October 29, 2006
Political wars

Israel is a tough place. Not only is there occasional violence on the borders and within the country, but the public sector is an arena of intense competition. Sometimes it gets ugly.

Currently there is a battle between two of the country's major institutions. It may not yet be the stuff of page one New York Times, but it is a key item in the local media and can affect the political landscape for years to come.

The players are the Prime Minister and the State Comptroller. The latter is the state auditor, equivalent of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the United States, with responsibility for reporting about government effectiveness, efficiency, and moral integrity.

The State Comptroller opened the conflict, with investigations into activities of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dealing with real estate transactions, political appointments, and the manipulation of bidding with respect to the sale of a major bank. The State Comptroller has indicated that findings give rise to suspicions about violations of criminal law, and has requested further investigations by the Attorney General.

This could produce the resignation of the prime minister, and even some punishment. The prime minister and his supporters have responded with claims of inacurracy in the State Comptroller's details, the essential legality of Olmert's behavior, or the triviality of what the State Comptroller was claiming.

Now there is a more severe counter-attack. The member of the State Comptroller's Office with principal responsibility for investigating political corruption is Yaacov Borovsky, formerly a ranking officer of the Israel Police. On prime time television news, a member of the Likud Central Committee reported that he met with Borovsky and another senior police officer two years ago, and was asked to promote Borovsky's candidacy for being appointed police chief with Omri Sharon, Member of Knesset, son, and major advisor of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

There may be nothing wrong with asking for help with a candidacy for promotion within a government bureaucracy. But the Likud activist claimed that Borovsky's colleague--in Borovsky's presence--indicated that the desired promotion would help settle amicably the criminal investigation then underway against Omri Sharon, his brother, and his father.

If this is true, then the State Comptroller's principal investigator of corruption is himself guilty of corruption. The campaign against the prime minister, as well as the entire reputation of the State Comptroller and his institution can drop into the tank of public shame and ridicule.

At this point we do not know how the battle will end. Members of Likud (and Labor) Party Central Committees include the foot soldiers of Israeli politics. "Foot soldiers" should be read not as the heroic stuff of the IDF, but as Mafia operatives who do the dirty work. We should not be surprised to learn that this foot soldier exaggerated, embroidered, or invented some or all of what he reported about his meeting with Yaacov Borovsky. In a country where the president may be indicted for several counts of rape, we should not be surprised about anything.

Ehud Olmert spent most of his political career as a member of Likud. The man who reported about a meeting with Borovsky may view himself as one of Olmert's foot soldiers.

I must admit to a personal stake in this. I have published articles on the activities of the State Comptroller, and have served on some of its committees. When Borovsky was appointed to his position, he and another senior member of the State Comptroller's Office visited with me in order to discuss the interface between state audit and conceptions of political corruption. I am seriously impressed with his knowledge and intellectual prowess.

I have also been impressed with the prime minister's political skills. He is a manipulator who sails close to the line, and may cross the border between the permitted and prohibited. Along with unfriendly inquiries by the State Comptroller, Olmert is facing persistent criticism about his conduct of the recent war in Lebanon. Alas, managing a country like Israel is not like running a small church or academic seminar.

The story about the Prime Minister and the State Comptroller may yet join the stories about our president on page one of the New York Times.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:21 PM
October 25, 2006

One despairs of identifying a leading figure in this country who is not the subject of a police investigation, an indictment, a criminal trial; or a citizens' movement wanting to bring charges.

The presidency is largely, but not entirely a symbolic position. The police began to investigate when Moshe Katzav complained that a former employee was threatening blackmail. The police have now put on the desk of the attorney general (a professional official who decides about indictments) recommendations to charge the president with several counts of rape, and other incidences of sexual harassment.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been the subject of several inquiries by the State Comptroller involving real estate transactions that may have been disguised cases of improper payments, for political appointments while he was Minister of Trade and Industry, and for altering the details of a tender concerned with the sale of government shares in a major bank when he was acting finance minister. The alteration is said to have provided substantial advantages to one bidder favored by Olmert. The State Comptroller has said that he suspects the prime minister of violating criminal law with respect to political appointments and the tender, and recommends continued investigation by the police.

Haim Ramon,Justice Minister until a few months ago, is on trial for indecent assault. It concerns a French kiss implanted in a female soldier who may have wanted to be kissed, but not with the penetration of the minister's tongue.

Tzachi Hanegbi, the chair of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security, (perhaps the most prestigious of the Knesset Committees), has been indicted for his involvement in political appointments when he was Minister of the Environment.

Shimon Peres, a candidate for the presidency (assuming that the office becomes vacant in the near future), with a political career extending over 60 years, several stints as prime minister, and a Nobel Peace Prize, is under investigation for having received improper contributions from an overseas supporter.

Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Israel our Home political party, and a minister in an expanded Olmert-led government, is under investigation for problematic business dealings overseas.

Omri Sharon, former Member of Knesset, son and principal advisor of the former prime minister, is awaiting the beginning of a 9-month jail term for illegal financing involved in one of his father's political campaigns.

Shlomo Benizri, Member of Knesset and formerly Minister of Health and Minister of Labor and Social Welfare, has been indicted for accepting bribes.

Amir Peretz, head of the Labor Party and Minister of Defense, is under a cloud, or worse, with respect to use of Labor Federation funds, when he headed that organization, to support his primary campaign for leadership of the Labor Party.

Most of these charges concern politicking defined as improper by current statutes. Included here are violations or evasions of campaign financing, or using office to appoint supporters to public positions, or favoring supporters in quest of government benefits. If the essence of politics is financing an election campaign and doing favors for those who help one's career, then much of this is within shouting distance of politics as usual. Under this umbrella are the charges involving Olmert, Peres, Hanegbi, Omri Sharon, Peretz, and Benizri.

If some of this behavior is now technically illegal in Israel, then it reflects efforts to improve the way the public's business is conducted, and to outlaw what had been conventional behavior 20 or 30 years ago. At least some of these behaviors are within the gray areas condemned, but practiced and even tolerated in Great Britain, Canada, France, the United States, Italy, Germany, and other decent places.

The charge against Lieberman stems party from continued involvement in his homeland, the less than squeaky clean former Soviet Union, as well as his outspoken postures against Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, and leftists that has won him numerous enemies as well as some intense supporters.

The charges of sexual harassment or indecent assault against Haim Ramon has brought forth intense language on both sides from Israeli women prominent as feminists. Some say the charge is trivial; some say that the woman initiated advances; others say that any overstepping of what a woman wants deserves a severe penalty. The issue is currently before the judges.

How many democracies can claim to have their president accused of several counts of rape as well as less severe sexual offenses? Stories about John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson relate to years ago; Bill Clinton and a host of French politicians were more discreet or elegant than Moshe Katzav. His case is not resolved, but has already led to the president absenting himself from ceremonial duties when the subjects of the ceremony said they would not appear with him. Ultimately we may see criminal charges, and perhaps some jail time. It appears to be beyond the point where the president could plead being the captive of an illness, promise to seek treatment, and resign without a criminal indictment.

David ben Gurion once said that Israel would be a normal country when it had Jewish thieves and prostitutes.

In all likelihood it was already normal when he said that. Now we can ponder whether our politics are within the normal range of western democracies, and how to assure that subsequent presidents are closer to the norms considered desirable.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:30 AM
October 21, 2006

Our kids wanted a dog. So did Varda. Her parents thoughts the things filthy, and occasionally said that she had been a "street child" (not a complement).

We promised the kids and Varda a dog after what would be our last sabbatical overseas. That ended in 1994, when we returned from our year at the University of Utah. Less than a week after reaching home, Varda said, "Let's go to the pound."

The person in charge said that the dog we selected was two or three years old.

Motzi is still with us, now 14 or 15. In person time, according to the formula I learned long ago, she is somewhere between 98 and 105.

We have known for some time that Motzi has cataracts. She has eaten a "geriatric" dog food compound for several years. The last visit to the vet revealed a problem with a heart valve. The medication, like those which the rest of us take for high blood pressure, seems to be a diuretic. We may have to get up a bit earlier and take her out rather than risk house cleaning.

She can no longer get onto the couch with one easy leap; she makes it up the flight of 72 stairs that is sometimes part of our neighborhood walk. But not every day.

My earlier experience with dogs, some 60 years ago, was that they ran free in the neighborhood. Most chased cars, and did not survive traffic to reach old age. Those who did, and got sick, would be put to sleep in order to save them from suffering.

Now it is different. Rules that require leashing dogs (and picking up their mess) means that few chase cars and more reach old age. Also, there has been a change in the practice of veterinarians. There are treatments not available or not practiced years ago, and strong disinclinations about killing pets that can be saved.

Parallel to the movement to extend the lives of pets is an opposite movement to allow humans to put themselves to sleep. In this country with a bit of religious law on the books, we are far from that. The most we can do is to carry a card that instructs physicians not to take extraordinary efforts to prolong life, and hope for the best.

We also hope for the best with respect to Motzi. Until now, we have not denied her the care recommended. We have not discussed our own limits, but the experience of some friends has been informative.

One family, headed by a specialist in the care of (human) cancer patients, decided not to go the route of dialysis with their aged cat. We did not inquire as to the details of the pet's fate. We heard that it died, and have noticed a younger replacement.

Another friend tells a sad story of his late dog. In response to a trauma, a veterinarian provided a blood transfusion, but selected the wrong dog-type. It seemed to be painful as well as fatal.

One of our acquaintances spoke proudly of a friend who extended her dog's life with a heart transplant. This acquaintance is not the sharpest knife in the neighborhood drawer. When asked about the source of the heart that was transplanted into her friend's dog, she looked puzzled.

As Motzi and we go further into our golden years, we will try to keep our focus on quality rather than quantity, and seek out care givers who share our views of the reasonable.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:42 AM
October 19, 2006

Today the BBC released the results of a survey it commissioned. The question, asked of 27,000 people in 25 countries, was

"Most countries have agreed to rules prohibiting torturing prisoners. Which position is closer to yours?

A. Terrorists pose such an extreme threat that governments should now be allowed to use some degree of torture if it may gain information that saves innocent lives
B. Clear rules against torture should be maintained because any use of torture is immoral and will weaken international human rights"

The text of the report can be found at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/in_depth/6063386.stm

Guess which country's respondents gave the most support to "torture?"

The story reported that it was Israel, "with 43% saying they agreed that some degree of torture should be allowed." To be fair to the BBC, the next sentence was, "However, a larger percentage--48%--think it should remain prohibited." Among Israeli Jews, 53% agreed that some degree of torture should be allowed, while Israeli Muslims were "overwhelmingly against any use of torture."

Israel is not all that much of an outlier. Other countries scoring close to it are Iraq (42% saying that some degree of torture should be allowed); Indonesia and the Philippines at 40%, Nigeria 39%, Kenya 38%, China and Russia 37%, and the US 36%. Poulations in Italy and Spain were the most humane. Only 14% and 16% of their samples responded that some degree of torture should be allowed. Maybe they are still atoning for the excesses of the Church.

"Torture" is not a pretty word. It conjures up images of sadists, medieval priests breaking the bodies of their victims in order to save their souls, the worst that we know about the Nazis, and African children ordered to cut off the arms of those said to be the enemy.

The bit that I know about survey research tells me that a question about "torture" is in the league with "when did you stop beating your spouse?"

The Oxford English Dictionary defines torture as " The infliction of severe bodily pain . . ." Some years ago Israeli authorities formulated a rule that permitted interrogators to employ "moderate physical pressure" under certain controlled circumstances. "Moderate" suggests that it would not qualify as torture under the OED's more stringent criteria of "severe bodily pain."

Even "moderate physical pressure" was too much for a number of Israelis in the legal profession. An issue of the Israel Law Journal was devoted to articles by local and international heavies who argued the pros and cons. Later, the Supreme Court rejected the continued use of "moderate physical pressure," and ordered the security services to reform their practices. Then we began Intafada al-Aqsa, with suicide bombers and other Palestinian barbarism. Techniques of questioning left the agenda of national discussion. For all I know, Israeli interrogators may be pressing individuals suspected of having critical information somewhat more than threatening to withhold tonight's dessert.

Is it torture? Should we care more about the rights of Palestinian detainees, or Israelis who wish to ride buses and sit in coffee houses?

I am sure that we do not agree among ourselves. Were I to probe the feelings and reservations of Israelis or others, I would not employ a question loaded with the word, "torture."

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:46 AM
October 14, 2006
Depressing, no?

If you cannot tolerate the mutterings of a depressed old man, do not read further.

Here in Israel we have finished with the holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Succoth. It is "after the holidays," when the country goes back to work. Barring strikes, the universities will open in another week. The Knesset and government officials are back from vacation.

Given recent performances, here and elsewhere, we have little reason to look toward officialdom for anything good.

Close by, the IDF has been escalating in Gaza. It has killed a couple of dozen Palestinians in recent days, which for this little war is a lot. Why the increased action? Reports are that a substantial stream of weapons are coming over the Egyptian border, threatening to provide Hamas with the means to increase its violence. Some of that may be directed against fellow Palestinians in their low-level civil war. The IDF is doing what it can to minimize the damage to us.

More important than the fact of the weapons stream is its arrival despite agreements of Egypt, with European and American backing, to assure control of Gaza's border with Egypt.

And need we require any better indication about international cooperation than North Korea's explosion of a nuclear weapon? Years of diplomatic dithering produced that explosion, and the ultimate means of North Korea to resist the pressures that now seem to be on offer, weakened by Chinese and Russian efforts not to offend too greatly. The next chapter in this story is well along. The same international regime that produced success in Korea is stuttering about incentives and sanctions with respect to Iran, even while North Korea is earning some of its foreign exchange by selling weapons technology to that country.

And how good is the heroic regime headed by George W. Bush? Simple people cannot probe the innards of the estimates. However, reputable demographers are saying that his war to produce democracy has caused something in the range of 400,000 to 900,000 Iraqi deaths, with a mid-point of 601,000 as a likely number. Even if the minimum estimate is much higher than the true number, as hoped by the White House, the reality is far from a good sign. If this is an indication of going it alone in the pursuit of national security, it is hardly more commendable than international cooperation.

Want more?

Close to this home the police are recommending the indictment of Israel's president for a series of sexual crimes. It is also likely that the police will recommend charges of attempted blackmail against one of the principal ladies in this story. Israeli women are not entirely virtuous.


There are political crises brewing for the Olmert government. Along with official inquiries about incompetence in managing the recent war in Lebanon and corruption in the highest places, the prime minister is pursuing an enlargement of his government coalition. There have been problems with his partners in the Labor Party, producing some issues about enacting a budget and other messiness.

Some are upset that the prime minister is considering bringing into the government a party that advocates land and population trading between Israel and Palestine, what some call racism and ethnic cleansing. What is also important for this accumulation of depressing news is that the party being enticed into the coalition wants a change in regime. On the table is a far reaching but sketchily conceived proposal to remake Israel's parliamentary regime into something like the American presidential regime. From all indications, the authors and supporters have not the faintest ideas about the differences between Israeli and American society, economy, and political practice, but that will not stop them. The Knesset that could choose as national president a serial sexual harasser, with a long history of activity, can do anything.

The one bit of Americana that attracts me is Rip Van Winkle. Could I really go somewhere and sleep for 20 years? By the time I awake--if I do--it should be too late for me to care about what is happening here or elsewhere.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:29 PM
October 12, 2006
Condoleezza Rice and the Palestinians

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that Palestinians deserve to live under better conditions than they are subjected to and be "free of the humiliation of occupation" in a state of their own. She promised her "personal commitment to that goal." Also, "there could be no greater legacy for America." She alluded to her own background, up from a segregated childhood in Alabama, to make the point that progress once thought impossible comes to be seen as inevitable.

Rice's comments came at a dinner hosted by the American Task Force on Palestine, said to be an organization of Arab Americans that supports a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

Israeli media gave the talk high prominence, in a full rush of panic. Did she really say that? Is she serious? Are there roots of these feelings in her earlier associations with pro-Palestinians like Richard Haass and Brent Scowcroft. Does her emotional language reflect a change in American policy? How much should we worry?

We have seen before that Israelis panic quickly.

There are two indications that in this case, as well, Israelis panicked out of proportion to reality.

First, Secretary Rice included a key qualification in her endorsement of a Palestinian state: Hamas (currently the ruling party) must choose between remaining as a terrorist organization or turning into a peaceful political party. They "cannot be both."

Secondly, it was largely the Israeli media that gave attention to the press. It hardly made a dent in the New York Times, Washington Post, or Google.

So it may have been little more than lip service, paid to an organization whose third anniversary dinner seemed a good venue for making a pleasant statement for the growing Arab-American community.

Is a parallel between the Secretary's personal rise from a segregated childhood and the emergence of Palestine from the "humiliation of occupation?"

Not if the Palestinians can help it.

One looks hard, without results, for the Palestinian equivalents of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Adam Clayton Powell, John Conyers, Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, Marion Barry and all the other African-Americans who contributed to the advancement of their community by playing according to the rules of the game followed by the white establishment.

To be sure, some of these African-Americans were occasionally bizarre, and at the edge of conventional behavior. Others like Malcolm X, Louis Farrahkan, and Huey Newton were, at least some of the time, over the edge. However, prominent Palestinians hardly approach the doubtful behavior of those African-Americans who skirted the boundaries of conventional behavior. More prominent are Palestinian mothers who praise their children for being suicide bombers, the prime minister of the Palestine National Authority, Ismail Haniyeh, who refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the Israel that controls the key to his people's future, the president of Palestine National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who talks peace but never came close to using whatever power he possed to reign in organizations that prefer violence, and Arab members of Knesset who incite their followers and spend their own time in die hard oppositionist activity.

Americans and others who admire examples of personal accomplishment have no better model than Condoleezza Rice. Sadly, her story, and that of the African-American community, has provided no guidance to the men and women who have sought to lead Palestine.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:49 PM
October 07, 2006

Can a regime commit suicide? The Soviet Union managed it. Now the Palestine National Authority is close to success.

In this case there is a parallel to its favorite weapon: an individual who wraps him- or herself in an explosive belt, and blows to pieces in an effort to kill as many Israelis as possible. It has been a while since we have suffered one of those spectacles. Hopefully the pause will spread out to eternity. Meanwhile, the suicide of the regime continues with two other activities: the continued firing of rockets in the direction of Israel; and the heroic insistence of the Palestinian ruling party that it will never recognize the legitimacy of Israel.

The rockets occasionally make it out of Gaza, and those that do occasionally damage property, cause fright among Israelis, and even more rarely cause injury or death. The weapon is not cost effective. They are cheap, but due to problems of production, transportation, misfiring, or failure to fly out of the Palestinian area, they injure and kill more Palestinians than Israelis. If one adds to the calculation the losses of property and life to Palestinians on account of Israeli efforts to stop those rockets, then the balance of cost over benefit becomes so large as to make a detailed reckoning unnecessary.

Heroic declarations insisting on the illegitimacy of Israel as a foreign body on Muslim land may excite a few of Hamas' followers and gain verbal support in Syria, Iran, parts of Afghanistan and Iraq. But with all that the ruling party cannot pay employees of the Palestine National Authority, operate the schools, or provide hospitals with supplies. Nonetheless, public opinion polls indicate that Hamas might win another election. That would be no surprise In a community that prizes suicide.

The Palestinian prime minister's effort to sound forthcoming is to offer Israel a "cease fire" of perhaps 10 years, on condition that it return to the borders of 1967 and a few other unacceptable demands. But there would be no recognition of Israel's legitimacy, and the cease fire would be temporary. Hamas must not compromise its principles on its road to the cemetery of failed regimes. Is there an equivalent for martyred political parties of the 70 virgins promised in paradise for male suicide bombers?

All this is cute imagery, but what happens to the people while their regime kills itself? And even more important for me, what is likely to happen to their neighbors?

It is not likely to pleasant for them or for us.

When a Palestinian commits suicide, with or without effect on Israelis in the vicinity, it is possible to clean and dispose of the remains in a short time. Not in the case of regime suicide. Palestinian civilians, as well as those who are formally on the payroll of the Palestine National Authority will suffer a loss of critical services, jobs, income, and all the rest of what comprises orderly and rewarding life. One can guess that the society will reduce itself to the components of extended families that look after themselves, and are as likely to feud as to cooperate with other extended families. All the weapons in Palestine will not disappear with the death of the regime. Local arguments over property, opportunity, and insults will add to the misery. This is not the picturesque stuff of Hatfields and McCoys in Appalachia during the 19th century. Bloody feuds among families are the stuff of yesterday and today in Arab towns within Israel, and even more in the chaos of the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel can defend itself from the spillovers of this chaos. The international left will continue to blame us. We will have to live with the occasional insults of Israeli or Jewish tourists or academics (some of them by other Israeli or Jewish academics), an explosion at a Jewish synagogue or community center overseas, and incidents of terror within Israel that manage to evade the efforts of security forces.

It will be a while before the borders between Israel and Palestine are defined clearly, and exist in a condition of peace equivalent to those of borders between the United States and Canada, Western European countries, China and Russia, or even those between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Syria, or Lebanon.

The worse case scenario is that the suicide of the Hamas regime will end the efforts of Palestinian nation builders. There has never been an independent state called Palestine. There may never be.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:35 PM
October 06, 2006
Walking clockwise, or counter clockwise

I recently exchanged letters with a friend who had been a visiting professor here during the past academic year. Among other things, he noted that he and his wife met me several times while we were walking around the neighborhood, but that we always walked in opposite directions. As a sociologist, he had to ask if there was a significance in the pattern.

French Hill is a largely Jewish neighborhood, close to the Hebrew University in one direction, and to a number of Arab neighborhoods in the same direction and other directions. One of them, Isaweea, is especially close, large, and with a record of unfriendly behavior. We have lived alongside Isaweea for close to 15 years, but never visited. During one period of calm, I asked an Arab student if it would be wise for me to enter the neighborhood. He thought for a second or two, and shook his head. Not worthwhile. Could be dangerous.

At various times we have seen police helicopters circling above Isaweea. Often there are personnel of the Border Police on the road to the neighborhood, who stop and check the documents of drivers and pedestrians. On a couple of occasions, the police posted a lookout on the roof of our building, and once on our balcony.

I enjoy my walks around the neighborhood. The terrain is almost entirely level, and without the noise or smells of heavy traffic. Except for midday, there is lots of shade. At one point the view is to the east across the Judean desert, with an Arab village nearby, and in the distant a patchwork of desert mountains and valleys, with clusters of Jewish and Arab towns. At another point, there is a view to the west, with the tomb of the prophet Samuel prominent on the horizon. I am likely to meet friends along the way. In most cases, I do not know their names, or they mine. Yet we have seen one another for years, say hello as we pass, and sometimes more than that. The circuit is about a mile. I do it two or three times a day.

Before this intafada, it was my practice to make my circuit of the neighborhood clockwise. This brought me to the road out of Isaweea, and up a slight grade to the main street of the neighborhood. When the violence began, it occurred to me that for several minutes I was walking with my back to the traffic coming out of Isaweea. I had seen enough Westerns to know that one's back to trouble is not a good idea. So I began walking counter clockwise. This had me doing a late part of my circuit with my face toward the traffic coming out of Isaweea. To be sure, the traffic going into Isaweea is at my back, but that seemed less of a threat.

There are no guarantees about life in the Holy City, the City of Peace, but one ponders the probabilities and takes one's chances. So far so good

During an earlier period of violence, it was fashionable for angry Palestinians to attack Jews with kitchen knives. At the time our children were in primary school. They walked there, to friends' homes, and elsewhere. We urged them to respect the dignity of all persons, Arabs included. But we also said that it was not wise to walk ahead of an Arab on the sidewalk. Better to stand aside for a moment, to let the Arab pass in front of them.

Recently there has been more violence among Palestinians than between Palestinians and Israelis. I doubt that this signals an early end to the mayhem. I have thought about a return to my clockwise walk. But not yet. I am used to what I do. Too old to change habits? Perhaps too old to add to the prospect of an unpleasant incident, no matter how remote.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:45 AM
October 03, 2006
A Palestinian civil war?

Has the Palestinian civil war finally begun?

It is not clear to us or, apparently, to them.

Palestine has not for some time--perhaps never was--a peaceful place. It has not developed the traits of a community, with loyalty to the nation capable of competing with loyalty to family, clan, locality, region, religious leadership, or political movement. Moreover, an incidence of arms that would make the National Rifle Association jealous means that personal, family, or larger squabbles can become bloody, very quickly.

Especially since the Fatah party, pretty much synonymous with the Palestine Liberation Organization of Yassir Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas, lost its monopoly control of the Palestine National Authority, there have been occasional dust-ups between gunmen allied with Fatah and those of Hamas. It has gotten worse with the cut-off of international funding, and perhaps eight months without full (or any) salaries for security personnel, school teachers, health workers, and other public sector employees. The Palestinian economy, especially that of Gaza, is in deep distress. We hear estimates of unemployment in the range of 50 percent and no income for many of those who have jobs.

The month-long holiday of Ramadan, with its emphasis on fasting, feasting, and gift-giving adds to frustration when the economy is in misery.

And since July, the IDF has been active in Gaza, trying to make life difficult for those who are holding an Israeli soldier, or firing rockets at Israeli settlements, and most likely making life even more difficult for everybody.

It is not clear to me who is shooting at who among the Palestinians. Rather than organized armies, the pictures we see are groups of young men firing at other groups of young men. In the latest violence that peaked on Sunday, reports are that 10 Palestinians have been killed and more than 100 injured.

For those expecting something like Bull Run or Gettsburg, look somewhere else. This is a low-level conflict among competing gangs in a society without much social unity, too many weapons, and not much else to do.

From what we see and hear, no faction has a clear advantage of arms or public support. And with the borders of the West Bank and Gaza closed--albeit imperfectly--it is not easy for outside supporters of one or another group to provide large scale transfers of men or munitions.

So the conflict seems likely to continue, perhaps with ups and downs as leaders of both Fatah and Hamas call for it to stop, but seem unable or unwilling to call off their fighters. Perhaps they have no fighters under their control. We have seen over the past six years that national discipline is weak at best. Small groups do what they want: recruiting and preparing suicide bombers, seizing and holding an Israeli soldier and resisting efforts to arrange his release, firing crude rockets toward Israel, and firing at other Palestinians thought to be the enemies of the moment.

Is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

All this may be good for Israel in the short run if it distracts fighters from making efforts to kill Jews. It is hard to imagine a benefit for Israel in the long run, insofar as no group seems willing or able to gain control of the Authority in order to stop the violence and begin reasonable negotiations for an end to our conflict.

Recent news is that the likes of Jimmy Carter, Condoleeza Rice, and Husni Mubarek are calling for things like a return to the roadmap, the end of Israeli occupation, strengthening Mahmoud Abbas, and creating a Palestinian State to live at peace alongside a secure Israel. Some expressing these slogans may be well informed, but cynical, or paying lip service to what is politically correct. Insofar as the Palestinians are in the middle of the Middle East, and they seem unready for peace, there is little for those of us who are close to them to do beyond defending ourselves.

That may mean continuing to pick off individuals on our target list as they expose themselves, pressuring some Palestinians to inform us about others planning mayhem against us, and doing what we can to destroy the workshops that produce those crude rockets that occasionally make it out of Gaza. We decided some time ago that we should not have to expose any of our people to the threats of suicide bombers, drive-by shootings, or crude rockets. If our responses are "disproportionate" to the threats against us, if they add to the pressure within Palestine and increase violence among Palestinians, it is their problem and not ours.

Paradise this is not.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:00 PM