Analysis from Israel

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told foreign journalists last week that under any peace agreement, Israel would insist on maintaining a presence along the Palestinian-Jordanian border to thwart arms smuggling, he provoked some predictably negative responses. Writing in the Jerusalem Post this week, for instance, Ben-Gurion University Professor David Newman termed this “a return to a way of thinking … thought to have disappeared over a decade ago.” Claiming that “most generals” no longer consider this necessary, he accused Netanyahu of simply trying “to hammer the nails even more strongly into the coffin of peace.”

In fact, Newman is almost entirely wrong but through no fault of his own — because the one thing he’s right about is that Netanyahu’s statement “reinserted the defensible border concept into public discourse,” whence it had virtually disappeared. And since Israeli premiers stopped talking about it more than a decade ago, how was anyone to know that every prime minister, and the defense establishment, continued to insist on defensible borders in practice?

Two weeks ago, Haaretz‘s veteran diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn detailed the security demands that Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert received from the defense establishment, which Olmert approved, forwarded to then president George Bush, and later asked Bush to pass on to Barack Obama. These demands included “the rights to supervise Palestine’s border crossings, to fly in Palestinian airspace, to regulate radio frequencies and to build hilltop warning stations.”

And Olmert is the prime minister who offered the most far-reaching concessions in Israel’s history, including the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank and international Muslim control over the Temple Mount.

Indeed, as Benn noted yesterday, “Netanyahu’s political positions, which call for annexing the major West Bank settlement blocs and maintaining military control over the Jordan Valley, are no different from those of his predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak.”

This invites an obvious question: if all Israeli prime ministers agreed that Israel needs defensible borders under any agreement, why did they stop saying so — thereby leading the world, and their own citizens, to assume that this demand had been dropped and that the security issue could thus be easily resolved, whereas in fact, as one veteran negotiator told Benn, it’s the hardest of all, the one on which “the agreement will stand or fall”? Did they assume the world would oppose these demands and want to avoid opening yet another front of international criticism of Israel? Or did they simply consider it irrelevant, given that Israeli-Palestinian disagreements on other issues show no signs of being resolved anytime soon?

Whatever the reason, it was a disastrous negotiating tactic. If Israel is to have any hope of achieving these demands, it cannot spring them as a surprise at the last minute, when an agreement is otherwise at hand; it must state them upfront — clearly, forcefully, and consistently — both to prepare international public opinion and to make it clear that Israel deems this issue critical.

It is therefore encouraging that Netanyahu has finally started reviving the “defensible borders” concept. Now he must ensure that it remains on the public agenda.

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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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