Analysis from Israel

Responding to last week’s post about a poll showing that young Arabs no longer see Israel as the Mideast’s biggest problem, a reader pointed out that this doesn’t mean they’ve stopped hating Israel or wanting it to disappear. That’s unarguable; recognizing that Israel isn’t the source of all the region’s ills is merely the first step on a long road toward accepting its existence. But as one of the most remarkable stories I’ve read in years makes clear, it’s a very significant step. And how Israel responds to it will matter greatly.

The story, reported by Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor, began with a Muslim Arab veteran of the Israel Defense Forces–a rarity in itself, since few Israeli Arabs enlist. Outraged at hearing his own community’s leaders vilifying the IDF, M. made a Facebook page aimed at convincing other Israeli Arabs that the IDF isn’t evil and more of them should enlist.

What he got instead was an outpouring of love for Israel from across the Arab world. A young Saudi woman, for instance, posted a video clip saying, “I’d like to send a message of peace and love to Israel and its dear citizens … I hope the Arabs will be sensible like me and recognize the fact that Israel also has rights to the lands of Palestine.” A young Iraqi man posted a clip saying, “I want to send a message of peace and love to the dear Israeli people … I believe that the number of people who support Israel here will grow consistently.”

Stunned by these messages–and there were “lots of them,” Eldar reported–M. began asking their authors what prompted them to support Israel. Some had personal reasons, like a Jordanian lesbian envious of Israel’s gay rights. But others cited the crucial realization of that poll data.

“There are a lot of young people here who think like me,” the Iraqi man said. “Everything that is happening to us here in Iraq — the killings, the terrorism, the veritable bloodbath — showed us that Israel has nothing to do with it.” In other words, his recognition that Israel wasn’t the cause of the Arab world’s problems is what enabled him to start seeing it as it actually is.

Or take the Egyptian police officer who wrote, “We love, love, love Israel and its army,” even adding a heart with a Star of David inside. Four years ago, that would have been unthinkable. But today, Egyptian policemen are on the front lines against the brutal terrorism of homegrown Islamic extremists, and the IDF is one of Egypt’s closest allies in this fight. So instead of seeing Israel as the problem, some Egyptians now see it as part of the solution.

None of this means a New Middle East will break out tomorrow; these young Arabs remain a minority. Moreover, the ones who still hate Israel passionately are often the ones with the guns and bombs and missiles, which means they’re the ones who will take over any territory up for grabs.

Hence the last conclusion to draw from this is the one leftists routinely do: that Israel should attempt to accelerate this budding rapprochement by making territorial concessions. That would actually be counterproductive: It would further empower the extremists against the moderates by giving them more territory to control, endanger Israel by giving the extremists new bases from which to attack it, and thereby ensure more Israeli-Arab bloodshed.

Instead, Israel should recognize that since this new openness stems entirely from internal changes in the Arab world; the Palestinian issue is largely irrelevant to it. As evidence, consider that repeated Israeli pullouts, from Sinai, Lebanon, and Gaza, produced no such upsurge in Arab affection, whereas the past four years did, despite two wars in Gaza, zero pullouts, and zero progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

That doesn’t mean Israel can do nothing; it can and should try to help Arabs improve their own lives. And in fact, it’s already doing that in numerous ways, from counterterrorism assistance to Egypt through economic aid to Jordan to medical care for wounded Syrians. But it shouldn’t forget that this change in Arab attitudes is merely the start of a long process of baby steps. Any attempt at a “great leap forward” is liable to end in a painful fall.

Originally published in Commentary on May 1, 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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