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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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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