November 29, 2011
Are we are aren't we doing it?

There has been another explosion in Iran. This one in the city of Isfahan, home to spectacular Muslim architecture, and industrial facilities linked to the country's nuclear program.

There are no reports that the explosion damaged the mosques or madrases.

Among the Iranian reports are that it occurred at a gas station.

Iranians claimed that an earlier explosion near Tehran was an industrial accident. It killed a highly placed general in charge of elements associated with the nuclear program.

The Iranians also claimed that last year's virus that infected computers concerned with its nuclear facilities did no serious damage.

At least two Iranian nuclear scientists did not make it to work a year ago, one due to a car bombing and another to a drive by attack from a motorcycle.

All that may be random happenstance.

But some or all of them may be the work of Israel, its international partners, or agents. If so, they fit a scenario wiser and no less effective than an all out attack on the same facilities. They have not caused the rain of missiles on Israel likely to follow an overt attack. Overseas Jewish and Israeli facilities might suffer in retaliation. Remember those bombings in Argentina during the 1990s that killed more than 100 Israelis and Argentinian Jews. Their link to Iran is a lot clearer than any link between Israel and these most recent events. Best to tighten security at synagogues, Temples, and Community Centers in anticipation of Hanukkah.

At the most, these attacks (if they are that) will only delay Iran's progress toward a nuclear weapon. However, no one who has urged an overt attack has claimed that they would do more than delay the inevitable. And no less than their impact on delaying, these strategically placed pinpricks--if they are that--may work along with economic sanctions to persuade enough Iranians, close enough to the levers of power, that the pursuit of nuclear weapons is not worth the trouble.

There is nothing more substantial than media speculations available to simple citizens like me.

Dan Meridor holds a flimsy government portfolio labeled "Intelligence Agencies Ministry." By all the signs, it's only a title for a ministry without portfolio. That job is both a gesture and a slap for Meridor, who was not given a real ministry in the Netanyahu government. Yet Meridor is more impressive than his current job. He is well regarded as a thoughtful and moderate conservative, with a long family history in Likud and its predecessor right-wing, nationalist parties. Recently he has attacked proposals coming from activists further to the right in Likud, intent on shaping the Supreme Court or muzzling left-wing pressure groups that operate with foreign donations.

Meridor was asked about the explosion in Isfahan. You can read what you want in his responses.

"isn't right to expand on this topic. . . there are countries who impose economic sanctions and there are countries who act in other ways."

Those of you who think that Israel's activity (if it is that) is illegal and self-defeating can stop reading. The delete button is somewhere to the right of your fingers.

Better to view whatever is happening as part of an ageless and endless conflict. Especially prominent is a widespread assertion among Muslims that this is their region, and that Jews are temporary interlopers with no history in the area. The Bible and archaeological remains to the contrary do not penetrate their world view. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's frequent denials of the Holocaust and threats to annihilate Israel are part of this. His latest assertion is that there are 150,000 missiles aimed at Israel.

The Palestinians leadership is not so bombastic, but its political and religious figures have asserted their monopoly on what Jews call the Temple Mount, say that there never was a significant Jewish presence in Jerusalem, and are doing what they can to destroy whatever signs of the Temples that they unearth while expanding their facilities.

Just yesterday the Prime Minister ordered a postponement of a project to replace the tottering bridge between the Plaza alongside the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. Election day in Egypt and the likelihood of unrest in Jordan was not the occasion to risk yet another campaign against Jewish intentions to destroy al-Aqsa Mosque.

It is true that accommodationists have no great presence in the Netanyahu government. You can think what you will about the Prime Minister's own feelings. However, left-wing and centrist Jews have been urging accommodation with the Arabs since the 1920s. Brit Shalom was a predecessor of Peace Now. Even earlier, Herzl in his innocence wrote about the benefits to the Arab population of Jewish settlement. Virtually all public opinion polls suggest the continued strength of accommodation in the population, waiting to express itself in exchange for an appropriate message from well-placed Palestinians.

You can think what you want about the Geneva Initiative. It didn't do the job.

The insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is not just a tactical blip. It represents a challenge to the Muslim insistence that the Jews are a foreign element of occupation with no history and no rights.

Chances are slim to nothing that the Muslims will alter their perspective. Should a miracle occur, lots of Israelis are willing to take them up on it.

No use talking about the details of what Israel should offer. That tactic has been tried, several times.

The problem is Islam and its intense followers. It may not be politically correct to express such thoughts in the western lands of peace and wonderment, but it fits the assertions coming from a wide spectrum of political and religious leaders.

Believe what you will about the Islam, and what you will about these viruses, explosions, and assassinations in Iran.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 05:17 AM
November 26, 2011

One of the great failures of my professional life is an inability to convince Israeli Arabs (or Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) to adopt the model of African-Americans as a way of political and social advancement.

Arab intellectuals and political activists are well schooled in good reasons to reject the comparison. History never repeats itself. Details are important, and they differ between the African-American and the Palestinian experience.

All that is true, but there are better reasons to consider the African-American model, and to employ it in a mode of self-criticism. It is clear to me, if not to the Arabs of Israel, that the model of rejectionism followed until now has not served them well.

It is hard for me to avoid the conclusion that among the reasons for the rejection of the African-American model is at least a bit of racism. Or it may be better to phrase it as a sense of cultural and religious superiority. Arabs, and perhaps especially the Muslims among them, are convinced that they deserve better than what they have received.

Did I really hear the man accurately when he said that the African-American experience could not be compared to the far greater suffering of Palestinians? I made no impression with my response about "Whites Only" drinking fountains, rest rooms, and park benches, and the killing of African-Americans who dared to vote.

African-American progress to corporate board rooms, good neighborhoods, and the White House owes something to decent Whites, but at least as much to the hard work of African-American politicians. Climbing the ladders of political activity from local wards and Congressional elections to heading cities, acquiring seniority and chairing Congressional committees, and using voting clout to influence the selection of judges served to expand voting rights, affirmative action, and further progress up society's ladders.

The vast majority of the Arabs living in East Jerusalem refuse to vote in municipal elections in order to avoid participation in Israeli occupation. They give up the opportunity to select between a quarter and a third of the city council, and to be the deciding factor in mayoralty contests that--for the foreseeable future--are likely to pit an ultra-Orthodox candidate against a secular Jew. Without the political power that they surrender for the sake of nationalist dreams, the Arabs of East Jerusalem are left to complain about poor schools, unpaved streets, a lack of sidewalks and garbage collection, the lack of responses to their calls for an ambulance, or the delay of the ambulance until the crew receives police protection against the prospect of stoning or some other unpleasantness.

An Arab response: participation in the politics of Lod, Ramle, Acco, and Tel Aviv-Yafo has not produced results. The Jews on the city councils gang up against Arab members, so why should we try in Jerusalem? The Arabs in the Knesset do no better.

I do not know what happens in those other cities with substantial Arab minorities. The Knesset story is simple. The Arabs have not adopted the African-American model of participating in the major parties, and trading their votes for material benefits provided to their constituents. Most Arab Knesset Members affiliate with Arab parties that spend all their energy criticizing the Israeli establishment and distinguishing themselves from the major parties, rather than cooperating for the sake of payoffs.

Politics is hard work. Failure is more frequent than success. "Every day you have to eat -----" was prominent in the lessons I taught my students.

Explanations of Arabs' political impotence may begin with all those Muslim governments anxious to help. Multi-generational status as refugees, living on the dole of the United Nations and occasional contributions by Muslim governments (along with the provision of munitions) has reinforced a posture of suffering from Jewish injustice. To go along with the Zionist state would be to go against the international coalition that claims to support the cause of Palestine.

The Jews' experience as a weak minority began differently. According to the Prophet Jeremiah, the Jews exiled to Babylon should

"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." (Jeremiah 29:6-8)

For most of the later Diasporas, the Jews lacked political influence. They resembled African-Americans in their complete dependence on others. The Jews of the United States, and those of other democracies, have lifted themselves to economic and cultural heights not by rebelling or relying on others, but by learning the play the game, and taking advantage of opportunities in business, politics, and other fields. Until well into the 1960s, American Jews faced resistence by universities and corporations in acceptance as students or employees, municipalities in residential restrictions, and government departments in the favortism shown to WASPS.

The Golden Rule of Doing Unto Others as You would have them Do Unto You does not assure success in politics. Claiming a monopoly of having suffered, and expecting others to help is a fatal poison, self-administered.

Going along to get along, or Log-rolling (I'll roll your log if you roll mine) is the game that produces results.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:36 AM
November 24, 2011
One of the dark corners

One can enjoy eating sausage without feeling an obligation to visit the slaughterhouse or the sausage maker.

One can also enjoy the benefits of government without worrying about all the details about how the community is kept safe from crime, polluted air, water, and food, or any other disturbance.

Some will say that injustice is not in the same league of enjoying meat. Human rights are more a cause for worry than animal rights, and even more important that wrestling with the need of most of us for meat. Vegans of the world, let us hear. You may be on a wave.

It occurs to me that I am writing this on Thanksgiviing. The holiday is not celebrated here, except perhaps for the case of some ex-patriates who cannot abide the loss of a good feed. Generally speaking, Israeli ovens are too small for what Americans have bought at their supermarkets in recent days. In your place I would enjoy the meal, without telling the little ones the story of those turkeys on their way to the supermarket.

There is some concern about one of the dark corners of this society. Dark in the sense of unknown, and perhaps beyond the desire of most Israelis to know. Like the innards of the sausage industry, we don't worry about everything.

Also dark in the view of some Israelis, because it represents one of the places they find injustice.

The issue is the country's treatment of the migrants who come over the border with Egypt.

If you enjoy pondering legal complexity with a great deal of uncertainty, this is a good place to begin.

International treaties provide certain rights pertaining to asylum for individuals fleeing persecution. However, one of the complexities is whether those rights apply to individuals who have passed through one or several countries on their way to reaching the country where they claim asylum. According to the "safe third country" principle, an asylum seeker can claim protection only in the first safe country reached after leaving the country of origin.

By this principle, Israel is not the proper address for asylum seekers who have passed through Egypt, and perhaps other countries, since leaving their place of origin. Egypt may not be a paradise, but so far we do not hear of Egyptians fleeing their country and claiming asylum in Israel. The migrants reaching Israel come from African countries--most of them apparently from Eritrea--and their claims of refuge ought to have been presented to Egyptian authorities, or those of some other country on their way to Egypt.

Should Israel accept responsibility for an unknown--and apparently increasing number of Africans--who see it as one of the better places to seek a homeland?

Israel is working to build a barrier along the border with Egypt that is meant to prevent, or at least discourage the migration. Most of the border is still an unmarked line through the desert. There are outposts and patrols by Israeli and Egyptian soldiers, but nothing close to assuring a closed frontier.

It is not easy to discover the numbers of migrants coming over the Sinai, their origins, or the justice of their claims about persecution. They come without documents and claim what they want. Getting to the Israeli border is neither easy nor pleasant. We hear that they must pay Beduin smugglers to guide them, and that the smugglers exploit them financially, sexually, and--according to recent reports--drug some and turn them over to Egyptian physicians who extract organs and leave the donors to die. Egyptian soldiers act to prevent the migrants from reaching the Israeli border. They kill some and take some into custody. Without anything close to decent information, we can only wonder whether those activities are meant to satisfy Israeli demands that Egypt stop the migration through its territory, or are part of Egypt's chronic warfare against the Beduin of Sinai.

A substantial number of the migrants encounter Israeli soldiers patrolling the border. Again, we do not know if this is most of the migrants, or how many get across unobserved and find their way to the communities of Africans in the nearby city of Eilat or further north in Tel Aviv. There they do what illegal migrants do elsewhere in the underground industries of menial work in restaurants, hotels, gas stations, agriculture, house cleaning, and gardening.

Those apprehended by IDF patrols go to a prison being expanded to accommodate them while individual cases are judged pending decisions about refugee status or return to their home country. Insofar as the migrants lack documents, it is no easy task to determine where they are from, or how justified their requests for asylum. African countries are not eager to accept undocumented individuals that Israel claims to be their nationals. A substantial number of refugees say that they are from Dafur or elsewhere in Sudan, where abuses make such claims attractive to human rights activists. Israel has no formal relationship with the Sudan that can aid with identification or repatriation.

Israel's human rights organizations claim that the migrants are not given adequant representation to establish their claims, or sufficient medical treatment to deal with their problems. The prison service does not go out of its way to facilitate inquiries. A recent article in Ha'aretz is characteristically generous in reporting the claims of human rights advocates, without pondering the knotty question as to what Israel should be doing for migrants coming from who knows where via Egypt.

Not a pleasant story for Thanksgiving? Neither are the stories of all those turkeys.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:48 AM
November 21, 2011
Jews and Arabs

There is good news and other news on the issue of peace and harmony between Jews and Arabs within Israel.

Note "within Israel." This is not primarily about the Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but of simple decency and accommodation between Jews and Arabs on the streets, in neighborhoods, stores, workplaces, football fields, and other places within Israel.

First the bad news. A group of Jewish extremists, already targeted by security forces for their activities in the West Bank, are going from business to business in Jerusalem in order to identify those employing Arabs, and urging Jews to stay away.

The good news is that the Acco football team, poor and representing a small city, defeated a well-financed team from Tel Aviv. Acco is a mixed city, largely middle- and working-class, with about 70 percent of the population Jews and close to 30 percent Arabs. The football team has only one Arab player, but the fans are a mixture of Jews and Arabs. Football fans elsewhere are noted for occasional racist outbursts, but those of Acco seem to get along. In our recent visit to the Old City of Acco we found Jewish merchants conducting business in their shops alongside the more prevelant Arab shops. That contrasts with the Old City of Jerusalem where the populations live and conduct business in their separate quarters, and where there is no shortage of tension.

Acco has had its problems. When an Arab resident drove through a Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur in 2008, the offense and response set off several days of violence.

The situation of general accommodation, along with quick degeneration and then a return to normalcy sums up much of inter-communal tensions involving Jews and others over a long history.

Something similar to this note could be written about relations between Muslim and Christian Arabs of Israel, or between either of those communities and the Druze or Beduin.

Despite tensions, Jews and Arabs can aspire to reaching a condition of tolerance if not actual harmony. Jews and Arabs are destined to live close to one another in this small place, and have shown that they can benefit from what each can bring to economic, cultural, and personal relationships.

It would be wrong to delude ourselves into expecting that ethnic and religious co-existence is easy to achieve. A major barrier is aggressive Islam, curently widespread in the region, with its encouragement that Palestinians and Israeli Arabs (or Palestinian citizens of Israel) turn back the clock to an idealized time when Jews were a small and passive minority in a region that was properly Muslim. Associated with this is Arab terror, Palestinian and Israeli-Arab adherence to claims of suffering at the hands of the Jews, multi-generational families with the status of refugees with unresolved rights, insisting on a monopoly of justice on their side of a conflict that has been ongoing for a century or more. On the Jewish side, disturbance comes from a minority having some clout in Israeli politics, with religious and political passions about the Land of Israel, assured of a monopoly of justice on their side, and a profound distrust of anything Arab.

There is enough mutual suspicion to provoke violence in a locale or more widely whenever a spark occurs.

Meanwhile, the two communities generally tolerate one another, each with complaints about the other, but with considerable interaction and some genuine friendships. There is a tiny number of closer relationships, and from them a few cases of love and marriage.

Neve Shalom is a small community with Arab and Jewish families mid-way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, mixed Arabic and Hebrew schooling, and programs of education meant to spread the benefits of accommodation. Middle- and high schools throughout Israel arrange meetings between classes from Arab and Jewish schools. These aspire to discuss problems and achieve what is politically correct, but in some cases create a feeling that the effort is artificial, with students learning to play the roles expected of them.

Jewish history illustrates time and again tense co-existence with Gentiles interrupted by violence, with stories of some Gentiles protecting Jews during the troubles, and some turning against those who had thought of them as friends.

A late cousin spoke rarely of years during her childhood in the Netherlands sheltered in the home of a Christian while her brother and parents went to their deaths in Eastern Europe. Years later, at one of her visits with the woman who risked her life and those of family members in order to protect a Jewish child, the woman let loose with an anti-Semitic remark prompted by our cousin using the telephone without previously asking permission.

One of my left-wing faculty friends is known for his persistent efforts in behalf of a Palestinian state. He once acknowledged that his initial reaction to news of a terrorist attack is an intense desire to kill an Arab.

There is no Paradise on the horizon for those concerned to assure harmony between Jews and Arabs within Israel, or to achieve the goal of two states living at peace alongside one another. The goals are laudable, but seemingly beyond reach. The prospect of two-states is complicated by the tough internal politics of two competing communities, plus the complications added by many actors in international politics, each pursuing their own interests.

The simpler goal of decent human relations also feels the strains of international politics, as well as the baggage that each person has acquired over the years. Those who ponder what they may do to improve things on a personal level might aspire at the least to the Golden Rule of policymaking: Don't make things worse.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 05:38 AM
November 20, 2011
Climate, history, and politics

A rainy weekend leads me to thoughts about climate.

This is a note about my locality, not about the fate of the world.

Perhaps some of you thought I was living in the desert.

Not true. Jerusalem has almost as much rain on an annual basis as London. An umbrella is useless here from April through October. A rain in those months produces media headlines. When it does rain from November through March, it is not like a light London mist manageable with an umbrella. It is often heavy and comes with wind that makes an umbrella more of a burden than a benefit.

Jerusalem and especially the eastern suburbs like French Hill are on the wet side of the desert's border. While the city gets an average rainfall of 554 mm (against London's 650 mm), a bit more than 10 miles further east the average ranges between 30 and 150 mm annually.

Before the first intifada that began in the late 1980s, we could drive to Jericho is the midst of a wet winter and enjoy lunch in an outdoor restaurant, under a grape arbor that shielded us from the sun. Imagine Miami a half hour by car from Manhattan and you get the message.

Among our oddities is a continental divide only a block to the west. On the other side of Hahagana Street, the water flows to the Mediterranean. The rain on us flows east--often through dangerous flash floods in desert valleys--then to the Dead Sea and evaporation.

This weekend's view from our balcony shows the wet close by, with sunshine on desert sand five miles away.

Jerusalem's rain, like that of Israel generally, fluctuates widely from year to year. There may be several wet years running, and currently several dry years. Genesis 41 should not be relied upon as scientific, or something to guide a decision about investing in desalination. Joseph's story of seven fat years and seven lean years suggests that the ancients were familiar with annual variations. The frequent reappearance of the number seven in the Hebrew Bible should make one suspicious of the science involved.

While the multi-year average for Jerusalem is 554 mm of rain, we have to go back to 2004-05 to find a year with that much rainfall. Since then the years have ranged between 326 and 533 mm, with the six year average 412 mm. (for this and other fluctuations, see

The country is wealthy and sophisticated enough to make do with the rainfall that it gets. It has long been a leader in drip irrigation, and recycles partially treated sewage for certain kinds of agriculture. Eilat has relied on desalinated sea water for decades, and desalination plants are springing up along the Mediterranean. Technology makes desalination more efficient than in the past, but it still demands large inputs of energy. To save on its desalination budget, the government encourages limited use by increasing our home water bills, and tries to be stingy with the water allotments given to farmers. The argument is that it is cheaper to import food than to desalinate water, but the farmers resist. Also involved is the power of the ultra-Orthodox community. They receive discounts on water bills for large families.

While many Jews are generous with their water and obsessed with gardens and trees, the stuff is expensive. Green as opposed to dust is one of the distinctions between Jewish and Arab residential areas, with Heredi neighborhoods looking more Arab than Jewish on this trait.

The government has allocated almost all of the Jordan River flow to Israeli agriculture or to Jordan as part of the peace agreement. Barely enough is let through for Christian pilgrims to immerse themselves in a baptism pool where Jesus is said to have been dunked, and the Dead Sea is drying up. Various entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and the Finance Ministry have been squabbling for years about bringing water from the Mediterranean or Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Involved are Israelis and Jordanians who want to develop tourism and to continue mining the Dead Sea for minerals, and Palestinians who claim a piece of the action.

No surprise that politics is not far away from my comments about water, or anything else.

To encourage us to save on the expensive stuff, the toilet facilities available in the hardware stores allow a choice between light and heavy flushes. Some families save in buckets the water that runs until it gets hot, and use that for the garden, flushing, or cleaning the floor.

The annual forecast just released calls for another dry year. One takes these full season forecasts with a grain of salt, especially when the most recent week has seen Jerusalem getting close to 20 percent of its annual average, and other parts of the country have already exceeded 40 percent of their annual average.

No doubt I will get e-mail from Bible enthusiasts convinced on this point as on others that the Holy Book is more accurate than than the meteorological service. I've written elsewhere, and will surely write again that the Hebrew Bible is a great book, reflecting Judaic talent for expression in describing the world as seen by the authors. While some macro geopolitical and climatic phenomenon repeat themselves (like warfare between tribes and empires for this land bridge between continents, or the annual variation in rainfall), those observations do not help the detailed planning necessary for what to do about Palestinians and Iran, or whether to invest in more desalination plants.

So far, the sun continues to come after the rain. This morning's red, gold, and blue over the Judean desert offered a pleasant relief from the wet greys of the weekend.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:27 AM
November 17, 2011
Government is more than politics

Politics has been the curse of this corner in the Middle East. Proclamations and grand intentions coming from those claiming to be leaders of Palestine, Israel, the United States and other great powers who say they are pursuing peace are actually paving the road to nowhere. Neither Palestinian nor Israeli leaders can overcome the mutual suspicions of one another that prevail their populations, or deal effectively with the extremists in their camps who do what they can to derail whatever agreements seem feasible. Americans, Europeans, and worthies of the United Nations make things worse. They inflame Palestinian expectations, and make demands of Israel (e.g. stop building in neighborhoods that have been Israeli for 45 years) that add to Jewish outrage and distrust.

Fortunately for us all, government is more than politics. Middle- and lower-level technicians in government departments have done better than the politicians who are their superiors. Security personnel, engineers and other professionals from the two sides meet and arrange things between them, except when politicians and other activists heat things up to the point where cooperation is impossible.

Some of the aid projects coming to Palestine from the United States and the European Community have added to the cooperation. Notable have been programs to train Palestinian security personnel and to finance projects in the fields of roads, sewage, and water. What comes from the toilets of Palestinians and Israelis ends up hurting both communities if it is not treated. Clean water in Palestine and professional police--as opposed to bribe-taking thugs--improves security on the streets of the West Bank and lessens the threat of terror in Israel. If Palestinians can move more quickly from one part of their territory to another, they are more likely to be content and prosperous.;

This is not a protest against Israeli security barriers or IDF incursions when Palestinian rockets fly or other extremists do what they do.

Some incidents of terror have involved Palestinian security personnel. However, things have gotten better since the United States and Jordan began cooperating with finance and training, and Israel permitted the inflow of appropriate weapons and other equipment.

Gaza is another world, whose leadership is the weakest chink in Palestinians' calls for international assistance.,

General aid to Palestine is more problematic than money directed at specific projects, where technocrats from the donor countries oversee the process of implementation. Money that goes to the budget of the Palestine Authority, and what comes under the heading of humanitarian assistance has shown itself leakable to the private accounts of those with their hands close to the till. Donors recognize the problem of corruption, but are not sufficiently concerned to monitor their contributions. They seem satisfied with getting applause from the trendy folk who admire aid to Palestine without paying attention to the details.

Political scientists have long pondered the interface between politics and government. Classic in the field is an item published in the latter part of the 19th century by a professor who later had some success as a politician.

Woodrow Wilson's Study of Administration (1887), as well as several shelves of literature written since then wrestle with the proper division of labor between politics and and other elements of government. It is fair to summarize it by saying that democracy requires politics, but administration (i.e., the various professions of technocrats working for government) is essential to get things done. A corollary is that politicians talk, often without a sense of responsibility for what comes next, while administrators pick up the pieces and accomplish practical tasks, all the while keeping the peace between those arguing about what the politicians said or did not say.

Why the prominence of politicians proclaming grand intentions they have no chance of accomplishing?

Are Obama, Abbas, Netanhayu and a passel of European national leaders nothing but fools who are deluding themselves and us? Do they actually believe what they say, or are they paying lip service in order to maintain a posture of political correctness among their elite colleagues?

One can never be sure, but perhaps politicians are governed--and misled--by expectations of their profession. They operate with simple conceptions of democracy, and may think that they can persuade other leaders and their publics to believe and act according to what they think is right. Or they only may be doing what is certain to gain them support from their home constituencies.

Technocrats have political views, but their work is simpler and more clearly defined. They know how to train personnel, construct roads and facilities to deal with sewage and supply clean water, and most of what else comes from departments that produce physical infrastructure and social services.

In the tiny space that is Israel and Palestine, administrators from each community are bound to deal with one another. Roads must connect at agreed places. There are shared lines for electricity, telephones, water, and sewage. Radio and television services must not interfere with one another in order to be useful to each community..Communicable diseases and pollution cannot be contained within political boundaries.

My reading of history discourages any expectations of an independent Palestine. However, classes with Palestinian and Jewish students, travels on the Jerusalem tram that picks up passengers in Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, as well as shared space and friendships in the university gym provide me with enough optimism to see me through the ugliness.

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians can live in the modern world without politicians. We also have our literary figures, media commentators, and religious leaders. All are part of the what people expect in places that are in tune with what others are doing. Outsiders who bemoan the plight of Palestinians grossly exaggerate their poverty and misery, especially in the case of those in the West Bank. Even the poor among them feel the impact of Arab culture that is far richer than the shouts of Jew-hating fanatics.

How to proceed on the road of improved public services and the cooperation that is inherent in sharing aspirations of clean air and water and other decent services in a small space and intermixed populations, without falling afoul of the excitements engendered by politicians who seem to care so little about what they produce?

No one since Wilson has produced the key. And if we take another look at his own record, he didn't do so well with his fascination and frustrations involving the League of Nations. His story suggests that political rhetoric is a trap for those who do not worry enough about what we can label as the implications, carry through, implementation, or the nitty gritty of administration.

Wilson was not sufficiently aware that politics is the art of the possible. Neither did Barack Obama when he preached from Cairo and subsequently to Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs. Polls indicate that he angered each of the relevant publics, and did not produce the results he demanded in short order. Abbas and Netanyahu are speaking to their own communities, and not to those who must be persuaded.

Keep us safe from grand proclamations. Clean sewage and efficient trams are more useful.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:45 AM
November 15, 2011
Getting around Jerusalem

No doubt about Jerusalem's special character. It ranks as one of the most visited cities, as calculated by the number of overseas tourists in proportion to local residents. Religion is important both to visitors and to many of the residents. Not only are there sites that have been central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam since the beginnings of each faith, but the one-third of the Jewish population that is ultra-Orthodox and the tens of thousands of Muslims who stream toward al-Aqsa on holy days make religion a prominent activity, as well as an occasional source of tension spilling over to violence. Except for clergy and visitors, there is not much of a Christian population remaining in the city. The Central Bureau of Statistics counts 11,500 Arab Christian residents, and perhaps another 2,500 Armenians. Table 2.11 Table III-14.

Religion does not demand all of the residents' attention. Nearly 800,000 people call the city home, and much of the time they relate to its monuments the way New Yorkers relate to the Statue of Liberty. It's there, but more pressing are issues of work and home, the kids' education, neighbors, finding a parking place, nagging the municipality to empty the trash bins, and finding a way from here to there when crews are tearing up a street in order to fix something old or install something new.

In recent months the cityscape has seen a major something new. Perhaps not the greatest innovation in the 3,000 since David took charge, but maybe the most prominent since Israel made Jerusalem its capital in 1948, and more certainly since the unification of the city in 1967.

After a long time for planning, digging up, construction, finding graves and other archaeological artifacts causing delays and re-routining, Jerusalem's Light Rail began carrying passengers in August. Now it has passed through its breaking-in period of free ridership, and is about to operate like tram systems elsewhere.

Jerusalem has long had a thorough system of public transportation, but the light rail differs from buses that follow one another through narrow and noisy streets, jostle passengers due to bumps in the road or sudden turns and stops, and spend much of the time stalled in traffic. The light rail is quick, quiet, and smooth riding. It has priority at intersections, and the traffic lights are gradually being adjusted to the point where they assure that priority.

The first line to open also touches on one of the most sensitive issues in the city: the tensions between ethnic and religious communities, with frequent charges that municipal services favor someone else. The line begins in Neve Ya'acov, with a heavy working class population of Russian speakers. The fourth through seventh stops are in the Arab neighborhoods of Beit Hanina (upscale) and Shuafat (a former refugee camp often a source of trouble). Then comes French Hill and another mixed, largely Jewish neighborhood, then two stops alongside ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods (Shimon Hatzadik and Shivti Israel), then another major Arab stop close to the Old City and the problematic Damascus Gate, then on to the center of the city, religious and secular Jewish neighborhoods in the western party of the city toward the terminus alongside Mt Hertzl and Yad Vashem.

So far, so good. The media has reported on a number of minor incidents, such as Arab boys putting their feet on the seats then rail personnel having to separate them from Jewish protesters. But also observed have been conversations between Jewish and Arab mothers and grandmothers about how cute are one anothers' children. Ultra-Orthodox activists gained some media attention before the line began to operate with their demand--rejected by authorities--that carriages separate men and women.

Long delays during the construction left Jaffa Road--the main shopping street in the city center--inhospitable to traffic or pedestrians, and added to the deterioration in the quality of shops that had begun with the opening of a shopping mall several kilometers to the southwest. Now Jaffa Road is clean and free of traffic except for the rail lines in its center, and merchants are doing what they can to make it a more attractive place than in past decades.

Optimists see more of the good stuff serving to convince all populations that they have a common stake in the city and its public services. Pessimists are sure there will be a suicide bombing.

Eight more lines are planned, but so far no firm timetable for the start of construction. Hopefully the experience of Line #1 will speed further construction, but what makes Jerusalem special will continue to make improvements difficult. Streets are narrow, merchants and residents are jealous to control or prevent changes in their neighborhoods. There is always a high probability of finding bones or other relics when digging. Old bones are sure to begin protests by religious activists who insist that they are Jewish and must remain undisturbed where they are. They also cause squabbles between religious Jews and archeologists who want to examine them closely. Old stones excite archaeologists who insist on time to learn what is there, and decide if they should use their authority to prevent the artifacts from being bulldozed into the future.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:29 AM
November 14, 2011
Trying to keep other countries from doing what Israel does

Two proposals endorsed by a Knesset committee would be a reason for side-splitting laughter, if their authors were not speaking so proudly of their accomplishments.

One proposal, authored by one of the lesser lights in the Likud delegation, would ban foreign governments or international organizations, such as the UN, from donating over NIS 20,000 to political NGOs that seek to influence Israeli policy.

Another, the work of an Israel our Home MK who is also not on the list of Israeli politicians most of you recognize, would impose a 45 percent tax on donations from foreign governments to any NGO in Israel.

Both proposals claimed the support of a Likud member who is not a lesser light, i.e, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Other Likud MKs, as well as a large number of centrist and left-of-center MKs and numerous public personalities condemned the proposals as anti-democratic, poorly drafted, and likely to increase hostility toward Israel in important places. Prominent among the opponents were Likud MKs Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. Both Meridor and Begin are conservative Zionists with a record of independent thinking. Begin, the son of . . . , has earned his own reputation as a modest and soft-spoken politician who is not afraid to speak truth to power, even if costs him an outsider's role in government.

Among the problems in the proposals are definitions of the donors and recipients meant to be limited. The language would include some left of center NGOs that are chronic critics of the Israeli government, but not others--equally inclined to make trouble for the government--that are different kinds of organizations than those mentioned in the proposals. And while the proposals would ban donations from governments, per se, some of the objectionable donations come from organizations not clearly associated with a national government, even though their funding comes from a government budget.

Critics charge that the proposals are overtly political, aimed at cutting off the funding of left-of-center organizations that speak in favor of accommodation with Palestinians, civil rights of Israelis generally, the rights of Israeli Arabs or the Palestinians of the West Bank, and other causes viewed as annoyances by the right of center politicians who authored and support the proposals.

Opponents charge that the proposals do not limit foreign donations to right of center religious and nationalist organizations, including some of the troublemakers concerned with settling Jews in hostile Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and ultra-Orthodox extremists who would extend the separation of sexes to Israel's public transportation and sidewalks, and ban pictures of women in public places or women performers before mixed audiences. The responses of those supporting the current proposals is that these donations come from individuals and not governmental bodies.

Supporters of the proposals have been loud is saying that only Israel is a target of foreign governments seeking to influence its policies by donations to NGOs that are chronic opponents of government policy.


Without doing any serious research--which most likely come up against fudged data and other kinds of disinformation--I am inclined to think that no government does more than Israel to support organizations in other countries meant to influence the policies of their governments.

One does not have to endorse the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to recognize that there is a coterie of individuals and organizations, closely allied with the Israeli government, that seeks to influence policies in various countries.

AIPAC may be the most prominent, but it is not alone. A number of countries have organizations labeled as Friends of Israel. Not all that different are the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (which itself represents 50 organizations), and other institutions with a good record of looking after Jewish and Israeli interests.

Not the same thing as the Israeli NGOs funded by foreign governments? Perhaps the budgets of AIPAC, Friends of Israel and other pro-Jewish or pro-Israel organizations come mostly from in-country individual membership dues and contributions. But no one in their right mind should claim that they operate without coordinating their activities with Israeli officials. Moreover, major fund raising occasions feature prominent Israeli officials who travel--most likely at Israeli government expense--to speak to their memberships and assert the importance of various postures currently on the agendas of their government.

The two proposals currently awaiting further action in the Knesset have a close cousin waiting initial action by a Knesset committee. This is a bill that would require individuals being considered for elevation to the Supreme Court to appear before a Knesset committee, with a majority of the committee able to veto an individual who does not pass muster.

This proposal is supported by the same cluster of MKs who have supported a ban or tax on foreign government donations to NGOs. And likewise, the effort to reform the selection of judges has provoked wide opposition. It is said to threaten the politicization of the Supreme Court. Until now, Supreme and lesser court judges have been selected by committees with some political representation, but dominated by sitting judges. Advocates of the status quo claim that it is wise to isolate the courts from partisan politics, and to select those individuals most skilled in "objective" applications of the law.

Those wanting to reform the process scoff as such claims, and assert that the the Supreme Court, in particular, has a left-wing, secular, Ashkenazi bias, with only occasional and token representatives of conservatives, religious Jews, Jews of Middle Eastern backgrounds, or non-Jews. Proponents of change claim that sitting judges select candidates who resemble themselves in background and political inclinations. They cite the practice in the United States, where appointments to higher courts are overtly political, with the president and Senators examining candidates on their record and their likely postures on controversial issues.

Most likely Israel will get through both of these storms.

The legislatures of other countries have no shortage of members with bright ideas, anxious for headlines, and capable of riling the media and their colleagues. For those members, all legislatures have back benches, located far from the seats of those who ponder the important issues.

None of the current proposals may earn final passage by the Knesset. Each of the three noted here have prompted ranking professionals in ministries having to implement them to express reservations. Those views will figure in the votes of some Knesset Members, and will affect the eventual administration of whatever may pass the parliament.

Even if none of them pass, however, proponents may be able to claim a bit of influence. Foreign governments may shy away from overt contributions to the most leftist Israeli organizations, especially when the Israeli government is right of center. Supreme Court judges may moderate whatever tendencies exist to decide against a measure that has passed the Knesset, out of fear of an anti-Court, draconian measure passing the Knesset in a way they cannot reject. Legal scholars will remember the case of US Supreme Court Justices who came to accommodate FDR's New Deal even though the President failed to win passage of a "court-packing" measure to increase the number of favorable Justices.

Once again we may see that government is more complex than party politics.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:12 AM
November 12, 2011
God and public policy

One cannot observe the politics of America or the Middle East without thinking, at least occasionally, about God.

And one cannot be a decent political scientist without looking beyond one's own locale, country, and continent, to see how things are done elsewhere.

All this makes it hard for a political scientist to be an atheist, or to hold too firmly to any one conception of God or God's demands of humans. There are so many of them, and they differ so much.

It may not be impossible for a political scientist to assert atheism, for we are exposed to the slippery language of politics, in which all is possible. Yet atheism for us is difficult in the extreme, given the prominence of God-quoting politicians of all stripes.

God is the most prominent and arguably the strongest figure in the political firmament.

God is strongest by virtue of the range of politicians who claim the mantle of God's grace.

I have divided my life between North America and the Middle East. I am less well informed about other places.

My testimony about God in politics may be weakest in the case of Europeans and East Asians. The meagre attendance of the pious in all those cathedrals may mean that God has moved on from Europe. Survey research indicates that Western Europeans are less likely than Americans to say they believe in God. The prominence of technocrats in the discussions of the various bodies of the European Community reinforce such a conclusion. Their debates are generally more detailed and rational--dealing with who gets how much of what--than what we hear about absolute truths in the regions where God prevails.

South and East Asians are hard for a westerner to fathom. What I read about the followers of Buddha and Confucius falls outside of my own monotheistic framework. However, the presence of numerous active Christians in those societies, pictures of Buddhists burning themselves for higher causes, and the intensity of the Chinese regime's pursuit of those who follow the sacred traditions of Tibet or Faulun Gong suggest the presence of at least a distant cousin of the God admired by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The many gods of Hindus seem strange to those of us brought up to deny the power of idols, but worldly political observers should have moved beyond what was written in the Book of Exodus so long ago, that my God is stronger than your God.

We have arrived at the ultimate mystery. Who or What is God?

Multi-culturalism and post-moderism demand that we skip over these questions, no matter how important they seem. Who among us humans can claim the key to such profound mysteries, not clearly answered by any of the prominent faiths.

Jews are the most elusive in describing God. We are forbidden by tradition to even express the name of the Almighty, much less to depict the image or describe the face. Christians focus on the Son of God and Muslims on the Prophet of Allah, without getting at the Almighty, per se.

But dare we ignore the passion or the prominence of God in political discourse?

Not if we want to understand the politics of the United States or the Middle East.

Americans are pretty close to the top of various surveys of western populations asking about a belief in God.;

The hot button issue of abortion, and a preacher's claim that a Mormon candidate follows a cult outside the framework of Christianity should quiet anyone who doubts the role of God in American politics, or is tempted to speak with too much certainty about a separation of Church and State.

It is interpreters and myth-makers who speak about a Separation of Church and State. The Constitution only says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Such language has not hindered tax exemptions for religious institutions, kept Holy Books away from the central ceremonies of courts or Congress, or provided much protection to politicians not inclined to visit a church, synagogue, or mosque.

The Almighty may figure more often in the recent campaigns of Republicans than Democrats, but we should not forget Jimmy Carter, the problematic preacher in Barack Obama's background, nor Obama's having to assert his Christian loyalties against claims about his middle name and his Muslim father.

The experience of Salman Rushdie and newspapers that dared publish cartoons depicting Muhammad should warn any traveler in Muslim countries about expressing doubts or humor.

Israeli politicians may be moved by religious tradition to keep God, per se, out of their campaigns. However, the insistence that Israel is a Jewish state, concern for the Land of Israel, and disputes about the observance of Shabbat and Kashrut make clear that the Almighty is close to the platforms of political parties that garner a majority of the votes.

How much of politicians' assertions of faith is lip service? Or to what extent does religious doctrine guide the decisions of policymakers?

The first of these questions falls outside our capacity to know, given what seems to be the universal tendency of politicians to speak in the most general of terms, in ways to avoid giving offense, or to keep us from knowing their inner most thoughts.

The second of these questions falls due to the diverse nature of religious doctrines. My own reading of documents said to be central to the major faiths leads me to wonder about the essential belief of any religion, outside of the affirmation of an Almighty that they are not inclined to describe with precision. The Talmud is a series of arguments--many of them unresolved--about God's laws. So much for the clarity of the Hebrew Bible. The divisions of Judaism, as well as the multiplicity of Christian denominations, and the bloody rivalry between Sunni and Shiite in Islam discourage any claims of obvious connections between doctrine and public policy.

All of which convinces me that God is pervasive in the politics of many countries. There is no other figure with a larger following. However, none of this clarifies the nature of the Almighty, or the nature of public policy that must be implemented. We are left with God at the center of politics, without knowing the character of God, or how to implement God's will.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:27 AM
November 11, 2011
Another chapter of the Katsav saga

Once again the story of Moshe Katsav has taken a large share of Israeli media. Yesterday was the occasion for the Supreme Court to reject his appeals against a verdict of guilty for two instances of rape and several counts of sexual harassment, and to affirm the lower court's sentence of seven years.

While there is a chance of asking the Court to reconsider, one of his elite attorneys has said that the prospect is problematic. In their reading of the verdict, which began at 9 AM and continued for more than an hour, the three judge panel indicated in the strongest of terms that the testimony of the plaintiffs was credible, and that Katsav's defense was tainted by lies. The panel--composed of two Jewish women and one Arab man--agreed unanimously to affirm the lower court's verdict and sentence.

The Court is providing Katsav a more generous period to arrange his affairs and prepare for incarceration than most convicted rapists. He is due to report on December 7. Other individuals in the situation of appealing a sentence are expected to bring personal items to the court, prepared to enter prison immediately after the Supreme Court's decision.

Katsav has hurt his own case on several occasions, and seems destined to continue doing so.

Going back to his time as Member of Knesset and then Minister in various departments of middling prestige, he had a reputation as a sexual predator. Women office workers warned their younger colleagues who might come into contact with him. His election to the presidency benefited from opposing Shimon Peres. Numerous Knesset Members--including some of Peres' party colleagues who had promised him support--feared Peres as a loose cannon who would use the office not as a ceremonial post and rubber stamp of government decisions, but as a platform for his own political agenda. "Anybody but Peres" is the conventional explanation of Katsav's victory in the Knesset election of 2000.

When I asked one Knesset member if he knew of Katsav's reputation, he answer was, "We knew, but hoped that the high expectations of the office would cure him."

Katsav began the process against him when he complained to the Attorney General that one of his secretaries was blackmailing him with threats of false accusations.

The complaint provided the opportunity for judicial and police authorities to move against what they had long known, but refrained from pursuing in the absence of a formal complaint. It did not take long for the Attorney General's investigation to turn from a case of blackmail to a case of sexual harassment. The publicity produced other complaints, and the rest is history.

Katsav's continued assertions of innocence have not helped him. At one point his attorneys arranged a plea bargain, in which Katsav would plead guilty to lesser charges and not face any jail time. Although he had indicated his agreement with the deal, he reneged at the last minute, against the advice of counsel.

While he claimed time and again that he never had sexual relations with the women accusing him, his attorneys tried the tactic in appealing the initial verdict--without success--that there were relations, but consensual.

Family members who have come loyally to every court appearance, and neighbors from the town where Katsav began his political career as mayor at the age of 24, continue to proclaim his innocence. The former president has been represented by three of the most distinguished criminal lawyers of the country, along with a number of lesser lights, presumably financed by the donations of supporters. One of the lead attorneys said after that the rejection of the appeal that both lower and Supreme Court judges were mistaken in relying as much as they did on the muddled testimony of claimants about a crime that allegedly occurred 11 years ago. However, the same attorney was hard pressed to answer a question about the credibility of Katsav.

Now that he faces incarceration, Katsav's continued insistence on innocence will put him into the category of an unrepentant sexual offender.

Still to be determined is his assignment within the penal system. A lack of contrition may result in his placement in the general population, and not in what might be the preferable departments for religious prisoners or elderly prisoners. Sexual offenders are in the lowest social status, more exposed than others to the offenses that prisoners commit against one another. The formal status of an sexual offender who does not admit his crimes also makes him ineligible for home vacations and a shortening of his sentence for good behavior.

Family members are worried about his acting against himself, and keeping close watch. The next media circus will come on the day he leaves home and travels to wherever he is assigned. Then we may put the Katsav story to rest.

Perhaps he will devote the next seven years to Shooting Myself in the Foot, with several detailed chapters.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 12:49 AM
November 08, 2011
So many uncertainties

Widely reported was this conversation at the G-20 summit in Cannes, not meant to be heard but for a slip-up of the great men close to an open microphone.

Nicolas Sarkozy, "I cannot bear Netanyahu, he's a liar."

Barack Obama, "You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day."

Israelis not in the Prime Minister's camp couple these revelations with Angela Merkel's repeated frustration with Netanyahu. Her outburst at news of additional construction in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank was something like, I can't believe a word he says.

Another Israeli response was that of the television personality who said, most likely with tongue in cheek, that Obama's comments reflected Netanyahu's success in reaching the White House. Several commentators talked about the propensity of politicians everywhere to promise the voters more than they deliver. One cited former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, For the sake of the Land of Israel, it is permissible to lie. Also heard was the reservation that lying to voters during a political campaign , or to fellow politicians in one's own country is to be expected, but lying repeatedly to leaders of important countries is something else.

While it is doubtful that Benyamin Netanyahu would win a competition to select the ideal Israeli, he is currently riding a wave of increased political support. His current peak in the polls may be due largely to the release of Gilad Shalit, but it also has something to do with his resisting a peace process with Palestinians widely viewed as unwilling or unable to compromise.

Responses here and elsewhere to the latest indications of Netanyahu's reputation teaches us what we should already have known about the role of personalities in politics. Not only is Netanyahu strong at home, but the recent comments about him are also serving the opponents of those who have made them. John McCain said that he has a strong and positive relationship with Benyamin Netanyahu, and that Obama's comments about him confirm the Administration's negative attitude toward Israel. Mitt Romney's line that the Administration would throw Israel under the bus will get attention from conservative Republicans and Jews wavering from their Democratic loyalties.

Competing with the reliability of Israel's Prime Minister is news about the report on Iran's nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Israelis are claiming that we've been telling you that for years. Analysts are saying that greater powers must increase their sanctions against Iran substantially. And if not, the ongoing discussion in Israel may tilt in favor of a military attack.

Indications are that Israeli who currently have the authority to decide such things have not yet decided to attack. One can hear experts dismiss the prospect as unlikely to do more than postpone the inevitable, and to assure a costly counter-attack.

We hear that Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Netanyahu favor a pre-emptive attack. Yesterday Barak said that it is "delusional" to claim that Israel has decided to attack, but he also criticized as "fear mongering" those who claim that Israel faces a prospect of massive casualties in such an event.

"Let's assume we get to war against our will. . . There will not be 100,000 dead, not 10,000 dead and not 1,000 dead. And Israel will not be destroyed. There's no way today to prevent certain damage. It's not pleasant on the home front . . . [but] if everyone just goes into their homes, there will not be 500 dead, either."

The Prime Minister's problematic personal reputation--among Israelis as well as world leaders--is one of the factors having to be considered in the presence of ongoing discussions in Israel and elsewhere. Also in the background is the record of Israeli intelligence having promoted the view during the Bush Administration that Saddam Hussein was intent on developing weapons of mass destruction.

Crystal balls are notoriously cloudy. Likewise assessments about politics in a feisty place like Israel, and even more so among governments where ongoing national interests interact with fluid issues in local politics, including the unpredictability of personalities facing elections.

We ponder the prospect of nuclear weapons under the control of Iranians whose views about Israel rival those of the Nazis a generation ago. While Mutual Assured Destruction worked during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, and so far in the cases of India, Pakistan, and North Korea, the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of Shiite enthusiasts of suicide is something else.

There may be Jewish genes that have prepared us to accept uncertainty, or it may only be Jewish history that has taught the same lesson. Uncertainty is part of us, but we do not have to like it.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:47 PM
November 06, 2011
What, me worry?

A headline in The Economist: "One side gets even lonelier . . . Binyamin Netanyahu gets brickbats from Palestinians and Israelis"

Visiting American relatives told us that their rabbi was saying "Israel is on a precipice," and that members of the congregation must increase their political and economic support.

Those who snipe at Israel, or worry about it, are focusing on the vote in UNESCO to accept Palestine as a full member, and the current uptick in discussions about Iran's nuclear program and Israel's pondering a pre-emptive strike.

However, a poll released a week ago, in the aftermath of Gilad Shalit's release from captivity, makes one wonder about The Economist's claims about Netanyahu's isolation. The survey showed Netanyahu's Likud party gaining 10 Knesset seats in the event of an early Knesset election, while the leader of the major opposition party, Kadima, would lose 11 seats.

A former head of the Mossad has said that while Iran should be prevented from becoming a nuclear power, its capabilities are still "far from posing an existential threat to Israel." He created a small storm with the comment, "The growing haredi radicalization poses a bigger risk than Ahmadinejad. . . . the ultra-Orthodox extremism has darkened our lives."

One religious politician responded by urging the police to take action against incitement. A SHAS Knesset Member and Minister in the government said that such statements "divide the people of Israel at a time when it needs unity more than ever." He wondered "how a Jewish man, who was the head of the Mossad, expresses himself in such a shameful, untruthful and provocative manner against the Jewish public, whose only sin is keeping the Jewish people's heritage alive without enforcing it upon anyone."

This weekend the IDF showed once again that it had learned how to maintain its blockade on Gaza without bloodshed. It seized and brought to the Port of Ashdod two ships loaded with Canadians, Irish, and a few others. It found neither munitions nor humanitarian supplies on the boats.

It is hard to define a country's well-being with precision. Israel's economic indicators show 5.5 percent unemployment, and inflation a bit less than 3 percent. The major stock market index is 15 percent lower than its 2011 high, but still 73 percent above the low point reached during the 2009 international crisis. Comparable indicators for the US are unemployment at 9 percent, inflation a bit under 4 percent, and the S&P 500 88 percent above the 2009 low and 4 percent below its 2011 high. Germany is widely seen as having Europe's strongest economy. Its latest figures show unemployment at 5.9 percent, inflation at 2.5 percent, and the DAX stock indicator 63 percent above its 2009 low and 21 percent below its 2011 high.

Israel's Labor Federation is threatening a general strike for the purpose of pressuring the government to stop what it terms the "slave labor" of menial workers employed by government and other public sector bodies indirectly, via contracts with employment companies.

Is the sky really falling? And if so, where?

As ever, Israelis have reason to worry. The big reason are those nuclear weapons Iranians are working to create. Also threatening is a bombardment of missiles in response to an Israeli attack. If Israel chooses to keep its own missiles in their silos, its second-strike capacities should deter Iran from using whatever weapons it creates. One can hope for the sake of Iranians as well as Israelis that sanity prevails.

Less profound dangers lurk in the constant possibility of missile attacks from Gaza and Hizollah, and the ever present threat of an Arab not associated with a terrorist movement, but led by personal rage to use a kitchen knife or a bulldozer against the nearest Jew.

In the range of major annoyances is that general strike. If not detered by a last-minute agreement or an injuction by the Labor Court, it will stop all public transportation--including the international airport--and lots of other services for hours if not days. The irony is that the Labor Federation--now standing up for contract workers--is among the principal reasons that so many people working for government, public sector agencies, and private firms are employed by contracting companies and not by the organizations in which they work. The work rules created over the years for the sake of powerful unions have spurred the industry of contracting by making it virtually impossible to dismiss organized workers for underperforming, or to reassign them from one duty to another, or to shift hours.

Media commentators are talking about the low wages and poor working conditions of cleaners, guards, and maintenance workers employed via contractors. They are also asking why it took so long for the Labor Federation to worry about these workers, and saying that the strike has less to do with the plight of those people than an upcoming election within the Labor Federation that is prodding incumbent office-holders to declare an all-out effort for the downtrodden.

That American rabbi who spoke about Israel on the precipice also has reason for worry closer to home. An unemployment rate almost twice Israel's is cause for concern among students at high-tuition colleges, as well as their parents. The long simmering issue of intermarriage worries some American Jews, even while others have accommodated themselves to the prospect of children and grandchildren who are not Jews. We hear of tensions within congregations between those who identify with J-Street and those adhering to AIPAC, as well as between those who remain loyal Democrats and those who think of Barack Obama as pro-Palestinian or worse. There are worries, too, about anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic preaching at the elite campuses favored by Jews. Israeli campuses have no shortage of anti-establishment lecturers, but they have to put up with students recently graduated from the IDF, who have heard most of the same arguments since childhood.

Jews here and there can argue long into the night about who has the greater reason to worry. Crime, drugs, personal safety, weather, health, and the furies caused by national politics should enter into the balance. If the bottom line is life expectacy, Israelis can claim almost five years longer for Israeli Jewish males than enjoyed by white American males, and almost three years longer than for Israeli Jewish females than white American females., Table 3.24;

The upscale health insurance purchased by an American couple in our family may provide for them a private room and a hotel-quality menu should they need to be hospitalized. We would find ourselves sharing a room with one or more others, or even be relegated to a bed in a corridor, but our annual cost for medical services is about 10 percent of theirs. The time spent on paperwork, entitlements and co-pays is virtually nothing here, and a great deal there.

Telling Jews not to worry is like Canute trying to hold back the tide. My sense of history tells me that things have never been this good since the death of King Solomon, but my late father-in-law thought something similar while still a young man in Dusseldorf.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 05:08 AM
November 03, 2011
Talking about talking

Currently the most prominent discussion is whether to discuss the prospect of Israel attacking Iran's nuclear facilities.

On one side of this argument are extremists who think the public should be involved in a detailed debate about everything: the threat, the way Israel should meet it, perhaps leaving the timing to those behind the curtain.

On the other side of this argument are extremists who think that politicians and commentators can be quieted in the case of an issue that is so sensitive and important, as well as complex in terms of the techniques that might be used, the chances of success, the chances of provoking a massive rain of missiles on Israel from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, as well as provoking the condemnation of most countries for "making things worse."

In the middle are the rest of us, realizing that it is not possible to insist on quiet in Israel, and that the discussion about a discussion is, in fact, a discussion of the Iranian threat, the likelihood of Israel being able to do something about it, how, and with what consequences.

The issue has been kicked around for several years, with little change about the information available to the public. It is now enjoying one of its periodic places in the headlines due to several factors.

•The International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to issue another one of its reports saying that Iran is intent on producing nuclear weapons.
•Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken advantage of several recent speaking opportunities to emphasize that Iran is the most important threat against Israel as well as against the region and maybe the whole world.
•This week Israel is said to have tested, successfully, a missle capable of carrying a nuclear warhead 5,000 kilometers. By way of comparison, Iran is less than 3,000 kilometers from here.
•Israel has sought to acquire a sixth submarine from Germany, capable of launching nuclear-tipped missiles, to bolster its second strike nuclear capacity in the event that Iran would attack it with nuclear weapons.
•The international media has produced another one of its "an attack is imminent" reports, this one from The Guardian, indicating that Britain is willing to participate in an attack along with the United States.

As far as one can tell from the information in the public sector, a great deal of which may be disinformation meant to scare or lull Iranians, Americans, Israelis, governments of the Middle East and Europe:

•An attack by any country against Iranian facilities may do no more than postpone Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, as well as intensify Iranian efforts to acquire them. In contrast to the easy targets in Iraq in 1981, or Syria in 2007, Iran's facilities are scattered, with some of them deep underground.
•No matter which country attacks, several are likely to feel a response. Iran has threatened to attack Israel with planes and missiles if the United States attacks. Hizbollah and Hamas are likely to join the effort, especially if Israel is directly involved in the attack. Hizbollah says that it is training its ground force to occupy northern Israel. Syria may see an opportunity to take the patriotic anti-Zionist high road and join in a missle barrage, in the hopes that it will quiet its troubles on the home front.
•No matter how much damage Israel can inflict on Gaza, Lebanon, Iran, and Syria in response to these scenarios, the damage in terms of life and property in Israel is likely to be severe.

We can presume that the people who will make the decision have information that is a lot more detailed. However, one member of the inner cabinet, responsible for such things, has complained about the complexities and uncertainties.

We are hearing that the Prime Minister and Defense Minister are in favor of an attack, and are working to persuade other members who will have to vote on the matter. Current heads of the military, security and intelligence organizations are said to have advised against an attack. Various retired pooh bahs of the security and intelligence communities have said, or hinted, at opposition or support.

Is all this a genuine run-up to an Israeli decision, or yet another round of pressuring greater powers to add to the economic sanctions on Iran, or to do something more forceful?

Ths discussion continues, including the discussion as to whether we ought to be discussing such things.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:26 AM
November 02, 2011
Politics, morality, and other ideals

"If you want a friend in this town, buy a dog."

That was Harry Truman's way of saying that politics is a matter of pursuing interests, not friends.

Another expression meaning about the same thing:

If "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" prevails in heaven, the principle in politics is simpler: "Do unto others."

The Palestinians won a fully-padded seat as member in UNESCO, and are pursuing similar status in other UN bodies.

Israel's response: building another couple of thousand housing units in the West Bank, and delaying the transfer of tax payments that it collects on imports for the Palestine Authority.

Not nice? Not productive? Or simply tit for tat?

Politics is complicated. Lots of players on numerous fields.

Another report today is that Israel delayed for 24 hours--at the request of Egyptian officials--a tough response to rocket firings from Gaza.

Egypt is important to Israel. It supplies lots of natural gas and sometimes does a fair job of controlling things done by Palestinians or others meant to bother Israel. Relations have been shaky since the unseating of Mubarak. So far Israel's response to the Egyptian request seems justified. Rocket attacks have declined to the point where schools in the south of the country opened today after a few days of keeping them closed in order to prevent the gathering of young Israelis where one poorly aimed rocket could create a catastrophe.

The result: Israel let the Palestinians fire the last shot from Gaza. If it helps their pride while mourning the young people killed by earlier Israeli responses, and if it stops the firing for days and hopefully weeks, so be it.

No one here in their right mind expects a breakthrough toward peace, either with the Palestinians of Fatah or those of Hamas, and certainly not the numerous smaller groups of troublemakers even more extreme than Hamas. It may be only Americans who can't distinguish between the Middle West and the Middle East, and who expect this region to begin working like the better examples of Anglo-Saxon good sense. Europeans go along with the Americans, but it is more appropriate to accuse them of self-interested cynicism than heartfelt belief.

As I read what politicians say, it's mostly the Americans who belong in the category of naive simpletons, or true believers. The shame is that the Americans have the power and resources, so they are given the task of leading the chorus.

Perhaps I am doing an injustice to Americans. Enough of them close to the pinnacle of power may be sufficiently wise and cynical. It may be better to count the Muslims who Americans and their allies (including some Arab governments) have killed in recent decades than to obsess on comments like, "The problem is not Islam."

What's the end game for Israel and the Palestinians?

Can't see it from here.

As far as I can see--reinforced by what I perceive to be the majority of serious commentary in various Israeli media--we should expect more of the same. To paraphrase the preacher, i.e., Kohelet or Ecclesiastes, there will be times of calm and times of violence.

Who to blame?

Why bother.

My inclination is to assign primary responsibility to Palestinians, who are unable or unwilling to control their extremists. And it may be the vast majority who deserve the label of "extremists." Most of their voices echo the reluctance to concede Jews a place in the history of this area, or to compromise with the existence of Israel and Jews more or less where they are.

The Jews also have extremists. Perhaps a tiny fraction compared to the prominence of their deal-breaking compatriots among Palestinians, but enough to do harm. Killing Arabs at random or destroying olive trees and other agricultural resources is not nice. Israeli police move against the perpetrators, perhaps not as fully or as quickly as some would like. Just today, the Ministry of Education announced that it was stopping its financial support of a yeshiva in the West Bank that was teaching too much nationalist extremism of the violent variety, rather than other elements of Judaism.

A wider assessment would compare olive tree destruction by Jews to Israeli automobiles stolen and brought into the Palestinian area, Israeli agricultural resources stolen or vandalized, and brush fires started, widely believed by angry Arabs. If not all of Israel's police detectives are assiduous in tracking down Jewish troublemakers, some of them may have family members who have suffered at the hands of Arab thieves and vandals.

You want a friend? Buy a dog.

You want government by the golden rule? Die and and hope to find yourself in heaven.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:28 AM