March 27, 2011
Mysteries of Bibi

Judging a prominent politician who is also a skilled showperson is like putting on a blindfold and attempting to judge a beauty contest. One can ask for advice, listen to the contestants, maybe even touch their faces. Yet a lot will be missing. Any decision to be made will be risky in the extreme.

The subject of this note could be Barack Obama, but it will be Benyamin Netanyahu. They are both skilled politicians, and among the most articulate and highly publicized of national leaders. Both their countries are in the spotlight, and the pressures upon them are many and difficult. Both provoke admiration and distrust, as well as questions about what moves them, and where are they going.

Bibi's pluses and minuses are several, and more or less equal in their weight.

A prominent plus is his capacity to assemble and maintain a government that reflects Israel's diversity. On the side of moderation is Ehud Barak, who is at the center of his own mystery as the head of a political remnant of what used to be the Labor Party. Barak is not only the Defense Minister, but along with Netanyahu he is more the Foreign Minister than the man who formally holds that title, Avigdor Lieberman. Barak and Netanyahu do the serious work of dealing with the problems and countries most important to Israel. Keeping the right wing Lieberman in his government, while keeping him away from the serious stuff of foreign affairs is on the plus side of Netanyahu's ledger. Bibi also has his Finance Minister on a short string, but not as short as that used on Lieberman. Bibi poses as the economist in chief, but the formal Finance Minister (Yuval Steinitz) does more in his field than Lieberman does in his.

On Bib's right, along with Avigdor Lieberman and his Israel Our Home party is Eli Yishai and the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS. Lieberman's people and Yishai's people do not get along on issues of Judaism or the conversion of Russian immigrants who are not Jewish according to Orthodox law (halacha), but they share a general posture--if not always the details--of dealing with the Palestinians. The Ashkenasi ultra-Orthodox party Torah Judaism cooperates with SHAS on some religious issues, and differs on others.

Holding this melange together is no small feat, and appears to be the result of Netanyahu's skills of maneuver.

Bibi is also moderate when appropriate. The most recent indication is the modest response of the IDF to a wave of rocket attacks from Gaza. Despite the number of rockets, and the use of smuggled weaponry that reached farther into Israel than past attacks, the military response has been delayed, pinpointed, and far less than the apocalyptic threats expressed by prominent politicians, including Bibi himself.

This is one of the occasions when our blindfolds keep us from knowing just what is going on at the pinnacle where generals come together with the Prime Minister and Defense Minister. Assessments are that Israel is giving Hamas a chance to reimpose a cease fire on the various factions in Gaza rather than embark on an extensive campaign to destroy infrastructure or assassinate key figures of Hamas and its allies. The Prime Minister may be providing a lesson in politics when he talks tough in the extreme, but acts in moderation. Israelis may wonder about his willingness to absorb rocket attacks that so far have not killed or cause serious injury, but the result may be better than an onslaught that will inevitably kill civilians as well as fighters, and produce another wave of international condemnation.

These same skills of feint and maneuver contribute to Bibi's reputation as slippery and unreliable. It does not help his standing that he often seems to be smirking. He face, body language, tone, and words give the impression that he is proud of his capacities to fib, stretch the truth, promise something he will not deliver, and otherwise run the country from a position of untouchable superiority.

A smirking maneuverability is are not the end of Bibi's negative traits. Each Israeli--and each outsider who must deal with Netanyahu--may have his or her private ranking of the prime minister's flaws. Somewhere near the top of numerous lists is his bravado, and the bombast with which he proclaims his proposals and accomplishments. To hear him tell the stories, which he does time and again, he singlehandedly reformed the country's economy when he was Finance Minister during 2003-05, did what was necessary to put out a disastrous forest fire that swept through the Carmel earlier this year, and has defined the terms that will keep a Palestinian state at bay, or make such a state something that will live at peace with Israel.

Bibi's personal style has been in the headlines due to a television expose of his travel arrangements. The image, nothing but the best, does not go over in a culture that still gives credit to modesty. Reports are that wealthy overseas patrons have financed first class or private plane flights for Netanyahu and his wife, and stays in expensive suites of the plushest hotels.

Among the items that are not clear is who among Bibi or his Sara demands the classiest treatment, and who is the greatest cause of embarrassment. The Israeli public is periodically treated to reports about Sara's demands and temper, her ill treatment of household help, and her insistence of vetting the people with whom the prime minister can work closely.

I am not about to blame Netanyahu for the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to move toward an accord. Barack Obama is my choice for prime responsibility. The naivite with which he has dealt with this and other issues from Libya in the west to Afghanistan in the east challenges my credibility. In our case, he continues to push Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate when it should be clear that the West Bank Palestinians cannot move while their arch enemies control Gaza, and while the Gazans and other extremists in the Palestinian diaspora are powerful enough to prevent any flexibility. (My blindfold keeps from knowing what I would like about the Palestinian leadership: Are they flexible or not on issues of boundaries, refugees, Jewish settlements, and the kinds of arms and alliances that will be available to an independent Palestine?)

Bibi's proclamations about a united Jerusalem under Israeli rule do not help the situation. Should a decent accord become available he may concede to the Palestinians the same Arab neighborhoods offered by Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008. It is impossible to know how much of his insistence on this issue is his alone, required by his coalition partners, or is merely a maneuver in hopes of getting Palestinian flexibility on other issues.

What Bibi has not done is to make the case that it is the Palestinians who are at least as responsible as Israelis for a stalemate in negotiations. I would not expect him to climb all over the American president, in public, for beating a horse that is nearly dead. What I read from a wide range of commentators, however, is that Bibi has done no more than assert the wisdom of his own demands, which have been around for a while and are not moving things along.

One of the mysteries in assessing Netanyahu is his relations with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Reports are that a recent meeting between the two featured strong words and a breakdown in communications. Shortly after, Germany joined other members of the United Nations Security Council in voting to condemn as illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Perhaps Germany's government chose to be on the right side of world opinion in the knowledge that the United States intended to veto the resolution. Or perhaps Bibi had provoked Israel's staunchest ally in Western Europe to act in a way that was both insulting and threatening.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:15 AM
March 24, 2011
Families, tribes, and individual freedom

For many Americans, the notion of a tribe may mean nothing more than what they (or their grandparents of my generation) used to see for 25c yelling and fighting the good guys on Saturday afternoon at the local cinema. More sophisticated are studies of contemporary Africa, where some social scientists are loath to use the term "tribe," and prefer "ethnic group" as something that is free of a primitive connotation.

For those of us on the fringes of Muslim society, the term is not so distant or exotic. And insofar as many people in North America and Europe are now on the fringe of Muslim society (either as neighbors of immigrants or relatives of young men and women involved in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, and who knows where next), the concept deserves some consideration.

"Tribe" is a close relative of "clan" and "extended family." The demarcations between the terms are not precise or widely agreed upon by social scientists who deal with the topics. What is common is a sense of relationship strong enough to influence an individual's loyalties and behavior. "Extended family" may apply to cousins and cousins of cousins, and in-laws of in-laws where in-laws are likely to be blood relatives. Clan may be more extensive and go beyond actual blood connections within recent generations; and tribe may be even greater in its range. The Hebrew term hamula (חמולה), which derives from the Arabic, is used to denote an extended family, but some dictionary translations indicate its meaning as "clan."

Israel is a society more western and modern than others in the region, but its Arabs--and some of the Jews with backgrounds in Arab societies--are heavily immersed in the loyalties of extended families. Villages and cities show heavy concentrations of extended families, with family influences on voting and opportunities for appointment as municipal officials, school teachers, principals, and social workers. Discussions of Israeli Bedouin employ the term "tribe" for the loyalties that prevail in their settlements.

Marriage in Arab societies reflects and reinforces family loyalties. Cousin marriages were common among European Jews until the early 20th century, including those who had moved to North America or Western Europe. The practice has virtually disappeared among Jews, but still remains strong among the Arabs of Israel and elsewhere.

Strong family loyalties are not something only among lesser educated and lower status village Arabs, but are widely prevalent. Arab students at the Hebrew University have told me how their professional opportunities are limited by being members of the wrong family in cities as large as Nazareth (72,000). They have described family pressures against free expression with respect to what elders define as religious obligations. Arab women have spoken about struggling to remain in school when family members stress marriage and children.

Family is more important as a determinant of voting in the Arab communities of Israel than political ideology or party affiliation. For local elections the parties contending for office may be nothing more than extended families under the leadership of their senior males, who agree about which family member will stand for which office. Research dealing with the 1960's and 1970's found family voting among 80-90 percent of individuals in Arab communities.

More recent studies show a decline in family voting cohesion, but it is likely to be the strongest single influence on voting.

Honor killings and family feuds are other indicators of family loyalties. Honor killings result from a parent or sibling objecting to the romantic inclinations of a female relative. Feuds may begin with property disputes, disagreements about business or traffic accidents, and go on for generations of killings and revenge.

American politicians flaunt their respect for "family values," but they do not mean Grandpa or Uncle telling you how to vote or which cousin to marry; or causing a rejection for a job because of a squabble several generations ago.

Tribes figure prominently in writing about Libya, and make the subject relevant to one of today's most pressing issues. As in other Arab societies, the tribes have a geographical basis in a region or town. Tribal membership affects political identification, not only with respect to the personality and tribe of Muammar Qaddafi, but to one or another of the tribes that stand with him or are fighting against him.

Writing about Libya and other Arab societies indicate that tribal and extended family loyalties may be giving way to independent thought and activity under the weight of education, but family and tribe remain strong. Loyalties come from parents, cousins, uncles, and in-laws who live close by in the same village, urban neighborhood, or family-owned apartment block. Economic support and job opportunities go to family or tribal members, and add to obligations via pay back from one generation to the next.

When I read about American and European actions in the Libyan civil war for the sake of humanitarian values and liberating civilians from violence, I wonder who is about to be liberated, how many lives will be lost in the process of liberation, how free will be the individuals who survive, and how will they retaliate against those they accuse of killing their relatives.

Out of place in this context are western expectations, especially those of Americans imbued with the values of unfettered individualism and opportunity. I recall my conversations with Muslim students who complained about the lack of freedom within their families, in Israel's elite university, in a society more schooled in the norms of democracy than Libya. None of those conversations makes me optimistic about Libyan liberation.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:08 AM
March 22, 2011
Them and us

The international media is filled with material on Libya and Japan, with no clear news on either. The Japan disaster is still short of apocalyptic, but not beyond catastrophe. The worrying news about Libya is that the British Prime Minister and his Chief of the Defense Staff have different war aims, while American commentators are not sure if it is a "clash of a brutal dictator against a democratic opposition, or . . . a tribal civil war . . . (that may produce) a prolonged period of chaos."

According to one expert on Libya, that "is a very important question that is terribly near impossible to answer."

The classic study of governments that wandered into a war that they did not want is Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. That produced World War I. Estimates are 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded, along with massive uprooting and migration and the Russian Revolution.

Even the most depressing scenarios out of Libya and neighboring commotions do not match the disaster of World War I, with a lurking reservation if the Saudi regime and its energy resources go into the tank.

Israel's media is preoccupied with the latest stage in the judicial proceedings against former President Moshe Katsav. This morning the district court sentenced Katsav to seven years in prison plus continued suspended time and fines for several charges of rape, sexual harassment, and witness tampering.

Hidden by the more spectacular news is the possibility that another little war is brewing on Israel's southern border. The most recent week has seen an escalation in rocket attacks and IDF responses (or in the views of the Gazan regime: IDF incursions and rocket responses).

Can this escalation get out of control, and produce a level of conflict that appears to be beyond the desire of both Israel and the Gazans?

There is no assurance of Israeli or Palestinian wisdom, but Israel presents conditions that differ from those of Britain, France, and especially the United States. The United States is the most prominent bumbler into wars that have proved lengthy, costly, and unsatisfying in recent years (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan). That may have something to do with how the United States differs from Britain, France, and Israel in the dangerous traits of powerful and inexperienced national leadership.

Israel has made its share of errors, most notably a long and unproductive war and occupation in Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. More recently it seems to have learned. It has acted forcefully but briefly: Lebanon 2006, Gaza 2009, and several major but short incursions into the West Bank or Gaza in response to suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians from 2000 onward.

Israel has some prominent advantages that distinguish it from the United States. It is a small country concerned almost entirely with itself, rather than a great power with an extensive sense of its responsibilities. Israel has no national leaders with the power and stature of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry who feel impelled to protect the rights of individuals far from their borders or their understanding.

Israel's leaders have been individuals involved in national politics for years, moving up and down, back and forth between major positions depending on political fortunes. They contrast with warmakers George W. Bush and Barack Obama who rocketed to great power from one term as governor of Texas and a half term in the Senate.

Both David Cameron and Nicolas Sarcozy reached their offices after a longer apprenticeship than either George W. Bush or Barack Obama. However, neither is likely to have led an attack against Libya without the cooperation of the United States. America remains the bumbler in chief, despite signs of British and French leadership toward Libya.

Parsing the current considerations of Israel's military options from the greater media attention devoted to Japan, Libya, and Moshe Katsav offers possibilities pointing either toward continued escalation, or keeping a lid on chronic tension.

On the side of escalation are the heaviest barrage of rockets and mortars directed at Israeli civilians since the end of the Gaza operation in 2009, and an increase in the quality of Gazan armaments due to smuggling from Iran and Syria.

Urging restraint is the weight of international pressures in behalf of quiet, especially in the context of positive responses to the Palestinian-led campaign of delegitimizing Israel's existence.

Whatever is being considered is not likely to be all or nothing. Among Israel's lessons are the benefits of closely targeted strikes against individuals and installations. In recent days commentators have spoken as if they are hearing from military leaders about a renewal of assassinations against Hamas and its allies. Such actions are assured to produce condemnations by international figures, some of whom have unleashed Tomahawk missiles and sorties against Libyans in the name of human rights. Already we are hearing that they might move against Syria's violating its citizens' rights of protest. So far only Saudi Arabia may consider itself free of such threats.

Whatever the IDF does is likely to produce a response from Hamas or its allies. So far none of their efforts have done the kind of damage capable of producing a game-breaking response from Israel. As long as that kind of luck holds, we may get through this spurt of activity with much less noise and damage than in Libya or elsewhere where Western powers are doing what they feel is appropriate.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:56 AM
March 21, 2011

Remember John Kennedy's sending advisors to protect the South Vietnamese and the rest of Southeast Asia from Communism, Lyndon Johnson's escalation after the attack on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, George W. Bush's explanation for attacking Iraq and his later declaration of victory, as well as pronouncements and claims about Afghanistan by Presidents Bush and Obama.

Japan's war against the United States began well at Pearl Harbor, but did not end so well at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Several decades earlier the American victory against the Spaniards in Manila Bay was easier than a long war against various groups of Filipinos that did not want American rule.

It has proven easier to start these things than to end them, or to leave en embattled place with a minimum of losses, damage, and embarrassment.

Americans have enough experience to begin with their questions and quarrels soon after the first shot.

The concern for clear aims is the subject of headlines in several media. According to the New York Times: "Target in Libya is Clear; Intent is not."

Protecting the Libyan people from their government?
Reacting against the extreme disregard for civil rights and human life demonstrated by Muammar Qaddafi?
Enforcing a no-fly zone across the country against the Libyan airforce?
Destroying the Libyan military?
Removing the government of Qaddifi, or Qaddifi himself along with his family?
Providing an advantage to one or another of the forces fighting Qaddifi's regime?
Remaking the Libyan regime?
Responding to the personal pique of Nicolas Sarcozy, and helping him refurbish his poor showings in French opinion polls?
The New York Times notes, "there is . . . the risk that Colonel Qaddafi may not be dislodged by air power alone. That leaves the question of whether the United States and its allies are committing enough resources to win the fight. . . . For Mr. Obama, who has explicitly said that Colonel Qaddafi has lost any right to govern, the conundrum is that the United Nations mandate does not authorize his removal. So Mr. Obama now says the goal is limited: to use force to protect the Libyan people and allow humanitarian aid to get through."

The Washington Post begins an article with, "The prominent role played by the United States in carrying out and commanding the initial coalition attacks on Libya appeared to extend far beyond President Obama's description of a narrow mission in which U.S. forces would play only a supporting part."

A headline in the Guardian: "Libya crisis may save Nicolas Sarkozy from electoral humiliation:
The French president certainly needs something to prevent him coming third in next year's election"

Israel radio reports some confusion as to whether the Arab League is supporting or opposing the operation.

Republicans are thought to be the party of war, but they are also the party of opposition. As reported by the New York Times:

The Speaker of the House said, "The president is the commander in chief, but the administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America's role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished." .

A House Committee Chairman asked: "Are our goals aimed at protecting civilians in Libya, or the removal of Muammar Qaddafi from power? In either case, to what extent and for how long will military resources be utilized?"

An advisor to President George W. Bush who helped plan the war against Saddam Hussein, said, "I don't quite see what is behind the strategy in Libya.. . . We are now in a situation where we have a mismatch of what the president said we want to do as a nation, what the U.N. Security Council authorizes, and what we are actually ready to commit in resources."

If I were fighting on the side of Muammar Qaddifi, I would worry about the European, American, and even the Qatari forces arrayed against me.

If I were a Libyan civilian (Heaven forbid), I would worry about the capacity of those countries' soldiers to direct missiles, bombs, and other weapons against the right people, and not against innocent me.

If I were on one of the groups fighting against Qaddifi, I would wonder which of us who would get the help of which country in the quarrels or violence likely in the event that one of those missiles, bombs, or other weapons does away with the hated colonel.

If I were about to fly to, from, or within France, Britain, the United States, Spain, Norway, Qatar or any other country that has signed on to this war, I would think about Lockarbie, and how Qaddifi deals with countries that have done him an injustice.

If I were a Muslim, I would wonder about comments by Barack Obama and some European leaders denying any quarrel with Islam. They may distinguish between Islam and Muslims, but that has not helped me, my brothers or sisters in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, now Libya and who knows where else to come.

Given that I am none of the above, I will watch from here. By the time it is over, I may have written more than a few notes about my thoughts.

Today is Purim in Jerusalem and a few other walled cities. We should follow the tradition of drinking enough alcohol to blur the difference between Haman and Mordecai, and perhaps blur the questions raised above.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:44 AM
March 19, 2011
What's fair and wise? And what's next?

We know who the bad guy is in Libya. He has been bizarre and violent for 40 years. For much of that time the great powers have been going along. The record features Britain's freeing of a man intimately involved in the Lockarbie bombing on a flimsy claim of ill health, seemingly to smooth a commercial deal with Libya, and more recent assertions that Qaddifi himself gave the order for the plane's destruction.

Who are the good guys? Will they be any better, or is anything better than Qaddafi now that he is getting such an ugly press?

If we are relying on the leaders of the free world to answer such questions, a lead article in the New York Times is not encouraging. It describes the flips and flops of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as their asking ruling princes of the Gulf to contribute resources to the effort in Libya while criticizing the same princes for helping the rulers of Bahrain to put down a rebellion, but moderating the criticism of Saudi involvement in the suppression of demonstrations against the rulers of Bahrain.

You can't tell the players without a score card.

And the score card does not show the price of the game. Will it be like Iraq, where unseating a tyrant may have resulted in more deaths via direct warfare and then domestic chaos than the tyrant himself is said to have killed during his tenure? The arithmetic is controversial, and like other things in international politics, depends on who is making each claim. We are not in the realm of something as orderly as the statistical service or census of a western democracy. Googling produces a wide collection of numbers, and more questions than answers.

It may have felt good to execute Saddam Hussein, but the whole process may have turned Iraq from a checkpoint against Iran to an ally of Iran.

There will be fewer deaths in Libya than in Iraq, but perhaps only because there are fewer people to be killed. Population estimates are 30.4 million Iraqis and 6.5 million Libyans.

International action against bad people is more worrying than assuring, due to its dependence on politics.that are anything but representative or just. Libya, but not Dafur are fair game for armed intervention, largely because Sudan's ruler had support in the Arab League while Qaddafi earned its enmity. Rwanda and Somalia did not make it to the agenda.

Israelis have reason to worry. Immediate attack by western armies is not on the horizon, but the campaign of boycott, disinvestment and sanction has some loud voices in support. The same people are trying to expand the list of countries that would provide the Palestinians with a state, boundaries, and capital city without the nuisance of negotiations and mutual concessions

As described by the New York Times, there was a rolling momentum of support for military action against Libya. by country representatives in Washington, New York, and European capitals.

The newspaper's focus on political players and its description of a senior figure in the National Security Council as a former journalist and human rights advocate does not add to a sense that the process was cool and considered, with major input from professionals who could render dispassionate assessments about Libyan options.

The latest news is of an Obama ultimatum to Qaddafi about honoring a cease fire, and each side claiming that the other is continuing the fighting.

What comes next is likely to be the hardest, and maybe the bloodiest part, as it was in Iraq. It will not be decided by a week of intense action far from the scene. And it is not clear that Qaddifi will go quietly or quickly.

President Obama asserts that America's involvement will be part of an international effort, will not include ground troops, will not be long lasting, and will pave the way for Libyans themselves to find a solution.

That sounds like what we heard along the way in Iraq. Or was it Afghanistan?

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:03 AM
March 15, 2011
Political correctness meets neo-colonialism

It would be timely for Barack Obama, Thomas Friedman, and their chorus mates to leave the Middle East to those who know more about it. Friedman's own newspaper, The New York Times, calls Saudi Arabia America's most important Arab ally, and indicates that leaders of that country "have made no secret of their deep displeasure with how President Obama handled the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, charging Washington with abandoning a longtime ally. They show little patience with American messages about embracing what Mr. Obama calls 'universal values,' including peaceful protests."

The democratic revolution is in trouble, despite its blessing by the American president and the New York Times commentator. Muammer el-Qaddafi has the upper hand in Libya, the Saudis are sending the troops to help their Sunni allies of Bahrain deal with the uprising of Shiites, and government ministers are shuffling around in Tunis and Egypt for who knows what purpose. It's a tough region that is not responding to the pleadings of the lecturer in law currently sitting in the White House with a human rights agenda, or his colleague in the New York Times who wants everything to be decent, including the exit of Jewish settlers from the West Bank.

No sign that Muslim countries will govern themselves anytime soon like Friedman's home town of Minneapolis, or even Obama's town of lesser governing quality, Chicago. The people may protest, officials may turn against the rulers and give the keys to some armories to the opposition as in Libya, but the odds are on the side of a determined ruler.

Politically correct westerners may be inclined to see all opponents of Middle Eastern regimes as decent aspirants for democracy, but that ain't the way it is. The decent people of Washington don't know what will emerge if the mob actually unseats the regime. A shift in power to anti-democratic Islamic enthusiasts? A shift to another tribal warlord who will kill his rivals in the name of reform? Musical chairs among military and economic elites who take advantage of the commotion to oust an autocrat who is no longer topple-proof? Whatever happens, Roberts Rules of Order or the Marquis of Queensbury will not govern the transition.

Barack Obama is intelligent and decent. He is neither a Muslim nor anti-Semitic. But he isn't cut out to govern, or even direct the Middle East. Not only he, but senior advisors and his media friends appear to be profoundly ignorant of the region. There is also a trap within their sense of political decency about intervening in a region with unhappy memories of outsiders meddling for their own purposes. The United States has a long history of ambivalence about colonialism, imperialism, or foreign rule. It appears in the iconic memories of the American revolution against British rule, and surfaced against American government policies toward Mexico, Spain, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as lesser events in Central America and the Caribbean. After 1812 the feelings may never have been powerful enough to overcome stronger interests that held sway in the White House. Again in the administration of George W. Bush, the voices were not strong enough to keep the United States out of Iraq or Afghanistan. Obama himself campaigned to undoe his predecessor's follies. Actually, he may have gone deeper into Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. It is not clear that he will avoid the Libyan civil war, but somewhere in the back of his mind there may be thoughts about foreign interference, and its clash with the ideals he speaks about so often and so forcefully.

And Israel? It is also in the Middle East, and is beyond the Obama-Friedman capacity to deal with complexities. A prevailing Israeli view that the settlements are not the issue does not ring clearly in much of Washington and New York. There are Israelis who share the liberal western view. But they have had a small slice of recent governments. A current question asked on the news site Walla is "What should be Israel's response to the killings in Itamar?" Only 7 percent of more than 3,500 respondents answered that it should be satisfied with a sharp denunciation of violence. A total of 93 percent chose "stop all dealings with the Palestinian Authority," "extensive military action against terror," or "expand construction in Judea and Samaria."

The White House has expressed grave reservations about Israel's decision to approve the construction of 400 homes over the 1967 border. Israeli sources say that the comment was agreeably modest, and was agreed beforehand between Jerusalem and Washington. Bibi's fib? Obama's recognition of his own limitations?

There are also Saudis, Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians and others who would cheer on what Barack Obama says he wants for the region, but they are just as far from power as Meretz and what remains of the Israeli Labor Party.

There are Palestinian voices saying that Itamar was the product of Israeli officials wanting an excuse to build more houses; others claim that it was the work of a foreign worker unhappy with his treatment by Israelis. Soon to be heard will be charges of piracy against the Israeli navy for seizing a ship in international water carrying arms from Syria to Turkey and then to Gaza, apparently originating in Iran.

Israel's right of self-defense or neo-colonialism? The latter may be the view of westerners who want to impose themselves--not as colonialists, but as protectors--on one side of Middle Eastern quarrels.

We'd all be better off if a miracle happens and a cloud of realism descends on the White House and the op-ed page of the New York Times. Imperialism is gone, even if it is dressed up in the most decent of sentiments.

In these days of early spring, blue skies, and clear evenings, I saw from our balcony a sunset on the nearby Arab town on the other side of the security barrier. Sunset on Palestine? Literally to be sure, and perhaps metaphorically as well.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:26 AM
March 13, 2011
Spurt or spark?

A spurt of angry speech and activity that leaves little behind, or a spark of change in direction?

After the Sabbath killing of five members of the Fogel family in the settlement Itamar:
Israeli politicians across the spectrum from right to left expressed revulsion and rage
The Prime Minister, in a public address soon after the end of the Sabbath on Saturday evening, called the condemnations of the killings issued by the Palestinian President and Prime Minister lukewarm, and said that incitements against Jews and Israelis in Palestinian schools, media, and mosques must stop as a pre-condition for peace talks
Prominent setters bristled on talk radio Sunday morning against Ha'aretz. The paper they viewed as an enemy and the media of the secular left had devoted the most prominent section of its front page to Japan. The slaughter in Itamar only occupied on that half of the page below the fold.
The government approved the construction of 400 housing units in major towns east of the 1967 border. The Prime Minister called the action "measured," and noted that construction would be in locations that would remain under Israeli control in any accord
SHAS Interior Minister Eli Yishai called for the construction of 1,000 housing units for every Israeli killed
20,000 attended the funeral in Jerusalem Sunday afternoon
The major radio station gave full coverage, beginning with interviews of those who knew the victims and proceeding to numerous eulogies and political calls for action over a period of more than two hours in mid-day
At the funeral, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi endorsed the construction of housing as a fitting response to the killings
Groups of settlers entered Palestinian communities and vandalized property.
The Council representing settlers departed from the long standing policy of major media outlets not to publish photographs of dead bodies, and prepared a video including graphic pictures. Council members asserted that the campaign for public support against efforts to delegitimize Israel justified their action.
Settler leaders, as well as individuals gave expression to what they viewed as their isolation by an insensitive government beholden to hostile foreign governments, and Israeli media hostile to the justice of settler concerns. Groups of settlers protested their feelings toward what they viewed as indifference and hostility by tying up a major intersection on the road to Jerusalem, and several intersections in the Tel Aviv area.
Commentators complained on Monday morning about the coverage provided by international media. It was hard to find amidst the emphasis on Japan, and often with headlines about the government's response with new construction for settlers.
We did not lack for dispute, or contrary messages.
Personalities associated with major media outlets objected to the publication on the internet of graphic pictures from the murder scene.
A well respected security professional noted that incitement continued in Palestinian media, schools, and mosques, but emphasized that the Palestinian Authority had greatly improved its security forces, its cooperation with Israel, and had reduced the incidence of incitement. He said that the Authority made a significant contribution to the most recent two years of relative quiet,
An Israeli journalist, who specializes in covering Palestinian communities, expressed his surprise at the revulsion he recorded from individuals encountered at random in Nablus. He noted that the city had been a major source of Palestinian violence before Palestinian authorities began to act against lawlessness.
Monday's Israeli press took note of the condemnation of the killings that appeared in the Palestinian press on Sunday. One paper called them not acts of bravery, but of heartlessness.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as close as there is to a left of center voice in the Netanyahu government, appeared on prime time news to urge restraint and moderation. He warned about the movement to paint Israeli actions--or Israel itself--as illegitimate, and talked about the likelihood of more national governments recognizing the independence of Palestine within borders of 1967.
Leaders of foreign governments and officials of the United Nations condemned the killings, urged calm rather than dramatic steps, and expressed reservations about the decision to build more housing.

A senior Palestinian official (Nabil Abu Rudaineh) emphasized the aggression of construction and other Israeli actions, and did not mention the killings in a brief statement broadcast on prime time Israeli television.

It is too early to know if settler demands and actions will affect anything significant, or peter out after some days of rage. Previous experience is that most such events, even those especially ugly, do not cause a major shift in the actions of the Israeli government. But occasionally the unusual does happen. The suicide bombing at a Passover Seder brought about an escalation in IDF activities, although that came after a series of previous incidents. Palestinians may lie low, and wait for tempers to cool. Indications are that many of them perceive that they are likely to lose more than they gain from violence. But small groups may respond to settler actions with additional incidents. On the Palestinian side, the first intifada began in 1987 with a traffic accident that seemed routine. Americans might think of Rodney King, whose beating by the Los Angeles police may have resembled countless other events, but in his case went from a chance videotaping to a significant riot.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:17 PM
March 12, 2011
Uncertainty now

A short while ago I posted a note about the lack of media attention to Israel. A few hours later five members of a family in a Jewish settlement, including a two month old infant, were slaughtered on the Sabbath.

The earthquake in Japan and the possibility of radioactive clouds monopolize the headlines elsewhere, but not here. The IDF has locked down Arab villages near the settlement, and is doing what it knows how to gather information. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman instructed Israel's representatives in the United Nations to make the point that the failure of the Palestine Authority to denounce the action reflects its lack of commitment to living at peace alongside Israel. Now the Authority's prime minister has denounced the killings. Better late than never. Most likely the killers were affiliated with Hamas or some other opponents of the West Bank regime.

Those of you who think of Lieberman as an extremist should consider the parties heavily supported by settlers. They have avoided joining the Netanyahu government, which they view as too moderate. On Israel's 100-point scale of left and right, or accommodationist and hardliner, Lieberman is probably no further right than 75.

Currently I am reading American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier by Patrick Griffin. It deals with the conflict between Indians and white settlers on the American frontier in the latter part of the 18th century. No one has to tell me about the differences from the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Indians of the 18th century were not the Arabs of the 21st. As Griffin describes the white settlers with their limited education and morality, their land hunger and savagery, they differed greatly from Jewish settlers in the West Bank. None the less, there are parallels that do not stoke our optimism.

Various British and American officials tried to avoid the conflict between Indians and white settlers by limiting settlement. However, other British and Americans failed to do what was necessary to implement the prohibitions, or even encouraged settlement. White settlers were not the most civilized or cultured of people. They wanted land. Indian chiefs made agreements with white authorities, but they did not control their people. Restive Indians continued to attack whites. Whites responded with no less savagery. White leaders did not stand by, but provided the far greater resources that eventually ended the Indian threat and pretty much ended the Indians.

Parallels are imperfect, but instead of Indians opposed to their leaders read Hamas and its allies. Jewish settlers pressure the Israeli government to give them more land, somewhat like the white settlers of 18th century America pressed the British and later the American authorities. White incursions into Indian land provoked Indian attacks on white settlements, which served the purpose of whites wanting more land and wanting to eradicate the Indians. Today, radical Palestinians and Jewish settlers feed each others' views of the world.

West Bank settler leaders are furious. Slaughter of religious adults and children on the Sabbath is as bad as it can get. If the killers meant to upset a faltering peace process, or to act against Palestinian leaders viewed as moderates who opposed violence, they could not have picked better targets or better timing.

It is inconceivable that Jewish settlers killed the family in order to provoke violence. That would be beyond the pale for religious Jews, and contrasts with the record of their behavior. But retaliation against Arabs? It would be uncivilized, uncultured, and illegal, and assured to add to the ill feeling. But it is not to be unexpected. Security forces will be allocating some resources to protecting Arabs while they seek to locate and deal with those responsible for this atrocity.

Settler leaders are blaming the government for weakness in the face of international pressures, and saying this is the time to strengthen and expand the settlements, as well as to deal forcefully with the Arab threat.

We know the end of the conflict between white settlers and Indians in the area now called the Middle West, and later in the Great Plains and beyond. One should not predict anything similar between Israelis and Palestinians. The international community differs as night and day between the 18th and 21st centuries. Israel will remain constrained by its morality as well as by international pressure. But a peace process? Not likely in the immediate aftermath of this slaughter. What comes next on the ground, as well as in the case of unstable Arab countries, will keep us uncertain for some time.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:04 AM
March 11, 2011
Out of the spotlight

You've heard that Jews control the media. An exaggeration. Influence, maybe. Jews are out of proportion in positions of management and as media personalities. But there are different kinds of Jews. International conspiracy linked to Zionism? Not with J-Street, Peace Now, AIPAC, the settlers, and who knows how many other organizations competing for attention and contributions.

It is more certain that Israel gets disproportionate media attention in relation to its size, population, or GNP.

So it may portend a significant moment when Israel is not in the headlines.

The Economist's internet section on the Middle East is featuring
The resurgence of Qaddafi's forces in the Libyan civil war
Unrest in the Arab world: "Once the protests are over, institutions need building up--often from scratch"
Price spikes in the oil market linked to Arab turmoil
"Revolution in Egypt and Tunisia; It's not over yet; The countries that started the wave of Arab change both have a long way to go"
The British Prime Minister's trip to help things along: "Britain's new foreign policy strategy: keep calm, keep it bilateral, and cross your fingers"
Before the earthquake in Japan seized the space, the New York Times web site was also headlining various points of uncertainty in the Arab countries of Middle East. While The Economist featured its prime minister's travels in the region, the American paper gave prime space to the ambivalence of the White House: "President Obama has adopted a policy of restraint in the Middle East crisis, recognizing a stark reality that U.S. security interests weigh as heavily as idealistic impulses."

Not a word about Zionist shenanigans.

The Economist does have an item about Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), with a picture of its most sizable pilotless craft that may be capable of reaching Iran. That story is more laudatory than critical, and must be entered on the plus side of any reckoning about The Economist's imbalance.

Major international media are not featuring the story that Israeli security forces kidnapped a Gazan from a train in the Ukraine. Ha'aretz reported allegations by Palestinians and a United Nations official in Gaza, and treated it as a "may have been."

The man is said to be a senior engineer attached to a Gaza power station, a Hamas supporter, associated with the production of missiles fired at Israel, married to an Ukranian woman and said to be in the Ukraine seeking its citizenship. There is a mild buzzing in the part of my brain attuned to conspiracies, due to this week's efforts by the movement to free Gilad Shalit to emphasize that he is approaching the fifth anniversary of his kidnapping. The buzzing is at low volume. If the engineer was kidnapped, he seems to be too small a catch to influence the people traders of Hamas. What we have heard to date suggests that he would not be worth the efforts and risks associated with a Mossad operation. Disinformation being what it is, however, we will have to wait for more.

Israel's security forces have a long arm, and have acted with a mixed record far from home. They had considerable success against the people who planned and executed the attack against Israeli athletes in Munich, except for the mishap in Lillehammer Norway that cost the life of a Moroccan waiter. Still getting attention is last year's killing of a Hamas operative in Dubai, where operatives left telltale signs of using forged passports from countries friendly to Israel.

The world and the media are dynamic. A strong earthquake in Japan will provide material for some time. Friday is a day for Muslims to gather in their mosques and to hear exciting talks. Opponents of the Saudi regime called for a day of rage, but officials said they would allow no demonstrations. Early reports are that the Saudis listened to the threats. Japan's earthquake has the spotlight. If another Palestinian is in Israeli hands, he will have to wait his turn for serious attention.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:08 AM
March 08, 2011
Egos, symbols, and implementation

There are those for whom the term "social science" is a contradiction in terms. There are few cases where my colleagues in political science, sociology, economics, psychology and our cousins have results at the level of the best work by physicists or chemists. "Medical science" also provokes doubt, especially when patients die unexpectedly, or when they experience "miraculous" improvements.

Most of the time, the purpose of social science is not to produce theories that will explain every case being investigated, but to shed light in a significant corner of human experience. In my field of public policy, three individuals stand out for contributions that qualify for helping us understand the headlines in the two countries most important to me. Their work appeared in the 1930s to the 1970s, none remain alive, and they all might be surprised to encounter the details that interest us now. However, Harold Lasswell's book on Psychopathology and Politics, Murray Edelman's work on symbols and politics, and Aaron Wildavsky's writings on implementation provide general ideas that help a great deal in guiding us through what is happening at the pinnacles of the American and Israeli governments.

Some may read Lasswell's book to say that all politicians are nuts. More accurate is his finding that they are likely to be abnormal, marked especially by an enlarged ego. The trait leads them to stand before a large crowd and proclaim, "I will be your leader." It is associated with bombast, hyperbole, inflated promises and the recognition that politicians may not lie, but are not likely to tell the whole truth.

Edelman's work points to the difference between symbols and substance, and shows that symbols may carry more weight in public discourse. Symbols include highly charged words, the importance given to ceremonial occasions, cherished holidays and songs, the creation and exploitation of heroic reputations. Symbols may not lie, but they embellish. They facilitate communication that puts things in their best light while avoiding details that confuse or disturb.

Wildavsky published a book along with a former student, Jeffrey Pressman, with the title Implementation. As in the case of Lasswell's and Edelman's works, Wildavsky and Pressman described a phenomenon that many recognized, but had not been given the attention that they produced. The message was that policy or intentions declared may not bear close resemblance to what actually happens, or is implemented by public officials. Legislators may not appropriate enough money; bureaucrats may delay, or ignore provisions in the law; interest groups mobilize to work against provisions that they failed to keep out of a law or a decision of the chief executive; citizens may feel their rights trampled, and fail to provide the cooperation that makes implementation possible. Foreign policy may be most challenging. Opponents have strong bases of support, and will do what they can to foil the will of an outsider, even one who heads a country with sufficient power to be considered a world leader or dominant in their region.

What does all of this mean for Americans and Israelis? Current heads of our governments are excellent performers. Their egos appear larger than the average. They are skilled in speaking, touching on the symbols that ring true, and making the impression that they are in control. Implementation? Getting things done to match their speeches, promises, and claims of accomplishment? Wildavsky may be chortling in his grave.

Barack Obama's health reform is facing trouble in courts, with state governments, and consumers who find threats as well as promise in its more than 2,000 pages. There are still prisoners in Guantanamo. The president has claimed success or progress in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and elsewhere, but there are serious doubters. His rhetoric has not made a dent in the bloodshed of Libya. His comments have not been clear or consistent, and raise the possibility that he will intervene in a civil war where none of the several sides can claim the moral high ground, rather than do something decisive about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Benyamin Netanyahu is as smooth and exciting a talker as Barack Obama. He qualifies in both Hebrew and English. He is immodest in claiming to have identified his country's problems, and to have dealt with them personally and successfully. Currently he is talking about breaching the impasse in the peace process with another dramatic pronouncement. Previews suggest that it may be a grand performance before the Congress of the United States, but it may induce skeptics to applaud quietly if at all. The threads of his ideas include a recognition of a Palestinian state in temporary boundaries (already rejected by the president of the Palestinian Authority), with Israel's security concerns requiring a continued IDF presence along the Jordan River (already rejected by the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority). Notice the prominence of an independent Palestine and Israel security. Those two symbols would have Edleman applauding with two hands, or at least cracking an enigmatic smile that could mean approval or cynicism.

Lasswell, Edleman, and Wildavsky were fine social scientists. They all emphasized understanding, and were not keen on prediction.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:37 PM
March 05, 2011
Keep hoping

The French and Russian revolutions gave rise to a rich literature about the stages of revolution. Not surprisingly, there is considerable argument about what happened in each stage, and when each revolution ended and a stable regime appeared. Truth be said, history never stops. There is always another stage in a country's development.

The American war of independence is not universally viewed as a revolution, insofar as it lacked mass bloodshed among the residents of what became the United States, or a change in the social classes ruling the country. The property losses, dislocations, and deaths of loyalists were small change compared to what happened in France and Russia. However, things were not settled until the adoption of the Constitution 16 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or perhaps until after the Civil War and its great bloodshed 80 years after the Declaration.

Those expecting a quick fix to the upsets in the Middle East should contemplate the French, Russian, and American cases. Two items that will not add to one's optimism, but are worth reading for what is better analysis than is coming out of the Obama administration are and

At this point, we should concede that we don't know if the Arab revolutions will get anywhere beyond a change in national leaderships, and if one or another will be closer to the French, Russian, or American models.

Islam is one factor likely to be important in current events that was missing from those earlier changes.

That is not to say the we should expect a simple take over by the maddest of the mullahs. There is substantial antipathy against religious rule among non-mullahs who want to rule their countries. Among them, military officers are more powerful and better organized than other contenders.

But this is not to say that we should expect a simple take over by the armies.

Rather, we should recognize that the easiest part of a revolution is deposing existing people at the very top. The hard parts appear when one or another of the contending groups muscle its way among competitors who also want to replace the previous rulers. See the link above that describes those already competing with one another for their share in Libya.

Stability is not likely to come quickly, which is another way of say that another revolutionary stage is likely to follow the first, then the second, and so on.

Given the nature of Islam and the politics associated with it, one can expect that democracy is the least likely of results we should expect from changes currently underway. Also unlikely is government by liberal intellectuals who will work to establish the social and educational infrastructures of democracy. Better to bet on military officers, Islamic clerics, or something close to the current elites who will change the people at the very top, institute changes that they call reform, and use the powers of entrenched bureaucracies to keep the people from demanding more.

We call bureaucracies entrenched because they are essential to stability and seldom change. Note what happened when the allies sought to democratize Germany and Japan after World War II. Most of the school teachers, police, judges, and other functionaries who served during the war kept their jobs.

There would appear to be no greater folly than to expect movement on Israel and Palestine in the near future. Where are the moderate Arab governments that have been expected to support Palestine and to urge flexibility on them? The list has included Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunis. All of them are either deep in their own chaos, or doing what they can to keep demonstrations from threatening their regimes.

It is common for the international and Israeli left to accuse the Netanyahu government of being dead set against the concessions necessary to make peace. But what if the prime minister offered a package similar to Ehud Barak's proposal, with the endorsement of President Bill Clinton in 2000, or what Ehud Olmert offered in 2008? Both received quick rejections from Palestinian leaders. Even quicker was the rejection when Benyamin Netanyahu mooted the possibility of a partial settlement last week.

If there was ever a time when Palestinians might have dared to depart significantly from their demands of 1967 borders and the return of refugees, this does not seem to be it. With the masses clamoring from change across the Arab world, and willing to kill and die as in Libya, the always shaky regime of the West Bank is not about to risk its future.

Commentators who set themselves apart from the conventional wisdom wonder why Palestine is such a darling of the international community. It is not the area that suffers the most from poverty or repression. Maybe it is because Israel is perceived as the decisive power most likely to cave under international persuasion and pressure. If that is the reason, the international consensus has not noticed that left, centrist, and rightist governments have not moved significantly beyond what has never been close enough to Palestinian demands.

More persuasion or more pressure on Israel?

Hope springs eternal. It is easier than the hard work that begins with reality.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:44 AM
March 03, 2011
Problems here and there

It's happened again. Within a day of the Prime Minister Netanyahu talking about pursuing a temporary solution for Israel and Palestine, the leader of the Palestine Authority has rejected the idea.

So much for negotiations.

The history of rejection goes back a long way, with a prominent landmark being the Khartoum Declaration of 1967 by the heads of major Arab states (no recognition of Israel, no conciliation, no negotiation). The Palestinian representative at Khartoum could not bring himself to agree with his allies, perhaps because they had softened their pre-1967 position of urging the destruction of Israel.

Rejections by the Palestinians themselves occurred in 2000 and 2008. The leadership refused to negotiate through almost all of the ten months of a settlement freeze that the present Israeli government accepted in order to facilitate negotiations, and has since rejected the idea of negotiating with any government led by Benyamin Netanyahu.

There are two prominent explanations. One is that the Palestinians recognize (along with many Israelis, but not apparently the Obama administration) that negotiations cannot go anywhere in the presence of extremist demands coming out of Gaza and elsewhere in Palestinian communities. Another is that the Palestinian leadership of the West Bank is holding to postures that it hopes to achieve with international support without compromise: the borders of 1967, a capital in Jerusalem, and the return of refugees from 1948 and perhaps 1967, with their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

There have been occasional reports, usually denied soon after they become public, that the Palestinians are willing to compromise on the details. Israel has signaled its willingness to compromise on all of these items. Each side accuses the other of bad faith and bad intentions.

Now the demonstrations, demands, violence, accomplished or imminent toppling of leaders in various Muslim countries.

What caused themt? What do they mean for Israel and Palestine?

Most can agree that the retarded character of Muslim states on the traits of economic development, living standards, and political liberties have considerable importance. Beyond that is the ease of electronic communication not stoppable by authoritarian regimes that contribute to contagious aspirations. The whole thing may have begun with the problems of a Tunisian who wanted to operate a kiosk in the market. Or Barack Obama may have done it with his Cairo speech of 2009, that provided White House legitimacy to the notion that the regimes of Egypt and other Muslim countries were unacceptable.

An interview with a Harvard professor of history with considerable experience in the Middle East is making the rounds via YouTube.
Compared to Obama cheerleaders like Thomas Friedman, Professor Niall Ferguson's sense of history goes back beyond yesterday, his knowledge of geography and cultures extends beyond the Washington Beltway, and he speaks with Israelis beyond those of the academic left.

Ferguson notes that neither the President's experience nor the vast intelligence apparatus of the United States kept him from the potential harm of criticizing an Arab regime in a prominent speech delivered in its capital city, did not expect the extent or spread of the protests, and did not keep him and his aides from numerous confusing changes in their public pronouncements once the demonstrations began.

Ferguson accuses Obama of gross inexperience, and doing international politics with a superficial, politically correct, and touchy-feelyness that might work with his domestic constituency, but not in the Middle East. Obama's style differs from the bluster of George W. Bush, but is no wiser. Pity the young men and women sent to die, to enter the torments of physical injury or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or simply to waste time in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever else becomes stylish for American adventurers.

Pity also Israeli and Palestinian leaders, who cannot afford to ignore the American president, no matter how naive he is.

Richard Nixon may have been the most recent president with a grasp of his country's priorities and capacities in international affairs, but his other problems got in the way of an award from the Nobel Committee. Arguably he should have shared the 1973 prize with Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. More recently the combination of power and parochiality has not served anyone well, inside or outside of the United States.

Currently this is the easy part of Prime Minister Netanyahu's work. He can rely on the Palestinians to reject everything he suggests about their mutual future. Perhaps he can expect that Americans will concentrate on problems more pressing in the area from Morocco to Pakistan than those of this spot of relative quiet.

The prime minister's domestic scene is less placid.

Two groups of religious Jews are the most troubling stains on his table. Religious nationalists settlers and their friends, and the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), each exist in their own worlds with little or no communication.

Settlers are blocking key intersections in protest against about the removal of a settlement built on privately owned Palestinian land and long held to be illegal. The prime minister ordered the action, saying that there was a limit to Israel's capacity to resist demands from Americans and other friends who have their own limits to what they can tolerate from Israelis. A soldier who resided in the settlement proclaimed that he would not accept the IDF's discipline; and is currently serving a 30-day sentence in the stockade for his efforts. Right-wing Knesset members are demanding parliamentary inquiries about the barbarity of the army and police (using non-lethal crowd control) against settlers who were violent in resisting their eviction.

The Haredim's problem is with government inspectors who came to their yeshivot to verify the identity of students whose presence entitles the academies to receive government support. Inflated and fictitious claims about students have been widely known and the subject of several government reports. Now the Haredim are screaming that their students are being kept from the sacred task of Torah study while officials verify their identity.

Netanyahu's government appears secure, but the maximum length of a government's term is about half-over. Israelis are maneuvering for position.

Those wanting his job should know how to cope with several varieties of Jews who cannot be satisfied; Palestinians who want to turn back history by at least seven decades and maybe by ten or more; a troubled region lumped by outsiders under the headings of "Arab" or "Muslim," but with national, tribal, and family histories that defy simple categories or analysis; and American presidents who aspire to direct areas of the world whose histories and cultures they do not comprehend.

Solutions, alas, are not among our options. Not making things worse is the prime rule.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: 054-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:23 AM