Analysis from Israel

One very important word was missing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday. Not that I blame him; inserting “Ukraine” into that particular speech would have been counterproductive. Yet without considering America’s Ukraine policy, it’s impossible to grasp quite how disastrous the emerging Iran deal really is.

To understand why, consider the curious threat issued by an unnamed White House official last week, in the run-up to Netanyahu’s speech: “The dispute with Netanyahu prevents all possibility for discussing security guarantees for Israel as part of the emerging Iran deal.” That particular threat was empty, because Israel has never wanted security guarantees from this or any other administration; its policy has always been that it must be able to defend itself by itself. But if Washington was considering security guarantees for Israel, it’s surely considering them for its Arab allies, since they, unlike Israel, always have relied on America’s protection. In fact, there have been recurrent rumors that it might offer Arab states a nuclear umbrella as part of the deal, so they wouldn’t feel the need to develop nuclear capabilities themselves–something they have long threatened to do if Iran’s nuclear program isn’t stopped.

And a year ago, such a promise might have worked. After all, America’s guarantees had proven trustworthy in the past; see, for instance, 1991, when U.S. troops liberated Kuwait from Iraq’s invasion.

But last year, Russia invaded Ukraine, exactly 20 years after the latter gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a signed commitment by Washington, Moscow, and London to respect its “independence,” “sovereignty,” and “existing borders” and “refrain from the threat or use of force” against its “territorial integrity or political independence.” After swiftly annexing Crimea, Russia proceeded to foment rebellion in eastern Ukraine; the rebels now control sizable chunks of territory, thanks mainly to arms, money, and even “off-duty” troops from Russia.

And what have Ukraine’s other guarantors, America and Britain, done to uphold the commitment they signed in 1994? Absolute zilch. They refuse to even give Ukraine the arms it’s been begging for so it can try to fight back on its own.

Given the Ukrainian example, any Arab leader would be a fool to stake his country’s security on U.S. guarantees against Iran, which, like Russia, is a highly aggressive power. Iran already boasts of controlling four Arab capitals–Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and, most recently, Sana’a–and shows no signs of wanting to stop. So if Arab leaders think the emerging Iranian deal is a bad one, no U.S. guarantee will suffice to dissuade them from acquiring their own nukes.

And unfortunately, that’s what they do think. As evidence, just consider the cascade of Saudi commentators publicly begging Obama to heed, of all people, the head of a country they don’t even recognize. Like Al Arabiya editor-in-chief Faisal Abbas, who published a column yesterday titled, “President Obama, listen to Netanyahu on Iran,” which began as follows: “It is extremely rare for any reasonable person to ever agree with anything Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says or does. However, one must admit, Bibi did get it right, at least when it came to dealing with Iran.” Or columnist Ahmad al-Faraj, who wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah on Monday: “I am very glad of Netanyahu’s firm stance and [his decision] to speak against the nuclear agreement at the American Congress despite the Obama administration’s anger and fury. I believe that Netanyahu’s conduct will serve our interests, the people of the Gulf, much more than the foolish behavior of one of the worst American presidents.”

Clearly, letting Iran go nuclear would be terrible. But letting the entire Mideast–one of the world’s most unstable regions–go nuclear would be infinitely worse. And the only way any deal with Tehran can prevent that is if it’s acceptable to Iran’s Arab neighbors. Thanks to Ukraine, no U.S. security guarantee can compensate them for a deal they deem inadequate.

Originally published in Commentary on March 4, 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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