The Titanic of the French Left (The Times of Israel, 1 March 2017)

France’s left-leaning media have recently been hit by an embarrassing revelation: Mehdi Meklat, a twenty-four-year-old Muslim blogger turned media star by sympathetic journalists, was exposed on Twitter as a rabid anti-Semite, homophobe, and misogynist.  While still in high-school, Meklat started a blog on life’s harshness in French banlieues (suburbs).  He caught the attention of journalists and, within a few years, the articulate and soft-spoken wunderkind became the poster child of moderate Islam and of successful integration.  Until, in February 2017, old tweets he published under a pseudonym between 2011 and 2015 were dug-out and exposed.

Meklat’s rants are jaw-dropping.  Charlie Hebdo’s journalists? “They should die.”  Jews? “Bring back Hitler to finish them.”  Bin Laden? “I miss him.”  Mohamed Merah’s apology of death? “Movingly beautiful.”  Whites? “You must die ASAP.”  Marine Le Pen? “I’ll slit your throat in accordance with Muslim rites.”  French journalists, many of whom turned Meklat into an icon, are divided.  Some disowned him; others are circling the wagons.

Pascale Clark, who hosted Meklat for years on her radio show, took his defense and praised his “intelligence and humanity.”  Veteran journalist Claude Askolovitch poo-pooed Meklat’s tweets as “a kid’s silly jokes.”  Radio anchor Xavier de La Porte blamed himself and his listeners for not getting it: “There must be something in Mehdi Meklat that is too complex for us to understand.”  Médiapart (an online opinion journal) and Libération (a daily newspaper) took on Meklat’s critics: for them, the fachosphère (a French idiom for “Fascist blogosphere”) is to be blamed for unearthing Meklat’s old tweets in the first place.

The “Meklat Affair” not only exposed, once again, the moral bankruptcy of the French left.  It also confirmed its stubborn refusal to face the fact that there is such a thing as Muslim anti-Semitism.  French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has described the Meklat Affair as “the Titanic of the yuppie left.”  As Bruckner explains, the French left will not let go of the axioma that former colonized people are always innocent by definition.  They cannot possibly be racist, anti-Semitic, or oppressive.  Impossible.  In addition, Islam has acquired a special status in France: it is the only religion that cannot be scrutinized or criticized, and which enjoys a de facto protection from blasphemy.

If the Meklat Affair is the Titanic of the yuppie left, the upcoming presidential election may turn out to be its Berezina.  France’s left-leaning media, as well as key figures in the judicial system, have declared a war of attrition on François Fillon.  The once front-runner conservative candidate is now fighting an uphill struggle for political survival.  Fillon did nothing illegal by hiring his wife as a parliamentary aid, and the claim that she did not actually work has yet to be proven.  But the accusation is sticking, and Fillon’s likely indictment might be fatal.  According to most polls, the presidential election’s runoff will likely be between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron.

Macron is the darling of France’s media.  He gets a free pass over his political Ponzi scheme.  An Ivy League graduate and former banker, he claims to be running “against the system.”  A former senior cabinet member in François Hollande’s government, he now disowns his former boss’ legacy.  Less than two months before election day, Macron still hasn’t published a program and he tells voters to just trust him.  There are savory rumors about his private life, but the media are mum about them.  France’s left-leaning media, in other words, are promoting a political charlatan because he is not a Thatcherite and a conservative like Fillon, and because he is the most likely to beat Le Pen in a runoff.

This strategy may backfire.  In a recent poll published by Le Figaro, Le Pen would get 45% of the vote in a runoff against Fillon, and 42% in a runoff against Macron.  Considering that polls predicted the defeat of Brexit and of Trump, a Le Pen victory can no longer be ruled out.  If Le Pen wins, she’ll partly owe her victory to the defenestration of Fillon and to the promotion of Macron by the French left.  Don’t expect French left-wing journalists to take the blame, however.  Instead, a Le Pen victory will give them another reason to excuse Meklat.


French Inquisition and the Temptation of Exile (The Times of Israel, 1 February 2017)

François Fillon, whom I endorsed for reasons I explained here, might have to quit the race for the French presidency because of allegations that he arranged phony jobs for his wife.  He was leading in the polls until last week, but no longer.  People in the French Republican party are beginning to discuss a Plan B in case Fillon is forced to quit the race.  The political defenestration of Fillon would be a shame, because he is the only serious candidate capable of rescuing France from its economic decline.

The other main contenders for the 2017 French presidential election are demagogues and amateurs.  The Socialist party recently selected in its primaries Benoît Hamon, a radical whose economic platform makes Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders look sane.  Marine Le Pen blames China, globalization and the EU for France’s economic woes, a cheap and easy diversion from the fact that the French state overspends and overtaxes, and hasn’t balanced its books since 1974.  Emmanuel Macron is a 39-year-old former banker and Ivy-league graduate who incredibly claims to run against “the system.”

Fillon says that he is the target of a political machination aimed at making it impossible for the French right to win the 2017 presidential election.  Ongoing investigations shall determine whether the allegations against him and his wife are substantiated.  But the French judiciary is finding itself dragged into political battles –either willingly or reluctantly.  The lawsuit against Georges Bensoussan is a case in point.

Bensoussan is a renown French historian who has authored seventeen books on the Holocaust, on Zionism, and on Jewish life in Muslim countries.  In 2002, Bensoussan edited (under a pseudonym) a book titled The Lost Territories of the Republic (“Les territoires perdus de la République”) which claimed among other things that anti-Semitism is alive and kicking among young French Muslims.  By mentioning Muslim anti-Semitism, Bensoussan touched a raw nerve and attracted many enemies.  Far from giving-up, however, Bensoussan has been researching and exposing the phenomenon of Muslim anti-Semitism –thus lengthening the list of his enemies.

In October 2015, Bensoussan claimed on the radio that “We are witnessing the formation of another people within the French nation, a people that is pulling us back from our democratic values.”  He then declared that one of the obstacles to the integration of Muslims in France is their anti-Semitism.  Bensoussan quoted Algerian sociologist Smain Laacher who openly and bravely condemned popular anti-Semitism in Arab societies.  But Laacher denied that he had used the controversial expression referred to by Bensoussan on the radio (namely that Arab mothers feed their babies anti-Semitism while nursing them).

The French Association Against Islamophobia (“Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France”) decided to sue Bensoussan for racism and incitement.  It was joined by other French NGOs such as LICRA, SOS Racism, and the League for Human Rights.  Following LICRA’s decision, French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut announced that he was quitting the organization of which he had been a member for many years.  According to Finkilekraut, Bensoussan is being sued for exposing a politically incorrect yet existing phenomenon: Muslim anti-Semitism.  Rather than suing Bensoussan, Finkielkraut says, French Muslims should fight anti-Semitism itself.

The phenomenon of Muslim anti-Semitism in French society was researched by the French think-tank Fondapol and documented in its 2014 report on Anti-Semitism in French Public Opinion (“L’antisémitisme dans l’opinion publique française”).  Bensoussan is far from being the only scholar dealing with this issue.  The “nursing” expression he used on the radio might have been clumsy, but the NGOs suing Bensoussan are clearly using this expression as an excuse to silence him.

“For the first time in my life” said Bensoussan to the judge who heard his testimony in court “I have been tempted by exile” (i.e. leaving France).  If Marine Le Pen wins the 2017 election, Bensoussan’s temptation will surely be boosted.

Francois Fillon’s French Revolution (The Times of Israel, 29 November 2016)

Political pollsters and pundits who were confounded by Brexit and by Trump’s win must now face yet another challenge to conventional wisdom: the stunning victory of François Fillon in France’s conservative primaries for the 2017 presidential election.  Fillon embodies all that France’s socialist, secular, and moralist elite reviles: He is a Thatcherite, a devout Catholic, and a political realist.  The fact that he won the primaries by a two-third majority is but another confirmation of the gap between elitist narratives and popular feelings.

A partially secularized Catholic country with mercantilist traditions and a reverence for the state (État is always spelled with a capital “e”), France has a cultural hostility toward Anglo-Saxon capitalism.  As Margaret Thatcher was rescuing the British economy in the 1980s, France elected in 1981 the socialist François Mitterrand who increased taxes, government spending, and state ownership.  As Germany’s (socialist) chancellor Gerhard Schröder cut taxes and slashed unemployment benefits in 2003, France made it illegal (in 2002) to work for more than 35 hours a week.  When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president in 2007, he promised to catch-up with Germany and with Britain.  Sarkozy did increase the retirement age from 62 to 65, but he turned out to be erratic and inconsistent, and the 2008 financial crisis deflated his reformist zeal.

The consequences are for all to see.  Unemployment rates are 10.5% in France, 4.8% in Britain, and 4.2% in Germany.  France’s GDP growth of 1.3% lies behind Britain and Germany’s 1.9%.  While Germany has a budget surplus of 0.6% of GDP, France has a budget deficit of 3.3% of GDP.  The French government overtaxes and overspends: government spending is 57.3% of GDP in France, 44.1% in Germany, and 43.8% in Britain.

François Fillon has been warning that France will be bankrupt and doomed if it does not get its acts together.  His says he will curb public spending (he has committed to cut 500,000 government/civil service jobs), repeal the 35-hour limit on the working week, and trim a 3,000-page long labor code that discourages employment and repels foreign investors.  The French left is up-in-arms against what it calls “ultra-liberalism” (whatever that means), but French voters seem to finally be willing to take their medicine and reverse their country’s decline.

Fillon’s economic platform was decried as too harsh (“ultra-liberal,” bien sûr) by his run-off contender in the conservative primaries, Alain Juppé.  As for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, her economic ideology is hardly distinguishable from that of the far left: she reviles globalization and free-trade, wants to pull-out from the Euro, and would enroll the French state to subdue the market.  François Fillon’s Thatcherite economics, therefore, makes him an outsider in France’s political landscape.

But Fillon is also an outsider because of his social conservatism and of his foreign policy realism.  He is a practicing Catholic in a country where religion is mocked by the elites (Fillon is dubbed a “Catho,” the secularists’ catchword to deride church-goers).  He is a faithful husband of 36 years and a father of five in a country where divorce, mistresses and affairs are de rigueur for politicians.  And while he has vowed not to repeal abortion and gay marriage, he is an unabashed and proud conservative when it comes to family and to education.

His foreign policy ideas are unorthodox, too.  He thinks that the West has mishandled Russia, and that cooperation with both Russia and Iran is necessary to completely defeat the Islamic State.  Some accuse him of being a Russophile, but he seems in fact to be a classical Kissinger-type of a realist.  His approach to foreign policy is one of Realpolitik -or raison d’État in French.  Tellingly, the concept of raison d’État was developed by Richelieu, himself a devout Catholic who knew how to separate his faith from the interests of his country, and who explained this duality thus: “Man is immortal, his salvation is hereafter; the State has no immortality: its salvation is now or never.”

Fillon realizes that his willingness to cooperate with Iran for the sake of decimating the Islamic State raises eyebrows in Israel.  “I know many will comment on this point of view, especially in Israel” Fillon admitted.  “But for a question of survival, Israel has always known how to ally with people who do not accept international morals.  And no one can blame them” he concluded.  Fillon happens to be factually correct on that. He typically defends a Realpolitik approach to foreign policy.  It is based on such an approach that Richelieu allied with the Protestants during the Thirty Years War, that Churchill joined forces with Stalin during World War II, and that Kissinger made an overture to Mao’s China during the Cold War.

If he gets elected and coordinates his moves with the Trump Administration, François Fillon might be able to diffuse tensions with Russia and to partially stabilize Syria.  If France strictly adheres to the Iran nuclear deal, its coordination with Iran to fight the Islamic State might be tacitly acquiesced by the United States and by Israel.

By French standards, Fillon’s economic liberalism, social conservatism, and foreign policy realism are no less than revolutionary (in Anglo-Saxon countries, they would be rated as conservative).  This might be the last chance for France to pull itself out of decline.  Bonne chance, Monsieur Fillon.

A Reply to Hagai El-Ad (The Times of Israel, 25 October 2016)

On October 14, on the eve of Sabbath and of the Jewish holiday of Succoth, B’Tselem’s executive director Hagai El-Ad addressed the UN Security Council (UNSC), pleading for concrete and urgent measures to end Israel’s control of the West Bank.  I disagree with what El-Ad said at the UNSC, and I disagree with the method he chose to advance his agenda.  But on one point (which he made here), I do agree with him: his many critics (like me) should address his arguments.

Before I do that, let me make a remark on the venue picked by El-Ad to make the case of human rights and for international law.

At the UNSC, two permanent members (Russia and China) are occupiers, human rights abusers, and international law violators.  Russia partially occupies Chechnya, Georgia and the Ukraine.  It is committing war crimes in Syria.  Critical journalists and opposition leaders are eliminated by the Kremlin.  China occupies Tibet.  The Communist Chinese government tramples human rights at home (including those of formerly British-ruled Hong Kong residents) and defies international law abroad (as recently as July 2016, China defied the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the South China Sea, while threatening Japan and the Philippines with military action).

Then there are the UNSC’s non-permanent members such as Venezuela and Egypt.  Venezuela is a corrupt and bankrupt autocracy.  Egypt strangles the Gaza Strip with a sealed border, thus contributing to a humanitarian misery which the likes of B’Tselem generally blame on Israel alone.

The UNSC, in other words, is hardly an appropriate venue to make the case for international law and for human rights.  Indeed, what Hagai El-Ad did was almost tantamount to pleading for chastity in a brothel.

Now to the content of El-Ad’s statement at the UNSC.  In his presentation, El-Ad denounced Israel’s “distractions from the big picture.”  Yet El-Ad did just that himself.  The “big picture” is that the stalemate that El-Ad denounces has many causes and that it cannot be blamed on Israel alone.  One of these causes is the Palestinians’ rejection of territorial compromise on five occasions: in 1937 (Peel Commission); in 1947 (UN partition plan); in July 2000 (Ehud Barak’s proposal at Camp David); in December 2000 (President Clinton’s “parameters”); and in 2008 (Ehud Olmert’s proposal).  Past attempts to end the stalemate have failed, mostly because of the Palestinians’ rejection of plans that would have granted them a state over most of the West Bank and over all of the Gaza Strip.

Theoretically, Israel could withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank (or most of it) to end its partial control of the Palestinian population (I say partial, because this control is also exercised by the autocratic and corrupt Palestinian Authority, something El-Ad chose not to mention).  But the precedent of the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has taught us a lesson foreseen by many: that the alternative to partial military rule after unilateral withdrawal is recurrent and military confrontation.  Is it more or less moral to partially control the population of Gaza or to conduct deadly military operations every two years to end Hamas’ rocket attacks at Israeli civilians?  These are typically tough questions that decision-makers have to face in the complicated real world and in the hopelessly cruel Middle East.  In El-Ad’s world, by contrast, there are neither dilemmas, nor context or complexity.  There is only an Israeli oppressor and a Palestinian victim.

El-Ad claimed at the UNSC that he and his organization “are fighting human rights violations.”  In fact, they only fight human right violations that are not perpetuated by the Palestinian Authority and by Hamas.  Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid used to work for B’Tselem.  After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, Eid started monitoring human rights violations by the Palestinian leadership.  He was arrested by the PA and, after his release, founded the “Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.”

El-Ad said at the UNSC that “Palestinians have the right to life and dignity.”  They certainly do.  But that right is also denied to them by Hamas in Gaza and by the Fatah leadership in the PA.  Even if Israel were to end the legal military blockade of Gaza, Palestinians there would still be oppressed by Hamas.  Even if Israel were to pull out from the West Bank, Palestinians there would still be denied their right to life and dignity by their own rulers, just like in the rest of the Arab world (with the possible exception of Tunisia).  I am not saying this to justify the stalemate, but to point out to the extreme bad faith and naïveté of Hagai El-Ad.

El-Ad called upon the UNSC “to send to the world, to Israelis and to Palestinians, a clear message, backed by international action: Israel cannot have it both ways.”  In other words, if the stalemate persists, Israel, and Israel alone, should pay a price for it.  The Palestinians, by contrast, can continue to have it both ways.  They can continue to officially advocate a two-state solution while demanding that the “right of return” be applied to Israel proper (the two being incompatible).  They can continue to have their two oppressive and corrupt governments (in Gaza and in Ramallah) regale the world about freedom and human rights.  They can continue to receive funding from Western governments to teach their children that the killing of Jews is rewarded in heaven.

While El-Ad did not specify which “international action” the UNSC should undertake against Israel, he most likely meant a Chapter 7 resolution to force Israel out of the West Bank.  El-Ad, however, did not call for a parallel “international action” to protect Israel from the missiles that would be launched from a Fatah or Hamas-controlled West Bank surrounding Jerusalem and overlooking Tel-Aviv.  And in his plan, there would be no UNSC resolution declaring that the so-called “right of return” has no basis in international law and is incompatible with a two-state solution.

Finally, El-Ad claimed that Israel was “established through international legitimacy granted through a historic decision” by the UN in 1947.  This is inaccurate.  The UN General Assembly (UNGA) vote on 29 November 1947 was a declaratory recommendation, not a binding decision.  This recommendation became moot the moment it was rejected by the Arab League.  The vote was symbolic and emotional, but it did not establish the State of Israel.  Had the Jews not rebuilt their land for the decades preceding the vote, and had they not won the war imposed on them by six Arab armies in 1948, the State of Israel would not have been established.

What El-Ad was telling the UN, in substance, was this: you gave birth to this child, now tell him to behave.  Besides being factually wrong, this statement ignores the fact the UN of 1947 is not the UN of 2016.  In 1947, the UN was composed mostly of free nations that had fought together to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  Today, the UN is an organization where Muslim states and autocracies have a numerical majority at the General Assembly, at UN agencies, and at the Human Rights Council.  It is the UN that elected Assad’s Syria to the Security Council in 2002, and Ghaddafi’s Libya as Chair of the human rights commission in 2003.  It is the UN that sat idle as a genocide was taking place in Rwanda in 1994 and as a massacre was perpetuated in Srebrenica in 1995.  It is the UN that has looked the other way for five years as more than half-a-million people have been killed in Syria.  And it is the UN that has just “declared” that the Jewish people has no historical connection to the Temple Mount.

That Hagai El-Ad would rely on such an organization to solve the intricate Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to uphold human rights is naïve at best and malicious at worse.

The Electoral Reform Netanyahu Should Promote (The Times of Israel, 7 September 2016)

During the 2015 Knesset elections, Benjamin Netanyahu committed to reform Israel’s voting system so as to free the prime minister from the permanent blackmail of his coalition partners. More than one year after the swearing in of the current government, this commitment seems to have been forgotten even though the blackmail of junior coalition partners is far from having abated, as we were just reminded by the threats of the ultra-orthodox parties over railway constructions during the Sabbath. Whether or not Netanyahu intends to honor his campaign pledge, he would be well-advised to accurately assess the actual ills of Israel’s political system and to avoid counter-productive reforms.

When he presented his government to the Knesset in May 2015 Netanyahu claimed Israel needs electoral reform because its governments are chronically unstable. He mentioned that in the past 66 years (since 1949), Israel has had 33 governments.  An average two-year lifespan for a government is indeed a clear sign of instability. Yet this two-year average is misleading because, in most cases, the tenure of Israeli government was shortened not because of motions of no confidence or coalition crises, but because of extraneous circumstances.

Only once in Israel’s history has a government been toppled by a motion of no confidence (in 1990). Nine governments were shortened because of the prime minister’s resignation (in 1950, 1952, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1963, 1964, 1974, and 1993), and two because of the prime minister’s death (Levy Eshkol died of a heart attack in 1969, and Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995). Between 1984 and 1988 there were two governments because this is what had been agreed in the “rotation agreement” between Labor and Likud. In 2001, a new government was formed after Ehud Barak called a snap election.

As in other parliamentary democracies, there are every so often early elections in Israel, but not within unreasonably short intervals: the average lifespan of the Knesset has been three-and-a-half years since 1949 (i.e. six months short of the four years mandated by law). So Israel suffers neither from chronic early elections, nor from serial motions of no confidence (which characterized the Third and Fourth French Republics, as well as Italy before 1994). And yet Israelis have been eager to reform their political system since the 1990 political crisis, when the ultra-Orthodox parties extorted both Labor and Likud for the formation of a new government.

Because the 1990 political crisis exposed the excessive powers of mid-sized parties, the public mood wanted to take away from them the ability to determine the prime minister’s identity.  In 1992, a new law was passed for the direct election of the prime minister. This reform created an awkward system with no parallel or precedent.  In parliamentary democracies, the prime minister and his government are appointed by parliament, while in presidential systems the government is appointed by the president who is himself directly elected by the people. In the new and hybrid Israeli system, voters had to cast two ballots: one for the prime minister, and one for the party of their choice. The new system, therefore, eliminated the incentive to vote for Labor or Likud in order to improve the chance of either party’s leader to become prime minister.  As a result, both Labor and Likud decreased in size, thus making it harder to form and maintain coalitions (the 1992 law was subsequently repealed in 2001).

The short-lived law on the direct election of the prime minister was not the only counter-productive reform of Israel’s political system. Since small and middle-sized parties were widely thought to have overplayed their leveraging power in 1990, some thought of simply barring them from parliament by raising the electoral threshold, which stood at 1% until 1992. The electoral threshold was raised to 1.5% in 1992, to 2% in 2003, and to 3.25% in 2014.

Yet, as predicted by political theory and as confirmed by political practice, high electoral thresholds make it actually harder to form and to manage coalitions. The larger the amount of small parties, the wider the coalition options of a designated prime minister, and the wider the coalition alternatives of an acting prime minster blackmailed by his partners. Once small parties are eliminated, those options evaporate and the extortion power of middle-sized parties increases. And, indeed, after the 2015 elections (which took place with a 3.25% threshold), the prime minister had no other choice but to give in to the last-minute demands of the Jewish Home Party, because no coalition alternatives existed.

High electoral thresholds have proven counter-productive in other countries as well. In Germany, for example, the electoral threshold for the lower house (Bundestag) is of 5%. In the 2013 elections, the Liberal Party (the natural ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel) was unable to enter parliament because of the high electoral threshold (and a poor showing), and as a result Merkel was compelled to form a bizarre and unnatural coalition between her conservative party and the Social Democrats.  The reason why Germany no longer suffers from the endemic political instability of the Weimar Republic is not because of this 5% threshold but, among other things, because the 1949 constitution introduced the principle of “constructive no confidence” (parliament can topple the government only if it can propose an alternative government backed by a new coalition).  Israel also adopted the principle of “constructive no confidence” in 2014. So far, this has been the only positive reform of Israel’s political system. Yet Israel needs an additional reform.

Israel’s political system suffers less from instability than from a lack of accountability.  Members of Knesset (MKs) are not answerable to voters. In parties where candidates are selected by the chairman (such as Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” or Avigdor Lieberman’s “Israel Beitenu”), MKs are only answerable to their boss. In parties that hold primaries (such as Likud and Labor), MKs are answerable to interest groups and to shady deal-makers who determine the results of primary elections. On election day, voters select a party but not their representatives.

In countries where voters chose their parliament representatives via electoral districts, such accountability exists. Yet this accountability is, in fact, a trompe l’œil. In the Anglo-Saxon “first past the post” system, voters have a representative whom they can reward or penalize on election day.  But since penalizing your representative means voting for his political rival, you need to cross political lines in order to express your discontent. Most polls show that, in district elections, only a small minority of voters (less than 10%) hold their representative accountable to the point of jumping ship politically (in the United States, for example, less than 10% of Democratic voters will vote for a Republican House or Senate candidate because they are dissatisfied with the Democratic incumbent, and vice-versa).  So accountability in district elections is theoretical at best.  Besides, district elections are not a realistic option in Israel: most MKs oppose them, and Israel is probably too complicated geographically, demographically and politically to design electoral districts.

There is another way, however, to make MKs answerable to their voters: by enabling voters to influence the composition of the list they vote for on election day.  Instead of just voting for a party, voters can select the candidates they want to promote on the party’s list before casting their ballot.  This system, which exists in some twenty democracies around the world, would partially free candidates from the corruption and Byzantine deal-making that characterize Israel’s pre-Knesset primaries. Admittedly, this “open primaries” system tends to give an advantage to famous candidates, but the Internet and social media offer affordable and effective self-promotion tools.

Such reform would require legislation. The new electoral law should make “open primaries” optional so as not to antagonize political parties that may not want to adopt them, but whose vote will be needed to pass the reform. Even if “open primaries” are optional, parties will have an incentive to adopt them because voters will likely prefer to vote for lists whose composition they can influence. In addition, the electoral threshold should be lowered in order to widen the range of coalition options and alternatives, thus limiting the extortion power of middle-sized parties.

Netanyahu should promote this reform not only to honor his pre-election commitment, but also because it would introduce a long-overdue accountability in Knesset elections and because it might even encourage honest and achieved Israelis to enter politics.


Setting the Record Straight about Israel’s New NGO Law (The Times of Israel, 14 July 2016)

A law recently passed by the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) on the funding of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) has been criticized as undemocratic by European and American commentators and decision-makers (such as the US State Department and the European Commission).  Yet the new Israeli law is actually similar to, and even milder than, US legislation on NGOs.

The law requires that Israeli NGOs that receive more than half of their funding from “foreign political entities” (i.e. foreign governments) make that information public whenever they lobby elected Israeli officials and whenever they publish their reports.  The law does not restrict the activities of NGOs, nor does it limit the amount of money they can receive from foreign governments. Rather, the bill enables Israeli lawmakers to know whether they are being lobbied by an organization acting on behalf of foreign governments. NGOs whose funding is mostly governmental can hardly claim to be “non-governmental” and to not promote the agenda of the governments that fund them (indeed, NGOs that receive money from the European Commission are compelled to promote the policies and principles of the European Union).

The transparency introduced by the law is necessary because in recent years the extent of European involvement in Israeli politics via NGOs has reached unprecedented levels. Both the European Commission and European governments donate dozens of millions of euros every year to Israeli NGOs that influence Israel’s decision-making and that affect Israel’s international standing. Some of these NGOs are active in the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) campaign; some support the so-called Palestinian right of return (which is incompatible with the two-state solution); some petition Israel’s High Court of Justice to amend laws passed by the Knesset.  In 2009, European-funded Israeli NGOs actively testified to the Goldstone Commission, whose final report accused Israel of intentionally committing war crimes during its military operation in Gaza (an accusation later retracted by Judge Richard Goldstone himself).

Trying to influence the policy of other governments is legitimate.  Indeed, this is what diplomacy is about.  But it should be done openly and via traditional diplomatic channels.  Making it known that certain NGOs area actually governmental and act on behalf of governments does not constitute an infringement upon the freedom of speech and action of those NGOs or upon their ability to raise money.  Precisely because governments, as opposed to private individuals, have the actual political power and tools to influence other governments, it is perfectly legitimate to expose them when they try to hide behind NGOs.

Other democracies rightly demand such transparency, too.  The U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires agents who lobby on behalf of foreign donors to register with the Department of Justice, and to report their activities and finances. The purpose of FARA is to prevent the deception of U.S. lawmakers by lobbyists who actually act on behalf of foreign interests in order to influence U.S. policy making and legislation. Lobbyists who do not comply with FARA can be severely punished. In March 2012, for example, Kashmir-born U.S. lobbyist Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai was sentenced to two years of imprisonment by a U.S. court for not reporting a $3.5 million donation from the Pakistani government.

Some claim that FARA applies equally to all foreign funding (i.e. both foreign governments and private foreign donors).  This might be true in theory, but certainly not in practice.   Prof. Eugene Kontorovich from Northwestern University and the Kohelet Policy Forum (a think tank) has examined the list of all people and organizations registered as foreign agents in the United States under FARA.  In almost all cases, these were agents of foreign governments, of political parties, and of government agencies. Only in rare cases are foreign donors private people, and when they are these are generally politicians.

US legislators, however, recently made things clear about the uniqueness of donations from foreign governments.  In January 2015, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that requires from witnesses appearing in a nongovernmental capacity to disclose any contracts or payments originating with a foreign government (the new Israeli law, by contrast, only requires such disclosure when more than 50% of the budget of NGOs comes from foreign governments).  Those who claim that Israel’s NGO law is unfair because it focuses on disclosing foreign government funding (and not private foreign funding) for Israeli NGOs should make the same claim about the 2015 House of Representatives resolution.

Also in Europe, NGOs that receive public money are expected to fully disclose their finances.  The Council of Europe (an international organization founded in 1949 to promote democracy and human rights) published a memorandum in December 2008 on “The Legal Status of Non-Governmental Organizations in Europe.”  The memorandum states that “NGOs which have been granted any form of public support can be required each year to submit reports on their accounts and an overview of their activities to a designated supervising body” (Art. 62) and that “NGOs which have been granted any form of public support can be required to have their accounts audited by an institution or person independent of their management” (Art. 65).

Just like US legislation and European guidelines, the new Israeli law is meant to guarantee the transparency of NGO funding.  Comparing Israel’s new law with Russian legislation is absurd.  Russian laws on NGOs do infringe upon their freedom.  The 2015 Russian law allows the government to prosecute NGOs deemed “undesirable” by the government on national security grounds.  Individuals working for NGOs arbitrarily declared “undesirable” by the government can be jailed for up to six years.

The new Israeli law does not infringe upon the freedom of NGOs.  It introduces an overdue transparency that is justifiably enforced in the United States and in Europe.  Israeli members of Knesset who claim that the law should apply not only to the donations of foreign governments but to any foreign donation are welcome to amend the law.  Until they do, partial transparency is preferable to no transparency at all.


The Israeli Case against Brexit (The Times of Israel, 22 June 2016)

The upcoming referendum in Britain on European Union (EU) membership has raised little interest in Israel.  Yet “Brexit” (British exit from the EU) would have far-reaching international consequences, including on Israel itself.  Some voices in Israel have expressed support for Brexit.  They generally make three points: a. Since the EU funds left-wing NGOs, Palestinian construction in Area C, and since it labels Israeli products from settlements, any setback for the EU is welcome; b. Europe’s populist parties are anti-Europe and since they also claim to be pro-Israel, then obviously breaking-up the EU must be a good idea; c. The EU endangers national sovereignty and so anyone who cares about a sovereign Jewish state should oppose the EU.  All three arguments are baseless, nonsensical, and uninformed.

Before I explain why, allow me a short historical reminder.

The original founders of the EU project were conservatives and free-marketers.  Winston Churchill called for a “United States of Europe” in September 1946 to neutralize the German threat, which he had identified and fought more than anyone else.  For him, this was the only way to prevent the return to historical dynamics that had produced two world wars.  Classical liberal economists such as Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises supported the idea of a federal Europe after World War Two because they considered it a condition for the promotion of free-trade among protectionist-minded nations.

The founding fathers of today’s EU in 1951 (it was called ECSC then) were Christian democrats (meaning, conservatives): Robert Schuman (France), Konrad Adenauer (West Germany), and Alcide De Gasperi (Italy).  They wanted to keep both radical nationalism and communism at bay.  As for France, it wanted to tie the German Gulliver to the rest of Western Europe by creating a common market for coal and for steel (ECSC stands for “European Coal and Steel Community”).

When Charles de Gaulle came back to power in France in 1958, he pursued historical reconciliation with Germany and tried to turn the European Economic Community (or EEC, which replaced the ECSC in 1957) into a platform that would guarantee France’s political predominance in Europe.  Precisely because Britain would have challenged this predominance, de Gaulle vetoed twice (in 1963 and in 1967) Britain’s bid to join the EEC.  Back then, France was indeed politically dominant in Europe.  Not so today.  A united Germany (since 1991) with its formidable economy is now the leading European power.  Hence the importance of Britain’s membership in today’s Europe.  If de Gaulle were France’s president today, he would certainly no longer oppose British membership.  Whoever is familiar with European history understands why Britain constitutes a necessary counterweight to Germany in Europe.  No wonder the French are so anxious about the prospect of Brexit.

After all, the French conceived the idea of the Euro as an answer to Germany’s reunification in 1991.  In 1951, France tied Germany to Europe via coal and steel; in 1991 it did so with a single currency.  Margaret Thatcher was indeed opposed to Jacques Delors’ federalist moves and to François Mitterrand’s single currency.  But she was in favor of a European Community that would promote free trade (just like Hayek) and keep Germany in check (just like Churchill).  Indeed, Thatcher campaigned for Britain to remain in the EEC in the 1975 referendum (this week’s referendum in not the first).  Hence was her influence over European policy makers so crucial, and hence is Britain’s membership a must today in order to a make sure that the EU remains a free market that does not unduly infringe upon national sovereignty.

Today, Britain’s EU membership is critical not only to keep Germany in check, but also to ensure that Europe is united against Russian gangsterism.  Vladimir Putin is trying very hard to undo the geopolitical achievements to which Margaret Thatcher so contributed, namely the extension of the EU and of NATO to eastern Europe.  What started with Chechnya, with Crimea, and with eastern Ukraine will continue with the Baltic states, with Poland and with Romania if Europe does not display resolve and unity.  And an EU without Britain will be less principled and less determined.  It is no coincidence that Putin funds Europe’s populist parties that call for the dismantling of the EU.  Brexit would constitute a victory for Putin and a setback for the legacy of Winston Churchill and of Margaret Thatcher.

Israel has an in interest in preserving this legacy, because its geopolitical alternative is the unchecked empowerment of Russia and of Germany.  As Winston Churchill warned, one should never underestimate the danger “of the vain passion of a newly united Germany.”  As for Russia, it provided nuclear technology to Iran, it is the guardian of the Shia Iran-Assad-Hezbollah axis, and it aspires to dominate eastern Europe again.  Europe’s populist parties that are supported by Putin are against free trade and against the pro-American foreign policy of European conservatives.  Israelis who have developed a sympathy syndrome for those parties are entitled to do so, but then they shouldn’t call themselves conservatives or classic liberals.

Pro-Brexit Israelis should also come to their senses and realize that the likes of Peace Now and Adalah will not go bankrupt after the EU loses one member.  No EU member recognizes Israeli sovereignty beyond the green line, and Brexit will not change that.  Brexit will have no impact on the EU’s Middle East policy (although, as explained above, it will have dreadful geopolitical implications that will negatively affect Israel).

Israelis who support Brexit in the name of national sovereignty are mistaken as well.  The EU is not incompatible with national sovereignty, quite the contrary.  It is a fact that members can pull out whenever they want (as Britain might decide to do so this week).  And with all the hot air produced by the European Parliament and the bureaucracy of the European Commission, at the end truly important decisions are made by national governments (such as the decision to take in nearly a million Syrian refugees, a decision that was made by the German Chancellor and not by the President of the European Commission).  And precisely because the EU provides a supra-national structure, it makes nations that want to secede more confident.  The Czechs and Slovaks separated into two distinct nation-states in 1993, and both states joined the EU in 2004.  The Scots would unlikely have sought independence in 2014 without the geopolitical and economic security provided by the EU.

There is a lot to fix and improve about the EU.  Britain has been instrumental in keeping the EU in check and it must continue to do so.  Ultimately, though, the EU constitutes an unparalleled geopolitical achievement that put an end to wars between Germany and France, as well as an economic achievement that has institutionalized free-trade among protectionist-minded nations.  The Jews suffered from the old Europe, and the Jewish state has nothing to gain from a return to Europe’s old ways.


Desmond Tutu is Wrong about Marwan Barghouti (The Times of Israel, 14 June 2016)

By recommending Marwan Barghouti for the Peace Nobel Prize, Archbishop Desmond Tutu made two mistakes: firstly, by comparing the struggle of the Palestinians to that of South Africa’s Blacks; secondly, by depicting Barghouti as a peace-loving freedom fighter.

The Dutch and British colonists in South Africa were the subjects of empires that sent them to settle foreign lands on their behalf.  The Jews who resettled in their historic homeland at the end of the nineteenth century did so to gain the rights and the freedom they were denied in their host countries.  They were not sent by powers; they fled powerlessness.  The Blacks in South Africa were indigenous.  The Arabs of the Ottoman Sanjaks of Jerusalem and Beirut were themselves former colonizers: they came from Arabia, and in the 7th century conquered Jerusalem from the Byzantines.  Under Ottoman rule, there was no Palestine: this Latin word was chosen by the Romans after they destroyed the Province of Judea in 135 CE, and it was reintroduced by the League of Nations with the dismembering of the Ottoman Empire in 1922.

The Mandates established by the League on Nations (roughly along the lines of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement) were artificial: there were no Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian peoples, but Arabs (many of them nomads), Kurds, Jews and other populations that became separated by new borders designed by Britain and France.  In British Palestine, both Arabs and Jews were under foreign rule and both aspired to statehood.  Precisely because the two nations had competing and incompatible claims over the same territory, partition was proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937 and by the United Nations (UN) in 1947.  In both instances, the Jewish leadership accepted partition and the Arab leadership rejected it.

The UN plan of 1947 proposed the partition of British Palestine between a “Jewish state” and an “Arab state” (and not of a “Palestinian state” since no one had ever heard of a Palestinian people at the time).  Six Arab armies attacked the newly proclaimed State of Israel to prevent the implementation of the UN proposal.  The 1949 armistice agreements partitioned the former British Mandate de facto, though not along the lines proposed by the UN.  This de facto partition was between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan.  Rather than establishing a “Palestinian state” in the territories they had conquered from the former British Mandate, and which they controlled for eighteen years (between 1949 and 1967), Jordan and Egypt kept those territories for themselves (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, respectively).

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established in 1964, three years before Israel took control of the West Bank and of the Gaza Strip.  What the PLO meant by “liberation” was the elimination of pre-1967 Israel.  Its purpose was not to implement partition, but to undo it.  Only in 1988 did Yassir Arafat equivocally endorse, for the first time, the principle of partition.  When he was offered a state on 92% of the West Bank in July 2000 by Ehud Barak and on 96% of the West Bank in December 2000 by Bill Clinton, he said no.  As for Mahmoud Abbas, he did not respond to an even more far-reaching offer by Ehud Olmert in September 2008.

So blaming Israel, and Israel alone, for the Palestinians’ statelessness flies in the face of historical facts and of intellectual integrity.  As for Marwan Barghouthi, is he fighting for a two-state solution or for the elimination of Israel?  Here again, Archbishop Tutu should check his facts.

Barghouti has declared many times (e.g. in a statement issued on May 15, 2014) that there shall be no peace with Israel without the “right of return.”  What the Palestinians mean by the “right of return” is that the descendants from the 700,000 Palestinians refugees of 1948 (which UNWRA estimates at 5 million today) should be entitled to become Israeli residents and citizens.  Besides having no basis in international law and no precedent in history, such a “right” is incompatible with the two-state solution, since its implementation would turn pre-1967 Israel into a binational state with an Arab majority.  In a two-state model, each nation-state absorbs its own refugees, just as Israel did with many of the 900,000 Jewish refugees expelled from Arab and Muslim countries in the 1950s.  Clearly, Barghouti’s struggle continues to deny the Jews’ right to their own nation-state.

Barghouti was the leader of the military wing of the Al-Aqsa Brigades, which carried out thousands of deadly attacks (including suicide bombings) against Israeli civilians. These deadly attacks included the murder of a Greek Orthodox monk on June 12, 2001; the murder of six Israelis during a bar-mitzvah celebration on January 7, 2002; the murder of three Israelis in a shooting spree at a Tel-Aviv restaurant on March 5, 2002.  Barghouti was also directly responsible for operating the terrorist cell of Raed Karmi in Tulkarem, which carried out many deadly attacks against Israeli civilians.

As Alan Bauer, the victim of a terrorist attack masterminded by Barghouti, wrote to President Obama in March 2014: “We cannot re-wind the clock and make the injuries and suffering disappear; the one thing we can do is to pursue justice and to do everything in our power to prevent terrorists from striking again.”  Archbishop Tutu would be well-advised to ponder those words.


My Advice to French Diplomacy (The Times of Israel, 15 May 2016)

There is something symbolic about the fact that Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s foreign minister, visited Israel to promote his peace initiative on the day commemorated by the Palestinians as the Nakba (the “catastrophe” of Israel’s independence on May 15, 1948).  In the Palestinian national psyche, the true historical scar is the loss of lands and homes in 1948, not Israel’s seizure of the West Bank and of the Gaza Strip in 1967.  Yet Mr. Ayrault, like most of his Western colleagues, insists that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved by solely addressing the outcome of the 1967 war.

When Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed a Declaration of Principles in September 1993, they left open the questions of Jerusalem and of the refugees precisely because no agreement could be reached on those thorny issues.  When Jerusalem and the refugees were addressed and negotiated at Camp David in July 2000, and after the Annapolis Conference of November 2007, the gap between Israel and the Palestinians remained unbridgeable and unresolved.

The rejection by Yasser Arafat of Ehud Barak’s proposal in July 2000 and of the Clinton parameters in December 2000, and Mahmoud Abbas’ lack of response to Ehud Olmert’s September 2008 offer, have made Israelis distrustful of the Palestinian leadership (thus dealing a fatal blow to the Israeli left).  And when Israelis look around their neighborhood today, they have good reasons to wonder what is the logic of creating another failed Arab state at their doorstep.

The implosion of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen have not only confirmed the artificiality of the post-World War One Arab states carved out of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France.  They have also removed two formerly threatening armies from Israel’s northern and eastern fronts (Syria and Iraq).    In Egypt, the Islamic regime of Mohamed Morsi was replaced in 2014 by that of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi –thus restoring the “cold peace” and security cooperation between Israel and Egypt.  The self-proclaimed “Caliphate” of the Islamic State is still spreading mayhem around the Middle East despite nearly two years of US-led airstrikes.  The growing regional clout of Iran has forged tacit alliances between Israel and Sunni monarchies.  Meanwhile, plunging oil prices have weakened Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

Just like Richelieu’s France during the Thirty Years War, Israel can sit back and build unholy alliances as its enemies are killing each other.  In today’s Middle East, Israel has every reason to play for time.  Except, that is, when it comes to demography.  And this is where Jean-Marc Ayrault and his colleagues can play a constructive role.

The conventional wisdom of European diplomacy is that Israel should accept the so-called “Arab Peace Initiative.”  Yet this initiative is as clear-cut on the territorial issue (Israel is expected to withdraw from every inch of land conquered in 1967, something that is not even required by UN Security Resolution 242) as it is vague on the question of refugees (it calls for a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem, which the Palestinians interpret as a “right of return” within Israel).  If American and European diplomats want to make themselves useful and credible, they need to be equally explicit about both the territory and the refugee issues: if Israel is to abandon the West Bank, the Palestinians are to abandon the “right of return.”

Were the US and the EU to officially endorse this trade-off, Israel would have better reasons to consider a partial disengagement from the West Bank for its own demographic interest, but on the condition that the US and the EU commit to endorse a modified and more viable status quo so long as the Palestinians refuse to abandon the “right of return.”  Such trade-off will not solve the conflict, but it might give Israel an incentive to act and it might convince the Palestinians that the era of diplomatic free rides is over.  Short of such modest yet potentially far-reaching paradigm shift, Mr. Ayrault will once again confirm the French saying: “Plus ça change, et plus c’est la même chose.”

Israel’s New NGO Bill Will Reveal Hidden Agendas (Newsweek, 10 January 2016)

State Department spokesman John Kirby has publicly rejected the comparison between the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and a recently proposed Israeli bill on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) funded by foreign governments.  Kirby, however, did not explain why he rejects such comparison.  He certainly knows why: there is no explanation.  In fact, FARA is stricter than the proposed Israeli bill.

FARA requires agents who lobby on behalf of foreign governments to register with the Department of Justice, and to report their activities and finances.  The purpose of FARA is to prevent the deception of US lawmakers by lobbyists who actually act on behalf of foreign governments in order to influence US policy making and legislation.  Lobbyists who do not comply with FARA can be severely punished.  In March 2012, for example, Kashmir-born US lobbyist Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai was sentenced to two years of imprisonment by a US court for not reporting a $3.5 million donation from the Pakistani government.

The proposed Israeli bill would require Israeli NGOs that receive more than half of their funding from “foreign political entities” (i.e. the European Commission and European Governments) to make that information public whenever they lobby elected Israeli officials and whenever they publish their reports.  The proposed bill does not restrict the activities of NGOs, neither does it limit the amount of money they can receive from foreign governments.  Rather, the bill enables lawmakers to know whether or not they are being lobbied by an organization acting on behalf of foreign governments.  NGOs whose funding is mostly governmental can hardly claim to be “non-governmental” and not to promote the agenda of the governments that fund them.

In recent years, the extent of European meddling in Israeli politics via supposedly “non-governmental” organizations has reached unprecedented levels.  Both the European Commission and European governments donate dozens of millions of Euros every year to Israeli NGOs that influence Israel’s decision-making and that affect Israel’s international standing.  Some of these NGOs are active in the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) campaign; some support the so-called Palestinian “right of return” (which is incompatible with the two-state solution); some petition Israel’s High Court of Justice to amend laws passed by the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

For example, the High Court of Justice was petitioned twice (in 2006 and in 2012) to amend Israel’s citizenship law so as to enable “family reunifications” between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from the West Bank.  Yet the purpose of the petitioners (among them NGOs funded by European governments) was to open a back-door channel for the granting of Israeli citizenship to Palestinians (via fictitious marriages).  In 2009, European-funded Israeli NGOs actively testified to the Goldstone Commission, whose final report accused Israel of intentionally committing war crimes during its military operation in Gaza (an accusation later retracted by Judge Richard Goldstone himself).

If European governments want to influence Israel’s policies, they should do so via the accepted diplomatic channels.  If they choose to hide their game, that game should be exposed.  Under the proposed Israeli transparency bill, government-funded NGOs will continue to operate freely and to receive unlimited amounts of foreign donations.  But those NGOs will now have to reveal up-front to Israeli elected officials the identity and agenda of their backers.