December 31, 2010

While I do not claim expertise in the history or politics of Great Britain, my impression is that the Munich Agreement of 1938, involving Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Hitler (" . . . peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.") is an icon of shame in that country. It represented great power pressure on the weak government of Czechoslovakia, and traded away part of another country's territory for the empty hope of peace. You find reference to the event under "appeasement" in the Oxford English Dictionary.

"Freely used in political contexts in the 20th century, and since 1938 often used disparagingly with allusion to the attempts at conciliation by concession made by Mr. Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, before the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939; by extension, any such policy of pacification by concession to an enemy."

The Economist is part of my Friday morning routine. I view it as the best news magazine in the English language. I usually excuse its tilt against Israel as not overly extreme, insofar as it is generally balanced with a reasonable assessment of Israel's options.

An article put on its website on December 29th, dealing with Israel, the Palestinians, and Barack Obama fell outside my parameters of tolerance. The Economist on this occasion is closer to the spirit of Neville Chamberlain than to that of Winston Churchill.

Fair enough is its warning that the failure of Obama's peace efforts has produced a fragile condition of no war and no peace. It is also fair to note that supplies of armaments to Hizbollah and Hamas add to the dangers, and raise the prospect of a regional war involving Syria and Iran, along with significant civilian casualties in Israel and elsewhere.

The item is fair to note that any peace achieved between Israel and the Palestinians will be incomplete.

"Iran, Hizbullah and sometimes Hamas say that they will never accept a Jewish state in the Middle East."

It is the next sentence that urges appeasement.

"it is the unending Israeli occupation that gives these rejectionists their oxygen. Give the Palestinians a state on the West Bank and it will become very much harder for the rejectionists to justify going to war."

The theme continues

"if Mr Obama fails, because the Palestinians have shown time and again that they will not fall silent while their rights are denied. The longer Israel keeps them stateless under military occupation, the lonelier it becomes--and the more it undermines its own identity as a liberal democracy."

The Economist accepts an outline of an agreement that is widely shared, including by many in the center of Israel's political spectrum.

"The outlines of such an agreement have been clear since Bill Clinton set out his "parameters" after the failure of the Camp David summit a decade ago. The border between Israel and a new Palestine would follow the pre-1967 line, with adjustments to accommodate some of the bigger border-hugging Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and land-swaps to compensate the Palestinians for those adjustments."

It also recognizes what has frustrated agreement.

". . . there is also much difficult detail to be filled in: how to make Jerusalem into a shared capital, settle the fate of the refugees and ensure that the West Bank will not become, as Gaza did, an advance base for war against Israel after Israeli forces withdraw."

Where is Palestinian responsibility in the copybook of The Economist?

The sensitivities of Palestinians and Israelis on the issues of Jerusalem (especially the Temple Mount) and refugees may be the hard kernels that prevent agreement. For The Economists and others to put the onus on Israel and what is said to be a settlement-obsessed government is to reinforce the Palestinian narrative that gives them a monopoly of suffering and justice. Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert racked up Palestinian refusals in response to far reaching efforts to reach agreement along the lines spelled out by President Clinton.

Demanding more from Israel without demanding flexibility from Palestinian may not be equivalent to Chamberlain's deal with Hitler, but it is appeasement.

With all of this, it is too early to give up entirely on The Economist. Another article from the same date gives high marks and a positive projection to Israel's economy.
Yet another provides a decent review of American blunders, frustrations, and limitations in the Middle East.
This item does bash Israel and ignores the need to press Palestinians, but it is impressive in touching the wide range of elements affecting the region, and those who worry about 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 05:28 AM
December 30, 2010

Should we focus on a president who is a convicted rapist, or the capacity of the judiciary to try him in isolation from a hyped media and produce what appears to be a thoroughly argued decision? It took more than an hour for the head judge to read it. The procedure has been erratic during the four years that have transpired since the formal beginning of a police investigation. Moshe Katsav may appeal this decision, and it can be more years before he begins whatever punishment the court may impose. Legal commentators are predicting something between four and sixteen years of incarceration.

He is not the only head of state (in Israel's case more a ceremonial figure than a power holder) who has been governed by his lower parts. Our younger children were teenagers when they learned about oral sex from the activities of another country's president. And stories about John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson are not all that different from what we know about Moshe Katsav.

Katsav did not manage his defense well. He first accepted and then rejected a plea bargain that would have him admitting to sexual harassment and a suspended sentence. He insisted that he had no sexual contact with any of the numerous women who charged otherwise, and lost his temper at a press conference. That produced a video clip shown time and again of his pointing and scowling at a prominent reporter, and shouting an accusation of witch hunt by the media.

Israel is among the majority of democracies that tries its cases with professional judges. They may not be able to limit entirely the influence of media coverage, but they avoid the circus that can surround a trial by jury. The court that found Katsav guilty was headed by an Arab, and included two women. They were united in accepting the testimony of a former subordinate of Katsav who claimed that he raped her on two occasions, and found his efforts to defend himself before the public (including a campaign to defame his accusers) and during the trial to be fabricated and unconvincing.

Even more distressing than one oversexed politician was the crisis that filled Israel's media during the days before attention went to the reading of the verdict about Katsav and the commentary surrounding it.

Avi Cohen was more than another motorcyclist who died as the result of a traffic accident. He was a star athlete who graduated from the first league of Israeli football to one of England's leading teams. He was at the top of the news throughout the week following his accident. His casket lay in state on a football field, and thousands marched behind his body on the way to burial.

Although he had signed on to a program offering his organs for transplant, the religious establishment showed one of its darker sides in pressuring the family to reject the physicians' requests for organ donation, and their arguments that there is no hope after brain death. Rabbis and yeshiva students speaking for them predicted a miracle. The cessation of brain activity was not final. He would be on his feet and walking within a week. It would be murder to take his organs. A friend from his playing days who had become a "born again Jew" (חוזר לתשובה) joined those insisting that the family must refuse organ donation.

Israel is a significant laggard in organ donations, and the rabbinate in prominent in the explanation. Leading rabbis have accepted the concept of brain death, but others are adamant in their opposition to anything other than a cessation of breathing and the heart. Rabbis have said that they accept the end of brain activity as the end of life, but they have waffled or denied their own comments when presented with the staunch opinions of other rabbis. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis lead the campaign against donation, but they have no problem with their followers accepting organs.

Another reason to condemn Israel for a political system that provides religious parties with an occasional veto on important issues?

It does not help that the politician serving as Minister of Health is ultra-Orthodox. (Actually he is deputy minister serving in the absence of a minister, because the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox have their own reasons for refusing the position of minister, but the difference is not important.) He has worked against the construction of a hospital extension on land that he perceived to be an ancient Jewish burial ground (overturned after a lengthy campaign) and to institute free dental care for children within the programs of the HMOs. That would serve the large and poor families of the ultra-Orthodox, but may be beyond the capacity of the country's dentists.

It is easier to accuse religious Jews of ruining Israel than to do something about it. The issue is confused by significant differences between the politics associated with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, as well as between Ashkenazi and Sephardi ultra-Orthodox, and disputes among the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox.

Israel is a democracy. The religious enjoy the same rights to express themselves and vote as others. Moreover, the ultra-Orthodox in particular are inclined to accept the leadership of their rabbis. They vote at greater rates than other Israelis, and typically in disciplined blocs. Secular Jews of Israel and those overseas who feel some responsibility for the country have cursed the status quo and offered their suggestions to reform the electoral system, and the way the parliament chooses the government. Remaining Jewish and democratic has contributed to six decades of tense tranquility, but offers no clear path to solving the problems of Judaism.

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 09:03 AM
December 29, 2010
What would Grandma think?

There is more evidence that Israel is not a perfect society.

The headline on page 2 of Ha'aretz reports that 44 percent of the country's Jews agree with the rabbis who urge them not to rent or sell apartments to Arabs. According to details in the story, however, 48 percent oppose the rabbis on this point.

Thus is appears that the Jewish population of Israel is closer to the norms of honesty and multiculturalism than the editors of the most prominent left of center newspaper.

Other information coming out of the same survey shows that 48 percent oppose a law that would enable selection committees of small communities to pass on applications from prospective residents. This is a procedure used to screen families for their suitability. It has been criticized for keeping out Arabs who otherwise meet the community's profile on income, education, and professional status. Only 40 percent of the survey support the law that would authorize selection committees.

The same article reports that 54 percent of Israelis support the idea of conversations with Hamas, and only 41 percent oppose. However, 57 percent think that a majority of Israelis oppose such conversations. And 52 percent support the kind of arrangements with the Palestinians identified with the initiative of Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak in 2000.

On the other hand, 55 percent support a proposal requiring prospective citizens to endorse Israel as a Jewish and democratic country. Critics from within and outside of Israel have criticized this proposal as anti-liberal and anti-democratic.

Those interested in a complete report of the survey, in Hebrew, can click on

The full survey indicates that 58 percent of Israeli Jews want to end the dispute with the Palestinians, but only 38 percent are willing to compromise on the issue of Jerusalem, and only 36 percent on the issue of refugees.

Elsewhere in the same edition of Ha'aretz is a report that 30 rebbetzins (wives of rabbis, not to be confused with female rabbis) signed a letter urging Jewish women to stay away from Arab men. Reports are that young men with the name of Yusuf and Musa are calling themselves Yosi and Moshe, and inducing nice Jewish girls to do what Grandma would oppose. (According to the Jerusalem Post, only 27 rebbetzins issued such a call, but I will let someone else sort out the discrepancy.)

One hears occasional stories of Arab-Jewish coupling, but the fingers of one hand may be sufficient to count the percentage involved. Overseas, it would be necessary to remove one's footware and count all the digits to approach even one-half the percentage of Jewish-Gentile marriages.

Neither grandmothers nor rebbitzins appear to be as important as personal choice in affecting the choices made by Jewish women or men.

Rabbis' wives play a formal role in Israeli marriage procedures. Once the Rabbinate clears both parties for their credentials as Jews and issues a license, the prospective bride is expected to visit a rebbetzin for counselling, and then dip herself in a mikva. The rebbetzin may provide lessons in anatomy to those in need, as well as instruction in the proper behaviors of a Jewish wife ranging across the topics of sex and the menstrual cycle, kashrut, hygiene, submission or cooperation, and child care. Some rabbis may require certificates to indicate that the bride has listened and dipped herself before performing a marriage ceremony, but there are rabbis who overlook these requirements.

Jewish culture has long supported norms of both sexual freedom and abstention before marriage. There is no requirement that a prospective bride produce a certificate of virginity for either the groom or the rabbi who will wed the couple. There is an event after the ceremony under the canopy (chupah) when the bride and groom spend some moments in a closed room. For religious couples, this may be the first time they have been alone. One hears stories of a bloody sheet as part of Arab ceremonies, but none that I have heard on our side of the street.

There are indications that 20 percent of Jewish couples skip these rituals altogether and tie their knot in a municipal office outside of the country.

Other news is that Mahmoud Abbas is in Brasilia for the opening of the new Palestinian Embassy. Still no reports of diplomats from South America or anywhere else raising their flags over an Embassy in Jerusalem, and calling it the capital of Palestine.

The tragedy of the week began with a road accident that injured a 50 year old former soccer star while he was riding on his motorcycle. His head injury was serious, and he reached the status of brain death within a few days. The man himself had signed a statement indicating intentions to contribute his organs in such an event, but rabbis and others approached the family, led them to hope for a miracle, and not to consider the man dead until his heart stopped beating. So a man who was strong and healthy until his accident, and could have kept others alive, will be buried with all his organs.

There is enough happening to excite one's concern or relief, to make one rely more or less on the reportage of Israel's most prestigious newspaper, to please or worry Grandma, and to bring one closer or further away from religious authorities.

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 03:09 AM
December 25, 2010
In the spirit of Christmas

Mahmoud Abbas has marked the Christmas season by proclaiming once again that he will permit no Israelis in his State of Palestine. In an earlier version he said that he would permit no Jews, but handlers had him revise his comments in a direction thought to be politically correct.

The recognition of his state is not sweeping the world, but is moving across South America. Ecuador has joined Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia in recognizing a Palestinian state with the borders of 1967 and its capital in Jerusalem.

So far there are no reports of frock-clothed ambassadors wandering the streets of this city with credentials in hand, looking for the Palestinian Presidential Mansion, or a place to establish an embassy.

The Palestinian who serves as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, called for understanding between Jews and Muslims, as well as a spirit of peace between the faithful of all the monotheistic religions.

One of the Patriarch's monsignors should whisper to Mahmoud Abbas that he is not serving the aspirations of the Church by comments about expelling Jews or Israelis.

Abbas' handlers might also advise him that talking about a Palestine that is Judenrein is not the way to calm Israeli Arabs who worry about Jewish politicians who would transfer them and their towns to Palestine.

There are also signs of cooperation. One cannot be certain if the glass is half-full, or even one-tenth full, but not everything rings like the empty bombast of Mahmoud Abbas or those governments of South America.

When I arrived at the university gym on Thursday, I encountered a number of well padded young men sitting in the lobby. Their black jackets carried the word SECURITY, and they talked among themselves in Arabic.

Had we lost a war I hadn't heard about? I found the gym's security person, who speaks Hebrew with the accent of an Arab, and asked about the newcomers. He told me that they were security personnel employed by the United Nations, at the gym for a series of lessons in first aid.

More Israeli Arab women, and most likely those of the West Bank, are pursuing higher education. That should advance economic development as well as limit family size, and improve understanding across cultural borders. No doubt some of the educated women will sign up as suicide bombers, but the general picture is that their education is good for us all. Israeli high-tech firms are outsourcing work not only to India, but also to Ramallah. And there are joint ventures between high tech firms of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, and those of Nazareth.

While walking to the university I encounter Arab women dressed like their Jewish counterparts. I can identify them ethnically only if I hear them speaking Arabic. Somewhat worrisome is that Israeli Arabs are moving rightward on the dimension of religiosity. More young women are covering their heads. A friend who teaches literature told me of an Arab student whose religious father forced him to leave the university in order to avoid studying alongside women. (I asked the teacher if she had any ultra-Orthodox students. My message was clear, and her answer as expected.)

Rockets are still coming out of Gaza. A Hamas spokesman with his face wrapped in a keffiyeh, weighed down with a rifle and several bandoleers of ammunition, talking in front many microphones, threatened Israel with destruction. The IDF's messages in return have not been verbal. Hardly a day goes by without an event or an attempt at violence traced to the West Bank or Arab communities of Israel.

There are also restive Jews. The rabbinical ruling against renting or selling apartments to non-Jews provoked counter statements by equally distinguished rabbis, but also demonstrations against providing housing in Jewish neighborhoods for Arabs or for the Africans who come over the border with Sinai.

It was about 2000 years ago when a young Jew joined others of his generation in preaching the message of the Hebrew prophets. It was a troubled period leading up to a civil war and rebellion against Rome. Seven to eight hundred years earlier Isaiah expressed the word of the Lord that nations "will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4).

We're still waiting.

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 11:51 AM
December 22, 2010
So far, nothing too exciting

There has been some unpleasantness close to the border with Gaza. Rocket and mortar attacks have increased, as have Israeli retaliations. Or maybe Israeli retaliations have brought an increase in rocket and mortar attacks. Israeli officials claim the former; Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza claim the latter, perhaps in an effort to claim--contrary to reality--that Palestinians are united against a common enemy. Those who follow Wikileaks may have noticed that the West Bank leadership urged Israel to mount a severe attack against Gaza, but the Americans were not supposed to publicize that detail.

One of this week's rockets fell close to a kindergarten just as the children were arriving. A young woman was scratched by flying pieces of metal, and the children required calming.

These rockets cannot be aimed with any precision. Many of them never make it out of Gaza, and they may do more damage to Palestinians than to Israelis. If this one fell a few meters in the wrong direction, it could have brought about the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of Gazans, more destruction, and the bouncing of rubble still left over from 2009.

Israeli politicians, including several noted for their moderation, have warned that persistent rocket and mortar attacks can bring an operation on the order of those three weeks.

Commentators are saying that neither Hamas nor Israel want an escalation. Israelis officials are saying that Hamas may not have fired these rockets, but it acquires responsibility by tolerating their firing by groups even more militant.

Why now?

Perhaps it comes in response to the failure of Israel and Palestinians to keep even the pretense of moving to serious negotiations, and the lessening of American involvement.

This rational explanation fits the Palestinian narrative that it is Israel who is responsible for the breakdown of negotiations and the risk of violence. However, that is an explanation offered by the Fatah allies of Mahmoud Abbas, who Hamas and other Gazan groups attack for even approaching negotiations with the Zionists.

Rationality may have nothing to do with the increase in attacks. They reflect the numerous factions within the Palestinian community, the intensity of those who are light years away from accommodating themselves to Jews or Israel, and their tendency to fight among themselves when they are not fighting against Israel. Or they may result from simple mechanisms of organizational competition. In order to remain prominent in the cacophony of Palestine, each gang requires a purpose and a forceful leader. Action attracts financial support and recruits willing to sacrifice themselves for the group's view of Palestinian destiny.

So far we are within a familiar ritual. We see Israeli police and military personnel picking up the remnants of shells against the background of empty fields or housing, street scenes, and onlookers; craters created in Gaza, ambulances racing to pick up the wounded, and masses of Gazans walking to a cemetery behind a body rocking from side to side on a stretcher; pledges to destroy Israel by a rifle waving masked man who claims credit for recent attacks and pledges further destruction until Israel disappears; announcements of Israel's protest to the United Nations and Palestinian protests to the same organization, with their emphasis on the Human Rights Commission; threats of escalation from Israelis and Palestinians.

We may be some distance from the exhaustion of the Israel's patience, but it is never easy to predict the movement from ongoing absorption of attacks to implementing a plan of massive retaliation. The decision may come from the pressure brought about by a continued rain of several rockets per day, or more quickly from one rocket that falls on a school, kindergarten, or shopping center.

Proportionality is the theme of Israeli security only to the point when the government decides on something else.

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 11:37 AM
December 20, 2010
Another Palestinian misstep, or two.

The headline is upbeat: "Palestinian Leader Has 60 Israelis to Lunch." The picture features Mahmoud Abbas alongside Amram Mitzna, a former head of the Labor Party. Both seem pleased. The article mentions individuals concerned with the Geneva Initiative, "a group of Israeli and Palestinian figures who negotiated an unofficial blueprint for a permanent peace accord in 2003." It also notes that individuals from the centrist Kadima Party attended, along with a member of "the conservative-leaning Likud Party; a former member of Parliament from Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party; and some representatives of ultra-Orthodox news media."

"Abbas said that his leadership had ruled out violence and was committed to resolving the conflict through peace talks . . .We believe, ladies and gentlemen, in peace through negotiations only. . . He added that he has eight grandchildren, and that he wants a peaceful life for them. On the bus back to Jerusalem, Mr. Mitzna said the meeting proved to anyone who wants to know if there is a partner on the other side that there is one."

Good sign, or not good enough?

One should not doubt the good intentions of the Palestinian leader or the Israelis who accepted his invitation. However, it is fair to suggest that Abbas was not aiming at the targets appropriate to his intentions.

Amram Mitzna is a retired general who came to public attention for criticizing the management of the 1982 war in Lebanon, entered politics, had a term as mayor of Haifa, came on as a savior of the Labor Party but quit after losing a national election and in the process annoyed the party establishment, remained in the political desert for several years, and returned to a media-successful period as head of Yeruham. Yeruham is one of the poster places for down at the heels poor Jewish communities in the Negev. Those of you not familiar with Israel's social geography might think of Chelm or Fall River.

Now Mitna is considering offers from individuals in Labor, Meretz, and those who want him to create a new party. Meretz is at its low point of three Knesset Members, and those in the left wing of the Labor Party who may be interested in Mitzna account for perhaps six of the party's 13 member Knesset delegation. The geniuses who are asking Mitzna to create a new party would be seeking votes from the few left-wing Israelis still in the Meretz or Labor camps.

Participants in the Geneva Initiative come from the same sector of Israeli politics. Former Foreign Minister Yosi Beilin is the leading figure, and former head of the IDF general staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak is also prominent (testifying the moderation that may prevail at the top of the IDF). The Initiative's web site features pictures of Palestinians who have signed on. The point is that Israel has partners, although some of the Palestinians have denied accepting concessions that Israeli participants claimed to achieve in their non-official discussions.

Those wanting more information on the Geneva Initiative, or inclined to join the European Union and NGO's in supporting its activities can click on

No doubt there are Israeli Jews clustered around the Geneva Initiative or even further to the left. Amira Hass and Gideon Levy frequently make their mark in the daily Ha'aretz, and some of my academic colleagues add their voices. But political weight? They are nowhere near the capacity of the 74 member government coalition, even if we discount that number for the Labor MK's who are always talking about leaving.

The appeal of this segment of Israeli politics for Mahmoud Abbas is that he can invite prominent figures to lunch in Ramallah, speak about his peaceful intentions, and skip over the subject of Palestinian compromises on the sensitive subjects of refugees, borders, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the nagging issues of Gaza and Hamas. The New York Times may applaud his efforts and the willingness of Israelis to join the ceremony, but that is not the way to make peace with Israel.

The newspaper's internet edition appended a short story to the tail end of the article about the meeting. It reported that two Americans had been attacked and one killed by Arabs near the village of Mata. That is near the Valley of Elah, where David made an impression on history and the forehead of Goliath. Varda and I used to walk in the area with our now overaged and defunct hiking group. One of our group raised llamas in the village of Mata, and told us of having to be on guard against thieves from nearby Arab villages. The area has a bloody history as the site of the lamed hey massacre. We never felt threatened during our hikes, but we always went with a group that ranged from 15 to about 30, and some were armed.

One should neither exaggerate nor underestimate the significance of the recent killing. Something like that is not unusual. It may be no more important than similar tragedies of innocent outsiders who wander into the wrong neighborhoods of American or European cities. On the other hand, such incidents get attention from the Israeli media, add to the distrust of Arabs, and suspicion about the reliability of peace-speakers who claim to be their leaders.

The secret of peace lies somewhere in the Israeli government. Currently it is a bit to the right of center, but not beyond the reach of Palestinians willing to ratchet down from their uncompromising demands. The secret does not lie with Amram Mitzna, the Geneva Initiative, the American White House, the United Nations, or the European Union.
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 01:44 AM
December 16, 2010
The wisdom of John Mearsheimer

A friend provoked this note by sending me a video clip of a speech by Professor John J. Mearsheimer before a gathering of the Jerusalem Fund. Mearsheimer is a University of Chicago political scientist best know for his publications with Stephen Walt (Harvard) on the Israel lobby in the United States. The Jerusalem Fund is a Palestinian operation that seeks its niche by sponsoring lectures and other cultural events in its home town of Washington, D.C. It may be aping the Jerusalem Foundation. Teddy Kollek created that in the 1960s. Since then the Jerusalem Foundation has created thousands of projects ranging from neighborhood parks to theaters, museums, and medical facilities that serve Jews, Arabs, and many others.

In this lecture, Measheimer reinforces his connection with the Palestinian audience by repeatedly using the term "occupied territories" (which largely disappeared from reality with the Oslo Accords of 1993) and the left wing four letter canard of "apartheid." A prominent element of his message is that Israel is doing what it can to thwart the two-state solution, and as a result Israel is likely to suffer the one-state solution where Palestinians acquire a majority. That is another part of the left-wing mantra, which skips over the process by which the heavily armed Israel, with its own allies in Europe and North America, would be required to accept responsibility for maybe four million Palestinians and untold numbers of relatives and descendants who might arrive from elsewhere.

"World opinion" is the club of Measheimer and other leftists, but world opinion has shown that it lacks a capacity to deal with nuclear armed North Korea and several other knotty problems, including stubborn Israelis. For those wanting to sit through Measheimer's lecture, read a transcript, or contribute to the Jerusalem Fund, they can begin by clicking on:

One can sneer at Measheimer's embedding himself in the Palestinian narrative, but there are several reasons to avoid the temptation.

His service as a tool of Palestinian politics is preferable to Palestinian violence.

The politics of Israel and its friends are not always more admirable. My category of Jewish junk is filled with the rantings of people who are mirror images of Measheimer and his friends.

It may be necessary to hold one's nose to get through the symbolism of Measheimer's terminology and ignore his politically attuned superficiality, but there are kernels worthy of attention. Most important is his message that Palestinian must avoid violence, and his uncertainty as to whether they can adhere to his prescription due to their their various factions and chronic infighting. He says that a return to anything like the most recent intifada may kill Palestine. It will cost them the support in western countries that they have acquired, and which is essential for achieving their state. It may also lead Israel to destroy whatever the Palestinians have achieved, and force the mass of Palestinians out of Palestine.

This is a message that Measheimer may have picked up from Israeli media. It is consistent with what we hear about IDF intentions with respect to Lebanon or Gaza. What those areas received in 2006 and 2009 by way of damage and casualties will be minor compared to what will happen if they violate the tense standoff that has prevailed in the north and south since those times.

It is not certain if this is simple bombast meant to keep the enemy's weapons in their hiding places, whether they are real intentions, and whether Israel's political leadership will order the IDF to do what it can do. It may be nothing more than verbal warfare meant to frighten. Or it may come to be if Israel's enemies act as if their own troops and munitions can be decisive.

Let me apologize for repeating my own favorite way of coping with this insoluble problem. My ideal is an autonomous Palestinian area, outside of Israel, without the status of a state. It would resemble the Kurdish area in northern Iraq, and the Basque and Catalonian areas of Spain. I know that those regions are part of Spain, and that Basques and Catalonians are citizens with the right to vote. The Palestinian non-state autonomous region would be different, more or less like the example Palestinians have already created in Gaza.

Will the world tolerate such an arrangement?

Perhaps after the Obama obsession passes from the scene. It appears that Arab regimes are more worried about Iran than the details of how the Palestinians care for themselves.

Would such an arrangement be permanent?

"Permanent" is a long time.

The friend who started this note by sending me the Measheimer video responded to me with a report from his travels in the Basque area of Spain. According to his sources, the older adults may speak Basque, but the younger ones speak Spanish.

He reminds me of the worry I have heard from Israeli Arabs, that their educated children have a better command of Hebrew than Arabic.

"Permanent" is too long for certainty.

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 10:08 PM
December 14, 2010
Religion in the Jewish state

Every once in a while something occurs to remind us that we are living in a Jewish country.

Currently there are two moderate flaps, and one minor curiosity. Never a major flap that I can recall. Religion is not that important for most Israeli Jews.

The qualifier is important. For some, religion is the center of life, and the reason for being here. It is also important to note that for many Israelis, not being religious does not detract from the importance of being Jews. Among the appeals of Israel is that it allows a Jew to enjoy a cultural identity without prolonged rituals.

The borders between religion and culture are imprecise. While only about 10 percent of the Jewish population defines itself as religious (i.e., Orthodox) and another 10 percent ultra-Orthodox (Haredi), research has found that a majority think of Friday evening as a special time for a family dinner, participate in a Passover Seder, and fast on Yom Kippur.

Currently the media is covering the halachic (religious law) ruling endorsed by a number of rabbis forbidding the sale or renting of property to non-Jews, and parliamentary struggles over conversions to Judaism associated with an IDF program for soldiers who wish to convert, and another proposal to give the State Rabbinate a monopoly of conversion. Each of these items is complex, arcane, and touches on organizational jealousies as well as controversial readings of religious law.

Each of these also qualifies as a tempest, but in a teapot. The prominent participants are rabbis, Knesset members of religious parties, secular politicians and media personalities who defend their own turf, or their sense of what is right against the rabbis.

Arab politicians speak up against the rabbis who would forbid sales or rentals of apartments to non-Jews.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party with a sizable number of constituents from the former Soviet Union not recognized as halachic Jews, campaigns to facilitate conversions against rabbis who are intensely suspicious of outsiders.

The small number of Reform and Conservative rabbis living in Israel, along with their overseas colleagues weigh in against anything that would add further language that smacks of discrimination against their kinds of Judaism.

There are also Orthodox rabbis against each of these initiatives. Some argue with their colleagues' reading of religious doctrine, or emphasize those portions of doctrine that forbid the incitement of divisions among Jews or between Jews and Gentiles.

One can view all of these proposals and counter proposals, and just about everything that appears to be religious restrictions, as having no tangible impact on anyone who does not choose to ascribe to them. That is, Israeli Jews who wish to live according to religious law and rabbinical interpretations may be constrained and inconvenienced in major ways by laws enacted at the behest of religious parties and the rulings of rabbis. Those who object to religious provisions can live as they wish.

The minor curiosity is a squabble involving a senior rabbi of a Breslev congregation, his son and grandson, over who should be ruling the congregation and controlling its assets. Leadership struggles erupt occasionally in ultra-Orthodox congregations, and provide commentators an opportunity to say what they think they know about a community as closed to outsiders as a distant tribe on a small tropic island.

Part of the distance between insiders and the rest of us results from aged rabbis who do not speak clearly, and whose allusions are to concepts foreign to those without considerable religious education. Whenever their comments are recorded and broadcast, it may be necessary to run a script of their Hebrew along the bottom of the screen, and to allow one of their aides to explain what the revered sage meant to say in language that is intelligible and inoffensive.

A Jew cannot marry a non-Jew in Israel. However, Cyprus is only 35 minutes away, and the State of Israel recognizes marriages performed elsewhere. A couple can live together without the formal endorsement of any religious or secular authorities. The State recognizes informal relationships, protects the rights of each partner and their children. The State recognizes divorces conducted elsewhere, and secular courts offer their services in the case of disputes over assets.

Some claim that a third or more of immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not halachic Jews, mostly on account of lacking a Jewish mother. Who cares? Some of the immigrants or their children do care, and pursue a conversion. In that case they enter the domain supervised by rabbis and religious politicians, and may be caught up in the competition between rabbis who will not recognize conversions that they consider inadequate.

For those non-halachic Jews who do not care to convert (perhaps the majority of those not recognized as halachic Jews), they can live as Israelis without being designated officially as Jews. Most people will not know or care about their status. Cyprus or and other foreign sites provide options for marriage or divorce. Religious Jews would have trouble accepting non-halachic Jews as family members, but religious Jews would have trouble accepting as son- or daughter-in-law any Jew with halachic criteria who is not religious in the same way as they are. Ultra-Orthodox families would also have trouble accepting an Orthodox Jew who is not a member of their ultra-Orthodox congregation. And most Israeli Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox would not look for marriage partners among the ultra-Orthodox.

The status of individuals converted to Judaism by Reform or Conservative rabbis outside of Israel is similar. They may suffer a feeling of being second class Jews in Israel, or not recognized as Jews at all. But their status is hardly different from secular Jews who seek acceptance by Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox families for whom religious lineage is important for any close association. Jews who become religious and join an ultra-Orthodox congregation, dress and pray according to the congregation's custom, are likely to feel themselves treated as different, and not worthy of close association or access to a marriage partner from within the inner circle.

Again, the constraints of religious law and custom are avoidable for those who are not religious.

One reads proclamations of banishment directed against individuals on the placards posted in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. The punishment of banishment is severe, but only for those who wish to be part of the community that has expelled them.

Judaic doctrine is prominent in the lineage of Christian concerns with abortion and homosexuality, and a story of Noah stands somewhere among the reasons for Protestant opposition to alcohol. Here it is not difficult for an Israeli woman to arrange an abortion in a public hospital, the IDF's posture on homosexuals is "None of our business," and it is conventional to begin a festive meal by blessing the fruit of the vine.

If we wish to provoke a religious friend we may quote that passage where David says of his deceased friend Jonathan, "Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women." (2 Samuel 1:25-27)

The response from a religious Jew is likely to be that David was not talking about romantic love, but the love of brothers.

Judaism is many things, with an inclination to argument being one of them. A Jew should not be surprised at challenges to any of the above. The advantage to a tribal community is that membership is not dependent on belief, or holding a particular posture. Antagonists can accuse one another of not being proper Jews, but any statement that a Jew is not a Jew lacks significance. And rest assured that I will not question the halachic status of any who choose to quarrel.

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 10:17 AM
December 11, 2010
May God Bless and Keep the President of the United States

I admit to predispositions. The news about Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay recognizing Palestine reached a brain that spent half its life in the United States, and learned that anything south of the Rio Grande is less than upstanding or reliable. The latest Mexican civil war reinforces the image, even though this one is about supplying drugs to Americans. It's what the British call the wogs: most everyone over the Channel, south of Holland and Germany, and west of Poland. Or what the Germans call the untermenschen.

(I know the history of that word. Here the locals consider me an Anglo-Saxon. I am less valued than the folks who came from Eastern Europe before 1970, providing that they originated north of Romania. No one during the first half of my life called me an Anglo-Saxon. And the latest news from the Nixon archives leaves me wondering if he would view me as an undesirable Jew or an Israeli worthy of admiration. My vote against George McGovern might inch me over Nixon's wavy line, but his comments about Kissinger do not give me a great deal of comfort.)

None of the above leads me to expect a political earthquake as a result of those Latin Americans. The movement may spread, but it will take a lot more for us to move from French Hill. And I would not recommend any expectations for our neighbors in Issaweea. Their most recent uppityness cost them several days intensive visits from the Border Police, the Israel gendarmerie not noted for gentleness.

The chain of events that I see as leading to the Latin American recognition of Palestine begins in the White House. All was reasonably well in the West Bank and Israel until President Obama announced his mission to bring his view of peace to the Middle East within a year. He angered the Israelis with a demand about Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem that led me to speak with Varda about new curtains, and prodded the Palestinians away from what was looking like a good effort to develop the West Bank and deal with violent gangs that threatened Palestinians as well as Israelis. If the Americans were demanding an end to construction in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the Palestinians could expect no less as a price for talking with Israelis.

Forced into a peace process by American aspirations for a place in the Paradise reserved for politicians who have done good, Palestinians and Israelis came to the same dead ends they have known for a century. Wisdom would advise avoiding the process, but what can the locals do in this distant and tiny province of the American empire? The blessing for the Czar that appears in Fiddler on the Roof remains appropriate. May God bless and keep the Czar... far away from us.

The Jews of Israel may be more powerful than those of Anatevka, but not powerful enough to ignore Barack Obama while he remains a resident of the White House. And in case you haven't noticed, the Palestinians are even weaker than us.

Is it any more than a game that has been played by Israeli and Palestinian leaders?

No doubt there are Israelis and Palestinians who think it is possible, and work hard to achieve what others see as unachievable. Some Israelis and Palestinians are doing nothing more than paying lip service, or going through the motions in order to avoid offending the world's most powerful office holder. Both Israelis and Palestinians owe a great deal to American decency and generosity, and some of that lip service has a degree of genuineness. The good folks who produce Ha'aretz may be among those who seriously aspire to a declared peace. Their headline this morning, "Hillary Clinton: Decide Now on Permanent Borders" may one day hang in a museum, but it seems more likely to be wrapping for this evening's garbage.

The dynamics of Israeli politics include a role for the settlers, and a disinclination to weigh heavily on them in the absence of a real opportunity for an agreement with the Palestinians.

The dynamics of Palestinians have produced a range of statements that include Mahmoud Abbas' latest threat to resign and dismantle the Palestine National Authority, another threat to cancel the Oslo Accords and cease the campaign against terrorism, and blaming Israel for the failure of negotiations and moving to obtain international recognition of a Palestinian state with pre-1967 borders and a capital in Jerusalem.

The dynamics of the near and distant future are beyond our capacity to project with certainty. Tension is more certain than either political or military action. Not far away are Iran, Syria, Hizbollah, Hamas, and restive Palestinians in the West Bank, including those across the street in Issaweea. The trigger of something unpleasant can come from a routine incident like a traffic accident or an arrest that goes bad, or Hizbollah's reaction against an international accusation that its people killed Rafik Harari. Among the unpleasantness is the denunciation of Israeli settler activity signed by prominent Europeans, and the convenience of blaming Prime Minister Netanyahu for the failure of the American peace campaign. Also in the air is a dispute among rabbis as to whether religious law does or does not forbid the selling or renting property to Arabs and other non-Jews.

The suicide bombing in Stockholm may lead some Europeans to lessen their pressure on us, or others to appeasement of Islam.

Life is good. We hope for better. The gates of Paradise are not yet on our horizon, Or anyone else's.

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 09:47 PM
December 10, 2010

It is easy to blame Benyamin Netanyahu's right of center coalition for the failure of the American peace initiative. Examined in isolation, it seems clear that five parties with 61 seats in the 120 member Knesset are standing in the way of that 90 day extension of the building freeze, and every other concession holding up a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conundrum. Within the coalition, but somewhat to the left of center, is the Labor Party, with another 13 seats in the Knesset. Some of those 13 MKs are far to the left, and a constant irritant to the Prime Minister and the head of the Labor Party. Labor Party head Ehud Barak is nothing like an ideological leftist or peacenik. As Defense Minister, he may be Netanyahu's closest partner in making policy for defense and foreign affairs.

Only a bit beneath the surface one can find the reason for Israel's right of center government. Here the picture is nothing like the portrayal convenient to many outsiders, and some Israelis, who like to think as simply as possible. Frustration at Palestinian refusal to compromise is the core of the right wing appeal to many Israelis. There is also an infrastructure of distrust of Arabs among substantial sectors of the population. One can find that among religious Israelis, those who came in the most recent 20 years from the former Soviet Union, and those whose roots are in Muslim countries of the Middle East. All told those may amount to a majority of the population. Yet polls typically show a majority of Israelis willing to compromise. To understand the puzzle, one should focus on Israelis willing to compromise, but not finding that Palestinians share their willingness. The Palestinian narrative that grants themselves a monopoly of suffering and justice does not wash with people who have lived with a more balanced history from 1948 onward, and whose governments have offered a great deal in efforts to get Palestinians to say something other than No.

Anyone familiar with the story of David and Goliath can appreciate the Palestinian appeal to communities that have not lived Israel's history. Israelis who insist on continuing to build beyond the security barrier that can mark a reasonable national boundary add to the view that it is grasping Jews who are at the heart of the problem. Perhaps Netanyahu's own inner feelings, and those of coalition partners further to the right make it difficult to restrain actions that do not play well in international media. Yet no democracy attains absolute harmony or control. Germany has its skin heads, the United States its Tea Parties, and Israel its religious nationalists. Without firmer signs of Palestinian willingness to achieve less than its full narrative, no Israeli government from 1967 onward has been willing to act with a strong hand on those committed to expanding the settlements.

For those wanting to find blame on the Israeli side of things, there it is. But it is only part of the story.

The Israel-Palestinian conundrum is just that: a problem without an apparent solution. It has been around, with variations in details, since that decision of the British government in 1917:

"His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

Squaring a "national home for the Jewish people" without prejudicing the "rights of existing non-Jewish communities" has foiled solution-seekers for close to a century. The Obama administration has yet to find the magic that eluded several previous efforts of British, American, and Israeli peace-seekers.

Those who refuse to give up may start with a bit of modesty as they approach a task others have not dealt with successfully. Anyone who can find modesty in the current occupants of the White House or its underlings in the State Department should send an immediate note to my in-box.

An article in the most recent Economist includes a few nasty swipes at the Israeli coalition, but also describes developments in the West Bank that justify patience. Economic development, improved security, and a concern to sit on Palestinians prone to violence has been helpful for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.

"Come back later" is the Economist's headline for its article on Israel and the Palestinians. It implies that leaving things alone is wiser than pushing for a grand resolution that has evaded a century of work..

Another story in the same issue of Economist describes a weightier problem on the Obama agenda. China is more likely to be the gorilla in the living room than these tiny specks in the Middle East.

Other items in the Economist and just about every other newspaper of renown describes the Wikileaks as telling a story of an American foreign policy machine that is anything but smooth running. The same material provides ample testimony that Iran and Sunni-Shiite tensions are every bit as threatening to the Middle East, oil, and all the rest as the unresolved aspirations of the Palestinians. American efforts to claim that Israel must give more to the Palestinians in order to ransom world peace are naive or disingenuous. The muddles over implementation of that 2,000 page health reform suggest that the administration also has something to learn about domestic politics.

What Obama, Clinton and associates need--at least for a policy toward Israel and Palestine--is best supplied by German. Sitzfleisch is a capacity to sit still and think, without being constantly on the move. Valium might help, or some more up to date remedy for hyper-activity.

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 12:38 AM
December 07, 2010
So what else is new?

Only a day after the fire, and in the midst of haggling over responsibility, another sack of something plopped onto our table.

When I first looked at my computer screen this morning, the article in the most prominent upper left hand corner of the New York Times web site was headlined "U.S. Drops Bid to Sway Israel on Settlements," Its opening paragraph put the blame squarely on Israel.

"After three weeks of fruitless haggling with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Obama administration has given up its effort to persuade the Israeli government to freeze construction of Jewish settlements for 90 days."

Readers who continue further will notice that the story is more complicated. It describes "another setback in what has proved to be a star-crossed campaign by President Obama." The administration is conceding that its conception of a 90 freeze "would not have produced the progress on core issues that the United States originally had sought."

An American with experience as a peace negotiator praises the administration for recognizing what it should have known.

"Wisely, in my view, the administration is bending to reality. . . The most likely scenario is that this moratorium was going to buy them a short reprieve, and was then going to plunge them into the same crisis they were in before."

American officials are flatly denying the suggestion of Defense Minister Ehud Barak that "the United States was halting its effort because it was preoccupied with the fallout from leaks of confidential diplomatic cables."

That may free the New York Times from any accusation that its publication of Wikileaks has kept the State Department from important tasks.

A former ambassador to Israel reinforced the line of the New York Times that Netanyahu could not get "his cabinet to buy into it without attaching conditions to it that were unacceptable to Washington." Then the next paragraph notes that the Palestinians share responsibility for the stalemate.

"the Palestinians also shifted their position, insisting that a settlement freeze must include East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank. Israel's initial 10-month moratorium included only the West Bank. The United States never asked Mr. Netanyahu to expand it to Jerusalem . . . "

I recall that the United States did ask Israel to freeze things in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. I urged Varda not to buy new curtains for our French Hill apartment that lacked a designation of kashrut by the Obama Rabbinate. But who am I to argue with the New York Times' report of what happened, or with Varda's management of our apartment?

As in the case of the fire, and other events that deserve the label of crisis, there is enough material to put the blame here, there, or elsewhere, and enough politicians and commentators who know how to play the game.

Will this shape the future, or simply be another entry into the long list of efforts to deal with things left over from the Balfour Declaration?

My view of history is that the Jews of Israel are better off than any other community of Jews, in terms of their material welfare and capacity to shape their own destiny. Varda's father used to say the same about the Weimar Republic, and we know what came next. Those who are inclined to glorify the Kingdom of the Hasmoneans during this season of Chanukah ought to take another look.

The Arabs of Israel and the West Bank may also be better off, economically and politically, than any other community of Muslims. Their lack of an independent state troubles them and their international supporters, but we can hope that few will see that as a reason to sacrifice more of their lives and property.

There are other shoes to be dropped. The New York Times notes that several countries of South America
"recognize Palestine as a free and independent state based on the 1967 boundaries." That will provide some work for Israel's Foreign Ministry. It may also produce a dust up if any ambassadors to Palestine seek to reach their posts by passing through Israel.

The Palestinians could go to one of their numerous fall back positions, and seek recognition by the United Nations. That will test the American official cited by the New York Times who "reiterated that the United States would continue to protect Israel's security and fight efforts to challenge its legitimacy in international organizations."

My preferred guide to the future remains The Highwaymen. "The road goes on forever."

You want evidence?

Two hours after I began my day, the article about the peace process was nowhere on the home page of the New York Times. A story about the European Central Bank had taken its place in the upper left. It is necessary to know where to click in order to read about Israel and Palestine.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:52 PM
December 06, 2010

Inertia is a force in government as well as physics.

It took World War II to create more than 100 new countries and rearrange the forces most important. Germany and Japan were the big losers. Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal were not far behind. The next big bang came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and parts of what had been Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were prominent winners.

The force of Barack Obama was enough to enact a measure that he claimed would transform health care in the United States. So far we are seeing the inertial power of insurance companies and the efforts of opponents to derail change in the courts. Skeptics are wondering about the capacity of medical services to accommodate an additional 40 million people with some kind of insurance.

Compared to great events of the past, the fire that swept through the Carmel was a small pop on the world scene. It was a bigger event in Israel, but early signs of political panic, blame, and insistent demands do not portend a quick fix of what may have been wrong.

A look at the world in the late 1940s and much of the 1950s, or the remains of the Soviet empire in the 1990s reminds us that crises do not produce reforms that are quick or orderly. Inertia does its work via interests that resist new arrangements, as well as the appropriateness of looking closely at proposals for major change.

There is a substantial collection of reports and recommendations, going back several years, about the need to upgrade the equipment of Israel's fire brigades, adding to their personnel, and integrating local units into a national organization. Members of Knesset and others are urging action. The SHAS Interior Minister with formal responsibility is noting all the times he supported the fire service, and blaming the stinginess of the Finance Ministry. Opponents are emphasizing his greater concern for his religious constituency, and the proclamation of the rabbi who is the titular leader of SHAS that the fire resulted from the nation's lack of proper Sabbath observance.

The Prime Minister is claiming the mantle of Messiah in chief. His assertion of being on the right side of earlier efforts to improve the fire service has invited caustic comments from close observers. His boast about the 747 he hired to fly from the United States, and his concern to be filmed inside the plane stroking its equipment have invited ridicule that the long trip, and the time required to replenish the liquid that the monster could splash on the flames limited its utility. With the fire all but out, the Prime Minister has appointed a political ally to be in charge of providing aid and compensation to the victims. He and his appointee promise to "cut through the bureaucracy" in order to speed payments, with an initial grant of 2,500 shekels (about $675) per person to families whose homes were completely destroyed. The "completely destroyed" will complicate issues enough to assure a role for bureaucrats, but the speeches of the Prime Minister and his special assistant may have sounded good to those who did not listen too closely.

Among what may be the knottiest of problems: figuring out the compensation, if any, due to residents of the artists' village of Ein Hod for claims of artwork destroyed or damaged.

Going far beyond the focus on fire were a series of articles in the first edition of Ha'aretz to appear after the weekend. They pointed to other possible disasters that the country was not prepared to meet: earthquakes, disease, and air traffic control at the international airport.

Clarity is the thing least available at this point, but it seems safe to bet that not all of the interests are going to get what they want by using the fire to promote their projects.

A prominent economic columnist asserts there was no grand failure of emergency services. He compared the fire to what is seasonal in the western United States and other forest areas. There is often a need to bring resources from outside the immediate area. In the case of countries smaller or poorer than the United States, there are international arrangements for sharing equipment. The death of 42 individuals associated with a prison evacuation lifted this fire above others in Israel's history, but it is a stretch to claim that the tragedy was associated with any shortages or faults of the fire brigades.

Psychologists say that a personal tragedy produces a sequence of denial and anger before mourning and coping allows adjustment. Politics has its equivalent sequence. Confusion, accusation, and multiple proposals appear to precede any acceptance of a strategy for moving forward. Israel's fire has produced great emotion, but no clear indication of what will come next. It may be nothing of significance. Perhaps there will be some fire fighting planes more modest and maneuverable than the American 747 or the Russian Ilyusian, and a reorganization of the fire service beyond the realm of SHAS into the Ministry of Internal Security. We do not know how much of a crisis is enough to break the power of inertia.

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 11:22 PM
December 04, 2010
The politics of fire

The fire is not yet under control. The weather is changing, aid has come from numerous countries, and the prospects are positive. Now the noise of politicians and activists blaming one another is taking over the media that had been devoted to on the scene action and human interest.

The weekend reminded me of wars and lesser military operations. There has been constant radio and television coverage, except for interludes of favorite Hebrew songs that combine nostalgia with national or religious themes. Jews bury their dead quickly. We have heard announcements of the time and place of burials as remains have been located and identified. What was different from war was the lack of an enemy, and reports of the damage wrought by the IDF.

The latest focus of attention has been the artists' village of Ein Hod. We have seen pictures of destroyed homes and reports of irreplaceable works that have been lost. Our friends have not been able to enter the village to see if their home and pictures are among those safe, destroyed, or damaged.

It is not practical to insure sizable quantities of art work still in the studios of the artists or the homes of family members. The losses are as much spiritual as financial. Volunteers and fund raising to help those who have suffered cannot deal with these problems.

International assistance ranges in scale is from an American 747 and Russian Ilyushin giants that can dump a great deal of water, to three firefighters sent by the Palestine National Authority. There are also units from Jordan and Egypt, and a large contingent from Bulgaria along with a Hebrew speaking member of that country's Foreign Ministry.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of SHAS, has proclaimed that the Almighty would not do such a thing unless the Jews of Israel had violated the Sabbath. Earlier, the Rabbi had blamed the rebellious member of his party for the country's drought. So far we have not heard of any connection between the rebellious MK, the drought he caused, and the problems in controlling the fire. The crux of the rebel's dispute with the party establishment is his view that all but the most talented young men should leave the religious academies and go to work.

The rabbi's representative in the Knesset is at the focus of the charges heard on the popular media that tends to be secular and left of center. Interior Minister Eli Yishai is responsible for fire fighting, and it is within reason to expect him to offer a resignation in the face of such a disaster. What he is doing is calling for a Committee of Inquiry, and citing the letters he has written over the years calling for greater efforts in behalf of fire fighting equipment and personnel. He blames colleagues in the Government for not answering his letters, and the Finance Ministry for not providing money.

Absolute truth is not available in a situation when everyone is accusing everyone else. However, the nature of Israeli policymaking requires more than letters to move one's colleagues before a disaster, or to protect one's backside after the disaster.

Israel is well supplied with activists who know what wealthier countries provide, and insist on doing the same here. It is also relatively poor among the wealthy countries of the world, and its resources are limited further by defense outlays more than twice those of its nearest competitor among well-to-do countries.

Yishai is not the only ranking official on the record as recommending action. An aide in the Prime Minister's Office proposed the purchase of updated fire fighting aircraft. There have also been reports about deficiencies in fire fighting, most prominently after the rocket attacks on the north associated with the 2006 war against the Hizbollah of Lebanon. Yishai wrote letters in behalf of fire fighting. He pressed harder to get action for synagogues, ritual baths, housing in religious neighborhoods, payments for students in religious academies, plus barriers and detention centers to deal with African migrants who are threatening the Jewish nature of Israel.

Optimists are hoping that the fire will cease its destruction in a day or two. No one is predicting an end to the politics about the fire.

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 10:17 PM
December 02, 2010

While the macro picture widely purveyed is global warming, the micro weathers determine who gets what. Europe is reporting record cold and snow, but it is still summer in this corner of the Middle East. Daily temperatures are ranging above 20 C (high 60s low 70 for Americans out of sync with the rest of the world.), and humidity too low for my household gadgets to register. Eastern winds from the desert that begins within sight of our balcony and extends far into Asia keep things hot and dry. It has been several years without a good rainy season, and this is starting out as another one. There is pressure on the Finance Ministry to increase spending on the desalination plants being built along the coast, and our water bills have spiked higher in order to curb household use and dry out the gardens.

Fire is a result of such things, as those of you in southern California know well. So far 40 people have died in a blaze raging across the Carmel area of mountains and forest near Haifa. Several communities have been evacuated, and one kibbutz has been destroyed completely. Most of the dead were guards being evacuated from a prison. Their bus became trapped on one of the twisting roads through the steep hills and narrow valleys of the Carmel, just as the fire was skipping from one side of the road to the other.

Almost all of today's newspaper deals with personal interest stories of individuals caught in the turmoil, losing life or property, or demonstrating heroic efforts to help others. Not too far into the media are reports with political implications.

One of the themes is piling on Interior Minister Eli Yishai, said to be primarily responsible for limiting the resources going to fire fighting equipment and personnel. Yishai is the parliamentary head of the ultra-Orthodox SHAS party. Its rabbis and adherents were prominent in last week's mass prayers in behalf of rain at the Western Wall. So far those efforts have not produced anything, and the fire may keep going until Nature gets around to shifting the winds from East to West.

Insofar as almost all the structures of Israel are built of concrete and stone, urban fire is not the pressing hazard it is where wood is a prime building material. Fire in dry mountain scrub and woodlands is a seasonal problem, but not usually of such severity to destroy life or housing. One might quarrel about the resources appropriate to the usual risks, but this fire is overturning the benefit-cost ratio. Fire brigades quickly exhausted their available personnel, found that they did not have sufficient equipment or supplies, and were woefully lacking of up to date aircraft that could fill up with water in the nearby sea and splash enough tons at the right places.

Equipment and personnel are on their way to Israel from Cyrus, Greece, Spain, France, the United States and even Turkey. Some of this is pay back for the aid Israel has sent near and far in response to earthquakes and other countries' fires. It also reflects Israel's efforts to remain in the club of the decent. My correspondents who preach total war and being done with the Arab threat once and for all should take note.

We are waiting on news about the property of our good friends in Ein Hod, an artist community on the edge of the Carmel that is among the locales evacuated. Moshe Mokady was among the well known artists whose career spanned Paris, Palestine, and Israel from the 1920s. He was a founder of Ein Hod, and his children preserve a number of his works in his studio and the home they often use on weekends. Other artists continue to live and work in the village, and its museum includes items reflecting a history of nearly 60 years.

Early reports are that the fire began in the trash dump of an Arab village, and that there were other points of origin as well. If the beginning was intentional, it would not be the first case of using a match and gasoline against the Jews. So far there are no reports of Arabs dancing in the streets and passing out sweets. The Carmel is home to Druze, other Arabs and Jews, and they are all participating in the losses, the flight, and temporary housing.

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 10:46 PM
December 01, 2010
Where's the beef?

Wikileaks' collection of American diplomatic cables has been on public display for several days. It is not easy obtaining direct access to the raw material, but enough has reached the media to get a feel for the content.

If there is a great revelation that should surprise me, it has not yet come to my attention. The raw material that I have seen looks like typical cable traffic: reporting on conversations that convey opinions and thoughts, but little by way of firm intentions or anything that can be pinned down and presented to a court of public opinion as a great person's innermost feelings.

The gems that come from journalists' perusing of much more than I have seen include items that are newsworthy for their apparent drama, but nothing that should upset an observer's view of international politics. Among the details that would shock only to the most innocent believers in governmental morality are those dealing with American offers of payoffs to countries willing to take some of the prisoners in Guantanamo, Third World officials urging Americans to send prisoners to places where they can be liquidated, and Americans pressing Third World leaders to make the appearance but not the reality of fair elections.

Bloomberg posted some comments that describes how American officials are dealing with the egg on their face, and how other countries are trying to minimize the damage to them.

According to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates:

"The fact is governments deal with the United States because it's in their interest -- not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. . . Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest. . . . Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve. . . Some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us."

Secretary of State Clinton was less candid, and sounded more like someone protecting her turf.

"Obviously this is a matter of great concern, because we don't want anyone in any of the countries that could be affected by these alleged leaks to have any doubts about our intentions,"

Reports of Arab officials asking the United States to attack Iran would appear to upset their countries. We have long known that Muslims are divided on religion (Sunni vs Shiite), ethnicity, and national political interests, but one could wonder about the appearance of Muslim leaders asking the United States to attack another Muslim country.

Against this, however, is the likelihood that the people of Muslim countries long ago decided that they could not trust their leaders. And even those seeking a reason to mount a protest should be wary about security forces that are hardly gentle or respectful of human rights.

Among the comments from officials of Arab countries:

"It is something that is unusual, and embarrassing somehow, but it will pass."

. . . comments reported from leaked cables aren't actually very secret. . . . information that you have heard here or there . . . don't know where this is coming from, or how credible this information is.

If there is no material in what has been released until now that seems capable of shaking the world immediately, there are a number of possibilities that cannot be dismissed out of hand. This may be one of those events that ripple for some time through the atmosphere of international politics.

Effects may not be early and obvious, but more subtle or indirect. Observers should be aware that large organizations are clumsy and do not operate like a Swiss watch. Nonetheless, the leaks do not add to the standing of the United States. And while it would be a stretch to hold Barack Obama responsible, the leaks do not make the White House look any better than did the results of the mid-term elections, or the lack of significant movement on issues like North Korea, Iran, Guantanamo, or Israel-Palestine.

Of potential danger are indications that Chinese officials may be giving up on the North Koreans. Perhaps the North Koreans sensed this. Or the Chinese will claim that Americans fabricated the leaks in order to embarrass them. In a regime as closed as that of North Korea, we can only guess. Hopefully, the news will not cause its leadership to feel so isolated as to throw over the norms of self-preservation and attack South Korea, Japan, or the United States.

Nothing seen so far seems likely to affect Israel or Palestine. The prospects of peace appear to be suffering from problems far more profound than a few conversations. Comments attributed to Benyamin Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas do not differ significantly from what they have said in public. Post-Wikileak Palestinian claims on the Western Wall have brought a tongue lashing from the State Department, but no overt withdrawal from efforts to get the parties talking. Things appear to be on hold until someone comes up with a bright new idea.

There may be details in the Wikileaks to give historians a leg up on what would have been released from the archives several decades from now. But they may have to wait until the archives open--or the next great leakage--to see enough to provide a more complete story of what they want to study. It is most certain that the leaks have been a bonanza to international journalism, and to those in the audience who crave a reason to say Wow.

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 04:13 AM