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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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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