April 20, 2015

We are seeing yet again the bobbing and feinting, complex maneuvers, and pursuit of partial treatment for problems that have no solution.

We find it in relations between Israel and Palestine, with different moves toward Palestine West Bank and Palestine Gaza, between Israel and the US, as well as with Britain, Russia, and Iran, and among Israeli political parties toward what may become the Israeli government..

It ain't simple, or likely to be understood by simpletons.

The latest news from Palestine West Bank is that Israel is turning over the money withheld from taxes collected at its ports, which Israel stopped transferring when the West Bankers said they were going back to the UN and to the International Court of Justice.

Details are not all that clear.

By one report, Israel will be withholding part of the money due for utilities and medical care.

By another report, those debts will be handled by negotiations.

What we see here is the short string that Israel holds over Palestine, but also the Israeli concern that it not pull the string too tight. Security personnel advised the government that further holding off the payments would work its way through Palestinian public servants not getting salaries, and add to the incentives for violence.

Israelis may have to tolerate more Palestinian blather about turning to the "international community," but that can work two ways with respect to the International Court of Justice. Israeli officials are preparing a case against Palestine.

The UN ceased frightening us decades ago.

We hear that Palestine Gaza has yet to begin serious reconstruction. Lots of people are living in the rubble, much of which has not been cleared and very little construction begun. Very little of the contributions promised for reconstruction have been delivered.

Hamas has been hard pressed due more to Egyptian actions than Israeli.

There, too, Israeli officials keep the strings tight, but not to the point of a stranglehold that will add to our problems. Supplies go in, and agricultural produce comes to us. Hamas taxes imports from Israel, which provide the mainstay of Gaza's economy, given Egypt's closing of tunnels used for smuggling, and clearing a significant swath of housing from the Egyptian side of the border.

With Britain, Israel has negotiated a program of academic exchanges, to be financed by contributions fro British Jews. Hopefully, that arrangement will counter to some extent the mad leftists--some of them Jews--who insist on an academic boycott.

Israel is not happy with Russia's sale of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, and hints that they may also be going to Syria. Russia has complained about Israeli sale of munitions to Ukraine. Tit for tat? Finding leverage even in the place noted for its heights of historic anti-Semitism, along with Israel's failure to sign on to international condemnations of Russian actions against Ukraine? It's not a simple set of decisions.

Bibi's trip to Washington continues to echo. Who knows where anyone is with respect to negotiations with Iran? No one should bet even a small amount that things will be finalized by the June 30th deadline, and perhaps not for a long time after that. And if anyone seriously contemplates that a written agreement will solve the problems associated with Iran, those same people may be interested in buying one of the great bridges of the world.

Bibi's efforts to create a government are not all that different from his efforts to assure safety from Iran.

He'll probably get there, but currently he's past the first deadline, and has gotten another two weeks. Media personalities are all over the map speculating about which parties will get which ministries, and whether Bibi will reach agreement with the obvious partners or turn to Zionist Union, or maybe offer Yitzhak Herzog enough goodies so that he'll abandon Tsipi Livni and join a Bibi government as the head of Labor.

One of the problems in negotiations is associated with Sara's concern for Bibi's political partners. Ayelet Shaked was number #3 on the electoral list of Jewish Home, and wants a ministry. Yet she is an articulate and attractive young woman, who Sara is said to view as a threat.

Sara is herself #3 in the list of Bibi's wives, and has a history of guarding her status against those who might--or have--tempted him.

The cartoonist for Ha'aretz describes coalition negotiations with Bibi mixing the leaders of several parties in his cooking pot, and Sara keeping Ayelet away from the pot and getting ready to carve her into pieces.

Still to be heard from are 10 or more Likud MKs, several of whom may be thinking of themselves as Bibi's successor, sooner or later. Each wants something good in this government that will assure a lot of media attention. It'll be Bibi's task to downsize their ambitions, allot to a few what is left after passing out ministries to the minor parties, and perhaps assure himself that the hottest competitors for his job don't get something good.

Alas, it is the fate of leading politicians to deal with issues that have no solution.

There is enough extremism in both parts of Palestine to make it unlikely that we'll see a compromise that settles their issues with Israel. Yet the enthusiasm of leftists for Palestine will make the struggle with BDS and other madness continue as far into the future as we can see.

Russia, Ukraine, Western Europe and the White House seem unlikely to solve what results from large Russian communities in Ukraine, corruption in Kiev, ambitions in Moscow, and lots of misery on the ground.

Israeli politicians are not likely to curb the egos or aspirations that have led them into the game that is currently at the point of greatest excitement.

We'll all be living with Shiite ambitions coming out of Iran, as well as deadly competition between various forms of Islam.

Sooner or later one or more of those clusters of Muslims may turn against us, or against you wherever you are. Until then, however, the best news is that they are killing one another, weakening and postponing their capacity to become our primary worries.

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 09:13 PM
April 18, 2015
Then and now, here and there

Like some of the readers of these notes, I grew up in the US during the 1940s and 1950s.

It was a time of assimilation for Jews and all the rest of the hoi polloi who had streamed from Europe. The US was ascendant as the result of World War II, European and Asian cities were either rubble or impoverished. Americans were flocking to the suburbs, and living better than their parents. The Blacks along with other poor folks knew their place. Parents told their kids to finish their meals on account of Chinese and Indians who were starving. Africa was below the radar.

It was a setting to encourage patriotism. The US had won the war and Americans were living better than any others.

It soon developed that all was not well. The USSR became the new enemy. The Rosenbergs were a problem for Jews, some of whom saw the trial and execution as persecution, or a warning to be loyal. Other Jews saw the same things as justified against the national enemy. Blacks always included those who did not know their place, and those who came back from the war added to the ferment.

But it was still a simpler picture than now.

Since those good days, the US population has more than doubled, and its complexity has multiplied. Hispanics and Asians are all over the place, and--along with Blacks who have moved into the middle class and better--contribute their share of the movers and shakers. Jews have done well enough to have lost their designation as a minority.

The outer world has changed at least as much. Europe is back in the game, and China has come from a basket case to a great power.

Remember when the family physician was the wise man, who knew all there was to know. Now he--or just as likely she--is little more than a clerk and gatekeeper, passing on problems to specialists who have more knowledge than existed in the 1940s, but each with limited perspective and concern for only a part of us.

It's not surprising that attitudes have lagged behind realities, especially among us old farts who were shaped by school and personal experiences 60 and more years ago.

The old views come into my mailbox, typically from people who are about my age, and adhere to the notion that America is still at the top of the heap, and must do what is necessary to stay there.

My guess is that most who write that way are also well endowed with good jobs and/or pensions, the capacity to assure themselves the best of health care, and to help the grandchildren with private school and Ivy League tuition. All the better if they are living in gated communities.

National averages on just about everything important favor Western Europe and Japan, along with Israel and a few other places.

Americans who won't believe the averages tell stories about individuals who've done well, been cured, and avoided violence in the US, and contrary stories of violence and economic problems elsewhere.

All the stories may be true. Individuals who are smart, and lucky, may find the good, avoid the bad, live long and well in any society. Yet the averages have meaning for the quality of what countries provide to their various parts.

Us coddled folks outside of the US pay higher taxes, but that's the price of civilization.

Freedom has been an American slogan forever. But it's also been deceptive. "No taxation without representation" was the bluff of American revolutionaries. The colonists' representation in the British Parliament was no less than the average Britisher, and probably more so given the capacity of American representatives to speak with the holders of power. The taxes complained about were paying for a recent war meant to protect the colonies from the French and Indians.

Whatever the intellectual merits, the American fascination with low taxes still echoes in lower quality education, health and other domestic services. Well-to-do Americans have access to what is as good as is available anywhere, but the averages do not make for national pride.

Paradise exists nowhere. Europeans and Americans who walk the streets of their cities--or who visit one another's turf--must be careful to avoid neighborhoods where they may lose wallets, dignity, and their lives.

Jews are doing better than others. Almost all have left the nasty places for better lives in Israel, North America, or Western Europe. One should not overlook the pogroms that occurred from ancient times to recent decades, certainly not the Holocaust, and the current worries about European Muslims. But our ancestors were on the top intellectually, as witness both collections called Bible, written by us or those who rebelled against the Judaic establishment when the vast majority of others could not read or write. Those of us who suffered from discrimination in the US or the USSR nonetheless managed to acquire higher incomes and better education than the mass.

Politics is nothing like it was in the late 1940s. Leave aside the empty blather that marks the United Nations and the "international community." The world is a competitive arena where the heads of top countries have to work in order to realize their claims.

US, major European countries, the EU, Russia, China, and Japan do better than others, but none of them control the planet.

The shallowness of claims that Bibi lost something by meddling in American politics reflect what's happened since 1945. To the extent that the US or any other country wants clout elsewere, it opens its politics to others. Recent events suggest that the Israeli Prime Minister has had about as much weight in the US as any single Senator or Cabinet Secretary, or any of the 50 Governors and 435 Members of the House of Representatives who struggle for prominence on the national stage.

Nothing is a slam dunk or an easy prediction.

Looking to the future one has to worry about the uglier side of Islam, how far that will spread among the one-seventh of the world population that are nominal adherents, and how the leaders of the "free world" (now defined as non-Muslim) will deal with the radicals in the Middle East and their own countries.

The view was a lot simpler from the playground of the Highland School in the 1940s.

Alas, the Highland School no longer exists. And its world was nothing like now.

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
April 16, 2015
Israel's secular holidays

We're in the midst of Israel's secular holidays, that are arguably more profound in terms of popular sentiment than the principal religious holidays of Yom Kippur and Pesach.

Thusday was day to remember the Holocaust. Together with next Wednesday--the day to remember fallen soldiers and victims of terror--these are the two most solemn days of the Israeli calendar. Then comes Independence Day when families go on picnics and have a good time.

Some will say that nothing can match the feelings associated with Yom Kippur or Pesach. One is a contemplation of sin and the other a celebration of freedom. Both have their profound messages, but cannot match the two Memorial Days when most living individuals have direct experience of what they signify.

It's mostly the European half of the population with direct experience of the Holocaust. There may not be too many actual survivors still alive, but there are enough children and grandchildren raised in the shadows to have had almost direct contact with what it meant.

Varda lights a candle for her uncle and grandmother, whose name she carries translated from German to Hebrew. Years ago she listened to radio reports about people found alive but scattered, in the hope that she would hear the names of Rosa and Karl. She was an adult before she received copies of the official German records from the Dutch Red Cross.

Almost the entire population has personal memories of soldiers who did not come home, or individuals killed by terror.

Varda lights a candle for two cousins.

I've visited the grave in the military cemetery of the boy who was Stefan's closest friend in junior high school, and I sat with the family of a student who was killed in the university cafeteria.

The media busies itself with both days, reaching a peak of attention during the evening before and then throughout the day with stories of those who died and those who survived.

It's not uncommon to avoid the emotional pressure, either by turning off the radio or going out of the country.

This year it is difficult to avoid the association of both days with US-European negotiations with Iran.

Against Americans, including American Jews who assert their love for Israel but insist that Prime Minister Netanyahu has threatened them and us with his meddling in American politics, the Israeli polity is pretty well united about the threat from Iran. There are those who quarrel with the Prime Minister's tactics, but their reservations pale in the context of his chief political rival--Yitzhak Herzog--asserting that there is no quarrel about the danger from Iranian nuclear weapons and the faults in what has so far been negotiated.

Media personalities who thought Netanyahu was risking too much by challenging the President in his own Capitol have credited the Prime Minister for raising the issue, influencing Congress to assert its involvement, and perhaps bringing the White House to be more vigilant.

It's hard to find any optimism in what seems to be a sharp disagreement between Iranian and western participants in the negotiations, and in Russia's agreement to provide sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.

Yet it has been worse, as signified by Israel's non-religious holidays.

Since Independence, the population has gone from a bit less than 900,000 to a bit more than 8 million. Virtually all the Jews from the nastiest places have left where they had to leave, and many of them have been absorbed here, along with smaller numbers who came--like me--for a variety of personal reasons rather than because they felt they had to leave where they lived.

Israel's economy has grown from a GDP per capita that was 47 percent of that in the United States in 1960 to a GDP per capita that is now 65 percent of that in the United States. While none of Israel's universities have the resources of Harvard or Oxford, all of them appear in the lists of the 500 highest ranking institutions in the world, and two or three regularly appear in--or close to--the top 100 in various rankings. Health indicators put Israel in the top tier of European countries, and ahead of the US.

Not all is rosy. Palestinian inspired BDS resonates with leftists on campuses, among Jews, and other activists in the US and Europe. A Korean friend laments that young people in his country--where there has never been a Jewish community--show signs of anti-Semitism and link Israel and North Korea as the two most evil countries.

Pending is the prospect of a Palestinian suit against Israel in the International Criminal Court. However, Israeli officials are preparing a counter suit, and the stand off may never occur. Much of the activity by Israeli security forces in the West Bank is focused against Hamas and serves to protect the slippery grasp on power by Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah colleagues. The Palestinian leadership is a long way from singing Hatikvah or even acknowledging publicly Israel's right to exist, but there is a lot of maneuvering outside of what the media reports.

German made submarines capable of launching missiles provide as much of Israel's deterrent against Iran as American made aircraft. The submarines and aircraft include technology and carry munitions from Israel's own laboratories and industry.

History and current politics aside, Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa are the foreign carriers accounting for the highest number of passengers to Ben Gurion Airport. Germany is also the preference of Israelis seeking a second passport, with some 100,000 Israelis having acquired German citizenship as of 2011, and about 7,000 more doing so each year.

This may be far from being a normal country. Partly because of that, it is well established as an interesting country.

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 10:18 PM
April 14, 2015
Politics and its limits

The two countries I know best are both immersed in political frenzy.

In the United States it is the onset of the 2016 presidential campaign.

In Israel it is sorting out the goodies and the claimants after last month's election.

Both are marked by hyperbolic claims and promises, which are not likely to produce more than tiny increments of what affects the future of each place.

The American presidential race may end up as a competition between two dynasties, with Jeb Bush against Hillary Clinton.

So much for claims of being the most openly democratic country, where everyone can make it to the top.

It'll take a lot of money to get a major party nomination and then the big prize. Hillary has set her target at raising two billion dollars. The Republicans will not be far behind, if at all.

Glitz, slogans, and platitudes are what we've heard so far from Hillary. A critical article in the New York Times asks what she intends to offer? and why is she running?

She is already headlined as a favorite to get her party's nomination and a possible winner of the election. Yet it may not be all smiles and well programmed media stuff. Being a woman might help, but being an old woman might be a handicap. If elected, she'd be close to Reagan's record as the oldest person to become President, Americans are likely to be reminded about his dementia, which became evident either soon after he left office, or while he was still serving.

Husband Bill will be both an asset with some voters and a problem with others. And a problem for Hillary if his dicey heart gives out in mid-campaign, perhaps while he's seen going after one of the shapelier aides.

Whoever wins will come up against a host of barriers to the enactment and implementation of what the voters are expecting.
Entrenched polities have their supporters, and do not cave in easily to a new leader
Congress and the bureaucracy are two sources of constraint, either opposing and modifying in a formal sense (Congress) or using the power of expert persuasion and a knowledge of existing law and regulation (the bureaucracy) to whittle down what gets passed or delay and dilute what is implemented
The economy is a major constraint, along with budget bureaucrats and central bankers inclined to hold off any major raid on the government treasury
In the case of foreign policy, the President is limited by all of the above, plus the actions of America's clients and antagonists. Even a "pisspot little country" like Israel can throw a monkey wrench into a President's desires or a President's capacity to carry out what the White House defines as American policy
So much for Hillary, Jeb, and whoever else is promising Americans to make life a lot better.

The leader of every other democracy faces equivalent limitations on personal power.

No doubt the person at the top can nudge a limited number of issues in one direction or another, but not likely the full delivery of the promises voters will be hearing in the coming months.

Presidents and other heads of state may do great things in office, or commit grave errors that impact on their society, but they may not be the things featured in an election campaign. Think of George W. Bush's responses to 9-11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the details of what Barack Obama is promoting with respect to Iran.

The United States, more than most other western democracies, suffers from considerable freedom available to state and local governments. All told, there are nearly 90,000 governmental units in the United States with some degree of autonomy.

The claim is that this makes for greater democracy and home rule.

Maybe. But it also provides an opportunity for nuttiness not controlled by higher levels of government. It means enormous expenditures on athletics by local school districts, as well as concerns for and against the teaching of evolution and "intelligent design." Local boards that control libraries work to keep what they think undesirable off the shelves. Local police have wide discretion in recruitment and limited professional training, with the kinds of results seen recently in Missouri and South Carolina.

State discretion produces legislation dealing with the minutiae of abortion, the rights and privileges of religious groups, freedom or something else for homosexuals, access to marijuana, and limited access to alcohol. A number of states have their own sanctions on Iran, and may not be in sync with whatever the Obama administration decides. While some will claim that Washington has a monopoly on foreign policy, it may take a while to sort out the legal issues.

Israel is following its own timetable. The election occurred on March 17. A week later the President gave Benyamin Netanyahu the task of forming a government. Bibi has four weeks, plus the possibility of a two week extension to do the job.

Currently he and his party colleagues have been listening to what the likely partners want, and seeking to persuade flexibility in cases where there are two or more claimants for the same goodie.

At stake are ministries, chairs of key Knesset committees, and statements of purpose.

The ministry issue is not only who gets what important position, but what administrative components are passed from one ministry to the other. Moshe Kahlon demands not only the Finance Ministry, but control of local planning, usually associated with the Interior Ministry. He also demanded the chair of the Knesset Finance Committee. He claimed that the triad of positions would be necessary in order to deliver on his promises to reduce prices, reform banking, and deal with the supply of housing.

Even with his hands on all the levers, assuming that happens, Kahlon will still have to cope with national and world economic conditions, the weight of Bank Israel, and some additional problematic local factors. Israeli consumers face a few large suppliers of food and other prominent consumer goods with near monopoly controls on prices. The housing market has been affected by contractors not willing to build at full capacity, and overseas Jews who are willing to pay high prices for apartments that remain empty most of the year.

Reports are that Kahlon may give up the demand for control of the Knesset Finance Committee, also prized by Torah Judaism for the sake of its Yeshivah boys, but is still insisting on local planning, against the insistence of SHAS leader Ariyeh Deri that he be given the Interior Ministry with its full complement of functions.

Deri's claim is raising hackles. He has promised to use the Interior Ministry to assure sufficient resources for the school system associated with his party, but it's just for such things that he served 22 months in prison.

Avigdor Lieberman has made a pitch for the death penalty against terrorists, and Naftali Bennett wants a veto on legislation having to do with the Jewish nature of Israel.

Against both of those claims, as well as Kahlon's demands, Bibi and his party colleagues have hinted at turning toward Zionist Union and the prospect of a "National Unity" government. Reports are that talks are underway, with Zionist Union be offered a number of ministries in a Netanyahu government.

We're in a process of political blather and a game of chicken. Will Bennett, Lieberman, and/or Kahlon risk a miserable few years in opposition? Or settle for less of what they say they want in exchange for the modest number of votes they would contribute to a coalition?

Both the US and Israel will get through their present fascination with the personalities demanding to lead, Looking at history and the probability of change, the impact of the competition will be more in the area of personal satisfaction, i.e., cheers for the winner, than any great delivery of what will be promised.

Then what comes from whoever is at the top is just as much likely to reflect responses to unexpected events in international or economic spheres than to any program that had been offered to the voters.

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 09:12 PM
April 12, 2015
We're stuck with him

Barack Obama is not a bad man, or a stupid man.

It's hard to say that he's a bad president for the United States. He has made a mark for himself in bringing US health care into the 20th century, and it may even make it into the 21th century, depending on subsequent implementation and fix-ups. The task was gargantuan, given the deeply embedded notion that health care should be a source of profit, for physicians, hospitals, and insurance companies.

He is making an effort to do something fair about who knows how many illegal immigrants. That's another hard one, given the contrasting notions of justice among Americans, the long and porous borders of the US, the attractions of low-paying jobs for miserable people who don't live all that far from the US, and the desire of American families and corporations for cheap labor.

Repairing the 50 year problem with Cuba also adds to Obama's credits, which he sensibly began in the second half of his second term, unreachable by the money or votes of Cuban Americans.

Where Barack Obama scores far below the mid-point of presidential acumen and success is with virtually everything having to do with the Middle East.

His failures began with a Cairo speech preaching equality and democracy in the heart of a culture that is hostile to both. It extended to the folly of a speech about Syrian chemical weapons that began with aggression and ended with appeasement. It includes his enthusiasm for Palestine despite the chronic failure of Palestinian leaders to agree to Israeli or American proposals. Most recently he's claimed success with Iran that ignores how the Iranians see what he called an agreement.

Involved also is the President's view of Muslims killing Jews as random violence not associated with a religion.

It is not only about the Middle East and Islam where Barack Obama scores poorly. His record on Ukraine suggests that he did not learn the elemental lesson about spheres of influence that led Nikita Khrushchev to pull his missiles out of Cuba in 1962.

How did a person so unfit for world leadership get into office?

The same way as George W. Bush got there.. Both won presidential primaries, and became the candidate of the party that benefited from dissatisfaction with the preceding President.

The fixed term joins presidential primaries as a handicap of American politics.

Every other democracy relies on a parliamentary system where the national leader reaches office via a number of learning steps, and then has to prove capacity, or bow out to a successor.

Bush's victory in 2004 stands as a mystery of its own. The disaster inherent in the war waged partly to democratize Iraq was not fully apparent. Bush's popular vote margin was the smallest for any reelected president. Perhaps John Kerry wasn't any better as a candidate than as a negotiator.

Americans may not care all that much about their international position, or how well their leaders do in understanding and dealing with issues far from home. A study published by the Brookings Institution points to minority turnout and voting--especially of Blacks--as central to Obama's elections. Sentiments a lot closer to home than the Middle East move American politics.

The study shows that Blacks, as well as Hispanic and Asian Americans increased their tendencies to vote Democratic between 2004 and 2008-2012, while White voters remained Republican in all those years. Helping to elect and re-elect Obama were increasing Black turnout rates from 2004 to 2008 and again in 2012, while White turnout rates declined in each of the later elections.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has begun her candidacy for 2016. She may claim that 8 years as a politically astute Presidential Wife and four years as Secretary of State put her experience in foreign policy in the league with Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush,

We don't yet know if she is sharper than Obama on the Middle East and more capable of seeing the complex realities of Islam. She'll have to overcome the tendency of Americans to avoid giving three successive terms to the same presidential party, and animosities apparent toward Obama's administration. The importance of minority votes for Obama suggests that Ms Clinton may come to office on the basis of her sex rather than on what she says about the Middle East or any other region of the world.

Some welcome--with enthusiasm--Obama's efforts to replace American reliance on force with negotiations. Given his capacity to explain himself, a younger Barack might have won an undergraduate debate medal with his theme. However, it isn't suitable to the Presidency when the Middle East is under the onslaught of aggressive Islam, and Iranian Shiites dreaming of imperial glories.

If the US had a parliamentary government, the results of recent negotiations might produce a political crisis, and either a turnover in party leadership or an election.

Whether Obama would be dumped out in a parliamentary regime that focuses largely on domestic issues--with prominent inputs of race and ethnicity--is a question that cannot be answered.

There is no chance that America will adopt a parliamentary structure of government.

For a gripping account of how casually the US has abandoned one of its clients to mass slaughter, follow this link to recollections by the man who was US Ambassador to Cambodia when disaster occurred.

Israelis may see the item as justifying even greater reliance on the IDF, and worrying less that some of what it must do makes Barack Obama uncomfortable.

We're stuck with Barack Obama for another 20 months, but thanks to ourselves, we are not helpless.

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 09:12 PM
April 10, 2015
Iran and the rest of us

Barack Obama isn't looking as good as he did when he had the interviewers all to himself in the first few days after negotiators left Lausanne with smiles and handshakes, but nothing more than oral reports about what had been agreed to date.

Commentators have poked around the details and are asking tough questions. Iranians are saying either a complete end of all sanctions or they can live without any deal. A couple of old wise men--George Schultz and Henry Kissinger--are saying that Obama caved in to the Iranians, and doubt that what's been done so far--and is conceivable in further negotiations--has made the world safer or the United States a leading figure in its future.

What's next?

As always, scenario builders should consider probabilities, and the economics of benefits and costs.

Alas, when dealing with the slippery stuff of politics and international relations, there are no hard data to allow the calculation of probabilities or tangible benefits and costs.

The concepts remain useful, even if loose.

Barack Obama has another 22 months in office, and he has established himself as a President who prefers negotiations over force. However, the balance we see in his actions is not overwhelmingly away from force. He has helped with actions against Libya, the Islamic State, and the operations of Saudi Arabia and Egypt against Iran's puppets in Yemen. He pulled troops out of Iraq but not out of Afghanistan.

With Iranian warships heading for a possible confrontation with Saudi and Egyptians in the strategic strait alongside Aden, that could develop into something that would affect the US posture toward Iran's nuclear program.

That is far from a sure bet, and the possibilities of an escalation up to an American attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is even further from certain.

Whether or not things move along such a path, American and Israeli officials will continue to ponder the benefits and costs associated with doing something more forceful than talking about Iran's nuclear program.

On the basis of what we know, it's only the Americans and Israelis who are likely to consider anything forceful. Moreover, each have their own calculations, and we can bet that neither will act directly against Iran.

Both have recognized the costs of an attack.

Iran is not a paper tiger. It can send missiles with conventional warheads against Israel and other allies of the United States, as well as against US military bases in the Middle East. Its Hezbollah clients can rain thousands of missiles on Israeli civilians, but at the likely cost of Israel destroying significant elements of Lebanon's infrastructure, as well as targeting the villages and towns of Lebanese Shiites where the missiles are stored and from which they will be fired. In such an exchange, with differentials of civil defense, one might expect hundreds or thousands of Israeli casualties, and tens of thousands of Lebanese casualties. If Israel goes after Lebanon's port facilities and electric plants--which it did not do in 2006--it can set back the entire country by decades.

All know that it is easier to begin a war than to control its outcome.

Probabilities would lead us to expect that Obama will keep negotiations going, even in the face of Iran moving closer to weapon capacity. He can rely on promises to retaliate if Iran were to use a nuclear weapon, and leave the consequences to future presidents.

Israel as well is likely to rely on its deterrent capacity, rather than pre-empt. Several years ago the IDF command persuaded the team of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the chances of an attack's success were such that Israel could only delay Iran's nuclear achievement, and that an attack would increase the chances of an eventual nuclear attack on Israel.

Now the same probabilities are weighed even more against against an Israeli attack, given the likelihood that Iran's facilities are more spread out and bunkered, and that it is considerably closer to its own capacity to retaliate with a nuclear weapon.

The lack of a more satisfactory deal may keep US and European sanctions in place, or even increased in severity. However, that would require US and European politicians to stand firm against politically robust claims of business executives about lost opportunities, lost profits and jobs if western sanctions continue while Russia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey and lesser others do what they can to evade them.

There are several possibilities that can change the probabilities and benefit-cost assessments.

One is whatever develops around Yemen. A frontal clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Egypt can be a game changer, bringing in the United States as a major supplier of munitions, and/or as an active participants in keeping Iranian warships bottled up in the Persian Gulf. One can imagine a nightmare where the Russians and/or Chinese become involved on the Iranian side in order to keep the Persian Gulf open for the flow of Iranian oil.

Another set of possibilities may begin in the US Congress, if Republicans recruit enough Democrats to a proposal requiring Congressional action with respect to what is emerging as a deal with Iran. That would need votes to overcome a Presidential veto, but current speculation is that there are enough Democrats unhappy with what Obama has accepted from Iran. If Congress becomes an active player, the same coalition of Republicans and suspicious Democrats would likely increase US demands on Iran and forestall any agreement.

Perhaps the most likely scenario is a continuation of blah blah from all concerned, negotiations without end, and Iran reaching nuclear weapons capacity--with or without a test--in the not so distant future.

Then Israel would presumably increase its capacity to retaliate sufficiently after an Iranian first strike, in order to dissuade the Iranians from attacking. The reputation of Barack Obama would go deep into the tank created by those inclined to blame him for the folly of a strategy that began with a Cairo talk preaching equality and democracy to Muslims, speaking out but failing to act against Syrian use of chemical weapons, and sticking to negotiations with the Shiites of Iran.

Those heaping scorn on the name of Barack Obama might also emphasize his insistence that Islam is not a religion of violence.

Political calculations being what they are, we can do no more than hope that our future, and that of our children, won't be worse.

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
April 08, 2015
Bibi and Barack

It seems like a head to head competition, verbal and political combat, with one of the participants vastly outweighing the other in the resources that usually determine such outcomes.

Nobody in the world has been more powerful than the President of the United States since the end of World War II. Yet he--or should there become a she--does not own the planet. Western Europe matches the US in population and economic clout. Yet it is divided, and no countries other than Germany, Britain and France have much weight in international politics. China, Japan, and India are much more than what they were in 1945, and Russia is less than Stalin's USSR. They can all constrain the US President if they choose.

Israel, with the size of New Jersey and the population of Virginia, has got itself into a position of middle size economic weight and a capacity to either cause trouble or be a source of stability--depending on one's perspective--in an unstable region. The Middle East is capable of upsetting things due to its energy resources and the activism associated with a religion that has a billion adherents, about one-seventh of world population.

Israel is usually thought of as a client asking for help, but Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has been playing in the garden of American politics with enough success to penetrate Presidential space, and maybe outweigh the President on an issue of great importance to them both.

Both are known as even more dominating in their circles than is typical for hyper-egoed politicians. Bibi has a record of undermining politicians of his party or others who might become serious competitors, and Barack is known as a President who does not take advice. Both are accomplished orators, Bibi in English as well as Hebrew.

Bibi has an advantage of having a constituency in the US as well as Israel, but he also has shrill opponents among American Jews.

Overall, Bibi does better in US politics than Barack in Israeli politics. Both received close to 45 percent approval in a recent polls of Americans, but Bibi's negatives in the US were significantly smaller than Barack's, 24 percent to 50 percent.

The percentage of Israelis viewing Obama favorably has dropped as low as four percent. Recently it was 33 favorable and 50 percent unfavorable.

At home, Bibi came from behind to lead the largest party in recent Knesset elections. He still has to create a government from among potential partners, but the betting is that he is good for another two to four years in office. His party outpolled its nearest competitor by some 25 percent.

US history, as well as recent polling, suggests that it is best to bet on a Republican winning the presidential election of 2016, unless that party chooses one of its nuttier conservatives as the party leader. Since 1948, there was only one occasion when a party won the presidency three times running.

Dust-ups between Bibi and Barack have dealt with Palestine, and more recently Iran. The issue of Palestine is currently further from the front burner, thanks partly to the Palestinian leadership rejecting US efforts at formulating a basis of understanding in the most recent negotiations, and the Palestinians choosing confrontation in international forums over negotiations. The White House and State Department may have noticed that Arab governments have tired of Palestinian issues, and that may add to Obama's greater concern for other matters.

Bibi is some distance from winning their confrontation over Iran, but it is not all that clear that Barack has won it.

The President has had a good run with interviews that he dominates, but the Iranian shoe has not fallen. The timing of lifting sanctions and the sanctions meant to be lifted may be the toughest issues yet to be settled. Iranians want an end to sanctions with the reaching of a final accord, while Obama has said that sanctions will be lessened as Iran shows compliance. Moreover, Obama has talked about a continuation of sanctions directed not against Iran's nuclear program but against its support of terror, while the Iranians seem to be counting on the lifting of all sanctions.

Obama's success on the Iranian issue may depend on his holding together a difficult cluster of Congressional Republicans and wavering Democrats as well as Iranians. Congressional adversaries are demanding a much tougher posture against Iran, as well as a Congressional role in the matter.

Commentators are parsing Obama's interviews as well as Iranians' contrary interpretations of what has been agreed.

It's not shaping up as a time to envy the US President.

Obama's "legacy" will have as many interpretations as there are columnists in coming years and historians in later years. At present it seems that Iran will play a role in his standing, along with still developing issues about the implementation of Obamacare, whatever happens on immigration reform, and how the worthies view Obama with respect to Ukraine, the large and growing areas of the Middle East and Africa affected by the various modes of aggressive Islam.

The US population has grown by more than 70 percent since 1960, and its politics have changed in ways that not only brought Obama to power, but are likely to affect his subsequent standing. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives have changed their centers of power. The South and Whites generally are now Republican, and Democrats more fully left of center than when the South was Democratic and Conservative.

Blacks are voting in mass, and Obama owes in presidency to them. He polled large majorities among Blacks and smaller majorities among Hispanics and Asians, while majorities of Whites supported his opponents in 2008 and 2012. There is also a Black-White split with respect to Americans who favor or oppose his actions as President.

American isolationism has come back into style more prominently than at any time since before World War II. It is now more a Democratic issue than a Republican Issue. It was Republicans who were most prominent in opposing aid to Britain prior to Pearl Harbor, but it was Republican Presidents who moved forcefully into the Middle East via Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama speaks more forcefully about negotiation rather than military activity. He's used the notion of not having "American boots on the ground" in connection with removing US troops from Iraq, downsizing the US commitment to Afghanistan, staying out of Syria, keeping ground troops out of Libya, leaving Yemen under pressure, and standing against the prospect of destroying Iran's nuclear facilities.

The use of military force has not advanced a President's status, made most clear by writing about Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush. Whether Obama's efforts to deal with the Middle East by political means advances or destroys his reputation is something where developments in Iran and elsewhere may be crucial.

The story of Jesus inspired those old maps that put Jerusalem at the center of the world. Should they be revised, it would be appropriate to move the center to where Muhammad did his work.

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 09:11 PM