August 30, 2009
Oy gevalt

Good signs or bad signs for the quality of Israeli democracy and justice?

1. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been indicted for what has been described as serial theft extending over several years while he served as Jerusalem Mayor and minister in the national government. The charges are fraud, breach of trust, falsifying corporate records, and failing to report income. The indictment covers more than 60 pages, and describes multiple billing for overseas travel, envelopes filled with cash, a collection of expensive fountain pens received as gifts, and intervention in government contracts for the benefit of friends and business associates. Not included in the indictment, but part of the Olmert saga, are personal residents purchased for less than the market value, and sold for more than the market value, perhaps disguised gifts or favors. The Attorney General considered including bribery as part of the indictment, but did not find sufficient evidence to justify the charge.

2. Tomorrow begins the trial of former President Moshe Katsav on charges of rape and sexual harassment.

3. The Ministry of Education announced that it has failed in efforts to reach an agreement with religious primary schools in Petah Tikva to accept Ethiopian students. The principal of one of the schools says that no one will dictate that he must accept students who do not meet his standards. The Ministry says that it will cut off funding that provides 60 to 75 percent of the schools' income, and is considering canceling their authority to operate.

4. Ultra-Orthodox protests are escalating in Jerusalem, with mass demonstrations, efforts to block streets, throwing of stones and garbage, and tussles with police. Some are protesting the opening of a parking garage on the Sabbath, some the charges against an ultra-Orthodox woman for abusing her children, and some the prospect of a post-mortem examination of a murder victim. Some are protesting all the issues, although there are ultra-Orthodox activists who are staying out of the protest about the charge of child abuse.

Israeli justice works deliberately. Other cases against senior officials have dragged on for almost a decade. Ultimately it does get to the highest officials. It has sent government ministers to jail. A former minister of finance and a former minister of health, labor and social welfare enter jail tomorrow, each for terms of several years. Now we will see if the same punishment will be imposed on individuals who held the highest and most prestigious offices of prime minister and president.

It will take years before the case against Olmert reaches its conclusion. The investigation of Katsav began in July 2006. A year or more from now we may still be speculating about a final verdict.

Should we be disturbed, pleased, or even proud that the prime minister remained in office and managed two important military campaigns while under investigation for serious crimes? Until there was enough evidence to indict, he had the rights of a free citizen. But to govern the country? Should an already overloaded country allocate even more resources to its police and attorney general so they can decide with greater dispatch?

Commentators are calling the confrontation in Petah Tikva Israel's Brown vs. Board of Education. The principal's claim that the students cannot function in his school is not credible in the face of his rejection of all Ethiopian students, and the well established Israeli practice of allocating extra resources and tutors for immigrant children and those from disadvantaged families.

The ultra-Orthodox protests are only the latest example of communities on the fringes of society, insistent on their righteousness and apartness, while demanding substantial public resources. Their population growth and continued absence from the labor force and the military add to the concern about current and future costs.

One can look back and forth in the Israeli media without finding anything about settlements, or the aspirations of Barack Obama for the Middle East. We have enough to worry about without him.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:01 PM
August 29, 2009
America and Israel

When I was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during 1968-75, I occasionally spoke out against anti-war students and faculty colleagues. I also learned the smell of tear gas, as it was impossible to avoid the mass demonstrations and the responses of police and National Guard. At the same time, I was lecturing several times a year to junior officers at military bases in the United States and overseas. Numerous students came to class while on leave from Vietnam. One of them had earned a Congressional Medal of Honor. My topic was domestic policymaking, in the framework of an MA program in public administration, but there were conversations about other things.

I do not recall just when I turned against Vietnam. I still think there was justification, in the context of the time, in making a forceful statement against expanding Communism. I knew it was a confused situation, with corruption in the South and perhaps as much national liberation as Communism per se in the Vietcong and those who supported them. The results were not worth 58,000 American deaths and many more broken lives.

In Vietnam, more than Korea, we saw a dynamic of war and politics that kept the thing going far beyond the point of utility. I fear the same for Afghanistan. I have no doubt that 9-11 justified a hard blow against the Taliban. But controlling Afghanistan and seeking to reform that country? It is one of the least governable places on earth.

What the United States has lacked is another Dwight Eisenhower, who knew the costs and limitations of combat, got out of Korea, and stayed out of Vietnam and most other places. Colin Powell expressed something similar: do not enter a conflict except with the intention of using the force necessary to succeed, define goals clearly, and do not stay longer than necessary. His advice prevailed more in Iraq I than Iraq II, and not in Afghanistan.

Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama are anything close to Eisenhower or Powell.

I have been in Israel since 1975. I was drafted at the age of 42 and spent 10 years as a reservist in the lecture corps., talking about public policy to support personnel and fighters throughout Israel, in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. Here I have sharpened my perception of the United States as an arrogant and naive meddler in areas that its leadership and military do not understand.

Israel has been led by individuals who have shown something of what motivated Eisenhower and Powell. It has also learned from its own mistakes. Unlike Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, and earlier Israeli efforts in Lebanon, current thinking among the Israeli leadership is to strike hard in response to aggression, and not to remain as an occupying force. Lebanon II was more successful than Lebanon I, and even more successful was the recent conflict in Gaza. Neither played well on international television, but both were less costly for all sides than either Iraq or Afghanistan. And despite the heroic claims of victory by Hizbollah and Hamas, Israel's border areas have been quiet since those operations.

Shimon Peres was not a military person, but heavily involved in the development of Israel's nuclear option. Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon were military professionals who became successful politicians. Each has a well documented record of success on the battlefield, and--along with Shimon Peres--later achievements in withdrawing from conflict. Peres and Rabin tried peace with the Oslo Accords of 1993. Barak made the controversial decision to withdraw unilaterally from a "security zone" in southern Lebanon, and Sharon tried to break a stalemate by withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza. Former head of the general staff Amnon Lipton-Shahak is another military figure who entered politics on the left, and became one of the leaders of the Geneva Initiative. This has not gone far, but was meant to join non-governmental Israelis and Palestinians in a draft that might provide the basis of a peace agreement.

Eisenhower could stop the fighting a half world away from his White House, and work to avoid conflicts in other distant places. Israelis who might be compared to him have a more difficult task. Palestine is across the street. Israeli citizens who identify as Palestinians comprise 20 percent of the population. Other Palestinians demand a right of return, and individuals who claim leadership of Palestine claim part or all of what Israelis call their country.

Neither Eisenhower nor Powell would be useful here. Israelis are learning by themselves how to deal with their problem. No doubt Jimmy Carter helped at Camp David, but lately has been more of a nuisance than facilitator. The engager Barack Obama may have good intentions, but only 4 percent of Israeli Jews view him as supportive. An earlier poll showed that 6 percent of Israeli Jews viewed Obama as supportive. The drop of two percent follows what Americans say have been efforts to improve their relations with Israel.

The American president should attend to Washington, do something better in Iraq and Afghanistan, show whatever mettle he has in Iran, and leave us alone.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:56 AM
August 27, 2009
Flat world

I have opposed those claiming that Barack Obama is a Muslim, anti-Semite, and not a "natural born citizen" qualified to be president. I have been impressed with a decent effort he has made--along with George W. Bush--to deal with an economic melt-down, and have applauded his concern to improve the western world's least caring ways of providing the benefits of medicine.

However, I do wonder if he is among those still believing that the world is flat.

My greatest concern for his wisdom comes from Afghanistan. Not only is he sticking with his predecessor's mad efforts to remake that pathetic place, but he is sending even more troops to what seems destined to be their personal misery and his own embarrassment.

My memories of Afghanistan are dated, but gain reinforcement from what I read. I remain impressed with the young man who wanted to ride a bus to America. The carts pulled by animals in nearby Uzbekistan were, in Afghanistan, pulled by men.

Current media reports are of senior American officials troubled by vote stealing in the recent election,
and by key members of the Afghan government deeply involved in the opium economy .

Israelis use the expression "Discovering America" for someone who expresses something that everyone should know.

Americans are discovering America in Afghanistan.

Soldiers and junior officers struggle in small units. Villagers they are supposed to be helping look upon them with suspicion. Regional authorities either have no resources to do their part of programs meant to be cooperative, or do not care to help the Americans.

A new battlefield manual wrestles with the problems of soldiers unable to know if the people they are working with are friends or enemies.

It is tempting to compare Afghanistan with Vietnam. The Communism of the Vietcong was not the Islam of Taliban. Afghanistan's battles are in desert and mountains rather than jungle. Afghanistan is more diverse ethnically and even less united politically than South Vietnam.

The South Vietnam regime may have had greater control over its territory and a more effective army. Ultimately, however, it collapsed from within despite more than a decade of American efforts to prop it up politically, reject and select political leaders who seemed most competent and least corrupt, train its officials and its military. The American investment in Afghanistan is a long way from the half a million troops who operated at the peak in Vietnam, and the cost so far only a fraction of the 55,000 Americans killed.

What is similar is a protracted war in a place poorly understood by the American administration. Both South Vietnam and Afghanistan were/are marked by corruption throughout their politics and administration, and populations apathetic or opposed to what the Americans were/are offering.

The corruption and apathy made South Vietnam a passive recipient of American involvement. It was the place where the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations battled the expansion of Communism, and cared only secondarily for the Vietnamese. Americans may be no more concerned about the welfare of the Afghans. That country is the place where the United States is fighting radical Islam. 9-11 came from Afghanistan, and is the reason for Americans' activity.

There are implications in all of this for Israel.

Israel is not Afghanistan or South Vietnam. It is a orderly, reasonably united and disciplined society, with a democratic regime, decent administration and independent judiciary, a competent military, and corruption no worse than in other western societies.

It is also on the agenda of the American administration, more so than in recent years.

From here, the American administration appears to be arrogant and naive in its commitment to a process for Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East. American efforts have credibility only in left of center circles whose marginality has been demonstrated in the most recent three national elections.

Just last evening the news featured a moderate and respected member of the current government who expressed his support for a two-state solution, but his doubts that it would be possible. His analysis is widely shared. Neither the Palestinians nor their Arab allies are ready to accept Israel as a permanent fixture in the Middle East. That appears in the Palestinians' insistence on the deal breaking return of refugees and their families to Israel, and the refusal of Mahmoud Abbas to view as credible the far reaching suggestions made by Ehud Olmert. The present government is unlikely to repeat Olmert's offer.

What unites Obama's view of Afghanistan and the Middle East is a major disconnect from reality. The world may look flat from Washington, with deal making for America also useful elsewhere.

Israel's government cannot say a simple "No" to the United States, or to its chorus of supporters among Western European governments. It can say "Not yet," or "Not exactly as you demand." Israel's administration operates according to law and hierarchy, but not completely. No matter what the center decides, there will not be uniform compliance down below. Here and there will be new settlement construction, and illegal clusters of trailers put on hilltops. Adversaries may say this is Jewish duplicity. Just as likely it will be a lack of administrative unity. Israel is no more a model of Prussian discipline than the United States.

Even Washington is more complex than the president would like. His concern for health care may be admirable, but is not a done deal. What emerges from Congress will not be what he proposed.

Can anyone hope for greater achievements in Afghanistan or Israel/Palestine than the president will get from Congress?

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:08 PM
August 26, 2009

"Festival of negotiation" is one comments heard recently in this neighborhood.

It came from a ranking Jordanian official, criticizing Egypt for hosting protracted and unproductive negotiations about the freeing of Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinians held by Israel. His point was negotiations for the sake of negotiations, for publicity to bolster the prestige of Egypt rather than for achieving the ostensible purpose of freeing prisoners.

Currently there is a festival of news about the negotiations. A German diplomat has taken central stage from the Egyptians. Some commentators are seeing progress. Others say the progress is incremental in the extreme, and there remain significant gaps between what the Gazans are demanding, and the prisoners that Israel is willing to release. Especially problematic are individuals sentenced to multiple life sentences (in one case 60) for involvement in killing numerous civilians.

There is nothing new in the criticism of one Arab regime by another. The substance of the criticism is worth noting, especially in the context of American enthusiasm for "engagement."

The Obama administration does not seem in need of bolstering like the Mubarak administration. One is creaking from age and facing considerable trouble at home. The other is less than a year away from an impressive election victory and working hard at domestic problems. But like Mubarak and other Arab leaders, Obama may be seeking applause for what he does internationally in case things do not go all that well at home.

It is useful to supplement the Jordanian's comment with the concept of "festival of consultation."

Again, the subject is talk for the sake of talk, or international meetings for little more than what they may add to the prestige of those meeting.

It is the style of Arab leaders, more prominent than efforts to improve conditions of the people at home. The practice is especially prominent among Palestinian leaders, carried over from Yassir Arafat to Mahmoud Abbas.

International meetings can be important. Telephones and meetings between underlings are not sufficient for doing business between governments. Ceremonial meetings display the importance of negotiations or agreements. Some details can be settled only between those who hold the reigns of power.

Arafat's record is most indicative of the folderol, and nothing else, in meeting for the sake of meeting. How many times did we pictures of him riding in fine cars and conferring with the heads of important or insignificant countries. At the end he was treated in style by French physicians. In order to bury him, however, the Palestinians had to clear the rubble from the courtyard of his headquarters, and get the enemy's permission to bring his body home.

We should commend the most recent activity of the Palestine National Authority in the West Bank. American and Jordanian aid has produced an improvement in security. Once again Palestinian money from overseas has produced new commercial and residential construction.

It happened before, following the Oslo Accords of 1993. That ended badly, for the investors and others, as a result of the intifada that began in 2000.

Presently we see pictures of new shopping malls and plans for a new town outside of Ramallah. Less hopeful are the resolutions at the Fatah convention demanding all of Jerusalem, and insisting on refugees' returns to homes in what is now Israel.

Rubble remains the trademark of Gaza.

Curious are strident demands by Mahmoud Abbas for Israel to stop all construction in the settlements as a condition for renewed negotiations. There may be a majority in the Israel government who do not think negotiations are worth the effort.

Meanwhile, meetings continue about the possibility of further meetings.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:23 PM
August 23, 2009

Once again I have received a note saying that Israel does not do a good job of explaining itself.

It does a credible job. There is no end of explanation coming from government offices charged with the task, as well as from individual politicians. There is even more from literate citizens who tell their stories and perspectives. Non-governmental organizations also do their part. Among the most impressive are Memri ( that translates media from Muslim countries into English, Hebrew, and other languages; and NGO Monitor (, which surveys organizations that claim to be concerned with human rights, but condemn Israel out of proportion to their coverage of other places.

Also within the orbit of explaining Israel are individual Jews overseas, their organizations, and non-Jews friendly to Israel. Prominent are Christian Zionists and Evangelicals in the United States and Europe, and the Makuya of Japan.

A great deal of what comes out of these sources is accurate, balanced, and persuasive for those inclined to judge fairly.

There is also a lot of tendentious blather that is meant to bolster Israel, but is the intellectual equivalent of anti-Semitism. Included here are distorted readings of Holy Text (God gave all the land to us.); and exaggerated descriptions of Jewish accomplishments, perhaps meant to convey the impression that smart and creative people deserve to get what any of them want.

There are also Israelis and other Jews who participate in the ugliest of the condemnations. They include journalists who write only about the horrors of Gaza and what happens at IDF checkpoints in the West Bank, and academics who demand sanctions on their criminal state.

The latest lecturer to make himself prominent damned his country in the Los Angeles Times. Predictably he brought forth empty threats from politicians, and more serious notices from contributors that they would not be opening their checkbooks for his university. The university president criticized what the lecturer wrote, said they were outside the realm protected by academic freedom, but discouraged any talk of disciplining him.

Peace Now, B'Tselem, and Physicians for Human Rights are Israeli and mostly Jewish, and criticize authorities for lapses with respect to occupied territories, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, and civil rights.

What is most prominent in all of this information is the lack of central direction or control. Diversity, creativity, and individual freedom are among the things that makes Israel attractive to persons who value the best of civilization. These traits need not be on the agenda of the government information office. They are there for all who would look or listen.

It is seldom clear what influences Who Gets What.

The prime minister is trying to reach some agreement with the Americans about talking to the Palestinians, while his foreign minister is saying that there is no chance for peace with the Palestinians.

Israeli officials are demanding a condemnation of the newspaper blood libel from Swedish officials. The Swedish foreign minister and prime minister are sticking by freedom of the press. Israel's foreign minister is comparing that with the Swedish government's formal apology to Muslim governments when a newspaper published cartoons said to insult Mohammed.

Israeli officials are not calling for an end to Swedish freedom. They are only asking for an expression of regret about an article that recalls the ugliest chapters in Jewish history.

Even barbarians may deserve freedom of expression. How else to know that they are barbarians?

It is not clear if the Swedish foreign minister's scheduled visit will come off, or be marked by unproductive discussions and angry demonstrators.

The vast majority of world residents do not care about us, or would not know a Jew from a frog. A lot may think about Jews or Israel for a moment in response to headlines, sound bites, or pictures.

Anyone aspiring to an effective campaign of information for or against Israel would be advised to think about another project. Media are prominent in our lives, and it is tempting to exaggerate their influence. Their diversity provides a substantial control against the capacity of any one to shape what people think, or what happens.

To paraphrase the bard: The noise may not signify nothing, but it ain't all that important.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:38 PM
August 21, 2009
In defense of the president: rationing health care

There is much to criticize in Barack Obama's presidency. I have joined the chorus of naysayers, but I would still support his election, given the option of someone who chose what's her name as his running mate.

Here I offer my wee small voice against those working so hard to keep him from bringing America's health care into the 20th century.

I know it is already nine years into the 21st century, but America has a lot of catching up to do.

What attracts me currently is that aspect of the campaign that attacks the president for wanting to ration health care. One can also ridicule the claim that he wants to appoint death committees, and limit choice for a population that--thanks to insurance companies and HMOs--has virtually none.

Know-nothings treat rationing as the political equivalent of a four letter word.

Rationing is the essence of civilization. Without it we'd be person against person, each using tooth and claw to get the most for immediate consumption.

Economists have long taught the importance of rationing. Persons cannot acquire all they want.

One of the first things parents should teach their children is, "You can't have everything."

Governments cannot tax and spend enough to provide the best of every imaginable public service.

We ration all the time when we decide to buy X instead of Y, or 3 Xs and 1 Y rather than 4 Xs, or decide to forego both Xs and Ys because we don't have enough money or choose to use our money for a Z.

Health care is always rationed. If there is no government and no insurance, patients ration their choices to buy the treatments they can afford in order to alleviate what pains them most.

Insurance companies and HMOs ration. They pressure care givers to limit the time spent with each patient, they monitor physicians' requests for tests or treatments, and reject many of them. Governments also ration when they subsidize some facilities and treatments, but not others. Not every town gets a major hospital.

Rationing occurs here, in this socialist paradise, where a government committee rations each year when it decides how to spend the annual increase in money to be provided in the government budget. It rations by adding some new medications and treatments in the "basket" of what is subsidized, and not others.

Patients suffering from serious diseases protest if the new additions to the basket are not what they want. They claim that bureaucrats are sentencing them to death.

Guess who organizes the protests and pays for the buses to bring unhappy people to demonstrate?

The companies who make the medications being considered for addition to the basket.

People in the fields of health who have to decide what will be added to the basket explain that the most difficult cases are for expensive and new medications that will not save lives, but may prolong lives, and only for a minority of the patients who receive them.

There is insurance available that will cover items not in the basket. People without that insurance, who are disappointed by decisions about what is in the public basket can buy the treatment privately, or ask relatives and friends to help. People go door to door, with a file of medical opinions, which they summarize by saying that they need something not in the basket. Some people contribute, some do not.

On one occasion we prepared our checkbook to help a youngster in our neighborhood who needed the equivalent of $250,000 for a national survey to find a suitable donor of bone marrow. Then we heard that the company employing her mother picked up the bill.

There is room in socialized medicine for compassion, perhaps more than in a system run by insurance companies. Democracies are open to pressure for more services and lower fees. No program--public or private--will provide everyone with everything they want, or even with everything that a physician says might help them.

It can be awkward to be asked for help by a stranger for a treatment that one does not fully understand. However, most people get most of what they need, routinely, from the public program.

"Rationing" is not a dirty word. It is inevitable.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:31 PM
August 20, 2009
Coping. When solution is not feasible.

Political coping is an art and skill. It entails juggling flexible, but important goals and an assessment of possibilities. It is not for people who insist on finding a solution where there is none.

If you are confused by the above, the rest is not for you. Stay in your wonderland where all women are pretty and children above average, and where it is possible to solve every problem with a bit of effort.

Israel's insoluble problems begin with neighbors who curse it as illegitimate, and other neighbors who say they recognize Israel but insist on goals that would destroy it. Not too distant are Syria and Iran that encourage and support the most extreme. Currently the level of violence is modest, but not so long ago was an upsurge that killed 1,100, mostly civilians, and injured many more.

A problem that compounds this is a persistent call for Israel to be less assiduous in its defense, and to come up with accommodations that will settle the conflict. Currently that chorus is at a peak, led by an American president who learned his skills in law school and Chicago politics, and is over his head--but insistent--in a messy region from here to Pakistan.

Economics provides other problems. The World Bank places Israel in the category of the most wealthy countries, but close to the bottom of that group along with Greece and Portugal. Security puts a heavy demand on resources, proportionately three to twelve times what other western democracies spend on defense.

Israel's elemental goal is survival. Almost as important is maintaining membership in the club of the civilized. This provides access to travel, commercial and cultural opportunities, and at least a minimum of support in international forums all too often dominated by the uncivilized.

Related to these goals is maintaining an edge of military equipment, technology and trained personnel; an economy that grows enough to provide work and a quality of life associated with being in the "First World," including acceptable levels of education, health care, communications, transportation, culture, sport, environmental quality, and social harmony.

How to cope?

There is no simple recipe. The essence is to recognize opportunities and dangers in the ongoing flow of events, and to act accordingly.

Clearly a small and vulnerable country cannot insult the United States by a clear and unambiguous No to what is currently important for the president, even if a No would appear to be deserved.

Israeli officials are saying that they have not approved new construction in the West Bank, but that the freeze will not continue forever. One of Netanyahu's deputy prime ministers, a former chief of the IDF general staff, has said that Jews have a right to settle anywhere in the West Bank. The foreign minister has said that the American president should deal with problems more important than Israeli settlements. Such comments may be embarrassing to the prime minister, or they may help him hold off American demands. Israel is a democracy that must take account of contrary voices.

Going along means making yet another effort at productive conversations with the moderate neighbors. Demands directed at the neighbor, and at those who aspire to world leadership, are also appropriate. Israel's demands and endless explanation may educate the new kids on the block about the problems with their aspirations.

Reductions in barriers and other security provisions that weigh on Palestinians can reduce friction. The hope is that enough Palestinians will take advantage of stability, contribute to economic improvements, and remember the cost of the violence preached by extremists.

Going along with the United States can mean foregoing Israel's own military options with respect to Iran, and accepting that Iran will acquire nuclear warheads and missiles to deliver them. American and European commitments to engagement, and modest sanctions, are likely to prove as useless with Iran as they with North Korea.

If Israel goes along, despite the expected futility, the American European arms shops may remain open to Israel, and add to its homegrown capacity to threaten Iran with enough destruction to keep it from actually using warheads and missiles.

MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) is far from ideal, but may be the best achievable, given what appear to be the doubtful benefits and high costs associated with an attack by Israeli alone.

Ideal is for someone else. This is Israel.

There is no shortage of other knotty problems: African migrants keep coming over the Sinai; tensions between ultra religious and secular Jews cause disturbances about what to others are trivial matters; extremist Jews demand absolute rights in contested territory; extremist Muslims preach that Israeli officials will destroy holy places; criminal violence and traffic deaths occasionally peak and cause despair, even though statistics indicate that Israel is no different from other places in these problems.

The government budget is chronically strained, and set upon by advocates of programs provided in wealthier societies that spend far less of their resources on security.

How to cope with problems of budgeting? Give a little to this and a little to that. Cut back here and there. Suffer the complaints that services do not function as they should. This process resembles what happens elsewhere in countries that are democratic and well-to-do, but not sufficiently well-to-do to provide all that is desirable.

It is possible to imagine horrible scenarios not currently on the horizon. Europeans or Americans may excite their governments to impose sanctions. The next international economic crisis may be even worse than produced by sub-prime mortgages. A new disease can emerge more deadly than swine flu.

The advantage of Jews is that we learned coping long ago. The process appears in Holy Text. Acting under the guidance of God, Moses misled Pharaoh rather than confront the powerful figure directly. He did not want to free the slaves but only take them into the desert for a short time in order to worship (Exodus 10:24-29). God coped with His limited power by advising a detour around a strong and hostile tribe (Exodus 13:17).

From Biblical times until today, Jewish history has been a story of coping with one powerful and hostile force after another. It has been uncomfortable and even catastrophic. Our achievements have been impressive. And here we are, still complaining about imperfection.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:21 AM
August 19, 2009
An old disease appears in Stockholm

The disease of blood libel has struck again. Not in Alexandria, where it appeared in the first century, Britain, where it appeared in the 12th century, Damascus in 1840, or Poland in 1946, but Stockholm.

The latest invention is that the IDF killed prisoners and harvested their organs. It comes from reports offered by Palestinians, and published without benefit of investigation by Aftonbladet, the Swedish newspaper with the largest circulation. That the paper once supported the Nazis and recently has pursued a strident policy against Israel adds to the story.

According to one of the journalist's critics, writing for another Stockholm paper,

Whispers in the dark. Anonymous sources. Rumors . . . That is all it takes. After all, we all know what they [the Jews] are like, don't we: inhuman, hardened. Capable of anything. Now all that remains is the defense, equally predictable: 'Anti-Semitism? No, no, just criticism of Israel.

Classic blood libels have Jews killing Gentile children and using their blood in the preparation of Passover matzoh or the hamantaschen cakes of Purim. The matzoh story is more prominent among Christians. Passover coincides with Easter, has an association with Jews as killers of Christ, and provides yet another excuse for a pogrom.

Organ harvesting is a high tech version of the classic tale, and may borrow something from Jews charged with the illegal commerce of organs in New Jersey.

The Stockholm story is not the first case of ugly and unverified reports by Palestinians. The BBC broadcast a claim that Israeli soldiers routinely rape Palestinian women in military prisons. The civil rights organization B'Tselem investigated a number of stories and found them all baseless. There are tales of soldiers raping Palestinian women in order to render them victims of their own families' honor killings.

Given the culture of Palestine one should not be surprised at the stories. They are a piece with the claim that will not go away about the IDF killing 3,000 civilians in "the Jenin massacre" of 2002. Human Rights Watch, usually unfriendly to Israel, put the death toll of Palestinians at 31 fighters and 22 civilians. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers died in the same operation, that came in response to a bombing at a Passover Seder in a Netanya hotel that killed 30 celebrants and injured 140.

What is disturbing is the uncritical publication of the most recent stories in Sweden. Even discounting the history of the paper, it is disappointing to find it in a place usually counted among the civilized.

One inured by Jewish history need not ask why. The disease of hatred has resisted denials and authoritative statements about Jews' doctrines by the Roman Catholic Church and European monarchs as early as the 13th century.

More recently the phenomenon of Jew hatred has appeared in the claim that Israelis use the charge of anti-Semitism against any criticism of Israel.

Just as blood libels overlook Judaic proscriptions about blood, the claim that Israelis are quick with the charge of anti-Semitism overlooks their familiarity with criticism. They do it themselves, usually with greater skill and no less cynicism than employed by non-Israelis.

Anti-Semitism changes with time. Just as organ stealing is the most up to date version of blood libel, so the judgment of Israel by standards far more onerous than used against other countries--usually without reference to attacks against Israel--is a pseudo sophisticated version of the older disease. It appears among international organizations, governments, courts, and individual commentators who condemn Israel without considering more horrendous cases found among Muslims, in numerous African countries, and the collateral damage attributed to American troops.

It is yet another variant of anti-Semitism to accuse Israelis of being so sensitive that they are quick to use the label of anti-Semite against those who criticize them.

Undoubtedly there are Israelis who are oversensitive. It is especially awkward to accuse Jews who participate in grossly unbalanced accusations of Israel as anti-Semites. At the least, however, it is appropriate to say that they are unbalanced, keeping bad company, and that their judgments should be assessed accordingly.

Stockholm is only the latest assault on Israeli sensitivity. It reminds us who we are, and our vulnerability to barbarians, intellectual and otherwise.

It is not a good day for the American president to ask Israelis for concessions.

That is another story, but only in part. Israelis are tired of demands that they make concessions, once again, to begin a process of accommodation with people who have resisted making concessions for more than 60 years.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:11 AM
August 18, 2009

There are some exciting and troubling parallels between the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Barack H. Obama.

They are exciting intellectually, with several points of comparison.

They are troubling from a policy point of view, insofar as Johnson's being sucked into the vortex of Vietnam, for which he was not prepared by his political career in domestic politics, may foreshadow Obama's being drawn into the swamp that extends from the eastern Mediterranean to Pakistan, equally foreign with respect to his background in Chicago politics or Harvard Law School.

Another point of comparison is with the domestic agendas and styles of the two presidents. Johnson sought to make his place in history with civil rights and the War on Poverty. Civil rights was relatively simple and successful. The War on Poverty was more innovative, extensive, complex and troubled. And it looks more like Obama's domestic agenda.

Johnson moved quickly to reap the opportunities that fell to him by the tragedy of Kennedy's assassination, and then by his record landslide in 1964. His model was the onslaught of Franklin Roosevelt, who managed to achieve Congressional approval of legislative proposals that had names but were not fully drafted. The crises of 1963 and 1965 were not so dramatic as that which greeted Roosevelt, and Johnson was not so outlandish in his aspirations. However, he conceded that his War on Poverty included programs that were untried and doubtful as to their administrative success. He felt he had a limited time, wanted to achieve as much as he could in Congress, and would let the future decide which programs worked, and which would be modified or dropped.

Recent New York Times articles about Obama's agenda, Rahm Emanuel, and the ongoing struggle over health policy suggest that the president is working in ways similar to Johnson and Roosevelt.

The White House is pushing a number of big things at the same time. Massive efforts on an economic emergency were the first and continuing orders of business, followed by what was billed, with justice, as a revolutionary fix of a broken health system. That thousand page piece of legislation is generating considerable controversy and no end of counter proposals. Most recently it has led the White House to signal a shift from a government run insurance program to a cooperative industry program. The Times describes that as "so ill defined that no one knows exactly what it would look like or how effectively it would compete with commercial insurers."

As if that were not enough, the president has said that he wants to reform immigration and citizenship legislation in a humane direction.

Migration will not touch as many Americans as directly as a change in the way they receive health care, but it may touch their feelings almost as much. One can expect an overlap between those opposing the president on health care they call socialistic, and those who will oppose giving an easy ride to migrants who arrived illegally.

And here we come to the Johnson-Obama parallels on foreign and military policy.

Vietnam in the 1960s differs in many details from the Muslim Middle East (plus Israel) in the first decade of the 21st century. Yet there are some disturbing points of comparison.

How many times did Johnson and his generals describe the light at the end of their tunnel? Obama and his generals are saying something similar: that they are in the process of withdrawing American forces from the cities of Iraq, and will then withdraw more completely from the country. Experts better informed than me can decide if the Vietcong and North Vietnamese were more or less assiduous than the various groups of Iraqi Muslims blowing up one another and rival mosques.

No less ominous is the president's commitment to increase forces and activity in Afghanistan.

It is a long way from producing the 55,000 Americans killed in Vietnam, but no less treacherous for naive Americans than what they called a battle between freedom and Communism in Vietnam. Who's a friend, who's an enemy in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan can change quickly, without advance warning to limited American intelligence assets. And what about American commitment to a war on drugs in the presence of allies whose livelihoods come from their shares in the opium superpower.

The president's commitment to peace in the Middle East is no less threatening to his peace of mind and place in history. Most recently he has talked of persuading Palestinians to give up on the right of return to Israel for refugees in exchange for compensation. The devils in these details lie in how much compensation? To children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren as well as the original refugees? Who will supply how much money? With or without continued support for the housing, food, and medical care of those labeled refugees and their families? And will the president tackle the unenviable task of persuading Lebanon and other Arab countries to grant citizenship to the millions of Palestinians who have been in their countries without rights since 1948, and may remain if they cannot return to Israel or fit in Palestine?

Johnson lasted one full term before hightailing it back to Texas, a broken man. Obama speaks better, is younger and apparently healthier. The Sharkanskys wish him well, but do not want to leave a neighborhood of Jerusalem where he would forbid building for Jews, and might ultimately want to see as Judenrein.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:59 AM
August 17, 2009
A bad patch

Israel is going through a bad patch. It has nothing to do with Palestine. That appears to be moribund, dead at its own hand. The American administration seems committed to prolonged life support, but the efforts of the president and his advisors are coming around to kick them. Mike Huckabee said that the United States should not be telling Jewish people where they can and cannot live in Jerusalem, just as it should not be telling people that they cannot live in the Bronx.

Huckabee may have chosen to begin his 2012 presidential campaign with something his supporters will see as Obama's error in judgment, and perhaps an affront to the Lord..

The more pressing problem is violent crime. Two cut up bodies were found in different places. The fear is that a serial killer is roaming the country.

The police have said they are close to solving the crimes. A court has ordered a ban on publication. Media personnel are complaining that they all know the details but cannot report them. We hear that the bodies are of two women, that there is a connection between the crimes, but they are not the work of a serial killer.

The body of an elderly man was found in a village on the Golan. His a son and grandson are in custody. The police say it was a dispute over property.

A group of five drunk Arab young men, accompanied by two Jewish women (one a soldier on weekend leave), beat to death a 59 year old Jewish man on a Tel Aviv beach, and dropped his body off a pier.

A rabbi said that something must be done to stop Arab boys for seducing Jewish girls. People from the village are blaming wayward Jewish girls for leading good boys astray. One of the accused is saying that the victim called him a "dirty Arab." If the judges believe that, it may figure into the sentences. One doubts that any of them will be going home soon.

Still unsolved is a wild shooting that resulted in killings and injuries at a meeting place for young gays and lesbians in Tel Aviv. Thousands gathered a week later to protest a hate crime, despite the lack of a suspect. An ultra-Orthodox soldier has been arrested for threatening gays, but there in no indication that he was involved in this incident.

A yeshiva student died in a Ramle shooting. He was in the wrong place when a group of criminals sought to eliminate one of their adversaries.

Commentators and politicians are in panic. Where are the police? What has happened to our values?

Saner voices are saying that violence generally increases in the heat of summer, and that Israel scores low on crimes of violence. A table of murder rates per 100,000 population ranks it in 90th place (from the most violent) among 136 countries. It scores less violent than the United States, Switzerland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, South Korea, Finland, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and numerous countries of the Third World. The United States recorded 5.8 killings per 100,000 population. Israel was clustered with Canada, Australia and a number of Western European countries with between 1 and 2 cases per 100,000 population.

Idealists will reject comparisons as irrelevant, but that is the only way to judge how good is good and how bad is bad.

Some will insist that Israel's score be increased on account of all those murders it committed among peace loving Gazans and Lebanese. If so, America's score will have to skyrocket for the larger number of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis killed since American troops arrived in their countries.

Israel is not an ideal country. Neither is it the den of evil imagined by those who target it for hate, or lamented by Israelis for its lack of perfection.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:25 PM
August 15, 2009
On being clever

It's the same old Middle East.

Iran is putting several members of the persecuted Bahai faith on trial, this time on the charge that they were ordered by Israel to destabilize the country.

In Gaza, 30 were killed and more than 100 injured in a battle in and around a mosque, between Hamas and a group said to be inspired by al-Qaida.

Nervous Jews are already fearing that the Obama administration will buy into a Hamas story that it is really a moderate organization, concerned to keep the extremists from gaining power in Gaza.

The dust-up is one more indication that the Palestinians are a long way from a nation. While disputes about doctrine mark some conflicts, others are between factions defined by family and village. They all have substantial components of us against them. When tensions peak, the men (and some of the women) reach for their guns and knives. The latest clash involved machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. One of the leaders killed himself with a vest packed with explosives, also killing a mediator who came in an effort to stop the fighting.

Among the dead is an 11 year old girl.

Human rights groups have not accused either side of overreaction.

A spokesman for the Fatah government in the West Bank has called the situation alarming.

What should Israel do?

There is nothing it can do. Nor, do I suspect, is there anything it wants to do.

Neither Hamas nor the other group involved in the fighting was competing for the opportunity to negotiate peace with Israel. Both of them are more extreme than Fatah, which itself is stuck in the ruts of demanding all of Jerusalem as well as a return to Israel of refugees and their descendants. The numbers are somewhere in the millions, who--in the unlikely event that they do return--may begin killing one another over possession of grandpa's plot.

We can expect discussions in the White House and among other good thinking people that this is the opportunity for the Obama administration to expand the policy of engagement to include Hamas. Surely everyone wants peace, and what better opportunity than after a regrettable spurt of blood.

Critics will damn Israel, this time for keeping the pressure on Gaza which must have contributed to the internal problems, and for exploiting Palestinian misfortunes by claiming they are not ready for peace.

The majority of Israelis respond to public opinion surveys that they want peace, and are willing to compromise on territorial issues. Majorities also respond that they are suspicious of Palestinian motives, and do not believe that an accord is likely. Recent polls, done since President Obama spoke of his aspirations in Cairo, show substantial numbers viewing him as naive, and doubtful that his engagement will work.

How much effort should Israel make to bridge gaps when one extremist faction of Palestinians battles another extremist faction, both of them proclaiming as its goal the destruction of Israel? The Fatah faction, viewed as moderate, may not be able to maintain itself in the West Bank, and just a week ago decided on goals that no imaginable Israeli government is willing to concede.

A clever person does not enter a situation that a wise person knows how to get out of.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:42 AM
August 14, 2009

Obama's health initiative provides its lessons about politics generally, as well as being a fascinating effort to remake a major public policy.

Whatever is happening has not been smooth, and will not produce a mega change. The whole flurry may end with a presidential defeat, or with additional features added to what is already a complex array of pieces fashioned over the course of 40 years. Simple and centrally managed is not in the cards. Insurance companies and HMOs will remain in place. It is doubtful that Americans will be spending more time with care givers than with learning what they can receive, how much they must pay, and what forms they must submit.

Among the insights apparent in the torrent of commentary, politicking, public meetings and e-mails is that many Americans like what they have. In this they resemble residents of other western democracies. Few are experts in the policies offered by other countries. Parochialism and patriotism are part of public opinion and politics, whether or not they are tapped directly by surveys.

Among those opposed to change there is a preference for choice, opposition to socialized medicine, and opposition to providing health coverage to illegal aliens. The realities are that there is not a great deal of choice currently available to the average citizen, with collective policies dominated by insurance companies and HMOs. There is a choice of insurance companies and programs, but it is hard to believe that many citizens probe the complexities, get something that matches specifications they define for themselves, and know for sure what is covered.

Appreciation for what exists shows up in stories of successful treatment experiences. The cost and medical inefficiency of using emergency rooms for primary care should be a major target of reform, but many people perceive justice when they see or hear of poor people being treated in emergency rooms.

Euthanasia, coverage of abortion or fertility treatment, aliens, rationed care, and uninsured children are hot buttons capable of generating mass mailings and adding to the provisions that individual legislators will demand as their price of support. None of these need be all or nothing. Assisted suicide is not euthanasia. Coverage of fertility treatments or other treatments can be made available a limited number of times, or rationed with co-pays. A final bill will include criteria to be used in deciding about treatments and cost sharing, with considerable work left for administrative rulings and the courts.

The subject of aliens taps unresolved issues no less complex and emotional than health.

Any proposal a thousand pages in length does not generate coherent debate. Legislators and activists talk past one another, each focusing on what they perceive as essential points to support or oppose. There are contentious claims about facts, myths disguised as facts, and facts said to be myths.

Comprehension may be pointless insofar as the discussion in two house of the legislature and several committees quickly gets to amendments and counter proposals. What emerges at the end may be described as a work of compromise, but is also a crap shoot. If few understand the original proposal and all its implications, fewer still will understand what comes out of the grinder.

There is no such thing as once and for all time health policy. Soon after the president signs whatever emerges and proclaims his victory, there will be proposals to fix defects, and to add what is missing. Medical innovations will provoke advocates, while others take another shot at cost containment.

What happens to a parent's existing opportunities and expenditures will not be apparent for some time. Deliberations may last longer than the parent.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:53 AM
August 12, 2009
Cucumbers in August

The dog days of August. Here the season of cucumbers.

Can they possibly be relevant for God's Holy City, on the border of contending civilizations, where the intensely religious and political have wrestled on and off for 3,000 years?

Here in the Judean mountains at 800 meters (2,500 feet) it is much better than Faulkner's Mississippi. It seldom goes much above 30C (86F) and humidity is usually close to 30 percent. The middle of the day is for mad dogs, Englishmen, and other tourists who feel they must get the most out of their trip. Early morning and evenings are delightful.

There was a drive by shooting a few kilometers to the north of here, with minor injuries to Israelis.

It is the period of vacation for religious academies, and usual cases of children and parents not used to nature who get into trouble. Along with tourists from overseas they provide work for the regional rescue teams, police and military helicopter crews who go after individuals who wander into the desert without enough water or the right kind of shoes, fall from narrow paths into deep canyons, or do not read maps and lose their way.

There has been another flurry of reports that negotiations about the Israeli held captive are warming up toward a decision. This peak came along with the family's public celebration of the third birthday he has spent somewhere in Gaza. Again individuals speaking for Hamas and the Israeli government have denied the reports about progress. This government, like the last one, is divided between those committed to rescuing a soldier from the enemy, and those unwilling to pay the price demanded by Hamas. This prime minister, like the last, has expressed himself on both sides of the quarrel.

There are verbal confrontations along the northern border. It is not clear if the first threats came from Hizbollah, the Lebanese government, Israeli generals, or politicians. They have all issued warnings. We have heard about Hizbollah missiles, Israel's war plans, and Arabs who do not want their families divided if part of their village ever goes back to Lebanon or Syria. A comment meant to be calming is that: Middle Eastern armies do not fight in the heat of summer. ("In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king's men and the whole Israelite army." II Samuel 11). That campaign was about love or lust, and was not David's greatest moment.

Swine flu is competing for headlines with things more overtly political. We get daily reports about new infections and serious cases, and know that the president of Costa Rica has contracted the illness. Israeli officials are debating how much to spend on medications that some conclude lessen the impact of the flu, while others say have side effects; and how many doses of vaccination to buy, when it is not clear how much protection they will provide, or if they will be available in advance of the winter flu season. If indeed this flu behaves like others and peaks along with cold weather.

Barack Obama has not amassed any credits for his efforts about Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. There are signs that he began in the wrong directions, is quiet, and trying to dampen expectations. He may have taken another heroic misstep at a meeting with the president of Mexico and the Canadian prime minister, when he talked about embarking on a humane reform of immigration. Whatever he proposes will excite the same Neanderthals trying to crucify him on health.

"After the holidays" is when things are expected to be more serious. This year Rosh Hashanah begins on the evening before September 19th, and Simchat Torah ends with sundown on October 11th.

May the quiet continue. In the meantime, it is tempting to write about the nothing that prevails among cucumbers in August.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:56 PM
August 10, 2009
Don't make things worse

For than 40 years my principal field of teaching, writing, and conversation has been public policy.

I spent about a quarter of my career with American students and officials. Most of the rest with Israelis, and meetings with individuals high, low and middle in other places. Sooner or later we usually got to what governments were doing, and how they were doing it.

My classes and queries usually focused on the elements that influence policymakers and the benefits or costs provided to citizens: what is, what explains it, and what is likely to be. Sometimes I wandered into the realm of what should be.

On the few occasions when I preached in the Temples of the academy or government, the principal message I tried to convey is, Don't make things worse.

Several roads to hell are paved with good intentions. It is essential to know what is and why if you want to shape what should be.

The Innocents Abroad is an epigram that we ought to couple with Don't make it worse. The title of a book that Mark Twain published in the 1860s sums up much of what Americans and others are doing far from their homes, and making things worse.

There is also criticism close to home, but the power holders continue with their slogans, not to be confused with facts.

Barack Obama's Cairo speech included a line about

. . . astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education.
The Washington Post counters that with a long description of torture and other treatments handed out to foreign business people who one day were entertained by the royalty and economic elite of Dubai, and another day fled for their lives lest they be seized, held without trial and abused, seemingly for being in the wrong place when the hyped up economy, nouveau riche buildings and artificial islands began to falter.

Afghanistan is a fascinating and frightening place with unclear boundaries between civilization and something else. My own visit during the 1970s left me with a story a young man who could not understand why he could not take a bus to America. He did not know about the ocean. And an encounter with bandits on my way through the Khyber Pass to Pakistan. A few years later the Russians made things worse for the Afghans and themselves. Americans made things even worse by investing heavily in what morphed into the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The most recent New York Times expose of Afghan catastrophe carries the headline, " U.S. to Hunt Down Afghan Drug Lords Tied to Taliban"

The implication is that drug lords not tied to Taliban are now acceptable. However, previous items in the New York Times warn that drug lords not tied to Taliban this morning might be there by lunch time.

The major headline on the front page of Ha'aretz quotes the ultra-Orthodox Minister of Interior as saying that Israel will expand settlements without the agreement of the United States. The rabbi heading his political party said that Israel should trade land for peace. That was before intifada al-Aqsa, the take over of half Palestine by Hamas, and the construction of two large settlements for ultra-Orthodox Jews on the other side of the 1967 border. If there is a stand up between the President of the United States and Israel's Minister of Interior (who has his hands on planning bodies with a say on construction), I would not advise a large bet on either.

Yet another story on the front page of Ha'aretz is of a 92 year old homeless woman in New York, a Holocaust survivor, who had never been in Israel but admired the news of Israeli research. She died without relatives, and left $150,000 to the Hebrew University.

My glass is half full.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:59 PM
August 09, 2009
Let us pray

Fatah's convention continues to be the best show in town.

Not exactly in town. Bethlehem is just outside the southern end of Jerusalem. There is a wall between here and there, and the guards will not let me through the gate.

As the convention reaches its close, there is no evidence that the delegates are tiring. They have passed a resolution demanding that all of Jerusalem be absorbed into Palestine, and confirming the rights of refugees to return.

One group of Israel's optimists have fastened on the lack of "to where" in the demand for the return of refugees. Maybe they will accept their return to a Palestine on the other side of the pre-1967 borders.

Another group of Israel's optimists are concluding that the convention is giving Israel just what it wants: a foolish list of demands for an organization that is so weak it lost Gaza to Hamas in a week of fighting, and would lose the West Bank if not protected by the IDF, the Shin Bet, and Israeli Intelligence. What better reason does Israel need to forget negotiations and send Obama's representatives in search of an easier accomplishment?

The prime minister chose this week's meeting of the government to describe the one-sided withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 as a failure that did not bring peace or security, but only a base for Iranian operations. His government will not repeat the mistake.

We would not be Israelis if we did not quarrel. The withdrawal from Gaza removed exposed settlements that extracted heavy costs in defense along with frequent attacks on civilians and soldiers. And it would not have been as easy to teach Hamas the lesson of January if there had been Jewish civilians in the way.

Nonetheless, it is wise to listen to the prime minister. The failure of the Gaza withdrawal to bring peace or security will weigh on the aspirations of Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as Americans who want peace now.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak played the good cop at the government meeting, although he began with a condemnation. "The rhetoric coming from Fatah and the positions being expressed are grave and unacceptable to us."

He was conciliatory toward the United States, if not the Palestinians, when he added, "it must be understood that there is no solution in the Middle East other than a comprehensive [peace] deal, which includes us and the Palestinians." He called on President Barack Obama to lead the way for peace in the region.

Perhaps he was addressing neither the United States nor the Palestinians, but the left wing of his own party. Four and maybe more of Labor's 13 Members of Knesset are threatening to abandon Barak and set up their own party.

He was not addressing me. I have been saying for some time that there is no solution for the Middle East. I will rely in Israel's coping skills until I am no longer able to notice.

Not to let Fatah take all the headlines, Hizbollah is warning Israel not to cause trouble in Lebanon. If Israel does cause trouble, Hizbollah will demonstrate that its victory in 2006 was only a taste of what can happen.

A rocket came from someone is Gaza to land in southern Israel.

The Deputy Foreign Minister (a retired diplomat doing more of the heavy lifting than Avigdor Lieberman), told a United Nations representative who came to complain about the property transfer in East Jerusalem that the Israeli government would not discuss Jerusalem with a foreign body, insofar as it was governed by Israeli law. The Deputy Foreign Minister told the same man that Israel would not ease the blockade on Gaza until Gilad Shalit comes home.

Some years ago I decided it was time to say Kaddish for the prospect of a Palestinian state.

Government ministers cannot afford to insult the United States with an outright No. The constraint does not apply to a retired professor with no political aspirations. So I will propose the same prayer for at least one plank of President Obama's foreign policy, and maybe others.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:02 AM
August 08, 2009
Presidential score card

American intelligence sources are estimating that Iran will be able to produce nuclear weapons only in 2013, and that there is no indication that political leaders have decided to produce them.

Can we believe the projection that pushes N-day backward by three years, and suggests that a bomb may not be on the Iranian agenda? Or is this another example of intelligence personnel trying to serve their political masters? The latest estimate fits with the president's commitment to engage with Iranians, and talk them away from evil intents.

Other news is that the president is losing one of his constituencies on an issue close to it. A survey of Jewish Democrats finds that 92 percent approve in general the job he is doing, but 44 percent feel that he "is naive in thinking he can make peace with the Arabs."

Fifty-five percent agree with the statement, "President Obama is naive in thinking that the Palestinians would make peace, whatever they say. They will just use the new land as a base to attack Israel like they did in Gaza."

On the settlement freeze, 37 percent of Jewish Democrats support the president, while 52 percent oppose him.

Thomas Friedman remains obsessed about settlements. "Israel must stop playing games -- and stop building settlements." (NYTimes August 1, 2009)

Prominent rabbis and leaders of Jewish organizations are divided about a freeze.

One survey and divisions among community leaders may not indicate serious weakness, but the president has problems elsewhere. Health is currently his highest priority, and there is strong opposition to some of the provisions he favors. The New York Times reports that members of Congress supporting the president in their home districts "have been shouted down, hanged in effigy and taunted by crowds. In several cities, noisy demonstrations have led to fistfights, arrests and hospitalizations."

In contrast, one of the e-mails just received says that union enforcers are roughing up ObamaCare critics at these meetings, and predicts that the United States is on the road to fascism.

The prominence of the health issue may account for some of the decline in the president's approval rating from 55 to 50 percent over the most recent three months.

He is still a long way from George W. Bush's 22 percent approval, and his term is new. He has not struck out on health.

There are many items on his agenda, each with an impressive number of aides doing their best for him and themselves. We call it an imperial presidency for good reason.

One can continue thinking that Obama was a better choice than the man who chose Sarah Palin as a running mate, and disagree strongly with him on one or more of his prominent issues.

One feather in his cap is the Senate's approval of Sonia Sotomayor 68-31, despite an intense campaign against her.

The administration rescued two journalists in exchange for a vice presidential visit to North Korea, but that country is still building nuclear weapons and missiles. Car bombs are blowing up outside of Iraq's mosques, despite the president's near declaration of victory. His decision to escalate in Afghanistan is problematic. Other armies have lost soldiers there with no sign of gain. Sadder still is the feeling that a freeze in Israeli settlements can help soothe Palestinians' internal disarray, get all sides among them to moderate their demands, bring Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments closer to American desires, and tone down Iran's rhetoric on its nuclear options, the Holocaust, and Israel.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:23 AM
August 06, 2009
Palestinians and Americans

Early reports about the Fatah convention at Bethlehem were complimentary. They described signs of a democracy in the gathering and discussions among two thousand delegates from the West Bank and the Palestinian Diaspora. A few even sneaked out of Gaza against Hamas efforts to keep them from leaving. Israel cooperated in letting some of the old timers pass through its border controls, despite having been involved in murders of civilians years past.

Ahmed Tibi, MD, a brilliant and provocative Member of Israel's Knesset was one of the speakers. He gave full expression to his Palestinian nationalism and demanded that all (Jewish) settlers be removed from the land that becomes Palestine. It was not clear if he also meant the Sharkanskys and other Jewish residents of Jerusalem neighborhoods claimed by the Palestinians. Within hours there began a dispute among Jewish Members of Knesset as to whether Tibi ought to stand trial on the same law against racism that resulted in Meir Kahana being barred from Israeli politics.

The size and diversity of the convention became one of its problems. Older members from Lebanon and other distant places proved to be more intent on revenge and return, and less pragmatic than younger delegates who have lived alongside of Israel. Younger, in this context, means people in their 50s.

The older outsiders tied the hands of Mahmoud Abbas who seemed intent on getting resolutions in favor of flexibility, and they produced 14 preconditions for further negotiations with Israel. Among them are the cessation of settlements, the freeing of all Palestinian prisoners, and the lifting of the blockade on Gaza.

The convention also set up a committee to investigate the death of Yassir Arafat, headed by a nephew of Arafat convinced that Israelis killed him with poison or some other device.

Perhaps Barack Obama will applaud the convention's output, if for no other reason that Palestinians make him look moderate by comparison.

But not too moderate.

Ha'aretz is reporting that his minions are giving Israel two weeks to reach an agreement with them on settlements, and are demanding that Israel and Palestinians agree about final borders and refugees at an early stage in their negotiations.

One wonders if there is greater humor or sadness from the Palestinian convention or the American administration.

Or perhaps I am crazy, and everyone else has it right.

Political science is not a licensed profession, and my pension should be secure. I risk only what remains of my personal reputation by what comes next.

The Americans should bring the Palestinians to something reasonable before they pressure Israel. I have no illusions that anyone from the White House is reading this, or is ready for such a suggestion, but it does seem the most efficient way to begin. Or to quickly reach the conclusion that there is no mileage left in this vehicle, and that it would be best to leave Israel and the Palestinians to themselves.

Netanyahu may get to a grudging "Yes, but" to the American demands. The but will include his own conditions, similar to those we have heard. Americans will focus on the yes, if they behave in the past, and overlook the but when accusing Israel of reneging on its agreements. (The Israeli government accepted the Bush roadmap some years ago, but added a number of reservations that the current administration ignores in its accusations.)

The Israeli government is also having trouble with one of its own. The Consul General in Boston sent a telegram to the Foreign Ministry complaining that Israeli policy is causing problems with American public opinion, especially on campuses. He also laments that American Jews feel themselves pressured between Obama's demands and Israeli reservations. The Consul himself, a friend or enemy in the Foreign Ministry leaked the telegram to the media. The Prime Minister's Office said that it did not warrant a response.

Someone should tell the Consul that he should expect problems with Harvard students and faculty, and that the Jews of Boston must cope with discomfort as best they can.

Alan Dershowitz is still with us, and he counts for more than the average.

The response of the Prime Minister's Office to Israel's Consul in Boston may signal that Netanyahu will not bow to American ultimatums. He has substantial Israeli support for resisting Obama, and that will count for more than Boston's Jews.

There will be more to this show to keep me interested, and the e-mail flowing.

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

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:49 PM
Bringing sacred cows to the slaughter. Not likely to happen.

I have no dog in the Americans' fight over health insurance. We are covered, like the vast majority of residents in other democracies, by centrally regulated health services that help us achieve better care than most Americans. The United States ranks 45th in life expectancy, lower than all countries of Western Europe, as well as Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malta, Israel, South Korea, Jordan, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Lest you claim that America's social diversity is responsible for its limited life expectancy, Israel also has a diverse population. Israeli and US Statistical Abstracts show that Israelis live two years longer than Americans. Israeli Jewish men live five years longer than White American men. Israeli Arab men live seven and one half years longer than American Black men, and eight months longer than American White men. Comparisons are similar in the case of women.

No doubt some Americans have access to the best care and facilities in the world. But Americans should not let their jingoism get in the way of conceding what other countries provide. And elsewhere the best is more likely to be widely available.

Several of America's sacred cows are standing in the way of decent care and longer lives.

It is in the nature of sacred cows that they cannot be killed. What follows is a wish list, based on what occurs elsewhere, but what is not going to happen in the United States.

My professional and personal roots are stimulated by all that I read about the effort to reform American health care.. To tell the truth, I do no more than skim it. I get lost in the details. I suspect the writers of all the commentaries, criticisms, and proposals are also lost. The devil is the details. Those in the proposals and counter proposals are not likely to kill the sacred cows. The complexity of American health coverage is one of the issues that limits it.

We read stories of Americans who spend more time on the paperwork than with care providers. An advantage of a centralized, uniform, and "socialized" system is that there may be no paperwork. An identity card can provide access to care, an immediate knowledge of what must be paid, and gives the care giver access to records about your conditions, treatments, medications, and test results.

Complexity owes something to the sacred cow of free choice.

There is an enormous amount of American government regulation already in place, and virtually no freedom of choice for those needing care. Almost all the choice is in the hands of profit making insurance companies. They sell complex policies and reserve for themselves the decisions as to what is covered. Not only do they limit choice to themselves, but they also support the campaigns that trumpet freedom of choice and oppose regulation.

The last thing Americans want is a uniform set of costs and benefits, administered either by companies or by the government. That, however, is what serves the people in countries where people live longer.

Who would define these uniform costs and benefits?

Health professionals, with significant inputs from government departments of health and finance.

BUREAUCRATS you scream.

Evidence is that bureaucrats of government do it better than bureaucrats of profit-making insurance companies.

Do you want your sacred cow, or do you want to live longer?

I'll bet on the greater longevity of the sacred cow.

Socialized systems need not prevent choice. They can assure a basic and sufficient level of care to all, yet allow individuals to buy extra coverage or purchase care directly if they want to pay for such things as quicker service, access to the most prestigious physicians, more comfortable hospital rooms or senior citizens' housing.

Another sacred cow is trial by jury. Most democracies administer criminal and civil courts with professional judges and no juries. There may be multiple judges sitting on individual cases, with more judges deciding about more serious charges. What they are likely to produce is closer to the rule of law than available from juries.

Juries are relevant to health care by virtue of enormous awards for "malpractice," which increase insurance premiums for physicians, and add to superfluous and expensive tests they order to order to protect themselves. Other countries do just as well in protecting patients by more modest and standardized compensation, and by holding physicians responsible via criminal trials for actions defined by professionals as malpractice.

Among the impediments to killing these cows are Americans with access to the best health care. They are likely to be the Americans with the greatest political influence. Many of them fear losing something if the system is made more uniform.

Me first may be the most sacred of the cows in a society built on individualism.

The United States is not the only country that suffers from its sacred cows.

Germany's love with high performance automobiles stands in the way of imposing speed limits on the autobahns. If tourists do not see the carnage, it may be because their eyes are glued on the cars in front or behind them, moving along at more than 100 mph, or because of efficient German cleanup. (On comparable measures of road deaths, see

Israel suffers from religious fanatics that read part of the Bible that says God gave all the Land of Israel to the Jews. They do not deal with His multiple definitions of the Land (Genesis 15; Genesis 17: Numbers 34), or His failure to actually deliver it all to His people (Judges 3:5-6).

Now that I have proposed the severe regulation of American free enterprise and an end to jury trials, I can go for my afternoon nap.

I know that one does not kill sacred cows.

That's the pity.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:42 AM
August 04, 2009
Fair judgments and others

It is premature to declare a crisis in relations between the United States and Israel. Harsh words and mutual criticism need not escalate to anything more severe. Threats of public opinion turning sharply against Israel do not square with surveys showing consistently greater support for Israel than Palestinians. There is more criticism of Israel from officials, academics, journalists, and in letters that newspapers publish. There is also more criticism of the American government and overseas Jews in the Israeli media, as well as surveys showing that many Israelis view Americans as naive and biased against them.

Opinions are fickle. They are somewhere among the elements that influence public policy, but not among those bound to be important. A classic study of what influences policy employs a model of the garbage can. There are so many influences that it is impossible to know what, in any particular instance, will emerge from the can to shape the decisions of officials. And then official decisions are only one of numerous factors that produce action and decide the ultimate question of who gets what.

With all the skepticism that is appropriate, it is possible to sense some of what is roiling people from personal contacts. A lot comes to me over the internet, in response to what I write or what--in the view of correspondents--I should be writing.

I began these notes several years ago to a small number of my family and friends. The list has grown to where I estimate that several hundred people receive them either directly, or passed on from intermediaries. Most I have never met, but several new friends have visited us in Jerusalem. Initially I wrote every week or 10 days. The incidence increased around events that seemed important. The Obama administration has upped the incidence to one every couple of days, or even a couple a day. Each note produces responses: some only one or two, but others into the several dozen.

Some endorse what I say.

Some ridicule me for not being sufficiently assertive in criticism of the Obama administration. Among my contacts are those who view him as an actual or virtual Muslim, have used the term anti-Semite, or even project that he will be compared to Hitler. A friend in the locker-room, who reached a high position in government and votes left of center, describes Obama's posture toward Israel as the work of fools.

Others accuse me of ranging into the realm of the fascist, racist, and war criminal. One distant cousin asked to be dropped from my list because my letters "were no longer funny." An old Jewish friend has begun writing letters dripping with something between sarcasm and hatred for what he calls my typical Israeli arrogance in the face of world opinion that rightly condemns Israel for gross violations of human rights.

The recent uptick in accusations against Israel invite yet another consideration of the age old problems of judgment. And insofar as Israel is Jewish, the discussion ranges into the nature of anti-Semitism.

There is nothing simple in any of this, but one can extract from recent discussions points worth thinking about. These are not final conclusions. There are no such things in difficult questions with political relevance.

Anti-Semitism is a relatively new term for something ancient. Arabs assert that they cannot be anti-Semites because of their Semitic language. They are among those leading anti-Jewish rhetoric similar to what Josephus reported from the Greek population of Alexandria in the first century. Severe criticism of Israel has become fashionable among leftist academics and others, to the point where it is acceptable to use the label of anti-Semite for individuals who judge Israel with standards far above those used for judging other countries. Jews, and individuals with Jewish friends and colleagues, join with organizations that claim to be concerned with human rights and condemn Israel alone in the court of their opinions.

Gaza and Lebanon provide some knotty problems that these judges ignore with deft assertions of "overreaction."

Were the several hundred civilian deaths in the sum of both operations indeed an overreaction? What about those resulting from Lebanese and Palestinians fighting from residential neighborhoods, schools, or hospitals?

It is not only on matters of life and death that Israel is targeted. Currently the American State Department, echoed by western media, is taking sides in a Jerusalem property dispute. After years of deliberation, an Israeli court has decided in favor of Jews claiming ownership. Other cases have come down in favor of Arabs. In this case, the decision has brought assertions of improper public policy.

I will not wade through the many kilos of documents concerned with the claim and counter-claim, but I am sufficiently familiar with Israeli justice to guess that the decision was at least as weighty as those producing the acquittal of O. J. Simpson or some of the death penalties carried out in Texas. When it comes to Israel, Americans are elevating political convenience over the rule of law.

The extremism of those who criticize Israel for violations of human rights appears not only in their lack of proportionate condemnation for what occurs in Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Lebanon Saudi Arabia, and among Palestinians, but also for their failure to tackle what seem to be offenses no less severe committed by soldiers and officials of the United States.

One of my earlier notes compared the small number of civilians killed in Israeli military operations to the large number killed since American troops entered Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the numbers that can be found by Googling, it is not clear whether more or fewer Iraqis have died since 2003 than during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

The numbers do not settle the merits of the Bush decision to invade. However, they are relevant to a discussion about the human costs of what the United States has accomplished. The trials of Saddam and others may have been justified, but his widely televised execution was not a high point for western media. Some of the American low-lifes photographed being sadistic in Abu Ghraib have stood trial, but I have not heard of Donald Rumsfeld or any American general being threatened with charges by foreign or international courts like their Israeli counterparts.

Demands for fair comparisons are met with the platitude of "our wrongs do not excuse your wrongs."

Historically Jews have not done well against mobs incited to hate them. One of Golda Meier's first memories was being frightened by the prospect of a pogrom in Kiev. Aharon Barak tells of being smuggled through German lines in a potato sack. The rabble now targeting Israel is composed of intellectuals and activists of main line parties, many of them Jews.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:19 PM
August 03, 2009
On Barack Obama and other things American

I find myself defending Barack Obama, even though I think he is over his head, and on the way to embarrassment or worse in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Israel-Palestine.

The easiest part of this work leads me to ignore those who think him a Muslim anti-Semite, or a man whose elevation to the presidency depends on a forged birth certificate. They are close cousins of people convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill John F. Kennedy, and descendants of those sure that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the Rothschilds, or the Catholic Church engineered the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The weightier discussions are with those who contend that Obama is naive, and wonder about his actions in countries neither he nor his advisors appear to understand.

I agree with the naive part, and try to explain why, nonetheless, here is another American president heading for trouble.

It comes with the job.

Like it or not, and I fear that presidents do like it, the president is Emperor of the World. The job derives from the country's power and resources, head and shoulders above anything comparable. When others want money, military or technical assistance, or cooperation on economic issues, they are most likely to approach the United States. American citizens, weaned on traditions that emphasize their country's moral leadership and superiority in just about everything, go once again to the pursuit of justice, glory, or salvation for themselves and others.

Barack Obama is stuck in the same vortex as George W. Bush and virtually every other predecessor back to William McKinley. Before then my sense of historical detail peters out.

Conditions have changed. The earlier presidents were moving toward greatness. It is from Roosevelt onward that American presidents have made the world shake in its boots.

There were exceptions. No one should accuse Warren Harding or Calvin Coolidge of aspiring to much of anything. Dwight Eisenhower deserves credit for restraint.

I restrain myself from claiming that none of the presidents did any good overseas. I am tired of trying to convince a neighbor that Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were not anti-Semites who did everything they could to avoid helping European Jews. I give Jimmy Carter credit for nursing along the Egypt-Israel peace; in recent years he has been pathetic.

Even presidents who did well ended with stains on their reputation. FDR is blamed for Yalta and its aftermath, Truman went out with approval ratings similar to those of Jimmy Carter and GW Bush. Eisenhower had Gary Powers' U2. Bush's father left under the weight of "It's the economy, stupid." LBJ escalated and then quit on Vietnam. Nixon talked himself out of office. Clinton could not control parts usually kept private.

Reagan gets credit for ending the Cold War, but that depended a great deal on the Soviet Union imploding. Kennedy's death made him a hero, and left him with admirers convinced that he would ultimately have done a great deal.

Disappointments as well as aspirations come with the job. The record shows that presidents cannot overcome the antagonisms of the world, no matter how much their advisors have studied languages, cultures, and international politics. Domestic problems come from the complexity of the United States, all those interests and egos with access to Congress, and the temptations of presidential appointees to do well for themselves while doing good for the country.

Obama is destined to be associated with the greatest of aspirations. Some of them come from himself, with his rhetorical skills and theme of Change. Others come from his life story, and the expectations that it stimulates among his supporters.

The United States has a lot that invites fixing. The president is wise to begin with health, which is one of the most obvious shortfalls according to international comparisons. The best treatments are available in the United States, but the average American does not get as much as the average citizen in other well-to-do democracies. Obama's avowed downsizing in Iraq is admirable, but seems unlikely to undo the damage begun by his predecessor. His announced military aspirations for Afghanistan are not encouraging, nor are the beginnings of his political involvement in Israel-Palestine.

There are a number of blots on the United States' record that are not in Obama's game plan. These include the highest levels of civil violence, incarceration, and use of death as a penalty among the democracies. There is a damning record in what has been called the War on Drugs, which must be given some credit for those other miseries.

Hard to know if the American presidency is the world's best job, as measured by the money spent trying to acquire it, or one of the worse, as measured by the disappointments.
It is appropriate to end with best wishes. All of us stand to benefit or suffer from what comes out of the Oval Office, even if we prefer to be ignored by its occupant.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:57 AM
August 01, 2009
Despite the quiet, peace is not on the horizon

Both the West Bank and Gaza have been quiet. An occasional rocket has come from Gaza to land harmlessly; there have been roadside explosives planted near the fence, and some firefights along the border. Several Israeli soldiers have been punished for falling asleep on guard duty.

Activities on the West Bank have been small scale and mostly unsuccessful, judged to be the actions of enraged or unstable individuals not connected with organizations.

There has been more violence between Palestinians organizations, and more Israelis have suffered from crime, family violence, and traffic accidents.

Is it time for Israel to be more generous with the Palestinians?

The IDF has deactivated a number of road blocks in the West Bank, and has lessened its nighttime incursions to the cities.

As I was writing this note, a police helicopter has been circling over French Hill and Isaweea. Either there are reports of something afoot, or the police know I'm writing and want to keep me from moving too far left.

There has been no dramatic increase in food or medicines let through the blockade of Gaza. Israel has agreed to some building supplies for reconstruction, but is pondering how to assure that they go to worthy projects and not the reconstruction of Hamas bunkers. There have been only occasional attacks on the network of tunnels used to smuggle consumer goods and deadlier stuff from Egypt. When a rocket comes to Israel the air force bombs a few tunnels.

There is an impasse over the Israeli prisoner, as well as Hamas' persistent calls for Israel's destruction. No official or humanitarian organization has seen Gilad Shalit since he was captured three years ago. Israelis have to rely on Jimmy Carter and Hosni Mubarak, who have heard from Palestinians that Shalit is alive and well. Hamas is steadfast in its demand for the release of some 1,400 prisoners, many of them found guilty of numerous murders and sentenced to multiple life sentences. Israel has indicated its willingness to release hundreds, but balks at the specifics on Hamas' list.

An impediment to significant movement between Israel and the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas is Abbas' refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This goes along with his continued insistence on the right of return for refugees and their families, and may signify a deeper unwillingness to recognize Israel as a permanent fixture in the Middle East.

Americans and others are demanding a gesture from Israel to get things moving, namely the freeze of settlement activity. The Americans have requested some gestures from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

The settlement freeze will be difficult for the current government to accept, and would be even more difficult to implement. It is not only a matter of Varda's curtains and settlers who add on a room without a building permit. There are thousands of dwellings, with permits, in the planning or construction stages. There are also hundreds of young people who haul in trailers or erect shacks whenever the government moves against a settlement.

The Saudis and others have rejected American requests for gestures. They may still buy things quietly from Israeli companies, but reject an open break with the fiction of Arab unity.

Looking at basics instead of details, Palestinians and other Arabs are limited by internal problems, and the weight of anti-Israel rhetoric they have employed for more than 60 years.

Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank arrest one another's activists and occasionally kill them. Neither can appear to accommodate Israel without being accused of heresy.

Those who want a gesture from Israel overlook Israelis' frustrations at trying to reach an accord, plus the likelihood that an agreement with a Fatah government will be worthless as long as Hamas remains in control of Gaza and is close to control in the West Bank. There are a sizable number of Israelis willing to compromise on significant issues, but fewer who expect anything to happen. The current government tilts to the right, and has a commanding majority in the Knesset.

Israelis hear from Western diplomats that Palestinians, including spokesmen of Hamas, say they are willing to make peace with Israel. They also hear current sound bites, in Arabic, from the same Palestinians, ranting about Israel and the Jews.

We can leave aside the shouting from crazies on the right that Barack Obama is a Muslim anti-Semite, and crazies on the left that Israel is missing yet another opportunity to make peace. The simple conclusion of many Israeli citizens and most policymakers is that Palestinians are not ready, and show no signs of being ready in the future.

One should never say "never." However, "not now" is appropriate.

Why the pressure from American and European governments? There may be no better reason than their fascination with Biblical images of rescuing the Holy Land by beating swords into plowshares. There are naive hopes to placate all those Muslims by pressing Israel, and the ease of sending emissaries who like the work. American and European leaders may hope to distract attention from problems closer to home, or problems more serious in the region from Iraq to Pakistan.

The real action is further east. Israel is quiet, and hopes to remain so.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:43 PM