January 29, 2007
Can anyone solve the problems of the Palestinians?

Efraim Inbar, professor of political science and head of a strategic studies center at Bar Ilan University, has tired of the Palestine National Authority. It has failed to reach an accommodation with Israel, it has been unable or unwilling to impose discipline on factions that continue on the path of violence, and it has failed to provide its own residents with protections from crime and with conventional social services. Despite massive financial and technical assistance from donors wanting to help it along, it is not functioning like anything close to a conventional state.

In a recent op-ed piece in the Jerusalem Post, Inbar writes that many others have also tired of the Palestinians, and that "little can be done by outsiders to fix the Palestinian mess."

So far, so good. But then Inbar makes a proposal that sounds right, but is unlikely to work. He says that Israel should urge an end to the Palestinian experiment, convince other countries that there is no future in Palestinian self-rule, and that Jordan and Egypt should assert their control over the West Bank and Gaza, respectively. He writes that those counties ruled those segments of Palestine "with relative success" before 1967.

There are several problems with Inbar's suggestions:

First, anything Israeli comes with a kiss of death. No Arab government is likely to risk its standing by taking an idea from the people known as conquerors and imperialists, closely allied with the United States that is itself guilty of all that and more.

Second, Jordanian and Egyptian rule over Palestine before 1967 was not all that successful. It produced mutual antagonism between rulers and ruled, convinced the Jordanians and Egyptians to minimize the migration of Palestinians to their countries, and otherwise to distance themselves from responsibility for the Palestinians. Moreover, the 1948-67 period featured numerous bloody Palestinian incursions from Jordanian and Egyptian ruled areas to Israel. We should not be encouraged by the most latest evidence of how Egypt has been casual with respect to its commitments about controlling its border with Gaza against the smuggling of weapons and explosives.

So what should Israel and others do with respect to the Palestinian regime?

Not much. Currently there is a civil war among Palestinian religious and political movements, along with bloody feuds between extended families and criminal gangs. Outsiders can provoke a civil war and contribute to the animosities that keep it going, but are not good in solving the problems that cause it and enforcing peace among the fighters. Americans should have learned something from Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Israel's records are not much better with respect to Lebanon or Palestine. Egypt and Jordan might be able to use their own violence to repress violence among the Palestinians, but there is no sign that they want to threaten their own regimes with what is likely to come from the effort. Would they be the lackeys of the Israelis and Americans? They would be inviting rebellion from their own restive populations.

Israel may be able to do nothing more than to minimize the Palestinian violence that spills over to its people. That means more of the same: controlling the movement of Palestinians that threaten Israelis, operating intelligence networks and entering Palestinian areas in order to neutralize whatever is being planned against Israelis. All that is likely to increase the pressure on Palestinians and will add to the tensions that keep their civil war going. I doubt that we can do better. Until they can solve their own problems and demonstrate a capacity to control violence, neither Israel, Jordan, Egypt, nor other well meaning outsiders seem capable of making Palestine a better place.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:49 PM
January 23, 2007
Politics as usual

The juries are still out on all of this. However, a reading of much media over a long time gives rise to the following conclusions:

Israel's president is a serial rapist, or at least a major offender of sexual norms.
Israel's prime minister is guilty of feathering his own nests at public expense.
Israel's defense minister is so far over his head as to be useless at best. Or a danger at worse.

It does not help one's shame to identify political leaders in other countries who are causing more trouble to their countries, including more waste of resources, loss of life, and outright shameful behavior. We are stuck with our own problems, and they stink so greatly as to cloud any attempt to explain or apologize to ourselves or others.

None of this should come as a surprise. Reports are that the president's personal proclivities were well known before he was chosen for the office. No less guilty than him are the members of Knesset who voted for him, perhaps for no greater reason than their unwillingness to vote for Shimon Peres. Now Shimon Peres is again a candidate for the presidency, and commentators give him a good chance of victory. If so, we will hear several times a day of his hope for a New Middle East, which only he and a few other diehards see as a likely scenario. His drumbeat will be only marginally less annoying than unending laments about the quality of other officials.

For years the media has portrayed Ehud Olmert as a man on the fringe of legitimate behavior. Time after time he has come up against severe criticism, which has fallen short of ending his career due to a lack of certainty as to how serious was the offense. Each violation of the norms may be trivial, but they have accumulated to a load that is difficult to tolerate. Survey opinion counts for something, and his standing is as bad as it gets.

The defense minister was a dynamic demagogue in the labor field, who could engineer national strikes for the benefit of workers already well off by virtue of controlling key sectors of the economy. For the really poor, he had only well chosen words. There was virtually no support for his choice as defense minister, except for those who feared his selection to a position that might threatened the economy. The ministries of immigrant absorption, religion, environment, social welfare, or communications were not distinguished enough for the man who had maneuvered himself into the leadership of the Labor Party. Perhaps the institutions of the military kept him from doing too much damage in the recent war. I have not heard anyone say that he has the skill to contribute to what the military has to do in order to get ready for whatever is coming next.

Sadly, the only explanation that comes to my mind is that politicians do not care when they vote a colleague into an office. They do not take the trouble to reckon with likely problems. They do what is simple and convenient. If the performance is bad enough, one worthy or another will take action to clean the stable, and they can join the chorus of condemning all that they had tolerated. And then their own star may rise, and they can take advantage of greater power and other privileges.

That is politics as we know it. Someone send me a good joke. Maybe these stories are the joke. Oy gavalt.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:39 PM
January 22, 2007
Did anyone win that war?

Maybe Israel did not lose the war.

Last week the chief of the IDF general staff resigned. Currently the defense minister and the prime minister are selecting a replacement, whose name they will present to the government for approval.

Hassan Nassrallah interprets this as an additional sign of his victory in the past summer's war in Lebanon. He predicts that Israel will continue to crumble until it disappears. The next steps, he says, will be the resignation of the Israeli defense minister, shamed by his poor performance in the war and then the resignation or dismissal of the prime minister already mired in charges of corruption. To celebrate phase 1, the resignation of the IDF chief, there were fireworks over Beirut, as well as additional applause from Tehran.

Shiite theologians do not view The New York Times as sacred text, perhaps because there are too many Jews among the management, staff, and daily readers.

Yet us doubters about Shiite truth should take a look at an article that appears in today's edition:

It tells a story from southern Lebanon, one of the areas that Israel pounded. Nasrallah and his followers promised to rebuild it into an ideal showplace of what they could do. There would be payments to the displaced, clearing of the destruction, and the construction of something much better than what had existed. Like the showplace of West Berlin in the teeth of East Germany, southern Lebanon would show the Jews just over the border what the Shiites could do.

It is not happening.

According to The New York Times, the money has not come as promised. There is too much destruction for the available workers. Serious disputes at the pinnacle of the Lebanese government add to the problems of deciding what to do, as well as sending money to pay for it. The rubble remains. Paradise is not on the horizon.

So Israel may have done something right. It was not a victory in the biblical sense of the term. Hezbollah created a fair amount of damage in northern Israel, and killed 44 civilians. One hundred and seventeen Israeli soldiers lost their lives. On the Lebanese side, war-time deaths are estimated at 1,000 civilian and 600-800 Hezbollah fighters. Of the nearly one million Lebanese displaced by the fighting, perhaps 200,000 were still displaced in early December. For many of those people, Nasrallah's victory is less than certain.

Body counts and tons of rubble do not determine victory or defeat. Insofar as this latest chapter is part of a conflict that someday might be called one long war between Israel and the Arabs, the success of one side and the other will appear in what happens next. So far, the damage in Israel seems to have been managed, while rubble and recriminations are most prominent on the Lebanese side. After a brief decline during the immediately after the fighting, Israel's economy resumed an upward move that began three years earlier when the Palestinian intafada began its decay. The resignation of the IDF chief, and as yet unresolved problems of the defense minister and prime minister can best be seen as the working of an orderly democracy. Party colleagues are increasing the pressure on the defense minister, and the judicial process is dealing with charges of corruption against the prime minister. These are not issues that make Israelis burst with pride for their country, but they do show that it works. It is not paradise, but it is not Lebanon.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:41 AM
January 17, 2007
Lots of news

Jews are like other people, only more so.

The phenomenon appears occasionally on a day's portion of Israeli news.

Yesterday I woke to headlines that Israeli and Syrian representatives had agreed on the outline of a peace treaty.

By early afternoon, the headline was that the Attorney General's office had instructed the police to begin investigation of the prime minister concerning criminal charges with respect to improper involvement in a process to sell control of a major bank to one of his political supporters, and perhaps other issues that have been hanging over his head for some time.

The evening news chewed over both of these events. Then I went to bed.

I awoke for a few minutes before the 5AM news, which reported that the chief of the IDF general staff had tendered his resignation.

By 8 AM, the media chorus was for the prime minister and the defense minister to resign. They shared responsibility with the head of the IDF for the failures in the recent war. How can they possibly remain in office and be the key figures to appoint the next chief of the general staff? I have not heard calls today for the finance minister to resign, but that will come. He, too, is facing serious charges about improper behavior in one of his previous positions.

Can we get through this day with a clear mind?

Both Syrian and Israeli officials are denying that there is anything to the story of an agreement between them. It may be that the Israeli prime minister cannot be bothered with such stuff when he has to prepare for a police investigation and possible criminal charges. The best guess is that the contacts were informal. On the Israeli side they involved a former director general (the most senior professional position) in the foreign ministry. That is, someone who knows his way around the front and back channels of diplomacy. On the Syrian side, they involved an American of Syrian origin, who may have senior contacts in the Syrian government. We also hear that European diplomats were involved, and that American and Israeli governments were kept informed of the contacts.

This comes in the context of several weeks of news concerning Syria's willingness to make peace with Israel, and concern in Washington and Jerusalem about the real intent behind Syria's signals. Does it want peace? Or just negotiations that may lessen the pressure of the United States and others on Syria due to its actions in Lebanon and Iraq?

Charges against the prime minister: emerge from several investigations conducted by the State Comptroller concerning Olmert's activities in previous positions as minister of trade and industry, and minister of finance, as well as charges that property transactions by he and his wife were sweetheart deals offered by political supporters who wanted some favor in return.

Commentators have pointed out that former prime ministers Shimon Peres, Benyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon were subject to investigations involving the possibility of criminal charges. None of these cases even came to trial. In Sharon's case, a son accepted responsibility for wrongdoing concerned with finance for one of his father's political campaigns. He claimed that Dad did not know about the transactions. The good son was convicted and sentenced to several months in prison. Then Dad had his stroke, and began the coma that has now lasted for more than a year. The implementation of the sentence against his son are pending, perhaps due to Dad's condition.

It is not yet clear why the chief of the general staff resigned now. Calls for his resignation, along with those of the prime minister and defense minister, have been heard since the end of the fighting. Underway is a government commission of inquiry, which has yet to produce a report. Perhaps the general knew, or suspected that the commission would call for his resignation. He says that he remained in office long enough to put in place needed reforms, and to prepare the military for what may be the next round of fighting. At least in the short run, his resignation, plus the charges against the prime minister, and increased signs of rebellion against the defense minister from within his own party, are spurring a renewal of calls for more widespread resignations.

It is one of those days to keep the radio tuned. And most likely tomorrow as well.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:15 AM
January 11, 2007
How do you say "Oy gavalt" in Arabic?

Yet another action by Amir Peretz in a week where he has been under attack from his own party was to appoint Raleb or Ghaleb Majadele as a minister in the government.

Majadele is a member of Knesset, but I had never heard of him, or did not recall seeing his face in the newspaper or on television. His lack of prominence, and the lack of significance of the office at stake appears in some dispute as to how to spell his first name (Raleb or Ghaleb), and whether his appointment is to the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport, or the Ministry of Science and Technology,

What is the big deal? Majadele is the first Arab to head a government ministry. He is not the first Arab minister. That honor went to a Druse appointed to be minister without portfolio some years ago. But this is the first time that an Arab and Muslim has headed a real ministry. To be sure, there is not too much to the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport or the Ministry of Science and Technology. It had been part of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, until it was hived off to make possible another appointment with some distinction, and to ease yet another party into the government coalition. It was given to a well-known Jewish member of the Labor Party at the beginning of the Olmert Government, but he resigned in protest over the expansion of the government to include the right-wing party, Israel our Home (Israel Beitenu).

While some heralded the appointment for being the first of an Arab Muslim as minister in an Israeli government, others saw it as a transparent effort of Peretz to do something dramatic in a week that has been especially difficult for him. This action may help him survive the Labor Party primary, scheduled in May. Perhaps 10 percent of Labor members are Arabs, and they may vote for the man who advanced their community.

But maybe not. Knesset members of Arab parties are calling Majadele a puppet who is willing to be used by a Jewish politician for his own purposes. They would call him an "Uncle Tom" if American slang was part of their vocabulary. A Arab rival of Majadele within Labor, a former Knesset member and deputy minister of foreign affairs, said that the appointment would lead him to change his mind about supporting Peretz. Now he is inclined to support one of Peretz's rivals.

The sharpest criticism came from a Knesset member of Israel our Home. She said, "The destruction of the Jewish people will begin with this . . . It will bring down Zionism. . . .Israel is a Jewish state . . .It is supposed to be run as a Jewish state."

Those comments brought demands that the Attorney General order a police investigation of racism and racist incitement. If complied with, that could result in the Knesset member losing her position.

What is especially interesting, is the criticism heard from Arab politicians. Their lack of enthusiasm and unity joins with some other recent developments to suggest that Golda Meir may have been right when she
said, "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people."

That line has become a topic of ridicule among Arabs and the Jewish left, and a symbol for Israeli blindness to Palestinian nationalism. However, we see less unity than personal and party antagonisms reflected in Arab comments about Majadele's appointment. In the West Bank and Gaza, neighborhood gangs, members of rival extended families, as well as political and religious movements are fighting one another in what looks more like chaos than ascendant nationalism.

There are numerous Arab politicians in Israel much better known than MK Majadleh. Yet the 10 or so Arab members of most recent Knessets have typically been members of three separate parties, that unite only in shrill and persistent criticism of nearly everything the government does. Unlike the establishment orientation of prominent African-American politicians, the most visible Israeli Arab politicians do not work within the major parties, and they get little for their constituents. They provide negative evidence for the proposition that, in politics, people get what they vote for. If they vote for parties that compete for real political power, they get resources for their community, as in the case of African-Americans. If they vote mostly for parties that take pride in opposition (or if they boycott elections, as in the case of Arabs in Jerusalem), they get what persistent opposition earns.

That ain't much.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:24 PM
January 09, 2007
Oy gavalt

Amir Peretz is in trouble. The former head of the Labor Federation led the Labor Party to another embarrassment in the most recent Knesset election. What had always been one of the two major parties, won only 16 percent of the vote. Nonetheless, Labor was the second largest party in a setting of widely scattered votes, and Peretz demanded a big job. He wanted to be finance minister, but the prime minister was not about to hand over the country's economy to one of its last outspoken socialists. The foreign ministry was not suitable for a man who could not deliver a speech in English, so the defense ministry was the only top slot available.

Commentators groaned. Peretz had no experience in defense, other than his own undistinguished service years ago as a draftee. Then he had the bad luck of a two-front war within months of his appointment. The results were not a heroic victory. Israelis had been spoiled by the 1967 war to expect something in biblical proportions. But they had done that well only in the war of 1967. Various commissions and committees are still at work figuring out what went wrong this time, and what leading figures may have to go home in shame. Meanwhile, up to 75 percent of Labor Party members are responding to polls that they do not want Amir Peretz to remain as defense minister.

Peretz made other mistakes. When naming the Knesset members who would serve as Labor's ministers in Olmert's government, he did not select two of the most professionally qualified individuals: an economics professor who had resigned as president of Ben Gurion University to run for the Knesset at Peretz's urging; and a former commanding officer of the Israeli Navy. Guess which Labor members of Knesset have been leading a revolt against Amir Peretz?

Peretz also turned a cold shoulder to former commanding officer of the IDF general staff and then prime minister Ehud Barak. Barak's standing in Labor and among Israelis generally is not entirely positive. The unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon was a key feature of his policy as prime minister, and that embolded Hezbollah to the point where it provoked this past summer's war. In any case, Barak has returned to Israeli politics, and is among the several Labor Party figures campaigning for Peretz's job.

As one candidate after another announced his quest for Peretz's job, he moved dramatically, but not all that deftly. He announced a new peace initiative with respect to the Palestinians; and froze the scheduled extension of the security barrier into the northern Negev, in order to protect the habitat of a desert antelope.

Both were moves to his constituency in the left wing of the Labor Party. The peace initiative brought forth cynicism verging on ridicule. The prime minister is already on record as telling Peretz that diplomacy is not part of the defense job. The timing of this initiative in the context of a political attack signaled Peretz's desperation to come up with something. But there may be no Palestinian to talk peace with. All factions are much busier fighting one another in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank than in preparing new postures that may attract Israeli negotiators.

The freezing of the security barrier will get Peretz the votes of antelopes, and maybe a few from Israelis more concerned about nature than anything else. But it will not sit well with those who see the barrier as crucial to Israel's defense, and are willing to inconvenience some desert creatures for the sake of themselves and their loved ones.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmer is hardly in better shape. There are no declared opponents within his party wanting to unseat him, but his poll standings are down in the range of Peretz's. A recent survey found his foreign minister (Tzipi Livni) polling twice his support in a question that asked about the most desirable candidate for prime minister, and both fell substantially below Benyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has resurrected and refurbished himself, thanks largely to speaking patriotically and being out of office during the recent war.

Currently the prime minister is visiting China. He proclaimed that the purpose of his trip was to persuade the Chinese to work forcefully against the Iranian nuclear program. Prospects for that seem dim, and the schedule of his first day there suggest another agenda, or perhaps none at all. There were visits to the Great Wall, the Olympic Village, a demonstration agricultural station created by Israelis, and a meeting with the Ministry of Trade and Commerce.

It may be better for the prime minister in China than in Israel. News is that he will be facing criminal investigations about personnel appointments and political favoritism in economic decisions. Not yet touching him, but close, is another police inquiry into manipulation of income tax assessments. A prominent figure, arrested and released on bail pending further questioning, is a woman who has served as a close aide of Olmert when he was mayor of Jerusalem, finance minister, and now as prime minister.

Do not let the news discourage a visit. The weather is good.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:06 AM
January 02, 2007
More Iranian madness

What follows are excerpts from an interview with a presidential advisor, appointed to be secretary-general of the World Foundation for Holocaust Studies.

"The Bolshevik Soviet government in Lenin's time, and later, in Stalin's - both of whom were Jewish, though they presented themselves as Marxists and atheists... - was one of the forces that, until the Second World War, cooperated with Hitler in promoting the idea of establishing the State of Israel. . . . Adolf Hitler himself developed an aversion to Judaism because his mother was a Jewish whore. . . . Hitler simultaneously developed both feelings of solidarity with Judaism and feelings of hatred towards it, and this emotional ambivalence shaped his behavior towards the Jews. On the one hand, his entire family, the people who shared his views, and his associates who brought him into power and stood by him to the last - including his lovers and his personal doctor - were [all] Jewish. On the other hand, he welcomed the policy of expelling the Jews from Central Europe for two other reasons: Firstly, the establishment of a Jewish government in Palestine was an aspiration of the rich and influential Jews who surrounded him. Secondly, exiling the Jews from Europe and Germany was a general and historical demand of the Western Christian nations. With the full support of the British, and in coordination with them, Hitler addressed this general demand and [thereby] managed to gain widespread popularity in Europe. Obviously, publishing writings and information of this sort is forbidden in Germany and in the West... "

If you want more, it is available at http://www.memri.org/bin/opener_latest.cgi?ID=SD140807

There is a serious argument that Hitler did have Jewish ancestry, but it does not hinge on his mother. (Those concerned about this might start at http://www.lloydthomas.org/1-IsraelTimeLine/7-1930-1999/hitler.html.) I am not aware that Lenin, Stalin, Hitler's lovers and his personal doctor as well as the people who brought him to power and remained as his associates were also Jews. We do accept credit for Jesus, and somewhat diluted credit (due to family conversions to Christianity) for Marx and Disraeli. Who really knows about Christopher Columbus?

We contest responsibility for bringing down the Twin Towers, despite views held by many people in Pakistan and other Muslim places.

Perhaps it is only the Iranian establishment that is not Jewish. But I wonder. There has been a substantial Jewish population in Persia since ancient times. There are hints in the Book of Esther of Jewish blood at high places, and who knows all the facts about Cyrus, the Persian leader credited with allowing the Jews exiled to Babylon to return home. Could we call him "The First Zionist?" "Righteous Gentile" would only be appropriate if we were sure that he had none of that Chosen blood.

Is this nonsense good for the Jews? On the one hand, it suggests the intellectual weakness of those who hate us. On the other hand, if they are bright enough to produce atomic weapons, we have reason for worry. Can we believe those who say that their nuclear program is peaceful when they also say that Hitler and his minions were Jews?

Despite all the claims noted above, there are not enough of us in key places to assure our future. Iran seems more populated by the descendants of Haman than of Mordecai. The Jews said to dominate the Bush administration wasted their power on the wrong war, and may have created the setting where Israel is due for punishment.

Is there anyone out there who can help us?

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:35 PM