November 27, 2008
More on Olmert and Livni

This is a time of testing for Tzipi Livni. Does she have what it takes to be a prime minister?

Even if she passes the test, she may not win the election, scheduled for February 10. Benyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu has reinvigorated himself and Likud, and may become prime minister no matter what Livni does. If she does not measure up in the next few days, Netanyahu can walk into the prime minister's office without great effort.

The attorney general has announced that he intends to indict Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for one of the crimes being investigated. He is alleged to have billed multiple times for numerous overseas trips. Reports are that he put more than $80,000 in his pocket from prestigious Israeli and international Jewish organizations over the course of several years. The police and attorney general are still working on other allegations of criminal violations, involving envelopes stuffed with cash, and dubious personnel appointments made by Olmert when he climbed the political ladder from one office to another.

There is yet to be a formal indictment. Still pending is a hearing for the prime minister, meant to give him the opportunity to persuade judicial authorities to lessen the charges, or drop them altogether. The prime minister and his attorneys can drag out the process. They will demand an ample opportunity to study the file, and challenge its details. They may insist that the attorney general wait on this case until the police and his office finish with all the charges against Olmert. We will be much older before this is over.

Ms Livni convened an emergency meeting of Kadima office holders the day after the attorney general announced his intention to indict Olmert. She declared that Olmert must relinquish his office. She cited the precedent of Yitzhak Rabin, who suspended himself from the same office, also in the run-up to an election, when his wife was indicted for financial irregularities. She quoted Olmert demanding that Moshe Katsav suspend himself from the presidency when the attorney general announced his intention to present an indictment. All of Kadima's senior politicians (except Olmert, who was not at the meeting) joined Livni in demanding that the prime minister vacate his office.

Olmert's response was to charge Livni with using his misfortunes in order to advance her political campaign. His spokesman ridiculed the substance of the Attorney General's case, and claimed that it would collapse as soon as Olmert's attorneys began to show how flimsy it was. When saying this, the spokesman stumbled and stuttered from one phrase to another. One could imagine him thinking, "Do I really have to say this?"

Other news and Shabbat is giving the prime minister two or three days to consider his next steps. The terror attack in Mumbai (Bombay) has first call on the media. Here the attention is on the seizure of the Lubavitcher (Chabad) Center, and the fate of the young rabbi, his wife, and a number of Israelis and other guests in the building. After 36 hours Indian forces are still fighting the invaders. News and commentary about Olmert is at the end of each broadcast and on the inner pages of the newspapers.

Livni has to get rid of Olmert if she wants to be prime minister.

What can she do?

She has the upper hand with the public, as well as her party colleagues. Olmert ranks somewhere along with George W. Bush in the basement of popular esteem. With an announcement of an upcoming indictment, his standing is dropping further.

If Livni is prime ministerial material, she will organize pressure that should build in days or a week to be irresistible. The treatment of Katsav provides a model. Politicians and other elites can refuse to meet with Olmert. Commentators are already ridiculing his efforts to shape policy, and demanding that he suspend himself. In such an event, Livni would become the acting prime minister. She will gain the incumbent's advantage in the election campaign, as well as showing that she is sufficiently forceful to lead the country.

Olmert's advantage comes from the political opponents of Livni. Several of them are demonstratively quiet. The head of the Pensioners' Party said that if he was in Olmert's place he would suspend himself. Then he praised Olmert for being the best prime minister ever for Israel's senior citizens, and said that Olmert has every right to defend himself. Olmert and Netanyahu have been praising one another for their efforts to deal with Israel's version of the international economic crisis.

Commentators agree that the issue is not a matter of law. Olmert does not have to leave office at this time. Livni is talking about morality. She says that Olmert has every right to defend himself, but as a citizen, and not as prime minister. The greater reality is politics. If Livni does not move Olmert, she will move to the back benches of the Knesset.

On account of spam, I do not permit comments on the blog. I do welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

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 10:19 PM
November 25, 2008
Livni and Olmert

Tzipi Livni is in trouble.

She won a primary contest and is the nominal leader of the governing party, but the still sitting prime minister seems to be doing everything in his power to assure that she cannot win the national election.

Nominal Prime Minister Olmert continues to meet with the nominal President of Palestine, and has told the still sitting President of the United States that an agreement between Israel and Palestine is possible before the end of their terms.

While he was in Washington, Olmert's one-time close ally the Minister of Finance outlined a program to deal with part of the economic crisis that has begun to threaten Israel with increasing unemployment and problems of finance. The problems look pretty much like what are affecting numerous other countries, and the Finance Ministry's proposals are as complicated and controversial as those offered elsewhere.

That did not stop Olmert from weighing in from Washington with the news that he has his own program of economic reform. This makes him the third or fourth politician adding to the problems of dealing with the economy in the midst of a national election campaign.

Olmert is not running for anything. He has talked about a political comeback, but first he has to deal with the results of ongoing police investigations, including two issues where the police have already recommended indictments.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the prime minister is doing everything he can to spoil the chances of party colleagues who did not rally to his defense in the face of all those charges.

Livni, for her part, is either biding her time for the right opportunity to blast the prime minister, and assert her own course toward the election, or is simply dithering.

It she is dithering, it will not be the first time she has been accused of being indecisive. In the language of her critics, and even friendly doubters, the question being asked is, Does she have what it takes to be prime minister?

Livni has distanced herself from Olmert, but so far not with the force of a competitor fighting a threat to her future and that of her party. She has said that she does not agree with his postures with respect to the Palestinians, i.e., proposing details of territorial compromise and the numbers of refugees from 1948 that Israel will accept within its borders. She has also said that she disagrees with Olmert's willingness to offer concessions publicly prior to agreements that include concessions from the other side.

One cannot quarrel with the substance of Livni's comments, but they have not been strong enough to stop Olmert from continuing to operate as if he has a mandate to manage the country's international relations, defense, and economics.

What can she do?

Not a great deal.

She is in a trap where Olmert is likely to be the prime minister until the election on February 10th, and then for another month or so while the victor works to assemble a multi-party coalition. Insofar as the campaign has already started, the Attorney General is not likely to speed up police investigations about several criminal suspicions against Olmert, and then his own decisions about which are weighty enough to justify an indictment. Deliberations on such matters in the case of a ranking politician are likely to be more complex, and slower than decisions about bringing a run of the mill pickpocket or swindler before the judges.

To speed up such processes now, and reach a quick decision would open the Attorney General to charges of political interference. His office is professional, rather than elected or subject to the whim of a single politician. He has considerable discretion according to the law, but he, too, has been accused of being excessively deliberate, or even timid.

So Olmert is free to make noise, and position himself somewhere outside the boundaries of what his party colleagues prefer with respect to crucial issues of international negotiations and economic repair.

He is not likely to have a lasting impact, other than on the chances of his party to win the upcoming election. A prime minister's initiatives gain considerable media attention, perhaps even more so in the bizarre case of a crippled duck making some of his last statements before facing indictments on criminal charges. To actually create policy he requires the assent of majorities of other ministers in his government, and--depending on the issue--relevant committees in the Knesset or the entire Knesset.

Olmert is not likely to get those agreements.

We have heard of gallows humor. Olmert seems to be playing gallows politics.

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 11:08 PM
November 24, 2008
Jewish activism

We Jews are an impressive people. Lots of Nobel Prizes, the most successful of the post-World War II countries, high scores on personal income and education, and the Hebrew Bible. Jesus was also one of ours, along with Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and--by a slight stretch--Karl Marx.

Among our strengths is a capacity to organize for the sake of admirable goals. Jews were in the thick of movements for the rights of African Americans, an end to the Vietnam war, the perpetuation of the Roosevelt coalition (except for Southern conservatives), and protests for justice in Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile.

Other Jewish campaigns have been explicitly concerned with Jewish interests. Remember the Soviet Jews (Let My People Go). Jews have sent their money and come as volunteers whenever Israel has been attacked. Four hundred thousand Israelis demonstrated in the central square of Tel Aviv in 1982 when it appeared that their country had something to do with the massacre of Palestinians in the Beirut neighborhoods of Sabra and Shatilla.

More recently there have been international demonstrations about the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, the freedoms of Jonathan Pollard (imprisoned in the United States on a charge of treason), and Gilad Shalit (held somewhere in Gaza).

We are great users of the internet. One organization translates Muslim media into Hebrew, English, Russian, French, and Spanish; others report anti-Israel and anti-Semitic events on university campuses, and the anti-Israel biases of movements claiming to be humanitarian. Jews have passed on reports that Barack Obama and his colleagues are a threat (or a blessing) for Israel, and that the United Kingdom and the University of Kentucky have stopped teaching about the Holocaust on account of Muslim pressure.

Not all of these efforts have been successful. Indeed, there is a role for Jewish skepticism in this survey of our capacities.

People have told me their personal stories about working for Soviet Jews: attending rallies, signing petitions, traveling to Russia with prayer books, matzoh, and medicines for Jews denied them. However, my antennae start quivering when they claim credit for the enactment of the Jackson-Vanik legislation (denying commercial benefits to countries that do not permit free emigration) and the mass exodus of Jews from 1989 onward.

The immediate impact of Jackson-Vanik was to anger the Russians and to reduce the incidence of exit permits. Almost 35,000 Jews left the Soviet Union in 1973 (the year before Jackson-Vanik), but less than 14,000 in 1975. By the mid-1980s, the annual numbers had dwindled to less than a thousand.

The great migration began with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1988 more than one million Jews and their relatives have moved to Israel, and others to the United States, Germany, and elsewhere. Regime change due to chronic economic problems, and the desire of non-Jews as well as Jews for greener pastures seem more credible as explanations than any external efforts in behalf of freedom.

Campaigns for the sake of Jonathan Pollard and Gilad Shalit have routinized into periodic demonstrations without results. Americans authorities dug in their heels on the Pollard case, perhaps to demonstrate that there should be a limit to American Jewish enthusiasm for Jewish causes. Currently there is a campaign to persuade George W. Bush to free Pollard as a gesture to Israel at the end of his term. There was a similar campaign at the end of the Clinton administration.

Gilad Shalit had the bad luck to fall into the hands of a large and well-armed family not responsive to the authority of Hamas. Negotiations for his freedom have been sporadic. The stubborn demands of Hamas for the freedom of prisoners that Israel is not willing to let go may say as much about insoluble problems within Gaza as the desires of Hamas.

Repeated e-mails about the end of Holocaust studies in the United Kingdom reflect more about Jewish enthusiasm than Jewish intelligence. Even more so the people who misread UK for the University of Kentucky, and pass on reports that the academics of Lexington have stopped teaching about the Holocaust due to Muslim protests. Both stories collapse in the face of material easily located on Google, as well as sites devoted to "urban legends." (e.g.,;

Iran is the most serious issue waiting the test of Jewish publicists and others concerned about Iranian fanatics. Many are convinced that the capacity of Israel and others to threaten Iran will not neutralize its nuclear capacity, in the way that "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD) worked during the Cold War and so far between India and Pakistan.

Israel, and more certainly the United States, can destroy or delay Iran's nuclear program. However, an attack may not occur without destructive responses from Iran and its allies, and further complications spreading outward from the Middle East. It is not an issue likely to retreat before another internet campaign, petitions, or demonstrations in public squares.

Due to spam, I prevent comments on the blog. However, I invite responses to my e-mail address below.

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 10:29 PM
November 21, 2008
There are serious problems, but we need not despair

If you think Israel's problems with Gaza are difficult, take a look at the West Bank.

Gaza is the easy part.

There are no Jewish settlements in Gaza (an advantage of the Disengagement in the summer of 2005), and a relatively small population of Israelis live within easy striking distance of Gaza. The area is surrounded by Israeli or Egyptian barriers. Airborne Israeli cameras cover much of the area, attack helicopters are not far away, and Israel can adjust the food, fuel, and other supplies according to its concern to punish or reward the regime in charge.

The extremism of Hamas makes them easy to oppose, and irrelevant to the larger story.

Gaza is not a piece of cake for the Israelis, and certainly not for the residents of Gaza, but in comparison with the West Bank . . . .

The security barrier is creeping along. Now I can see pieces of it from my balcony. In the best of conditions, assuming it inches its way to completion with no gaps due to continuing suits in Israeli courts, there will still be more than 200,000 Arabs on our side of the barrier in East Jerusalem and elsewhere, and numerous Jewish settlements on the other side of the barrier.

Should the Arabs of the West Bank start lobbing homemade rockets into Israel, it will be major cities and more than a million Israelis who become vulnerable, at least ten times the numbers vulnerable to missiles from Gaza.

For some time now there have been discussions between Israeli authorities and the Palestinians in nominal control of the West Bank. Both sides express their commitment to two-states that will solve disputes peacefully. Small Israeli forces continue to enter the West Bank and bring back prisoners, doing their bit to help the weak Fatah government hold off the threat of a takeover by Hamas and its extremist allies. A new cadre of Palestinian security personnel, trained, equipped, and positioned by cooperation between the United States, Jordan, and Israel has shown some capacity for the Fatah government to contribute to its own security, and to lessen intimidation and violence against Palestinians.

Talks between Israel and the Palestinians occur under a heavy cloak of secrecy. We can hope that the lack of a public spotlight will enable both sides to give up some of their nonnegotiable demands. Here and there we hear of partial draft agreements, and maps showing what may become the international border.

We also hear that Palestinians are sticking to their historical narrative: the conflict derives entirely from Israeli conquest, and it is necessary to turn back to what existed before 1967 or even 1948. We also hear from Israeli politicians and activists that Jerusalem must remain united under their control. Efforts to dismantle Jewish settlements have not gone well, even in the case of the smallest and most exposed set up by squatters on land owned by Arabs.

How long can talks continue without results?

It may be too early to run up the flag of frustration. It has only been a year since the two sides pledged themselves to peace in Annapolis. Us old folks remember the on again, off again efforts of the United States to leave Vietnam, which extended from sometime in 1968 to 1975. Israelis can hope that their exit from the West Bank, if it occurs, will be more elegant than the American exit from Saigon, or the earlier Israeli exit from Jewish settlements in Gaza.

We are coming to a political confluence that may impact on the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas' term as president of the Palestine National Authority ends in January. Barack Obama enters the White House in the same month, and Israelis hold national elections in February.

Benyamin Netanyahu's Likud is currently leading the polls, but that may reflect a public relations bonanza focused on several older stars who signed onto his party in advance of primaries that will rank its candidates for the Knesset. Netanyahu has been the most outspoken among the potential prime ministers for not dividing Jerusalem and assuring other arrangements that will maximize Israel's security. Ranking Palestinians have made it clear that he is their least favorite candidate, which may add to his allure among Israelis who worry about the peace process.

Tzipi Livni has committed herself to continue the peace process, but has distanced herself from the most accommodating proclamations of Ehud Olmert.

Ehud Barack is also positioning himself to be an accommodationist, but one skilled in dealing with national defense. That may not be relevant in light of recent polls showing him leading the Labor Party to an all time low in Knesset seats. Labor had 56 seats in the 120 member Knesset elected in 1969. Currently it has 19 seats, and may get as few as 8 or 9 in the next Knesset.

Obama is the great hope of Israeli and overseas Jewish leftists. They quote him as seeing good prospects in a plan out of Saudi Arabia that offers wide recognition for Israel in the Muslim world in exchange for a complete pull back to the borders that preceded the 1967 war.

If that happens, the Sharkanskys and some 165,000 other Jews may have to leave their homes in neighborhoods of Jerusalem constructed after 1967.

We are not packing.

Tzipi Livni has come close to ridiculing the Saudi solution. She warns that Israel has its own interests, and that one should not begin negotiations with a "take it or leave it" offer. The group of states the Saudis claim to be endorsing their plan does not include Iran.

There is coolness at best in the center of Israeli politics for the Saudi plan, and even less enthusiasm further to the right. And the great hope focused on the Obama administration that he will save Israelis from themselves must reckon with problems likely to be closer to the top of his agenda. The latest news from the American economy is that the stock market has sunk to where it was more than ten years ago, and other economic indicators are pointing to a serious recession.

Palestinian politics are even murkier than those in Israel and the United States. They are arguing over whether there will be an election in January, some other arrangement to continue the term of Mahmoud Abbas, or to name a replacement. Hamas is talking about declaring its own president, perhaps with authority limited to Gaza, or with claims to be the ruler of all Palestine.

Israelis who say, "So far, so good" provoke stories about the person falling from a tall building, who was heard to be saying the same thing part of the way down.

However, the analogy is flawed. We are not falling from a tall building. Only a few of us have aspirations for an imperial Israel. Carl von Clausewitz is likely to be a better guide to our future than selective quotations from mythic sections of the Hebrew Bible. The goals that attract the majority of Israelis are the modest ones of security within something close to the present outlines. There is likely to be a bit of international politics, and a bit of warfare in our future. Some of the politics, and some of the rough stuff may be with Israelis who want a lot more.

Jews consider the prophet Malachi to be the last human to hear the words of the Lord. Like other prophets, he saw doom and reconciliation in his people's future. Since his time, perhaps 2,400 years ago, we have been on our own, without heavenly guidance. We have not done badly. There remains work to be done.

Due to spam, I do not permit comments on the blog. I do welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

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 12:25 AM
November 18, 2008
Crime and punishment

David ben Gurion once looked to the future, said that Israel would be a normal country only when it acquired prostitutes and thieves.

Either ben Gurion was wearing blinders, or he was unduly optimistic. The country has long met his criteria for being normal.

In recent days, it has also scored high on another dimension that we may call normal: the fascination with a man and his family said to be among the most prominent participants in organized crime.

Yaacov Alperon left the court house where he was attending a hearing about his son, accused of intimidation and violence. He never made it to his next destination, due to his car exploding on a Tel Aviv street.

Every day since the country's media have devoted considerable space and time to his life and that of his family, including numerous previous attempts on his life and those of his brothers, their businesses on either side of the line that separates the legal and illegal, and their own efforts to punish competitors. Alperon's funeral attracted hundreds or thousands, depending on the source, and produced yet another round of pictures and commentary. Prominent were members of other underworld families who came to pay their respects, as well as uniformed and undercover police and their electronic equipment.

The sobbing widow urged her family to avoid revenge. One brother said that punishment was in the hands of the Almighty, and not the family. Another relative promised that the guilty individual would be separated from his head and his limbs, presumably by someone in the family.

Commentators have been busy. Do Israelis romanticize their most prominent criminals? Why is it necessary to devote so much energy to speculating who did it, and what the family will do in response? Does the public really want to hear recorded interviews, from years past, in which the deceased or his relatives proclaimed their innocence of everything, in language indicating their adherence to religious traditions?

The media likes action. The lives and problems of the famous assure high ratings in audience surveys. Some of the people involved know how to express themselves. Their lives are exciting. They drive nice cars and live in what some reporters call "palaces." There is no indication that the deceased, his relatives, or their enemies fit the model of Robin Hood: robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Their businesses include gambling, load sharking, money laundering, intimidation, prostitution, and muscling into activities that are ostensibly legal, like concessions for garbage collection and recycling.

Some attention is paid to the problems of those fated to be neighbors of the famous. Family "soldiers" loiter around their apartment building and may frighten other tenants. The prospect of a media extravaganza at the entrance may, at the least, be inconvenient. Worse is the prospect of a bomb in the parking lot.

The most severe criticism focuses on how the underworld implements the death penalty for misbehavior. The Israeli style is not isolated killings in restaurants, or disappearances with bodies dumped in the wastelands as in Chicago, Boston, New York, or New Jersey. The action here is on public streets. The most recent killing came from a bomb attached to Alperon's car, and detonated by remote control. Others have come from drive-by sprays from machine guns, typically by the second rider on a speeding motorcycle. There have been satchel bombs detonated at the entrances to homes or businesses, as well as a shooting on a crowded beach.

Occasionally it is innocent bystanders, rather than, or in addition to the target who suffer injury or death. The most recent case was more fortunate than others. A young boy waiting at a bus stop, and the driver of a nearby car were brought to the emergency room with repairable damage.

The police defend themselves against charges of incompetence and inaction. They say that they know a great deal about the underworld, and hint that they know who performed this latest deed. They could do more with additional resources. They do not have anything like the capacities used by security services in the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere. Targeted killings are not in the repertoire of the domestic police.

There is a difference between knowledge and evidence. What the police know may not be strong enough to obtain convictions. When the police have information that someone in the underworld is planning to assassinate someone else, they warn the intended victim. Does the public really want the police to provide round-the-clock protection for the nation's criminals?

The police does want the underworld to adopt other rules for its governance. Not in public places, please. Dead and injured civilians cause problems for all of us.

Due to spam, I do not permit comments on the blog. I do welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

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 11:47 PM
November 16, 2008

A conundrum is a problem without a solution.

We expect government to deal with conundrums.

We are usually unhappy with what the government does.

If we are honest, we admit that we do not know a better way.

Among the well known conundrums that affect several countries:

Wars that have no end game that is acceptable.
Problems of health, poverty, and inadequate housing, transportation, and other infrastructure that cannot be dealt with by the technology or resources available.
Populations mired in broken families, poverty, and crime, despite one government effort after another, and great expenditures.
Illegal immigration, supported by great push from poor societies that supply the people, and a reluctance of the receiving countries to do without cheap labor for jobs viewed as undesirable by its citizens.

One of the conundrums currently on Israel's agenda is Gaza. Its components are:

A regime governed by religious fanatics, convinced of their refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist.
The regime's capacity to threaten Israelis living close to Gaza with rocket and mortar attacks, and efforts at incursion by armed gangs.
The lack of complete control by the primary group in Gaza--Hamas--over groups that compete with it for public support and the righteousness of their actions against Israel.
The cost in human lives, primarily of Israeli soldiers but also of Palestinian civilians, that would be incurred by a massive Israeli retaliation.
The cost in international condemnation and the possibility of economic sanctions in response to Israel's use of great force, especially that which would cost the lives of many civilians, or in response to Israel's use of its control over Gaza to limit supplies of food, fuel, electricity, water, and other necessities.
The temporary palliative of massive force or blockade, not likely to produce a cessation of hostilities for more than a limited time.
The costs and frustrations of military conquest and prolonged occupation of a hostile population.
The importance of Egypt and other Arab regimes in international affairs, and the reluctance of Israel to pursue actions beyond their capacity to tolerate them.
The existence of an Israeli prisoner in Gaza, and problems in arranging his release or visits with him by humanitarian organizations.

In recent days a fragile cease fire, or vaguely defined period of quiet, has been spoiled, at least temporarily, by violence from both sides. Again the residents of Sderot, Ashkelon, and other localities are threatened with rockets and mortars. They demand that the government act to stop the attacks, or provide them with the means to harden their homes, schools, and other public facilities against the missiles.

Once again, the politicians in the government and the senior officers in the IDF are arguing and dithering about their options. It does not help that we are in the process of an election campaign, with politicians calculating the votes to be gained by a posture that is either aggressive or accommodating. Some politicians demand an apocalyptic response. Others caution overreaction. There is also the lame duck prime minister, spending some of his time being investigated by the police, and some of his time making proclamations that his colleagues are reluctant to support.

The response of politicians to demands that they provide the resources to protect Israelis from missiles is that the solution to the problem of Sderot and other localities is not in them, but in Gaza. Some may mean that the solution will come with an invasion. Others may mean that the solution will come with an agreement between Israel and Hamas.

Most recently the prime minister ordered the IDF to produce a plan for dealing with Gaza.

Someone senior in the IDF reminded the media, once again, that there already exists several plans in the hands of the government. The problem is not the lack of plans, but the inability of the government to decide.

The government and IDF is likely to respond, as in the past, with a little of this, and a little of that. There will be days without supplies going into Gaza, and limited attacks.

If those actions do not produce a reduction in the missiles, there will be other suggestions.

There will also be visits to Sderot, Ashkelon, and other localities by ranking politicians and soldiers who offer sympathy and support, but not immediate or complete relief.

That is a conundrum, and efforts to cope without producing greater problems.

Due to spam, I do not accept comments on the blog. I do welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

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 09:37 PM
November 14, 2008
Israeli democracy

One of the questions that bother political scientists is, "Why is Israel a democracy?"

We can put aside the minority of tendentious scholars who insist that Israel is not a democracy, due to how it treats its minorities, or due to its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Such scholars do not compare Israeli Arabs with American minorities, or those of Western Europe; and they do not compare Israel's policies toward the West Bank and Gaza with Americans' behavior toward Iraq and Afghanistan.

Israel scores high on scales of democracy that measure the incidence of free and critical media, political competition, peaceful transition between those who lose and those who win elections, and the access of minorities to the voting booth and parliament.

On the basis of international comparisons, Israel should not have developed as a democracy.

Few of Israel's founding generation came from places where democracy was well established. Israel's experiences since Independence have featured wars and mass immigration. Almost all of the migrants came as refugees from countries with no experience with democracy. Such pressures are used by countries to explain why they must abandon democracy for something more effective in dealing with difficult conditions.

Most of the 100 or so countries that came on the scene after World War II declared themselves to be democracies. Few of them have had anything like Israel's success in adhering to democracy.

My own explanations for Israeli democracy focus on a theme in Jewish culture and religion: the support for criticism. The theme is prominent in the Biblical prophets, who were less concerned with predicting the future than with criticizing the kings, priests, other elites, and one another. Jews view those critics as messengers from the Almighty, worthy of inclusion in religious ritual.

Jeremiah grouped other prophets together with priests as liars, frauds, adulterers, and hypocrites. He condemned their names to be used as curses by the Judeans (Jeremiah 28-29).

Amos may have been trying to distance himself from competitors when he said that he was not a prophet, nor the son of prophets (Amos 7:14).

Amos also set a standard of criticism that remains unmatched. He asserted that the Lord does not want compliance with legality, or precise observation of rituals, but justice and righteousness.

"When you present your sacrifices and offerings I will not accept them. . . Spare me the sound of your songs . . .Let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like an everflowing stream." (Amos 5:22-24)

Jesus followed the prophetic tradition with his shrill criticism of established elites. He resembled countless generations of Jewish nudniks who have not tolerated existing practices, and have made life difficult for their teachers and other contemporaries. If Jesus' disciples had not taken his lessons as the basis of a competing religion after his death, and given him the flavor of anti-Jewishness, he might have been enshrined in the Hebrew Bible as yet another prophet who expressed the ideals of those who came before him.

One sign of the prophetic heritage that appears in modern Israel is in the law that governs the State Comptroller (the equivalent of the United States GAO: Government Accountability Office). Like state auditors in numerous other countries, Israel's State Comptroller is empowered to investigate public bodies on criteria of legality, efficiency, and economy. Unlike others, Israel's State Comptroller is also empowered to examine bodies under the heading of "moral integrity."

I asked the question of "How do you explain Israeli democracy?" to Shimon Peres, when I had the opportunity to meet with him in the presidential residence. He, too, cited Jewish traditions, and put the emphasis on pluralism. Without a hierarchical rabbinate, Jews have learned about different interpretations of religious doctrine, and have been free to quarrel. Peres also cited the experience of his mentor, David ben Gurion. Ben Gurion did not come from a democratic society, but recorded his positive impressions of democracy, and its capacity to withstand severe pressure, after spending the period of the Blitz in Britain.

As in the case of other provocative questions, there is no simple answer. Among the explanations of Israeli democracy, however, may be traits of Jews that others have found difficult. We are quarrelsome and critical, and do not lightly accept authority or established conventions. Success in business, science, and the arts may also derive from the same characteristics.

Israeli politics is seldom quiet, and often contentious. We may not applaud the results of elections, or the policies that our government pursues. Our politics may not be quiet, disciplined, or pleasant, but they are democratic.

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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 01:45 AM
November 11, 2008
Municipal elections

Political mavens may be interested in stories from Israel's local elections.

There was personal drama, and work for activists, but not likely to be anything wrenching. We must remember that this is a small country, whose Jewish majority identifies more strongly with the nation than with their localities. Almost all the power for significant decisions (who gets what) lies with national ministries. The biggest stuff deals with national defense, prospects for peace, and now the impact of world economic problems. Mayors and local councils have no roles in those issues. Tip O'Neill's "All politics is local" does not apply to a place like this.

Nevertheless, there were some juicy details.

Jerusalem got most of the attention, where one of the major candidates was a secular businessman who sought to "take the city back from the ultra-Orthodox." He looked for support among the right as well as the left and center, and from religious Zionists, by indicating support for expanding Jewish neighborhoods eastward.

His major opponent was an ultra-Orthodox Knesset member with a long white beard, seeking to continue the rule established by the retiring ultra-Orthodox mayor, whose trademarks were a cherubic smile and a short dark beard.

Also running was a Russian "oligarch," who had been a billionaire but recently lost most of the money he earned selling arms to Angola. He spoke in broken English with an occasional word in Hebrew, and made a name for himself by buying Jerusalem's most prominent football team, aiding low-income Israelis in the north hurt by rocket attacks from Lebanon, and low-income Israelis in the south who suffered under rocket attacks from Gaza. He was under investigation for economic infractions in Israel. Due to the investigations and considerable debts, he was restricted from leaving the country. In recent years he was not able to travel anywhere but Russia and Angola due to international arrest warrants issued by France.

A well-known bohemian ran as a "real secularist" on the ticket of the marijuana party.

Ultimately the secular businessman polled 52 percent, the ultra-Orthodox 43 percent, the Russian a bit less than 4 percent, and no news about the bohemian.

In Tel Aviv a communist member of Knesset challenged the social democratic incumbent. It was also a case of young versus established, a green candidate urging the construction of modest apartments for young people against a regime that he identified with building high rise luxury apartments for the newly rich. The incumbent won 48 percent of the vote against the upstart's 35 percent.

Beer Sheva is justifiably off the main tourist track, but got headlines when its long serving and aging mayor was challenged by the young man he had nurtured as his deputy. The campaign turned ugly, or funny, when there appeared a fabricated notice of the incumbent's death: "With great sorrow we announce the sudden death of our husband, father, and grandfather . . . There will be a separate announcement about the time of the funeral. The family will sit memorial week at home."

The death did not occur, but the incumbent received only 30 percent of the vote, against his challenger's 60 percent.

It is most likely that, as in the past, the residents of Arab cities and towns voted heavily for parties identified with one or another locally dominant extended family.

The success of the businessman will make secular Jerusalemites feel like African Americans after the election of Barack Obama. It is too early to know whether garbage pick up will be more frequent, or if there will be more flowers in public spaces. Gardening will depend more on this winter's rains than anything else in a time of extended drought. The winner has promised to be mayor of "all the people," and will not be able to overlook one-third of the Jewish population that is ultra-Orthodox.

National ministries of finance and interior will continue to determine the charges for local taxes as well as the size and major details of the municipal budget. City planning will depend on committees beholden to the national ministry of interior. The national housing ministry will decide about new neighborhoods. The national ministry of transportation will have the final say about traffic patterns, including whether streets will be one-way or two-way, and areas set aside for parking. The national ministry of education will continue to determine school curriculum and the salaries of teachers. The national police will decide about celebrations of gay pride. The prime minister and national government may get around to defining the city's boundaries in negotiations with the Palestinians.

So far no news about voting in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Shortly before the election, a Muslim religious leader called for yet another boycott of the Zionist regime. If the pattern of previous years repeated itself, Arab turnout was negligible. Individuals can vote in local elections where they are residents, without having to be citizens. Collectively, the Arab neighborhoods could select 30 percent of the city council and be crucial in choosing the mayor. If they did not vote, chances are they will continue to complain that their neighborhoods are poorly served. You get what you vote for. If you do not vote, you do not get.

Due to spam, I do not permit comments on the blog. I do welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

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 09:25 PM
November 08, 2008
Great and small powers

Is the American empire in decline?

What should be the strategy of a small country like Israel?

A combination of greed and stupidity has produced what may be the greatest world economic crisis since the 1930's. It is a story of huge rewards for individuals at the pinnacles of finance in the United States, who paved the road to disaster, and officials who sold the notion that the function of government is not to govern.

Americans have also showed narrow minded arrogance in their use of military power. How many adventures like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan can a country enter and still remain great?

Comparisons with the decline of Britain are too simple. The United States currently is larger, richer, and more advanced relative to others in its economy and technology than Britain when it was at the height of its power prior to World War I. Even if much of the American advantage depends on imported scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and capital, it should have enough of an edge to hold off competition from China, India, or Western Europe.

Likewise comparisons with the Soviet Empire are too simple. Economic fragility and corruption limited its capacity. America could withstand Vietnam, but the Soviet Union could not withstand Afghanistan.

Modesty might help in holding off the American decline. There may be enough of it despite citizens who do not recognize their frailties, reject criticism, and continue to think in terms of the best, the brightest, and the most endowed by the Creator.

Barack Obama expresses skepticism about military power and an inclination toward international cooperation. Awesome, however, are the problems he faces in the economic crisis, military entanglements, and Iran. It will take time to see what comes out of his administration, and good luck in avoiding unpleasant surprises.

If the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are part of a larger strategy against Islamic fanaticism, the armed forces of the United States may not yet be "at the end of the beginning." Winston Churchill used the phrase to describe the allied victory at El Alamein in 1942, when campaigns in Europe were still in the future.

Alongside the problems of banks, the stock market, General Motors and Chrysler are colleges and universities caught by falling endowments and contributions, an increase in students needing financial aid, and--in the case of public institutions--declining allocations from state governments. Their presidents are calling for federal aid.

Get in line, folks.

Israel illustrates the problems of small countries that must find their way amidst the larger, richer, and more powerful. One official has gone public with advice to the new American administration that it avoid pressure. Israel will continue to seek a way to peace with its neighbors in its own terms. Arrogant Americans who demand that Israel do this, avoid that, and insist on a short timetable for compliance strain the Israeli leadership beyond its capacity to deliver. They also encourage Palestinians to expect a solution from others, rather than reconsider what they claim to be their non-negotiable rights.

The United States may be the best friend of this small country, but it is not the only friend. The American way to the future is not the only way. The world is dynamic. Alternatives may not abound, but they exist. Some of them appear in what is now the American opposition. It may bother American Jews that Israelis welcome support from the Christian Right. It may bother Americans that Israelis sell weapons or military know how in Africa, as well as to China and India. Americans may wonder why Israelis warm to the French leadership.

Doomsayers emphasize an Arab takeover of Europe via migration. They may account for 10 percent of the population in France. Twenty percent of the Israeli population is Arab. There are things we can learn from one another.

To be overly committed to any foreign power is dangerous for a small country. It is part of wisdom to nurture whatever advantages may be available, all the while being careful to avoid offending those which are most promising. Governing a small country is riskier than governing a world power. The abyss is closer. A misstep is more dangerous.

Even for a world power, there is an abyss. Great power is not forever assured.

Due to spam, I do not permit comments on the blog. I do welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

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 03:53 AM
November 07, 2008
Elections, and after

If Rahm Emanuel becomes Obama's chief of staff, there will be an African American president with a aide who speaks Hebrew. Fifty years ago I entered Wesleyan under a Jewish quota of 10 percent. Forty years ago I traveled throughout the South and saw water fountains and park benches with signs for Whites Only.

It is touching to see black Americans crying at the news of Obama's victory. Conditions do not auger well for early or extensive improvements in their lives. Pride is important. Being the Chosen People carried the Jews through a great deal of unpleasantness.

The Israeli election does not promise anything so dramatic. Neither is there a specter like Sarah Palin hanging over the outcome. We are hearing that she thought Africa was a country, rather than a continent. True, or parody?

Here the heads of major parties are well known. All of them have been at the pinnacle of national politics for a decade or more, and have shown how they can manage a major ministry or even the office of prime minister. They all know that they will have to bend and scrape to put together a coalition, with parties they might not want to include.

Each party has a mechanism--either a primary restricted to dues-paying members or a committee of party elites--for ranking its candidates. Voters select among the parties, and the percentage each receives determines how far down the list its candidates become members of the parliament.

The parties are courting "stars" who have made a name for themselves in the military, business, media, or the universities. Some feel themselves important enough to demand a high place on a party's list, or even to be assured a role as minister if the party joins the coalition. Occasionally, one will demand a position as a "senior minister," i.e., something thought to be worthy of his or her expertise. Some stars are modest enough to reject the idea of assurance, and are willing to join the primary contest.

The Labor Party central committee decided to save most of the seats likely to be won for individuals currently in the Knesset. Commentators are calling this a symptom of organizational decay.

Not all the stars willing to enter politics "for the good of the nation" will obtain a high place on a party list. Some of those promised ministerial appointments will not get them, or will not get an appointment as important as they thought they were promised. Coalition negotiations are tough, and party leaders seldom end up with anything like their initial demands. After the last Knesset election, one senior academic resigned from the Knesset in a huff after not getting the position he thought he deserved. Another grumbled, but served as a back bencher until becoming head of a Knesset committee near the end of the session.

Condoleezza Rice came to the country again to keep the Israelis and the Palestinians working for peace. She now concedes that they cannot complete their task in 2008 as she wanted, but she sees real progress and hopes that they will maintain the momentum through transitions in both Israel and the United States. Tzipi Livni has signed on to Ms Race's vision, but she has shown herself to be more reserved in her promises than Ehud Olmert. Benyamin Netanyahu has positioned himself as more cautious than Ms Livni.

Mahmoud Abbas is saying that he and Olmert have made real progress. That is a change in tone from his usual dismal messages with respect to the achievement of Palestinian rights. At this point it is impossible to know if he is serious, or expressing a platitude for the new president (keep their feet to the fire until they give us what we want).

Whoever President Obama sends to the Middle East will have a difficult task, whether he or she speaks Hebrew or something else.

Due to spam, I do not permit comments on the blog. I do welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

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 06:45 AM
November 04, 2008
Barack Obama

Barack Obama's election is a magnificent personal accomplishment, and a dramatic statement about race in the United States.

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the history of the United States is the history of race.

The framers of the Constitution endorsed slavery in their compromise between North and South to count three-fifths of the slaves in each state when determining representation in the nation. From then until the Civil War, southern politicians were concerned above all to protect and extend their peculiar institution. The War ended slavery, but Reconstruction failed to make anything close to equal citizens of the slaves and their descendants. Jim Crow ruled the South from the late 19th century until the 1960s.

Currently the central issues in national politics are economics and international relations. Yet people of my age matured when the issue was desegregation, and opportunities for African Americans to obtain decent housing and jobs.

When I began as an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in 1966, a black colonel in the United States Army had been murdered because he entered a white restaurant, and the all-white jury returned a verdict of not-guilty for his killers. By the time I left in 1968, the local schools and the university had begun to integrate. During our ride north to the University of Wisconsin, a white man killed Martin Luther King and blacks rioted.

Barack and Michelle Obama are products of opportunities since then, as well as whites who could vote with enthusiasm for an African American candidate, perhaps many of them without thinking about his color.

Yet race continues to be the most prominent factor that distinguishes Americans. It is the prevailing explanation in studies of income, health, illegitimacy, education, longevity, crime, and punishment.

President Obama will come to office with many aspirations. Wherever on his agenda is a concern for the underclass of blacks and other Americans, it will have to compete with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and something between economic fragility and disaster. Who knows what crises will come to his desk after the celebrations of the inaugural.

A preoccupation of Israeli commentators (What does it mean for us?) is nothing in comparison to the larger story. Yet a bit of local news took a few moments from all-night reports about the American votes. For the first time in months, troops and aircraft attacked targets in Gaza. We can wonder if the IDF timed its operation for the world's preoccupation with something else. The official line is that these were limited operations against specific threats, and should not end the cease fire. Hamas has begun firing rockets and mortars, and is saying that the retaliation should not end the cease fire.

It may not be that simple.

Welcome to the day after, Mr. President-elect.

Due to spam, I do not permit comments on the blog. I do welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

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 09:19 PM