May 21, 2006
The first month of a new government

It is not in the Jewish tradition to praise one's government. There is ample testimony for this ancient trait in the Books of the Prophets, especially Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea, and in the treatment of David in the Books of Samuel and Kings. To be sure, Jews may also be sycophants who are skilled is saying only the best about the ruler. This appears in the cleaning of David's biography in the Book of Chronicles. Yet the first characteristic seems to be dominant. For its modern manifestation, there is no better testimony than appears in the daily op-ed page of Ha'aretz, Israel's most prestigious newspaper.

I see myself in the critical tradition, although I do not claim to be like the prophets in hearing the voice of the Almighty.

Every once in a while there is something to praise. On this occasion, I see three items worthy of commendation in the first month of the new government. They do not account for all our current experiences, but they are worth noting.

First, the Foreign Minister, Tsipi Livni, is emphasizing the best way to aid the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians, while avoiding financing of violence: buy medicine and medical equipment that they say they need desperately, and send it to them. To be sure, there will be no Israeli control over who among the Palestinians get treatment. And it may be possible to sell some of the stuff and buy weapons, or send the money to Switzerland. But those actions will be cumbersome, and may leave a trail that can embarrass those who do them, or try them.

Second, the Defense Minister, Amir Peretz, who lacks experience outside of his background in the Labor Federation, seems to have learned fast. He has approved a number of targeted killings of the bad guys who have been involved in building or firing missiles toward Israel. It may help that the Minister's home town is Sderot, where he maintains a home and where he got his political start as mayor. Guess where most of the missiles have been landing? One of them went through the roof of a Sderot school yesterday. Fortunately, the students were elsewhere at the time. Also yesterday, an Israeli missile attack succeeded in eliminating its target, but also killed a grandmother and a young child. The Defense Minister and the Air Force Commander apologized for the unintended consequences.

Third, the prime minister has been skilled in putting his finger on the best reason to support his key policy of unilateral withdrawal: there is no point in negotiating with the "president" of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, because Abbas is without power to bring the Palestinians to accept any decision that might be taken. It will not be easy to assemble key Israelis and others behind a program of withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, but Olmert's argument is the key. No one is likely to demand that Israel negotiate with a Hamas administration that refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Israel, and Abbas did nothing against the violent gangs when he was the sole Palestinian leader. Now he cannot do more than say that he wants peace. Not enough. He has to acquire the power to lead his country. Must he begin with a civil war? It may be the only way for him to become meaningful.

Not all is worthy of unqualified praise. The saddest of the knotty problems appears in a group of people suffering from intestinal cancer who have been on a hunger strike for more than a week, demanding that certain expensive medicines be subsidized by the government. Several of those who are ill and striking are articulate, and they have gotten a great deal of media attention. Yet here as elsewhere, the government's health budget is limited. There is an elaborate procedure, with committees of professionals, to define criteria and make the choices for what is subsidized. Israeli does substantially better than Great Britain and Canada in providing timely treatments by surgeons and other specialists; it provides universal coverage of physician visits and heavy subsidies of many medications and medical tests. The average Israeli is much better off than the average American in these regards. Yet the country does not assure access to everything.

After several days of public worrying about the needs of those cancer patients, people suffering from other conditions, and also dependent on expensive medications, began expressing themselves. The key committee pondered the question of reconsidering its decisions for the sake of intestinal cancer medications, and indicated that it could not reallocate resources among those who suffer from different problems. If the government wants to provide major new funding, it will consider the issue again, but cannot promise at this point to emphasize one group of people over others. A wealthy Israeli offered to donate enough money to provide a month's supply of the medications at issue, but strikers said they would refuse. They would not beg for charity; they have a right to live; the government must help them.

Apparently not, or not now.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:31 PM
May 19, 2006
The barrier around Jerusalem

In a classic article that he wrote in 1938, the sociologist Louis Wirth wrote that cties are places where different kinds of people live and work close to one another. As a result, needs, desires, and interests clash, and create problems for public authorities. That trait of cities was evident in the development of the Interstate Highway System in the United States. Urban segments were typically the most difficult to plan and construct, due to drawn out conflicts between economic interests, ethnic and racial communities, and the local authorities who had their own concerns for economic development, social harmony, and tax income. Each wanted advantages from the new roads, and none wanted their lives or opportunities damaged by what would have to be torn down for the construction.

Friday morning Varda and I took a tour of the security barrier around Jerusalem. The event was organized by the Ben Zvi Foundation, set up long ago in memory of one of Israel's early presidents. We have done several of the Ben Zvi courses that combine lectures and tours. They offer a full portfolio of programs on Jerusalem, Israel, and some overseas points. Their lecturers are professional and their audiences tend to be educated and well behaved. Somewhat to my surprise, there were no tendentious comments strongly in favor or opposed to the barrier. There were numerous questions by individuals who knew what they were talking about.

We saw the equivalent of what it meant to build the Interstate Highway in and near large cities. Israel began building the barrier began in 2002. Despite the pressures of continued violence and its capacity to protect Israelis from hostile others, only 24 kilometers of the approximately 194 kilometers planned for Jerusalem have been built and made operational.

We saw a number of sectors that have been featured on television: 60 foot high concrete slabs cutting through neighborhoods that multiply the time and the inconvenience of Palestinians to reach school, work, medical care, or relatives. What once was a short walk is now a long walk, and forces people to line up and pass through unpleasant inspections. We saw sophisticated barriers, with towers, electronic sensors, and patrol roads that are not operational because nearby sections have not been approved for construction. There are many places where Palestinians intent on suicide can enter Israel and travel on to wherever their handlers have directed them.

Fences are less ugly than concrete walls, but require a 50 meter wide path that includes two fences, a dirt road between them raked frequently to reveal the footprints of those who have made it through the outer fence, plus an asphalt road for military patrols. It is impossible to construct such a wide facility in a built up area; there the barrier is a high wall of concrete slabs, soon covered with graffiti. It only requires a few meters of width, but where the Arab neighborhood to be excluded is built right up against the municipal boundary, or close to a Jewish neighborhood, it is difficult to find a few meters that will survive challenge in court.

The Israeli Supreme Court is the major source of delay. Palestinians who claim that they will suffer from the route chosen for the barrier initiate suit, and the Court more or less automatically delays decision, sometimes for a year or more, while it demands a convincing counter argument from the authorities. On several occasions it has rejected the government's argument, causing further delays while planners seek to adjust the route in order to avoid further objections.

There are challenges and delays elsewhere. Overeall perhaps a third of the entire route planned for the barrier has been built and made operational. The proportion accomplished in the highly urbanized area of Jerusalem is only 12 percent.

The heterogeneity of Jerusalem makes it difficult to find routes for the barrier that will protect the Jews, while allowing Arabs a minimum of disruption. Each successful suicide bombing or other attack traced to an entry around Jerusalem prompts the government and the Court to approve more construction, but it moves slowly. Protecting the Jews is not the only value that motivates the Jewish state.

The barrier pursues a similar set of goals as did the redrawing of municipal boundaries immediately after the 1967 war. Then and now the policy has been to make the city more secure for the Jews. The boundaries fashioned in 1967 took in empty land that would be turned into Jewish neighborhoods, and twisted here and there to exclude Arab villages. Now there are new neighborhoods, some with upwards of 30,000 residents, mostly Jewish, where once there had been rocky hillsides and valleys. There are also new Arab neighborhoods, or villages that have grown in 40 years from 5,000 to 50,000 residents. The route of the barrier follows much of the municipal boundary, but stretches to include new Jewish settlements outside of the municipal boundaries, and twists here and there to exclude large pockets of Arabs.

It is not a multi-cultural venture designed to make the city varied and exciting, but is set against almost six years of multi-cultural violence. Ironically, the proportions of Jews and Arabs in the city are about what they were before the 1967 war: 60-70 percent Jewish, and 30-40 percent Arab. Skeptics admit that the barrier may keep violent Arabs out of the city who originate in Hebron, Jenin, or Nablus, but there will be 250,000 Arabs on the inside of the barrier, and not all of them are nice people.

There remain problems in Gaza, where the Palestinians are living by themselves. Separate armed forces, operating under the control of Hamas and Fatah, have been shooting at one another, invading one another's headquarters, and--in the West Bank--a Fatah force attacked a government minister beholden to Hamas. Money is tight, insofar as a great deal of foreign aid has dried up and the banks are not transferring what is donated. A Hamas operative tried to bring 900,000 Euros in a briefcase over the border from Egypt to Gaza, but was intercepted by Fatah border guards. They wanted the money for their side. Reports tell of a division, but the whole package would supply less than one-half of one month's payroll for the Palestine Authority, and there have been two months without salaries. We have heard of a few deaths and more injuries in recent days, and observers are betting on an escalation.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:16 PM
May 12, 2006
Creaky starts for new governments

We have a lot on our plate. Ehud Olmert clobbered together a governing coalition, but latent tensions became apparent during the first week.

This may have been inevitable, given the lack of experience of Pensioner Party members who found themselves elected to the Knesset, the lack of ideological cement in the new Kadima Party, the appetites of Labor Party socialists wanting to make up for the capitalism promoted by former Finance Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, and ultra-Orthodox politicians wanting to return to earlier days of generous family allowances and support for religious academies.

Most prominent among recent disturbances was an increase in the price of bread. This is the stuff of riots in poor countries. Israel is a rich country, according to the World Bank, but it has politicians who pose as saviors of the people.

We have a great variety of bread, thanks to the immigration of more than one million bread eaters from the former Soviet Union. The price of most of what we eat is not regulated. Numerous bakeries compete for our trade, but increase prices when the costs of imported wheat, fuel, and other factors climb beyond their desire to absorb them. What remains controlled are basic loaves. One is an unwrapped, tasty hard crust wheat and rye combination whose price increased by 7 percent. It now sells for 3.70 shekels (U.S. $ .84) for a (750 gram or 1.65 lbs) loaf. An unwrapped braided Shabbat Chalah (500 gram or 1.1 lbs) now cost 4.05 shekels (US $ .96). Being unwrapped is a quaint remnant of Israel's past. If you walk the streets early in the morning, you can see cartons of the loaves left outside of as-yet unopened neighborhood grocery stores. One can hope that personnel come to take them inside before the arrival of neighborhood dogs searching for a hydrant, lamp post, or some other target for their morning activity. There is an economic argument that eliminating price controls would--via competition--reduce the price of this food, but populist politicians are not buying.

The bread price increase led one Knesset member of the Pensioners party, and four from the Labor Party to violate their coalition agreement and abstain or vote against the government's budget proposal. A Kadima member of Knesset abstained from supporting the earlier formation of the government, saying that the prime minister had violated a promise about making her a minister or deputy minister. When several members of Knesset demanded a price roll back from the prime minister, he responded that he would not protect Israelis against international price increases for bread or gasoline, now about $6 a gallon.

Labor's new minister of education has put two items on our plate. One is a reform proposal for elementary and secondary education, not yet formulated but likely to be expensive. She promises that it will allow the next school year to open without a teachers' strike. Another is a program of loans for all students in higher education, regardless of the economic status of themselves or their families. She says that students would not have to begin repaying the loans until their earnings exceed the national average.

University tuition is currently subsidized, and is the equivalent of US $2,700 a year. Universities teach the majority of highly qualified students. Colleges that are not subsidized by the government charge up to three times as much, but are open to students not able to be accepted at the universities. A few of these are the local branches of foreign institutions; some of these may be all right in their home countries (University of Latvia, Clark University) , but their local branches seem to be in the hands of entrepreneurs interested in providing easy degrees for school teachers, civil servants, police and military officers who want a piece of paper that will increase their salaries. The proposal of the education minister would help all students in higher education.

It is too early for Tamar and Mattan to line up for their loan applications. This proposal will compete with others that might be viewed as worthier demands on public resources, like greater payments to the aged immigrants who came without resources from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, payments to large families of the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, more money for subsidized medications, or whatever else wins support from the Pensioners, Labor, Kadima, or ultra-Orthodox politicians in the government.

Money is not the only item on our plate. The new Minister of Defense, the head of the Labor Party, wants to open political conversations with Mahmoud Abbas, President or Chairman of the Palestine National Authority. The Prime Minister was quick to indicate that international relations and the peace process are not the tasks of the Defense Minister. The Defense Minister says he recognizes that, but still wants to talk to Abbas. We will see how this plays out.

Our full plate may be troublesome, but it is more enviable than the empty plate of the Palestinians. For those interested in political explanations, that may also be due to a lack of political experience of a new government. In this case, it is Hamas and its loud insistence on replacing, rather than living alongside Israel. A depressing account of payless paydays for medical personnel, teachers, civil servants, and security personnel, high unemployment, and hospital storerooms empty of medicine and equipment appears in the latest issue of The Economist :

The secretary of the Arab League is second to no one in his declarations in behalf of Palestinians, but he laments that Arab banks will not transfer funds to the Authority. Apparently they do not want to expose themselves to suits in the United States and elsewhere by those who have suffered from the violence of Hamas and other Palestinian groups. This is a problem that may also affect the good intentions of the European Community, the US State Department and others who want to send humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Bank transfers are the common ways to do this, but the banks are afraid of transferring. The families of American tourists killed by Palestinian terror might never get a cent from the institutions they are suing, but they are making themselves felt.

A group of Palestinian dignitaries in Israeli prisons has produce something for our mutual consideration. It is a peace proposal that includes the release of all Palestinian prisoners, along with Israel's return to the pre-1967 borders and granting the right of return to Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967.

There remains a low level conflict between families, clans, security units, and who knows what other groupings of Palestinians. There have been several cease fire agreements, none of which has lasted for more than a few hours. Payless paydays, including for armed security personnel, may have something to do with this.

There is a lot to be done. Perhaps I retired too early, before producing enough students knowledgeable about policymaking and public administration.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:12 AM
May 04, 2006
Olmert and his government

We have a government. It has no stars well known to non-Israelis. No heroic general or fluent English speaker has a major role.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert operated like a well practiced politician, who had slowly climbed the ranks from minor to major positions over the course of 30 years. Charisma is not his style, but he seems to know what he has to do, and how much he can do without getting into trouble.

His party did not do as well as he initially hoped when he replaced the comatose Ariel Sharon. The surveys showed Kadima dropping from an expected 44 seats to the 29 that it won. Other parties also performed poorly, except for the Pensioners who surprised everyone, including themselves, by winning seven seats.

Olmert started his coalition with the Pensioners and Labor, which brought him up to 55 seats, still short of the 61 he needed as a minimum. He offered the head of the Pensioners Party a new portfolio, attached to the prime minister's office, that would deal with pensioners. It is hard to tell what will come of that. The party head is Rafael Eitan, best known in the US as an undesirable character who handled Jonathan Pollard, and then (according to Pollard) abandoned him to the authorities and his life sentence. Pollard and his wife brought suit against Eitan's appointment as a minister, and is threatening to reveal sensitive information about Israel on account of the ministerial appointment.

The most controversial appointment Olmert agreed to was the assignment of the Defense Ministry to the head of Labor, Amir Peretz. Peretz initially demanded Finance, but Olmert was not inclined to give the economy over to an avowed socialist. Labor stood to be the essential coalition partner, and Olmert had to give its head something prestigious. So it was Defense.

The problem is, Peretz has spent his career in the Labor Federation, and does not seem to know much about defense. He is a dynamic and articulate bargainer and campaigner as long as he is speaking Hebrew. It is an exaggeration of his talent with language to say that he speaks English with difficulty. A leading columnist for Ha'aretz, usually a supporter of Labor, asked what it would sound like when Peretz had to meet heads of the American defense establishment and speak to them about Iran's nuclear capacity, its transfer of conventional armaments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the prospects of any deal with the Palestinian government of Hamas, or American investments in one or another of Israel's high-tech security inventions.

Another unpleasant possibility is that Peretz might show himself dedicated to what is held by some left-wing members of Labor, i.e., a continuing certainty that terror is a function of Palestinian misery, and that peace is possible with them, if only the IDF does not hurt them.

The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, SHAS provided the finish to Olmert's government, bringing its support in the Knesset to 67 seats (i.e., a clear majority of the 120 seat parliament). Still warm is the likelihood of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Torah Judaism joining the coalition, with another six seats. Commentators give lesser probabilities to left wing Meretz (5 seats) and right wing Israel Our Home (11 seats) signing on for one or another concession.

To get SHAS on board, Olmert had to agree that it would not have to support his key promise of withdrawing Jewish settlements in the West Bank that would be on the other side of the security barrier. But as I note above, Olmert does what he has to. He might still have enough support to enact his program in the Knesset with the support of Meretz (even if it is outside the government) and the support or abstention of one or more Arab party, but those are open issues.

Shimon Peres is back in office, a minister with responsibility for developing the Galilee and the Negev. It's not the stuff of another Nobel Prize for Peace, but not bad for a politician in his mid-80s, and not likely to be a position where he can do a great deal of damage.

The important ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, Internal Security, and Education are held by Kadima or Labor figures well known in Israel, and thought to be reliable. It does not seem to be a government that will do dramatic things quickly. But the major issue remains security, and what Israel does there will depend largely on what happens in Iran and Hamas-led Palestine. We hope for the best from Amir Peretz. He is smart, perhaps smart enough to listen to generals and others who know more about defense than he does.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:07 AM