May 29, 2008

We are in a period of political chaos. It may end quickly, or drag on for months.

An American fund raiser has testified that he provided to Ehud Olmert numerous envelopes over the course of 15 years. Olmert preferred cash. He also enjoys Cuban cigars, gifts of expensive fountain pens and watches, first class air travel, and expensive hotel suites. The prime minister and his shrinking group of supporters are saying that all was legal in the framework of campaign contributions, and expenses for overseas travel. His claims of taking nothing for personal use seem weaker by the day. Even if Olmert has not broken any laws, there is a stench of hedonism.

Observers say that the fund raiser has contradicted himself, and is not telling the whole truth. He may sense traps that will have him charged with bribery, money laundering, or tax evasion. Prosecutors of Israel and perhaps the United States are paying attention to what he is saying.

Commentators who claim access to the police or prosecutor say that stronger witnesses have been heard, and will tell their story in court if it gets that far.

Olmert remains in power. He has the authority to fire any ministers who ratchet up their accusations. Defense minister Ehud Barak insists that Olmert resign or suspend himself. Barak has not explicitly threatened to pull the Labor Party out of the government coalition. Cynics say that Barak is concerned that a national election will not give his party enough seats to provide him with anything better--or as good--as the position he currently holds. Foreign minister Tsipi Livni has spoken amorphously about morality. Other ministers who are members of Olmert's own party have said that they would compete with Livni for party leadership if Olmert leaves office, but they have not yet attacked the prime minister in public.

Palestinians, Syrians, Americans, and others worry that international negotiations may have to wait on the internal crisis. If there are open windows of opportunity, they may close before anything tangible occurs. Some say that the windows are not really open. They are pleased that Olmert does not have the political backing to make far reaching concessions to Palestinians or Syrians who are bluffing about their willingness to live at peace alongside the Jews.

It could all end by the time this message reaches your computer. The law provides opportunities for a suspension of an elected official while the legal process goes forward. Political allies who remain close to the prime minister may tell him that it is all over, and to make the best deal he can in exchange for a resignation. The prosecutor may not feel confident enough about the evidence to indict. If that comes, it would require the prime minister to resign. Currently Olmert is speaking about his certainty of being proved innocent. Much of the public is tired of numerous investigations, some ongoing, and others ended on account of evidence that is not sufficient for a convinction. What we are hearing now may be sufficient.

For those who have no tolerance for uncertainty, pay attention to another country.

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 12:10 AM
May 21, 2008
Political scandal and related concerns

There is a great scandal brewing here, but at least some of the implications are not as frightening as they seem.

The scandal concerns police investigations and potential criminal charges against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for deception, dereliction of duty, violation of trust, money laundering, tax evasion, and perhaps bribery. We are some way from a formal indictment, but serious reports, as well as leaks and speculation suggest that this is the most serious investigation of the five or six that have been waged against him in recent years. Political rivals within and outside his party are circling like vultures who scent rotting meat, and positioning themselves to do battle both with the prime minister and with one another.

Most prominent of the fears is that Prime Minister Olmert is selling out the country in order to keep the police at bay. Behind those fears are his announcements that a sort of peace agreement with the Palestinians of the West Bank and a cease fire with the Palestinians of Gaza are within reach, and that peace talks are underway with Syria, via Turkey, that can result in painful concessions.

The timing of these announcements is suspicious, to say the least. It is difficult to find a commentator who is not cynical about the prime minister's throwing himself a life preserver, or willing to make concessions opposed by considerable segments of the population in order to save his job. Reports are that Olmert is preoccupied with the criminal investigations, and cannot devote the time and energy necessary to the public's business. Even politicians in favor of concessions for the sake of peace with Palestine and Syria are wondering how much of the news is "spin" for the sake of Olmert's skin, and how much reflect serious efforts that can be pursued by Olmert's successor. Politicians and commentators from numerous camps are saying that it is time for Olmert to take a vacation or resign, so that someone else can manage serious issues without the hint of doing so for the sake of self-interest.

The prime minister also has prostate cancer, and may also be forgiven some time and energy to ponder various treatment options. Cynics did not hesitate to describe a recent announcement of his undergoing further tests as yet another effort to distract attention from the police investigations, and to gain public sympathy.

Commentators and political rivals are within their rights to question the timing of peace initiatives. Yet fears of the prime minister selling out the country are premature. Several features of the Israeli government, as well as complications in the peace initiatives help to soften those fears.

The Israeli government and its bureaucracy are not beholden to the prime minister to the extent that he can do what he wants. The police and the public prosecutor have sufficient independence, as well as professional integrity to continue with their investigations.

Israeli media are independent and aggressive. If anything, they may be too inclined to serve whoever in the police or the prosecutor's office in inclined to leak details in order to stain the image of someone in the political elite currently under investigation.

Olmert is not conducting negotiations with Palestinians or Syria by himself. His aides may be beholden to him, but they also have their concerns for professional integrity and for whatever opportunities might be available if Olmert is forced out of office.

The Israeli government is never entirely in the prime minister's pocket. Competitive parties sit in the government coalition. The leaders of those parties have their own interests, as well as rivals within their parties nipping at their heels if they seem to be following too closely the wishes of a prime minister (especially a prime minister who may be on the verge of ouster).

Olmert's own party is not monolithic. There are at least four senior members, all of them ministers in his government, who see themselves as potential replacements. Each has expressed at least guarded comments about the problems of the prime minister, and about the appropriateness of waiting to see the outcome of police inquiries.

Settlers on the Golan are in full fever, organizing with their allies in the right-of-center political parties and religious Jews who read the Bible to indicate that the Golan is within the Land of Israel, and not the property of the present generation of Jews--or any future generation--to give away. Secular skeptics, among them archaeologists, read the Bible as Jewish hyperbole. In their eyes, David's empire may have been no greater than a dusty acre or two outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City. Nonetheless, the Bible is one of the stimuli that fuels opposition to any deal that would surrender the Golan.

There is no indication that Olmert is giving away the shop in his dealings with the Palestinians of the West Bank or Gaza, or with the Syrians. The best indications are comments of Israel's adversaries.

Palestinians of the West Bank involved in negotiations periodically state that there has been no progress, or insufficient progress. The president of the Palestine National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has threatened to resign due to the lack of Israeli concessions.

Palestinians of Gaza have recently indicated that Israel has not accepted their terms for a cease fire, and that they cannot accept Israel's counter-demands. On the morning that Hamas announced its rejection of Israeli conditions, one of the Gaza factions exploded a heavily-loaded truck bomb near one of the transfer points for shipping food, fuel, and other supplies from Israel to Gaza. Aside from making a great noise, breaking windows within a radius of several miles, damaging the transfer point, and blowing the suicide driver to his or her paradise, the bomb accomplished nothing more than causing one more suspension of shipments into Gaza.

Even on the first day of announcing conversations, Syrians are saying that they cannot begin until Israel categorically concedes all of the Golan. They insist that this demand is not a precondition for negotiations, but their natural right to their own territory. Such comments suggest that Israel has yet to make categorical concessions. If Israel demands that Syria abandon its close ties to the terrorists of Iran, Hizbollah, and Hamas as a condition of peace, the negotiations may drag on through the careers of several future prime ministers.

Israelis may be right in being ashamed of their prime minister on account of repeated allegations, and mounting evidence against him. Those who fear him are exaggerating his power and influence.

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
May 16, 2008

Palestinian rockets from Gaza have been falling regularly on southern Israel. One landed on a crowded shopping mall in Ashkelon, and sent about 50 people to the hospital. So far, nothing more than angry words from Israeli politicians and generals, and more of the small unit actions that have been going on for months.

One guess is that the IDF could not do anything dramatic until George W. Bush left the country. He is no longer in Israel, but he is still in the region. Perhaps IDF cannot wreck havoc while he is talking to the Presidents of Egypt and Palestine (West Bank). He may have been favorably inclined to Israel by seeing the rescues from Ashkelon on television while he was talking with the prime minister. His speech to the Knesset was more Zionist than we usually hear from Israelis. However, we know that he also has to express himself in favor of a Palestinian state. Real-time pictures of fallen homes and screaming mothers from Gaza will not play well on the president's memory.

Also competing for attention is the visit of a delegation from the House of Representatives, led by Nancy Pelosi. Reports are that she wept while visiting the children's exhibit at Yad Vashem, but that is unlikely to maker her impervious to Palestinian suffering.

There is also continuing talk about a cease fire with Hamas and its friends, being worked on by Egypt. Some Israelis see hope in this, even admitting that a recess from violence will allow Hamas to increase its armaments and preparation for greater threats. If the cease fire in the south corresponds with a break-through in negotiations with the Palestinians of the West Bank, something like peace may really arrive with the declaration of a Palestinian state.

For this scenario, one either has to be an optimist of the most extreme kind, or beholden to a weak prime minister, when charges of corruption are making him even weaker. Ehud Olmert may be serious when he talks about about the prospects of peace, or simply reaching out for something to please the American president and secretary of state, and to keep the Israeli police and prosecutors away from his door.

I perceive that my internet friends are dispropionately in favor of Barak Obama. I received a shame-on-you letter from one correspondent who reacted badly to the president's comments in the Knesset about an unnamed politician who would negotiate with the supporters of terrorism. Not too far beneath the surface was Bush's suggestion that it was Obama who would take the role of Neville Chamberlain, the appeaser of Hitler.

That was tough language, but it played well before a population that suffered from Hitler, and which may be the one national constituency in all the world (including the United States) that admires George W. Bush.

The comment did not strike me as unfair. American politics has not stopped at the nation's borders since criticisms of the wars against Mexico and later Spain, Republicans' criticism of Wilson's proposal for the League of Nations, Roosevelt for aiding Britain, or when politicians of both parties took on the Administration when troops were fighting in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States negotiates (indirectly) with Iran, as Israel negotiates (indirectly) with Hamas and Hizbollah. But it is part of the political game to avoid advocating conversation with terrorists or their supporters. Obama showed that he has something to learn about the presidential craft, and left himself open to criticism of the most severe kind. Either that, or he really does think that Iran has something to offer.

The lack of a serious IDF escalation in Gaza, and the flap over the president's remarks have something in common. This region is dry tinder, always capable of igniting. This being the Promised Land important to three religions adds to the emotions. Israel's Knesset, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and other sites attract attention. Palestinians are trying to make their Nakba into an event with international importance. Israel has to defend itself, but patience, good timing, and an awareness of political implications are never far from its calculations.

Things may change in Gaza before some of you read this note. Writing about the Middle East is almost as problematic as living here.

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 11:40 PM
May 12, 2008

Yesterday a grandmother was killed on one of the kibbutzim near Gaza by a Palestinian missile. Saturday a member of another kibbutz died in the same way. Saturday's victim was a professional photographer. We saw a film of him expressing his willingness to live alongside Israel's borders.

When is enough enough?

Israel's government seems to be dithering with Hamas and other armed groups, via Egyptian intermediaries, about a cease-fire. Israel would like to link the cease fire with the release of Gilad Shalit, held prisoner in Gaza by one of the groups, for almost two years. Palestinian groups are saying that they may re-open talks about his release if Israel agrees to a cease-fire. Israel also wants an end to the flow of armaments to Gaza through Egypt. There seems little chance that another agreement on this issue will be more successful than previous agreements on the same issue.

Israel's government is risking its self-respect. It has the capacity to make the people of Gaza pay a heavy price for the continued shelling of settlements in Israel, but it refuses to use that capacity.

One member of a kibbutz subject to bombardment, when interviewed on radio, called for an artillery barrage on Gaza in response to every missile sent toward Israel. It would not be necessary to risk Israeli soldiers.

The kibbutz member termed himself a leftist. That usually means, "peace loving."

Would this kibbutz leftist remain on message when Gazans start dying in the hundreds or thousands? Israeli artillery is more deadly than the rockets of Gaza.

Another member of a kibbutz near Gaza ridiculed the proposal of adding shelters to homes and public buildings. That would legitimize the continuation of rocket attacks.

Why not a more forceful response?

It would risk the peace process. The people in nominal charge of the West Bank could not continue peace discussions if Palestinians were dying in Gaza. The White House could not accept this. President Bush continues to say that Mahmoud Abbas is a credible partner for peace.

Europeans would respond badly. They might impose economic sanctions on Israel. Jimmy Carter would say again that Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza worse than the apartheid it is practicing in the West Bank. Not a few American Jews would join some Israelis by expressing their shame about a country that uses weapons rather than agreements in order to attain peace.

Can we count on Israel's prime minister to act heroically? The police investigation may be weighing on him, and it can take a while to reach any conclusion. "A while" in the Israeli context means several months at the least.

Olmert was photographed yesterday nodding off to sleep while attending a meeting. He woke up to say that the subject of the meeting was close to his heart.

I have yet to hear an Israeli commentator indicate that Abbas is strong enough, or willing enough, to reach an agreement that Israel is likely to offer, and to impose an end to violence on his population.

A snippet from Atlantic does not encourage us to rely on Barak Obama.

Do you think that Israel is a drag on America's reputation overseas?

No, no, no. But what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable. I am absolutely convinced of that, and some of the tensions that might arise between me and some of the more hawkish elements in the Jewish community in the United States might stem from the fact that I'm not going to blindly adhere to whatever the most hawkish position is just because that's the safest ground politically.

Clinton's candidacy is not promising. Moreover, her comment about destroying Iran is not something anyone can rely upon.

Can we hope that McCain does not have a senior moment in front of the cameras before November?

It is time to calculate Israel's responsibility to defend its population, against the possibilities of embarrassing whoever is the American president, opposition from European governments, and criticism from Jews and others concerned with Palestinians.

A look at the Palestinian peace process suggests a non-starter. Recent hints of peace with Syria are now overwhelmed by Syrian and Iranian aid to Hizbollah fighters who are threatening to take over Lebanon. Iran's president continues to talk about Israel as a temporary problem that must be removed from the Middle East.

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 11:48 PM
May 08, 2008

We have been roiled for more than a week in diminishing silence. There has been an intense investigation of the prime minister and those close to him, but the police and the court imposed a news blackout on all details. Some bits came out in foreign media available via the internet, but the police insisted on their posture until the end of Independence Day 60th anniversary celebrations.

Now we are told that an American fundraiser passed large sums, some of it in cash, to Ehud Olmert over the course of several years. The prime minister went public as soon as he could (the blackout also applied to him), and explained that the money was for campaigning expenses, and that he relied on his attorney to assure that it was all legal.

Olmert is in trouble. He has been there before, and he may emerge from this, too, with nothing more than additional scars.

He may be right in insisting that he never took a bribe, and that he never used any gifts for personal expenses, but that may be irrelevant. Israeli laws about campaign financing are much simpler and less permissive than the American equivalents. Here there are not the varieties of quasi-independent committees that raise money and spend it in favor of a candidate. Israeli politicians do not have the personal wealth of some American candidates. And the courts have not established "freedom of expression" as an umbrella for political advertizing. Moreover, it is illegal for a public figure to receive large sums of money. It is not necessary to prove a quid pro quo in terms of favors given or promised.

News is that Olmert's lawyer, who he is relying on to have managed the transfers properly, is now willing to testify against the prime minister.

The American fund raiser is a story in himself. We now know that he is Moshe Talansky, 75 years old, known as the "laundryman" by people close to Olmert. He is said to have transferred funds to Olmert beginning when he was running for mayor of Jerusalem in the 1990s. Talansky also spent years raising money for Shaare Zedek hospital and other causes. A person associated with the hospital was quoted on Israel radio as describing Talansky as a nocal, which is equivalent to a host of uncomplimentary English terms: crook, scoundrel, shyster, villain, rogue, fraud, equivocator, faker, flimflammer, fraudulent, gouger, grifter, impostor, jackal, knave, miscreant, quack.

Toward the end of the news blackout, Ha'aretz slipped around the restrictions by locating Talansky's ex-wife. She lives in Jerusalem, could not be named due to what was forbidden, but expressed herself like many other women left behind for what her husband thought was someone more suitable. She was outspoken in her glee that Talansky and his friend Olmert had fallen afoul of the police. She had met Olmert, but never liked him. She viewed him as a politician who knew how to sound attractive, but was never really pleasant. She hopes that the investigation will end with his indictment.

Olmert's political opponents are dancing on what they hope will be his political grave. Left wing moralists are taking the high ground, and emphasizing that a politician who has been the subject of so many police inquiries cannot possibly lead the country. Right wing politicians are saying that he cannot remain in a position where he might make concessions to the Palestinians and Syrians.

Olmert's crisis may have broken at this time in response to reports that he may be close to some kind of agreement, perhaps partial, with the Palestinians; and has said that he would give up the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria. Talansky himself has been identified with religious Jews who opposed the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza, and oppose any further territorial concessions.

George W. Bush and some other leaders of important countries are due here to help Israel celebrate its 60th anniversary. Bush is also likely to nudge, or push, whoever is the prime minister to improve the Palestinians' chances to create their state.

At this point it is not possible to conclude anything more than we are likely to hear more about all of this before Bush comes. If he comes. This might be a time for the president to reconsider his crowded schedule, and think of some way to end his presidency other than with a Palestinian 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 08:50 PM
May 03, 2008
It ain't a horse

What's on our agenda this week?

Israel's 60th anniversary.
Intelligence officials are saying that various Palestinian groups are planning a major incidence of violence to spoil the celebration.
George W. Bush is scheduled to come. We'll have to stay off the roads.
Condoleezza Rice is already here, demanding that we be nicer to the Palestinians.
Palestinians are seeking international help for their insistence that Israel recognize the pre-1967 borders as the starting point of any decisions about borders between the two countries. They are also saying that Israel does not allow the Palestinians to acquire enough weapons in order to show that they can govern themselves; and that Israel is wrong in coming into their cities in order to seize people it suspects of wrongdoing.
Hamas and Israel are dealing through Egypt with respect to a cease fire in Gaza. There remain considerable differences between the positions. It is not clear if the Hamas offer is a "take it or leave it" opportunity, or what will be the demands of Israel and the flexibility of Israel or Hamas.
We saw an American television item on the Israeli Air Force, inserted into a weekly Israeli program of news from the world. This item raised once again the issue of Iranian nuclear program, it's threat against Israel, and what all those pilots are training for.
The police are investigating Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, apparently for violating criminal statutes. There is a block on information, but "reputable sources" are telling journalists that it involves large sums and bribery from the period before he was prime minister. Speculation is that this investigation, something like the fifth in recent years, will be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Opponents are calling for Olmert's indictment, his resignation, and an election.
Not a typical week, but not all that unusual in the combined tensions.

An American asks me to be sympathetic about a horse killed before a national television audience at the Kentucky Derby.

Olmert's been in trouble before. Indeed, he has not been out of trouble for some years now. He is well known for playing very close the edge of the rules, but managing to pass through one police inquiry after another with little more than nasty comments from political opponents. This investigation may be more serious. On the other hand, some of the demands for his resignation come right-of-center parties opposed to the whole process of conversing with the Palestinians. Left-of-center moralists support the peace process, but are beating up on the prime minister in the hope of getting more seats out of an election.

The Palestinians will continue to bleat, and demand that others solve their problems. The continued rain of missiles on Sderot and other border towns does not stand them in good stead with the world, despite the difference in who is ruling Gaza and who is talking peace with the Israelis. The peace talkers themselves are not all that attractive to the world, insofar as they show time and again their inability or unwillingness to work against those planning violence against Israel, or keeping them in jail once they have put some of them there. It often appears that short term stays in Palestinian jails (before there is an "escape" or a release for "lack of evidence") are designed more to protect the violent from the Israelis than to protect the Israelis from the violence.

The President and his Secretary of State will add some of their diminishing weight to the peace process. Insofar as the President is coming to celebrate Israel's 60 years of Independence, however, prominent Palestinians say they will not meet with him. For them, it should be a celebration of their national disaster.

I suspect that we will get through this week.

It's too early to say what the following week will offer.

For those more concerned about the horse, I participate in your sorrow.

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 09:27 PM