Analysis from Israel

Prof. Carlo Strenger isn’t part of the loony left; he’s one of Israel’s more thoughtful and clear-eyed left-wing commentators. So I was shocked to read the following in his latest piece in Haaretz: “Fatah seems to aim for a liberal democracy.” After all, three crucial elements of liberal democracy are regular elections, human rights and economic development, yet under the leadership of both Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority has actively undermined all three. And it says a great deal about the current state of Israel’s left that even someone like Strenger can’t bring himself to admit it.

Regarding elections, the democratic deficit is patent. Abbas is currently in the 11th year of his four-year term. In this, he has faithfully followed the model set by Arafat, who also never called another election after winning his first; he died in office a decade later.

But since Hamas shares the blame for the absence of new national elections, it’s even more telling that local elections have been scrapped as well: Abbas has repeatedly “postponed” them even in the West Bank – which, unlike Hamas-controlled Gaza, is firmly under the PA’s thumb. In May, he also canceled student union elections after Hamas won the first poll at Birzeit University.

The human rights picture is no less appalling, as even a few recent news items make clear. A Palestinian man was arrested and beaten by the PA security services for the shocking crime of naming his baby after one of Abbas’s rivals, Mohammed Dahlan. A Palestinian rights group is suing the PA and its security services on behalf of a university student who was jailed for five days and brutally tortured for the sin of criticizing the government on social media. A Palestinian man was arrested for denying that Arafat was a martyr. And so on and so forth.

Finally, there’s the economic development. It’s noteworthy that in its 21 years of existence, the Fatah-led PA hasn’t built a single new hospital, university or town; every Palestinian hospital and university was built under Israeli rule, before the PA’s establishment in 1994, while the only new town, Rawabi, is the work of a private entrepreneur. This isn’t because the PA lacks money; it receives billions in international aid every year. But it prefers to spend its cash on things like paying generous salaries to jailed terrorists – a line item totaling some $144 million in the PA’s annual budget.

Yet the PA doesn’t merely refuse to foster economic development itself; it actively tries to prevent others from doing so. For instance, it refused for five years to convene the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee to approve Rawabi’s connection to the water system; the hook-up finally occurred this year only because Israel gave up on the committee and approved it unilaterally.

In another case, which I discussed in detail last year, the PA not only arrested a Palestinian-Canadian investor who committed the cardinal sin of calling for Abbas’s ouster, but also took various retaliatory steps against his West Bank businesses, which employ hundreds of Palestinians. The resultant losses persuaded both him and his son, a fellow entrepreneur, to move their businesses out of the PA.

The PA also refuses to use its bloated security services to stop anti-normalization thugs who have forced even Israeli Arab entrepreneurs to cancel plans for job-creating West Bank businesses.

Indeed, a high-ranking Israeli defense official – who, far from being anti-Abbas, praised him lavishly for his security cooperation with Israel – said last month that the PA even objected to recent Israeli measures to ease conditions in the West Bank (like granting more permits for workers and businessmen to enter Israel) because they undermine PA efforts to organize anti-Israel protests.

In short, the Fatah-led PA has actively worked against the most salient characteristics of liberal democracy: free elections, human rights and economic development. So how can Strenger nevertheless insist that Fatah “seems to aim for a liberal democracy”?

As a professor of psychology, Strenger ought to be able to diagnose the answer: cognitive dissonance. Western liberals who have set their hearts on creating a Palestinian state can’t bring themselves to admit that it would be just another brutal Mideast tyranny – one which, as courageous Palestinian dissident Bassam Tawil wrote last year, would make Palestinians’ lives “even worse than what we have now” – because doing so might force them to question whether their 20-year commitment to the PA hasn’t been a mistake.

But for the sake of all the real Palestinians living under Fatah’s tyranny, it’s long past time for them to start doing exactly that.

Originally published in Commentary on August 14, 2015

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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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