Analysis from Israel

Donald Trump’s election as president has already had one negative effect: It seems to have turned most Israeli cabinet ministers into radical leftists. By that I obviously don’t mean they have started adopting leftist policy prescriptions. But they do seem to have embraced radical leftists’ childish demand for immediate implementation of their own preferred solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, regardless of how much real-world damage it causes.

Most Israeli ministers–albeit not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–appear to support a one-state solution, and ever since Trump won, they have been demanding major steps toward its implementation: unrestricted building in the settlements, legalizing illegal settlement outposts and annexing roughly 60 percent of the West Bank (Area C). As a first step, the governing coalition decided earlier this week to support a controversial bill that would legalize many (though not all) outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land; the bill passed its preliminary Knesset reading on Wednesday. Netanyahu himself opposed it, but facing a revolt in both his cabinet and his party, he refrained from using his prerogatives to stall the bill.

To be clear, nobody, even in the coalition, expects the bill to become law; its passage in preliminary reading was primarily a way of making a statement. But even if you genuinely support the bill, advancing it at this particular moment would be asinine. And that’s true even if you could somehow discount the two most obvious objections to the timing.

The first of those, of course, is that Barack Obama remains president for another two months and could use that time for various anti-Israel moves. Thus, the last thing Israel’s government needs is to give him additional impetus for such moves by appearing to abandon his cherished two-state solution.

The second is that before taking unilateral steps, it’s common sense to first try to coordinate with the incoming U.S. administration–especially since Trump’s advisors have reportedly requested this explicitly. If, for instance, Trump were willing to support construction in areas critical to Israel in exchange for a reasonable quid pro quo, that would be better than having every new home become a major conflict with Washington, as it has for the last eight years. And if Trump refuses to accommodate Israel’s needs, there will be plenty of time for unilateral steps after he takes office on January 20.

But even in a fantasy world where nobody in Washington objected to Israel building anywhere in the West Bank, moving full tilt toward a one-state agenda right now would be irresponsible, because should the world become convinced that Israel is abandoning or precluding a two-state solution, pressure for an immediate one-state solution, with Palestinians given full voting rights, is liable to escalate rapidly. And Israel simply isn’t ready for a one-state solution right now.

First, even assuming the world would let Israel ignore Gaza and annex the West Bank only, Jews account for just 66 percent of all residents of Israel and the West Bank according to even the most optimistic calculations. Given how controversial those calculations are, betting the Jewish state’s future on their accuracy would be foolish. But even if they are accurate, that would still leave Israel with a 34 percent Arab minority. Combined with support from Israeli leftists, that’s enough to democratically erase every vestige of Israel’s Jewish character, despite the fact that most Israeli leftists remain Zionists. Why? Because the non-Zionist left has repeatedly proven able to persuade parts of the Zionist left that various aspects of Israel’s Jewish identity somehow contradict “democracy” and “human rights.” And the larger the combined bloc of Arabs and non-Zionist leftists becomes, the easier it will be for them to pull wavering Zionist leftists to their side.

A second problem is economic: Europe, which is far more committed to Palestinian statehood than the Palestinians themselves, still accounts for about a third of Israel’s exports, so serious European sanctions could devastate Israel’s economy. Most European governments currently have no interest in imposing such sanctions. But if Israel appeared to be abandoning the two-state solution altogether, that could easily change–especially given Europe’s large and vocal anti-Israel lobby.

The final problem is diplomatic. I doubt Republicans would abandon Israel over this issue, but there’s every reason to think Democrats would, and power in Washington changes hands on a fairly regular basis. Thus unless Israel finds a substitute for America’s diplomatic backing–and I don’t see any on the horizon right now–it can’t afford to completely alienate Democrats.

None of these problems is necessarily permanent. For instance, over the past several years, Jewish fertility has consistently risen while Arab fertility has fallen. Just this week, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that for the first time since Israel’s establishment in 1948, the Jewish fertility rate has caught up with that of Israeli Arabs: The former has risen to 3.13 children per woman (from 2.6 in 2000) while the latter has dropped to 3.13 (from 4.3 in 2000). Israel has also been working hard to diversify its trade and thereby reduce its economic dependence on Europe, and this effort might eventually bear fruit. Or perhaps changing circumstances could someday persuade both Europe and the Democrats that Palestinian statehood is a bad idea.

But for the foreseeable future, there is no viable solution to the conflict–not two-state, not one-state, and not any of the more esoteric options that have been proposed. Nor can anyone predict what kind of solution might ultimately become viable in the future. Thus, it makes sense for Israel to keep all its options open, and that includes the one-state option. But locking itself into one state right now makes no more sense than locking itself into two states would.

All that Israel can reasonably do right now, as I explained in detail in a Mosaic essay last year, is manage the conflict, await the kind of changes that might someday make it solvable and ensure that the country is strong enough to survive until then. Demanding an instant solution, whether two-state or one-state, is a surefire recipe for disaster.

Originally published in Commentary on November 17, 2016

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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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