February 28, 2008
More on homosexuality

Whenever one of these notes touches on a matter of religion, I am reminded about the sensitivity of the topic. It is easy to step on tender toes, no matter how careful I am to phrase myself with care.

The most recent example concerns the report about the denunciation of homosexuality by Shlomo Benizri and other SHAS members of Knesset. Along with that, I included the well known phrase from the Book of Samuel about David's love of Jonathan. While I emphasized the ambiguous and problematic nature of the material, responses to the note in the blog section of the Jerusalem Post were very clear about the abomination that I had committed. http://cgis.jpost.com/Blogs/Sharkansky/entry/a_shaking_distractionposted_by_ira#comments

The theme common to several of the comments was that the Bible was clear; that the love between David and Jonathan was equivalent to that of a father for his children or a man for his brother. Only a reprehensible ideologue like me could twist it into a justification of homosexuality.

Some of the comments came from people with limited understanding. One said that the passage was from the Torah, which is the first five books, and has a different status in law and commentary than the books of Joshua through Chronicles (in the order of the Hebrew Bible). One dastardly respondent even referred to me as a woman. This did nothing but recall my embarrassments as a child when people identified me as a girl because of my name. Two of David's colleagues when he was a young man and leader of bandits were named Ira; and both became ministers in his government when he was king. (See II Samuel 20 and 23; I Chronicles 11 and 27.)

Several years teaching and writing about religion and politics, and two sabbaticals spent at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah provided me with considerable education about the sensitivity of religion. Calling the young David a leader of bandits is likely to provide me with another lesson. Before screaming, please read I Samuel 25. The episode of Nabal depicts David operating a protection racket. He and his men collected resources from farmers whom they protected from marauders, with themselves among the potential marauders. Nabal's wife Abigail pleaded with David not to take revenge on her husband for refusing to pay for protection. By the end of the story, Nabal was dead and Abigail was David's wife.

Large numbers of people who make their way to religious shrines in the hope of improving their health, achieving other goals, or overcoming problems. Christians have Lourdes, Fatima and a host of other sites noted for their powers; Jews visit the tombs of Rachel and famous rabbis; Muslims go to Mecca as well as several sites associated with key figures in Shiite or Sunni history (and occasionally bomb them in order to insult and kill despised rivals).

The Knesset delegation of SHAS is not composed of simple people who walk on their knees, flail themselves, or wail in hopes of attracting the attention of a deceased intermediary with the Almighty. They are sophisticated politicians who currently have 10 percent of the parliament. They have served as prominent ministers in several governments, and have used their political muscle to garner resources for their primary schools, religious academies and teacher seminaries, as well as the construction of new neighborhoods designed for the large families of their affiliates.

We can never know the true beliefs of politicians who speak and act in order to garner votes and resources. In the case of Jews, moreover, the emphasis is more on performing acts according to God's law, and not proclaiming belief. Jews remain Jews, no matter what they believe. Religious Jews judge one another by what they do or avoid.

Homosexuality is a hot button for the Orthodox. The emphasis is on what is forbidden explicitly, rather than artful interpretations of David's comment about Jonathan. Especially prominent have been opposition to gay marches, most notably in Jerusalem. The problem comes when members of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities discover that they are homosexual or lesbian. There are care givers and families who express understanding and support. There are also families who shun those who sin, individuals who live in conflict, as well as teachers and rabbis charged with taking advantage of people dependent on them. There are ultra-Orthodox politicians who assert that homosexuality resembles bird flu and causes earthquakes, and others who remain silent and may thereby be expressing reservations.

For the next two weeks, we plan to be enjoying the sights and tastes of Sicily. I will try to keep from asking, "Who runs this place?"

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 09:03 PM
February 26, 2008
The demonstration that wasn't

It was a campaign that fizzled.

We began reading in the press last week about the IDF's preparation for a Palestinian effort to break through the border from Gaza and into Israel. This was against the background of their destroying the southern border crossing, and pouring by the tens of thousands over several days into Egypt.

Palestianian aspirations were for upwards of 40,000 school children and others to join hands in a human chain from the southern to the northern boundaries of Gaza. The purpose was to call international attention to the suffering of Gaza under the Israeli blockade. Organizers said that it would be a peaceful demonstration, but the Palestinians themselves said that some groups were planning to break through into Israel.

It did not happen.

Perhaps 2,000 children and others participated. The human chain was missing numerous sections, and did not stretch from the south to the north of Gaza.

It rained heavily on the day set for the event.

Hamas did not cooperate. Some weeks earlier, Hamas turned out hundreds of thousands for a celebration of its anniversary as a movement. Its incentive then was a food package provided to those who would appear, and a threat for those who expressed reservations. On this occasion, something kept Hamas from using its money or its muscle.

Commentators reported that the thin turnout reflected Gazans having tired of the Hamas regime, and the suffering associated with it.

Israeli officials warned the Palestinians that they would not tolerate a breakthrough at the border, and arrayed considerable force in the event of an effort. Government ministers said that the IDF and police would employ non-lethal means of crowd control, but that no one would be allowed through in any case. A day before the planned event, the IDF moved tanks and artillery into position, along with thousands of police and soldiers. Newspapers on the morning of the demonstration showed pictures of snipers positioned where they would have a shot at anyone planning to reach Israel. From all the signs visible to the Palestinians, non-lethal force would be only the first line of defense.

Demonstration organizers saw success in their failure. It was their first effort. They learned. There would be other efforts, more successful than this.

Israelis agreed that there would be other attempts. They also learned the advantages of clarifying their own intentions. Massing armour, artillery, soldiers and police is expensive, but worth the price if it persuades the Palestinians that a charge against the border would not be worth the risks.

Television crews and journalists from around the world had assembled at the border crossings to record the mayhem. There was nothing to broadcast, except for pictures of a demonstration that did not happen.

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 12:57 AM
February 21, 2008
Earthquakes and homosexuals

We have some relief from the Iranian president calling us a filthy germ that must be destroyed, the continued fall of rockets on Sderot, residents' demonstrations in behalf of greater protection, and mounting pressure for an operation in Gaza.

A Member of Knesset turned our attention to earthquakes. Recent quakes have been minor. But we are on the edge of the Syrian-African rift, and there is a history of major quakes.

Shlomo Benizri's explanation of earthquakes is homosexuality. He urged the Knesset to debate how to end sexual relations between men, and thereby prevent earthquakes.

Benizri has been minister of health and minister of labor and welfare, and is prominent among the 12 member delegation in the Knesset of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS.

This is not his first time in the religious spotlight. While attending an international meeting of health ministers, he avoided meetings devoted to public health and medicine until he was convinced that the hotel would be serving him kosher food.

The parliamentary head of the SHAS delegation attacked a recent decision by the attorney general to allow adoptions by homosexual and lesbian couples. According to this Knesset member, the attorney general's decision will lead to the corruption and destruction described for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18, 19).

Yet another SHAS MK compared single sex relationships to bird flu.

The organizations of homosexuals and lesbians are protesting. Media commentators plus some secular politicians are sharpening their ridicule. Politicians who need SHAS votes now, or are likely to need them in the future, are quieter and hoping this will pass.

Religious activists have no trouble finding Biblical condemnations of homosexuality.
"If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them."(Leviticus. 20:13)
Yet David is one of Judaism's most revered figures. What he said when he heard about his friend Jonathan's death is widely quoted. Those wanting to preserve David's purity and the ban on homosexuality can find ambiguity in the statement. It does not describe lovers in a bathhouse. Nevertheless:

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. (II Samuel 1:26).
SHAS is a member of the governing coalition. If the issue heats up to the point of the party leaving the government, Prime Minister Olmert would lose his parliamentary majority.

It probably will no go that far. Israel has learned to live with otherworldly expressions. The spiritual leader of SHAS, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said that African Americans suffered greatly from Hurrican Katrina because they do not study Torah; and that IDF soldiers died in Lebanon because they did not pray correctly. Another SHAS rabbi explained a road accident that killed numerous school children by reference to flawed mezzuzzot in their home town. Other ultra-Orthodox rabbis have said that the Holocaust was God's punishment for the development of Reform Judaism in Germany.

Americans may actually be more affected by the consequences of religious doctrine than Israelis. The rights of homosexuals and lesbians in Israel to create families, to enjoy the economic benefits available to spouses, and to adopt children continue to expand despite apocalyptic denunciations. We suffer nothing like public schools required to teach creationism, one effort after another to limit the possibilities of abortion, or government coupling of campaigns against AIDS with the mantra of abstinence.

SHAS politicians may be more concerned about the laws of God than the laws of Israel. The attorney general has charged Benizri with accepting bribes, fraud, and breach of trust. According to the indictment, a manpower contractor paid Benizri, as minister of labor and welfare, for allowing him to import foreign workers. A former minister of interior and head of the parliamentary delegation, plus a SHAS back bencher both ended their political careers with terms in prison. Party supporters claimed that their were innocent, or involved in activities considered conventional for politicians who were not religious or Sephardi.

David remains a national hero.

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 08:20 PM
February 19, 2008
Missing another opportunity?

Key Israeli and Palestinian officials have been meeting since before the Annapolis conference. We hear that they are negotiating toward principles, or the elements of a final settlement. They have agreed not to release details of their conversations. Some have emerged, but it is difficult to judge if they are hard information, disinformation, non-negotiable demands, or somebody's wishful thinking. (See, for example, http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1203343702790)

What we hear is not encouraging.

The Palestinian prime minister does not think things are moving fast enough. " . . . not enough has happened over the past nearly three months that could suggest to me that a treaty per se is going to be possible (by the end of 2008)."

In recent days the participants have been hung up on discussions about what to discuss. In particular, Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cannot admit that he is discussing the division of the city. The topic has become a hot button for right wing and religious Israelis, as well as overseas Jews. No matter that the city sprawls hither and yon over more territory than any other Israeli municipality, and includes Arab neighborhoods that few Jews visit. Some of those neighborhoods are obvious bargaining chips, but the name "Jerusalem" says "holy" and "never again." The city is political tinder.

The SHAS ultra-Orthodox political party, with 12 Knesset members of the 67-member governing coalition, says that it will withdraw if Olmert discusses the division of Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

Olmert has said that he has the agreement of the Palestinians to postpone the discussion of Jerusalem until other issues are settled. That would seem to save his government for the time being.

But oopps. Palestinian leaders deny any such agreement, and say they must discuss Jerusalem along with other important issues.

Is this another one of those times when the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity?

Or is a lack of willingness to admit flexibility with respect to Jerusalem Israel's stubborn insistence on missing an opportunity?

My guess is that the votes are here for pragmatic concessions on Jerusalem if we can get that far. I fear that the Palestinians will not let us get that far.

If they cannot accept a tactical concession of timing that helps Olmert keep his coalition together, how likely are they to make other compromises from what they have said are their non-negotiable demands?

I have yet to hear a commentator say that there is really any hope to these negotiations. And without Olmert's coalition, there is nothing on the political horizon that would be more promising.

Gaza is a major lump in everybody's throat. Rockets keep flying in the direction of Sderot and other Israeli communities. The IDF has small units in Gaza on a daily basis. It frequently takes prisoners or has its helicopters fire a missile that removes yet another figure from its wanted list.

Palestinian negotiators object to this level of active defense as violations of international law that make it impossible for them to negotiate. One can imagine what they would say about a larger scale invasion that might resemble the 2006 war in Lebanon. That would mean at least 1,000 Palestinians killed and whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble. The IDF is planning something like that. Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Barak, and ranking officers of the IDF are not inclined to take the risk of heavy Israeli casualties, but continued attacks on Israeli civilians may require a large response.

Palestinian negotiators come from the Fatah party that Hamas expelled from Gaza after a short but bloody civil war. Israel's prime minister has said that he will not make peace with Palestinians when part of their country is in the hands of Hamas and other factions committed to Israel's destruction.

What is the answer of Fatah? The Palestinian prime minister says that progress in peace talks will create "a positive dynamic," generating support in Gaza for the Fatah government."

In other words, Israel should bring about renewed Fatah control of Gaza by making concessions that Fatah wants in the peace talks.

This sounds like pie in the sky, as well as a continuation of the Palestinian mantra: why should we solve our own problems, when someone else is responsible for them, and must solve them for us.

Even if a miracle happens and Hamas concedes Gaza to Fatah by recognizing that Israel really is peace loving, this seems unlikely to help the residents of Sderot. When Fatah was in control of Gaza, with perhaps 30,000 individuals in its security forces there, it was unable or unwilling to stop the rockets.

If God helps those who help themselves, the Palestinians are in trouble. Their often proclaimed misery produces no end of free food and sympathetic lip service. It will take more on their part to achieve a state.

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 06:37 AM
February 16, 2008
Palestinian basket case

What else is new?

John Holmes, the United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs indicated he was shocked by a "grim and miserable" situation he found in Gaza. He traced it to Israel's closing of the borders, and allowing in limited supplies of food, fuel, and other goods.

Holmes said that only 10 percent of the previous flow of goods was going into Gaza. " . . . people are not able to live with the basic dignity to which they are entitled . . . what is essentially needed is an opening of the crossings, a lot more goods coming in."

If Holmes' views accomplish anything, they are likely to add to Palestinian misery. The United Nations already feeds more than 80 percent of Gazan residents. This is not a new program reflecting current miseries, but represents an activity that has been going on since 1950. It is a large part of Palestinian dependence, and their refusal or inability to deal with what happened to them six decades ago.

The visit did not set the region on its toes. The Jerusalem Post published a story of about 450 words in length. I found no reference to the visit in Hebrew-language papers with much larger circulation. Israel's government spokesman did not exactly grovel at the claims of the Undersecretary-General. He said an improvement depended on an end to rocket fire. "If terrorists in Gaza were to cease firing rockets into Israel, trying to kill our people, the situation could very quickly return to where it was,"

The Post indicated that Holmes was scheduled to visit Sderot. So far no news about his impressions there.

Outside of Israel the noise was not much greater. The Washington Post had a brief article, shorter than that in the Jerusalem Post. The New York Times seems to have avoided it altogether. If there was anything in the internet edition of Al Jazeera, I could not find it. The BBC web site reproduced a story virtually identical to that in the Jerusalem Post, but without mentioning Holmes' plans to visit Sderot.

More prominent than the visit of the man from UN with an elaborate title is news about an explosion in Gaza that killed a key operative of Islamic Jihad and five of his family members, and injured more than 40 others. While some Palestinians are claiming that the explosion resulted from a missile fired by the Israeli Air Force, the IDF has denied conducting any operations in the area. Hamas own police are saying that the cause of the explosion was unclear, and that it may have been a "work accident" (i.e., caused by someone who did not know how to handle munitions).

Islamic Jihad has promised retaliation. So this may join the list of self-inflicted wounds used to justify yet another barrage of rockets aimed at Israel. We will have to see how many of those explode on the way to the launching site, or fail to reach Israel and land on a Palestinian.

The tragedy that links the dismal proclamation of the UN official and the explosion in a Palestinian workshop is insistence on blaming Israel for Palestinian suffering. Their self-assigned fate is to be an international basket case. Thanks to the weight of Muslim countries in international forums, there is a bit of food in the basket, and no end of visiting dignitaries who cluck their tongues and speak about misery. There can be no national dignity or a functioning state until Palestinians can take responsibility for themselves, and throw away the beggar's bowl.

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 12:37 AM
February 13, 2008
Who did it? What will happen now?

Who did it?

The issue is the assassination of Imad Mugniyah, a ranking operative of Hizbollah, and high on the wanted lists of Israel, the United States, and numerous other countries.

He was credited with the bombing of the Marine base in Beirut that killed more than 200 Americans, explosions in Israeli and Jewish facilities in Buenos Aires that killed more than 100, plus assorted plane hijackings and other abominations.

People like him do not surrender at the local police station. Someone went after him, close to the center of Syria's capital, and got him with a bomb placed in or under his car.

Initial Israeli responses were said to be denials. More recently the commentators have been reading closely the official statement. They now find ambiguities as well as coyness in the expressions of key ministers. Whoever did it, Hizbollah and Iranian sources say that Israel was responsible and will pay the price.

The price may be heavy. It is conventional to say that the bombings in Buenos Aires came in response to an earlier Israeli attack that killed a Hizbollah leader and his family.

It is no surprise that Israelis are already arguing if the most recent killing was worth the price that may have to be paid. Insofar as the price may come from overseas Jews, they should ponder the consequences even if their representatives were not let into whatever forum decided about this. It will not be pleasant if a community center in Minneapolis, a synagogue in Britain, or a senior citizens' residence in Miami Beach comes tumbling down on its clients. Those kinds of facilities are less likely to be protected than Israeli installations here or abroad, and morality is not a prominent trait of Hizbollah, Hamas, Iranian, or Syrian operatives.

The argument of its worth turns on the importance of the figure. Israelis, Americans, and others are saying that he was not well known to the general public, but had been a key figure in planning details that took hundreds of lives. That somebody got to him in central Damascus will also shake the prestige of Syrian authorities, and may lead other figures like him to spend more time protecting themselves and less time working on their plans to destroy others. Mugniyah's colleague Hassan Nasrallah will be addressing his funeral via a large video screen, and not risking his own presence on a public platform.

Advocates of peace will concern themselves with the cycle of violence. Whoever did this will add a significant push to that cycle, and almost certainly cause harm to Israelis and/or overseas Jews. That harm will make its own contribution to continued cycles. All this is sad, but seems inevitable if we take seriously the frequent proclamations of Iran, Hizbollah, Hamas, and others that Israel must be destroyed. I recall one cease fire that the Palestinians and Israelis declared as of 6 AM. The Israelis withdrew their tanks from Gaza, but the first rockets landed in Israel before 11 AM. As long as rhetoric of hatred and destruction continues at its present intensity, Israel (if it did this) has few alternatives other than persuading its enemies that violence has a price. Insofar as they glory in their images of death and destruction, a bomb may be the best way of communicating with them.

There is also pride in accomplishment. Numerous Israelis seem to believe that this was our work. Doing it in Damascus adds to the appeal. Does it make up for the killing of an aged physicist in Dimona, or the leg of the young boy from Sderot? It is not in the same league as the rescue from Entebbe, but it is something that we need every once in a while.

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 10:26 PM
February 11, 2008

Most of the rockets and mortars fired toward Israeli civilians fail to make it out of Gaza, or land in empty fields. Over the course of seven years, they have killed 11 Israelis. During the same time, many more Palestinians have died from them, either because they have exploded on the way to launching or landed on them instead of on Israelis.

This week, a missile injured two brothers who were on their way to a cash machine so they could buy their father a birthday present. The younger brother, age 8, absorbed a great deal of shrapnel. Physicians have already amputated one of his legs, and they are fighting to save the other. They are also fighting to save his life. He remains unconscious several days after the injury.

The missile that injured him was one of more than 20 fired toward Israeli settlements on the day of his injury. Numerous others had come in the previous days, seemingly in response to the killing of several Palestinians by the IDF.

For the residents of Sderot and other settlements near Gaza, as well as for numerous other Israelis, the boy's injuries were more than enough. The occasional death is only one measure of the damage done to the towns near Gaza. Perhaps 20 percent of the residents have moved away; factories have closed, or are losing money as employees have left, or spend considerable time going to and from shelters in response to warning sirens; children and adults suffer from emotional exhaustion to the point of psychological injury.

Hundreds of people from the area have come to the center of the country in order to demonstrate their frustration and demand greater action in their defense. One day they blocked a main road in Jerusalem; the next day they were doing the same in Tel Aviv. Early reports were that drivers indicated their support for the inconvenience, rather than expressing anger as they have done for other movements that have sought to press demands by blocking traffic.

Politicians are calling for a military onslaught into Gaza, or the razing of Gazan neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the British and American governments, and humanitarian organizations here and abroad, have protested against Israel's first cut of one percent in what is said to be a gradual cutting back of the electricity transmitted to Gaza. In the eyes of these sharp readers of international law, it is not proper to harm Gaza civilians, even while Gazans aim their missiles at Israeli civilians.

The government is absorbing considerable pressure from those who want more effective action, most prominently a major invasion that will impose order on Gaza. Military professionals oppose an invasion, due partly to the cost in soldiers' lives, and partly to the limited contribution it is likely to make to ending the missile attacks absolutely. They prefer targeted killings of key operatives, and small unit actions that spend short periods in Gaza to damage installations, seize wanted figures, kill or injure those who oppose them, and then withdraw before they become fixed targets for counter attack.

The defense minister argues that an escalation of current activity, but not a full blown invasion, is the best way to deal with the missile attacks. The missiles will not stop soon, he admits, but they should stop eventually.

Demonstrators continue to disrupt traffic and make their points with friendly hosts of talk radio and nightly television news. So far, the media are close to 100 percent with the protesters. There is a wide national feeling that the southerners have suffered more than enough. It is time for the government and the IDF to do something more effective.

It will be a while until we know how all these pressures will affect the muddlers. The prime minister is in Germany discussing important things with the chancellor and president of that country. The defense minister is scheduled to make a short visit to Turkey in order to discuss mutual problems of security. Other ministers and defense officials continue to ponder options.

It is one of those times to check the media frequently. And even more frequently once the defense minister and prime minister are sitting around the same table.

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 04:08 AM
February 05, 2008
Muddling through

Some of my notes find their way to the blog section of Jerusalem Post on line, and some of those elicit reader comments.

A number of them say more about Israel than what I have written. I am talking about the extremes, which are a disproportionate number of the comments that appear in the Post, and some of those that come to me directly.

On the one side are those that insist that Israel is an offense against history. It should never have come into being, and the world would be pure again if it disappeared into what should be the Middle East. The Zionists are the last expression of colonialism. The Jews stole the land with their conniving, money, and weapons. We continue to violate international law, and bring the Dark Ages to the Arabs of Israel and Palestine.

On the other side are writers who say that I fail to recognize danger. Arabs and Iranians are assembling ever more powerful weapons, always closer to our borders. Views like mine reinforce the actions of the Israeli government that have brought misery, and are bound to produce greater disaster. If Israel is to counter the clear signs of doom, it must react forcefully to every attack and threat, and give up on the fantasy of living at peace alongside Arabs.

I am not aware of any other western democracy that is viewed by so many as illegitimate, or in danger of succumbing to those who threaten its existence.

Meanwhile, a majority of Israelis, along with most leading politicians, the IDF and other security organizations operate between those extremes. We muddle through conflict pressures from Arab violence, condemnation from extremists who demand surrender or military onslaught, and constant pressures of foreign governments that often are supportive but urge only moderate efforts to defend ourselves.

Muddling through is a classic political response to intense pressures. It assures a continuation of severe criticism insofar as it does not surrender either to enemies, or to the insistence of those who claim that moderation is dangerous.

Muddling through is less risky than its alternatives. The vast majority of Israelis are living better than if they gave up and sought entry to their previous countries (or those of their parents and grandparents) in Eastern Europe, North Africa, Iraq, or elsewhere in the Middle East. The smaller number of Americans and Western Europeans among us could go back, but most likely without the health benefits, jobs, pensions, and other goodies that we enjoy here.

A surrender to Arab demands might please observers who feel that the Jews have corrupted history since 1948, but could also produce a slaughter that would recall the reason why the Jews worked so hard to create Israel.

Muddling through is also more attractive than the aggression favored by critics who view us as timid and foolish. It avoids a concerted attack by the armies of Arab countries that have accustomed themselves to Israel's existence. It keeps Israel on the right side of western democracies that might deny access to their economies and technology if they viewed Israel as crossing the line between reasonable efforts at self-defense, and barbarism.

Those who view Israel as timid might take another look at Gaza and the West Bank.

The results of muddling through for most of its existence are not all that bad. Arab violence remains a problem, as demonstrated by the death of a 73 year old woman this week in Dimona, and the rain of rockets on Sderot and other communities near Gaza that come predictably in response to Israeli attacks. The casualties and anxieties are intolerable, but arguably less than would be produced by a military onslaught likely to accomplish nothing more than a temporary lull in the attacks.

We are, after all, stuck with unpleasant neighbors. Cleaning them out of the neighborhood is beyond our power and would violate the norms that motivate many of us. Urging them to become good neighbors is an attractive option, but is beyond a reasonable level of optimism.

We enjoy a European standard of living along with our anxieties. The neighbors who are working so hard for our destruction are not doing as well. We hope for better, and one of these generations may get there. Until then, a prime goal of muddling through is not to make things worse.

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 08:16 PM
February 03, 2008
A time to celebrate?

Two groups of Israelis should be celebrating the problems of their antagonists. There is not necessarily an overlap between them, but the coincidence warrants some discussion.

The largest group of Israelis that can celebrate is that which does not want a Palestinian state. The Palestinians have created two tiny enclaves, pretty much at war with one another.

The Gaza portion, under the control of Hamas, seems inclined to attach itself to Egypt for supplies, but the Egyptians are showing traditional coolness. They have erected one kind of barrier or another between themselves and the Palestinians of Gaza since 1948; and now the antipathy is made even greater by the Hamas regime and its affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is those chaps we frequently see in courtroom cages while being tried for one or another kind of rebellion against the Egyptian government.

The West Bank portion of Palestine may be tempted to cuddle up to the Jordanians, but that possibility is hardly more promising than an Egyptian option for Gaza. The Jordanian population is already more than 60 percent Palestinian, and the king is not inclined to move in the direction of 80 percent via anything like an absorption of the West Bank.

We know the reception among Israelis of Mahmoud Abbas' principal demands: a return of refugees to their pre-1948 homes; and a return of Israel to something close to, if not identical with the borders as they were prior to 1967.

The Palestinians have worked themselves into a situation where the three countries they depend most upon (Egypt, Jordan, and Israel) are not inclined to provide more than lip service. It is not a good route toward the creation of a state.

Another group of Israelis who should be celebrating are those with limited tolerance for the Labor Party. The party's leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is likely to have produced at least a temporary (and perhaps permanent) end to the party's glorious history. He has talked himself out of an earlier commitment to withdraw from the Olmert government upon the publication of the Winograd Committee report about the war in Lebanon. Barak said that it is not an appropriate time to upset the defense establishment by making changes in its leadership, or to upset the larger picture of Israeli politics by moving toward an election. Yet the Labor Party (chronically divided by competing factions) is wrenching itself apart. Close to half of its Knesset members have begun calling their leader a liar, manipulator, self-centered, unreliable, and other uncomplimentary things. Nine members of the Labor Party delegation in the Knesset say they will vote against anything proposed by the government.

That will not be enough to topple Prime Minister Olmert. But a party depends on at least a minimum of unity in order to elect its candidates. Barak's action, no matter how justified in some eyes, will write finish to Labor Party hopes in the next election, and maybe elections after that.

What can we say about an Israel that does not have to worry about a Palestinian state, or a Labor Party?

The best bet is that Israel will continue to muddle through something close to the status quo, both in international relations and domestic politics. Without a new crisis, the Olmert government can manage to survive, even if rebellious Labor Party members will keep it from innovations. There is a long wish list of programs to improve the economy and society, whose items excite one or another group of political supporters. But with a reasonably stable economy and a weak Palestine, Israel will be all right until an election is required in 2010, or called earlier in response to events not possible to predict at this time.

Forget about a Palestinian state, for the near and perhaps distant future. George W. Bush wants a agreement between Israel and Palestine before the end of his term, but few Israeli commentators think that is possible. Ehud Olmert is a team player, a friend of the President, and ultimately a survivor. He will go through some motions. The Palestinians are so tied up in their own fantasies and conflicts as to take the state option off our schedule.

Palestinian regions will remain weak. The status quo includes frequent IDF incursions into the West Bank and Gaza. Israel's stock of Palestinian prisoners is somewhere around 12,000 and rising.

Not all is rosy. The Hamas regime of Gaza is arming itself with more and better munitions. It is getting missiles via Egypt capable of reaching much further into Israel than at present, as well as anti-aircraft missiles. They will complicate the task of the IDF's helicopters over Gaza, and if they find their way into Israel they can threaten international travelers.

Hamas will continue to have its own problems. Its leaders should notice what Israel did to Lebanon in 2006. If that kind of force is unleashed against Gaza, the damage could be much greater insofar as Gazans do not have the possibility of fleeing warfare with the ease of Lebanese.

Israel also has a powerful weapon that is not overtly deadly. Its recent suspension of supplies to Gaza was temporary, but seemed to end Hamas' enthusiasm for firing rockets against Sderot. The rate dropped from more than 50 per day to a handful every few days. Hamas says it wants supplies only from Egypt, and the Egyptian government has responded with something like an assent. But the infrastructure for full supply from Egypt will not be easy to create. Egypt is poor country with problems of supplying its own population. The enthusiasm expressed for Palestine by its media may not be enough to keep the Gazans in food, electricity, fuel, and other goodies.

A concern for their own population has never been a major priority for Palestinian leaders. The prospects of letting go with some missiles that will reach Tel Aviv may be the greatest of their fantasies. If they do anything like that, however, they are likely to encounter a lot of their compatriots when they get to Paradise.

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 09:13 PM
February 02, 2008
Who are the real zealots?

In case you have not heard, the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and much else that is bad in the Middle East, is the fault of the Jews.

Not so much the Jews of Israel, as the Jews of the United States.

It is the zealous among them who demand that American politicians "mouth hawkish pieties and never . . . indicate any sympathy for Palestinians."

Because of this, "Israel's travails continue. The very policies pushed . . . by supposedly pro-Israel advocacy groups have produced disaster for Israel. They ensured that U.S. assistance to Abu Mazen's Palestinian Authority would be so stingy that Hamas would beat Fatah in the Palestinian elections. . . . They pressured the Bush administration not to insist on the immediate dismantling of the illegal outposts and checkpoints . . . They encouraged neither prisoner exchanges nor cease-fires, nor a permanent settlements freeze . . ."

This comes from the keyboard of MJ Rosenberg, the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center. (See

Rather than mouthing pro-Israel platitudes and doing nothing to force peace, Rosenberg would have an American presidential candidate say, "I will do everything in my power to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and a secure state for the Palestinians. As a supporter of Israel, I believe that Israel's surest route to security is by reaching an agreement with the Palestinians."

There is a kernel of truth to what Rosenberg writes. Right wing "Jewish junk" is part of the discourse, produced by individuals who fear anything less than total victory over Arab evil, very soon.

Every once in a while, an overseas activist urges that Israel grant voting rights to overseas Jews. Predictably, the response includes a loud "Oy gevalt."

The fear is for zealots of the left as well as the right. What Israel does not need is giving the vote to people without the understanding and stake in what happens. No matter how emotional they may be in behalf of one posture or another for the sake of Israel, Diaspora Jews do not pay income taxes that reach the 35 percent bracket on the equivalent of about $5,000 monthly income, and 47 percent on $9,000, as well as a 15.5 percent sales tax; and they do not send their children into the IDF for two or three years that are boring and unproductive at the best, and likely to be dangerous.

Overseas zealots perceive the Middle East in blacks and whites, rather than many shades of gray. While those of the left would believe everything said by Arab spokemen and give away the store in speedy negotiations, those of the right are unwilling to do anything other than exercise the maximum of fire power (and the cannon fodder of young Israelis) to protect what they see as Jewish interests.

Rosenberg's concern about right-wing zealots misses the essential point of the Middle East conflict. It is not overseas Jewish zealots who stand in the way of a settlement, but Palestinian zealots. Their control of Gaza is absolute, as is their rejection of Israel's right to exist. People like them may not control everything that occurs in the West Bank, but the mayhem they can produce if Mahmoud Abbas offers too much in negotiations gives them a veto in what optimists call the peace process.

Palestinian zealots do not need a formal right of veto. Abbas is closer to them than moderates in Israel or overseas would like to think. He does not simply mention the right of refugees, but continues to promote among his people the return to the world of 1947. Optimists say that he is just mouthing slogans that he will abandon as negotiations proceed. Maybe. But he expresses the rights of refugees often enough to suggests that he is serious.

If Abbas has paid attention to Israeli leaders of virtually all political factions, he should know that he is demanding a deal breaker. Despite his words in behalf of peace, his posture allies him to the Palestinians who fire rockets against Israel, or prepare themselves as suicide bombers. The rockets flew when he had nominal control over Gaza, and violent gangs (some of them part of his security services) continue to operate in the West Bank.

My conception of a zealot is a person who cherishes violence as the essence of politics, or demands that the clock go backwards by 60 years. In comparison, American Jews who want platitudes from candidates are harmless.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:30 AM