March 28, 2010
חג שמח

It's too early to panic, I hope.

President Obama returned to his sweeping demand that Israel stop construction in post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem, extend the construction freeze in settlements outside of Jerusalem beyond the ten months agreed, and take other steps to bring the Palestinians to negotiations.

Comments at a high tone have come from all over the political spectrum, with the Prime Minister aligning himself with his government, but away from its most extreme voices. He is affirming the 'policy of building throughout Jerusalem, but distancing himself from colleagues who are attacking the motives of President Obama and the implications of what he is demanding from Israel.

President Peres has urged the prime minister to stop building for Jews in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

The op-ed page of Ha'aretz calls for a shake up in the government to move it closer to the center, claims that Netanyahu is endangering Israel's security, and that Israel should thank President Obama for acting like a friend.

Palestinian officials and the Arab League are thanking President Obama, asking him to continue the pressure on Israel as a way of gaining support throughout the Middle East, and inciting Muslims to protect al-Aqsa from a Jewish invasion..

On the side of normalcy, Israel will be buying several new military transport planes from an American supplier, the United States has voted against condemnations of Israel by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and General Petraeus denies saying that Israeli actions are threatening the lives of American troops in Muslim countries of Asia.

Indications are that the Israeli government will not be making an official response to the White House until after the Passover holiday. Tempers may cool, and individuals working on language may find a way to satisfy both governments. Other crises may distract one or both parties. There can be an undefined, mutual agreement to pretend that all is well. Or there will be more problems with the government that describes itself as our unflagging ally.

Jewish families and others will celebrate a Passover Seder, including a group in the White House with the President at the head of the table. There is no telling how many interpretations of the ceremony will be heard: freedom from slavery; freedom from other or all oppressions; national self-determination; an experience that is uniquely Jewish or broadly human, and perhaps anti-Zionist.

It has become conventional in liberal Jewish circles to use texts for the ceremony (Haggadot) that do not include one passage in the traditional
ritual. It comes toward the end of the Seder along with the fourth cup of wine. For multiculturists, it is not politically correct.

Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge You, and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let the wrath of Your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord.

Will we hear that participants in the White House Seder read the paragraph? Or that in a number of homes the first words
(שפך חמתך אל הגוים)
came with elevated voices and banging on the table?

However you do it, enjoy the food, wine, feelings, questions, and arguments.

חג שמח

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 03:22 AM
March 27, 2010
A modest proposal

It may be time for Barack Obama to visit the Knesset.

Anwar Sadat's visit in 1977, and his opening words "In the name of God, Mr. Speaker of the Knesset, ladies and gentlemen . . .I come to you today on solid ground to shape a new life and to establish peace. " brought tears to more than a few Israeli eyes, broke through barriers of distrust, and helped to make possible the agreements reached 10 months later at Camp David.

One should not exaggerate the influence of public opinion on government policy. It may be marginal to much of foreign policy crafted in secret meetings designed to keep the media at bay. However, Israelis' distrust of the American President reminds us of the feeling about Egyptians prior to that Knesset speech. At the very least, it does not make it easy for the population or the government to look with favor on what the President and Secretary of State are demanding.

The latest poll commissioned by the Jerusalem Post shows that only 9 percent of the Jewish population think that Barack Obama is on their side.

An earlier poll commissioned by Ha'aretz indicates that more than a quarter thinks that he is an anti-Semite.

On the other hand, signs are that a visit to the Knesset at this time would be pointless. Better that the President concentrate his charms on Ramallah, and then try Gaza before approaching Jerusalem.

Insofar as he has decided to reestablish diplomatic relations with Syria, the President might visit Damascus on his way to Jerusalem and ask President Assad if he wants to come along. They can flip a coin to see who speaks first when they get to the Knesset.

The essence of Israeli criticism, as I perceive it from conversations with leftist colleagues at the university and listening to no end of officials and ordinary citizens is why is he picking on us, when his more serious problems are with the Palestinians. Some of those problems are of long standing, claiming national rights to pre-1967 armistice lines long obscured by population movement, and a return of refugees to homes that no longer exist. Some are the product of the Obama administration, insisting on no construction in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem as a precondition for even indirect negotiations.

There is also considerable agreement that the bombast and slippery lack of reliability shown by Israel's Prime Minister are part of the problem, along with fanatics making a point about moving into Arab neighborhoods known for their extremist hatred of Jews.

The best interim solution is to do nothing. The Prime Minister should not respond to the President's insistence for an early response to his demands. By some reports, the deadline for a response has already passed, and we are on the verge of the Passover holiday. The ground may be laid for bi-lateral silence. The President and his colleagues can use the time to think about how far they have gotten toward the goal of peace--or even friendly conversations--in this neighborhood.

The period for this "interim" solution may be quite long, at least until there are signs of moderation in the Palestinian camp.

This proposal may be nothing more than the latest foolishness of a policy observer, without a party label, who claims an ego smaller than those of the Israeli Prime Minister or American President.

Don't laugh too loudly. I am serious, if somewhat less than optimistic.

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 12:05 AM
March 25, 2010
Israel's secret weapon

Things are not happy on the US-Israel front.

Ha'aretz has taken the unusual step of putting a cartoon in the upper middle of its first page. It shows Bibi pushing a wheelbarrow full of construction material to his meeting with a scowling Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

There were two meetings in the White House, of about two and one-half hours total, with no ceremony, photographers, or agreements. Reports are that the president wanted some concessions to help him get the Palestinians to the table, and the prime minister did not deliver. Earlier in his visit to Washington the prime minister reiterated his intentions to keep building in Jerusalem. On the day of the meeting in the White House, both the president and the prime minister may be been surprised with news that Jerusalem planning authorities had approved a plan to build 200 housing units for Jews in the tense Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

A careful policymaker might distinguish between Israeli building in the established, mostly Jewish neighborhoods created since 1967, and the efforts of extremists to plant Jewish families in the midst of Arab neighborhoods. The first should pass without foreign concern, and the second might be singled out for condemnation.

Much of the money for the provocative housing comes from a fanatic American millionaire. He may be counting on a place in Paradise, or at least a grave plot on the Mount of Olives, and he is within his rights under both American and Israeli law. However, he may also produce another upsurge of Palestinian violence that will put numerous Palestinians as well as Israelis into their graves years ahead of time.

But judgment is not so easy.

First, the public onslaughts from Obama and others have made no distinctions between the neighborhoods of what they call East Jerusalem. And secondly, there are problems, both legal and moral, in preventing Jews from buying property and living wherever they will in Israel's capital city. Jerusalem may not be the capital according to some views of international law, but it is the de facto capital where all major representatives of the great powers come to meet Israeli officials.

What we are seeing is an international uproar that has no future other than bitterness. It reminds us that politicians--whether American or Israeli--may be out of sync with reality and some of their own advisers. The Secretary of State and the President demand concessions from Israel, some of which seem more appropriate as subjects for negotiations rather than as conditions for beginning talks. One can also find comments from them and from others in their administration that recognize problems not associated with Israelis. They include weakness at the summit of Palestinian politics that causes extreme demands, and the failure of Arab governments to weigh in and encourage Palestinian moderation as requested by the Americans.

At its heart, President Obama's policy is no different from that pursued by all American presidents since 1967. The point is to urge negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, with no international recognition of changes on the ground without the agreement of the parties.

The difference is that the Obama administration is pushing harder, with shrill public criticism directed against Israel for not cooperating. It may be pressing against Palestinians and other Arab governments, and expressing disappointment in their lack of cooperation. But those actions are largely in private, perhaps due to a respect for Arab sensitivities. There is at least the hint of demonizing Israel, reinforced by the Petraeus and Biden comments about endangering American troops, as well as by Israel Apartheid Weeks on campuses and calls for boycotts and disinvestment.

Other American administrations pushed occasionally, but came to accept the impasse created by Israeli as well as Palestinian realities. It is too early to conclude that the Obama administration will not also learn that lesson. We can put it on our Passover Wish List, along with the hope that the White House will learn something about engagement with Iran. Perhaps Elijah will help, even as we give up on Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod.

Nervous Jews can relax. There is a weapon in our arsenal that has remained under wraps until now. An article on the inside page of Ha'aretz deals with gefilte fish, whose fuse is burning toward the deadline of Monday evening. American exporters are protesting, and have approached Congress about a new Israeli customs levy on imported carp. It may be junk fish to American anglers, but it's a delicacy for Ashkenazi Israelis. The deal is obvious. Israel's Minister of Trade and Industry will reduce the duty and risk havoc from Israeli carp growers, if the American president passes his test about geopolitics.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:53 AM
March 24, 2010
Politics and Policymaking: Symbols, Slogans, and Reality

Politics moves by symbols and slogans. Policymaking operates under an umbrella of politics, but gives more weight to the details of reality.

Examples of the symbols and slogans that have moved American politics are war on drugs, war on terror, and--in the words of a Washington observer with a fancy title-- "the writing is on the wall that Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu and the Israeli political right with whom he has formed a governing coalition are going to clash on final status."

The item comes from the New York Times, a reputable organ that operates both in the realm of politics and that of policymaking. It is quoting Robert Malley, the director of the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group.

The problem is that Mr. Malley is wrong, for the most part. He is correct when he indicates that Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition is more right than left of center, but he is wrong when he indicates that it is the Israeli right causing problems for the United States. It is also the Israeli center, and a fair slice of the Israeli left.

The American administration is dealing with other issues where slogans are coming into conflict with reality. A war on drugs and a war against terror have acquired the statue of sacred icons in American politics. Richard Nixon declared war against drugs, when drug use was spiking along with soldiers returning from Vietnam. George W. Bush and 9-11 produced the war against terror. Now the Obama administration is moving away from both labels, seemingly in recognition of the Afghan reality.

The United States military is up to its neck in that country, and the problem of getting out seems to involve recognizing the key role of opium in the economy, and that victory against terror is be beyond the capacity of anyone.

Details about drug use, production and interdiction make the "war on drugs" more like prohibition in the 1920s than what the United States and its allies did in the 1940s against Germany and Japan.

Actions against terror are also less than a full blown war, insofar as they run up against Islam and western multiculturalism.

Signs that the White House is thinking of something other than time honored slogans is its accommodation to a drug-saturated local economy in Afghanistan, and encouraging what may be rapport with hitherto hostile factions. Perhaps the White House will eventually declare success and leave that miserable place to its own future.

Can we hope that the simplicity of an American campaign against an Israeli right will also bow to realities? Much of the Jewish Israeli public looks with wonder at the White House's obsession about the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The same broad swath of the population asks what is so different in Palestine as to hope that chances for agreement are better now than in 2000 or 2008.

A respected Israeli pollster recently asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed with the characterization of Barack Obama as anti-Semitic. That he even felt it appropriate to ask such a question says something about Israeli concerns. Fifty-six percent of the respondents said that they disagreed. Twenty-seven percent said that they agreed. (Ha'aretz, March 19, 2010).Thus, a majority of Israelis are not willing to demonize the American president. That a significant minority of Israelis said that they agreed with the characterization points to a White House problem of communication.

It is only one survey question, "antisemitism" is a hot button in Israel, and it is a problematic leap from this query to the chances of an Israel-Palestine agreement. However, without convincing more than 56 percent of Israelis about his good intentions, Barack Obama is not likely to accomplish his aspirations.

Barack Obama has had a good week. His success in ratcheting down from initial promises, identifying and accepting workable compromises in health care may assure his reputation as an effective president. Still open is his capacity to go beyond slogans and deal with the realities of Israel and Palestine.
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 05:25 AM
March 21, 2010

Good for BO. It may not be pretty, for those who think politics should be like a learned discussion among angels. But fair and decent for those of us who recognize that politics is like a sausage factory. We may not like to watch it in action, but the results are worth serving to the family.

I do not know what is in all those pages that the House endorsed, there is still the Senate having to do something or other, it's too early to know the immediate and long range costs, and what will pass through subsequent steps in the bureaucracies that will define the details and the courts that consider appeals. But it moves the US toward what other democracies achieved during the 20th century. For all of them the 21st century consists of dealing with costs, deciding which expensive treatments and medications should be available within their basic plans, and which available only to those who pay more. There are no final victories where death is the ultimate enemy.

Meanwhile, in this little socialist paradise a narrow view of ancient law has set us back. Coalition politics put an ultra-Orthodox rabbi at the head of the Health Ministry, and he has won a government decision to build the new emergency room at the Ashkelon hospital a half kilometer from the rest of the hospital. Ancient bones were uncovered while excavating for the construction where the emergency room should be built, right alongside the hospital.

It is a matter of dispute in Jewish law as to whether human remains can be moved for the sake of a construction that will benefit the public. This rabbi has taken an extreme position, and said he would resign (and threaten the coalition) if the government did not go along with him. "It's only a matter of money," he said. Critics insist that it is not only money, but building an emergency room far from the physicians in various departments and operating rooms that must have easy access from the emergency room.

Articles beginning on the front page of Ha'aretz are headlined, " Government Necrophilia," "Extreme Lack of Reason," "Dark Decision," and "Burning Torch." The cartoon shows a helicopter holding the emergency room above the graves (so as to not contaminate the room or to disturb the dead), while personnel trundle patients from the room to the hospital, and a religious aide asks the rabbi if the helicopter will work on the Sabbath.


Another issue, no less problematic in religious law and modern public relations, concerns the nature of the bones. Archaeologists have said that the style of burial is not Jewish. Perhaps they are pagan from the time when the Philistines dominated the region of modern Ashkeloon. Remember that it was Ashkelon where Samson did his thing (Judges 13-16). His shiksa was a Philistine.

Like the movement of graves, the differential treatment of Jews and Gentiles (live and dead) is a matter of dispute in Jewish law. The rabbi at the head of the Health Ministry is willing to change his mind if convinced that the graves are not Jewish.

The specialist in religious law who commented in one media discussion pondered the blot on Israel's reputation if the emergency room is built where it should be only because those are goyishe bones.

The vote in the government was 11 to 10. The forces of light are close. The secular, and even some of the religious media, is mounting a campaign in behalf of reason. The professional serving as director general of the Health Ministry has resigned. Health professionals are in full mobilization. No surprise that the prime minister has not spoken clearly on the issue. Currently he is in Washington dealing with bigger fish. Perhaps he will take a moment to congratulate the president on health reform. Can we hope that the president will speak about the emergency room in Ashkelon along with apartments in Jerusalem?

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:21 PM
March 20, 2010
Who's crazy?

Sorry my friends and relatives, but I've concluded that America is crazy. Its policymakers ought to be institutionalized.

Problem is, there is no institution big enough. America is the institution, and defines what is deemed crazy among those many who follow its lead.

And they think we are crazy.

I could be talking about health care. Even though the Congress may enact an impressive increment over what exists, members had to be pulled screaming toward what every other civilized country did years ago.

I am really talking about the Middle East. No surprise to those who know me. Some of them will call the men in white carrying a large net, and give them my address.

A leading general has asserted that Israel is causing problems for his soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Might he consider that his soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are causing problems for the civilized few who live in the Middle East? My impression, crazy though I might be, is that anti-Americanism and rants against Israel have increased in fervor since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and decided to stay in Afghanistan.

The president and his secretary of state, as well as virtually every other national leader who agrees with the American president when the local cost is insignificant, blames Israel for a lack of progress in making peace with Palestine. They demand concessions, return to the non-starter of stopping construction in neighborhoods of Jerusalem, condemn Jewish residence in Arab neighborhoods, and make the micro-management of Israel's capital city a subject for international discussion.

If Barack Obama and Tom Friedman would join us in our walks around French Hill they would notice that we pass neighbors chatting in Arabic. Why can't Arabs living in Silwan or Sheikh Jarrah tolerate neighbors who chat in Hebrew?

Jerusalem has a long history, and Muslims as well as Jews have a claim. Christians, too, but the Muslims have been largely responsible for pushing them out. I would feel more inclined to criticize Jews for minimizing the Muslim connection with Jerusalem's history if the Muslims showed a sign of recognizing that the Jews have any connection with Jerusalem's history.

What to do with a crazy White House that returns to demands that Israel's government has already rejected, and continues with its efforts to promote a peace process that has been shown time and again to have no future?

Play house.

Most of us did it as kids.

It consists of pretending to do something that everyone knows has no meaning.

Israeli leaders must go along with the American president and say they accept a two-state solution. They must agree to concessions that will build confidence. Take down a barricade or two. Endure a drive by shooting. Wait for the reason to re-establish the barricades. Offer concessions, and endure the response that they are not enough. Make the case of Palestinian incitement, all those school room maps that show no Israel, and television programs that demonize Jews. Someone will listen. Israel has friends, although not currently in the White House. Count on the Palestinians to make this a long process, most likely endless.

What will Barack and Hillary do when there is no agreement?

Then we will see who is really crazy.

There will be another election in the United States. The person sitting in the emperor's seat will change. It may get better. Politics usually works in waves, with the next one different from this one.

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 03:50 AM
March 18, 2010
Can we hope for sobriety in the White House

It is not possible to find a more left-wing, large circulation media outlet in Israel than Ha'aretz. It is as close as anything Israeli comes to the New York Times: not in the quality or extent of its coverage, but in having as its readers the intellectual, political, and economic elites of the country, and being severe in its criticism of what they are doing. Amira Hass has lived in Gaza and Ramallah, and can be counted upon to fill a page or more with one or another kind of Palestinian misery. Gideon Levy and Ze'ev Sternhill do not pass up an opportunity to scald their country for a lack of humanity and wisdom. The banner headline in the midst of the Biden scandal--that Israel is planning for the construction of 50,000 homes throughout East Jerusalem--reflects the paper's passion. The article made no mention of construction for Arabs, or how many of the claimed 50,000 apartments are at an advanced stage of planning or suitable for market projections extending over several years.

There is an occasional op-ed piece by Moshe Arens to gain the paper a fig leaf of balance, but the thrust is far to the left of him.

Given the critical nature of Ha'aretz, today's cartoon is instructive. It shows the president and secretary of state watching television coverage of Palestinian rampage, with the president saying, "It doesn't look like they are approaching face to face discussions."

A late report is that Obama is reiterating the close rapport between the United States and Israel, and describing the Biden incident as a quarrel between friends.

That is a lot better than what we heard earlier, including reports that General Petraeus has said that Israel's stubborn resistance to the United States peace initiative threatens his country's national interests, and his soldiers' lives throughout the Muslim world. That was too close to the anti-Israel line used by Arab autocrats to distract their own masses from serious problems, and suggests the classic practice of scapegoating the Jews.

Israel has friends in the United States, but it would be another cheap shot to ascribe the moderation of White House rhetoric to Jewish political clout. Facts as well as pressure matter.

If any party has shown itself unready to negotiate, it is the Palestinians. The rejection of what Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton offered in 2000, and what Ehud Olmert offered in 2008 is indication enough that Ramat Shlomo or other construction in Jerusalem is not the core of the problem, and maybe not even a significant element.

The disproportion between public pressure on Israel and insistence on engagement with Iran and Syria is so bizarre as to be potent politically. Some Members of Congress might be wondering if an administration so unbalanced in its foreign policy could be counted upon for the contents of a health bill too large and complex to be understood before having to vote on it.

Iran is another reason for the White House to moderate its pressure on Israel. While my guess is that there will not be an Israeli attack, one should avoid certainty. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not moderated his threats. Should Israeli leaders take him at his word, give up on any prospect of meaningful sanctions, recall the fate of their grandparents, and feel themselves alone in a corner, they may do something that really will impact on General Petraeus, his troops, and his bosses.

Currently, Israel's immediate neighborhood appears to be in a quiet phase. After several days of letting off steam, or responding to the incitement of religious extremists, Palestinians have returned to their routines. Fatah security personnel worked to moderate protests throughout the West Bank, even while Fatah leaders lent their voices to claims of abomination in Jerusalem.

There is little reason to perceive that negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians will get anywhere. Working on the quiet, and endorsing the economic progress in the West Bank would be more hopeful.

It may not be wise to rely on a cartoon, but let us hope for a bit of sobriety in the White House.

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 02:45 AM
March 15, 2010
May this Passover be more peaceful than that one.

The dust has not settled from the Biden-Ramat Shlomo incident.

Early signs are that the Israeli government is not complying with American demands. There has been no cancellation of the planning decision to build 1,600 new apartments in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, and the prime minister has reiterated his intention of continuing to build in neighborhoods throughout the city. Most of the vacant land is in the neighborhoods that the Obama administration considers to be non-Kosher, but new planning approvals and building continue.

Special Envoy George Mitchell has delayed a visit meant to promote the start of negotiations. While Americans may see that as a sanction or a warning to Israel, it may also be viewed as an American surrender to Middle Eastern realities. Insofar as the White House was standing against the expectations or desire of both Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps its people have come to realize that there is not much point at beating a dead horse.

Israel's lack of enthusiasm for negotiations is well known. The Palestinians' can be inferred from their insistence on conditions they know Israel would not accept, as well as from the reality of a Palestine divided between Fatah and Hamas, West Bank vs Gaza, with the Fatah regime hanging on only with Israeli, Jordanian, and American help, more than a year beyond the end of its term, with no election in sight.

What we are seeing is the result of several violations of the political norms that demand moderation.

Israel went a step too far in announcing construction as a greeting for the Vice President. The White House earlier went a step too far in demanding a construction freeze in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. It now may again be going a step too far by demanding a cancellation of the planning for Ramat Shlomo, as well as other steps, to build confidence, that Israel had earlier rejected. Israel went a step too far by including Rachel's Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs on a list of national heritage sites. Palestinians and other Muslims went a step too far by calling for demonstrations against what they called an insult to their religion, overlooking that Jews also have claims to those places, and that nothing in the declaration about Israel's heritage sites threatened Muslim rights. Now Palestinians and other Muslims are going another step too far by protesting the resanctification of a historic synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City which Jordanians had destroyed.

The White House does not monopolize American media or public opinion. Several commentators have accused the president and his advisers of going a step too far. Prominent among them is an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that contrasts the administration's shrillness toward Israel with its softness on Iran and Syria.,7340,L-3862914,00.html

There is tinder afoot. The Passover holiday is only two weeks away. It is a time for Jews to come to Jerusalem and visit the Old City. Two thousand years ago it was the occasion when Jesus went a step too far when he challenged Jewish and Roman authorities in the same season. Josephus describes mass pilgrimages that entailed sacrifices of a quarter million birds and animals on the altars of the Temple. It was not a time for proclaiming ideas that would unsettle all those people crowded together in a context of religious fervor.

Palestinian and other Muslim leaders are inciting their communities with the claim that the consecration of the synagogue is a step in the direction of destroying their holy mosques and building a Jewish Temple on their site. Their justification, for what it is worth, is that a fringe element, more nationalistic than religious, has proclaimed an "International Temple Mount Awareness Day", in order to celebrate their plans to build a Temple. For the nth time, Israeli authorities have rejected their application to lay a cornerstone, and prominent rabbis have repeated their theological prohibition against Jews visiting the Temple Mount.

Hopefully the dust will settle, with outcomes less profound than on another Jerusalem Passover all those years ago.

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 11:29 PM
March 13, 2010
Have a good week

We are having a lesson in the nature of politics. As ever in the case of this slippery science, the nature of the lesson is not especially clear. Neither is its implications for the near and distant future.

No doubt that feathers at the peak of the American government are ruffled. Hillary spent 45 minutes on the phone with Bibi. She spent most of the time talking, and we can imagine that she was at her shrillest. She went public with her charge that Israel had insulted the United States by announcing construction in Jerusalem during the vice president's effort in behalf of peace. According to some reports, she threatened, or hinted at a threat to reconsider American aid for Israel's security.

Earlier Bibi had said that his expression of regret for the timing, and his claim of no responsibility for the decision, had settled the crisis. So far he has not responded to Hillary's dressing down beyond appointing a committee to uncover who was responsible for the embarrassment.

Hillary says there is no indication that Bibi had a hand in the unfortunate incident, but that is a thin fig leaf. If Bibi or his key coalition partner and minister of interior did not actually bless the decision before it was taken, the bureaucrats and political appointees who did it could imagine that it would advance the government's agenda. One or more of those underlings may lose a job in the national interest, or the quest for responsibility may go on long enough to disappear in the noise of subsequent crises.

Bibi's political calculation is either simple or impossible, depending on him. He can turn leftward and give a concession to the Palestinians in order to placate the Americans. He may lose the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party SHAS and the right wing, secular, and heavily Russian party Israel Beiteinu, but Tzipi Livni has indicated a willingness to bring the Kadima party into the coalition as a replacement. The loss of SHAS and Israel Beiteinu would also take the hot potatoes of a reformed conversion law and a law in behalf of civil unions off the government's table.

On the other hand, Bibi's heart--and those of his party colleagues in Likud--are closer to the feelings expressed by SHAS and Israel Beiteinu than to those of Kadima or the American White House.

Moreover, there are few Israelis convinced that peace with the Palestinians is attainable, and there is widespread wonderment at the obsessive pursuits by the Obama administration. The confidence in that administration with respect to Iran is no greater than with respect to Palestine. Should Bibi crawl and change his stripes, and risk his standing with his own closest partners, he would only postpone what is likely to be the reckoning with a stubborn and blind administration when he fails to satisfy Palestinians, and he would not lessen the threat of a nuclear armed Iran.

Several events, perhaps less than minor on the international stage, may develop in ways to defuse the present crisis, or make it more severe. Politics being what they are, the same items may move the big players in different directions.

Perhaps the least weighty, but most sexy politically is the issue of segregated buses. "Strictly kosher buses" serve ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, which religious activists demand be divided between women in the rear and men in the front. Although the segregation is largely voluntary, supported by many ultra-Orthodox women as well as men, not all in that community are happy. And if anything is a red flag in the face of Israeli and international political correctness, it is this. Tzipi Livni was prominent in a recent flurry on the issue, so one can wonder if she would bring her party into a coalition that has one or two ultra-Orthodox parties.

Also coming to prominence is a resurgence of Palestinian protest. Some of this has been spurred by putting Rachel's Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs on the list of national heritage sites, some by a court decision favoring Jewish over Arab residents for a contested building in East Jerusalem, and some by the reconsecration of a prominent synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City that had been destroyed during the War of Independence and the 19 years of Jordanian control. And there has been an uptick in Palestinian violence directed at a highway built from the northern suburbs of Jerusalem to Tel Aviv through part of the West Bank. Israel closed that road to Palestinians beginning with the intifada, and the Supreme Court has ruled that it must be reopened to them. Security personnel and politicians are pondering how to comply with that ruling, and now, perhaps, whether to comply with it. Currently a weekend closing of all entry points from the West Bank to Israel for Palestinians has been extended, due to continued reports of incitements and preparations for violence.

"Have a good week" is a traditional greeting for "First Day," the Biblical name for what many of you call Sunday. One can extend the blessing, without expecting that much will come of it.

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 09:14 PM
March 11, 2010
Who do you trust?

If there is a simple key to what has happened, and what is likely to happen as a result of the dust up surrounding building in Jerusalem and the visit of Vice President Biden, it is a lack of trust.

It is hard to find a serious Israeli commentator who expresses trust of the wisdom of the American administration or its posture vis a vis Israel. Public opinion surveys of Israeli Jews parallel that lack of trust.

Israeli Jews do not trust Israeli Arabs or Palestinians. The violence since 2000 and in response to the withdrawal from Gaza has done its work to reinforce this lack of trust that has older roots.

Palestinians and Israeli Arabs do not trust Israeli Jews; and Palestinians and Israeli Arabs do not trust one another. Israeli Arabs show no interest in becoming citizens of Palestine. Casual suggestions to give Palestine the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem naively avoid the issue of referenda in those neighborhoods.

Secular Palestinians do not trust religious Palestinians, Christians and Muslims do not trust one another, and those with Fatah loyalties do not trust those with Hamas. Serious violence occurred between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza. Members of one extended family do not trust those of other families. Bloody feuds erupt from time to time among Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. The notion of a Palestinian "nation" is a considerable exaggeration.

Israeli Arabs and Palestinians look ritualistically to others to press the Israelis, but there is not a lot of trust among them directed at Americans or other Arabs.

And who trusts Palestinians? Not many Americans, according to Gallup. Or elites in other Arab countries. Think of the Palestinians as the Jews of the Arab world.

Israelis to the right and left of center do not trust one another. Neither the settlers and their friends, nor the anarchists and other persistent advocates of Palestinians rights are widely popular in the large Jewish center of the spectrum. There is little trust between secular Israeli Jews and the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, both on issues that are internal to the Jewish communities and those that spill over to matters of land and peace.

"Bibi? I don't believe him" was the centerpiece in Tzipi Livni's 2009 election campaign. Her Kadima Party received more votes and Knesset seats than Netanyahu's Likud, but she did not have the allies to form a coalition. Since the election she may have been too quiet in order to preserve her political base. Her party rival, Shaul Mofaz, is finding support among Kadima activists who do not trust Livni to do what is necessary to become prime minister.

People in and around the White House would sign on to Tzipi's slogan. They are probably quoting Bill Clinton, "Who the f--- does he think he is?"

Do Israeli and overseas Jews trust one another?

This is a sensitive question with no clear answer. Probably not as much as they used to. It is common to say that the Lebanon war of 1982 was the watershed, i.e., Israel's first "war of choice" in the eyes of those who opposed it.

Leaving aside what may be the majority of overseas Jews who are apathetic or uninformed about Israeli issues, there are parallel conflicts with the issues that separate Israeli Jews. Diaspora Jews argue about land and peace, settlements, and religion. There is a conflict over Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaism that overseas Jews try without much success to implant in Israel.

Good signs are the economic development and the spurt of peace that has marked the last few years in the West Bank. Israel's economy is doing better than many others. The shekel has performed well in relation to the dollar and the Euro.

If foreign politicians will keep quiet and pursue the advancement of their reputations elsewhere, the good times in Israel and Palestine (West Bank) may develop further.

But I do not trust my moments of optimism. There are enough fanatics among Palestinians, Israelis, and others wanting to promote themselves, their ideology or theology, willing to destroy the good for their view of Paradise, peace, democracy, or whatever.

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 09:50 PM
March 10, 2010
Who's mad?

Take your pick. Was the announcement of planning approval for the construction of 1,600 apartment units in Ramat Shlomo, in northeast Jerusalem, a case of clumsy timing, insofar as it came during the visit of Vice President Joe Biden, meant to inaugurate the start of indirect negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Or was it a routine step in the planning process, prior to actual construction, consistent with the explicit decision of the Israeli government not to freeze construction within its definition of the Jerusalem municipality.

Whatever you select, it has been an occasion for Palestinians to cancel their agreement to begin indirect negotiations, and has provoked sharp responses from Vice President Biden, the White House and State Department, as well as--so far--leading officials of Germany, Australia, Brazil, and the Arab League.

Vice President Biden "boiled" in his response, according to media sources. He said that the action could escalate violence throughout the Middle East, and might endanger American troops in Iraq.

Why not Afghanistan, as well?

Someone in the State Department said that Israel's demand for tougher sanctions on Iran will now fall on deaf ears.

Perhaps this is the opportunity for the American administration to blame Israel for several of its predictable failures throughout the area.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu is saying that he did not know about the decision until the planning authorities announced it. He criticized Interior Minister Eli Yishai for the timing. Yishai also pleads innocent, and points to the independence of the planning committees that report to his ministry. From somewhere down in the ministry comes the explanation that the announcement was a routine announcement, and not meant to embarrass anyone. Ministry officials say that there are perhaps 20 planning approvals for projects throughout Israel announced each day.

Ramat Shlomo is a neighborhood designed for, and populated by ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom support Yishai's SHAS party.

A day prior to Biden's visit, Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced the construction of 221 apartment units in Beitar Illit. This is a town for ultra-Orthodox Jews located outside of the Jerusalem municipality, close to the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Hebron. Insofar as it is in the West Bank, Beitar Illit falls within the responsibility of the Defense Ministry. Although this approval is an explicit exception from the temporary freeze that the Israeli government accepted for the West Bank, it did not provoke the nastiness of the responses toward Ramat Shlomo.

While some insist that Israelis must recognize the special sensitivity of Jerusalem, others say that sensitivities must go in both directions. That is, Muslim must recognize Israel's special concern for Jerusalem, and be prepared to compromise on the Temple Mount as well as other sites. And just as Arabs may live in Jewish neighborhoods, Jews must be able to live in Arab neighborhoods.

Expressions of regret for the timing have come from the prime minister and the minister of interior, with both reiterating government policy to continue building in Jerusalem. The banner headline on the front page of Ha'aretz is that there are plans at various stages of formulation for a total of 50,000 apartment units in areas of Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians.

Also on the front page of Ha'aretz is a report of a supermarket ad campaign, with individuals made up to resemble the photos of the people said to be Mossad agents who killed a prominent Hamas operative in Dubai. The message is that merchandise will be liquidated by low prices.

Some of you may remember Alred E. Neuman. What Me Worry?

Who's mad?

* The current Israeli government for flaunting the tolerance of the international community.
* The American administration, for thinking it might force the Israeli government to accept Palestinian demands.
* Americans and others, including Israelis mostly to the left of this government, who think that peace between Israel and Palestine is only a matter of agreeing to one or another detail, and that the underlying issues of Palestinian rejectionism and Israeli insecurity are not important.

Or all of the above.

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 09:00 PM
March 09, 2010
Time for whimsy

A bit of whimsy may keep us sane.

Let's say there was no politics: no prominent figures intent on putting their name in the history books by demanding action to solve the insoluble.

The status quo in the West Bank, if it continues for some time (let us say a few years) might continue to allow economic development and provide Palestinians a reason for keeping the peace. That, in turn, might increase Israeli willingness to trust their cousins and give peace a better chance.

Might the Israelis express that trust by agreeing to withdraw some settlements?

That is a tough one after the Gaza experience, but let's say maybe.

And what about Gaza?

That's also a tough one.

Would continued blockade with a minimum of supplies weaken Hamas and produce a situation where that bit of crowded misery would sign on to a theme of peaceful coexistence.

Perhaps if we ruled religion as well as politics out of the picture.

One should never say never. Life will go on even after we cease writing, reading, and doing everything else.

Unfortunately, our whimsy cannot change reality.

Both religion and politics are in the picture, as well as nationalism for those who claim to be secular yet feel their hearts beat faster at the prospect of ethnic glory or insult.

Current efforts by those who claim to aspire good seem likely to make things worse.

My candidate for the greatest source of bad is sitting in the White House. His aspirations drove key parties further apart by insisting on a settlement freeze, and now is pushing them even further apart by forcing them to separate rooms for "indirect" negotiations via his mediator.

Neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli parties can resist American pressure to start some kind of negotiations but American pressure cannot force them to do what their constituencies will not permit.

So the day before the announcement of indirect negotiations the Israeli government announced the approval of new construction in one of the settlements. "Indirect" negotiations set back Israel-Arab relations to the early 1970s, and provoke religious and nationalist Israelis, on whom the prime minister depends for staying in office.

Palestinians also have their politics, nationalism, and religion. So they are insisting on the achievement of what the Israelis say they cannot provide. The Palestinian leadership (West Bank) is saying that it will not agree to direct negotiations until there is a total settlement freeze as well as Israeli acceptance of several other non-negotiable demands. Bibi is saying that he will not go to direct negotiations until the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state."

Not only is there an impasse, but recent events have set the stones athrowing. In the past, that has been a prelude to suicide bombings, which have led to the destruction of Palestinians and their economy.

Who is to blame?

All the key politicians, with the Israelis and Palestinians pushed by their religious and nationalist extremists, and the Americans pushed by their fantasies of accomplishing what has eluded previous attempts, with the same ideas, over the course of decades. One can go back to 2008, 2000, 1967, 1949, or the teens and twenties of the twentieth century to find Jews and Arabs willing to go along with one or another division of the land, but coming up against others not willing to go along.

Obama and his advisers have succeeded in radicalizing Palestinian demands (settlement freeze as condition of negotiations) and have pushed Israeli religious nationalists to pressure Bibi, with the result that he loses control over his hyperbole (national heritage sites), which provokes Palestinian stone throwing, which can lead to Hell in a hurry.

And there is Gaza. It is in the hands of religious extremists, with several groups claiming affiliation with Hamas squabbling over who can be more extreme, and other extremists fighting Hamas with more than verbal jousts.

Can there be an Israeli-Palestinian agreement without Gaza? The White House has not indicated how that could be done.

May it do better in the reform of American health care.

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 12:30 AM
March 06, 2010
Conundrums. Or is it conundra?

Another round of high level visits and photo opportunities. Defense Minister goes to Washington. Vice President comes to Jerusalem. Special envoy arrives as well, hopefully to declare the onset of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Not direct negotiations, in order to protect Mahmoud Abbas' reputation, but indirect via American mediators.

Pressure on Israel to avoid something preemptive with respect to Iran? Or high level discussions of what it will take to keep Israel out of that fray?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that 9-11 was engineered by the United States to give it an excuse for invading Afghanistan.

The Chinese are saying that it is not appropriate to impose sanctions on Iran. Diplomacy is the answer. Russia opposes an embargo on (its) arms sales to Iran. Ranking Americans say that sanctions should not be so harsh as to harm Iranian civilians. The US and its western partners are bargaining about what Iranian banks--if any--should be on a black list.

Should Israel go ahead with an operation, likely to bring a rain of missiles on itself from Iran and Lebanon, produce an escalation that shuts down Lebanon and maybe Syria, brings in the United States and produces a grand regional something or other, maybe even let the N-thing out of somebody's bag? Or let the Holocaust denier, who declares Israel's imminent demise, and says what he does about 9-11 continue to develop his own weapons of mass destruction?

Somewhat lower on the scale of apocalypse is an upturn in Palestinian protest. For the first time in years Palestinians on the Temple Mount threw stones on Jews praying below at the Western Wall. So the police went onto the Mount to stop them. Then Palestinian religious and political figures accused the Jews of violating their sacred space. A mile or so away, thousands of Palestinians and their Israeli supporters protested court decisions allowing the expulsion of Palestinian squatters from residences owned by Jews.

Should there be no rule of law when Palestinians claim preference? Or is it simply unwise for Jews to provoke unrest by moving into areas heavily settled by Arabs? And unwise for Bibi to put Rachel's Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs on a list of national monuments? What about the Arab family living in our apartment house?

As long as the United States refrains from imposing serious sanctions on Iran--either unilaterally or as part of a coalition--one can expect that the same coalition partners that pressed Bibi to put Rachel's Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs on the list of national monuments will press him to refrain from any concessions to the Palestinians. With every stone thrown against Jews in East Jerusalem, that pressure will increase.

Things are connected.

You've heard of a conundrum?

There are several of them intertwined.

Suggestions welcome.

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 11:53 PM
March 04, 2010
This, too, is foreign politics

Not everything is the stuff of high drama, invasion or stealth, blood, bodies, and claims of decisive victory. There are also statements and actions, coming out of government departments, legislative committees, what may be chance remarks, and programs on public radio and television.

In neither the big or little episodes is there usually anything close to final victory or defeat. Life and politics go on, countries tend not to disappear, no matter how dramatic the deaths or the insults.

What is important?

There may not be a clear answer.

Ambiguity is a work of art.

Recent bits of the less dramatic sort in international politics have appeared in the United States, Britain, and Israel.

The larger conflict at issue is the "war against terror." We must admit that "war" and "terror" are both fuzzy concepts, but it is possible to convey some meaning without parsing those terms to death.

One cluster of events appears to be slaps directed against Turkey, most likely as punishment for its government's approach too close to the lines pursued by Iran and Syria.

The ammunition employed is the so-called genocide against Armenians in the context of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps 1.5 million Armenians died as a result of forced expulsions, starvation and other brutality.

Until now, the governments of the United States and Israel have stood with the Turks, and have used their powers of persuasion against condemnation or even publicity of Armenian claims. Official reluctance still may be the policy. Reports are that the Obama administration urged members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to avoid any condemnation of genocide, and the vote in favor was a close 23 to 22. It is still not clear if the measure will reach the full House. The Bush administration succeeded in keeping a similar committee resolution from reaching the House floor in 2007, when it was concerned with the loss of Turkey's cooperation with its policies in Iraq.

In what looks like a flick in response to a slap, Turkey's prime minister has condemned the committee vote, and recalled the ambassador to the United States for consultation,

If the issue gets any bigger it may delay what appeared to be moves of reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, including the definition of the border between the two countries.

Israel is making its own tiny contribution to the "confrontation of symbols," which appears to be a few degrees lesser in intensity than "a war of words."

One "salvo" comes from the Anti-Defamation League, not Israeli but a cousin. It announced that it considered the killings to be genocide. Another, closer to the Israeli establishment, is a program on public television that describes the killings as the Armenian Holocaust. The senior broadcaster of Israel broadcasting moderates the program. He has a wide public following, and is known from the somber way in which he condemns evil by the tone of his voice.

Officially the Israeli government is acting like the American government. President Obama wants Congress to stay away from the issue, and President Peres has told the Turkish prime minister that Israel has not changed its position, i.e., that Turkey and Armenia should resolve the issue among themselves in a dialogue.

Not likely that the Turkish government will be quick to moderate its posture with respect to Iran, Syria, the Palestinians, and Israel. We will never know if less than decisive actions in Washington and Jerusalem lead Turkey to do anything serious to prevent cooperation at the levels where things count in the actions of military and economic bureaucracies.

Another weapon in Israel's arsenal against Turkey is tourism. The southern coast of Turkey is the vacation spot of choice for middle and lower income Israelis and others. Prices are low, the hotels are glitzy and the souvenirs plentiful. Labor unions organize group packages for their members. During the month that includes the Passover holiday, there will be more than 80 charter flights from Tel Aviv to Antalya and other airports in the resort area.

There was more traffic prior to the uptick in tensions, and there may be fewer if the tensions worsen. Promoters are flogging vacations almost as cheap on the coasts of Greece and Bulgaria.

Another front in this conflict via impressions comes from the British government. It is pondering with some seriousness a change in the law relevant to "political" arrest warrants. The prospect of being detained has kept former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, and maybe even Colin Powell from visiting Britain. Officials want to curtail the right of an individual to obtain a writ of arrest from an ordinary judge. One proposal is for a high ranking body, such as the Crown Prosecution Service, to take over responsibility for prosecuting war crimes and other violations of international law. Key figures, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown worry about the damage to Britain's standing due to the capacity of political activists to obtain warrants that limit the visits to Britain of the mighty, including some invited for consultation with leading officials. However, the issue is sensitive, there is an election coming, so deliberations will be delayed. Ms Livni and Mr Powell may postpone their travel plans yet again.

Meaningless tempest is a tea pot?

There are lots of those in international as well as domestic politics.

It is not always easy to know what is going on.

Israelis who may be in the know say that they are not all that concerned about the tempests raging around that incident in Dubai. Lip service, they say, expressed by officials objecting to the use of their country's passports, and even by Dubai personnel who would rather have Israeli business people coming to their little place than Palestinian killers.

None of this is new.

Bava Kama is the Tractate of the Talmud that deals with damages. One of its discussions deals with when it is permitted or forbidden to injure a person or property when the individual to be injured asks that the act be done. The rabbis warn that not all statements are serious. Some are sarcastic, and must not be honored. (Chapter 8, page 93a)

One has to listen and read about the words and deeds of adversaries and others, look beneath the surface, and judge their meaning and significance. It may not be easy.

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 11:57 PM