March 31, 2009
Ministers of Nothing

Cartoonists and columnists are having a field day with the new Netanyahu government.
It's not a government, it is shakshuka (a composite of eggs, tomato and spices scrambled and fried)
There is a Minister of Nothing, a Minister of Absolutely Nothing, and a Minister to Count the Ministers
We are seeing a self-satisfied Netanyahu ridiculing Ehud Olmert from the podium of the Knesset in 2006 for wasting the taxpayers' money with a government inflated with useless ministerial appointments. Now when he is faced with having appointed a government some 30 percent larger than Olmert's, Netanyahu is saying that it is the price the public must pay for having voted the way it did in the recent election.

Not necessarily.

If Netanyahu had brought Kadima and Labor into his government with Likud, he would not have had to invent appointments to satisfy claimants in his own party, after passing out so many goodies to all the other parties he needed for a Knesset majority.

Explanations for the failure of negotiations between Netanyahu and Livni mention Livni's demand that the position of prime minister rotate between her and Netanyahu, and her demand that Netanyahu accept the formula of a "two state solution" as the goal of negotiations with the Palestinians.

It is hard to believe that a few words produced the failure of those talks. Netanyahu and Ehud Barak agreed on a formula for resolving what were likely to be even wider differences about the peace process between the right-of-center Likud and the left-of-center Labor Party. We are left with the explanation of ego for the failure of the Netanyahu-Livni negotiations. It is not clear if it was Netanyahu's ego that prevented him from accommodating Livni's demands, or Livni's ego that prevented her from accepting what Netanyahu was willing to offer. Among politicians who reach that level, there is usually enough ego to explain anything. Harold Lasswell made the point in his Psychopathology and Politics, published in the mid-1930s.

Netanyahu has appointed politicians to the following positions, alongside the conventional posts of established ministries:
Minister for Intelligence Services
Minister for Strategic Issues
Minister without Portfolio with Responsibility for Minorities
Minister without Portfolio with Responsibility for Improving Public Service
Minister for Information and the Diaspora
Minister for Regional Development and Development of the Negev and Galilee
3 Ministers without Portfolio and without specified responsibilities
Deputy Minister for the Status of Youth and Women
Most likely none of these will have sufficient staff or budgets to accomplish anything of importance. There is also to be a Minister of Culture and Sport, which has so little to do that in the past it was part of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport.

Prominent among Netanyahu's tasks was finding something for the distinguished individuals he recruited to Likud shortly before the election. They may have enhanced the appeal of his ticket, and brought in some of the votes that boosted Likud from the 14 seats won in 2006 to 27 seats this time.

He gave Moshe Yaalon, former commander of the IDF general staff the title Minister for Strategic Issues. Chances are slim that Yaalon will succeed in getting responsibility for anything that is within the purview Defense Ministry, to be headed by Ehud Barak, another former commander of the IDF general staff, with a Deputy Minister of Defense who is also a retired general.

He gave Dan Meridor, a distinguished former minister of finance and justice the title Minister for Intelligence Services. Meridor will have trouble acquiring anything like control over the formidable Mossad and Shin Bet, especially when the Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and Minister of Domestic Security also want their hands in those pies.

He gave the title of Minister for Regional Development and Development of the Negev and Galilee to his Likud rival, Sivan Shalom. Shalom might have trouble deciding about regional development while the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the Defense Minister consider that to be in their bailiwicks, or the development of the Negev and Galilee that is already handled by numerous established ministries..

Netanyahu's ridicule of Olmert for wasting money with so many appointments in 2006 has some credence, but not too much. As noted above, few appointments of doubtful value will come with significant staff assistance. The differences between the salary of a Knesset member and minister, or deputy minister, and the addition of car and driver has been estimated as between two and three million shekels per year, depending on whether the appointee can squeeze any money for aides or activities out of the finance ministry. Altogether, we may be talking 50 million shekels a year. Demagogues who did not get any of the goodies may trumpet how many school teachers or free lunches for the poor this money might buy, but the aggregate is somethink like one hundredth of one percent of the national budget (i.e., .0001). If politicians really want to spend more on teachers or free lunches, they can find that amount without great difficulty.

What about the argument that some of the appointees are not experts in the subject matter of their jobs? This is true not only for ministers of nothing, but also ministers of something. Individuals appointed as Ministers of Defense and Justice are experts in the concerns of their departments. However, the Minister of Foreign Affairs will begin his task having insulted the President of Egypt, and with a reputation as a racist. The ultra-Orthodox politician likely to be heading the Ministry of Health, if he repeats the record of a predecessor, may be more interested in kosher kitchens than anything else. There is no indication that individuals appointed to head the ministries of transportation, environmental protection, tourism, or housing and construction come to their jobs with significant expertise in those fields.

Not to worry. All of the established ministries have numerous professional employees, who make almost all of the decisions, or guide the minister to appropriate decisions. Ministers of defense, foreign affairs, and finance often have crucial roles in formulating and articulating major policy. The minister of transportation might have a crucial voice in selecting the route for new roads, or scrambling the choices made by a predecessor. The minister of education cannot do much of anything against the desires of the teacher unions. Most ministers find themselves restricted by whatever program initiatives professionals in the finance ministry are willing to pay for.

In wishing well to the new government of Israel, it is appropriate to hope that all will go well in the international economy that impinges so heavily on this small country, that moderate Palestinians will reconsider their rejection of whatever any Israeli government is willing to offer, that American and Europeans claiming to be our friends will keep their brilliant new ideas to themselves, and that our crazier neighbors will not decide to provoke the IDF.

I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:00 AM
March 28, 2009
What's in store

Officials of the European Union have threatened the prospective government of Benyamin Netanyahu that serious consequences will occur if Israel abandons the idea of a two-state solution: Palestine alongside Israel. The warning is vague, perhaps reflecting views that the Palestinians are not ready for a real place in the sun. A Palestinian official has chimed in, adding to Europe's specifications. He says that Israel must recognize a Palestinian state with the borders of 1967.

Bibi has not ruled out a Palestinian state. He has said that the Palestinians must demonstrate a capacity to govern themselves. Better than working immediately toward a state, in his view, is economic enhancement that gives to the Palestinians reason to be patient with whatever steps evolve toward their future.

Prominent among those who quarrel with that are international figures who cannot stand to have their mantra challenged for first place on the agenda. They adhere to the slogan of a "two-state solution" despite the dismal character of Palestinian authorities in the West Bank, and the reprehensible character of those in Gaza.

"Moderate" Palestinians insist on turning back history to the point in time that has international credence, i.e., 1967. 1880 is preferred by Palestinians who want as much as they can get. 1947 is mentioned by Palestinians who want to deny their own earlier rejection of a United Nations decision, as well as by officials of the Vatican still hoping for control over the Holy Places, or maybe all of Jerusalem.

Why not 2009, preferred by Israelis who want to keep all they have settled and wherever they are building additional housing for Jews?

Politics works by slogans. They appeal to the folk, and organize priorities for officials needing a simple anchor in a complex world with many actors, conflicting goals, and no end of studies that point this way or that way.

A Palestinian state has been at the center of on-again, off-again negotiations since 1993, without significant progress. One can blame Palestinian intransigence, their internal disputes and violence, continuing Palestinian violence against Israel, or Israeli machinations. In seeing where we are and how we may go further, it does not matter who is at fault. The idea of a Palestinian state produces a great deal of noise even as it remains in neutral, without traction on the road to the future.

Bibi speaks at volume in flowing sentences, in Hebrew or English, with the magnetism of a demagogue. He also picks up subtle cues and overt demands from those with significant power, and acts more wisely than he speaks. In the past he has caved in to international realities, despite his later denials that he ever did what he did.

Now he has included in his government a left of center and secular Labor Party, whose Defense Minister designate acted on several occasions to give peace a chance in Lebanon and Gaza. His Foreign Minister designate, with a large constituency of Russian immigrants, insulted the president of Egypt and is damned as a racist by Arabs and others. His ultra-Orthodox Interior Minister designate (with authority over population registration) is likely to complicate the lives of several hundred thousand Russian immigrants not recognized as Jewish by the Rabbinate, and wishing to marry who they choose, where they choose.

All this will produce continued excitement for those who marvel at how the Jews, with traditions of faith, morality, and pragmatism developed over two and one-half millennia in many places governed by others, seek to apply what they acquired in a state they must govern.

I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:17 AM
March 26, 2009
Political arithmetic

The election occurred on February 10th and the results were known on the 11th.

Remember that Likud won fewer seats than Kadima, but the president as well as much of the population concluded that Likud would have a better chance of putting together a coalition that would get the support of a Knesset majority. So far, agreements have been reached with Israel Beitenu, Labor, SHAS, and Jewish Home. Together with Likud, they amount to 69 seats, a clear majority in the 120 seat Knesset. Negotiations continue with Torah Judaism and National Unity.

Some Labor Members of Knesset (MKs) may be angry enough with party leader Ehud Barak for joining with Netanyahu that they will not support the coalition. Some members of Likud may be angry enough with Bibi for giving away prized appointments that their support will be tepid. Individual Likud MKs may work subtly or not so subtly to undermine Bib in the hopes of producing an early election.

Coalition arithmetic begins with the number of Knesset seats held by each potential partner, and the goodies that the prime minister designate can trade for support. Prominent among these are positions as ministers and chairs of Knesset committee, commitments for expenditures on favored items, and support for other policy issues.

The election results produced the following array of likely coalition partners:

Likud: 27 seats
Israel Beitenu: 15
Labor: 13
SHAS: 11
Torah Judaism: 5
National Unity: 4
Jewish Home: 3

It is conventional to rank the ministries by prestige. There is some dispute at the margins, but the rankings look more or less like the following. (The modest rankings of Health and Education reflect the importance of the Finance Ministry in setting expenditures, salaries, and service levels, the weight of Health Maintenance Organizations and teachers' unions, and the autonomy of higher education.)

There are opportunities for dividing ministries to produce even more appointments, and to appoint deputy ministers and ministers without portfolio with vague or non-existent responsibilities.

The ministries likely to exist in Netanyahu's government, clustered by levels of prestige, are:

Group I

Prime Minister
Foreign Affairs

Group II

Industry and Trade
Public Security
Construction and Housing

Group III


Group IV

Immigrant Absorption
Environmental Protection
Development of the Negev and Galilee
Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister (This is an extra, which may carry few if any significant duties.)

It has become conventional to appoint a Deputy Prime Minister. The title of Deputy Prime Minister carries prestige, and few if any duties, except to act as the prime minister when the prime minister is out of the country or otherwise indisposed, and to assume the office upon death or resignation until the Knesset acts otherwise. The designation may come along with a ministerial appointment, or can be an extra if there aren't enough ministries to meet the demand.

Bibi's challenge was to win the support of several middle-sized or small parties, in order to reach a number of MKs as great as possible more than 60. Each potential partner knew its importance, and demanded appointments and other benefits.

Parties and ministries as of now, with summary prestige indications:

Labor: Defense, Industry and Trade, Agriculture, Welfare, Minorities.
(That is, 1 Group I; 1 Group II, 1 Group III, 2 Group IV)

Israel Beitenu: Foreign Affairs, Domestic Security, Infrastructure, Tourism, Immigrant Absorption.
(1 Group I, 1 Group II, 3 Group IV)

SHAS: Interior, Construction and Housing, Religions. and minister in the prime minister's office
(2 Group II, 2 Group IV)

Jewish Home: Science
(1 Group IV)

As of now, what is left for Likud, along with the position of prime minister is:

Finance, Justice, Transportation, Education, Health, Communications, Tourism, Environmental Protection, Culture, Sport, Minorities, Development of the Negev and Galilee
(2 Group I, 1 Group II, 3 Group III, 6 Group IV)

There are also appointments as heads of Knesset Committees. Here, too, there are differences in prestige, the leading ones being Foreign Affairs and Defense, Finance, Constitution Law and Justice, Knesset Committee, and State Audit. There are also sub-committees, some of which have greater prestige than full committees. There are traditions of appointing members of the opposition as chairs of certain committees. A prominent example is the Committee on States Audit, which focuses on the Office of the State Comptroller and its criticism of governmental bodies.

Beside ministerial appointments, the achievements of the coalition partners include:

Israel Beitenu received the chair of the Knesset Committee of Constitution Law and Judiciary, a representative on the committee to appoint judges, and a commitment to find a solution for the problem of marriages involving individuals not recognized as Jewish by the Rabbinate.

SHAS received a commitment to increase family allowances, i.e. monthly payments to families according to the number of children under the age of 18.

Labor received a period of rotation as chair of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Relations and Defense, and a commitment to increase old age pensions.

Jewish Home received a period of rotation as chairs of Knesset Committees of Education, and Children's Rights

Promised increases in family allowances and old age pensions, if delivered, will be expensive. Agreements to both required Netanyahu to slip aside from his often touted claim as being the finance minister in an earlier government who saved the economy by reducing welfare entitlements. It will also crimp his current promise to reduce taxes, already in trouble due to a reduction in tax collections as a result of the economic recession. Clips of Netanyahu criticizing the Olmert government for the expense of 25 ministers and deputy ministers appear along with prospects that his government will have 33.

There is a rough equivalence between the number of appointments received by each party and the number of seats won in the election. What will complicate Netanyahu's work among Likud members is the scarcity of key appointments left unfilled, and the number of Likud MKs who think themselves especially worthy. Some of these were recruited to Likud by Netanyahu shortly before the election, seemingly with indications that they would be important members of his government. Netanyahu may also want to keep for himself the most prized of the as yet unfilled positions: minister of finance.

The Likud MKs likely to be expecting prized appointments are:

Silvan Shalom, prominent MK and former minister of Finance, and Foreign Affairs, and a rival of Netanyahu for party leadership
Moshe Ayalon, former Commander of the IDF, and one of Bibi's recruits to Likud's list
Benny Begin, son of the former prime minister, a politician in his own right, a former MK and minister, and one of Bibi's recruits to Likud's list
Limor Levnat, prominent MK and former minister, and the highest ranking woman among Likud MKs
Don Meridor, former minister of finance and justice, and one of Bibi's recruits to Likud's list
Yosi Peled, retired general and prominent media commentator, and one of Bibi's recruits to Likud's list
Miri Regev, one of Bibi's recruits to Likud's list, and a former spokeswoman of the IDF who came to prominence during the 2006 Lebanon war
Ruby Rivlin former chair of the Knesset, destined for that position again
Yuval Shteinitz prominent MK
Gilad Ardon prominent MK
Michael Eitan prominent MK
Israel Katz prominent MK
Gidon Saar prominent MK

Still hanging are Torah Judaism and National Unity. Together they would provide nine additional seats to the coalition, as well as problems. Torah Judaism would dig in its heels against provisions to ease the process of conversion to Judaism, and add to SHAS's adamant posture against anything that facilitated the marriage of Jews to non-Jews, and even civil marriage for non-Jews. Israel Beitenu depends on the support of Russian speaking immigrants, where these items are high priority.

National unity might fit well with Israel Beitenu on political negotiations with Palestinians and the rights and responsibilities of Israel's Arab citizens, but it would cause significant problems on these issues for Labor.

Bibi is likely to present his government for Knesset approval within a few days. Israeli law provides that it may serve a bit longer than four years. It has been a while since any government has served that long, and it is too early to bet on the life span of this one.

I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:42 AM
March 24, 2009
Trend lines

The new administration in Washington is down on the floor wrestling with economic problems that are world class and historic in their severity.

Along with that, the campaign theme of Change, some of the new people in Washington, and a host of wannabes have sought to refresh some old slogans about the Middle East. They may assert their support for Israel and concern for its future, but they talk about tough love and pressuring Israel to accommodate what they see as essential facts.

Chief among these is their perception that Jewish settlements in the West Bank as a key--perhaps the key--to accommodation. There is also certainty about the trends of Jewish and Arab growth in the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. If there is no agreement, in their view, Arabs will overcome the Jews demographically. The best result imaginable will be one state. The Jews will be a minority, sooner or later the place will be called Palestine, and there will be another Jewish migration.

A few words on trend lines, usually considered important in projecting what is likely to happen.

Compare China and the United States on the one hand, and Palestine and Israel on the other hand.

Trend analysis indicates that the United States has more to worry about than Israel. The sleeping giant has woken up. China is getting stronger. It has acquired enough leverage on United States Government bonds to make some Americans worry about their independence.

Am I predicting that China will overtake the US in the near future? No.

The distant future? Also no, but that is an open question. It depends on too many things capable of confounding a prediction.

Trend lines show a weaker case for predicting Israel's collapse. Looking backward to the 1930s when the Jews of Palestine began to accept territorial compromises they considered unpleasant. Palestinians and other Arabs rejected them in the expectations of overcoming the Jews. In the almost 80 years since that began, there has been a growth in Israel's economic and military capacity, along with stagnating or diminishing Palestinian well being and strength. Most recently, the political split in Palestine, civil violence, poverty, destruction, and dependence on outside aid are most prominent in Gaza. The West Bank is in better shape, but it depends on Israeli security actions against Hamas inroads. If Hamas succeeds in its aspirations, the West Bank might become like Gaza.

Does this assure Israel's safety?


Prediction is risky. Lots of variables, some of them not currently on the screen, will influence what happens. Only the naive are certain of their predictions. Nonetheless, projections from the recent past are useful. Trends do not always continue, but they usually do.

There are several points to make about Israeli resilience.

It is strengthened by a willingness to accommodate international pressure, shown most notably by Oslo in 1993, and Camp David and Taba in 2000.

It has shown a capacity to reject some of the demands coming from Palestinians and others.

Under this heading we can place the most recent rejection of demands from Hamas and much of the Israeli public to "pay any price" for the release of the Israeli prisoner. The government was ready to release a number of prisoners with "blood on their hands," but not those involved in the most heinous of actions. Individuals might quarrel about the willingness to release X and not Y, but the important point is that Israel knows how to say no.

It has also overlooked sweeping demands to withdraw Jewish settlements from the West Bank. A positive response seems unlikely after the withdrawal from Gaza produced several thousand rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.

The demographic threat of Palestine is real, but those likely to suffer are Palestinians. Israel knows how to defend its borders. The growth in population, fueled by food aid from the United Nations, threatens Palestine with continued poverty.

The Holocaust, and the persecution of Jews in Arab lands are often used as moral justifications of Israel's existence.

They are also useful as explanations of Israel's continuing resistance of pressure from western governments.

Survivors of the Holocaust and refugees from Arab lands have pretty much left the scene. However, their children and grandchildren are running the country. If you want to see tough, look again at those pictures from Gaza. Some Israelis disagreed about the operation and express dismay at the death and destruction. Jews tolerate dispute, but the support for the action remains considerable.

Prime Minister designate Benyamin Netanyahu has talked about shelving the idea of a Palestinian state. That has brought expressions of shock, dismay, and threats from Western capitals. The words suggest that Israel may have voted itself into an unpleasant corner.

Those who know Netanyahu well realize that he often acts more pragmatically than he speaks. Moreover, his capacity to create a government is not certain, nor is his ability to keep it going with a thin majority in the Knesset and inner tensions. But all those expressions of dismay and threat about what he has said may be nothing more than lip service. When western diplomats look at the record of Palestinian rejection and infighting, they see something other than political enlightenment.

Take another look at those trend lines. There is no indication that Israel is falling apart. They do not assure continued prosperity or survival. They do justify optimism among Israelis and those who claim to be its friends.

I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:03 AM
March 22, 2009
Holocaust, Palestinians, and us

Our weekend began with a reminder of Jewish history.

There was a small gathering at the cemetery to remember Like Roos, a distant relative of Varda. She was a good friend, curious and willing to argue, but reluctant to get too close. The others who gathered at her grave, and then for coffee afterwards, may have been able to give and receive more than we due to shared experiences of a European childhood at a bad time. Two of them, like Like, found refuge with Christian families in Holland. One spoke of a friend who was passed from family to family 18 times. Another was orphaned in Poland at the age of one, did not say how she spent the war, but told of being adopted in Philadelphia. Yet another was sent by the kinder transport to Wales.

The police were preparing for massive demonstrations in Jerusalem and Nazareth, where Palestinians would declare Jerusalem as their cultural capital. The event could be harmless, or the organizers and the police could make it ugly. "Cultural capital" sounds like a nationalist euphemism for something grander. Events would begin at 5:30 PM on Saturday, with dignitaries from Tunisia and the Gulf States. Plans were to fly the Palestinian flag on the Noble Sanctuary, which Jews call the Temple Mount. There would be protests about the municipality's intention to destroy homes built illegally on public land, and the home of a bulldozer terrorist who killed Jerusalemites some months ago.

Not much happened, suggesting that the Palestinians were showing their incompetence, or their unwillingness to do more than remind the world of their existence. Crowds gathered in Bethlehem and Ramallah. There were more police than demonstrators in Jerusalem. They did nothing other than block streets and arrest 12 Palestinians who would not desist.

A Jewish demonstration got underway two hours later after the Sabbath, at the tent across the street from the prime minister's residence where the Schalit family marked 1,000 days of Gilad's captivity. His father called on Ehud Olmert to do what is necessary to free Gilad during his remaining time in office. A well know author was more forceful. He accused the prime minister of indifference and ineptitude. A woman demanded that Israel look after its soldiers. She threatened that the next generation of recruits would punish the country by their inactions if it did not bring all of its soldiers home. The Schalits.left the tent, but said they would continue the pressure from their home in the Galilee.

The Schalits attracted prime time from the media, but no more than two or three hundred participants.

The standard used to compare demonstrations is the gathering of 400,000 who protested the massacres of Palestinians of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Even though it was Christian Lebanese militias that did the killings, a Israeli Committee of Inquiry concluded that Ariel Sharon had indirect responsibility for not anticipating and preventing them, and could no longer serve as Defense Minister.

The news later in the evening was a car bomb exploding at a shopping mall in Haifa. The car had parked outside the mall, without passing through an inspection of cars going inside. Fortunately the explosion occurred in only one of several packets that the police found during three hours of disarming what remained. An Arab organization calling itself Free the Galilee claimed credit, and promised something more successful.

On the same broadcast was news of a crises in the Labor Party. Labor was dominant from before the establishment of the state until the election of 1977. It returned to power in the elections of 1992 and 1999, and filled senior positions in the current government. The party won 56 seats in its most successful election, in 1969. It declined to 26 seats in 1999, 19 seats in the elections of 2003 and 2006, and 13 seats in 2009.

Ehud Barak, who is party leader and Defense Minister wants to bring Labor into the government being formed by Benyamin Netanyahu. The left wing of the party is strongly opposed to serving with Netanyahu, Lieberman, and the ultra-Orthodox. Some members are threatening to withdraw and create a Social Democratic Party if Barak wins the votes necessary to bring Labor into Netanyahu's government. If Barak loses the party vote, he may walk away and join Netanyahu as a Defense Minister without party affiliation.

Holocaust, Palestinians, and quarrels about how to deal with them and ourselves are central to the Israeli experience. Sometimes they are in the background, but never far away.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:14 AM
March 19, 2009
Israel's image

Israel has an image problem.

It has worsened due to the use of massive force against Gaza, the foreign minister designate said to be a racist, and the prime minister designate who speaks out against the idea of a Palestinian state widely held to be the key to peace.

The foreign minister of the European Union said that it would reconsider its relationship with Israel if it did not remain committed to establishing a Palestinian state.

Israeli officials are worrying about a leftward tilt in the American administration. Liberal Jewish Democrats are unhappy with what they saw in Gaza, and what they see in the new government.

Nervous officials of Israel's Foreign Ministry have budgeted $2 million to improve the country's image by sending artists and intellectuals abroad to present a positive image, distinct from the country's concern to defend itself with a strong army. An even more nervous professor says that $100 million may be necessary for the job.

Israel does ugly things.

So do other countries faced by violence.

One question is, Does war have to be as ugly as it is?

We are reading in our own newspapers about the killing of Palestinians and property damage in Gaza that may not have been justified by what the military needed to do. The IDF will investigate.

No doubt there are undisciplined individuals in Israeli uniforms, who should not have passed through the training meant to weed them out.

Other armies are also imperfect. Note the charges against human rights violations at Guantanamo, the sadists at Abu Ghraib, and My Lai.

Another question is, Will music, art, well-spoken writers and academics overcome the negatives from Gaza and government offices in Jerusalem?

Some of the charges against Israel come from extremists who long ago accepted Palestinian stories of Israeli oppression. Nothing may penetrate strongly held beliefs about the injustice of Israel's existence or its actions.

Some will appreciate the art, music, and literature of Israel, the fruit of its orchards, and what comes from its laboratories, industries, and medical facilities. They show the creative, humane, and tasty sides of a culture that reflects more than two millennia of learning and probing the nuances in its problems. Demonstrations of diversity and outright disputes may produce understanding and appreciation of what Israel is, even if it does not increase support for all of Israel's actions.

Israelis have explained the sequence of events behind its military operations. The history includes acceptance of compromises offered by others going back to the 1930s, as well as Israeli proposals since 2000 met by Palestinian rejection and violence. Thousands of rockets aimed at civilians preceded the most recent Gaza operation. The selection of Benyamin Netanyahu as prime minister and Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister reflect the workings of democratic politics, and the frustration of efforts to produce a Palestinian state since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

There are people who do not notice Israeli explanations, are not convinced, or are more impressed with Palestinian explanations. Americans and Europeans have their own concerns. The Middle East is over the horizon and troubling. Officials who aspire to world leadership must appear even handed. People who have suffered attacks by Muslim extremists hope for a key that will lessen the threat of more violence.

Israel's future depends, in part, on cultural outreach and dispassionate explanation. Neither alone will assure continued survival or prosperity. Both together are not likely to be enough.

Armed force is the ultimate defense of any nation faced with enemies who speak about destruction. Gaza shows what Israel may do when faced with seven years of rocket attacks, and little more than sympathetic words from foreign visitors. The continuing blockade against the import of material to repair the damage shows persistence in the face of Hamas' refusal to back away from its sworn commitment to destroy Israel.

What some see as unpleasant or reprehensible, others see a tough country doing what is reasonable. The most recent demonstration came in the government's refusal to free all the prisoners demanded by Hamas in exchange for the release of one Israeli prisoner. The refusal also demonstrated the limitations of public relations. The Schalit family came close to monopolizing the media with a campaign to build support for paying whatever price is necessary to gain Gilad's freedom. Numerous ministers in the government, members of Knesset, and other public figures visited the tents across the street from the prime minister's residence, and expressed support for Schalit's campaign. Those who opposed the deal being offered by Hamas were quiet, especially during the intense period surrounding the most recent negotiations.

Noam Schalit, the prisoner's father, said that the family would end its stay in the tents this week as Gilad's imprisonment reaches 1,000 days. They will go home and "wait for a miracle."

Along with the sadness felt for a task not accomplished is the regard for officials who considered numerous sides of a moral quandary, and defend a decision that is less than ideal.

We hope for the time when persuasion and public relations will solve our problems.

I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:24 AM
March 17, 2009
Gilad Schalit

Marathon efforts to reach an agreement on freeing the Israeli prisoner Gilad Schalit have failed. Israelis report that Hamas hardened its conditions and withdrew concessions they accepted earlier. Perhaps the campaign mounted by the Schalit family backfired. The indications of wide support among Israelis for freeing prisoners "with blood on their hands" may have led Hamas to insist on its demands, or even increase them. Hamas denies those charges and blames Israel for the failure of negotiations. Schalit's father blames Olmert.

Benyamin Netanyahu has avoided comment about the prisoner exchange, but members of his coalition abuilding have spoken out forcefully against freeing a large number of murderers in exchange for one soldier.

The moral issues are well known, and have been debated to exhaustion.

Some convicted killers will revert to terror if released. The results may be more Israeli deaths due to one soldier freed.

Tell that to the family campaigning to pay whatever is necessary to release their son before he dies or disappears, or is broken by continued captivity. They find support among Israelis who feel that their government must do all it can to return home the soldiers sent into combat.

Israel has a long history of paying a heavy price for its soldiers or their bodies. The government paid in live terrorists for a retired military officer who went bad and was captured while illegally in Lebanon to acquire illegal drugs for sale in Israel. Among the concerns in his case was the fear that he would reveal secrets if not ransomed.

The tradition is older than the modern state. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jewish communities collected resources from their members to buy the release of individuals seized by pirates or bandits.

Occasionally an heroic figure says something like, "No negotiations with terrorists." Last night we heard a distinguished professor say that Israel must plan better so that it achieves more in its military campaigns and subsequent negotiations. It should devise clear criteria for how many and what kinds of prisoners may be exchanged for live Israelis or dead bodies. It should pass a law against freeing killers in a way that is disproportionate to the benefits received.

All that would be nice if it were possible. The best laid plans and the clearest laws encounter conditions created by opponents. Those holding Schalit, and those who have held soldiers or bodies in Lebanon may not be as powerful or as well connected as Israel, but they are strong enough to cause a departure from plans and criteria meant to tie the hands of a future government.

The campaign of the Schalit family attracted the support of more than 60 percent of the population, according to recent polls. A demonstration mounted by the families of terror victims, who did not want to release their killers, attracted a small fraction of those who participated in the Schalit demonstrations.

Schalit forces have been strong enough to cause a large number of politicians to say that Israel should "pay a heavy price" for the release of the soldier. Not many of them have been willing to say, "pay any price necessary."

Netanyahu is having trouble putting together a government of small parties, each of which is demanding a great deal as if all depended on it. Even if he succeeds, he may have as few as 61 members of the 120 members Knesset on his side, along with internal problems. He may not be able produce a solution for Schalit, or anything else on the country's agenda.

*Avigdor Lieberman, the designated foreign minister, is under investigation by the police. The Attorney General told Netanyahu that there is no legal reason not to make the appointment for the time being, but that may change. An officer speaking for the police says that Lieberman's continuing actions raise suspicion of money laundering and bribery. Investigations are going forward, and will include interviews with Lieberman under warning: "Anything you say may be used against you."
*Ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition are making expensive demands for welfare, housing and education. Netanyahu prizes his reputation for financial management, but will have to pay if he wants them in his government.
*Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox will squabble over issues of conversion to Judaism, intermarriage, and the sale of non-kosher meat.
*Likud members are chafing at the appointments and other concessions that Netanyahu has given to smaller parties. They may embarrass him by something other than firm support for his proposals, and "unavoidable absences" from crucial votes.

We are hearing from Americans and Europeans close to their governments that Israel's coalition of "right wing extremists" will add to the country's isolation.

Netanyahu asked President Shimon Peres to persuade Kadima and Labor to enter a government of national unity.

Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak looked at their potential partners, and answered, "No thanks." It is better to watch Bibi twist in the winds caused by a bare majority and internal problems, and wait for the next election.

Our immediate future will be uncertain and unpleasant, but not as uncertain and unpleasant as our adversaries.

Among their problems is the rubble in Gaza. Rebuilding will depend on the flow of supplies, and those may wait until Hamas agrees to free Schalit on terms acceptable to the Israeli government.

An optimist will notice that the grass is not as green across the street.

I welcome comments to my e-mail address below.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:40 AM
March 13, 2009
Self immolation

Sometime in the 1980s I spent about an hour with a cup of coffee and Moshe Katsav. I recall thinking that the young Knesset member was bright, engaging, committed, and likely to go far. I also noticed the scar on his face, and thought that growing up in a poor town had prepared him for the politics of a tough country.

After being elected mayor at the age of 24, he served in the Knesset from 1977 to 2000. He did not climb above the levels of Minister of Tourism, Labor and Welfare, and Transportation. On Israel's political pecking order, those positions are not in the upper quadrant of prestige. Yet he beat out Shimon Peres in a Knesset contest to select a president. Peres was 20 years older, had been prime minister and minister of just about everything else, had a Nobel Peace Prize and international renown to go with it. Peres was expecting a majority of the Knesset to vote for him, but too many were tired of his "New Middle East," and expected him to use the ceremonial office for a personal agenda. Katsav had a reputation among insiders as a crude pursuer of office sex. Government secretaries warned newcomers what they could expect. Senior police officers sat on the stories in the absence of formal complaints. One Knesset member told me that some of his colleagues felt that the distinguished office of president would cure Katsav. In any case, the mood was "anyone but Peres." The general public knew no more about the unsavory Katsav than Americans had known about John Kennedy's prostitutes and venereal infections until long after his death.

Two and one-half years ago, Katsav began his own unraveling when he told the Attorney General that one of the women working in the presidential mansion was trying to blackmail him with a story she had fabricated.

Since then, prosecutors have dithered about the charges to be brought. They have questions about the reliability of the women who have lodged complaints, and their capacity to withstand cross examination. They have now decided to file for rape, sexual harassment, and obstruction of justice.

Together with appeals, the case may take several years to reach its conclusion.

Before those procedures even begin, it is appropriate to ask how a successful politician got himself into such a mess. All by himself, Katsav moved from a sullied reputation unknown to the general public to a condition where he has provoked the media and much of the population to declare him guilty.

Katsav's complaint about blackmail was the trigger that led the police to open an investigation. It took them less than a week to take those stories of sexual misconduct off the shelf of rumors and innuendo, and begin exposing the president's current and past behavior. Several women came forward with complaints. A number of them were beyond reach due to statutes of limitation. Procedural rules have kept the public from seeing any full face pictures of the accusers, but they have gone public with stories of inelegant foreplay and unwilling sex. Against them, the former president, members of his family and his attorneys have spoken about women who continued to work for Katsav, and even sent him cordial notes after the events were said to have occurred. Katsav has not admitted to having sex with anyone other than his wife.

The charge of blackmail remains in limbo. The Attorney General has not included that woman's complaints against the president in the indictment being prepared.

If Katsav's complaint about blackmail was the first action that he took to bring his career to an inglorious end, the second action was a press conference that he called to defend himself against a media witch-hunt. The live broadcast and countless replays have shown him with a distorted face, waving in anger, and yelling accusations at the anchor of the prime time news show with the largest audience.

Soon after that news conference, one of the country's most distinguished attorneys, a former minister of justice, resigned from Katsav's defense team.

Katsav suspended himself from the presidency, then resigned shortly before the end of his term. He agreed to a plea bargain that included charges of sexual harassment and indecent acts, a jail sentence that would be suspended, and compensation for two women.

Katsav's third action that worsened his situation came ten months later, when he renounced the plea bargain shortly before it was due to be considered by a district court.

It has taken the Attorney General and his staff almost a year from that time to decide that complaints are reliable enough to support indictments for rape as well as the lesser charges. Their announcement set the stage for what appears to have been Katsav's fourth action of self condemnation. He announced a press conference, accepted a draft from media advisors that would have him speaking for about 20 minutes, and said that he would answer questions. However, he replaced the draft prepared by professionals with his own material that he read for close to three hours. He repeated allegations of being persecuted by a conspiracy of government prosecutors, the media, political and social elites, and false complaints. Television channels stopped their live coverage after an hour or so. Journalists abandoned the hall. Katsav refused to answer questions. His two media advisors resigned the next morning.

Beyond the humiliation of a president accused of severe crimes is the puzzle of why he has made it worse for himself. He recalls the story of Richard Nixon, who succeeded in turning an embarrassing episode at Watergate into the end of his presidency.

The charges against Katsav are more damning. What is similar is each man's worsening his chances of survival. Nixon escaped the prospect of a trial for lying and other crimes by virtue of Gerald Ford's sweeping pardon.

A wise Katsav, aware of the tinder involved in the charges against him, would have offered his resignation, apologized for misunderstandings or unintended harm, and committed himself to emotional treatment. That would have ended his political career, but could have saved him and his family a great deal of anguish and the prospect of serious jail time. We do not know the source of considerable outlays for a prestigious team of attorneys, other advisors, and their aides.

Why didn't he choose the simple road, rather than repeated displays of angry denial and accusations of conspiracy? I have no convincing answer. He has added the appearance of instability to spreading beliefs that he is guilty of indecency or worse.

There remains the cross examination of testimony that some prosecutors consider to be problematic. But that assumes that Katsav will not continue to immolate himself in public, and that his distinguished lawyers will not follow other professionals who have abandoned him to himself.

I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:08 PM
March 12, 2009
Find us an "undistored" democracy

We are hearing, once again, that the results of the Israeli election are a "distortion of democracy."

Details of the complaints vary with the complainers. One problem this time, as on other occasions, is the weight of religious parties. On their menu are increased funding for religious schools, increased family payments that will benefit the large families of religious Jews (as well as Arabs whose parties are allied with the ultra-Orthodox on this issue), an opposition to civil marriage, and their usual opposition to non-Orthodox Judaism.

Another problem is the weight of right-of-center Likud, Israel Beiteinu, and National Unity.

What those who talk about "distortions of democracy" really mean is that they are not happy with the election results.

As far as I know, there is no democracy that is not distorted in one way or another.

Look at the United States, as an example familiar to many of us. It is "distorted" on account of the equal representation of the states in the Senate. This gives the residents of low population states more weight than those of large population states. The United States is also "distorted" by other features of its federal system, which allow the authorities of individual states to rule as they wish about access to alcohol and constraints on abortion, what school books may say about evolution, how much is spent on education, and many other issues. For some Americans, it is a distortion of democracy that environmentalists or supporters of Israel have too little or too much weight in Congress and the administration, depending on who is up and who is down.

Each democracy has its rules of the game, and they do not give equal weight or complete freedom. Some are always more equal than others.

The rules of the game in Israel, and how they work to affect government, reflect its history, the population, and the issues that lead voters to choose one or another of the options available. In this general trait, Israel is similar to the three dozen or so other countries that qualify as democracies.

Israel's system of proportional representation is about as undistortedly democratic as is possible to achieve. About 30 parties run in each election, and 10 or so usually get the 2 percent minimum required for getting seats in the Knesset.

The number of seats that parties have in the Knesset reflect divisions in the population. Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties have enough to protect their turf. Arab rejectionists get their share, which usually produces ten MKs barking outside of the government about how unfair things are. In recent years the mostly Jewish secular parties have divided in ways so that no one of them is clearly dominant, largely on account of disagreements in the population about how to deal with the issue of Palestine.

Israelis urge reform, and occasionally the Knesset tinkers with the details. A prominent change gave each citizen two votes: one for prime minister, and one for a party list of Knesset members. This prevailed in the elections of 1996, 1999, and 2001. Opponents called the reform a failure, and cited the distortions they said it created. The Knesset reverted to a single vote for a party list and a conventional parliamentary arrangement. Now as before 1996, the Knesset must approve which of its members will be the prime minister, and the government he or she offers.

The advantage of keeping things as they are is that players know the rules, and how they can maximize their advantages. When the rules change, the complications of politics may produce surprises that disappoint some even more than in the case of the previous rules.

A Russian friend thinks Israel is undemocratic because he cannot marry a non-Jew. Russia was more democratic.

I remind him that he can marry who is wants outside of Israel, register the marriage here, and live happily ever after. A Cyprus marriage is likely to be less expensive than an Israeli marriage. A couple can probably do the whole thing, including the 30 minute flight, for less than $1,000, without having to feed hundreds of guests. A Jewish man with the name of Cohen cannot marry a Jewish divorcee in Israel. But he can do it elsewhere and register the marriage here. A Justice of the Supreme Court found himself in that situation, did what he had to, and did not suffer in public. I do not know if he suffered at home.

Democracy concerns procedure and not outcome. Its essential ingredients are wide access to the vote and media, ample opportunities to persuade and criticize, accurate counting and reporting of the results, and the acceptance of the outcome by the losers.

By "distortions of democracy" some people mean "violations of civil rights." This opens the issue of "what are civil rights?" In Israel and in other democracies, this question is subject to dispute, and decision by the legislature, administration, and courts.

Many Israelis may be unhappy with the results of an election, or what the winners do with their power. They should try harder next time, or realize that their desires do not have the support they would like.

I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:47 AM
March 10, 2009
Current anxieties

Bibi has not announced the details of his new government. He is keeping himself as well as the rest of us on the edge of our chairs. Commentators are saying that he is not happy with what it coming down. Neither are a lot of ordinary folks.

There are parallels with the experiences of our American friends, just exiting from eight years with George Bush and Dick Cheney, while religious fundamentalists led the cheers.

When you think of Bush think of Bibi. Both talk in simple and attractive sentences, perhaps too simple to be real.

When you think of Cheney think of Avigdor Lieberman: powers not too far from the throne, viewed with fear and trembling. Lieberman may be a foreign minister persona non grata in Egypt on account of a recent comment that Husni Mubarak took as a personal insult. Egypt may not look like much other than crowds and poverty from New York and Los Angeles, but here it is weightier. Lieberman's trips to Europe and the US will not be festive. He's a settler living in the occupied territories, who says unpleasant things about Israeli Arabs usually protected by the umbrella of political correctness. Lieberman is also the subject of an ongoing police investigation about slippery finances, and he is insisting on a hand in the selection of ministers who will deal with the judiciary and police.

When you think of religious fundamentalism, think SHAS. It will be the third largest party in Bibi's coalition. It demands financial support of large families and religious academies, plus opposition to homosexuality, intermarriage, and the sale of pork. SHAS's clashes with Lieberman on intermarriage and pork, as well as the police inquiry into Lieberman should give Bibi some concern.

At least three of the parties Bibi wants in his coalition are demanding control of the Housing Ministry. SHAS wants to build apartments for young Sephardi ultra-Orthodox couples, Torah Judaism wants to build apartments for young Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox couples, and National Unity wants to build in the occupied territories.

Bibi cannot say "No" to many parties and still have a coalition that will win the support required in the Knesset. And the more he offers ministerial seats and policy concessions to the smaller parties he needs to join the coalition, the more he is angering members of his own party. He recruited distinguished individuals to run on Likud's ticket. Now he will leave some of them with no rewards, and also shut out veteran Likud Knesset members who want goodies he is giving to others.

Meanwhile, our former president will be indicted on charges of rape and sexual harassment.

It has taken a couple of years for the legal authorities to reach this decision. The public is not privy to all the details, but we hear that prosecutors are concerned about the gap of years between the alleged incidents and the complaints, as well as the capacity of those complaining to stand up to cross examination. Some of the women who initiated complaints continued to work for Katsav, and maintained cordial relationships with him, after the incidents are said to have occurred. One of the women tried blackmail. The prosecutors are not including her case in the ticket.

Katsav may turn out to be his own worst enemy. He lost his temper at a press conference, shown in a clip that has played time and again. Prominent among his defenders is a brother, whose own assertions are stained by a charge against him of sexual harassment.

Another issue straining our emotions is Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal seized two and one-half years ago and held in Gaza without benefit of any visits by the Red Cross or Red Crescent, and certainly not by the Magan David Adom (Red Star of David). His parents and grandfather are camped out across the street from the prime minister's residence, hoping to pressure the present government into concessions during its last days that might obtain Gilad's release. The family is hosting a continuing line of dignitaries and ordinary citizens who support its campaign. Close by is another demonstration, mounted by family members of individuals killed by terrorists, who oppose freeing murderers in order to obtain Shalit's release. Yet some of those willing to pay the price of releasing Shalit are other family members of terror victims.

It is doubtful that there will be a neat, or early resolution for any of these issues.

If Bibi succeeds in forming a government, it will have a thin cushion above an absolute majority of the Knesset. The process of creating his coalition is angering Knesset members of his own party. It may be they who make the life of his government nasty, brutish, and short.

No one should expect Moshe Katsav's trial to finish is less than a year. Pro- and anti-Katsavniks are filling the media with their stories of flawed witnesses and a flawed ex-president. Israel has no juries. The initial trial will be before three judges. Their professionalism may protect them from some of the emotions, but senior justices are already complaining about trying in court a case tried time and again in public.

The recent destruction of Gaza, and Israel's continue blockade may be appropriate or excessive punishment for rocket attacks, but it has not produced the freedom of one Israeli captive. Neither has it stopped the rocket attacks. Gazans as a whole will continue to suffer for what some of them continue to do. And Shalit may continue to suffer the misfortune of being caught in a conflict larger than him.

I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:53 AM
March 06, 2009
Problems on the horizon

An American friend has sent me an editorial from the New York Times that supports Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's missions of promoting the creation of a Palestinian state, an opening to Syria, and pressure on Israel to stop the expansion of West Bank settlements, bring down barriers to Palestinian movement on the West Bank, and halt the destruction of Palestinian homes built illegally in East Jerusalem.

My friend is worried that I do not recognize the strength of American sentiments in favor of these actions.

Not to fret. Israelis are aware of international opinion. My concern is that this friend and other Americans are isolated from Israeli opinion.

One should never exaggerate interpretations of an election. There are many reasons for individuals to vote in one way rather than another. Nonetheless, there was at least an element in Israelis' recent voting that rejected the widely-held and long failed promotion of a Palestinian state, and its associated concerns for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Many Israelis feel that its governments have tried reasonable proposals, including settlement freezes, and efforts to make life easier for Palestinians. Many also feel that the Palestinian cause is hopeless as long as "moderate" leaders reject every Israeli gesture as inadequate, and other leaders encourage their followers to fire missiles at Israeli cities and do whatever else they can to kill Israeli civilians.

There is a component of "in your face" in the selection of Benyamin Netanyahu as the politician most likely to become the next prime minister. The message of "in your face" will be even stronger if he selects Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister.

Neither selection may be wise. "In your face" is not the conventional way to get along in politics. It is risky to upset the world's greatest power and Israel's most important friend. If Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama find themselves uncomfortable with Israel's new leadership, imagine the reception in capitals of important countries whose populations are much less supportive of Israel than Americans.

All that being said, there are good reasons for American officials, and all those decent American Jews who want peace for Israel and its neighbors to pay some attention to the people selected by Israel's voters.

Americans and others say that they support a Jewish democracy. This is what the Israeli democracy has done. At least part of the reason is the failure of the mantras pursued for years by international liberals.

As always, failure has many parents. They include the ascendance of radical Islam, the oil wealth of Iran, the attractions of drugs that originate in Afghanistan, and the failure of Americans to deal with the hard core of radicalism whether in places like Afghanistan/Pakistan or the friendly state of Saudi Arabia. There is also the large bloc of Muslim votes in the United Nations, the pressure of Muslim immigrants in Western Europe, the need of American officials to be "even handed" if they want to maintain world leadership, and the attractions of business to be done in Muslim countries for Germany, France, Britain, and Russia. One is tempted to look for opportunities missed by Israeli governments, and the constraints created by Jews living throughout the area that Palestinians aspire to be Judenrein.

The new Israeli government seems likely to bother the sentiments of those who think of themselves as decent and supportive of Israel not only in its cold shoulder to a Palestinian state, but in elements of internal politics. Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties are getting ready to exercise their weight. They did not grow as a result of the election, but a Likud government is likely to be more hospitable to their demands than one led by Kadima or Labor. This does not bode well for the desires of non-Orthodox religious Jews in Israel. Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jews will be able to find their synagogues and rabbis throughout Israel, but disappointment seems likely for non-Orthodox rabbis who want all the rights they enjoy elsewhere, or women who want to perform at the Western Wall the rituals assigned to men by the Orthodox .

The future is by no means clear. Prime Minister Netanyahu will speak clearly, but may behave differently than he speaks. There is a serious land mine ticking within the his likely coalition. Lieberman's party depends heavily on the support of Russian immigrants, and they demand things that the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox resist. Civil marriage and the sale of pork are high on the agendas of both sides, one intensely positive and the other intensely negative.

Moderates like me prefer cool tempers, a quiet discussion of options, and a lack of emotional response when the votes fall in undesirable ways. "In your face" is not the style of politics we find comfortable. For us it may be a time to hunker down as American and European officials accuse their Israeli counterparts of faults ranging from shortsightedness to acting in bad faith, and non-Orthodox religious Jews proclaim violations of religious freedom.

There are several items on my hopeful agenda: that my American friend and his government will be wise enough to ponder the sources of the Israel's election results, and decide that pressuring Israel is not the only way to deal with madness among the Muslims in our region and elsewhere; that pragmatism will compete with bluster in Bibi's coalition; and that enough of this will happen to keep me optimistic.

I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:44 PM
March 04, 2009
Sisyphus, yet again.

Pardon my cynicism, but the continued, new, or renewed insistence of the United States, European governments, some Israelis, and other hangers-on to pursue negotiations with Palestinians, Syrians, and Iranians strike me as the playthings of children. Think of the performances that elementary school children give for their parents. Aren't they all cute?

Lip service is another appropriate metaphor.

One must aspire to peace, and go through appropriate motions. Correct political aspirations demand it.

Don't hold your breath waiting for positive results.

Why these damning predictions about the efforts of numerous worthies from credible countries, who otherwise do much good for their own citizens and the world at large?

Consider the ideological, religious, and political constraints in all those Muslim countries. They must show unity against us infidels despite internal differences that produce chronic violence among them. And there is no better way to demonstrate unity than to demand all the rights due to Palestinians, and insist that Israel be confined to old boundaries or be made to disappear altogether. Palestinian rights must prevail in Muslim politics despite the civil war now cool, now intense, between Palestinian factions that adds to the inability of Palestinians or other Muslims to think of anything other than proposals that no Israeli government can accept.

When the Egyptian head of the International Atomic Energy Agency finds no indication that Iran is doing anything to develop nuclear weapons, cynics like me are not surprised.

Where is the room for compromise or significant concession on the part of all those believers?

If someone out there sees it, please let me know.

The playacting has gone on for the better part of a century, and will not be any more productive once the new Israeli government takes office. The likely prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, is saying that he is tired of the idea of a Palestinian state, long at the focus of hopeless negotiations. His comments have brought tough words from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is sticking with the sanctity of Palestinian statehood. Before long, assuming Bibi does become prime minister, she and others will accuse him of being unreliable. Numerous Israelis already feel that way. He may be leading the country, but it will be difficult listening to him against the history of bluster, back peddling, and denial. And some accusations of unreliability will be no more than expressions of "we don't like what he is saying." All politicians dissemble. It is part of governing in the midst of conflicting demands.

Also interesting will be the scenarios developing if Avigdor Lieberman achieves his aspiration of becoming Foreign Minister. The liberal crowd views him as an uncivilized racist. He looks and sounds like a Russian Mafioso. He is also a settler, proud of living beyond Israel's 1967 boundaries. Imagine him speaking to the General Assembly of the United Nations, and expecting to be received by peers in European capitals. Remind yourselves that criticizing one's looks or manner of speech is not acceptable in polite company. He would be willing to move from his family home in exchange for true peace, but one doubts that he is any more optimistic than the rest of the Israeli majority that tilted right of center in the recent election.

The world is not all bad. Somewhere under the level of political posturing are technocrats and bureaucrats cooperating quietly to make life better for all sides. Israelis, Palestinians, and others meet in one place or another to manage things like sewage, water, crop and animal diseases. Much of this happens with the encouragement and finance of bureaucrats in American and European governments. Arab PhDs and researchers trained in Israeli universities, including one of my own students, are teaching in Palestinian universities. Physicians and patients cross borders to give and receive care. At times the middle- and lower-level Middle Easterners have to stop the good they are doing when the news reaches the media.

Peace is not on the horizon. There will continue to be individual tragedies suffered by people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Israel will survive. Jews have been polishing their coping skills since biblical times. Arabs will suffer, due largely to their own follies. Westerners will continue to weep, and insist on trying yet again for comprehensive agreements.

Remember Sisyphus, and the rock that would never reach the top of the hill? He was a neighbor.

I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address below.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:37 AM
March 02, 2009

There are several crossroads in the near future. The United States and Israel have had their elections, and have chosen (still tentatively in the Israeli case) to depart from the paths of the previous leaders.

Consistent with his campaign theme of Change, the new American president has embarked on an effort to open a dialogue with Iran. An American friend called my attention to an op-ed piece in the New York Times that picks up on this part of the Obama message, and runs with it further and faster than the president.

Roger Cohen argues that Iran is not like Hitler's Germany, and should not be demonized. He asserts that he is not an innocent like those misled in the 1930s by Theresienstadt, the place in Czechoslovakia that the Nazis portrayed as a pleasant place of exile for Germany's Jews.

Varda carries the Hebrew equivalent of her Grandmother Rosa's name. Rosa was an alumna of Theresienstadt, who passed through on her way to a death camp further east.

Iran is not Nazi Germany. History never repeats itself. The details always differ. However, Cohen's apologetica strikes me as naive. He does not deal with the "death to Israel" proclamations of the Iranian president. He makes a point that the president's opponent in an upcoming election once spoke in a synagogue. He does not mention that the opponent is just as much an advocate as the incumbent of Iran's nuclear options. Cohen claims that Persian Jews have fared better than the Jews of Arab lands. I am not sure that his comparison would hold up against the experience of Morocco and Tunis. It does not square with a conversation I recently had with a neighbor who identified himself as a native of Mashhad in Iran, born into the community that had lived secretly as Jews since given a choice in the 1830s of converting to Islam or dying. It also does not square with people who tell about leaving all their property behind when they left Iran with their families, supposedly on a visit to a country acceptable to the Iranians, that was a really a way stop on their way to Israel. Until the late 1930s, the Nazis encouraged the Jews to leave, and allowed them to take some of their resources.

Cohen also is looking through rose colored glasses at the Lebanese and Palestinians who specialize in aiming their rockets at Israeli civilians:

"Hamas and Hezbollah have evolved into broad political movements widely seen as resisting an Israel over-ready to use crushing force. It is essential to think again about them, just as it is essential to toss out Iran caricatures."

Israel's election presents another crossroad. There is not yet a governing coalition, but the prospective prime minister is talking differently than his predecessor, and differently than the past or present American administrations. Netanyahu is reluctant to accept the mantra of a Palestinian state. He is saying that the Palestinians must learn to govern themselves before they are ready for a state. This is against the background of the schism between the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, and the failure of West Bank leaders to show that they can turn foreign assistance into public services rather than personal wealth for the well connected.

Netanyahu addressed himself to the issue of Iran during the campaign. He said that it would not be allowed to attain nuclear weapons. He did not say who would stop it, or how.

We have to navigate these various crossroads as individuals, as well as watching what political leaders do, and feeling the effects as citizens.

Just yesterday, an Arab friend asked me, in Hebrew, as we were dressing in the locker room of the university gym, "Will there be peace between Israelis and Palestinians?"

I responded that I was hopeful, but doubtful. I asked if there would be peace between Fatah and Hamas. He did not answer.

At these various crossroads, we have to cope with uncertainties that touch upon political tensions between governments, the prospects or demise of national aspirations, and the possibility of nuclear war. Friendship demands that we do not press one another to answer unpleasant questions.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:50 PM