January 29, 2006

Confusion reigns. Hamas, Fatah, Israeli politicians, Americans and Europeans are all blathering . Apparently the extent of Hamas' electoral victory came as a surprise, to Hamas as well as to others. The winners were not certain enough of success to plan on what to do the next day and the day after that. The closest to the call was what an Israeli intelligence official told a Knesset committee: "I wouldn't fall off my chair if Hamas won a majority."

Hamas spokesmen are sounding conciliatory and extreme. They are claiming that they are pragmatic and are tolerant; that they will implement Muslim law and we will not impose their beliefs on all Palestinians; that they do not pose a threat to Israel or Jews, and there will be no recognition and no negotiation with Israel.

Fatah fighters have been shooting at one another and at Hamas fighters. Fatah street mobs have called for the resignation of all party leaders. Mahmoud Abbas has issued some orders to security forces and claims that he is "commander in chief." It is clear from recent and past actions that the heads of the dozen or so security organizations, and their personnel, decide on their own what to do. Various prominent Fatah activists have called on Abbas to resign as president. He continues in office, and has asked Hamas to select a prime minister and form a government.

The Syrian president congratulated Hamas on its victory as a stance of resistence against occupation. The Iranians seem happy, but elsewhere in the region the success of an Islamic movement has brought a lot of official silence. The head of the Arab League said that Hamas will have to deal with Israel.

Early afternoon one Israeli minister said that Hamas was showing commendable caution and that Israel should make the initial transfer of customs duties collected for Palestine, but then the government decided to wait and see about the transfer. The acting prime minister's stance, taken as government policy for now, is that Israel will have no contacts with Hamas until it renounces terror, recognizes Israel, and agrees to uphold previous Palestinian agreements, including the disarming of terrorist organizations (itself?). Yet a few minutes before hearing that, we saw pictures of smiling Hamas leaders coming out of a government building in Jerusalem, and were told that they had meetings on coordination with Israeli officials.

Likud leader Bibi Netanyahu is predicting doom and saying that it is all the fault of the Olmert government. He will fix everything, just as he fixed security when he was prime minister and the economy when he was finance minister.

Labor leader Amir Peretz confirms his commitment to social reform and asserts that the Hamas crises should not be used as another excuse to delay action. Yesterday's promises were free schooling from the age of three, free hot lunches for poor kids, and subsidized day care from the age of one.

George Bush said that the United States would not aid a government led by Hamas. He did not commit his government to ending aid for Palestinian organizations. For at least the past year, the United States has not aided the Palestine Authority, due to a lack of reform in its financial procedures (i.e., corruption). But the US has provided $230 million or so to organizations that are ostensibly non-governmental, but dare not do much without approval of the ruling party.

Some European officials have spoken toughly against terror. Others have said that their government aid to the Palestinians will continue. The people should not suffer because there was a free election and Hamas won.

The confusion is not likely to end soon. My guess is that no one anywhere has a clear idea what to do, and each is waiting to respond to someone else. If the first move is that of Hamas, they do not seem ready.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:50 PM
January 26, 2006
An election in Palestine

There is good news and bad news in the Palestinian election.

The good news is that the process scored well on criteria of democracy. More than in other Arab societies, there was freedom of competition, more or less law and order on election day, and the opposition is noted as having won the election. Some Palestinians may say, as they have on other occasions, that they have learned the lessons of democracy from Israel.

Assuming the rest of the process goes well (i.e., the actual sitting of the winning party), the bad news is that Hamas is the winning party. Current reports are that it took 76 out of 132 seats in the parliament. Pre-election polls gave a 5-10 percent margin to the ruling Fatah Party of Mahmoud Abbas. It is not unusual for individuals intending to vote for an "anti-establishment" party to avoid pollsters, or to answer questions with something thought to be acceptable.

During the campaign, Hamas leaders engaged a public relations firm and indicated that it had turned its face to peace; that it could serve in a Palestinian government and negotiate with Israel. However, one of the candidates (a mother who had blessed her son's suicide in the name of Palestine), appeared on television to say that the party would pursue both a course of violence and a course of politics in order to free all of Palestine from Israeli occupation. She included Jaffa, Haifa, and the rest of Israel in the areas to be liberated. Another candidate, somewhat more sophisticated, indicated that a Hamas government could arrange a cease fire with Israel, even though it would not recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Neither option is anywhere close to being good enough for any of the major Israeli parties.

Currently Israeli opposition parties to the left and right are accusing Ehud Olmert of not doing enough to prevent a Hamas victory. What could he have done? The victory is consistent with what we have been seeing in a number of Palestinian opinion polls in recent years. While majorities indicate their desire for peace with Israel, majorities have also indicated their support for violence. The election is another indication about our neighbors. An unknown (and perhaps unknowable) proportion of the vote reflects substantial anti-Fatah, anti-corruption sentiment. Palestinians want the billions in outside aid to help them, and not only to line the pockets of those close to power.

It will take a while to see how this works itself out. There are several possibilities, and tantalizing questions about the near future.

Will the Hamas government continue the bombast heard until now that it wants the immediate release of the several thousand Palestinians in Israeli prisons, the end of Israeli occupation, and the return of 1948 and 1967 refugees to their homes?

Even if the key Fatah office holders leave office in the glare of spotlights and according to the rules of democratic procedure, there are thousands of middle- and lower-ranking functionaries earning their incomes on the basis of patronage. Importers of cars, appliances, cement and other goods have their opportunities as the result of a grant from a Fatah power holder. School principals, personnel in the security services, and social workers likewise owe someone their jobs, and that someone will no longer be in an official position. All these street fighters of politics have had regular salaries while 30 per cent or more of their neighbors are unemployed. They might not let go of their opportunities without a struggle. The West Bank and Gaza may revert to the violent chaos that preceded the few days of quiet before the voting.

What about the shapely Palestinian young women, who dress in tight jeans and wear their hair long and loose like their peers elsewhere? Hamas has a religious agenda that makes it a cousin of the Taliban and the Saudi religious police.

Will the United States and European governments reduce, if not eliminate altogether their financial aid to Palestine? If so, the inflated personnel roles of Palestinian government and security forces will face some payless paydays.

Israel provides a substantial proportion of the Palestinian budget via the taxes it collects on goods imported over its borders. Initial speculation is that Israel will make the first monthly transfer on time. What about the next one?

A recent Israeli decision was to spur the construction of the barrier of walls, wire, and electronic sensors. The government will employ the intransigence of the Palestinians as an argument in Israeli courts against those who view the barrier as imposing intolerable burdens on the Palestinians.

In response to acts of violence, Israel will close the gates in those barriers for short or long periods. Palestinians will face longer waits, or will not be able to work, sell things in Israel, pray, seek health care, or visit relatives. Will Hamas government ministers and other ranking officials be given the same opportunities as enjoyed by counterparts in the Abbas government to travel between Gaza and the West Bank through Israel? What will Israel decide if someone on its wanted list becomes a minister in government?

Early reports from Palestine, Israel, Europe and Washington agree in finding a profound lack of certainty, and a bit of anxiety as to what comes next.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:27 AM
January 22, 2006
Buyer beware!

There is an item on the front page of today's Ha'aretz that displays several aspects of the Israeli mosaic. All of them are negative, and make me wonder if, at my advanced age, I can sign on to some other national community.

The article describes what it calls the "dumping" of an apartment project in East Jerusalem on naive American Jews. http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasen/spages/672905.html

At issue is a project being built between the promenade that overlooks the Old City, and an Arab neighborhood by the name of Jabel Mukaber. According to the article, developers are flogging the site for the magnificence of its views (Judean desert to one side, the Old City to another), as well as its exotic location close to an Arab village. The target clientele for purchase are well-to-do Orthodox American Jews, who wish to invest in Jerusalem and perhaps live here part time during their holidays. They are described as physicians, lawyers, and accountants who can afford $350,000 to $550,000 for what are billed as luxury apartments in a project that will include a sports complex, walking paths connected to the established promenade, gated security, shopping center, synagogue and ritual bath. The article describes a sales pitch directed only to American Jews, who are being told that Israelis will buy the lower priced apartments on the lower floors, and provide a presence on the site while the Americans are abroad. According to the newspaper, one of the people selling the project is a Miami woman who has never been to Israel. A claim of being a 10 minute drive from the city center would work only at high speed in the middle of the night, if the traffic lights are all green. So far, there has been no campaign directed at Israelis.

Part of the pitch is said to be happy Arabs who will benefit from the improvements in roads, water, sewage that the project will bring to their area of Jerusalem. Developers are making a comparison with Abu Tor, a neighborhood divided between a Jewish section up-hill and an Arab section down-hill. Only the producers of maps call Abu Tor a single neighborhood. Interviews with residents of Jabel Mukaber reveal what a realist would expect. It is something other than a welcome.

To be sure, one feature of the highly negative portrayal is that it appears in Ha'aretz. Of Israeli's major newspapers, that is the most critical of the current government, and the most likely to promote concession and oppose anything to arouse Arab frustration or anger. In this case, however, one can only wonder at the greed of real estate developers, and their efforts to profit from a target population least likely to know what they are doing. Arab protests reflect not only generalized anti-Semitism, but specific grievances. They find it difficult to build legally within or near their neighborhoods, and must risk legal proceedings that may result in the destruction of homes when they build illegally. Jewish entrepreneurs, in contrast, manage to obtain land and permission to build on choice sites bordering Arab communities. Involved in this legal challenge is the claim that part of the land now destined for Jewish housing was expropriated from Arab ownership in order to be preserved as parkland.

Assuming the legal challenges to the project do not succeed and construction continues, what should potential buyers consider?

Delays in the construction of public facilities at the project (shops, synagogue, ritual bath, park land), especially if a downturn in the security situation gets through to potential investors, and the project does not meet aspirations. The recent security picture has been quiet when compared to four years ago when there were days with several gruesome incidents. Now they appear only monthly, or even less. However, Hamas is likely to do well in this week's Palestinian elections, and that will cause at least a chill, and maybe a freeze in Israeli-Palestinian relations, which are not warm or productive or progress in any case. Who knows what will come? It does not seem like a timely period to invest.

The likelihood of minor sabotage in the construction of apartments. Palestinian and Israeli Arab workers will in all probability be doing most of the building. While they will like the opportunity for work, they may also employ one or another of the tricks to make life difficult for the Jews who move in. One is to include fresh eggs in the walls as they are being plastered over. A few months later it will be difficult to locate just where the smell is coming from. Another is to add some stones to the plumbing, which sooner or later will get in the way of a toilet flush.

Yet another problem is the annoyances associated with living alongside an unfriendly community. Break-ins, vandalism of outdoor fixtures, and car thefts are the language of this neighborliness.

Reading between the lines of a negative article, the legal charges against the project may not be weighty enough to impress the courts. Thus, it may continue despite the protests of Arabs who feel themselves hurt by it, and Jews concerned about further provocations. The publication of the article might be timed to provoke a problem for the Olmert government. A government with a dominant Labor or Mertez presence could stop the project, but that prospect is not in the cards for the end-of-March Israeli election. Even if the project passes through the hurdles of politics and law, there remains the question about its wisdom. "Buyer beware" is an appropriate answer, but it may not be suitable for the clientele being targeted.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:15 AM
January 19, 2006
Looking for work?

There was a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv this afternoon. It occurred in the area of the old bus station, a rabbit warren of stores and stalls selling low-priced merchandise, small restaurants, and old housing that serves low-come Israelis and numerous foreign workers, many of them illegal. There were 22 injured, only one of whom in critical condition. The bomber was the only fatality. Police report that only part of the device exploded. A radio report was that the bomber fired his belt early, when a security officer ordered him away from a restaurant. A newscaster speculated that the bomber was not sufficiently "experienced." If any of you know an experienced suicide bomber looking for work, you know who to call.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:52 AM
January 18, 2006
A sure bet?

If I was going to wager on the upcoming Israeli election, I would put it all on Ehud Olmert and his Kadima Party. Olmert is sounding judiciously prime ministerial, posturing in ways that suggest what Ariel Sharon would have done. Sharon is basking in the aura of national hero, but still in a coma and worrying his physicians.

The major competing parties are each making serious mistakes.

One failing is that leaders of both are conceding Kadima's election. The most they are prepping themselves for is to win enough seats to join Kadima in the coalition. That may not be adequate to motivate their organizations for a difficult campaign. Beyond that, Labor and Likud are making additional errors. Their leaders would not do well in a test of elementary political science.

Most prominent among the errors of the Labor leader, Amir Peretz, is to focus almost entirely on social issues like poverty. Not only is this the emphasis of his own background and campaign statements, but it is the personal emphasis of almost all the candidates who did well enough in the party primary to be slotted for sure seats in the next Knesset. Why is this mistaken? The polls show that voters are more interested in security issues. The public has been focused for the past five year years on the Palestinian uprising, and more recently on Iran's nuclear program and its president's assertion that Israel should be destroyed. Leading Laborites offer little by way of expertise in the fields of security or international relations. Former Labor Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres is with Kadima, and Peretz has rejected all suggestions to make overtures to former commanding general of the IDF and Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Likud, for its part, is too focused on an antiquated view of national security. Polls have shown for years that the public is willing to trade land for security, and to rid Israel of responsibility for Palestinian settlements. The withdrawal from Gaza had the support of a majority of those answering numerous queries, and was arguably a success both in its implementation and in its capacity to reduce Israeli vulnerability. Sure there are homemade rockets coming over the border, but few of them do any damage, and there are no daily attacks on Israeli troops and settlers within Gaza.

Likud has become, in effect, the party of figures who opposed the withdrawal from Gaza, and resist any further concessions of land to the Palestinians. They are four square against unilateral concessions like that of Gaza, which may be the future if Palestinians do not negotiate reasonably, and they do not seem likely to offer the Palestinians very much if negotiations do seem possible. Some of the extremists have not given up the old aspiration of controlling the Land of Israel on both sides of the Jordan (going back to opposing the division of what was the original Balfour Declaration in 1921 and the creation of what was called the Emirate of Transjordan.)

In other words, Labor is pitching itself to the left and Likud to the right. They are conceding the center to Kadima, and the great blocs of votes are in the center. Politicians go for votes. Ideologues go for what they think is right. Most democracies are governed most of the time by politicians.

Labor loyalists (who have not left for Kadima) and Likud loyalists (who have not left for Kadima) each dream for the glory days of 40 and more seats in the Knesset. Current polls indicate that neither will reach 20, and one or both may fall below 15.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:56 AM
January 12, 2006
A fading story

For the first time in a week, hourly news bulletins have begun without a report on the prime minister's condition. Many of the fifteen hundred foreign correspondents who camped outside the hospital have gone home. There is not much to report, except for slight movements in response to pain stimuli, and an increase in blood pressure in response to his favorite music or the speech of his sons. Physicians have not given up hope, but say that if it happens, it will be a long recovery. He has yet to open his eyes.

Ehud Olmert has an invitation to the White House prior to the Israeli election, so we know who Bush wants to govern Israel. Olmert may not need American help. The Labor Party has dismissed a campaign chair for the third time, and there are angry noises directed at Benyamin Netanyahu from key figures of the Likud Party. Latest polls show the Sharon/Olmert Kadima Party up to 44 seats in the Knesset, along with of a continued decline for Labor.

Some have not given up on a political resurrection. They want to honor Sharon by putting him Number #1 on the Kadima list. Their intentions are more likely to be votes than honor, of which there is little in the politics of Israel or anywhere else. But there is a looming official deadline for submitting candidacies, and each candidate must sign an application. That is not in Sharon's immediate future.

Putting Shimon Peres Number #2 on the Kadima list, after Olmert, will not be as attractive as putting Sharon #1. Peres has asserted that he sought no position for himself, but virtually every media commentator has ridiculed the claim. He says that whenever a distinguished position opens, while his minions speak for him, and he reminds all who will listen of his qualifications. Peres' name on the ticket may be worth the equivalent of 3 or 4 Knesset seats, and Olmert has no shortage of political sense. It is said that Peres had to give up the prospect of being Foreign Minister in exchange for the Number #2 position, but no concession is final with Peres. Assuming Kadima gets to form the next government, it will be only a matter of time until someone says that the country cannot afford to manage a foreign policy without Shimon Peres at the helm.

The country's physicians are arguing in the media about Sharon's medical treatment. According to claims, he should have been sent to the hospital in Beer Sheva, an hour closer to the site of his attack, than to Jerusalem. He should not have been given the medicine prescribed after his first, minor stroke. He should not have been allowed to reside at his distant farm while he was susceptible to another attack. There should have been more pressure on him to avoid returning to a bruising work routine. The chair of the medical society has tried to silence the uproar, but to no avail. One of the critics is angry at the radio network for not giving him an opportunity to respond to a severe condemnation of his comments.

Sharon has been sanctified, like Yitzhak Rabin before him, for being taken away at a point in his career when he had done something very popular. With those sympathetic to such things, Sharon's disengagement from Gaza is parallel to Rabin's signing of the Oslo accords.

Benyamin Netanyahu is claiming to be the inheritor of the Sharon heritage, which has replaced his boast of being invited to be Finance Minister of Italy. A media clip of Netanyahu's pious assertion of January goes well when coupled with a clip showing Netanyahu's sharp attack against the prime minister when he resigned from Sharon's government in August.

The Sharon story is not over, but it is fading.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:15 AM
January 05, 2006
Peace Process?

News media and politicians from many countries, including Palestine, are concerned that without Sharon there can be no peace process. The reasoning is that only he can persuade Israelis to give up more land.

My own perception is that there has been no peace process at least since the year 2000. What Sharon did in his disengagement was to signal frustration at the lack of a Palestinian partner, and to leave some territory in order to simplify Israel's problems of security.

Since then, Palestinians have been a long way from anything that looks like a peace process. Chaos does not provide the setting from which a government can negotiate. In recent weeks there have been kidnappings of foreigners in Gaza, including people affiliated with humanitarian organizations who came to help. One group seized the parents of Rachel Corrie, an activist from Evergreen State College who was killed in 2003 by an Israeli army bulldozer when she entered an active battlefield and tried to scream peace above the noise and commotion. When the kidnappers realized that they had taken the parents of a Palestinian martyr, they gave a pass.

There have been assaults on Palestine Authority offices by armed gangs wanting to be hired as security personnel by the Authority, or demanding that their friends be put on the list of candidates for the upcoming election. The Palestine Electoral Commission submitted its resignation, due to the way leading members of the Authority were issuing orders about the election.

One of the most popular candidates of the ruling Fatah Party is Marwan Barghouti, serving five consecutive life terms in an Israeli prison for involvement in the killing of civilians. If there is an election and he is chosen for the Palestinian parliament , Barghouti may have to ask a replacement to serve until sometime late in the 21st century.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said time and again that rocket attacks from Gaza to Israeli settlements do not advance the national cause, but they keep coming. Palestinian security forces, said to number 30,000 in Gaza, have not made serious efforts to stop them. In response, the IDF has made a wasteland of northern Gaza. Should one of those rockets kill an Israeli, the damage to Gaza is likely to be more extensive.

Has there ever been a serious Palestinian offer for peace with Israel? My own memory is that there has been one Palestinian demand after another for Israel to be forthcoming. Joining the chorus have been numerous Europeans, some Americans, and not a few Israelis. Now with what seems to be Ariel Sharon's exit from politics, we are hearing another version of that refrain. To me the problem is still the lack of Palestinian realism, currently reinforced by chaos within Palestine.

The next Israeli leader may make additional withdrawals, similar to Sharon's disengagement in being done when there is no sign of a Palestinian partner. If that occurs, it should be called strengthening Israel's defenses, and not a peace process.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:02 PM
Ariel Sharon

Ariel Sharon suffered a serious stroke last night. Physicians speaking for the hospital report that his condition is critical and life threatening. Other medical personnel say there is virtually no chance that he can get out of this without significant damage. The alternative prognoses of one brain surgeon are early death or living as a vegetable. Another says that patients have emerged from similar episodes with the ability to communicate.

The early morning news reported that heads of all parties were either praying or hoping for Sharon's health. By the 9 AM news, with him still in the operating room after more than eight hours, attention had turned to the national election scheduled for March 28.

Yesterday, Sharon's new party, Kadima (Forward), was polling at the level of 42 Knesset seats, while the closest running Labor and Likud were each below 20. Sharon had announced the top lineup of his party candidates: Ehud Olmert was in second place after Sharon himself, and the group included former members of Labor, Likud, and the retired head of the Shin Bet security service.

Now one question is, Will the impressive group of politicians who affiliated with Kadima stay together without the cement of Sharon's popularity? Another question concerns Labor and Likud. Their leaders had all but conceded the election to Sharon. Now they are saying "no politics on this sad day," but they are being advised to reposition themselves to attract back some of those who drifted to Kadima, to bolster their lists of candidates, and embark on serious campaigning.

Olmert has not been an outstanding performer in the polls, but he has never been presented as heading the Kadima party.

Olmert's background as a crafty politician suggests he can keep the list together. He lacks strong signs of the traditional ideology of his former Likud affiliation. He was outspoken in supporting the withdrawal from Gaza, and ahead of Sharon in speaking about the need to withdraw from additional areas of the West Bank. This will aid him with Labor politicians and voters who had moved to Kadima. Currently he is serving as Minister of Finance, having replaced Benyamin Netanyahu when Bibi resigned on the eve of the disengagement. Olmert has softened the harshness of Netanyahu's policy of cutting welfare expenditures in the name of free-enterprise economic reform. This also marks Olmert as non-ideological, open to pragmatic adjustments, and attractive to voters who see themselves center-left on economic issues. When Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem, Arab residents credited him with being more forthcoming with resources for their neighborhoods than his predecessor Teddy Kollek. According to an Arab holding a senior position in the municipality, "Kollek was great at receptions honoring the holidays, and a master of public relations, but did not deliver to the Arab community."

Olmert is not above criticism. Some time ago he was singled out in a report of the State Auditor when, as Health Minister, he arranged the purchase of hospital equipment from a supplier affiliated with his Likud Party, without going through the required process of competitive bids. And just yesterday he was pictured in the business supplement of Ha'aretz alongside Arkady Gaidamak. Gaidamak is one of Israel’s new Russian billionaires with less than a pristine background. Much of his money was made selling arms to Angola. He is living in Israel under the shadow of a tax evasion charge in France, which was his earlier base. Gaidamak has purchased Israeli sports teams, invested in a variety of other ventures, and contributed to worthy causes. Yesterday he was grilled for the second time by the police, under a warning of being suspected of a criminal violation. He is said to be involved in laundering something like $50 million. He is free to travel within Israel, but forbidden to leave the country without notifying the police. The newspaper reported Olmert’s service in mediating some of Gaidamak’s acquisitions. One of the headlines was, “Olmert does not violate the law when he socializes proudly with Gaidamak, but a senior minister is not judged only according to strict compliance with the law. He must perform according to appropriate standards of behavior."

Olmert's reputation does not distinguish him from major competitors. The head of the Labor Party, Amir Peretz, is said to have misused Labor Federation money, when he headed that organization, to pay party dues for individuals who provided a significant element of his primary victory. Netanyahu, currently head of Likud, was investigated intensively by the police, along with his wife, for the misuse of public resources while serving as prime minister. He is widely known as a fluent speaker in English and Hebrew, but especially in hyperbole, where truth is on another planet altogether.

Ira Sharkansky

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:50 AM