Analysis from Israel

The spat between New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad must be afflicting liberals with severe cognitive dissonance. But there’s a very important lesson to be drawn from it.

The contretemps began when Cohen published a column on Friday that included numerous direct quotes from Fayyad, many of which were highly unflattering to the Palestinian Authority’s ruling party, Fatah. “This party, Fatah, is going to break down, there is so much disenchantment,” Cohen quoted Fayyad as saying. “Our story is a story of failed leadership, from way early on. It is incredible that the fate of the Palestinian people has been in the hands of leaders so entirely casual, so guided by spur-of-the-moment decisions, without seriousness. We don’t strategize, we cut deals in a tactical way and we hold ourselves hostage to our own rhetoric.”

Fayyad promptly issued a denial. “The statements in the article are just journalist Roger Cohen’s personal impressions, and certainly not the words of Fayyad, who did not make any statements or conduct interviews for the New York Times or any other newspaper or agency since his resignation,” his statement declared. He also accused the paper of “forgery that carries political dimensions with the goal of causing damage and fomenting strife in order to serve positions that are hostile to the Palestinians and their national project at this sensitive and critical phase.”

So to put it bluntly, either the star columnist for America’s leading liberal newspaper fabricated quotes and put them in the mouth of a man he never even spoke with, or America’s favorite Palestinian leader just told a bald-faced lie.

To anyone familiar with the Palestinian scene, it’s not hard to conclude that the liar is Fayyad: He’s the one whose life is literally on the line. One Fatah legislator has already called for indicting him on charges of “crimes against the Palestinian people.” But the more serious danger is that Fatah has plenty of experienced killers with no qualms about shooting fellow Palestinians who upset them: See, for instance, the assassinations and attempted assassinations of a senior PA security officer, a Fatah legislator and a governor of Jenin, all attributed by Palestinians to a power struggle between rival Fatah groups.

But this incident ought to give pause to anyone who is quick to believe every Palestinian atrocity story about Israel. Fayyad has bodyguards; he enjoys the protection of being in the international spotlight; and international credibility is his essential stock-in-trade. Thus, if even he feels threatened enough to risk his credibility by telling bald-faced lies to protect himself, that’s all the more true of ordinary Palestinians, who lack Fayyad’s protections and don’t care about their overseas credibility.

For a Palestinian, it’s always safest to accuse Israel of brutality and abuse, even if the accusations are completely false, because Israeli soldiers won’t kill him for such libels–whereas Palestinian gunmen very well might murder him as a “collaborator” if he went on record as saying, for instance, that Israeli soldiers treated him decently.           

So perhaps next time, Westerners should stop and think before uncritically accepting Palestinian atrocity tales as truth. For if Fayyad could so brazenly lie about Cohen, then other Palestinians could just as easily be lying about Israel.

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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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