December 18, 2014

It sounds worse than it really is.

This is an optimist's view of Israel's condition with itself and in the world.

Most of the resolutions seeming to recognize a Palestinian state are advisory. Resolutions expressing the sense of the house, but not requiring action, are a dime a dozen among what legislatures do.

Moreover, many of them hitch on to their sentiments the process of a negotiated settlement. Several of them are explicit in mentioning a two-state solution.

The US is prominent in demanding a negotiated agreement, and opposing an imposed settlement as demanded by one of the parties. The Secretary of State indicated that the US would veto the Palestinian formulation, presented to the UN Security Council by Jordan.

Formulations discussed by US officials include mention of Israel as the Jewish state, something that is likely to provoke, once again, a Palestinian rejection.

1967 borders are often mentioned, but in some of the resolutions as starting point of negotiations, and not as the end point. A capital in Jerusalem ain't a big deal. We can offer the Palestinians Isaweea, the Shuafat "refugee camp," and/or a few other troublesome neighborhoods. However, Palestinian polls indicate that residents might vote to stay with Israel.

Also in the air is a European Union Supreme Court decision removing Hamas from the list of terrorist organizations, coming on the same day as the EU Parliament passed a resolution in favor of a Palestinian state.

Explanations are that the court's decision is technical, temporary, and something that will be repaired.

Meanwhile, it is the biggest gift that Bibi has received since Sheldon Adelson's discovery of Israeli politics and his founding of Israel Hayom.

The page 2 headline of Israel Hayom on Thursday was "Europe Against Israel." One op-ed had the headine, "The Blind: They do not understand terror." Another was, "Kristallnacht II in Europe."

Bibi and his party colleagues, along with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are playing those European decisions for all they are worth. They are reminding Israeli voters that Europe was the site of the Holocaust, and predicting another Dark Age as it becomes ever more beholden to its Muslim migrants.

Hamas is celebrating victory in Europe, with about as much justification as it continues to celebrate victory over the IDF in Gaza.

A report that Hamas has diverted some of the material meant for civilian reconstruction to their work on attack tunnels will not help the Palestinians.

The current betting is that Bibi will form a govt with Kahlon, Liberman, and Bennett. He may not need the Haredim, who are in trouble due to a split within SHAS. It should be possible to keep Haredi MKs in line with money for their religious academies, and going lightly on the recruitment of their young men to the IDF.

The Livni-Herzog combination may have peaked in the polls. She is closely identified with a peace process, made unpopular by Palestinian incitement and extreme demands.

The new government won't accomplish much, given its internal divisions.

That'll make it like most governments, dealing more in competing rhetoric than pathbreaking legislation or the solution of long standing problems.

As in other western democracies, there is enough already legislated. The vast majority of government is done by apolitical professionals, with minimum impact from the braying of politicians.

Sanctions are a distant possibility.

Iran and Russia show that they can bite, even in societies much larger than Israel, with lots of oil that can be sold on the black market if not openly, and sufficiently authoritarian to control protest.

Israel would be more vulnerable to sanctions, but its policies demonstrate moderation, and provide arguments against sanctions. Almost all of the building over the 1967 lines is in Jerusalem or the major settlement blocs, widely conceded as remaining Israeli. It has lightened controls on Palestinian movement, provides the inducement of entry permits for Palestinian workers, and has cooperated with Palestinian security personnel for the benefit of both Israelis and Palestinians..

Palestinians foul their own nest with rejection and demands that many see as absurd.

There are sticks as well as carrots in Israel's arsenal, but the government explains their occasional use as appropriate responses to Palestinian excesses.

Much of the Palestinians' money, as well as its electricity and water, depend on Israel. On several occasions, Israel has delayed the transfer of funds collected at its ports as taxes on Palestinian imports. These actions have postponed the payment of salaries to Palestinians' bloated public sector workforce. The action may increase animosity, but it also reminds Palestinians about who depends on who.

Some of the most threatening of those who hate us, and some of the most frightened of those among us use the model of South Africa as Israel's future.

Yet that is flawed both by enormous differences of populations. South Africa's population was the mirror image of Israel's, i.e., 20 percent White and 80 percent non-white, while Jews are close to 80 percent of Israel's population. Moreover, the extremism of White South Africans' treatment of the Black majority was nothing like the Israeli reality.

Israel has a case, more than minimally recognized, composed both of its own behavior and that of the Palestinians.

The continuity may depend on keeping Israeli extremists at bay.

Israel's politics is messy and unsatisfying, but works against extremism. Messianics who view the land as all ours can be found in Likud and Jewish Home, but do not control the government.

Also in the mix are Jewish values that respect human life and personal dignity, with a substantial component of recognizing Jews' dependence on more numerous and more powerful others.

Israel's posture does not reduce to the blacks and whites described by simpletons. It requires a tolerance of nuance and subtlety to understand, but there is at least a bit of those adrift in the world.

Likewise, there are enough other international problems to keep outsiders active. Prominent is the barbarism associated with Muslim extremism, wrestling over Russia and Ukraine, and a new event likely to keep Washington busy. The opening between the US and Cuba means richer cigar smoke in the rooms where things are decided, and applause from some quarters. It also gives Republicans in Congress another reason to make life difficult for the President and his Secretary of State.

An optimist can make no promises. In politics, as in medicine and economics, it is necessary to decide according to the probabilities, and they look like what is described above.

So we can relax.

Enjoy the holiday. Take another pancake.

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 11:29 PM
December 16, 2014

Uncertainty is the human condition.

Perhaps a bit more for the Jews than most others, but we've managed, most of the time, despite our worries.

It ain't all that bad. If we are uncertain, so are others, and we are not the weakest or the lowest in the pile.

Governments exist to deal with uncertainties. Now they are joined by international organizations. However, many, perhaps most of the issues that get to their agendas are so uncertain, and so complex, with so many contending interests, that no solution emerges.

Hold on to what you've got is a prime rule in politics as well as economics.

Currently most uncertain items on our agenda are the big issue of who will govern us from March 17 onward, and the small issue of whether the Palestinians will get anything close to what they want from the UN Security Council.

The latter is a small issue, despite the headlines, because the Palestinians are not likely to get anything tangible. Not now, nor at the end of the two year deadline when they are demanding Israel's surrender.

Israel's political parties, some of them created solely for the purpose of this election, will battle one another on the field of platitudes, with none of them likely to emerge with more than a couple of dozen seats in the Knesset, while 61 are required for a majority. That means that a middle sized party will lead the next government along with four to six even smaller parties, but not small in the size of the egos of those claiming to lead them. Each will be large enough in the coalition to make life difficult for the others.

If the Labor Party emerges at the top, it is likely to have problems within itself. Old Laborites will be waiting with sharp knives to cut down the aspirations of the new Laborites, who have come on board from a variety of political backgrounds, some of them antithetical to Labor's socialist traditions.

Likud's primary is still a couple of weeks away, but it's equally hard to imagine a party firmly in the grasp of the pragmatists around Benyamin Netanyahu, without the nationalist-religious ideologues who want the whole of the Promised Land, doing who knows what to the Arabs in the sizable cities of the West Bank.

The American team of Obama and Kerry will do what they can to avoid an outright veto of the Palestinians' preferred UN solution of demanding a total Israeli withdrawal from everything over the 1967 borders within two years. Actually less than two years, insofar as the resolution started counting time in November.

What may emerge is a resolution calling on the parties to negotiate assiduously, perhaps even aiming for a framework of two years, or a time line to be agreed upon by the parties.

We've been there and done that, and know how to do it again without substantial damage.

No doubt that many of the world's worthies are tired of us, or our problems with the Palestinians, and feel more comfortable pressuring us than the Palestinians. Perhaps few of the worthies take the Palestinians seriously, or think they can get a meaningful agreement from a cluster of old men seeped in corruption, who know only how to demand and not to concede.

It has become politically correct to pressure the Israelis. And like much that is politically correct, it ain't worth much beyond the headlines.

In the background are ideologues or political groupies who think--or at least say or chant--that Israel is a colonial outpost or some other kind of evil, and feel that the Palestinians deserve justice.

The pursuers of justice and other fine things have their weight in the world, but not likely as much as governments who are more concerned to avoid tangible problems than to decide about justice and actually work to achieve it.

Power is not everything. Values do count, but must compete among themselves. Palestinian claims of justice come up against Israel's claims of its own justice. Palestinian and Israeli claims have some leverage over the other, but the relative weights are very much in Israel's favor.

When push comes to shove, it is Israel that supplies substantial proportions of Palestinians' electricity and water, and controls the entrances and exits to Palestine, as well as many of the roads within Palestine.

A UN declaration by itself will not untangle those realities.

Whoever emerges victorious from Israel's election will only be partly victorious, and will not have found the key to solve the problems with Palestine.

Getting rid of Bibi is a campaign theme with some capacity to motivate voters.

It's also a smoke screen excusing the parties from clarifying what they will do if they succeed.

There are lots of small adjustments that can be made to improve things for the Palestinians and Israelis, and it's easier to manage them if the great powers are not posturing to advance what they currently see as the ideal solution. And insofar as each of the great powers has its own conception of the ideal for them and for Palestine, the feeling of uncertainty is widely shared.

There is an irony in the Jews' association with the most estimable values of the Biblical Prophets, and Israel's current place as the target of so many people claiming its injustice.

The prophets wrote their great thoughts in a context of powerlessness. Then another Jewish radical, a native of Bethlehem or Nazereth, got a lot of credit for preaching the values of the prophets, also in a context of being powerless.

Great values seem to emerge in situations of no power. Having one's hands on the levers of government requires the wrestling with contending issues, and having to decide where to put the money of the budget, what laws to enact, how to enforce them, and how to deal with other governments.

Jews of the left who acquired their values from the aspirations of the 1940s and 1950s, when Israel was pretty close to powerless and dependent on the Jews of the Diaspora and one or another government that saw reasons for aiding the new state. Jewish idealists, like Theodore Herzl before them, could articulate the values of equality for all, Arab and Jew, and an absence of violence in the Promised Land.

Since 1967, Israel has been saddled with the problems that come along with power, and the need to govern, including the government of Palestinians who have demonstrated time and again that they can't be dragged to the table and made to see realities, and messianic Jews who see their future in settling all of the Promised Land. Those who actually read the Bible, rather than quote the most desirable passages, should know that the Holy Book includes multiple and conflicting definitions of the Promised Land, but such details are not likely to penetrate the political debates.

In the context of governmental authority, the great values take second place to the maneuvers appropriate to managing a complex society, with conflicting interests, in the context of an equally complex international setting where foreign powerholders are maneuvering to advance their own interests.

We can enjoy the intellectual nuances in the disputes, along with the tangible goodies which we possess. Both are likely to be around for a while.

Chanukah is also an uncertain thing. It is not, technically, a holiday (חג), insofar as it is not mentioned in the Torah, or any other book of the Hebrew Bible. Its roots are in the Books of Maccabees, not allowed into the Canon due largely to the rabbis' antipathy to what came from the descendants of Judah. American Jews, with a prominent push by Chabad, have made it a major event, as the Jews' best competitor with Christmas.

Stories associated with Chanukah provide inspiration for the power of the Almighty (the miracle of one day's supply of oil lasting for eight days), as well as nationalist heroism against a foreign oppressor.

Anthropologists tell us that Christmas and Chanukah are essentially winter festivals, each with their pagan equivalents, bringing light and feasting to the darkness and cold. Pity the Muslims, without a leap year, whose holidays rotate from one season to another. Also our friends in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and lower South America, where the weather does not fit the traditions.

Whatever, enjoy. Go light on the latkes and sophganiot, neither of which adds to one's good health.

Recognizing uncertainties is good for the mind, and one's tolerance of the political babble, but it doesn't taste good.
חג חנוכה שמח
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 10:38 PM
December 14, 2014
Israel and the Diaspora

Jews have had a Diaspora at least since the middle of the sixth century before the common era.

During the time of the Second Temple, a substantial number, perhaps even a majority, lived outside of the Judean homeland.

The Jerusalem-centered Diaspora figures in Christian anti-Semitism, via the episode of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers.

The story features elements of money-grubbing Jews, or Jews whose concern for money competes with what should be sacred.

The reality was that money changers were essential to the religious rites. Jews came for the three major festivals from all the known world, and were compelled to change money brought from their homelands to purchase food to sustain themselves in Jerusalem and to buy the doves or animals which they donated for sacrifice.

Up until modern times there were substantial communities in what is now Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Central Asia,, across North Africa, and throughout Europe.

There were small communities of Jews in North America from colonial times, a sizable migration from Germany in the middle of the 19th century, and then the bulk of what became American Jewry arrived from 1880 until the onset of WW I, mostly from Eastern Europe.

There was always a dribble of Jews moving to Jerusalem and other sites in the Holy Land. The tempo increased with the anti-Jewish tensions that provoked the movement westward.

Jerusalem's meagre and impoverished population, described in unglowing terms by Mark Twain, had a Jewish majority since the middle of the 19th century.

In the early years of modern Israel, the American community provided significant resources and political support with ambivalent American governments. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the new country absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jews who came from the remnants of the Holocaust and from Middle Eastern communities, whose governments turned against their Jews after the military embarrassments suffered by Arab armies in 1948.

Now the Jewish communities of western democracies and Israel have matured way beyond their economic, social, and political status of the 1940s, and there are Israel-Diaspora tensions associated with each community's own interests.

Judaism (i.e., the religion of the Jews) is having a tough time on both sides of the divides, showing the temptations of secularism widespread just about everywhere outside of Islam. Estimates are that as many as 70 percent of non-Orthodox Jews are marrying non-Jews in the US and Western Europe, and that a majority of Israeli Jews rarely visit a synagogue, or know what to do when they do visit for a relative's Bar Mitzvah or some other occasion..

Political disputes have replaced the wholehearted enthusiasm for Israel that was characteristic of the 1940s, and through the wars of 1967 and 1973. Concerns became prominent around Israel's "first unnecessary war" that featured the IDF reaching Beirut and beyond in 1982, and remained as settlements in the West Bank and post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem came to be sources of disagreement with western governments.

Other sources of tension appear among
Jews who support campus programs sponsored by Palestinians, up to and including boycotts of Israeli institutions
Jews who express concern about their own loss of status and security due to Muslims and others who oppose Israeli actions involving settlements, Arab casualties due to the actions of the IDF and Israeli police, or what is described as the inflexibility of Israeli governments with respect to the "two state solution" important to the US and other western governments
unease between Diaspora Jews who support left of center political parties, and Israelis who support right of center political parties,
One can find in the Israeli population antipathy to "rich and spoiled Americans and Europeans" who criticize Israeli actions from their own positions of safety, even while Israelis acknowledge and seek to enhance the financial and political support received from those overseas Jews who continue to identify with Israeli concerns.

With Israel's development, financial support from the Diaspora has become less important than political support, in the context of increase activism of overseas Palestinians and their supporters.

The Obama administration has moved to an extreme position, not seen since Eisenhower's pressure on Israel, Britain and France to withdraw from the Sinai in 1956, or Secretary of State James Baker's "fuck the Jews" in the context of the first Gulf War.

Most prominent is the contrast between GW Bush's recognition of demographic changes that have to be taken into account in any accord, and the Obama-Kerry concern for the 1967 borders and opposition to Jewish construction in post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

Israeli Jews and the Israeli government recognize substantial losses of support among younger Jews.

It is not the case that Israeli Jews and the Israeli government have given up on their former friends, but something like that is involved in Israelis' move to the right politically while Diaspora Jews continue to support Barack Obama and the head of the British Labour Party Ed Miliband, who is a Jew and son of Holocaust survivors, and has opposed some of Israel's prominent activities.

One can argue about Israel's dependence on the political influence of American Jews. For one thing, that influence is not entirely in the direction of supporting the policies of the Israeli government. J Street may not be the match of AIPAC, but it reaches the White House, most notably via Martin Indyk. For another thing, Israel's own economic and military might, along with its capacity to link itself to various politicians ascendant elsewhere, makes it a factor in its own right, able to look after itself in international politics. At some points in recent months, Israeli actions have been closer to those of Egypt than to those of the United States. And for a third thing, Israeli officials look for support across the complexity of American politics, including sectors not close to whoever is currently in the present White House. Among its points of reference have been Republicans in Congress, and leading ministers of the Christian Right.

None of which is to say that Israeli officials overlook the sentiments and support they may get from American Jews. The point is that Israel is an independent actor, not tied to whatever may be ascendant among the Jews of the United States or any other Diaspora.

Academic boycotts are especially sensitive, especially for those inclined to think that higher education has special influence over the present and future policies of western governments. As this link demonstrates, the issue pits Jews and others against one another, with no clear result other than the campaign's influence on weakening the quality of education, especially in humanities and social sciences on some of the most prestigious campuses that are most costly for parents wanting the best for their children.

BDS and other actions against Israel and Jews on campuses and elsewhere may be making Diaspora Jews more uncomfortable than Israelis. Israelis have been aware of threat and tensions all during their history, and rely on security forces skilled in protecting them. Diaspora Jews are encountering a wave of anti-Semitism, at least partly linked to what Israel has been doing, not felt in western countries since Jews began to enjoy increased opportunities after World War II.

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
December 12, 2014
Boycotts, sanctions, and a Palestinian state-- who's winning and who's losing?

We are feeling a wave of resolutions, almost none of them binding on their governments, being taken by European parliaments, in favor of recognizing the State of Palestine.

Expressions from Irish leftists supporting their resolution ring like the most barbaric of anti-Semitism. They accuse Israel of slaughtering and raping Palestinians since 1948, and the continued killing of Gazans unfortunate to be in Israel's open-air jail. Several use the terms genocide and mass murder to describe Israeli actions, demand the imposition of sanctions and the destruction of the Israeli state for the sake of decency, justice, and Palestine.

It's almost enough to make me swear off Guinness.

Other parliaments have enacted, or are likely to enact similar resolutions. The only European government to formally recognize a State of Palestine is Sweden, and that is of doubtful value given the government's recent collapse

Israel's official response is that such actions make an accommodation more distant.

The reasoning is that symbolic gifts serve to weaken the resolve of any Palestinians who may think that compromise is the way to reach an agreement with Israel.

Bizarre rhetoric of the Irish variety may also help Bibi ride the wave of antagonism to another term in office, with all that means for Israel's openness to the idea of a Palestinian state..

The Obama administration is considering something other than a veto against a Palestinian proposal to the UN Security Council demanding a state within two years, along with other things Israel considers unacceptable, i.e., a capital in Jerusalem, and withdrawal of Jews to the 1967 borders.

The White House may be thinking about nudging Israel toward the two-state solution, and the difficulty of supporting Israel in the context of efforts to enlist Arab governments in the United States campaign against ISIS.

There are also domestic US considerations, associated with anticipations of all those Israeli-loving Republicans who will be in Congress.

John Kerry is working with Europeans and talking to Netanyahu, in the hope of avoiding an increase in tensions surrounding whatever comes before the Security Council.

It's not an easy task, with a number of European governments having their own domestic concerns shown by parliaments voting in favor of Palestine, and "a lot of different folks pushing in different directions."

There are economic sanctions already in place, but nothing more than what is annoying. Left-leaning coops and some supermarkets have removed Israeli products from their shelves, and the longshorepersons of Oakland have refused to unload Israeli registered ships.

So far economic sanctions have focused on consumer goods, which are a small element in Israel's exports. Perhaps not well known to the self-appointed worthies are a cluster of countries, from the Middle East and elsewhere, that quietly pay significant sums for Israeli technology in security and other fields.

Academic boycotts are getting considerable attention, and doing a bit of damage. Lots of my manuscripts have been rejected for appropriate reasons, but one rejection whose explanation was unconvincing came from an editor located at an unknown British institution, whose name I Googled and found to have written items that were extreme in their animosity toward Israel and the United States.

One of our PhDs, a Palestinian, serious Muslim, apolitical, a skilled researcher and analyst, was denied permission by his Palestinian university to present an academic paper at a conference hosted by the Hebrew University.

When a university of doubtful quality forbids its staff to participate with colleagues in a distinguished university, the boycotters lose more than the boycotted.

Students currently at my own distinguished alma mater in New England are paying nearly $50,000 per year to learn from a professor who has signed on to a proclamation that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is "one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times."

Palestinians' latest contribution to medical science is to ignore the findings of their own pathologist, and claim that a seriously ill politician who died of a predictable heart attack while participating in a demonstration was murdered by an Israeli police officer.

Individuals from Fatah's leadership are threatening, as a result of the imagined murder, to end the security cooperation with Israel.

If that is done, the damage will be greater to Palestine. They should expect a resurgence of Palestinian on Palestinian criminality, as well as Hamas attacks against Fatah activists.

Those who doubt Israel's own capacity to deal with Hamas should take another look at the rubble in Gaza.

The world is dynamic, and not always just. Bad things have happened to good people at least since our ancestors created the Book of Job. Yet the bottom line is where we are, and what has happened to Palestinians who work harder to hurt us than to benefit their own people.

From the Holocaust, warfare, and a flood of the downtrodden from Europe and the Middle East, who traded their refugee status for citizenship upon arriving in Israel, Israel has become one of the world's wealthiest countries, with medical services widely enough available to support one of the longest life spans. The Arab minority of Israel lives as long or longer, dependent on the statistics used, than the White majority of the United States, and considerably longer than American minorities.

Israel's democracy may be imperfect, but not more than that of any other country with a credible claim of being democratic.

Palestinians have been promoting their distorted narrative of Israeli exploitation since 1948, without making an apparent contribution to their people's quality of education, standards of living, or their acquisition in politics of anything more than limited autonomy in the West Bank and widespread misery in Gaza. They may dream of greater accomplishments being just around the corner, if they can find enough support outside of Palestine, but their dream depends on Israel.

Europeans and others who use terms like genocide, slaughter, and mass imprisonment for Israel's efforts at self defense may think they are contributing to their own standing, but we know better.

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
December 11, 2014
Political maneuvers

We are at the height of uncertainty. None of the parties have selected their ranked lists of candidates, a potential rival of Benyamin Netanyahu is still pondering whether to make the race within Likud, and we do not know the full complement of parties and personalities that will align for the sake of political advantage.

The result is a surplus of commentary, with some of the principals and other pols wanting to become principals filling the media with their self-interested proclamations and analyses of what might happen.

Also in the wind is a reassertion by Barack Obama that he has not abandoned the peace process, and will devote a good part of his remaining two years for the sake of his two-state solution.

Commentators friendly to Netanyahu, writing in Israel Hayom (i.e., Bibipress), view Obama's announcement, delivered in a prominent appearance by the Jewish and Hebrew-fluent US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, as an improper effort to influence the Israeli election. They see it as Obama's stick in your eye retaliation for Bibi's overall meanness, and his involvement against Obama in the 2012 American election.

According to recent polls, Bibi is in trouble, and Obama's reiteration of his commitment to a two-state solution (what Israelis unfriendly to Obama are saying is Obama's commitment to Palestine) may nudge enough Israelis to make a difference and end Netanyahu's career.

Current polls are unreliable, given the fluidity of things at the beginning of a campaign. Moreover, they are media polls, with a minimum number of respondents that may meet someone's definition of a random sample.

Yet they point in the same direction. Even if all are of doubtful reliability, they provide a reason for a tentative analysis.

What they are showing is that the newly announced alignment between Tsipi Livni and Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog will get about the same number of Knesset seats as Likud, or maybe a bit more than Likud.

That means two "major" parties, each a bit more than medium in size with 20-24 seats, may be able to anchor a coalition that achieves a majority of the Knesset.

If Netanyahu survives a Likud primary, he may be able to form a government along with Jewish Home, Kahlon, Lieberman, and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Moshe Kahlon has finally provided a name for his party. It translates as "All of us," and is better in Hebrew. Kolanu כלנו resembles Kahlon's name, כחלון.

Netanyahu's internal maneuvering among Likud's dues paying members has proved successful, and indicates that he should not be counted out.

He won two thirds of a vote by party members endorsing his proposal to move forward the party primary from mid- to early January. This should work against his best known opponent, Gideon Saar, recruiting enough support to take the party leadership. It may induce Saar to end his dithering and decide against entering the competition.

Labor might also form a coalition along with Kahlon, Lieberman, Lapid, and Meretz, with the Arab parties sitting on the sidelines. They might vote against a Likud-led coalition but not against an Labor-led coalition.

Neither coalition would be especially harmonious, and could mean another period of infighting and minimum accomplishments.

The prime news on Wednesday evening was the joint announcement by Yitzhak Herzog and Tsipi Livni that they were joining together, against a banner that featured the slogans Defeat Bibi, Victory with Unity, and what might become the name of the new party, Zionist Camp.

The long speech of Herzog featured opposition to the extremism that currently reigns in Israel (i.e., Netanyahu), a return to the socialist values of Labor's tradition, and the victory of unity over political egoism. Livni's equally long speech featured the contrary history of their two families (right wing Livnis and left wing Herzogs), and their present harmony for the sake of overriding national values.

The couple expressed confidence in leading the next government, with Herzog being the prime minister for the first two years and Livni for the second two years, should the hypothetical government last that long.

Specifics were lacking in both speeches, and there was no boasting about the onset of a new peace initiative with the Palestinians.

Still to be tested is the agreement of the unity by Labor Party dues paying members, entitled to vote in a primary to rank party candidates for the Knesset.

In the background was some high volume maneuvering by the Palestinians, claiming that the IDF had murdered their Minister for Prisoners. Still to be examined, or not examined, is whether the individual died as the result of a soldier's actions at a demonstration that, not unusually, moved over the boundaries from peaceful to something else, or whether he died of a heart attack or some other personal malfunction as a result of heightened excitement, a bit of pushing, and the influence of tear gas.

Palestinians have declared the individual a martyr, demanded investigations by the UN, threatened an end to their cooperation with Israel on matters of security, and prepared for a high profile funeral likely to excite things further.

The Arab League, various Arab governments, the Turkish President and the US State Department have joined the chorus of accusations or expressions of concern and calling for a serious investigation, depending on each source's typical response to such things.

Enthusiasts should not expect a breakthrough toward peace from the Livni-Herzog agreement. Not only would Abbas' recent record of incitement work against any easy accommodation, but several elements in what might be labeled a "center-left" coalition would not be inclined to give the Palestinians anything close to what they have been demanding.

Tsipi Livni and some of her new colleagues in Labor might support a degree of cooperation, but neither Kahlon nor Lieberman are known as warm and cuddly toward the Palestinians. Lapid is difficult to predict, but he, too, has expressed reservations and suspicions about the motives and reliability of the Palestinians.

Moreover, this whole picture depends on Labor dues paying party members agreeing to what Livni demands.

Commentators are describing the beginning of an intifada within Labor, with objections to giving Livni a sure place high on their ticket, and even greater opposition to her demand that two or more of her colleagues in "the Movement" be given high ranking places on the list. Every assured place high on the list means that one present or aspiring Labor MK will not make it into the next Knesset, and assures his or her opposition to the deal. Moreover, two of the people Livni wants to bring along with her are Labor has-beens, i.e., former leaders of the party who jumped to other camps after losing its leadership.

MKs associated with Livni's current party who have not been mentioned as receiving sure places in the list of the new party may be asking themselves, "What about me?"

Opponents of the Livni deal are describing her as an opportunist who has changed parties four times in 10 years, from Likud to Kadima to her Movement, and now to Labor. Moreover, her accomplishments are not the stuff of widespread approval. Her management of the international agreement that ended the Second Lebanon War in 2006 included the assertion that it would restrict the rearming of Hizbollah, but the reality is Hizbollah's acquisition of tens of thousands of missiles and other weapons that threaten all areas of Israel. Her high profile emphasis on peace in the current Netanyahu government did not succeed in producing flexibility among her government colleagues or the Palestinians.

Remember, we're at the beginning of an election campaign. It is appropriate for wise and modest analysts to temper their enthusiasm for any prediction.

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 12:32 AM
December 09, 2014

It's not easy to summarize the career and current standing of Benyamin Netanyahu. His seven years in two separate periods as Prime Minister make him the longest serving head of government except for the founding Prime Minister David ben Gurion, whose own two periods as prime minister amounted to 13 years.

Political longevity breeds opposition, and the maneuvering of younger players to take one's place.

Bibi may not be done. Even while replacing him is the most prominent theme of contenders in the run-up to the March election, expressed by a number of politicians who have worked closely with him, it's too early to count him out. A movement to oust him from the leadership of Likud may not get off the ground, and the betting is that Likud will return as the largest party in the Knesset, even though with a loss of seats.

It is popular to calculate that Bibi can form the next government, along with rightist partner Jewish Home (likely to add to its representation in the Knesset) and his frequent but not current partners the ultra-Orthodox parties. Those, along with what is shaping up to be a right of center secular movement led by Avigdor Lieberman along with Moshe Kahlon, may be more than enough to provide Netanyahu with a Knesset majority. Lieberman, Kahlon, and Naftali Bennett are closer to tense and perhaps temporary partners rather than close buddies with Netanyahu. Yet we have long known that politics is a matter of mutual interests, which may be transient, more than anything like a forum of colleagues.

One of Harry Truman's contributions to the literature of political science is, "If you want a friend in this town, get a dog."

Bibi's personal style is not endearing. Hyperbole is his tone, in fluent Hebrew or English, and bombast likely to be the substance. Or empty bombast, insofar as the proclamations are likely to be far greater than the follow through or accomplishments. He is widely described as a liar and unreliable, including in remarks attributed to ranking members of other governments.

The most recent demonstration of his style is his campaign promise to eliminate the value added tax (currently 18 percent) on food and perhaps other basic commodities.

The ridicule focused on this describes Netanyahu's opposition to the very same proposal when it was made recently by a minister in his government, and his combination of luke warm support and behind the scenes opposition to an item close to the heart of his dismissed Finance Minister, Yair Lapid, i.e., the elimination of value added tax on first home purchases of young couples.

Netanyahu has long claimed expertise in economics and to be personally responsible for the health of the national economy, but he is also a populist unable to skip over an opportunity to firm up support from low-income Jews, mostly of Middle Eastern backgrounds, who comprise an important element of Likud voters.

Bibi also suffers from a condition that has plagued American presidents with problematic family members. The brothers of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter were not major players in American politics, but occasionally cast a shadow over their sibling. Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy had better luck with their brothers, provided we overlook the incident at Chappaquiddick.

Netanyahu's problem is with his wife, a frequent target of complaints and legal action by former members of the household staff. With the exception of Israel Hayom (described as Bibipress by its detractors), Israel's media has titillated our lower emotions with juicy stories of bizarre demands, fits of screaming and insults. Several actions have been settled out of court, with Netanyahu family attorneys claiming fabrications for the sake of money, publicity, and political embarrassment, together with a financial settlement and a commitment by the complainant to further silence.

The face and body shape of Mrs Netanyahu have not served her well, except for political cartoonists. A recent headline in Ha'aretz was, "Sara Netanyahu, Israel's Marie Antoinette."

"Just when we thought Israel's first lady's image problem couldn't get any worse - a newly filed lawsuit describes racist remarks, spendthrift ways, and serious anger management issues."

In several respects Netanyahu is the Israeli version of his nemesis Barack Obama. Obama also has no shortage of embarrassing relatives associated with his polygamous Kenyan father who have surfaced briefly in American media. Obama's wearing thin charms as a speaker and standing with the voters and political colleagues are somewhere close to Netanyahu's, but will not be tested further on account of the Constitutional amendment that limits a President to two terms.

There are some things to be put on the positive side of Netanyahu's record.

Most recent and most important is his capacity to withstand what has been called the naive, ignorant, or misplaced enthusiasm of the Obama administration for pushing Palestinians and Israelis to try once again what neither of them wanted. The Obama-Kerry team made things worse by provoking Palestinian aspirations, and detracting them from what had been gradual accommodations that had improved the lives of Palestinians and Israelis. Hamas' aspirations may have been one manifestation of what Obama-Kerry provoked, leading to the recent Gaza operation that caused more than two thousand Palestinian deaths and at least one winter of cold and rain in the rubble without reconstruction.

Coming up may be Palestinian approaches to the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court, trying their best to parley American and European political advantages to their claim of having a monopoly of justice in the long history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu did well in leading the Gaza operation. Critics wanting final and complete victory accuse him of being timid, but timidity is an appropriate posture along with a massive advantage of military might and Israel's delicate standing in international politics. Netanyahu has also presided over several IDF actions against Syria, Sudan, and ships in transit, with the targets being arms meant for Israel's enemies. Who knows exactly the origins of various assassinations, cyber attacks, and mysterious explosions said to have caused problems for Iran's nuclear aspirations?

Leading Israel's government, or evaluating its actions is not the work of simpletons who want total victory over the enemies of the Jews, or a politically correct accommodation to those who have demonstrated time and again that they cannot be accommodated.

Benyamin Netanyahu is not entering into an easy or slam dunk political campaign. His test will come not only on March 17. Assuming his victory, if it is one, is not of the massive or even impressive variety, there will likely be several weeks or months of negotiations toward a coalition, and then more months of running a government that may not be any less problematic than the one just declared to be ended.

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 05:57 AM
December 06, 2014
Time for a change?

Something has happened to Israeli politics since the late 1990's.

There has been a drop in the weight of the largest parties, as well as a decline in voter turnout.

From the election of 1996 onward, the largest party in each election has received an average of 31 percent of the votes. In all previous elections (from 1949 through 1992), the largest party received an average of 45 percent of the votes.

A similar pattern appears in the combined votes of the two largest parties, with their percentage of the votes in the two periods dropping from 74 to 54 percent.

During the same periods, average voter turnout dropped from 81 percent to 69 percent.

There has also been a shortening of the time between elections. From the election of 1999 to the present the average span of a Knesset has been 38 months, while earlier it was 44 months. The present Knesset will have been in office for only 26 months up to the election scheduled for March, 2015.

What does all this mean?

A common explanation is a multiplication of middle size parties, none of which can dominate a government, perpetual maneuvering for advantage, with voters' confusion and frustration that nothing can be accomplished in the fields that interest them.

Why has that occurred?

Here the explanation is a bit shakier. However, one scenario begins with Palestinian violence with the first intifada from 1987, increasing dramatically in tempo during the second Intifada from 2000, together with the failure of several efforts to reach agreement with Palestinians. There was Ehud Barak together with Bill Clinton in 2000, Ehud Olmert in 2008, and most recently the failure of Kerry's initiative to get even close to the points that those previous efforts had reached.

That sequence of events is said to be one of the reasons for the decline in left of center political parties that have been most prominent in promoting continued efforts at reaching an accord with the Palestinians. The Labor Party or its predecessors had dominated Israeli politics until the election of 1977, then led governments that came to power after four of the five elections between 1984 and 1999. Labor has not selected the Prime Minister from the election of 2003 onward. Currently it is the third ranking party, with only 15 seats. Polls taken after the failure of the Kerry initiative, but before the current onset of political maneuvering, showed Labor likely to reduce its standing even further.

Commentators and activists are currently posturing for advantage in the run up to the voting scheduled for March 17. A common theme is opposition to Benyamin Netanyahu, and frustration at the lack of decisiveness and voter participation. Candidates are emphasizing the need to coalesce among the smaller and middle-size parties, with the intention of creating blocks that can offer clear alternatives on the issues facing the country, and take control from Likud.

A new peace initiative has not been prominent in the campaigns of individuals aspiring to leading major parties. Not only the failure of Kerry's initiative, but continued demands from Palestinians for concessions unlikely to be considered by any major Israeli party, along with the ascendance of Muslim extremism may be enough to turn Israeli politicians inward in the direction of domestic problems. There is also a drift even more rightward among the more conservative parties. That is most prominent in the Prime Minister's push for legislating Israel's standing as a Jewish state, and Jewish Home's demand for more extensive settlement throughout the West Bank. Both of those efforts figured in the breakdown of the current coalition.

Yet to be tested is the capacity of heavy egos to accept the combination of parties that all seem to support. Who will lead the combines will be one challenge, as well as ideological elements that are likely to produce tensions. Labor is home to die hard leftists who will not welcome Tsipi Livni, who comes to the center from a background in Likud. They will object to assuring Livni a high spot on Labor's list--and thereby a sure seat in the Knesset--while others have to compete in a tough party primary election. SHAS's parliamentary leader has proclaimed that his party will not sit in any government coalition that includes Yair Lapid.

The most prominent mystery is Moshe Kahlon. He made a name for himself as Minister of Communication in the previous government of Benyamin Netanyahu, claiming credit for reducing the cost of using cell phones. He took a holiday from politics during the run-up to the 2013 election, apparently due to a falling out when the Prime Minister was not willing to assure him the ministerial promotion that he demanded.

Now Kahlon has made himself prominent as the presumptive head of a new party, whose primary offering will be a commitment to reduce the cost of living. That makes him a likely a competitor with Yair Lapid. Yet the public sees Kahlon as the new star, with the polls indicating that he would outdo Yair Lapid and rank among the weightiest of the middle sized parties along with Jewish Home and Labor. Yet Kahlon is dithering in a way that can hurt his chances in an election only four months away. He has failed to provide a name for his party, or to identify who would be his running mates on the party ticket.

Kahlon also has not ruled out returning to his home in Likud and competing against Netanyahu (and perhaps Gideon Saar) for party leadership. He has feinted a bit to the right by claiming to be "true Likudnik," but who is not afraid to make territorial concessions. The reference is to party icons Menachem Begin (Sinai) and Ariel Sharon (Gaza). Kahlon's reputation is that of a rightist on matters of dealing with Palestinians, so he may be trying to suggest more flexibility and reasonableness than Netanyahu, without anything close to a posture that would assure the opposition of Likud rightists.

A potential irony of Obama helping Netanyahu comes in a report out of Washington that the White House is pondering sanctions against Israel for its continued construction of Jewish housing in areas of Jerusalem over the 1967 borders, even while it is pushing for a lightening of sanctions against Iran.

Such news might be all that is needed to give a new lease on political life to Benyamin Netanyahu, as well as assuring the Obama Administration with another dose of problems from the Republican Congress that will convene in less than a month.

We are now in the initial excitement of a new political campaign. Much can happen in Israel and outside of Israel that will impact on candidates, activists, and us commoners. More of the same is the general rule in politics, but not always. This may be one of those elections that produce a change.

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 10:09 PM