Analysis from Israel

Martin Kramer wrote an illuminating post yesterday on why American handling of the chemical-weapons crisis in Syria has unnerved Israel by causing it to doubt that America would attack Iran’s nuclear program if necessary. While I agree with his conclusion, I think that’s only part of the story. After all, most Israelis would prefer to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis diplomatically, so one could argue–as some Israeli commentators have–that Syria sets an encouraging precedent: American threats to use military force seemingly persuaded Damascus to give up its nonconventional weapons voluntarily, which is precisely what many Israelis hope will happen in Iran.

The problem is that such an agreement only works if it’s strictly enforced, meaning any noncompliance produces massive punishment. Otherwise, even the thinnest façade of compliance will suffice to enable the signatory to maintain its nonconventional weapons program with impunity, which would be Israel’s nightmare scenario on Iran. And there are three reasons for thinking that’s precisely what the Syrian agreement will do. One is that the agreement is problematic to begin with, providing ample opportunities for evasion. The second, as Kramer explained, is that President Barack Obama’s original decision to punt the question of using force in Syria to Congress makes any military action to punish noncompliance unlikely. The third is Obama’s track record of refusing to enforce the agreements he brokers even when punishing violations wouldn’t necessitate the use of force, and would hence be much easier.

Nothing better illustrates this than an astounding interview given by the Greek ambassador to Israel last week. According to Spiros Lampridis, six months after Israel apologized to Turkey for its botched raid on a 2010 flotilla to Gaza–under an agreement personally brokered by Obama that was supposed to result in Turkey resuming normal relations with Israel–Ankara is still vetoing any NATO cooperation with Israel.

I wrote last month about Obama’s unconscionable silence after Turkey unilaterally appended two new conditions to the agreement and then used them as a pretext for not implementing its own commitments under the deal. But if you wanted to make excuses, you could at least argue that all these commitments dealt with domestic issues (returning Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, ending its show trials of senior Israeli officials, etc.), over which America’s influence is naturally more limited.

No such excuse applies to NATO. Not only is America the undisputed leader of that alliance, but NATO is currently manning Patriot missile batteries along Turkey’s border with Syria, at Ankara’s request. Yet Obama has made no effort to pressure Turkey, even though its veto not only harms NATO’s relations with Israel but also its relations with other traditional American allies like Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco. As Lampridis explained, NATO doesn’t deal with these countries individually, but as part of a Mediterranean bloc that includes Israel. Hence no Israel also means no Jordan or Morocco.

Moreover, this is happening at a time when Israel has not only fulfilled its part of the bargain but is also, as Lampridis noted, “demonstrating goodwill” beyond what the deal requires: It’s preventing significant damage to Turkish businesses by letting hundreds of Turkish trucks carrying millions of dollars worth of cargo travel to Jordan (and thence the Gulf states) via Israel every week, since they can no longer travel via Syria.

This, then, is Israel’s real nightmare: not that Obama won’t attack Iran if necessary, but that he’ll sign a loophole-ridden agreement with Iran (moves in this direction have already begun) that would also prevent Israel from attacking Iran if necessary–and then fail to enforce it, just as he has with the Turkish agreement, thereby enabling Tehran to get the bomb.

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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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