November 28, 2007

We have heard the major speeches from Annapolis, and we see no immediate need to list our apartment for sale. Our neighborhood of French Hill abuts Arab neighborhoods to the east and north that might become part of a Palestinian state, but not this week. And probably not this year or next, despite the aspirations.

Ehud Olmert gave one of his better speeches. He began with a litany of charges against the Palestinians, and noted several indications that they were not ready for an agreement. But he moved to optimism, and a commitment to be flexible and to work hard in order to reach an agreement. President Bush was even handed, but noted several times that Israel would remain a Jewish state. This put him in opposition to the Palestinians and other Arabs who cannot bring themselves to that concession. Mahmoud Abbas used the terms Israeli conquest or occupation more times that I could count. His narrative has no room for Arab aggression that led Israeli troops into the West Bank and elsewhere.

The participant from Saudi Arabia made the point that Arabs could not recognize Israel as a Jewish state because Israel has Muslim residents. He did not mention that most Arab states call themselves Muslim, once had substantial Jewish and Christian communities, until they dwindled under pressure, to almost nothing in the case of the Jews.

The Washington Post summarizes the skepticism. It describes a demonstration against the possibility of concessions by right-wing, mostly religious Israelis; speeches and demonstrations in Gaza against any recognition of Israel's legitimacy; and a riot against the conference in Ramallah that involved one death at the hands or feet of Palestinian security personnel, who were photographed beating, kicking, and shooting at protesters.

"Israeli and Palestinian rejectionists -- the term used to describe those who deny the other side's right to a state nearly six decades after Israel's founding -- have hampered past negotiations and worked to undermine efforts to implement the few agreements that have been reached.

"But the hawks on both sides are particularly powerful at the moment given the political weakness of Olmert, who is under criminal investigation for alleged graft, ill with prostate cancer and still being criticized for waging a poorly conceived war in Lebanon last year, and of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president whose electorate is violently divided." (see

A popular Israeli web site asks timely questions along with its continuous updating of the news. ( These are not representative surveys, but occasionally the great tilt to one side or another indicates something about the national mood.

The site asked four questions in the days prior to, and during the Annapolis conference.

The first asked opinions about why Prime Minister Olmert was going to Annapolis.

Nineteen percent answered that he wants to make peace and 16 percent said that he is being obsequious toward the Americans. Sixty-five percent thought that he wants to forget the inquiry into the Lebanon war, or the police investigations of corruption charges.

Another question asked which issues the respondents did not want to compromise: the division of Jerusalem, the return to the borders of 1967, the Palestinian refugees' right of return, or dismantling of Jewish settlements.

Fifty-one percent answered that they did not want to compromise on any of those issues.

A day before the conference began, a question asked about the readers' interest in Annapolis. Twenty-eight percent indicated that they paid close or occasional attention; 28 percent said that they were more interested in football; and 45 percent did not know that the conference was about to begin.

A final question asked if respondents thought that there would be an agreement before the end of 2008. Thirty-one percent thought that there would not be an agreement in coming years, and 51 percent said there would never be an agreement.

My guess is that we can stay in French Hill until it is time for a seniors' facility. Anyone looking to buy an apartment here can check the newspapers. Ours is not for sale.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:33 AM
November 19, 2007

It looks like there will be a meeting, of sorts, at Annapolis. Participants and commentators are ranging between those who ridicule the performance as without hope, and those who say that it has the potential of endorsing continued conversations between Israelis and Palestinians that might, one day, become serious negotiations.

The ambivalence, inclined to pessimism, reflects the complex reality, made up of positive and negative possibilities.

In the nature of this business, it is not possible to weigh each of the positives and negatives, and come up with a persuasive balance. Those who go into such a meeting with hope have to take some chances, and those who go through the motions expecting nothing should know that their attitude might ruin the possibility of success.

Despite the problems in weighing the plusses and minuses, it may be helpful to list the most prominent of them. At the least, it may help an observer understand the efforts, as well as the reluctance of participants to make greater efforts. This exercise will not have the weight of a scorecard at a sporting event, filled with the statistics associated with each player and team. In politics there is no such exactitude. But here we go.

These calculations, for what they are worth, are entered from an Israeli perspective. Palestinians can do their own work.

On the positive side of the ledger, or the reasons for Israelis to make an effort at reaching an accord, or at least advance the prospects for later negotiations that may be successful:

Israeli efforts will enhance the support the country receives from well intentioned other governments.
Signs are that individual Palestinian leaders have concluded that their armed struggle has failed, and that achieving a state alongside Israel is their best chance for international recognition, aid, and reasonable standards of living.
There is substantial support among Israeli Jews for trying, once again, to reach an accord with the Palestinians, as well as with the governments of Syria, Lebanon, and other Arab/Muslim governments. Israelis crave for recognition, as well as opportunities to travel to places so far denied to them. A political leader can probably find enough support in the Knesset to approve whatever deals are made to recognize a Palestinian state, and to reach agreements with Syria and Lebanon.
Israeli efforts to reach an agreement with Syria, for example, might spur Palestinians to a posture of greater flexibility out of fear that they might be left behind.
Support from the government of the United States, as well as current governments of Germany, France, and Great Britain, may be sufficient to buffer Israel against continued hostility from other international sources.
Israel will remain strong militarily. If a peace with Palestine goes bad, as in the case of Oslo 1993, the IDF can return Palestine to the Dark Ages. If Israel once grants recognition to a Palestinian state, its attack against armed Palestinians may actually may be viewed as more legitimate than at present among important other governments.
If an agreement is reached with Syria, the record of agreements with Egypt and Jordan indicate that Arab governments keep their agreements and guard their borders with Israel against violence originating on their soil. The weakness of Lebanon as a regime is less promising.

On the negative side of the ledger, or the reasons for Israelis to go through the motions only for the sake of not embarrassing the President of the United States:
Nothing that Israel attempts is likely to satisfy the United Nations Human Rights Council, the International Court of Justice, or the numerous other bodies and governments stacked against Israel.
The intense rejection of Israel, fueled by religious fervor, is not likely to be quieted by any kind of agreement. Moreover, the record until now is that Palestinian leaders are reluctant to act against those whose violence against Jews is motivated by religious or nationalist doctrine.
There is substantial distrust of Palestinian intentions, both among the Israeli Jewish public, and among Israeli Jewish politicians. Emotional issues like the division of Jerusalem, control of the Temple Mount, withdrawal of settlements in the West Bank, the return of Palestinian refugees, or the freedom of Palestinian prisoners convicted of killing Jews, can scuttle any effort at reaching agreement about the establishment of a Palestinian state.
There are no hopeful signs that Palestinian leaders are inclined to give up demands that have heavy emotional weight with their people, and which have equally negative emotional baggage with Israeli Jews. These include the right of refugees to return, exclusive Palestinian control of the Nobel Sanctuary (Temple Mount), and the freedom of Palestinian "prisoners of war," who are murderers or terrorists in the eyes of many Israelis.
Gaza is the bad half of Palestine, in the firm control of those who reject the legitimacy of Israel's existence. The leaders of Gaza continue to arm themselves with the tacit cooperation of the "moderate" government of Egypt, and do what they can to scuttle peace prospects with missiles, mortars, and attempted armed incursions into Israel. It is hard to imagine that peace negotiations with the Palestinians of the West Bank can survive a serious Israeli military attack on Gaza, if it occurs.
Politics in important places are subject to change. A liberal Democratic administration in the United States, and/or changes in the complexion of governments in Germany, France, and Great Britain may leave Israel exposed to intense opposition from other sources, including the threats of political isolation, economic sanctions, and even military intervention if Israel acts against violence from Palestinian or other Arab sources.

We should not overlook the weight of short-term political calculations and other pedestrian possibilities likely to affect great decisions. The current prime minister of Israel may see political advantages associated with a serious effort at reaching an accord with the Palestinians. To date, however, his numerous meetings with Palestinians have not permitted a accord in even the most general of terms. Signs are that Ehud Olmert cannot accept much of what seem to be non-negotiable Palestinian demands. Moreover, there are several police investigations underway against the Prime Minister, dealing with allegations of misconduct in offices that he has held.

If Olmert leaves office in the near future, there are too many combinations possible for even this fuzzy kind level of analysis for who might succeed him. It is not only a matter of who would be the prime minister, but what might be the make up of the Israeli government in the event of a reshuffle, or the Knesset in the event of an election.

In short, only God knows if we are on the verge of peace with Palestinians and others, or simply at another insignificant marker in the history of Israeli efforts to reach accords with its neighbors. And in the Jewish tradition, God has not spoken to anyone since the prophet Malachi, perhaps 450 BCE.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:56 PM
November 15, 2007
Oy gevalt

It takes a while for best sellers to reach my provincial corner of Jerusalem, but some of them have a message worth pondering years later.

Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004) tells a story of President Charles A. Lindbergh, who defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in the election of 1940, and proceeded to ally the United States with Nazi Germany. As a result of secret agreements with the Nazis, the Lindbergh administration began a policy of isolating Jews. Philip Roth is a 9 year old son of a lower middle class family in Newark, who tells the impact of this on his parents, and his fears. The story builds toward a pogrom, and then ends with the report that Franklin Roosevelt wins back the White House, and the United States returns to the real history of World War II. The book resembles a mystery novel with a well-crafted plot, but an ending that is not up to the challenge.

The Plot is not so disturbing in its portrayal of a historical fiction, as in what it reveals about Philip Roth the author. It suggests that the man who spent all those books telling funny stories about Jews and sex is afraid. His collection of prizes, and his position as a leading man of letters is not enough. Not too far beneath the surface is the little Jewish boy from Newark, who worries about the goyim.

Alan Dershowitz is another American Jew whose fame has not dulled his anxiety. I count myself among his admirers for his articulate defense of Israel against the no-nothings, Jewish and otherwise. Yet I also wonder, especially after reading Chutzpah (1993), about the fragile nature of the most successful Jewish community in the most successful of Western democracies.

A generation ago the most distinguished American colleges used quotas to limit the number of Jews they accepted as students, and their Jewish graduates could not aspire to serious positions in major banks or industries. Now many of those colleges, banks, and industries have had Jewish presidents.

Roth and Dershowitz are of the generation that learned about the Holocaust at an impressionable age. They matured when Israel was becoming the favorite target of self-styled civil rights activists while other regimes were guilty of much worse, and without the justifications of national defense that apply to Israel's case.

These are good reasons to worry about the shaky nature of Jewish success. Things looked pretty good for the Jews in Weimar Germany, and we all know how that ended.

A Jew who knows history can never say that it cannot happen again.

Nevertheless, a Jew can also see indications to moderate the fear.

Just this week the President of the Ukraine came to Israel, talked about an end to anti-Semitism, and was photographed, in a skull cap, kissing the stones of the Western Wall.

Jewish skeptics will wait and see about this sign of friendship from one of the places that aided the Holocaust, but there are other reasons to feel secure. Israel's 60 year history has had its tough moments, but not as tough as its adversaries. Israel is a serious player in international politics. It is not large enough or rich enough to be dominant, but it is strong enough to assure respect for its interests. The country is a major producer of the gadgets and programs at the heart of advanced technology, and appears among the World Bank's list of the world's richest countries. For the most part, Israel's leaders have used their resources carefully, and avoided adventures that are costly without end. The hyperbole of Hamas and Hizbollah does not sound right alongside the rubble.

Currently there is a majority in Israel's Knesset that is doing its best to assure that a government cannot make the kind of concessions that may tempt the Palestinians toward peace. By their reasoning, Arab neighborhoods have become part of Jerusalem's holiness to the Jews, and cannot be given up. One wonders if these Israelis are serious, or are simply positioning themselves against Palestinian madness that cannot abandon the refugees' right of return, or recognize Israel as a "Jewish state."

The Jews have left the shtetl, but the shtetl does not let us enjoy success.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:43 AM
November 10, 2007
Never say never

It is not easy being in the middle. One is always examining postures that are proclaimed or screamed from right and left, and feeling uncomfortable with both. The temperature heats up when someone prominent says it is time to make a clear decision. When that someone is the President of the United States, lots of people wake up and begin proclaiming their routines. Often they begin, "We must . . . " or "We must not . . ." Politics rejects the concept of musts, minimum or maximum boundaries for what is permissible. It is details that make something more or less tolerable.

The upcoming conference at Annapolis is one of those occasions when slogans are unfurled and waved against the rhetoric of adversaries. In this case, the atmosphere is so charged with distrust that invitations have not yet been sent out, even though people in the know say that the conference will begin during the last week of this month. I would bet that there will be a conference, but I would not bet the food money. I would not bet anything that the conference will make peace.

The Israeli prime minister is expressing his optimism that significant progress is possible toward a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians seem less hopeful, perhaps because many of their leaders are proclaiming their insistence on the right of refugees to return to homes they left decades ago, and Israelis are holding to a strong negative on that issue. Israeli leftists are claiming that this is the last opportunity on the horizon to be flexible, which often means giving the Palestinians almost all that they want, except (even for most leftists) the right of return.

More or less typical of the right is a message passed on from Shamash: The Jewish Network, affiliated with the Hebrew College of Newton. It urges Jewish and Christian friends of Israel to contact the White House, and insist that the President not pressure Israel about territorial concessions. Among its points are "the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people," and "The proposed concessions involve the Biblical heartland -- most of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) as well as parts of Israel's eternal capital, Jerusalem."

I would be among the last to support territorial concessions by Israel that do not come along with worthwhile concessions from the Palestinians. However, this language from greater Boston is what no one needs when serious negotiations are even a remote possibility.

"The Biblical heartland" is not the way to begin a conversation. For one thing, it is not clear what is the Biblical heartland. The Bible give several descriptions of the Land of Israel. (Genesis 15:5-14; Genesis 17:8; Numbers 34:2-13) And all of them may be nothing more than the hyperbole of Bible writers for an area that was much smaller than the smallest of these designations. Even that was, according to the Bible, was not given to the Israelites alone (Judges 2:20-21). Some of what is likely to be meant by the "Biblical heartland" are areas heavily settled by Arabs, and few Israelis want to keep them.

Rejection of negotiations about Jerusalem is more of the same. Jerusalem is currently the largest and most populous of Israel's municipalities. It was enlarged several times after the 1967 war. Since David is said to have made it his capital, the shape and size of "Jerusalem" has changed countless times. What we know as the Old City is not the same as "Biblical Jerusalem."

Most of Jerusalem is not holy to anyone. The neighborhoods where almost all Jews and Arabs live are no more sacred than parts of Indianapolis. Rejecting any negotiations about pieces of Jerusalem denies one of the more promising chances to give the Palestinians something that will not hurt Jewish interests.

To be sure, drawing lines through what is now the Jerusalem municipality will not be easy. It will tax the imagination of professional geographers as well as the tolerance of Israeli and Palestinian politicians. It will also raise knotty questions about forcing Arab Jerusalemites to become Palestinians, and perhaps giving up Israeli health insurance and other benefits. It may be best to search for some multi-national municipal framework with elements of neighborhood autonomy.

Any of several options would be better than what is on offer from those who wave a Bible in defense of rigid positions. A careful reading of the Bible shows that it says nothing about the proper boundaries of Jerusalem, and nothing clear enough to guide negotiations about the Land of Israel.

It is never useful to begin negotiations by saying, "No deal, except for what I want." A number of Palestinians are saying that with respect to the right of return. I would rather the blame for a failed conference be on them rather than on Israeli naysayers. I also know that neither Palestinian nor Jewish naysayers will listen to me.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:46 PM
November 07, 2007
On America

I spend much of my time thinking about Israel. When I moved here more than 30 years ago, however, I did not give up my license to think about the place where I spent the first half of my life. All those years in primary school pledging allegiance, saying the Lords Prayer, and singing patriotic hymns left their mark.

The leader of the world ain't doing so well. And in keeping with what remains of its power and influence, its troubles become our troubles.

We hope for better. Maybe we should have learned.

We can start with the crisis in sub-prime mortgages, likely to be rippling through all our economies for some time. The biggest banks put the money of the world behind schemes that looked correct politically, and maybe even clever economically. What they did, however, was to lend a great deal of money to people who could not afford to pay it back, often under conditions that made it even less likely that they could pay it back.

Yet another lack of wisdom appears in a series of articles in the New York Times. It was politically correct to reform New York City's programs for dealing with children unwanted by their parents, or whose parents could not take care of them. Most of those children in New York are African-American, Hispanic, or other kids of color. Minority politicians and activists argued that it would be best to care for them via organizations run and staffed by minorities, and located in the neighborhoods where the kids live. Some years after minority-run organizations began receiving a great deal of public money to run foster care, it is apparent that some, or even most are rife with incompetence and fraud. It is not easy to make inquiries about these organizations. Critics are said to be mistaken, short-sighted, insensitive, or racist. (See

Lest you think I am obsessed only with economics and politics distorted in favor of the poor and downtrodden, consider the recent fires in Southern California. Our pity went out in behalf of numerous overprivileged families who were living in dangerous areas, known to be fire prone. Planners moan their inability to stop people like those from doing the equivalent of playing in traffic, but real estate developers, people who want to live close to nature, and politics that prides itself in allowing people to do what they want stand in the way of good sense. (See

One cannot finish a letter like this without mentioning the problems of Iraq. The Bush Administration has succeeded in remaking a cruel, secular regime that had little or nothing to do with terror attacks on the United States into a chaos of a civil war, no less cruel to Iraqis, and much more dangerous as a new-born nest of Islamic extremism.

All of this makes Israel look like a well run, charming little country, which knows its limits and is not inclined to make things worse. Local banks are having a fire sale on American dollars. They have not been this cheap since 1998. The exchange rate is even convincing people to buy American cars. The more reliable vehicles made by the Japanese and Koreans have become more expensive.

We need protection from the American giant. The regime that produced sub-prime mortgages, minority-run foster care, and fire-prone homes for the rich now wants Israel to make it easy on Palestine to become a state. Occasionally we hear reservations from ranking sources in the American administration. All too often, however, we hear that the administration wants to go out with a success, like major progress toward a Palestinian state at Annapolis. Many of the Palestinians are decent people. Yet the people in charge have not learned to direct traffic, limit their own corruption, or deal with extremists who aspire to kill Jews. In the absence of wise Americans, Israelis need wise leaders who can say "No," or "Not yet."

We do not need the wisdom or the bite of Walter Lippmann, Thomas L. Friedman, or George F. Will. More appropriate is Alfred E. Neuman, the intellectual icon of Mad Magazine. If he is not still writing, someone like him may be the last hope of all who remain dependent on what used to be a great country.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:45 PM
November 04, 2007
A speech

Every once in a while there is a speech worthy of comment. Yesterday Ehud Olmert gave one of those.

Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair were the important people in the ballroom of the King David Hotel. Along with them were two hundred or so of the rich or well known.

Portions of the speech worth ridiculing were Olmert's claim that he was operating in the spirits of Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon. It was the 12th anniversary of Rabin's assassination, with the atmosphere heated further by being the day of the brit mila (circumcision) of the assassin's son. Sharon is the man who paved the way for Olmert to become prime minister.

Both Rabin and Sharon were all over the map politically. Part of their charm was their unpredictability. It is possible to cite each of them in behalf of virtually anything. Rabin cannot rise from the dead to contradict those who claim him in support of their latest idea, and it is unlikely that Sharon will wake from his 22 month long coma, give a quick reading of the newspapers, and announce his posture on what Olmert is saying.

The American equivalent would be George W. Bush claiming to be operating in the spirits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. He would not quote his father in order to avoid the possibility of a family embarrassment.

Mahmoud Abbas would claim the blessings of Salah al-Din and Yassir Arafat, Allah, and Mohamed, with Jesus Christ thrown in for the benefit of the half dozen or so Christians who survive in Palestine, plus the many more Christian clerics who applaud whatever the Palestinians do.

There were two points in Olmert's speech that warrant serious consideration.

One is his optimistic approach to conversations with Palestinian leaders and the Annapolis conference. He said that he respects his negotiating partners, and expects to reach an agreement that will be appropriate for both Palestinians and Israelis. Initially there will be a formulation of principles, and then negotiations about details that could be completed within a year.

The second point worth noting was the often-repeated Israeli mantra that Olmert will achieve a solution of two states for two people: Palestine for the Palestinians and Israel for the Israelis.

There are important code words in this simple message. They becomes apparent when compared to the Palestinian mantra: a two state solution.

The code in their formulation is that Palestine will be for the Palestinians, and Israel will be for the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Palestinians in Israel will be the refugees of 1948 and their descendants (and maybe those who left in 1967 and later) who will return to their homes.

These differences are a large part of what lies behind the warnings which we hear are expressed by Israelis and Americans to each other: that there remain chasms wide and deep, and perhaps unbridgeable between the Israeli and Palestinian positions.

It was interesting, and perhaps instructive to hear Olmert's optimism. It is too early to chill the champaign.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:33 PM
November 03, 2007

You can save yourselves the price of a ticket. Nothing is likely to happen in Annapolis. There may not even be a meeting.

The latest sign of implacable disagreement came from ranking Palestinians who assert that the Right of Return remains a cardinal plank in their demands, bolstered by a number of United Nations resolutions from 1948 onward.

We have tried to explain to the Palestinians that their homes no longer exist. They have been plowed under the forests, or built upon by Israeli neighborhoods. The descendants of Jews who lived in Jerusalem prior to the Roman onslaught of 70 CE have about the same chance of returning to their homes.

We have also tried to explain to the Palestinians that we are doing them a favor by not agreeing to their right of return. Imaging the scene of lots of grandpa's descendants, three or four generations removed from his departure, who claim priority rights to what they say was his parcel. Some will be loyal to Fatah, some to Hamas, and some to other movements. All will be armed, and not inclined to share the hundred or so square meters at stake.

Israelis have said until they are blue in the face that the key resolutions cited by Palestinians and their friends came out of the General Assembly. According to the United Nations own rules, they are not binding. They are no more a matter of "international law" than resolutions of the United States Congress, or part of it, that the Turks committed a Holocaust against the Armenians in 1915-16. Such resolutions satisfy some people and infuriate others, but do little to remake history.

This is not the only indication of Arab unreality in recent days. Another appears in al-Jazeera, usually a reliable media, that it was American planes that attacked a Syrian nuclear site last month, and that they destroyed it with nuclear missiles.

The al-Jazeera story sounds like questions that I once received when lecturing in a Muslim country: How do you explain why Americans piloted the planes that destroyed Arab air forces in 1967?

I do not know what happened in Syria. However, I suspect that then, as in 1967, Israeli pilots could press the right buttons. I doubt that the United States would want to open another front against another Muslim country, when is it busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are juicier targets in Iran.

It is even more far fetched to claim that nuclear weapons were used to destroy the Syrian site. It would have been the first use of nuclear weapons in hostilities since 1945. Many governments would have known very quickly, and stood on their hind legs in protest.

The Israeli government will, in all probability, send a delegation to Annapolis. The President of the United States wants it too much for an Israeli politician to say it is not worth the plane fare. The rest of us can relax, go for a walk, or do something else that is pleasant instead of waiting with anticipation for news of the conference outcome.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:19 AM