Analysis from Israel

John Kerry’s speech at Harvard University on Wednesday and the State Department’s subsequent series of walk-backs left me with one clear conclusion: Israel ought to start building massively in the settlements and change the status quo on the Temple Mount. Because if it’s going to be blamed for doing both even when it is, in fact, doing neither, it should at least get the very real benefits that taking those steps would entail.

First, a word on those benefits: On the Mount, the status quo grossly violates Jewish rights. Jews are forbidden to pray at Judaism’s holiest site, and even acts as simple as shedding a tear are deemed “praying.” They also suffer nonstop harassment when visiting without praying. That the Jewish state discriminates against Jews in this way is simply a travesty.

As for settlement construction, Israel is suffering a severe housing crisis; an average apartment currently costs 146 average monthly salaries, up from just 43 in 2008. The primary shortages are in greater Tel Aviv, where little land is available for new housing, and Jerusalem, whose main land reserves are in the eastern section. Indeed, the capital loses about 18,000 Jews every year, and those leaving cite the housing shortage as their primary reason. But the settlement blocs that would remain Israeli under any conceivable agreement are all within reasonable commute of either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem; hence massive building in those blocs, along with Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, could significantly alleviate the housing crisis. Moreover, given the international community’s refusal to support Israel’s claims to any area not so heavily populated that evacuation is impractical, bolstering the population of areas Israel wants to keep would strengthen its position in future negotiations.

Thus unless restricting settlement construction and maintaining the status quo on the Mount genuinely contribute to Israel’s security or international support, there’s no upside to doing either. Which brings us to Kerry.

In his Harvard address, Kerry said, “there’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years, and now you have this violence because there’s a frustration that is growing.” The statement would be outrageous even had this “massive increase” actually occurred, given the implication that building houses in contested areas is sufficient justification for a spree of Palestinian stabbing attacks against Israeli civilians. And someone at State evidently realized that, because spokesman John Kirby quickly tried to retract it.

“The secretary wasn’t saying, well now you have the settlement activity as the cause for the effect we’re seeing,” he asserted. “Is it a source of frustration for Palestinians? You bet it is, and the secretary observed that. But this isn’t about affixing blame on either side here for the violence.”

Yet Kirby didn’t retract Kerry’s claim of “massive” settlement activity, which is a blatant lie. As I detailed here last year, settlement construction under Benjamin Netanyahu has been lower than under any previous prime minister. And the very day of Kerry’s speech, the far-left Israeli daily Haaretz – not a paper suspected of any sympathy for the settlements – published a news report confirming this fact.

“Since Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, there has been less construction activity in the settlements than under any other prime minister since 1995,” Haaretz declared, and then gave the figures to prove it: From 2009-2014, an average of 1,554 homes a year were built in the settlements, compared to 1,774 under Ehud Olmert, 1,881 under Ariel Sharon, about 5,000 under Ehud Barak, and almost 3,000 during Netanyahu’s first term in 1996-9. In fact, Haaretz reported, fully 74 percent of the growth in the number of settlers under Netanyahu stemmed solely from natural increase (births minus deaths). The only way to stop that would be to institute a Chinese-style forced abortion policy – presumably not something State would espouse.

But despite this restraint, which has outraged Netanyahu’s base, he is still routinely accused by mainstream media and governments worldwide of “massive” settlement construction that justifies Palestinian terror. And even Kirby’s attempted walk-back reinforced this message: Despite saying that settlement activity isn’t the “cause” of the violence, he still refused to blame “either side” for its eruption; the clear implication was that Palestinians can’t be blamed for stabbing sprees against Israelis because they suffer from justified “frustration” over settlement activity.

Then, as if this poor excuse for a retraction weren’t bad enough, Kirby introduced several new smears against Israel. Inter alia, he accused it of “what many would consider excessive use of force”; naturally, American police would never shoot a knife-wielding terrorist in mid-rampage. The most astounding, however, was his claim that Israel had violated the status quo on the Temple Mount.

“Certainly, the status quo has not been observed, which has led to a lot of the violence,” he said. In short, he endorsed the Palestinian narrative that the stabbings are due to justified grievance over Jewish “violations” of the status quo.

Later, he tweeted a “clarification from today’s briefing: I did not intend to suggest that status quo at Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has been broken.” But the very fact that he initially said it makes it clear that many American officials buy this Palestinian narrative. This conclusion is bolstered by the fact that Washington has never objected to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s propagation of this inflammatory falsehood, inter alia in his UN address last month and a speech Wednesday night.

Thus even though Israel has curtailed settlement construction and upheld the status quo on the Mount, much of the world – including the U.S. administration – is accusing it of doing the opposite, and then treating Palestinian terror as an understandable, justifiable response to these alleged crimes. In other words, Israel is reaping no diplomatic benefits for taking these steps. And in that case, why on earth should it continue incurring the costs?

Originally published in Commentary on October 15, 2015 under the headline “Israel’s Diminishing Returns”

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

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Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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