June 30, 2007
Officially, Israel's president is not a rapist

Moshe Katzav, President of Israel until his letter of resignation formally takes effect tomorrow, is no longer accused officially of rape. Two charges of that crime indicated in preliminary documents did not appear in the plea bargain arranged by his attorneys and the Attorney General. Katzav has accepted the terms of resignation, being charged with committing indecent acts without consent, sexual harassment of two women, and harassing a witness. While the crimes carry a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment, the plea bargain calls for a suspended sentence, and some compensation to victims.

It's not quite the case that "all hell is breaking loose," but lots of women and not a few men are upset. A protest demonstration in Tel Aviv drew a modest crowd. The reporter on the scene for the public television channel reported that 200,000 people had appeared. When pressed by the newsperson in the studio that perhaps he meant 20,000, he repeated that people were telling him that there were 200,000, and continued to speak enthusiastically about the support for punishing Katzav more severely, and firing the Attorney General.

Next day's newspaper estimated the crowd at 20,000. The Israeli standard of comparison is the 400,000, said to have been at a protest in 1982 when Ariel Sharon was found at least indirectly responsible for a massacre of Palestinians in Beirut.

If anyone out there wants a good looking, slightly chubby, but not too bright or professional reporter who might serve as a local weather boy, if he can report in something other than Hebrew, there may be one available here.

One of the principal accusers of Katzav held a press conference after the announcement of the plea bargain. She detailed the sexual behavior of a low life who worked his way with effort and luck to become the President of Israel. She also demonstrated why the prosecutors did not include her charges among those filed against Katzav. Twice she submitted letters of resignation as an employee of the presidency. When they were rejected, she continued to work with Katzav. She also accepted a promotion.

It has been a while since Israeli courts demanded that a victim fight vigorously in order to establish a charge of rape. But a prosecutor wants something stronger in the direction of "No" than demonstrated by this victim.

The Attorney General described Katzav as a serial sexual offender in a news conference, but admitted to the problems in justifying the strongest charges in court. He also expressed concern about subjecting the presidency to a long and gruesome trial. The story of Richard Nixon sheds some light on these calculations.

The issue is not over. Several groups are petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn the plea bargain. The judges of the lower court may demand revision, especially of the sentence suspension, when the issue comes before them. Commentators are likely to roil us for some time.

Katzav may screw himself. Soon after the plea bargain was announced, he and family members asserted his innocence, and said that he accepted the bargain only to save his family the pressures of a trial. Then the senior prosecutor threatened that such behavior would invalidate the bargain, and start the process again. The almost-former president may yet find himself one of the least enamored guests of the Prison Authority.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:24 PM
June 24, 2007
Doing little, or nothing, is not always wrong

The demands and reports are piling up. Commentators and opposition politicians are clamoring that Israel should invade Gaza and wipe out Hamas. Or at least cut off the supplies of fuel, electricity, water and food, and let them suffer. Reports are that the Israeli air force is practicing long distant flights in preparation for the big thing in Iran. Will it take out only the nuclear facility, or also go after the missiles likely to send conventional explosives toward Israel in retaliation? Every second or third day another expert predicts that this summer will see another war on the northern border, involving Hezbollah or even Syria. Doom sayers report that the IDF has not corrected any of the mistakes apparent the last time: bomb shelters across the north are still in miserable shape, and fighting units still do not have all the equipment they will need.

Meanwhile, the government does not seem to be doing much in any of these directions. Today's headlines deal with a committee meeting to select some new justices for the Supreme Court, and the likelihood that the prime minister will shuffle some of his colleagues among the ministries. There will be a meeting in Egypt where the prime minister will pass on several hundred million dollars held in escrow to Mahmoud Abbas, perhaps make some other gestures to strengthen him in the eyes of the Palestinians, and maybe some demands that Abbas move against Palestinian violence or do other things to give Israelis more confidence in him.

There is so much to do, and so many critics in Israel and overseas demanding steps in the direction of war (mostly from the right) and accommodation (mostly from the left).

There are good reasons for doing nothing from among the heroic options being urged.

Waiting gives the other sides (and there are several of them) time to make a mistake and give Israel a more justifiable reason for taking action. If the IDF moves against Gaza, Hezbollah, or Syria, it will help if there is understanding or even support from the United States and Europe. No other country counts for much.

Much of the criticism of last year's war deals with the onset of the operation with inadequate of preparation, ranging from meager training of the troops, and especially the reserves, to inadequate equipment. At least some training and equipping is occurring. It is never enough for critics who want all the resources for their need of the moment. We may never see if it is adequate, especially if the doom sayers are mistaken in their prophecies.

Small actions may be better than big. Letting Hamas dangle in Gaza with a minimum of resources, and being at the focus of Arab as well as western criticism, may dissuade it from violence, at least for the time being. Postponing confrontation is not all that wrong. If it comes, we may be better prepared, with more convincing reasons for what we do. In the north, the Lebanese army is doing our work. It is not tackling the Hezbollah, but is going after Palestinians. It may get to Hezbollah if we give it a chance.

An attack on Iran should be a option only in extremis. It would assure Israel a great deal of criticism, and a rain of missiles in return. They may only carry conventional explosives, but I hope they do not fall on my house. Optimists see the impact of economic sanctions. They might be not be decisive in the immediate future with respect to moving the Iranians from a nuclear option, but there seems to be a willingness to increase their severity. It is not certain that time will work against Israel. Sanctions and a few goodies seem to have worked on North Korea. Force has not proved useful in Iraq. It is wise to put off an apocalyptic action as long as possible.

There remain unresolved injustices against Israel. Three soldiers are still being held in Gaza and Lebanon, assuming they are still alive. The President of Iran and the men in charge of Gaza are calling for our destruction. Syria is rearming with Iranian money and Russian equipment. Hezbollah claims to have replenished its supply of missiles, with 20,000 now ready to send in our direction.

Life is worrisome. Yet it is time to remember one of the cardinal rules of making public policy: do not make things worse.

George W. Bush violated that rule when he sent his military into Iraq. The United States is large, rich, and far away from the sources of threat. Americans can view the European Union as a bunch of small countries, and dismiss their criticisms as mere nuisance. If the anti-Americanism heats up, there is always the veto in the United Nations Security Council.

Ehud Olmert has to do better.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:08 AM
June 19, 2007
Conventional wisdom

Conventional wisdom, widely heard from commentators and politicians in Israel and abroad, is that the government of Ehud Olmert failed greatly in last year's war in Lebanon; and that the government of Palestine (West Bank) headed by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazan) is the great hope for creating a viable Palestinian state and making peace with Israel.

There is something wrong with the conventional wisdom.

On the one hand, the war waged by the IDF, under the direction of the Olmert government, did a great deal of damage to Lebanon at the cost of the fewest Israeli casualties of any war in the country's history. The IDF left Lebanon soon after the fighting, without bloodying itself by the occupation of a hostile population.

Indications are that the Lebanese government learned a lesson, and for the first time has used its army to defend its country against hostile Palestinians, Lebanese, and others. Since the war the fighters of Hezbollah have done little more than fly their flag near the Israeli border. The international force that came to Lebanon is doing less than promised to keep the Hezbollah from rearming, but Hezbollah has not flexed its muscles, and it has not done all that much to repair the repair the damage suffered by its supporters.

It is always too early to talk about preventing the next war, but so far it seems that Israel came out on top in the last war.

On the other hand, the regime led by Mahmoud Abbas folded in less than a week of serious fighting in Gaza, despite considerable aid from outside. When he had a monopoly of power, before the electoral success of Hamas, Abbas' 30,000 security personnel in Gaza did nothing to stop the 200 or so Palestinians who fired their homemade rockets from a small area into Israel.

Abbas speaks in behalf of peace, but he also recites the litany of Palestinian demands--including the right of refugees to return home--that are the kiss of death for any prospect of an agreement with Israel. The political operators who surround him are known less for building a decent society than for opulent dwellings and otherwise taking care of themselves with the financial aid received from overseas.

There is pressure on Israeli authorities, from inside and outside the country, to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza, especially for the hundred or so refugees holed up at one of the Gaza-Israeli border crossings. Their women know how to wail for the media. The children look miserable. Most of the men are the failed fighters of Fatah, now afraid of retribution from Hamas. At least some of them had used their weapons against Israel. They do present a sad picture demanding a response from someone. So far Israel has refused to let them pass to the West Bank, partly out of a concern with their background, and partly to avoid triggering a mass flight to Israel from Gaza. Israel offered to transfer this group to Egypt, but the Egyptians refused to accept them.

Egypt can also honor its agreement to stop the flow of arms from the Sinai into Gaza, and to keep Sudanese refugees from crossing the Sinai and entering Israel. Those wanting us to accept the refugees with open arms claim that they come from Dafur, but that is seldom true. There are a lot of Africans who would like to live in Israel. Those who worry about the future see the 50 or so who arrive daily as the beginning of yet another strategic threat on the horizon.

Uncertainty remains the theme, but the weather is good and the planes are still flying. Visitors welcome.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:54 PM
June 17, 2007
Two Palestines

The bloodshed and the destruction in Gaza should be no surprise. Properties belonging to ranking Fatah personnel, and to Yassir Arafat, have been looted and burned. We see pictures of Palestinians walking away with television sets, plumbing facilities, computers, and window frames. It's almost as bad as New Orleans.

Heads of Arab governments are saying meaningless things about negotiating peace between Hamas and Fatah. Fatah personnel who fled to Egypt are being sent back to Gaza on the basis of Hamas promises that they will not be harmed.

Hamas and its friends have their own conception of what to do with individuals they accuse of fighting against them, or cooperating with the Israelis. I would not pay the insurance premiums of Palestinians who the Egyptians are sending back.

From all signs, there are now two Palestines. One in the West Bank ruled by Fatah, which may be strong enough there to hang on; and one in Gaza ruled by Hamas. In both cases, "rule" is not what one expects in orderly countries. Extended families control their neighborhoods, are armed to the teeth, hold hostages (like the Israeli soldier and the British journalist), and are managing their own foreign policy.

Israeli leftists are expressing concern for their friends in Palestine, but tending not to name their friends, perhaps out of fear that they will mark them for something unpleasant in the extreme.

Israel controls the supply to Gaza of food, fuel, most of the electricity, and much of the fresh water. It also controls the export of agricultural goods that comprise an important part of Gaza's economy. Some officials and commentators are saying that Israel should make its activities contingent on the freeing of the Israeli soldier and the stopping of rocket attacks on Israeli towns. Others are saying that the IDF is planning a major attack that will destroy Hamas, and is waiting for an appropriate causis belli. That can be any rocket sent toward Israel. Even if its launch does not have Hamas finger prints, Hamas would not have prevented it.

Optimists are saying that power will make Hamas more pragmatic; it has to recognize Israel if it wants the people of Gaza to eat, drink, and keep the lights burning.

Some Fatah officials and their families received Israeli permission to flee Gaza for the West Bank via Israel. One ranking Fatah official said that the "occupation" of Gaza by Hamas is so much more brutal than Israeli occupation as to defy comparison. Another said that Fatah's defeat in Gaza was due to the weakening of Palestinian security forces by Israel's responses from the beginning of intafada. We must have done something to justify the efforts of British academics to boycott Israeli academics.

I recall the rice, flowers, and sweets that Lebanese threw on the first Israeli soldiers who came to free them from Palestinian violence in 1982. Then came the roadside bombs.

It is unwise to predict anything at this point, other than uncertainty.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:43 AM
June 12, 2007
More of the same

According to the New York Times:

"The top American military commander for the Middle East has warned Iraq's prime minister in a closed-door conversation that the Iraqi government needs to make tangible political progress by next month to counter the growing tide of opposition to the war in Congress."

That is better than a message to Ehud Olmert that Israel needs to make tangible political progress in order to counter the growing frustration about the Middle East in Congress.

Perhaps the administration has noticed that there is a Palestinian civil war, and that not much is likely to happen by way of Israeli-Palestinian peace until that is over.

The administration should also notice that there is a civil war on its doorstep in Iraq that may complicate whatever efforts the Iraqi prime minister might want to make toward tangible political progress. He may even be part of the civil war, or cautious about any political moves until he sees just what faction of which community is likely to be on top. Asking a Shiite prime minister in Baghdad to make nice with Sunni activists is not the same as asking Protestants to get on with Catholics in Indianapolis.

The accepted wisdom is that there is conflict "on the verge of civil war" in both Iraq and in Palestine. "Civil war" is a naughty word, suggesting that the great power has erred in its effort to control things.

In the last couple of days fighters of Hamas and Fatah have targeted each other's headquarters buildings and leading politicians in Gaza. Daily tolls are in the magnitude of 15-20 deaths. That is minor league by comparison with Iraq, but there are enough ugly details. One ranking captive was tossed from the roof of a 15 storey building. It is more than a street corner dust-up between rival gangs.

The Palestinian conflict is only one factor likely to delay anything dramatic in our neighborhood. Another is fighting between Lebanese and Palestinians. Curiously, international human rights organizations are not as bothered about civilian casualties there as they are whenever Israel seeks to defend itself. (see http://www.ngo-monitor.org/article.php?id=1448)

Yet another element in the likelihood of remaining with the status quo is the weakness of the Israeli government. "Lame duck" is heard in the midst of Hebrew commentary.

In this parliamentary system there does not have to be a national election until 2010, but no one I hear expects the government to last that long. Olmert has been weakened in public opinion and in his own party by criticism of his performance in last year's Lebanese war, and several charges of corruption. Yet there is no obvious replacement who has a stronger base of power, and none of the parties in his coalition are intent about trying their luck in an early election. Comments about leaving the coalition by each candidate in today's Labor Party primary sound more like campaign rhetoric than serious planning. The Labor Party is at a historic low in its electoral strength, with enough internal dissent to postpone any leap to greatness.

The other lame duck spends his time in Washington, or going to other world centers like Albania and Bulgaria to hear some applause. No one hopeful of American aid is likely to spurn outright a message from Washington, but none are likely to go very far in compliance without knowing what kind of cooperation will prevail between the White House and Congress; and that seems unlikely before 2009.

Change can come quickly. Both Iran and Syria are likely sources of destabilization. But until there is something dramatic on breaking news, we can expect more of the same.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:03 AM