May 31, 2010

Remember the massacre of Jenin? According to the Palestinian narrative, the IDF killed 3,000 civilians. If there was a Palestinian condemnation of the suicide bombing of a Passover Seder which provoked the operation, it was lost in the commotion. Human Rights Watch, usually unfriendly to Israel, put the death toll in Jenin at 31 Palestinian fighters and 22 civilians. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers also died.

There was another notable occasion for the Palestinians when a family of seven died in an explosion on the beach of Gaza. A video photographer filmed a young daughter finding her family dead, screaming and throwing herself on the sand. The pictures appeared time and again on television news programs. The girl appeared in repeated interviews, and received a filmed visit from the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian National Authority proclaimed three days of national mourning and lowered its flags to half-mast. In order to be sure that there would be no challenge to the Palestinian story, Authority personnel removed all traces of shrapnel from the beach. They did not respond to Israeli authorities wanting evidence for an investigation as to who was responsible.
The IDF and government authorities expressed their regret, and brought some of the wounded to Israeli hospitals. As usual, they stopped short of apologies. The beach was one of the places that Palestinians used to fire rockets at Israel. The IDF had warned Palestinians to stay away from what would be an open field of fire.

After an inquiry, the IDF concluded that it was not responsible. There was no crater in the sand of the type an artillery shell would create. The Palestinians did not get all the shrapnel in their combing of the beach. Some remained in the people taken to Israeli hospitals. Analysis of the metal found it was not the type used in Israeli munitions.

Another film showed Muhammad al-Durrah huddled with his father against a wall, said to be under attack by Israel. The film turned out to have been edited, and was the subject of legal actions between different French media personalities.

Now Palestinians are trying to exploit the deaths of 9 individuals on what they called the Freedom Flotilla, interrupted by the Israel navy on its way to Gaza. Initial responses are widespread condemnations of Israel, including demands for investigations by some of the prestigious individuals and organizations not waiting for such investigation before issuing their condemnations.

This story may run no less than the claim of a massacre in Jenin, the Gaza beach, or the fate of Muhammad al-Durrah. Yet the condemnations may dim to little more than lip service if the officials of serious countries listen to reports from Israel. Here it appears that people claiming to be humanitarians concerned only to bring supplies to Gaza had armed themselves with knives, rocks, sling shots, and staves, gasoline bombs and guns, and employed them all against the first wave of IDF personnel to reach the ships.

Demonstrations by Israeli Arabs and their Jewish allies, Palestinians, Turks, Jordanians and others began even before the ships were brought to the Israeli port of Ashdod. A spokesperson for the flotilla spoke with assurance from Cyprus about Israeli aggression, even though she had not been in touch with the ships since an hour before the Israelis arrived. We can expect demands for investigations, and quarrels as to who is qualified to investigate. A resolution supported by a majority of the General Assembly cannot be far behind.

And what is the truth?

Who cares?


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 11:20 AM
May 29, 2010
Verbal lynching

It is sad, even pathetic, but not surprising that the UN meeting of parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons concluded their month long conference by calling for the monitoring of Israel's nuclear program without mentioning that of Iran.

The United States participated in the consensus, but senior officials note their criticisms of its language. They are saying that they aspire to a nuclear free Middle East, and there has been no change in long-standing American positions including an assurance of Israel's defense.

This is diplomatic talk for having one's cake and eating it, too. The United States is joining Israel in the language of nuclear ambiguity.

Israeli media coverage is not friendly to the American maneuver, and is featuring Israeli government statements ridiculing the conference document and indicating that Israel will not be bound by it.

Israel is used to political isolation. It recognizes the bias in UN organizations due to the one country-one vote arrangement, the weight of Muslims and the influence of money, oil and gas. It also understands diplomatic double talk, such as that currently heard from the White House, and the prominent role of Egypt in pressing for resolutions against Israel's nuclear capabilities. Israel also benefits from public and not-so-public lines of cooperation with the United States, Egypt, and other governments that participate in verbal lynching.

It is not easy to calculate the damage to Israel of the frequent diatribes against it, and the damage to those who participate in them, or participate while distancing themselves from what they formally accept. Outright condemnations and singling out may cost Israelis something in respect and access to international opportunities. But the lack of support also has costs for others--including the United States--due to Israeli suspicions of their intentions.

The next embarrassment for Israel is not far off. A limping flotilla aspiring to break the blockade of Gaza has been organized by Turkish and Palestinian Islamists with the participation of activists from other countries. How many of the ships will approach Gaza is no longer certain, given mechanical problems the organizers are blaming on Israel. The Israeli navy intends to keep the participants from reaching Gaza, and bring them instead to Ashdod, deportation, or prison.

Whatever happens, there will be criticism of Israel's blockade, with or without a serious consideration of the reasons that Israel maintains the blockade, or the food, fuel, medicines and other material that Israel allows through.

Alongside Israel's demonization is the realization that the country has supporters.

Questions always are on the agenda are:

Is their support stable? Do those who support also oppose specific actions? Are supporters capable of influencing their governments?

There are also questions about Israel's critics.

How intense are they? Do their comments portend hostile action? How to decipher comments that express both criticize and support, or criticism for Israel as well as its adversaries?

Alongside all of these questions is:

Can Israel rely on anyone other than its own population and institutions?

This leads to the next question:

Who within this contentious and beleaguered country is the ultimate arbiter of what the country should be doing?

What this boils down to, here as in other democracies, is that there is no ultimate arbiter. The current government runs the country, with procedures for weighing inputs from its various components. Outside of the government, with a powerful word--but not necessarily final word--is the Supreme Court and its capacity to decide if a decision of the government or one of its functionaries departs from established law. Beyond that is the plurality of media, opposition politicians and independent commentators.

Not to be discounted is familiarity with balancing opportunities and constraints, honed by several millennia experience with more powerful others and internal dispute.

Along with concerns for their standing among others, Israelis also calculate whether to cooperate with others, and by how much. The economic, military and moral weights of the country are far from absolute, but they are not negligible.

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 10:29 PM
May 27, 2010

Immigration is again a hot button in the United States, with attractions for demagogues of right and left. The President has ordered 1,200 National Guard personnel sent to border areas of the Southwest, in response to other politicians demanding that something be done.

The targets of this effort are illegal drug shipments and illegal immigration.

One is insoluble because of the American appetite for drugs that has resisted several decades of law enforcement. The other is insoluble because of American demands for menial workers, and the insatiable demand for employment in Mexico and places further south.

The left side in the debate about illegal immigration wants extensive amnesty, using immigration reform as a reason to redo the war on poverty, and to obtain cooperation from Mexico and even poorer and more chaotic countries so that further immigration will be orderly.

The other side wants to seal the border, and kick out the illegals without worrying too much about how to identify them in a country without id cards. They also think it easy to find citizens willing to pick crops, wash restaurant dishes, clean houses and yards, and look after the young and old in exchange for low wages.

The politics of immigration is similar in wealthy countries having a land connection or easy sea journey from poor places, or--like France and Britain--with a colonial past that produced substantial communities from overseas, that provide family connections for the continuing flow of newcomers.

By virtue of their wealth, these countries also have social programs that allow citizens to live without working at jobs that are undesirable and poorly paid.

An American complication is that phrase in the Constitution

All persons born in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

This raises the issue of what to do with the illegal parents who have produced young citizens.

Israel is one of many countries that does not give citizenship automatically at birth, but according to jus sanguinis, or the nature of one's blood. In Israel, this means being Jewish, the relative of a Jew, or the child of a citizen (this provision covers Arabs who became citizens by virtue of being in Israel after the War of Independence, and their descendants born in Israel).

Currently Israel is wrestling with the problem of what to do with the children of illegal immigrants who have been in the country long enough to become fluent in Hebrew, attend Israeli schools, in some cases serve in the military, and who view themselves as more Israeli than anything else.

There will be a solution for several thousand young people, but it will not be widely applauded as satisfactory, and it will not keep others from presenting similar problems in a few years.

Elegance, efficiency, fairness, and justice are not to be found in laws and regulations that govern immigration. What affects individual cases are complex details, bad luck in coming to the attention of hard nosed officials, or good luck in attracting the attention of a sympathetic organization, official, or media personality.

Not everyone is treated alike. Among the details that cause problems in Israel are regulations about conversion to Judaism that depend on which rabbis did the work, in which country.

Germany has been especially generous in providing citizenship to Jews from the former Soviet Union who have no German background. It has provided passports to Israeli children and grandchildren of Jews who lost their citizenship in the Nazi period. While some Israelis refuse to consider the opportunity, others want a European passport "just in case."

Migration has been a constant in history. It is not about to stop in a period when transportation is easier, quicker, and less expensive than in the past.

Europeans who traveled to the United States in the 19th and early 20th century did so without prior screening. Early provisions denied entry only to individuals with infectious diseases, and to those thought to be anarchists, prostitutes, and idiots. A colleague at an Australian university accepted a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. All went well until he provided pictures of his children to the consulate in Melbourne. It took the intervention of Senator Proxmire's office to arrange a year's visa for a child with Downs Syndrome.

There is no solution that has proved viable. Fences are breached, especially in out of the way border areas. Small boats find unmonitored beaches. Individuals willing to risk a great deal find employers willing to pay low wages for work that citizens find undesirable.

If someone out there is wiser than me, or knows about a country attractive to migrants that has handled this problem well, please let me know.

Australia and New Zealand are out of the competition. Few potential illegals can swim well enough to get there, and the occasional boat load does not count as a serious problem.

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 05:00 AM
May 25, 2010
Lip service and other unpleasantness

Politicians lie. The devil is in the details. There is no justice.

Lip service, as well as hyperbole or bombast.are prominent in political discourse.

All of these expressions mean about the same thing. They are part of what we call politics.

Politicians want to please. That is how they get elected and stay in office. The details are less important than the promise of achievement.

It's not only politicians who overlook unpleasant details. Many citizens do not pay close attention to what (or who) they support or oppose.

The traits appear in issues that otherwise seem to be unconnected with one another.

One example is the 2,000 page health reform. Every few days we read about the problems created by another provision that survived contending interests, media criticism, separate deliberations in House and Senate, and the rush to provide something that the president would sign.

Did he read what he signed? All of it? How much did he or his advisors understand?

Now that a libertarian prominent in the Tea Party has been chosen as the Republican nominee for a Senate seat, critics are focusing on what he has said. He does not seem to have squared all his slogans into a comprehensive set of principles.,0,2904334.column

That makes him pretty much like other politicians, perhaps less subtle than those with more experience.

Israelis stand four square against corruption. The topic was prominent in the most recent elections, but did not keep us from choosing leaders with reputations for deception and other tricks. Now former Jerusalem Mayor and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is beginning another round of interviews with the police about alleged monkey business. Insofar as that he is no longer the national leader, he has to go to the police station for the inquiry, rather than having the police come to his official residence. We are speculating if the police are being less polite, and wondering if there will a house arrest or something more confining.

Reports are that 300,000 employed Israelis earn less than the minimum wage.

How many people in the United States and Western Europe are also working for less than their countries' minimum wages?

A high proportion of them are likely to be illegal immigrants, showing once again that immigration is a playing field for lip service. People oppose illegal immigration here, there, and elsewhere. But many illegals find jobs that locals do not want, at salaries less than the legal minimum.

While we are complaining about injustice or corruption, we might also notice if we or family members are benefiting from affordable child care, elder care, yard care, restaurant meals, maid service at home or in a hotel, and any of the other functions provided by illegal immigrants working for less than the minimum wage.

It is a travesty of justice and intellectual honesty that otherwise respectable people target Israel for their invective, when many other countries do much worse with respect to minorities and foreign adversaries.

Should we believe that Barack Obama knows how to bring peace to Israel and Palestine? And accept the statements of Benyamin Netahyahu and Mahmoud Abbas that they are cooperating with the President?

Can Congress and the President smooth out the bumps in the Obama health bill, each of which has interests opposed to losing what they managed to slip into it?

Can Israeli voters be persuaded to focus on corruption? What should they do when the party most involved with police investigations also appears to be more suitable than its competitors with respect to concerns for national security? Corruption is distasteful, but how important compared to other considerations?

Shouldn't we insist that our governments enforce the laws about immigration? But what about those decent people who clean our houses and yards, or look after our children or parents?

Those of us who feel that we understand Israel should continue to explain its problems and actions in a balanced and moderate fashion. And expect to be dismissed as mad or extreme by others who claim to understand Israel.

There is much that is positive in what governments provide us, that have come as the result of political activity. They contribute a great deal to what us fortunates call the good life.

But each item received from government may include at least a little, and sometimes more than a little swindle. Perhaps it is only exaggeration.

Politicians and political activists may not have to lie, but if they tell all the truth they would have trouble attracting an audience.

We should be good citizens. If we do not use our democratic rights, we may lose them.

But we should not expect too much for our efforts.

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 04:43 AM
May 21, 2010
Jews and other Jews

The Economist has joined a small crowd of commentators who have discovered a growing split between American Jews and Israel. It puts at least part of the blame on "declining bonds between an increasingly right-wing religious Israel and liberal American Jews."

No doubt that is one of the tensions between the two largest segments of the world's Jews. Also in the mix is a sharpening of views due to the Obama presidency. It has too many Jews in its highest places to even think about anti-Semitism, but opposition to strident Zionism is something else.

The religious elements of the split owe something to organized American Jewry. Reform and Conservative rabbis and activists have been working for decades to remake Israel in their image. Their failure has not led them to admit that they are dealing with another country, with its own population, politics, and laws. They continue to rile at what they call the lack of religious freedom, with some of them giving up on Jews they cannot convert.

My own view is that there is no less personal freedom in Israel than in the United States, including freedom to find a form of religion that meets one's needs, or to avoid religion altogether. There are rules in both countries that one must live with, or learn to avoid if that is one's pleasure.

Another problem between Israelis and American Jews derives from American political correctness. Multi-culturalism has far greater importance as an American creed, especially welcome in the liberal Jewish community. Israelis who espouse the view come up against harsh realities of security. Protection against neighbors is more prominent than loving one's neighbors.

This generation of American Jews has not created disputes about Israeli security and accommodation. Alliances between local and American Jews--on both sides of the line separating those who think they know the road to peace and those who emphasize defense--became prominent around the time World War I. Now as in the past, Israelis and Americans who do not recognize the reality of security are assigned to the category of the naive. That Barack Obama's view of the Middle East led many Israelis to put him in the same category contributes to the rift between here and there.

With Obama in the White House and the Israeli left somewhere in the political outback, the conflict over security has taken on a fresh face. Us ancients recognize it is the same old stuff.

The continuing reality is that both American and Israeli Jewish communities are diverse. That should be obvious to anyone with a smidgen of Jewish history or Judaic doctrines under their hat. In both Israel and America, as well as in the large communities of Britain, France and the former Soviet Union, those diversities are blossoming under the combined influences of education and freedom.

Ancient signs of Judaic conflict appears in the Biblical story of the Exodus, Ezra's frustrated efforts to curb intermarriage, and the intellectual pluralism of Ecclesiastes. Disputes in the long middle period erupted over Spinoza, Hasidism, and more sharply with the flight of Western Europeans from their ghettos and the spread of liberal Judaism from Germany westward.

Dispute among the authors of the Torah (or the Almighty's ambivalence for those who hold to the story of Mt Sinai) concerns the most sensitive of topics now current. The three Biblical definitions of the Land promised by God to the Hebrews, Israelites, Judaens or Jews might actually help those assigned to negotiate the future. Yet Jews and anti-Jews informed by their own ideas keep those indications of plurality from penetrating the arena where the conversation should be about options and realities.

Israelis suffer no less than liberal Jewish tourists from the weight of the ultra-Orthodox. Secular Israelis along with many of the religious struggle to limit the influence of extremists. Our adversaries have the advantages of high birth rates, well established schools, and political parties. There is enough strength outside of the ultra-Orthodox camps to safeguard the liberal features of the society, but no one should expect the defeat of one Jewish tradition by another.

Conflicts among Jews are something to appreciate and enjoy, rather than bemoan. Unity is the dream of ideological totalitarians and simpletons. Disputes are sources of intellectual and political richness rather than danger.

The tragedy of modern Jews is not the conflict among us, but that Muslims do not enjoy the same openness to differences and dispute. Peace would be much closer if they could wrestle among themselves about religious doctrines, views of history, and claims of moral superiority.

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 11:58 PM
Route 443 and the peace process

Israelis' preoccupation with security is focusing on Route 443.

It is one of two four lane, high speed, divided highways that link Jerusalem with the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. It is the favored route for the northern neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and the best way to travel to the expanding complex of Modiin-Reut-Maccabeen-Modiin Ilit, an expanding group of residential towns between the two cities. A lengthy article in the Jerusalem Post reports the history of the road, and views of people who use it.

The road was planned in optimistic times before the first intifada, when Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza could travel and work in Israel. The road was justified as improving the lives of Palestinians and Israelis. About 10 kilometers of its middle section is within the Palestinian area of the West Bank.

During the second intifada beginning in 2000, there was sniping, fire bombs, and other acts of violence directed at vehicles. In response, Israel blocked entrances from Arab villages, and begin the construction of high concrete barriers along part of the road. For much of the first kilometers of travel from Jerusalem, one drives between walls that block the view of the countryside. Until a decision in late December 2009, the Supreme Court accepted the government's concerns for security as justification for denying the use of the road to Palestinian vehicles.

Then the Court accepted an appeal from Palestinian and civil rights groups, ordered the government to open the road to Palestinian use within five months, but allowed discretion to deal with legitimate concerns for security.

The road is scheduled to open shortly, with the completion of new construction meant to assure its safety. Palestinians will be allowed limited use of the road after what the IDF says will be stringent inspections, and for travel between villages along that section over the 1967 border. Palestinians will not be allowed on that part of the road that provides entry to Israel in the east near Jerusalem, or in the west near the Modiin complex.

The arrangement is providing concern both to Israelis who want to make a more serious gesture to Palestinians, and to those who fear for their safety. One concern is that many travelers will avoid Route 443, and overload to the point of clogging the other major highway, Route 1. That road connects Jerusalem and Tel Aviv along a path that itself is not completely within pre-1967 borders.

Even during the years when it was closed to Palestinians and heavily patrolled by the IDF and police, Route 443 was not entirely safe from attacks with stones, fire bombs, and gun shots. It was heavily traveled during weekday daylight hours, but widely avoided at night.

Travelers interviewed by journalists expect incidents once the road is opened, but differ on whether they are willing to risk the danger in exchange for convenience. Residents of the small Jewish town of Beit Horon have no options. They cannot get anywhere without traveling on Route 443.

Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 did not produce any gesture of accommodation from Palestinians. Rocket firings continued against settlements entirely within Israel. Eventually they produced the invasion of 2008-09 that persists in the shape of a severe blockade.

In the days to come we can expect appeals to the Supreme Court that emphasize the lack of assured security and demand a renewed closure to Palestinian vehicles, as well as appeals that demand a more complete opening of the road. Sooner or later there will be violence, if only from Palestinian individuals or small gangs seeking revenge from some act in the past, or opposed to any let up in their struggle.

Route 443 ought to concern the Obama White House. The future of the road depends on Israeli and Palestinian security personnel, as well as good luck that no determined individuals succeed in anything spectacular enough to produces a massive Israeli response. If things go better than they might, the President can claim it as a benefit of engagement. On the other hand, it might bring about a bloody end to his aspirations for peace in this little place.

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 01:51 AM
May 18, 2010
Reality check

The glass of the political activist is never full. If it seems full, it is only a momentary surge of partial victory.

The tea cups of the American extreme right might appear full after their man's victory in Kentucky, but they are a long way from achieving their dreams. Barack Obama is a sure thing until 2013, and if the Alaskan darling wins the Republican nomination, he is likely to stay until 2017.

If he goes home earlier, there will still be Congress, courts, and 50 state governments to protect what has been added to public services and taxes over the course of 230 years.

For anyone close to the mainstream, it is also true that the glass is never completely empty.

Iranians were celebrating and Israelis mourning for some hours when leaders of Turkey and Brazil signed that agreement in Tehran about outsourcing some of Iran's nuclear enrichment, but that may not have been enough to derail an increase in UN imposed sanctions. If the rabbis in the White House heard what was really on the President's mind, those sanctions may allow more pressure from the European Union and another uptick from the United States.

None of that will solve the problem of Iranian madness, and might not even derail that country's pursuit of nuclear weapons. But it would signal that serious powers are intent in limiting Iranian influence, as well as that of aspiring sycophants like Turkey and Brazil.

The color grey, along with the glass neither full nor empty is a lesson unlearned by libertarians, anarchists, mad leftists who see Israel as the lone country guilty of everything, and those who are certain that Barack Obama is a Muslim anti-Semite who will put Israel back into its smallest outline.

Struggles never end and messiahs never arrive.

The United States will continue to have the worst health delivery of any western democracy despite the improvements engineered by the Obama White House. Partly because of those improvements, the country will have a debt load comparable to that of Greece. However, an economic engine much larger than that of Greece should save us all from the shocks that would end our world as we know it.

Iraq shows few signs of achieving the democracy planned by George W. Bush. It may have had more violent deaths since the American invasion of 2003 than during the 24 years the country was ruled by Saddam Hussein. American efforts in Afghanistan have not yet reached the point where the White House decides that it has done enough, and will reduce its commitment with a fig leaf of claiming success.

Oy gevalt will continue as Israel's de facto national anthem, despite economic and other accomplishments that forced the OECD to grant it membership, years after letting in economic and social laggards like Turkey and Mexico.

Hizbollah now has enough missiles to bring destruction to every corner of Israel. Will what Israel did to parts of Lebanon in 2006 and the greater damage done to Gaza in 2009 be enough deterrence? Will estimates of 200 or so nuclear weapons and several means of delivery restrain Iran?

Certainty is one of those things that is as elusive as full glasses, final victories, and the messiah's arrival.

Secular Israelis and religious moderates can celebrate the removal of graves from the place where ultra-Orthodox politicians had blocked the construction of an emergency room at the Ashkelon hospital. Reports are that ultra-Orthodox rabbis are pondering their failure to recognize the limits of other Israelis' tolerance.

Yet we are still a long way from a well balanced society where all the schools prepare their pupils for an adult life of productive work. Many of the country's Muslims view their country as illegitimate, and some of them can be provoked to violence by religious leaders. The Bedouin of the south are on their own cultural path, resistant to efforts to wean them from child marriage, polygamy, birth rates that compete with those of the ultra-Orthodox, and a tendency to spread their settlements across the landscape oblivious to any efforts at planning.

For those who have not shed conceptions of success because of constraints inherent in public issues, there are also the frustrations of overweight and aging.

The point is not victory, but playing the game well. That, too, has no meaning widely accepted.

Politics is usually more banal than exciting. Pleasure comes from small victories, and the survival of hope. Paradise and the messiah have their roles, providing that one can distinguish between aspiration and expectation.

As ever, I welcome comments.
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 11:18 PM
May 16, 2010
Rabbis in the White House

It is worth reading this item from the Jerusalem Post.

Senior Jewish advisors of the President, meeting with a selected group of American rabbis, said that the White House erred in its messages about Israel. Not only do they reiterate American support for Israel in general terms, but they express reasoning that should resonate with those who understand Israel.

The Americans appreciate that Israel's frustration with peace efforts stems from rejected offers and Arab aggression.

The meeting might even satisfy Israelis on the touchy issue of Iran. The White House recognizes that Israel's nuclear activities are different from Iran's and cannot be defused without achieving a genuine peace that appears to be far into the future. Rahm Emmanuel explained the Administration's apparent dithering on sanctions as an important tactic. UN sanctions must come first to make it possible for the European Union to impose its own sanctions, and then for the United States to add its dose.

The White House selected the rabbis who were invited for their geographic and congregational diversity (i.e., Orthodox, Conservative and Reform), as well as records of expressing disappointment with the White House but refraining from outright condemnation.

Such a meeting tells me that the President and his advisors learn, and that the American Jewish community provides effective instruction. It also helps that the Israeli government is multi-faceted. Alongside the barely tolerated bombast of Benyamin Netanyahu and the rasping of Avigdor Lieberman is the moderate, but insistent voice of Ehud Barak.

Whoever thinks that Israeli politics are dysfunctional should think again.

Call all of this the power of Jewish voters and Jewish money if you will. For me, it is the strength of the Israeli argument bolstered by the capacity of Jews to express themselves to holders of power.

I can sign on to a much of what Netanyahu and Lieberman say, although I am uncomfortable with their style. Lieberman is unequaled in his capacity to bring forth condemnation. Yet he makes sense, even in details that are unpleasant to contemplate.

He has responded with typical shrillness to the statements of prominent Israeli Arabs on Nakba Day. The well known preacher, Sheikh Ra'ed Salah, got the most attention. As usual, he drew thousands to his appearance. He shrieked his opposition to Palestinian compromise with Israel, and demanded the right of refugees to return to their homes in Haifa, Safed, Ramle, and Lod.

Calmer voices note that surveys show a majority of Israeli Arabs content with their lives, but the incitement of the Sheikh led Lieberman to reiterate his assessment about the danger to Israel from its Arab citizens.

He sees them as a greater threat to the future of the Jewish state than Hamas or Hizbollah. On several occasions he has proposed trading the land and people of areas in northern Israel heavily populated by Arabs for areas of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

There is as much chance of doing that as a snowball surviving in hell, but Lieberman's point is worth considering by those who accuse Israel of being unfair to its Arab minority.

The extent of "unfairness" can be debated both on the grounds of reality and the fuzzier norms of justice.

An American analogy is appropriate.

In several of these notes I have reported on the better scores of Israeli Arab on indicators of living standards--relative to the Jewish majority--than those of African Americans relative to American whites.

Think also of a minority where individuals in leadership roles employ rhetoric like the most radical of those who gathered around the Black Panthers a half century ago. The same minority (i.e., Israeli Arabs) lacks the leavening provided by African American politicians who work within the establishment, advance to positions of power as chairs of committees of Congress, mayors of large cities, and power brokers in the politics of numerous states. Out of their actions came affirmative action and what it meant for the couple now residing in the White House.

It is not so much repression by Jews that keeps most aspiring Arab leaders from working with national leaders, but the temptation to score points among Arab voters by persistent and harsh criticism of everything Israel does in domestic and foreign policy. The few Arab politicians who have chosen to work within the major parties have gotten rewards for themselves and their constituencies.

Arab citizens of Israel need not worry about Lieberman. His most fervent supporters are a minority among Israeli Jews, and the Supreme Court is as much a bastion of civil rights as its American equivalent. More open than the question of transferring Israeli citizens to Palestine is the question of transferring the Arabs of East Jerusalem. The vast majority of them did not accept Israel's offer of citizenship. Yet even that prospect of trading people and areas of the city is one of the details that is a long way from being decided, or even debated.

Ironically, the meeting in the White House may join previous good intentions of President Obama in pushing further away the prospects of accommodation. Arabs are as least as sensitive as Jews. The President cannot warm up to one without provoking antagonism from the other.

It will not be a short road, and 100 years into the conflict it is too early to predict success for yet another outsider intent on bringing peace to this region with a contentious history and jittery inhabitants.

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 01:49 AM
May 14, 2010
Fault lines in Israeli society

Israel suffers from two prominent fault lines in its society. Both are complex, and fragment into further splits that confound any simple remedies.

One sets the Arab minority against the Jewish majority. Complicating any application of conventional minority/majority analysis is the proximity of the Palestine and the larger Arab and Muslim communities. Israeli Arabs (or Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) differ on how strongly they identify with the Palestinian cause, and with Islam (which overlaps but is distinct from nationalism), and how much they aspire to cultural and political autonomy within Israel.

Israelis who tire of Arab demands assert that they already enjoy considerable autonomy. While Arabs claim that the police are overly intrusive and harsh, others wonder at the freedom of Arabs to incite one another with extremist claims of Jewish intentions. Jewish activists protest the concern for Palestinian history in Arabic language schools, refusals to fly the national flag or sing the national anthem, and worry about an increase in Islamic dress and rhetoric.

Currently two prominent Arabs are in police custody charged with supplying information to the enemy. Some Jews are saying "it is about time." Arabs have organized demonstrations insisting on the men's innocence, and demanding the right to visit Arab countries, even those considered enemies by the Israeli state.

With Nakba Day following close on the heels of Jerusalem Day, there is no shortage of rhetoric from Arab and Jewish sources heating up those inclined to extremism, and frustrating those inclined to accommodation.

Within the Jewish majority, the principal divide sets the secular and Orthodox majority against the ultra-Orthodox minority. This is complicated further by continued issues of ethnicity (North Africans, Russian speakers, Ethiopians and others asserting their disadvantages), as well as the tenuous nature of the secular-Orthodox alliance against the ultra-Orthodox, and numerous fissures among the ultra-Orthodox. There are confrontations between ultra-Orthodox Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and between some of the most intense and isolated of the Ashkenazim and the rest.

Just as Nakba Day, Jerusalem Day and the arrest of two Arab activists are emphasizing the problems between Arabs and Jews, there are two issues before the courts concerned with ultra-Orthodox and other Jews.

One is a law suit, brought by Orthodox and secular Jews, demanding that ultra-Orthodox schools include in their curriculum a core of required courses teaching English, history, mathematics, and science. The intention is to prepare the children of ultra-Orthodox families for the modern workplace, and lesson the weight of welfare payments to men who avoid work for Torah study well into adulthood, if not for all of their lives.

Ultra-Orthodox defenders of the status quo demand the right to determine their children's education. They also claim that Torah study is a superior preparation for life, and--through the support of the Almighty--more effective in defending the nation than anything done by the IDF.

Among the knottiest of issues is "whose children" are these, or who is responsible for educating them?

Other modern societies have assigned this responsibility, or at least a major part of it, to the state and its political process. Judaism is a communal enterprise with a long history of elevating the community over individuality. Thus, the issue becomes "which community?" In the core of this dispute is the tendency of ultra-Orthodox to elevate their rabbinical leaders above elected officials of the state.

The second ultra-Orthodox issue in the headlines is the trial of the "starving mother." She is an ultra-Orthodox, English speaking woman accused of mistreating her children, including the starvation of one child to the point of making him a vegetable. The woman's congregation set itself off from other ultra-Orthodox by their demonstrations against police involvement in their affairs. Recently announced, but still awaiting the endorsement of the court, is a plea bargain involving her admission of guilt, three years house arrest, continued psychological and medical treatment, and separation from her children except for visits supervised by social workers.

Critics call the plea bargain a travesty reflecting the excessive leniency given to ultra-Orthodox criminals. The woman's rabbi is calling it a facade offered by prosecutors who knew they did not have a case that would convince a court.

Israel deals with these social fissures by allowing to each of the "outgroups" considerable autonomy in fact, if not in law. The ultra-Orthodox do considerably better than Arabs in terms of their receipt of public resources, and in their freedom from the police and judiciary. These advantages derive from the Jewish identify shared with secular Israelis, as well as ultra-Orthodox avoidance of the violence promoted by Arab activists.

The ultra-Orthodox advantage also reflects from their participation in mainstream politics. Their party leaders criticize the secular establishment, but also trade support of the government for resources and the recognition of their special status.

When Arab politicians learn the same skill, the flow of resources to their communities will increase. If that happens, Israelis who are neither Arab nor ultra-Orthodox may continue their animosity to "those people," but the society shared by all will be more viable.

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 01:36 AM
May 13, 2010
The language of politics is hyperbole

We all know that the devil is in the details, and that the language of politics is hyperbole.

Those two platitudes will come together in the "proximity talks" between Israel and Palestine that the Americans are reminding us that they worked so hard to create. They may well doom the talks, assuming there was any chance that they could succeed. They may also foul the air between Israel and the White House and add to the problems between Israel and Palestine.

A hint of air pollution is surrounding the announcement that Israeli authorities are about to destroy some houses in East Jerusalem built "illegally." The word in quotation marks is part of the problem. Does it mean some of the many houses built without the proper permits, or only some of those, that were built on public land meant for other purposes? The details will be lost in the shouting about the failure of Israeli authorities to issue building permits for Arab in East Jerusalem, and counter shouting that Arab families build where they wish, without concern for roads or land claimed by others.

From the highest levels of the American government, we are hearing that neither side should take provocative steps in Jerusalem, and that the side that causes the talks to fail will pay the consequences.

That sounds like what I heard from the principal at the Highland School more than 60 years ago, shortly before she demanded that I hold out my hand and whacked it with a ruler.

This is not a calm period, right after Jerusalem Day when the hyperbole of Israeli politicians was at its height, matched by equally assertive Palestinians insisting on their rights in Jerusalem, and organizing tours in Hebrew, English, and Arabic for those wanting to see the city through their eyes.

In competing for decisions of the American umpire, the Palestinians have an advantage. Not only are they the weaker party with claims of long suffering, but the actions of Israel are easy to see. Building new homes for Jews or destroying Arab structures are exposed to satellites, as well as to Israeli and other organizations doing their best to publicize them.

Palestinian provocations have a much smaller profile, and may defy the willingness of Americans and others to look. While the Palestinians have promised, for the nth time, to avoid incitement, there is no one to my knowledge prowling their school rooms looking for maps that do not show Israel, or listening to the lessons taught under headings of geography or history.

There was an American comment about naming that place in Ramallah after a terrorist.

Was that comment of greater volume, length, or impact than that directed at the Israeli minister who spoke about destroying illegal Arab structures?

Here we are in the messy details of who said what. Charges and hurt feelings may provide the reasons for deciding that the talks have no future.

Israel has a case, but also dirty hands, when it complains about Palestinians honoring terrorists. Those we call terrorists are the people Palestinians call freedom fighters. Israel's dirty hands appear in the cases of two prime ministers who respectable others used to call terrorists.

Are Palestinian terrorists dirtier than Israeli terrorists? There is no answer that will gain agreement outside of those already committed to one side or another.

Brave and honest people will admit that there is dirt in every national history, and get on with the job of deciding how to move forward without going backward with accusations.

But that isn't politics.

Show me a politician who operates without hyperbole and I'll show you a distinguished and cultured loser.

On one side of the continuing performance involving Palestine, Israel, and now the United States we see Palestinian leaders refusing to educate their people on the need for compromise, and demanding that powerful others make Israel give them what they want.

That strategy plays well among Palestinians and assures them support from Muslims and a host of international organizations. Palestinians may actually hope that Israel will cave in, and they will get more than they could from an up front offer to compromise.

Israelis are considerably more flexible. They have offered to share the West Bank and Jerusalem, and to allow a symbolic number of refugees into Israel. It has never been enough for the Palestinians. Their rejections, as well as continued efforts at violence, have weakened Israelis who supported those offers, and have brought to government Israelis who are making a point about not dividing Jerusalem.

Some say that is the language of negotiations, and previous offers may return to the table if Palestinians show enough signs of flexibility.

Others are saying that an uncompromising position on Jerusalem and the settlements, has become the Israeli reality.

There are Israelis who dream that Palestinian nationalism will go the way of the Dodo bird, just as there are Palestinians who dream that someone else will give them what they want.

The occupants of the White House may also dreaming when they imagine that the talks they have worked so hard to produce will deliver anything other than mutually antagonistic hyperbole.

We won't know for some time, but the noise is already at a level that should wake everybody up and set them to serious work. But that overlooks the nature of politics, as well as the knotty problems of Jerusalem, refugees, incitement, settlements, water, sewage, and a few others. And that only covers the relatively easy case of the West Bank.

My own guess is that problems of a century or more will not bow to the hard work of the American president.

He has come on the scene when Hamas rules Gaza, those in charge of the West Bank are widely viewed by Palestinians as aged and corrupt, and the Israeli left has virtually disappeared.

Maybe we should applaud his efforts. Or pity his naiveté, and hope that he quietly sneaks back to his several other problems, without raising the already high temperature in this region by condemning one or another side for not doing what he wants.

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 01:42 AM
May 11, 2010
Jerusalem Day

Jerusalem is a wonderful city for those who admire the past and live to celebrate it. Three thousand years supplies more than enough heroes to fill every square and street corner with memorial sites. Insofar as both Jewish and Muslim traditions condemn graven images, we are saved the grandiose statuary that marks other capitals. But the verbal and political hyperbole more than compensates. Visiting enthusiasts clog our streets and take our parking places. The best reason for avoiding peace is to prevent the onslaught of tourists from Muslim countries. Peace is our goal, if we can achieve it without additional traffic.

Jews accompanied by Christian enthusiasts make their modern pilgrimages, in short pants and sun hats, singing songs, waving placards and flags during the religious feasts of Passover and Succoth, as well as Jerusalem Day. There is no Temple, so the city is saved the pollution associated with the quarter million or so sacrifices that Josephus describes for the festivals of his day. Wise Jerusalemites do not leave their neighborhoods on parade days without checking on the traffic bulletins.

Jerusalem Day occurs on the anniversary of Israel's conquest of the Old City and its Arab environs, according to the Hebrew calendar. So this year it is in the middle of May rather than June as it was in 1967. International al-Quds Day is an invention of the most recent Iranian regime, and occurs during Ramadan to commemorate Muslim and anti-Zionist conceptions of the city's history.

Accuracy is less important than fervor in the claims made about the city. The capital of a Jewish empire from the time of David onward, which slept as a run-down, neglected corner of Muslim empires until the Jews began arriving in numbers during the 19th century? Or Muslim from the time of Abraham, where Jews never more than a tolerated minority in someone else's regime?

Jerusalem's history reflects its location at the intersection of continents and empires, as well as an attractive location in the mountains. It is away from the heat of the coast and has enough rainfall to make it green while in sight of the desert. It has been a target of others from all points of the compass: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, various groups of Muslims, British, and most recently the United Nations, the Roman Catholic Church, and the White House.

Which Jerusalem? is an unanswerable question. Why the lines of 1967 when rulers altered the boundaries countless times before and after that date?

It is a great place to live on those days--still a large majority of the total--when it is not someone's holiday. With a short drive from most parts of the city (after 10 in the morning and before 4 in the afternoon), one can enjoy another place. Jews can enjoy the smells, colors, and tastes of the Old City. Arabs can find what they want in shopping malls like those of Europe and North America

My icon for this year's Jerusalem Day is the cartoon on the editorial page of Ha'aretz. It shows a sunbather on the beach in Tel Aviv reading a newspaper that headlines the festivities in Jerusalem.

Wishes are one thing. Reality is something else.

The beach or an Arab coffee house may provide a pleasant escape, but Jerusalem remains a hard kernel of a dispute that will not go away.

Moshe Dayan may have helped or hurt the city's prospects when he ordered the troops to remove the Israeli flag they had erected on the Temple Mount. Neither Jewish rightists, the most recent shrieking imam, the current occupants of the UN's Secretariat or the White House are likely to reduce the temper of those concerned with Jerusalem. Peace and quiet are not the themes of this city.

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 11:43 PM
May 10, 2010
Whimsy is our salvation

The morning after the beginning of Israeli-Palestinian "proximity talks" found Israel's media reporting accusations of deception, and denials, coming from important players in Israel, Palestine, and the United States.

Did Prime Minister Netanyahu promise not to build in Ramat Shlomo for two years, as indicated by American and Palestinian sources, or did he assert that housing construction would continue throughout Jerusalem, but that it would take a couple of years to move through the planning, and onto the construction in Ramat Shlomo.

Did the Palestinians actually commit themselves, once again, to stop anti-Israel incitement, and does anyone take them seriously this time? Will the message reach Palestinian school rooms, youth movements, newspapers, radio and television broadcasters?

Americans are talking, without details, about commitments received from both sides, and saying that they will let the world know which side is responsible if the peace talks fail. Among all the events and statements that will occur up to such an event, will anyone be able to weigh Israeli and Palestinian comments, actions, or failure to take action, and to calculate which side is more responsible? And if so, will they have the will to publish an accurate report and condemnation?

Activists in Gaza celebrated the prospect of peace by trying to make it even more remote. They sent a rocket toward Israel, leading the IDF to bomb a tunnel, or tunnels, between Egypt and Gaza.

If that is not enough to unsettle my nerves, my mail box fills each day with notes from people certain about the power and intentions of Israel's enemies. Those designated as evil include our near neighbors the Palestinians, other Arabs posing under the label of "moderate," the sources of all that is bad in Iran and Syria, and the White House of Barack Obama. The common trait of these postings is to turn possibilities into certainties, and to neglect even a casual consideration of how probable it is that each of these threats will become tangible and destructive.

Some of my internet friends send me excerpts from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that--in their view--predict dire things for Israel, most likely within the next year or two, no matter what we may do to prevent it.

Screeds from the left are no less troubling. Self-appointed guardians of human rights (Israeli and International, Jewish and other) criticize Israeli security forces aggressively, but often not accurately, usually without considering whether the country has a need to defend itself, and almost never comparing Israel's security actions with those of the United States, Britain, Turkey, or even lesser stalwarts of western values.

One must remain whimsical to prevent madness.

And for today's portion, we can thank, once again, Rafael Eitan.

Israel has had two Rafael Eitans at the peak of its security and politics. The late Rafael (called Raful) Eitan was head of the IDF general staff, later founder of a right-wing political party (Tsomet: Junction), and served in the Knesset and as Ministers of Agriculture and Environment.

The other Rafael (Rafi) Eitan is still alive and kicking at the age of 85. He has had great achievements and embarrassments in a long career bridging intelligence, international business, domestic politics, and sculpture. He headed the operation that brought Adolf Eichmann to Israel, as well as the operation that put Jonathan Pollard in an American prison. He received an award from the Cuban government for developing a major agricultural enterprise in that country, and headed a prominent Israeli industrial concern.

Rafi accepted the leadership of the perennially unsuccessful pensioners' party in the run-up to the election of 2006, and rode a wave of support that produced seven seats in the Knesset. Success for the party named Gil (age) did not come because of popular support for the pensioners, but on account of widespread dissatisfaction with the established parties. A movement late in the campaign saw the pensioners as having a chance to get over the threshold for entering the Knesset, and urged people of all ages to vote for it as a protest against others.

Rafi was the only one of the seven new but old Knesset members with name recognition and government experience. Thanks to the party that he nominally headed, he joined the coalition of Ehud Olmert with a newly created, symbolic, and largely unreal position as Minister of Pensioners' Affairs.

Rafi appeared frequently in the media, looking like a wizened elf but with comments that made sense. But the party called Gil ran out of gas. Its Knesset Members were accused of financial irregularities and sexual harassment, and became more useful as targets of humor than as a vehicle for another popular movement in the election campaign of 2009. As in every other election prior to 2006, the party failed to get enough votes to pass the Knesset threshold.

Rafi has not given up. He is creating another party that will serve pensioners, and plans a press conference to announce the name that he has chosen for it. Broadcasters who report the news are reminding him to select running mates who will keep their trousers as well as their wallets closed in the face of temptations.

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 12:14 AM
May 05, 2010
Are we being set up for peace, or violence?

It is not starting well. One commentator described the talks between Israel and the Palestinians as "beginning on the left foot." Another called them a "farce." Several estimated their chances of success as "close to zero," and attributed their plight to American bumbling.

Neither the Israeli Prime Minister nor the Palestinian President have their heart in the process. They have been forced into it by the White House, when conditions are as far from ripe as can be imagined. Rather than setting out on a course meant to achieve agreement, each is beginning an effort to score points against the other, setting their adversary up as responsible for expected failure.

Prime Minister Netanyahu made a show of meeting with White House emissary George Mitchell on Wednesday, indicating that he was expressing Israel's posture of being willing to pursue peace at any time without preconditions.

The Palestinians accepted the White House initiative and said they would participate. But when Prime Minister Netanyahu was meeting with George Mitchell, Mahmoud Abbas was traveling between Arab capitals getting input from his sources of support. He could not begin his part of the negotiations until the supreme Palestinian council met and approved the process, and that would not occur before Saturday. Abbas said that he would devote four months to indirect negotiations, while testing the Israelis, and doubting that the present Israeli government could deal in good faith.

It is hard to imagine a diplomatic process that is more public than this one, and it is impossible to justify negotiations that must deal with sensitive issues in the full glare of the media. Success will demand concessions of well established postures from both sides. That will not happen when the domestic adversaries of each participant salivate at every hint of compromising sacred turf.

Contrast what the Obama administration has done with Israel's earlier agreements with Egypt and Jordan. The first was preceded by secret meetings between Israelis and Egyptians, with the weight of Israeli interests carried by Foreign Minister Moshe Dyan. He was a military hero with a political background from outside the party of Prime Minister Begin, and had immense political capital to put behind what he agreed behind the scenes. President Jimmy Carter contributed something, perhaps essential to the deal. However, it came at the end, when the ground had been well prepared by the parties themselves.

Bill Clinton's role in the Israeli-Jordanian agreement was even more symbolic. He did little more than appear at the signing alongside the agreed-upon border of the two countries.

Mahmoud Abbas is being forced to negotiate when he barely controls the West Bank, is widely viewed among Palestinians as the head of a cadre of corrupt old men, and faces the intense opposition of Palestinians who control Gaza. Palestinian polls occasionally show a support for peace, but also show a support of violence. Palestinian education and media are a long way from accommodating themselves to a Jewish state alongside of Palestine.

Benyamin Netanyahu heads a government titled along with him to the right. The Israeli population consistently polls in a way to support concessions, but also shows intense distrust of Palestinian intentions.

Unlike the Carter and Clinton administrations, Obama has taken a course that appears to ignore much of diplomatic history. Rather than nudging participants to negotiate behind the scenes, he has forced them to talk in public. He also began poorly with the Israeli government and population, with the error of demanding a freezing of construction in neighborhoods of Jerusalem where Jews have been living for decades.

Also in the air are the President's comments that the Middle East must be free of nuclear weapons. These have spurred panic among some commentators, who wonder if the President will offer Israel disarmament as an one more incentive in an effort to engage with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

While some expect the American Jewish community to have a role in the peace process, it can do little more than express its division, and anxiety at being put in the middle of a dispute. Some prominent American Jews have expressed criticism of their president, while others have said that the Israeli government must take advantage of the opportunity he is offering. Polls indicate that American Jews continue to support Obama, but the numbers have declined by about 20 percent: from above 70 percent to below 60 percent. It is not clear how much of the decline reflects what the President has said about Israel, and how much comes from domestic issues that have eroded his support generally.

At times like this I recall my late father-in-law. Erich's father had been arrayed against mine in World War I, one in a German uniform and one in an American uniform. Erich remained a German patriot whenever he could overlook what happened to his mother and brother. He viewed the Weimar Republic as the high point of Western civilization, but also was proud of his Uncle Albert. Albert was a sniper, who once passed on the opportunity to kill a French soldier when he heard his enemy praying "Sh'ma Israel . . ."

A politician who erred as Obama did on Jerusalem may also be naive with respect to Jewish concerns about being sacrificed once again to a leader's concern for other issues.

Among the open questions is, How many American Jews are so thoroughly assimilated as to be ignorant of history, or to feel themselves immune to what happened in other times and places? And, How much weight can American Jews, overwhelmingly liberal Democrats, have on the Israeli government?

Without having clear answers to either question, it seems best to view this process as producing little more than concern among American Jews and Israelis, and sadness that each much decide in its own best interests.

Miracles can happen, but they are not common.

Peace between Israel and Palestine is not likely to come out of the Obama White House. More likely is another wave of violence traceable to its clumsiness.

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 08:23 PM
May 03, 2010
Palestinian wet dream

The wet dream of the Palestinians is that someone else will solve their problems by forcing Israel to do what is right. They are told time and again by their leaders that it is only they who have suffered, and only they whose claims are just.

To their own harm, much of the world has signed onto some or all of their narrative. It is common to demand that Israel go back to where it was in 1967. Well-to-do countries pour resources into Palestine, either via UNRWA, or as direct grants to the Palestine National Authority.

The Arab League has adopted the Palestinian baby as its own, and can be counted upon to weigh in with its demands on Israel and others. The League has approved indirect talks between Palestinians and Israelis, and insists on the right to decide if the talks can move into a direct mode.

Now the Palestinians seem to have the American White House in their corner. It is thanks to President Obama that there is about to be another round of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.

This is a time for great expectations and speculation. Is there a Palestinian State in the offing? Or will the Palestinians miss another opportunity?

Being modest in the extreme, I will avoid the big questions, and confine myself to comments on the value of all that help the Palestinians have received.

One of my views is that the Palestinians are suffering from the world's worst case of welfare dependence. Another is that there are too many cooks in this kitchen to produce a good broth.

Welfare kills, at least in the quantity that it has come to Palestinians. If any of their officials have had the skill or the will to join Israelis in formulating a decent proposal for dividing what is available, that has been emasculated by six generations of feeding at someone else's table and demanding one or another great power to solve their problems.

This may be the Palestinians last chance to work with Israel, rather than with Americans, the UN, Europeans, the Arab League, Third World or non-governmental allies.

It is only Israeli authorities who can agree to something that most Israelis want to achieve: a reasonable division of the land, in light of what has happened to it up until today. If the Palestinians do not make that effort this time, Israelis might gobble up so much of what remains that Palestinians will go the way of the Dodo bird, or all those American Indian tribes that used to be.

The active engagement of the White House, the Arab League, and other hangers-on does not bode well for negotiations. They will reinforce Palestinian dependence on others, and Palestinian insistence on the full mantra of their standard demands.

Palestinians would be better off working with Israel to define an accommodation that appeals to both parties.

That will not be easy. One problem for the Palestinians will come from the insistence of the Arab League and others in behalf of the standard demands. Another is the composition of the Israeli government. It is not a Palestine-friendly collection of individuals and political parties.

President Obama might help the Palestinians with his rhetoric, but they should remember that he is an American, and not an Arab president. That means he is in a position to lead public opinion at home and abroad, but is dependent on others in political arrangements that may be the most multi-faceted and complex in the world. Congress and the Democratic Party do not make foreign policy, but they provide leverage on the president for American voters, opinion leaders, interest groups, campaign donors, and fund raisers.

We saw some of this at work in the recent moderation of a White House-Israel squabble. It came after a number of prominent Americans expressed the view that the President was too attentive to Palestinian, and not sufficiently concerned with Israeli interests.

Barack Obama likes accomplishments. Like a pragmatic politician in the way of western democracies, he may be more concerned with getting a deal than bothering with all the details.

Will the Palestinians find themselves caught between the insistence of the Arab League and other enthusiasts, their own fascination with a long-serving narrative, a stubborn Israeli government, and an American President pushing for a deal? And what if the American President decides that he cannot go against Israelis and Americans turned off, once again, by Palestinian insistence?

This is not a time for detailed predictions, and it is not my style in any case.

In the remote possibility that any of my words may get to the Palestinians who are involved in this process, I would urge them to stop dreaming, wake up, and take their future into their own hands.

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 08:26 AM
May 01, 2010
It ain't over yet

Here we go again. Maybe.

The stage is set for the beginning of indirect talks between Israel and the abbreviated Palestine National Authority (West Bank without Gaza). The Arab League has provided its endorsement. Palestinian leaders carried that decision on the basis of "assurances" received from the Americans. They are warning that the building of one new apartment for Jews in East Jerusalem or the destruction of one Arab's apartment can derail the process. The Arab League is insisting on its authority to monitor the talks, and to judge their progress before agreeing to a shift from indirect to direct talks.

Like other things we are hearing about these negotiations, the appropriate posture is, "Who knows?"

Israelis are participating in the doublespeak. The Prime Minister asserts there has been no concession with respect to building in Jerusalem, but the working people who actually do the planning and issue the permits indicate that things haven't been moving. The Prime Minister may have given assurances to Americans that he will cool things, but the Interior Minister (SHAS) has ordered his underlings to do their work.

It's way too early to celebrate a breakthrough, or to decide that essential Israeli or Palestinian interests will be preserved, bargained away, or compromised for the sake of peace.

The big picture includes these ingredients:

Palestinians at the top of their heap in the West Bank appear to be the most pragmatic and least inclined to violence that we have ever seen. Below them, however, are religious extremists and nationalist ideologues inclined to upset any hint of sacrificing their wildest dreams. Those people control Gaza, are well represented in the West Bank population, and can make trouble via their allies in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.

The American President is more concerned than any of his predecessors. He continues to push despite the problems that he recognizes. He, and people claiming to speak for him, mention even greater involvement if the parties do not show signs of progress according to an American timetable.

As we saw in the health reform he wrung from Congress, President Obama gives higher priority to reaching an achievement than to the quality of its details. Israeli pessimists may be reading the headlines and hoping that reports of an old romance will turn into something real and embarrassing, that Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, or Irish finance, problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, or oil in the Gulf of Mexico will cause the White House to invest less energy in Israel-Palestine. Yet the President's energy seems as expansive as his rhetoric. It is best to assume his continued involvement.

The Israeli government may be the most conservative with respect to issues of Palestine since the 1980s, and perhaps before then. Its composition features a Prime Minister who seems genetically right wing, major partners from the assertive segment of right wing Russian immigrants and religious parties holding the sensitive positions of Foreign Minister and Interior Minister, along with a Defense Minister from the right side of the Labor Party. Their power reflects the virtual disappearance of the Israeli left, which itself comes from frustration with Palestinian violence and rejectionism. The violence that began in 2000, and that which came out of Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal, as well as the bluster of Hizbollah and the madness of Iran may cause Israel to dig in its heels against whatever may be the readiness of Palestinian moderates and the passions of the American White House.

Against this, however, we should remember that it was Menachem Begin, an iconic father of the Israeli right, who agreed to the complete withdrawal from the Sinai for the sake of agreement with Egypt.

It ain't over until it's over.

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 09:25 PM