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By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Not a Swiss watch

 


Politics does not operate like a Swiss watch.

The image is outdated but remains useful.

The overwhelming majority of watches are electronic, run by batteries and tiny programs rather than by springs and cog wheels made and assembled by skilled craftsmen in Swiss villages. Word is that more and more people are doing without watches as well as cameras, and relying on telephones that do those jobs and many others.

However, the image of something that ticks along in orderly fashion and does its job with modest efficiency is useful in order to describe, by contrast, what politics is not.

We need no better demonstrations of the messy realities than Israel’s new government, and—next door and in some places right among us—Palestinian preparations for Barack Obama’s visit.

The Swiss watch image of an orderly government is that of Ministries, each housed in its own building, responsible for a fixed portion of governmental functions that fit together, and headed by a political appointee who represents its needs to the collective government, legislature and the public.

The newest Israeli reality is a collection of “Ministries” cobbled together from disparate functions, much more for the purpose of keeping as many politicians as happy as possible than for anything having to do with orderly administration.

That part of me under the heading of professor of public administration is about to stutter in embarrassment.

That part of me under the heading of professor of political science is excited by the prospect of explaining the creativity of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the prospect of following what happens into the near future.

Some of the Ministries are, at least partly, conventional. They include Defense, Finance, Health, Justice, Housing, Welfare, Communications, Domestic Security (i.e., police), Transportation, Industry and Trade, Education, Environmental Protection, Agriculture, Science, Tourism and Immigrant Absorption. 

What gets interesting, and hard to decide how they will operate is a Ministry assembled to include Water, Energy, Development of the Negev and Galilee, and Regional Cooperation.

It is not clear if Regional Cooperation refers to the Middle East. If it does, there won’t be much work in the case of most neighbors who would rather cooperate with Satan than with Israel.

Another Ministry will deal with Intelligence and International Strategy, some of which had been within the realms of Foreign Affairs or Defense, and leads again to the question about the meaning of Regional Cooperation.

The Housing Ministry will not have within it the Israel Lands Authority. That is assigned to someone else, which means that the marriage between decisions about land for housing and the construction of housing may not be a happy one.

Homeland Defense has been coupled with Communications, even though it would seem to fit better with Defense or Domestic Security. Also in the same portfolio with Communications is responsibility for the International Campaign against Iran’s Nuclear Weapons. An orderly mind would have put that in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

There is a Ministry of Sport and Culture, even though people who are concerned with one tend not to bother about the other, or even look down their noses at those concerned with the other.

A Ministry of Pensioners is not likely to do more than distribute ID cards when aging Israelis reach the point of being entitled to discounts on public transportation, cinema tickets and a few other goodies. The new Minister of Pensioners may feel that it is his task to complain about insufficient benefits for older Israelis, but then he might be stepping on the toes of the Welfare Minister.

Details of what is cobbled with what may change before the Prime Minister asks the Knesset to approve all of the above, or as the new government gets up and running, just as they changed between when most of us went to bed last night [March 17] and the early morning news.

Also in play are appointments to the Inner Cabinet, which may meet in secret and makes the decisions that get Israel most of its attention in myths and reality. Signs are that the Prime Minister has used membership in this body as a sweetener to ministers not happy with the administrative functions they managed to win.

Not a few Knesset Members, especially of Likud (ostensibly but perhaps not really the “ruling party” due to the alliance between Lapid and Bennett), are disappointed with the results, and may be waiting to use their votes against the Prime Minister, or be absent from the Knesset when he needs their votes. Some have been assuaged by an appointment as Deputy Minister to one or another Ministry, with fuzzy or nonexistent duties; others by slots as chair of a Knesset committee, which vary from the important to meaningless. Netanyahu offered to one of the unhappy youngsters, Tsipi Hotovely, the slot of Deputy Minister of Justice, but the designated minister Tsipi Livni nixed the deal. The problem was not two Tsipis in the same building, but a clear difference between them on the matter of Palestine, which Tsipi Livni has taken as her main mission.

But she is likely to be disappointed, either by the Palestinians or by the Israeli Prime Minister, or by the minister with responsibility for Regional Cooperation, which presumably has something to do with Palestine, or by the Minister of Trade and Industry, who heads Jewish Home with more Knesset votes than Livni and strongly opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state.

Missing from all of the above is a real Minister of Foreign Affairs. The function is usually ranked among the most prestigious slots along with Defense and Finance. However, politics has risen its many heads and has kept the function in limbo since 2009. Avigdor Lieberman was the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2009 to 2012, but was shunned by ranking politicians in the major capitals of Europe and North America. Lieberman retains enough clout (of questionable basis) for Netanyahu to hold the position open for him while he deals with a trial for corruption. Netanyahu is formally the Minister of Foreign Affairs along with his real function of Prime Minister. He has appointed Zeev Elkin, one of the rising Likud MKs to be the Deputy Minister, presumably with the mission of actually running the ministry. However, the professional diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have signaled that Elkin lacks the experience and charm necessary to deal with the worthies of the world.

Whether this will make a difference, only time will tell. The noise reminds me of tensions between political appointees to ambassadorships in the United States who received snotty treatment from who they called the “cookie pushers” of the State Department. Some of the same has been occurring here since 2009 and seems likely to continue.

The Palestinians do not have much of a government to cause worry about the distribution of functions, but they do have politics that are messy enough.

Leaving aside the macro split between the West Bank and Gaza, compounded by one controlled by the “moderate” Fatah and the other by the rejectionist Hamas, there are more quarrels than consensus within the West Bank focused on how—if at all—to receive the visiting U.S. President.

One cluster put the emphasis on protesting the lack of infrastructure that would permit the use of “smart phones,” of a 3G capacity throughout the West Bank. Others sneer at the materialistic concerns of younger, up and coming gadgeteers, and demanded that officials take down the posters reading “President Obama, don’t bring your smart phone to Ramallah; you won’t have mobile access to Internet; we have no 3G in Palestine!” 

According to one opponent of the posters, “The Palestinian cause is much bigger than the issue of 3G….This is a very silly idea that does not help the Palestinians.”

Opponents of the 3G posters did not agree on what they wanted to emphasize. Some stressed the “Judaization” of Jerusalem, the refusal of Israel to release Palestinian prisoners (many of who have been sentenced to multiple life sentences for multiple murders), settlement construction, or the inability of Palestine to pay the salaries of its public servants.

Yet others objected altogether to Obama’s entry into Palestine. They see him as nothing more than a supporter of Israel, with his visit meant to soothe the feelings of Israelis and American Jews, or to reinforce the prestige of Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues, who others see as corrupt, impotent and a barrier to the Palestinians true interests.

Remember that messy politics is a sign of democracy, or at least of considerable personal freedom. Impressive order comes from a strong leader and security forces that are loyal, disciplined and willing to break the heads (or worse) of those who object to the ruler’s dictates. Part of the complex realities of Israel and Palestine is that neither is run like a Swiss watch.

Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

 

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