Analysis from Israel

While visiting Israel this weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry said that everywhere he goes – Europe, the Gulf States, China, Japan, even New Zealand and Brazil – the first thing he is asked about is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps his hosts are simply demonstrating tact by starting off with the only issue Kerry shows any real interest in. But if this is truly their number-one concern, we should all be afraid: It means the leaders and diplomats entrusted with managing global crises don’t have the faintest understanding of what is and isn’t important.

Even if we disregard some pretty major problems elsewhere on the planet – for instance, the adventurism of nuclear North Korea, or the serious instability in another nuclear power, Pakistan, where Islamic extremists slaughter thousands of their own countrymen every year – there’s a Middle Eastern problem right next door that’s infinitely more important than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am talking, of course, about Syria.

It’s not just that the Syrian conflict has already killed five to 10 times as many people in a mere two years – anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000, depending on whose estimate you believe – as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has in the entire 65 years of Israel’s existence (about 15,000). It’s that unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian conflict is rapidly destabilizing all its neighbors.

Over the last 25 years, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has manifested itself in two intifadas and two Hamas-Israel wars. Not one of them resulted in refugees fleeing to other countries, fighters pouring in from other countries, or violence inside other countries. The Syrian conflict, however, has produced large quantities of all three.

Some 1.5 million Syrian refugees have fled to other countries, mainly Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, and the UN says the number is rising by about 250,000 per month. This is putting a serious strain on the host countries.

Moreover, citizens of most of Syria’s neighbors – especially Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – are now fighting in Syria, acquiring skills that their countries of origin fear will be turned against their own countrymen when they return. And the problem isn’t confined to Arab countries: Hundreds of European Muslims are also fighting in Syria, where they are being further radicalized and learning military skills that will make them serious terror risks when they return. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has attracted no similar influx.

Finally, the Syrian conflict is exporting violence to all its neighbors. To cite just two of the most serious incidents, a double bombing killed 52 people in Reyhanli, a Turkish town near the Syrian border, two weeks ago, while Sunni-Alawite clashes in the Lebanese city of Tripoli have killed 29 people in the last week.

The Syrian conflict is thus a clear and present danger to every country in the region, and even to some farther afield, like the European states whose citizens are fighting there. The same hasn’t been true of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in decades: The last time this conflict drew in another country was the 1982 Lebanon War (the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 had nothing to do with the Palestinians). Today, the conflict affects nobody but Israelis and Palestinians themselves.

Yet the statesmen whom we count on to manage global affairs appear to be stuck in a time warp, unable to see that the map of the world’s problems has changed. And that may pose an even greater danger than the bloodbath in Syria.

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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