November 30, 2010
Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions (BDS)

The latest session of my seminar on public policy was devoted to "Israel in Comparative Perspective." After noting that Israel is the lone country with a majority of Jews and the western democracy with outlays on security more than twice those (as a proportion of national resources) of the next most security conscious country (the United States), we got to the issue of being singled out for boycotts, disinvestment, and sanctions.

The BDS movement traces itself to an initiative of 2005 by "Palestinian political parties, unions, associations, coalitions and organizations . . . (that) represent the three integral parts of the people of Palestine: Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel."

It is not hard to find a connection between Israel's Jewish majority, high outlays on security, and the BDS movement. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights:

". . . ways in which antisemitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel . . . applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation."

One can moan about the sporadic movement of BDS out from Palestinians to Europeans, Americans, and others, including Jews, who describe themselves as right-thinking. On the other hand, one can appreciate the Palestinian turn from violence to political action. Less than a decade ago, I sat in the same classroom discussing some of the same issues against the background of exploding buses, coffee houses, and a university cafeteria.

The BDS movement is annoying in the extreme. Its promoters often range beyond a reasoned argument against Israel's actions to diatribes against the Jews. Yet one cannot demand an end to Palestinian violence, hope to turn the conflict to the realm of politics, and quarrel over every expression heard from the other side. People on our side are embarrassed by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Sefat, who preached against renting apartments to Arabs, and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who said, "Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world . . . God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians."

With all the discomfort associated with the BDS movement, it hardly seems to be more threatening than the violence of suicide bombers, random stabbings, or massed Palestinians with stones, firebombs, knives, and guns. The expanded definition of anti-Semitism drafted by a body associated with the European Union shows that not all right thinking people are against us. Reports about BDS efforts in academia, labor unions, and local political or economic forums describe counter campaigns by Jews and others. Opponents of BDS appear to be successful at least as often as advocates.

The intellectual equivalent of the IDF and other Israeli security forces are people with well honed capacities to recognize extremism for what it is. While some call for a vastly expanded effort at "explanation" by the Israeli government, the uncoordinated activity of individuals may be even more effective. Their assets include a lack of affiliation with a government intent on justifying itself, as well as familiarity with the personalities involved in local skirmishes.

There is more pathos than justice in the efforts of Palestinians to date. Various efforts at violence have cost them more than they have gained. Following on an overreaching Obama administration to insist on a halt to construction in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem has not brought them any closer to their Promised Land. (One searches high and low for any Supreme Authority promising the land to them, but that is another issue.)

Their distortions of history (it was only them who were here forever, and their suffering is entirely the responsibility of Israel) have gotten little more than lip service from participants in international politics. Recent threats to declare independence (once again) and win endorsement from the United Nations have not led the IDF to begin packing its equipment.

The blame game may score points in a school debate or among predisposed participants in an international forum without responsibility for meaningful sanctions. While I can applaud with one hand the turn from violence to efforts at a struggle that is political, I will reserve two-handed applause for the time when Palestinians adopt the strategy of compromise. It will not be easy for them to abandon 60 years of inciting their own people, and it may be impossible. Only then, however, can they move beyond trendy leftists and more serious anti-Semites, and reach into the center of the Israeli spectrum. Then they may achieve the state promised by naive others, but not deliverable by them.


On another and more pressing issue, let me remind you that latkes were great in the shtetl on a cold winter night. Now that more of us are living longer, and healthier, we should not eat too many of them.

Chag Chanukah sameach.

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 01:16 AM
November 26, 2010
Korea and Israel

There is a lesson for the Middle East in the latest incident on the Korean peninsula. The lesson is indirect, and deals more with general principles than the details of what seems to have happened.

I begin with the admission that I am a confused outsider on Korean issues. So--with respect to the Middle East--are most of the people I read and listen to commenting on Israel and Palestine.

I have visited Korea a number of times, beginning in the early 1970s and most recently in 2003. I have made the ceremonial visit to the DMZ and vacationed on the southern island of Jeju, lectured at the Korean Ministry of Unification and several academic institutions, supervised Korean doctoral students, and conversed with friends, professional colleagues, senior members of the Korean government, and my Korean in-laws. Several of these people receive my occasional notes. Let me remind them and others that recipients have an open invitation to respond.

What I have learned from 40 years of contact is a limited respect for overseas observers who claim expertise, and my own impression that Korea's history and culture is mostly beyond my ken. The label "Hermit kingdom" is appropriate. It may be one of the few places on earth without a history of a Jewish community. If North Korea ranks high on its impenetrability and strangeness, it seems equally strange that my South Korean contacts have been less worried about their neighbor than westerners whose comments appear in the media.

Israel is not a hermit kingdom. The writing it produces has attracted great attention from ancient times to the latest announcements of international prizes. If we take a slightly expanded view of the nation Israel, its output expands to include the New Testament, plus much of European and North American science and literature from the 19th century onward.

With so much to ponder, it is no surprise that the views of Israelis range so widely, and that participants or outsiders (including Jews from here and elsewhere) have so much trouble grasping what is essential about this country. I have lived here long enough to know that I, too, cannot reduce to a sentence, a paragraph, or a book what is essential about the country, beyond its variety, creativity, and openness.

My multi-cultural education and experiences make me even more wary about summarizing Palestinians, although I have considerable experience reading, listening, and conversing with them.

I am more certain about criticizing others who claim to know this situation well enough to prescribe its near and distant futures. Settlement freezes, two state solution, a looming demographic threat if the obvious advice is not accepted? I put them all in the trash that has been piling up since the schemes that came after the Balfour Declaration and the beginning of the British Mandate in the 1920s. It is not that I see history as fixed or the future as pax Israeli. I react not so much against the details of one proposal or another, as against the arrogance of those who think they can unwrap history and reassemble the pieces according to their views of justice, fairness, or workability.

What happens here is likely to come from the parties themselves. It will reflect their cultures and politics, helped or hindered by their economics, military capacity, and diplomatic skill.

We are in the context of what has happened since 1967, with prominent recent events being the intifada of 2000, Palestinian responses to the withdrawal of Gaza settlements in 2005, the short wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and the madness we hear from Iran. Current tensions come from efforts of the Obama administration to dictate or prod Palestinians and Israelis in a direction chosen by Washington..

None of the participants are angels, and none offer a convincing argument that they are putting a widely accepted view of justice higher than their own self-interest. One can argue about what in the recent flurry is more unhelpful: an Israeli enactment meant to complicate any land transfer, or the reiteration of the Palestinian claims that the Western Wall is Muslim.

There have been well meaning peace mongers among Jews and those claiming to be friends of the Jews since the 1920s. It should be no surprise that they have come up against other Jews with different ideas, as well as Palestinians, plus other Muslims, Christians, uncounted observers who claim an interest in the Holy Land, and some crafty technicians with their own views of what should happen.

In the midst of the noise, I have learned to be patient, modest, and to enjoy every day that passes without a provocation or disaster. I feel entitled to prescribe the same for others who are interested in this place, as well as that other country 5,000 miles to the east.

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 12:57 AM
November 24, 2010
Watching and wondering

You want soap opera in real life?

It is far from politically correct to be cynical in the presence of charges about sexual harassment and rape, but who wants politically correct in the presence of these stories?

The initial inquiry into a leading candidate for the job of national police chief has spread out from one allegation of sexual harassment. It began to be interesting when we heard that the person said to be harassed was not bringing the charge, but that it had been fed to the police and the media by a third party. Perhaps by someone trying to torpedo a rival's chance at the top job, or by a friend of the woman said to be harassed. The friend said to be responsible is a former beauty queen, whose big eyes and body language made a great five minutes on the evening news.

After the initial story hit the media there was first one and then two more reports: one of sexual harassment and one where reporters used the word rape. Then it became muddied by details that the two women associated with the second cluster of stories had been friends. One of them is said to have viewed herself as the preferred lover of the police officer. She introduced the second woman (or is it the third?) to the officer, and then became estranged with her former friend when the two-some turned into a three-some.

The headline in one of the papers this morning: The wife of the policeman says, "I am with him."

Perhaps he has something that most of us lack. Remaining a serious candidate for the job of police chief no longer appears to be one of his attractions. He does have supporters, who are standing by as strongly as his wife. Retired colleagues from the top of the police force are saying that the man deserves a fair inquiry, and not by the media.

Maybe you want an update on the peace process?

There is none.

There is silence where we have been expecting to hear about a written agreement formulated by Americans and Israelis. More prominent is the news about a report published by the Palestine Ministry of Information. It argues that Jews have no claim to the Western Wall. It is really part of the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Someone may be trying to inform the Palestinian Ministry of Information that Herod's Temple predated al-Aqsa by about 800 years, and that there was an earlier Temple on the site at least 1400 years before al-Aqsa.

One Israeli peace activists has expressed profound disappointment. In his view, such denial of history by his Palestinian friends can only deepen the despair about the two sides ever being able to share a common purpose.

The North Koreans are making their own negative contribution to peace in the Middle East, by putting something else higher on the agenda of the Obama White House. Over the years I have found my Korean students and professional colleagues less anxious about their neighbors than more distant observers.. Yet the combination of nuclear weapons, bombast, and a regime that cares little about its population may require further consideration. And those of us who notice similar traits in Iran might think some more about that nearby problem. A computer virus from somewhere is causing problems for Iran's refinement of uranium, but that respite will not last forever.

Other news: Mahmoud Abbas has called the Referendum law an obstacle to peace.

Maybe so, but there are at least as many other obstacles as that senior police official has girl friends.

The law in question passed the Knesset by a substantial majority. It provides for a referendum approving any transfer of territory where Israel has declared its sovereignty. In operational terms, that means Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which are the only parcels seized in the 1967 war where the Israeli Knesset has extended national sovereignty.

Some may argue that the law is flawed by being a change in the nature of the Israeli government (a law calling for a referendum seems to limit the power of the Knesset) without going through the procedures required for enactment of a Basic Law. Some may also claim that the law does not apply to Jerusalem or the Golan Heights insofar as no other country has recognized Israel's claims of sovereignty. The Supreme Court may be asked for a decision.

It may be best to view the enactment, which had been endorsed by the Prime Minister, as part of tri-party international ping pong, where Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans are maneuvering in anticipation of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, or in an effort to preclude those negotiations.

This is not a ping pong for gentle folks. It is not my job to award points for which side is more just or more skillful, just as it is not my job to sort out the three-some, four-some, or more-some concerning that candidate for the job of police chief. It is a time to watch and wonder, maybe to snicker, but not yet to rend clothes and cover oneself with ashes.

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 05:24 AM
November 20, 2010
SHAS and others

Among the platitudes being promoted here and elsewhere is that the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS is one of the extremist elements keeping the Netanyahu government from acting with good sense. The conventional line is that Israel must leave the West Bank to Palestine, in compliance with the views expressed by right thinking people throughout the world.

There are several reasons why this view is too simple. Just one of them is the nature of SHAS.

SHAS won 11 seats in the most recent election to the Knesset, which makes it the third largest party in a coalition of six parties with 74 seats in total. There is one SHAS MK contemplating a rebellion against his party. So far that is a interesting, but minor event in national politics.

Like other religious parties, SHAS Knesset members answer to the decisions of leading rabbis, and in this case to one rabbi in particular. Ovadia Yosef is 90, said to be isolated from current events, and inclined to public statements that require the explanation of party politicians in order to limit their embarrassment. Nonetheless, several features of his teachings over the years are important in understanding the postures taken by SHAS and other religious parties. These come out of Rabbinical Judaism, and may appear strange to the uninformed, but include elements that are anything but extreme in the current context.

Important to Orthodox (and ultra-Orthodox) thought are:

The Jewish people were Chosen by God and are subject to a different set of rights and limitations than others
The historic truthfulness of God's gift of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people
The recognition that some of God's laws can only be implemented by the Almighty himself in Paradise rather than by humans here on earth
The importance of rabbis in interpreting God's law, and applying them to current controversies
The recognition that rabbis disagree, and argue issues of interpretation
The recognition of leading rabbis in each generation, who are accorded priority in interpretation
The recognition that each community has its own designation of its leading rabbis
The recognition that world powers may hold the future of the Jewish people in their hands, and that it is unwise to challenge the great powers
Conservative and Reform Jews who dominate the liberal wings of the American community may not accept these principles. However, Jews from the Diaspora do not vote in Israel. Their leaders receive a polite audience from Israeli leaders, but are not assured more than that. Conservative and Reform Jews are a tiny minority among Israeli voters.

Those willing to think through this collection of Orthodox principles should recognize the moderation that is inherent in them. For one thing, it is not necessarily the task of humans to realize what they perceive to be God's will. Rewards as well as punishments may come from the heavens, in Paradise, and not in the here and now. That means, among other things, that God's gift of the Land of Israel may not be realizable in the foreseeable future.

Secondly, and even more moderate, is the notion that the Jews must not offend great powers.

This is something that was taught by the Prophet Jeremiah in the sixth century BCE when Babylon was the great power, and again by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai who recognized the folly of continuing to fight Rome. He began the process of Jewish withdrawal into itself that occurred with the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century CE. Except for a disastrous effort at rebellion in the second century, this posture marked Jewish history until 1948, and has been considered important by Israeli leaders since then..

Rabbi Ovadia has followed the same line as Jeremiah and ben Zakai. Currently this has the political leader of SHAS (Interior Minister Eli Yishai) in a bind. He does not want to offend the current great power. But he does not want to abandon other principles of competing importance. Prominent among these is the right of Jews to build in Jerusalem, and the needs of his constituency for housing. SHAS supporters are prominent in the communities of Beitar Ilit, Modiin Ilit, and several neighborhoods of Jerusalem that the United States views as within the West Bank.

The promoters of platitudes who identify with the current occupant of the White House may view these postures as intolerably extreme, but they ought to compare them with other extreme postures heard in this region. Chief among them are those of Palestinians who insist on the rights of refugees from 1948. The Palestinian narrative is that were pushed unjustly out of their homes by Jews, and must return to what they claim as theirs.

No doubt some were pushed out of their homes by Jews, who were fighting Arabs in a messy war that allowed no casual assignment of innocent and guilty parties. But their homes no longer exist. Things have changed in 62 years. Political flexibility is the way to the future. Insisting on recreating the past is not feasible, especially when it threatens the demographic inundation of the country that has the political and military capacity to say no. Demanding something so unlikely is even more extreme than the postures being pursued by SHAS.

Perhaps the thinking of SHAS and other religious parties is best described as the thinking of people who are living on another planet. But so is the thinking of the Palestinian leadership. Neither religious Israelis nor Palestinians can be assuaged by the arguments coming out of the White House and other western places, where people seem to think that moving a few pieces here and there is feasible, and holds the key to solving the problems of Israel and Palestine. Some also think that solving those problems will also take a giant step toward dealing with all of Islamic extremism, and doing away with inconvenient security procedures in airports.

It is too bad that this region does not work according to a few easily learned platitudes expressed by people who claim to be wise and forward thinking. Insofar as some of those people are living in the White House, the ideas of Jeremiah, ben Zakai, and Ovadia tell us that we should not offend them so greatly that the Jewish people will suffer.

There is wiggle room in this prescription. It is the task of Israel's leaders to use that wiggle room for our advantage..

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 03:08 AM
November 18, 2010
Not the best week

Lets start with the bad news. For the good news, you'll have to look elsewhere.

A week ago things were looking pretty good. The prime minister reported that the Americans were offering, as an inducement for a 90 day construction freeze in the West Bank, 20 F-35 advanced military planes, free of charge, along with a commitment that they would not ask for a further freeze, and that the freeze would not apply to Jerusalem.

During the week we heard that the Americans cannot bring themselves to specify that the freeze does not apply to Jerusalem, and that they cannot promise not to ask for an extension of the freeze. More recently we have heard that the planes will not be completely free of charge, or perhaps not free of charge at all. Maybe a discount? Still not clear.

What happened?

Here we must speculate.

One suspicion is that the slippery nature of the prime minister had once again come to the surface. To his defense, however, was his early comment in seeking support for the deal in his cabinet that the package had not yet been fully defined. Somewhat troubling was a report in mid-week that an aide to the prime minister had misinterpreted what had been said in the seven hours of discussion between the prime minister and the secretary of state. Was this a thin effort of a slippery prime minister to absolve himself of responsibility? That's an unanswerable question.

It is also possible that the Israeli prime minister was not the only slippery politician in the pile. The American secretary of state is no more of an angel, speaking metaphorically. Her profound lack skill in producing a health reform at the beginning of Bill Clinton's presidency may again be showing itself. The slipperiness in Bibi's background has a match in Hillary's clumsiness. In this case, a capacity to promise too much may have come up against political realities. The package threatened American credibility with Palestinians and Arab governments. Great powers cannot be one-sided. The secretary of state should have been aware of such things, but maybe not Hillary.

Currently things are on hold. Americans claim to be working on a draft agreement. Opponents of a freeze are recruiting support, and they have the unreliability of their own prime minister and the American secretary of state on their side. Looks like a pretty good hand.

Israelis are trying to add to the deal. Not exactly sweeten it, but what they want will complicate things.

The Americans say that those 90 days should be devoted to defining the borders of Palestine. Israelis want to negotiate about all the important issues. Read that refugees. If Israelis agree to borders, Palestinians should agree on a resolution of the refugee issue. Most likely that is beyond the reach of the Palestinians. For that reason, it is not on the American agenda. For Israelis in the cabinet, however, it may be a deal breaker.

That's not all the news of this week.

The chief of the national police is one of the country's most distinguished positions. The schedule calls for the appointment of a new chief. But sex has intervened.

It started a couple of weeks ago with the news that a woman is charging a ranking civilian in the Ministry of Internal Security with sexual harassment. That is the ministry that includes the police. Then she expanded her charge to include a senior police officer, who is one of the candidates being considered for the chief's job. The lady in question, identified only as "A," is said to be a forties-something divorcee with several children, brilliant and attractive, and employed by the police as an outside consultant. There was a media report that she has been involved romantically with other senior police officers. Most recently, we have heard that she was reluctant to charge sexual harassment against the officer who is one of the candidates for the chief's job, but was urged to do so by another senior officer who is also a candidate for that job.

Today's media speculation is comparing these stories to those concerned with the commotion surrounding the recent selection of the next commanding general of the IDF. That position is even more prestigious than the head of the national police. The selection was done under the shadow of documents circulated among senior officers, and leaked to the media, that appeared to be a campaign against one of the candidates.

There is a new commanding general of the IDF, who has all the government approvals and is serving alongside the current commanding general until the formal transfer of command. However, there are persistent rumbles about the new man's improper actions in a real estate transaction concerned with his personal residence. Some want to re-open the selection process.

All told, not the neatest ways to select important members of the public service, whose actions and morals will affect us all over the next few years. Perhaps British gentlemen would do it differently, assuming they operate according to the norms we associate with them. French, Italian, and American gentlemen (and gentlewomen) can provide models for lesser folk.


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 09:22 PM
November 15, 2010

That seven hour meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary of State Clinton produced a lot of talk, but less by way of clear documents.

There are questions about the promise of 20 advanced military planes, whether the Americans are clear about excluding Jerusalem from the 90 day settlement freeze, and if the American pledge for support in the United Nations is limited to the one year during which the Americans want a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Palestinians are seeking their own quid pro quo. They want financial aid, and an assurance that the Americans will intervene in negotiations to produce an agreement within one year.

What happened between that long meeting and the grimy job of settling on the language that the Prime Minister can bring to his colleagues for their consideration?

Perhaps Bibi rounded up his recollection to make it more appealing at home. Perhaps Hillary rounded down her version to make it more appealing to her boss and colleagues, and more defensible to their Arab and Palestinian constituencies. They are politicians with interests that overlap and converge, and familiar with tactics of muddling through and the value of ambiguity.

Among the prospects: the Americans will not explicitly exempt Jerusalem from the 90 day freeze, but neither will they produce a document that is explicit in extending the freeze to Jerusalem.

While some military and political figures are arguing that those 20 planes will provide Israel with what it needs to defend itself, others are saying that the deal includes a provision that Israel must clear with the United States its intentions about the planes. In other words, an American veto as to when or how they can be used.

The best case analysis is that the Prime Minister can win endorsement by his Cabinet of the American offer by a majority of one, with one of his partners (SHAS) agreeing to abstain.

Jerusalem is important for SHAS, both as a principle and because its voters live in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, and more of them want apartments there. It was Ramat Shlomo where construction plans embarrassed Vice President Biden some months ago.

Other votes will depend on the language that Israeli and American negotiators produce from what they pick out of those seven hours of discussion.

The Prime Minister himself may think again about the strength of his endorsement. Even if he wins a narrow vote in his Cabinet, there is a rebellion brewing among Likud Knesset members that can endanger his leadership of the party.

The Americans want progress toward defining boundaries within the 90 days of this construction freeze. Israeli critics are worrying about the absence of concern for refugees in the American plan. They do not want to agree on borders of a Palestinian state, and leave the issue of refugees dangling as an inducement for Palestinians to assert that they have not gotten one of their most important demands. Why should Israel compromise on its major card of territorial exchanges without demanding an equivalent concession from the Palestinians?

There is justice and historical truth on the Palestinian side when they claim a presence in Jerusalem. But not when they claim that the Jews never had a significant presence in the city. The Hashemites of Jordan have a better claim than Palestinians as guardian of the Muslim holy places in the city.

A number of my correspondents are searching for truth, balance, equity, and justice in these disputes of at least a century's duration. All of those are nice, but fuzzy concepts. They are what you want them to be.

Power is also important.

We are some distance from knowing the balance between truth, balance, equity, justice and power in this case. So far, power is in the lead. So far may last a very long time.

Now let us hear from those who wish to compare the powers of Israel, the international community, and the United States.

That arithmetic may appear to be simple, until you include the dimensions of intensity, and willingness to use one's power.

Clarity may be the most elusive of all the relevant concepts. But who more than the Jews has an acquired capacity to live with uncertainty?

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 11:17 PM
November 14, 2010
What may be happening, here and elsewhere

Prime Minister Netanyahu has recommended that his government accept an American offer to provide advanced military planes worth $3 billion without payment, and to support Israel's position in the United Nations, in exchange for a 90 day extension of the building freeze that will not apply to neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

The deal is attractive not only on for the support offered, but because it accepts the Israeli concern about Jerusalem.

There are several problems.

Religious settlers are shrieking their opposition, and a small party representing them is threatening to leave the government. SHAS is pondering an abstention, which sounds like muted support. Likud members of Knesset are mumbling their opposition, but Netanyahu is their leader.

Those are the smallest of the problems. Other parties will provide whatever support in the Knesset Netanyahu needs for something like this, and SHAS will not be quick to leave its control of important ministries.

More weighty is a lack of confidence in the Americans to deliver on the deal, without demanding a further freeze if 90 days is not enough, adding other conditions, not pressing Congress to approve the arms transfer, or fudging whatever is meant by support in the United Nations.

Politicians here are familiar with the expression, "I promised. . . But I did not promise to keep my promise."

The latest word from the Prime Minister is that the details of the American offer are still being worked out. So it is too early to know what is being promised, even leaving aside what may be secret clauses in the deal..

The weightiest problem of all is the response of a Palestinian negotiator that his people could not accept a moratorium on construction that does not include East Jerusalem, and would not extend until a final settlement has been reached.

Later that negative was downsized to strong reservations, along with a willingness to bring the proposal before the entire Palestinian leadership and the Arab League.

Even later was an assertion that the Palestinians could not accept a partial freeze, or one limited in time.

It will be a month or two before there is movement on an agreement to negotiate, a clear Palestinian rejection, or a new statement of Palestinian terms for negotiations.

Will Israel get those planes and support in the UN if its government accepts the deal, but the Palestinians reject it, or add terms that Israel does not accept?

Or will the Americans and Israelis abandon the idea without finishing its details, in the context of yet another "Not enough" from the Palestinians.

The New York Times thinks that the American offered too much to Israel, and it blames Netanyahu for what is not happening. As far as I know, however, the newspaper does not have many troops, or votes in the United States Congress or United Nations.

All this may add to what President Obama is learning about policymaking. Feisty Republicans are saying they will try to undo his programs at home, and he suffered a lessening of his personal charm when he sought to get something from economic heavies during the G-20 meeting in Seoul.

If we did not know it already, we see once again that policy change takes a while, persuading foreigners to do something takes longer, and heroic efforts are the most difficult.

Americans are learning that the health reform may not be much of a cure for the developed world's worst system of medical delivery. The rule writers of the administration are reducing the demands the reform seemed to impose on employers that insure their workers, and insurance companies are making sure they do not lose money.

There are other lessons from the war on terror. Signs are positive, but not the ones promised by this or the previous administration.

It would take a great stretch to define the overt American intentions in Iraq or Afghanistan as close to being realized. On the other hand, there has not been a major attack on the United States since 9-11, and nothing close to that day's toll on any European city. Some credit may be due to post-9-11 security provisions, even though they come at considerable cost in passenger convenience.

Other credit may be due to the nature of events as they have evolved in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other sources of Islamic extremism. Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and Yemenites are being kept busy by the United States and its allies. Muslims continue to kill one another in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Saudis are shedding their own blood and that of other Muslims in Yemen, and may be aiding Sunnis in Iraq. We should not expect governments to tell all the truth, so we can be skeptical about Saudi and American denials of Saudi activity in Iraq. See, for example,

When Muslims are busy fighting westerners and one another, they have less wherewithal to plan and execute major operations elsewhere.

Having Muslims kill one another may not be the most politically correct way of describing American policy, but it has evolved in that direction.

Where politics is tough, one gets what one can.

We are not far along in achieving peace with the Palestinians. Israelis and Palestinians are talking about talking, but not currently with each other.

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 02:29 AM
November 11, 2010
The fog of diplomacy

There was a seven hour meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary of State Clinton. It closed with mutual declarations of commitment to a peace process, fuzzy definitions of what was agreed, and no assignment of blame for the impasse to one side or another.

"Neither American nor Israeli officials offered details of the talks, although a blandly worded joint statement issued afterward made clear that there had been no breakthroughs. . . . There was no indication whether the United States had persuaded Israel to compromise."

Pick your metaphor.

Is this a case of the dog that did not bark, the preparation of a ladder to allow the protagonists to descend from a tree they climbed too high, or the fog in a corner of international relations where nothing or something is happening?

Those who like Sherlock Holmes' concern with the dog that did not bark might note that the participants did not report that the meeting focused on what has been the prominent issue of a settlement freeze, or the planning of new apartments in Jerusalem.

News of the meeting was on the home page of the New York Times web site when I logged on, but under the heading of "More News," below stories about President Obama's problems in international meetings about economics, refugee camps in Kenya, a power sharing agreement in Iraq, mental patients in China, fraud in Britain, a bombing in Karachi, and the movement of Ariel Sharon, comatose for more than four years, from a hospital to medical facilities at his ranch.

We have heard that President Obama is obsessed with his Middle East peace initiative. The prospect excites activists who like the possibility, and those who worry about the prospect of American pressure. However, the image does not fit with the nature of the American presidency. Obsession about a policy goal is rare in that office, and likely to be costly. If Barack Obama is obsessed with peace in the Holy Land, we are fortunate that he is going about it in more moderately than his predecessor pursued his obsessions about Iraq. If claims of Obama's thoughtfulness are true, we can hope that he will engage in reality testing before proceeding further.

Even the New York Times seems to be cooling its fires. Also on its home page early this morning (Israel time) were two articles about a West Bank blogger arrested by the Palestinians and looking at no less than life in prison for satirizing the Koran, and an article about Hizbollah's assertion that it will resist any accusation that it was responsible for the assassination of Lebanon's Prime Minister.

I could not find a mention in the New York Times about the near lynching of Jews who made a wrong turn into an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, the stoning of ambulances that went into the same neighborhood on another occasion, or the stoning of cars on a road alongside the neighborhood. Nonetheless, those who produce and read the New York Times may be noticing that it is not only the Israeli side of Middle East controversies that must be taught what is proper.

No doubt something of interest was said by Americans or Israelis in that seven hour meeting. It will take the reading of numerous tea leaves to know what will happen as a result. And the people who pour the tea may contribute to the president's problems in realizing his goals in this or any other issue.

Seven hours will not be enough to deal with the gaps in culture and political interest that have been apparent since the British Foreign Secretary wrote that document about a Jewish homeland and the rights of others 93 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 10:33 PM
November 10, 2010
Reading politics

What can we make of the following?

Speaking in Indonesia, alongside the leader of that country, Barack Obama said that the planning of new housing in East Jerusalem was not helpful to the peace process. He went on to say that both sides must take the difficult decisions necessary to produce a breakthrough.
Israeli media has overlooked the "both sides" part of the President's comments, and has focused on his criticism of Israel.
Does that mean that Israeli media is overwhelmingly leftist? That its commentators understand English better than me? Or that the subtext of the President's comments is more important than the text? Whatever that means.
The British Foreign Secretary, being interviewed on Israeli television, was asked why Israel comes in for more criticism than other countries.
His response: The world expects more from Israel than from a Third World, non-democratic regime.
Does this mean that Israel must live up to a higher standard than the Palestinians it is expected to negotiate with, and give much more than it gets? If, indeed, it can bring the Palestinians to move down even a bit from their list of non-negotiable demands.

Or does all of the above mean that the verbiage of politics must, once again, be taken with a large grain of salt. It is not only that we expect politicians to fib when they are on the campaign trail looking for our votes. They are always on one campaign trail or another, and they are always likely to be saying something other that what they firmly believe.

President Obama's comments in Jakarta sounded very much like his comments in Cairo. He was in the capital of a Muslim country, and he proclaimed his expectations about Israel. In both settings, he also proclaimed his expectations about Palestinians and other Muslim leaders. In Cairo, he was optimistic. In Jakarta, he said that if both sides do not show initiative, the peace process would fail.

It sounds to me like a man trying to keep up the good fight, but being careful not to invest too much in what may be a disappointment. Perhaps he is covering his backside, and preparing to blame Israeli or Palestinian leaders, or both, depending on what happens to be more convenient when it is time to apportion blame.

If this sounds confusing, you are reading it correctly. Deciphering the expressions of politicians is not for simpletons. And it may not be for anyone. It is like using esoteric keys to find hidden messages in the Bible. You can find what you want. Politicians naturally seek to broaden their appeal. If they are good at their job, they know how to justify whatever they have done, or have not done.

We should have known this all along.

It is helpful to remind ourselves every once in a while about eternal truths.

Getting back to the case at hand, what should Israelis do in the present confluence of demands, expectations, efforts to boycott, disinvest, impose sanctions, and the apparent lack of flexibility coming from our Palestinian neighbors?

It helps to recognize that things are even more complicated than this. Winds are blowing in several directions. The Christian Right and considerable other segments of American and European public opinion are with us, or against Muslims. Liberal Jews who are also Israelis or supporters of Israel are not always comfortable with such allies, but the movement is considerable. And despite the efforts of the politically correct, there seems to be some connection between Islam and unpleasant events in places where many people feel themselves threatened by Muslims.

What to do about a religion that has a billion followers, who are not all prone to violence, is a question that may bother as many people who worry about what to do about Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel ranks #15 among countries of the world on an index of Human Development. That suggests it is a better place to live than 154 other countries.

The Jews have had it worse.

For the prophetic among us (i.e., those who act as if they are hearing the word of God), that is never enough.

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 12:27 AM
November 09, 2010
More sound and fury from the New York Times

Again Israel was front and center on the web site of the New York Times, along with a picture and a headline:
"Israel Plans 1,000 Housing Units in East Jerusalem."

Read the article. The content is more modest by far than the headline or the prominent placement.

It reports that the area at issue has been part of the Jerusalem municipality since 1967, and the Israeli government has emphasized that it would not freeze construction within the city. It also indicates that the trigger for the article was an official announcement required as an early step in a long process. It would open the prospect of new construction

". . . for objections from the public. . . The plans gained initial approval in the district planning committee about two years ago, and it will be years until the new units are actually built."

The district planning committee is at least three levels down in the governmental hierarchy from the Minister of Interior, and four levels removed from the Cabinet and Prime Minister.

The article also reports what sounds like a routine statement from an American government official, several notches below serious condemnation.

"We were deeply disappointed by the announcement of advance planning for new housing units in sensitive areas of East Jerusalem . . . It is counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties. . . . We have long urged both parties to avoid actions which could undermine trust, including in Jerusalem, and will continue to work to resume direct negotiations to address this and other final-status issues,"

The New York Times credits Ha'aretz with making a story out of an official announcement that most likely was buried in the notices about pending actions that government agencies are required to publish in a newspaper. Ha'aretz is even more assiduous than the New York Times in highlighting Israeli government abominations.

What the article does not mention is that the announcement of pending approvals occurred in the context of a housing shortage, which has produced an increase in the costs of rentals and purchases. This in turn reflects a population increase of 69 percent since 1988. The opening of the former Soviet Union brought a million people to Israel, and the migration from Ethiopia brought another one hundred thousand. The people from the former Soviet Union, in particular, have done well. Their children are at the point where they are adding to the pressure for housing.

The Bank of Israel reports that housing prices have increased by 20 percent over the past year. This continues a trend that has put housing cost and supply on the agenda of several government bodies and numerous politicians. The central bank has increased interest rates six times since the international economic crisis. That is one of steps being taken to discourage speculation in the housing market.

The consensus of economic commentators is that price rises do not reflect a bubble caused by speculation, but a shortage of supply, which is impacting most clearly on young couples looking for an initial rental or purchase. The one thousand apartment units that have excited the New York Times are a long way from being approved, built, rented or sold. However, they are to be in the neighborhoods of Har Homa and Ramot, both places that serve middle and lower-middle income Israelis.

Several items are in the air, whose near future is anybody's guess.
How important is the housing freeze, especially that in Jerusalem, with respect to the peace process? Is it the reason for Palestinian withdrawal from talks, or it is an excuse for the Palestinians' conclusion that they are better off without those talks, or that they cannot make the compromises with Israel essential for a deal? Recall the pressure from extremists in Gaza, and the insistence on a housing freeze that came from Obama's White House and added what may be a fatal ingredient to the peace process.
Is the Obama administration willing to press Israel on these housing units, when the Palestinians already dithered with no action through nine of the ten months when Israel earlier froze construction? The White House would face the assertion of the Netanyahu government against another freeze, especially in Jerusalem. There is also that less than enthusiastic support shown by American voters earlier this month.
The General Secretary of the United Nations has clucked his tongue against news of this housing. So far no one higher than the State Department spokesperson has publicly clucked a tongue in Washington.
The story about Jerusalem housing was front and center on the New York Times website when I opened my eyes at about 7 AM Israel time. By 10:15 AM, its place had been taken by a story and picture about the closing of a factory in Baikalsk. That is a one-industry city in the far east of Russia. It is north of Mongolia about 4,000 miles from Moscow.

The story of 1,000 housing units in Jerusalem was still in the headlines of the New York Time's site, but lower in prominence than articles about climate change, the president's visit to Indonesia, the prospect of reforming the United Nations Security Council (President Obama had indicated his support for a permanent seat for India during an earlier stop in his Asian tour), the Chinese economy, and George W. Bush's return to media exposure.

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 01:39 AM
November 07, 2010

Living alongside Issawiya has its moments.

Items from the weekend's news: Israelis accompanying an Australian tourist made a wrong turn into the neighborhood, and narrowly escaped a lynching.,7340,L-3980165,00.html In another incident, neighborhood folks stoned an ambulance that entered the area to tend a resident who had been injured in a fall. And in a repeat of what had been a chronic problem, people from the neighborhood went to a cliff overlooking one of the roads from Jerusalem to the Jordan valley, and dropped stones on vehicles as they passed below them.

According to the Statistical Yearbook of the Jerusalem Municipality, there are almost 13,000 people living in Issawiya. The average age is a bit less than 19 years, 6 years younger than the average age of Jews in the city.

Generally the people we pass on our walks through French Hill are polite. Groups of teenage boys out for an evening may express something friendly if we meet on a crowded part of the sidewalk, and we each make an effort not to disturb the other.

On the other hand, we have found fist-sized stones in our apartment, which we surmise have been thrown by Arab youths playing soccer in the school yard alongside our building. One evening we interrupted what may have become an uglier incident when a young man knocked down a woman jogger. We yelled. He got up and ran in the direction of Issawiya. And while young boys from Issawiya often smile and say "Shalom," one 10 or 11 year old looked at Varda and said "Sharmuta" (whore) before he ran away.

The name "Issawiya" has caused its own small stir. A Jewish neighbor, with some knowledge of Arabic, told me that "Issa" is Arabic for Jesus, and must indicate that the neighborhood has a Christian history. He described it as one of the places where the Muslims most likely had pushed out the Christians.

That led me to query one friend who is an Arab and a well-known social scientist, who has written extensively on the Arabs of Israel and Palestine. I also raised the issue with Arabs who I chat with in the university gym. And I looked for Issawiya among the Christian sites mentioned for the area of Jerusalem. What I learned is there does not seem to have been a Christian past or presence in the village. Issa is popular as a name among Arab Muslims, along with Musa. Jesus and Moses are prophets in the pantheon of Islam. One of the large extended families in Issawiya came generations ago as Bedouins, most likely from the Negev. Their family name is "Issawya," and as often happens, the village took on their name. By one report, a large majority of residents are affiliated with the family. They differ from the Bedouin who came recently, live on the edge of the field that separates Issawiya from French Hill, and raise sheep, goats, and horses. They add a romantic, pastoral feeling to the surroundings, and leave little brown balls on our sidewalks when they herd their animals through French Hill in search of juicy grass.

I asked one of my locker room friends if other Arabs would still view the Issawya family as Bedouin, and would allow their daughters to marry one of their sons. He said that he was liberal enough to let his daughter marry anyone she chose, even a Jew or Christian. However, he also said that more traditional people would consider the Issawya family to be Bedouin, even though it has been many generations since they departed from their camels and goats. Those who pride themselves in being Arab rather than Bedouin would forbid intermarriage.

The view from our balcony illustrates the limitations of the security barrier that continues to crawl to completion between Israel and Palestine. It has been abuilding since the middle of the intifada that began in 2000 and dwindled away four or five years ago. At various times the government has slowed construction in order to spread out the cost, or perhaps to wait and see if there was any hope of a peace agreement. What we see from here is the barrier separating Jews and Arabs on the left of the road to the Jordan Valley, where Arab residents are outside of what Israel defines as the Jerusalem municipality. Issawiya, on the right side of the road, is part of the municipality, and there is no barrier between them and us.

The view today shows black smoke rising from the Arab village on the other side of the wall. Most likely burning tires, either a protest or the routine disposal of trash. If it is durected against something we have done, the protesters ought to have taken account of the prevailing winds. The stuff will spoil Arab air rather than Jewish air.

When things heat up, we hear the stun grenades and other things that the police employ to restore order, and there will be check points on the roads out of Issawiya. After the events of recent days, the authorities may impose other unpleasantness on the neighborhood.

Among the possibilities that could come with a peace agreement is the hiving off of Issawiya and other Arab neighborhoods to Palestine. Then we might see a security barrier between us and them. Not immediately perhaps, but after a few incidents like those of recent days.

There are other spots in the immediate surroundings that do not separate so neatly into Arab or Jewish. French Hill was begun soon after 1967 as a Jewish neighborhood, but was built around small clusters of Arab housing. They remain, for the most part without much notice, and include two falafel stands popular with both Jews and Arabs. There are also Arab families living in buildings where most of the residents are Jewish, as well as Arab students from the Hebrew University along with Jewish students living here and there as renters.

The city is complex. There are Arab areas we have no concern about entering, and others--like Issawiya--that Arab friends have urged us to avoid.

The story should be familiar to residents of any large city in North America or Europe. Indeed, the data shows that our problems are less those those elsewhere. Israel's murder rate is one third that of the United States, and less than one-seventh that of Chicago. The murder rate in Jerusalem is less than that of Israel as a whole.

We would all be better off if President Obama dealt with the problems of Chicago before he turned to those of Jerusalem.

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
November 05, 2010
So far, it's okay.

We have had worse days.

The not so friendly United Nations published its Human Development Index, ranking Israel number 15 among 169 countries. Norway is number 1 and the United States number 4. Israel scores higher than such decent places as Finland, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Austria, and the United Kingdom.

The differences among what the UN calls the "Very High Human Development countries are not great. Norway's score is .938, the United States' .902, and Israel's .872. The lowest ranking among the 42 countries in the "Very High" group are Portugal, Poland, and Barbados, the latter with a score of .788. Zimbabwe is at the tail end of the "Low Human Development" countries (most of which are African), with a score of .14.

The index aggregates data pertaining to life expectancy, adults' years of schooling, income, equality, savings, and crime.

We may also be heading into a calm period with respect to international pressure. The Economist describes several reasons why there may not be much movement on what had been the Obama initiative. It is generous in not putting all the blame on Israel. The New York Times headlines an article, "For Obama, Foreign Policy May Offer Avenues for Success." The theme is that he may use his considerable ability to shape foreign policy while being stymied in any effort to do anything dramatic at home. The article describes likely problems and opportunities with respect to Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Russia, China, and Afghanistan. Palestine and Israel do not get a mention.

Several of my internet friends have asked how I would improve things in the United States, or advance the prospect of peace with Palestinians.

I prefer to focus on defining and explaining the present, rather than competing with political activists in promoting one or another course for the future. I have taught my students (several of whom have reached high positions in Israel, the United States, and elsewhere) that social science can identify the current situation, and assess the reasons that explain why things are as they are. If aspiring policymakers want to know what to do, they must first know what is, and why. Then they can work within those parameters.

It does not appear that the Obama administration was sufficiently aware of what exists in this part of the Middle East. It set back the peace process by raising the issue of a settlement freeze. It put Israelis on edge by demanding a freeze in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and provoked the Palestinians to insist on something they had not earlier raised as a condition for negotiations.

It would be better to leave things alone than to continue blundering. The Palestinians have achieved credible results in the economic development of the West Bank, and in improving security for themselves and Israelis. Israel has cooperated by easing restrictions on the movement of Palestinians.

Currently we are hung up on the Palestinians' insistence on maintaining that item of freezing construction in the settlements that the Americans had inserted, and Israel's insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

It is not clear if these demands are no more than gamesmanship, or serious impediments to progress.

On several occasions since 1993 (Oslo), I have hoped to celebrate with my Palestinian friends the establishment of a new state, perhaps with its border 100 meters from my apartment.

I have also said on several occasions since 1993 that we should say Kaddish for the idea of a Palestinian state.

A state would be good for us all, but I do not expect it to happen.

I would assign responsibility to several parties. Most important are the fractures among Palestinians, and the inability of the moderates to resist the extremists. Thus, they continue to demand things that no Israeli government can accept, like a return of refugees from 1948, and borders close to the armistice lines going back to 1948 (what they call the 1967 borders of a Palestine that never existed).

Also responsible are the Muslim states that urge extremism on the Palestinians, making it difficult for them to compromise with Israel. Currently the biggest problems are Iran and Syria. They are working with Hizbollah that is close to dominating Lebanon, and with Hamas, which is ruling Gaza and threatening to take over the West Bank.

The settlements that Israel has constructed throughout the West Bank since 1967 also complicate things. Palestinians do not want them in their state. Even Israelis who would support accommodations are not inclined to remove them due to the violence that followed the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza.

Another problem is Israeli distrust of Palestinian intentions, and uncertainty about the reliability of the American and European governments. We can argue if this is the fault of Israeli paranoia, or on the plate of Americans and Europeans who do not read our neighbors correctly.

The United States and other western democracies have not helped in trying to manipulate Israel and Palestine, demanding speedy progress, when neither of the partners is comfortable with the process, or capable of doing what is necessary to produce an agreement. The danger of naive and clumsy outsiders is that they produce expectations that cannot be met. Americans responded at the polls, disappointed with the candidate they had chosen under the slogans of Change, and Yes We Can. Palestinians have shown over the years that they are not so gentle when incited to great aspirations not realized.

My reading of the present, and my hope for the future is that Israelis and Palestinians can get through this period of Obama excitement without too many deaths, and with decent futures for us all.

It would help if the American president recognizes his limitation here as well as at home.

I can hope for presidential wisdom, without really expecting 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 07:16 AM
November 04, 2010
The value of comparison

The recent note on American madness produced one request to be dropped from my list, several accusations that I had turned against the homeland that nurtured me, claims for the superiority of American freedom and opportunity, an often-repeated accusation from a die-hard Democrat that I am a mad Israeli, one "Amen," and several responses that mixed bits of applause with reservation.

One close friend with whom I have collaborated on professional research urged me to recall the analyses that we had both made about the United States. He emphasized the demographic and cultural features of the country, as well as wide open spaces that explain its fascination with personal freedom, lower taxes, and lower scores on public service than can be found in other western democracies.

One lesson of social science is that there is no useful information without comparison. It is essential for knowing how individuals and countries differ from one another, as well as understanding why they differ. Medicine, policy analysis, and simple conversation is not worth much without knowing how things differ or resemble one another.

Economics is a major element in explaining what countries do. It is no surprise that rich countries have better services. They also tend to tax themselves heavily, and to have smaller gaps between rich and poor.

What is distinctive about the United States is its lower service scores and a higher incidence of inequality than other well-to-do countries.

Beyond economics, another explanation of why countries differ is culture. What people think about public affairs is passed on from parents to children, and the parents got theirs from the previous generation. Political tendencies continue even as personalities and conditions change. History has its weight.

American notions of personal freedom and opportunity ring strong in its culture, despite the closing of the frontier 120 years ago. The Census Bureau announced after looking at the data it collected in 1890 that the spread of settlement throughout the west settlement meant that "there can hardly be said to be a frontier line." The ability to settle in empty land, and the freedom of the Wild West were disappearing.

Claims of freedom and opportunity had attracted migrants to what became the United States beginning in the 17th century, and continue to pull them from poor places to the south and east. Since World War II, however, Western Europe has been the equal of the United States on personal freedom and opportunity. Individuals from well to do countries continue to migrate from place to place due to personal considerations, but there is no wave of western Europeans going to America to find what they could not have at home.

Explanations for the preference for low taxes and a minimum of government that prevail in the United States say as much about demographics as a preoccupation with personal opportunity. Among the distinctive traits of the United States is a large underclass. Read that to mean African Americans who have been in the country since slavery, plus Hispanics and others who have come recently at their own initiative. Despite the presence of the Obama family in the White House, there still is lingering racism. It does not appear so much as blind hatred of Blacks or foreigners, but in a disinclination to help the poor, the poorly educated, residents of slums, and people most likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

I know enough about culture and politics to realize that I will not convince patriots that their country is not the best. If some would look beyond warm feelings for their homeland, however, comparison with other places would let them know what they are missing.

Would it be possible to remake America into something more like Western Europe?

Students of culture should have modest expectations. Great change may require massive destruction and chaos. The best explanation of Europe today is the destruction of World War II. In several countries, social services were already far along. They had done in the 19th century what the United States began only in the 1930s. European politics changed after World War II, most notably in Italy and Germany. Dictatorships disappeared in Western Europe, even while government remained stronger than in the United States. Higher education spread far beyond the elite, most notably in Britain.

Anyone wanting evidence for the holding power of Americans' disinclination to big government need only look at the list of items featured on the web site of the New York Times on the morning after the mid-term elections:

Democrats Outrun by a 2-Year G.O.P. Comeback Plan -
Political Times: Republicans Face a Fundamental Choice in How to Oppose-
Outside Groups on the Right Flexed Muscles in House Races -
In Rubio, Some See Rise of the 'Great Right Hope' -
The Road Ahead Turns Right -
Political Memo: G.O.P. Expands a Base From South to Midwest -
Palin's Endorsements Lay Base for a 2012 Run-

A friend offers the following points on the election from his perspective as an economist:

" . . . the current economic landscape includes a large number of people worse off than they were a few years ago - the unemployment, the underemployment, the loss in house value (whether or not the value is below their mortgages), the experience of having taken on too much debt (and the bewilderment that the federal government is so blithe about doing so). And, there is a sense of a harsher world and greater anxiety about the future. . . . the administration's penchant for extensive new regulatory powers, as in Obamacare and the financial regulation bill, has really increased business uncertainty and has discouraged new hires - so it may have contributed to the sluggishness of the recovery. . . . I think a good part of the anger at Obamacare relates to it being a new entitlement in the face of the longer term fiscal unsustainability of existing entitlements; Obama's obfuscation about it ("not one dime" etc.) also contributed to that anger."

What comes next?

Domestic policy will depend on how--or whether--the President and the divided Congress work together. Foreign policy will depend more on the President alone. But the "bully pulpit" that Barack Obama tried to use during his first two years will be less weighty, and it did not produce much when he could claim to have America behind him. Not a few Israelis are applauding the Republicans, and expecting less pressure from the White House. Any admiration apparent in the Arab media has been dropping since the Cairo speech. The President's domestic embarrassment will cost him dearly among people who value strength.

I would not write finish to the prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. However, its best chance will come not from efforts at manipulation by the White House, but the continuation of economic development in the West Bank, and the political moderation of Palestinian leaders.

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 02:47 AM
November 03, 2010

The coverage of the mid-term election provokes me once again to think that Americans are mad.

Already my American friends are reaching for the delete or the reply button.

The madness appears in the weight of the Tea Parties and Sarah Palin, plus the intensity against the president's efforts for economic rescue and health reform.

These point to a country that stands alone among well-to-do democracies on its cultural antipathy to social programs and an obsessive opposition to taxation. The United States may have among the best medical and educational facilities in the world, but the worst delivery systems in both fields when compared to other countries. The health care and education available to most Americans is a long way from what the most fortunate receive in the best clinics, or the best schools, colleges, and universities. The country is also an oddity in its concerns with abortion, evolution, and sexual preference. The problems of doing away with "Don't ask, don't tell" in the American military contrasts with other armies of western countries, including the IDF, where the theme is "Who cares?"

The peculiarity of the United States occurs along with a disturbing level of self confidence and insistence that it alone can determine its destiny. The trait appeared before the United States was a great power, in the opposition to joining the League of Nations. It was prominent again after World War II, when the country insisted on a right to veto important matters as a condition for joining the United Nations.

Now that the United States is the dominant super power, the trait has an uglier side in its concern to say how other countries should govern themselves. Important here is the combination of military might and ignorance shown in the invasion of Iraq, and efforts to remake Afghanistan.

The trait bothers Israel in the campaign being led by the White House against construction of Jewish sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Beyond Washington, the arrogance that appears widely in American culture shows itself in the anti-Israel demonstrations on campuses, and other efforts to boycott, disinvest, and impose sanctions on Israel. The movement is not entirely American. Indications are that its promotion is heavily Muslim, but it draws strength from the economic and political weight of Americans, including some American Jews who claim to know what is better for Israel than Israeli Jews.

Arrogant critics of others have no trouble screaming their accusations. If they were equally concerned with comparing Israel with the United States and other countries, they would find that what they say about Israel is often a mere shadow of what occurs elsewhere.

People concerned about human rights should stop eating bananas grown in Central America or the Caribbean, and stop buying clothes and other things made in China. If Israel constrains the movements of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, those judging it should take into consideration the record of Palestinian violence.

Claims of discrimination against Israeli Arabs pale in comparison to what occurs in other countries. Israeli Arabs have better health indicators that white Americans, and far better indicators than American minorities. The incomes of Israeli Arabs are closer to those of Israeli Jews than are the incomes of African Americans to those of white Americans. Israel provides instruction in Arabic to its minority, and there is no problem of Muslim women dressing according to their religious tradition. Compare those freedoms to the experience of the Kurds in Turkey, or Muslim women in France. Israeli courts act against the political activities of Arab citizens (or Members of Knesset) only in extreme cases when there are charges of incitement to violence, or aiding the enemy against the background of armed conflict.

It will take more than a little while to understand the outcome of the mid-term elections in the United States. Commentators will blabber endlessly about what the results mean for the President's perceived mandate of Change. It will be months or more before we know if Tea Party activists help or hinder Republican efforts to do something in Congress that will help them in the presidential campaign of 2012. Some Israeli commentators are certain that the president will express his frustration and seek to make a record by pressing harder on Israel to stop the construction and make other concessions to the Palestinians.

There is much to admire in the United States. I have described to several of my Russian friends how I benefited from my grandparents' migrations from Poland and Lithuania in the 19th century. Along with several of my cousins, I grew up poor, and poorly educated in public schools, but scholarships allowed us to study in decent institutions of higher education and put us on the road to professional success. I learned from my better teachers the value of skepticism and a willingness to criticize. I do not consider myself a traitor against my roots, or an excessively patriotic Israeli, for practicing those traits.

No doubt that the United States is unique, but not always in ways that inspire confidence in the rest of the world. Especially worrisome is the combination of its oddities and power, along with an arrogant fixation with American rightness and its ignorance of the places it seeks to control.

American madness may be extreme as a theme, but using the term is not as bizarre as much of what occurs in American politics, and American efforts to control others.

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 03:16 AM
November 01, 2010
Who's crazy?

On rare occasions it may be appropriate to assert that "everybody is crazy but us."

The risks are considerable. Asylums are crowded with individuals who say the same.

Not everybody but us is crazy. We have friends who admit that they agree with us. And we suspect (or hope) that others who criticize us are doing no more than offering lip service to those who have more votes than we do in international forums.

Several things have spurred these comments.

Most prominently is an editorial in the New York Times that, along with a slight nod in the direction of balance, says that the greater responsibility for the stall in the peace process is the "game playing" of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

"We think the burden is on Mr. Netanyahu to get things moving again. The settlements are illegal under international law, and resuming the moratorium, which expired on Sept. 26, will in no way harm Israel's national interest. . . . President Obama made a very generous -- too generous, we believe -- offer to Israel, to get Mr. Netanyahu to extend the moratorium. . . . Mr. Netanyahu still refused, insisting that the hard-line members of his coalition would never go along. He then added to the controversy by proposing that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. . . . the Israelis cannot bet on the infinite patience of the Palestinian people -- or the international community."

The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen also knows how to add a bit of balance to his op-ed pieces, but has been predictably even more forceful toward Israel than the paper's editorial writers. He accuses the prime minister of "unseemly bartering" with respect to the issue of the settlement freeze. He goes on to ask how can Israel dare stand against the international guarantees provided in a speech by President Obama, and his promise of a Palestinian state by September, 2011 backed up by comments made by representatives of Russia, the European Union and other United Nations member states. Cohen urges the American president to say, " to heck with your coalition, Bibi, bring in Kadima."

Cohen claims that the Palestinians have made clear their position:

"The 1967 borders plus or minus agreed land swaps, meaning a state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. In return, President Mahmoud Abbas has said, Palestinians will drop all "historical claims" and live alongside a secure Israel in peace."

Cohen may think that this is the Palestinian position, but he has left out the refugees. His piece does not mention them.

That is reason enough to assign Cohen to an asylum, or at least to raise the issue of his ignorance, sloppiness, or inclination to deceive.

Both Cohen and the New York Times editorial board are even handed enough to admit that the extremism of Palestinians in control of Gaza, and the stubbornness or timidity of those around Mahmoud Abbas are part of the explanation for the stall in negotiations. In my view, those are the 800 pound gorillas that dwarf the problem of the Israeli coalition. Why should Prime Minister Netanyahu or Kadima's leader Tzipi Livni strain to offer something to the Palestinians likely to be what Ehud Olmert offered more than a year ago, and Abbas dismissed as insufficient?

Is is not only the giants associated with the New York Times who lead me to say that there are worthies whose degree of political sanity makes Israelis appear both wise, coherent, and sane. There is also a friend among the commoners who provokes the same feelings.

We have been in touch over the issue of the boycott against Israeli products established by a food co-op in his home town. I responded to his report about his adversaries who were promoting the boycott with a comment that he ought to recognize anti-Semitism when he experienced it. He accused me of being a typical Israeli suffering from paranoia, and anxious to paint with the accusation of anti-Semitism anyone who criticized the country.

More recently he shared with me a report about continuing confrontations about the boycott. About one presentation he wrote

". . . the overall theme of his talk is that Jews (not just Israelis) are oppressors who claim they are innocent of any and all charges, they are colonialists who have no claim to the land and that they violate Jewish ethics. Interesting enough, he didn't address the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at all. He just preached that it's all the Jews' fault and stopped just short of saying there's a worldwide Jewish conspiracy . . . What we need are non-Jews in the community to speak up and I don't hear that happening."

When I reminded my friend that I had earlier used the term anti-Semites to describe his adversaries, he responded in the style of the New York Times

"You have little idea what is going on here. You don't begin to understand why many people around the world view Israelis as oppressors."

Maybe people who curse Jews are not anti-Semites, and Israel's behavior is the reason for their nastiness even if they do not say so.

Perhaps the world really is flat, and the light I see in the west is the sun rising.

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 03:36 AM