Monday, February 15, 2016

Knesset Suspension Bill Would Harm Israeli Democracy

Israel's Knesset is set to debate tomorrow a bill that would allow Knesset members to suspend any member who denies Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state. Prime Minister Netanyahu supports the bill but it is opposed by President Rivlin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, and Joint List parties.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's support of the bill follows a recognizable pattern of coalition preservation that has defined his leadership. The Prime Minister first supports a conservative piece of legislation, then waits for moderate opposition, and finally moderates his position citing that pressure. Netanyahu pursued a similar course with the Yisrael Beiteinu party's controversial loyalty oath bill. In that case, Netanyahu initially supported the bill, but then ordered changes making it more palatable to moderates. He is likely to do the same with the current bill, which Knesset legal advisers warn could cause serious complications to an MK's ability to legislate.

The current bill was introduced after three Joint Arab List members met with the families of Palestinians terrorists. While the MKs claim the visit was intended to support efforts to have Israel return the bodies of the attackers, most Israelis understood the meeting as evidence of Arab leadership's support for terrorism. The three MKs have been suspended by the Knesset Ethics Committee

However, while the visits rightfully offend Israelis, the resulting bill targets speech rather than action. It may exacerbate Israeli Arab mistrust towards Israel's government and security apparatus at a time when members of that community are carrying out terrorist attacks. While certain views of Israel's Arab minority offend other Israelis, an official platform to express these views creates buy-in among Israeli Arabs for the political process. And since Israeli Arab MKs are a minority, there are also strategic incentives for the Joint List to be judicious about when it raises such opinions.

Furthermore, in a time when liberals in Israel are being labelled "foreign plants," the bill as it stands currently may have a severe chilling effect on speech in the Knesset. The limitations imposed by the bill are unclear and could be used to target political opponents rather than "safeguard" the debate. Additionally, the voting mechanism the bill uses effectively gives the Knesset power to choose which Israeli citizens get representation. In a country where 20% of the population are minorities, this would harm the efficacy of democratic governance.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Israel Misses The Point On Ban Ki-Moon Comments

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon took to the New York Times yesterday to clarify his January 26th statement against Israeli policy in the West Bank. Likely sensing a threat to the UN's legitimacy as a mediator, Ban urges Israel's supporters not to "shoot the messenger" in reacting to the piece. Some have expressed frustrations over Ban's comments for singling out Israel's settlement policy as motivating terrorism - even though he also criticized the Palestinian leadership's authoritarian tendencies and incitement to violence. 

The Israeli government's tactical response to Ban's comments focused on documenting another case of anti-Israel bias at the UN. Prime Minister Netanyahu accused the organization of losing its "neutrality and moral force" and "stoking terror." Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said the comments give "legitimacy to those murders to continue attacking," while UN ambassador Danny Danon flat-out accused Ban of "encouraging terror."

The causes of Palestinian terrorism are certainly more complex than Ban Ki-Moon represents in his editorial. But the Israeli government's response to Ban's comments are illustrative of its lack of strategic foresight.

The current Israeli government is pursuing a foreign policy of unapologetic confrontation. From publicly disagreeing with President Obama to sending settlement products as holiday gifts to disparaging the UN, Israel's policy line is: "The world is against us and it's time to call them out on it." The government drapes this policy in moral legitimacy and longstanding international bias against Israel, but tactically it still boils down to picking needless fights.

Ban's editorial, however, is the latest in a series of events that show that this policy is not working. Confrontation is weakening Israel's ability to operate in the international community by exacerbating its pariah status. Unfair treatment by the UN is harmful because pariah status limits Israel's ability to use a cooperative approach to its foreign policy. But confrontation makes Israel more of a pariah by breeding resentment. It exacerbates the very harm Israel should be seeking to reduce. 

This policy of confrontation also lacks strategic vision. The moral legitimacy of Israel's position is irrelevant in a world that sees it as responsible for the oppression of 4.2 million Palestinians. Anti-Israel bias is unfair but a static condition of the international system for the foreseeable future. Israel has two choices - accept the bias or seek to change it over the course of decades. The likelihood that it will accomplish either by alienating the UN Secretary General is exceedingly low.

Israel's response to Ban shows that its current foreign policy is dangerously short-sighted. It is taking Ban's comments as more evidence of bias against Israel. It should instead take them as evidence of the damage its policies are doing to its political capital. By refusing to commit credibly to changing the status quo, Israel is alienating major global players. Attacks on its policy are no longer coming from just the Arab League or predictably post-colonial entities, but from major international institutions like the UN as well. Furthermore, the UN will continue to be a site for unilateral Palestinian action and Israel cannot afford to alienate its leadership. In this tough environment, Israel should strategically mitigate damage by keeping channels of cooperation open where it can.