other patent ills in order to obsess over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Consider, for instance, what else could have been done with the 100 million euros a year which, according to NGO Monitor, is what foreign governments give to NGOs involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (Israeli, Palestinian and international). What if that money had instead been going for decades to NGOs promoting democracy, human rights, and good governance in places like Syria, Libya, and Iraq? Perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference, but maybe it would have produced enough incremental change that the current meltdown of the Arab world could have been avoided.

The past can’t be rewritten, but it’s not too late to change the future. As Leibovitz and Troy argued, that will require taking attacks on Jews seriously and ending Western appeasement of Palestinian terror. But it will also require finally abandoning the myth of Palestinian centrality and focusing instead on the Mideast’s real problems. Diverting those millions of euros from Israeli NGOs to all the countries that really do need help with democracy and human rights might be an excellent way to start.

Originally published in Commentary on December 10, 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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