Analysis from Israel
When violence paid off for Palestinians, is it surprising that settler teens hope it will work for them?

One of the most troubling elements of the violence at Amona two weeks ago was the argument that rock-throwing teens used to justify their tactics: that the “establishment” – i.e. the government, courts, media and police – has so subverted the rules of the game that normal democratic politics have become pointless, whereas violence has proven to be effective. What makes these claims so troubling is that they contain a large element of truth.

The biggest blow to these teenagers’ belief in democracy was the disengagement from Gaza – and rightly so. In a democracy, victory is supposed to be achieved by winning an election. Yet settlers twice won democratic votes against the disengagement, only to see their victory nullified by the government and Knesset.

In 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won reelection by a landslide by running against Labor’s platform of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. But a year later, he adopted the very proposal he had run against – without seeking a new public mandate via either new elections or a national referendum. He did agree to a referendum among members of his own party, and pledged to abide by the results. But when disengagement opponents, thanks to door-to-door canvassing in the best democratic tradition, won another landslide victory, Sharon and other Likud MKs simply ignored the results and went ahead with the pullout.

Having been given such clear proof that in Israel winning votes is useless, is it surprising that these teens now consider elections a waste of time and energy?

Their lack of faith in the courts is equally unsurprising. How could they fail to scorn the double standard of a Supreme Court that piously declared that it has “no right” to overrule the government’s security judgment on the disengagement, even though it harmed Gaza settlers, yet repeatedly overrules the government’s security judgment on the route of the fence in order to prevent lesser injury to Palestinians? Or that authorizes draconian remands until the end of proceedings for teenagers accused of blocking roads during the disengagement, yet cancels all charges against MK Azmi Bishara on the spurious grounds that praising Hizbullah’s “guerrilla war” against Israel does not amount to praising “armed struggle”?

Then consider the media, which is vital to any attempt to influence public opinion. Is it surprising that these teens consider the media hopelessly biased when leading journalists openly declare that the prime minister must be protected “like an etrog” from allegations of corruption as long as he is dismantling settlements? Or when the same media that vociferously demanded an investigation of police violence during the Arab riots of October 2000 vociferously oppose an investigation of police violence at Amona, even though the violence at Amona, while less severe, was arguably far less justified? (Amona was a localized riot, involving some 3,000 people in a single place on a single day. The October 2000 riots involved tens of thousands of people in dozens of towns over several days, coordinated with a simultaneous uprising in the territories. In other words, Amona was a riot; October 2000 was an insurrection.)

THE POLICE, in contrast, are at least impartial: They use violence against everyone. That, however, is hardly a recommendation. Indeed, how could anyone have faith in a force where a senior commander can be caught on camera ordering subordinates to beat completely peaceful demonstrators, as Negev District Commander Niso Shaham was at last summer’s anti-disengagement rally in Kfar Maimon, yet suffer no penalty except a reprimand?

Then, finally, there is the second part of the equation – that violence does pay. Here, too, the disengagement provided the ultimate proof. Before the intifada began, the idea of unilaterally evacuating settlements without receiving anything in exchange was anathema to the entire Israeli political spectrum. Yet six years of terrorism have made unilateral evacuation so popular that Kadima is sweeping the polls on a pledge to unilaterally evacuate most of the West Bank. Certainly, nothing else has changed in the last six years to account for this turnabout, nor has either Sharon or Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ever articulated any persuasive alternative explanation.

Israel’s Arab community provides further proof. Even now, six years after October 2000, police treat many Arab towns as “no-go” areas due to fear of renewed riots. And while the government (justifiably) demolished Amona’s illegal houses, it would never consider demolishing the 30,444 illegal buildings (as of 2004) in Israeli Arab communities, for fear of sparking riots.

Thus when violence has paid off so handsomely for Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, is it surprising that settler teens hope it will work for them as well?

Obviously, most of these problems have better solutions than throwing rocks. Direct election of MKs would make Knesset members more accountable to their voters, which in turn would make elections a better means of influencing national policy. A different judicial appointment process would enable a spectrum of opinion on the Supreme Court, as opposed to the monolithic ideology inevitably created by the current system, in which justices effectively choose their own successors. And rightists could start their own media outlets to compete with the leftist chorus. (In some cases, primarily radio, this would require legislation, but such legislation could easily be passed if rightist parties made this a priority.)

Unfortunately, these are all long-term projects, and therefore less appealing to teenagers hungry for quick results. Nevertheless, if settler teens saw that their own community was making a serious drive to correct these systemic flaws, and that other people of goodwill were joining the effort, they might be convinced that it is worth a try.

But telling them that they should simply continue to put their faith in the existing system despite its obvious dysfunctions is fatuous. The problems they point out are real, and ignoring them will not make them disappear. If a Pollyannish belief that these problems will somehow solve themselves is the best that we, the “responsible adults,” have to offer, the violence will only continue to spread – and we will all share the blame.

The writer, a veteran observer of the Israeli scene, is a weekly contributor.

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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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