March 29, 2007
The Middle East

The Middle East is one of the two most unsettling regions. The other is Africa. But who among those who really count care about Africa? It is worth an occasional pathetic picture on the news and the report of another human disaster, but little more than a charitable campaign, a song, and a few platitudes about not doing enough. The Middle East is the heartland of Islam, oil and gas. All those get more than some clucking of our collective tongues. While some of us do what we can to shore up our defenses, others do what they can to placate the faithful.

The problems worth bothering with spill over national boundaries, or even the region, in ways that should worry lots of us.

Prominent are the Sunni- Shiia splits in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, and a few other places; the Kurdish issue that may begin in Iraq but hovers over Turkey and elsewhere; the ethnic and tribal conflicts in Afghanistan that provide the basis for Al Quaida and all that means; the Arab-Muslim rampages against Africans, Christians, and Pagans in Sudan; secular-Islamic conflicts where they are especially tense as in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine, and Lebanon; and unabsorbed Palestinians in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and some other places.

Do not forget Israel. Its existence in sacred space serves those who wish to distract restive hoards from local abominations.

There are also several million unabsorbed migrants in Western Europe, including those who are talking about the reconquest of Andalusia. Will they keep the tourist signs in the Juderia of Cordoba?

What about the moderate Arab states? One Jewish friend traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of a professional mission. She had a thrilling experience. When asked if she was candid about her background on the visa application, she responded:

"No. They would not let us in unless we were not truthful on our applications. . . I had promised my family and the people with whom I was traveling that I would keep my Jewishness to myself...and though they all agreed that I could ask questions, they asked me please to not engage in that was not why we were there."

I understand my friend. "Thou shall not bear false witness" cannot be an absolute when Jews want to travel in the Middle East. However, we should not overlook this and similar incidents. One of the best friends of the West insists on being be Judenrein, except for Henry Kissinger and a few important others. The last time I looked, there was a Jordanian law indicating a death penalty for anyone selling property to one of us.

The Middle East is not all bad. Spring is well along. There is a flowery hillside a few steps from my front door. From my balcony I see sheep and goats munching on grass that looks luscious after the winter rains.

May you all have a Passover that is appropriate to your tastes.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 05:28 AM
March 26, 2007
Trying again

I have written this before, but not enough people are getting the message. I will try again.

Israel is not the problem of the Middle East. The Arab and American governments are putting too much emphasis on Israel. We are not the problem. They are.

Condoleezza Rice is making another effort. It is never clear to us common folk what the important people are saying to one another. But at least part of her message is that Israel should be more flexible. Somewhere in her baggage might be a bit of magic that will make the Middle East a better place and ease her president's way in Iraq. He should not have gone there in the first place. Now he or his successors have to find their own way out, hopefully while doing as little damage as possible to the American economy and society. The rest of us depend on the superpower. We can wish for wisdom at its head, but recent events have not given us a great deal of confidence. Most empires have crumbled slowly. I can probably make it to the end of my life without learning another language, but my children had better consider the option. We should not count on Hebrew as the key to the future.

Until there is a Palestinian government where the prime minister is willing to recognize Israel's right to exist, there is no point in Israel making concessions. The man who calls himself the president of Palestine says that he recognizes Israel's right to exist, and wants peace. But that is not enough. He must get wise enough and strong enough to persuade Palestinians to stop insisting that they can cancel history by returning to their homes of 1948. First he must stop making that promise himself! And he must stop the people who continue to fire rockets at our towns. A couple of years ago the same man was in charge of 30,000 security personnel in Gaza and he did nothing to stop the rockets. Now it is time for him to do something that impresses us, and not the occasion for giving him a free lunch.

The supreme leader of Hamas is saying that it must again begin violence if Israel does not respond to its demands and begin its disappearance.

Maybe he should look at the record. Who loses more from violence? The Palestinian economy is half the size it was in 2000. Some 70 percent of the population lives on international hand-outs. His people should find another supreme leader.

The heads of other Arab governments are saying that they offer Israel peace if Israel will be reasonable. To them, that means withdrawing to the 1967 boundaries and leaving open the issue of Palestinian refugees.

They say that Israel's stubbornness is the problem.

Sure Israel is stubborn. It will not agree to give up significant assets while leaving the time bomb of the refugee issue unresolved. Some Arabs say that the posture they have adopted should be the basis of negotiation. Okay, if they can persuade the Palestinian government to recognize us and to give up the dream of destroying us. But other Arab leaders are saying that the offer they are making is not subject to change. If there are significant leaders who take that position and are not able to solve the issue of refugees, forget it. Try something else.

I may have the distorted view of an academic. When I hear the heads of Arab governments say that Israel is the problem, I look at this society and theirs and I wonder if I am seeing what I am seeing. Half of our universities appear on lists of the best in the world. There education emphasizes the learning of texts written a millennium and one half ago, and the most prominent teachers scream hatred and claim that Jews have caused their problems.

One can hope that Iran will make enough mistakes to cause sanctions that are severe enough to derail any dream of nuclear weapons and destroying Israel (and perhaps a few other places). Will their seizure of 15 British sailors cause another Falklands? Probably not. But it is one more item on an list already showing assertions of Israel's illegitimacy and Holocaust denial that may send the Ahmadinejad regime to oblivion. Maybe it will disappear before I learn to spell his name without consulting Google.

How do I see the future? Sadly, as more of the same. We can deal with it. I am not sure that the Palestinians can.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:39 PM
March 21, 2007
An Israeli day

I spent the afternoon doing my small part to get ready for the next war.

One of the colonels in my seminar at the National Defense College gave a presentation on the country's dilemmas. For example: should the army invade Gaza in response to the rocket attacks? Israelis have been killed at the rate of two per year; a few more injured; and lots frightened. An invasion will be more costly in Israeli losses. It will bring only a temporary halt to the rocket attacks. They are light, easy to make and carry. More will come after the army leaves Gaza. No one that I know wants to stay in Gaza with enough troops to keep all the Palestinians from doing nasty things. Can we hope that an invasion will induce Palestinians to act against those who want to attack us?

Another gave a presentation about the influence of civilian casualties on the army's performance in Lebanon. He is concerned with the impact of rocket attacks on the north of Israel. Some in the class argued that they caused worry to soldiers, especially among those who came from the north, and limited their effectiveness in Lebanon. Others said that the civilian casualties spurred the soldiers to greater effort.

The evening was a cause of joy, but not entirely. Ohad married Maya. I first met Ohad 30 years ago at his Brit Mila (circumcision). He introduced me to Maya five years ago. Four years ago she was in a university cafeteria at the wrong time. Ohad was at home watching television. He knew Maya was having lunch at the university. When the news brought pictures of the explosion, he saw a covered figure on a stretcher, along with belongings he recognized as Maya's. She lost an eye and suffered other head injuries that required several operations. Friends of the Hebrew University arranged one of them at the Johns Hopkins University hospital. The music was great, and we stayed long into the night. I kept looking at another guest, who was brought to the hospital at the same time as Maya. This young woman is still in a wheel chair. I did not speak with her. I want to know if she will ever graduate to crutches, but I could not bring myself to disturb her. She seemed to be having a good time. I also thought about David, who was Diego to his family. He was in the same cafeteria. We never finished the arguments begun in my workshop. I cried with his parents.

I came home to find an e-mail from an American friend, asking me to comment on a letter he was writing in response to an anti-Semitic screed that had entered a political dispute in Washington State. According to his adversary, the Jews control most of the media. They shaped America's response to 9-11 to suit their own purposes. Israel bleeds the American treasury, and uses the money to seize Palestinian land. Israel is the reason the Muslims hate Americans.

It was not a typical day. Usually my biggest chore is to decide on the sandwich to make for lunch. Alas, this is not a normal country. Lunch is not our problem.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:01 PM
March 15, 2007
Ehud Olmert

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in trouble. His support in public opinion polls is somewhere around one or two percent. More support is given to Arkady Gaydamak, a Russian billionaire who made his money selling arms to one side or another in Angola's civil war, is wanted for tax evasion France, and under investigation here for money laundering. Gaydamak's popularity derives from his high profile ownership of a sports team, and contributions to distressed groups that have fallen through the government's welfare nets.

Olmert's most immediate problems come from an announcement by the official commission investigating last year's war in Lebanon. It will make an interim report next month that will include personal comments about the figures who took prominent roles in the decisions to go to war, and to manage the war. One can wonder why the commission is giving such advance notice about what is likely to be a damning report. It has prompted a month-long period of speculation about the worst. Politicians are upping their attacks on the prime minister and the defense minister, and positioning themselves to take over.

The prime minister began his defense in a speech before a party meeting called to put in place the procedures that may be used for choosing the next party leader. He can be a good speaker, and this was one of his best. He detailed the numerous difficult problems facing an Israeli national leader, including those that demand quick decisions in a setting of limited information. He said time and again that he was not popular, but asserted that he was more concerned about national interests than personal popularity. About his management of the war, he noted that he had succeeded in achieving important objectives while limiting Israeli casualties.

The commission set to criticize him is headed by five distinguished individuals: a retired judge, a professor of law, a professor emeritus of political science, and two retired generals. The political scientist is Yehezkl Dror, well known for his view that governments should decide on its actions systematically, after choosing its goals on the basis of calculating the advantages and disadvantages of all apparent options, and taking into consideration a full range of the factors likely to affect its achievement of the goals chosen. Careful planning is his motto.

Close to 40 years ago, when I was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, I wrote a negative review of Dror's major book. Then and now, his aspirations seemed to me impractical, and not taking sufficient account of the problems in their implementation.

On the basis of that book review, Dror recruited me to be a colleague in the Political Science Department of the Hebrew University. He told me that students and colleagues needed a point of view different from his.

We have had a good personal relationship, and I continue to do what he asked: criticize his views of what is feasible in public policymaking.

On this occasion, I do not know what he has contributed to the closed discussions of the official commission. If, as widely anticipated, the commission criticizes the prime minister and others for not following ideal ways of making decisions, then I will see Yehezkl's input on the commission's work.

In Olmert's defense, I would say that the onset and management of a war is not likely to be neat and systematic. It was not in the case of American efforts in Vietnam or Iraq, or in most Israeli cases. The onset of the Sinai campaign in 1956 and the Six-Day War of 1967 did come as a result of protracted discussions, but their subsequent management, conclusions, and follow-up decisions showed enough imperfections to join the long list of other wars managed with too little forethought and too many quick decisions coming from the guts of someone or other acting under pressure.

All this may be entered into the column of Prime Minister Olmert's defense. On the other side, is my memory of several speeches he gave during the recent war, and the settlement he accepted at its close. He sounded like Churchill during the fighting, and too much like Chamberlain at the end. Moreover, I and many others are troubled by a number of open charges against Olmert for actions taken while moving up through the ranks of Israeli politics. None of them, in my mind, qualify as serious violations of good practice, or corruption deserving severe condemnation and punishment. Yet there is an accumulation of actions in the grey area of unseemly political behavior, less than clearly kosher. It is easy to be tired of Ehud Olmert, and to hope for someone better.

But he made a great speech in his defense, so far commended by a number of commentators. We have yet to hear the charges promised by the commission for next month.

It is likely to be a month tolerable only to those who thrive on political speculation. It will rekindle my frustration at not being born a Norwegian Lutheran or a member of the established church in New Zealand. Then I might have had the luxury of pondering trivial matters according to the standard recipes for rational decisions, far from conditions that make such activity impossible.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:28 PM
March 11, 2007
Despair in Palestine

The New York Times has one of the best articles I've seen on the situation of Palestinians.

There are no surprises, and one wonders how others will read it. Isolation, poverty, lack of hope, anger at Israel and at the lack of Palestinian leadership, the despair of parents who worry about children recruited to resist, including suicide.

A high incidence of young people want to leave, but males under the age of 30 may not be allowed through the checkpoints that circle their home towns. They live without contact with others, except for armed Israelis. Some have bought forged travel documents, and have made it to the Cairo airport in a ghastly journey, but were sent back home when the last check before the airplane revealed the problems in their documents.

One of the German bishops who toured Palestine compared what he saw to the Warsaw ghetto. It did not take long for a Cardinal to express a severe reservation about his colleague's comments. And that was before he could have read an article in the Washington Post describing the problems of the diminishing Christian minority in Palestine.

Corrupt Palestinian officials steal properties that Christians say are their own, and transfer them to Muslims. It helps that process that Christians leave, and Muslims manage to register their property in their names before Christian relatives can arrange their own ownership.

It is safest for Palestinians to blame Israel for their problems, but both articles provide insights into the importance of factional fighting among political movements and extended families. People remember a golden age when all were fighting and willing to die for Palestine. Now few of them expect that a Palestinian state will emerge. Many doubt the value in fighting for a Palestine torn by disputes financed and managed by outsiders who care more about their own agendas than the future of Palestine.

It has been clear for some time that much of the world is tired of the Palestinian rhetoric. Expressions of support for a two-state solution are lip service to the weight of Muslim votes in international forums. Competition among outsiders keeps any peace process from moving forward. A declaration out of Mecca written with the participation of Palestinians fudged the issue of refugees and seemed to offer a way forward. Then politicians far from Palestine added an explicit reference to the right of refugees to return home. This does no more than pave the way to the already full cemetery of empty gestures.

Israeli officials meet with Palestinian "moderates," but cannot move beyond the problem of a Hamas-led government, funded and prompted by Iran, that refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist.

It is more than sad to read about the hopelessness of a Palestinian generation, and seeing the signs of continued despair as young parents hear their infants talk about their own resistance and their wish to be suicide martyrs. Yet it is not the Warsaw ghetto. The fighters there wanted to survive. The young fighters in Palestine have chosen our destruction as their goal. So we must defend ourselves by confining them, and worse. We have to pity them, but we cannot solve their problems and pave their way to a better future.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:55 PM
March 09, 2007
Rachel Corrie, again

The story of Rachel Corrie will not die. Googling her name produces 910,000 responses. She has a web site. Her parents and others from her home town of Olympia, Washington are working to establish a "sister city" relationship with somewhere in Gaza.

She died in 2003 on an active battlefield, trying to halt an armed Israeli bulldozer from doing its share of the mayhem.

Her supporters claim that Israel was at fault: first for fighting against Palestinian aspirations, secondly for killing Rachel, and thirdly, for not investigating thoroughly enough and bringing to justice the soldiers who caused her death. At the least, it is said, Israel caused a public relations disaster in Olympia by the way it handled the case.

My own reading is that Rachel was misguided by thinking she could wander between combatants and stop the fighting, or even protect herself by wearing distinctive clothing and shouting for peace. Drivers of armed bulldozers have a very small window, and their view of things is limited further by dust and smoke. Their machines make a lot more noise than screaming demonstrators.

Israel did investigate the incident. It has not pleased her parents and others. A public relations disaster? Perhaps among certain people in Olympia. Imagine the disaster here if the IDF had gone beyond reality to hold the bulldozer driver responsible for the sake of American feelings. Anyone who thinks that Rachel's death should have been handled differently should consider more thorough investigations of every Afghan and Iraqi death in recent years, as well as collateral damage done by the allies in Normandy circa 1944, Japan at about the same time, and Korea a bit later.

Will a sister city relationship between Olympia and Gaza heal the wounds? First, the good folks of Olympia must decide which side in the Palestinian civil war are worthy of sisterhood. It is hard to tell from here whether it is primarily a war between Islamic fundamentalist and secular nationalists, ongoing family feuds that resist one effort at cease fire after another, something else, or a combination of them all. Perhaps Olympia activists know the terrain better, and can pick out the people they want to honor.

Hopefully they will not establish too close relationships with those who manufacture and fire the 2,500+ missiles that have been directed at Israeli towns since Israel dismantled its settlements in Gaza during 2005, or the 80 percent and more of Palestinians who answer in the affirmative survey questions about their support of suicide bombing.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:02 PM
March 07, 2007
Things could be better

Purim continues. Or so it seems.

No great catastrophes to report. For those who thrive on bad news, I am sure you can find something by Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post. If she is not gloomy enough, you might try the web-site of the Anti-Defamation League. Along with a request for donations, you will find the latest abominations against the Jews.

We have problems. But we have also done well. Arguably the Jews have never had it so good since the death of King Solomon.

The doom seers know that much worse is to come. Maybe. But we can enjoy what we have for the time being, which is better than most others.

Modest criticism is always appropriate. One can wish that more Jews knew how to criticize modestly. Too many of them seem to have learned their craft from the Book of Jeremiah. He had more to criticize than moderns who adhere to his style. But modest, temperate, or well balanced he was not.

Here in the Promised Land that is not yet Paradise, there has been a spate of problems. A fair reading is that we and are leaders far from perfect. They could be better.

The Prime Minister and the State Comptroller could begin the improvement. Instead of calling one another nasty names on prime time television, the Prime Minister could answer the State Comptroller's questions about his performance in the recent war and other matters, rather than delaying forever any response. And the State Comptroller could adhere to the norms of audit by giving the people he criticizes a chance to respond to his draft reports before blasting them in the media.

Israeli hospitals might do better in protecting their sicker patients from deadly germs that are resistant to antibiotics. It is impossible for a political scientist to sort out the claims of physicians who say that all hospitals suffer from such problems, against journalists who put elderly people on the screen who say they are afraid of being hospitalized in institutions where people die of infections.

I know that our president has been accused of rape and the Iranians are probably developing nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, Hebrew University ranked 40 among world universities in social science according to a recent survey, as well as in the first 75 in the science category and in the first 106 in the life science category. Tel Aviv University, the Technion, and the Weizman Institute also made it into the list of ranked universities. (See

An article in Ha'aretz bemoaned Israeli higher education because Haifa University, Bar Ilan, and Ben Gurion University had not made it into international rankings, and all of the colleges established in recent years were even less qualified. All our students should all have equal opportunities. The critics did not mention that most students in North America, Europe, and Asia, and all of them in South America and the non-Israeli Middle East study in less than prestigious universities.

Do not cry. Send money. It will not solve everything, but it will help.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:46 PM