How drug-smuggling in Israel could cause headaches for the USA

The Catha edulis plant, commonly known as khat, contains various alkaloids and other compounds that have psychotropic properties.  It is often used as a recreational drug, and its use as such is legal in Israel but outlawed in many other jurisdictions, including most of Europe.

This has caused confusion and, worse yet, has made many young Israelis susceptible to being persuaded by illicit traffickers to illegally bring khat from Israel, where it is legal, to other places where it is not.  And khat is not the only substance for which young Israelis have been made unwitting mules.  In 2008, three young Israeli yeshiva students caused an international diplomatic dust-up when they were caught bringing ecstasy pills into Japan; they had been assured that the items in the suitcases given to them in Amsterdam were legal antiques.

More recently, in 2019, two young ladies were arrested at London Stansted Airport with large quantities of drugs, apparently including khat, apparently similarly hoodwinked into being mules by drug-traffickers.

Now there is a developing story of four young Israeli women being arrested and detained in Bulgaria for attempting to smuggle 90 kilograms of khat into the country.  The terse initial news reports gave no details, not even names.  Now the family of one of the women is beseeching monetary donations to aid its daughter, now incarcerated in Bulgaria, and, in doing so, has identified her as BatEl Peretz.  The Peretz family's fundraising spiel indicates that BatEl and her friends, like so many other unwitting Israeli drug mules, is the product of an insular religious community in Israel who were naïve enough to be misled into muledom.  (I have very recently observed that the melodramatic fundraising narrative for BatEl is not all seamless and tidy.)

One of Israel's most useful assets, its cultural diversity, might now become a liability in light of recent world events.  The wide spectrum of cultures provides diverse perspectives, enabling Israeli businesses to understand and effectively deal with a correspondingly diverse customer and client base, and providing diverse perspectives and ideas to major undertakings.  Indeed, the long presence in Israel of a Yemenite Jewish community, which has significant khat usage among its customs, is perhaps the main reason khat is legal here.

The downside of Israel's cultural diversity is that many cultural groups have been accorded special treatment and exemptions from obligations imposed upon the population at large.  This has given rise to a mentality that people who comply with inconvenient rules are foolish suckers ("freier" in modern Hebrew jargon).  As a result, there is wide noncompliance with rules and regulations of all sorts.

Israel is now in the process of normalizing relationships with many countries formerly regarded as inherently adversarial.  The newly normalized relations will mean increased Israeli tourism and business travel from Israel to such countries.  Indeed, leisure tourism is already being given significant ink in the news media, both Israeli and Arab.

This means that the probability of an Israeli misbehaving in a foreign country is increasing.  Many countries which are in the process of normalizing their relationships with Israel, to say the least, take an exceptionally dim view of drug-smuggling.  The arrest of an errant Israeli smuggler in a foreign country can prove costly to Israel in both money and diplomatic capital.  And the Naama Issachar affair, in which a dual-national American Israeli was arrested in Moscow en route home from India for carrying a small amount of cannabis in her checked luggage, has already demonstrated that such incidents may well draw the United States into unwanted diplomatic donnybrooks.

Kenneth H. Ryesky, a freelance writer currently based in Israel, is an attorney who has taught business law and taxation at Queens College CUNY for more than two decades.

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