We've recently heard negative comments from ranking officials of the United States about two issues in our headlines. There's a feeling of being scalded for poor behavior. In this case, however, the teacher comes to the scolding with dirty hands, or behavior that is hardly different from what Israel is said to be doing wrong.
One issue concerns a proposed that has passed the government and is waiting consideration in Knesset. It would require non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive more than 50 percent of their funds from foreign governments to identify themselves as such.
These are left of center organizations that claim association with civil or human rights, and are chronic critics of what the Israeli authorities do, or fail to do with respect to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.
Most of the money at issue comes from European governments.
According to those NGOs, assorted Europeans, and officials of the Obama administration, the proposed measure would reduce the quality of Israel's democracy.
Probably not any more than a long time US regulation that paid agents of foreign governments identify themselves as such.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act was enacted in 1938 and amended several times since. In 2007, the Justice Department reported that some 1,700 lobbyists were paid by more than 100 countries that wanted something from the US Government.
Israelis are still pondering the details in legislation proposed by the Minister of Justice. The Prime Minister has indicated his support, but would take out the provision that would require lobbyists of foreign-supported NGOs to wear a distinctive tag when in the Knesset.
The entire issue is a storm in a tea cup. It won't stop organizations from expressing their desires or criticism of officials' actions. It would only indicate who stands behind them, paying for what they express. Much of that is already known on account of media reports, or could be learned by anyone interested.
The US applies its similar regulation selectively. AIPAC has been one of the test cases. Some have said it should register as an agent of Israel, while others have insisted--so far successfully--that it is an organization of Americans, supported financially by American, and staffed by Americans expressing concerns for issues that interest them as Americans.
The furor about Israel's proposal resembles those around efforts to regulate campaign finance. The laws and evasions are plentiful enough to relegate it all to the bin containing political blather. No one should doubt that money, some of it from outside a country's borders, is spent for the purpose of influencing elections. How much influence occurs is something that evades a clear answer in a democratic setting where lots of other things also influence elections.
The second scolding isn't much different. The US Ambassador made a sweeping accusation that Israel applies laws differently against Jews and Palestinians on the West Bank. The Prime Minister took advantage of the timing to say that the Ambassador chose a day when a mother of six had been murdered by a Palestinian to criticize inaccurately Israel's actions in the West Bank.
This commotion raises several issues.
Israelis can claim that they are engaged in low-level, but chronic warfare against the Palestinians of the West Bank. Their treatment of cases against Palestinians, or against Jews who are said to have committed acts against Palestinians, should be judged in context.
Moreover, the Americans who criticize Israelis' handling of the West Bank might also consider their own actions with respect to Afghan and Iraqi civilians in recent years, and currently Syrians. Foreigners kept without trial in Guantanamo and prisons maintained for Americans in Eastern Europe--in order to avoid US laws that apply on US soil--appear to be no better off than West Bank Palestinians caught in the net of Israeli authorities.
There are other complications with respect to the application of law on the West Bank that raise a question about the broadside condemnation by the US Ambassador.
The area at question is not Israel and it's not Palestine. Jurisdictions overlap in ways that confuse assessment. Elements of Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian law, regulation, or administrative practice prevail, with bits still there from Turkish and British rule, with the Israeli regulations further divided between what comes under military or civilian authorities, each with their own laws and procedures.
It's easy for ideologically inspired critics--typically financed by foreign governments--to charge Israelis with improper motivation, and to publish their reports of cases where they conclude that officials acted improperly. What is difficult, and so far not provided, is a convincing overall assessment, reflecting an analysis of all relevant cases or a representative sample, and taking into account the aggression of Palestinians, the various problems of law and jurisdiction, the actions of officials associated with the Palestine Authority, Israeli civilian or military authorities.
Also dirtying the hands of US officials who criticize Israel for mistreating Palestinians are the ample stories of US police who have mistreated minorities. It would not be difficult to array cases that suggest Israeli police and courts are no less fair with respect to Palestinians or Israeli Arabs than are their American equivalents with respect to Blacks.
We haven't heard directly from Barack Obama on these matters, but they carry the same tune as his Cairo speech of 2009 that was said to have produced the hopeful developments of Arab Spring. The speech is also the best explanation for Obama's Nobel Peace Prize. Recent reports suggest that he may parley the Cairo speech, his Nobel Prize, and other presidential sentiments into the position of Secretary General of the United Nations when he leaves office.
There are opponents who will make the point that Arab Spring was short lived, while the violence of Arab Winter seems likely to continue for years to come.
If a Democrat wins the Presidency, she or he may use the country's political weight to get Obama the top UN job when the term of Ban Ki-Moon expires. If a Republican win office, Barack should contemplate heading an institute, and writing books.
No Israeli should claim complete innocence in any matter, or reject all criticism from inside and outside.
Neither should an Israeli feel compelled to accept criticism such as in the cases described here, hang his or her head, and walk quietly to the corner of the classroom, without asking the teacher, "What about you?"
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem