Analysis from Israel

Bring opinion leaders here, provide data to friends abroad, and don’t put Foreign Ministry in charge.

Having long argued that bringing people to see Israel for themselves is the best way to change their view of it, I was delighted to discover that someone high up in the Foreign Ministry shares my view. Unfortunately, Gideon Meir has just retired after 45 years in the ministry – after failing utterly to secure funding even for the modest effort of bringing over 3,000 non-Jews influential on American college campuses, at a cost of $12 million (NIS 42.1 million). That’s pocket change in a government budget of NIS 408.1 billion – a mere 0.01%.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Meir pointed out what ought to be obvious: Public diplomacy is as critical to Israel’s security as fighter jets, because without it, we won’t even be able to buy those jets. Or as he put it, we buy American fighters for $35 million apiece, but we’re not investing a cent in ensuring that future Congresses – whose demographic make-up will likely differ substantially from today’s – will approve selling us replacements when the current planes die.

An op-ed published this month by BBC journalist Lipika Pelham provides a timely reminder of what an impact seeing Israel first-hand can have. In it, the Bengal-born Pelham wrote of how her years here had changed her:

“It is impossible to explain fully the nuances of Jerusalem’s ethno-religious split to my old and new London friends. I had strayed too far from our past political adherences. I am worried about sounding too pro-Israel when, at the children’s school meetings, I want to share with curious parents that Jerusalem is a safer place than London for raising a family. Or while shopping at the local grocer, I cannot be bothered to check the kiwi fruit labels to check whether they came from Israel as has been de rigueur among my left-wing friends. I want to say it loud and clear that I do not care much about the boycott. Israel is not an apartheid state.”

Granted, she hasn’t become an outspoken champion. But for someone in her milieu, even publicly rejecting the “apartheid” canard is groundbreaking.

Yet bringing opinion leaders here isn’t the only elementary task the government is failing to perform. It’s neglecting something even more basic – simply providing information.

One of the gravest indictments I’ve ever seen of Israel’s nonexistent public diplomacy was published in this paper by Labor MK Hilik Bar earlier this month. Bar, who chairs the Knesset’s European Forum, reported that at a meeting with European parliamentarians belonging to the European Friends of Israel group, several complained of a basic problem: They “often lack the information necessary for them to help make the case for Israel in their own communities.” Providing such information to pro-Israel parliamentarians ought to be a staple of the Foreign Ministry’s work. Clearly, however, it’s not.

That became evident once again during European Parliament President Martin Schulz’s address to the Knesset last week. Granted, Schulz should never have thrown unverified slander into his speech: As David M. Weinberg noted, addresses to foreign parliaments are usually rigorously fact-checked; thus by inserting an accusation that he himself admitted he hadn’t checked, Schulz clearly violated diplomatic protocol.

Yet the accusation in question – that Israel starves the Palestinians of water – crops up repeatedly, and various comprehensive rebuttals have therefore been published. Weinberg quoted one by a leading Israeli hydrologist, Prof. Haim Gvirtzman, that detailed the steep decline in the water usage gap over the last 40 years; the fact that Israel gives the Palestinians more water than required under the Oslo Accords; and the Palestinians’ own responsibility for the remaining shortfalls, due to wasteful irrigation methods and refusal to fix leaky pipes, drill new wells, use treated sewage or cooperate with Israel on projects to alleviate the problem. I’d also mention the Europeans’ own refusal to cooperate with Israel on such projects: They condition cooperation on the settlements not benefiting in any way, and since most waterways run through both Israeli and Palestinian controlled territory, that’s effectively impossible.

So how is it that Schulz, who occupies a very influential position and is considered a friend of Israel, had never seen Gvirtzman’s study? And why did none of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s aides know how to lay their hands on the relevant data so that he could rebut Schulz’s accusation in real time? Both lapses attest to a public diplomacy system so broken as to be nonexistent.

The obvious conclusion is that public diplomacy can no longer be left to the Foreign Ministry. Even the dedicated diplomats who sincerely want to make Israel’s case clearly lack the time, resources or skills to do it; otherwise, failures like those detailed above wouldn’t keep recurring. Moreover, some don’t even want to: As former ministry employee Dan Illouz revealed in another shocking Jerusalem Post column last month, some ministry officials actually support international boycotts aimed at forcing Israel into territorial withdrawals, and thus can hardly be trusted to conduct public diplomacy to avert such pressure.

The good news is that someone else wants to take over the job: Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz and ministry director general Yossi Kuperwasser have drafted plans for a major public diplomacy campaign and are seeking NIS 100 million to implement it. The bad news is that one of the cabinet’s most influential members, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, is trying to scuttle the proposal. Moreover, it’s not yet clear what the plan includes, aside from legal action against boycotts – which can be highly effective, but isn’t sufficient. No plan that omits the two key elements of bringing opinion leaders to Israel and providing essential information to friends overseas will be worth much, and NIS 100 million won’t go very far for one that includes both those goals plus legal action.

Ultimately, the decision will rest with Netanyahu – who forcefully advocated for more public diplomacy until becoming prime minister, but has neglected it shamefully ever since. Thus the question is whether he can be persuaded to return to his roots and authorize both the plan and the necessary funds.  Anyone who cares about Israel should be urging him to do so.

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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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