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 unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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