Analysis from Israel

John Kerry’s infamous apartheid comment continues to make waves in Israel, eliciting pushback from some surprising places–like yesterday’s Haaretz column by Zvi Bar’el. Bar’el, whom nobody could accuse of being an Israel apologist (his column asserts Israeli control over the West Bank is even worse than the apartheid), points out that under apartheid, the legal regime discriminates between citizens of the same country. That’s fundamentally different from an occupation, under which the legal regime discriminates between the occupying power’s citizens and the occupied noncitizens. All occupying powers have given their own citizens more rights than the occupied noncitizens, from the British in India through the French in Algeria to the Americans in Iraq, he noted; yet none of these were ever labeled apartheid. Why should Israel be any different?

But Bar’el neglects to mention one important point: The legal distinction all occupations make between citizens and noncitizens isn’t just a whim of “racist” occupiers; it’s mandated by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

This convention largely bars occupiers from applying their own laws to the occupied population, requiring them instead to maintain the preexisting legal system except where alterations are necessary to ensure the occupier’s security. For instance, Article 64 states “The penal laws of the occupied territory shall remain in force”; Article 51 requires the occupier to uphold the “legislation in force in the occupied country concerning working conditions”; and so forth. One of the most discriminatory practices of all is explicitly mandated by Article 66, which states that if the occupier promulgates laws for its own security in the occupied territory, violators from among the occupied population shall be tried in “properly constituted, non-political military courts.”

Israel has never officially deemed the West Bank occupied territory; it considers it disputed territory to which Israel has a valid claim. But under pressure from the rest of the world, which insists the West Bank is occupied territory, Israel long ago agreed to voluntarily uphold most of the Geneva Convention’s provisions. The ironic result is that in many cases, West Bank Palestinians have fewer rights than Israelis.

For instance, Israeli labor law provides more protections than the patchwork of Jordanian and Ottoman law in place when Israel captured the West Bank in 1967. But the world views any application of Israeli law to “occupied territory” as a sign of annexation (see, for instance, the international outcry when Israel applied Israeli law to the Golan Heights in 1981). Thus for fear of sparking international protests, Israel has refrained from applying its own labor laws to the West Bank.

Similarly, human-rights organizations repeatedly slam trials in military courts as inherently inferior to those in civilian courts, and not without reason: Most democratic countries, Israel included, have laws requiring civilians to be tried in civil rather than military courts. That’s why Israeli civilians who commit crimes in the West Bank are tried in Israel’s civil courts rather than military ones–just as American civilians who committed crimes in Iraq were tried in American civil courts rather than military ones. But the Geneva Convention requires Palestinian civilians to be tried in military courts instead.

In short, it’s precisely all those people who insist the West Bank is “occupied territory” who have no grounds to complain about the discriminatory legal system in place there–because occupied territories are supposed to be governed by the Geneva Convention, which mandates this discriminatory regime. That such people are now accusing Israel of “apartheid” for having bowed to their demand to apply the convention is hypocrisy on a truly epic scale.

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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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