September 20, 2014
Layers of Israel

It risks the charge of banality to assert that Israel is a place with a multitude of historical layers, many of which intrude into its politics and international relations.

The people who migrated, fought, conquered, suffered defeat, left, or stayed have made their mark on the names of places, changes in the landscape, ruins from ancient times and only decades past, monuments old and new, as well as yesterday's graffiti.

Jerusalem offers a greater density of this stuff than other parts of the country. Current competition to build here or there, to expand one's neighborhood or to keep out the interlopers (Jews, Arabs or Haredim, depending on place and perspective) are only the latest chapters in something that has been occurring since David.

The Politics of the Trail: Reflexive Mountain Biking along the Frontier of Jerusalem (University of Michigan Press, 2014), by my friend and colleague Oded Löwenheim, derives from several years of impressions while bicycling in the area between his home in a Jerusalem suburb and the Hebrew University, with detours and side trips to what has remained from more than two millennia of occupation and settlement by Romans, several varieties of Christians and Muslims, and the history of modern Israel, including what was built in the last decade or is currently under construction.

Oded is a member of the Hebrew University's Department of International Relations, which is a close cousin or a hived-off step child of Political Science. He does not ride his bicycle through that interesting bit of Israeli history. He writes mainly about his encounters with people, stones, and place names reflecting the conflict between Jews and Arabs.

I used to see Oded regularly in the university pool. Then after years of wondering what happened to him, we met in the corridors of the university. He explained that he was bicycling instead of swimming, and that he had written a book about bicycling. This intrigued me. I spent much of my youth and some of my adulthood on a bicycle, until coming to Jerusalem and deciding that the narrow streets and hills were not for my kind of riding. As I was reading Oded's book, my younger son, Mattan, and his fiance, Channa, were riding from London to Paris. Years ago, my older son, Stefan, set the family standard pedaling from Palo Alto to North Carolina, then up to Nova Scotia and down to Fall River.

Oded said that his book was not really about bicycling, but about the various sides of history and politics he encountered on his rides. This, too attracted me. My own walks between home and the university bring me to sites and personal encounters that force one's thoughts to migrations, conflicts, feelings of threat and friendships that--to me--are more fascinating than troubling.

Oded's rides have been far richer than my walks from French Hill to Mt Scopus, but he writes as someone more troubled than fascinated. He firmly plants himself as an academic leftist, who sees the state (Israel, and perhaps states in general) as oppressive to their own citizens and aggressive to others. He writes that the choices made by Palestinians and other Arabs have forced Israel into a strong defense posture, and that Palestinians no less than Israelis have distorted history in order to justify their claims and ugly actions.

His book is as good a collection as I have seen about the interplay of history, legends, myths, distortions, justifications, ethnic, religious, and national politics that permeates the area around Jerusalem.

He interacts with Arabs who remember their homes in villages overrun by the Israelis in 1948, including those built upon by Oded's suburban town, and meets with a retired Jordanian colonel who fought against the Israelis close to that town in 1967. Oded curses the barrier which cuts off the town from a nearby Palestinian village, whose residents used to sneak into Israel for day labor. He recognizes, but does not quite accept the rational for building the barrier, and is proud to have been part of the protest that resulted in shifting its route to provide more access for the Palestinians to their fields.

Oded ridicules the establishment and the design of the American-Israel memorial to 9-11, whose construction he links to the money and political weight of American Jews, who saw the memorial as somehow adding to the legitimacy of their bi-national loyalties. He chides the designers for putting the memorial on what had been a choice bit of land, but which will be overshadowed by a high bridge being built as part of the high speed rail link between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

This brought to mind what an earlier generation of rich American Jews had built on another choice spot in the Judean Mountains, to commemorate John F. Kennedy. Initially that was a popular stop for tour buses, then went through a long period of abandonment and broken windows, more recently with repaired windows but locked doors to the memorial floor, with a lower level used for offices of the Jewish National Fund.

Liberty Bell Park scores far higher than either the Kennedy or the 9-11 memorials. The bell itself and its inscription do not take much space, or mar what is a useful urban park close to the center of Jerusalem, and used by Arabs as well as Jews.

Intellectual balance is a concept impossible to measure with precision. If the question is one of balance between analysis and affirmation of a political position, Oded's book tilts, at times heavily, toward the side of affirming his leftist animosity to much of what Israel has done and continues to do. Yet the book is not entirely lopsided. There is much to admire here by way of analysis, and illustrations of the conundrums encountered and reinforced by Israelis and Palestinians.

Oded's conception of the 1948 war illustrates his perspective

" . . . following the initial stage of the war, which was indeed a defensive one, Israel fought a war of occupation and committed many acts of ethnic cleansing . . . the invading Arab armies were inferior in military method, lacked motivation, and, eventually, were low in numbers and the quality and quantity of their armaments. It was not exactly the heroic story of "the few against the many" that is taught in Israeli schools and repeated in the media." (p. 151)

Oded relates this as part of a conversation with old friends at a family picnic, during which insertion of his politics into a social gathering caused the friends to bristle, and then announce that they had to go home.

At various points Oded laments his posturing, but cannot extract himself from what he sees, and thinks, and what shapes his nightmares.

"Forgetting and erasing the memory of the Nakba as a moment of founding violence, means not recognizing the disaster that made us, Israelis, into a people of conquerors that still live on their swords and who came to cherish this way of living. . . .I hope I am not an "ambassador of harassing hypocrisy" now, I think as I mount the bike and pedal away from the ruined (Arab) estate . . . I feel the unresolved tension between my desire for authenticity and native like connection and knowledge of the land, on the one hand, and my being a product of the politics of occupation, exclusion, and dispossession, on the other hand. I feel the tension between my wish for an apolitical human and personal mutual contact, recognition, and understanding and the all-encompassing conflictual political context, in time and space, from which this wish stems from the outset. I feel my fear of the "sea of hatred and revenge," as well as my fear of living in a society that fetishizes the "steel helmet." (pp. 137-38).

There are several vignettes about Oded entering Arab homes or accepting a ride with an Arab when his bicycle breaks down, and facing the encounters with a mixture of fear and excitement.

These reminded me of being led by a GPS not to the hotel in East Jerusalem where I was scheduled to speak, but to a dead end where two young Arab men were either fixing or dismantling a car. "This may be my last chapter" I thought as I left my car and asked directions. Their response was as polite as I was trying to be. One of them left his work, led me to the top of the road and did a better job than my GPS of guiding me to my destination.

Oded drafted the book while on sabbatical at the University of Victoria, and close to the end ponders another national history, perhaps no less unpleasant than what he experienced at home.

"The months passed, and I became aware of the colonial and postcolonial situation of the Canadian state and of the crimes committed against the First Nations there. I learned about the residential schools that shattered the family structure and aboriginal culture, and about the devouring of the ancient rain forests by the logging companies." (pp 205-06)

There is much in Oded's book that will infuriate Israelis and our friends, just as a careful reading may lead those who hate Israel to be uncertain about cheering or cursing.

My guess is that the book will advance Löwenheim's academic career at the Hebrew University, perhaps not without some argument in the committees that decide about his next promotion. It is not outside of the range of dispute that ought to be considered fair, given Jews' admirable tolerance of argument. It is a decent portrayal of what many of us may sense about Israel and its neighbors, the things we have experienced and the people we have known.


The year 5775 (תשע"ה) is almost upon us. שנה טובה לכלכם. May it be a good one for you all.

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 08:53 PM
September 17, 2014
Messy realities

It's been a week since the great speech, and there has been little beyond solemn statements of support, along with reservations about doing anything concrete.

The President boasted of a multi-nation coalition. In one statement it was claimed that 40 nations had signed on, with no American boots on the ground.

So far there are no boots headed for the ground.

The coalition may now be down to 10 or a dozen, depending on who is talking, but with little more than talking involved. Several Muslim countries have offered their support, but without troops. Turkey has forbid that American planes use NATO facilities in Turkey for their missions.

Among the nastiness of various comments are
coalition of the uncertain
coalition of the unwilling to be identified by name
coalition of the willing and unable
lackluster coalition of the willing
how willing is Obama's coalition?

It could have been predicted by all perhaps except the Secretary of State, noted for his ponderous platitudes that have produced a minimum of results here or throughout the Middle East.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has weighed in with another blessing of Islam. Perhaps we should be forgive him, bothered as he must have been by the threat of Scotland's secession along with the ugliness of his countryman's beheading.

"They boast of their brutality. They claim to do this in the name of Islam. That is nonsense. Islam is a religion of peace. They are not Muslims, they are monsters,"

On the same day I had been on the fringe of a conversation between Muslim friends, which they conducted in Hebrew for my benefit.

One said that violence has been inherent in the history of Islam. Another said that Sunnis have generally been more peaceful than Shiites, but that there were too many factions within Islam for him to comprehend.

Arabic speaking Israeli commentators, supposedly experts of the subject, speak about a multitude of groups whose names they do not know for sure, competing for headlines, recruits, money and body counts across Syria and Iraq, as well as in the Sinai and various other spots across Africa and the Middle East.

The rest of us should admit that we cannot comprehend the continued blather of Cameron, Obama, and others about Islam being a religion of peace.

Sure, they do not want to ignite the millions of Muslims already among their voters, or the billion Muslims worldwide. At the same time, a simple standard of intellectual honesty suggests that they should avoid fibbing about the obvious. Cameron's speech writers could have crafted something that condemned murder without that nonsense about a religion of peace.

The more honest among us should admit that none of the religions is without the blemish of violence in its history, doctrines, or the current practices by some of those claiming to be faithful. However, those saying that they are the most faithful of Muslims are now the most violent, brutal, or barbaric individuals operating under the umbrella of a religion.

We should not envy the task of Obama, Cameron, and whoever might join them, perhaps determined by whose citizens find themselves the center of a filmed beheading.

The coalition mentioned includes European countries with competing economic interests in the Middle East, and Muslim countries competing on a variety of theocratic and political issues.

Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia are potential allies of the US with military assets to oppose ISIS and other extremists, but each have strong reservations about cooperating with one another or with the United States.

Those intent on understanding Turkey must reckon with its concern for Kurds, as well as whatever may happen right over its borders with Iraq and Syria. The Turks are most likely assessing the prospects, including the chance of American bungling.

Figuring out who to aid in Syria is its own set of mysteries, given the record of the Assad regime as well as the multitude of groups claiming to fight Assad and/or one another.

Obama's promise of keeping American boots off the ground in Syria and Iraq may already be crumbling.

According to General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

"My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward . . . I believe that will prove true. If it fails to be true and there are threats to the U.S., then of course, I would go back to the president and make the recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces."

With no Muslim countries sending their boots to the American led coalition, one can imaging the tensions within the Obama White House with competing assessments and pressures about what is good for the President and for his country. The President followed Demsey's comment with his own affirmation of not sending troops, but we have learned never to say never.

On another front, President Obama has announced plans to send 3,000 military personnel to Liberia to fight the spread of Ebola.

The mission is to construct and staff care centers and supply medical kits meant to protect from, or cure Ebola..

One can hope that Obama's advisers have done the analysis that weighs the benefits of this action to the President and the United States, against the prospect of easing the passage of Ebola to the United States.

The director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota has said that it is difficult to care for Ebola patients without becoming infected, and there is no proof that the kits being sent will work.

There is no shortage of messiness closer to home.

A Palestinian, UN, Israeli agreement on construction materials for Gaza, without a commitment to de-militarize the area, but with UN supervision to assure that they will be used for civilian purposes.

Israeli officials say that the move is meant to dampen the prospect of suffering among Gazans that would work to provoke further violence against Israel.

A missile landed in an Israeli field late on Tuesday, followed by Hamas claims of good intentions and the arrest of the perpetrators.

One measure of Gaza's misery appears in the 15 migrants drowned on their way from Egypt to Italy. According to a report by Aljazeera, they were among the 10,000 Palestinians who have fled Gaza via tunnels under the Egyptian border.

We can couple our mourning for 15 dead Palestinians with the concern for still-functioning tunnels to Egypt, and worries about what flows in them to Gaza with munitions from Iran or Libya.

Assuming the UN will monitor the use of construction materials in Gaza is equivalent to declaring that Islam is a religion of peace.

In case no one noticed, UN personnel allowed their schools in Gaza to be used for storing weapons and fighters, as well as launching missiles toward Israel. And UN troops are the ones recently seen going to safety in Israel from their posts in Syria.

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 09:05 PM
September 15, 2014
Refusing to listen

Forty-three reserve officers and other personnel of IDF Intelligence Unit 8200 have received local and international coverage for a detailed letter of protest and a refusal to serve further in their function of listening and reading Palestinian communications.

Their letter claims that the unit's work violated the civil rights and privacy of Palestinians, often without relevance for Israel's defense. They complained about colleagues who laughed while hearing telephone calls concerned with sex, and said that some of the material they uncovered was used for political, rather than military purposes.

Their protest has brought forth claims that the bravery of the 43, and standing up for civil rights shows the decency of Israeli military personnel and will aid Israel's concern for international legitimacy.

Others have said that it will add to the campaign of those who seek to de-legitimize Israel, by describing the nasty stuff the IDF does over the border among Palestinians, other Arabs, and perhaps among the Arabs of Israel.

It has also produced criticism from Israelis across the political spectrum for the cardinal sin of refusing military service, and the even more serious violation of revealing military details meant to be kept secret. Ranking politicians and retired senior military officers have said that the 43 should be tried for disobeying orders. At least one source has mentioned the charge of treason.

Critics compare the 43 to Anat Kamm, an IDF draftee who served more than two years in prison for passing secret information to a journalist. Kamm's political motives appear to resemble those of the current protesters. Among the details she leaked were indications that senior IDF personnel had planned and carried out target killings of individuals in violation of a Supreme Court ruling limiting the circumstances of when such a tactic could be used.

"There were some aspects of the IDF's operational procedures in the West Bank that I felt should be public knowledge... history tends to forgive people who expose war crimes."

Opponents of the 43 have noted that the IDF has mechanisms for officers and enlisted personnel to express their grievances. However, one of the initiators of the protest said they had tried, without success, to bring their complaints to the attention of their superiors.

The IDF spokesman said that only 10 of the protesters had been actively involved in the work described. Others were no longer involved, or were support personnel.

In this, the current group of protesters resemble 27 IDF pilots who said some years ago that they would stop flying targeted assassination missions that violated their conscience. Most of those protesters were retired, or pilots of transport planes not involved in assassinations.

As in previous cases, senior officers and other critics of the present protest see it as seeking to politicize a military that should operate only according to orders coming down through its professional hierarchy, whose senior members take policy direction from the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, or Security Cabinet.

No one should assert that "political considerations" are absent from decisions involving national defense, e.g., who to attack, when to attack and how to attack. However, the politics are expected to enter the IDF only at the top of the command structure, from the top of the Israeli government, and not be the province of every private, corporal, sergeant, lower- or middle-ranking officer.

More than 200 other personnel of Unit 8200 have signed a letter against their colleagues, stating their own commitments to the unit and affirming their belief that it is contributing in important ways to national defense.

What the protest reveals is what many of us have known, or suspected, on the basis of occasional reports or conversations with individuals doing the work. Unit 8200 is an intelligence unit, with personnel from graduates of the Arabic language classes of elite high schools, doing their compulsory military service by listening to telephone conversations, reading text messages and e-mails picked up wherever the intelligence staff hopes to receive useful information.

The material may be screened electronically for key words, then reviewed by lower level personnel who decide what ought to be sent higher in the organization. Among the concerns are communications about plans to attack Israelis or overseas Jews, and the kinds of personal communications that may identify individuals who could be tapped for other intelligence. Conversations about pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and adultery would fit the protesters' concerns about privacy and civil rights, but would expose individuals who could be pressed into Israel's service against the threat of disclosures that would bring significant sanctions from Arab society.

The work may be dirty, but hardly less so than training other high school graduates how to kill, and then sending them out to do it.

It should not surprise us that some of the information is used for "political" as opposed to overtly "military" purposes.

Here the protesters could learn something from an introductory course in political science. "Politics" is not all that precise. Leverage against a ranking member of an organizations that participates in terror, or against a ranking politician in a hostile regime (such as the Palestinians leadership of the West Bank, Gaza, one of the overseas refugee communities, or someone important in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, or Iran) may serve the purposes of Israel's national defense.

Someone claiming to be an English gentleman once said that people like him do not read other people's mail.

Against this is the epigram that all is fair in love and war. What can be learned about the love affairs and other personal secrets of one's adversaries may be useful in international politics, if not directly on the battlefield.

Among the defenders of unit 8200 is the claim that "everyone does it." Those doubting it can Google Edward Snowden. Whoever insists that Israel operate according to higher standards than all others should come back to earth.

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 09:57 PM
September 13, 2014
Religion in the Holy Land

Not all the religious fanatics are Muslims.

One can think of candidates under the umbrella of Christianity, but here our concern is Jews.

Two cases recently in the headlines provoke shame or something else, depending on one's sense of responsibility or cynicism.

One is a bearded, well-coiffured man whose trial on sexual exploitation and slavery ended after four years of delays. There were guilty verdicts for rape and other varieties of sexual exploitation involving several wives and lots of children, but the court could not find sufficient evidence of slavery. The verdict did not pass without criticism. The slavery claimed was not chains and whipping, but emotional bondage or extreme dependence by a man who claimed religious authority.

Another case has produced police investigations and arrests, but may be months or years short of a trial and verdict. It involves a charismatic who persuaded his female acolytes that having sex with Arabs (who would pay him for their services) would advance their status as Jews and bring forward God's promise of salvation.

We don't know how many other charismatic Jews are somewhere under the rocks, employing one or another of the elements that imaginative creators have produced under the heading of Judaism over the course of perhaps 2,500 years.

There was a group of women who dressed in layers of covering, dubbed by the media "Taliban women," led by a man claiming the title of rabbi who preached the severe discipline of children, then fled to South America to avoid charges of abuse.

Psychologists have pondered the weaknesses that make individuals vulnerable to such leadership. Among the findings are a lack of education, backgrounds of abuse, new converts or newly religious Jews. Yet some of the victims have been well-educated and have made impressive appearances in the media.

Beyond extremist sects, there are many more Jews whose beliefs and practices range close to or across the borders of what the rest of us consider conventional.

We can argue about the rankings of what is more or less conventional, and in whose eyes..

Among those living here but outside the communal tent are the ultra-Orthodox who deny the legitimacy of Israel, whose rabbis consort with whatever aggressively anti-Israel leaders are willing to host them in Ramallah, Tehran, or elsewhere.

Somewhat less extreme are those ultra-Orthodox who ignore Israel's Independence Day and Holocaust Memorial Day, reject all compromise with respect to having their young men do military service, or including in their schools anything other than sacred texts. Not for them is the teaching of mathematics, science, or language, certainly not history, social studies are anything that smacks of evolution.

Somewhat closer to the conventional are the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox rabbis who accept education that prepares their young people for supporting themselves and their families, provided that the sexes are kept separate in school and then at work.

Among the extremists are those whose demands for sexual segregation insist that women ride at the back of the bus and use separate sidewalks.

There are Orthodox rabbis (i.e., not ultra-Orthodox) who endorse military service, but demand that soldiers not be exposed to female superiors or colleagues, or the sounds of women speaking or singing.

Another issue that links some Orthodox with ultra-Orthodox is the stringency to be employed in conversions to Judaism. This may mean not only the strictest concern to screen and educate those wanting to become Jews, but to insist on a continuation of religious observance after the conversion. Unlike those of us born Jews, a convert might find the cherished status canceled if observed eating non-kosher food or violating the prohibitions associated with Sabbath.

None of this passes quietly in the Jewish State. We have a long history of figuring out how to evade the demands of those who would regulate us according to ungodly standards. Individuals who the Rabbinate does not accept as Jews or allow to marry in Israel can marry who they will, outside of Israel, and be recognized as married by Israel's Interior Ministry. This provides all they need with respect to economic rights of both partners and their children. Furthermore, Judaism has a history of accepting as "married" a couple known to be living together, without benefit of a marriage ceremony. There is a problem if the woman is married to someone else, but not if the man is married to someone else. That, too, can be evaded if neither partner is religious, and does not feel the need for rabbinic approval.

The rabbis themselves have a long history of working around laws of the Torah. Death penalties pretty much disappeared from rabbinic rulings two centuries or so before the Common Era. Prohibitions against interest or commercial profit also went the way of "clarifications" added to God's laws.

Styles have changed with time and place. The Talmud recognizes the importance of local customs. Ancient synagogues have been found without the separation between men and women demanded by more recent rabbis who claim to operate according to Orthodox traditions.

We all pay more for our food than comparable products elsewhere due to kashrut, inspectors who must be paid to plod through our supermarkets inspecting the shelves, and the manipulations required of shana shmita, i.e., the requirement that the land rest every seventh year.

Family custom combines with religious law to determine what each religious Jew accepts as kosher.

Early some mornings I have been the Jewish equivalent of the Shabbas goy, helping out the Arab manager of a neighborhood coffee shop who needs a Jew to turn on his oven, in order to keep to the standard of kashrut demanded by religious clients.

For some religious madness, such as those charismatics in the headlines, we have the police and the courts. For other demands, we have evasions or maneuvers sanctioned by generations of rabbis.

We also have Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) to counsel us

"That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun." (1:10)
"be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body." (12:12)

One can see in Eccleasiates a wide range of what has become honored as Judaism. Some see the book as showing the influence of Greek philosophy, and suggest that the following was added in order to gain the book's entry to the Hebrew Bible.

"Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing." (12:13-14)

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 08:59 PM
September 11, 2014
The speech

The President conceded, perhaps not in so many words, that the speech would not defeat Daish and its allies.

It had been preceded by days of expectation and commentary, and the actual contents had no surprises.

No doubt we'll be reading about it for days, and perhaps years

Among the issues to be tested are to what extent can the United States achieve its objectives with air power, or by reliance on Muslim allies to do most of fighting on the ground?

The Muslim countries included in what the President calls his 40-country coalition are those whose people have shown varying degrees of support for Islamic extremism, including some--like Saudi Arabia--whose governments have sent substantial funds to groups that were extremist from the beginning or crossed the borders into extremism.

What will come from the President's indication that US air power will operate in Syria, and whatever that means for cooperating with the military and government of Bashar Assad. By already cooperating with Assad's allies Iran and Hezbollah, the President has moved from the simplicities of American ideals to the complexities of the Middle East.

Within hours of the speech, we were hearing from Syrian opponents of Assad, insisting that the American President follow their lead in the morass of Muslim politics and mutual hatreds. Involved here may be assertions that--on account being Alawites--Assad and his regime are not true Muslims, and must be opposed as infidels.

Other governments, supposedly in the coalition, were more generous with words of general support than commitments of military activity.

Turkey's government announced that it would not take part in combat, and would not allow aircraft to take off from its soil in order to attack Syria or Iraq. It would limit its participation to the supply of humanitarian aid.

It remains an open question whether Turkey will police its borders in order to keep additional thousands of European and North American Muslims from passing through it to join Daish forces in Syria.

A prominent feature of Obama's policy would be airstrikes against Daish assets in Syria, where they are more prominent than in Iraq. However, Syrian authorities said they would shoot down American aircraft operating in their airspace.

From Iran's Foreign Ministry:

"The so-called international coalition to fight the ISIL (Islamic State) group... is shrouded in serious ambiguities and there are severe misgivings about its determination to sincerely fight the root causes of terrorism,"

Russia is somewhere in the coalition against Islamic extremism, while the US and European coalition members are involved in sanctions against Russia on account of Ukraine.

This speech may also be parsed as at least a partial abandonment of Obama's 2009 Nobel Prizewinning speech in Cairo, where he elevated democracy and equality to the pinnacle of what he wanted in the Middle East. Sometime later, he abandoned Hosi Mubarak as too authoritarian. Now he is sending Americans to fight alongside of Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis and Saudis, who make Mubarak's regime appear in comparison as an ideal of what is humane and inclusive.

Obama's recent blessing of the new Iraqi President Fuad Masum has yet to be tested for the openness to ethnic and religious inclusiveness that led Obama to work against his predecessor who gave too much to Shiite and too little to any other group.

Will Iran's cooperation in fighting those more extreme that it earn concessions--explicit or implicit--from Obama with respect to its nuclear program?

The President concedes that it will take years to eradicate Daish. Skeptics wonder if any movement based upon religious fanaticism and showing an attraction for Muslims in Europe and North America can be eradicated. Diminished or limited may be the extent of what is possible.

The speech reminded me of hearing John F. Kennedy more than half a century ago explaining that it was necessary to send more advisers and air crews to help the South Vietnamese combat the Viet Cong, with assertions that the Americans would avoid combat. Later came the report that Kennedy's people were involved in the murder of South Vietnam's undesirable president. By the time the Viet Cong had taken control of the entire country, more than 55,000 American service personnel had died.

Obama's concern to keep American boots off the ground, except as advisers and trainers of local forces, may not survive any longer than Kennedy's. Muslims will be asking themselves why they must risk their lives for America's war.

Among the issues that historians will ponder is what triggered Obama's shift over the course of his presidency. Was it the gruesome pictures of journalists losing their heads? The indications of genocide, sex slavery, and wholesale killing of prisoners filmed as Daish moved through Iraq? Or a more thoroughgoing realization that the West was at war with forces rooted in Islam, even while it remained forbidden to express that so bluntly?

Getting the various allies to work together as the Americans want will not be easy. Europeans along with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Qatar and other Gulf entities have their own national agendas. Some are engaged in conflicts with one another, and several of their leaders have expressed doubts about a President they have seen to be unreliable on other occasions.

A New York Times analyst accepts, for the time being, the President's commitment to avoid using American ground troops, and takes the President at his word that it would be a long and difficult struggle.

(Obama) "may have ensured that he would pass his successor a volatile and incomplete war, much as his predecessor left one for him. . . . the widening battle with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will be the next chapter in a grueling, generational struggle that has kept the United States at war in one form or another since that day 13 years ago . . . when hijacked airplanes shattered America's sense of its own security. Waged by a president with faded public standing, the new phase will not involve many American troops on the ground, but seems certain to require a far more intense American bombing blitz than in Somalia or Yemen."

Israelis are applauding this version of Barack Obama, while wondering about what will happen by way of implementation and success. The speech expands the concern of the US, and most likely its European allies for the problems associated with Islam. Left undone, of course, is joining Israel's reluctance to accept another Muslim state on its borders, or accepting Israel's equivalence between Daish and Hamas.

An early test will come with elections for the US House and Senate. A week before the speech, the projections were for a rejection of the President's party on both domestic and foreign issues, with a growth in the Republican House majority from a 34 seat to more than a 40 seat advantage, and with Republicans sinning a six seat majority in the Senate.

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
September 09, 2014
A century on, we're still at it

Wednesday morning we woke to our neighborhood in the headlines. My inbox included two notes from overseas inquiring about our safety.

"Activists" ("terrorists" is on the other edge of the politically correct; "thieves' or "vandals" may be correct in this instance) from Isaweea torched the French Hill gas station and looted its store.

The station manager and employees are Arabs, and they will suffer at least a temporary loss of work. Likewise the Palestinians who work in Jewish industries that the worthies of the world boycott on account of injustice.

The event at the French Hill gas station presumably came in response to the death of another activist who had been involved in a demonstration last week. The police say he fell and struck his head when running away. His uncle claims that he was an innocent bystander and was shot by the police with no justification. There was a delay in the arrival of the ambulance, due to the crew waiting for a police escort. The young man was initially brought to a Palestinian Hospital, then to Hadassah, which was unable to save him. An autopsy occurred with a Palestinian physician as observer. We'll see what that settles.

Neighbors told us there was noise through the night. It was still happening when we left the house in the morning and would continue throughout the day. The police had closed the roads to Isaweea, and were most likely going through their routine of pressing informants to lead them to those who had burned the gas station. It did not pass without opposition, tear gas, stun grenades, and a circling police helicopter.

We had slept through the main event.

This was 200 meters from our bedroom. It reminded me of being posted by the IDF lecture corp somewhere in Lebanon, and waking up one morning to hear that there had been action, with casualties, 50 meters from my sleeping bag.

While some worry about the onset of Intifada III, the Palestinian leaderships of the West Bank and Gaza are speaking toward one another more like enemies than colleagues.

It takes more than our available skills to know what Mahmoud Abbas is demanding. His agenda changes with the day and sometimes with the hour. It has included bringing Israel to the International Criminal Court on war crimes, demanding the removal of all settlements within three years (which sounds like it includes French Hill), then saying that the 1967 lines will only be the starting point of negotiations. His assertions that Hamas was responsible for a national tragedy in Gaza may get in the way of bringing Israel to trial for war crimes.

George Mitchell may be positioning himself to manage another effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for a two-state solution. A series of articles has been well crafted with the history of the conflict, the problems that have prevented agreement, and the dangers faced by both Israelis and Palestinians from the status quo.

We know all that.

Mitchell's own background leads him to cite the Northern Ireland as an example of the good that can occur after years of bloodshed. He acknowledges the differences, but he does not mention Islam.

Among Mitchell's problems are the President and Secretary of State who will have to enable and support any renewal of a peace mission. Both Barack Obama and John Kerry have become targets of ridicule by leading Israeli commentators, as well as by equivalents in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. That does not bode well for another American initiative for this part of the Middle East.

Mitchell's headline is "US the only power that can push for peace: America's prosperity and world dominance will extend into the future."

Reading through Mitchell's three long articles, it appears that he is sure that the United States needs to assure its position as world leader, but does not indicate how it must be done.

Palestinian sources have reported that President Sisi is willing to cede a chunk of the Sinai alongside Gaza to help with the creation of a Palestinian state. If the reports are true--and there have been Egyptian denials as well as substantial doubts by Israeli commentators that Egypt would depart from its refusal to give up an inch of its territory to help the Palestinians or the Israelis--the idea would join Mitchell's writing in a century of interesting material.

Diaspora Jews continue to tussle about who is responsible for the Israel-Palestine impasse. J Street and Peace Now, along with Martin Indyk, and the New York Times blame Israeli leaders for not being honest or forthcoming in negotiations. Among those making the point of chronic Palestinian rejectionism is a film entitled The J street Challenge, which has provoked its own round of praise and reservations.

No surprise that Israelis are quarreling about the aftermath of Gaza. Politicians have said that Hamas is already at work digging tunnels, crafting missiles, and smuggling munitions from Egypt via as yet undiscovered tunnels. Military analysts say they have no such information.

Various units concerned with military intelligence and planning are squabbling among themselves and with politicians about who made what projections about the force Israel would have to exert, and what would be the breaking point of Hamas.

Prime Minister Netanyahu made the demilitarization of Gaza as a primary aim of Operation Protective Edge. Foreign Minister Lieberman says that it is not achievable in the near future.

None of this should be new, especially to someone with 50 years of studying politics and administration, with several American and Israeli wars to ponder. Military action seldom work smoothly, and are sure to invite a blame game.

While various contenders for media attention or the top slot in government are competing with one another over claims of achievement, failure, and what remains undone, Israel has emerged from this event with considerable assets. Chief among them is control over the borders of Gaza, with Egypt likely to cooperate due to its own problems with the political and religious allies of Hamas. Winter is coming and much of Gaza is rubble, electricity is unreliable, and its water would not pass anyone's standards. Control over the inflow of cement and other construction material can be a powerful as more air strikes, providing Israel stands against its own humanitarians and those from elsewhere demanding instant care for a population saying they won the war, and promising more of the same.

This remains an interesting place, as long as we remember to remind ourselves.

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 09:17 PM
September 07, 2014
The most dangerous challenge

Is it Daish or Vladimir Putin?

For the time being, Israelis are observers of those quarreling whether--or how--to deal with Daish or Putin.

With respect to Putin, The reserve of some stems from Ukrainians' bad name in Jewish history. For others, it results from Ukrainians' dismal record in creating a country that serves its people rather than the clique that gains control. Others note that a large percentage of the people living in the eastern part of Ukraine are Russians, who have grievances against Kiev and hopes for Moscow.

Daish may work to our advantage, by making the point--along with Hamas--about the dangers of our neighbors. Every ghastly act by one or another gang of Muslim fanatics helps our case against those who accuse us of overreacting.

Against Putin are serious contentions that he is a grabber of territory, not to be trusted, with his eyes on other places that used to be part of the Soviet Union and have sizable Russian-speaking populations who can be enticed to rebel.

Ukraine was a place for him to begin. It is not a member of NATO, and the betting is that none of the western powers will do more than impose the kinds of sanctions that have proved weak against Iran, and are not likely to do more against a determined Russian with a strong army and a weak neighbor.

The Baltic states and Moldava are said to be the most worried about Putin's next moves. Poland's history is cause for concern.

We all should be worried about the verbal jousting of Putin and the heads of governments in NATO. Sanctions are the least of what is being threatened. Westerners are talking about a mobile force to protect eastern members of NATO and other allies. The word nuclear has been heard from the Russian side, along with a threat to seize Kiev if the Ukrainians prove unreasonable.

Fighters have agreed to a cease fire, but there is more recent news of its violation.

Betting is that Putin will get what he wants in Ukraine, whatever that is.

Daish has plundered and killed in the outer parts of Syria and Iraq, but it is not clear that they it controls sizable populations. Most frightening is the capacity of Daish and other fanatics to attract Muslims living in the west, and looking for a cause. Their filmed beheadings and massacre of prisoners reminds us of brutalities we have read about, and do not want anywhere near us. Westerners have reason to worry about the next 9-11.

The French Muslim accused of killing several people at the Jewish Museum of Brussels had returned from Syria where he had questioned and tortured prisoners, including the two American journalists who were subsequently killed.

Those who haven't managed to derail Iran's nuclear program, or clean Syria of chemical weapons are getting another chance, which they seem destined to fail.

Where is a Winston Churchill when required?

Or Saddam Hussein. He would have solved the problem of Daish with ugly dispatch. But not more ugly than what Daish has done.

What Churchill's Air Force did to Dresden was also ugly, but would bring us to an historical assessment best avoided in this context.

Barack Obama is not Churchill.

In one of his recent statements Obama claimed credit for the cease fire in Ukraine, which he linked to the sanctions imposed by the US and its European partners. A few hours later those interested in a cease fire had to rescue it from renewed violence.

The State Department has moved against the recruitment of Americans to ISIS with a video making the points that recruits will be involved in brutal actions against fellow Muslims, and are likely to be among those killed.

Obama's declaration of a 10-nation coalition against Daish includes the problematic partners Iran and Hezbollah, and is still short of having a detailed plan beyond aid to as-yet undefined soldiers who will do the actual fighting, sporadic bombing, and increased intelligence to gain knowledge about what should be done.

John Kerry has said that the Arab League must take a major role in dealing with Daish and other extremists.

Should someone ask Kerry about Hezbollah being part of the American coalition, along with its Iranian allies?

What is common to Daish and Putin is that neither is so important for the great powers as to warrant an immediate and forceful response. Both have brought forth great words of threat from Obama and others, in danger of shrinking their capacity if not followed up by actions of commensurate weight.

Those applauding Neville Chamberlain said that Czechoslovakia was not worth a war.

Putin is no Hitler, but Russian power and assessments of his aspirations are something to reckon with.

The collection of violent organizations, militias, families, or gangs under the heading of Islam are even more difficult to assess than Putin. There are so many of them, they are unpredictable and fluid in moving between cooperation and warfare. They all may be Muslim, but no more united than the Christians who fought with one another in centuries past for their own bizarre reasons.

What to do about both Putin and the Islamists are still at the stages of pondering, planning, and politicking among western powers.

Optimists hope that Islamic fanatics will implode due to warfare among them, without getting much further than the failed states of Syria, Iraq, or northern Nigeria. And that Putin will rest after getting control (perhaps not the actual absorption) of eastern Ukraine.

Then there are the pessimists.

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 08:57 PM