April 27, 2006
Comic opera or tragedy?

Mahmoud Abbas does not give up. He is traveling in Europe, and telling all who will listen that Israel should begin negotiations for a peace settlement with the Palestinians. Israel has said no. The agreement on the "Road Map" calls on the Palestinians first to disarm the various groups that have been violent, i.e., the terrorists. But one of the terrorist parties won the Palestinian election. While Abbas (the president or chair of the Palestinian Authority, depending on whether you use the lesser title Israel agreed to or the greater one the Palestinians use for themselves) calls for peace, he did not use any of his security forces to do serious work against the violence. Now he is stuck with a prime minister who does not listen to him, and who has appointed one of the most wanted of the bad guys to head his security forces.

Abbas' political party, Fatah, and Hamas agreed on a peace between them after several days of fighting and a dozen or so casualties. It lasted about half a day until the next event, the armed seizure by some Fatah fighters of a government building in Gaza.

Comic opera, or caricature of a chaos wanting to be a state, but not knowing how to do it? As always, Abbas is calling on international actors to move in and settle things. He can still order flights from one capital to another, and count on courteous receptions, but not much else. His travels may reflect his loss of authority at home. His audiences are more receptive elsewhere, where it really does not matter.

European and North American governments are trying to send money to Palestinian organizations, but not to the Hamas government. Soon it is likely that Hamas will control all the organizations worth talking about. Arab banks are sitting on a hundred million or so US dollars donated by Arab governments, but are refusing to transfer the funds to the accounts of the Palestine National Authority out of fear of being read out of international banking by US banks operating under the direction of the US government.

All told, it is not a good time to be a Palestinian.

It may not be the best time to be an Israeli, insofar as some of this is happening a couple of hundred yards from these fingers. But tourism is up by 25 percent or so over last year, which was better than the year before that. As travelers view the world, this does not appear to be one of the worst places.

The Palestinians provide our political theater, and not a little bit of danger, but also a shield against the Iranian threat. It is not perfect, but the best they do for us. The Persians cannot aim a missile at Jerusalem without fear of it landing on an Arab neighborhood or the Muslim holy sites in the Old City. And no nuclear attack would be possible on this small country without doing a great deal of damage to one Arab town or another.

Is this our best hope? There is no immanent sign that the international community is about to do anything significant against the Iranian nuclear program. Both Russia and China are still calling for a diplomatic solution, shorthand for nothing. An American Jewish friend recently told me that an attack against Iran would be unthinkable. As an anti-Bush academic he said what I expected. Yet an attack against a threat of nuclear terror might be enough to improve even Bush's public standing. Such things usually do lift the opinion polls. And if the US does not do it Israel might have to make its best effort. The 1930s was the last time it was conventional to say that a vicious anti-Semitic head of state was a madman who could not possibly achieve what he said he would.

One of the curiosities of international relations is that the Russians are a key element likely to block United Nations sanctions against their Iranian customers, yet they also provide the rocket that put an Israeli spy satellite in orbit. It can photograph objects as small as a foot and one-half across. So if Israel despairs of someone else dealing with the regime that has spoken of destroying it, the way will be paved in part by the satellite lifted by the Russians.

Gruesome thoughts? That's life.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:47 AM
April 20, 2006
Still Coping with Terror

Israel's response to the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv earlier this week is a model of coping.

To remind you, the bombing killed nine Israelis and visitors, and injured more than 60. Some 30 are still in hospital. A physician said this morning that most of them will undergo years of painful rehabilitation, with results likely to be only partial. Some of them may come to envy the dead.

Until now, Israel has used only a fraction of its military power. Owing to constraints of Jewish morality, and Israel's reading of international law and the likelihood of sanctions for "misbehavior," the IDF has not bombed from heights, or targeted residential neighborhoods with its artillery. It has risked its own personnel by actions meant to seize or kill individuals known to be involved in violence.

This week's bombing presents new opportunities. For the first time, the government of the Palestinian Authority, now in Hamas hands, has endorsed violence against Israeli civilians as a legitimate means of national action. In response, Israel could target government buildings and other sites likely to harbor leaders of Hamas or individuals involved in violence, and bomb them from 10,000 feet or so. It is the tactic used by Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq. It protects one's own troops, but produces a considerable amount of "collateral damage," i.e., dead civilians. It is probably defensible under fair readings of international law, providing the judges are not predisposed to rule against anything Israeli.

If Israel did something like that, it would in all likelihood generate a flight of refugees towards the borders of Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. It would cause a spate of international condemnation, but probably nothing more. After all, the targets are a regime that has signed on to the destruction of Israel.

However, this is only what is possible. I am certain it will not happen. Again, Jewish morality. (Scorn if you wish, whatever anti-Semitic bastards are reading this. The IDF has invested great effort to teach its officers and soldiers to avoid harming civilians. One colonel told me that he and his men would refuse to carry out orders that endangered civilians.)

So what is Israel doing? It is not gentle, but it does not amount to the wet dreams of those who want to respond by "cleaning out" the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. Perhaps in response this last bombing, the Supreme Court has permitted the government to go forward with the construction of the barrier around Jerusalem. This should plug the hole that the recent suicide bomber, and others before him, had used to enter the country. The IDF will cut off the northern West Bank with road barricades, from which recent bombers have come, in order to add to their difficulties. The government will proceed to remove rights of Jerusalem residence from ministers in the Hamas government who live in this city. The IDF will increase efforts to arrest active members of violent organizations, or liquidate those who do not come peacefully. Politically, the government will continue efforts to deny the Hamas-ruled Palestinian Authority support from foreign governments. Against the missiles that continue to come to Israeli towns out of Gaza, the IDF will target the sites from which the missiles are fired. Some of these sites are close to residential neighborhoods. There will be collateral damage from the artillery barrages, but the residents have been warned. There is probably no Israeli solution for the problem of Palestinian children who go into the fields being fired upon, seemingly to collect some scrap metal from the exploded shells. There is a limit to how we can protect individuals from themselves.

None of this will solve the problem of Palestinian violence. But it is likely to increase non-lethal pressure on civilians, which will give them an opportunity to do what they have to in order to stop the violence directed against us. If they do nothing, they will continue to suffer. Many of us truly regret what we do to them, but our authorities view this as the most humane way to defend ourselves. Such actions do not guarantee an early solution of the problem. Coping is a way to deal with problems that cannot be solved. It is inelegant, and usually only partially successful. But it is better than the alternatives.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:16 AM
April 14, 2006
Passover, Easter, and Politics

The Economist is marking this Passover/Easter weekend with a cover showing four armed men under an Old City arch and the headline, Jerusalem: The Key to Peace. On account of shadows, it is unclear whether the men are members of an Israeli patrol or Palestinians looking for action. One of several articles is "The Last Conquest of Jerusalem." http://www.economist.com/world/displaystory.cfm?story_id=6795641

It includes a familiar litany of anti-Israel accusations that the Jewish regime is intent on dividing and conquering the city for the last time. As part of its justifications, it quotes numerous Israelis concerned with peace and justice, almost all of them from the left wing of the political spectrum that has been left hanging in recent elections. We'll leave aside the problematic issue of conquering for the "last time" in a city that has changed hands more than 30 times in 3,000 years. Perhaps The Economist's executives expect the Messiah to come while the edition is still fresh, and this time to assure the city's future according to Jewish tradition. Not necessarily an appropriate idea for Easter weekend, but that is material for another discussion.

The article makes some points that are almost right. One of them is: "Arab Jerusalemites share some blame for their disenfranchisement. They tend to boycott local elections in protest at the occupation, so that the city council is now dominated by ultra-Orthodox Jews. But the bias in policies is too blatant and too long-standing to be down to that alone."

I have tried making the point to Arabs and their friends that Arab suffering in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel is almost entirely their own fault, and has a great deal to do with poor political choices. Sure, there is a Jewish mind-set of Arab treachery and violence, which is not hard to justify. Against this, however, almost all Arab political choices do nothing to counter this mind set. Boycotting Jerusalem local elections is insane. Arabs could elect up to 30 percent of the city council, and be crucial in selecting the mayor and determining resource allocations. Due to arrangements made after the 1967 war, few Jerusalemite Arabs chose to be Israeli citizens when they had the option, but they can vote in municipal elections by virtue of being residents. Almost none of them vote. They honor organized boycotts of the elections.

When challenged, Arabs and their friends say that the community cannot give up its national aspirations! But they would not have to. They could campaign on improving the physical and social benefits of their neighborhoods. They would not have to sing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, at their election rallies. They also say that joining Jerusalem politics would be hopeless; that Jewish politicians would unite against them. I doubt it; not when they hold 30 percent of the city council and are crucial in selecting a mayor. I counter by saying that it would not be easy to overcome several decades of antipathy, but politics is the way to start. My model is African-American politics. They struggled for the vote and used it to join the system and use power for their own constituency. An African-American establishment developed that ignored community members who sought to separate themselves, some of them wanting national independence in part of the United States as compensation for slavery. A thriving African-American professional and business community is testimony to the success of African-American politicians. Residual misery in the ghetto shows that politics does not cure everything.

My theme is that politics is not about love, friendship, justice, or favors. You get what you vote for. If you don't vote, you don't get. As The Economist article shows, Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem get the short end of the stick in all kinds of social services and physical amenities. Jews who vote get the long end of the stick. Ultra-Orthodox Jews who vote at over 80 percent turnouts in local elections get more than secular Jews who vote at 20 percent or less.

Arab boycotts of Jerusalem politics are yet another demonstration of the impotence of the Arab theme, "We're being screwed by the Jews. The world has to help." The world has given up on the Palestinians. It provides little more than lip service to their cause. The Palestinians have to help themselves. They have not tried the political route. It will not be easy. It was not easy for African-Americans. But to renounce it without trying is to relegate one's community to more generations of misery in the name of elusive national dreams. Return to the homes they left, or were forced out of in 1948 and 1967? The many who seem to be seriously hoping that someone else will give them that dream do nothing but dig deeper into unreality.

There is a parallel condition in Israeli national politics. To vote for the Knesset, one must be a citizen. Arabs living in Israel after 1948, and their descendents, are citizens, and they vote in national and local elections. Most of them select one or another largely Arab party, which end up with 10 or so members of the 120 seat Knesset. Some Arabs vote for largely Jewish parties, and a few Arabs usually sit in the Knesset as members of Labor, Likud, or Meretz.

What do the Arab parties get for their constituency? Not much. Why? Because they do not play the political game of getting along by going along. I am convinced that two of the brightest Members of Knesset are Azmi Beshara, Ph.D. in Political Philosophy, and Ahmed Tibi, M.D. Yet each has chosen to sideline himself by playing the card of extreme Palestinian nationalism. They are stars on media talk shows, but play there as in the Knesset a caricatured role as angry Arabs, who do no more than curse the establishment for its lack of perfection. They and their Arab party colleagues articulate their litany of national slogans and accusations, and almost always vote against the government in forums that distribute resources.

Arabs in the major parties have been more successful in getting benefits for their constituency. One of my best students left off working toward a PhD in order to take an appointment as Israel's scientific attache in the embassy in Germany. He had earlier earned a PhD in biological science at Heidelberg, was fluent in German, and had been working in a professional capacity for Israel's agricultural ministry. Earlier in his life he had been a Communist, but that did not retard his career. His uncle was a Member of Knesset for the Labor Party. Sure, there may have been nepotism in the appointment, but the man was professionally qualified. And we should not expect squeaky clean from a community being weaned from traditionalism to competitive politics.

I wish you all the best for this Passover/Easter weekend. Fortunately, we are living in a time when we can each celebrate the holiday of our choice, or perhaps both of them. The Jews among us do not have to worry about Christians running amok, screaming blood libels, and seeking to kill the Christ killers. Jews are in better shape than at any time since the death of King Solomon. Our success owes something to the political skills that have produced the creation and survival of Israel, and the status of Jews in North America and Europe. It is a model that I wish upon my Arab neighbors. Sadly, they seem to have preferred the dead ends of Yassir Arafat and now Hamas.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:27 PM
April 09, 2006
The Gospel of Judah

There is a bit of pathos in the prominence given here to the publication of the Gospel of Judas. The story appeared prominently on the front page of Ha'aretz. Prominent radio talk shows interviewed leading experts and asked time and again, would the revelation work to end the religious basis of anti-Semitism?

For those not in the loop, the Gospel of Judas surfaced in a Coptic translation discovered in an Egyptian desert repository. Tests find it to be an ancient document, perhaps from the third century, which tells a story that Judas was the favored disciple; his turning over Jesus to the Roman authorities was in keeping with Jesus' wish to be put to death in order to free his spirit from the encumbrance of his body.

What was found was a copy in Coptic of a Gospel composed many years earlier, known to Church fathers, and kept out of the New Testament. Whether the story it tells is historically true or not is lost to us. Scholars recognize that early Christians conceived of numerous ideas not canonized, or accepted by those who put together the New Testament. The assignment of the name Judah (Jew) to the disciple defined as evil may well have been made in order to further the emphasis against the Jews. The modern recognition that the New Testament was composed several decades after Jesus' death, and is something other than true history recorded in real time, is part of the effort made by Catholics and others to discount its accusations against the Jews. It is common among scholars to view the New Testament as designed to tell the story of a new and weak religious community, concerned to justify itself in the eyes of Roman authorities and to cast aspersions on the dominant Jews.

Roman Catholic Church leaders have said in recent days that they do not expect the Gospel of Judas to alter Church doctrine. What was categorized with other heresies many centuries ago will not easily win recognition as authentic. Changing the canonized Christian Bible will be especially difficult when there are many Christian churches, each with its own authorities and inclinations, in a period when the issue of authenticity is very much open to question in religious circles as well as elsewhere. A century ago Albert Schweitzer wrote his doctoral dissertation around the question of finding what is real in the New Testament's material about Jesus. Since then numerous other scholars have worked the field, typically admitting that there is a great deal of uncertainty. Replacing one set of tendentious stories with another does not make a great deal of intellectual sense.

The Hebrew Bible also has its problems as historic text, as is well known to anyone who has entered the endless list of books and articles that wrestle with the problems of finding historic reality in a collection of good literature composed before historians worried about portraying accuracy. As in the case of the New Testament, those who contributed to the accumulation of the Hebrew Bible as we know it decided in favor of some stories, and against others. Scholars see real signs of political conflict between those who wanted to advance one group of priests, or the Temple in Jerusalem, against other claimants of being the true priests, or the site that should have a monopoly of being the Holy Temple. What we read as ancient Jewish history is no more certain in its details than what we read about Jesus and the disciples in the New Testament. We read the stories of the winners: those who wrote the history that came to be accepted as authentic.

We should hope for the best in the continuing efforts of the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian leaders to accept Jews as something other than Christ killers. But it may be that the cartoonist of Ha'aretz got the story better than the serious writer of the front page article. He pictures two worried fathers of the Church, with one of them saying, "That Judah is again causing problems."

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:17 PM
April 06, 2006
The tragedy of Palestinian dependence

Is Hamas starting to whisper "uncle?"

Its situation is not enviable. The cash box is empty, according to its own financial officials. The bloated rolls of Palestine Authority functionaries have not been paid in more than a month, even while armed gangs attack headquarters and demand being hired as security personnel as the price of peace. American, Canadian, and European governments have turned off the taps that had supplied much of the Authority's money. Israel is holding in escrow the taxes collected for goods to be shipped to Palestine that arrive at Israeli ports. There is not much being shipped to Palestine in any case, insofar as the border crossings have been closed more often than open. Foreign money is promised to non-governmental social service organizations not controlled by Hamas. Sooner or later Hamas will control those organizations, but that will not provide the regime with enough money to pay its employees and spend something on social services.

A number of Arab governments have made generous offers of financial help, but as usual, the actual deliveries are much smaller than the promises. Israeli retaliations for the attacks by homemade rockets are now targeting other things than empty fields. Buildings have been destroyed, and some Gazeans have been hurt and left their homes. Israeli attacks are in response to a rate of about 50 rockets fired in the direction of Israel so far this week. A number of them have actually made it out of Gaza and a couple have caused damage within Israel. Sooner or later, when a rocket actually kills an Israeli, the retailiation is likely to escalate further.

So far the whispers of uncle from Hamas are hard to decipher. They are highly qualified. One whisper has indicated that Israel has to make clear what it is willing to give the Palestinians and then the Palestinian government will debate the issue; another says that the Hamas government will consider a cease fire; another says that direct negotiations with Israel are not possible, but Hamas will talk with third parties about what it is willing to do; hints of recognizing the reality of Israel's existence have brought quick denials by Hamas officials that any of its people had said what the media are quoting.

The details are not important. The whispers are too faint and vague. Hamas is a long way from a serious confrontation with Israel's existence. It may be stuck permanently in the fundamentalism that pervades contemporary Islam.

In all of this, the non-Hamas president of the Palestine National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has become something of a media darling. He is portrayed as the good guy, the non-terrorist in contrast to the evil Hamas. There is a piece of legislation in the US House of Representatives that offers money to him for electoral expenses, while the same bill would deny any American government money to the government headed by a Hamas prime minister.

Abbas' reputation is hard to figure. He long ago lost whatever potency he may have had. The corruption of the government he headed was a major cause of the Hamas success in the recent election. Does the US House of Representatives want to support his re-election? It would be more efficient to send US funds directly to Swiss bank accounts. Abbas' utter failure to use the security forces he controlled to stop the rockets qualified him for a role in comic opera rather than serious politics.

It is unfortunate for Israel and the Palestinians that Palestinians continue to enjoy a special place in the world's concern. North American and European governments, as well as the United Nations highlight the need to provide them with humanitarian aid, and repeat the mantra of having to create a viable Palestinian state. Israel has to explain the barrier it has built against violence, which much of the world sees only as causing suffering for Palestinians. Arguably the people of southern Sudan, as well as large numbers of Somalis and Congolese are in a worse condition than the Palestinians. There are hopes associated with the recent election of a technocrat as president of Liberia and the arrest of Charles Taylor, but much of West Africa is still a long way below the quality of life in the West Bank and even Gaza.

We should not envy the status of the Palestinians as the darlings of world concern. If any people have suffered from excessive care, it is them. More than 50 years of being aided as refugees have produced a caricature of dependence. Someone else has to solve their problems. Israel has to respond to their needs before they will stop the violence. The great powers of the world must pressure Israel to do the right thing. The new Hamas government is doing little beyond refreshing the slogans we have been hearing for decades.

Concepts of social service have changed in much of the world. It is less popular to continue caring for the needy via welfare than designing programs that will encourage them to help themselves. It is not an easy thing to do. It is likely to hurt in the short run, and welfare agencies are skilled in opposing reform and their own down-sizing.

It is time to apply concepts similar to welfare reform to the Palestinians. As in the field of welfare, the social service agencies are among the strongest opponents of change. They live on the aid funds that they collect and distribute, and which provide their employees with salaries and pensions. Currently the principal UN agency that aids the Palestinians (UNRWA: United Nations Relief and Works Agency) is calling for increased funding. Yet there can be no progress until the Palestinians recognize the reality of Israel's existence, and figure out how best to help themselves live alongside Israel rather than dream of replacing Israel. Sadly, the election of Hamas, and the early days of its government, indicate that a realistic concern for independence, rather than dependence, is not a part of the Palestinian world view.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:28 PM