Analysis from Israel

As Jonathan noted yesterday, it’s hard to blame the lack of Mideast peace on Israel’s “occupation of Arab lands” in 1967 when peace was singularly lacking even before 1967. But this theory rests on a more fundamental fallacy: that all human beings basically want the same things – peace and a good life – and therefore, what Westerners consider a reasonable compromise should satisfy Middle Easterners as well. To understand just how false this is, consider Wednesday’s unanimous vote by the lower house of Jordan’s parliament to expel the Israeli ambassador.

On Tuesday, a group of Jews visited Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount. They didn’t engage in “provocations” such as praying or reciting Psalms, but to many Arabs, the very presence of Jews at the site to which Jews have prayed for 3,000 years is a provocation. Palestinians therefore began hurling rocks and chairs at them, causing the police to intervene. And according to the Jordanian parliament, this sequence of events constituted “criminal attacks by the settlers” – i.e. Jews.

That alone is troubling enough. But parliament’s decision to respond by voting to expel the ambassador is even more troubling given how much Jordan would lose by ending its peace with Israel.

First, under the peace treaty, Israel provides Jordan with tens of millions of cubic meters of water each year. Recently, it even increased this amount to help Jordan cope with its flood of Syrian refugees. Scrapping the treaty would thus greatly exacerbate Jordan’s already severe water shortage.

Second, Israel is now Jordan’s key land bridge for trade with the West. Lacking access of its own to the Mediterranean Sea, Jordan has always conducted most of its trade overland. It used to send its trucks to Syrian ports, but Syria’s civil war made that route too dangerous. So now, the trucks go to Israel’s Haifa Port. Severing the peace treaty would thus cost Jordan its major trade route to the West.

Third, repeated terror attacks on the natural gas pipeline from Egypt left Jordan, like Israel, with a severe gas shortage that caused electricity prices to skyrocket. In Jordan, where Egyptian gas fueled 90 percent of electricity production, the hike in fuel prices sparked violent demonstrations. But unlike Israel, where massive offshore reserves meant the problem was only temporary (the Tamar field came online this April), Jordan has no gas of its own. Consequently, it began negotiating with Israel, the only nearby source. Jordan wants this gas so badly that it even publicly confirmed the talks, though normally, it prefers to hide its dealings with Israel. Yet these talks would clearly go nowhere if the peace treaty were shelved.

In short, Israel is currently vital to three of Jordan’s greatest needs: water, energy, and trade. And while ordinary Jordanians probably don’t know that, its parliamentarians almost certainly do. Yet even so, they voted unanimously to expel Israel’s ambassador – a step that, if actually carried out (King Abdullah has made clear it won’t be), would endanger all three of these benefits, with devastating consequences for Jordan’s economy.

To Jordan’s parliamentarians, the country’s well-being evidently comes a very distant second to the desire to keep Jews from visiting Judaism’s holiest site. That order of priorities would be inconceivable to most Westerners, but it’s extremely common in the Middle East. And that, more than any disagreement about land, explains why Mideast peace remains a distant dream.

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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