January 30, 2008
A distinguished commission

This was a big day in Israel. Not because of the snow that landed on Jerusalem, and not because of the Florida primary.

It was the day that the Winograd Commission was to issue its final report.

The Winograd Commission was appointed to examine the actions of key politicians and the military in the 2006 war in Lebanon. It came on the scene in response to severe criticism of the IDF's performance in the war, and the perception that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz had failed to provide the key decisions for the military to implement.

A month ago the Winograd Commission announced that it would issue its final report today. For the whole month we have been deluged with an increasing intensity of blah blah from commentators, and activists ratcheting up their campaigns.

Prominent are the heads of the political parties not in the government coalition. Leading this cluster is Benyamin Netanyahu, head of Likud, doing well in recent public opinion polls, and not missing an opportunity to blame the prime minister for imperfections in the war and everything else.

There are also organizations of military reservists, who have been claiming since the end of the war that the IDF was not prepared, and not well led, either by its commanding officers or by the governmental officials (i.e., the prime minister and the defense minister) charged with providing policy direction.

Yet another group includes the family members of soldiers who died in the war. They say that loved ones gave their lives in campaigns that were not well conceived or directed, and which accomplished nothing worth their sacrifices.

The full report of the Winograd Commission (i.e., the version available to the public without the secret stuff) is said to be 300 pages in length. It should be available shortly in Hebrew and English, via the site http://www.vaadatwino.org.il/index.html.

The printed version was made available at 6 PM today, Wednesday, January 30th. From 6:00 to 6:30 the chair of the Commission, retired Supreme Court Justice Eliyahu Winograd, read a summary of the report in a ceremony covered by the three major television channels.

The summary pointed to the failure of the IDF, described as the most powerful army in the Middle East, to deal effectively with the Hizbollah terrorist organization. It cited the military and the civilian leadership for not selecting and pursuing a clear strategy. The summary did not include a clear indictment of the prime minister, or material that would be decisive in the various campaigns to oust him. The distinguished members of the commission deferred the knotty political question to the political process.

By 6:45 we heard from politicians who had found details to strengthen their demands against the prime minister, and listened to representatives of the reservists and the families of those killed who found support for their postures. A retired general who failed during the last electoral campaign to win any Knesset seats for a party based on anti-corruption found in the report enough material to urge the present head of the Labor Party, Ehud Barak, to leave the government and thereby give Olmert a push toward oblivion.

One commentator said that there was enough criticism to keep the prime minister from opening the champagne. Other commentators are reading at speed. We are sure to hear much more over the next days. How long this goes on, and its impact on the prime minister seems likely to depend more on political calculations and maneuvers than the words of the Commission.

Whatever happens, the snow has been pretty. Some three inches produced a cancellation of school, university classes, and bus service. We are expecting more tomorrow, and school classes have been cancelled in anticipation. In the middle of today's storm, I looked out of my window and saw a rainbow at the edge of the snow field. Could it be as significant as that seen by Noah (Genesis 9)? A moment later there was a blast of sunlight on the desert mountains about 5 miles to the east on the way to the Jordan Valley.

The snow line ends about 300 meters from us. There is seldom precipitation 10 miles further east, in the neighborhood of Jericho. Jerusalem gets about the same average rainfall over the course of a year as London.

All this may be weightier than the Winograd Commission.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325
Fax: 972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:38 AM
January 25, 2008
Juding the less than perfect

Judging Israel is no simple task, but this does not keep the simpletons from complaining. We read that Israel is failing to take the steps necessary to protect its people, and failing to explain what it is doing; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz (who should not have been appointed) and their generals failed in Lebanon II; Israel is giving too much to the Palestinians of the West Bank; and is being too strict with the maintenance of barriers; Israel's lack of response to the missiles against Sderot reveals a moral bankruptcy; Israel's quarantine against Gaza, and its frequent incursions to capture or kill represent unacceptable violations of international law.

It is not easy being an Israeli policymaker, soldier, commentator, or citizen. The pressures are intense, and the constraints awesome. What other country faces chronic efforts to kill its civilians, and lives in the spotlight of international organizations that find it convenient to hold Israel (and usually only Israel) to the highest standards, and might welcome the destruction of Israel?

The country also suffers from its own history and political culture. It is the Promised Land of the Chosen People. Biblical prophets set the standard of intense morality. Nothing by way of realism or compromise in the face of constraints is good enough for prophetic demands in behalf of JUSTICE. Different prophets have their own standards of justice, and it is impossible to please one without offending others.

The prophetic insistence on perfection is found not only in the Bible. It appears on the op-ed pages of the country's newspapers, and from commentators heard daily on radio and television.

The prophetic mind set is not the sole possession of right or left.

Prophets from the right demand that Israel maintain control over the whole of the Land of Israel, and proclaim that the sky is falling on account of imperfect concerns for the Jewish people. Often this is the style of Diaspora-oriented fear mongers, or Israeli religious nationalists, who have not thought themselves beyond the shtetl or the Holocaust, or selected passages from the Torah.

The prophetic mind set from the left would hold Israel to the highest standards of openness and fairness to its minorities and neighbors, overlooking the real threats from people who want to kill Jews and destroy the country. Another kind of left-wing rant comes from people who want the best of public services. They demand for Israel what they imagine to be on offer in the richest countries of North America or Western Europe, without taking account of economic constraints. The World Bank ranks Israel among the wealthiest countries of the world, but close to the bottom of that league. It cannot afford to pay for all the goodies promoted by social activists. Moreover, its budget is constrained by the highest proportionate outlays on national defense of any Western country. Prophets seldom ask why.

We hear that higher education is in crisis and getting worse. Yet each of the country's universities appears on a recent list of the 500 best in the world; and one-half of the country's universities appear on a list of the 150 best.

Critics complain that the national health system does not provide all of the latest and most expensive drugs and medical procedures. Patients near death are convinced that they will be saved if health authorities would only be more generous.

Occasionally we hear that medical innovations may be life-extending, but that they are not life saving. If we pay close attention, we may hear that the stuff on demand does not work as desired all the time, or even most of the time.

The facts are that Israelis have shorter waits for physicians or operations than people of Britain or Canada, and its health system renders pitiful what is available to most Americans.

We hear that the inequalities of income are the worst among Western democracies, that the country's drivers are the most dangerous in the world, and that the country's workers are the most likely to be on strike.

None of these claims stands up to a comparison of national statistics.

When an Israeli says that the country is the worst, it is time to think about the prophetic mindset. The speaker who screams imperfection is not likely to be concerned with facts. That the prophet of the moment is a university professor or a ranking politician does not make the nonsense any more true.

On numerous indicators that figure in demands for perfection and claims of misery, the country actually scores somewhere in the middle of the rankings drawn from comparable countries, i.e., those that are western, democratic, and middle- to upper-income.

It is not wise for citizens to criticize their governments from a perspective of micro-management. Democracy is fine, up to a limit. Details are important in shaping day to day decisions and they change from the time of the last election. It may be tempting to throw out the incumbents because they are not governing according to the highest standards, but realities make for difficult decisions. Policymakers cannot know for sure what will happen as a result of one tactic or another. There is likely to be dispute at the summit of any democracy's government. And few democracies face the intensity of demands and constraints focused on Israel.

Israel is, arguably, the most successful of all the countries that came on the scene after World War II, whether measured by the maintenance of democracy, economic development, or the quality of social services. It is not Paradise. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah would be disappointed.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:32 PM
January 22, 2008
A plan too good

Moshe Yaalon is a wise man. He reached the pinnacle of the IDF as and head of its general staff. He fell afoul of his political superiors even more than other recent commanders, and his term ended after three years without the fourth year extension that had become customary. Since leaving the army he has spoken about several public issues, typically a bit to the right of center. He has consulted with Likud Party chair Benyamin Netanyahu. Commentators have speculated about Yaalon's political future, but he has not announced an affiliation with any political party.

This week he appeared on public forums with a new, reasonable, and attractive set of ideas. He views the established peace process between Israel and the Palestinians as bankrupt, principally because Palestinians continue to educate themselves to hate Israel and plot for its destruction. Yaalon would put the idea of a Palestinian state on the shelf for an extended period, and replace it with a staged program of reform. First there must be basic changes in the curriculum of Palestinian schools, emphasizing accommodation with Israel rather than hatred and destruction. Subsequent steps would work toward bringing law, courts, and police in line with those of western democracies; replace rampant corruption with economic programs meant to benefit the population; and develop mechanisms of government and public services consistent with these changes.

Yaalon's program presents an attractive ideal, but it does not take account of Palestinian and Arab realities. At the center of their culture is an ingrained hatred of Israel. It appears not only in the books and lessons of Palestinian schools, but lives primarily on the international support provided by Arab and Muslim countries, with their wealth, propaganda, religious establishments, and votes in international forums. Individual Palestinians face what may be an impossible task if they would like to separate from the insanity that has kept their economy from any progress, and imposed backward development over the course of recent years. As individuals, such people can leave Palestine with their families, and make a decent life somewhere in the west. Efforts to reform Palestine seem destined to frustration and failure. The infrastructures of Islam, Arab and Muslim politics are too strong. They live on hatred of outsiders, primarily Israel. The continued misery of Palestine, said to be a product of Israel, is at the center of their world view.

Egypt and Jordan have honored their peace treaties with Israel, and represent what may be the best that Israelis can hope for by way of neighboring regimes. For reasons of security, however, Israeli authorities occasionally urge us to avoid visiting them.

Should Israelis or outsiders adopt something like Yaalon's program and seek to break through Arab/Muslim theology and politics? Perhaps the whole house of cards represented by the hopelessness of Muslim countries could come toppling down if the reform of Palestine really works.

The signs are not encouraging. George W. Bush's aspirations to bring something like democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq are mired in civil wars. Whatever comes out of the current political campaign in the United States does not seem likely to persist with Bush's efforts to invest militarily and financially in a democratic Middle East.

European waffling with respect to Iran's nuclear program and the Israel-Palestine conflict is no more encouraging. Europe presents models of decent economics and politics that Muslims might adopt. But the European reality also features governments mortgaged to millions of Muslim immigrants, as well as the attractions of doing business with Muslim countries.

The most useful part of Yaalon's program is for Israeli officials to shelve the goal of a Palestinian state as a near-term prospect. Israelis aspire to living alongside a decent Arab society that gives up the dream of replacing Israel with a flood of refugees or something more forceful, and accepts severe limitations on the armaments that it can acquire.

There is no indication that the more accommodating, and somewhat secular Palestinians of Fatah (i.e., Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues) are willing to give up the aspirations of refugees or accept constraints on their sovereignty (i.e., limited armaments). Other disputes about borders, Jewish settlements, and sensitive locations in Jerusalem may be light years from resolution. And beyond these problems, roughly one half of Palestine in Gaza is under the control of Hamas and its allies. They are a long way from the modest expressions of accommodation heard from Abbas' party. Intense Islam, hatred of Jews, and the destruction of Israel are what we hear from Gaza.

Yaalon's plan may provide the long range guide necessary to any planning. What it lacks is a detailed map through the discouraging nature of Palestine and its supporters. Yaalon tells us where to go in the future. He tells us what not to do in the near term (i.e., work for a Palestinian state not likely to be accommodating). What he lacks is a persuasive plan for the short range designed to end Palestinian violence, and bring it to a stage where it might accept reform.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:54 PM
January 21, 2008
Ugly pictures

You have probably seen pictures of families in Gaza sitting in the dark, and heard of five or more patients who have died in hospital due to the lack of electricity, as well as many thousands who are hungry.

It is a lovely campaign, that has already brought demands for Israel to stop the embargo of supplies to Gaza. The calls come from within Israel as well as from Europe and Arab governments, the United Nations, and humanitarian organizations.

The problem is that the image of suffering is in large part bluff, created by Palestinians who are exploiting an opportunity to obtain sympathy and support. Electricity continues to flow to Gaza from Israeli and Egyptian sources. Overall power is less than normally available, insofar as Palestinian officials are not using fuel still available to supplement imports of power with their own generating station. According to Israeli sources, there is enough electricity to allow the functioning of hospitals. The people who have died when life support has been shut off should be recorded as involuntary suicides for the sake of Palestine. They were killed by Palestinians in pursuit of public support.

This is not the first time that Palestinians have orchestrated the drama of death.

Remember the pictures, shown time and again on television, of the young girl who threw herself on the sand upon discovering members of her family killed by an explosion. The claim was it came from an Israeli artillery shell. The Palestine National Authority lowered flags to half mast, and proclaimed several days of national mourning. However, IDF's inquiry found a gap of 8 minutes between the time of the last cannon fire and the explosion. It does not take that long for an artillery shell to fly a few hundred meters. There was no crater in the sand of the type an artillery shell would create. Israel admitted some of the injured to its hospitals, and found that the shrapnel taken from their bodies was not the kind of metal used in Israeli shells. The best guess was that the explosion came from Palestinian munitions.

On another occasion, a group of fighters paraded through the streets of Gaza with a truck filled with rockets. The missiles exploded and killed 19 and injured 120. The public relations machinery went into action and blamed Israel. Political opponents of those involved said that the missiles did not blow up due to an Israeli attack, but because of clumsy handling by those who paraded with them. That did not stop a rain of other missiles sent toward Israel as retaliation.

In response to current events, an Israel expert in communications has complained that Israel's public relations is failing once again. It is not producing a unified and convincing campaign to counter Palestinian accusations.

He may be correct. On the other hand, he should know that Israelis are not going to be united about anything. It is part of our strength to demonstrate that we do not operate like the minions of a dictatorial regime. We differ among ourselves. Some of us think that Israel is a cruel conqueror. Others reject that view, but waffle about the need to cut off so much of the supplies to Gaza. Yet others call for massive bombardment in retaliation for continued attacks on Sderot, and admire whatever is done to make Palestinians suffer.

The lack of harmony among Israelis may gain us more support than it loses because we do not all sing the same tune. If the enlightened people of the world support Israel because it is a lively democracy under frequent attack, they can probably put up with a few days of ugly pictures produced by Palestinians and their sympathizers.

A cut off of electricity and a shortage of food make dramatic pictures. The Palestinians are suffering. Civilized people do not enjoy pictures of hungry people sitting in the dark, or hearing about hospitals without electricity.

It may be time to remind ourselves once again that war is hell. The purpose of the embargo is to try a different tactic that may stop the bombardment of Israeli civilians. A cut off of supplies, even one that is worsened by Palestinian efforts to engineer world opinion, is less awesome than an artillery barrage, or an invasion by thousands of troops with hundreds of tanks.

Consumers who enjoy a good meal need not visit the factories where meat is prepared. Israelis and others who want to stop attacks on Sderot and other communities close to Gaza need not join the chorus of those who cannot tolerate portrayals of Palestinian suffering.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:01 AM
January 18, 2008

"Wow!" is the only response possible to a headline from news.walla.co.il. "Fatah Threatens: We Will End the Cease Fire with Israel."

I had not noticed that there was a cease fire.

It did not seem like a cease fire when a gang of Palestinians, members of one of the several security forces supposedly directed by Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas, killed two Israeli hikers three weeks ago. Nor is it a cease fire that brings the IDF into cities of the West Bank, presumably controlled by Fatah, to deal with people wanted for violence against Israeli civilians.

Further down in the same article was the news that Abbas was threatening to resign as President of the Palestine National Authority, and end the peace process if Israel did not stop attacking fellow Palestinians in Gaza.

Does this mean that Israel should accept more than 50 missiles per day fired at its civilians, and not take any action?

Yesterday there was a report that Abbas complained to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and said that President Bush's dream of peace in the Middle East was in danger because of Israeli attacks. The report, from Palestinian sources, said that the Secretary of State would pressure the Israelis to stop the attacks.

Was the United States Government signing onto the Palestinian narrative, that they have a right to resist Israel, while Israel has no other rights other than to comply with Palestinian demands?

Not quite. Or at least it does not seem that way, unless there is a rebellion under way in the American State Department.

The State Department spokesperson indicated that Israel has a right to defend its citizens, and noted the number of rockets fired against Israelis in the previous 24 hours.

All this is yet another sign of a profound cultural differences between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. Palestinians claim a monopoly of rights. The conflict is our fault for being here. They have a right to resist the conquest with violence. Why does Hamas have a right to attack Israel after the withdrawal from Gaza? Because Israelis are still occupying Israel, and have not gone into the sea.

The same day that one group of Palestinians was threatening to end a cease fire that does not exist, another group was threatening that Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured 18 months ago, would end up like Ron Arad, an Israeli airman captured in Lebanon 21 years ago. Arad has apparently died, but without leaving a body or notice of same.

Someone ought to remind the Palestinians that they are in danger of becoming a collective Ron Arad. They can disappear into history without achieving any national aspirations.

While Palestinians speak in hyperbole, Israel keeps trying to communicate with reason. The IDF counters violence directed at civilians with measured and moderate responses. It would be no problem to bombard Palestinian settlements in Gaza in response to every rocket attack against an Israeli town. Israeli weapons are more powerful and better aimed than what comes out of Palestinian metal shops. Whereas they have killed something like 10 civilians with their rockets in seven years, but make life miserable for 20,000 people with frequent warning sirens and missiles that make a lot of noise, Israeli artillery might kill thousands per hour.

The IDF does not do that. It targets individuals associated with attacks on Israel. There is collateral damage, insofar as the bad guys spend a lot of time mingled with family members, neighbors, and children of the streets who congregate to watch the action. Israeli soldiers have abandoned attacks when civilians were in the way or close by, but it does not always end neatly.

Will this continue?

Most likely.

Will it end the peace process?

Not much sign of a peace process, except in the speeches of George W. Bush and the efforts of Ehud Olmert.

Palestinian threats of ending a cease fire do not generate much emotion, or four letter words. "Wow" is the most that seems appropriate.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:38 AM
January 11, 2008
A problematic note

I am ambivalent about writing this note.

One reason is that I might be wrong.

Another reason is that, whether I am right or wrong, or even partly right, what follows may add to the reputation of Jews as being slippery and somewhat deceitful.

Part of me says that is all right. Jewish history has taught us to use our brains to avoid trouble. Israel's condition is not enviable. Our enemies are vicious. By comparison, slippery and deceitful are admirable qualities.

My purpose is to explain, to myself and others, what is happening in the peace process.

On the one hand, the American administration is putting its considerable prestige behind a push aimed at Israeli and Palestinian officials to meet continuously toward resolving disputes of considerable difficulty: the final borders of each state; the defense of Israel; the fate of Israelis living on land to be assigned to Palestine; and the resolution of the problems associated with Palestinians who left their homes 60 years ago. Some would add other issues to this list, but these are complicated enough to carry the burden of this note.

The man who carries the title of President of the Palestine National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has nominal control over the West Bank. His record when in nominal control of Gaza, or now the West Bank, in order to improve the lives of Palestinians or to assure Israeli safety is open to serious question. Publicly, he adheres to non-negotiable positions with respect to Palestinian refugees, the borders of the Palestinian state, and its capital in Jerusalem. Each of these is counter what is acceptable to large or small majorities of Israelis, depending on the issue.

Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, expresses his commitment to ongoing negotiations, but also cautions against excessive optimism. He has coupled security from Gaza along with security from the West Bank as conditions of significant Israeli concessions. Insofar as the Hamas rulers of Gaza are dead set against any concessions, the combination of Abbas' and Olmert's postures seem to assure that the peace process will produce nothing but frustration.

What is really happening?

My own guess is that both sides are playing a game, or engaged in what commentators call "virtual negotiations." Read that as something like a computer game. President George W. Bush demands serious efforts, and the position of the United States is such that President Bush will get serious efforts.

The danger is that frustration will produce another uptick in Palestinian violence. Israeli have lived through lots of these since the early part of the 20th century, and the security forces have learned to cope. Currently the Israeli casualties due to Palestinian violence are about 3 percent of the casualties due to road accidents. The Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank lose more of their people killed, injured, and put in Israeli prisons on a weekly basis than Israelis lose in a year.

The number of Israeli casualties is not the whole story. Currently the Israelis who live near Gaza are paying an especially heavy price due to rockets and mortars fired against them on a daily basis. This is intolerable, but perhaps inevitable. To stop this for more than a short time Israel would have to risk a much higher casualties rate than at present among its soldiers, and kill so many Palestinians as to risk international censure.

Like it or not, Israel lives on a knife edge of international tolerance, similar to the historic problem of Jews throughout the Diaspora.

This is not a happy conclusion, but in comparative terms it looks better than at first glance. As Israel approaches its 60 birthday as an independent country, it enjoys a World Bank ranking among the richest countries. Israelis do better than Americans on measures of health and longevity. Its social services could be better, and it could invest more in its economic future, if it did not have to spend so much of its resources on national defense, and if so many of its young people did not have to spend so much of their time as soldiers. Compared to American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent military accomplishments of Israel look pretty good.

Perhaps a bit of play acting on the part of our prime minister is one of the requirements for keeping on the good side of the United States and other great powers. Some of us might aspire to greater heroism and more overt honesty. We should remember, however, that one of the secrets of political success is going along in order to get along. Politics is not for simpletons. Israeli politics may be more demanding than most. Too much heroism, and too much honesty would be out of place.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:43 PM
January 09, 2008
A concert

The tower, stonework, landscaping, and interior spaces of Jerusalem's YMCA ("yimka" in the local tongue) make it one of the city's landmarks. It is across the street from the King David Hotel. Both reflect efforts from the time of the British Mandate to do something impressive in the Holy City. They are just east of downtown, and just west of the Old City.

Among the YMCA's features is an ornate concert hall, showing its age and problems in competing with grander facilities in the Jerusalem Theater and the National Convention Center. It has seats for about 500, and the rent is probably a factor in attracting the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. The folks in charge saved on the heat during the first concert that occurred in cold weather, so yesterday we dressed as we would for an American football game in its season.

We debated whether to forego the experience. President's Bush's choice of the King David Hotel for himself and more than 200 of his companions meant that a large area around the concert site would be closed to private cars, buses, and taxis. Announced demonstrations threatened to create more noise than the small orchestra playing on its instruments from the 17th century. Would it be worthwhile for the mandolinist from Italy and the bass soloist from Britain, along with the 10 or so on violins, violas, oboe, cellos and harpsichord to do their thing? The average age of Jerusalemite enthusiasts for baroque music, as shown by previous concerts, was above 70, and would probably go above 80 if we overlook the group of young people who come with their instrument cases from their classes at the Academy of Music. How many would brave the winter weather, the police barricades, and the need to walk from bus stops or parking places outside of what security personnel had declared to be the sterile zone?

Apparently lovers of baroque music are quietly enthusiastic. It is not the stuff that provokes jumping and dancing in the aisles, but it is great in its measured way. Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Frideric Handel, Arcangelo Corelli, and Johann Sebastian Bach, whose works were on last night's program, remain best sellers 350 years after they did their work. The crowd was only a bit smaller than the 200 or so that came to earlier performances. It could not have been encouraging for the musicians to work in a hall that was only about one-third full, but they did a great job. As usual, some of us nodded off to sleep now and then, but what to expect from our age and the nature of the music? Some of the moments were fantastic, and we all woke up to clap loud and long. For the first time this season, we demanded and received an encore, and left the hall only at 11 PM.

Other things were happening in the neighborhood. Today's headline is that George Bush will tell Mahmoud Abbas that Palestinians must choose between a state and chaos. I hope that will make them think about Yassir Arafat, who chose chaos over a state the last time an American president involved himself deeply in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict during 2000.

Ehud Olmert said that Israel demands peace from Gaza as well as the West Bank, as a condition for moving forward toward a two-state solution. He also reiterated that the Israeli state would be a Jewish state, which means that Palestinian refugees will have to be elsewhere.

What we heard from the Palestinians was disappointing. The Palestinians are demanding an immediate end to all construction in Jewish settlements of the West Bank, and will promise only to do their best to stop the rockets from Gaza. American officials support the Palestinians on the issue of stopping settlement activity now. As I heard Olmert, however, that will not happen, at least not until there is enough order in Gaza to stop the rockets. Other Israeli officials have made the point that Abbas' government has not done anything more than cosmetic efforts to stop the violence coming out of the West Bank, some of it traced to members of his own security forces.

Last night's music warranted an extra effort to get through the mess of Bush's visit. What was happening nearby indicates that baroque music might have to age for another 350 years before the Palestinians achieve a state of their own.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:21 PM
January 08, 2008
A presidential visit

In advance of President George W. Bush's pending visit to Jerusalem, we have heard a great deal about Israel's failure to remove "illegal settlements" from the West Bank. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also stated that she opposes construction in some neighborhoods within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem.

Let me be so rude as to offer an elementary lesson in political science, which is embarrassing not only in light of the fact that the Secretary of State is a former professor of political science, but because it may embarrass Israel's recent prime ministers.

Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have exceeded their mandates when they committed themselves to remove those settlements.

The problem is not so much in the realm of legal authority, but of political feasibility.

An American president cannot make certain commitments without noting that implementation depends on Congressional approval. A treaty requires the approval of the Senate. Programs of financial aid or technical cooperation depend on appropriations approved in both Houses of Congress.

An Israeli prime minister is bound by a somewhat different set of constraints. They are not complex. Most political science undergraduates ought to be aware of them.

Insofar as no political party has ever won a majority in a national election, each government is a coalition of different parties. Often the coalitions are fragile. They may keep a prime minister, or any other minister, from implementing something close to their heart, even if they are the subject of international understandings.

This seems to be the case with respect to the "illegal settlements." According to a recent report in Israeli media, there are about 100 of these, with some 3,000 residents in total. Conversations among attorneys on national television reveal that criteria for making a settlement "legal" are complex. The result is that some locations well within Israel have been "illegal" for years. The issue is a bit of an embarrassment, insofar as it reveals that this law-abiding democracy may fall short of following all the rules that it imposes on itself.

Whatever the details, there are two parties in the government coalition (SHAS and Israel Our Home) that seem dead set against withdrawing settlements. There are members of other parties in the coalition that would prefer not to withdraw anything. They might abstain or even vote against their own government should the issue be put to a vote.

Were Prime Minister Olmert to embark on a serious effort to withdraw settlements, he could lose his government and his job.

The reason is not entirely ideological. It has something to do with the several thousand rockets fired against legal settlements within Israel after the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew the Jewish settlements in Gaza. It also has something to do with the 1,100 Israelis killed in this upsurge of Palestinian violence labeled intifada al-Aqsa. Those who oppose withdrawing illegal settlements say, among other things, that the issue's position in the so-called Roadmap to Peace, as an equivalent of the Palestinians stopping the violence, reveals a lack of moral balance. There is no clear sign that the Palestinians have worked seriously to stop the violence. A gang affiliated with the Palestinian security forces, presumably under the control of President Mahmoud Abbas, killed two Israeli hikers only a week ago. And the rockets keep coming toward Israel out of Gaza.

Until all that stops, there seem to be enough Israeli ministers and Knesset members set against withdrawing settlements to make the Prime Minister's feelings on the matter insufficient to proceed toward implementation. It is as if an American president expressed a personal commitment, but Congress failed to provide the money.

Prime Ministers Sharon and Olmert may be at fault for not hedging their commitments by their capacity to garner the approval of their government colleagues.

There is another problem associated with the president's visit. The Sharkanskys have tickets to the series of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. The next performance is set for the day the president arrives, in the concert hall of the YMCA, across the street from the King David Hotel and its presidential suite. The police have announced that the area will be "sterile." That means no cars, problems for pedestrians, and fouled public transportation for blocks around. Officials of the orchestra tried to change the site of the concert, but without success. Maybe someone out there can convince the president to change his hotel reservation. Or otherwise tell us how to get where we want to go.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 05:45 AM
January 05, 2008
Jewish junk

Every once in a while I feel it necessary to clean out my electronic cupboard labeled "Jewish Junk." It is there that I file material far to the right or the left. Usually I glance without reading closely, in order to keep my blood pressure at levels that daily pills can control. Some of it so ridiculous as to be funny. Some of it may be dangerous, insofar as it can incite extremes to the point where no accommodation with Palestinians or others is possible.

In the sub-category of the ridiculous is a circular that I received several times, beginning about a year ago. Its message was that educational authorities of the United Kingdom had removed teaching about the Holocaust from schools through the country, due to pressure from Muslims. The authors urged that their circular be passed on to the entire address book of all recipients. Only in this way could we deal with this latest threat to the Jewish people. Googling revealed that this was a myth. A few local schools had bowed to such pressure, but no such policy had been taken across the United Kingdom. The vast majority of British children were still learning about the Holocaust.

The panic apparent in the letter about the UK turned to the corner to the absurd with a more recent circular indicating that the University of Kentucky had stopped teaching about the Holocaust due to Muslim pressure. It aroused my suspicion due to language identical to the letter about the United Kingdom. Guess what? A genius focused on the UK in the earlier letter, and concluded that it concerned the University of Kentucky. A web site of the university assured visitors that there was a course labeled The Holocaust as part of the university's program in Jewish Studies.

Daniel Pipes has several entries in my cupboard of Jewish Junk. His latest is an item on his web site--and passed along to me by several sources-- indicating that Barak Obama may really be a Muslim, despite his continued insistent that he is a Christian. (http:www.danielpipes.org/article/5286) Pipes' analysis focuses on Obama's middle name (Hussein), and a long absent Kenyan father, whose ancestors may have been Muslim. Pipes argues that Americans ought to be wary of choosing a president with Muslim roots, insofar as Muslim extremists would target him as an apostate subject to a death penalty. I perceive a subtext suggesting that Jews should not vote for an individual who might be a Muslim, or feel close to Muslims. To be sure, one cannot be sure about the meaning of "subtexts" that are not explicit in a message. The danger is that Obama or people close to him would view Pipes' writing as a Jewish plot against their candidacy. Not smart to turn a potential president into someone suspicious about the Jews.

Another item came to me several times, and originated with Reuven Koret, who says that he is the publisher of Israel Insider: Israel's Daily Newsmagazine. All that may be true, but this was my first notice of him or his magazine in the 32.5 years I have lived here. In a piece headlined "Applying Jim Crow laws to Israel: An Open Letter to Secretary Rice," Koret writes that the American Secretary of State is violating her own life story by pressing on Israel concessions to Arab leaders who are nothing but Ku Klux Klan-type racists intent on exterminating the "people of Israel from the Land of Israel."

"Secretary Rice, neither you nor your bosses, have the right to judge us, nor do our leaders have the right to let you to do so. You are acting in ways that show us that you are not an honest broker, nor someone who knows very much about our region, and certainly not our country. Only the people of Israel can decide what is in the interests of the people of Israel.

You are aligning yourself with the world's most racist and anti-semitic autocracies. And if your actions in Annapolis, and in your subsequent maneuver at the UN, are any guide, you are learning from them and following their orders like they were your slavers. You are applying Jim Crow laws to Israel. That should as shameful and humiliating for you as it is for us."

Enough from the right. I generally do not bother saving the junk that I receive from the Jewish left. When in need, I can find all I want on the op-ed page of Ha'aretz. Anyone wanting examples can Google Amira Hess and/or Gideon Levy. They will supply all one wants to support the view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is almost entirely the fault of Israeli racists, imperialists, trigger-happy soldiers, mad settlers, and policymakers who do little more than contrive to maintain an illegal conquest.

Ha'aretz remains Israel's best daily newspaper. But its editor is as extreme as some of its columnists. David Landau attended a private meeting of leading journalists with Secretary of State Rice. Insofar as he was only one of about 20 news people in attendance, it did not take long for reports about him to begin circulating. There is some dispute about what he said. One claim is that he referred to Israel as a "failed state" in need of a U.S.-imposed settlement. He implored Rice to intervene, saying that the Israeli government wanted "to be raped" and that it would be like a "wet dream" for him to see this happen. Landau said his views had been delivered with "much more sophistication. . . . I did say that in general, Israel wants to be raped -- I did use that word -- by the U.S., and I myself have long felt Israel needed more vigorous U.S. intervention in the affairs of the Middle East." (http://www.jrtelegraph.com/2007/12/haaretz-editor.html)

Not all of the junk written about Israel comes from Jews. An Israeli concerned about remaining well balanced may be tempted by Jews to join the anti-Semites, but I am not there yet. Arab activists and the most sophisticated of distant intellectuals and politicians provide enough to demonstrate that the junk is not entirely Jewish. Israel is not a country of the mad, but it seems to incite madness. Jewish junk deserves a letter of its own. I have written, and will write further about non-Jewish junk.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:24 PM
January 01, 2008
Emergency planning

In response to my last note indicating a continued decline in Israelis killed by Palestinian violence, one of my American friends asked about Israeli murders.

His question sent my back to the Statistical Yearbook, and to the American equivalent for comparative data.

I found that the Israeli police recorded 189 cases of murder in a recent year, and the Americans 17,000. The incidence per 100,000 population was 2.6 in Israel and 6.3 in the United States.

Some years ago Israel's population was about the size of metropolitan Detroit. Then I found more murders per weekend in Detroit than all year in Israel.

My most recent letter indicated that the annual incidence of Israelis killed by Palestinian violence declined from 452 in 2002 to 13 in 2007

My friend's letter also prompted me to look at traffic deaths. Israeli alarmists claim that our drivers are the worse in the world. I did not do a comprehensive survey, but I did find that they could be no worse than the second most dangerous, after American drivers. The numbers show about 6 road fatalities per 100,000 in Israel, and about 14 in the US. I suspect the occasionally shooting or knifing associated with an argument about a parking space affects the rate of murders, and not traffic deaths.

Alcohol is probably the best explanation for the difference in traffic deaths. Even with a spike in the sale of vodka with the arrival of one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Israelis still drink less than Americans.

I closed my message to the friend who inquired about murders with a suggestion that he come and visit. It would be safer here than in his home town, including a more secure ride from the Tel Aviv airport than to the airport from which he would depart.

The day after I sent this optimistic message, a brochure entitled, "Guide for an Emergency Situation," produced by the Homeland Security department of the IDF, arrived in Israeli mailboxes.

I recalled getting something similar during the 1950s or 1960s in the United States, concerned with preparing for a nuclear attack.

The current Hebrew version (with an invitation to call a toll free number for material in English, Russian, or Arabic) does not deal with a nuclear attack, but focuses on picking out a space in one's home most likely to be secure, stocking water, food, and first aid supplies, as well as material that can be used to seal the space against poison gas. Those who read only French, Spanish, Amharic, Turkish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Portuguese, or whatever are likely scratching their heads.

The brochure has separate chapters for the parents of children in various age groups, as well as the physically limited, autistic, and the aged. I read the last one closely.

Until a year or so ago, we all had gas masks. The IDF collected them in order to refurbish them and update the syringe with an antidote against gas.

Then Syria began to flex its muscles, which include missiles capable of carrying gas. The IDF announced that it could not resupply us quickly, without a lot more money. As a political scientist who did a dissertation on budget strategies, I wondered if it was just a political ploy, or if should I feel more vulnerable.

Being good citizens, we held a family discussion about the best place in the house to prepare for an emergency. I am expecting a shipment of bottled water and canned goods, along with plastic sheeting and tape to keep out the bad stuff.

While writing this note my email pinged with a note from a scholar affiliated with a distinguish British university.

He begins:

In reality, there is no fundamental difference between the ultimate goals of Hamas and the PLO vis-à-vis Israel: Neither accepts the Jewish state's right to exist and both are committed to its eventual destruction. The only difference between the two groups lies in their preferred strategies for the attainment of this goal.

He concludes:

The Israeli government and the international community will be dangerously deluding themselves in continuing to view Abbas' adamant refusal to fight terrorism as a reflection of political weakness (as they did with Arafat in the early Oslo years) and his avowed commitment to "the right of return" as a bargaining chip or lip service. To deny the depth of the PLO's commitment to Israel's destruction is the height of folly, and to imagine that it can be appeased through Israeli concessions is to play into its hands. Only when Palestinians reconcile themselves to the existence of the Jewish state and eschew their genocidal hopes will the inhabitants of the Holy Land, and the rest of the world, be able to look forward to a future less burdened by Arafats and their gory dreams.

I think that my American friend can still risk a visit, but there are no guarantees.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:35 AM