Analysis from Israel

The run-up to the Palestinians’ UN bid has produced many surreal moments, but it would be hard to top this one: The U.S. and Europe are pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to penalize the Palestinian Authority following the UN vote. In other words, the “international community” is urging the PA be allowed to violate its previous signed agreements with total impunity. And then, in the same breath, it’s urging Israel to sign a final-status agreement entailing much greater concessions in exchange for “international guarantees” it’s just proven it won’t enforce.

A brief reminder: The UN gambit blatantly violates the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, which states that “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” Clearly, recognizing these territories as a state would change their status drastically. The U.S. and EU both signed this agreement as witnesses, as did Russia, Egypt, Jordan and Norway.

Now, most of these witnesses plan to vote in favor when the PA asks the UN to effectively tear up this agreement later this month, and even those who plan to
vote against are demanding the PA suffer no penalties for its bad faith. Yet if the Palestinians can tear up this agreement with impunity, why should Israel believe they won’t be allowed to tear up a final-status agreement with equal impunity? And in that case, why should it risk the drastic concessions a final-status agreement would entail?

Another brief reminder: UN Security Council Resolution 242, which has been the foundational document of the peace process since 1967 and is referenced in
every Israeli-Palestinian agreement, was explicitly worded to ensure Israel would not have to return to the 1967 lines (as I explained  here). That was the international guarantee every Israeli government relied on in negotiations with the Palestinians. Even Gilead Sher, a dove who served as one of Israel’s chief negotiators in final-status talks with the Palestinians in 2000-2001, stressed recently this assurance remains critical to Israel: While the final border may well end up being the “1967 lines plus land swaps,” he wrote, using this as the starting point “puts the onus on Israel and constrains the range of negotiation” over this issue, making it harder for Israel to secure border adjustments it deems vital.

But most of the same countries that approved this resolution in 1967 now plan to recognize a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines later this month, effectively
tearing up the guarantee they gave Israel 44 years ago. So why should Israel trust the international community to uphold whatever guarantees it might give as part of a final-status agreement?

If the world seriously wants Israel to have the confidence to make far-reaching concessions for a final-status agreement, it ought to be strictly honoring its own commitments to Israel while severely punishing the Palestinians for violating theirs. Instead, it’s doing the exact opposite. And then it wonders why most Israelis are reluctant to keep making such concessions.


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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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