December 27, 2005
An Introduction to Political Science

I no longer teach classes, but remain at heart an academic. I am always alert to improving the courses I have taught for more than 40 years, even though they no longer exist. Perhaps some of my active colleagues will consider the following additions to an introduction for political science. They draw on lessons still being played out nearby in the democracy aborning called Palestine.

For the section on political parties:

This is a key feature of democratic politics. Parties assemble the policy options and candidates for voters to select. Without parties, there can be only chaos, and no democracy. How to influence the selection of candidates? One way is to open the list to all comers, perhaps require petitions for each potential candidate signed by a certain number of citizens or party members, and allow the final selection of a party's candidates by a party convention or primary election.

Yet an quicker and more certain way is to assemble a group of like-minded citizens, arm them, storm the party headquarters, and demand that certain colleagues be included in the party's candidates for the legislature. Dozens of gunmen associated with President Abbas' Fatah Party took over the Ramallah office of the Palestinian election commission today to protest Abbas's choice of candidates for an upcoming parliamentary election. The chaps may still be there. By one report, Abbas must submit a final list of candidates by tomorrow. According to a senior election official, "We are very annoyed. Fatah should solve their internal differences outside our offices."

In another setting, 20 miles to the south of Ramallah in Bethlehem, 400 other colleagues held a protest outside Fatah's main office. They were also unhappy with what was shaping up as the candidate list. Some of the protesters fired their weapons in the air, while others burned tires and called on Abbas to reconsider the line-up of those standing for election.

On the other side of Palestine, in Gaza, there was a lesson for public administration.

Here the staffing of government offices is a key issue. It is conventional to announce the opening of positions for new candidates, indicate a list of required traits, offer examinations for those applying, and have senior staffers interview those who pass the initial screening.

But again there is a simpler way: Assemble a group of people who feel themselves to be qualified and in need of work, load their weapons, take over a government office, and stay there until the fellows are promised jobs.

Today's operation is a repeat of how several groups of fighters for Palestinian freedom have insisted on being hired by the security forces. It seems like a great way to recruit personnel for the police or other services requiring physical courage and skill with weapons. The candidates already have at least a minimum of training with rifles or handguns, know how to operate together, and have shown themselves brave and skilled enough to challenge the existing security forces and to put those forces in their place. What better way to select individuals to protect a society from its internal and external enemies?

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:43 PM
December 26, 2005
Palestinian threats

In case you have not noticed, Palestinians are threatening. Two different groups claim to have developed rockets of increased range, which they indicate they will use if Israel imposes a "no walk, no drive" zone in Northern Gaza. That is the more or less empty area from which rockets have been fired to Israel.

We have a problem.

On the one hand, a widespread conception is that Palestinians intent on violence do what they can to cause harm to Israelis (and often to other Palestinians). They are always at maximum effort. By this view, if they had better rockets, they would already be using them. In connection with this view, Israeli experts say that Palestinian rockets are poor in quality. It is said that 80 percent of them do not make it out of Gaza, and the aim of those that do and those that do not is random. They have injured about as many Palestinians as Israelis. Perhaps more Palestinians than Israelis, insofar as not only do most rockets land somewhere in Gaza, but some of them blow up on the way to the launching site. The Israeli media calls those cases "industrial accidents."

On the other hand, if the Palestinians are telling the truth and actually use more effective rockets, the temptations on Israel will be considerable to do more than shell empty fields, and kill or capture selectively the people who fall into our intelligence net. One contingency plan in the event of missles fired from the crowded neighborhoods of Gaza is to give residents 12 hours notice, and then shell them. So who will suffer more? Tent makers get ready.

Yet another Palestinian threat, this one coming from ranking officials of the Authority, is to cancel the elections scheduled for late January if Israel does not allow voting in East Jerusalem. Jimmy Carter has signed on to the Palestinian side. He insists that Israel do what it did in the past, i.e., allow the Palestinians of East Jerusalem to vote in Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem polling stations. The former president is overlooking the most recent five years of violence. Collective punishment, of a sort not designed to cause massive deaths , is part of Israel's response. Sharon's government is not giving privileges to the Arabs of East Jerusalem that the Oslo-era governments of 1993-2000 gave to them.

Israelis suspect that leaders of the Palestinian Authority do not want to hold elections in any case. Those sitting in the ruling chairs are pretty certain that widespread Hamas victories will embarrass them, or even force them to give up their offices and patronage. If this happens, there could be a wholesale change of who will be close to the funds donated by Western governments, and who gets to import automobiles, household goods, construction equipment and supplies, and lots of other things to Palestine. So the Palestinians are using Israel as their excuse. Because of Israeli intransigence, they cannot hold democratic elections.

Also true to form, the Palestinians are calling on the international community for help. They need more money, and more pressure on Israel, with respect to both our pressure on Gaza and the issue of voting in East Jerusalem. Jimmy Carter's words may help, but the Pope has more troops, and he does not seem to have done more than to pray for peace in the Middle East.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:04 PM
December 20, 2005
A bit of Israeli politics

A friendly correspondent from Al-Jezeera called this morning, concerned about the vote received by Moshe Feiglin in yesterday's Likud primary to select a party leader. Feiglin received 12 percent of the vote in a primary marked by a low turnout of 45 percent of those eligible to participate. Insofar as his supporters are likely to have been more enthusiastic than others, his turnout was probably closer to its maximum than those of other candidates. As expected, Benyamin Netanyahu won the primary with 44 percent of the vote.

Feiglin is somewhere to the right of almost every other politician, selling Jewish nationalism and territorial ownership, spiced with religious symbols.

The correspondent from Al-Jazeera is a decent reporter who calls me occasionally from Hebron, and quotes me accurately in what he writes on the organization's web site. Not surprisingly, he is concerned with the specter of right-wing, territory obsessed Jews taking over Israel and making life even more hopeless for the Palestinians. He asked about the prospect of an alliance between a Netanyahu-led Likud with a heavy dose of Feiglinism, plus other right wing and religious parties.

I think he can relax.

The collection of parties that now can be termed religious and nationalist, from Likud rightward, include enough sizable egos among their political and religious leaders, as well as doctrinal nuances, to get in the way of anything more than occasional cooperation. The ultra-Orthodox leadership is far less interested in issues of territory than the non-ultra-Orthodox. The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox SHAS has signed on to a posture of generous welfare programs, while Netanyahu himself is the leader of the anti-welfare libertarian sect of Israel.

This is not to say that our political future is clear. The uncertainty is not as unsettling as in the chaotic flirting with civil war of our Palestinian neighbors. However, all Israel's major parties and most of the not-so major ones are in deep crisis. Labor has moved to the left with the selection of Amir Peretz as its leader. Along with Meretz-Yahad or whatever it is calling itself these days (names are also in flux), the largely Jewish left cluster cannot decide about which of the darling causes is most important: social welfare, environment, peace with the Palestinians, the rights of gays and lesbians, other women's issues, or whatever. Meanwhile, it has forgotten that most of the votes are in the center. If some of you out there think this syndrome looks like that affecting the Democratic Party in the United States, you understand the issue.

Salvation for the left is not likely to come from the Arab parties. Some are looking toward the Ariel Sharon-Shimon Peres partnership, while others remain mired in extreme nationalism, their own religiosity, and electoral bases more concerned with localities and extended families that with any more general issues.

Until the day before yesterday, Ariel Sharon's new party, Kadima, (progress) owned the center. Then he had what his physicians are calling a mild stroke, which occurred at the start of television news' prime time. In the saturation of coverage which put everything else aside, we have heard that he lost consciousness and was confused, and that he did not lose consciousness and suffered only a temporary blurring of his speech. The party line is a very mild stroke, which will enable him to leave the hospital today (after a very restful night). Handlers say that he will return to full service after a few days rest, and will open the weekly government meeting on Sunday. Everyone admits that he should lose weight.

We can only hope that the publicly-available news is--and will be--more accurate than in the cases of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Menachem Begin. All of them ended their tenures pretty much out of it, along with bland announcements about minor ailments.

The not-so-friendly Ha'aretz put a headline on page 2 yesterday morning that a quarter of stroke victims die within a year after an episode.

Initial polls show Sharon's party increasing its proportion of the votes, but that may be sympathy. We will have to wait and see what happens over the next three months until the actual voting. Other polls show that Sharon's party without Sharon is not worth much. We may see an effort of ranking colleagues to put in place some institutions for selecting Knesset candidates and other functionaries, that do not rely so much on the great leader's personal involvement.

Assuming we get through the election and the assembling of a coalition government, what happens next? Both Labor and Likud have a great deal of shuffling to get to where they used to be: competing for the broad center of the electorate. So far no one expects Sharon's Kadima to become a new dominant party. It is held together by Sharon's personal appeal among the electorate, and an attachment to pragmatism or opportunism that has marked his style in dealing with the Palestinians and the Jewish settlers. "We can do it better" is the unspoken slogan. Who knows how that will sell when reality changes and the "it" differs from the relatively simple issue of the last five years?

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:02 AM
December 13, 2005
Knave vs Fool?

The current Israeli election campaign recalls 1972 in the United States. Richard Nixon was widely viewed as a knave, but quite a few voters saw a fool when they looked at George McGovern. Promising an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, a massive reduction in the defense budget, and the distribution of $1,000 to every citizen got him 38 percent of the vote. Richard Nixon deepened his reputation with heavy military losses and deception about Vietnam, as well as Watergate and some other craziness. John Kennedy's glorification obscured his responsibility for the onset of serious United States involvement in Southeast Asia. Nixon is blamed for more than he did, but he might win the 1972 election again if it was replayed with all that is known about what happened then and later.

And now the parallels to Israel's election, scheduled for late March, 2006.

No doubt Ariel Sharon has a knave's reputation. It features elements from ignoring orders during his military career, claims that he deceived Prime Minister Menachem Begin about the war in Lebanon that Sharon managed as Defense Minister, his promotion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, his flip to unilateral disengagement, and charges of corruption in election finance that have his son waiting sentencing and have all but touched the old man. As Richard Nixon is unfairly given too much responsibility for Vietnam, so Sharon is given too much responsibility for Intafada. It is called Intafada al-Aqsa because of his visit to the courtyard near al-Aqsa Mosque in 2000. Just as it is politically risky to accuse St John Kennedy of ordering the crucial escalations of United States involvement in Vietnam, so it is risky to accuse St Yitzhak Rabin of advancing Israeli-Palestinian violence via his signing on to the Oslo Accords. It is easier to blame Nixon and Sharon. Assassinations do wonders for political reputations.

If Sharon is not enough of a knave, the affiliation of Tzachi Hanegbi to his party adds to the aura. Hanegbi's reputation began with his activity years ago as a ruffian in Likud campus politics. Most recently he has been suspended as a government minister due to charges of corruption in appointments. Unfriendly commentators say that being subject to criminal charges is a prerequisite for a high place on the election ticket of Sharon's Progress Party.

Who is the fool in this election? Perhaps the word is too strong, but Amir Peretz is a candidate. He came from a position as head of the Labor Federation to unseat Shimon Peres as leader of the Labor Party.

Peretz advocates a substantial move to the left, after twenty, or even thirty years of the Labor Party abandoning its socialist roots and embracing the emerging Yuppie sector of upper-income, upper-education Israel. Labor Party leaders have paid lip-service to the needs of the unfortunate, but have concentrated on a platform of accommodation with the Palestinians. Shimon Peres' slogan of the New Middle East has captured attention among Jews here and elsewhere. It pretty much went nowhere, and had something to do with an old man's defeat by the energetic Peretz. Lots of Arabs express in word and deed that they see nothing wrong with the Old Middle East.

Amir Peretz is not a copy of George McGovern. So far there is no parallel to McGovern's posture on Vietnam. Peretz has not made a point of saying what he would do about the Palestinians. But he is full tilt on economics. He wants a significant increase in the minimum wage, and a roll back of reductions in welfare benefits. This makes Labor Party industrialists and other entrepreneurs nervous. Israel has poverty, and a shrill intelligentsia that urges greater welfare efforts, but it has universal health insurance, programs for income and public housing. The private sector has mounted an array of feeding stations for those hurt by reductions in welfare. Israel's income protections are not be up to those of western Europe, but neither does it have the wealth of those countries. And its security activities are expensive. Predictions are that an increase in the minimum wage will increase unemployment.

The darling of the newly awakened left in the Labor Party is a radio personality who has long trumpeted social justice. Sheli Yehimovitch is articulate to the point of being charismatic, but is tarnished with her earlier admiration of the Israeli Communist Party. This is not Joe McCarthy country, but neither is it a hotbed of socialist ideology.

And just coming on the scene is yet another party that claims that it is the true advocate the poor. It is led by Vicki Knafu, a middle age single mother who made a name by walking from her home town of Mitzpe Ramon to Jerusalem, and setting up a tent city of advocates that existed opposite the prime minister's office for several months. When her movement showed signs of falling apart she accelerated the decline by posing for a nudie magazine. Now she appears in full dress, but age and poor judgment did their damage.

It is still three and one-half months to the election. The polls show the party of knaves winning 40 seats, while Labor, the closest rival, barely breaks 20.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:17 AM
December 05, 2005
Letter from Jerusalem: We are back on autopilot

Yesterday's radio talk dealt almost exclusively until 11:30 AM with Iran's nuclear program. Benyamin Netanyahu focused his primary campaign for the leadership of Likud on a one sentence solution: act like our party hero Menachem Begin, and destroy Iran's nuclear option before it can produce a weapon. It does not deter the man of simple notions that Iran had learned from Begin. Its nuclear program is distributed among numerous sites, some of them buried deep underground. Experts countered Netanyahu with thinly veiled ridicule: what worked in 1981 was not a model for 2005. Israel can probably do no more than delay Iran's program, and even that at a considerable cost in international politics and by further elevating Iran's animosity. With an Egyptian running the UN effort against Iran, and Russia selling to Iran, Israel (along with Europe and the United States) may have to live with a nuclear-equipped Iran, just as Iran will have to live with Israel and others equipped with nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu changed his tune at 11:30. His response to the suicide bombing in Netanya was, I told you so. The disengagement from Gaza encouraged terrorist groups to get more land by killing more Israelis. The radio gave him little time. It focused on the routine coverage of a terrorist incidence: interviewing eye witnesses against the background of sirens, reporting on the incidence of dead and wounded, later asking emergency rooms physicians about the injured, and reporting the announcement of Islamic Jihad that identified the bomber.

Television coverage showed footage from security cameras, with arrows pointed to the bomber as he walked toward the shopping mall, and then the dust cloud caused by his explosion. Pictures of the scene showed large splotches of blood on the walls of the mall entrance, up to the level of the second floor.

The evening meeting of government ministers concerned with security and key professionals put us back on autopilot, along the course we could have recited before the meeting. There will be a closure of the West Bank, a renewal of targeted assassinations, more intense sweeps by security forces through areas that supply the killers and support their organizations. There was a condemnation of the Palestine Authority for not acting to counter the violence, and a cancellation of meetings designed to coordinate progress with the Authority.

Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazan) condemned the terror as usual. He said it would harm Palestine, and ordered his security forces to move against Islamic Jihad. Later we heard of clashes between those forces and Islamic Jihad, and saw Islamic Jihadists marching with their weapons, apparently as a sign of their victory against the efforts of the Palestine Authority.

You can expect pictures of autos destroyed by missiles fired from Israeli helicopters, mass participation at the funerals of those who had been passengers in the cars, and daily counts of the fighters and managers of Islamic Jihad and other groups rounded up and put in Israeli prisons.

Meanwhile, someone is still firing missiles from Gaza against Israeli towns. They have not killed anyone recently, so Israel has limited itself to firing artillery shells into empty fields and bombing empty buildings. Israeli rhetoric against the missiles is escalating. Officials are talking about extending the area to be shelled, of course after warning Palestinians to leave the sites to be targeted.

All this will come along with United States and European Union cautions about overreaction, and condemnations of targeted assassinations.

For those with doubts, I admit that we are not perfect, but conclude that we are not doing badly given the constraints. Our record at minimizing casualties is arguably better than Americans in Iraq, but the comparison may not be fair. Our professionals have been dealing with the problem all their working lives, and learned from two or three earlier generations who also spent their careers on the problem. Syria and Iran are mucking around in Palestine as well as Iraq, but it is more difficult for them here. Some American politicians are no less simple minded than Israeli counterparts, so in both places the domestic conflict will be as ongoing as the violence. I fear Israel is due for more of the same by virtue of its location. The United States is due for more of the same by virtue of its power. This is not fatalism. It is realism. Life is tough. But it is better than the alternative.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:43 PM