Analysis from Israel

I once thought the ongoing Mideast meltdown would make it obvious to all that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the least of the region’s problems. As the years went by, I began to despair of this notion; both Obama Administration officials and their European counterparts remained fixated on Israel, seemingly undaunted by the new reality. But two remarkably frank avowals of error by two very different people over the past week have restored my faith that eventually, truth will prevail.

The first is former CIA director and four-star general David Petraeus, who made headlines back in 2010 by telling Congress that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict impedes America’s “ability to advance our interests” in the Mideast. Last week, he gave a wide-ranging interview to Haaretz in which he was asked how important solving the conflict was to overall Mideast stability. His response was unequivocal:

I think it is increasingly clear that the old notion that the path to peace and stability in the Middle East runs through a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mistaken. (And I acknowledge that I was one of those who shared that notion until a few years ago.) There are multiple interlocking conflicts unfolding across the region right now – and to be blunt, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is peripheral to all of them. Those who suggest that, if peace were to break out tomorrow between Israelis and Palestinians, such a development would stabilize, say, Syria or Libya or Iraq, are simply detached from reality.

Moreover, he said, his new understanding of the situation led to an obvious conclusion:

In my view, at a time when civilization itself is under siege from forces that wish to tear down the world we have helped to build, we would be wise to take a step back and focus on the big picture. The simple reality is that Israel and the United States are long-standing friends and allies in an increasingly dangerous world – and we ought to treat each other as such.

From an American perspective, Israel has proven itself to be an exceptionally capable, resourceful and valuable ally to the United States in a very important and treacherous region. We share many fundamental interests, and we face enemies that wish to do both countries harm.

Just as importantly, we share core values and we therefore wrestle with many of the same questions – about how to keep our people safe from the forces of terrorism that seek our destruction while preserving our respective democratic freedoms, rule of law, and respect for fundamental and eternal human rights, which define who we are.

A few days later, the man who heads both the Cypriot parliament’s Foreign and European Affairs Committee and the country’s center-right ruling party made a similar avowal of error, and drew similar conclusions, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. Cyprus, said Averof Neophytou, was once one of Israel’s harshest critics in Europe, viewing it as an aggressor against the Palestinians. But now, it realizes that Israel is “a country of eight million fighting a struggle for survival and having to face hundreds of millions of Muslims and Arabs, part of whom don’t even recognize the right of the existence of a Jewish state. So which side is strong, and which side is weak? Which side is fighting for survival?”

Moreover, he continued, “For decades Israel was blamed for creating the instability in the region, but can anyone credibly blame Israel for the instability in Syria, the threat of Islamic State, the Arab Spring that turned into an Arab winter, or the chaos in Libya and Iraq?”

The result is that whereas Cypriots once viewed Israel with hostility – “There were times decades ago, even in the 90s, when if during the public procurement process there was a consortium that included Jewish or Israeli participation, that would be a reason to exclude it,” Neophytou acknowledged – today, the “vast majority” of Cypriots consider Israel “a credible partner,” he asserted.

Clearly, there are still plenty of people who ignore reality in order to cling to the myth of Palestinian centrality. For instance, as veteran U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross pointed out last month, the theory that Washington’s relationship with Arab states would be improved by drawing away from Israel and harmed by cooperating with it has been disproven time and again, yet it remains accepted wisdom in American policy circles.

Some people will even rewrite history to salvage their belief in Palestinian centrality – like Oded Eran, a former top Israeli diplomat now serving as a senior fellow at a leading Israeli think tank. In an interview with the Times of Israel last month, he supported his theory that progress in the peace process is essential for improving Israel’s ties with the international community by claiming that the Oslo Accord and the peace with Jordan led to the establishment of relations with India and China. But in real life, Israel established relations with India and China in 1992, predating both Oslo (1993) and the Jordanian peace (1994). As with dozens of other countries that established ties with Israel in 1991-92, this rapprochement was driven not by anything to do with the peace process, but by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent collapse of the anti-Israel line previously followed by both the Soviet bloc and the Non-Aligned Movement (which, despite its name, usually tilted toward the Soviets on foreign policy). And Eran, as a former top diplomat, should certainly have known all this. But his need to declare the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the axis around which the world revolves evidently trumps reality. And whether due to ignorance or similar commitment to this proposition, neither the reporter nor his editors called him on it.

Nobody likes admitting error, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it has taken so long for the current Mideast chaos to change anyone’s mind. But as Petraeus and Neophytou demonstrate, slowly but surely, that change is happening. It’s a small ray of light in what has otherwise been a gloomy start to 2016.

Originally published in Commentary on January 14, 2016

One Response to Mideast Chaos Alters Views on Israel

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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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