Analysis from Israel

In craving something it can never obtain, Israel endangers both its democracy and its survival

To make the case that their preferred policies are essential to Israel’s future, both Israeli and American Jewish liberals frequently argue that Israel’s current policies – even if justified – are costing it Western and American Jewish support. Last week’s op-ed by Haaretz columnist and award-winning author Ari Shavit is a classic example: Though Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is right about Iran’s nuclear program, right about Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state and right about the essential justice of Israel’s cause, Shavit wrote, this is “yesterday’s message,” which young Americans, especially Jewish ones, don’t want to hear. Thus to avoid losing the future, Israel must remake itself into a country more attractive to these young Americans, whose “liberal” and “pacifist” worldview “utterly rejects the occupation, the use of force and human rights violations.”

As I’ve written before, this argument wrongly discounts the possibility of altering world opinion. But it also has two other major problems: It’s inherently hypocritical, because it demands that Israel eviscerate its own democracy in order to woo the democratic West. And it’s fundamentally a lousy survival strategy.

Just consider the practical implications of Shavit’s prescription. Since these young Americans abhor “the occupation,” winning their love would presumably require withdrawing from the West Bank. But what if the West Bank then becomes a base for suicide bombings against Israel, as it did when Israel withdrew from parts of it in the mid-1990s? Or a base for launching rockets at Israel, as Gaza did after Israel left in 2005? Shavit certainly knows that’s possible; he’s not one of those fantasists who think territorial withdrawals will bring peace.

Yet by his own admission, these young Americans also abhor “the use of force and human rights violations.” Thus if Israel responds to such a terrorist onslaught militarily, they will immediately hate it again – especially since counterterrorism operations in urban areas inevitably produce civilian casualties, and liberal pacifists generally view all civilian casualties, however unavoidable, as “human rights violations.” Nor is this mere speculation: It’s how Western liberals in fact responded to Israeli counterterror operations in the West Bank in 2002-04 and Gaza in early 2009.

Thus Israel could retain the liberals’ love only by meekly absorbing suicide bombings and rocket attacks without responding. Such unchecked terror, as the past two decades amply showed, would also destroy the economy. And deprived of both personal and economic security, Israelis would flee in droves.

Or consider Iran. Shavit has written repeatedly that Iranian nukes would be an existential threat to Israel. But what happens if all else fails, and only Israeli military action can prevent a nuclear Iran? Those liberal, pacifist Westerners whose love he seeks “reject the use of force”; they would never countenance a preemptive strike. Indeed, they overwhelmingly believe an Israeli attack would be worse than Iranian nukes, which they don’t actually consider much of a threat.

In short, liberal pacifist love can be bought only at a price most Israelis believe would endanger their very existence: letting Iran go nuclear, withdrawing to the 1967 lines even without a peace treaty and abandoning efforts to combat Palestinian terror.  That’s hardly a convincing survival strategy.

Moreover, precisely because it requires overriding Israelis’ own policy preferences – as repeatedly expressed through both opinion polls and elections – it’s also anti-democratic. One recent poll, for instance, found that only four percent of Israelis favor withdrawing unilaterally from the West Bank. Another found that while 45% would support removing settlements if the IDF remained – which wouldn’t satisfy liberal pacifists, since it wouldn’t end “the occupation” – only 9% supported withdrawing the IDF as well. Polls also show majorities against withdrawing to the 1967 lines, even with a peace deal, and pluralities or majorities for bombing Iran if other efforts to keep it from going nuclear fail. And of course, in both 2009 and 2013, Israelis elected governments whose stated positions aligned with these preferences.

So courting the liberal pacifists would require Israel to eviscerate one of the most fundamental liberal values – democracy – by substituting the policy preferences of non-citizens for those of its own citizens. Granted, this might not bother many Western liberals, who seem to have little use for democracy when it doesn’t produce their preferred outcomes. But it ought to bother anyone who actually cares about liberal values.

Moreover, gutting Israel’s democracy in itself endangers Israel’s survival, because that survival has always demanded extraordinary commitment from Israel’s citizens. For instance, most Israelis devote three years of their lives to the army and do annual reserve duty for years afterward; without that willingness to defend their country, Israel wouldn’t long survive in a hostile region.

But most people would fight more willingly in defense of policies they – or at least their fellow citizens – chose democratically than for policies imposed by non-citizens who don’t bear the costs of their own choices.  Similarly, they’ll pay taxes more willingly to finance democratically chosen policies than policies chosen by non-citizens who don’t bear the costs of their choices.

If Israelis are deprived of the chance to try to make this the kind of country they want, whatever that happens to be, then many might head for the exit. For what makes the price of living here worth paying is precisely the privilege of influencing the nature of the first Jewish state in 2,000 years. If instead, the nature of that state is to be dictated from abroad, why wouldn’t Israelis prefer to move overseas themselves, to countries with higher standards of living and no compulsory military service?

And if Israelis lose the will to maintain their own state, who will take their place – those young American Jewish liberals whose affection Shavit so craves, most of whom wouldn’t even consider Israel’s destruction a personal tragedy?

Yes, Israel needs supporters overseas. But above all, it needs the support of its own people. Thus its overseas supporters must be sought among people who share Israelis’ core values – not among liberal pacifists uncomfortable with the very idea of a Jewish state, and who reject the use of force even in self-defense. The chimerical pursuit of liberal pacifist love is nothing but a recipe for Israel’s destruction.

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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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