September 29, 2009
Micro events

A British court has rejected a petition from Gaza, via a London law firm, that Defense Minister Ehud Barak be arrested for having committed war crimes during the recent Gaza operation. The petitioners relied, in part, on the Goldstone report to the UN Human Rights Commission.

The British Foreign Office opposed the petition on the ground that Barak was a state guest (in London for talks with the prime minister, defense and foreign officials) and therefore not subject to such lawsuits. Israeli officials asserted that the petition was political in nature, that an arrest would damage Israeli-British relations, and set a precedent that would endanger officials of other countries - including Britain - that fight terrorists in controversial operations.

This is not the first time that Israeli politicians as well as present and former military officers have found themselves the targets of legal actions in Britain and other European countries. They are among the micro events that worry Israelis, far from the drama of war or meetings in the spotlights of the United Nations and world capitals.

Stone throwing directed at a group of non-Jewish European tourists on the Temple Mount, and an spurt of violence in the Old City on the day before Yom Kippur might have reached the international media. Probably below notice were efforts to fire bomb the gas station on the border between Isaweea and French Hill, and subsequent tussles between police and some Isaweea residents, also on the day before Yom Kippur.

There has also been a spurt of rocket, mortar, and small arms firing from Gaza, so far without Israeli casualties.

These may be the signs of a restive population, the efforts of extreme Palestinians always concerned to light a spark that will burst into something greater, the efforts of Palestinians leaders to satisfy those among their supporters who want action, or the leaders' hope that a bit of violence will develop into national salvation.

The use of legislation in European countries against human rights violations wherever they occur has made politicians, military officers and retired officers concerned about foreign travel. It has produced official promises of legal defense, but who wants to risk even temporary arrest when on a personal, business, or family trip to Europe? The Goldstone report has been widely condemned, but it is an official document of the United Nations. It has standing with a judge who wants to honor it, or does not know the difference and responds routinely to a petition submitted in proper form.

While some European politicians and activists support these actions against Israel, others see political motives in a judicial format, and worry about retaliatory actions against their own politicians and military officers who may done something dicey in Iraq, Afghanistan, or another place. Judges in well run democratic countries have considerable independence, and may act on their own even where government officials express opposition to the issuing of arrest warrants.

Israel could retaliate in the case of any country whose court that holds an Israeli by invoking its own laws against human rights violations against visiting military or political officials. That hardly seems likely, given the aspirations for such people to visit and consult with Israelis, and for the larger reason of not giving support to legal devices most likely to be used against Israelis.

There are other actions that Israel can use. Indeed, one can wonder if Palestinian actions against Israelis are in response to the mini actions that Israel takes against Palestinians. Currently in the works is Israel's opposition against the application of Palestinian entrepreneurs to open a second Palestinian cell phone service, which Israeli officials say is in retaliation against the efforts of the Palestine National Authority to charge Israel in the International Court of Justice.

The name of this game is, You make things difficult for us, we will make things difficult for you.

On Israel's list of possibilities are all those roadblocks, and the control of the borders around the West Bank as well as the northern and eastern boundaries of Gaza. Distinguished and not-so distinguished visitors to Palestine and Palestinians do not like delays or rejections when they want to enter or leave, or pass from one part of Palestine to another.

Who starts tit for tat frictions? That is less important in keeping them at a low level, rather than bubbling up to another intifada, Israeli responses, funerals, and property destruction.

Management rather than victory is the goal. There is no end in sight. Neither Barack Obama or anyone else has a better idea.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:02 PM
September 25, 2009
Some puzzles for Israelis and others

Should Israel be scorned because the former prime minister is said to have helped himself to financial favors during his service in increasingly important government offices on the way to the top? Or be praised for indicting him on charges of fraudulent receipt of goods, false registration of corporate documents, fraud, breach of trust, and tax evasion?

And should it be scorned because its former president is alleged to be a sexual predator, or praised for indicting him on charges of rape and sexual harassment?

Even those who praise Israel for cleaning its house may criticize it for taking so long. Investigations went on for years before the Attorney General handed down indictments, and the trials may be even longer.

Justice, and the closely related legitimacy of criticism are deeply rooted in Jewish doctrine. Israelis who do not study sacred texts acquire the traits somewhere else.

Should one doubt the presence of criticism, it is only necessary to look at the front page of the country's most distinguished newspaper the day after the Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu spoke to the United Nations General Assembly.

Praise of a speech carried live in Israeli and international media? Think again.

The big headline in Ha'aretz was that Netanyahu severely criticized leaders of the world, and demanded that they decide if they are on the side of Israel or terrorists. The smaller headline was that the hall was almost empty.

Three commentaries began on the front page.

None of them were complimentary. They criticized Netanyahu for lowering Israel's prestige by getting down to the level of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and displaying German documents indicating that the Holocaust did, in fact, occur. They also charged him with historical inaccuracies or misleading comparisons between the actions of allies in World War II and Israel's attack on Gaza. The critics argued that Netanyahu was exhibiting his usual bombast, talking to an Israeli audience despite doing it in English, and saying little that would gain support in international forums.

The newspaper's editorial chided the prime minister for claiming victory at the United Nations

It is only natural for Netanyahu to accentuate the points of agreement with Obama and attempt to soften their disagreements. . . His momentary "victory" might be the country's loss.
Fair criticism? Or picking on the prime minister by a newspaper several units to the left on the country's political spectrum?

The common element in all the items is the assertion that Netanyahu's activity at the United Nations will not add to Israel's prestige, world support, or well being.

Who really knows what works in the amorphous competition for public opinion and international politics? Was Netanyahu's speech and his other UN activity less wise or productive than those of Barack Obama, Ahmadinejad, Moammar Gadhafi, or anyone else? So far there is no evidence that Security Council members will do anything tangible, like vote meaningful sanctions against Iran or North Korea. Or soften their criticism of Israel.

So what?

That is the most important question, and it will take a while to answer it.

Will anyone remember this week at the United Nations next year, or ascribe any importance to it?

That is a more detailed question, and it will take at least a year to answer it.

More immediate is our responsibility in this self critical culture to think of our sins, as well as remembering those who died in the Yom Kippur War.

צום כל, וגמר חתימה טובה.

For those whose computers are not tuned to the Lord's aleph bet, May you have a easy fast, and be inscribed for a good year.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:57 AM
September 24, 2009
Inspiring President

Barack Obama sounded like he was campaigning for President of the World in his recent speeches at the United Nations. He displayed the same confident body language, and the same ringing phrases that helped him capture the American presidency. If the United Nations set up an office and election in response to his performances in New York, he might do even better than in his campaign against a war hero and what's her name.

The first snippet of his speech to the General Assembly that came into our living room may have been chosen by a left-wing Israeli media manager looking for an ally. "We continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

I gulped, look at my wife of the illegal curtains, and began to ponder the places where we could spend the rest of our lives.

The Obama White House considers our French Hill neighborhood to be Palestinian. The Arab family living in our building would be secure. Would there be enough room in the Galilee for all the Jews the President would displace from the post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem? The summer climate in other areas of the country is too hot for us. Go to the United States? Not unless Obama can bring its delivery of medical services into the modern era. Varda speaks German and qualifies for citizenship due to her parents' loss of their German citizenship and what the Germans did to her grandmother. They would probably let me in as well.

We were saved from such calculations by the news on another station. It provided more coverage of the President's speech, and we saw that it was vintage Obama. The phrases were awesome, but the details could be read to promise everything or nothing. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu was pleased with sections of the speech which he claimed showed his power to persuade the President about important points. According to these signs, we can stay in French Hill and enjoy the new curtains.

Obama's other UN appearances were no less dramatic, and just as empty. He chaired a Security Council session that voted unanimously for a resolution calling for world wide nuclear disarmament, to stop the spread of nuclear arms, and to lower the risk of nuclear terrorism. The members agreed "to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons."

The President said that the resolution was about ensuring that international agreements have real-world heft. "International law is not an empty promise, and treaties must be enforced."

Let me hear from anyone opposing that.

The Security Council resolution was non-binding, and did not mention North Korea or Iran. Some participants said that it was aimed at North Korea and Iran, but commentators were skeptical about them agreeing about concrete steps.

At a UN meeting on climate change, President Obama admitted that his own country had been a laggard, but now recognized its importance. The world "cannot allow the old divisions that have characterized the climate debate for so many years to block our progress."

According to the New York Times reporter who covered the meeting, "World leaders . . . made modest proposals . . . underscoring the way domestic political battles still trump what United Nations officials had hoped would be a sense of global urgency."

Obama is a great speaker. It is too early to rate his American presidency, or his aspirations for world leadership. Looking at his most recent remarks about the Middle East, one can be impressed either with the tough words about Israel, or their balance with demands directed against the Palestinians and other Arabs. Dismay comes not from the words, but from their lack of results. There has been no fit between what the President says that he wants, and what he has achieved. None of the political leaders in the Middle East gave him what he pressed to achieve. He has waded into a region with rhetoric fashioned in the United States, but no workable program. If the same proves to be true with respect to his activity about nuclear arms and climate control, he could be an inspirational President of the World, but without accomplishments.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:15 PM
September 23, 2009
The most powerful man in the world

It is hard to envy the president of the United States.

The New York Times describes his party colleagues in the Senate fighting among themselves over different ways of dealing with drug companies. That is one of numerous details in the way of the president's landmark effort to bring the world's best medical care to more citizens.

Another article in the same issue details radically different policies being considered for Afghanistan. The paper describes the war as an "intractable eight-year conflict that is not going well" and says the president is "wary of becoming trapped in an overseas quagmire."

It is not possible to know from the article if military and foreign policy advisors are confident of the options being promoted in the White House, or if they are scrambling for something new that might prevent the political disaster of admitting error and leaving Afghanistan to the Afghans.

Another article deals with the aftermath of the president's defeat at the hands of Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab governments, none of whom gave him want he wanted in order to move forward peace negotiations.

The article notes the demands, some of them shrill, that had been directed by the White House and the State Department to the parties. At the photo op with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian head Mahmoud Abbas, the president was not issuing orders. Now he is saying, "despite all the obstacles, all the history, all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward."

The same article notes the president's lack of success in getting China's cooperation in pressuring Iran to give up its nuclear program. It could have discussed the lack of cooperation from Russia and Germany in the same paragraph. These efforts are important in themselves, and would add to the levers that Obama could use to induce Israel to be more forthcoming with respect to the Palestinians. With the Iranians working toward a nuclear weapon, denying the Holocaust, and describing Israel as an illegal country that must be replaced--and no indication that the international community is doing anything about it--Netanyahu's government has little incentive to risk domestic problems by being flexible on settlements.

One idea currently circulating in the White House is to skip the preliminaries about what Israelis and Palestinians want to negotiate, and get right to the issues that Americans think are important. The president sounded confident when he said, "Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon."

Israelis and Palestinians have discussed just about everything, with no results that are apparent. The most difficult issues are the Palestinians' demands for rights of refugees and their families, the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the boundaries of Israel and Palestine, and control over the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary. Each may be a deal breaker. Somewhere down the list are problems about sharing water, and travel possibilities between the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas' control of Gaza may be another deal breaker. Jerusalem is either a deal breaker or fungible. Netanyahu and colleagues in the government proclaim their opposition to dividing the city. It may be possible to find an accommodation for Palestinian desires in part of Jerusalem if all other issues are solvable. Nothing will be easy. It may be impossible, given the competition between Palestinian and other Arab politicians, each concerned to be appropriately insistent about Muslim rights and Israeli guilt.

President Obama began his term with wide enthusiasm in many parts of the world. Currently his support in Israel is somewhere in the single digits. He can only go upward, but it will be a steep climb. He has put himself in a deep hole.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:27 AM
September 22, 2009
No high marks for Obama

Since the country went back to work after the New Year holiday, the airwaves have been filled with competing speculation about the meetings in New York between Barack Obama, Benyamin Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas. The central question: what, if anything, would Obama wring from Netanyahu and Abbas? Perhaps Bibi would agree to more of a settlement freeze than previously, and Abu Mazan would agree to negotiate with him.

Once the leaders had met, and the American president spoke, the commentary shifted to new terrain. Most likely it will continue in the next editions of the newspapers, and at least a day's worth of talk shows.

Neither national leader gave Obama what he wanted. The president came close to admitting defeat when he spoke about a restraint of building in the settlements rather than a freeze, and did not mention East Jerusalem. The process will continue. Secretary of State Clinton and special envoy Mitchell will return to the region, and press Israelis and Palestinians to be reasonable.

Some commentators are saying that Israel will pay a heavy price, sooner or later, for refusing to bend under the pressure of the American president. Others are ridiculing the American president. How could he have invested so heavily with his time and prestige, and achieved nothing?

The president's record is actually worse than nothing. He made things worse.

Earlier the Palestinians negotiated while construction in the settlements continued. Obama hardened their position by his insistence on a freeze. And he may have spurred a greater rate of construction by Israelis enraged by his demand to freeze construction for Jews in neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

Skeptics will say that Obama's efforts have had no impact. The gaps between what the most generous of the major Israeli parties are willing to offer and what the Palestinians demand are so great as to make agreement unlikely.

So what is the future?

Most likely more of the same. Scenarios moving out from the recent past look something like this:

*If Palestinians in the West Bank continue to refrain from terror, there will be quiet. The IDF will stay out of Palestinian cities and villages, and remove more of the barriers that hinder movement. Individuals will continue to invest in commercial, industrial, and residential properties, and the West Bank economy will outshine stagnation in Gaza.
*Israeli leftists will join the international chorus that cries foul. Some are already saying that if Israel does not agree to a two-state solution, the world will insist on a one state solution with full rights for everyone between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. That will produce another Middle East country beholden to its Muslim majority, and the end of Israel.
*The Israeli center and right will ignore those calls for national suicide. Aside from occasional lip service, the world will leave Israel and the Palestinians to the Israelis and Palestinians.
*If Palestinians tire of prosperity without the formal structure of their own state, and begin another round of violence, Israel will respond with violence. If the recent past repeats itself, there will be rubble where there is now construction. The United Nations and organizations claiming to be concerned with human rights will accuse Israel of violating their norms.

Change can happen. It is not wise, however, to plan for a major departure that rests on speculation, often by individuals with ideological commitments. Best to assume that the recent past is the best guide to the near future. The distant future will depend on an unknown variety of local, regional, and world wide events that are impossible to take into account for meaningful planning.

And what about President Obama?

His performance in the Middle East has been somewhere between unimpressive and embarrassing. It bears the marks of a new leader, with fresh advisors, who charged into foreign cultures with conceptions developed in their own country.

Americans should hope that he does better at home, and elsewhere in the world where he aspires to make his mark.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:52 AM
September 18, 2009
Policy failure

Seventy years ago, a distinguished scholar documented one of the keystones of politics: politicians have abnormally large egos. (Harold Lasswell, Psychopathology and Politics)

His finding is worth remembering in the context of emerging issues. Policy failures continue to hurt because people of big egos have trouble admitting mistakes.

American history, wealth, and military power may contribute to unusual egos in a field where even the leaders of small and pathetic states think of themselves in grand terms. It is certain that the mistakes of American leaders touch directly more people than the mistakes of national leaders elsewhere. There are more Americans than residents of most other countries to feel the problems associated with errors of domestic variety. The world spread of American aspirations means that poor judgment in the White House has greater impact that errors coming out of other national capitals.

There is no shortage of examples.

Vietnam would be prominent on many peoples' list of flawed activities. It also illustrates the continuation of a policy beyond the time when many perceived it was hopeless. It is reasonable to date that point with Lyndon Johnson's decision not to run for re-election in 1968. Lots of Americans, including ranking officials, had decided earlier that there was no hope to maintaining a decent South Vietnamese government that could resist the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese. The war continued for another five years beyond Johnson, and 40 percent of American military deaths occurred after his admission of failure.

Vietnam also illustrates that political loyalty as well as ego get in the way of rational assessment. Individuals committed to the memory of John Kennedy say that he would have pulled out of Vietnam. No one can verify the claim. Supporters rely on Kennedy's pondering withdrawal options, but Johnson and Nixon also pondered the possibilities. What the claims tell us is that friends and enemies mark political lineups, and get in the way of deciding who could have done what.

Yet another example of policy failure appears in the war on drugs. Enforcement is a key element, and shows up in an American prison population five times higher (per 100,000 population) than the average among countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Data from the OECD also show that the United States ranks close the highest among affiliated countries in the use of cannabis, amphetamines, and ecstasy.

Insofar as the war on drugs dates to the first Nixon administration, one might conclude that it has not worked.

Stopping the flow of drugs from source to market illustrates another failing. Not only do policymakers have problems in admitting that they are not successful, but they find themselves deeply involved in the drug economy thanks to another policy that is failing. Afghanistan is the opium super power. Efforts to remake that miserable place are stumbling on the involvement of America's friends in the mother lode of the Afghan economy.

Drugs are not the only explanation for failure in Afghanistan, and they may not be the principle reason. Another is the folly of trying to create government in a place that never was a united country. The United States started to go wrong when it sought to bolster Afghans and other Muslims as proxies in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, instead of relying on the morass of Afghanistan to frustrate the Soviets all by itself. Somewhat down that twisted road came 9-11. Since then the Americans have added to Islamic extremism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States continues to fumble as aspiring manager of world order. It is threatening by its good intentions the one strong democracy in the Middle East. Where have the president and his advisors learned more about the region than individuals who have spent their lives in it? The pieces of failure appear in efforts to extract movement from Arab governments, the Palestinians and Israelis, seeming to overlook decades of failure going back to when the British tried some of the same things in the 1930s, when Bill Clinton tried along with Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert tried again under the prodding of George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice.

Extremists say it is all Israel's fault. Moderates claim that Israel holds a key in a settlement freeze that could unlock Arab rejectionism. Both should be embarrassed by the report issued by Richard Goldstone. Especially bizarre is a quotation from his daughter. Claiming from a home in Canada that she "love(s) Israel more than my family and friends and anything else," she adds no credibility to her father.

Goldstone may have hardened the position of the Palestinians as well as angering Israelis. Senator Mitchell is returning home with little or nothing to show for his recent efforts.

We should no more expect Barack Obama to admit that he has been wrong about the Middle East or Afghanistan than we should expect John Kennedy to come back from the dead and admit that he was wrong about Vietnam, or Richard Nixon to declare failure for the war on drugs.

Politics is the most civilized way of dealing with disputes. If done well, it allows for reasoned dispute, and settles disagreement by voting. It does not work without party loyalty in anything larger than a tiny town. Slogans are part of the game. Americans screeching "socialism," "rationing," and "death committees" about a health initiative demonstrate the limits of reason.

Wisdom and good luck are essential in avoiding the personal costs of failed policies. Stay away from drugs, and try to avoid the cross fire between those involved in the trade. Do not volunteer for foolish military adventures, and urge the same to children and grandchildren. Israelis hope that their national leaders are wise enough to resist threats, blandishments, and faux judicial pronouncements.

It might help to vote for candidates with modest aspirations, assuming that any can be found.

Good smells from the kitchen. No policy failure there. Shana tova.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:44 AM
September 16, 2009
Goldstone Mission

The Israeli government boycotted the Goldstone Mission, established by the United Nations Human Rights Council to report on the operation in Gaza. Israel's reasons were the source of the Mission, its official mandate, and the prior statements of at least one of the members. Nothing good would come of it, and the government saw no benefit in participating.

Now the Report has been issued. It meets expectations by damning Israel's intentions and activities.

On the day after the Report was made public, Ha'aretz devoted almost one-half of its pages to details and commentary. Radio and television have also given it a great deal of attention with prominent contributors.

Part of the Israeli coverage is a loud Oy gevalt. The report is so bad that it will cause significant damage. Another response is, We told you so. The report is so biased that no right thinking person can accept it at face value.

Sections of the mandate establishing the Mission make it clear which was the guilty party before the investigation began:

Expressing serious concern at the lack of implementation by the occupying Power, Israel, of previously adopted resolutions and recommendations of the Council relating to the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem . . .

Recognizing that the Israeli siege imposed on the occupied Gaza Strip, including the closure of border crossings and the cutting of the supply of fuel, food and medicine, constitutes collective punishment of Palestinian civilians and leads to disastrous humanitarian and environmental consequences . . .

While claiming to be an inquiry, much of the 575 page Report is in the form of "It is reported that . . ." One critic justly claims that it is a compilation of material cut and pasted from existing reports by organizations with records of criticizing Israel but not Palestinians, and unverified statements of individuals interviewed in Gaza.

Supporters of the Report claim balance on account of its criticism of Hamas rocket attacks against Israeli citizens. Yet the thrust is overwhelmingly against Israel. One of its conclusions goes beyond a description of what happened, and claims to have identified Israeli motives of the ugliest kind.

It is clear from evidence gathered by the Mission that the destruction of food supply installations, water sanitation systems, concrete factories and residential houses was the result of a deliberate and systematic policy by the Israeli armed forces. It was not carried out because those objects presented a military threat or opportunity but to make the daily process of living, and dignified living, more difficult for the civilian population.

Shimon Peres condemned the Report as a mockery of history. A senior Foreign Ministry official compared it to the 1975 United Nations resolution that Zionism is racism.

The Report is so bad that it is good. It is easier to defend oneself against a caricature of condemnation than a serious inquiry and balanced criticism.

Palestinians, other Arabs and Muslims, as well as the international left are applauding the Report. The daughter of Richard Goldstone, the Jewish South African jurist who chaired the Mission, asserts that the report is balanced, and that her father is a Zionist who loves Israel. Speaking from her home in Toronto, she said that Israel ""is the most important thing in my life, my heart is there.... I love Israel more than my family and friends and anything else."

The history of the Goldstone Mission does not portend wide acceptance among important governments. The resolution that established it was presented by such "paragons of international humanitarianism as Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia."

Canada's representative on the Council opposed the resolution, and 13 European countries abstained. At the time of the resolution, the United States was still following the policy of the Bush administration to boycott the UN Human Rights Council on account of its control by repressive states.

The Obama administration has joined the Human Rights Council, intending to work for greater balance in its activities. Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, has not been kind. "This is like getting on board the Titanic after it's hit the iceberg. . . This is the theology of engagement at work. There is no concrete American interest served by this, and it legitimizes something that doesn't deserve legitimacy."

As yet, there is no official American comment on the Goldstone Report.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:42 AM
September 14, 2009
Simple solutions and other sewage

A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times argues against any concessions by Arab governments to Israel in exchange for an Israeli gesture on settlements. The author, a member of the Saudi elite, demands more than a settlement freeze. He wants a complete withdrawal of settlements from what he calls the West Bank. (By some interpretations, that geographical label means all of Israel.) He bases his argument on the notion of Arab land. It was ours. Israel took it. Israel must give it back before Arabs make any concessions to Israel.

The argument may resonate with the European and North American left, and perhaps even in the Obama White House. The weight of the argument is political (there are more Arabs than Jews, and the Arabs have all that oil and gas), dressed up in legal and historical language. It is no more convincing than the screams of religious settlers: God gave it to us.

The factual record is inconclusive.

Maybe God did give it to Jews. However, He defined the land poorly, with at least three different descriptions in His Torah. He said something about sharing it with others, and being strangers in another land.

The Arab argument is not much better. There never was a Palestine to serve as the basis of a claim. The Ottoman Empire lost control in World War I. Jordan took possession in 1948, but its claim was shaky at best. Israel took possession in 1967 pretty much the way the Jordanians did 19 years earlier. It conceded part of it to the Palestine National Authority in 1993, but has entered and left as security demanded.

There remain Jewish settlements sprinkled throughout the West Bank. Some are on land privately owned by individual Palestinians, and they represent a problem for Israel. Others may sit on land that Palestinians say is their own, but with nothing more than "Grandpa told me it was his."

It is more accurate to describe the area as "disputed" rather than "occupied."

No doubt the International Court of Justice and the United Nations General Assembly would decide that it belongs to Palestine. No sane Israeli would turn to those bodies for a decision, given their well documented bias against Israel.

So at least for the time being, we are left with possession being nine-tenths of the law. There are efforts from the highest places to persuade concessions out of Israel, but they will have to make more sense than the op-ed piece by the Saudi prince.

Involved in Israelis' calculations are the responses of Lebanese and Palestinians to earlier withdrawals from Southern Lebanon and Gaza. Justice is a murky and mostly irrelevant element in politics. How the Arabs responded to those actions influence Israeli willingness to be forthcoming without a substantial quid pro quo. Adding to this are Arafat's rejection of the Barack-Clinton deal in 2000, and Abbas' rejection of Olmert's proposal in 2008.

Against these experiences, why should Israel bother? Peace would be ideal, but first steps have produced rejection, rockets, and suicide bombings.

Americans and Europeans do not like Israeli stubbornness, but their rhetoric is not sufficient inducement.

With no serious talk of sanctions, much less troop movements against Israel, it appears that policymakers in Europe and North America accept at least part of the Israeli narrative.

On the other side of the country is an emerging problem that may bubble up to something substantial. In the misery that is Gaza there is no capacity or incentive to process the sewage. So it lies in pools on land or flows to the sea. The pools have broken, adding to the discomfort of near neighbors. Israel is worried that sea borne sewage will drift north to foul the desalinization plant at Ashkelon. The brown stain may also bother Egyptians and other decent people who worry about pollution wherever it occurs.

Will the sewage serve as a Palestinian weapon to extract concessions from Israel? Are there international bodies willing to help the Gazans with its treatment, if only the Israelis will let in the construction supplies?

Some might be tempted to ponder Jonathan Swift's tongue in cheek Modest Proposal for dealing with the Irish problem. Could Israel stop the flow of Gaza's sewage by closing off the supply of food?

It is time to wish you all the appropriate blessings for the New Year. In God's language, שנה טובה .

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:28 AM
September 11, 2009
Hot buttons

Hot buttons excite intense emotion. They stimulate opposition to something felt very important by many people. Abortion, coverage of immigrants, death committees, and rationing are among the hot buttons being pushed by those who do not like the president's health bill.

The arguments implicit in hot buttons may have little to do with reality, or a reasoned consideration of benefits and costs. They are not only American, and do not occur only in connection with health. Because of their prominence, however, it is worth considering a few of those clogging our inboxes.

Coverage of illegal immigrants. The reasons for opposing this is the fear of adding to health costs, and incentives for the poor of the world to sneak into the United States. One cannot be sure of things in this undocumented corner of society, but the infirm are not prominent among those who migrate illegally. The typical immigrants are young, most likely healthier than the average in their place of origin, and migrate in order to work. When they do find themselves in need of medical care, it may be because the work they do is harder, more dangerous, and less healthy than what is desired by legal residents, as well as being paid less than legals are willing to accept. Should not the society that attracts them for unpleasant jobs also pay for their medical care?

Death committees. This is the hot button label for considering the effectiveness of treatments. Without sifting through the thousand pages of the proposal, and making some guesses about what will survive a presidential signing ceremony and subsequent administrative rulings, one can soften the language and discuss professional assessments about the worth of medications or other kinds of care, for the conditions presented by individual patients. This is an area not easily covered by rules, insofar as professional judgment is essential. Extreme cases are easy to describe: an expensive treatment that might prolong the life of a terminally ill patient for a short time. Physicians and insurance companies already weigh benefits and costs, without labeling themselves Death committees. There are disputes among the professionals, as well as patients and families who want every opportunity to live longer. In a program that will be funded by the public, it is reasonable to require that costs and probable benefits enter into decisions.

Abortion. Why not? Prohibition of public payment for abortion, like the earlier prohibition of alcohol, expresses religious values. What happened to the separation of church and state? Abortion is a recognized medical procedure. Human life is an important value. Existing laws and court decisions deal with late term abortions, and the rights of physicians and other professionals not to involve themselves for reasons of conscience. Similar provisions can apply to a public program that pays for abortions, just as it will pay for other treatments that patients desire for their physical or emotional well being.

The hottest button currently on the Israeli scene is settlements. Like those discussed above, this one comes to political prominence from the White House. It also shows the president's capacity to produce the opposite of his intentions.

It is hard to think of something more naive than demanding the stopping of settlement construction by a settlement-oriented Israeli government, in the presence of a population convinced that there is no mileage in yet another effort at making peace with the Palestinians currently in power. The real rate of settlement increase is not all that clear on account of Israeli officials expressing themselves in ways to minimize offense to the American president, as well as to enraged settlers. Obama has increased the prominence of the issue among Israelis, and may well increase the tempo of building.

Politics without hot buttons? Not when an issue provokes fears and intensity. Then justice and rationality take a back seat to political realities, and pave the way for fuzzy terminology, disinformation, and the feeling that "he lies."

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:13 PM
September 10, 2009
We are not yet finished with Saddam Hussein

This part of the Middle East has long been a place of exciting ideas. Chosen People, Promised Land, and Holy City have motivated Jews for more than two millennia. Nakba has served Palestinians for 60 years. Settlements arouse both Israelis and anti-Israelis. Some see them as part of salvation, and others as the essence of sin.

Hyperbole may be the regional disease, or at least one of the elements preventing the calm that we envy for Scandinavia and New Zealand.

Way down the list from Chosen People, Promised Land, Holy City, or Nakba, but still warm to the touch is a note distributed by the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies. David Keyes begins with the statement that "Saddam Hussein killed more Arabs and Muslims than any other Middle Eastern leader in recent history."

He goes on to write that "Saddam . . . imposed order in Iraq. . . . Prizing stability over liberty is the root of so many of the region's ills."

There is more here than at first glance.

The Adelson Institute is part of the Shalem Center, one of the organizations funded by politically active American Jews. Shalem's dominant line is somewhere on the right of Israeli and American politics. Its founders bowed in the direction of Meir Kahane. They publish Hebrew translations of conservative classics (Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, Edmund Burke), and support writers who express their point of view.

Natan Sharansky was the founding chairman of the Adelson Institute. His book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, was part of George W. Bush's explanation for his campaign against Saddam.

What David Keyes says about the deaths associated with Saddam may be correct, but perhaps not. The issue is contentious, and important in judging what has resulted from his removal.

The number of people killed during Saddam's reign may have been as high as two million. To reach that figure, however, it is necessary to include estimates of 750,000 Iranians killed during the Iran-Iraq war, 200,000 Iraqis killed during the 1991 Gulf War, and 500,000 Iraqi children who may have died as a result of international trade sanctions.

Whatever the number of Iraqi deaths that might be linked to Saddam's reign, it may not be all that much different from the number associated with the violence that got underway with Bush's invasion of 2003.

A lengthy article about Iraqi deaths from the Guardian of July, 2008 admits that "the exact . . . toll remains a mystery." Estimates range from under 100,000 to nearly 1.5 million. "Inevitably, the issue has become a political football, with the Bush administration, the British government and other supporters of the US-led occupation seizing on the lowest estimates and opponents on the highest."

The figure of 1.5 million, if true, would be larger than estimates of Iraqis killed by Saddam, leaving out Iranians who died in the war of the 1980s.

The issue is greater than the murky subject of casualties. Many view the ouster and execution of Saddam Hussein as a benefit, but the balance of costs and benefits is less clear. Beyond the costs as measured in dead Iraqis, plus Americans and others, is the spur to Islamic extremism, hatred of Americans, Jews and other westerners; what the ongoing violence may contribute to Iranian nuclear efforts; the resurgence of Taliban in Afghanistan; and the spread of instability to Pakistan. For some, Bush's doubtful crusade produced the benefit of political change in the United States. For others, President Obama's concern to engage with Iran and other Muslims, and increase the military effort in Afghanistan should be counted among the costs of what Bush initiated.

Was the world, and even Iraq, better off with Saddam Hussein? His cruelty was reprehensible, but stabilizing. We do not yet know the final death toll, the nature of the new Iraq, or the effects coming from its transition.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 05:47 AM
September 09, 2009
Israeli education

The scare item of the day on the front page of Ha'aretz: "Teacher salaries in Israel among the lowest in the world." The story compares Israel's performance on a number of indicators to the high income group of nations covered in a report by the OECD (Organization for Economic co-operation and Development). Toward the end of the story was the news that Israel does better than many countries on indicators of higher education. An item on the radio contrasted Israel's educational expenditures, teachers' salaries, and class size to those of Norway.

These reports do say something about education in Israel, but no less about the media.

Nowhere does one see an effort to explain the findings, other than citing the country's shame for not doing more.

Israel's teacher salaries are not among the lowest in the world. The report at issue deals only with upper income countries covered by the OECD. No doubt the majority of the world's countries provide even less education.

Looking at OECD's report, one finds that it is only for teachers' salaries where Israel appears close to the bottom of the well-to-do. On other indicators Israel scores lower than the OECD average, but not among the lowest of the countries surveyed. On indicators about higher education, Israel is above the OECD average, and in some cases among the highest in the world.

Important in all of this are available resources.

Israel finds itself among the wealthiest countries of the world, but toward the bottom of that group. According to the World Bank, a common measure of national resources (Gross Domestic Product per Capita) shows the average of high income countries at $35,400, and Israel at $20,400. Norway (the country used by Israel Radio as a comparison), enjoys a GDP/c of $72,300,

Also relevant to what is available for education is how much countries spend on national security. The average of higher income countries is 3 percent of their GDP. Israel spends 9 percent, and Norway spends 1 percent of its GDP on its defense.

So much for the quality of Israel radio news and its most prestigious newspaper. Scare us they can. Explain they do not bother.

There are problems with Israeli education. A recent item from the Ministry of Education is not encouraging. Newly emphasized requirements forbid teachers to wear Crocs in class, or short shirts that display the midriff, and forbid teachers to use their cell phones while teaching. The implication of these rules is that there are teachers who do not know how to appear before their class, and cannot resist chatting on the phone when they are supposed to be working. Teachers may also be inept at deciding what is proper behavior for their pupils. The Ministry of Education found it appropriate to indicate that pupils should not use their cell phones while in class.

The greatest problem with Israeli education is not mentioned in these materials from the OECD, the World Bank, or the Ministry of Education. It exists in the realm of Israeli education that lies outside the control of the Ministry of Education, in the thoroughly religious education received by the children of some 10 percent of the Jewish population that is ultra-Orthodox.

Those families have a lot of children. More than 25 percent of primary school students are ultra-Orthodox.

They learn a great deal, often from the age of three onward, but the curriculum of sacred texts does not prepare them for anything other than learning more sacred texts. Substantial public resources support tuition-free education in religious academies beyond the age of high school, and provide living expenses for students and their families. Because the typical family is large and poor, often headed by a man who studies all his life, there is little by way of income tax collected from this population, and they receive discounts on local taxes and water bills.

Traditionally (i.e., before the birth of Israel) Jewish parents paid for the religious education of their children. Communities supported young men who were brilliant but poor. Often the community made life even better for its geniuses by providing a wife from among the daughters of a rabbi or wealthy family.

Israel's politics are stuck with financial bills for unlimited years of education that pay no dividends, except in the world to come.

The greatest hope for Israeli education comes from a finding in a prominent study done years ago in the United States. It found that the most important ingredients in educational success come not from schools but from one's family and friends. Expenditures per pupil, teacher education, and class size were shown to be less important than parents' education, their attitudes toward education, and the educational motivations of one's friends.;jsessionid=60C38D225D6CFDD470536F612C2FDBF7

One can wish for better conditions in Israeli schools. Peace would help, by allowing less to be spent on national security. The weaning of religious Jews from a lifetime in religious academies would also be nice, but is no more likely than peace. Meanwhile, Jewish parents have something to do with a quality of education that is better than what comes from the schools. They contribute to a credible performance in higher education, and what comes later.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:47 AM
September 08, 2009
Avigdor Lieberman, Foreign Minister?

One can gain insight into Israeli politics by examining the position of the current foreign minister. What emerges is a story where appearances are not everything, and pragmatism overcomes a simple reckoning of importance.

Avigdor Lieberman heads Israel Beitenu, the second largest party in the coalition. Without his cooperation Benyamin Netanyahu might not be prime minister.

Lieberman's primary constituency are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. About one million arrived from the late 1980s through the 1990s, plus children born here minus those who left for greener pastures. They amount to 20 percent of the Jewish population. Not all are Jews according to the rabbis, but most are, and they are more like Jews than any other group. They tend to be right of center.

Lieberman represents this population, and others who support him, by the sharpest comments one can find in the Israeli establishment about Palestinians and other Arabs. Critics call him a racist. The Egyptian government treats him as persona non grata due to a statement about President Mubarak that included the line, "He can go to hell." He views the peace process with the Palestinians as useless, and enraged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by asserting that the Obama administration changed an understanding with the United States about settlements. Among the juiciest of accusations is that of Martin Peretz of The New Republic. He called Lieberman "neo-fascist ... a certified gangster ... the Israeli equivalent of Jorg Haider."

A police investigation that languished for years returned to the headlines on account of new information just before the February election. Allegations involve money laundering, bribery, and obstruction of justice. Under Israeli law, a person can hold office as long as there is no indictment.

Lieberman's rhetoric is more of a problem than his liability as a possible criminal. Ehud Olmert continued for his entire tenure as prime minister while under police investigation for offenses no less serious.

Lieberman is foreign minister, but not really. He has had long tours far from the hot spots (and the Foreign Ministry) in Africa and Latin America. Media coverage of his meeting with Masai tribesman did not boost his importance. A cartoon in Ha'aretz has him saying, "Me Tarzan."

The real work is done by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres, and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Netanyahu and Barak have handled the important meetings with ranking Americans and Europeans. It was Peres, and not the Russian speaking Lieberman, who visited Russia for conversations with high officials about the ship carrying a hidden cargo of missiles to Iran or Syria, and waylaid by what may have been a Israeli-Russian operation.

When we hear Lieberman, he is usually expressing a clear posture that may excite many Israelis to say, "Right on!," but others to fear that he is not sufficiently nuanced.

Ayalon is a seasoned diplomat with long experience and numerous functions in the foreign ministry, peaked by a four year stint in the most prestigious position as Ambassador to the United States. His academic and business credentials are impressive. He appears frequently on Israeli media, and speaks about policy without ruffling feathers.

Ayalon entered politics after his term as ambassador, and campaigned as number seven on Lieberman's party list. His position in the Foreign Ministry solves part of the Lieberman problem. Ayalon's workload is arguably greater than that of colleagues higher on the party list, whose formal titles outrank his own.

We see again that politics is not for simpletons. The formula involved in putting together a party list or a government may not be the same that defines who does what.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:31 AM
September 07, 2009
Does he really think that settlements are the key?

Has Israel insulted the United States by approving construction on some 500 new dwellings in the West Bank, and indicating that construction will continue on about 2,500 others? This against the president's plan for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations based upon a complete construction freeze, including neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Or is it a reasonable response to a naive American conception, that the settlements are a major obstacle preventing agreement between Palestinians and Israel?

Perhaps the Israeli response is appropriate, but presented in a way that is insulting. If Netanyahu was working with the Americans to agree on a conception of a freeze, what he has done seems far from that. And was it nice to announce new constructions a day before the long Labor Day weekend, when Americans would be away from their desks?

Those inclined to judge Israel should begin by noting that the decision has the backing of the Labor Party. It is the leader of that party, Ehud Barak, as Defense Minister with responsibility for the West Bank, who is signing off on the permits for new construction.

For those who think that Israelis' style is flawed might also consider the Americans' style. To begin the process by demanding the cessation of construction in East Jerusalem was a fatal error. It provoked ridicule as well as rejection. Arabs but not Jews could build in specific neighborhoods. The Americans were too close to the Palestinian demand that no Jews remain in what they see as Arab land. Denying Jews the right to live where they want does not play well in this society. It provoked intense opposition to any freeze, and may have led the settlers and their allies to increase plans for West Bank.

What Labor and the rest of the Israeli government have done reflects the frustration of the Israeli establishment with Palestinian responses to offers made by Barak (and Clinton) in 2000, and Olmert in 2008. The rejections did not come with a counter offer. Palestinians have not offered inducements for a better deal. They repeatedly demand actions that Israel cannot accept, most notably the swamping of Israel with untold numbers of Palestinians.

President Obama failed to obtain concessions from Palestinians and Arab countries that would make it easy for Israel to accept a settlement freeze.

Israel found itself under intense pressure to make the concession of a settlement freeze, without getting anything significant in exchange.

The President should know that business in the Middle East, and perhaps in the Middle West, does not work that way.

Explosions in Iraq and Afghanistan do not portend greater success in those places, and he may not be doing any better with his health plan in Congress.

A decade in Chicago politics and two years in the United States Senate may not have been sufficient preparation for the world's biggest job.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:41 AM
September 04, 2009
Maybe I could be a tailor. Or a peddler.

This is one of those days when I wish I had taken up the trade of a grandfather--tailoring or peddling--rather than the academic craft of political science.

Or maybe I should go back to a school where someone might teach me to understand what I am reading.

Israel's prime minister is saying that he agrees to a limited time freeze on West Bank settlements, but only to take effect after he signs off on several hundred new building permits, then excludes them from the freeze along with some 2,500 units already under construction, along with schools and other public buildings that might be built in existing settlements. He is also saying that the freeze will not include neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

All that sounds good for Varda's curtains and Likud party activists who used terms like "traitor" when they heard that Netanyahu was agreeing to any freeze. However, it also recalls one of Tzipi Livni's slogans in the recent election campaign, "Bibi. I don't believe him."

Mahmoud Abbas has rejected Bibi's conception of a freeze, and refuses to begin negotiations with Israel.

That is not a great loss. Most Israelis have no faith in the outcome of such talks. We have heard from centrist commentators that the American president has not been able to get any significant gestures toward Israel from the Palestinians or Arab governments that would compensate for the domestic political costs of a settlement freeze.

The American ambassador has said that he doubts Washington can accept the prime minister's position. A Jerusalem Post headline reads, "US slams Netanyahu construction plan."

That is a bit weightier than Abbas' reaction. It may be that only 4 percent of Israeli Jews feel that Barack Obama is supportive of their country. Many think that the American president is naive with respect to Israel and the Arabs, but it is even more naive to deal with any American president the way Bibi's position is coming over the media.

The prime minister is denying reports that he referred to Obama's aides as "self-hating Jews."

The Secretary of State may be reminding the president what her husband said about Bibi, "Who the ---- does he think he is?"

Europe is not far behind the Americans. A headline on an Israeli internet site is that "Europe condemns Netanyahu's plan." (4/9/09: 2315)

What might be called measured optimism came from somewhere in Washington, attributed to a senior White House aide:
while (the Administration) was unhappy about it -- and it made that clear to the prime minister's aides -- it still hoped and expected that the subsequent freeze would lead to renewed peace negotiations."

Could it be that Israel's prime minister thinks he can put something over on a White House that is having its own troubles?
It may be too early to diagnose the health bill as in extremis, but it is tottering. Opponents are getting traction for their charges that it would limit treatments to older folks, allow payment for abortions, reduce the benefits and increase the costs for the large majority of Americans with health insurance. Part of the argument is that there is not enough money to extend insurance to those who do not have it and preserve the benefits of those covered, in light of the deficit produced by expenditures already made to stop the economic melt down.

Medicare takes a large share of government outlays on health, and is a tempting target for savings. Those who benefit from Medicare or expect to benefit soon are well organized to prevent reductions. And there are all those old children of older parents who do not want any increase in their own responsibilities.

There is also one of those headlines that upset political leaders who send troops to war. A bombing mission to destroy tanker trucks stolen by the Taliban caused an explosion that may have killed 100 people, most of them civilians.

Could this will be the straw that breaks the back of the American adventure in Afghanistan?

Nothing in my political science playbook indicates that it will be that simple.

My limited skills may be good enough to explain the sources of problems, but far from adequate to know what is likely to happen.

Both Netanyahu and Obama are great speakers. Both spoke themselves into high office, and further into situations that offer no obvious exits.

Netanyahu is caught between an unrelenting Palestinian entity that has been preaching unrealistic goals to a gullible population for more than six decades, an American administration trying to deal with someone else's problems with the compromises it creates, and a domestic political base that distrusts both the Palestinians and these Americans.

Obama has at least two sets of problems.

One is with the western world's most retarded health system, a population that fears the changes he is proposing, a resource base depleted by previous decisions, and political rivals pushing all the hot buttons they can find (death committees, abortion, socialized medicine, rationing).

The other is a foreign policy agenda featuring Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine, each with their own contending forces likely to frustrate the treatments he is inclined, or able to offer.

What size shirt did you say you wear? I can use the skills acquired from one grandpa to sew it up, and those acquired from the other grandpa to peddle it in your neighborhood.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:40 PM
September 03, 2009

A committee of leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis has called on their communities to desist from violence, and all demonstrations outside their core neighborhood. They forbid verbal as well as physical violence, name calling, throwing trash, blocking roads, burning trash containers, and secular Israelis or the police.

What brought this on are signs that the demonstrations had gotten out of hand, and threatened serious conflict among Jews. Last Saturday a young man laid down in front of a car on one of the main streets and the driver either did not see him or did not care, drove on and dragged him for some distance before he was pulled away with moderate injuries. A day later an Arab taxi driver attempted to drive through a demonstration. Yeshiva students pulled him from the car, beat him seriously and damaged his vehicle.

Police for the first time opened fire, most likely warning shots in the air.

For the rabbis, the use of "live fire" was a dire change in police behavior that, along with the two serious injuries, indicated that things had gone too far.

All know that if the level of confrontation seen in and near ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods had occurred in Arab towns, there would be bodies in the street and families marching to funerals. And instead of a few yeshiva students held by the police for a day or two, there would be trials and jail sentences meted out against Arabs who led the demonstrations, or who were caught with fire arms, throwing stones, or using slingshots.

The different rules that prevail around ultra-Orthodox and Arab demonstrations trouble Israelis as well as others, but deserve some consideration for what they reveal about this society.

No doubt that both groups break the law against demonstrations that proceed without the permits given by police for protests that do not threaten public order. The difference begins with the threat perceived from spontaneous Arab demonstrations, often incited by religious or political extremists, that may involve fire arms as well as stones and home made fire bombs. They recall deadly riots, and the efforts of some Arabs to provoke a widespread uprising. The demonstrations of ultra-Orthodox are typically limited to massed efforts to block roads, the burning of trash dumpsters, throwing stones (rather than more deadly slingshots), dirty diapers and other garbage, curses and spitting.

Peace has not descended on the Jews of Jerusalem. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and Knesset members promise to continue the struggle. They are accusing the municipality of insensitivity in not honoring legitimate demands to preserve the sanctity of the Sabbath, and are accusing the police of a violent overreaction.

There is nothing new in this. The details of these protests (concerning the opening of a parking garage near the Old City on the Sabbath, the prosecution of an ultra-Orthodox woman for abusing one or more of her children, and police efforts to take the body of a murder victim for an autopsy) may differ in detail from those in the past. However, every so often there are protests coming out of the ultra-Orthodox communities that follow similar routines. An incident, real or imagined, ignites the distrust of the secular community that prevails within the ultra-Orthodox community; teachers at religious academies call on their students to march in protest; the word spreads from congregation to congregation and results in mass movement on main streets in and near the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; the police try to keep the streets clear; protesters escalate with stones, dirty diapers, spitting, curses, and burned garbage bins. The process repeats itself for several days, usually in the evenings. The police respond with their hands, perhaps staves and mounted riders, but avoid the use of firearms or dogs. They arrest some of the demonstrators and hold them for a day or two. Seldom are there more than minor injuries, either to police or demonstrators. Eventually, leading rabbis and secular authorities counsel restraint. Often they mention the most recent Jewish civil war that occurred in the first century, and facilitated widespread destruction by the Romans.

What we are seeing, both in the demonstrations and the lack of serious violence, is the accommodation between the ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis. It resembles the accommodation between Religious Zionists who lead the drive to settle the Land of Israel, and the leaders of major parties who govern the country. Both the ultra-Orthodox and the Religious Zionists are outside, or on the fringes of the main stream, but they are significant minorities. Without their support or toleration, the society could not function peacefully.

Moreover, both the ultra-Orthodox and Religious Zionists represent elements long established in Jewish thought and tradition. They are part of society and the Jewish state, even though many Jews view them as nuisance, or a threat to stability, economic viability, and the capacity of the country to withstand Arab threats or demands from great powers.

Realism demands accommodation, even if some view it as distasteful. We see this not in the commentary of the ultra-Orthodox, the Religious Zionists, or those who oppose them. We see it in the pragmatic decisions of Israelis who reach high office.

And what about Arab demonstrations? Not all threaten the society, but some do. Not all Arab politicians or religious leaders aspire to the destruction of Israel, but some do. And not all responses to Arab demonstrations end badly, with corpses and increased animosity.

The more serious problem is not this or that demonstration, but demographic projections that see ultra-Orthodox and Arabs combined as an eventual majority of the population. About Arabs, this is threat to Jewish culture and safety. About ultra-Orthodox Jews, it means a parasitic population of men who insist on studying religious texts full time throughout a working life, at public expense, and refusing military service.

Optimists know that demographic predictions are often wrong. They do not take account of changes that may occur within or around the populations. In the case of Arabs, there is already a trend of declining birth rates associated with increasing education. Among the ultra-Orthodox, there are signs of young people tiring of the low standard of living associated with perpetual study. Some are leaving the religious academies to learn something practical, getting jobs, and accepting military service.

There is much to ponder. Stereotypes are part of the political discourse among Jews and Arabs. Israel is destined to wrestle with multiple tensions. By all indicators, the results are better than ever before experienced by a Jewish community. Remember that Joshua did not conquer the whole Land of Israel. From the death of King Solomon it was pretty much down hill, most likely worse than described in Holy Text. 1948 was a turnaround. We are still at work.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:34 AM
September 02, 2009
Morality and Reality

It is not always pretty, what a country has to do in its defense.

To many observers who consider themselves the epitome of moral virtue, Israel is not pretty. Some Israelis agree with them. If there is a symmetry between Israel's self critics and those who think that Barack Obama is pro-Israel, they are somewhere around four percent of the Jewish population.

A larger percentage are uncomfortable with a recent statement by Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. He spoke to a group of high school students, many of whom were demanding greater action to obtain the release of Gilad Shalit, held prisoner in Gaza for more than three years. The audience included young men soon to be drafted, who felt that Israel should do everything in order to bring prisoners back home. A popular slogan is, "pay any price."

Barak said that some prices are too high. Freeing hundreds of murderers for the sake of one prisoner would make it likely that more than one Israeli would die as a result of the deal. Barak went on to say that life is tough in the Middle East, and that some soldiers do not come home.

Yet another insight to what Israel may do is the claim that the pirates who seized the Russian freighter alongside Europe and brought it to the Cape Verde Islands were Israeli security personnel. If true, this will upset good thinking, law-abiding citizens of Israel and other places. The assessment is that a declared cargo of Russian lumber was actually a cargo of missiles on its way to Syria and/or Iran. In these kinds of operations, there may be a movie thriller in the theaters before it becomes certain that Israel, did, in fact, do it.

A not so pretty domestic story concerns those Ethiopian children of Petah Tikva.

News of them being barred from religious schools sent the rabbis into operation. They persuaded the schools to back down and accept Ethiopians. The pressure may have included the offer of a leading Sephardi rabbi to open his schools to the Ethiopians, thus showing up his Ashkenazi colleagues.

On the first day of school both municipal and Ministry of Education authorities announced a agreement.. Israel was saved from the labels of racism and apartheid, as least when used by individuals who stay reasonably close to realities.

On the second day of school the organization of Ethiopian parents announced that 30 children from the community still did not have a place in school. We may now be in the realm of how many Ethiopians each school has to admit, and a concern for not tipping the balance between pupils from strong backgrounds and those from weak backgrounds. Still to come may be allegations that Ethiopian children are in school, but not fully integrated into the classes and recreational programs with other students.

One hates to be a pessimist, but experience teaches caution before bringing on the full volume of applause.

Life goes on. It is good, but not perfect. Among the troubles are those who look upon us from a posture of moral purity.

Remember that I welcome comments.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:18 AM