Analysis from Israel

The Israeli media ran a mind-boggling story today: in exchange for a two-month extension of the freeze on settlement construction, Barack Obama has offered Israel various mouth-watering goodies, as Jen noted in an earlier post. Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leaning toward refusing.

Obama’s offer reportedly includes the following (see here and here, for instance): support for Israel’s demand that any Israeli-Palestinian deal include a long-term Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley; a Security Council veto of any anti-Israel resolution submitted in the coming year; additional military aid; advanced weaponry; stringent measures to halt arms smuggling; and a pledge not to seek another extension when this one expires.

Israel needs all of the above, and Obama has hitherto often failed to provide them. Thus the offer’s benefits would seem to far outweigh the damage of extending the freeze for two months. Yet Netanyahu claims his cabinet — those same ministers who approved a 10-month freeze in exchange for nothing — wouldn’t approve another two months, even for these lavish promises. What gives?

I suspect Netanyahu resorted to this flimsy excuse because the real reason is too undiplomatic to state publicly: Obama, by his own actions, has shown he views presidential promises as made to be broken. And Israel’s government is loath to incur the real damage of extending the freeze (which J.E. Dyer ably explained here) in exchange for promises that will be conveniently forgotten when they come due.

Israel, after all, received its last presidential promise just six years ago, in exchange for leaving Gaza. In writing, George W. Bush said the Palestinian Authority must end incitement and terror, voiced support for Israel “as a Jewish state,” vowed to “strengthen Israel’s capability” to defend itself, and said any Israeli-Palestinian deal should leave Israel with the settlement blocs and “defensible borders” and resettle Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian state rather than Israel. He also promised orally that Israel could continue building in the settlement blocs.

But when Obama took office, he denied the oral pledge’s very existence, infuriating even Israeli leftists. As Haaretz‘s Aluf Benn wrote, it was possible to argue the policy should change, “but not to lie.”

And while Obama hasn’t denied the written document’s existence, he’s nullified it de facto through his every word and action: he’s never challenged PA incitement; he’s advocated the indefensible pre-1967 borders, including in East Jerusalem (where he bullied Israel into halting construction even in huge Jewish neighborhoods that will clearly remain Israeli under any deal); he hasn’t publicly demanded that the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state or said the refugees can’t be resettled in Israel; and far from strengthening Israel’s defensive capabilities, he’s condemned Israel’s enforcement of an arms blockade on Hamas-run Gaza, bullied Israel into accepting a UN probe of its raid on a blockade-busting flotilla, imposed unprecedented restrictions on Israel’s purchase of F-35 fighters, and more. He has supported Israel only when domestic pressure necessitated it.

With enough domestic pressure, Obama would probably do everything in the latest offer anyway. But without it, Israelis fear he’ll renege the moment he finds it convenient.

And for that, Obama has only himself to blame.

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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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