Isaiah Berlin and the supreme omelette | Abraham Accords, Trump and China's Belt and Road Initiative

Isaiah Berlin's pearls of wisdom should not go unheeded and the underreported implications of the Abraham Accords.

What Isaiah Berlin can teach Israel’s political leadership

Isaiah Berlin, a Latvian-born British social and political theorist, was one of the foremost thinkers of the modern era and a leading proponent of liberal thought.

Many of Berlin’s essays discuss liberty and the uneasy relationship between the individual and the State. While it has been nearly 24 years since Berlin’s death, his thoughts carry great weight and can be applied to current events, especially now that Covid authoritarianism is on the rise among liberal democracies.

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Abraham Accords, Trump and China’s Belt and Road Initiative

The Abraham Accords is widely seen solely through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict with once hostile sides coming together to herald a new peaceful era for the region. While the peace agreement between Israel and the two Gulf nations, UAE and Bahrain, is a major step towards wider normalization between Israel and the Arab world, and a show of strength against Iranian expansionism and aggression, it can also be seen as a strategic masterstroke by the Trump administration to counter China’s aspirations to exert Beijing’s power in the Middle East and beyond.

Indeed, with Abraham Accords, when zoomed out of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a different picture emerges.

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What happened to Benjamin Netanyahu?

The Israeli public is held captive by one man’s quest for victory, even when that victory is neither attainable or desirable.

Israel is by no means unique on the world stage in instituting policies that are wreaking economic and social havoc to fight the invisible enemy. What makes the country's experience uniquely sad, however, is the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, largely responsible for liberalizing Israel’s economy with sweeping reforms is now, with undeterred determination, destroying the economy he helped build, and consequently, bringing many small business owners to their knees as well as setting back a generation of children by closing schools.

Netanyahu and his cadre of health advisors have decided that a successful approach to Covid-19 requires a near-total shutdown of the economy and a subservient population willing to sacrifice earthly pursuits and aspirations for the collective good.

Considering that Netanyahu is a renowned supply side economist, a believer in free enterprise and individual liberty, as evidenced by his contributions to the Israeli economy, such an approach seems, to put it mildly, odd and unbecoming.

Indeed, much of Israel's past 15 years of growth can be attributed to Netanyahu who, before his reign as longest serving prime minister, served as Minister of Finance in Ariel Sharon's government from 2003 to 2006 until becoming prime minister in 2009.

As Finance Minister, Netanyahu introduced and rammed through far-ranging reforms in an attempt to modernize the Israeli economy and help free it from its socialist shackles.

Under Netanyahu's tutelage, the top individual tax rate was cut from 64% to 44% and corporate taxes decreased from 36% to 18% with government spending capped for three years. As a result, unemployment dropped and the tax rate went from 35.6% of GDP in 2000 to 30.5% in 2015. 

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel began to abandon its often romanticized past of socialist ideals. The emergence of prosperous Israel with a roaring economy showed many Israelis that free enterprise without excessive government intervention was far superior to the empty promises of a socialist utopia. In many ways, Netanyahu - even with the ongoing investigations - has been a force for good and more importantly, a facilitator of a more free, better Israel.

So, what happened?

With numerous political victories, as evidenced by his ability to retain the premiership for 12 years during which he has marginalized or altogether destroyed his political opponents, Netanyahu is perhaps uniquely determined and successful in pursuing policy objectives. 

Netanyahu seldom loses a battle and almost always wins the war. He has crafted Israel's political map in his image to the extent of running circles around his dumbfounded opponents. With strategic mastery, he is undoubtedly, in a league of his own (to borrow from his own election campaign slogans).

These same qualities - determination and stubbornness - are visible today, perhaps more than ever in the way Netanyahu is handling Covid, with one crucial exception:  His government’s Covid strategy is rapidly destroying decades of progress he helped achieve.

This stubbornness is perhaps felt most in the way it has impacted a generation of Israeli children. Knowing that children are not at risk, Netanyahu has insisted on keeping schools - and even kindergartens - closed for months.

Netanyahu seems to have embraced the notion that in a Covid-crazed world a leader must show disregard towards the many implications authoritarian Covid policies have on the society at large in order to guarantee victory against the invisible enemy, no matter the cost.

Indeed, Netanyahu has not shown remorse or recognized the many terrible implications - such as rise in unemployment, domestic violence and suicides - of his government’s policies.

When Israel emerged “victorious” from the first wave, Netanyahu was proudly educating foreign leaders on how to beat the pandemic. When the so-called second wave hit and Israel was reeling, Bibi was forced to accept the taste of shame as case numbers climbed. 

Perhaps the fear of shame - and the subsequent insistence on staying the course - is what strengthened Netanyahu’s resolve in pursuing a destructive and stubborn Covid strategy. The many leaks from cabinet meetings reveal an obstinate, undeterred Prime Minister not to be reasoned with.

The indefatigability with which Netanyahu is pursuing policies that are greatly harming the Israeli economy and deeply damaging the future of a generation of Israeli children are perhaps made from the same cloth as the determination he showed in modernizing the Israeli economy. Unfortunately for the people of Israel and unlike in previous times, this determination is not serving them well.

Today, the Israeli public is held captive by one man’s quest for victory, even when that victory is neither attainable or desirable.

Israel’s health officials run amok

Israel’s political leadership and the country’s health officials demand obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom. This, for lack of a better word, is what authoritarianism looks like.

Israel’s Covid response has been an abject failure. The government has failed children by closing schools, contributed to a surge in depression and suicides, destroyed the economy by banning tourism and keeping shops and restaurants closed and turned a blind eye to the rise of multiple health issues due to the incessant, hubris-laden focus on killing Covid. 

At the helm of Israel’s response team is of course Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with top health officials Yuli Edelstein, Minister of Health, Chezy Levy, the Director General of Health Ministry and Sharon Alroy-Preis, Health Ministry's Head of Public Services, offering their ongoing advice and recommendations on suitable policy options.

On the surface, Israel’s political leadership is doing the right thing by seeking the advice of experts in deciding the best possible policy options to counter the spread of the virus.

However, since all modern democracies, - yes, Israel is still technically a democracy - require checks and balances on those in power, what happens when no one is functioning as a check on the decision-makers or their advisors? What happens when dissenting viewpoints are actively stifled and available scientific evidence dismissed?

The decision-making establishment has decided that draconian, individual liberty-destroying measures are the only way to kill the virus, with the national media - failing in its duty to function as a check on those in a position of power - happily amplifying and reinforcing this carefully manufactured consensus while helping drown out dissenting voices. 

As Exhibit A of this, a major Danish study published recently found no evidence that masks protect wearers from Covid. Yet, in Israel masks remain mandatory indoors and outdoors. Regardless of mounting evidence that challenges the current mask mandate, it is highly unlikely that Israeli government would reconsider revising its mask policy. 

Moshe Feiglin, Head of Israel’s Zehut party, recently wrote about Israel’s descent into authoritarianism and predicted that the government would introduce a vaccine mandate.

Today, Health minister Yuli Edelstein declared that he is planning a law to make coronavirus vaccination compulsory.

Neither Feiglin or the vast majority of Israelis oppose vaccines, but in a democratic country the government should not be able to force it into the veins of its people. 

The planned forced vaccination is only one of the many destructive policies advocated and implemented by Israel’s democratically elected politicians and their unelected health whisperers.

The government, sadly, is unable to deal with complexities, nor does it understand the power of unintended consequences. For example, school closures have implications beyond the government’s imagination.

In a healthy democracy, decision-makers would be kept in check and society-altering policies would be debated and more often than not, rejected.

The government and health officials are ignoring a slew of inconvenient facts. One such fact being Covid-19’s impact on children. Studies show that seasonal flu is more dangerous to children than Covid. Yet, Edelstein recently admitted that the country will not have enough flu vaccines for the early months of winter. 

In a different time, Edelstein would hand in his resignation for failing to meet a basic responsibility of a ministry he was appointed to lead. 

In addition to medical matters, health officials have decided to become de facto arbiters of what is permissible or acceptable by pushing the idea of an imaginary collective of citizens where all pursuits, professional or recreational, should be put aside to fight the invisible enemy.

When asked why Israelis were not able to fly abroad during the October lockdown, Alroy-Preis said that this was for reasons of equality. Prime Minister Netanyahu later gave tacit support to this statement by saying that “the reason was to avoid gathering and to maintain solidarity.”

Alroy-Preis could have chosen to underline health concerns of flying, which aren’t significant, but instead decided to cancel freedom of movement, one of the fundamental tenets of a free society. Again, in a pre-Covid era, a Knesset committee or other relevant body would have convened to discuss the dismissal of Alroy-Preis for overstepping her authority. Even better, Altory-Preis would have resigned voluntarily and announced a leave of absence for much-needed soul-searching. 

In a recent interview, Chezy Levy said that democracy is a good thing, but not very helpful in fighting Covid. Levy’s statement echoes the thinking of Israel’s political and health leadership. 

Israelis should be enraged by unelected health officials and their enablers in the government for their nonchalance and dismissive posturing towards the sacredness of personal freedoms.

By denying basic rights, government-supported health officials look at individuals simply as potential Covid-spreaders. By denying recreational activities or freedom of movement, the government is ignoring the many terrible consequences of its own policies, such as domestic violence, child abuse, alcoholism, obesity and many other ails that are caused by lockdowns, presenting a real and present threat to the health and happiness of Israelis.

Israel’s political leadership and the country’s health officials, in their quest to kill the virus, have abandoned the “first, do no harm” principle by demanding obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom. This, for lack of a better word, is what authoritarianism looks like.

Israel and the rise of health technocrats

The rise of health officials as policymakers is an unhealthy development.

A worrying development in Israel's current management of the ongoing pandemic has been the emergence and rise of health professionals as policymakers.

Unlike military officials, who, in a representative democracy, do not make policy, but rather advise civilian decision-makers, health professionals have taken over the public discourse with daily doomsday scenarios, press briefings and finger-wagging. 

The global mortality rate for the virus is 0.13% according to latest data from WHO, - and much lower for children - with most infected children showing no symptoms, and evidence suggesting children are not superspreaders.

With zero real evidence to back his position, Gamzu, Israel’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu is against opening schools, calling it dangerous. Israel’s Health Ministry released a new report recently apparently showing high coronavirus rates among kids, and warned that sending children back to schools at a time of high COVID-19 morbidity “may accelerate the spread of the virus.” It also claimed that children are superspreaders “since 51% to 70% of them do not show symptoms of the virus, and said that in 17 cases tracked by the Health Ministry, children managed to infect over 10 of their peers”. 

However, Ronit Calderon-Margalit, a Gamzu adviser, said the Health Ministry drew the wrong conclusions from the report. She told Times of Israel that the report “seems to misinterpret data in a way that blames children in the propagation of disease,” and that “the report reflects a misconception that schools are behind the latest outbreak.”

“The reopening of schools on September 1 was not the vector for the outbreak, and you cannot assume that closing them on the 17th was the reason for the decline in morbidity,” she said.

A paper published in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in August  suggests that “SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools may be less important in community transmission than initially feared. This would be another manner by which SARS-CoV-2 differs drastically from influenza, for which school-based transmission is well recognized as a significant driver of epidemic disease and forms the basis for most evidence regarding school closures as a public health strategy.”

More importantly, continued school closures risk “scarring the life chances of a generation of young people,” according to an open letter published last month and signed by more than 1500 members of the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

A study released in early 2020, showed that a full third of Israeli children live below the poverty line and among the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities, nearly two-thirds are considered poor. 

Few seem to appreciate the consequences of continued school closures. Lower-income children who are entirely dependent on school meals go hungry and there’s mounting evidence that children are suffering increased abuse in the absence of school staff identifying and reporting signs of domestic abuse.

Perhaps experts like Dr. Gamzu are the problem.

The cognitive science literature suggests that the highly educated and intelligent are unable to rethink or reformulate their beliefs, or to adjust viewpoints when presented with evidence that contradicts their prior beliefs. Helen Dale, writing in CapX, observed that this is “because they are typically better equipped to poke holes in data or arguments that contradict their views.”

All of this begs the terrifying question: are health officials actually interested in, or even capable of addressing the validity of their own beliefs, even in the face of new evidence? The rise of health officials as key decision-makers behind destructive lockdowns and school closures is unhealthy, and a development unbecoming of a country that has a proud tradition of sanctifying life.

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Daniel Kahneman, Covid-19 and the Cascade of Fear

Kahneman provides us a perfect explanation of what we are witnessing today and how low risk scenarios cascade into oversized ones.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, published in 2011, Tel Aviv-born winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, Daniel Kahneman examines the dichotomy between two modes of thought: System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional, System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. 

One of the book’s chapters, The science of availability, discusses availability cascade, a concept first developed by Timor Kuran and Cass Sunstein.

“Sunstein came to believe that biased reactions to risks are an important source of erratic and misplaced priorities in public policy. Lawmakers and regulators may be overly responsive to the irrational concerns of citizens, both because of political sensitivity and because they are prone to the same cognitive biases as other citizens.”

Kahneman expands on the theory and by doing so provides us a perfect explanation of what we are witnessing today, with low risk scenarios cascading into oversized ones.

“An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by ‘availability entrepreneurs,’ individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile; anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a ‘heinous cover-up.’ The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.”

When considering the low mortality rate of Covid-19, Kahneman’s words ring true around the world, with the media, unrepentant in its insatiable hunger for hysteria, - and clicks - continuously drumming up a frenzy of panic porn. The loud noise of the screaming headlines is designed to keep other viewpoints out of the public forum. The media elites willingly use religiously-laden language - such as David Horovitz of Times of Israel, as seen below - to shame those seen as acting against a collective interest and politicians and health officials openly stifle debate.

When applied to Israel, the protagonists in Kahneman’s analysis are easy to identify. The Prime Minister in legal trouble, the media apparatus hunting for clicks, the technocratic health officials drunk from power and misguided public adulation, the health czar who has now assumed the role of police commissioner - all perfectly in line with the characters that comprise Kahneman’s availability cascade. 

In Israel, the availability cascade has not merely reset priorities, but has completely upended the prevailing order and tossed Israel into a cascade of fear with the government and public feeding off of each other’s hysteria, further escalating the situation.

The speed at which global governments have acted to quell the rise and spread of Covid-19 has overwhelmed many, to the extent of total mental paralysis. The ongoing reversal of civil liberties and individual rights should force us all to think clearly and to fully understand what we are witnessing.

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