Analysis from Israel

John Kerry’s speech at Harvard University on Wednesday and the State Department’s subsequent series of walk-backs left me with one clear conclusion: Israel ought to start building massively in the settlements and change the status quo on the Temple Mount. Because if it’s going to be blamed for doing both even when it is, in fact, doing neither, it should at least get the very real benefits that taking those steps would entail.

First, a word on those benefits: On the Mount, the status quo grossly violates Jewish rights. Jews are forbidden to pray at Judaism’s holiest site, and even acts as simple as shedding a tear are deemed “praying.” They also suffer nonstop harassment when visiting without praying. That the Jewish state discriminates against Jews in this way is simply a travesty.

As for settlement construction, Israel is suffering a severe housing crisis; an average apartment currently costs 146 average monthly salaries, up from just 43 in 2008. The primary shortages are in greater Tel Aviv, where little land is available for new housing, and Jerusalem, whose main land reserves are in the eastern section. Indeed, the capital loses about 18,000 Jews every year, and those leaving cite the housing shortage as their primary reason. But the settlement blocs that would remain Israeli under any conceivable agreement are all within reasonable commute of either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem; hence massive building in those blocs, along with Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, could significantly alleviate the housing crisis. Moreover, given the international community’s refusal to support Israel’s claims to any area not so heavily populated that evacuation is impractical, bolstering the population of areas Israel wants to keep would strengthen its position in future negotiations.

Thus unless restricting settlement construction and maintaining the status quo on the Mount genuinely contribute to Israel’s security or international support, there’s no upside to doing either. Which brings us to Kerry.

In his Harvard address, Kerry said, “there’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years, and now you have this violence because there’s a frustration that is growing.” The statement would be outrageous even had this “massive increase” actually occurred, given the implication that building houses in contested areas is sufficient justification for a spree of Palestinian stabbing attacks against Israeli civilians. And someone at State evidently realized that, because spokesman John Kirby quickly tried to retract it.

“The secretary wasn’t saying, well now you have the settlement activity as the cause for the effect we’re seeing,” he asserted. “Is it a source of frustration for Palestinians? You bet it is, and the secretary observed that. But this isn’t about affixing blame on either side here for the violence.”

Yet Kirby didn’t retract Kerry’s claim of “massive” settlement activity, which is a blatant lie. As I detailed here last year, settlement construction under Benjamin Netanyahu has been lower than under any previous prime minister. And the very day of Kerry’s speech, the far-left Israeli daily Haaretz – not a paper suspected of any sympathy for the settlements – published a news report confirming this fact.

“Since Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, there has been less construction activity in the settlements than under any other prime minister since 1995,” Haaretz declared, and then gave the figures to prove it: From 2009-2014, an average of 1,554 homes a year were built in the settlements, compared to 1,774 under Ehud Olmert, 1,881 under Ariel Sharon, about 5,000 under Ehud Barak, and almost 3,000 during Netanyahu’s first term in 1996-9. In fact, Haaretz reported, fully 74 percent of the growth in the number of settlers under Netanyahu stemmed solely from natural increase (births minus deaths). The only way to stop that would be to institute a Chinese-style forced abortion policy – presumably not something State would espouse.

But despite this restraint, which has outraged Netanyahu’s base, he is still routinely accused by mainstream media and governments worldwide of “massive” settlement construction that justifies Palestinian terror. And even Kirby’s attempted walk-back reinforced this message: Despite saying that settlement activity isn’t the “cause” of the violence, he still refused to blame “either side” for its eruption; the clear implication was that Palestinians can’t be blamed for stabbing sprees against Israelis because they suffer from justified “frustration” over settlement activity.

Then, as if this poor excuse for a retraction weren’t bad enough, Kirby introduced several new smears against Israel. Inter alia, he accused it of “what many would consider excessive use of force”; naturally, American police would never shoot a knife-wielding terrorist in mid-rampage. The most astounding, however, was his claim that Israel had violated the status quo on the Temple Mount.

“Certainly, the status quo has not been observed, which has led to a lot of the violence,” he said. In short, he endorsed the Palestinian narrative that the stabbings are due to justified grievance over Jewish “violations” of the status quo.

Later, he tweeted a “clarification from today’s briefing: I did not intend to suggest that status quo at Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has been broken.” But the very fact that he initially said it makes it clear that many American officials buy this Palestinian narrative. This conclusion is bolstered by the fact that Washington has never objected to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s propagation of this inflammatory falsehood, inter alia in his UN address last month and a speech Wednesday night.

Thus even though Israel has curtailed settlement construction and upheld the status quo on the Mount, much of the world – including the U.S. administration – is accusing it of doing the opposite, and then treating Palestinian terror as an understandable, justifiable response to these alleged crimes. In other words, Israel is reaping no diplomatic benefits for taking these steps. And in that case, why on earth should it continue incurring the costs?

Originally published in Commentary on October 15, 2015 under the headline “Israel’s Diminishing Returns”

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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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