Analysis from Israel

As Jonathan noted yesterday, it’s hard to blame the lack of Mideast peace on Israel’s “occupation of Arab lands” in 1967 when peace was singularly lacking even before 1967. But this theory rests on a more fundamental fallacy: that all human beings basically want the same things – peace and a good life – and therefore, what Westerners consider a reasonable compromise should satisfy Middle Easterners as well. To understand just how false this is, consider Wednesday’s unanimous vote by the lower house of Jordan’s parliament to expel the Israeli ambassador.

On Tuesday, a group of Jews visited Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount. They didn’t engage in “provocations” such as praying or reciting Psalms, but to many Arabs, the very presence of Jews at the site to which Jews have prayed for 3,000 years is a provocation. Palestinians therefore began hurling rocks and chairs at them, causing the police to intervene. And according to the Jordanian parliament, this sequence of events constituted “criminal attacks by the settlers” – i.e. Jews.

That alone is troubling enough. But parliament’s decision to respond by voting to expel the ambassador is even more troubling given how much Jordan would lose by ending its peace with Israel.

First, under the peace treaty, Israel provides Jordan with tens of millions of cubic meters of water each year. Recently, it even increased this amount to help Jordan cope with its flood of Syrian refugees. Scrapping the treaty would thus greatly exacerbate Jordan’s already severe water shortage.

Second, Israel is now Jordan’s key land bridge for trade with the West. Lacking access of its own to the Mediterranean Sea, Jordan has always conducted most of its trade overland. It used to send its trucks to Syrian ports, but Syria’s civil war made that route too dangerous. So now, the trucks go to Israel’s Haifa Port. Severing the peace treaty would thus cost Jordan its major trade route to the West.

Third, repeated terror attacks on the natural gas pipeline from Egypt left Jordan, like Israel, with a severe gas shortage that caused electricity prices to skyrocket. In Jordan, where Egyptian gas fueled 90 percent of electricity production, the hike in fuel prices sparked violent demonstrations. But unlike Israel, where massive offshore reserves meant the problem was only temporary (the Tamar field came online this April), Jordan has no gas of its own. Consequently, it began negotiating with Israel, the only nearby source. Jordan wants this gas so badly that it even publicly confirmed the talks, though normally, it prefers to hide its dealings with Israel. Yet these talks would clearly go nowhere if the peace treaty were shelved.

In short, Israel is currently vital to three of Jordan’s greatest needs: water, energy, and trade. And while ordinary Jordanians probably don’t know that, its parliamentarians almost certainly do. Yet even so, they voted unanimously to expel Israel’s ambassador – a step that, if actually carried out (King Abdullah has made clear it won’t be), would endanger all three of these benefits, with devastating consequences for Jordan’s economy.

To Jordan’s parliamentarians, the country’s well-being evidently comes a very distant second to the desire to keep Jews from visiting Judaism’s holiest site. That order of priorities would be inconceivable to most Westerners, but it’s extremely common in the Middle East. And that, more than any disagreement about land, explains why Mideast peace remains a distant dream.

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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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