March 28, 2008
The road goes on forever

The tacitly agreed period of calm lasted for two weeks. It began to unravel with occasional rockets sent toward Israel, and came to an obvious end on the day that 20 traveled our way.

It lasted longer than what had been declared as an official cease fire some time ago, openly agreed and signed by Israelis and Palestinians. That one began at 6 AM with the withdrawal of Israeli tanks from Gaza, and ended with the first rocket fire toward Israel at 11 AM.

The 20 rockets that came in one day recently may have been retaliation for an Israeli raid that destroyed several empty buildings on the Gaza side of the border. Snipers were using them for cover while firing at kibbutz members plowing their fields. Or the 20 rockets may more simply have been the itchy fingers of Palestinians uncomfortable with calm toward their sworn enemies in Sderot.

Not all is well among the Palestinians in nominal control of the West Bank, which remains the hope of Americans, Europeans, and Israelis wanting two democratic countries living side by side. According to the Jerusalem Post, the Authority is investigating:
The source of a $600 million investment in Jordan being made by a man who served as Yassir Arafat's financial advisor, and more recently as an aide to Mahmoud Abbas
Documents released by the Palestine Authority's ambassador to Romania, indicating that Ahmed Qurei, the chief negotiator with Israel, has embezzled $3 million.
The charge that Qurei and his son are owners of a cement company selling a key ingredient to Israel for the abominable defense barrier and apartments being built on what Palestinians call their land
The charge that another ranking official had tried to smuggle 3,000 cell phones into Israel
Arabs generally are not in much better shape. Reports from the Arab League summit conference in Damascus emphasize key figures not attending rather than any action likely to be taken. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, and Iraq did not send the customary kings or presidents. Lebanon did not send any representative. The summit is likely to announce its annual allocation in the range of $600-$700 million for the Palestinian Authority. However, members actually delivered only half of last year's allocation.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on her way to Israel and Palestine. She is likely to spend her time reminding the parties that President Bush insists that negotiations move forward and accomplish something while he is still in office. She will ask Israelis why they have not removed illegal settlements, and roadblocks that hamper Palestinian movement. The Israelis will respond that these actions have been promised, and will be done. Someone is likely to tell her that the steps demanded of Israel are not the moral equivalent of demands that Palestinians stop the violence. Since Israel removed a major block of settlements from Gaza the response has been more than 2,400 rockets.

If the recent past indicates what will happen in the near future, Olmert's government will not bring itself to arouse domestic opposition by removing many, if any, of the illegal settlements. It will ask the IDF's opinion about removing roadblocks. The IDF will document the security risks, and the roadblocks will remain.

Domestic and overseas critics of Israel say that Olmert is too weak, politically, to take the steps necessary to make peace with the Palestinians.

Weak, he may be, dependent on Knesset members from coalition partners and his own party opposed even to discussions about dividing Jerusalem with the Palestinians. But Olmert is a political Hercules compared to Mahmoud Abbas. The Gaza half of Palestine answers to Abbas' enemies, implacably opposed to concessions with the Zionist interloper; Abbas himself has shown time and again that he does not have the will or the capacity to act against Palestinian violence, or incitement to violence in its schools, mass media, or mosques.

I have loaded my MP3 music player with folk songs from my youth: Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, The Highwaymen, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and others. When not otherwise occupied with profound thoughts, I listen to their words while walking the neighborhood and on my way to the university. Insofar as the sources are from the time when Israel evoked positive images among the artsy folk, there are some joyous songs in Hebrew. Most themes are plaintive expressions of failure, misery, and hopes disappointed.

Several of the songs offer appropriate commentary for the past, present, and most likely the future of the Middle East: The road goes on forever; Blowing in the wind; Where have all the flowers gone?.

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 09:44 PM
March 25, 2008
When will the crises end? A look at the American economy and Israel

Figuring out what is happening with respect to Israel's problems with the Arabs is like figuring out what is happening in the American economy.

Both have been marked by periods of calm, and both have seen their years of crisis.

Israel is affected by the numerous perspectives among Arabs, including intense Islamists and nationalists, and competition between them. There is always a faction that sees violence as the way to its paradise, against what may be a majority who are content to live alongside of Israel at peace.

American investors are perennially threatened by individuals and institutions that cannot stop pursuing a good thing to the point where it becomes absurd. The image holds for the meltdown of the early 2000s, and for the sub-prime disaster mixed with the packaging of complex financial instruments that analysts have trouble understanding and evaluating.

Hopefully, we have entered a period of relative calm in this part of the Middle East. If so, it may come from Israel's willingness to use a bit of its power. One hundred and twenty deaths in Gaza over the course of a few days, against two Israeli deaths, and continued shortages of fuel, electricity, food, and clean water may have convinced enough of the Hamas leadership and their allies that violence does not produce what they hoped.

Just about every day we hear dire threats from Hizbollah leaders in Lebanon. So far the border is quiet, and there has yet to be an attack against an Israeli or Jewish facility overseas. The calm may end sooner rather than later. But it may reflect more than 1,000 Lebanese deaths in 2006, and the substantial destruction in Shi'ite areas of the south and Beirut. Against Hizbollah bombast, Israeli sources have said that an attack on the north or an overseas facility will produce more destruction in Lebanon.

The Israeli choir that laments the lack of IDF success in the 2006 war may be singing the wrong tune.

In the case of the American economy, and this part of the Middle East, it is difficult to know just when a crisis has passed. And it is impossible to find a period of more than a few years of prosperity/quiet between crises. The time frame for Israel goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. The American economy has shown busts far back into the 19th century.

In both cases, there has been boom after bust. The American economy retains the strength of its size, and until now has bounced back from its excesses of greed, stupidity, and corruption. Analysts who admit to being baffled by the most recent manipulations of entrepreneurs say that investing in common stocks pays off in time.

Despite the chronic threat of violence, Israel is arguably the most successful of the 100 or so countries born in the aftermath of World War II, both in the quality of its democracy and the extent of its economic development. The World Bank ranks it as one of the world's wealthiest countries, albeit toward the bottom of that league. All of Israel's universities appear on a recent list of the 500 best in the world, and half of the country's universities appear on lists of the 150 best. I know of no old country whose universities do as well collectively.

Israel's Arab minority scores closer to the Jewish majority on measures of income, health, and longevity than do African-Americans with respect to whites in the United States. On measures of health and longevity, Israeli Jews and Arabs do better absolutely than American whites and African-Americans.

Israel's democracy is notable for its competitiveness and openness to internal criticism. For those who read the op-ed pages of daily newspapers that emphasize the problems and the dangers, it is difficult to believe that the country has survived.

Neither the American economy nor the Israeli polity can rest assured. American ideas of individual freedom and minimum government provide the opportunities for unlimited foolishness as well as creativity.

Israel lives in a region soaked with extreme varieties of religion and nationalism, along with an Arab mass that can turn quickly to focus on the Jews as the source of all that is evil.

Israel's leaders muddle through a number of unpleasant alternatives. They cope with attacks on their civilians by a limited use of their military power. Pacifists, humanists, and anti-Semites do not see 120 deaths in Gaza and more than one thousand in Lebanon as "a limited use of military power." Among the factors that keep those numbers lower than they might be is the intolerance of the United States and European countries for prolonged campaigns of Israeli self-defense; and a concern for humanitarian values that affects Israelis as well as others.

Israeli leaders, and Americans with responsibilities for economic control, should give up on the dream of solving their country's problems once and for all times. A period of calm that last for days, or ideally weeks, months, or years is the most they should expect.

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 02:21 AM
March 19, 2008
Current events

It seems that Israeli media never gets things quite right when they report about the Palestinian economy.

Two sons of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are suing Israel Broadcasting for a news report they claim is faulty: that they are the owners of a Palestinian cell phone company.

Another indication that cell phones can be profitable, and that Israeli media is misleading, concerns a story about a ranking official of the Fatah faction, also associated with Abbas. He was apprehended this week trying to smuggle 3,000 cell phones over the border from Jordan. He says that his driver who was smuggling the phones.

On the political front, there are complaints about Israeli actions, and an awesome threat.

The Palestinian who is responsible for negotiating with Israel is up in arms about more apartments being built in neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and a town near Jerusalem. He rejects the addition of even one Israeli room on land that he claims as Palestinian. The construction is a violation of Israel's obligations with respect to the Road Map to Peace, accepted by Palestinians and Israelis, under the patronage of George W. Bush.

The issue of the Road Map is more complicated than he claims. Israel accepted it with reservations. Arguably, those provide room for the construction at issue. The reservations also insist on Palestinian efforts to work against violence and incitement. On these, the Palestinian negotiator is silent.

Another senior Palestinian, the Deputy Minister for Prisoners' Affairs, has announced the implementation of the right of return in the next six weeks. Overseas Palestinians will descend on Israel at the time of its 60th anniversary celebration. They will come by plane and boat, waving United Nations flags, armed with their refugee documents and foreign passports, and claiming that they wish to live in peace alongside Israelis.

The Deputy Minister's responsibility for prisoners' affairs is itself a weighty job, insofar as some 12,000 Palestinians are in Israeli custody. Perhaps because there is not much the Deputy Minister has been able to do for them, he is promoting a scheme that could bring who knows how many of the millions claiming Palestinians refugee status.

The anchor he relies on is United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, initially passed in 1948, which calls on the resettling of refugees. Insofar as the Resolution came from the General Assembly and not the Security Council, it lacks whatever legitimacy might be claimed under the heading of "international law."

But that does not bother the Deputy Minister or other Palestinians who trumpet Resolution 194 whenever they are in a mood to make demands.

Israel knows how to protect its borders against unwanted visitors, even if they come equipped with the passports of the United States or other countries whose travelers do not require visas to enter the country. The result of all of this, if it produces anything, may be nothing more than additional prisoners, who the Deputy Minister will also be hard pressed to assist.

One doubts that many unwanted guests will descend upon our border guards. Six weeks is not much time to produce an operation of this magnitude. Flights may already be fully booked, insofar as Jewish organizations and other friends of the country are also planning to participate in the celebrations. But one should never say never. The Palestinian Deputy Minister for Prisoners' Affairs may impress us with his administrative skills.

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 09:38 AM
March 15, 2008
Abbas and Holocausts

We received a text message from Mattan about the killing at the religious academy while having dinner on the south coast of Sicily.

It led me to think further about the comments a week earlier by Mahmoud Abbas, that Israel's activity in Gaza was "worse than the Holocaust," and had been prompted by the minor disturbances of a few rockets.

The killings at the academy were dramatic indications of a crucial difference between the IDF's actions and the Holocaust. The Jews of Europe were killed in industrial fashion because they were Jews, without any threat of violence against the German people. Experts quarrel about the number of Jews killed. Six million is a round number based on estimates. Research has produced different figures, none of them exact or beyond dispute. The statement in Abbas' doctoral dissertation, of less than one million, is so far beneath serious calculations as to approach the concept of Holocaust denial. His comment about a Holocaust against the Palestinians came in the context of military operations that killed 120, at a time when 50 rockets per day were falling on Israel.

Can Israel hope for any accommodation with a polity led by someone like Abbas? Rather than a serious statesman or politician, he recalls the label that a Palestinian student applied to Yassir Arafat early in the most recent intafada: a "dead man walking." From other comments it was possible to understand him as saying that the corruption of Arafat and his colleagues rendered them unfit for national leadership; and that Arafat's waffling between pronouncements about making peace and encouraging violence would make it likely that Israel would punish the Palestinians far more than the Palestinians could punish the Israelis, and end the Palestinian aspirations of nationhood.

Abbas' statements about Holocausts, both 30 years ago and now, make him more than a poor judge of history or current events. By cheapening the Holocaust he is ridiculing a central piece of Israel's memory and culture. His comments make it impossible to rely on him as a partner in discussions where his principal mission is to demand that Israel take risks for the prospect of peace, against a century of Arab violence.

It is not only statements that make Abbas a dead man walking. When he was in nominal control of Gaza with some 30,000 security personnel funded by European and American government donations, he did not stop a small number of men and boys firing homemade rockets from a small section of that small area. Since Abbas' control has been limited to the West Bank, where he has another 30,000 security personnel funded by European and American governments, he has not prevented the organization and arming of gangs intent on violence against Israelis. When killers have surrendered to Palestinian authorities in preference to being pursued by Israeli forces, Abbas' justice system has been assiduous in demanding proof of their guilt, and generous in sentencing them to house arrest which turns out to be casual in the extreme.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni continue to speak of Abbas with respect, to welcome him for discussions, to smile and touch cheeks when they meet.

Is this anything more than lip service to their patron George W. Bush? Or a fig leaf to the Israeli Labor Party and other moderate leftists who aspire to peace no matter what the odds? Or is a recognition that Abbas is the best that the Palestinians can offer as a leader. Without him they are likely to enter a period of political chaos likely to worsen the problems in their security services and other activities. Olmert has been measured in his optimism. He is not counting on an agreement during the Bush presidency. Occasionally he talks about agreements in principle, while waiting on their implementation until the Palestinians prove that they are serious about meeting Israel's demands for security.

At least some of Olmert's colleagues in the government are likely to vote against any kind of potential agreement that the prime minister can achieve. It is easy to foresee that international actors will hold Israel to its side of the bargain even if it explicitly postpones implementation, while they excuse Palestinian lack of compliance as reflecting the problems of a weak entity. Palestinians will insist that subsequent discussions will start with the details of the potential agreement announced by Olmert, and then demand further concessions.

We tried to ignore these issues when enjoying our holiday in Sicily. A Greek temple in Agrigento shows the opulence of the island's history. A political poster attached to an old and tiny Fiat in the streets of Palermo reflects the modest resources that currently prevail.

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 04:37 AM
March 01, 2008
Another war, or just a limited operation?

The Secretary General of the United Nations has condemned Palestinians for directing their rockets against Israeli civilians, and Israel for a disproportionate response.

Both condemnations are appropriate. Israel's response is disproportionately light. Seven years ago the IDF should have begun sending one artillery shell into a neighborhood of Gaza with for every missile that landed in an Israeli settlement.

Better late than never.

The operation began with the killing of a student as Sapir College, alongside Sderot, and the use of more accurate and powerful missiles that began landing in the city of Ashkelon. Those missiles came to Gaza from the international market, through the Sinai and nominal Egyptian control of Gaza's southern borders.

Ashkelon is somewhat further from Gaza than Sderot. It is a city of more than 100,000, compared to Sderot's 20,000. It also has a major hospital and power plant, as well as numerous industries.

If we did not have tickets for one of today's flights to Italy, I would be glued to the radio for as long as this lasts. My obsession for details had me listening to all hourly bulletins yesterday, and two hours of reports and commentary in the evening.

During the Sabbath we heard about five Israeli soldiers injured. Typically, the news about two combat deaths came only after the end of the Sabbath. This morning there were details about the young men and their families, as well as the times and locations of funerals.

News about more than 60 Palestinian deaths and many more injuries do not make as much of an impression. We have seen pictures of the children killed that are purveyed to international media. We heard official Palestinian reports that 4 young boys were killed while playing football. Other Palestinians reported that the men who fired rockets sent the boys to retrieve the launching tubes so they could be used again, and that the boys died when an IDF helicopter fired against the people seen working at the launching site. The adults who did the work saved themselves by having neighborhood kids do what was exciting for them, and produced a claim for the international community about four innocent boys killed by the Israelis.

Also this morning there is news from a French court about a forensic expert who testified about the iconic picture from 2000 showing a Palestinian father sheltering his son while being targeted, presumably by the IDF. The scene ended with the death of the boy. The expert testified that the film was fabricated; and if it was real, the direction of the shots were likely to have come from Palestinians rather than Israelis.

Mahmoud Abbas has called the Israeli operation worse than the Holocaust. We remember that his doctoral dissertation at Moscow's Oriental College in 1982 claimed that Jewish victims of the Germans were less than one million. Abbas is making the conventional Palestinian demand of world powers to pressure Israel to desist what he calls disproportionate responses to sporadic missiles. He has also declared a suspension of the peace talks. In this he is saving Edud Olmert's the need to disappoint President Bush by informing him that the peace talks show little chance of accomplishing anything.

It is too early to know how this will develop. Speculation is that it will become the general invasion of Gaza that numerous commentators have been saying is inevitable. If so, it is likely to involve the call-up of reserves and control over the southern borders of Gaza through which armaments have been flowing from Egypt, and a general search for weapons caches and workshops. Already the IDF has destroyed the offices of the Palestinian prime minister and the interior ministry. Palestinian ministers themselves are said to be on the target list, but are reported to be somewhere deep in their bunkers.

Hopefully Sicily will be quieter, and that we will not spend too much time with our short-wave radio, the Herald Tribune, or trying to decipher headlines in the Italian press.

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 09:36 PM