December 14, 2004
Letter from Jerusalem, Dec. 14

No surprise. It is not going smoothly.

Israel is caught in a problem typical of political coping. On the one hand, it wants to help the Palestinians move forward, by lessening its pressure on them while they elect a government that--hopefully-- will be more moderate than that under the control of Yassir Arafat, and capable of making decent accommodations with Israel. On the other hand, it cannot appear soft in the face of continued efforts by Palestinian groups to display their capacity to remain violent.

Reports are that the Palestinians around Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazzan) were embarrassed by the attack on an IDF outpost in Gaza on Sunday night that killed 5 soldiers and wounded a number of others. Nonetheless, the attack occurred, and was trumpeted as a success by Hamas and elements of the PLO supposedly allied with Abbas. The outpost was manned by a unit of Israeli Bedouin soldiers. All of them are volunteers, and the action prompted a day of commentary about the ambivalence of Israel and its Bedouin toward one another and the Palestinians. Arabs in and around Israel are not a seamless, homogeneous community. One has to know the geography and the families. The Middle East is not the Middle West. It's a shame that the Bushies did not learn the lesson. Israelis do not maneuver with complete success among the complexities in this small country, but compared to the Americans in Iraq . . .

Monday a car belonging to a Hamas operative blew up in Damascus. Our work? The Syrians say that it was. This morning (Tuesday) we hear that the IDF is destroying houses and otherwise moving through areas associated with the attack on the IDF outpost, and recent mortar and rocket attacks on Jewish settlements. Army spokespeople say that the IDF is avoiding a full scale and lengthy operation, in the effort to give peace a chance. They also say that Israel and the Palestinians have reached agreements on Israeli pullbacks from Palestinian cities and other acts to facilitate a Palestinian election in January.

It is also not going all that smoothly among the Jews.

People speaking for Labor, Likud, and a couple of ultra-Orthodox parties all said that negotiations about a new governing coalition will be simple and quick. The unspoken portion was that "if they accept our definition of the coalition, it will be quick and easy." But when the parties got to the table and smelled power, their demands seemed to escalate. Labor and the religious parties want the control of important ministries and serious money for the programs dear to them. Likud does not want to give up all the important ministries and depart too much from its tight-fisted economic policy. Also, the parties who are potential coalition partners want some of the same ministries. Typically there is only one minister to a ministry, but its possible to divide some ministries and to appoint deputy ministers. Demands for money are always divisible. But it will take a while to sort through all of this, and to ratchet down from non-negotiable demands.

It is getting close to Christmas. Israeli and Palestinians with responsibility for tourism have committed themselves to facilitate visits to Bethlehem and other holy places. But no one is predicting that a Messiah will come and settle our problems. We will have to do it by ourselves, perhaps with the help of Americans. But it will not be easy. And if history is a guide, it is not likely to happen.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:35 AM
December 11, 2004
Letter from Jerusalem, Dec. 9

This is a time of waiting. Both the Palestinian and Israeli leadership are preoccupied with their political problems. There is an election campaign for a Palestinian president. Israel may be on the verge of a government reshuffle or an election if the reshuffle does not work.

There are signs of possible accommodation after these steps, but it is far from clear what the Palestinians will demand and what the Israelis will offer. People in both camps are dusting off their favorite solutions. There has been a decline in incitement to violence in the Palestinian media and elsewhere in the Arab world. Egypt and Jordan are positioning themselves as moderators of a Palestinian-Israeli agreement. Syria is trying to get into the game of peace. Big wigs from the UN, Europe, and a smattering of others including the Chinese, Japanese, Pakistanis, and Iranians are offering their demands, advice, or whatever. The American government is suspicious of others, and has its own sense of how all this should proceed.

Israelis range across a wide spectrum. At one extreme are those who see no hope. They do not trust Palestinians, or perhaps any Arabs, to demand anything less than the complete destruction of Israel-- all at once or in stages. At another extreme are those who say that it is all our fault. If only Ehud Barak had been more sensitive to Yassir Arafat's needs, he could have made a deal at Camp David in 2000. Some who share this perspective say that it is doubtful that the Palestinians can trust the Israelis. How to rely on Jews who cover Palestinian with settlements and roadblocks, and cause no end of problems for civilians wanting to travel from one place to another?

We are still a few important steps from withdrawing the settlements in Gaza and the West Bank that Ariel Sharon sees as part of the solution. His government needs more parties in order to survive. If Likud allows Sharon to invite Labor to join, he will receive with that party pressure to withdraw additional Jewish settlements. If Sharon pursues the ultra-Orthodox SHAS as a partner, he will add to those who are skeptical about any unilateral withdrawal. The settlers remain intense about opposing their removal. They are mounting a campaign of house visits throughout the country, trying to explain to all of us why they should be allowed to stay where they are, and even expand their communities. They will also try to delay or cripple withdrawal by pursuing more compensation than the government can provide via media campaigns, Knesset proposals, and court actions.

Palestinian violence has declined, but not to zero. Israeli incursions to kill bad guys have also declined, but not to zero. Construction of the separation barrier continues on sections that had been halted by appeals of Palestinians and Israelis, but other sections are still tied up in legal proceedings. Individual soldiers and some units are accused of excessive force, unnecessary killing, or insulting activity directed at Palestinians. Like Americans, Israelis are seeing, once again, that war in an age of media saturation is seldom pretty and not always heroic.

Optimists are asking who will be the last soldier or civilian to die in this conflict. The cartoon in today's Ha'aretz does it this way:

"Only one last time, and enough."

Meanwhile, the sun is out. We are in for a day of two of rest from winter, which is not severe in any case. Our most immediate personal problem is how to avoid too many pancakes and jelly donuts during the 8 days of Hanukah. Tonight we will dine with two sergeants: Mattan and Shira. Among with its other functions, the Israeli military is one of the country's greatest matchmakers.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:38 PM
December 07, 2004
Happy Hanukah


Posted by Stefan Sharkansky at 08:26 PM
Letter from Jerusalem, Dec. 3

We know the story of the nail that was not available, the horseshoe that was lost, the horse that fell, the battle and kingdom lost. Details can count in the lives of nations. Usually not. I teach that individual men (or women) seldom change the course of things in great ways. It is usually the big things that count: rich countries tend to be more democratic, offer more generous services, and are less likely to fight one another than poor countries. Most things that governments do continue from year to year, with only minor changes. But every once in a while . . .

Arguably, the Democratic Party lost a great chance to unseat a president that many Americans had come to distrust. If only they had chosen a more appealing candidate. And if only the issue of single sex marriages had not emerged to excite the religious right.

Will Kerry's loss make a great difference in world history? Maybe not. One of his problems was not having a clear way of dealing with Iraq.

But Bush's election four years ago was important, like it or not. The United States probably would not have found itself in Iraq if it had not been for some flawed chads in Florida, and judges who ruled in ways to put George W. in the White House. And who can predict the outcome of that for us all?

Israel and Palestine are both in the middle of some details now. It is not beyond imagining that how they flow can affect one or both societies in big ways.

For the Palestinians, the important detail is their choice of a president. Marwan Barghouti has entered himself as a candidate, and he has considerable support on the street. It is more accurate to say that his wife and some supporters entered his name, insofar as he is in an Israeli prison, sentenced to four consecutive life terms for involvement in murder. Hard to imagine that Israel will release him. Palestinians are pressuring him to withdraw, and many of their leading voices are endorsing Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazzan). He is supposed to be a moderate, willing to deal with Israel. So far he has indicated that he will insist on the right of return for Palestinian refugees (a sure deal breaker), and denied that he said that. Spokesmen for Hamas indicated that they support the Palestinian political process and will boycott the election. If Abbas is elected, he will enjoy international support and something between Israeli support and sympathy. But he will have to find a way to deal with the Israelis, not inclined to be overly generous after four years of Palestinian violence, and Palestinians demanding more than the Israelis offered before the violence began. It will be a time for wisdom, balls, and political skill.

It will also depend on the flow of details on the Israeli side.

A combination of personal and party rivalries have brought the Sharon government to the point where it cannot continue. Desertions and dismissals have produced a condition where it cannot even count on the support of all Likud members in the Knesset, and there are only 40 of those (out of 120 MKs). Right now there is no other party in the governing coalition.

This week Ariel Sharon will ask the support of his party's central committee for the idea of adding the Labor Party to his government. Many Likudniks have been firm in opposing that idea, but Sharon has maneuvered them to the point where if they refuse, the government will collapse, there will be an election, and who knows which Likud members of Knesset will find themselves still in office, or which parties will form the next government.

Sharon has succeeded in making things worse in order to make them better. It is a risky political move. So far, so good. But if he does not get the vote he wants in the Likud central committee (equivalent to an American party convention), he is more than in trouble. And so is Mr Abbas.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:47 PM
December 01, 2004
Education Quagmire (II)

The Tacoma News Tribune reports that a high school teacher arranged a prison pen pal for a 15 year old female student:

A high school history teacher in Federal Way is on administrative leave for allegedly setting up a pen-pal relationship between a 15-year-old female student and one of his former students, who’s in prison for stabbing a prostitute to death.


The mother of the female student brought the correspondence to the attention of school officials when she got her hands on two letters the inmate, Michael Koehler, sent to her daughter.

In one letter, Koehler spoke of love and marriage while giving a gang nickname to the girl. In another letter, he shared his sexual fantasies involving her.

Posted by Stefan Sharkansky at 01:30 PM
Education Quagmire

Never mind the quagmire and insurgency in Iraq, there's a quagmire and insurgency right here at home:

Three students at Spanaway Lake High School who police say were planning to arm themselves with bombs and other weapons in an effort to take over the school were arrested on campus yesterday.

The students, two boys, 18, and 16, and one girl, 18, reportedly planned the attack because they were tired of being teased by other students, according to Pierce County Sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer.

For some reason I don't think the teasing is going to stop.

Posted by Stefan Sharkansky at 08:26 AM