Analysis from Israel

One of the more encouraging developments of the past few years has been the growing integration of Israel’s Arab citizens. The process has been halting, with frequent reversals and setbacks. Yet further proof that the overall trend remains positive arrived just in time for Independence Day last week: In an unprecedented move, the Joint Arab List declined an invitation from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to address the Arab League, due to pressure from the party’s own constituents.

In the past, Arab MKs have generally seized any opportunity to travel abroad and denounce Israel, even to countries with which Israel is formally at war, like Syria and Lebanon. And several JAL members were in favor of accepting the latest invitation as well. But they ultimately decided against it, Haaretz reported last Monday, because “party members were concerned that attending a meeting with the Arab League would draw criticism from their constituents for focusing on foreign affairs rather than urgent domestic issues.”

As I’ve noted before, polls have shown for years that Israeli Arabs would like their MKs to focus on domestic problems like unemployment and crime rather than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But until now, Arab MKs have blithely ignored their constituents’ preference, preferring to devote most of their time to condemning Israel’s handling of the conflict. Now, however, the pressure from their constituents has evidently become so strong that they feel they can no longer afford to ignore it. And that’s good news for Israel, for two reasons.

First, in contrast to the Palestinian conflict, bread-and-butter issues are ones on which Israel can and should provide reasonable answers to Israeli Arab demands. Israel can’t withdraw from the West Bank and allow it to become a rocket-launching pad like Gaza, nor can it refuse to fight back when Palestinians attack it, even if war inevitably entails Palestinian civilian casualties. But it can approve master plans for Arab towns so that new housing can be legally built, set up industrial parks to provide employment opportunities in Arab communities, crack down on the rampant illegal weapons that contribute to high crime rates in these communities, and so forth. Indeed, all recent governments have invested heavily in trying to improve Arab educational and employment opportunities, and these efforts have already produced significant gains.

Clearly, much more remains to be done. But because these are issues on which the government can actually make progress toward satisfying its Arab citizens’ demands, they are issues that have the potential to draw Jews and Arabs together rather than driving them apart, as the Palestinian conflict does. Consequently, the more the Israeli Arab community focuses on these issues rather than the conflict, the more the integrationist trend will be strengthened, as long as the government also does its part.

Second, one of the greatest sources of Jewish antagonism toward Israeli Arabs has been the behavior of the Arab MKs. Since most Israeli Jews have little contact with Arabs, their views of the Arab community are naturally shaped by the statements and actions of community leaders, as reported in the media. And for years, Arab MKs have won media attention primarily for their vocal abuse of the country in whose parliament they serve. Arab MKs routinely accuse Israel of murder, genocide, apartheid and every other conceivable crime, while refusing to denounce anti-Israel violence and sometimes even openly praising it.

Since these same MKs are elected by their constituents year after year, many Israeli Jews have naturally concluded that such statements faithfully represent their constituents’ views. Hence if Arab MKs now feel constrained by their voters to focus more on actually improving Israeli Arab lives and less on attacking Israel from every possible platform, that will reduce a major source of Jewish-Arab friction. Most Jews would find it much easier to view Arabs as loyal citizens if their elected representatives weren’t loudly siding with Israel’s enemies at every opportunity.

In this regard, a second element of JAL’s decision to skip the Arab League meeting is also noteworthy. Though the Arab League is headquartered in Egypt, a proposal had been made to hold the meeting this time in Qatar. But even before it decided to skip the event altogether, JAL announced that it would come only if the meeting were held in Cairo rather than Doha, because, as one MK told Haaretz, “Qatar is perceived as a divisive element over which there is no consensus among the Arab Israeli public.” Given that Qatar is currently Hamas’s main financial backer while Egypt is currently Israel’s closest ally in the effort to contain Hamas, JAL’s concern that going to Doha rather than Cairo would upset its constituents is clearly encouraging news.

Granted, Qatar’s controversial status among Israeli Arabs stems more from its involvement in Syria’s civil war than its backing for Hamas: Israeli Arabs are divided between supporters of the Assad regime and supporters of the rebels, and the former obviously have no love for Qatar, which finances the most extremist rebel groups. But the fact that many Israeli Arabs now see Israel’s enemy as their own enemy, even if for their own reasons, and now view the financing of extremists as a pernicious habit rather than an admirable one, clearly enhances the prospects for their integration. The fact that Israeli Jews will be spared the sight of Arab MKs fawning on Qatar’s terror-financing leaders – a scene that has occurred far too many times in the past – is also a bonus for coexistence.

At this year’s official Independence Day ceremony, one of the 12 torch lighters was Lucy Aharish, the first Muslim Arab news presenter on Hebrew-language television. She spoke mostly in Hebrew, but switched to Arabic toward the end to declare, “This is our country – we have no other.”

Judging by the pressure JAL MKs are feeling from their constituents, it seems many Israeli Arabs agree – and would rather their representatives work to make that one country a better place to live than spend their time and energy denouncing it overseas. And this, surely, is one of the best Independence Day gifts Israel could hope to receive.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on April 28, 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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