Analysis from Israel

According to a front-page story in today’s Haaretz, everything you thought you knew about the Jewish terrorists suspected of perpetrating last week’s horrific murder of a Palestinian baby is wrong. The accepted wisdom, propagated by everyone from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to Haaretz’s own editorial pages, is that the terrorists are motivated by a “climate of incitement,” in which extremist statements by right-wing rabbis and politicians lead them to believe that anything, even murder, is permissible to achieve their goals. But Israel’s premier counterterrorism agency – which, unlike espousers of the accepted wisdom, has spent years studying the terrorists up close – doesn’t buy it.

These few dozen hardcore terrorists, the Shin Bet security service told Haaretz, heed neither rabbis nor politicians; they are “anarchist anti-Zionists” who consider even “extremist” rabbis too moderate. Moreover, their goal isn’t to promote Jewish settlement or stop territorial withdrawals or any other goal shared by the “extremist” rabbis and politicians; rather, it’s to overthrow the State of Israel itself and replace it with a religious “kingdom.” In this, they differ fundamentally even from the “price-tag” vandals, whose goal was limited to deterring house demolitions in the settlements and whose tactics – albeit completely unacceptable – were generally confined to vandalism, “with no clear intention to cause bodily harm.”

In other words, these terrorists don’t reflect a widespread “sickness” in Israeli society, as Rivlin likes to say; they are no more representative of mainstream Israel than neo-Nazi fringe groups are of mainstream modern Germany – and perhaps even less.

So how racist and extremist is mainstream Israeli society? Well, consider the following collection of news items from the last few days alone:

  • The OECD just issued a report praising Israel’s efforts to increase Arab employment, though noting that much remains to be done.
  • Israeli government figures show a sharp rise in the workforce participation rate among Arab women over the last 20 years, from 19 percent to 32.5 percent.
  • The Economy Ministry just inaugurated special scholarships for Bedouin engineering students, the latest in a series of affirmative action programs for the Arab community. Under another program, the government funds 85 percent of research at Arab high-tech startups, compared to only 50 percent at Jewish startups.
  • The government recently started investing in tourism development in Arab communities; inter alia, it sponsored Ramadan events in various Arab towns this year and ran a nationwide campaign encouraging Jews to visit them. As Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, noted, this doesn’t erase past discrimination, but “On the symbolic plane, this represents a significant step forward in government policy.”
  • The Druze Arab town of Beit Jann had the highest pass rate in the country on the 2013-14 matriculation exams.
  • Salah Hasarma just became the first Arab coach of a Jewish soccer team in Israel’s top league.
  • While a few Israeli Arabs have joined Islamic State, they aren’t flocking to do so at the same rate as Arabs from other Western countries. This, argues Prof. Hillel Frisch of Bar-Ilan University, indicates that Israeli Arabs are less dissatisfied with their lives than Arabs in many European countries – or at least, more aware of how lucky they are not to be living in the chaotic hell across the border.

To understand why the above news items are so important, consider a Biblical analogy I heard from rabbi and journalist Yishai Fleisher last week. When the king of Moab wants the prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish people, he deliberately takes him to a place where “you will not see them all, but only the outskirts of their camp” (Numbers 23:13). Why? Because when you focus exclusively on one tiny fringe element of Israel, it’s easy to curse it. But when you see the whole of Israel in all its complexity, it’s much harder.

In this case, the tiny fringe is perpetrating horrific attacks on Arabs in an effort to overthrow the state. But the state it seeks to overthrow is investing heavily in trying to better integrate its Arab citizens and rectify past discrimination against them.

And if you’re going to choose a single part of Israel’s mosaic to represent the whole, the mainstream that promotes integration is surely a more representative piece than a lunatic fringe trying to overthrow the state.

Originally published in Commentary on August 3, 2015

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Why the status quo is the least bad option for Palestinians

Even among people who recognize that Israeli-Palestinian peace is currently impossible, a growing number think that Israel must nevertheless quit the West Bank. Israel has a right to defend itself, their argument goes, but not by controlling another people for decades. Instead, it should withdraw to the “internationally recognized border” and protect itself from there, like other countries do.

Forget for a moment that the “internationally recognized border” is an arrant fiction. Forget as well that Israel remains in the West Bank precisely because defending itself from the 1949 armistice lines (the abovementioned fictional border) hasn’t worked very well in either the West Bank—from which Israel partially withdrew in the 1990s before returning the following decade—or the Gaza Strip.

That still leaves another uncomfortable fact: As long as genuine peace remains impossible, Israeli control of the West Bank, despite the undeniable hardships it causes Palestinians, remains the least bad alternative for the Palestinians themselves. As evidence, just compare the Israeli-controlled West Bank to Gaza, which has been free of both settlers and soldiers since August 2005. By almost any parameter, life in the former is far better.

Take, for instance, casualties. According to B’Tselem’s statistics, Israeli security forces killed 5,706 Palestinians in Gaza from September 2005 through August 2019. That’s almost eight times the 756 killed by Israeli security personnel and settlers combined in the West Bank during this period (no Gazans were killed by settlers since there are no settlers there).

Nor is this surprising. Israel’s control of the West Bank means that suspected terrorists can often be arrested rather than killed, though shootouts (with attendant collateral damage) do occur. But in Gaza, where Israel has no troops, it can’t arrest terrorists. Thus the only way to fight terror is through military action, which naturally produces many more casualties among both combatants and civilians.

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