August 23, 2007
We will keep giving peace a chance

Every soldier's death is a tragedy, especially when it is one of ours. "Collateral damages," or the deaths of civilians, are even more regrettable, especially when they include children.

That having been said, it is appropriate to take account of numbers. In this small country, and even smaller Palestine, individuals use the term "slaughter" in ways that are not appropriate.

Mahmoud Abbas says that the deaths of 13 Palestinians over the course of several days in Gaza is a slaughter, and represents the likelihood that Israel's actions will end any chance for peace. Among the dead are two boys, who were among a number of children drawn to a fight on a field used by Palestinians to fire rockets into Israel.

It was not easy finding a report about recent Palestinian deaths in the international media. The New York Times put it in the shadow of 14 American soldiers killed when a helicopter crashed, and 37 Iraqis counted dead the next morning.

When our hiking group happened on the site of a battle during the Six-Day War, our leader described the "slaughter" of 8 Israeli soldiers. That evening I looked up some comparable numbers: 53,000 allied troops killed at Normandy in 1944, 20,000 British at the Somme in 1916, and a total of 620,000 Americans dead on both sides of the Civil War.

So far some 1,100 Israelis have died in the intifada that began in September, 2000, and perhaps 4,000 Palestinians. It has been a while since a bus or a coffee house has blown up. While close to 900 Israelis died as the result of Palestinian violence during 2001-03, only 54 died in 2005 and 32 in 2006.

The fall-off has something to do with the 11,000 or so Palestinians confined to Israeli prisons. Each night the IDF picks off a few more on its lists. The 13 deaths represent one of the occasional responses to information coming from informants or Israeli high-tech. We saw the film of Palestinians who had fired on Israel and then entered a vehicle for what was to be their last ride. Analysts say that the IDF is capturing or killing Palestinian technicians and fighters faster than they can replace .

Why the hyperbole about our little war?

I will not buy into the claim that Jews are more concerned about life than others. The wailing of Palestinian mothers strikes me as serious mourning.

Josef Stalin said that one death is a tragedy, while one million is a statistic. He contributed many more than a million to the statistics.

There is also the world's sensitivity to the Holy Land, conflict between religions, as well as the drawing power of Jews and Muslims. A Palestinian student once told me he thought it fortunate that his national struggle was with the Jews. He said that no one would care if his was just another African tribe. He also credited the substantial support for Palestinian interests among Jews of Israel and elsewhere. I responded that I thought the Jews were unfortunate that we were struggling with Arabs. Without their power of numbers, oil and gas, we could have finished with this long ago.

The historical period is important. The land grab of the Americas is a done deal, as are the historical onslaughts of one tribe over others throughout Africa, central Asia, the Arabian peninsula, and the Americas before the Europeans arrived to begin their plunder. Zionism began during the heyday of colonialism, but did not finish its work before the revulsions against the Holocaust and other horrors of World War II, the rise of the United Nations, the economic and voting power of Arab and Muslim states. When Libya and the Sudan are powers in international humanitarian forums, Israel has trouble navigating the upside-down.

Again, it seems too bad that we continue killing and incarcerating one another. I have been listening to folk songs from my undergraduate days: Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and others. Aside from an occasional ditty in what sounds like Hebrew, the sentiments are not those that we can use to cement our control on Palestine.

But here we are. We have tried several times to offer a reasonable deal, and got ourselves bombed in thanks.

We will continue what we are doing as long as they keep aiming at our civilians with whatever weapons they can obtain. The lack of support for Mahmoud Abbas and his senior colleagues in the West Bank, and their quick loss of Gaza are not good signs for any Israelis willing to try serious negotiations. Aside from Abbas' appearance as a congenial grandfather, he does not seem to offer what it takes to make demands that are realistic, and to control those of his countryfolk who will not agree to anything.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:55 AM
August 16, 2007
Is it time for another world leader?

We cheered, or at least sighed with relief when the Berlin Wall came down along with other indications that the Soviet Union and the Cold War were passing into history.

It has, for the most part, been a good twenty years with the United States of America as the primary world leader.
Many of us are living better and longer, the European Union has taken hold and expanded, China and India are leading beneficiaries of globalization, and the brightest spots in what we had been uniform Third World misery.

However, on two fronts now affecting many of us, American political and economic leaders have performed as bad as any could have feared.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq was anything but a work of governmental genius. No weapons of mass destruction; no connection with 9-11; no signs of democracy coming out of the civil war the Americans have produced. There is an increase of Islamic vengeance and crusades against America, the West, and anything Christian or Jewish.

Now we are paying the price of American economic genius. Lots of entrepreneurs piled onto the idea of making money by handing out mortgages to people who might not have the capacity to pay them back, especially when something would disturb the prospect of ever-increasing real estate values. Could not all those money managers, being paid salaries and bonuses of millions per year, learn anything from the frenzy of a few years earlier? It might be a stretch to expect them to connect their enthusiasm for junk mortgages with the Dutch tulip frenzy of the 1630s.

Part of the genius involved in the most recent investment craze is to hive off, package, and distribute the risks in a variety of ways that only a super genius can understand. For the rest of us, it means a worsening of the crash as it spreads to financial institutions participating in the protective mechanisms around the world. Some of our pension funds may have enjoyed the party without realizing the risks they were buying. The number and complexity of the instruments complicates any reckoning of how great the damage, and how long it may take for the banks, governments, and other lofty institutions to calm the markets.

One day the Americans will put a fig leaf on their departure from Iraq. My guess is that a program of Iraqization will create an authority that will last long enough for the final Marine to leave. Sooner or later someone like Saddam Hussein will emerge to impose order. It will not be pretty. Decent people all over America will cluck their tongues in expressions of regret, dismay, or sorrow. Some may feel a sense of responsibility for the losses suffered, and the gains not realized between Saddam I and Saddam II.

The economic crisis linked to sub-prime mortgages may pass more quickly. In the process we can expect media coverage of pensioners trying to make do on reduced incomes, and once-proud homeowners living rough.

Should we think beyond the era of American leadership and aspire to another great power?

China is not ready. When it is, our children or grandchildren can hope that it has passed beyond the nastiness of repression, and the lack of interest in health and safety. A world leader cannot sell toys with dangerous magnets or lead paint.

Western Europe is an attractive model. It works hard to keep itself clean, healthy, and safe. Its cities function for visitors and natives. Small towns are scenic and viable. Main roads are free of potholes, and public transportation is worth copying. Industries pay African countries to take their toxic waste. Vacation packagers send middle- and working class customers to resorts in the pretty spots on the outskirts of places where most of them would not like to live. Governments give money to organizations representing a wide range of what someone thinks is politically correct. The Danes have apologized to the Irish for what the Vikings did to them.

Except for lip service and some money, Europeans do not seem to care what happens outside of itself. Members of the European Union do not aspire to be world leaders, and do what they can to minimize the power of any other country that would lead.

The European model is not perfect, but it is no worse than the Americanization of Iraq or sub-prime mortgages.

What does this mean for the Jews?

We have accommodated ourselves to a long list of imperial powers. Usually we have done well and survived, as well as suffered.

As far as we can see into the future, Israel will do as the Americans desire, or at least some of what they desire while avoiding more danger than we can tolerate. We also cozy up to the Europeans. We continue to require English of our students, and offer courses in French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:02 PM
August 13, 2007
Our Arab neighbors

A few days ago the news reported that an Arab from the Galilee snatched a pistol from one of two security guards in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Arab managed to wound one of the guards before the other one shot him dead. In the exchange of fire, a number of passers-by were also injured. According to the security guard, it was the Arab who was firing wildly as he ran away, and it was his shots that injured by-standers.

According to members of the Arab's family. It could not have happened that way. The man was law-abiding, a husband and father of a small child. He was set up by the Jews. Then he was murdered by one of the security guards when he lay injured and helpless on the ground.

Israeli investigators do not buy that version. And they have considerable backing from the security cameras that operate in much of the Old City. We have seen the film on TV news. It shows the Arab stalking the two security guards as they walk along the street, then taking the pistol of one from the holster on his belt, running away and firing several times in the direction of the uninjured guard who was pursuing him. The last picture shows the Arab wounded and falling to the pavement. There is no picture relevant to the claim that the guard fired a fatal shot into the injured Arab.

The man's family says that all the pictures were fabricated. Their boy could not have done it.

Today I received e-mail from the Arab Association for Human Rights. These come periodically, one version in Hebrew and another in English. This issue concerns last year's Lebanon War. It notes the incidence of Arab civilian casualties in the north of Israel. Guess who is to blame? Israel, for putting its soldiers close to Arab communities, and thus exposing them to the rocket attacks. Moreover, it is Israel's fault that Arab communities had few if any warning sirens or bomb shelters. All of this amounts to a violation of international law. Next we will hear from the United Nations General Assembly.

Implicit here is the defense scheme that would be permitted by the Arab Association for Human Rights. Israel should position its army only around the high concentration of Jewish settlements in the center of the country. Hizbollah and its friends can do what they want in the Galilee, heavily populated by Arabs who should not be endangered by Israeli soldiers. The Jewish country should defend itself only where Jewish civilians might be hurt by the military operations.

It is true that Arab towns are not well protected by sirens or air raid shelters. However, that is at least partly the responsibility of the Arab elected officials of those towns, who choose not to spend money on such things, or to enforce Israeli laws requiring shelters to be part of any residential construction.

One of Israel's political parties (Israel Our Home), with 11 seats in the 120 member Knesset, heavily supported by Russian immigrants, and currently with a place in the government coalition, proposes trading areas of Israel heavily populated by Arabs for areas of the West Bank where there are substantial Jewish settlements. The Israeli Arabs would go along with their land and dwellings to Palestine.

There is no indication that sizable numbers of Israeli Jews currently accept this idea. The scheme is opposed intensely by Israeli Arab politicians, who cite their own loyalty and that of their constituents to Israel. Most of those politicians also demand the right to express their support for various actions of Palestinians and Arabs who are not friends of Israel.

Among my students who have been the best academically and the most congenial on a personal level have been Arabs from Israel or Palestine. Also, I have no complaints about the Arab families and young singles moving into my neighborhood of French Hill. None of which leads me to accept everything I hear from the other Arabs of Israel and nearby countries.

My American friends and relatives can expect lots of new Arab neighbors. The current frenzy against immigration may delay the flood, but the better sentiments embedded in American culture will open the gates for the refugees produced by American actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and maybe elsewhere. I hope that the vast majority will be good neighbors, not only in the initial years but in subsequent generations. And insofar as America is likely to be important to Israel as far toward the end of days as we can see, I also hope that for myself and mine.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:15 AM
August 10, 2007
You broke it, it's yours.

You broke it, it's yours.

This is a slogan appropriate not only for shops that sell glassware and other delicate objects, but also for countries.

The United States made a major contribution to breaking Vietnam and Cambodia, with the result that there are substantial communities that began as refugees admitted by administrations that admitted to responsibility for their dislocation.

Now it is the turn of the Iraqis, and perhaps Afghans.

No question, in my mind, that the United States broke Iraq. To be sure, the regime of Saddam Hussein was ugly, especially toward non-Sunni communities. However, the several reasons for attacking in 2003 are mired in controversy, and are a long way from having garnered significant support since then.

Today's New York Times features a heart-rendering article on lives broken by what has happened in Iraq.

My initial suggestion is to stop the aid given to the Palestinians by the United Nations and various non-governmental organizations, and give it to Iraqis. The Palestinians have had enough time, in almost 60 years, to put their lives in order. The real crisis is now elsewhere.

That will not happen. There are too many Arab and Muslim votes in the United Nations, and so many years invested by non-governmental organizations in developing sympathy for the Palestinians, and setting up their infrastructure (and hiring Palestinians) in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere.

The Vietnamese and Cambodians have been living in the United States long enough to have moved out, or to be ready to move out of their initial neighborhoods.

Welcome to the Iraqis.

The New York Times article indicates that the bulk of refugees are likely to be those not enthused about supporting any of the players in the civil war that has emerged out of the American invasion. Many will be hard working and educated middle class strivers. If we can make some guesses about what has happened elsewhere, it is their children, not feeling part of American culture, who will fill the Madrasas and begin causing the troubles apparent in Britain, France, and Pakistan.

So George W. Bush and his supporters have, perhaps, a generation to bring democracy to the Iraqis (in Iraq or elsewhere) before they risk breaking their own country.

The story of Afghanistan is something else. If that country was broken, the Russians contributed at least as much as the Americans. Or it may be closer to the truth to say that Afghanistan never was a real country. Insofar as it had never been put together, no one can claim responsibility for breaking it.

There was more reason for the United States to attack the Taliban regime after 9-11 than there was to attack Iraq. More recently, in a repeat of what has been seen before in the cycles of Afghan history, the Taliban are coming back.

Pakistan was the favored place of Afghan refugees from the Russians and the Taliban. Lots of them would prefer the United States. Some years ago, a young man in a village about 100 miles from Kabul asked me how long it took to get to the United States by bus. He had never heard of the ocean.

There will be much to do for American school teachers as well as social workers and landlords. And for security personnel. The bit I know about Afghan and Iraqi culture tells me that the Afghans will be quicker to send their children to the Madrasas for schooling.

Good luck.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:06 AM
August 07, 2007
Oy gavalt

This is one of those weeks when it is not easy living with the Israeli media.

However, the big stories may blow over with no impact. Currently there is a lot of August hot air and many excitable Jews, but we are likely to survive.

One wrenching set of headlines concerns meetings with the Palestinians. Reports are that the prime minister looks with favor on an idea being put forth by President Shimon Peres, to cede the equivalent of the whole West Bank to the Palestinians for their state. This may be is Olmert's last chance to do something big enough that will save him from criminal investigations concerned with actions when in prior offices, and from the pressure to resign that might come from the commission investigating last year's war in Lebanon.

No surprise about Peres. The concern that he would do something like this with the presidency was the major reason for choosing a rapist instead of him at the last presidential election, and for expressing concern about him this time. About the only manifestation of his New Middle East with economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians is a world class auto theft operation. They disappear into the West Bank, and used parts come back to Israeli repair shops.

There are several reasons to believe that the deal will not work out as some would like.

*The Palestinians have not yet budged on the issue of refugees from 1948 and 1967, which is the reddest of red flags for just about all Israelis.
*What to do with the 11,000 (more or less) Palestinian security prisoners, many with Israeli blood on their hands, and sentenced to long terms by Israeli courts? One of them, sentenced to four consecutive life sentences for involvement in murder, is the favorite candidate of many Palestinians to be their next prime minister. Letting him go will not be easy.
*How many Jewish settlements would have to be withdrawn, to the dismay of how many settlers and their many more supporters in Israel?
*How much weight will be put on the scale by the family members of the 1,100 Israelis killed by Palestinians since Yassir Arafat was offered a similar deal in 2000?
*What part of Jerusalem will be given to the Palestinian state? Will the Palestinian residents of those neighborhoods want to become citizens of the new entity, perhaps at the cost of their health insurance and other benefits they currently receive from Israel?
*Who will get control over what parts of what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram esh Sharif or Noble Sanctuary? Despite the fact that most Israelis are not religious and do not visit this place, the issue was one of the deal breakers in 2000.
*And what about Hamas, defined as beyond the pale by Israel and numerous western governments, now even by the Norwegian foreign minister? Currently Hamas controls Gaza, and may get the West Bank if Fatah does not act with somewhat more effectiveness than it did in Gaza.
*Olmert is pressing the Fatah government to abandon Hamas (and Gaza?). If Fatah seeks an accommodation with Hamas, there may be no discussions with Israel.
*But religious Palestinians, including Muslim religious leaders in Israel and at least one member of the Knesset, are urging Fatah to seek an accommodation with Hamas. Egypt, other Arab governments, and the Russians are pushing for a Fatah-Hamas accommodation. If that happens, it would not be the first time that outsiders, seeking their own benefits in local politics or international relations, have scuttled a deal between Israel and one of its neighbors.

There is so much to worry about, and so much to do. Probably too much to do. Maybe we should relax and avoid the media for the next week or two.

There is another issue roiling the public: "Holocaust survivors" are claiming that Israel is denying them compensation in their last years. We have had demonstrations, marches, yellow stars, and assertions that Olmert is like Hitler.

Once the issue of the Holocaust appears, one has to be wary of criticism. Large majorities have answered polls saying that the survivors are completely in the right. Media personalities make it clear that the government is in the hands of cruel misers.

Friends and family members have shown a bit of temper when I have raised questions about details and justice. But I spent more than 40 years dealing with public administration. The devil is usually in the details. And sensitive issues draw demagogues.

In this case, the notion of "Holocaust survivor" is problematic. The aged and infirm leaders of these demonstrations speak decent Hebrew and display the tattoos put on their arms by the Nazis. But depending largely when they arrived in Israel, they may already be receiving special payments because of their status. Those who were Germans are likely to have received considerable sums, as well as life-long monthly pensions, from the German government.

As far as one can determine in this complicated matter with numerous categories of "survivors" and "entitlements" enacted over the years, the people who are really short of support are aged immigrants who came in the last 15 years from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in eastern Europe. Their former governments refused to deal with the West Germans on issues of compensation. They asserted that the West Germans were the successors of the Nazis supported by the capitalist West. In Israel these immigrants receive modest payments given to aged immigrants who did not work in Israel long enough to build up credit in National Insurance. Now they are being swept into the group of "Holocaust survivors" on the basis of having lived in countries that were occupied in part by Nazi forces. Some of them fled the Nazis. Some of them lived in areas not occupied. Including them in the category of Holocaust supporters increases the population of those claiming hardship, and has the support of a political party (Israel Our Home) heavily dependent on the leadership and votes of Russian immigrants. Benyamin Netanyahu, who usually prides himself on reducing welfare payments when he was Minister of Finance, and a leading possibility to succeed Olmert as prime minister, is giving his support to the campaign of the Holocaust survivors.

ICommentators are beginning to see the complexities and the politics in this issue. It is hard to imagine that it will disappear before the government offers increased payments to the whole spectrum of "survivors." Unless of course, even more emotional headlines fall upon us before the politicians can decide on the details.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:05 AM
August 03, 2007
Democracy in the Middle East?

Several concepts that appear in discussions of the Middle East have more than academic importance. This is not the stuff of a seminar, but is central to how people think and act with respect to Israel, and what they intend for Iraq and Afghanistan, and all those other places affected by Islam and Arab cultures.

One of the ideas is "Jewish democracy."

It is common for Israel's enemies and antagonists to assert that "Jewish democracy" is a contradiction in terms. Israel cannot be a democracy, is how the mantra plays out, so long as Jews assure themselves of all the key slots in the society.

Israel manifests two elements of Jewish tradition that are among the essential elements of democracy: a concern for justice, and an openness to criticism. Biblical Israel and Judah were not democracies, and Jewish communities over the ages until modern Israel were not democratic. Nonetheless, justice and criticism are embedded in the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and much else that rabbis and others have been compiling for at least 2,500 years. In the Bible, they are most prominent in the books of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, and Ecclesiastes.

Modern Israel has all the features of a democracy. Citizens (Jews and non-Jews) can vote in open and competitive national elections, and non-citizen residents can vote for local councils and mayors. Voting turnout is generally at European levels, higher than in the United States. There is a functioning parliament and an independent judiciary. There are numerous forums for lively public discussion, as well as competitive and critical media. The State Comptroller (GAO equivalent) is empowered to criticize government activities not only according to the conventional criteria of legality, economy, and efficiency, but also according to the criteria of moral integrity.

If Arabs in Israel feel themselves disadvantaged, they have only themselves to thank. Instead of working through the major parties and trading their votes for benefits given to their communities, they vote mostly for anti-government parties. They vote themselves out of the forums that pass out the goodies, and spend their time demanding that Israel become a state like all those less than ideal places in the region. The Arabs of Jerusalem go one step further. They do not vote at all, and thereby deprive themselves of perhaps one-third of the city council plus crucial leverage over the mayor. Then they wonder why their neighborhoods get less than Jewish neighborhoods.

The idea of Arab democracy is central to the efforts of the White House to manage the Israel-Arab conflict, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. A democratic Palestine living in peace alongside Israel is a great ideal. Democracy beginning in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spreading elsewhere in the Middle East is no less appealing.

But this is the Middle East, not Middle America. Reform is not a matter of backing the right leader, organizing elections, and expecting progress. Arab cultures and Islam have admirable qualities. But they also have other traits, which produce the suppression of individual liberty, and warfare among extended families, clans, tribes, and Muslim sects, as well as between Muslims and the rest of us. This is the stuff that Judaism abandoned in ancient times, and that Christianity left behind as it worked itself out of the Middle Ages, through chronic wars, the Holocaust, and into the European Union.

The wide range of attitudes and behaviors of Israeli Jews, and arguments about religion, politics, and the Palestinians can be unpleasant in the extreme, but they do manifest the working out of tensions in ways that are democratic.

George W. Bush found himself the president of the a country with a great deal of power and the responsibilities that came with it, plus the attack of 9-11 and all that it represented. International relations is not always a place for subtle nudges. There are few if any indications of success for American actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. However, a critic must answer the question, "How would you have done it?" as well as the question, "What to do now?" I have not noticed any great responses to those questions from those who want the president's job.

And what about Palestine? Unfortunately, it is too much like the other societies in the region. Inner tensions have just now boiled over into a civil war. It is a long way from what it takes to live at peace alongside anyone. We can hope for some magic coming out of the White House or elsewhere that will realize the aspiration of the Road Map ("A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.") Israel is dependent on the United States and Europe, and must never say, "Never." As this academic examines the words and the deeds, however, it seems that the White House is in Fantasy Land. Its road map goes nowhere.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:37 PM