Analysis from Israel

Of all the popular idiocies perennially spouted about the Middle East, the one I find most outrageous is the idea that Israeli-Palestinian peace would foment change in Arab societies by removing the “distraction” of Israel’s “oppression of the Palestinians.” Or as the New York Times‘ columnist Roger Cohen put it this week, “If Arabs could see in Israel not a Zionist oppressor but the region’s most successful economy, a modern state built in 65 years, they would pose themselves the right questions about openness, innovation and progress.”

Like many Middle Eastern tropes, this one is simultaneously too insulting and too forgiving. It’s too insulting because it deems Arabs incapable of posing “the right questions” on their own, treating their ability to do so as wholly dependent on Israel’s actions. And it’s too forgiving because it views anger at the “Zionist oppressor” as a valid reason for their inability to pose these questions, ignoring the obvious historical fact that numerous non-Arab nations have proven quite capable of posing these questions despite similar or even greater obstacles.

Taiwan, for instance, was founded by refugees driven from their homeland after losing a civil war that erupted immediately after the end of one of the most brutal occupations in recent history – Japan’s occupation of China. Since mainland China never stopped wanting to regain its errant province, the Taiwanese lived in constant fear of invasion. And they had the anguish of watching helplessly as their countrymen on the mainland suffered under Mao’s brutal dictatorship, which killed over 45 million Chinese. Yet none of this stopped the Taiwanese from building a flourishing economy and, later, a flourishing democracy.

Similarly, Rwanda has rebuilt itself into one of Africa’s most successful countries less than two decades after a devastating genocide killed an estimated 800,000 people.

Israel, of course, was established just three years after the Holocaust, and absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees. During its first 25 years of existence, Arab countries launched three wars aimed at wiping it off the map, and it has suffered nonstop terrorism since its establishment. Yet none of this stopped it from building a flourishing democracy and a flourishing economy.

No less relevant, however, is the way Diaspora Jewry responded to the Holocaust and the subsequent existential threats to Israel – not by impotent rage, but by helping to create today’s flourishing country by building hospitals and schools throughout Israel and funding numerous educational and social programs. That’s something wealthy Arab states and individuals could easily do on behalf of their “oppressed brethren” in Palestine, and it would benefit Palestinians far more than spewing verbal venom at Israel would.

But of course, they haven’t. Western countries primarily fund both the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, the agency that deals with Palestinian refugees. Wealthy Arab donors haven’t built state-of-the-art hospitals in Palestine like Hadassah or Laniado in Israel; Palestinians seeking top-notch medical care still go to Israel for it. They haven’t founded schools like the ORT network or daycare centers like the WIZO network, which still serve thousands of Israelis today.

And if Arabs haven’t done this in 65 years, when so many other peoples have, there’s no reason to think a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would suddenly make them start. This failure is entirely a product of their own culture. And therefore, change can only come from within.

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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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