Analysis from Israel

Herzl believed he could alter world opinion. Many Israelis today think we must simply bow to it.

A key insight bequeathed by Zionism’s founding father is that international legitimacy matters greatly. While others focused on creating “facts on the ground” (which also matter), Theodor Herzl devoted himself to international politics: He met with world leaders to mobilize support for a Jewish national home, wrote books and articles explicating this idea and created a political movement, the Zionist Organization, to promote his efforts. So confident was he of the value of this work that after the first Zionist Congress, in Basel in 1897, he wrote in his diary, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.” And indeed, 51 years later, the State of Israel was born.

But if Herzl were alive today, he would be appalled at how his legacy has been distorted. True, some Israelis at least remember that international legitimacy matters: Politicians, journalists, businessmen and academics routinely cite this principle in explaining why Israel must make peace with the Palestinians, or alternatively, cede territory unilaterally. Yet the lesson Herzl derived from this principle was very different. Herzl concluded that since global opinion matters, he must work relentlessly to alter the world’s views. His would-be heirs conclude that since global opinion matters, Israel must meekly bow to every global demand, however unfeasible or even detrimental it might be – because changing world opinion is impossible, even if Israel is right.

It’s hard to overstate how radically Herzl altered world opinion. When he began his campaign, Jewish sovereignty hadn’t existed for 1,900 years, and to most of the world, the idea of reconstituting it was inconceivable. Yet within 50 years, Herzl and his successors had changed so many minds that in 1947, the UN voted to establish a Jewish state by a two-thirds majority.

Now consider a few developments from the past week alone:

•    Foreign Ministry diplomats came out against Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz’s plan for a major public diplomacy campaign to combat the threat of anti-Israel boycotts. The diplomats, Haaretz reported, think a PR offensive would merely “play into the hands of boycott activists,” because what Steinitz terms “delegitimization” is really just “legitimate criticism from foreign governments and NGOs of Israel’s policy in the territories.” In short, changing the world’s mind is impossible, so we shouldn’t bother trying.

•    Former Jerusalem Report editor-in-chief Hirsh Goodman wrote in a New York Times op-ed that having grown up in apartheid South Africa, he knows nothing resembling apartheid “even remotely exists in Israel or the occupied territories. But, increasingly, in the mind of the world it does,” and there’s nothing we can do to persuade it otherwise. We can never, for instance, make the world see the “apartheid wall” (aka the West Bank security barrier) as a legitimate security measure; the propaganda war is one “Israel cannot win unless it makes peace.”

•    Addressing a high-profile conference, Finance Minister Yair Lapid asserted that if Israeli-Palestinian talks fail, Israel will suffer devastating boycotts from its major trading partner, the European Union. “If there will not be a political settlement, the Israeli economy will face a dramatic withdrawal that will substantially hurt the pocket of every Israeli,” he warned. He even claimed that Europe is considering canceling the EU-Israel Association Agreement, the foundation of our economic ties (something an EU spokesman flatly denied). In short, we must either capitulate to Palestinian demands or face economic ruin, because we can’t possibly persuade the world that our own positions are justified.

•    A group of Israeli businessmen called Breaking the Impasse launched an ad campaign declaring that an Israeli-Palestinian deal is essential both politically and economically, so Israel must sign one. The campaign’s slogans – “Bibi [Netanyahu], only you can”; “A strong country signs an agreement” – put the onus for making peace squarely on Israel. The previous week, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the group similarly asserted that “We must urgently reach a diplomatic settlement,” because “The world is losing patience and the threat of sanctions is growing daily.” And of course, we can’t do anything to change the world’s mind.

But what if the Palestinians, who have refused every previous Israeli offer, once again refuse? Or what if they insist on terms that would gravely endanger the country? Then apparently, Israel is screwed – because Herzl’s heirs no longer believe it’s possible to alter global opinion.

Objectively speaking, this is arrant nonsense. Even if you believe Israel is an illegal occupier, plenty of other illegal occupations have existed for as long or even longer – think China’s occupation of Tibet, India’s occupation of Kashmir, Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus, etc. And Israel has done far more than these countries to try to resolve the problem, including repeated offers of Palestinian statehood and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Yet these countries aren’t threatened with boycotts and sanctions; indeed, as Prof. Eugene Kontorovich has noted, the same EU that claims “international law” bars it from economic activity in the “occupied” West Bank actively promotes such activity in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus and Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Thus it’s clearly possible to be embroiled in a long-running conflict without drawing international boycotts.

But not if you don’t even try to persuade the world of the justice of your claims. And Israel stopped trying long ago. Instead, its diplomats, journalists, businessmen and politicians all insist that changing the world’s mind is impossible, so our only choice is capitulating to its demands.

It’s a shocking betrayal of Herzl’s conviction that “If you will it, it is no dream.” Herzl showed that with enough effort, and belief in the justice of your cause, you can sell the world even a proposition as radical as reconstituting Jewish sovereignty after 2,000 years.  By comparison, the propositions Israel must sell today are far more modest: that it has legitimate rights in its ancient heartland, and that, like other long-running conflicts worldwide, the Israeli-Palestinian one isn’t currently resolvable.

But many Israelis, it seems, have forgotten how to will anything. They know only how to bow to the will of others.

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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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