June 30, 2009
The costs and benefits of US assistance

There are Americans who worry about the money their government has given to Israel over the years, and conclude that Israel has responded by making problems for American interests in the Middle East.

The best way to deal with an issue like this is to ask, Compared to what?

The United States, by virtue of being a great power, has put a lot of resources into various places around the world since 1945, with more or less good fortune in what it has gotten.

Lets look at some indications of outlays and results.

The numbers are elusive and complicated, but what follows comes from spending a bit of time with Google.

US financial aid to Israel has been about $3b/year since 1973, or a bit over $100b in total. There have been no American combat deaths for the sake of Israel that I'm aware of. Some might want to put the USS Liberty (1967) and the explosion at the Marine barracks in Beirut (1982) somewhere in the calculation.

Compare that to Vietnam: $111b to $584b are the lower and upper estimates of outlays that I have found, along with 55,000 US military dead.

Iraq and Afghanistan together, perhaps $870b so far and 5,000 US military dead.

Taking account of inflation, and computing the outlays in current terms, would increase greatly the cost of Vietnam, and the aid to Israel in the years closer to 1973.

In aiding Israel, the US has helped a stable democracy defend itself, and contribute to stability in the region.

Some would say that Israel is the cause of instability in the region, but I view that as nonsense. Israel helped protect Jordan from Syria, and has propped up the Fatah government of the West Bank. It ended the nuclear aspirations of Saddam Hussein and so far those of Syria, as well as limiting the influence of Islamic extremists in Lebanon and Gaza.

Comparing the outlays and benefits associated with Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel has been a good deal for the US.

Expenditures on the Marshall Plan were also a good investment that moved Europe toward peace and prosperity. American aid to South Korea helped produce an admirable society, but at the cost of about 34,000 US military dead.

Now the issue of Israeli cooperation with American interests:

Recent reports are that Ehud Olmert offered more to Mahmoud Abbas, with the blessing of George W. Bush, than Ehud Barack offered to Yassir Arafat in 2000 with the blessing of Bill Clinton. (For part of what has been reported, see http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1245184852687&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull)

The Olmert offer came in the fading moments of his tenure as prime minister, and did not carry the agreement of the Israeli government. Foreign Minister Livni is said to have opposed part of the offer. Among the details were land swaps for the settlements Israel would keep, international control over the Old City of Jerusalem, and Israel's acceptance of 30,000 refugees under the heading of family unification.

We hear that if the Palestinians agreed, Olmert would have presented the deal at the United Nations. With the cheers of the world behind him, he would then offer it to his government and the Knesset as a "take it or leave it" package, with the expectation that his colleagues would approve.

At the time, Israel's attorney general was preparing multiple indictments against Olmert for various kinds of corruption.

Whatever Olmert's motivation, the Palestinians rejected the offer as insufficient.

So how should the Obama administration get what it wants in the Middle East? More troops in Afghanistan? Attacking Pakistan? Engaging with Iran? Or pressuring Israel to be more forthcoming?

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:15 PM
Hoping to avoid worry

In his Cairo speech, Barack Obama pressed at least as hard on the Palestinians and other Arabs as on Israel.

That view was lost in the onslaught from Israelis and their supporters who perceived any criticism to be off limits, and disproportionate to whatever the president said about Arabs.

A few days later I joined the criticism of the administration when Hillary declared that it would permit no construction in the settlements, and a senior aide included my own neighborhood of Jerusalem in that prohibition.

Despite my caution that she was violating US Government policy about our apartment, Varda went ahead and ordered new curtains.

Fortunately for our dining room, the latest from the White House is less autocratic. Israeli officials are reminding the president what he said in Cairo about the need for movement by the Arabs. Presidential aides have spoken of a constructive dialog with Israel. One of Bush's aides has said that the Obama administration is wrong about their being no previous agreement with Israel about limited construction in the settlements. Can we hope that Hillary will change her mind? If the Americans have not forgotten how to do politics, there may be a reasonable conclusion to this fracas.

Let me risk some predictions.

Israel will agree, once again, to limit construction in the settlements. There is a proposal to freeze building not already underway for six months. Settlers will say that the government is choking them, but the money and planning approvals for construction will dry up, perhaps not as completely as the policy suggests.

A settlement freeze will not be enough for Palestinian leaders. In the absence of an equivalent gesture to build confidence among Israelis, construction will resume.

Leftists in Israel and elsewhere will cry injustice and foolishness, but the settlers have more weight than they do in Israeli politics.

There will be spurts of construction and stoppages, most likely beyond the point where I am able to write about them. Eventually, Andorra may be larger and more powerful than what remains for a Palestinian state.

What do I want?

That is less important than what I expect. I have tired of schemes to divide the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, insofar as those who speak for Palestinians have rejected every offer. I respect the capacity of Israel's institutions to decide for Israel, more than I respect the plans made by American and European politicians, overseas Jews, Christians, or others.

Israeli politicians have been sufficiently balanced to guard against moving too far from what powerful others will tolerate. As long as that continues, I can grow older with a minimum of worries.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:06 AM
June 29, 2009
Israeli modesty

I recently criticized the Obama administration for trying to micro-manage Israel. I argued that Israelis are better able to decide what is best for themselves than the American government.

A number of people put the note on their own lists. Among them was Naomi Ragan, who passed it on under the headline "Israeli Take on Obama's policies." In response I received a number of replies, most of them in support of what I had written, but many of them saying that I did not go far enough. Common to several was that Israel must stand up for its rights; tell the United States and other members of an anti-Israeli conspiracy where to get off; rely on its supporters and its own might. Some weighed in with their religious faith, both Christians and Jews, to assert the priority of Israel's claims.

I appreciate the moment of notice, but must respond with something essential for understanding Israel's situation.

Israel is not a great power.

There may be only two countries that qualify as great powers, the United States and Russia. We should not envy either of them. Both can do pretty much as they want to their own residents and others without fear of international sanctions. Both did well in World War II, but since then have not accomplished much in their international adventures other than killing many of their own soldiers, as well as many more soldiers and civilians in the countries they invaded.

Russia is far from a paradise. The United States is a decent place for those with resources, but is less desirable than much of Western Europe (and Israel) on numerous indicators of health, violence, income security, and the difficult to measure thing called quality of life. The problems faced by the Obama administration in trying to reform the health system illustrate why Americans in their large, wealthy, and democratic country, which spends more than others on health, cannot obtain world class service due to entrenched interests that profit from the status quo.

Like most countries of the world, Israel must play the political game of going along to get along. It cannot thumb its nose at a great power, or even at the middling powers that prevail in Europe. As long as Israel remains in their club, it will have access to economic and technological opportunities, cultural exchanges, and at least a minimum of political support.

More than the average country, Israel must tend to its relations with others. This reflects the madness of Muslim politicians and religious leaders, and their weight in the United Nations and other organizations.

As we read in the Bible that they composed, Israel's ancestors learned in ancient times how to preserve their community amidst powerful others. Jews have succeeded more often than not in a long and troubled history from the Philistines to the Americans. .

Currently the position of Jews--in their own country and elsewhere--is better than at any other time since the death of King Solomon.

When my late father-in-law was a young man in Dusseldorf, he thought that he was witnessing the height of Jewish achievement in Weimar Germany.

The rest of his story reminds us that Jews must consider likely pitfalls as well as opportunities.

In other notes I have described Israel's success in providing public services that match what should be expected from a country classified by the World Bank as one of the wealthiest, but not among the most wealthy. A disproportionate percentage of resources go for national defense. One can argue if the IDF has used too much or too little force, but the big picture is one of success.

Israel comes in for severe criticism, but much of that is either the blather of ideologues, usually impotent politically, or the lip service of government officials who are pursuing something from Muslim countries.

Coping is a skill described by many psychologists (many of them Jewish) for dealing with personal problems not likely to be solved completely. Its political equivalence is a skill essential to those who would lead Israel.

As I remind you occasionally, 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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:26 AM
June 28, 2009
Jewish extremism

Living in Israel is pleasant. The weather and public services are decent. The data on life expectancy indicate that it is safer than the United States and much of Western Europe http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0004393.html.

The problem is reading about Israel, especially what comes from commentators who have not learned the value of moderation.

Disturbance comes from the right and the left. Two of my least favorites are Caroline Glick, who writes for the Jerusalem Post and Gideon Levy, of Ha'aretz. I do not read either on a regular or even occasional basis, but I know they are somewhere out there. I find them quoted by friends or sent as something that I must read and pass on. I never pass on and usually do not read, except when I ponder Jewish extremism.

Glick and Levy are not the only writers who torment us with their descriptions of Israeli imperfections. They are similar to others on their ends of the spectrum, predictable in what they write, and useful as examples of what not to read.

I have not done a study of either, other than looking at enough to know that I do not want more. Perhaps I am unfair and miss some nuances. I will consider any comments about shortcomings in my summaries.

A recent example of Glick is http://www.imra.org.il/story.php3?id=43960

The sky is about to fall. The world is against Israel. Even allies are evil. Obama is threatening, and will pounce harder. The center and left of Israeli politics are hopelessly naive. They are serving our enemies by efforts to find accommodation with Arabs, Europeans, and Americans who will not be accommodated. Even the right of center is not reliable. Netanyahu's heart may be in the right place, and he is trying to evade the snares of international forces who pretend to be friends but really are enemies. Even he is trapped in the culture of politics where he must go along to get along. The only correct way is to be strong and uncompromising. There is no appropriate response to threat other than declaring the correctness of our path against local and international naysayers, and embarking on a forceful defense of what we know is true.

While Glick sees Israel as too passive in a hostile world (except for foolish politicians who do the work of enemies while thinking otherwise), Levy (e.g., http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1057670.html) sees Israel as actively creating problems for itself. It is aggressively foolish and self destructive. It does too much and can do nothing right. What others consider to be victory is catastrophe, or a step toward it. There is no better example than the recent Gaza war, which he describes with certainty as an utter defeat, a moral disaster, and bound to produce more problems. Once the trumpeting of success has quieted, all will see the failure of the goals declared for the onslaught. Israelis are blind to their faults and their failings, but the world is not. Continuing in the current direction, which has been going on for ever, assures the increasing enmity of civilized people, the bankruptcy of our moral potential, and the country's doom.

Rather than surrender my license as an optimist, I will insist on the good in the misery of these extremists. Their existence illustrates our tolerance for dispute. They also recall the madness of the biblical prophets. They claimed to hear the words of the Almighty, insisted that no one else was behaving correctly, and perceived apocalypse in the near future. Yet what they wrote was included in sacred text, and has been honored until now. That is more than will happen to anything I have written.

Extremism is part of Jewish culture, even though it may cause discomfort. Perfection now. Damn those who do not agree.

The strength of Israel's democracy is apparent in the tolerance of views that differ so greatly, published in prominent journals, without censorship or retribution.

What saves the us from madness is the obvious success of Israel, and the balance in its institutions. The sky is not falling. Israel has not only survived but prospered. Its enemies are miserable. The military has succeeded in protecting the country, screening out or controlling the occasional problems among its recruits, and avoided excesses like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Abu Grieb or Guantanamo.

Israel's officials include some who fail tests of moral rectitude, but most are sane and know how to get along with world powers. What they have done recently with respect to the peace process, as well as in Lebanon 2006 and Gaza 2009 is less than heroic, and also less than apocalyptic. They have absorbed criticism from the Israeli center for doing too much or not enough. They are even further from the demands of commentators like Glick and Levy, and that is their wisdom.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:10 AM
June 27, 2009
Arabs and Jews

It is common to hear that Israel treats its Arab minority poorly, and treats the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza worse. Jimmy Carter limited his description of "apartheid" to the West Bank and Gaza, but others have applied it to Israel. Jewish leftists from Israel and elsewhere are leading some of the tunes, and joining others as a chorus.

Reality is different.

The dirty word "apartheid" does not belong. The barriers between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza reflect violence against Israeli civilians, and not racism. Within Israel, there are too many Arabs studying in Israeli universities and living alongside Jews to justify the term apartheid other than as an anti-Semitic screed.

There are gaps in opportunity between Jews and Arabs in Israel, but they are largely the responsibility of the Arabs themselves. And the problems of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza likewise reflect Arab more than Jewish activity.

The common problem of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza is a failure to recognize the legitimacy of Israel, and to participate with it. Rather than cooperating politically for mutual benefits, both groups of Arabs persist in extreme rejection. Palestinians hold onto keys to doors that no longer exist, and demand the return to conditions before 1948. They and Israeli Arabs deny any responsibility for the fate that befell them, and cling to a sense of having a monopoly of justice. Instead of accepting a decent offer, or its sweetening in the summer and fall of 2000, Palestinians embarked on an intifada. Rather than accept as a partial success the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza, they persisted in rocket attacks. These responses have earned them the deepened distrust of Israelis, and helped produce a government that is not inclined to offer the same deals as its predecessors.

Israeli Arabs have not learned the lesson of American minorities, i.e., to play within the system and exchange political support for material benefits. Most of the Arabs elected to the Knesset persist in harsh criticism from outside the major parties, rather than deals negotiated from inside. The Palestinians of Jerusalem refuse even to participate in local elections. They give up the opportunity to select a third of the local council and be a deciding factor in the mayor's election. As a result, they live in neighborhoods with substandard facilities.

When asked why they do not cooperate with the Israeli establishment, the Arab mantra is that cooperation is bound to fail due to Israeli racism.

No one should claim that it will be easy to overcome Jewish suspicion associated decades of Arab incitement and violence. Nevertheless, one can find encouraging instances of reward for cooperation. My best personal story is about an MA student who stopped writing his thesis in order to accept a position as Israel's scientific attache×™ in Germany. He had the help of an uncle who was a Labor Party member of Knesset and Deputy Minister of Health. If there was a bit of patronage in the selection, the man deserved the appointment. He was a scientist who spoke German. His PhD in biology came from Heidelberg University, and he was working as a scientist in the Agriculture Ministry when he began studying for an MA in public policy.

I've noted in previous letters that Israeli Arabs live better than American minorities. On measures of health they do better than the American white majority.

This does not keep Israeli Arabs from feeling out of the mainstream. I have traded stories of having to say the Lord's Prayer as a child in an American public school with a faculty friend who says that he feels good whenever he sees a street sign in Arabic.

The status of American Jews is nothing like it was 60 or even 30 years ago. Jews are presidents of universities that had Jewish quotas, and are at the top of corporations and government departments that would have excluded them completely or limited their opportunities.

If Israeli Arabs or Palestinians are to have similar experiences as Jews in the United States, they will have to shed their backward looking leaders. This will be difficult insofar as politicians and media throughout the Middle East continue to convey their stories of Israeli evil. Repressive regimes invest heavily in preserving Palestinian misery as a way of making themselves look good to their own people. It will not be easy for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians to stop languishing in their tales of suffering, and pursue benefits. The shift may elude yet additional generations. Until it happens, Jews as well as Arabs will suffer.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:53 PM
June 25, 2009
Naive Americans

Allow me to ride my horse somewhat further along the path of criticizing the Obama administration's campaign to stop all construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including some neighborhoods that have been part of Jerusalem for 40 years.

Recall that I do not claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim, some other kind of demon, or beholden to the Palestinians and other Arabs.

However, I wonder at an American president who says that he wants to engage with Iran, Palestine, and other Arab authorities, and is dictating the small details of policy that he insists that Israel adopt.

The absurdity is stark in the presence of Israel's democracy, with a high level of education and political interest among its citizens along with an active and critical media, in contrast with authoritarian governments, controlled media, and low levels of education in Muslim countries.

Obama is dictating to the democrats and engaging with dictators and religious fanatics.

Israelis know their country's problems at least as well as Americans. They are more familiar with their country's problems of security than Americans are familiar with their own problems of security, and infinitely better informed about Israel's problems of security than are Americans. Jewish education in security begins with concerns inherited along with family memories of persecution, along with the present realities of living in a small country that has been at war at least five times in its 60 year history, and maybe eight times, depending on what one counts as a war. Most Israeli adults have served in the military, with numerous men active in the reserves for 30 years. Their parents served, and much of the population over the age of 50 has children in the military.

Israelis know the pressures and the imperfections of national defense. Endless discussions on radio, television and in the press keep them abreast of political maneuverings by officials of Israel and neighboring countries. Neither the perspectives of the military nor the government are anything close to monolithic. Israel's Jews debate military and political options, and are better equipped than anyone else to decide what is best for them.

The men and women who make policy for Israel have not sprung overnight or even in a few years from business, the universities, or local government. The story of Benyamin Netanyahu is not unusual among those at the pinnacle of government. He began his government career in 1982, was Ambassador to the United Nations 1984-88, elected to the Knesset in 1988, served as head of several ministries and an earlier term as prime minister. One does not have to admire his style of speaking or his body language to recognize that he has considerable experience, and currently has assembled a government supported by a substantial majority of the population. One can be suspicious about claims of a political mandate to follow one policy or another, insofar as voters choose their candidates or party for a variety of reasons. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Israeli electorate supports a government that is reluctant to move toward recognizing a Palestinian state or stop all construction in the settlements or Jerusalem's neighborhoods. Among the elements producing those postures are the intifada that began in 2000, seven years of rocket attacks from Gaza, and the widely perceived weakness, stubbornness, and unreliability of the Palestinians responsible for the West Bank.

Against this, Barack Obama's commitment to engage personally in the Middle East, and his pressuring Israel to halt all construction over the 1967 borders, appears naive in the extreme. He may be brilliant, but there is much that he does not appear to know, or to recognize. Likewise for his military and political advisers. Some of them may have learned Arabic and spent time in the Middle East, but they cannot compete with the street smarts of Israelis who have lived all their lives close to their neighbors, and who hear the comments of Arab leaders on a daily basis.

We can disagree about what is best for Israel. Israelis themselves disagree. My point is that Israelis are well enough informed to ponder the alternatives and decide for themselves how to deal with their challenges.

Among those challenges are the demands coming from American and European governments. (Those from other regions do not count for much.) No matter how ill informed and mistaken those demands appear to be, Israeli officials are careful not to ignore them.

Long ago the Jews learned how to deal with powerful others. Lesson #1 is not to annoy them.

What we hear in public are the efforts of Israel's prime minister and foreign minister to dissuade Americans and Europeans from demanding a total freeze on construction. So far the undiplomatic language from the Secretary of State and her spokespersons indicate that the message is not getting through.

Whether Israel or the United States wins this tussle, the greater test is how the Obama policy of engagement will work with the Palestinians, as well as with Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis. Others have tried before him. Humility is not widely recognized as a trait of Americans who think themselves capable of deciding what it best for others.

Past performance does not encourage optimism.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:31 PM
June 23, 2009
Beyond colonialism

"Colonial" is among the dirtiest of words for those who aspire to be politically correct. It refers to the exploitation of the weak by the strong, which no right thinking person should tolerate. No matter that colonial power claimed they were protecting and uplifting the weak. No matter that there is a debate as to whether colonial powers profited from their role, or spent more than they reaped. No matter that in several instances the colonial power left behind physical infrastructure and training that helped the newly independent states. Slavery and blatant exploitation in the Belgian Congo, and its lack of preparation for independence set the standard for judging other places.

The former colonies that became the United States were among the best treated. That is not what I learned from Anglophobic teachers in Fall River, but that is the message of recent histories. Such a judgment overlooks slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. The contrast between what I was taught, and what I now read is useful in recognizing the politics involved in judging colonialism.

Britain and France were the colonial big leaguers. Spain lost out by the end of the 19th century; Germany as the result of World War I; Holland ended its play with the Japanese occupation of what became Indonesia; and Portugal petered out along with Britain and France in the 1960s. The Soviet Union claimed to be the primary anti-colonialist, but kept at something that looked like colonialism until its empire collapsed. One can argue if Russia remains a colonial power with respect to areas in the Caucasus, or if the United States has a colonial relationship with Puerto Rico.

Allegations about "neo-colonialism" are also ugly. They concern the influence of powerful states and corporations over the weak. Again, reality is more complex than the image. Poor states have become heavily indebted due to the corruption of native leaders who signed contracts in exchange for large payments into their bank accounts, while buying goods and services that were not worth the price. Much of the responsibility should rest with the corporations making the deals. How much blame should we assign to the home countries of the enterprises, and how much to the countries ruled by corruption?

The nasty images of colonialism and neo-colonialism may have served in recent years to limit their most obvious and harmful manifestations, at least in places where people restrain corruption.

What has taken their place is another form of great power meddling in the affairs of lesser powers. The best term I can think of is "paternalism."

Like colonialism, paternalism is wrapped in lofty sentiments. The patron may work with other powerful countries in behalf of collective good intentions, sometimes through the United Nations. What can be more disinterested?

The United States is the primary paternalist. We can distinguish what might be called "dry paternalism," which operates here, and whose greatest success turned a war-torn Europe into the European Community. "Wet paternalism" comes along with armed force, as in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, off and on in Latin America.

It is not easy to assess the balance of benefits and costs of American paternalism in this one small country. The history from 1967 includes military supplies and financial assistance that helped Israel greatly during periods of extreme stress. Political agreements with Egypt in 1974 and 1978-79 came with American inducements and pressure. Some Israelis argue that those agreements were not worth the concessions required. However, peace has held for 30 years on what had been a bloody front for the previous 30 years.

Every American president since George H. W. Bush has tried to broker an agreement between Israel and Palestine. None have induced the Palestinians to be flexible enough for an agreement.

Barack Obama is breathing life into paternalism with his claims of a new beginning. So far he has not done well with North Korea. Commotion in Iran makes it unwise to assess the future of that country. The president's comments about Israel and Palestine have caused their own commotion, and it is too early to predict the results.

The most recent action is a dictate from the State Department that there be no construction in the post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

The administration may be aiming high in order to stop construction in Har Homa. This is the newest of the neighborhoods built within the boundaries that Israel declared for Jerusalem soon after the 1967 war. Har Homa has been controversial due to its proximity to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, and claims that it hinders transportation between the northern and southern areas of the West Bank.

Even a freeze applied only to Har Homa would be a severe challenge for the Israeli government. The Israeli foreign minister has said "leave us alone" almost as clearly as Obama has said that he wants to help us. Words from the State Department apply to neighborhoods that account for more than a third of Jerusalem's Jewish population. Will my Arab neighbors in French Hill be able to renovate their apartments while the Sharkanskys and other Jews are denied the opportunity?

Varda did not respond well when I said that the State Department would not want her to buy new curtains for the dining room.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:37 PM
June 22, 2009

One result of the back to back speeches of Barack Obama and Benyamin Netanyahu is a revival of assertions that Barack Hussein Obama is an overt or secret Muslim, and is turning the United States against Israel. Widely distributed messages to that effect have reached me in recent days, after several months of quiet.

Are the campaigns harmless?

Not if some of the people propagating the myths feel they must do more of God's work by funding the purchase of homes for Jews in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, or some other mission that will fan embers of hatred.

It is not illegal for Jews to purchase homes in Arab neighborhoods. There are more Arabs moving into Jewish neighborhoods than Jews moving into Arab neighborhoods. However, Jews making themselves neighbors of Arabs arouse hatred and violence. My Arab neighbors in French Hill do not require squads of soldiers guarding them 24/7.

Obama is contributing to this upsurge in nonsense by pressing Israel to halt settlements. This will produce nothing beyond Jewish insecurity. The American president is playing the peace game backwards. He should be pressing the Arabs to deal reasonably with Israel. That is the best way to halt the growth of settlements and bring peace to this land.

Let me explain.

Israel is a strong state. Its government can stop the growth of settlements if that is part of a decent deal, and will remove some settlements if the deal proves to be working. On two prominent occasions, in response to the peace agreement with Egypt and in the case of Gaza, Israeli governments removed thousands of settlers despite considerable opposition. On numerous other occasions it has frozen the flow of funds and construction permits needed for expanding settlements.

I doubt that any Israeli government, whether tilted to the right or left, will stop all construction within the sizable settlements near Israeli cities, no matter how fiercely Hillary Clinton shrieks.

The Palestinians currently governing their people are not strong enough to keep any kind of a bargain. More than half of the leadership (Hamas and other extremists) is not willing to accept Israel's existence. The aging men currently hanging on in the West Bank are either corrupt personally or close relatives of the corrupt, and otherwise unreliable. Their idea of political activity is traveling the world, meeting before the cameras with one or another leader, expressing the same old platitudes in favor of peace, and criticizing Israel as the stumbling block.

If the Palestinian leadership changes, there may be a chance for progress, and a reason for Israeli leaders to deal with those who feel that nothing is more important than pressing on with the expansion of settlements.

Sadly, my great idea has a fatal weakness.

There is no chance that Barack Obama or anyone else can to press hard enough on the Palestinians to produce a useful change in their leadership.

The task is hopeless in the context of the support given the status quo as a matter of habit and faith by religious and political leaders of Muslim states. Almost all of them resemble the Palestinian leadership in age, attitudes toward Israel, and a lack of concern for changing their societies.

What is the solution?

There is none on the horizon.

If President Obama wants to go down in history as a leader of change, he should put all his energies into reforming the developed world's most regressive health system.

What about all those aides working on schemes for Israel and Palestine?

We'd all be better off if they return to the think tanks where they spent the Bush administration.

As always, 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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:06 AM
June 20, 2009
Public opinion

Several friends have cautioned me that public opinion in America is turning against Israel, and public opinion in Europe is more intense in its opposition.

The reasons cited are the ugly pictures coming out of Gaza, as well as the perception that President Obama is upping the pressure against Israeli stubbornness with respect to concessions for the Palestinians.

If you actually read my letters, you should have noticed that I judged Obama's speech to be at least as harsh toward the Arabs as toward Israel. Nonetheless, public opinion polls show a strong tendency among Israelis to perceive animosity. Perhaps it is Jewish nerves, overly suspicious about an escalation of threat. It is incorrect to conclude that George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice never criticized Israel. I recall them saying what Obama said about the need to stop settlement growth.

President Obama said that he intends more direct involvement in seeking peace between Israel and the Palestinians. President George W. Bush also said that. Maybe Obama's comments will prove to be as ineffectual as Bush's. Currently, however, a lot of Israelis feel themselves under siege.

Teddy Roosevelt described the presidency as a bully pulpit. It may be especially powerful as a leader of opinion when directed against a foreign target. On domestic issues there is more information, as well as sharper opinions and numerous interest groups. President Obama may be moving the public against Israel, while not getting Americans to line up the way he would like on things closer to home.

My friends do not have to caution me about adverse public opinion in America and Europe. The news is prominent here. It may have something to do with the bunker mentality. It helps to explain the results of the most recent election, and why there is a prime minister and foreign minister posturing as they are against outside pressure.

Some of my correspondents have even written about the end of Israel if it does not behave better. Do they think Israelis will go back to Cairo, Dusseldorf or Fall River? What should happen to the granddaughter of a family from Kishinev married to the grandson of a family from Baghdad?

Israelis are tired of hearing only words in behalf of their defense from the United States and other western powers. No great power helped when the Nazis murdered and the Arabs persecuted. The children and grandchildren of those Jews have heard soothing words and demands for restraint in response to continued violence against them, and severe criticism for disproportionate responses. I do not recall any polls asking Israelis if they believe the commitments to their defense expressed by one American president after another. I have seen data indicating that substantial numbers of Israelis feel that the American administration is tilted against them, and that they must rely on themselves.

It is wise to consider public opinions in countries that are important to one's own. Just as Israelis should consider public opinion in Europe and North America, so should Europeans and Americans consider public opinion in Israel. The power of governments is not equal, but it is not a zero sum game.

Israel's sense of being the world's target, reinforced by persistent criticism from outside, had something to do with the onslaught against Gaza. Critics discount the seven years of rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, not dealt with by words from the west or moderate responses from Israel. Criticism of Israel's continued blockade pays too little attention to continued pledges of its destruction by Hamas, the holding of an Israeli prisoner, who may be alive but not visited by any outsider in three years of captivity, and the likelihood that any construction supplies allowed in will be used not so much to rebuild housing as to construct fortifications.

It is not worth pondering what President Obama really meant by his Cairo speech. The text demanded a lot from the Palestinians and other Arabs as well as from the Israelis. It is also not be worth pondering what Prime Minister Netanyahu really meant by his Bar Ilan speech, which was at least partly responsive to Obama's concerns. Subsequent actions will be more useful in gauging their intentions.

Currently both leaders may be paying more attention to the streets of Iran than what either has said about the other. Americans and Israelis both suffer from an arrogant certainty that they are close to the center of world history. Events elsewhere may dwarf the importance of their latest dispute.

Good relations between the governments are important to both sides. Each should be alert to the limitations of its power, and be careful not to excite the others population.

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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:36 PM
June 19, 2009
Note the words, not the tone

They may not be your style, but it is worth considering the words, if not the tone of two items.

One is a video clip being passed around about Jerusalem. It makes the point that worthies of the world did not exercise any of their might, or even much of their voice when Arabs denied access for Jews to the Western Wall, shot at civilians, and desecrated Jewish holy sites in the Old City between 1948 and 1967. Only when Israel governed Jerusalem in a more humane way after 1967 did those same worthies cry foul and demand Israel's withdrawal. The clip is not of high quality technically, and its style is higher on the scale of shrill than might be preferred. Nevertheless, it makes the point of demands that are two headed or even worse. Not only do the world powers insist on change disproportionately for Israel, but whatever violations of decent behavior Israel has committed are substantially less than those committed by the Arabs.

The second item is Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech in response to President Obama. Again, the style is not one that may appeal to all those who think of themselves as supporters of Israel. The tone was confrontational and the demands he associated with a Palestinian state likely to dissuade Arabs from entering negotiations. The response even from Arabs thought to be moderate was rejection, and recitation of postures sure to dissuade Israelis from trying to reach an agreement. Like the video clip, however, the details of Netanyahu's speech make sense. They emphasize the violence Israel has experienced, and concern for what would happen if it agreed to a Palestinian state without severe conditions. Even the Palestinians in nominal control of the West Bank (being propped up by Israel) continue anti-Jewish incitement, while the stronger political force of Hamas remains committed to Israel's destruction.

The response of the Economist to Netanyahu's speech repeats the double standard described in the video clip about Jerusalem. http://www.economist.com/opinion/displayStory.cfm?story_id=13862529&source=hptextfeature

Its article treats the prime minister with scorn.

"Binyamin Netanyahu spat out the required pair of words. They were welcome; but unless he shows a greater readiness to negotiate in good faith, his belated move will turn out to be pointless.

Mr Netanyahu hedged his acceptance of two states with conditions, promises and evasions. He turned a deaf ear to Mr Obama's demand that the building and expansion of Jewish settlements on the land that must become part of that Palestinian state must stop. Despite the fact that Arab citizens of Israel make up a fifth of the population, he demanded, as a new precondition for negotiations, that the Palestinians must acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, which is code for their renouncing in advance the right of any Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. He insisted on a series of curbs and limitations on a putative Palestinian state that would deprive it of sovereignty. He said that Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want to be a shared city and capital of their new state, must stay united under Israeli control. Mr Netanyahu, who opposed the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip four years ago, made no hint that he would hand back any Palestinian territory that might make Israel's border less 'defensible'"
Like President Obama in Cairo, the Economist also noted the need for the Palestinians and other Arabs to carry part of the load toward peace. This is a significant difference from the comparison in the video clip between the world's treatment of Arab behavior before 1967 and Israeli behavior after 1967. The progress is welcome, but Israelis may be forgiven the concern that the pressure on them will be greater than on the Palestinians, despite the persistence of threats and violence from Palestinians more heinous than Israeli efforts at defense.

Hosni Mubarak's has weighed in with editorial in the Wall Street Journal. He praises President Obama for presenting a unique opportunity, and says that he expects flexibility from the Arab side to match that of Israel. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124536741783129309.html

Israelis will be hoping to hear something equivalent in Arabic, directed to those who do not read the Wall Street Journal.

The results of the recent Israeli election will not make it easy for those who are certain that pushing the Israelis to be accommodating will bring the Palestinians along. If Netanyahu's comments about settlements were not clear enough in response to Americans' demands for a total freeze, Foreign Minister Lieberman spoke like the Russian that he is. "We are not prepared to strangle our own people" was his way of responding to Secretary of State Clinton while standing next to her.

Perhaps the American response to all this is what George Mitchell said, i.e., that he wants the "prompt resumption and early conclusion" of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The comment came after his meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, and may be nothing more than verbal fluff meant to mask failure trying to speak with Israelis and Palestinians mutually deaf to American overtures.

Even those who are not comfortable with the prime minister's style must admit that he is speaking for a sizable constituency. A month ago, the tilt of Israeli public opinion was to view Barack Obama as pro-Israel. A poll taken after the speeches of the two leaders finds 6 percent thinking the American administration is pro-Israel, and 50 percent thinking it is pro-Palestinian. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/06/19/poll-israelis-obama-pro-palestinian/

For those hoping that Israel can be pushed without pushing back, it is wise to consider the country's strength, and how the one democracy in the Middle East voted in the recent election.

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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:41 AM
June 16, 2009
Let sleeping dogs sleep

It is best for politicians to let sleeping dogs lie. And when the dogs begin to stir, it is wise to avoid provoking them, even by looking them directly in the eye.

In other words, there are problems likely to be trouble for all who meddle. Some fester without solution, at least while current alignments continue to hold sway.

The Greeks wrote their tragedies about individuals who felt they could rise far above the norm. Sadly for us, there appear to be tragedies waiting in the careers of Barack Obama and Benyamin Netanyahu. Both are affected by greater than normal self confidence, bolstered by recent political success. Both are stirring the sleeping dog of problems that have been insoluble. Adding to the mess that is likely is their roles as adversaries, seemingly destined for collision with one another along with other players who will work to frustrate their efforts.

The field of direct confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu is the elusive process of negotiations between Israel and Palestine. George W. Bush wisely let it fester with a minimum of personal involvement after Bill Clinton's heroic efforts produced intifada al-Aqsa. Now Obama has promised intense personal involvement and led off with a speech detailing his key demands of Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs. He is sure that his list will unlock the tangles that have foiled other peacemakers for more than 60 years. If that is not a sufficient definition of his hubris, he reaches further with aspirations for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

On the Israeli side, Ehud Olmert wisely played the game of negotiating without results . But Netanyahu, like Obama, felt it necessary to strike at the heart of the matter by challenging conventional lip service. He proclaimed what is widely felt but should be kept quiet: that the goal of a Palestinian state is not credible. Moreover, he raised another sleeping dog when he announced that he would not curtail settlements.

Two groups of questions beg answers:

Are there likely to be adverse consequences from letting the sleeping dog lie? Or can Israel prosper without solving the conflict between Israel and Palestine? And is it likely that a frontal assault on the issue will improve the lives of Palestinians?

And why the special concern shown for Israel and Palestine among leaders of the United States and Europe, while other problems seem to be producing even greater misery? Examples abound in the violence and poverty of Africa, and may be found in the less attractive areas of Asia, Latin America, and the United States.

In response to the first group of questions, it appears that Israel has done well in its more than sixty years as a state, despite not being able to define all its borders or not having the formal recognition of its capital or its existence by numerous governments. It is the most successful of the one hundred or so countries born after World War II in its maintenance of democracy, its economic development, and its public services. Its security forces have dealt successfully with challenges no less severe than those of other countries, without damaging freedoms of expression and politics. Palestinians, especially those of Gaza, have not done well. However, their own leadership and that of other Arab countries appear to be largely responsible due to their constant prodding for revenge, and refusing to absorb those who have held on to their refugee status since 1948.

Surely some of the people reading this will accuse me of not taking responsibility for Israel's contribution to Palestinian misery. My response is that Israel has tried to be accommodating, most recently in 2000, and Palestinians have spurned decent offers. More important than trying further to persuade Palestinians to reduce their non-negotiable demands is the priority of defending ourselves against the madness of Palestinian extremists.

The second question, why the special concern, is easier to answer. It reflects the weight of Muslim countries in international politics, and their self-serving ritual of emphasizing Israel's affront in order to excuse their shabby treatment of Palestinians and their own citizens.

I fear that the frontal assault on this issue, both by Barack Obama and Benyamin Netanyahu, will do more harm than good. It is not clear who deserves the greater condemnation: Obama for provoking the dog from its sleep, or Netanyahu for provoking Obama with his unnecessary declarations about settlements and a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has added to the provocation by proclaiming extreme conditions for a Palestinian state. Israeli commentators have compared the state he would accept to Andorra. The chorus of nay saying from Palestinians and Arab rulers was predictable. It was also inevitable that with even a slight bend toward the Americans Netanyahu would provoke the right wing in his own government. Israel's sleeping dogs have started to bark and may bite. Netanyahu's previous term as prime minister ended when his allies abandoned him as not sufficiently kosher.

Hopefully the response of Arab governments to Netanyahu is no more than lip service. Hopefully Obama will recognize it as such, and not respond with increased pressure on Netanyahu.

The peace process involving Israel and Palestine was safely asleep. The damage that came to violent Gazans earlier this year may have deepened the sleep. Past efforts to achieve peace proved the depth of the problem. Obama and Netanyahu will not help themselves by brazen attempts to deal with it, and they may hurt the rest of us in the 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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:19 PM
June 15, 2009
A stiff necked people

Comments by Israelis and overseas Jews about Barack Obama's Cairo speech range to those so extreme as to provoke wonder. The most outlandish begin with the claim that it is possible to read between the lines, or to scratch the surface in order to find sentiments that side with the Arabs and threaten Israel. Reading between the lines and scratching the surface are standard ways of finding what one imagines or fears in what someone else has said or written. The unbounded critics of the president have asked, How dare he speak of Palestinian suffering immediately after the Holocaust? He is reducing the status of the Holocaust below the height of human suffering. How can he speak about a Palestinian state in the Land of Israel, after more than six decades of Arab terror?

Comments are no less jarring after Benyamin Netanyahu's speech in response to Obama's. Right wing Israelis declare him a traitor to his supporters by virtue of supporting the principal of a Palestinian state, despite the severe conditions he would attach to it. How could he declare a freeze on settlement expansion? He is talking about the Land of Israel! Any removal of existing settlements, no matter how small and questionable their creation, is an expulsion of Jews, and a step on the slippery slope to greater horrors.

Such language hurts my tender ears, educated to the political values of moderation and understatement rather than overstatement. As my blood pressure rises, however, I remind myself that I am living in the midst of a Jewish population, the vast majority of which has not had the experience of an Anglo-Saxon education. Many of my neighbors express great sorrow, at least annually, over what the Babylonians did to this city 2,600 years ago.

It is easy to understand Jews who bristle at what they consider improper comments associated with the Holocaust. Most Israelis with European roots have had a Holocaust experience, either directly or via the stories of parents and grandparents. They have shares in Auschwitz. But destruction and exile at the hands of the Babylonians? History is filled with conquests and slaughter no less severe, from the time of the ancient empires to the Balkans and Africa in recent decades.

For Jews who take the faith seriously, the destruction and exile to Babylon are real enough to have occurred within their lifetime. The events are central to Jeremiah and Lamentations, and are prominent in synagogue rituals. In Jewish memory they join the Exodus from Egypt, celebrated as the central theme of Passover; the battle against the Greeks, at the focus of Hanukah, and disastrous rebellions against the Romans of 66 and 132 CE.

The blossoming of Holocaust memorials demonstrate that it is not only ancient history that is important to the Jews. Rabbis have composed prayers in celebration of Israel's Independence and Memorial Day that fit the mold of what Jews have been chanting about other occasions for centuries.

Classic questions affect Jews' reading of history. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis have asked what could have caused God to allow the Holocaust, and have borrowed from Jeremiah the answer that it must be punishment for His people's sins. What sins could justify such punishment? The development of Reform Judaism in Germany.

A key to understanding all of this lies in the concept of God's Chosen People, and the ethnicity that links individual Jews to the community. Conversion is possible, but for the overwhelming majority belief is not as important as birth. Central to Judaism is the celebration of national history. On account of sacred texts, it is easy for Jews to think of their national experience as central to world history. The Torah, as well as Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, the Prophets, Daniel, and Esther tell about Jewish experiences among other nations. Secular Jews and members of Reform and Conservative congregations do not give the emphasis to Choseness that one hears from the Orthodox. However, many of them express pride in Jewish culture, norms, and historical survival, if not all the details of ancient texts.

Jews' pride at being God's Chosen People may have something to do with their being a "stiff necked people." God himself described His people in that fashion (Exodus 32:9). Being Chosen, and at the center of world history, contributes to one's self-confidence and certainty at being right, even if nearby Jews reach contrasting views and are equally confident of being right.

Being Chosen and stiff necked also figure in the stereotypes of anti-Semites.

Even those not infected by hatred of the Jews may admit that it is difficult to deal with them. If Barack Obama has not absorbed that lesson, he may do so in the process of pressuring Israelis to be more accommodating toward the Palestinians. He will have to deal not only with Benyamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman, and their colleagues further to the right in the Israeli government, but with American Jews who will say that they did not vote and contribute in order that he press so hard against the Jewish state.

All will depend on how Barack Obama presses the Palestinians and other Muslims to do what he demanded of them with respect to Israel, and how he will press the Israelis to do what he demanded of them. Sooner or later, he is likely to hear about Babylon, as well as the Greeks and Romans, along with the Egyptians and Germans.

Palestinians and other Arabs will help the Jews, with their own insistence on demands that are extreme and non-negotiable. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, widely viewed as moderate and beholden to the West, has responded to Netanyahu's speech by saying that no Palestinian or Arab government can except Israel's denying the right of return to Palestinian refugees. With that demand still on the table, all those hopeful of pushing Israelis and Palestinians to an agreement should spend their time on something else.

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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:07 PM
June 14, 2009
Netanyahu's speech

Benyamin Netanyahu sought to make his speech like Barack Obama's. He announced it a week in advance, and billed it as a major statement of policy. He spent the week consulting with members of his own party, leaders of the opposition, President Shimon Peres, and David Grossman. Grossman is one of Israel's most prominent literary figures who supports greater accommodation with Israel's Arabs and its Palestinian neighbors.

Like Obama's speech, Netanyahu's would be at a university. It was meant to deal with two disputes between Netanyahu and Obama: the role of a Palestinian state in ongoing negotiations, and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Like Obama's speech, Netanyahu's was preceded by several days of media speculation about what it would include, and the implications of the contents being predicted.

Obama's principal audience was the leaders of Muslim countries. Netanyahu's was the American president. The prime minister had to extract himself from a trap of his own making. He earlier made a point of continuing the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state. Obama identified those points as crucial for any chance of success in Israel's negotiation with the Palestinians. The Americans also saw them as essential for their own reception among Muslims, problems in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The comments that trapped Netanyahu were unnecessary. Two years of negotiation between the Palestinians and Ehud Olmert included several offers from Olmert expansive enough to cause him trouble with his colleagues. They produced rebuff and even ridicule from the Palestinians. Chronic Palestinian rejection of everything but their own demands, and Hamas control of Gaza made the prospect of a Palestinian state light years away until Netanyahu pushed the verbiage to a public confrontation with the United States.

The topic of settlements might have come up in any case. Previous administrations had complained about Israel's reluctance to honor commitments to halt their expansion, or to remove those that individuals had created without authorization. Netanyahu's comments in favor of continued settlement added to the pressure on the Americans to make an issue of them.

Both Netanyahu and Obama are great talkers, with a capacity to excite expectations among those attuned to their messages. Both have at least a touch of the demagogue. Applicable to both is the likelihood that a politician who rises by hyperbole will fall by hyperbole. Neither will achieve all that he promises. Obama will not accomplish proclaimed goals in reforming the American economy, health care, environment, and energy dependence, along with peace in the Middle East or solutions for Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo. Netanyahu has a reputation for promising more than he delivers, claiming to have delivered just what he said that he would, and taking credit for accomplishments like economic growth that result in large measure from ongoing national and international events.

The president spoke in a grand hall, with an audience of 3,000 dressed for the occasion, before drapery whose cost would have fed a Cairo neighborhood. Netanyahu spoke in the auditorium of Bar Ilan University's Brain Science Center that was one tenth the size of the Cairo venue. There was no plush decoration. The audience was largely religious men, reflecting the character of the university, dressed as might be expected of Israelis in suits or sport jackets with or without ties, or open necked shirts without jackets.

One can interpret the content of Netanyahu's speech as designed to settle at least part of the disputes about a Palestinian state, or carving out a position that will postpone indefinitely the prospect of an accord.

The prime minister indicated his willingness to pursue the goal of a Palestinian state, but wrapped it in conditions that Palestinians are unlikely to accept. Palestinians would have to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Their state may have a police force but not an army, without control over its airspace, and without the authority to make military alliances with other states. Palestinian refugees will not return to Israel. Jerusalem will remain united under Israel's control. Hamas must not control Gaza or the West Bank.

Netanyahu rejected the view, expressed in the Obama speech, that Israel owed its existence to the persecution of the Jews that culminated in the Holocaust. He stressed the 3,500 year experience of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, where they created the Bible. While this bit of history may seem trivial to a neutral outsider, it is one of the sticking points with the Palestinian narrative. According to their view, the land was always Arab, and the Jews had, if anything, a minor role in the distant past.

Netanyahu indicated that he would not expand existing settlements or take any further Palestinian land for settlements. He said that he would not interfere in the ongoing lives of the settlers. Thus he rejected, at least by implication, the demand of the United States to halt construction within existing settlements. What really happens will depend on approvals given to building applications, the flow of money for construction, and how Israel defines the borders of each settlement. Israel's extensive definition of settlement boundaries has clashed with those of the Israeli left, as well as with officials of the United States and other governments.

The prime minister devoted considerable time at the beginning of his speech to the point that settlements are not central to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He described its root cause as Palestinian rejection of Israel's existence. He cited violence against Jews prior to the development of settlements after 1967, and the rocket attacks which came after the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza in 2005.

Like Obama's speech in Cairo, Netanyahu's will engender praise and condemnation. Within five minutes of its conclusion an Israeli journalist quoted a Palestinian who said that it was a barrier to accommodation. A right wing Israeli parliamentarian said that Netanyahu went too far. A settler called Netanyahu a traitor to his supporters. A left-wing member of the Knesset said that the speech was "too little, too late."

An important response came from the White House. It endorsed Netanyahu's acceptance of a Palestinian state as the end point of negotiations. It praised the speech as a good beginning, which could put negotiations back on their proper course.

Perhaps the most important response came from ranking Palestinians. They called Netanyahu a swindler and liar, and described the speech as so far from what was necessary that Israel will wait a thousand years for a Palestinian partner.

The prime minister did what was necessary. He kept his policy within the minimums demanded by the important international patron. At least for the time being, things are back where they were before his earlier comments against a Palestinian state and in support of expanding settlements.

Where things go from here will depend on how Netanyahu comments in public on his own speech, how others respond to its content and his actions, plus other events not yet apparent. We are not yet at the end of days.

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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:22 PM
June 09, 2009
Obama and Israel

In the context of rising tensions between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government about Jewish settlements in the West Bank, it is appropriate to look at some details. They may not convince Obama enthusiasts to question whether the president is on the right track. They will not overturn the view held by many that the settlements represent all that is short-sighted and wrong-headed about the Israeli regime. Facts are only one of the things considered by partisans. Nonetheless, they are worth something.

They indicate that Israel has been more successful than the United States in dealing with its security, at less cost to the people who consider themselves enemies of Israel.

One estimate of civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since American and coalition operations began after 9-11-2001 is above 700,000. http://www.unknownnews.net/casualties.html. An estimate admittedly low and partial counts more than 44,000 civilians killed in Iraq alone, only since 2006. http://icasualties.org/Iraq/index.aspx

About 4,600 Palestinians defined as "civilians" have been killed since the onset of the most recent intifada in September, 2000. The same source counts 731 Israeli civilians killed.

That makes the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli civilians killed at 6 to 1. The ratio of Iraqi and Afghans civilians killed to the Americans killed on 9-11 is in the range of 233 to 1, or 17 to 1, depending on whether high or low estimates are employed.

Israel is a long way from declaring victory in its war against Arab terror, but the picture is one of relative quiet since the IDF entered and left Lebanon in 2006, entered and left Gaza earlier this year.

The record shows nine Israeli civilians killed in the most recent 12 months. http://www.jr.co.il/terror/israel/index2.htm Twenty-four Israeli civilians died by terror in 2008. http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Terrorism-+Obstacle+to+Peace/Palestinian+terror+since+2000/Victims+of+Palestinian+Violence+and+Terrorism+sinc.htm
This compares with an annual average of almost 300 Israeli deaths from terror during the peak intifada years of 2001-03.

The United States is further from accomplishing its aims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Casualties have dropped in Iraq over the last 12 months, but still accounted for about 200 US military deaths and (from the more conservative source) almost Iraqi 3,300 civilian deaths. In the same time frame there have been 316 US military deaths in Afghanistan.

Recent items in the New York Times suggest dismal failure in Afghanistan.

"It isn't just Taliban violence that Afghans need shielding from. Errant American fire has taken an unacceptably high toll, especially from the airstrikes that American commanders came to rely on . . . One particularly deadly episode last month killed dozens of civilians (the Pentagon says 20 to 30; the Afghan government says 140)." http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/08/opinion/08mon1.html?hpw

With respect to American efforts to improve Afghan security forces:
"Among the Afghans, mass illiteracy, equipment loss, crime and corruption . . . have blunted readiness. Immaturity and ill discipline bedevil many units. Illicit drug use persists, and some American officers worry about loyalty and intelligence leaks." http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/08/world/asia/08afghan.html?hp

Against this record of greater Israeli than American success, we should ask why the Obama administration is pressing Israel to change course in relation to its dealings with the Palestinians. Charles Krauthammer finds it especially disturbing that the administration is making a point of engaging several prominent antagonists in dialogue, but that it is dictating to Israel.

"America will henceforth 'start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating.' An admirable sentiment. It applies to everyone -- Iran, Russia, Cuba, Syria, even Venezuela. Except Israel. Israel is ordered to freeze all settlement activity. As Secretary of State Clinton imperiously explained the diktat: 'a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions.' " http://townhall.com/columnists/CharlesKrauthammer/2009/06/05/the_settlements_canard

Over the years, Israel has also provided a better life for the minority within its borders than has the United States. The Obama family and other minorities who have moved into the economic, social, and political elites during the most recent 40 years should make Americans proud. However, the incidence of American minorities in poverty, incarcerated, with poorer than average health and shorter than average life spans makes the United States an outlier among western democracies, and less admirable than comparable statistics from Israel.

A useful summary measure is life expectancy. Israeli statistics show that it is 79.5 years for Jewish males and 75.3 for Arab males. Comparable American figures show it to be 73.6 years for white males (less than for Israeli Arab males), and 68.9 years for minority males. For Palestinians in the West Bank the life expectancy of males is 71.7 years, and in Gaza 70.7 years. Figures for all races and both sexes in Egypt are 63.3 years and in Syria 68.5 years.

All this helps to explain the responses to a popular internet poll that asked for Israeli responses to the President's Cairo speech. Of the more than 46,000 answers, 7 percent thought the speech inspiring and 11 percent said that only Obama would bring peace. However, 14 percent judged the speech was more favorable to Arabs than to Israel, and 58 percent responded that Israel must look after itself because it could not rely on the United States. (www.walla.co.il, June 8, 2009)

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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:57 AM
June 07, 2009
More questions than answers

This is one of those notes more concerned with unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable questions than with clear description or prescription.

Why the effort?

That question does have an answer.

If the questions are well defined, they should guide our thoughts in processing ongoing events.

Let me begin with the suggestion that Barack Obama is a mirror image of George W. Bush. It may be early to say that conclusively, but it is not too early to raise the possibility.

What gives rise to this is a brewing storm over the question of Jewish settlements.

Israeli officials claim that the Bush administration accepted limited construction in or near existing settlements. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says no.

The details are complex and murky. Did Israeli and American officials only discuss Israel's policy of continued building? Was there an American "wink and nod" that Israelis interpreted as an acceptance of their policy? If winks and nods are not formally recorded, have they no standing in relations between national governments?

There may be no conclusive answers to those questions.

My comparison of Obama and Bush derives from what seems to be Obama's obsession with the idea of the settlements as a key to peace in the Middle East and other problems of the United States.

It sounds to me like George W. Bush's obsession with not only punishing al Quaida and its allies for 9-11, but seeing military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan as a way of remaking them into something like western, democratic countries.

The resemblance between Bush and Obama overrides differences in personal style and location on the political spectrum.

They grasped on to learned theories, despite slim chances that they will work. They remind me of students at quality universities with great resources, who read all their assignments but do not look out the library window at what is happening, in order to examine whether the reading is relevant.

The term "sophomoric" means students (i.e., sophomores) at the stage where they have learned something, but not enough to realize the limitations of what they are spouting.

Barack Obama is not alone, and certainly is not the first who perceives that the settlements are a key to the future of the Middle East. It is conventional to portray them as a land grab, and part of an occupation that imposes severe limits the opportunities of Palestinians. Settlers who justify themselves by shouting selective passages of the Bible do not add to their appeal among well educated politicians, technocrats, or intellectuals who are not inclined to begin their thinking with religious doctrine. Alas, those are the kinds of people often in positions of influence.

Obama is more nuanced than George W. Bush. He has said that Palestinians and other Arabs must do their share in the peace process. He recognizes the problems of extremism, and links it to Hamas. He has said that incitement of hatred is endemic to Palestinian education, media, and politics. He notes that Palestinian faults in governance are not entirely the result of Israeli occupation. He is on record as opposing Palestinian claims about refugees' right of return.

Among the unanswered questions is, How weighty in Obama's strategic planning is his insistence on a halt of all settlement activity in comparison to the weight of his demands on the Palestinians?

We should also ask a question about the posturing we have seen from Israelis. Is it necessary to risk a frontal conflict by emphasizing a quarrel with the American president? Wouldn't it be wiser to say Israel is considering an appropriate response to the president's program, and that it will come in the context of continuing conversations with Americans and Palestinians? That would mean that Israel could think of bending some of its preferences along with the Palestinians bending some of theirs.

Bibi's sophomoric syndrome is no less severe than Barack's. Moreover, Bibi's is aggravated by a lack of verbal control and poor body language.

Americans and others will not attain even a small amount of the domestic and international aspirations that Obama's rhetoric stimulates.

Bibi will not overcome the much greater power of the American president. His best hope is that the Palestinians will do something even less appropriate than what he is doing.

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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:05 AM
June 05, 2009
What's next?

Barack Obama's Cairo speech touched so many buttons that the breadth of responses should be no surprise.

The next day's Ha'aretz devoted nine of twenty-six pages in its main section to commentaries about the speech. Israelis and overseas Jews welcomed the comments about the Holocaust, but some criticized what they perceived as its equivalence to Palestinian suffering. While appreciating his comments about the Holocaust at Buchenwald, some are bothered by his endorsement of German commemoration of the Holocaust. In this view, nothing the Germans do will make up for the murders of six million. One Jewish writer challenged what he saw as Obama's justification of Israel's existence by the suffering of Jews and not by the Almighty's grant of the Land to the Jews. Some Jews applaud Obama's linkage of progress to a halt of settlement activity, and hope the Israeli government will give peace a chance. Yet others, centrists as well as rightists in Israel, see little hope in shrill American demands for a total freeze of settlement activity in the context of the right wing Israeli government, widespread distrust of Palestinians among Israelis and of Israelis among Palestinians.

A survey of responses to the speech in Arab media also finds divergent and contrasting comments: it was too pro-Israeli; it represented a promising new departure; its success will depend on strong follow up by the American administration as well as the support of Israeli and Arab governments. (www.memri.org Special Dispatch #2384, June 5, 2009)

Israel is a democracy, and the population is divided on Obama's issues. Polls show support, but not overwhelming, for a "freeze" on settlements if by that is meant no expansion of existing communities. There is opposition to freezing construction within existing settlements.

It is a political platitude that the only poll which counts is that at the ballot box. The most recent election returned a right wing government, whose Knesset majority is dead set against freezing construction within settlements, and may oppose freezing the expansion of settlements.

None of the Arab countries are democracies, but none can ignore the passions of their populations that reflect more than 60 years of anti-Israel rhetoric, reinforced by religious sentiments of much longer standing.

Numerous commentators see the Obama strategy as one that views a freezing of settlements as the best way, and perhaps the only way, to unfreeze the Israel/Palestinian peace process and provide what the United States needs to deal with Iraq and Iran. On this point, one journalist writes that the "president sees himself in an almost messianic role." http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/06/world/middleeast/06mideast.html?hp

Reference to a messiah will not help the president in Jerusalem.

The operative questions are, How hard can Obama press the Israeli government? and What will the Israeli government do in order to protect what it views as its vital interests?

One should not assume that Obama has a blank check, either from himself or from Congress and others in the United States who provide him with essential support. His comments in Cairo and Buchenwald reveal an empathy toward the Jewish narrative. Numerous members of Congress and other Americans (Jews as well as Gentiles) support the beginning of work on the Middle East via Israeli settlements. What is not clear is how sure is the President himself, and others, that pressing hard against the Israelis will get what is necessary from Palestinians, other Arabs, and Iran. If the president has a streak of messianicism, he also has one of pragmatism.

Likewise, it is not clear how far Israelis in power will go to accommodate the president, against their views that the settlements are less important than Arab enmity, the fanaticism of Iran and its nuclear program.

Prominent in the uncertainty is a comment in Russia by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that Israel will not attack Iran. Was he departing from his view that Iran's nuclear program is an intolerable threat against Israel? At about the same time, Defense Minister Ehud Barack was reiterating a conventional message that Israel was not taking any options off the table.

One view of those comments is that the Israeli government is divided, and will continue to debate its options about Iran. One should also expect debates about settlements. Involved in those debates will be the support or hostility expected from the Obama administration, and the prospects of Arab and Iranian compliance with those portions of the Obama program meant for them.

It is also possible that Lieberman was doing his part to disseminate disinformation. If preparations for an attack are going forward, it is too early to know.

For those who cannot tolerate uncertainty, there may be options in Norway, New Zealand, and other distant places.

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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:59 PM
June 04, 2009
Obama's Cairo speech

President Barack Obama began his speech by noting that too much was expected from it.

He spoke for close to an hour. He devoted about seven minutes to Israel and Palestine. Most of that portion attacked those who denied the Holocaust and Israel's legitimacy, criticized Palestinian violence, and said that Palestinians must learn to govern themselves in a way to serve their people rather than raise false promises. He said that Israel must be more forthcoming with respect to the opportunities provided to the people of Gaza and the West Bank, and must stop settling. He did not talk about withdrawing settlements.

The president praised the humanitarian doctrines of Islam, but the great bulk of the speech was devoted to telling his audience in Cairo about the faults of Muslim countries. He emphasized the benefits of democracy and religious tolerance, and cited the plight of the Copts in Egypt. He criticized Muslim governments for fanning the hatred of Israel as distractions from not attending to problems at home. He condemned Iran's efforts to create nuclear weapons. He cited the problems of women as one of the barriers to justice and economic development.

The Jerusalem Post headlined the speech as an "unclenched fist to Muslims." It emphasized the better side of Islam, but asserted that America would continue to battle hateful and aggressive Muslims.

Except for a few sentences, it was a speech that Bibi Netanyahu or Avigdor Lieberman could have written and delivered. If they gave a speech like that, however, they would be accused of arrogant imbalance, and insulting the audience in an Arab university.

Immediate Israeli reactions differed, as expected, according to political affiliation. One right wing MK emphasized Obama's middle name (Hussein), and said that he crossed a red line by departing from America's traditional commitment to Israel. Another said, "The government of Israel is not America's lackey. The relations with the Americans are based on friendship and not submission." A left wing Jewish MK called on Netanyahu to change course, take advantage of the Obama opening, and negotiate seriously with the Palestinians. An Arab MK said it was a good speech, but that there was no Israeli partner to implement it.

The idea of the speech, rather than its content, provoked these comments. Those quoted soon after its delivery did not cite items to praise or criticize, but emphasized what they perceived or expected.

Osama bin Laden expressed his criticism a day before Obama reached Cairo. Bin Laden condemned the president's travel to the Arab region, and said that it was a continuation of military intervention. He would continue to fight against western evils.

So far the wisest comment about the speech was the president's own. By itself it will not change things. He focused on seven topics, one of which concerned Israel and Palestine. Others were his condemnation of violent extremism and Iran's nuclear aspirations, the benefits of democracy, religious freedom, women's rights, economic development and opportunity.

If Obama can help to produce significant progress on any one these points, his presidency will be a success.

No one can fairly claim that the speech focused on Israel and Palestine, or any one of its other topics. The strength of the speech lies in its breadth and ideals. It is a piece with the president's personal story, and his political career. Promise was the secret of his presidential campaign, and what he offered to the Middle East in this speech.

The breadth of the president's aspirations also represent his vulnerability. So far his presidency has combined promise and pragmatism. Balance between the two can make him great. The downside is that many who hear promises in his words will be disappointed.

This speech was fair and sensitive. No one should risk a prediction of what, if anything, will come of it.

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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:50 AM
June 02, 2009

In the tension building between the Obama administration and Israel on the subject of settlements, it is appropriate to step back and assess their importance in the larger issues of Israel and Palestine, regional and world peace.

If the settlements are among the stumbling blocks to an accord between Israel and its neighbors, and what that may mean for wider aspirations, they are in the shadow of Hamas and other nay sayers to the idea of Israel.

It's radical Islam, stupid!

It is not only radical Islam, but that is the hardest nut in the context of its ascendance in Palestine and elsewhere. Hamas is firmly in control of Gaza, and would take over the West Bank in short order if it was not for protection given to the Abbas government by Israeli security forces.

Freshly trained and equipped Palestinian security forces bloodied a cluster of Hamas operatives a few days ago, but it is too early to conclude that the Abbas government is willing or able to make a prolonged defense against those who carry the flag of Islam. The recent operation looks like a demonstration for the sake of the Obama administration. Remember when Fatah was still in control of Gaza and it wanted to make a show of dealing with the tunnels used for smuggling weapons from the Sinai. Its police invited the cameras to photograph them shoveling a bit of sand into one of the tunnel entrances. It would have been more persuasive if they had destroyed the tunnel with explosives.

The problem is not only intense Muslims. Christian Arabs never have been enthusiastic about Israel's existence. Intellectuals in the non-religious universities of Egypt and Jordan are noted for their strident opposition to normalizing relations. They are role models for colleagues in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere who think that a boycott of Israel would turn the Middle East into a decent place.

The settlements took root 40 years ago in the context of Arab rejection of Israel. They have grown as efforts at reaching an accord have failed, most notably the Oslo process of 1993 and the Barak-Arafat-Clinton efforts of 2000. An article in the New York Times estimates that there are 300,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, except for East Jerusalem.

Most of them are in sizable communities like Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion, Efrat, Beitar Ilite, Modiin Ilite, and Ariel. Presumably it was these areas, as well as Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem (another 180,000) that the Bush administration had in mind when it said that any agreement would take account of demographic changes since 1967.

No one should expect to move half a million Israelis.

It has been common for Arabs and their friends to pressure Israelis by saying that if they do not take advantage of a window of opportunity, Arab violence will return in force. The mirror of that is that settlements have continued to grow when Arabs have not taken advantage of a window of opportunity.

Most settlers are middle class, secular Israelis interested in roomy apartments within commuting distance of the cities. Intense ideologues are well placed among the elected officials of West Bank localities and regional councils. They have the support of Israelis who vote for political parties that identify themselves with Religious Zionism or secular nationalism. Ultra-Orthodox Jews were less inclined to territorial issues, but that has changed as with the development of Beitar Ilit and Modi'in Ilit as ultra-Orthodox communities.

The political parties likely to support settlers currently have 64 members in the 120 member Knesset, and form the hard core of the Netanyahu government.

You want democracy in the Middle East? Israel is the only country that is credibly democratic, and that is what its most recent election produced.

Overseas Jews, especially the Orthodox, are prominent in supplying settlements with new immigrants and financial support. Purchases of buildings in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem rely on the money of overseas Orthodox millionaires.

The most important recent event in the history of settlement was the removal of some 6,700 individuals from Gaza in 2005. The Arab response of continued rocket fire culminating in Israel's military operation of January, 2009, is prominent in the narrative against removals from the West Bank.

Boys and girls, young men and women, who have grown up in the settlements and studied in the academies of nationalist rabbis scuffle with police and soldiers sent to remove illegal settlements, and lay down at key intersections in Israeli cities when the leadership calls for a demonstration. The most extreme attack Arabs and uproot Arab crops, sometimes in immediate retaliation against Arab attacks on Jews.

However I think about the provocations of Jewish extremists, they are minor in comparison to what the world is suffering from Muslim extremists.

Young men who identify themselves as Religious Zionists provide a disproportionate component of elite IDF units and young officers. They also give pause to senior officers charged with planning any action against the settlers.

In short, more than 40 years since the 1967 war have produced intense activists, backed by a sizable group of sympathizers who mobilize in response to Arab violence or a proposal to remove settlements. They have shown themselves able to resist centrist governments, most recently that of Ehud Olmert, and currently find themselves with a friendly government.

The Netanyahu government may reach an accommodation with the American administration. Israelis hope that statements about no building in the West Bank are opening gambits, that may be replaced by an agreement, perhaps implicit, that accepts limited growth of existing communities.

Several flash points on the horizon may upset any optimistic projection. Previous governments developed a plan to link Maale Adumim with Jerusalem. Arabs say this will end any possibility of a continuous Arab state from the north to the south of the West Bank. Also problematic are Jewish purchases of land and buildings in Arab areas of East Jerusalem, perceived as more harmful than Arab purchases in Jewish areas of Jerusalem.

Stopping the growth of settlements, and removing some of them, may produce a moment of good of good feeling among those who think of themselves as fair minded and wise in Washington and elsewhere. It will not quiet Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or stop Iran's nuclear program.

If history is any guide, the most likely problem for Obama will be the Palestinians. Nothing on offer may satisfy those said to be moderates currently being propped up in the West Bank. They are still talking about the rights of refugees to return home. Hamas may win the election promoted by American enthusiasts of democracy. A spectacular act of violence may come from Palestinians or Hizbollah, and provoke an Israeli response that further postpones any chance of an accord.

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
email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:00 PM