January 23, 2011
The fog of diplomacy

Wikileaks is infectious. al-Jazeera has caught the bug, and released some 1,600 secret Palestinian documents, said to represent Palestinian-Israeli negotiations over more than a decade of on-again off-again talks.

Some of the details suggest far reaching Palestinian concessions, but others indicate that they were not far reaching enough for Israeli negotiators recently claiming membership in the "peace camp."

The release brought an angry response from a leading Palestinian negotiator. He said that that al-Jazeera was waging war against the Palestinians, and denied that concessions had been made.



This story may grow legs, and we will learn more. At first look, it appears that the documents may reveal the nature of conversations rather than firm offers. An important rule of negotiations is that nothing is done until an agreement is signed and finalized. Back and forth suggestions do not count until each side agrees to what it has gotten and what it is giving up.

At the very least, the leaks will be embarrassing to both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. They suggest that prominent figures on each side had been willing to discuss proposals that differed from what they were telling their voters in public.

No surprise. Politicians cannot tell all the truth, even if they may not actually be lying.

Politics continues in both Israel and Palestine. Current pressures and possibilities, including those who are presently in charge, will carry the ball until things change again. Leaks spanning more than a decade will provide much food for the commentators, but maybe not much else.

There is also a confusion on the Israeli side about a proposal seemingly offered by the Foreign Minister, and then substantially downsized by an official Ministry spokesperson.

This concerns some "ideas" expressed by Minister Avigdor Lieberman that were said to include a map of a possible Palestinian state. It may not have been overly generous, but it was something. But now it seems to be less than something.

Adding to our confusion is a comment by Mahmoud Abbas that seems to downsize all the effort he has expended in recent weeks to achieve recognition of a Palestinian state by a growing number of countries. Some of these recognitions have included the Palestinian mantra of 1967 borders and a capital in Jerusalem, and some have been little more than a reaffirmation of recognitions proclaimed years ago in the Arafat era.

Now Abbas is saying that he has no intention of declaring a Palestinian state without the agreement of Israel.

That may be wise, insofar as Israeli cooperation is essential for making the Palestinian state anything more than a figment of diplomatic initiative.

Wisdom aside, it adds to our confusion as to what is happening. Or it makes me think of student body politics. As the bard said, sound and fury signifying nothing.

We can hope that there are the kernels of something substantial and decent in all of this, but it is too early to invite Barack Obama to a signing.

You've heard about the fog of war. In the Wikileaks era, we are enjoying--or suffering--the fog of diplomacy.

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 02:25 PM
January 20, 2011
With the help of the Almighty, we will survive these blemishes

The IDF is the central icon of Israeli culture. It stands for security and dedication to nationhood, personal sacrifice, and morality. It often makes room for handicapped individuals who do not meet its physical demands, but wish to serve in order to affiliate with the popular ethos. Individuals who evade service may find themselves not chosen for desirable positions or other opportunities later in life.

Like any large organization, it does not live up to the mythic accolades assigned to it. It has been charged with tolerating the abuse of Palestinians by its soldiers. Ranking officers have avoided traveling to some countries after they retire out of concern that they may be detained on account of war crime charges brought by Arab sympathizers or left wing activists.

The IDF has a its own police, investigators, and courts that deal with charges of abuse, as well as other infractions likely to arise in a military with several hundred thousand young adults, as well as older reservists and professional cadres. Activists often criticize their leniency. In recent months the IDF was not lenient in deal with two generals who were found to have lied about what started out as modest irregularities. Both had erred in allowing family members to drive civilian-type vehicles owned by the military, and then claimed that they themselves were responsible for accidents that occurred. They were cashiered out of the service on the ground that the IDF does not tolerate falsehood.

At the top of the IDF pyramid is the Chief of the General Staff. He is the commanding officer with a rank equivalent to an American Lieutenant General (three stars). Personal morality as well as military qualifications are among the criteria for choice and assumed to adhere to the individual during his time in office. (The IDF has lots of women recruits and officers, some of whom have reached high office and public prominence, but it remains within the realm of reality rather than sexism to use male designators in connection with the position of Chief of the General Staff.)

The current Chief of the General Staff is due to retire in less than a month, and the chosen successor won his position under one cloud and currently is in the shade of another. The selection process was marred by a clumsy effort to influence the choice. This produced an official inquiry and a media frenzy focused on senior officers who were said to be despoiling the IDF's good name.

Yoav Galant was the man chosen in August as the next Chief of the General Staff. There was mumbling that the choice was early on account of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's personal problems with the incumbent Chief of the General Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi. Insofar as Barak is chronically mentioned as having personal problems with just about everyone he must work with, this has not brought great tarnish to Ashkenazi's reputation.

Galant was chosen after a long career with increasing responsibilities, and was meant to have several months to accustom himself to new tasks. What began as an item entered at the end of news programs concerned with his personal property dealings, however, has now reached the top of the public agenda with investigations by the State Comptroller and Attorney General.

Time is short. Ashkenazi is due to end his term in less than a month, commentators are saying that the country cannot continue without a Chief of the General Staff, and both the Attorney General and State Comptroller are known for long and thorough inquiries before reaching their conclusions.

The allegations about Galant concern improprieties in how he acquired land surrounding his home, and the creation of a road connecting it with the highway. We hear comments about inaccuracies in his reports, mistakes by other authorities, and a backdated approval. Whatever the truth and the decisions to be reached by official inquiriess, Galant's case in the eyes of the public could not have been helped by a photograph that appeared on the front page of today's Ha'aretz.

In a country where the vast majority lives in an apartment cheek by jowl with neighbors and 100 square meters (about 1000 square feet) is considered a large abode, the image of size, elegance, space, and vegetation does not square with the idealized image of the common man as soldier.

Those who thoughts about salvation run to faith rather than force can begin today's Ha'aretz with the cartoon rather than with the picture on page one..

It features David (Dudi) Zilberschlag, a well known ultra-Orthodox who appears frequently in the media and created a chain of free kitchens to feed the poor. The chain carries the name of Zilberschlag's son who died two months after his Bar Mitzvah after suffering for years from a rare metabolic disorder. There are nine other children in the family.

Zilberschlag won a place in the headlines and then the cartoon due to a legal dispute with another ultra-Orthodox. The adversary is said to have hired an actress to invite Zilberschlag to a hotel room for a massage, and produce an embarrassing situation that would ruin his standing in the ultra-Orthodox community. Zilberschlag appeared on prime time news programs to explain that the young lady had managed to get him out of his pants, but that he stopped short of getting into her pants. The cartoon portrays him saying, "With the help of God I withstood temptation."

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 02:28 AM
January 19, 2011
Hoping for the best

The New York Times has published yet another item that describes confusion in the highest American government circles dealing with health care. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/19/us/politics/19cong.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hpw

The story is one of hope and guesswork by competing experts.

You've heard of a pass and a prayer, or a Hail Mary. The image carries over from football to politics. It appears in competing analyses of the 2,000 page health care monstrosity enacted by the Democratic controlled Congress, and currently being challenged in courts and the Republican controlled House of Representatives.

I admire the President's effort to expand health care, and itch when conservatives claim that it is superfluous because access to emergency rooms provides the best of American medicine. What provokes me is the product of the Democratic White House and Congress so complex and so based upon wishful thinking. Yet I'll excuse the people responsible in the light of the similar quality of analysis presented by their Republican adversaries. The high intensity of the political debate does not match the low quality apparent in key points of analysis.

As I see American health care, its essential flaws come from the power of loosely-regulated, profit-oriented health insurance companies, and the inability of politicians to cut the companies to the ground and build a system resembling any one of the numerous ways of doing things that have provided almost 40 countries with better health indicators than the United States.

In my limited experience I have encountered senior professionals in academia, medicine and law (including a government lawyer with decades of experience) who admit their inability to determine the benefits due to them from existing or proposed medical plans.

There is no way that the United States can junk existing ways of providing health care and start over with a clean slate. Whatever is done will continue the decades long process of partial cure, or putting patches on patches, and leaving insurance companies as the gorillas in the living room.

As current arguments are reported by the New York Times, here is one Hail Mary

"In its official analysis, the (nonpartisan Congressional Budget) Office estimated that the cost of new benefits in the health care law would be more than offset by revenues from new taxes and by cuts in projected Medicare spending, reducing future deficits." (emphasis mine)


"The office has also said that lawmakers may find it difficult to follow through with some aspects of the law, particularly cuts in projected Medicare spending. If the cuts do not take hold, the cost of the law could soar." (again mine)

Part of the debate is whether the present law will add to or lessen unemployment. Republicans claim that the added costs of health care would lead employers to limit their workforces, or rely more on temporary help.

Against this,

"Democrats say that if the law provides coverage to more than 30 million currently uninsured people, as intended, it will increase demand for medical services, thus creating new job opportunities in the health care industry.

"With respect to general levels of unemployment, the New York Times reports

"Many economists say the effects on jobs are likely to be modest. Most large companies already provide health benefits to employees. And many small businesses will be exempt from penalties if they fail to do so."

What this does not say is whether there are enough health care personnel to supply services to an additional 30 million insured customers. It should be possible eventually to recruit enough care providers, and fairly quickly in the case of easily trained aides, but it may not be possible to find enough unemployed physicians and nurses in the near term. Unless American hospitals and HMOs increase their hiring in other countries, Americans will be spending more time waiting for diagnosis and treatment.

Given the economic weight of American recruiters, they will return from Africa, India, Latin America, the Philippines and elsewhere with some decent personnel. I have had good medical experiences with professionals who did not look like me. What an upsurge in American recruiting efforts will do to the services provided in poor countries is another matter.

The irony of American health care is the developed world's worst delivery system cannot help but fail in providing access to the world's best medicine in one of the world's richest countries. The President's reform will provide more people with insurance, but many of them will not have good insurance. There is little in the current debate to help Americans judge how many people will be under-insured, how much the changes will cost, and who will pay the bills. Neither is there assurance about how long it will take the country to inch up from the embarrassment of severe retardation with respect to comparative health indicators.

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 04:50 AM
January 17, 2011
It's politics, not philosophy

In my most recent note I put tongue in cheek and described Israel as an island of quiet in a region roiled by violence and potentially worse.

Now I must take the tongue out of my cheek and ponder the implications of our own roiling.

It comes not from the guns of January but the manipulations of politicians. Defense Minister and Labor Party Chair Ehud Barak left his party along with four of his Knesset colleagues to create a new party they call Independence.

What remains of the Labor Party Knesset delegation may yet split in two. The once mighty party that ruled Israel gained only a bit more than 10 percent of the votes in the most recent election, and polls from before the current swirling indicated it getting about half of that in the next election.

Most commentators are focusing on the personalities involved, and dumping on Barak as a self-centered politician who thinks only of preserving his position in the fluid Netanyahu government. The Labor MK's Barak left behind represent the party's left wing. They moved themselves out of the Netanyahu government, so it shifts to the right. Some are saying that the greatest beneficiary is Avigdor Lieberman, and calling him the effective prime minister.

The local and international left has said that Lieberman is the greatest threat to Israeli peace and democracy. It labels as "McCarthyism" his proposal to investigate the international funding of Israeli civil rights organizations.

There is some truth in all of these commentaries, but I see more in what has happened.

I begin with the crumbling of the Israeli left. Labor and Meretz together managed only 16 out of 120 Knesset seats in the most recent election. Notice that I do not count the Arab parties as part of the relevant left. They render themselves insignificant by obsessing about 1948 (the creation of Israel) or 1917 (the Balfour Declaration).

While loyal socialists and peaceniks assign the left's weakness to a "lack of leadership," I'm inclined to focus on the international drift away from socialism and Israeli frustration with Arabs who call themselves partners for peace, but aspire to turn the calendar back to 1967, 1948, or 1917.

I may be seeing what I would like to see in the comments of others, but I perceive in Hillary Clinton's recent statements, and silence from the White House that ranking Americans also feel frustration with Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues. The Obama peace drive has not worked for the same basic reasons that the Clinton-Barak initiative of 2000 did not work, and the Olmert initiative of 2008 did not work.

The international left composed of European, North American, and Israeli academics, assorted activists and some politicians may not accept my view of what is happening. Recent endorsements of Palestine in Latin America strike me as the latest signs of that region's comic opera. Rumblings in Europe and posturing in the United Nations may become more serious, but so far are not much more than lip service.

Nervousness about Tunis, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Pakistan, as well as North Korea strike me as worthy of more thought than domestic maneuvering in Israel.

A Russian friend describes Avigdor Lieberman as a gangster, but he voted for his party and challenges anyone who says that his comments about Arabs are inaccurate.

Lieberman's principal constituency, but not all of his votes come from the million Russian-speakers who have arrived since 1988. Another of my Russian friends is closer to Meretz than Lieberman, and some have donned kipot and vote with the Religious Zionists or the ultra-Orthodox. For the most part, however, it is fair to equate Lieberman with the Russians.

Their votes have made him Foreign Minister, but not exactly. Netanyahu is sensitive to Lieberman's reception, and has kept him away from the heavy stuff dealing with the United States and Western Europe. Netanyahu has also paid attention to the commotion surrounding Lieberman's proposal to investigate the funding of left-wing NGOs (non-governmental organizations). If the prime minister allows that proposal to move through the Knesset, it will most likely be broadened to include an inquiry of international funding of all Israeli NGOs. Involved in that semantic change might be Irving Moskowitz, the man from Miami who is paying for those Jewish settlers in the hostile Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. His actions may be legal in both Israel and the United States (leaving open the question of whether he is claiming them as legitimate tax deductions), but he is causing at least as much trouble for us as the civil rights organization B'tselem.

Stay tuned. The future is not yet here.
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 10:00 PM
January 15, 2011
Restive Muslims

It has not been a good week for our neighbors.
A referendum in South Sudan may produce the first division of a country that defines itself as Muslim. One can expect dispute about the results. If the separatists win, defining borders will not be easy and the near future may not be peaceful.
The president of Tunis has fled to sanctuary in Saudi Arabia, said to be the first case of a popular protest that toppled the government of an Arab country.
Lebanon has no government. Observers are talking about confusion or worse as the country prepares for what may be an international indictment of its largest, most powerful, and most militant religious group, the Hizbollah.
Lebanese sources are reporting that the UN organ investigating the killing of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will point its finger at Iran and Syria as well as Hizbollah.
Palestinian authorities cannot be happy with a poll shows a plurality favoring Israel over Palestine, and news that more East Jerusalem Arabs are applying for Israeli citizenship
Even before the rest of these items developed, signs were that governments throughout the Middle East were worried about the precedent of dividing Sudan. It is not the only Middle Eastern country troubled by regional tensions with potential for separatism. Minorities in Morocco, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran should be following the news. It is a long way from being restive to getting the attention of the United Nations, arranging a referendum, and then implementing regional autonomy or a new country. Sudan is far from being a done deal, and power holders elsewhere will not relinquish territory without a struggle.

Whatever happens is not likely to be region-wide. Muslim unity is a slogan but not a reality.

We should not anticipate a great enlightenment sweeping the region. Concerns about government-toppling riots in Tunis will encourage activists elsewhere and worry those in office. However, the cultural traits of authoritarianism and corruption are deep enough to resist change. Tunis is one of the softest of the regimes in the region. The response of others might well be to harden their controls. It will take a while to see how this works in the internet era. Changes may occur in the direction of religious extremism rather than openness or democracy.

If the reports about accusations of high level Iranian and Syrian involvement in the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister prove to be accurate, they will add to tensions between Iran and Syria and the regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Policymakers and their advisors in Washington and Western Europe will be rethinking their scenarios.

Also in the mix are co-religionists outside of the region who will press their governments. Although the pagan majority in South Sudan may not have allies with significant clout, the Christian minority there does have friends. Jimmy Carter will express himself on the nature of the referendum, but no longer has his finger close to important buttons. Christians of Lebanon can count on verbal support from the government of France. They will also have sympathy elsewhere, as do the Copts of Egypt and the Christians of Iraq, whose problems have been in the headlines.

What's in it for the Jews?

Communities in Morocco, Tunis, Turkey, and Iran have learned to lower their profiles, express loyalty to the authorities, and hope for moderation in the politics focused on Israel.

Compared to others, Israel is an island of quiet.

Before we get carried away with our aspirations, we can worry that Hizbollah will seek to deal with its problems by provoking something with us. The IDF has moved assets to the north, and should be thinking of appropriate responses to whatever may come from the other side of the border.

It may be a while before there is pressure from the Palestinians. Their biggest news this week--aside from disappointments in East Jerusalem--is the recognition achieved from the Government of Guyana.

The last time I heard about that country was when Jim Jones served Kool Aid.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:56 PM
January 13, 2011

A New York Times story from Qatar begins

"Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a scalding critique of Arab leaders here on Thursday, saying they badly needed reforms to jump-start their economies and overcome dwindling natural resources, or risk having extremists take root in their societies."

She said, "In too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand . . . "

According to the report, she "ticked off a familiar litany of criticism: corruption, repressive political systems and a lack of rights for women and religious minorities. But her remarks were notable for their vehemence."

I agree with virtually everything the Secretary of State is reported to have said. Perhaps she has learned something from more than two years pressing Israelis. It is not us who are primarily responsible for fouling the Middle East.

On the other hand, I read the description of "scalding critique" as typical Hillary, screeching and preaching. And I am pretty sure I know how her audience received her.

Politely, without agreement.

Hillary's most recent remarks are a fair assessment of Muslim retardation, shared by many experts including outspoken Muslims. However, sending herself as the messenger is not likely to enhance her message.

A beginning student learns that there are many influences on public policy. The gender of a messenger competes with the recipient's view of personal and national interests. In the case of some of the people Hillary was lecturing, the personal and national are close to being the same thing. Also in their picture are the interests, threats and weights of Iran, other neighbors, the United States and Europe, the value of their natural resources, and who knows what else.

The gender of the messenger, and the tone coming along with the message may only be minor factors in deciding how the recipients make subsequent decisions. Hillary's presentation might only affect what they think and say among themselves about her and her style, or they may tip decisions about something important.

Hillary's audience is likely to have been overwhelmingly if not completely male, some of whom maintain a harem and do not view kindly a woman who preaches, even if she does not screech.

While I applaud the status of women in much of the United States, Western Europe, and Israel, I am skeptical about westerners who think that women can assume a carryover of their status in dealing with Middle Easterners outside of Israeli Jews (with the notable exception of Ashkenazi Haredim who are battling the Supreme Court to keep their women at the back of the bus).

Hillary is likely to have screeched at Bibi. I doubt that he reacted badly. From all reports he is used to the tone in what he endures from Sara.

Remember April Glaspie, the American ambassador to Iraq who was not successful in warning Saddam Hussein away from invading Kuwait. When we first saw a clip of their meeting, my advisor on things Middle Eastern and domestic screeched a comment about American idiocy.

Politically correct Americans are as close to being world emperors as any others are likely to be for some time. Yet a mindset of parochial superiority blinds and weakens. What they perceive as good may not be what the locals want. Barack Obama preached in Cairo, and sent his people to pressure Israel and others. Since then his status has declined among Israelis and Arabs. A recent poll of East Jerusalem Arabs indicates that many of them (perhaps most, taking account of those who declined to answer) are not enthusiastic about a Palestinian state. A fair number of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza may share their concerns.

I see no resolution of America's problem. We are a long way from a world culture, even if we mix in universities and other forums more than in the past, and understand one another's words .

American women will not refrain from activities they want to share or lead. Individuals who train to be Arabists, like April Glaspie, or climb to the political heights, like Hillary Clinton, practice their crafts. If there is friction, or a polite lack of compliance, one can suspect that it is due partly to gender. Yet it may also reflect differences in interest that have nothing to do with who is the messenger from Washington.

Involved in the frustrations suffered by the aspiring leader of the world is not knowing exactly why there is imperfect cooperation.

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 11:31 PM
Significant, or only interesting?

Amazing, funny, dangerous, annoying? Take your pick about three items in the news. Each may have legs, and keep running until something real happens. Or each may be a passing blip to be ignored in the continuing stream of events that turn out to be more important.

One is Sarah Palin's comment about blood libel. Another is the resignation of Hizbollah and allies from the Lebanese government over the likelihood that a United Nations organ will have the temerity to accuse its operatives of murdering the former prime minister and father of the present prime minister. Yet another are the results of an American-sponsored public opinion poll among the Arabs of East Jerusalem indicating that more of them prefer to remain with Israel than become citizens of Palestine.

No great surprise from our neighbors to the north. Lebanon is closer to a failed state than a well ordered democracy. Currently it may be on the verge of another event in its history of religious violence. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Hizbollah will begin a war with Israel in an effort to lessen the pressure from Sunni Muslims, Druze, and/or Christians. Tens of thousands of missiles shipped to it by Iran and Syria can hurt us, and the IDF's response will produce considerable destruction in Lebanon and maybe elsewhere.

Some are blaming another blunder of the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department for ratcheting up the heat. American insistence that Lebanon accept the results of the UN inquiry into Harari's killing bears some resemblance to the demand that Israel stop construction in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. The linkage is a failure to understand the people of the Middle East who the White House/State Department wish to manipulate. The Jews of Israel may be as strange to Obama and Clinton as the mix of folks in Lebanon. An American error in Lebanon can be more costly than its fumbling in East Jerusalem, but it is too early to order the coffins.

This is the first indication I have noticed that someone is actually asking the Arabs living here what they prefer. More said Israel than Palestine, and a fair number chose not to answer.

Another problem for the peace process that the Palestinians and their friends have sought to solve via Washington, the United Nations and Latin America? And a problem of equal weight for the White House that has trumpeted the reassignment of people who do not want to be reassigned?

One can guess that one-third of the sample who chose not to answer are trying to stay out of trouble. There has also been an up-tick in the incidence of applications for Israeli citizenship from the residents of East Jerusalem. It is not a mass movement. The acts of accepting Israeli citizenship or saying that one prefers Israel over Palestine may be almost as dangerous as selling land to a Jew. http://www.jpost.com/NationalNews/Article.aspx?ID=203269&R=R1

Was Sarah Palin ignorant or only insensitive in comparing the commentary about incendiary rhetoric to a blood libel? She is getting more attention with this remark than was given to the news that Gabrielle Giffords is Jewish. Whatever the explanation of Palin's comment, she touched a hot button. J Street is among her critics. There are probably not many votes in that corner of American Jewry for Palin to lose, but she may have nudged a few wanderers back into the Obama fold.

For me, she provokes another moment of wonder about a pretty and articulate creature who rocketed from the politics of Wasilla to presidential contention..

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 12:22 AM
January 11, 2011

The city of Rawabi has not made it to conventional atlases or a prominent mention in international media, but it is shaping up as a point of tension between Israel and the Palestine Authority.

Last evening it was the center piece in a discussion on prime time television. The guest was Bashar al-Masri (or Massar), a Palestinian American and offspring of a prominent Nablus clan. He heads Massar Industries, a real estate development concern with a track record in several countries. His current project is building the new city of Rawabi midway between Ramallah and Nablus. It is a joint venture with a company owned by the government of Qatar, and is meant to house 40,000 people.

Israelis of various persuasions bless the venture as advancing economic development in the West Bank and giving the Palestinians something else to lose if their regime is taken over by those who aspire to wipe Israel off the map. However, there is opposition in Israel to the insistence of developers that companies working on the project not use products that originate in what al-Masri describes as the Jewish settlements of East Jerusalem or the West Bank. Some Israeli companies have agreed to participate in the construction of Rawabi and the boycott. So far that has produced sharp criticism that might escalate into the kind of pressure on the Israeli companies that al-Masri has already experienced.

al-Masri's appearance on prime time provided yet another example of ongoing politics in a public forum. He described his hope of profiting from an investment in Palestine that would also contribute to peace. Yet he spoke with the certainty--bordering on arrogance--of an entrepreneur who was certain of his political values. He described the West Bank and East Jerusalem as Palestinian, and expressed the conventional view of an illegal Israeli occupation. Not for him the subtleties of an area in dispute. He described the whole world as opposed to Israeli occupation, and said that his boycott of settlement industries was no different from that instituted by the European Union.

Neither of those points is quite true. The whole world has not the mechanism to express anything, much less implement what may flow from it. And the EU has demanded that Israel label products with the name of the locale as well as the country. Some Europeans may choose to boycott goods labeled as coming from a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, but the EU is a long way from a general boycott.

al-Masri presented his perspective as obviously justified and reflecting a view that was economic rather than political. Then he expressed wonder when describing the problems of politics getting in the way of approvals from Israel that are necessary to his project. Prominent among the items is a road from Ramallah to the construction site, which would pass through areas assigned to Israeli control by the Oslo Accords.

A description of the territorial realities:

"the traditional northbound road to Nablus, from the northern suburb of el-Bireh, is permanently blocked by Israeli military obstacles, set up to protect the nearby Jewish settlement of Beit El.

The current alternative route is clearly inadequate for a town of 40,000 - it crosses over a narrow land bridge where no two trucks can pass at the same time."

Some Israelis as well as others will consider the dragging of Israeli feet on al-Masri's request for a road to be unfair. Israeli activists and powerful governments may weigh in on the side of flexibility. A realist will think of contrasting pressures.

There is a limit to what Israel can do about Europeans or North Americans who pressure concerns, universities, or investment boards to boycott or disinvest. However, the developers of Rawabi and Israeli companies that would cooperate with their boycott are close at hand. One might say they are under an Israeli thumb.

As in other elements of the conflict, their are many factors likely to influence outcomes. Each side's claims of justice are not much more than decoration. al-Masri himself requires a Israeli visa to pass through Israel on his way to the West Bank. His city needs a road. He may think of Gaza as currently outside of his framework, but an escalation of rocket attacks will not help his cause. If he needs a reminder of Israeli resolve, he should notice that the IDF has returned to its tactic of targeted killing. Yesterday one of its rockets hit the motorcycle of a prominent Islamic activist said to be involved in firing those rockets.

The prime minister reasserts his commitment to peace. He has urged Mahmoud Abbas to travel 10 kilometers from Ramallah to Jerusalem rather than all the way to South America in search of a Palestinian state.

Politics is a condition where one hand washes the other. So far, neither Abbas nor al-Masri has chosen the most useful soap.

Not all of what we experience is politics and pressure. Today the heavens smiled on both Israel and Palestine--and the East Jerusalem claimed by both--with a sunrise worthy of praise.

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 10:00 PM
January 10, 2011
The extremism of politically correct

The shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the collateral killing of Judge John Roll and several others has generated a great deal of commentary. Much of it deals with the capacity of incendiary political rhetoric to trigger violence from those who are on the fringes of sanity or utterly unhinged.

Israelis are comparing the event to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. That followed a period during which the prime minister was portrayed as a traitor or--more moderately--as selling out vital national interests, and extremist rabbis preached ancient doctrines that justified killing a Jew on the basis of higher law. Web sites and political speeches linked to Sarah Palin and other Republicans were not all that different from the speeches given at prominent rallies by leading Likud politicians in the weeks before Rabin's killing by a well educated, and apparently sane religious Jew.

An intriguing feature of the coverage about Giffords appears in its concern with, or avoidance of religious affiliation and political extremism. One should be careful about reading too much from the media, but some comparisons of mainstream American and Israeli or Jewish treatments are at least suggestive of wider issues in American politics.

The initial stories from the major American media either ignored Giffords' Jewish affiliation, or treated it as just another aspect of her identity. Israeli and Jewish American sources tended to put it in their first paragraph. Some Israeli publications showed anxiety about staying on the right side of Orthodox rabbis by referring to Giffords as someone with a "Jewish background." Others simply identified her as Jewish, or described her sense of Jewish identify, affinity to Israel, and membership in a Reform congregation.

As early as the first day, Israeli or Jewish sources also identified Jared Lee Loughner as a young man who listed Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto as among his favorite writings. One would have to look hard to find anyone schooled in political thought who joined those two items as equally inspiring. The combination of Marx and Hitler adds to the image widely reported about the shooter as a strange man prone to outbursts in class and suspended from a Community College pending psychiatric evaluation.  

Mainline American sources and government officials are avoiding, or treating in the most circumspect manner the issue of anti-Semitism. Police and prosecutors are staying away from the description of this as a hate crime. The New York Times web site has a prominent article headlined "Federal Charges Cite Assassination Plan," which is squeaky clean of reference to ethnicity or religion. 

National Public Radio's web site reported about an FBI official who was asked about possible motives after the shooter was arraigned. The response: "It's a bit too early to speculate."

This resembles the efforts of ranking politicians to do everything they can to absolve Islam from any responsibility for terror. And the distance from ethnic profiling in airports and other sensitive places insisted upon by officials concerned about security in the context of what is politically correct. 

All this is understandable in the case of a society that has been multi-ethnic since its founding, and has invested the most recent half-century working to cleanse racism from its culture.

There are costs. The awkward avoiding of realities means that lots of us old folks with European faces have to go through the same screening as dusky young people with Middle Eastern accents. Those who protest efforts to boycott Israeli products or personnel do what they can to avoid accusing their opponents of anti-Semitism. And Mein Kampf is just another item on a reading list.
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 02:54 AM
January 07, 2011
Claims, reality, and clarity

Sorting out claim and reality is often at the center of the puzzle that an observer of politics must ponder. The puzzle may be especially severe when contending parties or governments are dealing with sensitive issues touched by religion and nationalism.

Welcome to this tiny portion of the Middle East. In case you haven't noticed, Israel and Palestine combined are about the size of Maryland.

Is Bibi Netanyahu telling the truth when he says--about once a day--that he is serious in his desire to find an accommodation with the Palestinians that will result in a treaty of peace?

One does not have to go too far toward the center of the Israeli political spectrum to find politicians who express their doubts. Tzipi Livni is the leader of the opposition Kadima party. She has moved from her family and personal roots in Likud and its heritage in the tradition of Zeev Jabotinsky, but she is far from a raving advocate of Peace Now. A prominent theme of her 2009 election campaign was, "Bibi? I don't believe him".

At least one-half and sometimes more of Labor party MKs formally affiliated with Netanyahu's government express doubts about his intentions, and have said--yet again--that if he does not make progress with the Palestinians within a month or so they will leave his government.

There is no end of the commentary from Israel and elsewhere that Netanyahu is beholden to right of center and extremist religious and nationalist parties, and that his own sentiments keep him from challenging Jews who want to settle the land that should be Palestinian.

The Economist has identified the prominent signs pointing here and there in this puzzle.

The prominent message coming out of the Palestinian leadership is that Netanyahu's government is deceiving the world in its claims of good intentions. Mahmoud Abbas is traveling the world saying at every possible opportunity that it is Israel that is responsible for the impasse. He cannot begin negotiations until construction stops throughout the West Bank and in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and he will agree to nothing less than the boundaries of 1967, the rights of refugees, and a capital in Jerusalem. A number of governments have signed on to something very similar to what they signed on to years ago when Yassir Arafat was making similar tours.

But is Abbas any more serious than Netanyahu in his willingness to reach an agreement with Israel? The festering conflicts he is dealing with at home suggest that he would rather collect bouquets and photo opportunities from other national leaders than wrestle with Palestinian adversaries about a deal that Israel might accept. There is not only the mini-military power of Hamas and groups even more extreme in Gaza. Abbas has accused some of his colleagues in Fatah of conspiring against him. Prominent among them is a posturing former head of security in Gaza who fled Gaza for the safety of the West Bank. Yet another problem of claim and reality surrounds the problem that Abbas term as President of the Palestine National Authority ended two years ago. Officials have postponed the elections they have scheduled, so who is Abbas, and what is his status?

And what is the position of the United States government? Is the Obama White House really withdrawing in frustration from its efforts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Or is it regrouping on this issue while it concentrates on the more pressing domestic challenge of dealing with the Congress that resulted from the November election?

The leading headline on the front page of Ha'aretz last Sunday was, "Anger in the American Administration: Defense Minister Ehud Barak is leading us down a path to nowhere." The article claimed that the White House had lost faith in Barak due to his failure to live up to his promise to deliver Netanyahu on the peace process.

Two hours after I saw the headline radio news reported that an official American spokesperson was denying its accuracy.

Was Ha'aretz reporting reality, or only expressing the wish of editors who are notoriously to the left of the current government? (See http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/ehud-barak-is-a-parody-of-a-leader-1.335680)

And was the American denial a fair reflection of its posture? Long ago I began teaching that the American government, like most other democracies, speaks with many voices. More recently I have argued with those who are convinced that Barack Obama is anti-Israel. (I have stopped responded to those who claim he is a Muslim and/or anti-Semitic,) My reading of the iconic Cairo speech of 2009 is that the President's demands of Muslim countries and the Palestinians were no less impressive than his demands of Israel. Polls and commentary from throughout this region suggest that I was not far off the mark. Both Israelis and Arabs have trouble viewing him as a friend.

By all signs this remains a hot spot. Isaweea is 200 meters to the east. A month ago a car with Israeli Jews and tourists made a wrong turn into the area and barely escaped a lynching. Three kilometers to the south is the Old City, with its several points of intensity. Every day we read of rockets from Gaza and attempts at violence associated with Palestinians of the West Bank or the Arabs of Israel. There is no shortage of provocations coming from religious nationalists among the Jews. Other problems among the Jews are most prominently near ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

I think about all of this. But life goes on, and it is generally no worse than experienced by acquaintances in North America or Western Europe. Like them, I am careful about where I drive and walk. There are neighborhoods that I avoid, and individuals whose ideas I find unworthy of further discussion.

My most pressing concerns deal with the weather. Will it will rain while I'm out walking. And what's for dinner?

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 10:38 PM
January 05, 2011
Us and them

This morning I walked to the nearby shopping center of Ramat Eshkol. That is one of the neighborhoods created soon after 1967. It is technically over the "Green Line" marking the armistice of 1948, but no one in their right mind would consider handing it over to the Palestinians. Originally its population was very much like that of French Hill (which is even further over the Green Line, but well within what the Jews consider to be Jerusalem). Ramat Eshkol was upper middle class with both secular and religious families. However, its fate was to abut the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods centered on Bar Ilan Street. There the housing is congested and the population poor. Riding the bus through the area evokes images from what Bashevis Singer described for Jewish sections of Poland before World War II. Men and women getting on the bus avoid sitting next to one another. Men might pass their time studying a page of Talmud, and women move their lips as they read from Psalms.

Ramat Eshkol remains upscale, but is now almost entirely ultra-Orthodox. The combination of those economic and religious traits translates into young ultra-Orthodox families who have migrated recently to Israel, disproportionately from the United States and Britain. They may have occupational qualifications not found among Israeli-educated ultra-Orthodox, or are living off the generosity of families who see it as an obligation to support offspring in the Promised Land.

The atmosphere of Ramat Eshkol is that of a well to do Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, but I encountered a surprise as I walked past the supermarket. On a poster board was a pashkevil that cried shame on the activity of Ashkenazi rabbis.

The term pashkevil is itself interesting for what it says about religious discourse in Israel. It is Yiddish for a poster, most often one that condemns what the author considers to be improper behavior. In this case, the poster is anything but a product of the Yiddish speaking (Ashenaki) ultra-Orthodox.

Translation is not easy, insofar as the Hebrew of the ultra-Orthodox has its own connotations. The best I can do by way of conveying its meaning without crossing the borders of what might be viewed as indecent is:


A despicable act was done in Israel in the form of shouting defamation by lowly and impertinent liars against our esteemed Rabbis, Masters, and Teachers Ovadia Yosef and Chief Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar.


Lithuanian (i.e., Ashkenazi) rabbis convert women for money. They are marginal figures who desecrate the issue of Who is a Jew and the word "Halacha" (religious law). Crime surrounds their activity.

The hypocrites have no right to deliberate the issue of conversion.

We are suffering the results of their abominable cheapening of the word "Halacha."

The same small, vile, and loud group that would dictate their point of view know that they act against the great Hasidim, the important Sephardi judges of the law and great teachers of this generation who do not follow blindly those who wish to dictate.


how the creatures were converted to Judaism in exchange for money by the impotent Lithuanian rabbi. You will know it soon.

If there is anyone out there who thought of religious Jews as a unified bloc, this pashkevil should correct that impression. The issue involved might reflect rabbinical arguments about the conversions associated with courses of study established for military recruits by the rabbis affiliated with the IDF, or some other squabble in the murky area of conversion. Realize that the quarrels at issue here are not those between Orthodox and Reform or Conservative rabbis about the demands made on candidates for conversion, but quarrels involving Orthodox or even ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox who view Ovadia Yosef and Shlomo Amar as their Rabbis, Teachers, and Masters trace their heritage mostly to North Africa, although Rabbi Ovadia is an Iraqi by origin. Ovadia and several other leaders of the community received their education in Ashkenazi religious academies (yeshivot), but have led their followers to protest their lack of full acceptance by the Ashkenazim, and to identify with traditions of the Sephardim. What they have produced is a mixture of Ashkenazi wanna bees, who dress like some of the Ashkenazi communities, but emphasize their own culture. They assert the equality or superiority of their traditions and their learning with those of the Ashkenazim. Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox may look upon the Sephardim as less knowledgable about religious law and less strict about observing rules of kashrut, Shabbat, and modesty. The Ashkenazim may reject Sephardi children as pupils in their schools and avoid arranging marriages across communal lines.

The pashkevil posted in Ramat Eshkol reflects this tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and asserts the superiority of the Sephardi rabbis. Yet it does not identify any rabbi as its author. Thus it may result from the enthusiasm of a Sephardi yeshiva bocher (yet another Yiddish term adopted by the Sephardim), or perhaps the work of an Ashkenazi yeshiva bocher who may think he is doing the Lord's work by inciting tension between his people and those he considers inferior.

Israelis must be sensitive to cultural boundaries that hinder communication, and produce more confusion than clarity in the communication that does occur. While the common view from the outside is that the principal boundary is between Jew and Arab, no less problematic is that between secular and religious Jews, or between Sephardi and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox.
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 11:27 AM
January 04, 2011
Blood libel?

Remember Muhammad al-Durrah? He was the boy pictured in an iconic Palestinian video claiming that his father had not succeeded in sheltering him from the fire directed at him by Israeli soldiers in late September, 2000..

Subsequent inquiries established that the video was edited in a way to hide the possibility that the boy was not injured. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_al-Durrah_incident It remains unclear whether the shots alleged were fired by Israelis or Palestinians. Reports are that an older Muhammad al-Durrah has since been seen on the streets of Gaza.

Another fabrication occurred in June, 2006. A family of seven died in an explosion on the beach of Gaza. A video photographer filmed a young daughter running, finding her family dead, screaming and throwing herself on the sand. The pictures appeared time and again on television news programs: Arab, Israeli, CNN and others. The girl appeared in repeated interviews, and received a filmed visit from Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian National Authority claimed that Israeli artillery fire was responsible, proclaimed three days of national mourning, and lowered its flags to half-mast.

The IDF and government authorities expressed their regret, and brought some of the wounded to Israeli hospitals. The area of the disaster was one of the places that Palestinians use to fire rockets at Israel. The IDF had warned Palestinians to stay away from what would be an open field of fire.

An IDF investigation concluded that it was not responsible. There was a gap of 8 minutes between the time of the last cannon fire and the explosion. There was no crater in the sand of the type an artillery shell would create. And the Palestinians' efforts to collect evidence and keep it from IDF investigators did not suceed. They did not get all the shrapnel in their combing of the beach. Some remained in the people taken to Israeli hospitals. Analysis of the metal found it was not the type used in Israeli munitions. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza_beach_explosion_(2006)

Now there is another story in the same mold. Palestinians and Israeli leftists are trumpeting the charge that Jawaher Abu Ramah, a woman in her 30s, died from inhaling tear gas shot by Israeli security forces while she was demonstrating against the security barrier near the village of Bilin. The story gained weight by virtue of the report that a member of the same family died in an earlier demonstration at the same location.

As in the case of Muhammad al-Durrah and the family killed on the Gaza beach, Palestinian authorities refused to share their information with Israeli investigators. But the IDF has its sources. The woman's medical records indicate that she probably died of cancer. Moreover, she does not appear in pictures taken at the seen of the protest where she was said to have been attacked by tear gas. http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/idf-no-proof-palestinian-woman-died-from-tear-gas-at-protest-1.335043

"Blood libels?" Sounds right.

Do these stories serve the Palestinian cause? Only initially, and then perhaps only with those who accept their narrative without question. Do these stories advance their demand for a state of their own, 1967 borders, a capital in Jerusalem, and refugee rights?

Not among Israelis or others who hesitate about creating another state whose leadership confuses fantasy with reality, where officials deposit aid funds in their overseas personal accounts, and lock themselves into a narrative that precludes negotiations.

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 05:36 AM
January 03, 2011
Where are we?

The Israel-Palestinian conflict is at least a century old, although it was not described clearly in its present terms before 1948, or perhaps 1967. It has had periods of sporadic violence, organized mayhem,
and most recently a campaign of Palestinians and their friends to achieve politically what they could not obtain with violence. It is not clear if their motives are the complete destruction of Israel, or only what they say in the international languages about 1967 borders, a capital in Jerusalem, and the refugees' rights of return.

One must always be modest about predicting the future, but it may well be too late for any of what the Palestinians want.

Israel is a prominent creator and supplier of electronic innovations for civilian and military applications, and has discovered two extensive fields of natural gas. It is strong militarily as well as economically, and is far from being a helpless supplicant in international politics.

Part of Israel's strength is the weakness of the Palestinian case. Palestinians claim a monopoly of justice and suffering, but there is blood on their hands. They also have been unfortunate in their allies. Western
politicians are careful when talking about Islamic extremism, but 9-11 did not help the cause of Palestinians; neither did the wild allegations that Jews were responsible. A war on terror has taken over where the Cold War left off. "Terror" is at least as vile a word now as "Communist" was in the 1950s, and no matter how careful leaders are to explain, "terrorist" is close to being a synonym for Muslim or Arab.

Iran provides money and arms to those who claim to be allies of Palestine, but the madness of Holocaust denial and threats of Israel's destruction do not help their cause.

Given this setting, it is advisable for the Palestinian leadership to moderate its demands. Its West Bank version has renounced violence, but continues to demand what Israel has refused over the course of
40 years. On two separate occasions, Israeli leaders have offered boundaries close to those of 1967, a place for a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, and a symbolic response about refugees. It has not been enough for West Bank leaders claiming to be moderate, and far from the demands of more extreme Palestinians of Gaza and the Palestinian diaspora.

It is not clear that the present Israeli government is as accommodating as those whose offers were rejected in 2000 and 2008. Rather than approaching Israel's position, Palestinians are demanding help from others. Latin American governments have provided symbolic recognitions of what the Palestinians cannot achieve, and the ceremonies may occur elsewhere as well.

How serious are the efforts of more important governments--the United States and Western Europe--to endorse a two-state solution, and pressure, tempt, or manipulate the Israeli government in that direction?

Israel has not been overly accommodating, and the Palestinians have not demonstrated any flexibility deserving the label. Europeans have not moved far beyond lip service. Americans have proven themselves clumsy enough to lose credibility with both Israelis and Arabs.

One hears projections of a demographic imperative that will favor the Palestinians, but that process, if it occurs, will happen on the other side of a wall that Israel is strong enough to preserve.

Thin majorities appear in surveys of Israeli Jews for concessions to the Palestinians, but not on the issue of refugees. A bit of Jerusalem may be possible, but the most recent poll of Israeli Jews is not any more encouraging on that point than the statements of government ministers.

Israel may be more flexible than the Palestinians. The outcomes of an election can produce a government willing to return to earlier offers, but the recent weakness of the left (Meretz and Labor) does not bode
well for offering the Palestinians anything more than they have already rejected.

Flexibility is even further from the Palestinian reality. The prospect suffers from six decades investments in their narrative that promises the to those holding to the status of refugees. Flexibility is not in the lexicon of absolute rejectionists among Palestinians or their cheerleaders from Muslim governments.

What we have are moderate Palestinians holding to demands beyond the willingness of even moderate Israeli leaders, an Israel that is gaining strength economically, and the specter of Islamic extremism.

If anyone out there sees tea leaves pointing in the direction of a Palestinian state, let me know what I am missing.

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 04:48 AM