Analysis from Israel

Between Friday’s announcement that the International Criminal Court has opened a “preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine” and Sunday’s airstrike that killed six Hezbollah operatives and an Iranian general, a seemingly minor Israel-related item at the United Nations Security Council last Thursday has been largely ignored. But it shouldn’t be, because it goes to the heart of what’s wrong with the world’s handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: According to both the UN and the European Union, signed Israeli-Palestinian agreements are binding on one party only – Israel.

At Thursday’s Security Council briefing, Assistant Secretary-General Jens Anders Toyberg-Frandzen slammed Israel for freezing tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority, declaring that this was “contrary to Israel’s obligations under the Paris Protocol of the Oslo Accords.” The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, made an identical claim 10 days earlier.

Though the claim is probably false, let’s assume for a moment that it’s true. The fact remains that Israel’s alleged violation of its “obligations under … the Oslo Accords” was in response to far greater violations of the Palestinians’ obligations under those same accords. Yet far from meriting any equivalent condemnation by the UN or the EU, the Palestinian violations were actively supported by both parties.

According to Article 31(7) of the 1995 Oslo II agreement (formally titled the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” This isn’t some trivial technicality; it constitutes the very heart of the Oslo Accords: that Israel and the Palestinians will resolve their differences through negotiations, not unilaterally.

Nevertheless, the Palestinians have grossly and repeatedly violated this clause, including by obtaining UN recognition as a nonmember observer state in 2012, applying to the Security Council for full UN membership last month and joining the ICC as a state party earlier this month. All these moves are aiming at unilaterally changing the status of the West Bank and Gaza from territories whose future will be determined through negotiations to territories belonging to a Palestinian state. Yet no UN or EU official has ever criticized these moves for violating Palestinian obligations under the Oslo Accords, and in fact, both the UN and the EU actively supported them.

It was the UN General Assembly that accepted “Palestine” as a nonmember observer state, with half the EU’s 28 members voting in favor and only one voting against. In last month’s Security Council bid, two of the council’s four EU members voted in favor and none voted against. And when “Palestine” applied to the ICC this month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon immediately announced that it qualified for membership and would join on April 1, although technically, the court itself should make this decision, as it did when the Palestinians first tried to join in 2009.

In other words, both the UN and the EU think it’s fine for the Palestinians to ride roughshod over their core obligations under the Oslo Accords, but it’s unacceptable for Israel to violate even the most minor element of those accords. And Israel’s violation, if it existed at all, was indeed minor, since the Paris Protocol stipulates the existence of “procedures for the set-off of financial obligations between the two sides, including legal entities under their control or management.” In short, Israel has the legal right to withhold some of the billions of shekels the PA owes to state-owned Israeli entities like the Israel Electric Corporation, and it has always formally justified freezes of tax transfers under this clause. At most, it was guilty of violating the proper procedures for doing so.

All of the above leads to one obvious question: If the UN and EU are going to deem Israeli-Palestinian agreements binding on Israel in every particular but not binding on the Palestinians at all, why on earth would Israel ever sign another?

Originally published in Commentary on January 19, 2015

Subscribe to Evelyn’s Mailing List

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.

Read more