Analysis from Israel

One of the most pernicious and lasting effects of the Oslo Accords, whose 20th anniversary will be marked this Friday, was to warp the prism through which most non-Israelis view Israel: From a country with the same broad spectrum of concerns as all other countries, it became, in the world’s eyes, a single-issue country, where nothing but the “peace process” could possibly matter. This attitude is epitomized by a 1998 conversation between President Bill Clinton and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, whose transcript was published in Haaretz two weeks ago. Though the main topic was an impending military operation in Iraq, Clinton also briefed Mubarak on the peace process:

I think the Israeli public is coming along [in regard to the Oslo process]. The problem is, when they have elections there, Israeli society is becoming more complicated, and a lot of people get elected to the Knesset for reasons that don’t have much to do with the peace process. Then we have trouble getting a solid majority to do the right thing.”

One can practically hear the outrage in his voice: How dare those Israelis elect legislators who care about the same issues American voters do–jobs, cost of living, education, crime, etc.–rather than exclusively about the peace process? The fact that Israelis actually have to live in their country–and therefore must care about those issues, which are vital to any country’s well-being–appears to have escaped him entirely.

Having presided over Oslo’s signing, Clinton was perhaps uniquely invested in the Oslo process. Yet his attitude is far from unique. After Israel’s new government took office in March, for instance, a Hungarian journalist called me with a burning question: How could Yair Lapid’s center-left Yesh Atid party possibly sit in the same government as Naftali Bennett’s right-of-center Bayit Yehudi? I explained that despite their differences on the peace process, Lapid and Bennett have similar views on many domestic issues, and since the peace process had at that point been frozen for four years and showed no signs of thawing, the election was mainly about Israel’s many serious domestic problems. To which he replied, “But how can they sit together when they disagree about the peace process?” After several iterations of this, we both gave up in despair.

A comedy writer could probably make a good sketch of the scene, but there’s nothing funny about it. The failure to grasp that Israelis have concerns other than the peace process is a major reason why so many diplomats and pundits consistently misread Israel. Even worse, this attitude has undermined pro-Israel sentiment worldwide by reducing Israel from a complicated, multifaceted country to a one-dimensional caricature. For who can have sympathy or affection for a caricature?

The truth is that Israel can live without peace if necessary; it’s done so successfully for 65 years now. But it can’t live without a functioning economy, decent schools, adequate health care and all the other things that distinguish successful states from failed ones. And Israelis, because they live here, never have the luxury of forgetting that for long.

Non-Israelis, in contrast, won’t suffer if Israel has failing schools or high unemployment, so it’s easy to overlook these issues. But nobody who cares about Israel should do so. For by treating Israel as a single-issue country, they are helping to reduce it to a caricature that’s all too easy to hate.

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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