Analysis from Israel

The Israel-Turkey reconciliation agreement announced this week is an object lesson in the importance of being willing to walk away from negotiations. For six years, the Israeli chattering classes and the international community urged Israel to simply accept Turkey’s terms, arguing that Ankara wasn’t going to soften its demands and that Israel desperately needed good relations with Turkey, whatever the price. But it turns out neither part of that argument was true: Turkey proved to need Israel far more than Israel needed it, and consequently, it eventually reduced its demands significantly. The current deal is thus much better than what Israel would have gotten had it caved in and signed earlier.

The biggest change is that Turkey capitulated completely on its longstanding demand for an end to the Gaza blockade, which would have badly undermined Israel’s security. Under the current deal, all restrictions meant to prevent Hamas-run Gaza from importing arms and exporting terror remain in place: The naval blockade will continue; imports to Gaza will still enter through Israel and undergo Israeli security checks, and movement restrictions aimed at preventing Gazan terrorists from entering either Israel or the West Bank will remain in force. Instead, Turkey will bolster its self-image as Gaza’s champion by building a power plant, hospital, and desalination facility–all badly needed humanitarian projects that Israel has long wished someone would undertake. It will also be allowed to send unlimited humanitarian aid through Israel’s Ashdod Port–a meaningless concession since Israel never restricted humanitarian aid shipments.

Another important change relates to Hamas operations in Turkey, where Hamas’s West Bank command–responsible for planning anti-Israel attacks from the West Bank–has long been headquartered. Ankara insisted for years that the reconciliation deal should include no provisions affecting its relations with Hamas. But the current deal requires it to end all Hamas military activity on its territory.

This falls short of Israel’s demand that it expel Hamas entirely; the Islamist organization will still be able to engage in diplomacy and fund-raising in Turkey. But if Israel refused to have relations with any country that let terrorist groups engage in diplomacy and fund-raising on its territory, it would also have to sever ties with the European Union, where the political wing of Hezbollah–a far more dangerous group than Hamas–is allowed to operate freely in all but a handful of countries. In other words, this is an acceptable compromise that genuinely improves the existing situation.

The third major provision requires Israel to pay $20 million in compensation to the families of Turks killed or wounded during Israel’s raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza in May 2010. That provision offends many Israelis because it essentially rewards anti-Israel violence: No other Israeli interception of a ship to Gaza has produced casualties, and the only reason this one did is that the passengers, unlike passengers on other such flotillas, viciously attacked Israeli soldiers “with iron bars, staves, chains, and slingshots, and there is some indication that they also used knives.”

Nevertheless, this money would probably have to be paid at some point anyway, because the families have filed lawsuits against Israel both in Turkey and overseas. This way, the sum is at least capped: Before receiving this money, Turkey will have to pass legislation voiding all existing lawsuits, and has also promised to indemnify Israel for any future suits.

Turkey could have gotten these same terms six years ago, but it thought it could force Israel into conceding more. Had Israel’s chattering classes had their way, Ankara would have been right. But all the warnings of dire consequences if Israel refused to capitulate proved false.

The prophets of doom warned of economic consequences since Turkey is a major trading partner; in reality, bilateral trade has more than doubled over the past five years despite the diplomatic freeze. They also warned of diplomatic consequences, pointing out that Turkey had long served as Israel’s intermediary to the Muslim world. Instead, Israel is enjoying an unprecedented thaw in relations with key Arab states. Reports of behind-the-scenes contacts with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have proliferated, and relations with Egypt, its most important Arab partner, have never been better. In fact, Israel currently has much better relations with Egypt than Turkey does.

But while Israel has done just fine during its diplomatic freeze with Ankara, Turkey has done less well. Half its former Arab partners are collapsing (i.e. Syria, Libya) and it has been flooded with refugees as a result; it has wrecked relations with other former partners (i.e. Egypt, Russia) with its own two hands; and the situation in its Kurdish regions is fast approaching civil war. All this drove Ankara to the reluctant conclusion that it couldn’t afford to remain at odds with one of the Mideast’s few remaining stable polities–one, moreover, that offers it many benefits; from providing a land bridge for exports to the Arab world in place of the now-unfeasible Syria route to potentially selling it natural gas that would reduce its dependence on Russia. Therefore, it swallowed its pride and reduced its demands to ones that Israel could meet without undermining its own security.

The lesson for Israel’s relations with the Palestinians ought to be obvious. In this case, too, Israel’s chattering classes insist that Jerusalem should simply capitulate to Palestinian demands because the Palestinians are never going to soften those demands, and Israel desperately needs peace at any price. But in reality, Israel is far better positioned to withstand years or decades of impasse than the Palestinians are; it has a much stronger economy, a much stronger military, and a much more stable and functional political system.

I’ve explained at length before why Israel can and should wait until the Palestinians are prepared to strike a reasonable compromise. The Turkish deal is simply further evidence that this strategy can work.

Originally published in Commentary on June 27, 2016

One Response to Turkey and the Value of Saying No

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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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