January 29, 2012
Problems for Bibi, and Sara

The headlines are about a couple of issues roiling close to the Prime Minister. They do not concern the big stuff that will excite people around the world who look to Israel for the excitement of threat, promise, personal or collective salvation. Insofar as the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister, however, the little stuff can become big.

One item concerns the administrative head of the Prime Minister's Office. The Office is a sprawling place that includes not only a few close advisers, but various units "housed" in the Prime Minister's Office employing several thousand people. The administrative head is a close confident of the prime minister, and more interestingly of Mrs Prime Minister. Few readers of these notes will recognize Natan Eshel. Until a week ago, that may also have been true of most Israelis. The man avoids headlines and the interviews, but became a media focus due to allegations that he harassed a woman employee of the Prime Minister's Office.

The development of the story is no less interesting than the story itself. It came about not due to the woman's complaint. Until now, she has refused to make a complaint. But she talked to co-workers, they talked to other co-workers, and then three of the Prime Minister's senior advisers raised the issue with the Civil Service Commission, the Attorney General, and the Prime Minister himself. Details are not clear, whether Eshel busied himself too much with the monitoring the woman's activities, including her e-mails, perhaps out of an excessive concern for her fitting in (personally and/or policy-wise), or whether he crossed a line into the realm of sexual harassment.

Involved in the media's fascination is not only the propriety of Eshel's activity vis a vis an as yet unnamed woman (identified in the media as "R," presumably one of her initials). No less important is Eshel's role as a link between the Prime Minister's Office and Sara Netanyahu, widely viewed as a person behind the throne, or perhaps in front of the throne on issues that interest her. Eshel is said to talk with Sara daily, relaying reports from the Prime Minister's Office and elsewhere in the government to her, and her responses back to key players in government. It is widely reported that an individual cannot survive in a serious position without passing muster with Mrs. Prime Minister. This pertains not only to key appointees in the Prime Minister's Office, but may also apply to appointees elsewhere and even the status with the Prime Minister of senior ministers. Sara also has been known for screaming at the household help, and as the subject of legal actions by family employees who claim to have suffered from violations of the labor laws.

Whenever there is a reason to feature Sara in the media, it is highly likely that she will also appear in the political cartoons. Ha'aretz's latest shows Bibi asking her if she has a candidate for appointment to be commander of the Air Force.

A second issue prominent in the media is an impending report of the State Comptroller (GAO equivalent) dealing with a disasterous forest fire on the Carmel in December, 2010 south and east of Haifa. The drama of the fire was the death of more than 40 individuals, most of whom were prison guards trapped in a bus by a sudden spread of the fire across a narrow moutain road. The deaths were important in provoking the State Comptroller's inquiry which has gone on for more than a year, and will apparently focus not so much on the errors in allowing the bus to continue along a dangerous route, but on the more basic issue of governmental failures in upgrading the fire service over an extended period of time. Indications are that two senior ministers, both close to the Prime Minister in holding the coalition together, may be held especially responsible for the failures. The State Comptroller has no authority to dismiss the Minister of Interior, with ultimate responsibility for the fire service, or the Finance Minister, said to have held up financing improvements demanded by earlier inquiries into the fire service. However, the standing of the State Comptroller, and the severity of his report, may produce enough pressure on the Prime Minister to force their dismissals, resignations, or re-assignments.

Neither the shanigans of the man heading administration of the Prime Minister's Office nor the State Comptroller's blasts against the Ministers of Interior and Finance are likely to cause the downfalls of Benyamin or Sara Netanyahu. Bibi's coalition retains the support of
parties that control 66 seats in the 120-member Knesset. None of those parties appears to be anxious to take its chances in an early election. No election need be called prior to the Fall of 2014. However, several parties are already jockeying. Both the ruling Likud and the leading opposition party, Kadima, have scheduled primaries in order to select and rank the lists of candidates to be considered by the voters. The primaries are managed by parties, and open only to those who pay dues. Not all parties have primaries. Some select candidates by inner party councils dominated by one or a few party leaders. The ultra-Orthodox parties accept management by senior rabbis, adised by the politicians currently in their favor.

The stuff that interests most outsiders, namely the going nowhere peace process with the Palestinians, and the efforts of Israel to do what it can to keep Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons, are likely to be independent of who is sitting in the Prime Minister's chair. While recent polls suggest that there is no individual or party capable of unseating Benyamin Netanyahu in the near future, these things continue to evolve. Headlines about the management of the Prime Minister's Office, and the failures of the fire service will, at the least, feed the campaigns of those seeking more Kneset seats for their parties, or even aspiring to the Prime Minister's Office.

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 08:23 PM
January 25, 2012
How much force?

Hopefully, Iraq and Afghanistan will be the Lebanon War of the United States.

Israel learned from the massive invasion and long occupation of Lebanon (1982-2000) that too much force is frustrating, does not accomplish announced goals, and may be self-defeating. Its second Lebanon war of July-August, 2006 demonstrated the lesson: only four weeks passed between its onset and the cease-fire, followed by several years of quiet on the northern border.

Lebanon II was not perfect. Planning and execution went awry, and brought about a blistering investigation that damaged the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Chief of the IDF General Staff.

Gaza 2009 was better. It lasted only three weeks, and produced a minimum of Israeli casualties against considerable damage done to Gaza and its residents.

The essence of these lessons is that prolonged operations meant to solve complex problems are not likely to do so. Better to send a violent, but short message, intended to punish and to warn an adversary that one should not expect to conquer, occupy, and turn into a good neighbor.

World War II was necessary, heroic, and fought against powers that earlier had been civilized. They went very bad, had to be destroyed, and could be brought back into the family of the enlightened.

The dominant picture throughout the Middle East is something else.

The Crusades of the early Middle Ages did not work as proclaimed.

George W. Bush's crusade against Iraq was a world class tragedy. Efforts to turn Afghanistan into a normal and responsible country have been even more foolhardy.

It is discouraging that Iraq and Afghanistan came less that 30 years after the end of Vietnam. Perhaps the United States don't learn so good.

Pressure on Israel and Palestine to create a responsible Palestine willing to live at peace alongside Israel?

As long as Jews are described by a prominent speaker at a conference of the "moderate" Palestinian party as "descendants of apes and pigs" the mission appears to be as foolhardy as civilizing Afghanistan.

Currently the situation between Israel and Palestinians is relatively peaceful. Every day or so there are efforts to kill Jews, but most of them do not succeed. The regime of the West Bank contributes to the restraint; the regime of Gaza less so, but both seem to have learned what Israel does in response to significant upticks in violence.

How long can the status quo survive?

That is an open question that no one can pretend to answer. Currently aspirations to manage the conflict seem more promising than aspirations to solve it.

And the implications of all of this for Iran?

Best would be the appropriate amount of economic pressure and/or the minimum use of military force that will prevent the development of nuclear weapons. No chance of turning that place into an enlightened regime. Under our friend the Shah it was not that.

One can argue about many details.

•Where to put check points within the West Bank or between Palestinian areas and Israel, and how to implement security concerns requiring the inspection of vehicles and individuals?
•How to respond to each rocket fired from Gaza into Israel, or every case of a Palestinian or Israeli Arab attacking a Jew?
•How should American forces respond to provocations in the Persian Gulf, or the persistent development of nuclear weapons?
•What action should Israel direct at Iran?

A simple citizen cannot clarify all the details. I do feel comfortable articulating a strategy.

•Don't fool ourselves into thinking that we are at a junction like the onset of World War II, where powerful evil states must be defeated, reformed, and turned into democratic and responsible members of the international community.
•Do not pretend that Islam is not a problem. This does not mean that all Muslims, or all Muslim governments, are evil or dangerous. As currently arrayed, however, Islam is a problem, and the aspirations of its many extremists must be contained with persistent threat and occasional force.
•The conquest of Islam, or Muslim countries is not an appropriate goal. Any massive invasion is likely to produce results that are superficial, costly, frustrating, and temporary.
•Control is a more reasonable goal, via the measured use of pressure and/or force.

The choice and implementation of specific actions will not be easy, and will engender a great deal of ongoing dispute.

It could be worse, if we let our dreams of solution lead our aspirations.


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 04:08 AM
January 24, 2012
Religion and peace

We are never far from a reminder that the Israel-Palestinian conflict has a strong element of religious animosity.

Those who aspire to solve this with a simple agreement about lines on a map will be better off refereeing a football match (American or European). The Middle East is not for them.

The latest reminder occurred at an anniversary of the Palestinian political movement Fatah. It currently rules the West Bank, although tenuously, with help from Israel and other outsiders. Hamas and other extremists are nipping at its heels, and may enjoy the support of most residents.

Featured at the "moderate's" celebration was a master of ceremonies who introduced the Mufti of Jerusalem by saying "His words are necessary because our war with the descendants of the apes and pigs is a war of religion and faith."

He then introduced the Mufti of Jerusalem, the family member of the Mufti who incited deadly riots in the 1920s and 1930s, and later collaborated with the Nazis.

The present Mufti said, "In both collections of the Hadith . . . Judgment Day will not come before you fight the Jews, and the Jew will hide behind a stone or a tree, and the stone or the tree will say: Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him, with the exception of the gharqad tree, and this is why it is common to see gharqad trees around the (Jewish)


The comments received condemnations from Britain's Foreign Office, and calls from Israel's President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu for judicial authorities to open an investigation about incitement. Even the Jewish peace group that typically condemns Israeli actions, Americans for Peace Now, condemned the comments as

"belligerent anti-Jewish . . . We are appalled by these comments, coming from the most senior Muslim cleric on the Palestinian Authority's payroll . . . What we find particularly disturbing is that these vile comments were broadcast on the Palestinian Authority's official television channel, amplifying their "inciting" effect . . . People in positions of religious authority, on all sides, bear a heavy responsibility of avoiding incendiary rhetoric. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a dispute between two national movements with conflicting claims to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Clerics on both sides must prevent this conflict from being perceived as a religious conflict and from becoming one."

The Mufti, for his part, described the Hadith as an end-of-times prophesy, not a political precept. ""There is nothing in my speech that calls for killing. . . I was speaking about my people, its steadfastness and its existence in this land until the hour (of resurrection)".

According to the PA religious affairs minister, "Our political position remains unchanged. We believe in peace. He (Hussein) was simply quoting a Hadith that talks about destiny, about what could happen in the future."

For the sake of candor and balance, I should note that the Palestinian News Agency Maan is as good a source as any for the details on this issue. http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=454753

The Mufti of Jerusalem is not alone among those who play on the borders of fanatacism and the endorsement of peace. Also indicative of Muslim extremism are school books that show maps of Palestine from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, and Turkey's fanatic insistence that Armenian genocide is a reason to break diplomatic relations with France. Those who look at www.memri.org see no end of mad Mullahs who preach the most hateful of doctrines about Jews, as well as indications that large segments of Muslim populations and politicians view The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a legitimate description of history and current reality.

Initial feelings at all these indications can be intense rage, a wondering if we can co-exist with them, or should employ our military might before it is too late.

Then come thoughts about Jewish equivalents, and the problems of the democratic and rational Jewish state to deal with them. Recent incidents include rabbis who endorsed a text that justifies the killing of Gentiles, including children, and the rabbis of Safed who called on people of the city to avoid renting apartments to Arabs. In both cases, judicial authorities dither about pursuing actions against incitement. (See http://www.irac.org/NewsDetailes.aspx?D=1128;
http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2011/07/05/117043/israels-probe-of-radical-jewish.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yitzhak_Shapira)

No less troubling then religious extremism hereabouts is the naivite heard from American and European officials and commentators. Simplistic actions, such as don't build here or there, may be appropriate for local disputes in Omaha, Oxford, or Leiden, but not in the Middle East. Buidling restrictions against Jews would not longer be acceptable in any of those places overseas. Here the explosive material is in the air, capable of being exploded by a traffic accident or a comment.

Beyond cursing their house and our own, there may be no alternative beyond hoping that the religious devil remains well capped in its bottle, and that there is enough sanity in both communities to pursue the paths of politics, compromise, and accommodation.

For our friends elsewhere, best to watch football until someone wiser than the present crowd comes up with a bright idea.


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 02:32 AM
January 22, 2012
On limits of political expression, here and there

My audience has weighed in. According to one, I was not sensitive enough in recognizing how dastardly was Ahmed Tibi in referring to Anastassia Michaeli as "cos amok." According to another, Tibi really is a traitor, in speaking out so forecefully in favor of Palestinian interests while serving in the Israeli Knesset.

It is not only my audience who expresses the second point. A Likud MK said that Tibi "should be removed from the Knesset and put behind bars." An MK from a a party even further to the right than Likud (National Union) asked the Attorney General to begin criminal proceedings against Tibi. This MK said, "Your office has not hesitated to prosecute right-wing activists for less severe speeches. . . The time has come to stop Tibi's party." A more moderate Kadima MK said that Tibi was stretching his right to free speech, and predicted that the public's tolerance would soon "explode."

The cause of this accusation is a comment by Tibi that there is "nothing more praiseworthy than martyrdom." and, while speaking at a event of the Palestinian Authority, "the martyr is the ultimate source of pride . . . the symbol of the homeland."

It appears that Tibi was again exercising his linguistic skills, as in his condemnation of Michaeli. Then the Knesset did not accept his explanation that "cos amok" referred to a person who had run wild with a glass of water. He was suspended on the basis of an alternative interpretation that he was employing an Arabic term for a loose woman.

The usual meaning of a "martyr" in the local context is a Palestinian celebrated for dying as a terrorist. However, Tibi asserts that the term means someone "killed by the occupation or died for a national cause. This includes children and Israeli Arabs killed in Land Day riots. . . . All of these were killed for their homeland, which is a praiseworthy value."

Tibi explained that he specifically mentioned names at the Palestinian ceremony, and did not include in his list of the praiseworthy any suicide bombers."


Tibi is not the only one in the sights of Israeli politicians.

The ranking Muslim religious authority in Jerusalem, Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, recently quoted a passage from a Hadith (the collection of Muhammad's expressions) that calls for killing Jews.

The incident recalls the actions of Jerusalem's infamous Mufti Haj Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini from 1921 to 1937. That Husseini (perhaps a member of the same extended family as the present Mufti) used his position to incite violence against the Jews. He later fled the British authorities, eventually to Germany, where he collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haj_Amin_al-Husseini

No less a figure than Prime Minister Netanyahu has asked the Attorney General to investigate the present Mufti for incitement.

For his part, the Mufti has explained in comments in ways that rabbis as well as Muslim and Christian clerics have used to justify what others view as political extremism. He was only quoting sacred text. It is not possible to alter a Hadith. However, he did not apply the Prophet's words to the present conflict. Indeed, Israel Radio reported him saying that he endorses efforts to settle the dispute between Israel and Palestinians in a peaceful manner, as promoted by the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. http://www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?ID=254628&R=R1

Israelis ought to be careful in accusing Arabs of "going over the line" of acceptable free speech. It is widely conceded that members of a national parliament, religious leaders, as well as professors, enjoy considerable freedom in expressing their views.

No doubt that Israeli Arab politicians identify both with Israel and with the Palestinian national movement. Does that cross a line? It is arguably the same line that Israel urges Jewish (and other) politicians elsewhere--most notably in the United States--to approach in expressing their support for Israel.

It is possible to go too far across that line. According to Israeli judicial authorities, former MK Azmi Bishara, a Christian Arab, crossed a line that separates the advocate from a traitor when he supplied information about Israeli forces to the enemy during the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Jonathan Pollard crossed a similar line when he supplied Israel with secret material obtained while working as a civilian intelligence analyst with the American Navy.

The lines are delicate, and subject to dispute. While a political scientist can contribute to clarification up to a point, and emphasize the struggle about nuances and multiple meanings of words that are employed, it is judicial authorities who earn their living by having to decide that someone has gone too far in the direction of a criminal action.


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 07:15 AM
January 20, 2012
Jerusalems above

Note the plural in the title. It is not an error, but the theme of this note.

Designations of Jerusalem above and Jerusalem below have been around for a long time. They have been adopted by Jews, but may have been introduced in their explicit form by the New Testament. (Galatians 4:26)

Jerusalem below is the earthly city. Jerusalem above is the spiritual aura associated with the city.

Just as many people who claim a belief in God think of that idea (or creature) in different ways, we can assume that there are any number of Jerusalems above, each tailored by an individual who comes to this city and feels a spiritual message, or thinks of Jerusalem from afar and attaches to it a personal set of inspirations. Some may think of Jerusalem above as the Garden of Eden, or Heaven.

Here I wish to describe yet another concept of Jerusalem above. It is as personal as all the others, but it is less spiritual than pragmatic. I think the general idea is shared by a number of other people who live here, but the details may vary from person to person.

The Jerusalem above where I live most of the time is reached with some effort. It involves screening out all the spirituality that untold numbers of people attach to this city. The idea resembles how New Yorkers live without visiting the Statue of Liberty or paying attention to the oddities seen on the sidewalks or in the subway. New York has its aura, that most residents may ignore most of the time. Perhaps all cities have something special, even spiritual about them. Maybe even Fall River, although I never noticed.

In Jerusalem the aura is hard to miss. One has to work a bit to reach the Jerusalem above that is aspiritual.

It is hard to think of another city that might match Jerusalem for its heavy loads of spirituality. Rome and Mecca may come close. For obvious reasons I cannot comment on Mecca. While I was impressed by St. Peters and the Sistine Chapel, I perceived more people enjoying the art than engaged in prayer. Moreover, Rome and Mecca are the spiritual capitals of one faith each. To be sure, they have a larger constituency than our tiny community, and there are different kinds of Christians and Muslims who can see in Rome and Mecca their own views of an upper world.

Jerusalem is distinctive in being a spiritual center for all kinds of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, with sites inspiring to each cheek by jowl, or at the most a hundred meters or so from one another.

One can avoid all of this. I avoid it most of the time and I suspect that large numbers of others do the same. I know it's there, but I don't see it. I notice on the media that there is a dispute about this and that, with a parade or demonstration here or there. I can ride Bus #68 along Bar Ilan Street, Bus #4 through Mea She'arim to the city center, or the Light Rail that stops at "Shimon Hatzadik" and t hen "Damascus Gate." I see ultra-Orthodox passengers get on in their neighborhoods, often with baby carriages and another young one or two or three by their hands. Once on board, the women may read Psalms and the men study a page of Talmud. Damascus Gate is a stop for Arabs to get on or off. Most are likely to be Muslim and a high proportion of the women will have their heads covered.

I see all of this, but I don't dwell on it. I may not even notice it. I'm either reading a mystery that I've picked up at a second-hand book shop, or listening to whatever my music gadget has decided to select for that moment from my collections of classical and folk.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy the excitement of Jerusalem, and I have profited greatly in a professional sense from more than 36 years of living and working here, writing books and articles about the city. I also directed a rabbi's dissertation, I study Talmud Saturday mornings with a religious friend, and I've been inspired by the Armenian Mens' Choir chanting in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

But enough is enough. Insulation is necessary.I avoid curses against religious Jews, Christians, or Muslims of various persuasions; such activity would be futile, and might be an invitation to trouble in this city.

I like my place in a Jerusalem that is above the fray, either of intense religiosity or conflict about who is right and who started the trouble.

I also retreated to my corner of Jerusalem above after coming to some understanding of what Israel, the United States, Europe, and Iran are doing with respect to one another. I won't bet who will blink first, and how the many sided game of chicken will end. What happens will happen. It may not be pleasant, but no one in power will have asked me what to do.

Syria, Libya, Egypt, and all the other detritus of Arab spring are even further from my every waking moment. I don't expect enlightenment in any of those places, and none of them are on my list of places to visit.

The American presidential election is fun to watch. Currently one of the former Mrs. Gingrichs is the media star.

Sanity is more valuable than total immersion.

Shabbat Shalom.

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 02:10 AM
January 18, 2012
Sexism and racism in the Knesset

You want fairness from this aging academic?

This is a time when I'll side with a prominent Israeli Arab politician, who has been a source of considerable annoyance for us Jews.

But fair is fair. In the last couple of days he earned my commendation.
Ahmed Tibi, MD, is one of the most intelligence of Knesset Members, whose Hebrew does not fall below that of the better educated Jewish Members. He is also outspoken in his criticism of Israeli actions, especially with respect to Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors. He has skated close to the edge of propriety, when on several occasions he has served as an advisor to Yassir Arafat and other senior personnel of the Palestinian Authority, and traveled internationally with Palestinian leaders as a member of their delegation. It is legitimate for Israelis to question his basic loyalties. Is he one of us or one of them?

He insists on his right to be one of both, and so far has avoided the blatant violations that led to criminal charges for aiding the enemy during a time of war against another bright Knesset Member, Azmi Beshara PhD (political philosophy). Beshara has fled from Israel and its prosecutors, and has been speaking out in Arab countries.

Tibi's most recent tiff with the establishment produced a decision of the Knesset Ethics Committee to suspend him from several privileges for a period of one week. The charge: his sexist condemnation of Anastassia Michaeli's throwing a cup of water on Knesset Member Raleb Majadale.

The charge of sexism rests on a phrase that Tibi used in condemning Michaeli, that can be understood is any of several ways, depending on the language employed. His reference was to "cos amok" which can refer to a person "running amok" (i.e., crazily) with a glass, or a "deep vagina." The former tends to proper Hebrew for "cos" with the Hebracized "amok" adopted (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) from Malay or Portuguese. The latter is used as an uncomplimentary term for a woman of doubtful reputation ("cunt" being the closest English equivalent) adopted into Hebrew slang from Arabic.

With only a bit of tolerance, one can view Tibi's phrase as a clever pun, with or without taking into account his medical specialty in gynecology.

The accusation of sexism is a stretch, convenient to Knesset Members who may have been aching to hold something against the sharpest of their Arab nuisances.

No one should have expected Tibi to accept his suspension laying down. He rose in the Knesset to quote Voltaire in behalf of free speech and to provide its members with a "lesson in Hebrew." There might have been a twinkle in his eyes when he explained that "cos" means glass, as in glass of water; and that "amok" derived from an area in South Asia and conveys the image of someone who has gone crazy (running amok).

It was his bad or good luck that the Knesset Member taking his turn as Chair of the session was Yitzhak Vaknin, a member of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS, who lists his profession as a teacher of automobile repair. http://www.knesset.gov.il/mk/heb/mk.asp?mk_individual_id_t=50

Vaknin tried to quiet Tibi, got into a shouting match with him as to who had the right to instruct the Knesset in morality, and used his authority as the Chair to cut off Tibi's microphone and then have him escorted from the Knesset. Vaknin's last words were "Chuztpan. He wants to teach us morality. Another one. He wants us to listen to all the dirt from his mouth. There is no limit to his chutzpah." http://news.walla.co.il/?w=/550/2501344

It should work to Tibi's advantage, within his own community and among a few of us Jews that he was paired up with an ultra-Orthodox Knesset Member with limited patience, vision, and understanding, and no sense of humor, who responded to a clever play on words and a hint of an insult with a loss of temper that came at least as close to anti-Arab racism as Tibi's earlier denunciation of Michaeli came to sexism.

So far Vaknin has not been suspended from the Knesset, nor even censured for his remarks.

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 07:37 AM
January 15, 2012
Israel's problems

It's not easy being an Israeli. It is even harder being an Israeli policymaker, especially at the top with responsibility for things domestic and foreign.

Last week the problems were local, in the form of thousands of Israelis of Ethipian origin, one unhappy Israeli of Iraqi origin, and lots of angry Israeli Arabs, all claiming that they were not getting their share of opportunities. For the Ethiopians the most pressing issue was housing. The Iraqi--himself pretty close to the top in terms of responsibility and income--felt that people like him came up against a glass ceiling maintained by Israelis of European origin. (There aren't enough Israelis of American origin to count for much in the arithmetic.) Arabs claimed foul in response to a narrow Supreme Court vote in favor of a statute denying residence to the Palestinians who marry into their community.

Now the headlines are about American anger and worry about Israel's independent actions--and the prospect of even harsher actions--against Iran. Reports are that Presidents Bush and Obama were furious at brazen Mossad agents who posed as CIA when recruiting assassins meant to liquidate personnel important for Iran's nuclear program. More recently the concern has been to achieve an Israeli undertaking not to act against Iran without American agreement or without at least informing the Americans in advance.

Commentators say that the Americans do not want another problem during an election year. By that they mean either the need to act on their often-repeated pledge to assure Israel's security if it is Israel that pulls the trigger against Iran, or a massive increase in the prices of oil and gasoline when the Iranians do what they can to close the Gulf and world prices skyrocket.

Nobody really knows who is killing those Iranian scientists, if it is Israel, the United States, and/or others who are acting to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, or if it is really Iranian sloppiness that is causing accidental explosions. The amount of likely disinformation is impressive, and it may include American and Israeli denials of complicity as well as mutual accusations, all meant to confuse.

Among the unknowns are the intentions of the Israelis. We've heard that Netanyahu and Barak have avoided commiting themselves to informing the Americans in advance of any actions. I have not noticed any Israeli pledge to avoid impersonating CIA personnel or to avoid using US dollars in seeking personnel to do the dirty stuff in Iran.

It is not hard to make a moral argument that Israel is entitled to do what its leaders think is necessary to frustrate Iran's nuclear program. Along with that country's assertions of peaceful intentions are its leaders' repeated denials of the Holocaust and assertions that Israel must be destroyed. There are also those bombings of Israeli and Jewish institutions in Buenos Aires during the 1990s, widely believed to be the work of Iran.

The wisdom of a massive Israeli attack is another matter. Jews learned a long time ago not to upset the great powers. Currently it is Washington that demands a maximum of deference. With a population less than 8 million (and less than 6 million Jews) and limited resources, Israel has to consider all those Muslim countries with enormous wealth and a billion people, plus rich and powerful Americans and Europeans who do not want to upset their Muslim residents and suppliers, or their Muslim colleagues in international organizations.

Quandary is the name of the game. Israelis argue all sides of these issues, domestic as well as international. Dispute is central to our culture and prominent in our religious texts. It is tempting to think that intermarriages involving families of European and Middle Eastern origins is dealing with our ethnic issues, but feelings remain sensitive. Moreover, intermarriage is a long way from dealing with the demands of Ethiopians.

Religion is another hot issue, currently focusing on a trend toward restricting women. Extremist rabbis are leading their flocks to what moderate rabbis (and secular Israelis) view as the Middle Ages. Another cluster of extremist rabbis are promoting aggressive actions with respect to the Land of Israel which cause no end of worry among the rest of us and our Western allies. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/world/middleeast/israel-faces-crisis-over-role-of-ultra-orthodox-in-society.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=Israel&st=cse

Coping may be a Jewish invention, or perhaps only a skill that Jews have been poiishing for more than two millennia of dealing with powerful others. It is not a trait that produces optimum or even desirable results. It is the essence of politics, akin to the slogan of going along in order to get along. It means taking account of various interests, keeping domestic peace and keeping allies quiet by doing at the least the minimum of what is necessary. Survival is the primary concern, for both the nation and individual politicians. We should not ridicule elected officials who do what they can to stay in office, insofar as that reflects what is at the heart of coping.

Judgment is often troublesome. That divided Supreme Court decision about the rights of Israeli Arabs to choose Palestinian spouses and live with them in Israel provides one of the latest demonstrations. Not only were the sitting judges divided 6-5, but judges who usually vote on the liberal side of things were also ambivalent and did not do all they could have in order to carry in the decision. http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4173601,00.html

The process goes on. Several Israelis from outside of politics are positioning themselves to rescue us via the next election. We're hoping for the best, but we shouldn't expect it. Waiting for the Messiah is easier than deciding that he or she has arrived.


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 10:00 PM
January 14, 2012
Ethnicity in the Jewish country

Last week was was another occasion when Israel's ethnic issues escaped from the closet to arouse one crowd and numerous commentators.

The crowd was more than two thousand Ethiopians who demonstrated against discrimination in the town of Kiryat Malachi. The principal charge was that landlords refused to rent to them. We heard from several of the locals that they did not want to live near Ethiopians due to the smells coming from their distinctive cooking. Some were not so delicate as to differentiate between the smells of cooking and the smells attributed to Ethiopians.

The episode reminded me of a conversation with a Gentile woman who had lived in Israel and said she admired Jews, but wondered about the distinctive smell she attributed to us.

The Minister of Immigration Absorption, herself an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, did not add the calming touch we could have expected. "The gap between Ethiopian immigrants and the rest of the citizens is years apart - but the State of Israel is doing everything to absorb them in the best possible way - be grateful for what you received." http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/absorption-minister-ethiopian-immigrants-should-be-grateful-to-israel-1.406728

We also heard from North African and Asian Israelis who have been here since the 1940s or 1950s, yet still feel themselves deprived of opportunity. The chief economist of one of the leading investment companies was fired the day after he made a blistering attack on the "Ashkenazi establishment" during a conference at a college in Sderot. He called Bank Leumi (the country's largest) "the whites' bank, (where) only whites can be appointed to senior positions." He said that land policy was discriminatory; that there was "land theft" by the (largely Ashkenazi) kibbutzim; that the national lottery "pours money into unique schools in prestigious (i.e., Ashkenazi) neighborhoods;" that "they were all Ashkenazi" at the Supreme Court; and that the Finance Ministry's budget department is dominated by veteran Ashkenazis with "one token Russian and one Mizrahi (Sephardi)". http://jewishrefugees.blogspot.com/2012/01/economist-sacked-for-slamming-white.html

How accurate are the charges? Should he have been fired?

Friends and commentators of various backgrounds have argued different sides of both issues.

The controlling shareholder of the company where the critic worked is of the country's richest individuals (called a "tycoon") and is not from a European family. Moreover, neither its CEO nor its Chairman are Ashkenazim.

In explaining the man's dismissal, the company emphasised its concern with the tone of his comments rather than their accuracy. http://english.themarker.com/excellence-fallout-predictable-antics-predictable-firing-1.407041

The laws of Israel include provisions respecting the political views of workers. However, thenature of the comments by a leading official may have harmed the image of his company, and could therefore be held to justify dismissal. Espcially problematic for the company were his comments about Bank Leumi. Israelis typically make investment decisions via their banks, and bank personnel are important in steering customers to one or another company's pension plans and mutual funds. One insider said that the threat of a suit will lead the company to buy quiet from its former chief economist with a larger severance settlement than he otherwise would have received.

Israel's Arabs also had an opportunity to air their complaints. The Supreme Court decided by a narrow vote to uphold a Knesset enactment that denies residence to a Palestinian spouse of an Israeli citizen. The media responded with items about Arab families about to be divided by authorities, and charges of inhumanity by Arab and Jewish civil rights advocates. The judges who authored the majority opinion and other commentators put the emphasis on the right of the Knesset to define who may enter the country, and the right of the country "not to commit suicide" by opening the doors to what could be a major avenue of Arab immigration.

The initial response of the Interior Ministry was that it would not change things. That might mean that it would not disturb established families, or perhaps only those families established before the Knesset enactment or before this week's decision of the Supreme Court.

Ethnicity is never far from the surface in this small country, located in the midst of hostile ethnic and religious communities of much greater size, and with its own mixture of Jews who may have come from as many as 100 distinctive national and regional origins.

It is common for Israelis to talk about community rankings. There is no consensus, but the topic is prominent enough to ruffle feelings as well as to demonstrate nuances not likely to be apparent to outsiders. One hears about origins, even while intermarriage, especially among secular Israelis, has blurred the issue for the younger generation.

Jews with backgrounds in Morocco who arrived after a generation or two in France differ from Moroccans who arrived directly during the 1950s. Tunisians, Libyans, and Egyptians have their own identities, apart from Moroccans and Algerians. Moroccans who hail from the region once controlled by Spain differ from those where Arabic or French was the mother tongue.

Kurds from northern Iraq have their own language and culture, as do Iraqis from Baghdad or Basra. Israelis with German, Hungarian, Polish, or French backgrounds view themselves as different from one another, even while they may all be Ashkenazim. Jews from Odessa or Bialystok pride themselves as being different from those coming from elsewhere in Poland or the Ukraine. Some Italians distinguish themselves from Ashkenazim in their rituals. Yemenites differ from Iraqis, Persians, and Ethiopians, despite the proximity of their homelands. Israelis from Saloniki are likely to identify with their city, rather than with Greece. Russian speakers from St Petersberg and Moscow differ from those from Buchara or elsewhere in Central Asia. Georgians (Gruzinim) differ from those who spent generations in nearby Azerbaijan. Bulgarians differ from Romanians, who differ from Moldavians. Jews from different parts of Syria identify with their city or region.

My own experience was to notice a change in labels from my origins in the 1940s and 1950s where "Jew" was not necessarily a compliment, to the status of an "Anglo-Saxon." I'm still not sure if my current designation reflects envy or ridicule.

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 11:29 AM
January 12, 2012
Great theater. Free admissioin

Politics is not only the most civilized way of dealing with disagreements that occur in complex societies. It also provides good theater. Occasionally great theater, when it is possible to see contending elements with their roots in history and raw emotion, with implications for decisions fateful not only for individuals but for communities and ideological perspectives.

There are several performances competing for our attention. Us retirees can can a break from our other pressing duties to watch full time. Our working friends and relatives should plow on with earning their living, but take a few moments to watch the action on one or another stage.

Occupying Israelis are the early noises of a coming election. Voting may not occur until sometime in 2013, but the players are warming up. Most prominent in recent days are the entries of two high profile outsiders, each likely to attract votes, but each already earning boos from those who question their political qualifications.

Yair Lapid was expected to run. He is movie star handsome, bright, articulate with name recognition from years as a media personality, and the son of a media star and successful politician. Those wanting to probe his credentials can read the story of his late father, former MK and Minister Tomi Lapid, Memories After My Death. Yair authored the Hebrew version, and appears as coauthor for the English translation.

But what does he stand for? What party will he create? Who will he choose as his running mates? Commentators are speculating on all of this, as well as wondering if the media star is tough enough to create a political campaign, make the deals necessary to translate Knesset seats into places in the next government, and continue as policymaker.

Even tougher questions are being asked about another newcomer. Noam Shalit came to public attention as the father of Gilad, the soldier seized by Palestinians, held in Gaza for five and one-half years, and released in October. Noam did well as the family leader and front man in national and international campaigns to keep Gilad's case on Israel's agenda. He is soft spoken, comes across as a private person forced into the spotlight. He bumbled his way through an announcement of his candidacy in the Labor Party primary to select its Knesset list, whenever that will be.

Given his lack of political party accomplishments to date, it is hard to imagine that Shalit will parley his decency and name recognition into more than a back bench Labor Party seat, if that much. The party is noted for the ferocity of its internal politicking. Its various contenders will not step aside for an outsider, no matter how nice and how many votes his name, picture, and quiet words may attract.

The responses to Shalit as well as to Lapid included an op-ed item by one of the country's most prominent political scientists, my colleague and friend, and long time Labor Party activist, Shlomo Avineri. The headline was "Neither Lapid nor Shalit deserves to be in politics." The sub-headline: "Many people who are impressed with Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich's integrity will have trouble voting for her if Shalit is on her list. His place, with all due respect, is at home."

Avineri suggested that the next candidacy might come from the winner of a popular TV reality show.

"the teenagers (and some of their parents ) [will] know who he is . . . But the Israeli people deserve something better than such people who anoint themselves its leaders." http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/neither-lapid-nor-shalit-deserves-to-be-in-politics-1.406652

The Knesset Member who is arguably the most beautiful of the country's politicians, Anastassia Michaeli, earned 24 hours of attention for a one act performance. She objected to the way a prominent Arab MK was chairing a committee, and in full view of the cameras splashed a glass of water on him. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anastasia_Michaeli

The Knesset's Disciplinary Committee suspended Michaeli from all parliamentary activity except floor voting for a month. The head of her party, Avigdor Lieberman, joined in the condemnation. Israel's wags refer to Lieberman as Stalinist, due both to his origins and his manner of running the Israel our Home political party. Guesses are that Michaeli will not have a place on the party's ticket for the next election. Lieberman also dumped the embarrassing Esterina Tartman, also an attractive MK with roots in the former Soviet Union, due to her being caught fibbing about an academic degree, and questions about a disability claim. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esterina_Tartman

The Michaeli and Tartman cases should provide a heads up for Yair Lapid. They point to the problems of a prominent figure who enters politics as the head of a new party, and must decide which of the many unknowns anxious to join the list of candidates will bring assets or embarrassment. It was the embarrassments from one colleague that helped bring down the party created by Yair's father.

No less thrilling than Israel's recent performances are the Republican primaries in the United States. Mitt Romney has carried the label of obvious winner, but Newt Gingrich has unfurled a vicious campaign that may deal a fatal blow. A short clip and a half-four film attack Romney's record as a capitalist carnivore who became rich and famous by destroying companies, towns, and the lives of individual workers. http://www.winningourfuture.com/

The charges are ripe for the upcoming South Carolina primary. Southern Republicans used to be Southern Democrats, who coupled racism with populism meant to attract the support of the country's poorest whites. As Republicans, Southerners may be rendered ambivalent by their populist roots and lots of poor voters, along with their present party's traditional support of capitalism, free markets, limited government, and do what it takes to become rich. But even its supporters know that capitalism has its faults, and Republicans with family histories of populism may be led by the Gingrich campaign to strike a severe blow to Romney. How the campaign will work in South Carolina, and whether it will work outside of one of the South's poorest states will be something to watch. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/gop-prepares-for-a-bruising-south-carolina-primary-campaign/2012/01/11/gIQAHDgHrP_story.html?wpisrc=emailtoafriend

Nothing political exists in a vacuum. Among the various sub-texts in South Carolina and later will be reminders of Gingrich's own dirty laundry, comprised of several marriages and adulterous affairs. And it is more than a two-person race. Strange is the word to describe other candidates and their performances so far in this primary season, especially Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. The pizza magnate Herman Cain is no longer on stage, nor is the Michele Bachmann. Rick Perry is hanging on, but his fingers may be tiring. There is still plenty to watch, while that other candidate moves toward a goal of one billion dollars to finance a campaign against whoever. Meanwhile, unemployment is down and the stock market is up. November is only 10 months away.


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 01:11 AM
January 11, 2012
Refugee camps?

We see the Shuafat refugee camp from the route that we walk around French Hill a couple of times each day. We don't see tents or low rise mud brick dwellings, but high rise concrete and stone apartment houses that look pretty much like those on this side of the security barrier. If there are donkeys providing transportation or haulage, they have escaped our notice. Instead we see motor vehicles similar to our own.

No one should claim that Israel makes it easy for the Palestinians living on this or that side of the security barrier. There are check points on the roads between here and there, and individuals with permits may wait hours in the line for an examination of their documents and belongings.

There is no security barrier between us and Isaweea, insofar as it is formally within the Jerusalem municipality. We see the dirt roads within that neighborhood from our balcony. The people from that neighborhood use the post office, supermarket, playgrounds, and bank in French Hill, insofar as there are none closer to their homes. Municipal trash collection and Israeli ambulances don't venture into the neighborhood out of concern for being attacked, and even the police go in only with substantial forces when there is a need. It is virtually impossible for the residents to obtain the permits required for construction, but they build anyway. If they impinge on what the municipality considers to be a site that should be reserved for public use, there will be an application for destruction, the courts will decide, and eventually the bulldozers will do their work.

Calling Shuafat a refugee camp decades after its initial designation is one of the problems in the way of an agreement about two states. The United Nations and the worthies of western democracies continue the fantasy of a temporary dislocation, and reinforce feelings of deprivation into the third and fourth generations with free food and social services.

Israeli and Palestinian representatives have met twice in Amman. Spokesmen of each side are not revealing many details, but are grousing that the other side is not as forthcoming as it should be. There is no end of reasons for the stalemate, that seems likely to continue. Israelis charge that Palestinians have not come to accept their existence. The problem is not 1967, but 1948. Or perhaps the latter part of the 19th century when Jews began coming in increasing numbers. The leadership of the West Bank usually claims to have renounced violence, but at times the same leadership hints at the need for forceful action. The leadership of Gaza, with many supporters in the West Bank, is a long way from accepting Israel's existence, or abandoning terror.

Israelis do not trust Palestinians, and are not making it easy for them. One can argue if Arab citizens of Israel have it better or worse than minorities living in North American or Western Europe. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem are a special case, even more difficult to assess. Only a few accepted citizenship when Israel offered it soon after 1967, or take advantage of residents' rights to participate in municipal politics as voters or candidates for office.

There is ambivalence on both sides of the ethnic divide with respect to Palestinians' participation in Jerusalem politics. Their abstention is convenient for Jews insofar as it excuses the lack of resources provided to Palestinian neighborhoods. You get what you vote for, and if you don't vote you don't get.

Palestinian friends living in Jerusalem have described the pressure from outside to maintain the status quo of no cooperation with Israeli occupation. One told of going to a meeting in an East Jerusalem hotel called to hear a discussion between leading Palestinians and Israelis concerned to foster dialogue and accommodation, which was broken up by Palestinian thugs before it could get underway.

Extremist Jews, with financial help from overseas, see their religious and nationalist mission as living in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Authorities not only recognize their rights to live where they can justify legal possession, but provide them with 24-7 security. Arab families buying or renting in French HIll and other largely Jewish neighborhoods do so without protracted court cases to establish the legality of possession, and continue without armed guards and security cameras outside their dwellings.

Claims of justice, "who started it?" or who should make the initial and greater gesture in behalf of accommodation muddy the discussion. The history of the conflict, which may have begun in the 1880s, 1920s, 1948, or 1967 incites animosity that gets in the way of discussion. When I heard an Arab intellectual describe Isaweea as a closed ghetto whose residents were caged up and denied the most basic of municipal services, I thought about thefts, break-ins, vandalism, and personal attacks in French Hill attributed to Isaweea residents, and the two cases of near-lynch that occurred when Jews turned the wrong way into Isaweea.

One of the accomplishments of Oslo negotiators in the early 1990s was to discuss "where to go from here?" without reference to "how did we get here?" or "who is responsible?" for one or another problem.

It is common to attribute abject failure to the Oslo process. The second and most severe intifada put an end to further accommodations. However, the Oslo process arranged what still exists as a primary separation between Israeli and Palestinian authorities on the West Bank. Israel is no longer responsible for education, health, policing, or other services in heavily Palestinian areas. The IDF enters occasionally, but that is not the same as pre-Oslo occupation. To speak casually of Israeli occupation is no more accurate than to describe Shuafat and other neighborhoods as "refugee camps." The labels represent Palestinian efforts to color the international discussion. We can fault them for reinforcing Israeli distrust, which is among the elements--but by no means the only element--in the way of further agreements and the two-state solution.


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 05:12 AM
January 09, 2012
Here we go again

Once again Prime Minister Netanyahu demonstrated his skills as a magician.

In the morning, his ministers expressed wall to wall opposition to giving up four percent of their budgets for the sake of free pre-school education from the age of three. The government meeting was nastier than usual, with several ministers and senior professionals snapping at one another.

By mid-afternoon, the announcement was that Netanyahu was postponing a vote on the program in light of opposition.

By early evening the Prime Minister had made enough deals--excusing one or another ministry from all or part of the budget cut--so that he could call another meeting of the government and achieve a majority in favor of the program.

It will take some time to see whether the magician was performing a trick with smoke and mirrors, or will actually deliver on his boast of providing free pre-school education from the age of three by September 1.

The Knesset enacted a free pre-school education law in 1984, but the funding has been delayed time after time.

We'll see if this promise is any more genuine.

Implementation is more complicated, and more hidden from view than policy enactment. The ministries will have several opportunities to fudge the decision about budget cuts in dealings with the Finance Ministry. Local authorities will have to pay their share, and that will produce other snafus. They will ask the Finance and Interior Ministries for additional aid, and that may not come. It is necessary to construct additional kindergartens, and that will invite challenges to local planning decisions. Given what we know about the economic well-being and decision-making capacity of various local authorities, we can expect more free pre-school education in well-to-do Jewish localities than in lower income Jewish communities or in Arab communities. That isn't what the reformers talked about in their pursuit of social justice.

Politicians lie. They must. They take on the responsibility of leading complex societies without the resources to support all the demands that reach the public agenda.

Perhaps "lie" is too strong a term. Dissembling sounds better. Even better is to describe them as trying to square the circle, or putting out fires that appear all the time while keeping the ship afloat. Politics is the essence of civilization. It is meant to provide an appropriate mix of justice and services when it is impossible to satisfying everyone.

Only about one-half of the headlines have been about Netanyahu's magic. The other half has dealt with a messiah who has agreed to enter Israeli politics and form a political party. Supporters are sure that he will provide where established politicians fail.

We can hope for the best, but should remind ourselves that we've seen this before.

Yair Lapid is an attractive, charismatic, and skilled media personality who finally announced after months of speculation. Polls show that a party he would lead might get as many as 20 seats in a Knesset election. That could make him the leader of the second largest party, and write finish to the short history of Kadima.

Lapid's postures on current topics are not well known, nor are the people he will assemble as running mates. His party, which still lacks a name, money, and a list of candidates, joins a line of four or five others that have sought to remake Israeli politics in recent decades. The common theme is disatisfaction with existing parties, a prominent personality with a stunning reputation earned outside of politics, and a claim to provide a new centrist alternative between the extremes of existing parties.

The new parties have typically done well for two or more elections and then gone under. The noted archaeologist and former general Yigal Yadin created the Democratic Movement for Change (Dash), that disappeared after aligning itself with Likud. Lapid's father created Shinui (Change), which was done in by the corrupt practices of a second-tier member. Kadima (Advance) was the work of Ariel Sharon after his split with Likud over the issue of withdrawing settlements from Gaza. It proved resilient to Sharon's exit with a stoke that put him in a vegetative state that has lasted for six years, and his successor's (Ehud Olmert) exit under criminal charges. Kadima emerged from the most recent election with the most Knesset seats, but its leader (Tzipi Livni) could not form a government. She has not done well as leader of the opposition, and the polls are showing that Kadima will lose most of the seats that Lapid is predicted to win.

Commentators are speculating the Lapid will carry on with his father's successful campaigns based on opposition to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox. The setting is appropriate, given the recent bad press earned by extremists in Beit Shemesh and Mea She'arim. However, Lapid will not have that field to himself, if indeed he chooses to play on it. Avigdor Lieberman speaks for Russian immigrants frustrated by the barriers set up by religious authorities who deny them rights of marriage in Israel and burial in major cemeteries on account of not being halachically Jewish, and raise additional demands with respect to their efforts to convert.

Again we see the existential problem of Israel. It is disproportionately in the international spotlight, kept there by a host of Muslim countries who prefer to point their fingers rather than deal with their own problems, and by delusional western politicians who fancy themselves able to employ a combination of brilliance and pressure to quiet the Middle East by solving the problem of Palestine. Israel's domestic politics feel the heat, and have their own sources of pressure coming out of Jewish traditions of unbridled criticism with roots going back to the Biblical prophets.

It is not a condition for political calm, or for the certain implementation of promises, even when they have been enacted as government policy.


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 04:01 AM
January 08, 2012
Bits of Israeli politics and society

Several of the items in today's news are not of the world shaking variety that will provoke unrest in the Middle East, Washington, or even among the American Jewish community, but each contributes their increment to understanding this country.

First is the proposal of the Prime Minister to move forward with one of the ideas that came out of last summer's social protests: to provide free education from age three onward.

No free lunch. The money has to come from somewhere.

The Prime Minister's proposal sounds reasonable: to cut each ministry's budget in order to provide the money to begin paying pre-school fees and to construct the new facilities required. However, it has brought across the board opposition that reflects the reluctance of sitting ministers to contribute their share, and underlying social tensions. Lots of Israelis may feel sympathy for young families with two working parents who are stretched to afford child care. Nonetheless--

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has proposed to limit the aid to families where both parents actually work, and where both have served in the IDF. He has made it clear he does not want to support the families of Arabs who work against the interests of Israel, or the families of ultra-Orthodox Jews who contribute neither to the IDF nor to the workforce.

Lieberman may be firming up his posture as the most anti-clerical of Israeli politicians, positioned to gain from the wave of anti-Haredi sentiment provoked by events in Beit Shemesh and Mea She'arim.

Political activists from the Negev and the Galilee ask why should programs meant to promote their underdeveloped regions be cut in order to provide more free education for up-scale Israelis in Herzelia, Caesaria, and North Tel Aviv.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians do not want to cut the social programs that subsidize housing and other services for their communities. They are also positioning themselves against Lieberman, and letting us know they they won't roll over to any campaign meant to serve secular Israelis.

The Defense Minister comes out of the Labor Party, and continues to express support for social objectives even though he broke with that party rooted in socialism. However, Iran is just over the horizon; Syria is unstable; Hamas and Hizbollah are not far away. This is not the time for him to volunteer any defense money for education.

One can wonder about the sincerity of the Prime Minister. He speaks warmly about the need to reform Israel's social agenda, but he also opposes major new expenditures or causing problems in the delicate balance of his governing coalition. All those social protesters, and perhaps especially those well-educated, upper-income young Israelis who want things even better may have to wait, and work for a change in the country's politics.

Outside the realm of electoral politics, but not too far from it, is controversy over the composition of Israel's Supreme Court. The court is an active, or hyper-active body open to any citizen who objects to a decision of a governmental official or local authority, and is willing to pay a modest fee and wait until the court gets around to the matter presented.

Activists from the right accuse the Court of being overly concerned to keep Israel within a narrow and left of center view of what is politically correct. They have sought, so far without success, to alter the procedures for selecting judges in order to give more weight to their conception of democracy. Against them are sitting court members, retired judges, and others who defend what they describe as the professional view of judges who consider the law and not politics.

We sceptics smell old fish. We know that there are a lot of legal provisions with enough complexities to provide room for judges' social and political norms. There is no lack of political science that testifies to the tendency of judges to decide in one direction or another consistent with standard conceptions of social, economic, or political rights and wrongs.

Israel's procedure for selecting judges is more subdued than that employed in the United States. A Judicial Selection Committee includes four politicians coming from the Knesset and Government, two members of the Bar Association, and three sitting judges of the Supreme Court. So far the establishment has resisted efforts to employ the kind of public hearing seen in the US Senate that probes the inclinations of candidates with respect to hot social issues likely to be on the court's agenda.

However, the nuances of politics are only a bit beneath the surface of legal objectivity.

The most recent sitting of the Judicial Selection Committee appointed four new members of the Supreme Court, representing a compromise between contending forces. So far the line up is being praised by individuals from different camps who are speaking about balance and professionalism. The right wing Justice Minister got his favorite, a lower court judge inclined to conservative decisions, whose curriculum vita is stained in the view of the left by virtue of his residence in Gush Etzion. That is a "settlement," albeit one of the older ones not commonly identified with Land of Israel extremists. The organization Yesh Gvul (There is a Limit) has asked the Supreme Court to nuffify his appointment due to a violation of international law. The left of center retiring Chair of the Supreme Court emerged with two appointees who are identified as close to her perspective. The fourth appointee is a lower court judge who fits into the slot of Sephardi, Oriental, or non-European Jews, as demanded by activists of those communities who feel themselves insufficiently represented in the elite.

So far the Supreme Court has twice considered the demands of 82 year old Shlomo Avni, who wants to control what happens after his death. Not for him a conventional religious burial that is the fate of the vast majority. Nor a cremation--opposed by the religious but possible to obtain--that that would add to air pollution. His initial request to be thrown onto a field and be food for animals raised too many problems. A Supreme Court judge ruled that it would create environmental problems, offend one's respect for human dignity, as well as to counter the traditions of both Judaism and Islam. http://news.walla.co.il/?w=/90/1611784 It might also have led some of Israel's carnivores (i.e., wild dogs, jackals, hyenas and a small number of leapords) to appreciate the taste of humans.

Still alive and kicking, the man is trying his luck with a demand that his body to be thrown into the sea as fish food beyond Israel's territorial waters. A district court ruled against him on account of the Supreme Court's ruling on his earlier request about being thrown to the animals, but a second Supreme Court decision held that his request was different, suggested a reasonable balance between personal preference and public policy, and sent it back to a district court for decision.

We can wish Mr. Avni many more years, while wondering about his preferences. Israeli burials occur without the chemicals and containers meant to preserve the body until whatever. There is nothing but a washing and then a shroud to separate a departed from the crawly things that are no less natural than distant cousins that prowl the land or swim in the sea.


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 05:05 AM
January 06, 2012
Been there. Done that.

Israeli and Palestinian officials have met for the first time in months, exchanged documents, and plan to meet again.

The meeting came after prolonged pressure from the "Quartet" of US, European Union, UN, and Russia. The location in Amman shows Jordanian interest.

We have nothing more than unsubstantiated reports of what happened at the first meeting, and speculation by way of explanation and expectations. The details make sense even though some have been denied by the parties.

The Palestinians demanded the 1967 borders as the basis of negotiations, with changes limited to a small percentage of the territory. Israel is said to have put some Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem on the table, demanded a continued military presence along the Jordan River and at selected points of security significance in the West Bank, indicated that it would accept no Palestinian refugees, would not withdraw all settlements from the West Bank, insists on limitations of Palestine's capascity to form agreements with countries Israel considers its enemies, and that any agreement be final, with no possibility of additional Palestinian demands. http://www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?ID=252424&R=R1

A non-starter from each perspective, or the opening of what are likely to be ongoing negotiations over a lengthy period of time?

Commentary focuses on the inability of Palestinians to bring along Hamas or those further extreme in their anti-Israeli postures, and the disinclination of Israelis to trust Palestinians, or to make concessions requiring conflict with Israel's right wing without a high probability of agreement.

Why go down this road, more likely to increase frustration than produce agreement?

Winston Churchill's explanation: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."

Along with this is the need to explain the continued pressure of outsiders.

Front and center are the illusions or delusions of Barack Obama and his chorus of American and European hopefuls. They seem to believe that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is no more than a disagreement over details, where "everyone knows the eventual outcome," and a nudge from distinguished outsiders will bring the locals to their senses.

There is also the need of western powers to appease Arab supporters of the Palestinians. The Middle Eastern reality is that Palestinians are low priority for other Arabs, and little more than a fig leaf over their own domestic problems. That detail, if recognized in the White House and European capitals, may be less important than playing along with the Arab charade of concern for Palestine. Autocratic regimes have invested so much in their claims of concern for Palestine that they risk even more unrest if they appear to be less than serious.

As a result of all this, Israeli and Palestinians go along with a charade, each presenting demands defensible within their own communities in full recognition that they doom any agreement.

There is a lot that we do not know. How serious is the pressure on the Israelis and Palestinians to demonstrate flexibility? And what's going on with respect to Iran. If those explosions, assassinations, and computer viruses reflect the combined efforts of Americans, Israelis, and perhaps others, then a bit of play acting on the part of Israel with respect to Palestine is a small price to pay.

The multiplicity of actors and influences on them, plus recent events unsettling the status quo make any projections risky in the extreme. Hamas, Hizbollah, Syria, and Iran have their own interests. Arab spring/fall/winter and its repercussions make each of them insecure, and add to the risks of any predictions.

Anyone with a normative agenda, or a concern for the justice of Israeli or Palestinian claims can go back to bed. This is a time for considering what is possible and what is likely.

Credible information is that Israel has plans to destroy weapons stocks in Lebanon and Gaza, but has no wish to pre-empt and cause itself casualties in advance of a serious threat. There is daily speculation about Israel's intentions about Iran, and no clear indication if this is serious or disinformation. Recent blusters between Iran and the United States about the Straits of Hormuz, and news of continued downsizing of American forces and its military commitments add to uncertainties. The American political campaign offers its own incentives for heroic activity.

The improbability of movement on a Palestinian state and the prospect of frustration in the West Bank makes one wonder if the naivete of Americans and others will be the spark that sets things alight.

While things may explode tomorrow, or even later today, until that happens it is best to stay with routines and remain calm.


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 01:43 AM
January 04, 2012
Israel and Judaism

The commotion over the place of women in buses and on sidewalks reminds us that religion plays a central role in Israeli politics. There is no formal separation of religion and politics. Moreover, Judaism is a religion that gives a central role to political history, political criticism, and political maneuvering.

What else Judaism is remains far beyond this small note.

It may be that no democracy actually separates "church and state." The platitudes trumpeted about the United States are not true. The Constitution does not require a separation, only that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." There is a long history of public support for religion in the United States, via tax exemptions for religious institutions and outright grants for students and programs at schools and colleges associated with religious bodies. One can also put into the category of laws coming out of religion those concerned with marriage, homosexuality and abortion, all of which change along with the norms of religious people and others.

As I read the Hebrew Bible, I see a central concern for the history of the Hebrews, Israelites, Judeans, and Jews, including their battles and other efforts to maintain themselves in the presence of more powerful empires. The Land of Israel is no easy burden. It is the bridge between continents, reasonably well watered in a region of deserts. It has long been on the agenda of powerful regimes who want to conquer it, or use it to reach other places they will conquer.

The geography and history taught the small nation of the Jews to maneuver and cope. Even God copes with greater powers. He told Moses to lie to Pharaoh about leaving Egypt, and later told him to detour around a strong tribe in the desert. The problematic Book of Job also says something about God, not entirely complimentary. And Ecclesiastes is a delightful expression of scepticism, perhaps more Greek than Judaic.

One essence of Judaism is law, and that is a central feature of what government is all about. Religious Jews, especially men of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox varieties, spend much of their lives studying the Mishnah, Talmud, and subsequent commentaries, which are meant to explicate and to some extent update the laws of the Torah.

If you want to see outspoken politics in the Hebrew Bible, you can begin with the prophets. Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea were severe critics of their rulers and economic elites.

A rough translation of Amos 5:22-24 is that God does not want religious ritual, but JUSTICE.

The prophets are at the center of Jewish prayer. Do those reading the Haftorah recognize that they are celebrating Jewish criticism of political and economic elites?

Whether they do or do not, they are marking one of the cultural traits that help to explain Israel's democracy, as well as the prominence of Jews in revolutionary movements and social criticism from the 19th century onward. It is Justice they demand.

In keeping with this, Israel's State Comptroller (the GAO equivalent) is the one national auditor empowered by law to criticize governmental and other public bodies for lapses in moral integrity. Other national auditors are limited to judging bodies with respect to legality, economy, and efficiency.

For Israel's State Comptroller, anything goes by way of its criticism for public bodies' failure to be moral. If that isn't Amos modernized, I don't know what it is.

Another source of Israel's democracy is the argument that is the essence of Talmudic study. One reads the arguments of ancient rabbis, and continues them with a study partner in an effort to understand the Talmud, and backward to the Torah, and what it means for today.

About 100 countries emerged from the chaos of World War II and the postwar shedding of empires. Most claim to be democracies but are not. Israel is, despite wars, poverty and mass immigration from non-democratic societies; i.e., just the stuff that would be expected to explain a country's departure from democratic norms.

The cultural traditions of the Jews provide my best explanation of Israel's democracy. The Holocaust also contributed, by way of showing what might happen if the population allowed itself to be ruled by autocrats or split apart by violence.

Which brings us back to women's sections of buses and women's sidewalks.

Tempers have already cooled. The extremists who spit and curse could only attract a thousand people to their demonstration. For the Haredi community skilled in mounting much more noise against violators of the Sabbath or kashrut, that was a sign of isolation and failure.

One should not expect Jews to abandon arguments, only to pursue them without sticks and stones.

The issue of women is far from settled. A senior IDF rabbi resigned, in part due to his opposition to the forced attendance of religious personnel in ceremonies that featured female singers. The deputy minister of health, a Haredi Member of Knesset, walked out of a ceremony that included female singers. On the same occasion, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi remained in his place, but was seen reading Psalms on his IPhone during the singing.

There have been testimonials by women who support segregation in buses, as preferential to mingling with male pushers and pinchers. The media reminded us that Cairo subways have cars for women only, also to protect them from unpleasantness.

Israel has coped with religion in imperfect ways. Religious authorities control who can marry within Israel, but the Interior Ministry honors treaties about respecting the laws of other countries. It registers married couples who tied the knot elsewhere. Government and other public institutions serve only kosher food in their canteens, but those concerned to eat what is forbidden have no problem finding food shops and restaurants. Currently we are seeing a change in the practices demanded by religious Jews with respect to women., No one should attempt to predict the outcome of this issue. If other cases serve as a guide, we can expect some kind of messy resolution to flow from the efforts of Israelis to satisfy their contrary expectations.


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 10:30 AM
January 01, 2012

The current phase of Israel's religious conflict is well along in its ritualized pattern.

The details may differ each time the conflict heats up, but the basic story is similar.

•A specific incident excites the faithful and the not-so-faithful
•Events escalate from name calling, pushing, spitting, blocking traffic, the throwing of trash, and the burning of trash dumpsters
•The police seek to limit the commotion, and arrest a few demonstrators for a limited period of time (cooling off)
•Rabbis and secular politicians eventually urge calm, cite the rights of each community, and emphasize the overriding concern of Jewish comity in the presence of enemies along the borders
•Things eventually return to the same old stuff of lowered tension, until the next issue ignites a similar process

I wrote about this in The Rituals of Conflict, published in 1996. Some may think this note is the work of a doddering academic anxious to keep alive an idea he had long ago. I'll claim that the idea still has merit, and that it is too early to take away my computer.

Prominent disturbances in the past came mainly from the Haredi communities, and focused on perceived violation of the Sabbath, post-mortems in cases of suspicious deaths, or the threat of disturbing old graves said to be Jewish at construction sites.

What is different this time is that disturbances escalated initially with secular protests against the ultra-Orthodox on the issue of segregating women.

Most prominent was a demonstration of perhaps ten thousand secular, Orthodox, and some ultra-Orthodox men and women in Beit Shemesh against ultra-Orthodox extremists.

Now we are at the stage where ultra-Orthodox are demonstrating against what they call efforts of secular Israelis to segregate and eliminate them. They are dressing in the uniforms of Nazi concentration camps, putting yellow stars of David on their clothing, and pushing their children to the front lines of demonstrations where some are mimicking the iconic picture of the young boy raising his hands in the face of Nazi enforcers.

Reports are that only a thousand Haredim turned out for the most recent demonstration near Mea She'arim. If organizers cannot do more than that, they are showing their isolation in the small corner of the Haredi communities reserved for the extremists.

Distinguished rabbis and prominent politicians are calling for calm, urging both the more radical of the ultra-Orthodox and the more excitable of the secular to cool it in the name of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and/or the priority of Jewish comity.

Some details prominent in this round.

The Holocaust is showing itself once again as an element in Jewish conflict. The expression from a secular activist that the ultra-Orthodox are reproducing themselves with the speed of vermin was too close to Nazi propaganda, and brought forth a condemnation from a secular politician. Ultra-Orthodox dressing in the uniforms of concentration camp prisoners and pinning yellow stars of their children has produce cries of foul from the secular media.

Reports are that buses meant for separation have a sign on them indicating that women are expected to sit in the rear, and another sign indicating that anyone can sit where he or she desires. There might not be a commotion if a Haredi objecting to a woman sitting next to him simply moved to another seat. The problem comes when he calls her a shiksa or whore.

The lack of moderation may reflect the Israeli practice of granting every Haredi man, intelligent or otherwise, the right to avoid work, live off his wife's earnings and modest allotments from the state and his academy. He is exposed full time to the preachings of rabbis and fellow students, in a neighborhood likely to be entirely Haredi. He does not encounter the wider social contacts that a job may provide to him.

Not too far from the streets where the demonstrations occur is a looming political issue. The late journalist turned politician Tomi Lapid created an anti-clerical political party that at its height in 2003 won 15 seats in the Knesset and several places as government ministers. That party folded when one of its holier than thou anti-religious Members of Knesset and ministers was found to have engaged in some especially dirty intra-party monkey business.

Now Lapid's son, Yair, has built himself an impressive following as a journalist, and has mulled an entry into politics. Polls show him leading a party that would gain more seats than Kadima (currently the Knesset's largest party, but undergoing hard times). Today's Ha'aretz cartoon depicts Benyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman trying to shovel Yair Lapid into a freezer, reflecting a demand to legislate a "cooling off period" to keep jounalists from jumping directly into politics. There is such a period of six months before a retiring senior official in one of the security services can be a candidate for election. One can argue if the idea is to keep well known personalities from exploiting a reputation earned outside of politics for political advantage, or simply the effort of established politicians to limit competition. If Lapid entered politics and followed the anti-clerical path of his father, he would take votes from Lieberman. Part of Lieberman's appeal to secular Russian-speakers is his posture with respect to individuals whose claims of Jewish roots do not pass muster with the Rabbinate.

To date, the occasional bursts of ritualized conflict over issues of religion have not threatened the integrity of Israel. They are the price paid for living in a population that is 75-80 percent Jewish (depending on one's conception of "Jewish").

Just as the notion of "final solution" is anathema to Jews after the Holocaust, there can be no thought of a thorough resolution of our religious tensions. Secular, Orthodox, and Haredi Israelis emerge from the same protoplasm of Jewish cultures. Our task is to cope with tensions, competition for resources, and a lack of understanding rather than to do away with one or another, If the size of the Haredi community has grown too large, with too great demands on the national economy, the reasonable response is to reduce the incentives provided the younger generation to avoid productive schooling and work. There are signs of progress in that direction, but the effort comes up against the theology/ideology of religious communities. Involved, too, is the self-interest of established religious academies, and the rabbis who lead the academies and the ultra-Orthodox political parties.

Alongside this note is the story of Orthodox extremists who resist the removal of settlements from the West Bank, or promote the entry of Jewish families into neighborhoods of Jerusalem heavily populated by hostile Arabs. There is also an insistence on segregation expressed by Orthodox Jews in the military and elsewhere who refuse to listen to women singers or speakers, or to work alongside of women. The line-up of supporters and opponents, and the prominent behaviors differ from those involving Heredim and women. Such nuances are among the critical differences in the Israeli mosaic that affect those of us who must tolerate one another on a daily basis.


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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:05 AM