Analysis from Israel

Though Secretary of State John Kerry’s next trip to the Mideast may be delayed by his wife’s illness, he fully intends to continue his shuttle diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There are many reasons why this effort is misguided, including the one Jonathan noted yesterday–the PA’s nonstop indoctrination of its people in vicious anti-Semitic hatred. But here’s another: the untreated West Bank sewage contaminating groundwater and streams on both sides of the Green Line.

What, you may ask, does untreated sewage have to do with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks? The following Haaretz report provides an answer:

Attempts at Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on this issue have largely gone nowhere, mainly because the Palestinian Authority refuses to cooperate with the settlements. Thus it refused to connect Palestinian towns in the northern West Bank to an Israeli sewage line because the line also serves several settlements. It also nixed a proposed treatment plant that would serve both Palestinian towns and the settlement of Ariel.

In other words, the PA would rather let its own waterways be polluted–including the mountain aquifer, a major source of drinking water for both Palestinians and Israelis–than do something as simple as connect to an Israeli sewage line or cooperate on a treatment plant. But how can peace be possible when the PA would rather risk its own citizens’ health than cooperate with its ostensible “peace partner” to solve the problem?

Nor is this a fluke: The PA opposes even the most innocuous forms of cooperation with Israel. In May, for instance, its ruling Fatah party denounced a soccer game for Israeli and Palestinian teens organized with EU support, while Fatah activists posted threatening messages on the Internet against both players and organizers. But how can peace be possible if the PA won’t even let its children play soccer with Israelis?

Or consider the PA’s recent campaign against Israeli journalists. As anyone familiar with Israel knows, Israeli journalists are far more likely than most Israelis to believe peace is achievable, blame their own government for its non-achievement and support Palestinian demands for more Israeli concessions. Yet now, as the Washington Post reported in May, Israeli journalists are being thrown out of PA press conferences and harassed by PA security personnel; Palestinian journalists who have ties with Israeli colleagues are being labeled “collaborators”; and “Organizations that once brought Palestinian and Israeli journalists together for professional conferences no longer sponsor such events, because Palestinian reporters say it will hurt their careers to participate.”

Needless to say, this would seem self-defeating, as it alienates some of the PA’s most influential Israeli supporters. But the more serious problem is this: If Palestinians will no longer talk with even the most pro-Palestinian Israelis, which Israelis will they talk to?

Under these circumstances, peace talks don’t stand a chance. So I’d like to propose that Kerry attempt a more modest achievement: persuade the PA to connect its cities to Israeli sewage lines. That might actually be doable. And unlike the pie-in-the-sky diplomacy he’s pursuing now, it would genuinely improve both Palestinian and Israeli lives.

Subscribe to Evelyn’s Mailing List

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.

Read more