Analysis from Israel

The outcome of next month’s election is currently anyone’s guess. But if Benjamin Netanyahu ends up becoming prime minister again, it will have a lot to do with the attitude exemplified by Haaretz columnist Uri Misgav.

In an op-ed earlier this month, Misgav wrote that he could understand voting for any other party, but “I find it very difficult to explain what is going through the minds of those who are planning to vote for Likud headed by Netanyahu … Despite serious efforts, I am unable to understand them, or even to imagine their ideological and emotional world … In the name of God: Who are you, Likud voters, and why?”

A week later, another left-wing Haaretz columnist, Kobi Niv, published a blistering retort. Too many “members of the broader Ashkenazi liberal Zionist camp” simply dismiss Likud voters as idiots, and that’s no way to persuade them to switch their allegiance, Niv wrote. Nor are any of the common variations on this theme: that people vote Likud “because they came from countries without a tradition of democracy … because their parents didn’t found the state, because they don’t know right from wrong,” etc.

But the problem goes much deeper than the patronizing attitude Niv correctly skewered. Because after all, Misgav is a journalist, and obtaining information is the essence of a journalist’s job. Thus if he truly wanted to know the answer to his question, one would expect him to make some effort to find it – for instance, by tracking down a few Likud voters and asking them. Yet his column offers no indication that he did so.

And that’s no accident; it’s the heart of the problem: Many Israeli leftists don’t want to know why people vote for Netanyahu, because confronting the reasons would force them to honestly confront the problems created by their own policy prescriptions. People who still believe in territorial withdrawals with religious fervor don’t want to admit that the results of previous pullouts could pose legitimate questions about their wisdom. Yet that’s precisely what most Likud voters would tell them if they asked.

None of the Likud voters I know – myself included – are big Netanyahu fans; we’d happily vote for a better candidate if we saw one. We all think he’s done some things he shouldn’t have done and failed to do some things he should have done.

But he also hasn’t perpetrated any major disasters on the scale that almost all his recent predecessors have. And in statecraft, as in medicine, the first rule is, “Do no harm.”

Over the last 20 years, several ambitious premiers who sincerely tried to radically improve our lives have ended up making them much worse. Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, signed the Oslo Accords, which handed most of Gaza and parts of the West Bank over to Yasser Arafat’s PLO. But under PLO rule, those areas became hotbeds of anti-Israel terror, culminating in the second intifada, which produced more Israeli casualties in four years than all the Palestinian terror of the previous 53 years combined. Most Israelis didn’t consider this an improvement; they’re glad the IDF subsequently resumed security control of the entire West Bank and thereby brought terror back down to pre-Oslo levels.

Similarly, Ehud Barak’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 enabled Hezbollah not only to effectively seize control of that country, but also to engage in a massive arms build-up. This terrorist organization now has an arsenal of some 100,000 missiles, dwarfing that of many countries in both quantity and quality, and they’re all pointed straight at Israel. Granted, the month-long Second Lebanon War of 2006 killed only about half as many Israelis as the IDF’s 15-year presence in south Lebanon. But defense officials unanimously say the next round will be much worse – and that it’s only a matter of time until it happens.

In addition, Barak insisted on conducting final-status negotiations with Arafat despite the latter’s reluctance, and unsurprisingly, the talks failed, leading directly to the second intifada.

Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 enabled Hamas to seize control of the coastal territory and conduct its own massive arms build-up. Over the ensuing decade, Palestinian terrorists have fired some 15,000 rockets and mortars at Israel from Gaza. Contrary to the oft-heard claim, the withdrawal did not save soldiers’ lives: The rocket attacks have already forced Israel into three wars, resulting in more IDF fatalities than policing Gaza ever did, even at the height of the second intifada. And here, too, defense officials say the next round is just a matter of time.

Netanyahu has embarked on no such grand adventures; he moves only cautiously and incrementally. So he produced no earth-shaking achievements, only modest ones. But he also, thereby, avoided making things dramatically worse.

He sought to manage the Palestinian conflict with a minimum of bloodshed, and overall, he succeeded. The economy didn’t roar, but it grew steadily during years when few other Western economies did; and unemployment actually fell to historic lows. No sweeping domestic reforms were enacted, but there were several smaller ones that ought to modestly improve living standards (the open-skies agreement, tenders for new ports, the expansion of state-funded daycare, etc.). Relations with Europe and the Obama administration – though not the United States as a whole – deteriorated, while relations with China, India and Japan improved markedly; but both developments stemmed at least as much from the internal dynamics of the countries concerned as they did from Netanyahu’s diplomacy.

Is this a stellar record? No. But neither is it a bad one. And I’d take it any day over the disastrous grand initiatives of Rabin, Barak and Sharon.

This, then, is the question leftists must answer if they hope to woo Likud voters: Why should we believe that the diplomatic initiatives and/or unilateral withdrawals you advocate today won’t make our lives significantly worse, just as those earlier ones did? I’ve yet to hear anyone provide a convincing answer.

And that’s why Misgav and his fellows would really rather not know why many Israelis still support Netanyahu. Because dismissing Likud voters as idiots is much easier than having to honestly confront that question.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on February 24, 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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