September 24, 2006
Do unto others

The CIA is concluding that the war in Iraq has caused jihadism to metastasize . There is no surprise here, except in the weight of the CIA's imprimatur. The White House has not signed on to the conclusion, but that, also, is no surprise.

The cardinal lesson for policymakers is, "Don't make things worse." I fear we need no better example.

America's post 9/11 wars are arguably more costly than Vietnam. There the adversaries were a nationalist movement that 30 years later could accommodate its ideology to making nice with the United States. From all reports, it is a good place to visit. The worseness of blundering warfare in the Middle East is the push it gives to a religious fanaticism with a tradition of violence against non-believers that already was at fever pitch. Sure, the costs to date for the United States were much greater in Vietnam. I hope we have heard the last of the costs under the column of Islamic terrorism, but I doubt it. Democracy may yet come to a peaceful Iraq, but I doubt that, as well. Even more remote is anything close to democracy or domestic peace amid the cluster of warring tribes called Afghanistan.

Hamas authorities in nominal charge of Palestine are reiterating their assertion that they will not recognize the legitimacy of Israel. Many of Palestine's teachers, civil servants, security personnel, and health personnel have gone six months without salaries. A bit to the north Hezbollah is claiming victory amidst the rubble. While some might respect the heroism of these religious and political leaders, it does not say much for the pragmatism that can make things work for them and the rest of us.

What to do?

Get on with life despite the less than perfect leadership on our side and theirs. It will be more stressful, but hopefully more rewarding than for the cows and sheep we saw lounging on the polders of Holland last week.

It will be important for the United States to keep selling its fancy stuff to the IDF, and keep allowing its own military and that of its allies to buy some of the fancy stuff produced by Israeli defense industries. It also must assure that no fingernail clippers get onto airplanes, as well as avoid all semblance of ethnic profiling or suggesting that Islam is a problematic religion. Let the Pope carry that ball, along with clarifications that fall a bit short of apologies. The murder of a 65 year old nun in Somalia is a small price to pay for decency.

Our people will have to retrain the fighters to deal with adversaries who are better armed and led than Palestinian gangs, as well as to keep up the intelligence networks in Palestine, Lebanon, and perhaps elsewhere. It is crucial to know which hole, or which auto is the prize target. Managing informants among the hostiles is not decent or pleasant work, but in this game the golden rule is "Do unto others."

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:39 AM
September 22, 2006
Shana tova

May the new year bring peace, health, prosperity, and many pleasures.

Currently it is quiet. We spent the most recent week bicycling around Leiden. Israel seldom made CNN, and our occasional efforts to catch the news short wave did not reveal much to worry about.

Of course, the big picture is less than rosy. The most recent polls show approval ratings for the prime minister and the defense minister somewhere below comparable figures for George Bush or Tony Blair. Benyamin Netanyahu has the most virtual votes for prime minister, and he is getting only 29 percent. The strength of parties in the Knesset, and the requirements for discharging a prime minister assure that the Olmert government will stay on, at least for a while.

Protests about the prime minister and the defense minister continue. Prominent are reservists who feel they were not well led, and the parents of reservists and regular troops who did not return from battle. Olmert is a well known collector of fountain pens and real estate, and official inquiries are underway as to whether he received deals too sweet from political supporters who also happen to be involved in real estate. Journalists and the State Comptroller have also looked at gifts of expensive pens, but those have not been in the news lately. Real estate is weightier.

Eight former employees of the president have now made formal charges of sexual harassment or worse. The police say that the growing number of complainants will keep them busy for a month or more before they can report findings to the attorney general, who will decide about an indictment. The president's lawyers are saying that they are all lies. Newspaper cartoonists are not depicting a president who looks confident.

Much of the world remains antagonistic, to say the least. The Pope is also hurting. A simple phrase, There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger, will forgive all. He will be assured a place in a paradise, but may lose a job in the process.

Holland is a great place for bicycling. We saw almost no hills worthy of the name. Lots more peaceful cows than nervous Jews. Friendly help to tourists who could not match the scenery to the maps. Twenty-five years after the most recent peddling, the legs hurt a bit and the behind a great deal.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:42 AM
September 08, 2006
Is there a pearl in the shit?

We have heard time and again that Israel wins every war and loses every peace.

The great powers have limited tolerance for Israeli success. They have given Israel a few days or a few weeks to work its military magic, and then demanded a halt. Afterwards, the beaten parties are given a way out of Israel's trap, and provided face saving accomplishments in whatever arrangements are settled after the fighting, and further accomplishments in the implementation of those agreements.

In 1973, an Egyptian army surrounded by Israel on the west side of the Suez Canal was allowed to go home, when a period of bombing would have destroyed its equipment and soldiers. Israel pulled back from the Canal, and Egypt was allowed to continue occupying a substantial slice of the Sinai. Israelis are now warned not to visit Sinai resorts on account of ineffectual Egyptian efforts against terrorists; and Egyptian commitments to stop arms smuggling to Gaza have been worthless.

In the summer of 1982, Israel was pressured into letting Yasser Arafat and his cadres leave Lebanon for Tunis, even while the IDF was in Beirut working to destroy Arafat and his fighters. During this intafada foreign governments and international organizations have demanded that Israel behave humanely and recognize its agreements with Palestine, even while Palestinian authorities have done little to prevent violence, or even encouraged it.

Now in the early aftermath of Lebanon II, we are seeing the latest chapter in this story. We are arguing as to who won this war, but there are clearer signs that Israel is losing the peace. Its captive soldiers will spend more time with Hezbollah, if indeed they are alive. Foreign troops seconded to the United Nations are beholden to Lebanese control, and the Lebanese army may be subject to Hezbollah control. Foreign navies that undertook the task of patrolling the coast of Lebanon to prevent the smuggling of arms likewise are agreeing to Lebanese demands: that they remain far from shore, and ask Lebanese permission before challenging any ship they suspect of carrying arms.

The cease fire agreement involving Israel, Lebanon, and the United Nations specified details much different: that the captive soldiers would be released without conditions; that foreign troops along with the Lebanese army would take the initiative to disarm Hezbollah and prevent its being rearmed by munitions arriving by land, air, or sea.

A human rights organ of the United Nations is investigating what it calls Israel's practice of endangering Lebanese civilians, while it is not investigating Hezbollah's practice of targeting Israeli civilians.

Israelis are protesting their government's acquiescence in these moves. These protests are mixed with other events in a political arena that is boiling with unrest. Therefore they are likely to be diluted in whatever effects they have. Along with them are demands for a more thoroughgoing inquiry into the war than the prime minister wants; calls for the resignation of the prime minister, the defense minister, and the head of the IDF; and that the president resign or at least suspend himself while under police investigations for serious sexual charges. One doubts that Israel will go to war in order to reclaim what many of its residents thought it would be getting from the cease fire agreement.

I used to tell my students one of the cardinal rules that individuals must learn if they will be involved in government, politics, or bureaucracy: "Every day you have to eat some shit."

This applies to governments and countries, as well as individuals. "Agreements are meant to be broken." "They are not worth the paper they are written on." I recall those as American expressions, directed against agreements meant to settle issues during the Cold War, and to end American involvement in Vietnam.

Are officials so dumb that they cannot anticipate what will happen? Or do they recognize that international agreements signed by weak states are valued at a discount, like the bonds issued by weak enterprises. Even if discounted, the agreements may be better than the alternative of further bloodshed. The United States was better off when it left Vietnam, even if its fig leaf of an agreement crumbled and the South Vietnam regime went down the tubes. It was a corrupt regime that did not do its share while receiving American lives and treasure.

There are several explanations for Israel's losses after the end of the fighting. The majority of countries are not inclined to support Israel, and so the United Nations and its organs interpret every clause in favor of Israel's adversaries, while demanding that Israel make the gestures of forgiving a lack of perfect compliance with the written agreement. European governments and the United States urge or demand Israeli flexibility after the agreements are signed, perhaps to aid their own efforts to appear "even handed" between the parties. It is common to view Israel as strong enough to survive, while hoping that an implementation of the arrangements that is generous to the Arab side will contribute to quiet, at least for a while.

It is important to ask if Israel really loses in these arrangements.

As a result of making concessions to Egypt in 1973, Israel helped pave the way to its first peace agreement with an Arab country. And Egypt was the strongest of the Arab countries. Since then, Egypt has occasionally been nasty, but never violent. The lack of military threat from Egypt helped Israel greatly in dealing with Palestinians in Lebanon during 1982; in the West Bank and Gaza since then; and with Hezbollah this year in Lebanon.

Letting Arafat and the PLO out of the bag in 1982 may have helped pave the way to Oslo. That was not a successful agreement. But it did free Israel from the responsibility of providing social and economic programming for the West Bank and Gaza. Since then the IDF has gone in and out in response to Palestinian violence, without having to manage Palestine between those visits. That is not a small advantage.

It is much too early to assess what is happening as a result of Lebanon II. We do not know the impacts of IDF activity, much less the post-war machinations underway. An optimist would say that the arrangements, even if substantially different from those in the cease fire agreement, will strengthen a secular Lebanese regime, and might advance something like peace on Israel's northern border. Pessimists have a substantial list of complaints. Next time we go to war, we will have to be more decisive and forceful in using the time allotted by the international community. If we do not, Israel may go the way of South Vietnam.

We have eaten several days' portions of shit in the working out of this cease fire. May we hope that there is a pearl in the pile?

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:31 PM
September 03, 2006
The sky might not fall today

Is the sky falling? Maybe not in the next five minutes, but perhaps soon after.

I see a lot of material about Israel and the Middle East. Some comes in response to what I write. More comes because I have an Israeli academic address, or have gotten on some other list. Some I find by my own wanderings through the internet.

A great deal of material demonizes Israel. Here I am not focusing on that, except as it is part of the stimulus that provokes the view that the sky is falling.

Among the themes in this writing are:

Hatred of Israel and Jews is extensive and growing, due to reactions against Israeli actions in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the pre-existing nucleus of Christian anti-Semitism
Islam has become the primary source of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel material, due not only to the recent actions of Israel but also to fundamental elements of Islam that insist on its own primacy, and the sacred calling of expanding control throughout a large view of the "Middle East" (including former Muslim lands in Iberia) and beyond to Britain, northern Europe and elsewhere.
We cannot accept peaceful overtures from Muslims, insofar as Islam recognizes the need to lie for the purpose of advancing the faith, and views anything like "cease fire" or "peace with unbelievers" to be temporary accommodations in response to tactical needs.
The comments of Iran's president that deny the existence or the extent of the Holocaust, declare that Israel's existence is illegitimate, and must be ended insofar at it is the sole cause of Palestinian misery.
The refusal of Iran to stop its nuclear program, the unwillingness of Russia, China, and Western European governments to act seriously in support of sanctions.
The inevitability of Iran developing a nuclear weapon despite its denials (Muslims lie for tactical reasons). Economic sanctions will not occur or will be strong enough to not stop the process.
Iran's nuclear program is too scattered, and too well protected for Israel's military to do more than knock out a bit that might delay development for a few years, and make it even more likely that Iran will use its nuclear weapon to attack Israel.
The American administration is too weakened by its foolhardy adventure in Iraq (it started the war against terror in the wrong country) to take the appropriate military action against Iran's nuclear program.
Israel has not taken sufficient action against its enemies, perhaps because of its own misdirected humanitarian concerns for harming civilians, or because of concern for international sanctions. As a result, it will only be a matter of time until Iran and Syria re-arm Hezbollah, which will renew the attack with even more dangerous weapons.
Sooner or later the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank will have the weaponry of Iran and Syria, and be able to join in attacking Israel from the east and south.
Hateful and inciting education and mass media throughout the Muslim world, including Palestinian schools and media, render foolish any Israeli hope or aspiration for peace.

All this has more than a bit of truth. Things are even more depressing if we read the Israeli press to conclude that the country's president is a sex maniac, its prime minister is corrupt, and its defense minister is a social activist interested only in increasing programs for the poor. Moreover, we read that neither the prime minister nor the defense minister know anything about national security, and much of the IDF officer corps is incompetent.

Should we take all this seriously and start packing our bags and ordering tickets? But for where? There are already too many Muslims in Europe, Australia, and North America.

While all of the above is true, it is not the whole truth. There is room for maneuver, and Jews have been polishing their talents for maneuver for at least 2,500 years.

Among the holes in the depressing truths are the following:

The Holocaust did happen. Western elites know it, and give us some wiggle room on its account.
We recognize our vulnerability, and seek to stay on the right side of governments that tolerate us, and may even help us.
We are helped among peace loving Western countries by our Jewish values, which serve to limit the violence we direct against our enemies.
Islam is complex. It is not entirely hateful of others. Moreover, most Muslims are not primarily religious. They are more interested in living a decent life than following the most extreme of those who claim to be religious leaders.
Political elites in most Muslim countries want to benefit from what the West offers; they recognize threat to themselves from Islamic extremists, as well as from the likes of Iran and Syria. They also cut Israel some slack, even while they express criticism of its actions.
Israel is well armed. So far it has proved its capacity to act against those who threaten it. We can argue if it has been tough enough against Hezbollah or the Palestinians. Meanwhile I would not like to own real estate in Gaza, Nablus, Jenin, or the Shiite areas of Lebanon.
Non-Hezbollah Lebanese are more than a little upset at Syria and Iran, as well as Hezbollah. We have yet to see the last chapter in this story.
Even if Iran develops nuclear weapons, that will not assure the destruction of Israel, without also risking the destruction of Iran. Stand off worked between the USSR and the United States, and so far between India and Pakistan. It is not pleasant. It might not work for us, but it might.

Survival will take hard work. We will need help. We have never been populous enough, rich enough, or powerful enough to dominate the world or even our region. David's empire may have been a myth. It gives some of us pride, but causes problems among Muslims who view it as a Jewish model for Israel's expansion. The City of David might have been the whole thing: a few dusty acres, expanded by the imagination of Jews who knew how to write well.

We are here again, living better than our enemies. So far so good. True, that is what the person said part way through a fall from a high building. If we remain wise, we should survive longer than the person whose early end seems likely.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:25 PM