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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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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