Analysis from Israel

With President Barack  Obama so far saying and doing all the right things at the UN this week, it’s depressing to realize his basic worldview hasn’t changed: He still sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the root of all regional troubles. As he said in a conference call with American rabbis yesterday, “The most important thing we can do to stabilize the strategic situation for Israel is if we can actually resolve the  Palestinian-Israeli crisis because that’s what feeds so much of the tumult in  Egypt … That’s what I think has created the deep tension between Turkey and Israel and Turkey has historically been a friend and ally of Israel’s.”

Let’s start with Turkey. During the last few weeks, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send warships to the Mediterranean to challenge Cyprus’s plans to drill for undersea gas. He threatened to suspend ties with the European Union if Cyprus takes up the EU’s rotating presidency as scheduled next year. He has repeatedly bombed Kurdish areas of Iraq,  and threatened to cooperate with Iran in a larger-scale operation in Iraq’s Qandil mountains. And despite his much-ballyhooed peace initiative with Armenia, he not only still refuses to apologize for the Armenian genocide Turkey perpetrated in the 20th century, but is now demanding Armenia apologize to Turkey.

So are Turkey’s increasingly violent and threatening relations with Cyprus, Iraq, Armenia and the EU also due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Or is it just possible that the problem – in relations with Israel as well – is Erdogan’s megalomania and short fuse, which are rapidly turning Turkey’s vaunted policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors into one of “problems with all its neighbors”?

As for Egypt, consider one revealing recent report: Cairo has just banned the export of palm fronds – a vital component of the lulav, a ritual object used in the upcoming Jewish holiday of Sukkot – not only to Israel, but to Jewish communities worldwide. In previous years, Egypt has supplied up to 40 percent of the global demand for lulavim.

Egypt’s economic situation is dire. According to a recent report by its central bank, the country had a $9.2 billion balance of payments deficit for the fiscal year ending in June; income from tourism is down almost 50 percent; foreign investors are fleeing; and the Egyptian pound has lost 12 percent against the dollar since the revolution began in January. So you’d think Egypt would welcome a chance to earn some much-needed foreign currency.

Instead, it has banned palm frond exports to Jewish communities worldwide. So is that, too, due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Or it just possible that the problem – in relations with Israel as well – is the rabid anti-Semitism Egyptian politicians and the media have inculcated in the public for years? (See here  and here for some examples.)

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just one factor among many in the region’s turbulence, and rarely is it the most important one. But it seems no amount of evidence will ever convince your average Western liberal of that.

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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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