One common lament of the Trump era is the populist backlash against expertise; it is the subject of a popular book by the political scientist Tom Nichols and much consternation among experienced and educated policy professionals in Washington. This is perhaps most evident in the elevation of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt to senior positions involving peacemaking in the Middle East, for which each are thoroughly and comically unqualified. But it can also be seen in economic policy, where tariffs that would’ve never been entertained within administrations that valued expertise are being implemented, and advisors previously regarded as cranks and pundits are elevated to positions of responsibility.

The origins of this backlash are clear enough and not entirely baseless: the policy establishment has made more than its fair share of bad calls in recent years. Despite the efforts of some brave dissenters, most serious policy analysts believed Iraq had an active development program for weapons of mass destruction; many said the “fundamentals” of the economy were healthy mere months before it crashed; in the face of obvious suffering and desperation in poorer countries, bureaucrats in Brussels and Berlin insisted that tough austerity measures were the right response to a global economic crisis; and in Israel, the public was told that disengagement from Gaza would bring quiet and make them more secure.

While on the whole I believe the Gaza disengagement was a net gain for Israel, this is an understandably tough sell to a public that’s endured three Gaza-related wars in the ten years following the withdrawal of settlers from the coastal territory. This is chiefly because such a case can only be argued counterfactually, with the Second Intifada as a reference to how it all could have been much worse these past thirteen years, which is not awfully convincing when there have been three recent wars.

Still, while not unassailable, expertise plays a valuable and irreplaceable role in policymaking. It provides a check against ideological extremes­­––there is no greater enemy of sweeping revolution than the bureaucracy tasked to implement it––and serves as an independent or quasi-independent authority in public discourse. Though much of the establishment was indeed wrong about Iraq’s weapons program, they were right about Syria’s; political distrust of foreign policy elites, few of whom wholeheartedly endorsed President Obama’s inconsistent and indecisive policy toward the civil war in Syria, often leads to poor strategies.

Antipathy toward policy elites can emerge from both the populist left and right. In Israel, it’s most often come from the latter camp, one result of its many decades being sidelined in the opposition. Most recently, it’s manifested itself in government policy with the response to the “March for Return” on the Gaza border, but it’s also been evident in the government’s policies regarding the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, construction in the West Bank, and continued opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear agreement.

Gaza did not suddenly transform into a powder keg overnight. As recently as two months ago, the IDF warned the government that the humanitarian situation in the territory was unsustainable and posed a serious security threat to Israel. Major Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the Israeli military official responsible for administering the occupation, has gone as far as suggesting a Marshall Plan for Gaza. The United Nations, too, has predicted disaster. But, as Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Ha’aretz this week, “Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, have steadfastly refused to discuss any long-term solution for Gaza’s predicament,” most likely out of political considerations that cut against expert advice.

Nowhere did these considerations fly in the face of the outsize benefits of reasonable policymaking than in Netanyahu’s abrupt cancellation of an agreement reached yesterday with the UNHCR over the resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees from Africa. The plan would have effectively allowed Israel to only settle a little more than half the refugees who have arrived in Israel, now totaling around 37,000, with 16,250 finding homes in the West instead of Rwanda and Uganda, where Israel had planned to deport them and advocates say they would have faced incredible hardship if not outright persecution.

Israel was not planning to deport every single asylum seeker, especially women and children, to Rwanda. This agreement would’ve produced a similar end result, but with a stamp of approval from “the experts”–– civil society NGOs, foreign governments, the United Nations, and American Jewish organizations (who have now been burned twice by the Prime Minister in less than one year)­­. Instead, Netanyahu cancelled the agreement at the behest of Naftali Bennett and Tzipi Hotovely, who have no policy to fall back on besides a deeply unpalatable one––and, apparently, a non-implementable one, since by Netanyahu’s own admission Rwanda is no longer willing to absorb deported asylum seekers from Israel.

Gaza and refugees are not the only issues on which Israel’s government disregards the overwhelming consensus among experts in favor of policies that sound tough to its base. Few if any security professionals see benefits in new settlement construction, especially deep inside the West Bank, but this did not stop the government from passing legislation last year to create a legalization process for such outposts built on private Palestinian land.

Similarly, the security establishment does not share Netanyahu’s unmoving opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement and evident desire to see it nixed by the Trump administration––an increasingly likely possibility with John Bolton set to join the administration this month as National Security Advisor. On the same day as violence broke out on the Gaza border, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said in an interview that, “Right now the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.” It’s true many defense officials in Israel preferred the pre-JCPOA status quo; however, unlike Netanyahu, they understand the United States can’t unilaterally recreate that dynamic without the support of the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, none of whom share Israel’s particular fears about the Iranian regime.

It’s clear that following an anti-establishment foreign policy will do no good for Israel. But as long as it benefits Netanyahu with his base, on which he will become more dependent as corruption investigations dent his broader popularity, expect Israel to continue indulging ideologues over experts,­ and paying an unnecessary and patently avoidable price to its international image and credibility.

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