March 29, 2015
Barack Obama

It's not easy--it may not be possible--to identify the real Barack Obama.

We can say the same about other--perhaps all--politicians who reach the top of a steep climb. Yet the Obama puzzle is especially daunting, given his position at the head of the most power country of them all.

His power up there is also something of a mystery.

He's not alone. An antagonistic Congress may provide us with a dramatic demonstration of the separation of powers and checks and balances.

It's best to put aside assertions about missing or faulty birth records, his Islam, and his anti-Semitism. They all distract from a consideration of what he does as President.

The birth story belongs to those kind of people convinced that the CIA killed John Kennedy. Obama is not responsible for his father, and any politician worth salt would emphasize those elements of background likely to help do business and gain support. Waving his finger, said to be a Muslim sign, and bowing to the King of the Saudis may not help him with some Jews and Christians, but it may help the US Government with a large slice of humanity. He has appointed too many Jews to high places to worry about his anti-Semitism. For some of his Jewish critics, those people may not be the right kind of Jews, but that is hardly a charge that should count in Miami Beach or Jerusalem.

Both Israeli and American sources note that US aid to Israel has not suffered during the Obama administration. Prominent, but not alone, was support for the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Leaving aside his most inner feelings, which any successful politician must hide from the crowd, we are justified in asking if he acts in a way that reveals an understanding of what is nasty about the Middle East.

Here the reference is not to Benyamin Netanyahu, but to the barbarians who behead in the name of the Almighty, and Iranians who not only aspire to who knows what with nuclear energy, but finance and arm terror, seek to undermine established governments, and chant Death to America and Death to Israel.

At least part of the Obama personality appears to be fixed in a commitment to a notion of what is politically correct. It's a product of contemporary America, upped perhaps by his experiences as an African American, and knowing that his father was a Muslim, even if he did not know his father.

This translates into an attitude that all people are basically similar, and can be reached with the kind of arguments he learned while getting to the Presidency. Also involved is a liberal Democrat's commitment to helping the weaker in his constituency, and his efforts to avoid any equivalence between Islam and aggression.

All of this contributes to an understanding of what looks like obsessions to push for a Palestinian state despite the hopeless Palestinian leadership, and reaching an agreement with Iran about its nuclear activities while overlooking what else it is doing to destabilize the Middle East.

There is also a concern to limit the involvement of American troops, and to limit the US military role to air power or the supply of munitions.

The Wall Street Journal wastes no words

"An abiding goal of President Obama's foreign policy has been to reduce America's role in the Middle East, in the belief that it would lead to greater stability and serve U.S. interests. Has a policy ever been so thoroughly repudiated in so short a time? Mr. Obama has succeeded in his retreat, but the vacuum he's left has produced a region on fire."

"Obama's Iran Policy Is Lost at Sea How can the U.S. hope to keep tabs on Tehran's nuclear program when we can't even track its oil tankers? American negotiators and their cohorts are trying to close a deal that would let Iran keep its nuclear program, subject to intricate conditions of monitoring and enforcement. Yet how is a deal like that supposed to be verified? The Obama administration can't even keep up with the Iran-linked oil tankers on the U.S. blacklist."

"The Middle East has descended into a state of disarray unusual even for that troubled region, imperiling President Barack Obama's policy dreams and leaving him with limited ability to control events."

The President's people can say that the WSJ is coming at him from the other side of the Congressional aisle. But they cannot accuse the Washington Post of not being at least centrist, if not still tilted to the left.

A recent item under the authorship of the WP Editorial Board

"AS THE Obama administration pushes to complete an agreement-in-principle with Iran on its nuclear program by Tuesday, it has done little to soothe concerns that it is rushing too quickly to settle, offering too many concessions and ignoring glaring warning signs that Tehran won't abide by any accord. . . . Iran will have some sanctions lifted before it complies with a commitment it first made eight years ago. . . .The question this raises was articulated months ago in congressional testimony by nuclear weapons expert David Albright: "If Iran is able to successfully evade addressing the IAEA's concerns now, when biting sanctions are in place, why would it address them later when these sanctions are lifted?" In its rush to complete a deal, the Obama administration appears eager to ignore the likely answer.

The cartoon of Israel's left-wing flagship, Ha'aretz, shows John Kerry telling Iranians where to sign, amidst a crowd of Iranian long range missiles pointed in all directions.

Among the possibilities are that the US will sign an "agreement in principle," or a "framework agreement," or claim success with an "oral accord," each of which would leave important details to what seems likely to be an endless process of discussion and evasion..

And if that step comes along with a lessening of sanctions, the folly is all the more apparent.

What the civilized of the world must then hope for is an expansion of the Shiite-Sunni war in Yemen, to lead through one unknown phase or another--perhaps with US participation in one form or another--to hurt, limit, or even bring down what seems to be the world's most dangerous regime.

Imagine the future of the Middle East, Europe, and North America resting on the Saudis and Egyptians, along with Israelis cheering them on.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:02 PM
March 27, 2015
Maintaining sanity despite the mailbox

Among the features of life in Israel in this age of Internet is a busy mailbox.

It reflects Israel's place in the world's media, and recalls those old maps that put Jerusalem in the center of it all.

Now it comes with the ease of putting one's thoughts--whether profound, interesting, or nutty--in mailboxes around the world.

It's no great chore to obtain the addresses of those who should be targeted. Those who can't be Googled do not exist, and there are programs to sweep through the Internet for anyone who has written anything with the word Israel.

Among the challenges to my sanity:
A writer of diatribes against Israel on the border of anti-Semitism, who sees a connection between Israel, AIPAC, Jewish money, Israeli selling of arms to India, capitalist domination of America to the harm of the middle and poorer classes, as well as to the detriment of peace in our time. "Israel's policies are negatively impacting US national interests in five key strategic areas: access to Arab and Muslim markets, funneling weapons technology to US strategic enemies and competitors, nuclear proliferation, spying and undermining national secrets, and diminishing the standing of the US around the globe."
An American academic "laments the results of the Israeli elections . . . The damning consequences Netanyahu's new government will inflict on the country are as certain as night following day. Israel, which has been led astray by Netanyahu for so long, is fast approaching a new precipice unlike any other it has faced in years past."
A writer equally far to the right blames the innocence of Israel's left who do not "want a country. (they want) a Berkeley food co-op. . . a campus with courses on media studies and gender . . an arcade where unwashed lefties can tunelessly strum John Lennon songs on their vintage guitars. . . (Their allegiance is) not to Jewish history or democracy, but to its crackpot leftist fantasies. Now its fantasies are dead and it wants to kill Israel."
A student leader at UCLA blames Israeli voters for fouling his campaign against BDS. "Bibi's reelection takes away the pro-Israel camp on campus' most powerful anti-BDS tool: the existence of a government committed to peace. . . . Netanyahu's words and actions - his doublespeak on the two state solution, his racist comments about Arab voter turnout, his settlement expansion, the foot dragging in responding to racially-motivated attacks, the reckless killing of civilians in Gaza, the "nation-state" bill, the segregated buses - have shown the world the ugly, sad truth: that his government will not be dedicated to solving, or at the very least alleviating, the conflict in any way. No one on campus believes there will be a positive change to the status quo under Bibi. . . . This week, the Israeli electorate let slip the opportunity to elect someone with any vision or viable alternative to the status quo. Instead, they chose to reelect Bibi and his policies of "managing" the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu's victory is also a victory for BDS."
[One should wonder at this person's inclusion of "segregated buses" in his screed. If he is referring to women in the back of the bus, Netanyahu has had nothing to do with it; it's a phenomenon--more or less voluntary--only on buses that serve the ultra-Orthodox community. If he's referring to buses serving settlements that do not pick up Arabs of the West Bank, that is a security matter. There is no segregation elsewhere of public transportation in Israel. The light rail that goes near our home stops at a number of Arab neighborhoods, including one where the locals throw stones at the trains.]
Several people reject the conclusion that US health care falls below that of other countries. Common theme are I have good health care, and I don't believe the statistics, and If the US scores low as you claim, that is the fault of people with bad habits. One response quoted an internet site in behalf of a claim that Americans are healthier than Israelis: "In the United States, life expectancy at age 55 (average number of additional years lived beyond 55) for Jews is 27.7. This is two to seven years longer than any other large religious group in the United States."
[The source of this is an article written by a doctoral candidate in demography for which she selected her Jews from those who attended synagogue, i.e., most likely a minority of those who consider themselves to be Jews. The author assumes that her findings of Jewish longevity reflect education and income, and she makes no comparison to the Jews of Israel.]
There are correspondents who see all that is important in one or another Holy Book, certain that neither Bibi nor Barack have the wherewithal to overcome the will of the Almighty. Correspondents have damned rabbis who missed the point of Jesus from the get-go, everyone associated with the Roman Catholic Church, Islamic latecomers to monotheism, as well as other Christians who chose the wrong preacher, and thus have no appropriate guide for deciphering Holy Text.
People come down hard on Jewish settlements, but tend not to agree on which are to blame for current problems, or what to do about those living here or there. Some consider neighborhoods of Jerusalem acceptable, but maybe not all of them. Ramat Shomo and Har Homa are, to some, no better than the isolated hilltop trailers whose Jewish fanatics uproot Palestinian olive trees.
Still circulating are claims about Obama's Islam, his forged or missing birth credentials, and the weight of Jeremiah Wright's sermons on his attitudes toward Israel. A bit more modest is something that begins with "POTUS or POUTUS. And continues with "POTUS (the President of the United States) is pouting over the re-election of PM Netanyahu. He withheld his congratulatory phone call to Netanyahu for two days. . . . There is something perversely delightful in observing the irrational anger in the administration and among Jews on the far left of the political spectrum on Israel's election results. Granted, millions of dollars were wasted trying to unseat Netanyahu and augment the vote the Israeli Arabs - some of that, disgracefully, US taxpayer dollars. Watching another's tantrum is often amusing and it doesn't seem to abate. The commentators and activists who hide their anti-Israel animus behind their Jewish genes - the Friedman's, Klein's and J Street's of the world - are nearly apoplectic."
The intensity with which much is written, associated with the certainty of predictions, recalls the hyperbole of Biblical Prophets who wrote hereabouts some 2,500 years ago. So far none of my correspondents have been explicit in claiming to speak for the Almighty, but the claim is not hard to discern between the lines. Absolute certainty does not invite efforts to correct or persuade.

Associated with the openness of the Internet is our capacity to pass most of the daily mail to trash without more than a glance. Filters provide a handy way to avoid items not likely to be worthwhile.

The most effective filter is not a bit of high tech, but a sense of the factors acting upon this place.

Prominent among them is Palestinian reluctance to concede Israel's legitimacy, the naivete of the Obama administration in its dealings with Iran as well as Israel and Palestine, and the bloodshed associated with Islamic radicalism.

Those who dream about turning back half a century of history, and doing away with the homes of 600,000 Jews they call "settlers" might consider other problems due to migration. It's an issue that affects many if not all of the countries in the UN, including all with a veto in the Security Council.

The success of Israel's economy and the moderation of Netanyahu --in contrast to what many think and in contrast to Netanyahu's own rhetoric--provide an island of stability amidst the blather.

Moderate Muslims are also helping.

The onset of a new war by a number of Sunni governments against Iran's surrogate in Yemen is--among other things--a continuation of Bibi's efforts manifest in his speech to Congress.

Jews have learned not to count on anyone over the long run. We have also learned to be flexible in thinking about friends who claim to be reliable, allies of the moment, antagonists, and enemies.

Barack Obama may think he can civilize the Shiite extremists of Tehran with his diplomacy, but there are Arabs as well as Israelis who feel he has it all wrong.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:03 PM
March 25, 2015
Ethnicity, religiosity, and Israeli politics

Comments by Benyamin Netanyahu and Yair Garbuz, said to be the "racism" of right and left, remind us that Israelis, like the voters of numerous other countries, bring their family backgrounds with them to the polls.

Ethnicity, religiosity, and social class explain a good deal of recent voting, but not all of it.

The major parties of Israel, i.e., Labor in whatever name it currently uses (Zionist Union), and Likud are each a bit to the left and right of center. Their supporters do not fit the classic left/right working class/middle and higher. The recent pattern in Israel is for Labor and the more left wing party Meretz to attract the better educated and more well-to-do, while those lower in the pile tend to Likud. However, Likud's nationalism and overt suspicion of the Palestinians has attracted a portion of the better educated, and has gotten votes on what had been the Labor preserves of the kibbutzim.

Ethnicity is not far beneath the surface. Jews of Middle Eastern origin tend to be most wary of dealing with Arabs, as well as having less education and lower incomes than westerners, and are the nucleus of Likud voters. Jews of Western European and North American origin are more likely to vote Labor. There is also a component of animosity, or sense of condescension that leads Jews of Middle Eastern origin and Jews of Western European or North American origins to vote against one another's party.

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union have supported parties that appeal to them in Russian. First it was a party led by Natan Sharansky, and more recently Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman's decline from 15 seats won in 2009 to six seats in this election comes along with the acculturation of the large Russian immigration.

Significant rates of intermarriage between the ethnic clusters of Jews, especially apparent among secular Israelis, serves to blur ethnic voting.

Arabs have had their own parties. Several of them coalesced for this election in response to an increase in the threshold required to enter the Knesset.

The choice of "Zionist Union" or "Zionist Camp" (i.e. closer to the Hebrew המחנה הציוני) was not a good decision for what Herzog and Livni created. Reports are that the "Zionist" label cost them Arab votes

Religiosity is another item with political relevance. The National Religious Party served, for many years, as the vehicle of Orthodox Jews, especially of the Ashkenzim, and was a leader in demanding adherence to Shabbat and Kashrut. After 1967 it became increasingly a party of settlers, or Orthodox Jews who supported settlement, and eventually morphed into Jewish Home. Party leader Naftali Bennett has sought to broaden the party's appeal to secular Jews who live in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, or who support a settlement movement and a conservative posture with respect to Palestine.

The ultra-Orthodox have had two parties, one for the Ashkenazim (once Agudat Israel and now called Torah Judaism) and one for the Sephardim (SHAS). Especially among the Ashkenazim, there has been a tradition of strong rabbis who have split on one or another esoteric issue or personal rivalry. This time SHAS hived off Yachad, with each of Ariyeh Deri and Eli Yishai claiming to speak for the deceased founder of SHAS.

What follows is a selective report for several distinctive locales, derived from an interactive map published on It should be viewed in the contest of national results, which showed Likud receiving 23 percent of the total vote, Zionist Union 19 percent, United (mostly Arab) List 11 percent, Yesh Atid (Lapid) 9 percent, Kolanu (Kahlon) 7 percent, Jewish Home 7 percent SHAS 6 per cent, Yisrael Beiteinu (Lieberman) 5 percent, Torah Judaism 5 percent, and Meretz 4 percent. Just below the threshold (3.25 percent) came Yachad at 3 percent. The most successful of the fringe parties was Green Leaf (concerned primarily with marijuana) at a bit over one percent.

Turnout was 72 percent overall, and 64 percent for Arabs.

There is a lot of detail here, but that's the nature of Israel's social and political mosaic, and the imperfection of most generalities.

Locales to the left
A well established and sizable kibbutz (Ginosar) 58 percent Zionist Union, 10 percent each to Likud and Lapid, 7 percent Meretz, and 4-5 percent to each of Jewish Home, Kahlon, and Green Leaf
Upscale precincts north of Tel Aviv 35 percent Zionist Union, 22 percent Likud, 15 percent Lapid, 9 percent Kahlon, 7 percent Meretz, 4 percent Jewish Home
An upscale neighborhood of Jerusalem (Beit Hakerem) 34 percent Zionist Union, 20 percent Likud, 19 percent Meretz, 11 percent Lapid
Locales to the right
A "development town" south of Beer Sheva with a sizable portion of Sephardim, 33 percent Likud, 25 per cent SHAS or other ultra-Orthodox parties, 11 percent Jewish Home, and 8 percent to each of Zionist Union, Kahlon, and Lapid
Ashdod, with a sizable Russian-speaking population, 39 percent Likud, 14 percent Lieberman 10 percent SHAS, and 8 percent Zionist Union
Jewish settlements
The area of the West Bank including numerous large and small settlements gave 25 percent of its votes to Jewish Home, 24 percent to Likud, and split 34 percent among three ultra-Orthodox parties; Zionist Union polled only 5 percent and Meretz one percent (lower than Green Leaf)
A Jewish settlement south of Bethlehem, 55 percent Jewish Home and 31 percent Likud
Of all the communities of Israel, those of the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs are most inclined to block voting

Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods also tilt ethnically--Ashkenazim or Sephardim--with families preferring to live alongside others like them. They send their children to schools associated with their congregation, expose the kids to acceptable marriage partners, and vote accordingly.
One Ashkenazi Jerusalem neighborhood voted 95 percent Torah Judaism, 3 percent Yachad, 2 percent SHAS
Another, 87 percent Torah Judaism, 7 percent SHAS, and 5 percent Yachad
Another, 74 percent Torah Judaism, 16 percent SHAS, and 7 percent Yahad
A largely Sephardi ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem 56 percent SHAS, 23 percent Torah Judaism, 13 percent Yachad, and 6 percent Likud
Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem over the 1967 lines, where an announcement of new construction produced one of the scandals with the Obama administration, 63 percent Torah Judaism, 28 percent SHAS, and 8 percent Yachad
A largely ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv (Bnei Brak) voted 59 percent Torah Judaism, 24 percent SHAS, 6 percent Yachad, 5 percent Likud and 2 percent Jewish Home,
A Bedouin area in the Negev: 83 percent United List and 11 percent Meretz
A sizable Arab town in the Galilee 93 percent United List
A sizable Arab village west of Jerusalem with a history of cooperation with Jews from 1947 onward and the site of restaurants favored by Jews from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv (Abu Ghosh) 84 percent United List and 6 per cent Zionist Union
Mixed areas
A small village of Arabs and Jews committed to co-existence (Neve Shalom) polled 59 percent United List, 27 percent Meretz, 10 percent Zionist Union, 2 percent Kahlon; residents provided one vote to Green Leaf and none to Likud
Tel Aviv as a whole voted a bit to the left of center with 27 percent Zionist Union, 11 percent Lapid, and 7 percent Meretz, but with 21 percent Likud and between 3 and 8 percent to Kahlon, Lieberman, Jewish Home, and ultra-Orthodox parties
Haifa has a reputation of having been a "red" city, with a sizable working class population, and a sizable Arab population. This time it divided votes between Likud at 25 percent and Zionist Union at 24 percent, with lesser amounts to Lapid, Kahlon, Jewish Home, and the United List
Acco is a city with a population of Arabs and working class Jews; it voted 30 percent Likud, 26 percent United List, 10 percent Lieberman, and 7 percent to Zionist Union
An upscale neighborhood of Jerusalem (Bekaa), with a substantial proportion of English-speaking Orthodox 27 percent Zionist Union, 26 percent Likud, 16 percent Meretz, and 12 percent Jewish home
Our own neighborhood of French Hill, with its mixture of university personnel, secular and Orthodox Jews, a growing ultra-Orthodox segment and a few Arab families 30 percent Zionist Union, 23 percent Likud, 11 percent Meretz, and lesser percentages for Lapid, Jewish Home, Kahlon, ultra-Orthodox parties, and United (Arab) List.
That's us.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:26 PM
March 23, 2015
Barack Obama and Israel

The Huffington Post received a lot of coverage for its interview with President Barack Obama. It covered a good deal of territory, but what's in its headline are the President's judgments about Benyamin Netanyahu and Israel.

Insofar as this is the President who preached democracy and equality in Cairo, and came after a President who went to war in Iraq at least partly for the sake of bringing democracy to that country, we of the Middle East are entitled to ask if the White House--and maybe all of the United States--exists on the same planet with us.

Prominent in the interview are Obama's comments about Bibi's campaign, and its threat to Israeli morality and democracy.

What is described as the President's "deepest discomfort" concerns Netanyahu's Election Day comments about Arabs going to the polls "in droves."

" . . . that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel's traditions. That although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly . . . And I think that that is what's best about Israeli democracy. If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don't believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country."

I wouldn't have translated Bibi's text messages to include the notion of Arabs going to the polls in "droves." That suggests something akin to being driven, like slaves, and coming in great masses in a way to threaten Israelis who are not Arabs. What Netanyahu or his aides did send as text messages in Hebrew to the cell phones of Israeli voters concerned Abu Mazan, American money, and Hamas promoting large numbers of Arabs to vote against him, and urging people to vote for his party.

One can also poke around the official statistics to measure the quality of democracy that Israel has been able to maintain in the presence of a minority that continues to question the country's legitimacy, and has active pockets of violence within it, compared to the quality of American democracy in the presence of a minority with its own troubled history.

No doubt African Americans and Israeli Arabs differ in many ways, but comparing them on important traits does not support the conclusion that Israel's democracy or society are of a lower quality than those of the US.

Starting with election results (i.e., the focus of Obama's latest complaints), we see that the Israeli Knesset has a higher percentage of Arabs (14.2) than the US Congress has Blacks (8.6). To be fair, that may be partly due to Israel having a higher percentage of Arabs in its population (20.7) than the US has Blacks (12.6). If we look at the number of minority legislators in relation to the population of minorities, we find that the ratios in the two countries are about the same, with Israel scoring a bit better, at 68.6, than the US at 68.3.

It's on a number of social traits where any US President must admit to shame.

On key measures of health, Israel outscores the US by far. The following table for life expectancy indicates that Israeli Arabs live longer than American Whites, and much longer than African Americans.

US White Male 75.9
Isl Jewish Male 81.0

US White Female 80.8
Isl Jewish Female 84.3
US Black Male 70.9
Isl Arab Male 78.0
US Black Female 77.4
Isl Arab Female 80.9

A similar picture appears in the statistics for infant mortality. White American babies die within a year of birth at the rate of 6.8 per thousand live births, and Black American babies at the rate of 13.2 per thousand live births. The comparable statistic for Israeli Jews is 2.8 and Israeli Arabs 3.7.

Well know differences in personal security and criminality also suggest that Barack Obama has more to do than Benyamin Netanyahu by way of improving the quality of their societies.

The incidence of murder in the US is more than three times greater than in Israel, 5.0 as opposed to 1.6 per 100,000 population.

The US comes close to leading the world in the incidence of its population that is incarcerated. There are 707 people in American prisons per 100,000 population, compared to 249 in Israel. African Americans comprise 39 percent of those incarcerated, compared to their 12.6 percentage of the population.

Comparing Israel and the US on the important traits of education and family income is complicated by differences in the available measures.

Nonetheless, Israeli Arabs stay in school a bit longer, with 85.9 percent of age peers reaching the end of high school as opposed to 84.2 percent of African Americans. Israeli Jews do even better compared to White Americans, with 92.1 percent staying to the end of high school as opposed to 87.6 percent.

Israeli family income statistics vary not only between Jews and Arabs, but also within those clusters. The average calculated for various communities of Israeli Arabs (Druze, Christians, and Muslims) show incomes that are 61 percent of non-Haredi Jews, but 16 percent higher than Haredi Jews. In the US, Black family income is 61 percent of White family income, i.e., the same as the overall standing of Israeli Arabs compared to non-Haredi Jews.

Racism from the left appears to have had a greater effect on the Israeli election than anything coming from the right. An aging artist, Yair Garbuz, opened the pre-election rally whose theme was "anybody but Bibi." Garbuz ranted about "amulet-kissers, idol-worshippers and people who prostrate themselves at the graves of saints," who he saw a danger to the kind of country he could admire. His reference was to Jews, mostly of Middle Eastern origin, who cleave to a more traditional form of Judaism than is apparent in the fashionable coffee houses of Tel Aviv. Many of the "amulet-kissers" live in poor towns where their parents and grandparents were settled when they came to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s, and they comprise an important component of Likud's political base. Labor activists expressed embarrassment and sought to distance themselves from the speaker who sought to advance their chances, while Likud focused on the condescension and contempt apparent in the comments, and used them as much as any Arab threat to attract their likely voters to the polls.

If Barack Obama could profit from such details about Israeli democracy and the relative qualities of life enjoyed by the minorities in Israel and the US, he should also think a bit more about settlements, 1967 borders, and a Palestinian state. The combination of those words has become the essence of an anti-Israeli mantra. However, with some 600,000 of us living over the 1967 borders, that border (representing an armistice that ended fighting in 1948, and that lasted for less than 20 years) has passed into history.

If the American President wishes to help the Palestinians, he and his people should pause before condemning every new construction in post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem or the major settlement blocks.

Pushing the Palestinians as well as himself to deal with realities might actually produce a Palestinian state, but there may not be many Israeli Jews willing to bet that either Barack Obama or the Palestinian leadership is up to the task.

It is also not clear if the leadership of Israeli Arabs is up to the task. One Knesset Member of the 13 on the United (mostly Arab) List was speaking just this week of Israeli occupation, rather than the prospects of cooperation for the mutual benefit of all the people.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:12 PM
March 21, 2015

The heading is not meant to mourn the election results, but the month or more of haggling and babbling that will surround us until there is a new government.

Several times a day we'll be hearing commentators speculating about who gets what ministries.

Just as often we'll hear the self-appointed "ranking" members of each party likely to join the coalition telling us what ministries they deserve.

Kahlon, Lieberman, and Deri have threatened to bolt if Bibi doesn't cooperate.

So far we haven't heard about talks between Bibi and Lapid, but that may happen if one of the more obvious partners surpasses the line of acceptable greed.

We're hearing from members of parties likely to be in opposition about the disasters that will occur because of the election results, and and we'll hear more of the same about potential appointments to ministries that deal with security, social policy, the peace process, and what it all means for Barack Obama's relations with Benyamin Netanyahu.

There are several obvious and qualified candidates for each of the most prestigious appointments: Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Finance.

Critics should moderate their shrill. No ministerial appointments will threaten a disaster. The professionals in each ministry can persuade the politician at the top to avoid the most problematic of their intentions. And if they fail, they can delay and dilute the implementation of great ideas, and outlast the politician who is their nominal boss.

IDF generals persuaded Bibi and Ehud Barak (then Minister of Defense) not to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. It would have brought thousands of rockets on Israel from Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran, and--after delaying Iran's race to the bomb--would make the mullahs even more intense about dropping one on Tel Aviv.

Economists in the Finance Ministry helped to kill Yair Lapid's idea of forgiving the value added tax of 18 percent on certain first time home buyers. That would have opened the door to politicians seeking the votes of other worthy Israelis by exempting the VAT on their favored purchases, it would erode one of Israel's major tax sources while increasing administrative costs.

There are a couple of possibilities that should bother us. The most prominent is Ariyeh Deri's demand for Interior. He claims experience, but it is an experience of using the fluid resources of that ministry (aid to this or that local government in exchange for political favors or financial kickbacks) to produce a guilty verdict on corruption and 22 months in the slammer.

Another is Education, always a target of politicians who think they know the secret to the future of Israel. They upset teachers and administrators with grandiose reforms about teaching, staffing, and exams that they do not stay in office long enough to implement. While educators can hope for some years of quiet from a Minister with modest intentions, the likelihood is another variety of bombast and confusion.

The failure to get one of the goodies (i.e., the chair of a Knesset committee if not a ministry) is a political fate worse than death. Back bench members of the Knesset, like their cousins in the US Congress and other national parliament must sit and wait, gaining seniority and personal status, until they inch up in their party to get something more. In the Knesset and European parliaments where party loyalty counts, they risk being left off the list for the next election if they vote wrong, or do not do enough to please the party leadership. American legislators are in business for themselves in terms of getting nominated, but seniority is the key to influence in Washington, and that can take a long time.

The pay and perks of a Knesset Member without a ministry or committee chair are decent. It is a better job than selling shoes, running a neighborhood kiosk, shoveling shit on a kibbutz, or the work of most lawyers. But it's a long way from shaping policy.

Those of us more concerned to understand what is happening, rather than what should happen, must remember all the variables that will shape the next five minutes of world history and everything that comes later.

Barack Obama is no more in sole control of the US Government than Benyamin Netanyahu will be in sole control of Israel's.

Obama has more aspirations than Bibi. He has spoken about a New Middle East, with democracy and a Palestinian State, but should recognize his disappointments. He depends on several thousand administrators and advisers to shape America's place in the world. Also important for what he can do is the cooperation or antagonism of politicians leading other countries, what is happening in the world economy, and all those Muslim extremists recruiting more fighters by videos showing their new standards of barbarism. On the domestic scene, there are thousands of federal bureaucrats plus state and local officials--many of whom see themselves as his political opponents--who affect programs of health and immigration reform.

Bibi has shown more concern for Israeli survival than any particular achievement. No one familiar with Jewish history should express surprise, especially in the context of Palestinians since 1947, and recent actions of Shiite and Sunni fanatics.

Netanyahu's constraints will begin with the need to cooperate with ministers from five other parties, some of whom may be heading key ministries dealing with defense, the economy, and foreign affairs, as well as restive Knesset Members of his own party.

The two national leaders might have bad personal chemistry, but that is less important than conflicting interests. The American leader is compelled to deal with the ascendant power of Iran, and it's not surprising that he prefers to do it politically rather than militarily. Netanyahu is concerned about frequent threats of aggression from Iran, and it is likely that Obama shares those concerns to some extent.

The US-Israel relationship is unbalanced, but not entirely so. Netanyahu can make a mess of Obama's vision with Iran if he comes to feel it is essential. Signs are that he made a small mess by that speech in Washington. Now that Bibi has friends in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, the Middle East is becoming a more interesting place.

Neither the Iranians, Europeans, nor our Arab friends are on the same page as the Americans with respect to nuclear weapons, the support of terror and the undermining of governments.

John Kerry's sonorous efforts may not produce a deal.

No one should drape themselves in mourning due to Israel's recent election. Bibi has shown himself to be moderate in action if not in speech. And there are many other actions likely to affect our future as we hear the blather concerned with the details of Israel's new government.

Among them is the possibility of Obama's people talking around stubborn Iranians who can't agree to what he is willing to offer. And if that happens, what the White House decides as its next steps.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:08 PM
March 19, 2015
Post-election mutterings

The New York Times is as far away from a realistic view of things Middle East as the Obama White House.

It's post election analysis was some element of bitter grapes, and dreaming about possibilities that do not exist.

Its emphasis on deep wounds resulting from a bitter Israeli election campaign race differed greatly from Moshe Kahlon's closer to reality comments that it was a time for reconciliation, and healing whatever wounds were created by campaign slogans not meant to be personal or to get in the way of political negotiations.

To the New York Times, Netanyahu had "angered the president of the United States with a speech to Congress and infuriated European leaders eager to see the peace process move ahead to create a Palestinian state."

The reality is that the greater barriers to a Palestinian state come from the Palestinians than from Israelis. That should be apparent in their record of turning down proposals from Barak and Clinton in 2000 and Olmert in 2007, and not able to mutter the symbolic words about Israel being a Jewish state or a state of the Jewish people in 2014.

Compared to the nasty epithet of racism used against Israel and Netanyahu's campaign was Arab turnout and the United (Arab) List becoming the third largest party in the Knesset. It is Palestinians who target Israeli civilians with their rockets, knives, and cars, while insisting that no Israelis (or perhaps no Jews) would be allowed to live in the State of Palestine they want to create.

News from Washington on the morning of Netanyahu's victory suggests that the Iranians suffer from the same incapacity to accept a deal as the Palestinians. The President estimated chances of reaching an agreement with Iran about its nuclear program at about 50 percent.

The New York Times quoted several Democratic activists as expressing dismay about Netanyahu's campaign and victory. A Member of the House of Representatives emphasized Netanyahu's efforts to ally himself with Republicans, and, "As far as I'm concerned, Netanyahu burned his bridges with the American government and a broad swath of the American people . . . It is to me, frankly, a really sordid approach to diplomacy and friendship and alliance."

Martin Indyk said that while it was still unclear what kind of government might arise in Israel, the tenor of Mr. Netanyahu's relationship with the Obama administration was likely to be governed by a confrontation over Iran in the short term, should a nuclear deal be reached. In the longer term . . . a right-wing government led by Mr. Netanyahu . . . likely to be in confrontation with the international community over the Palestinian issue.

David Axelrod, another of Obama's senior Jewish advisers, said that "Bibi's shameful 11th-hour demagoguery may have swayed enough votes to save him. But at what cost?"

Netanyahu did play the Palestinian card in the last days of a campaign when he came from behind in the polls to beat Labor by six Knesset seats. He expressed himself against the prospect of a Palestinian state, and his party sent several text messages on election day warning of an increase in Arab voting.

"An increase of three times in Arab turnout. ... Abu Massan and American money are bringing the Arabs to the polls. Go out and vote."

". . . Hamas has called on the Arabs of Israel to vote. This is the last chance. Leave your homes now and vote Likud."

Right of center Israelis were more sanguine and less emotional than the New York Times or the Democrats it quoted. Moshe Kahlon was one of the party leaders thought likely to coalesce with Labor on the basis of pre-election polls, and his post-election comments--looking forward to a ministry in Netanyahu's government--was the traditional stuff of reconciliation, and overlooking campaign slogans.

Tzachi Hanegbi is a close ally of Netanyahu who has moved from a reputation as a right wing firebrand to a right of center pragmatist. He said that he expected the American administration to make an effort to renew the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. As far as Israel was concerned, "We would be very delighted to renew the negotiations . . . It is to the benefit of both peoples."

Netanyahu's reputation is hyperbolic in speech and moderate in action. One of his post-election comments spoke of delivering security and social welfare to "all citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews alike."

Reports are that the Obama administration aspires to renew the push for a Palestinian state, and may change its posture with respect to anti-Israel UN resolutions. The delay in Obama's conventional post-election telephone call to the victor was long enough to become the topic of comedians.

If there is a New Middle East, it is not the one perceived in the White House, and it is not only Netanyahu who is at odds with the White House. Sunni governments in the Gulf, as well as Saudi Arabia and Egypt oppose Obama's aspirations about a deal with Iran that does not reign in its support of terror or its efforts to undermine established governments. Media and government personnel from the Gulf Emirates saw Netanyahu's posture against the Obama position of Iran as most important in his victory, and expressed their support of Netanyahu.

Bibi has sidestepped from his pre-election opposition to a Palestinian state. Now it is only temporary--perhaps a long temporary--until he Palestinians, Iranians, and the Islamic State are no longer threats to Israel's existence.

Israel's pollsters owe themselves as much introspection as those dreaming of a Palestinian state. Missing badly in the pre-election polls showing a Labor victory may be explained by undecideds and the success of Likud's last minute push. However, those doing post-voting exit polls should reconsider their methods. Two of the three networks projected Likud and Labor tied at 27 Knesset seats, with the third projecting a Likud lead of 28 to 27. The reality is a difference between the two leading party by some 25 percent, with Likud at 30 and Labor 24.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:13 PM
March 17, 2015

The 70-80 percent of eligible Israelis who vote selected one of 26 slips with party symbols, or a blank that could serve as a protest against all of the 26 others with or without writing on it. They placed one slip in an official envelop, and put that envelop in the ballot box.

Here's what appeared in a voting booth. A poster with party symbols associated with each party's name in Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian, and the slips to be chosen.

Election day is an official holiday, with public offices and many industries closed, but with buses and trains operating, and lots of stores offering special deals. The weather was warm and sunny, and families picnicked with the kids after doing their task at the polls.

Both of the major traditional parties, i.e., Likud and Labor (currently with the label Zionist Union or Zionist Camp (המחנה הציוני) were doing their best in the last days of campaigning to take votes from the smaller parties on their side of the spectrum, i.e., right or left.

Labor was going after the voters attracted to Lapid and Kahlon, and going easy on Meretz, perhaps out of concern that the long established leftist alternative might not make it to the minimum.

Likud was going after Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu, Bennett's Jewish Home, and Kahlon, saying that the latter was claiming Likud roots but would take right of center votes to a personal deal with Labor.

Netanyahu had announced his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state. Likud's election day text messages stressed the efforts of overseas leftists to finance bus rides to the polls for Arab voters, and urged voting to protect Israel's Jewish character.

The last publicized polls showed a three mandate lead for Labor, with nine other parties passing the minimum to enter the Knesset. Commentators saw Bibi with a marginally better chance of creating a government, but with it possible to go to Labor, depending on the decisions of the United (Arab) List and Kahlon.

The exhausting media blather of election eve featured indications of more recent polls done by the parties and the media, which could not be publicized due to regulations meant to provide the public with some time to rest and think before the election. Media comments suggested that Likud was closing the gap. Prominent were some last minute actions seen as signs of panic among Labor.

Labor finally got an endorsement from its one-time leader Ehud Barak. Yet Barak's reputation as a testy creature in business for himself, most recently having left Labor leaving behind animosity and then having left politics may not have provided great weight to his endorsement.

Even closer to the voting came an announcement from Tsipi Livni that under the right circumstances she would give up Herzog's commitment to a rotation with her in the office of prime minister. Labor-friendly media announced that as her giving up the rotation. Commentators also wondered if the 11th hour announcement would help Labor, by removing an unpopular element from its campaign, or hurt Labor by indicating panic, and yet another slippery announcement that wasn't exactly a renouncement of rotation.

Livni had been a drag on the Labor ticket, with some commentators estimating that her claims of rotation might cost her colleagues as many as two Knesset seats. In a culture that gives some weight to party loyalty--but with such prominent figures as David Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert as well as Ehud Barak having changed parties for the sake of personal advantage--Livni may have set a record by changing party affiliations four times in 10 years. The size of her ego may be measured by the name of her most recent party, The Movement under the Leadership of Tsipi Livni. The Movement had six seats in the outgoing Knesset, which in combination with Labor's 16 seats seemed too little to justify her demand for rotation in the prime minister's office as the price of joining her new partner Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog. Party polls had been showing her insistence on rotation to be a drag on the party's appeal.

My own wanderings have touched on five or six parties during the run up to this election, all of them far from ideal choices.

Early on I considered Hadash, in order to support an arena of cooperation between Jews and Arabs, but that option fell with Hadash's joining with other Arab parties, some of whose candidates are beyond the reasonable.

Bibi's principal appeal rests on his moderation in action, along with standing up to the greatly flawed postures on the Middle East coming out of the Obama White House.

Labor presented an opportunity to replace Bibi's hyperbole and troublesome wife, but Livni's claims to be the prime promoter of peace do not stand up against her management of a cease fire for Lebanon II which has allowed the inflow of many thousands of rockets, and her more recent failure to persuade Palestinians to accept the symbolic demand of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Herzog comes across as a decent, thoughtful person, but with all the platform presence (or charisma) of my second grade teacher. Livni was the better speaker, more certain of herself and forceful, but with a problematic record.

Both Lapid and Kahlon have attractive planks in their platforms, but both have the air of amateurs whose parties are likely to follow the path of numerous others who have captured part of the Israeli center for an election or two.

In the end I remained with my trust in Israeli government professionals, capable of persuading politicians away from their fantasies. Also important is the structure of Israeli politics, making it impossible for any one person to decide on major steps. I made my choice from among imperfect options, without great faith that I was choosing a Prime Minister who would remain in office for four years, and bring the country significantly closer to an ideal society.

As I was about to leave for the neighborhood polling station, I glanced at the balcony and saw a gathering of three snails with about the same combined intelligence that I felt.

Exit polls projected a tie, but we woke up Wednesday morning to declarations of a Likud victory, and projections of another Netanyahu government.

It looks like Likud, along with Jewish Home, Kahlon, Lieberman, and the ultra-Orthodox parties Torah Judaism and SHAS.

It may not be a slam dunk, if one or more of the lesser parties threaten to withhold support if they don't get what they want. We're in for several weeks of haggling about ministries, policy commitments, and Knesset committee chairs. One can doubt the likelihood of great change in the society, unless those snails on my balcony know something that we do not.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:24 PM
March 15, 2015
Opposition, endorsement, or blather unlikely to be influential

The Economist ranks as one of the best of the English language news magazines, even while calling itself a newspaper. It provides coverage of a wide range of places and issues, recalling the extent of what was once the Empire ruled from the magazine's home town of London.

Among those places favored by frequent articles is Israel. They confirm the difference between interest and support. The Economist is not one of Israel's close friends, yet it is not among the publications so uniformly hostile as to provoke wondering about anti-Semitism. Underlying complexities, concern for nuance, and the weight of contrary views are among the strengths apparent in The Economist's articles.

A recent item climbs on the anti-Bibi bandwagon. Yet the balance is so complete as to provide both reasons for support as well as opposition to Israel's Prime Minister. Among Israelis concerned primarily with national security and the threat of Iran, the article may increase the certainty of them voting for Bibi.

One of the mysteries associated with the article is its likely influence. I'll leave it to others to wonder if the magazine takes a posture on elections the world over, or even in democratic countries far from the places of major readership. Perhaps we should consider its focus on Bibi to be part of the Prime Minister's strength. How many other leaders of countries with less than 10 million residents have been so often in other countries' headlines?

The Economist readership in Israel is most likely among English-speakers close to the top of the economic and social heap. The item in question was translated to Hebrew and appeared in Ha'aretz. There is would be read by the same kind of Israelis (in their social and economic profiles) likely to be reading it in English. Chances are--from what we know about the politics of Israel's intellectual and economic elites--is that both English and Hebrew language versions would be preaching to the choir, i.e., providing a bit more to what Ha'aretz has been pushing for some time, among a readership sure to be inclined to Labor/Zionist Union or another option on the side of the spectrum at least wary of Bibi if not downright opposed.

The Economist's headline makes clear the intended message, "Bibi's a bad deal: The prime minister's failures outweigh his achievements. Israelis should back Yitzhak Herzog"

The first paragraph quotes Nicolas Sarkozy describing Netanyahu as a liar, with Barack Obama seeming to agree. Then there are "fresh glimpses of his deviousness," doubting his honesty about the Palestinians, and accusing him of gambling with bi-partisan support in Washington.

Yet the positive side may well push some doubters to Bibi

"On the positive side, he has liberalised the Israeli economy and promoted a thriving high-tech sector. He navigated skilfully through the financial crisis and the long slump in Europe, Israel's largest trading partner. He kept Iran's nuclear programme at the forefront of world attention. He also kept Israel safe after the Arab-spring revolts of 2011, which toppled leaders and cracked fossilised states across the region. The jihadists and Shia militias that filled the void might have turned their guns on Israel, and may yet do so. For the time being they are killing each other. In the turmoil Israel has forged closer ties with Egypt and, more secretly, with Arab monarchies."

A later paragraph adds to Bibi's strengths.

"To Israelis traumatised by missiles and rockets, Mr Netanyahu sounds plausible when he claims that giving the Palestinians control over their own land will bring more violence. The turmoil of the Arab world deepens these fears. Had Israel handed the Golan Heights back to Syria, it might now find itself facing fighters from Hizbullah, al-Qaeda or Islamic State on the Sea of Galilee"

Against this, it is clear that Netanyahu does not measure up to The Economist's posture with respect to the Palestinians. Yet this is part of Bibi's strength with Israelis, i.e., his failure to cave to the hyperbole of the Palestinians and their international supporters, including the White House, and the force yet moderation with which he led Israel to deal with Gaza without the large number of casualties or impossible administrative tasks associated with the conquest of that miserable place.

The peroration of The Economist piece is part of the leftist blather that Israelis tend to ignore, even when it comes from their own leftists.

"However, without a Palestinian state, Israel will either endanger its Jewish majority or lose its moral standing by subjugating and disenfranchising the Palestinian population. Israel will lose support abroad even when it legitimately defends itself. In the final days of the campaign, Mr Netanyahu may well play up the dangers from Iran, jihadists and Hamas. But the truth is that immobilism, too, is endangering Israel."

The Economist should admit what it must know, i.e., that no one is about to force Israel to accept the Palestinians of the West Bank and/or Gaza as part of their own population. The "international community" hasn't the will or the strength to do such things, and no Israeli party supports the absorption of additional millions of Palestinians. There is no threat to the country's Jewish majority, unless it comes from the ultra-Orthodox community that reproduces itself faster than the Arabs.

Only a person committed to oppose Israel can accuse it of anything like apartheid toward its own Arab citizens or the Palestinians. Israel has eased controls over the West Bank and is more forthcoming than Egypt with respect to providing supplies for Gaza. That it continues to defend itself against mad Gazans or West Bankers should not bring condemnation from the decent.

"Moral standing" is a fuzzy thing for a historically secular and liberal journal to employ in its arguments.

Others can wonder about those who see moral weight in the efforts of Palestinians to overlook Israel, keep it off school maps, refuse to accept the symbolic demand of calling it a Jewish state while declaring that Israelis (perhaps Jews) would not be welcome in a Palestinian state, and who make official martyrs of those who kill Israeli civilians.

The Economist does not ponder the issue of what successful politician is not devious. Moreover, its article pays virtually no attention to the issue that the anti-Bibi parties are highlighting, i.e., the better life that the bulk of Israelis, i.e., those with middle- and lower-middle income want, with less expensive housing and consumer goods.

Even an Israeli not in Bibi's camp can wonder if an article headlined against Bibi was written by a staff certain of its posture or confident of its influence.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:02 PM