December 30, 2009
Don't make things worse is a better standard than do no harm

Do no harm is a standard traditionally taught to medical students that modern physicians must violate. It will be violated as well by whatever health measure comes out of the Congress and White House.

I know of no modern medication that is free from harm, or side effects. Some are serious, and may cause death if not monitored. And they may do harm even if monitored.

Some individuals will be harmed by any reform coming out of Washington. A number will find their costs increasing, some may find their medical paperwork made even more cumbersome, and many will experience pain to their sentiments about what is right or tolerable.

Don't make things worse is a more valuable standard. It recognizes that some harm will be done, but aspires to actions that do more good than harm. Medications that pass the scrutiny of sophisticated governments are likely to do more good than harm. From what we know of the proposals on the tables in Washington, it is likely that they, too, will do more good than harm.

Probability is essence of good medicine and good politics. Nothing is certain. Even medications thought to be worthy may do harm. Remember thalidomide. I spent several months handicapped due to a widely prescribed generic medication. After more than a year of success with the drug, I found myself in the small percentage of users with muscle damage.

Nothing is perfect, in medicine or politics. What is the likely cost (in money and other measures)? Who will probably gain and who will lose, and by how much? are the questions to be asked.

Be a good citizen. And be your own physician. These are useful slogans, assuming that one avoids the extremism of micro management. Certainty is the antithesis of probability.

Look at the pamphlets that come with medication. They include so many warnings as to be worthless, except to provide the manufacturer an opportunity to say, "We warned you." The internet provides a great deal of useful information, but also material that is nothing more than hyped up claims by providers or activists.

So what to do?

There are no easy answers. Be alert. Expose yourself to different sources of advice (second opinions), but do not think you can be certain.

It ain't easy, but we are living longer, with opportunities to make our lives better. More Americans will, in all probability, live better as a result of the patches that President Obama and his allies add to the patches in medical delivery created over the last 60 years. The country with the best medicine in the world, but the worse medical delivery of well-to-do countries may move up a bit in the standings.

It isn't done until it is done. The ideologues who do not want any changes in the way Americans get their health care may escape the process without harm.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:12 AM
December 24, 2009
Incrementalism rides again

We see in the health care bills that passed the House and Senate yet another indication that policy making is, most of the time, incremental.

For me, that is another endorsement of a finding that helped establish me as a political scientist. Long ago I published a number of items showing that current orderings of state government expenditures, per capita, looked very much like the orderings sixty years earlier. Some of my colleagues chided me for proving the obvious. My response then and now is, if you do not recognize the obvious, including the weight of incrementalism, you have no hope of understanding the prime elements of politics.

The health bills reflect the capacity of opponents to limit progress. The president is expressing satisfaction at receiving some, but not nearly all of what he wanted.

That's incrementalism, or the capacity of opponents to limit change.

The lesson has its implications for that feisty little country where I've lived half of my life.

Israel is not about to solve its problems once and for all. Not only do Israelis with power disagree about what to do, but powerful outsiders also add their weight. As a result, no one rules all by him/herself, and it is difficult to change course.

And the same process works on Israel's opponents. The Arabs are stuck with their beliefs and commitments, just as Israelis are stuck with their suspicions about others, and concerns about the unknowns that might be lurking in dramatic proposals for change.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we lived in a paradise where the past did not weigh heavily on the present? But none of us are there, or will get there. So our politicians cope with the present and one another, hopefully do their best not to make things worse, and occasionally succeed in persuading one another to take some steps that might improve things.

In the United States Congress, representatives of the House and Senate still have to persuade one another to reach an agreement that will smooth out the differences between their bills. Don't expect any great movement toward the original aspirations of the president and other reformers. Hope for an agreement that makes things better for a lot of people, and not too worse for those opposed to any change.

For Israel, hope for something positive out of the continuing negotiations about Gilad Shalit, and an agreement among important countries that will curtail Iran's nuclear aspirations. If only because there are fewer participants in the Shalit process, I am more optimistic about his future than about Iran. I would be disappointed, but not surprised if nothing positive occurred on either issue. That would be another lesson in policy making, where it is always easier to say no than yes.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:58 AM
December 23, 2009
Nothing may be better than something

There are times in politics, and they may be most of the times, when it is best to do nothing.

Long ago I learned that the essential rule in policy making is: Don't make things worse. At about the same time, I heard that America is safest when Congress is on vacation. Now I am pretty sure that Israel is safest when the Knesset is not in session.

Politicians in both countries--and in many others--do not know the rules. They want to fix things with laws, typically with their name on them. However, we can thank politicians for the competition that is built in to their work. Legislators propose many more laws than their colleagues are willing to approve. Each may get a few minutes of media exposure with the claim that they are about to fix something, but the purposely cumbersome nature of the legislative process limits the damage.

There are several examples of damage control in Israel this week, as politicians are striving to do nothing.

The Shalit affair bumps from one negotiating episode to the next, without results. The prime minister stays in the middle, not clearly joining the camp of those in favor or those opposed to the deal most recently on the table. His rhetoric is almost as good as Barack Obama's. He is dealing with the dilemma of trying to bring the soldier home, without endangering Israelis in the process.

We hear once again that some Kadima MKs are pondering a move to Likud, but are not doing it yet. Why should they? Likud has enough strength in the Knesset without them, and they are not likely to be more powerful as Likud back benchers than as members of the Kadima opposition. There is no election on the horizon, so they can wait for better opportunities. the same can be said for the Labor back benchers straining under the rule of Ehud Barak, and threatening to bolt the party but not quite doing it.

President Obama is concentrating on health, and most likely Christmas and New Year celebrations. Without any imminent pressure on Israel from his White House, it is best for Israeli officials to enjoy the local quiet due to someone else's holiday season. They won't be caught celebrating Christmas, and the religious parties will damn those who celebrate the New Year of the goyim. Doing nothing is better than a mistake while anticipating pressure that has not come yet, and might not come at all.

Different political and bureaucratic actors are saying things and issuing documents about the settlement freeze, but nothing decisive is happening. The multiple actors who have something to do with a freeze, or with granting exceptions, are enough to assure uncertainty.

Iran may be the most burning issue on Israel's agenda, but it is also important to other countries. Why should Israel alone pre-empt, when the governments of Sunni Arab countries, the United States, and others also have an interest in stopping the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon, or having to decide how to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon if the process does not stop?

Jews who worry about another Holocaust may think their concerns are the most pressing. Insofar as others are in the same boat, cautious Israeli ask why should they do the bailing all by themselves. In response, others will say that the Jews of Europe said in the 1930s that "It will not happen to us." And "Those who do not know history are fated to repeat it."

However, history never repeats itself. The details always differ, and the "Devil is in the details."

In short, people are maneuvering, seeming intent to stay out of trouble by not doing the wrong thing, or not doing the right thing in the wrong way.

Coping with uncertainty is how politics works most of the time. And among the principal strategies of coping are avoidance and delay.

The future is ambiguous. Many things can influence the near future, and many more will influence what happens later. There are likely to be pleasant as well as unpleasant surprises, and wise people see a lack of clarity when they look ahead.

Advance planning is desirable, provided it preserves flexibility. On occasion it may seem essential to pre-empt a hostile force by even greater hostility. Most of the time, however, it is worth waiting to see if the threat that might be really is.

In most countries that matter, the people can count on a week of celebration.

Happy Holidays

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:37 PM
December 22, 2009
Gilad Shalit and others

The issue of Gilad Shalit rocketed again this week to the top of the national agenda, and now seems to have receded to another period of probing about further negotiations. For the nth time, the later headlines are more pessimistic than the earlier headlines.

As far as one can tell from the information available to the public, Israel is ready to release a number of prisoners "with blood on their hands," on condition that they be exiled to Gaza or elsewhere far from the West Bank. The pros and cons, the high profile nature of the case, and the intensity of Israelis wanting to make a deal and those not wanting to accept Hamas' conditions, are well covered in the New York Times.

Some of my correspondents are surprised at the attention given to the fate of one soldier. It is not all that different from the attention elsewhere given to one missing child, or one miner trapped underground. Josef Stalin put it well when he said that a million deaths are a statistic, but one death is a tragedy.

Here we are not talking about a death--yet--but an individual tragedy that has been in the headlines for three and one-half years. There has been more than enough time for organized demands that Israel pay any price, and organized demands that Israel not pay the price demanded by Hamas.

Now the reports are that Israel is willing to pay the price, with the condition that Hamas will accept exile for prisoners thought likely to be violent again. Israel's cabinet, which will decide the issue, is divided. There may be a majority willing to go along, provided there is a condition of exile. Hamas spokesmen have dug in their heels against exile, but talks may continue.

One of my American friends remains obsessed with the case of Rachel Corrie, and compares Shalit to her. Why has Israel refused to apologize, and even rejected demands (including from the Member of Congress representing Corrie's district) to investigate her case more thoroughly and hold individual soldiers accountable?

To remind those who have forgotten, or never paid attention, Rachel Corrie was a college student from Washington State intent on saving Palestinians from Israeli cruelty. She joined a group of like minded individuals, found her way to an active battlefield in Gaza, donned distinctive clothing and carried a loud speaker which she used to demand that IDF bulldozers stop their destruction. From the inquiry that did take place, the driver of a armed bulldozer, with only a small window most likely dirtied, did not see her or hear her in the dust and noise of battle. She died from a direct hit by the bulldozer, from the materials moved by the bulldozer's blade, or from something else flying around in the fighting.

As is common in such circumstances, Israel expressed regret at the incident. Insofar as the investigation concluded that the IDF was not responsible, Israel did not apologize.

Corrie's parents and other supporters have been waging a campaign to establish Israeli guilt, including a performance that has played to applause and protests in several venues.

If anyone ought to be called accountable, it could be the instructors and others at her college who encouraged Rachel Corrie to play in the busy traffic of warfare.

Israel has admitted to fault in other cases. Authorities agreed to compensation for the family of a British journalist killed in Gaza. Why the differences between the cases? Perhaps the IDF's investigation found more responsibility in one instance than the other. Perhaps the British family and government were more skillful in pressing for a response than were the family and supporters of Rachel Corrie. Perhaps Israeli officials felt that soldiers ought to expect journalists near a battle, but not college students. One should not assume perfect understanding of what happens at the intersection of military and diplomatic bureaucracies, international politics, and what really happened in the fog of battle.

Gilad Shalit is different. He is an Israeli draftee sent to the Gaza border, rather than an American who took a foolish chance or a journalist who knew the risks of covering warfare. Several times we have felt that a final decision on his case was imminent, only to learn that there is more to negotiate. Those supporting or opposing a particular deal are able to keep the issue on the national agenda. That is not the case for Rachel Corrie and a few other civilians who put themselves in harm's way.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:56 AM
December 18, 2009
Fairies in the White House

An American friend, who some time ago showed his disappointment with Israel, has sent another note that includes:

"I scan three Israeli newspapers every day (well, actually, their web sites, in English). It's less like visiting a foreign country than like visiting a foreign planet. The obsession with Iran's supposed nuclear weapons development is incessant - as if the Iranians were going to drop the big one on Tel Aviv any day now."

Should one also wonder that Americans are concerned with health care?

Must Israelis justify their concern with Iran? Not only is the Persian president continuing his denial of the Holocaust and asserting that Israel has no right to exist. He is arming the Hezbollah of Lebanon and getting some weapons to Gaza despite Israeli and Egyptian blockades. And the trendy lefties of the world are singing in the chorus that he leads.

Barack Obama is a nice man who is not singing in Ahmadinejad's chorus, but he has expressed his belief in fairies. Or the functional equivalent of them, which he believes can be brought forth by what he calls engagement.

So what should Israel do, in the presence of an Iranian leader who gives evidence of severe animosity, and leads even the Egyptian outgoing head of the International Atomic Energy Agency to conclude that Iran may be intent on producing nuclear weapons? There are also Iranian tests of its missiles, which international headlines link with the nuclear program and say could reach anywhere in Israel.

Whenever the Obama led international coalition has sought to offer the Iranians a face saving alternative to amassing materials for nuclear weapons, the Iranians have responded by saying "Maybe, but not quite good enough," and the deadline for deciding on sanctions is pushed further ahead. Although the Russians and Chinese have given signs that they will support sanctions, no one should expect the sanctions agreed upon to the kinds that really bite.

Those fairies conceived in the White House are not doing their job. The world is in danger, and the Iranian finger is pointed at Israel.

So what should Israelis do, when few of us believe in fairies?

The arguments against an Israeli pre-emptive strike are well known. Unlike my friend, I do not perceive desperation in the Israeli public or among its policymakers. On the other hand, I am not surprised that Israeli media give considerable attention to the issue. And although I do not expect it, I would not be surprised one day to hear that Israel has acted. Neither would I be especially disappointed, although I would prefer to rely on Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). That worked between the United States and the Soviet Union, it has worked between Pakistan and India, and with respect to North Korea. While I also sense that the Israeli leadership is willing to rely on its own counter threats and its several means of delivery, I am not certain. One can parse the comments of ranking political and military figures as threats, hints, or intentions.

Insofar as the fairies perceived in the White House have not appeared in Jerusalem, we are at one of those tense moments in Israeli history. It is a moment where Israeli action--if it comes--will be costly not only for Israel, but for others as well.

To my American friend, I urge greater attention to American health care. Israelis will make the decisions that concern them, even if critics will fail to understand their concerns.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 08:41 AM
December 17, 2009
Israel is a normal country, almost

According to Israelis and others who talk and write about the country, it is the worst or the best place on earth.

Hyperbole is the language of those who love and hate it. It is often in the cross hairs of international organizations flying the flags of justice and humane behavior. Or it is doing the Lord's work, and is set upon by vicious, predisposed, anti-Semitic beings, who according to some include the man currently sitting in the Oval Office.

Israelis also speak with fulsome criticism or praise. Among their accusations is that it has the most severe records of inequality, getting worse by the day; that its drivers are among the worse in the world; and that its politicians are among the most corrupt and self-serving, with governments that cannot live out their terms without falling victim to petty disputes. There are also Israelis who cannot pause to consider these things, so busy are they boasting the country's record in medical and technological advances, and economic performance.

Reality, as usual, is more complex than the boasts and accusations of people who feel too strongly about their views.

Israel is beset with enemies, and it does defend itself, but with less "collateral damage" than can be found for countries also involved in warfare, like the United States and Britain, whose residents are among the most prominent in accusing Israel of war crimes.

Israel is not a perfectly egalitarian society, and it does have traffic accidents. Its governments do exhibit internal conflict and are likely to fall before the end of their terms. However, in each of these traits Israel is in the normal range, and generally about the average for Western democracies. Anyone wanting to find countries where there is much greater inequality, many more traffic accidents, and governments that are more problematic should look in the Third World. The great rift in human behavior is between the well to do and the poor. And on this trait, Israel is usually in the middle of well to do countries on a host of indicators.

Against claims that Arab Israelis suffer from discrimination and persecution, the facts are that Israel's minority is closer to the Jewish majority on indicators of family income than are comparable findings for minorities and majorities in the United States; and Israeli Arabs have better indicators of health than White Americans.

If Israel is pretty much like other countries to which it might be compared, why the excitement?

One reason is all those Muslim countries, with votes in international forums, and money to hire public relations firms, buy into media companies, and endow universities. This assures lip service from Western governments not wanting to annoy their sources of energy, as well as cooperation from individuals who administer higher education and the media.

Another reason is the place and nature of Israel and its population. Jews and others expect more of the Promised Land. The Light unto the Gentiles does not shine as brightly as some expect. It is not Heaven on Earth, but its human failings (i.e., being a normal country with social problems and disputes) disappoints the faithful who expect more of it.

Israel infuriates Muslims who view the entire Middle East (which some of them stretch all the way to Portugal) as properly Arab. It angers ideologues (Jews and others) who buy into the Palestinian narrative and conclude that Palestine should be their home, or at least a place where they are treated better than minorities elsewhere.

In regard to the overly fulsome praise, some time ago there was an e-mail passed around and around, which I filed under the heading of Jewish junk. For those who want to kvel or chuckle, I am including it as an attachment. The claim that Israel has the highest living standards and wealth in the Middle East leaves out a number of the oil producing countries; and that it has the highest incidence of university graduates in the world does not square with World Bank data. They show Israel ranking 16th among 21 upper income countries on a measure of university enrollments relative to population. On most things, Israel must be satisfied with being good, without being the best.

So please lower the volume of complaints and praise. They disturb my enjoyment of wine from the Golan. It is good, but not the best.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:29 AM
December 16, 2009
Where are the troops?

"How many troops has the Pope?"

If you are old enough to remember that question, you know that the answer is somewhere between "None," and "Not too many."

The modern equivalent is, "How many troops has world public opinion?"

Same answer, to the great sorrow of the Palestinians.

Israel has not responded to their insistent demands for turning back the clock to 1947, or their most generous offer of 1967. No sign that the refugees and their families are returning to what they claim as their homes, that Israel will take down the major settlements in the West Bank, and maybe not even the smaller ones. Same response to the occasional cry that the Jews move back to Poland, Iraq, Morocco, or Yemen.

The Palestinians are doing well on the international stage. Heads of governments call out the honor guard, have themselves photographed shaking hands with the ostensible head of the Palestine National Authority, and speak positively about the creation of a Palestinian State. They are not so forthcoming about the refugees, their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, but they may say that it is an issue, along with detailed borders, that must be left to negotiations between Palestine and Israel.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch are doing their part, along with United Nations organs, in documenting the misery of the Palestinians and endorsing their narrative of Israeli evil. Public and other media generally are on the same side. They may flick in the direction of balance and say a few words about Palestinian violence or intransigence, but the more common message is to support the justice of Palestinian claims.

But where are the troops?

They are in the same place as those that could do something about North Korea and Iran. That is, they are somewhere over the horizon, or busy in the frustrating wars of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Partly because of those wars, the great powers are relying on engagement with North Korea and Iran.

The troops are even farther from the Israeli-Palestinian front. The reasons include Israeli efforts at accommodation and Palestinian extremism. Israeli officials and citizens are not the only ones who feel that the Palestinians must contribute more than they have to the peace process. World public opinion, NGOs, and the media might not bother with the details, but they are persuasive to the heads of governments that actually do control troops.

Palestinians' appeal to the world does provide benefits. Their academics, activists, and nominal officials get invitations to distinguished encounters, where nice things are said about them. They may derive pleasure from western academics, media personalities, and NGO reports that support the Palestinian story of what has happened since 1947. The commotions that keep Israelis from speaking in the same forums might also warm Palestinian hearts. The occasional judge who signs an arrest warrant in response to a claim of Israel's violation of international law may be worth another moment of gratification.

As Israelis lick their wounds from the battle for world public opinion, it helps them to recall who does have the troops. Lebanon and Gaza added to the Palestinian case in the eyes of world public opinion, but soldiers are training and equipping themselves in case they have to do it again.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:38 AM
December 15, 2009

Will someone out there tell Mahmoud Abbas that he is the supplicant and not one who can make pre-emptive demands.

Not that I expect the message to get through or to produce results, but it is appropriate for someone to say that he is on the border of irrelevance, and is threatening to drop off the screen.

The latest extravaganza of Palestinian politics is his declaration that he will not begin negotiations until the Israeli government stops settlement activity completely, and recognizes the Palestinian state within its 1967 borders.

Leaving aside the nicety that there never was a Palestine with 1967 borders, one wonders what is happening in the circus called Palestine. There is, of course, the other niceity that if Israel were to agree to such conditions, negotiations would appear to be over, never mind begun.

My most rational assessment is this is Abbas' way of getting yet another 15 minutes of media time. If anyone out there takes him more seriously than I do, perhaps he will have gained another mumble from decent people who will say again that Israel is insensitive or worse.

Yet another observation that aspires to cogency is that Abbas has learned from the Syrians. They have been saying for years that they are willing to negotiate if Israel first agrees to withdraw from the Golan. The pity is that many Israelis--some in positions of influence--seem to think that it is natural and inevitable that Israel will withdraw from the Golan. Meanwhile they can sip yet another glass of fine wine that Israelis are producing from the grapes other Israelis are growing on the Golan.

The expected withdrawal may never happen. The issue has been in and out of the headlines since the beginnings of conversations between Israel and Syria some decades ago. Abbas should learn that demanding an end of negotiations as a condition for negotiations does not produce immediate results, and may not produce anything. It's not over until it is over.

There are some problems that the nuts of the world can cause. Tzipi Livni canceled a trip to Britain after a judge signed an arrest warrant, associated with charges that she violated international law as the foreign minister during last year's operation in Gaza. The response of the Foreign Ministry was to remind the British that they, too, are involved in warfare similar to that in Gaza.

I have never been foreign minister, or anything other than a commentator on Gaza 2009 or Lebanon 2006. I was a bit more in Lebanon 1982, but I doubt that anyone will prosecute me for the lectures I gave to the troops. Or maybe not.

Laugh? Cry? Curse? Any response would be appropriate. While I'm deciding, please give me another glass of wine from the Golan.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:29 AM
December 12, 2009
Why negotiate?

An American friend shows his concern for Palestinians with several questions that deserve answers:

"Why is there not much support, or any, for a Palestinian State
composed only of territory on the West Bank? Wouldn't
it be better to take that incremental step and deal with
Gaza (Hamas) later?

The Gaza Campaign succeeded in sharply reducing the
number of rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian
terrorists. What in the minds of Israelis is the blockade
supposed to achieve? If the Israeli soldier is released,
will the blockade be lifted?"

The answers to the first set of questions appear throughout my earlier notes. Essentially, they can be boiled down to lack of confidence. At Camp David in 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak alongside President Bill Clinton made a decent offer to Yassir Arafat that Arafat rejected as insufficient, and proceeded to several years of violence. During conversations between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, Olmert offered pretty much the same, or even more, and was rejected. Later, at a PLO convention in Bethlehem, the delegates endorsed demands that no conceivable Israeli government could accept.

Why bother?

Now the problem has been confused even more, thanks to the Obama initiative that featured a total freeze on Israeli settlements, including post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem. That was ratcheted down by the Israeli government with the partial acceptance of the White House, but by then the Palestinians had added a new item to their demands, again beyond what any conceivable Israeli government could accept.

Would Israel lift its blockade on Gaza if the prisoner is released?

We'll see when the prisoner is released. So far there is no indication other than occasional rumors that a deal is near, or conceivable.

The basic question is not only why bother with negotiations involving the Palestinians when they are stuck in their excessive demands and show no signs--apparent to the public--that they are inclined to concessions. Another question is why bother taking an American administration seriously that seems stuck with unrealistic aspirations of engagement that make things worse rather than point the way to success. The illustrations come not only from American aspirations for Israel and Palestine, but American aspirations for Iran.

It is hard to fault the President's speech at Oslo. By his own words, he did not deserve a Nobel Prize for Peace due to his lack of accomplishments, and perhaps due to his continued involvement and even escalation in warfare. Yet his rhetoric did not fail him. There is evil in the world, and the United States continues to fight against it. It also aspires to peace.

The fair questions are: have naive efforts to engage Israel and Palestine, and the Iranians, set things back? Have they pushed the almost hopeless task of Israelis concerned with an accord involving Palestine even further from realization? And have they let an Iranian program to acquire nuclear weapons progress further without a convincing threat of intervention either from meaningful sanctions or something more decisive?

Centrist Israeli commentators have referred to Palestinian politics as a comic opera populated by clowns. They have not employed that kind of terminology for ranking Americans, but the term "childish" has surfaced.

Just as policy toward Gaza is on hold pending developments, so is the issue of negotiating with Palestinians. Meanwhile, a relatively quiet West Bank is developing economically at an impressive rate. The Gazans are not starving or suffering from medical care that falls below what is usually associated with places at their level of economic capacity and religious fervor.

Israeli politicians are demonstrating appropriate respect for American and other efforts to bring about peace in the region, and to assure an Iran without nuclear weapons. Israeli commentators are inclined toward the skeptical and cynical, but not noticeably more than their colleagues elsewhere.

Happy Hanukah

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:17 AM
December 09, 2009
The settlement freeze

Israel's limited, 10-month settlement freeze is not working like a well oiled Swiss watch, assuming that metaphor still has validity in the digital age. Settlers have massed to demonstrate against what they call the abominable anti-Jewish doctrines of the prime minister many of them had supported, and they are sending their teen age sons and daughters to wrestle with the inspectors that come to the settlements with orders to stop building.

The settlers do not govern the country. At least one of their threats--to block key junctions throughout the country during a morning rush hour--did not work. There were more police to keep the junctions open than settlers and their supporters who came to block them. Israeli officials are familiar with mass demonstration. It will take a lot more than the 10,000 estimated to have gathered near the prime minister's residence to change policy.

However, the settlers and their supporters are a significant minority. Their efforts parallel all those Americans who oppose abortion. In both cases there is religious doctrine capable of exciting opposition to what a government might do. Government can move against such sentiment. Abortions do happen in the United States, but officials are chary in the extreme about supporting them with public money. In the case of the Israeli settlements, most likely there will be a damper on construction, at least in the smaller and most isolated settlements, and some of the smallest ones recognized as illegal are being dismantled. However, the prime minister has promised increased public funding for the largest of the settlements, i.e., those that function as suburbs for the major cities, and have wide support as areas that should not be traded away to the Palestinians.

Rather than accusing Israel of violating one symbol of good government, i.e., the efficient administration of government policy, what we are seeing is another symbol of good government, i.e., the flexible enforcement of a policy opposed by a substantial element of the population. The rabbis of the Talmud said in several contexts that even the laws proclaimed by the Highest Authority are subject to dispute as to their meaning for concrete cases; that one should respect local practice; and not seek to implement a measure that goes against the capacity of the community to accept it.

It is not clear what will come of this messy situation.

On the one hand, those feeling that settlements are indeed a blockage in the way of an accord might blame Barack Obama for what is happening. By raising the specter of a sweeping freeze, he mobilized the settler community to demand the freedom to build. The fervor generated might recruit more Jews to settle in forbidden lands than it persuades those already living there to leave for housing more acceptable to the White House.

It is most likely that the whole bluster is irrelevant, except for the headaches provided to several clusters of Israeli officials and activists. We can read the behavior of the Palestinians for some years now--at least since they have been negotiating with Israelis--to indicate that the settlements are not the major problem. Moreover, the independent and feisty people in charge of Gaza have signed on to a no recognition, no concession posture toward Israel whose roots are in the Khartoum Resolution of 1967. Would a Palestinian state without Gaza be practical? It might end up being in the size range of Delaware or Rhode Island, surrounded by Israel, without direct access to the sea or to another country. And should Israel negotiate the possibility of Palestine in the West Bank while the nay sayers of Gaza remain intent on continuing the fight?

It is easier to ask these questions than to answer them.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:05 PM
December 08, 2009
Israelis and Palestinians

Responses to my note on negotiations for a prisoner swap indicate it is time for comments about relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

"The question I have is what has Israel done to make it completely out of the question for any enemy group to ever think of capturing an Israeli soldier again and using him as a pawn for negotiations. The price to them should be too high. . . .
How stupid and dishonorable of the Israelis military to permit Hamas to play cat and mouse with Israel. . . .
Call Hamas' bluff. Either allow Israeli doctors visitation with Shalit or proceed on the assumption that Shalit is dead. And if Shalit is alive and well, demand his release within 24 hours or - an attention getting device perfected by the Nazis --we shoot 10 Palestinian prisoners for every day Shalit is held in captivity, starting with the most "high profile"."

". . . wouldn't it be wonderful if the dis-United Nations or the U S would withold aid until Shalit was released or at least visited by a reputable organization?"

The issue is too complex for sentiments like these. Israelis and Palestinians have lived as hostile neighbors for 130 years, if one begins their history with the onset of "modern" Jewish migration to the area. Jews have been invaders in the Palestinian narrative, and Arabs have been cruel barbarians in the narrative conceived by many Jews.

For some, the term "Palestinian" is controversial in the extreme, insofar as it portends their victory in the national struggle. A Muslim student writing a thesis about his community struggled with the terminology of "Israeli Arabs" or "Palestinians with Israeli citizenship." Remembering the arguments about "Colored," "Negro," "Black," "Afro-American," and "African American," I told him that each person should name himself as he feels most comfortable.

"Palestinian" with or without modifiers can refer to Arabs living in Israel as well as those looking in from outside. Terminology by itself will not determine the outcome of the national conflict.

I am not about to express the cop out from controversy with the claims that "Some of my best friends are . . ." or "Some of my best students are Palestinians." They might be true, but do not keep me from recognizing the cultural barriers between us and them, or the problems caused by their violence.

With all that happens, it is not a conflict appropriate to Nazi-like ultimatums. And we should not expect the United States or other major countries to line up on our side and use their power to force concessions from the Palestinians. It is in the nature of international politics that those countries express support for the Palestinians, but they have not used their power to solve anything as Palestinians wish.

The IDF and police spend considerable effort teaching their personnel to avoid excessive use of force. I was part of that effort when I served as Private Ira in the army's Lecture Corp. In the nature of the IDF, I was often introduced to my audience as Private and Professor Ira. At the conclusion of one lecture to a training class of the Border Police, a recruit raised his hand. "Professor," he said, "You should know that some of us like to hit people."

Even the most antagonistic Palestinians have a human face on Israeli media. Some are interviewed frequently, and speak in decent Hebrew that they picked up during earlier stints in Israeli custody. Some appear to be uncompromising in their antipathy, but others are reasonable in the extreme as they present their view of whatever is the current topic. Israeli interviewers, and commentators explaining the clips from Arab media are neither fawning nor hostile.

The two communities know one another well. People speaking for one or the other have agreed to disagree. They can be disagreeable and threatening, but the conversations go on.

Individuals my age and older were spoiled by the nature of World War II. Being a total conflict in which the allies pursued the goal of "unconditional surrender" did not prepare the way for the much more common variety of "limited wars." That has been every other armed conflict involving democracies since the 1940s. Von Clausewitz's epigram, "War is the continuation of policy by other means" sums up the concept. Limited war employs violence in the pursuit of goals other that total surrender. Policy, or politics, is warfare without violence.

Limited war is especially relevant to a conflict between neighbors, where the weaker has the political backing of co-religionists with considerable power in international forums. Those forums do not rule the world, but they are taken into consideration.

The norms of the stronger party also figure into the situation. Palestinian have noted that they are lucky in dealing with Jews. Any other enemy might have been ruthless enough to destroy them.

So we are stuck with one another, and our issues that resist solution. Many Israelis and Palestinians agree in principle to "divide the land," or to "divide Jerusalem," but there remain the problems of where to divide them, and what will happen to the people left out of their homeland by the division. There is also the small but especially knotty problem of the Temple Mount/Nobel Sanctuary, plus the pedestrian issues of who controls what water, regulation of sewage and waste disposal, the allocation of telecommunications frequencies, which powers of self defense might be allowed a Palestinian state, and what will happen with Gaza currently in the hands of people who are hostile in the extreme to Israel and to other Palestinians.

The proportions of each community that adhere to one or another posture are not altogether clear or fixed. Polls typically find a majority of Israeli Jews agreeable to a two-state solution and a substantial number of Palestinians wanting to live at peace alongside Israel. Compromise for the sake of peace is more firmly rooted in the Jewish population. Large majorities of Palestinians have supported violence, including suicide bombings directed at civilians. There are Israeli Jews who view the Palestinians as Amalek, and accept a Biblical mandate to purge them from the Land that God deeded to His people. Majorities continue to say that the Gaza operation was justified, and successful.

Neither the hostility nor the conflict is total, but conditions may produce a great deal of unpleasantness. Many Jews who wish for an accommodation applaud their government's capacity to be tough when appropriate. That does not mean that they ascribe to complete devastation of the Palestinians or their aspirations.

Not black and white. Get used to gray.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:31 PM
Negotiations for a prisoner swap

How much should Israel to pay for the release of Gilad Shalit? He is the soldier who was seized in June 2006 during a raid by Gazans on the Israeli side of the border. In the same incident, two Israelis soldiers died and several others suffered injuries.

Negotiations for a prisoner swap have proceeded in an on again off again fashion. Hamas has control of Shalit, and has denied all requests that the Red Cross or some other reputable organization be allowed to visit and report on his condition. There have been notes from him, an audio tape, and a video tape, all presumably coached and edited to show him alive and well treated, but anxious to return home.

Shalit has the advantage of educated and articulate parents, who have enlisted the help of public relations consultants to campaign in behalf of whatever concessions are necessary to release him. Groups of school children, media personalities, and politicians have used the slogan, "pay any price," while others have been guarded in indicating that some prices are too high.

Palestinian prisoners are the medium of exchange. The problem is not the number mentioned in the information available to the public, most likely 1,000. Israel holds more than 11,000 Palestinians and other Arabs picked up over the years on security charges (murder, complicity in murder, weapons smuggling, incitement, activity in banned organizations), found guilty by civilian or military judges, or held in administrative detention. It would not be difficult to identify a thousand who committed their crimes years ago, or who did not commit the most serious crimes.

Israel's problem with Hamas' demands is that it includes a number of high profile individuals, guilty of especially sensitive crimes, who so far have served only a few years.

IDF commanders tell their troops that it is the highest priority to avoid capture, and to prevent the enemy from taking prisoners. When it does happen, it inevitably entails several years of difficult negotiations and intense emotions concerned with one or a few Israelis. Some efforts have ended without success, as a soldier known to be held captive either fled and died, or was traded among several groups until he disappeared. Other families have spent more than twenty years insisting that their sons were being held, but have found no evidence of their capture or their bodies. Lebanese groups have negotiated for men they said were prisoners, but where Israel received only bodies when the deal was completed.

Every deal has left a bitter taste among officials and citizens, which feeds back into opposition the next time. Individuals viewed as high profile killers in Israel have been lionized at home when released. Some have returned to violence, and eventually to Israeli prison.

Occasionally an Israeli speaks heroically about "no deal with terrorists," but the sentiment does not hold up under public pressure. This time, as always, the issue is the number, and especially the "quality" of prisoners demanded by the captors.

Among the opponents of an "expensive" swap are families of people killed by those on the enemy's list of demands, as well as ranking officers who worry about encouraging further raids to capture Israelis, the capacity of young killers to continue fighting where they left off when they were captured, and to serve as a message that violence pays. However, there are no groups that are total in their opposition to particular swaps. Some families of terror victims say that Israel should pay any price to prevent another family from suffering the loss of a loved one. Military officers say that it is a national obligation to do everything possible to assure the safety of draftees, and their return home after an engagement.

The issue is also difficult for those holding the Israelis. With thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prison, there are many thousands who want their sons, husbands, and brothers released. Who will be put on the list of demands is a matter of great sensitivity, capable of provoking violence by disappointed families.

In order to avoid the stain of talking directly with terrorists, Israel employs intermediaries. The German and Egyptian government have provided negotiators, and other governments--seemingly wanting to gain some credit for their good will--have claimed to be probing possibilities with those holding the captives.

The Shalit family, like those caught up in similar situations, has traveled the world seeking public support, and the favors of highly placed individuals. TV news showed a clip of Shalit's father talking with Jimmy Carter that did not improve the former president's reputation in Israel. He expressed strong emotion about the suffering he saw in Gaza, and was curtly dismissive of Shalit's efforts to engage him about his son.

There have been several news stories, typically from Arab media that "the deal is almost done." It would be finalized with one more meeting of the Hamas leadership, and would be finished after a Muslim holiday that was only a few days away. One report was that French physicians had examined Shalit. These would have been the first outsiders to visit him, and the examination was said to be part of his imminent release. We have heard that Israeli prison authorities have concentrated the individuals to be freed in one prison in preparation of a release. One rumor was that Shalit had already been transferred to Egyptian officials, long mooted as the first stage in a phased exchange.

Typically these stories are followed by clarifications from Hamas that the deal is not quite finished, and that a swap can occur only when Israel improves its offer.

Just what Israel is offering is secret. This allows the deal to go forward without intense pressure and violence on the Palestinian side about whose family member will be on the list. Secrecy also minimizes pressure on Israeli negotiators deliberating about the release of individuals with especially bad reputations. And it provides some protection to negotiators who are carrying out the instructions of political superiors to resist the release of particular individuals, or individuals whose crimes fall in the category of "no deal."

Israeli officials have promised the public a period of 48 hours to know the final details, time enough to petition the Supreme Court to halt the release of certain individuals. Once a deal is in hand that passes muster with the prime minister and colleagues assigned to oversee negotiations, other members of the government will do what is necessary to put the issue behind them. The Court is likely to rule that it is a matter for the political leadership to decide, and the president will sign off on whatever pardons or commutations are necessary to put the individuals on the prison bus heading for the exchange point.

Never negotiate with terrorists? Only in your dreams. It is not simple. There has been no caving in to outrageous demands, but it does happen.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:02 AM
December 06, 2009
Deciding about Afghanistan

The New York Times has continued its intensive coverage of Afghanistan with a lengthy and detailed report on how the president came to his decisions about increasing the commitment of troops, along with a conception of withdrawal.

In the nature of things, one cannot have total confidence in this report of closed meetings. However, the article rings true to what we know about things like this, and what we know about this president, to accept it as credible enough for our purposes.

And although we have nothing like the current details available to the president and his advisers, we can put this information in the context of what is known about Afghanistan to evaluate what was decided, and its prospects for success.

I offer my assessments with considerable respect for the president's intelligence and intentions. I have criticized his actions in several of these notes, but have not signed on to the view that he is evil. I begin and end this note with a view that the task concerned with Afghanistan and Pakistan is daunting, and most likely beyond the capacity of him, his advisers, the American military, and its allies.

My view rests on a general knowledge of the society and economy of the country, and the difficult topography which has not changed since I was held up by bandits while being driven through the Khyber Pass years ago.

The parameters I perceive are apparent in recent articles of the New York Times and other sources. They are:

* The lack of social cement between regions, ethnic groups, tribes, and extended families
* Loyalties are to family and whoever is currently dominant in the locality, and shift with circumstances
* The society is fractured to such a degree that no central government has controlled it. "Afghanistan" is an intellectual construct, rather than a country with a government in the conventional sense
* Americans and other outsiders are viewed with suspicion, fear, and/or animosity, and should not rely on the locals
* President Hamid Karzai is no less corrupt and no more reliable than other power holders
* The region of Pakistan that abuts Afghanistan shares these traits, and is not under the control of the government in Islamabad
* Islam is the prevailing religion, and the culture is "traditional" in the extreme. Rights of women and others do not count for much, if anything. I know of no reason to alter my conception of Afghan education since meeting a man who thought he could travel to America by bus.
* Opium is the engine of the Afghan economy that provides the resources supporting war lords or bandit chiefs, who get their armaments from who knows where over porous borders and terrain that defy control by indigenous or foreign authorities

These traits frustrated British invaders in the 19th century, and Soviet forces in the 1980s. What happened to the Soviet Union gave Afghanistan the reputation as a destroyer of empires. Afghanistan will frustrate American efforts, no matter how many hours President Obama and his impressive array of civilian and military personnel have spent in gathering intelligence, planning their strategy, and setting up alliances and logistics.

The American military has been active in the country for more than eight years since it was identified as the source of 9-11. American casualties are nothing like they were in Vietnam, and the nature of the fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan may keep those casualties modest. However, the financial cost will be awesome. Estimates released in recent days mention one trillion dollars spread over a number of years, or about the cost projected for the president's health reforms. Current planning includes a commitment to withdraw, but this is not firm, and raises the issue of credibility.

The unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable questions are:

* Will the increased commitment of troops be enough to defeat, control, or minimize the Taliban, al Quaida and other hostile forces?
* Will the military forces, and continued political efforts manage to keep a government in Pakistan from losing control of its country and its nuclear weapons?
* If the answers to these questions are not positive, what will remain of the war against terror?
* Will the financial outlays impinge on the president's domestic commitments, especially health care? The question concerns not so much the availability of money or the government's capacity to borrow, but the political task of persuading Congress to continue supporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (where withdrawal is uncertain) as well as the president's domestic agenda.

Being the lone superpower, and the impact of 9-11 puts a great deal on the agenda of whoever is in the White House. The style of Barack Obama may be 180 degrees from that of George W. Bush. The essential problems are the same, however, and it is not clear if Obama can handle his tasks with greater success than Bush.

What would I do in Obama's shoes?

My macro analysis says withdraw ground troops, and rely on the threat of massive damage from the air to discourage anything like a repeat of 9-11. This might relieve the pressure on Pakistan, and let its government get back to managing the bulk of its country except for the problematic border region that resembles Afghanistan.

This strategy would not satisfy the president's fear of "losing Afghanistan," or his domestic critics. It would sacrifice whatever aspirations remain for reforming Afghanistan and improving the condition of women and others. The strategy of "massive damage from the air" would provoke opposition from Americans and others concerned with the immorality of war.

Ultimately I would be stuck with the same dire problems as the president, saved only by the knowledge that no one would put me in his shoes.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:26 PM
December 05, 2009

Israel attracts attention like a magnet. Some years ago, at the height of the Cold War, there were said to be more foreign correspondents in Jerusalem than in any other capital except Washington and Moscow.

The weight of Muslims in international forums assures a chronic rate of condemnations. Being the Holy Land contributes to the attention coming from the "religion soaked" United States. Europeans are responding to their Christian roots when they pay attention to Israel, as well as following the lead of whoever is speaking for the United States.

There is no shortage of religious doctrine and moralism in what comes to my mailbox. I read interpretations of Holy Scripture that correspondents are certain bode ill or well for Israel, or well after a severe testing by worldly powers orchestrated by the Almighty. All this is said to follow a plan that I do not see in the Bible (Hebrew Bible or New Testament), but is clear to those who perceive it.

Other correspondents condemn Israel for violating their moral codes. Typically they avoid any clarification of what they mean by right and wrong.. Most are oblivious to the multiple nature of moralities, the complexities in judging a whole country, or its government, in the context of the pressures on them, or the norms as defined by the behaviors of other countries.

A comparison between Israel and the United States is instructive. To be sure, there are no two democracies that are more different. One is huge and rich, and one tiny and on the border of well-being. One is obsessively multi-cultural and the other more nearly homogeneous. One is governed by a president and legislature separately elected for fixed terms, and the other a parliamentary regime where the government's tenure depends on the continued support of the legislature. The current enemies of one are a half-world away from its homeland, and the enemies of the other are no more than a bus ride of an hour or two from the center of its country.

With all these differences, it is appropriate to compare the United States and Israel as the most active of the democracies in pursuing national security. Israel allocates close to 10 percent of its gross national product to national defense, and the United States between three and four percent. For most other democracies the figure is a bit more than one or two percent.

Among the founding myths of the United States is the slogan of "no entangling alliances." That sentiment prevailed from the time of George Washington to the era of World War II, and was prominent in the arguments of those who opposed joining the League of Nations. The theme of autonomy continued in the country's insistence on a veto for important decisions of the United Nations, and more recently in its refusal to accept agreements for environmental controls, human rights, or the rights of the child that would place its activities under the decisions of an international body. The United States has the economic and political weight to insist that its soldiers be judged only by American military courts.

The damage done to civilians and infrastructure by the American military is greater in absolute terms than that done by the Israeli military. Only part of the difference derives from the larger forces employed by the United States. The numbers are contentious, and do not reflect only deaths directly attributed to the actions of troops. Conservative estimates place the numbers killed in Iraq since the American-led invasion in 2003 at over 100,000, and those in Afghanistan since 2001 at over 20,000.

Other estimates are more than 10 times as great.

Total deaths associated with recent Israeli military actions are in the range of 2,500 for civilians and fighters killed in Lebanon and Gaza, combined.

Although the body counts are higher for American than Israeli actions, one has to look hard to find the United States being condemned by international forums or the most prominent of the non-governmental organizations. It is not American but Israeli political and military figures who are chary of traveling abroad lest an activist judge signs an order to arrest them for violating what is said to be international law.

Reasoned efforts to compare Israel's military actions to the those of the United States have not quieted the most intense of my correspondents. It is no surprise that individuals motivated by religion or morality have little tolerance for relativism. Absolutism is their language. It does not diminish their condemnation if other countries, even their own, do what is similar or greater in the direction they consider to be immoral.

Neither does an argument about differential threat impress the critics of Israel. Some of them are certain that the country was born in sin, and continues to violate what they describe as right. Some accusers may derive inspiration from old condemnations of Jews as violators of the Lord. Insofar as foundations of western morality derive from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, some may think that Jews should be judged by the highest standards, no matter what other people have done, or are doing. Contemporary conceptions of anti-Semitism focus not so much on accusations of Christ-killers or blood libels (although those charges have not disappeared), but on judging Israel by standards higher than used for other countries.

Morals are important in politics. One should not pursue any goal, even one as important as physical security, without calculating its costs in human life and well being, as well as the more mundane considerations of economic outlays and environmental impact. However, simple assertions of one's most intensely held feelings cannot be the sole guide to behavior. The point is most obvious when intense people proclaim their contrasting views of what is right, or what God ordains.

Israelis who chafe under disproportionate criticism can take counsel from some founding doctrines of the United States. The creators of the democracy widely perceived as a model for the world were suspicious of the people. According to Federalist Papers #10

A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole . . . and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security . . .

Americans continue to find protection from the rabble in the Separation of Powers. Likewise Israel. The separation between White House and Congress helps to lessen the madness that can come from any one institution. The complexity of Europe means that demonstrations in the streets or universities are filtered through institutions with several layers before they can affect concrete actions.

Nasty e-mails, screaming crowds, elected demagogues, and out of control professors are worrying, but they do not break my bones.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:57 PM