May 31, 2009
Obama, Israel, and Palestine

One can applaud or moan as a result of President Barack Obama's recent meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

My own guess is that it is best to ignore the rhetoric coming from American, Israeli, and Palestinian officials. Little will happen as a result of American efforts to be fair to all, and to nudge several authorities to actions they are not likely to take.

I see this note as commentary, rather than criticism of the American administration or anyone else.

I am impressed most of all with the problems of American officials. They appear to be sincere in trying to impose their preferences on this feisty corner of the world, while they also juggle the responsibilities of being the greatest power in other locations that have heated up to the direct armed involvement of the United States, and try to calm other places, most notably Iran and North Korea, that may become candidates for military intervention.

Obama told Netanyahu that settlements must stop growing, and that Israel must work toward the creation of a Palestinian state. The prime minister returned home and said that all was agreed with the United States. When he indicated that settlement growth would continue, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that was not what the President had indicated.

Obama has told Abbas that the United States supports the creation of a Palestinian state, and the cessation of settlements as one step toward that. Such comments have Israeli officials verging on panic. The Sunday morning headline on the front page of Ha'aretz was, "Israel's severe criticism of the United States: Stop favoring the Palestinians." Other stories quoted key officials to the effect that Israel will not freeze settlements; that the United States demands are tantamount to the expulsion of Jews, that President Obama has set a deadline for a breakthrough in Mideast negotiations, and that he wants to topple the government so it may be replaced with one more compliant to his tilt toward the Palestinians.

What about Hamas?

That organization, defined as terrorist by the United States and numerous other countries, is firmly in charge of Gaza and might be the strongest element in the West Bank. As long as that continues, the idea of a Palestinian state is unattainable. All those Gazans living in tents, with little or no reconstruction, demonstrate that world powers cannot even figure out how to implement commitments of aid to a place ruled by Hamas.

President Obama has not only pressured Israel and assured the Palestinians of his concern. He has told the Palestinians to stop the incitement against Jews and Israel that comes out of its schools and mosques, and the speeches of its politicians; to work against violence; to assure fair trials; and to stop corruption. He has said that Arab countries should give Israel more incentives toward something like their own peace proposals, such as beginning to normalize relations in advance of negotiations.

These demands are as strong as any statements I recall being made publicly by an American president to Palestinian authorities or Arab governments. If they were to penetrate the panic among Israelis caused by statements about settlements and a Palestinian state, they should persuade Israelis that there is even-handedness in American activity.

They should also assure Israelis that nothing much will happen.

Changing well established patterns of incitement by Palestinian religious and political leaders, creating a system of justice in place of politically directed arbitrary decisions, and ending corruption is the work of generations. With Hamas on the verge of taking over everything, the aging cadre that claims the leadership of Palestine will waffle and cite Israeli settlements, the security barrier, and the comments of Israeli politicians to excuse their own lack of action. Israelis will cite Palestinian intransigence as their excuse for not complying with what they describe as one-sided American demands.

There will be no let up in expressions of support for a tougher American policy toward Israel. It will come from liberal Americans, Jews and others, who want an idealized Middle East, as well as Muslim countries used to using their oil muscle and asserting Palestinian misery to excuse their own lack of decent government.

If the Arab League accepts Obama's idea to begin normalizing relations with Israel as an incentive to serious negotiations, I will give up my license as a political scientist.

Well placed American Jews and others will continue to see considerable reason to support Israel, even if some of them occasionally are embarrassed by Israeli actions or expressions. The "tough love" advocated by some who call themselves friends of Israel will not be all that tough. There is considerable merit to Israel's claim of being threatened by intransigent Palestinians and others. A secure Israel is an essential condition for the region not to be more fully antagonistic to the West. And Israel is one of those states with too much power for an outsider to hammer it into a corner.

It is politically correct for the world leader to press all sides in the Middle East. With forces and political energies fully committed elsewhere, however, the United States is unlikely to put much beyond rhetoric into an Israel/Palestine peace process.

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 07:46 AM
May 30, 2009
North Korea and Iran

North Korea is a long way from Israel. It is not among the countries that have fought against Israel, or figure in Israel's plans of defense. It may sell weapons to Israel's enemies, but I did not think about that when I saw the cartoon in Ha'aretz shortly after North Korea's most recent test of a nuclear weapon.

It shows Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu confused by weapons testing in North Korea and Iran. My reading is that the cartoon associates the two countries as able to develop apocalyptic weapons undeterred by the feeble efforts of the United States and other powers. Iran's missiles can reach Israel. The impotent efforts of the United States and others, and the empty condemnation by President Obama of North Korea's nuclear test, suggests that the western powers will not succeed in keeping Iran from something similar.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, American officials said that Iran will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. While President Bush was almost explicit in threatening Iran with military action, President Obama emphasizes diplomatic engagement and persuasion. American military leaders have indicated that on account of commitments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, there are not sufficient resources to open another front.

Israeli officials, during both the Olmert and Netanyahu governments, have indicated that they would not permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Public discussions by retired and active military figures and other commentators have made the following points with respect to direct Israeli action.

In contrast to Iraq's installation, destroyed by Israel in 1981, Iran is further away than Iraq. Its sites are well protected underground, and dispersed to several locations.

An Israeli action is not likely to destroy all of the components.

Israel might be able to destroy key elements of Iranian nuclear facilities, but the costs would be widespread international condemnation and, more importantly, an attack on Israel of conventionally armed missiles capable of doing more damage that attacks from Iraq in 1991 or Hizbollah in 2006. Israel's attack would inflame Iranian antagonism as well as broaden the hatred of Israel in Iranian society. It would spur the Iranians to renewed efforts in developing nuclear weapons as well as seeking to damage Israeli or Jewish targets via its own agents or allies, both in Israel and overseas.

Israel would prefer that the United States use its greater military resources to deal with Iran's nuclear program, even if an American attack would provoke Iranian retaliations against Israeli and Jewish targets.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked during the Cold War when the nuclear armed Soviet Union faced the destructive power of the United States, Great Britain, and France. So far MAD has worked between India and Pakistan, despite several waves of combat since both countries have had nuclear weapons. It might also work in the context of Iran versus Israel. Israel is said to have at least 200 nuclear weapons, and means of delivery including aircraft, land based missiles, and missiles launched from submarines. Even if Iran were to strike Israel with nuclear weapons and do great damage to a small and densely populated country, Israel would be able to make a second strike and produce catastrophic damage.

Relying on deterrence would save Israel the retaliation that would come from a pre-emptive strike. It would also provide time for moderate elements in Iran to gather strength and perhaps gain control.

Against a deterrence doctrine that worked in the Cold War and so far in South Asia, is the extremism of the Iranian regime. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Israel is illegitimate and will disappear. These comments, as well as denying the existence of the Holocaust, suggests a regime of madness not restrained by rational calculation about the costs of all out war.

Iran's evasion of international efforts to curtail the development of nuclear weapons, despite its avowal of peaceful intentions, has produced discussions in Israel that make a pre-emptive military strike a serious possibility.

An example is Retired General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. He was chief of the IDF general staff who joined a left of center political party after his retirement, and put himself in the camp associated with accommodation. He is a leading member of the "Geneva initiative," a non-governmental activity joining Israelis and Palestinians who have produced the outline of a peace agreement. Lipkin-Shahak has said that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be intolerable.

Before North Korea's recent nuclear test, the probability I assigned to an Israeli military strike was substantially less than 50 percent.

I can make no firm assessment. Without being able to say by how much, I have moved the probability upward.

The reason is not so much North Korea as the inability or unwillingness of the United States and other powers to stop that rogue from acquiring nuclear weapons and means of delivery. Helplessness with respect to North Korea means helplessness with respect to Iran. It leaves Israel alone with the quandary of hoping that deterrence will work, or acting against the threat.

One does not have to be an enthusiast of citing the Holocaust, and the allies' abandonment of Jews during the 1940s, in order to appreciate the analogy in the case of Iran. The analogy is widely used, and one should not underestimate the power of the Holocaust in Israel's culture.
I would still wager against an Israeli attack, but I would not put much money on the table.

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 08:30 AM
May 28, 2009
Troublesome issues

Israel is going through a season of proclamations and legislative proposals that remind me of American campaigns about prayer in schools, abortions, and gay marriage.

The equivalents here are a proposals to outlaw the mourning of Israel's existence (Nakba) by the country's Arabs, jail sentences for those who deny the Jewish character of the country, and rabbinical demands that soldiers refuse orders to remove settlements.

What links these Israeli and American issues is their capacity to inflame marginal issues with religious fanaticism.

I will let those closest to the American scene ponder their pros and cons. The Israeli cases are enough to worry me.

The holiday of Shavuot may be adding to the efforts of religious activists. It commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Religious Jews mark it by studying the law, including rabbinical interpretations delivered from then until now, all night long. Commentators are emphasizing the Lord's grant of the land to Israel.

Another impetus to this flurry of activity is the election of a right wing government, whose components include Jewish approximations to Christian conservatives who expected action from Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu made his own contribution when he said that Palestinian representatives must recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for moving forward on bi-lateral negotiations.

Netanyahu has a point in the context of Palestinian demands that Israel remove Jews from the territory that should become their state, and that Palestinian refugees be given the right of return to what became Israel. Mahmoud Abbas is saying on the eve of his visit to Washington that he has no intention of flooding Israel with five million refugees. It would help if he said that, in Arabic, to his own population. The Hamas leadership, in control of Gaza and perhaps the most powerful party in the West Bank, is describing Abbas as an illegitimate claimant whose term expired in January, and who cannot speak for the Palestinian people.

We can argue if Netanyahu's demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is just, superfluous, or just a clever way to avoid serious negotiations. Whatever he intends, he has lowered the barrier against other issues that are inflammatory with respect to the delicate balance between Jews and Arabs within Israel, as well as between religious and secular Jews.

Although tense, and occasionally violent, relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs have been managed with some success. It helps that there are opportunities for nationalist expression, usually checked only when religious or political figures cross the boundaries against overt incitement to violence, or give aid to an enemy state. There is considerable freedom of instruction in Arab language schools. Arab members of Knesset visit enemy countries and suffer no more than rebuke from their Jewish colleagues and interrogation by security personnel upon their return. MK Azmi Beshara has not been in Israel since he was said to violate the rules by supporting military action against Israel while in Lebanon during the 2006 War, and provided to the enemy sensitive information about Israeli forces.

It may offend Jews when Arab citizens mourn the state's creation each year on May 15th. However, outlawing the occasion or insisting on explicit expressions of loyalty may cause more trouble by driving nationalism underground, and adding to its intensity.

A prominent safety valve for the feelings of Israeli Arabs are the speeches given by their representatives in the Knesset. The Arab parties do not get much more than the opportunity to speak. Resources allocated to Arab constituents do not match those allocated to Jews. The situation is similar in Jerusalem, where almost all Arabs boycott local elections on the claim that Israel has illegally occupied Arab neighborhoods.

One can debate the fairness or the wisdom of allocations to Arabs by national and local governments. They would change if Arabs used their voting potential to bargain for tangible benefits. It is easy to dismiss claims of injustice by noting that Arab politicians give greater priority to persistent criticism than to obtaining more services for their people.

Whenever authorities ratchet up their courage and embark on a process of removing small and "illegal" settlements from the West Bank, we can expect some rabbis to say that soldiers should disobey orders that violate the supreme law of the Torah. We also expect counter expressions, from religious Jews and rabbis, that military discipline is essential to Jewish survival.

The military is seeking to avoid responsibility for removing settlers. The head of the general staff says that the police are more suitable for such work. The police is a force composed of volunteers, trained for the non-lethal control of hostile civilians. They are not troubled by highly motivated religious draftees, who make excellent soldiers when sent against Israel's enemies, but are vulnerable to the calls of extremist rabbis who may have been among their teachers.

Involved in the flurry of rhetoric concerning settlements is what we could have expected from the prime minister. He returned from Washington with assuring statements that he and President Obama agreed on all the essentials. He said there would be no freeze in settlements. Natural growth would be allowed, in the building of housing for settlers' offspring, as would expansions already agreed by Israeli planning authorities. There would be negotiations about removing some illegal settlements, or making them legal by fusing them with nearby communities. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton countered by saying that American policy remains opposition to all settlement activity, of any kind.

The current flurries of excitement may disappear without lasting impact. This is not the first time that MK's have garnered support for laws requiring Arab expressions of loyalty. As in the past, they may not find their way out of Knesset committees. If they do become law, they will have to pass an inevitable appeal to the Supreme Court, likely to be tilted against them. If they pass that hurdle, they may meet delay or dilution in the process of implementation.

The Labor Party's principal representative in the government, the Defense Minister, has been exercising his responsibility for the West Bank by removing some of the smallest and most isolated of the settlements considered to be illegal. The process has not touched the areas of greatest sensitivity, and it is not yet clear if the settlers removed are again setting up tents on the disputed sites.

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 04:48 AM
May 25, 2009
Obama condemns

Barack Obama gave a carefully staged speech, whose content was appropriate to its setting in the National Archives Museum, before a copy of the Constitution. A friendly audience of military and civilian judicial personnel, and representatives of organizations that work in behalf of civil liberties applauded on several occasions.

The subject was Guantanomo and other offenses to the traditions he has admired as law professor, candidate and president. .

The speech was nuanced. While four-square against torture, the president conceded that not all the prisoners could be released, or tried. Some would not be accepted by other countries. Some indicated they would return to terror. Some must be held as prisoners of war, even though they fought for no recognized army in no war that had been declared. When making difficult decisions, President Obama would insist on the primacy of law, and careful deliberation by representatives of different branches of government. He opposed any system where one individual would determine another's future, without the balance of additional views.

The speech had its moments of elegant balance and a recognition of subtle difficulties. However, it was long and repetitious. Obama used the term "values" 15 times, "Constitution" 10 times, and "rule of law" 8 times.

The speech also included some of the fluff that Obama uses to link himself to high sounding values. Referring to the prized documents of American history that were close to his platform, he said, "My father came to our shores in search of the promise that they offered."


His father also married Ann Dunham without telling her of a wife and children he did not bring to American shores, and then left when Barack was a year old.

Anyone daring to grade such a successful politician might give him an "A" if judged in the context of a seminar on law or ethics, but a lower grade in the context of intelligence gathering and war. The most prominent fault was his emphasis on clean intelligence. The president said experts agreed that waterboarding was not successful in extracting useful information. He did not cover other techniques, perhaps none of them pretty, but arguably less sadistic than those used at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. With training and supervision, carrots as well as sticks, interrogators obtain information from individuals who do not give it willingly.

The president stressed that torture was more likely to help terrorists recruit additional fighters against America than provide useful information. He yearned for the day when people around the globe would no longer hate his country, but again admire the values that he said it promotes. He repeated that torture violated those values, but did not talk about other elements of warfare that also breed hatred, like the bombing of wedding parties and other civilian sites that result from poor intelligence or marksmanship.

Can a war proceed without ugliness? And is it appropriate to rail so strongly about one aspect of violence while ignoring others? Will stopping the practices photographed at Abu Ghraib, closing Guantanamo, and releasing some of the prisoners improve the American image while Americans and their allies continue to kill civilians, even unintentionally? War is not judged like an academic seminar or a judicial proceeding. Collateral damage is unfortunate, but part of the scene. So is death of one's own forces, due to the enemy's efforts, as well as by unintentional friendly fire, and accidents resulting from intense pressure and dangerous equipment. It is not unusual for 30-50 percent of an army's casualties to result from something other than the enemy's actions.

Glaring offenses against humane values should be targeted by policy, as well as by intensive training, dedicated supervision, and oversight by civilians commited to their task. It does not help when poorly educated and motivated individuals turn to the military as a last resort, officers wave criteria meant to assure quality recruits under the pressure of increasing their intake, commanders show greater concern for getting along and reaching retirement than enforcing the rules and careful judgment, and politicians charged with oversight avoid controversy.

Under the best of conditions, soldiers are not likely to be priests or professors, and far from saints. Their training includes more lessons about killing than protecting the innocent. The frenzied activity of an army in action engenders panic more than care. If a leader wants a clean war, it is best to avoid conflict. Especially when sending an army to places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, where clean fighting is not part of the enemy's code, a leader must contend with dirty hands as well as lofty speeches.

Within a week of his speech at the National Archives Museum, President Obama responded to North Korea's latest test of a nuclear device. He said that it was unacceptable, and that North Korea faced increased isolation. The North Korean government has already indicated that it cares little about isolation. Iran also heard Obama's comments. Would his condemnation, and threat of greater condemnation move either North Korea or Iran? He may have more success with Guantanamo.

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 07:19 PM

Our visit to Istanbul had moments of political significance, along with magnificent views and fine food.

One was trying to locate the inscription taken from the Siloam tunnel, King Hezekiah's project to assure a supply of water for Jerusalem in the event of siege (II Kings 20:20). The inscription provides one of the earliest examples of Hebrew writing, and describes how diggers approaching from opposite ends heard one another at work. An article in the distinguished journal Nature offers an analysis of material that links its construction with Hezekiah's period 727-698 BCE.

The correspondence between biblical account, tunnel, inscription, and scientific dating are among the answers to Muslim claims that the Jews never had a historic presence in Jerusalem, or were at most a footnote in a story that is Arab and Muslim.

The original inscription was crudely removed from the tunnel wall and its fragments taken to Istanbul during the Ottoman period. Against an Israeli request for its return, the Turkish government asserts that its ownership derives from the regime that prevailed at the time of its discovery and transfer.

Its home is the Archaeological Museum, located on one of Istanbul's iconic sites close to the Topkapi Palace. The several buildings of the museum display monumental items, some of great size, spanning the periods of Sumerian, Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, and Turkish prominence.

None of the museum personnel questioned knew of the inscription's existence, or enough English to help us locate it. Going back and forth in the rooms allocated to Syria and Palestine, we could not find it on a wall or upright along with other inscriptions. A guard had moved a bench in front of a pedestal, and was resting her head on her arms that she had folded across its glass cover. Only when she took another position to relieve her boredom did we see that she had been using the inscription for her pillow.

The different sides of Turkey's relations with Israel also appeared in an encounter with a couple and their two young boys, dressed like others we saw in or near the mosques. They wore white shoes, pants, jacket, cape, sash, and plumed helmet, and carried a gold colored scepter. The parents were pleased to have them photographed, and we sought an explanation for the splendor.

The father's English was not up to the task, but when he learned that we came from Israel, he managed to say, while remaining polite, that he hated our country of killers. There was no point in carrying on a discussion through the language barrier, and we shook hands while continuing to pursue the reason for the boys' costumes through gestures. A bystander explained that the clothes were part of a celebration prior to circumcision. He pointed to his crotch and moved his fingers like scissors, but we understood without those gestures..

A website describes the fancy dress, along with a tour, party and music that are meant to distract Turkish youngsters from the time they must be held down for a surgeon to perform his job.

Muslim friends here do not recognize the costume that I described, and tell me that "modern people" circumcise their sons shortly after birth, in the hospital.

The Turk who provided the explanation in Istanbul was pleased to meet us. He is a cadet in the air force, and looks forward to training in Israel on F-16s as part of the deal that allows Israeli pilots to use Turkish airspace for maneuvers.

Our few moments of politically relevant tourism did not depart from expectations appropriate to a Muslim country. We did not expect admiration, especially from families in the midst of a religious celebration. We never experienced personal antagonism when we mentioned our connection with Israel.

We found a bit of Jewish history barely visible in a museum department allotted to Palestine. It was nothing like the relics preserved from the ancient empires, but ours is a heritage of ideas more than conquests, statues, mosaics, or elaborate tombs. There was nothing in the Palestine department attributed to a Palestinian regime. The cadet expected to receive something of value from Israel, and was pleased that his country would compensate with a loan of the airspace that Israel lacks.

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 02:20 AM
May 16, 2009
From a Palestinian professor

Each day I tell myself that I will take a rest and leave you alone. Then I open the mail and read sources that I find useful. One thing or another provokes or inflames, and there go my fingers.

Today it is a note sent to me by a nutty American, who occasionally sends me notes from a nuttier man living less than 10 miles from me, on the other side of the cultural divide.

He is a Palestinian professor who is angry about the present and past, but confident about the future.

It begins with "Life is returning back to the 'normal' beat of occupation/colonization after the Pope's visit. The reporters filed stories and the ones allowed to print went through while others were self-censored. Thus few stories appeared about the strangulation of Bethlehem . . .the Internet and personal communications have accelerated a process of change that will inevitably lead to freedom and reversal of colonialism (the main risk now is the Palestinian leadership divisions and pettiness)."

His conception of pettiness is reflective of how wish can overcome reality. There is killing in the politics of Fatah and Hamas.

" . . . few stories about the strangulation of Bethlehem" does not square with the pictures of the Pope speaking from a platform set for effect right up against the wall that Palestinians view as an affront. Israelis see the same wall as one of their protections from barbaric attacks against civilians.

He continues to lament what Israel does by noting "the arrest of Amira Hass (an Israeli reporter was arrested by the Israeli regime for going to Gaza and reporting on real life) and of Israeli peace activists."

The truth is that Ms Hass was detained for questioning about her improper entry into enemy territory, and released after she agreed not to do it again for 30 days. Her articles about life in Gaza often start on the front page and spread over entire inner pages of Ha'aretz. They annoy those Israelis who want their own rosy conceptions to monopolize the media, but there they are in the country's most distinguished newspaper, the one most likely to be read by political, intellectual, and economic elites. When the writer indicates that other peace activists are also harrassed by officials, he cannot be including tenured professors who are my friends in the Hebrew University political science department. One of them received from the government a prestigious Israel Prize for his work, despite frequent diatribes--also in Ha'aretz--about Israel's policy toward the Palestinians.

The Palestinian's commemoration of "Nakba" (the disaster of Israel's creation) is "61 years ago . . . the state of Israel unilaterally declared its independence after its ground forces have already been engaged in nearly 6 months of ethnic cleansing of the native population."

He makes no mention about the Arab rejection of the United Nations effort at compromise, and armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, along with Palestinians, that killed some 6,000 Israelis, many of them civilians.

One can hope that his teaching is more professional than his writing.

I can anticipate, but not assure a few days of peace for you and me, when we will be traveling outside the range of e-mail and the internet.

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 07:40 PM
May 15, 2009
The Economist's formula for peace

There is an article in the most recent Economist that defines the problem of Israel and Palestine. Almost all of it is there in brief form, but not in a reasonable formulation.

The theme in most of the article is that President Obama must not just scold Prime Minister Netanyahu for his ill advised remarks, but pressure him to do what most countries (and the Economist) feel is necessary to make peace in the Middle East. That includes pursuing the development of a Palestinian State, halting the expansion of Jewish settlements, stop pressing the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state," recognizing that Israel must eventually withdraw from the Golan Heights, and comply with these wishes without a precondition of the United States frustrating Iran's development of nuclear weapons.

That is the shopping list of governments and individuals that consider themselves on the right side of history.

Then comes the kicker, that defines the problem of all those decent people, and Israel.

"Who would govern the Palestinian state the world wants . . . in the West Bank and Gaza?"

The article concedes that Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party are too weak, Hamas has not done what is necessary to be included in the list of the enlightened. The Economist admits a further problem. "The snag is that the two halves of the Palestinian movement are at daggers' drawn and have fluffed repeated opportunities to reconcile."

The appropriate analogy for what the magazine and others want is a "Hail Mary pass." That comes in the final moments of a football game, when the team with the ball is behind, and far from the goal line. The only possibility is a long pass, and the hope that a member of one's own team catches it.

The Economist puts is this way: The Americans must make the Israelis "more amenable to giving the Palestinians the fair deal--in essence, a proper state of their own--that might bring peace to the two peoples and to the wider region of the Middle East."

The core of the problem is what I've underlined. Why should an Israeli government give the Palestinians what they want, on the chance that it "might bring peace"? When Israel offered the Palestinians a great deal of what they said they wanted, in 2000, there came several years of violence that cost 1,100 Israeli lives, most of them civilians. There is not the trust among Israelis, inside and outside of the present government, to produce what is wanted by the Economist, not even if the American president wraps it in all the good words of assurance for Israel's safety.

Yet another element in the problem is the unwillingness or inability of the Palestinians to play a more complex role in negotiations than making demands. If compromise is part of the process that helps each side sell a bargain to its constituents, the Palestinians have not been playing by the rules. Neither the borders of 1967 nor the return of refugees are sellable to Israeli authorities or the public.

Prime Minister Netanyahu might not be the best emissary to the Obama White House. His words, facial expressions, and body language often express arrogance. He has acquired a reputation of being unreliable, and even slippery. He has been condemned by ranking Americans in language seldom heard from one country's officials about those of another country.

Hopefully, national interest will prevail over personality, so that the American president and Israeli prime minister can conclude their meeting without rancor.

If there was an obvious solution to the problems standing in the way of a Middle East accord, it would not have taken so long to have moved so little. Before reasonable people can ask Israel to do what might help, they must also expect the Palestinians to do some of the things that might help. Those using a formulation like the Economist should recognize that they are putting the accent on the wrong syllable, and are missing an important part of the puzzle..

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 04:41 AM
May 14, 2009
The budget and Bibi

One of the themes in Tzipi Livni's campaign was "Bibi, I don't believe him." Others say that Benyamin Netanyahu changes his mind with every conversation. Bill Clinton's White House spokesman described him as "one of the most obnoxious individuals you're going to come into - just a liar and a cheat. He could open his mouth and you could have no confidence that anything that came out of it was the truth." Dennis Ross described one of his sessions in the White House as "nearly insufferable." President Clinton asked, "Who the -- does he think he is?";;

Livni's message may have contributed to the one seat edge in the Knesset that Kadima won over Likud. Nevertheless, Bibi proved to have the best chance of forming a government coalition.

This week we have seen his weakness and strength. The budget he presented for government approval would be cut by 14 billion shekels over two years, with deep cuts coming in welfare and defense. Child support payments would be cut by 10 percent, despite a commitment to one of his coalition partners to increase them. Also cut would be payments for the handicapped and Holocaust survivors. There would be a 50 shekel fee for every day a patient is hospitalized. There would be a freeze in public sector wages. The retirement age for career military personnel would be increased. The defense budget would be cut by 5 billion shekels over two years.

A day and one half later the government approved a budget with no cuts in welfare payments, no charge for hospitalization, no freeze of public sector salaries, and a cut of defense spending of 1.5 billion shekels rather than 5 billion shekels. However, there would be a 6.5 percent cut in all ministries' budgets in both years of the budget, the value added tax would increase by 1 percent, and expanded to fruits and vegetables.

The details are confusing and not all that important. There are additional steps between the government's budget and the actual spending of the money. First the Knesset must approve it, and later the Accountant General in the finance ministry must actually release the funds on quarterly allotments to the ministries and other administrative units. Both steps provide opportunities for fiddling. The international economic crisis made the process to date more dramatic than usual, and will influence how much money comes into the government via taxes, and how much flows out as expenditures. Natural disasters or war can upset all expectations.

What is interesting in this week's flip flops are their demonstration about Netanyahu's style of governing, or not governing. Also apparent is the centrality of the budget and its lack of clarity.

Bibi was at the center of the budget process by boasting of economic expertise (including a claim to have been offered the post of finance minister in Italy), and giving himself and an aide from outside of the public service key roles in the intense dealing that shifted prominent elements of spending and taxation over the course of 36 hours. The party operative and PhD in philosophy that he appointed as minister of finance appeared to be a figurehead who stumbled through media interviews in which he did little more than assert his cooperation with the prime minister. The respected head of the budget unit in the finance ministry resigned in protest.

Like the budgets of other governments, Israel's is a large and detailed collection of documents, filled with do's and don'ts for taxes and spending that amount to a sizable portion of national wealth. In Israel's case it is about 44 percent of Gross Domestic Product.. Accompanying the budget is a "law of arrangements" that details changes in existing laws presented in a way that is incomprehensible to all but a handful of bureaucrats, politicians and beneficiaries.

The budget is comparable to the human brain. Both are central organs that determine what the rest of the body does, and both are the subject of research by economists and political scientists on the one hand, and a host of biological scientists on the other. Each cluster of specialists has learned a great deal about what they are studying, but has a longer list of what they want to know, but they have not been able to discover as yet.

Netanyahu's smooth rhetoric is the flip side of his reputation for unreliability. He is presenting the budget as his success in achieving harmony between competing interests. To him it represents reluctant compromises, but a well balanced set of agreements with representatives of the public and private sectors, including unions and the leaders of industry and finance. Its reduction in the top rate of the income tax will keep funds flowing to investment, and its increase in the value added tax and its extension to fruits and vegetables, despite falling most heavily on the poor, will help reduce the deficit and pay for increases in welfare payments.

All that may be true. It is not easy to judge the policy implications of an opaque budget at any time, and especially during a time of economic fluidity. To the extent that politics depends on at least a minimum of trust, however, the fluidity of Netanyahu's commitments is a problem for all who must deal with him.

This week his partners in deliberations were colleagues in the government, key bureaucrats, the head of the Labor Federation, and representatives of large employers. Next week it will be the President of the United States. The prime minister will go to Washington saying that it is not timely to talk about a Palestinian state, and that Israel's first priority is the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. It is anybody's guess what he will be saying in Washington, and then when he returns to Israel. We can only hope that he achieves better rapport with the Obama White House than he did with Bill Clinton's.

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 02:00 AM
May 12, 2009
Something like the Cold War

The New York Times reports that the American commander in Afghanistan is being replaced in order to bring a new approach to "a worsening seven-year war."

This comes on the heels of several recent articles in the same newspaper about chronic corruption in Afghanistan, the importance of drug production to the economy and politics of the country, and unreliable Afghan security personnel. News from Iraq is continued problems of suicide bombers, while in Pakistan the worry is the spread of Taliban influence, and even the possibility that it will take over the country and its nuclear weapons.

It is appropriate to think in terms of a confrontation equivalent to the Cold War. That lasted for 40 years from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, and still lurks in tensions between Russia and the United States.

We can date the confrontation of the United States with Islamic violence from September 11, 2001, or from the attack on a Marine base in Beirut that killed more than 200 Americans in 1983.

The United States again is leading a coalition. It is similar in composition to the coalition of the Cold War, and again does not always row in concert. France took its forces out of NATO in the Cold War; Germany is reluctant to give up its commercial options with Iran. Russia is enough of an outsider to wonder if it is a member of this coalition, despite its problems with Chechnya and other Muslim regions.

The enemies in both were defined by the intensity of their ideas, either Communism or Islam. Social democrats could join the coalition against Communism, just as a number of Muslim states and individual Muslims feel threatened by Iran and its satellites.

Neither conflict was all-out, or total. There was intense fighting in Korea and Vietnam, but not overt warfare with the Soviet Union. Now the American coalition is battling in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pakistan might become the equivalent of Cambodia. Israel is doing its part against Iran's satellites. So far no one is taking on the Iranians directly or announcing a region-wide crusade against religious extremism, and certainly not against Islam.

There are domestic issues today that might be compared with Loyalty Boards and extensive requirements for loyalty oaths in the United States. They include expanded monitoring of communications, as well as escalating inspections at airports and border controls. Complaints of harassment by Muslims, or individuals who look Middle Eastern, resemble complaints by people claiming to be unfairly as labeled loyalty risks decades ago.

Politics as well as warfare marked the Cold War, and this conflict. Summit meeting, both one-on-one and larger conferences played their part, as well as protracted negotiations, agreements, claims that each side was not living up to them, saber-rattling, and actual fighting on the fringes. In both the Cold War and the fight against Muslim extremists, there are persistent efforts to broaden one's coalition. The Cold War saw competition initially for Italy and Greece, and later for countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Now the competition is for Muslim states that may be kept in the moderate camp. Especially sensitive are Lebanon, Iraq, and some of the Gulf states with substantial Shiite populations actively courted by Iran.

Coalitions in the Cold War were not solid, and they are not in this conflict. Yugoslavia left the alliance of the Soviet Union. China occasionally displayed its independence. Numerous countries of the Third World sought to play off the coalitions in the hope of richer gifts. Currently the most prominent competition is between ostensible governments and armed others in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with the United States seeking to prop up and maintain the loyalty of those it supports. Media broadcasts resemble Radio Free Europe. There are overtures to opponents of the Syrian and Iranian regimes, either those in country, or exiles hoping for places in a new government. Overseas Syrians and Iranians bear some resemblance to the Cubans of South Florida.

The collapse of the Soviet Union took the West by surprise. Until then the Cold War seemed likely to go on and on, hopefully without a nuclear exchange. The battle with Muslim extremism is already toward the end of its first decade, or somewhere in its third decade, depending on accounting. The conflict may be escalating, as Iran seems intent in pushing toward a nuclear option and neither it nor Syria seem inclined to end their support of client troublemakers. The Taliban's successes in Pakistan may be opening one new front, Sudan's cooperation in the movement of arms from Iran to Gaza may be opening another, and Syria's nuclear efforts a third.

Israel has been a hopeful outsider in both conflicts. In the pre-state and early state period some suspected it of becoming a Soviet satellite. Then it emerged as an anti-Soviet outpost in the Middle East. This time it is closer to the center of the conflict, but is still not at the center. It manages its own problems with Palestinians, Lebanese, and maybe Iran, without being certain of its support by the United States. American Jews are more plugged in than in the 1950s or 1960s, but they are not in Israel's pocket. Israeli prime ministers know they are not equal partners with the White House.

Israel also illustrates the concern of coalition partners for the leader's steadfastness. The United States had to prop up Germans concerned about their vulnerability. JFK's Ich bin ein Berliner was only one of numerous overt demonstrations of support by US presidents, vice presidents, secretaries of state and defense, and junketing legislators. Today's equivalents are assurance of Israel's security by American presidents and others, seldom enough for Israelis worried about other comments that press them to make concessions for the sake of the coalition.

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 06:13 AM
May 10, 2009
America: attractive and troubling

The United States has all that power, and is so cumbersome in the world. It is a leader in science, technology, education, and medicine, yet many of its people are poorly educated and lack access to medical care.

Among the wonders of America is its consumerism. By the standards of other civilized countries, American houses are huge. Garages, basements, and spare rooms overflow with no longer used remnants of shopping sprees. Americans save at half the rates of Europeans and Japanese.

Some calculations from the eve of the recent crisis showed the American rate of saving below zero. The entire population was spending more than it was earning.

Envy among some, and ridicule among others turned to worry with the rapid decent of the economy. Without the bloated shopping of Americans, the rest of the world was in trouble. China and other countries could not keep developing if Americans stopped buying all those clothes, shoes, and electronic gadgets. Europeans would buy less if they would be selling less of what they produce to the Americans. Sales dipped precipitously for Japanese, European, and Korean car manufacturers. Israelis are selling fewer diamonds, fruits and vegetables to Europe, Asia, and America, its systems analysts and programmers have less work for American and European firms, and its start-ups are attracting fewer investors.

The consumer spending of Americans has dipped with the economic crisis, unemployment, and insecurity among those still working. There is ambivalence among economists who follow the trends. A number of them welcome the possibility that Americans will be spending less and saving more. Others are concerned that if Americans do not get over their personal depression and return to the malls, then economies will continue to suffer.

Explanation of the crisis begin with Americans' penchant to borrow and spend, and the actions of businesses to encourage them. What were the sub-prime mortgages, widely viewed as the start of the problem, if not the provision of homes and loans to people who could not afford them?

Extremes of wealth and poverty, and a lack of saving are only one cluster of the traits where Americans are different than others. They are more likely than others to be religious. Americans take pride in their tradition of personal freedom, which affects opposition to taxation for medical care and other services. Americans are more likely than other people to be incarcerated, which has something to do with personal freedom, firearms, and violence. Incarceration also has a connection with religiosity, via puritanical attitudes about drugs and long sentence mandates.

The United States is also less of a country than others. The condition begins with it name (united states), and the first sentence of the Constitution: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union . . ." The union was not meant to be perfect, only more unified than 13 sovereign states. The autonomy of the states is still viable enough to work against the fullness of nation-wide rights and privileges. Variations appear in health and safety regulations, welfare benefits, the quality of education from pre-school to university, regulations about what must be included in health insurance policies, procedures permitted to physicians (such as abortion and assisted suicide), economic rights and marriage opportunities for gay couples.

American assertions of individual freedom and democracy have produced an excessive concern with choosing officeholders by election, and an annual blizzard of referenda. The results are amateurs who make decisions that are left to professionals in other democracies, demagogues who limit the capacity of state and local governments to raise taxes that would support services at levels enjoyed elsewhere, and limit education with their attitudes about religion, science, and sex.

There is much speculation, but no firm conclusions about why the United States is so different. The themes include the many sources of immigration and the lack of a common culture; the religious origin of early settlers; political and cultural rebellion against more regimented Europe; the wealth of natural resources plus the ethos of the frontier that emphasized something for nothing, low levels of taxation, regulation, and law enforcement; slavery and the treatment of the Indians that worked to lessen the humane element in the American spirit. The importance of the states began with 13 separate rebellions, reinforced by the insistence of the southern half to protect slavery.

Some of the Americans who see these letters will accuse me of blasphemy, or being a traitor to my roots. I spent my formative years as an American, but most of my adult years elsewhere. I view my former homeland as an intriguing and creative society that is also troubling. For those who see unbalanced criticism, I will claim the right of free expression. I perceive it is still available, despite what some of you have written about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

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 08:29 PM
May 09, 2009
More on the card game

To continue with my argument that the United States does not hold all the cards, and that even tiny Israel has a few:

Friends have noted that Israel/Palestine is not at the top of the Obama agenda. More important are Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as still evolving economic issues.

I hope so.

However, American comments about Israel/Palestine are the center of things here.

Going back 2,500 years, Babylon's destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judeans was at the center of Jewish experience. It resulted in the books of Jeremiah, Lamentations, Nehemiah and Ezra that continue to be important in Jewish learning and rituals today. For the Babylonians, however, the events were routine maneuvers to punish rebellious peoples on the borders of their empire.

The parallel dissonance is how Americans and Israelis view the issue of Iran, and the inclination of some Americans to couple it with Israeli actions like removing settlements and pursuing negotiations toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

Americans should not view Israel as a weak supplicant comparable to ancient Judea.

Currently there are active debates comparing the Iranian threat and the Holocaust. One cannot predict the outcome, but there are experts in security, usually on the left, who have generally promoted accommodation rather than military action, now saying that the threat is intolerable. Imperfect intelligence and timing make the issue critical. While President Obama wants to talk with the Iranians, Israelis are concerned that Iran is too close to the accomplishment of its nuclear program, and has indicated that it will not be talked down from its intentions. Couple that with frequent Iranian comments about the illegitimacy of Israel, that it can and should be destroyed. The result is serious tinder.

I do not perceive that Israel is on the verge of an attack against Iran. We are flooded with discussions of the pluses and minuses, and it appears that the minuses are in the lead. However, it is close, might change, and we will not know the outcome until we hear it on the radio.

Should Israel attack, Iran counter attack, and Israel escalate, it will be a different Middle East. The weaponry involved may produce a different world.

President Obama and his advisors, along with all their American cheerleaders, must take account of these possibilities.

Somewhat below the intensity of this issue is that of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Americans in high positions say that withdrawing them, or at least freezing their growth, is essential in order to attain peace between Israel and Palestine, and help solve problems elsewhere in the Middle East.

I do not perceive that major changes with respect to settlements are on Israel's agenda. The experience of withdrawing from Gaza was not encouraging, as Americans should know. Furthermore, there is little indication that West Bank Palestinians are ready to make positive responses, such as altering their demands about refugees, and considering ideas about Jerusalem and the Temple Mount that Israelis can accept.

The game continues. Any side thinking it has all the important cards will find itself with fewer accomplishments than it expects.

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 08:05 PM
May 08, 2009
American rhetoric

The United States is the most powerful nation in the world. It may be the most powerful in the history of the world, but analyses of power relative to others at their times might find ancient Greece and Rome, and not so ancient Nazi Germany in comparable or stronger positions. Germany's power did not last long, but it was awesome while it was all over Europe, close to Moscow and Cairo.

Those who doubt that the United States can act unilaterally, or nearly so, should take a look at what it has done to Iraq, and what its unguided missiles have done to civilians in Afghanistan. Americans responsible for those actions are not concerned to travel outside their country, or being seized by border officials acting under the decisions of judges from Spain, the United Kingdom, or the Hague.

As in the past, however, power does not assure wisdom.

Recent noises coming from ranking American officials, up to and including the Vice President, White House aides, and senior generals have sounded like ultimatums directed against Israel. They make it appear as if the Americans are thinking about how to shift the markers on an international game board. If Israel goes to point X, then Iran and Syria will go to point Y, and all will be well.

Lesson number 1 in the political science of the Middle East: Tiny Israel is powerful in its context. It cannot rule the region. It must always be concerned about reaching beyond its capacity. But without its cooperation, the United States may find itself impotent.

Israeli generals, ex-generals, cabinet ministers and ex-cabinet ministers cannot travel freely without concern about activist judges who accept the claims of anti-Israeli petitioners. Should anyone doubt the power of Israeli policymakers, however, southern Lebanon, neighborhoods of Beirut, and much of Gaza show what they can do when pressed.

Those trying to understand Israel should also take account of the one million Russians who have come since 1988. Terminology is confusing. Many are not Russians, but Russian speakers from Central Asia. They may have not been considered Russian at home, but here they are Russian. (I am defined as an Anglo-Saxon here, but not where I came from.)

One of the Russian speakers is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, originally from Moldavia. Among his epigrams is that it is necessary to speak with Arabs in Russian. That is a metaphor for something other than an olive branch. He has joined Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in reducing the prominence of a Palestinian state on Israel's agenda. Both Netanyahu and Lieberman are shrewd enough to blur their message when talking to powerful others still adhering to the mantra of a Palestinian state. It is not clear what are their true intentions. Most likely they are flexible, and will respond to the behavior of Palestinians, Europeans, and Americans.

Lieberman and Netanyahu are targets of ridicule by Israelis who consider themselves, and are viewed by others, as decent and moderate. Many of those Israelis voted for Meretz or Labor in the recent election. Before taking them as the real Israelis with whom the United States and Europe should deal, one may note that Meretz has three seats and Labor 13 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. Four or five MKs on the left wing of Labor may pull out of the party due to its leader joining the Netahyahu government.

Israelis who ridicule Netanyahu and Lieberman lament that they are ranking policymakers, and are likely to be so for some years.

Others should notice the same thing when deciding where to put those markers on their game board, and what rhetoric to direct toward Israel.

No one should read this note as a threat. It is not wise, and usually not the Israeli style to threaten. We hear daily about what mad Iranians and Arabs will do to us. Israeli officials are explicitly silent about their most powerful weapons.

Some of my American friends may be inclined to dismiss the statements of Washington's officials that appear to me as threatening and simplistic. They may be harmful because they are simplistic. Will the Obama administration repeat the follies of the Bush administration, and impose its might on more of the world out of ignorance?

Some may say that the Vice President and others are trying to push Israel toward flexibility.

Israelis think of themselves as flexible. Many view the previous prime minister as pushed to excessive flexibility by well meaning, but misguided Americans and Europeans. That is part of the reason they voted for Netanyahu or Lieberman.

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 01:22 AM
May 06, 2009
Is it time to do something?

New governments in the United States and Israel are reaching the end of their "running in" periods. The Obama administration has had more time to get its feet on the ground than the Netanyahu government. Its early days were busy with the economic crisis. That is not over, but the mammoth is looking elsewhere for problems to solve. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran are each somewhere near the top of the overseas agenda, and that old bugaboo of Israel/Palestine is not far behind. Indeed, depending on some of the comments, that is the key to solving much of the rest.

When noise comes from the mammoth, it is always difficult to know what it means. Are individuals in high places, or those who aspire to notice and influence, speaking on their own? Are they sending up trial balloons for someone else who also may be high, or at least aspire to be important? Does the president know what is being said? Is the person speaking for the president, or just seeing how something will be received? If the source is the Defense or State Department, does it represent anything more than the thinking of ranking, or not-so-ranking bureaucrats? When noise comes from a Senator or Member of the House of Representatives, it is even more difficult to weigh the import. Is it an effort to curry favor with a foreign country or a lobbyist who claims to be speaking for a foreign country? Is there any chance that the comment has wide support in Congress or the Administration?

Perhaps there is a conspiracy at work. That is, a bad cop good cop scenario, where someone down in the piles expresses what may be viewed as tough language, in order to pave the way for the president to re-wrap the message in something more palatable.

From out of the mammoth in recent days we have heard that Israel must be more forthcoming with respect to the Palestinians in order to allow the United States to reach accords with Iran about the end of its nuclear program, and with Syria about the end of its bad behavior. Detailed comments have mentioned the freezing of settlements, the withdrawal of small settlements considered to be even more illegal than the large settlements, the need for Israel to commit itself to the development of the Palestinian state, Israel's acceptance of a commitment concerning its nuclear weapons, and an arrangement where the United States, the European Union, and moderate Arab countries (but not Israel) define the "end game" of the Palestinian issue.

The Obama administration might have been sending a message to Prime Minister Netanyahu when it invited Shimon Peres to the White House before him. Netanyahu had produced concern with his remarks that it is not appropriate to continue pursuing the idea of a Palestinian state. Important Americans and European responded with a collective oy gevalt.

Must Israel capitulate?

Before answering that question, it is appropriate to ask, To what?

Although numerous ranking Americans have expressed themselves in ways Israelis might perceive to be threatening, it is not clear what, precisely, the United States government wants, much less what it is demanding.

Moreover, it is not appropriate to answer the question about Israel's response in simple fashion. Israel, as well as the United States, is a complex entity. It may not qualify as a mammoth, but neither is it a well articulated, centrally controlled beast whose mutterings allow a simple prediction of governmental action.

In other words, Israel, too, has its good cops and bad cops. The Jewish people have not survived for upwards of 3,000 years without learning how to wiggle out of the threats posed by great empires.

Likely to help on this occasion, as they have in previous confrontations, are the Palestinians. Their spokesmen are on a high horse, more than a bit too high for the tolerance of Israelis and a few others. Nonnegotiable demands from the Palestinians are all Israel needs to cope with the threats coming from North America and Europe. Currently the Palestinians are not willing to begin negotiations until Israel complies with their wishes. Also helpful are the Syrians and Iranians. Their intransigence is just what Israel needs for a few more years without a great power dictate.

Israeli cynicism is way out in front of optimism. So far more than 2,800 respondents have replied to a question asked by a prominent web site, "What will come from American pressure on Israel?"

15 percent say that Israel will reach an agreement with Palestinians
4 percent say that Israel will alter its policy with respect to nuclear weapons
4 percent say that Israel stop being vague and make peace
77 percent say that Israel will do nothing.

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 09:42 AM
May 05, 2009
Getting along

Several of you have commented on my references to Arab students and acquaintances. While some have accused me of paternalism and compared me to anti-Semites who say, "some of my best friends are Jews," others have expressed surprise about personal relationships between Jews and Arabs.

The issue is complex, with nuances that do not lend themselves that casual generalization. What follows are my own experiences. They reflect conditions in and close to a university, which one of my students described as an island of comity in a larger context of suspicion and separation, and a neighborhood close to the university with Jewish and Arab residents.

I think of students as clients who deserve the best service I can provide. A physician treats patients without reference to their attitudes about politics. Insofar as my work involves politics and public policy, the comparison is not all that simple. Discussions inevitably get to what the government is doing, what it can be expected to do, and what it should be doing.

Arabs as well as Jews have different perspectives. Arab students have criticized politicians who claim to lead Palestine with as much sarcasm as Jews criticize politicians who claim to lead Israel. The Hebrew University attracts a number of non-Jews and non-Arabs from throughout the world, who also come with predispositions.

Occasionally the organization of Arab students mounts a demonstration against Israel, or against something it finds amiss in the university. Predictably there will be Jews who join their demonstration, as well as a counter demonstration by right-wing students. University security personnel and the police maintain a distance between the shouters and placard wavers. Most students try to avoid the commotion on their way to class.

Not all students of political science are politically active or motivated. Some just want a degree, and they have chosen political science. Some are fascinated with politics as a subject of analysis, and do not identify closely with a party or political perspective. I am more concerned to understand than to express preferences, and my preferences are not all that strong. Years of examining politics have brought me to the posture that what happens? and why? are more interesting questions than what should happen?

This is not to say that I am above the fray. I always decide to vote one way or another. I identify closely with Israel, its struggles, and efforts at accommodation. However, in a well institutionalized democracy like Israel, party platforms and election promises have limited importance. The realities of coping with economics and international politics render leading politicians flexible and pragmatic. Bibi may come to decide differently than Tzipi, but no one can predict what each would do from what has been said in the campaign. Either will be influenced greatly by what comes to the country from outside, as well as the analyses of ranking bureaucrats, other experts, and coalition partners.

One can write a similar sentence about McCain, Bush, and Obama. The styles and some of the outcomes may differ, but Congress, experts, and the world dim the differences.

No doubt that the larger picture I see on a daily basis is one of Jewish and Arab antagonisms reflecting different ways of viewing what happened years ago, and recently.

Within that, however, are numerous relationships of accommodation and friendship. It is apparent in the classroom, in the gym that serves students, faculty, and university graduates, and in the neighborhood where Jews and Arabs meet on the street. At times it seems that conversations avoid the most sensitive issues of the moment. Cynicism and humor allow us to diffuse tensions and remain civil.

I am not describing a paradise without politics. There are expressions of loyalty to one's own narrative. Occasionally there is emotion. The people I encounter are well educated, and have chosen to interact with one another. Most know how to separate the greater issues from friendships, or maintain relations that are appropriate between students and teachers.

Others are inclined to shout at one another, or even seek to kill, but we get along.

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 01:55 AM
May 02, 2009
More Jews

In the past week, two internet correspondents have sent me a You Tube headlined, "Muslim Demographics." It portrays a decline in Christian populations and a rise in Islam, to the extent that "The global culture our children will inherit will be vastly different than what it is today." The clip ends by identifying its source as believers who wish to share a Gospel message, and calling the viewers to action.

What action? Perhaps making more Christian babies, and/or converting Muslims. There is no indication of sources for the data or the demographic projections.

If there is a threat to Christians and others from Muslim dominance, there is a way short of renewed Crusade to deal with it. My own limited understanding of demography begins with the importance of educating women. Increases in secondary and university education have been associated with declining birth rates as women move from home to the workplace, and show greater capacity and willingness to avoid pregnancy.

Israeli Jews are especially sensitive to the threat of Muslim demographics. Yet there are trends that may protect the Jewish homeland from being overwhelmed by Muslim babies who become angry young men and women. Jewish skeptics wonder if those trends will make Israel a better or worse place.

One line of defense is the ultra-Orthodox communities. Women are high educated, but mostly in religious texts where "be fruitful and multiply" is more prominent than "attend university and go to work." Even in these communities economics and education do their work. There are signs of declining fertility, but only from very high to high. They remain substantially higher than among Israeli Arabs. Ultra-Orthodox communities produce 8 children per woman as opposed to less than 5 among Israeli Arabs.

Yet another source of Jews is the Third World. Bnei Menasha in eastern India and Burma claim to be remnants of a Lost Tribe resulting from the conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE. Falash Mura in Ethiopia say that they are former Jews enticed or forced to become Christians generations ago. A group of Peruvian Indians claim that they descend from Jewish traders who made their way into the jungle in the 19th century, a long way from Jewish women. There are also clusters of people in Uganda and Zimbabwe who assert that they are Jewish.

The Bnei Menasha, Falash Mura, and Peruvians have advocates among Israeli and Diaspora Jews who accept their claims, contribute money and media support to prepare individuals for migration and persuade the Israeli government to let them in. There are rabbis, some of them with considerable distinction among the Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox of Israel, who declare the communities to be Jewish, or to have Jewish roots and be worthy of reconversion. Ha'aretz of May 1st had a story covering two-thirds of an inner page on the Bnei Menasha. Several hundred out of seven to nine thousand have entered the country at various times, and many more are waiting for permission. (See also )

The story of the Falash Mura is the best known. Frequent media pieces have described the movement of Ethiopians from villages to central camps supported by American fund raisers. Ethiopians already in Israel demonstrate their demands to "bring our brothers and sisters." Pressures on the Israeli government have produced spurts of immigration permits, announcements that the movement of Falash Mura has been completed, followed by more movement from villages to the camps, and renewed campaigns to accept the newly recruited in Israel.

Less than enthusiastic responses among Israeli policymakers reflect two principle concerns. One is a suspicion that there is a bottomless supply of individuals who view Israel as more attractive than their homelands, and are willing to claim Judaism in exchange for migration, resettlement, housing, training, education, and income support from generous Americans and the Israeli government. Another is a concern about the commitment of these people to Judaism. Christian missionaries worked among the Bnei Menasha and Falash Mura, contributed to their knowledge of the Bible and perhaps their attraction to Judaism. Individuals have reverted to Christianity or animism once in Israel. Some assert that they are both Christian and Jewish. While these traits may not bother enthusiasts of ecumenicalism and multi-culturalism, they do not carry much weight with Israel's political and religious establishments.

During 34 years associated with the Hebrew University, I have noticed that an increasing incidence of Arab women students are covering their heads. I do not know if this reflects a change in style that is superficial or significant, whether it indicates something about politics as well as religion. Arab women have been among the brightest and most interesting of the students in my classes. I am more inclined to rely on them than villagers from India and Burma, Ethiopia, Peru, Uganda or Zimbabwe to keep this a decent, and not too crowded country.

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 09:50 PM
May 01, 2009
Life among the rogues

The Economist's description of Gaza three months after Israel's invasion makes difficult reading. The slogans of "collective punishment" and the "world's largest prison" seem accurate.

Numerous families are living rough due to their homes being destroyed. Diets are limited due to continued blockades of all but essential foods and medicines. The Israeli press reported recently that pumpkins were not allowed in because they were not on the list of essential foods.

The Economist is not widely recognized as a Zionist newspaper, but this article is fair in putting most of the onus on Hamas. Its inflexible ideology brought the destruction, and has provided little opportunity for finding a way out of the blockade. An inability to reach an accord to produce a unified Palestinian leadership not in the hands of those defined as terrorists by numerous governments has created a situation where most of the aid promised has not been delivered. There has been no movement about freeing the Israeli prisoner, if he is still alive, or even allowing contact with international humanitarian organizations for close to three years.

The Economist quotes Gazans who curse Hamas for their fate while sitting amidst the rubble, and complaining about overcrowded tents.

The article avoids suggesting that Gaza is the future of Islamic extremism, but it might be worth thinking in that direction.

Other trouble spots are not much better. Afghanistan may support continued war with its poppies, but not an attractive life style for the population. Likewise areas of Pakistan occupied by the Taliban, and the villages of Somalia that send little boats to capture big ships. Iran is much less than a paradise despite oil revenues that support angry Muslims in several places, moving to the edge of nuclear power as well as long- and medium-range missiles. There is double digit unemployment and inflation, and insufficient refining capacity to produce enough gasoline for its own consumption.

Those who accept the Bush and Obama spins may view Iraq as a coalition success and the emergence--almost--of a stable indigenous government. Skeptics cite more than 1,000 civilian deaths due mostly to sectarian violence so far in 2009, and perhaps 100,000 civilian deaths since 2003.

Judgments about Lebanon depend on what you read. Hizbollah and Iranian sources are upbeat. A USAID website carries pictures of a bridge that Americans are rebuilding. Others describe recovery from 2006 as far from complete. They emphasize the lack of stability in a country always on the verge of ethnic conflict and religious euphoria, and tied in one way or another to Iran or Syria, neither of which are political or economic garden spots.

North Korea is not a Muslim country, but provides a model along with a number Muslim countries for the consequences of being enthusiastic outliers.

With great efforts at self-justification based on ideology and/or theology, and outsized investments in weapons of aggression, these countries are not ideal for the rest of us, but they have been manageable. The rogues are contained, at an expense far less than total war, and it is their own residents who suffer the most from fanaticism.

For those of us with modest aspirations and little expectation of heaven on earth, the glass is half full.

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 01:50 AM