March 31, 2012
Timidity in high places

Time to think again for those who kvelled when it appeared that Bibi had the US Congress eating out of his hand, standing and applauding at least as often as for a Presidential State of the Union. And again when he began that speech at AIPAC with the Holocaust and ended with Purim directed at the evil Haman, now in the guise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It is time to rethink toward Bibi the timid, or the populist afraid of a small crowd of Yuppies.

A prominent economic commentator writing in Ha'aretz described him as standing at the window with his hand outside to judge the strength of the wind. The story begins on page 1 of Ha'aretz print edition, and is the lead item on its Hebrew Internet site. On the paper's English language Internet site, the item is several places below a headline dealing with the threat of renewed violence from Gaza. Could the editors be reluctant to emphasize for overseas readers the flabbiness of the Prime Minister they highlight in Israel?

What's the story?

Earlier on Saturday, the so-called Minister of Finance, with apparent authority to determine such things, defended the routine monthly increase in the price of gasoline calculated on the basis of changes in the market price of oil that was due at midnight. Yuval Steinitz, PhD, explained on a prominent interview program that Israel was largely responsible for the increase due to its campaign against Iran. He emphasized that it was better to pay a bit more for gas than to suffer the consequences of Iranian nuclear weapons.

Then just in time for evening news, the Prime Minister announced that he was reducing the tax on gasoline. Although the total price would rise, it would be less than the public had expected.

The reporter emphasized not only the embarrassment of the Finance Minister, but that it was the Prime Minister who took credit for moderating the price rise. Once again Steinitz is Bibi's lap dog

This is the second time running that the Prime Minister has ordered a last minute cut in the taxes on gasoline in order to moderate a price increase. This time he went not only against the heroic pronouncement of his Finance Minister, but against the public comments of the respected economist heading the Bank of Israel, who spoke against juggling taxes for the sake of momentary political gain.

The pluses and minuses of Bibi's actions do not amount to a great compliment for the head of our government.

The obvious plus is its service to his political standing. Last summer's protest demonstrations that attracted hundreds of thousands seem likely to come back, even closer to whenever is the next election. Netanyahu and his colleagues in the government were proud to announce the appointment of a distinguished committee to recommend changes in the policies that demonstrators challenged, and then boasted of what they put into effect. However, the overall assessment is that changes surviving the opposition from entrenched interests will do little to satisfy the key demands of the protests.

It is appropriate to remember that the protests were led and supported mostly by young adults of well-to-do families, most of them students or graduates of universities, already or destined to be in the upper two deciles of income.

Many of their parents started life in tiny apartments with no automobile or private telephone after arriving from disasters in Europe or elsewhere in the Middle East to a country much poorer than presently, Some of those parents missed out on the opportunity for higher education, or even high school due to the timing of a forced migration, or managed to complete university only in their 30s or 40s while also working and raising a family. Their children, i.e,, the recent protesters, want things even better than their highly subsidized university education, three or four room apartment, one or two automobiles, all the modern gadgets, visits to restaurants and overseas vacations.

One wonders at the most recent caving in by the Prime Minister. There were some dramatic interviews at gas pumps of people angry at having to pay more, but the street protest in Tel Aviv attracted only a hundred or so. Recent polls have shown Netanyahu and Likud as having no serious challengers who could expect as many as two-thirds the votes they would be likely to receive at the next election.

Moreover, the news of this price gesture could hurt the Prime Minister's more prominent campaign against Iran. In defending his posture of not moderating the price increase, the Finance Minister reported that no European country was lowering its taxes to buffer citizens from the increase in the world price of petroleum.

Will Bibi's gesture produce international ridicule rather than even tougher sanctions on Iran, which--iif implemented--will cause even further increases in the price of gasoline? Why should Americans and Europeans suffer on account of Israel's fear of Iran if the Israeli Prime Minister does not demand the same suffering of his people?

Bibi likes to pose as tough and wise, but sometimes appears in Israeli media as more the populist clown than hero. Prominent in his portfolio of nonsense is the 747-supertanker he ordered brought over from the United States to deal with a forest fire on the Carmel. While he claimed it had contributed greatly to putting out the fire, critics noted that it was an expensive rental, took a long time to get to Israel, could only be flown from a major airport, and took a long time to fill its tanks with water. Better would have been an increase in the number of smaller planes that could fill their tanks by sweeping low over the sea and return time and again for a drop over strategic spots.

On several occasions since then, the Prime Minister has been proud to use the metaphor of a supertanker to explain yet another of his grand gestures to solve a national problem, but it has been difficult to know if his bravado brings more ridicule than praise.

What's next for the Prime Minister known for his sensitivity to pressure?

Israelis have shown themselves in surveys to be more supportive of an attack on Iran than populations or political leaders of Europe and the United States. However, Israelis themselves seem to be more ambivalent than enthusiastic about an attack.

A report in Time that may provide our guidance. The Prime Minister is worried that the Mossad's efforts to derail Iran's nuclear program with assassinations and destruction might go awry, and has ordered a downsizing of the operations.

Perhaps Bibi will order a limited attack. Half bomb loads, or something else to send a message to Iran, without upsetting those who oppose a full scale operation.


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 11:36 PM
March 30, 2012
Land Day, Iran, and the White House

Two issues were prominent on Friday's agenda. Both were either large or small, depending on perspective and how they developed. Both combined local and international considerations.

Most immediate was Land Day.

Mar ch 30 is one of the prominent items on the protest calendar of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. It commemorates the occasion in 1975 of large demonstrations against the Israel government's decision to appropriate land in the Galilee for public use and urban development that resulted in the deaths of six demonstrators.

This year the event comes after a march last May toward the Israeli border from Lebanon and Syria to commemorate Nakba Day, meant to remember the catastrophe of 1948. On that occasion, demonstrators from Syria penetrated the border and remained in the Druze town of Majd al-Shams for several hours. Overall on both the Lebanese and Syrian borders, 12 demonstrators were killed and more injured.

In preparation for this year's Land Day, international activists have joined with Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza to mount another march toward the border, as well as demonstrations within Israel.

Activists have proclaimed a "march of a million" or "march of the world" on Jerusalem, but security personnel of Israel and its neighbors have worked to keep that from happening.

This year's Land Day also coincided with the onset of Israel's peculiar Summer Time, which runs from just before Passover to just before Yom Kippur. Compared to Thursday, there would be an additional hour of daylight for whatever occurs.

There are plans for a "fly in" in mid-April, when militants from overseas will hope to flood through the airport in order to make their point about what belons to who.

The first fly-in, a year ago, resulted in most activists kept from the planes due to their names being given to authorities at the points of embarcation. Perhaps 124 reached Ben Gurion Airport, but didn't make it through passport controls.

The IDF and police mobilized on several fronts in preparation for Land Day. The IDF worked on training, as well as improved barriers and non-lethal crowd control as a result of last year's Nakba Day. Troops on the borders have been instructed not to allow any incursions, but also not to overreact in a way to allow the production of video clips that will embarrass Israel overseas. Messages have been sent to neighoring countries that Israel will react strongly if their governments allow hostile crowds to approach the borders.

One can imaging the possibilities in the event of rushes toward the borders with Lebanon or Syria. Hezbollah's leader Nasrallah has been living underground and rarely seen in public since the 2006 war. Reports are that the IDF has a long list of targets in Lebanon, but is sensitive to the prospect of Hezbollah and Palestinians in Lebanon unleashing some thousands of rockets they have received from Iran and Syria. Syria's regime is tottering, and Israel might even gain points by acting against military targets.

Police have mobilized at various points in Jerusalem. The Temple Mount is an obvious site for confrontation, insofar as this year's Land Day co-incides with Friday prayers. On special occasions, more than 100,000 Muslims pray on the plateu outside al-Aqsa mosque.

Police have announced that no Palestinians from the West Bank will be allowed to enter Israel during a 24-hour period. They will also prevent access to the Old City of males whose identity cards do not show that they live there, and allow access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif only for males over the age of 40, and women of all ages. The army put substantial numbers of troops along the borders with Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, and the police put large numbers of its people at sensitive points in the Galilee, Negev, and Jerusalem, with particular concern for the Old City, the road from Ramallah, and restive Arab neighborhoods within the city.

Senior police officers indicated that they would allow peaceful demonstrations, intended to stay out of Arab villages in order to avoid provocations, and would not allow disruption of traffic on main roads or other violations of public order.

On the eve of Land Day there was an attempted firebombing of a bus near the Hebrew University campus on Mt Scopus, suggesting a preview of what was coming. An attack on the light rail by two Jewish men against an Arab rider reminded us that extremism was not one-sided.

Reports in the morning were that neighboring governments, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians were not intending to provoke Israeli responses. Palestinian security personnel assured Israeli counterparts that they would work to keep demonstrations peaceful, and away from confrontations with Israeli personnel.

From mid-morning onward we heard from excited reporters stationed at the borders and in the Old City of Jerusalem. They spoke about troops and police prepared for every possibility, but also noted that Israeli Arab and Palestinian youths were attending school, and that the media in the West Bank, neighboring countries, and even Gaza were not emphasizing the national struggle. It appeared that authorities throughout the region were not anxious for an increase in tension.

I awoke from my schlafstunde to the sound of a police helicopter circling over French Hill and Isaweea, and the sight of black smoke, most likely from the protest routine of burning tires.

Later reports were closer to a fizzle than catastrophe. There were confrontations on the northern border of Jerusalem and near the Nablus Gate of the Old City, firebombs and stones, with injuries on the side of the demonstrators and some arrests.

Iran popped up to compete for our attention with Land Day. It was not so much what the Iranians were doing, as what the Americans were doing. One senior source leaked the news that Azerbaijan had agreed that Israeli planes could use one of its airfields. A report coming from researchers in Congress indicated that neither Israel nor the United States were certain about the location of all Iranian nuclear sites, and that the most an attack by either country could do would be to postpone Iran's nuclear program by six months.

The accuracy of both reports is subject to dispute. Officials of Azerbaijan denied the report about their airfield, but that may be nothing more than the smoke blowing through international politics. Azerbaijan borders Iran, Azeris are a substantial minority in Iran who have been an occasional subject of concern for the Persian-dominated government. Relations between the countries have been problematic, in part due to ties between Azerbaijan and Israel, including the sale of sophisticated military equipment.

The report from Congressional researchers joins a large pile of reports assessing American and/or Israel capacities to destroy or set back Iran's nuclear program. An evening discussion program featured a former Israeli diplomat who pondered the existence of an American campaign to discourage an Israeli attack, the likelihood that the leak about Azerbaijan will infuriate Israeli officials, and the possibility that Congressional researchers were getting information from the Administration's intelligence. The diplomat reminded us that senior Israeli and American military, intelligence, and political figures had been visiting one another frequently. Yet Americans may not be sure about Israel's intentions, and are showing their nerves by leaking news about Azerbaijan and publishing a pessimistic report about the prospects of an attack.

At times like this I wonder about my decision 37 years ago to leave a good position at the University of Wisconsin. Would I have missed out on a great learning experience, or maybe died of boredom before winter temperatures did me in?


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 08:14 AM
March 28, 2012
Annan in Wonderland

Last week I wrote about Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal. Now it is time to think about Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Before you accuse me of going literary, note that my metaphor gets us back to politics and the Middle East.

What brings forth Alice in Wonderland, its fantasy and nonsense is this combination of headlines:

•"Syria accepts cease-fire; fighting enters Lebanon"

"Syria Reportedly Accepts Peace Plan as Clashes Erupt Near Lebanon"

The first comes from the Jerusalem Post. It accepts a report from Lebanon that Syrian troops entered that country in pursuit of Syrian rebels who had sought sanctuary. The second is more cautious. It comes from the New York Times, perhaps less inclined to add to the image of chaos incomprehensible to westerners in a region of interest to the United States. From such a perspective, the fighting was only close to Lebanon.

However, both headlines add to my sense of fantasy. The United Nations envoy to Syria, the former Secretary General Kofi Annan, has issued an optimistic statement about the Syrian president agreeing to a 6-point peace plan, involving the withdrawal of heavy weapons from populated areas, political discussions, humanitarian aid, release of prisoners, freedom of movement, and access provided to journalists.

Syrian news sources were not reporting that item, and the fighting seems to be escalating. Along with reports of Syrian troops operating in Lebanon, United Nations sources increased their estimate of the deaths during the year-long rebellion to 9,000.

Friends of the United Nations may have soothing answers. These things take time. Perhaps the officers distant from Damascus did not get the message from the presidential palace. The United Nations is a complex institution. Several of the powerful national governments must agree to anything before it can go into effect. Russia, China, and Iran, support Assad.

Both the Jerusalem Post and the New York Times are closer to skepticism than optimism. They note that Bashar al-Assad had previously agreed to reforms and peace plans, including a "road map," but failed to implement them.

Various sources add to the story. Annan is on an extended trip, from Syria to China, meeting with worthies and trying to get them on board a deal. The report about fighting in Lebanon appears in several sources, along with comments that Lebanese officers (no doubt with concern for Syrians who have done them real harm and can do it again) have tried to evade the direct question, or have said that the evidence is not clear, even while residents of the area report fighting.

Annan himself is the cautious diplomat. He said that he "received a response from the Syrian government and will be making it public . . . which is positive, and we hope to work with them to translate it into action." That is a lot less than a cease fire that will go into effect tonight or early tomorrow.

I presume that Kofi Annan is not an innocent abroad (note the reference to Mark Twain). Annan has been in the business a long time, and is playing the United Nations game that he knows so well. It's part doing a task with a narrow view of one's responsibility, part protecting his bottom, part realizing that nothing may come of his meetings, but seeing them as the essence of diplomacy. Keep the conversation flowing. Remain optimistic. Something may emerge eventually. Others will be involved. No one individual can be blamed for a misstep as long as he or she adheres to the routine of talking and seeing progress.

Don't exaggerate my concern for Syria any more than you exaggerate my concern for literature.

The point of this note is Israel, which some of these same actors see as having problems amenable to the routines engaged in by Kofi Annan for the sake of Syria. Barack Obama is not mentioned prominently in the reports about fighting in Lebanon, but the game he plays is suspiciously like Annan's. He adheres to the rules of extended talk, continued engagement with regimes that agree without implementation, or stall for time in order that they can continue with their priorities while seeming to engage and respond positively.

Like Annan, Obama aspires to work with others in the international community. The kind of diplomacy being done by the UN's diplomat in chief emeritus, has implications for us.

Obama says that he has an deadline for Iran that produces violence if there is no compliance with international expectations. But the game defined by professional diplomats like Annan may have no end. Agreements are made in principle, and have to be worked out. Deadlines bend for the sake of continued diplomacy.

Perhaps Israel stands higher in Obama's priorities than Syria stands in that of Annan or the people he is dealing with. However, to describe that possibility as a rock bed of reliability is to pretend that I--or anyone else--is banking on that 6-point deal Kofi Annan claims to have worked out with Bashar al-Assad.

If you don't get the point, go down the rabbit hole. You'll find a wonderful world. Pretend that it is real. Stay happy.

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 01:08 AM
March 26, 2012
Israel's conscience

Ha'aretz has long had a reputation as Israel's most distinguished newspaper, read by the economic, political, and intellectual elites. It's language and the lack of a sensationalist front page are among the factors that make it the secular Hebrew language daily with the smallest circulation. It is also the most left of center of the major papers, which says something about the capacity of the country's elites to read and vote on different planes.

It is easy to imagine the paper's editors thinking of themselves as the conscience of the country. They frequently print long and detailed articles by Amira Hass, which typically portray the misery of Palestinians having to deal with Israeli checkpoints, military incursions, and insults by Jewish soldiers and civilians. Ms Hass used to reside in Gaza, but since that became too dicey even for her she moved to Ramallah.

Gideon Levy is a prominent contributor to the Op-Ed page, often writing about the clumsiness of the IDF, and the damage it does to Israel's image and existence.

On February 24th, the editors covered the top half of page one of their Friday edition (the most prominent spot in the week) with an article by David Grossman that told about the death due to police malfeasance or brutality of a Palestinian who had entered Israel illegally. My university colleague and friend, Zeev Sternhell, is also a frequent contributor to the Op-Ed page. One of his articles carried the headlines, "The extreme right turned Israel into an anachronism . . . Unlike Europe, where the right has significantly grown but is still not in power, in this country the racists, the extreme and clerical right is the government, with only a vacuum opposing it."

We maintain our subscription to Ha'aretz, but some of our friends have decided that it has become less a newspaper than a political mouthpiece for those unable to obtain power.

This week, Akiva Eldar, a member of the newspaper's editorial staff, contributed the lead article of an Op-Ed page to mark the 10th anniversary of three events: the Passover terror attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya, the Arab Peace Initiative, and IDF's Operation Defense Shield, a major incursion into the West Bank undertaken in response to the Passover attack

According to Eldar, "The result of these three connected events was the worst missed opportunity ever for the State of Israel, and a glorious victory for the enemies of the Zionist enterprise."

Eldar wrote that all 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, including Iran, gave their blessing to the initiative that offered normalized relations with all of them if Israel withdrew from the territories taken in 1967, and made a just and agreed-upon solution of the refugee problem on the basis of UN Resolution 194.

According to Eldar, "The words "agreed-upon" in essence gave Israel the right to limit the number of refugees it would allow to be repatriated. Senior Arab spokespeople reiterated frequently that the initiative was only a framework for negotiations over borders, security arrangements and other core issues."

Eldar relates that Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, and Benyamin Netanyahu decided the Muslim initiative was not worth pursuing.

Eldar concludes

"Although the Middle East is different now than it was 10 years ago, there are signs that the Arab Peace Initiative is refusing to disappear. Three months ago, the secretary of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, Prof. Ekmelledin Ihsanoglu, told an audience in Doha that the initiative was and remains the only framework for peace with Israel.

But it won't wait forever. Ignoring this opportunity will cause us endless trouble."

Is Eldar a better guide to Israel's future than the politicians he criticizes?

A response depends on assessment and trust.

Would the Palestinians and their Islamic backers truly accept something other than the 1967 lines as a final settlement, and would they accept a reasonable limitation on the number of refugees to be accepted into Israel?

The mention of UN Resolution 194 in the Peace Initiative does not encourage a view of flexibility. The Resolution is non-binding, and has been rejected by Israel, but is often cited by Palestinians as the justification for their demand that refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to what had been their homes.

As indicated in a previous note, there are now 722,000 Israeli Jews living on the other side of the 1967 lines, and the most recent activities of the Palestinians have been to forego negotiations in favor of seeking their full demands from various organs of the United Nations.

Perhaps some of Israel's elected officials making the crucial decisions have been sandbagging the Palestinians in the hope that eventually all--or almost all--existing settlements will remain in place and be allowed to grow.

However, the greater problem standing in the way of accommodation may be the variety of factions under the Palestinian tent, and the capacity of extremists to reject any notion of Israel's legitimacy, or any compromise on borders and refugees that moderate Palestinians might be inclined to accept.

Eldar himself describes the intention of extremists to foil a peace initiative that was on its way to being formulated in early 2002. That is his explanation for the Passover terror attack, and the IDF operation that pushed the Peace Initiative to the back pages of Israeli newspapers.

Ha'aretz may be part of our conscience, but we live in a situation where optimal possibilities cannot by themselves shape our thinking and actions.


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 11:37 PM
March 24, 2012
A modest proposal

There are some among my readers who will view my modest proposal as the same kind of ungodly satire as an earlier effort by that name.

Almost 400 years ago Jonathan Swift published his Modest Proposal to deal with the problem of overcrowding and starvation among the Irish according to the advice said to be provided by

"a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled."

My proposal is more modest by far, but may be seen as equally beyond the realm of what is politically correct.

It is that Israel not consider any change to its settlement activities, or withdrawal of Jewish settlements from land claimed by the Palestinians, without appropriate concessions from Palestinians.

As may be apparent from these occasional notes, my guide is politics. I view the processes of persuasion and bargaining as the essence of civilization, and the only way to deal with problems that reflect different interests, and/or different ways of looking at history. For the cluster of disputes at hand, there is no certainty about justice, only different ways of defining justice, or different narratives about what happened, when, and what is important in the continuing unfolding of history.

I hear the Palestinian claims of occupation in the same way as I hear Jewish claims about returning to an ancient homeland and the more extreme narrative that God gave it to us. I view all of them as equally unhelpful. The only route I see as useful is to start where we are, and bargain our way to mutual accommodation.

Both the claim of ancient homeland and the claim of occupation overlook the greater realities of how we got to where we are. History tells its stories of human movement. No national claims of prior settlement, or settlement even earlier, have greater merit than more recent migrations. Jews moved from elsewhere to Palestine, then Israel, and to various places in the West Bank (which in some defitions is everything west of the Jordan).

Arabs moved from throughout the Middle East to Palestine, from within what had been the British Mandate to what became Israel, and from the West Bank (i.e., over what became the 1967 lines) to what became Israel..

Jewish settlement throughout the West Bank since 1967 is part of those movements. If you insist on justification, as opposed to what you may say is an effort to legitimize a simple land-grab, remember Arab aggression against Jewish migrants from the early 20th century onward. After the watershed war of 1967, the official Arab posture was a refusal to bargain. Now that the Palestinians say that they want to bargain, they must take account of what the Israelis did while the Palestinians rejected bargaining.

Current reality has considerable weight in whatever happens from here on, despite endless arguments about one or another view of morality.

One isn't sure about the Palestinian desire to bargain, even at this point. Their claims of being flexible are that any acceptance of Israel's existence is their compromise of Palestinians' historic rights. That is better than the Khartoum resolution of 1967 which set the policy at no recognition, no negotion, and no peace. However, the process has been stuck with the Palestinian insistence on elevating 1967 to the beginning of time, their refusal to consider anything more than minor land swaps to accommodate a portion of post-1967 movements, and substantial doubts as to whether they can accept even minor land swaps..

Some 722,000 Jews live over the 1967 lines, which were created by cease fire in the 1948 war. They are in neighborhoods of Jerusalem built after 1967, other areas of the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. They comprise more than 12 percent of Israel's Jewish population.

Currently there is a tiny settlement spot on the agenda of the Israeli Supreme Court. Migron has about 300 residents. . The case involves a claim that Jews settled on land owned by Palestinian individuals, and the Israeli government's commitment to moving the settlement, but not as soon as a previous Supreme Court decision ordered.

Whatever the Court decides will reflect a greater degree of flexibility than shown by recent Palestinian efforts to get all their demands recognized by the United Nations, or having the United National Human Rights Council establish a fact finding mission to investigate the issue of Jewish settlements. We can expect a pre-loaded set of findings like the Goldstone Mission's report on fighting in Gaza. Again Israeli officials are likely to refuse cooperation. One can expect the outcome to be like the Goldstone report, i.e., yet another mark in the Palestinian copybook about Israeli occupation, and in the Israeli copybook about Palestinians avoiding negotiations.

Israel began building a security barrier in response to the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. It wends its way around most Jewish settlements, in one case as much as 20 kilometers east of the 1967 line to encompass the town of Ariel. Israelis describe the barrier as a major element in reducing the infiltration of terrorists, and see it as likely to be the new boundary. It is a grand understatement to describe the barrier as controversial. Not only do Palestinians and their supporters view it with disdain, but Jews living to the east of the barrier view themselves as abandoned. Those Jews appear to have greater influence in Israeli politics than opponents of the barrier in Israel or elsewhere.

My guide of politics is complicating any possible deal. It is hard to imagine any Israeli government agreeing to move a substantial number of Jews. And it is equally hard to imagine a Palestine overlooking Hamas and other "rejectionists" who refuse to surrender "Palestinian land."

What should Israel demand from Palestinians in exchange for a settlement freeze or withdrawal, or some other concession with respect to their disputes?

The details are complex, and it is the task of professionals concerned with security, land use, water, and other specialties, along with politicians in the government to discuss the options, and ultimately make proposals to Palestinians. The modesty of my proposal appears in the minimal principle that the process should be one of give and take, with both sides giving as well as taking.

My proposal is close to what is Israeli government policy, as shown by its actions if not by explicit proclamations. That also allows me to justify the label of modest. I may be doing no more than clarifying what is happening. Or more accurately, clarifying and explaining what is not happening.


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 09:42 PM
March 22, 2012
Iran, North Korea, and the rest of us

In the profound lack of certainty and the possibility of dire consequences concerned with Iran's nuclear program, it is possible to conceive of a scenario that is less than perfect, but way short of catastrophic.

Let's start with some basics.

In politics, it is generally impossible to achieve ideal solutions for serious problems. Individuals, groups, and national governments have their separate interests. One must give in order to get.

A guiding principal is not to make things worse. And insofar as hardly anything is worse than a war, it is wise to avoid that if at all possible. To be sure, it isn't always possible. Some participants in politics are so stubborn, or so ideological, or so fixed on a religious fantasy as to make the normal process of give and get impractical.

There is good reason to wonder if Iran falls outside of the political realm, due to the extreme role that religion plays in the present regime, and the irrational denial of history in the case of the Holocaust. If regime leaders truly are crazy, then war may be the only way to keep them from creating nuclear weapons that they will use in the expectation of religious fulfilment.

A similar assessment might be made of North Korea. Instead of an extreme brand of Islam, its leadership has been guided by an extreme variety of authoritarianism. It has succeeded in keeping its population on something close to starvation rations while it has pursued expensive programs of research and development in nuclear weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them. Its rhetoric is hardly different from that of the Iranian leadership, although the targets of its apocalyptic threats are a different set of enemies.

Also in the case of North Korea, there is a history of outside pressure, distrust, and a great lack of certainty about intentions and capacities. While it is widely believed that North Korea has successfully tested a nuclear device, there is dispute about the size of the explosions and even their success.

Japanese, American, and South Korean officials have expressed their great concern and sense of threat on account of the North Korean program, and they have joined in efforts to constrain the North Koreans with counter-threats and inducements. Money and food lead the list of inducements, along with joint projects providing employment and industrial development on North Korean soil bankrolled and managed by South Koreans.

Given the history of animosity and the highly destructive Korean war, one would expect the South Koreans to be at a fever pitch of concern. Yet my own contacts with South Korean academics, government personnel and others have given me an untested feeling that they are less concerned about their relatives to the north than are more distant observers.

The North Korean model may work for Iran.

Its ingredients include persistent pressure to give up the development of nuclear weapons, demands for inspections, and positive inducements in exchange for cooperation. The record is one of North Korean pledges of cooperation, perceptions of cheating on a grand scale once aid has been delivered, along with claims by North Korea that the aid promised was not delivered. Most recent has been another commitment of giving up the nuclear option in exchange for promises of substantial aid.

No doubt that the North Korean model is imperfect. But so far so good, which is a decent standard for judging cooperation between governments or other political actors in a setting of great differences in ideology and regime character, against a background of distrust.

Those who have suffered most from the awkward and unsatisfactory impasse are the people of North Korea. Many of them are close, or actually over the line of starvation, as well as being deprived of minimum forms of individual liberties and opportunities to improve the living conditions of themselves and their families.

All that sounds like what may be brewing in the case of Iran. Existing sanctions have produced high inflation, and the most recent and severe limitations on international banking may not yet have begun to bite. Like North Koreans, Iranians have suffered due to the resources allocated to nuclear programs, and Iranians have suffered due to considerable other resources allocated to regime friends like Hezbollah and Hamas, seemingly meant to realize the regime's fantasy of destroying Israel.

It is difficult to judge the credibility of threats from Israel and the United States concerned with military action. That is, we don't know if Israel or the United States are close or distant from taking action, and we don't know how Iranian officials view their threats.

If the North Korean model works for Iran, its officials may increase the credibility of their statements about not developing nuclear weapons, perhaps in exchange for some moderation of sanctions or other benefits. In the best of conditions, we can expect that inspections will be imperfect, and that some observers will remain unconvinced. As in the case of North Korea, there may be a continuing series of commitments made and broken, then made again, with each side blaming the other for a lack of compliance and credibility.

One can imagine further into the future, and expect politicians in Israel and the United States to claim credit for turning Iran away from its nuclear option, even while others express their lack of certainty or their lack of belief.

And again, we may not get to the point of self congratulations. War may come due to the enormous gaps in political culture between an Iran governed by Shi'ites who view the world in apocalyptic terms, Israelis who know the apocalypse from the experiences of parents and grandparents, and Americans who see a nuclear armed Iran as an existential threat to pax Americana.

We can hope for the best, without being sure of what we expect.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
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Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:15 AM
March 21, 2012
A policy of silence

Silence is the policy of Israeli authorities with respect to the rebellion in Syria.

Figuring out what is happening, and what is likely to happen is like deciphering reports and comments about Iran.

Currently there seems to be a standoff, bloody in the extreme, between the regime and its opponents. The death toll is somewhere around 9,000 and climbing. The standard of comparison is the 20,000 to 40,000 deaths said to be caused by Assad's father in putting down an uprising during 1982.

The New York Times has summarized the situation, with comments from individuals supporting the regime, various opponents, and those ambivalent about the results, not feeling that they have any power to determine what happens, and hoping most of all that whoever emerges on top will not massacre them.

Israel is closest to the latter category. We are not worried about a charge of furious Syrians against the IDF, but have chosen a policy of silence in the face of ambiguity and ambivalence. It is unlikely that supportive comments from us would be welcome by any of the participants, and we are not sure whose victory would be best for us.

The New York Times article mentions all the other neighbors of Syria except for Israel.

"Tensions have spilled over borders into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan and raised fears that radical Islamic militants will find a new cause for recruitment."

Israel's Foreign Minister said that the lack of international concern for the carnage serves as a message to Israel not to rely on outsiders to do anything more than express dismay about what happens to us. He also indicated a willingness to provide humanitarian aid. Then the Prime Minister repeated his instruction that officials refrain from speaking about Syria.

From our perspective, perhaps shared by many enlightened westerners, there is not a good side in the Syrian fight. The general picture of Christian and Druze minorities abstaining from the rebellion reflects a concern that the defeat of a harsh regime that has ruled with an iron fist will unleash Islamic extremism that would be worse.

Assad has been an ally of Iran and Hezbollah, and has provided a conduit for munitions meant to hurt us if Hezbollah decides to use them. But it could be worse. For the better part of four decades, the Syrian frontier has been quieter than any other, with few infiltrations leading to violence

One of my assignments during the Lebanon war of 1982 was to an outpost on the Golan a few meters from the border. I saw a Syrian tank with its canon pointed at me, but with a clothes line tied to its canon and a nearby tree, and a Syrian soldier in his underwear tending to his laundry. Israel's intelligence assessment was that things like that were explicit messages that Syria had no intention of joining the fight.

Don't make things worse sums up Israel's policy. We get daily reports and pictures of what is happening, and no end of commentary about what may come next.

Speculations include

• Assad's capacity to crush the rebellion, with who knows how many killed in the shelling and bombing of neighborhoods and the punishments that come later
• A change in the rebels' actions toward urban terror, with car bombs and suicide attacks that resist the much greater fire power of Assad's forces
• A change at the top of the regime, with some other members of the Alawi minority taking power and offering concessions, or a soldier organizing a coup like colonels or corporals have done in Syria and other places
• The sudden collapse of the regime after an increase in the defection to the rebels by individual soldiers and military units, with chaos but no initial leadership, and a massacre of revenge against Assad, his family and regime personnel, perhaps spreading to the entire Alawi community, with survivors swarming toward one or another national border, including Israel's

The Druze of the Golan are one of Israel's unresolved oddities. Since Israel took control of the area in 1967, some 20,000 have been in a limbo reflecting their uncertainty, and the delicacy of Druze status wherever they live. Those of Israel (mostly in the Galilee), Lebanon, and Syria, have been loyal citizens of each, even though their family ties cross national borders. Except for those of the Golan, Israeli Druze are subject to military conscription, and have reached high rank in the military and appear in the Knesset delegations of several political parties. Those of the Golan were offered Israeli citizenship, but for the most part have retained their identity as Syrians. Their own lack of certainty about the future, as well as a concern for family members in Syria, has coincided with Israel's willingness to accept yet another unconventional arrangement. The Israeli film of 2004, The Syrian Bride, demonstrates the anomalies and accommodations.

There has been some movement of Syrian Druze into the ranks of the rebels. There have also been reports of Golan Druze expressing anti-Assad sentiments and applying for Israeli citizenship. Yet there are Golan Druze who continue to send their children to Syria for higher education, express their loyalty to Syria, and are careful to avoid saying anything that would jeopardize their future or family members in Syria.

Silence may not be golden when thousands have been killed a short distance from here, but the alternatives could be worse. If Israeli authorities or individual Israelis are involved in the conflict, no one is talking about it. Overt verbal support or something more would damn one or another side of the conflict, all of whom are likely to condemn Zionists, Israelis, and/or Jews. Insofar as greater powers and the Muslim neighbors of Syria are doing nothing more than expressing their dismay at the bloodshed, with some half-hearted proposals to serve as diplomatic intermediaries, there is no reason for Israel to do more.

Note: I have begun putting hyper-links to references in the text. They do not appear in this site. Those wanting them should send me an e-mail.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
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Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:21 AM
March 20, 2012
Who knows?

Earlier this week, Israeli media headlined that "'Mossad, CIA agree Iran has yet to decide to build nuclear weapon." The story went on to say that "New York Times report quotes senior American officials who believe there is little disagreement between Israeli and U.S. intelligence over Iran's nuclear program, despite calls for a strike by Israeli officials."
For some time we have known that Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, has taken the unusual step for someone with his access, information, and prestige, to speak publicly and forcefully about his opposition to a preemptive Israeli strike against Iran. Among his comments: "the stupidest idea you've ever heard." He has also said that there is a lot of time left to try other things.
Dagan has not shocked Israelis. We have been exposed to debate in the media, among commentators and politicians familiar with security and intelligence, as well as by individuals who used to hold senior positions in the military and other security services.
Perhaps we have been jaded by discussions going on for a decade or more.
Dagan is not alone in opposing a strike in the near term, but it is not possible to say that his posture is dominant. And there certainly is not enough information available to us commoners--or perhaps to those who know everything there is to know--to conclude who is right about what the Iranians are doing, and what should be done by Israel and/or the United States.
The New York Times article which sparked this latest uptick in the continuing Israeli discussion, is itself an epic example of uncertainty.
Its headline expresses the message of the article, "U.S. Faces a Tricky Task in Assessment of Data on Iran." It describes a variety of technologies available to the United States, reports changing assessments of Iranian intentions over the last decade, and admits to a profound lack of reliable human intelligence. That is, no spies on the ground whose reports are useful, or defectors and Iranian opposition figures who American officials feel are trustworthy. The article reports about American intelligence personnel who express
"confidence in the spy agencies' assertions (that the Iranians have not yet decided to build a bomb). Still, some acknowledge significant intelligence gaps in understanding the intentions of Iran's leaders and whether they would approve the crucial steps toward engineering a bomb. . . . officials caution that they cannot offer certainty. 'I'd say that I have about 75 percent confidence in the assessment that they haven't restarted the program,' said one former senior intelligence official."
The article's report about the Mossad's agreement is not detailed, and relies on the statements of American personnel who express their view of what is thought by Mossad personnel.
So where are we?
Who knows where we are?
I don't.
The New York Times article that has sparked this latest flurry of commentary says more about American intelligence operations than intelligence about Iran, and perhaps even more about the New York Times.
Is a 75 percent assessment of reliability good enough when the folks who may be putting together the ingredients of a bomb already have missiles that can reach where I'm sitting?
Last month another New York Times item indicated that American intelligence analysts were reporting that there is "no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb." By some media reports, analysts were talking about "absolute certainty" as a standard for concluding that Iran is intent on nuclear weapons.
Well, what is it? 75 percent reliability, "hard evidence," or "absolute certainty?" To me, there seems to be enough fuzziness in the analyses to allow the preferences of politicians (e.g., Barack Obama) to affect what the analysts announce, or how the individuals who make the important decisions interpret their reports.
Also troubling is how intelligence analysts take account, if they do, that the individuals at the peak of the Iranian government deny the Holocaust? This question doesn't concern Jewish sensitivities about the Holocaust as much as it concerns the mental processes of Iranian leaders. Are the messages perceived from authorities who deny history as reliable as messages perceived from ordinary individuals?
And what is meant by not deciding to produce a weapon? This is a crucial difference between Benyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. Does it mean deciding to create all the ingredients but not yet deciding about actually doing the work that may take a month, a week, or more or less for the final assembly? Does it mean a more complete decision about not constructing a weapon or its components? Or does it mean that American and Israeli officials do not know for sure whether or not such decisions have been made?
Even more recent than reports described above is an article given prominence in the New York Times web site, and in Israeli media.
"A classified war simulation held this month to assess the repercussions of an Israeli attack on Iran forecasts that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials. . . . Their analysis, however, also includes the broad caveat that it is impossible to know the internal thinking of the senior Iranian leadership, and is informed by the awareness that even the most detailed war games cannot predict how nations and their leaders will react in the heat of conflict."
I doubt that anyone making key decisions in Israel or the United States wants to start a war prematurely, with who knows what human costs and implications for the world economy. But at what point does premature turn into too late?
Nothing I have seen allows me to define that point, or gives me great confidence that intelligence communities, the New York Times, Israeli media personalities, or reigning politicians know just where that point is, or how close or distant are key decision-makers in Iran from that point..

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:50 AM
March 19, 2012
800 pound gorilla

The United States is the 800 pound gorilla in our livingroom. And just about everyone else's living room.

Not only is an 800 gorilla large and powerful enough to beunremovable, but it is also clumsy and may do more by way of damage than itadds to the pleasure of the others in the same living room.

The United States got to that status by being the last onestanding at the end of World War II. The Soviet Union was also standing, buthardly erect due to the loss of some 20 million residents and massive damageand dislocation in its homeland.

In the 70 years since then, the United States has used itsweight for good things and other things. Aid to help with the reconstruction ofEurope and Japan were the best achievements, along with nudging Europe awayfrom conflict and toward something like a new super country. Europe's historyand culture were the closest to those of the United States, and that helpedwith the relationship. Japan was a different story, but its history aided integrationto the enlarging group of democracies.

Also to the credit of the United States was containing theexpansion of the Soviet Union. It did a better job in Korea than Vietnam.

The story of the United States in the Middle East is farfrom over, and judgment to date is problematic. Its record in Latin America andAfrica is mixed, but they are not on the top of on anyone's agenda but theirown.

The gorilla is clumsy, in part, because Americans do not knowthemselves.

Perhaps all nations are parochial to an extent. I am, afterall, writing this from the political and spiritual center of God's ChosenPeople.

What I know about history also tells me that it was worsefor those having to endure the gorillas of earlier imperial powers. That is,the provinces and colonies ruled by Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, oneor another variety of Muslims, the Christians of Spain, Portugal, Belgium,France, the Netherlands and Great Britain, or the Communists of Russia.

Filipinos, Cubans, and a few others ruled by earliergenerations of Americans, not to mention the Indians and the people broughtover from Africa, suffered a lot worse than post-World War II WesternEuropeans, Japanese, Koreans, and Israelis.

The United States limited itself while being dominant amongthose creating the United Nations, with a veto shared in the Security Councilwith Russia, China, Britain, and France.

The best measure of the gorilla's poundage is its economicresources.

The American GDP in total is 2.5 times larger than thesecond largest economy (China, followed by Japan, Germany, France and Britain).

Americans are not the richest on a per capita basis, butthey do rank #11 among almost 226 countries and other places. Richer are thefolks in some tiny energy producing locales, as well as those of Liechtenstein,Bermuda, Luxembourg, Singapore, Jersey, and Norway (also thanks to energy).

What I mean by Americans not understanding themselves is a lackof sense as to where they fit in comparison with others.

It may be part of being the imperial giant that Americansdon't bother to compare themselves to others. Boasts about their extremes comenaturally to those living in the center of the world. Maps reinforce this.Those I remember from my schooldays put the Americas at the center, with anawkward division of the distant European-Asian landmass.

Maps used elsewhere keep the continents whole, with theAmericas on one side of the Atlantic and the cluster of Europe-Asia and Africaon the other side.

Israelis use Atlantic-centered maps. We recognize the shortcomingsof those that put Jerusalem at the center.

It'sappropriate to begin the discussion of Americans who do not know themselveswith claims of being over taxed. Insofar as taxes pay for the whole range ofwhat governments do, this claim is more central than others. It is also onethat gains prominence in a political campaign where Republicans are competingwith one another on dimensions of conservatism. And the claim of beingovertaxed is one of the most bizarre, evident to any who look at the data.

Theeffective tax rate for all levels of government added together in the UnitedStates is 26.9 percent of GNP. There is no western democracy with a lower taxrate than that. Denmark's rate is 49 percent, Israel's is 36.8 percent, and theaverage of OECD members (most of them Western European) is 40 percent.

There arethose who claim that low taxes is the hallmark of democracy and that the UnitedStates is the most democratic country, or--in some extreme formulations--the onlytrue democracy. I can only urge people who believe that to open a text oncomparative government.

Americans also moan about the high cost of gasoline, andfear its escalation if their country moves too forcefully against Iran.

Americans are nowpaying somewhere around than $3.75 a gallon. Israelis and most Europeans arepaying more than $8 a gallon. A recent survey showed American fuel pricesranked #101 from the top in a list of 141 countries.(Americans who look at these data may be confused, insofar as the numbers arecost per liter, which is the conventional way of measurement outside the UnitedStates. For those who have trouble with metrics, a liter is about one fourth ofan American gallon.)

American claims of excessive generosity often appear withcomplaints about high taxes and giving so much to foreign aid. Several of myinternet friends have accused me of anti-Americanism, and ask how that fitswith Israel being the largest recipient of American aid.

The United States is the world leader in total aid, but lagssignificantly in aid as a percentage of its economic resources.

One has to be wary of the numbers. Aid comes under differentcategories. On a measure of "development assistance" which may notinclude military aid, the United States ranks 19th out of 23 countries withrespect to the amount given in relation to economic resources. By this measure,the countries most generous are Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg and Netherlands.

On a measure of countries receiving intergovernmentaldevelopment aid as a percentage of their resources, Israel ranks way down thelist, #97 out of 120 countries.

By some measures, the United States does give more aid toIsrael than to any other country. Virtually all of it is military aid. By othermeasures, however, what we might call the "military aid" that theUnited States has allocated in recent years to Iraq and Afghanistan dwarfs thatgiven to Israel.

One can also argue about the component of generosity inforeign aid, as opposed to the component of self-interest.

Most American aid is tied to purchases made within theUnited States that benefit American farmers, industries, and workers. Ownersand workers in those sectors are amongthe supporters of foreign aid.

Another benefit that the aid provides to the United Statesis the willingness of recipients to coordinate their actions with Americanpolicy. The United States may not "dictate" to the countries thatreceive its aid, but there is pressure.

Health is another sensitive area of public policy. TheUnited States is the world leader in total health expenditures per capita, andhealth expenditures as a percentage of GDP. On health expenditures per capita,it exceeds the second highest country (Norway) by almost 50 percent. On healthexpenditures as a percentage of GDP, it exceeds the second highest country(Netherlands) by about the same ratio.

What the American citizens receive from those expendituresis--on the whole--shameful when measured by conventional measures of publichealth. In average life expectancy, the United States ranks #36, below mostEuropean countries as well as Japan, Hong Kong, Israel, Singapore, Macao,United Arab Emirates, South Korea, and Chile.On one measure of longevity, the United States is tied with Cuba. On infantmortality, the United States ranks in about the same place, #34.

America firsters shout at these statistics as unfair. Theyclaim that Americans suffer on health indicators on account of certainpopulation groups, poor diet, and other bad practices. They assert thatAmericans benefit from the world's best medicine, that all can obtain athospital emergency rooms.

Claims about the world's best medicine may be partly true,but only for those with the best insurance. They do not explain the huge gapbetween national wealth and overall expenditures on health on the one hand, andabysmal life expectancy and infant mortality rankings on the other hand. Othercountries, including Israel, also have minority populations that are outsidethe mainstream in knowledge or practices that contribute to health. Whatdistinguishes the United States is the lack of comprehensive health insuranceavailable to the entire population, and what that means for routine treatment, healtheducation, preventive care, and follow up after a crisis that has brought oneto an emergency room. President Obama's health reform, assuming the SupremeCourt cooperates, may fix some of these indicators over time. However, theheavy reliance on profit-making health insurers may limit thoseaccomplishments.

A recent visit to Rome added to my understanding of Americanpretensions. Rome was arguably more powerful and dominant in its time than theUnited States has been since 1945.

All those monumental buildings and heroic statues look a lotlike what Americans have built in Washington. Mussolini was responsible forsome of what we see in Rome. We know how empty was his pomposity and how heended. Some years ago during a visit to a village in Ethiopia we were the onlyWhites at a Saturday market, and a number of people greeted us with buon giorno. That may beall that remains of Il Duce'sEmpire.

Some who claim the label of futurists say that we--or our children orgrandchildren--ought to learn Chinese. A generation ago, the same people weretalking about Japanese. Pessimists are talking about Arabic.

It is too early to speak with confidence about the end ofthe American era. The European Community is one of the most promisinginnovations of the past century. It is partly a product of American aid andprodding, and the closest it has to a linguafranca is English.

Bombast may be an inherent feature of empire, even an empirethat does its work more with influence and pressure than with dictate.

Americans might be more attractive in their comments aboutthemselves and others if they recognized the realities of their low taxes, lowcost of fuel, shortcomings in public health, and problems in their claims aboutforeign aid. Yet being modest and truly cosmopolitan in outlook may never havebeen the hallmarks of empire.


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 01:25 AM
March 17, 2012
Notice to American voters: there's a world out here, and you are a world power

It should be no surprise that the excitment of the American presidential campaign deals with domestic issues. The American voter is not responsible for his or her country being the most prominent in the world, with its hands almost everywhere. They are concerned that jobs, housing, and other needs are more or less available, with the standard of living likely to improve or not, for themselves, their aged parents, and offspring starting independent lives of their own. Also important are values. Republicans seeking their party nomination are competing about conservatism. Voters perceive Rick Santorum to be most attractive on social issues concerned with religion and family, while Newt Gingrich leads on the economic cluster of things that conservatives like. Mitt Romney has the money and may be best positioned to actually make a good run against Barack Obama, but he has not convinced the core of his party that he is right enough on either social or economic issues.

All that is understandable from an American perspective, but regrettable for the rest of us who depend on the United States. Most of us are not concerned that the American standard of living should be even greater than what it already is compared to what we enjoy, or whether Americans fascinated about things that do not appeal to us will get what they want from one candidate or another.

What do these candidates know or care about things east of New England, south of Texas, and west of California?

Israelis take some pleasure in those moments when candidates compete about who would do more to assure our security. Ron Paul is not part of that competition. All the other Republicans and the incumbent are saying good things about us.

It's hard to rank their enthusiasm, or to be sure about their sincerity.

I doubt that most Israelis care whether or not the United States actually moves its embassy to Jerusalem.

What would really be in our best interests, along with those of our adversaries and others in this region and elsewhere would be a president who understands, who appoints aides who understand, and would be modest about what they do not understand. We do not need another George W. Bush seeking to bring democracy to Iraq, or trying to remake Afghanistan. Nor Barack Obama's certainty about pressure on Hosni Mubarak and intervention in Libya. The first has produced for us a vacuum in what had been a stable neighbor, whose record on human rights was not in the lower half of what people in this region endure. The second contributed to a regime collapse and a flow of its munitions to Gaza, facilitated by the collapse of the regime in Egypt. For Americans unfamiliar with anything this far east, Egypt is between Libya and Gaza.

A lack of wisdom at the top has been matched by sloppy implementation of whatever it is the American government is trying to do. The list includes those videos of torture in Abu Ghraib, several wedding parties bombed in error, and most recently the burning of Korans and the rogue soldier's slaughter of civilians.

Now the primary concern of Israelis is that Barack Obama will recognize that dealing with the Iranian leadership is not like bargaining with antagonists in Washington.

A recent Index of Globalization adds its confirmation to the notion of the United States as more inward looking, and more reliant on itself than just about every Western democracy.

Being independent is an advantage of a large and wealthy country. Yet the other sides of that are parochialism, as well as political aspirations and military activities that go beyond what it has learned.

Syria is another spot in the phenomena of Arab Spring/Summer/Winter/ and now a second Spring that some applauded as the onset of democracy. Barack Obama repeated that claim during his AIPAC speech. Many of us who actually live in the Middle East are doubtful in the extreme. One election in Egypt does not amount to democracy. Whoever fills the places to be decided in upcoming months will not have an easy task getting the army out of the economy or politics, or creating other elements of democracy like a critical media, free expression, the moderation of those who gain power, and an independent judiciary.

No one should praise the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad, but prior to the rebellion that began a year ago it had kept the lid on an explosive mix of religious and ethnic groups. Christian and Druze minorities have been the last to join the rebels, out of concern for what the Sunni majority would do to them and to the minority Alawis who have been running the country. Most recently the army may have crushed opposition in several cities, leaving behind a bloody mess resulting from shelling residential areas and the killing of civilians meant to send a message to others who might think about rebellion.

Car bombings at key points in Damascus suggest that rebels may be changing their tactics and adopting the terror learned from others in this region. The leaders of one rebel organization say that it wasn't their work, but most likely that of Syrian security forces willing to kill civilians in order to make the point that the regime was fighting against extremists.

We shouldn't expect such things to become central issues in the American presidential campaign, but we still hope for wisdom at the top in deciding whether, and how to deal with them.

Good luck to us.


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 08:08 AM
March 15, 2012
On it goes

In a speech before the Knesset, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu compared himself to David ben Gurion, who declared Israel's independence in 1948 against the urging of foreign governments, and to Menachem Begin, who decided to attack the Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981, against the advice of the United States. To continue the theme, Netanyahu said that the risks of not attacking Iran's nuclear facilities were greater than the risks of attacking. He praised Israel's alliance with the United States but said Israel's ability and right to defend itself was of primary importance.

Several commentators have interpreted those remarks to indicate that a majority of the relevant governmental forum supports an attack, with or without the prior consent or support of the United States, and that the probability of an Israeli attack has increased since the Prime Minister's return from Washington. The aggregate of the commentary is ambivalent as to whether Israel can rely on Barack Obama. Some say yes. Some are not so sure.

There are reports were that the United States asked Russia to convey to Iran that it was facing its last chance to cooperate with international efforts to solve the issue diplomatically. If Iran did not cooperate, the United States would attack. Later we heard that Barack Obama met with British Prime Minister David Cameron, and announced that there is still time for diplomacy.

Public opinion will not resolve this issue. However, the latest polls are showing that Americans are more supportive of an attack, either by Israel or by their own forces, than are Israelis. Fifty percent of Israelis would not attack Iran, even if diplomatic efforts fail. Forty-three percent would support a strike. Sixty-two percent of Americans would support Israel's attack if there was evidence that Iran was building nuclear weapons; 56 percent of Americans would support US military action even if it led to higher gasoline prices, while 39 percent opposed such an attack.

Perhaps Americans are more warlike than Israelis, feel safer from a retaliation because they are beyond the reach of Iranian missiles and aircraft, or buy into Republican campaign rhetoric that the United States must stand by Israel in its time of peril.

Meanwhile, the cease fire with Gaza remains fragile. As on previous occasions, there is no cease fire formally, insofar as Hamas will not agree to formalize anything with the Zionist occupier, and Israel will not agree to formalize anything with terrorists. However, there is something called an understanding that was brokered by Egypt.

Both Hamas and Israelis look on Egypt as a doubtful partner. However, Egypt is potentially important enough to both so that neither will risk offending whoever is currently in control. If Egypt can arrange something that lets Israelis in the south of the country go back to work and school, without a concern to be a minute or less from a shelter (depending on how close they are to Gaza), it is well worth showing respect for whatever Egypt can do.

There are even signs that the Muslim Brotherhood is willing to get along with Egypt's problematic neighbors if it comes to real power. Here, too, the United States is helpful with its aid to Egypt, and occasional threats about the future of that aid.

Two missiles headed toward Beer Sheva early Wednesday evening, perhaps timed for Israel's prime time news programs. One landed in an empty field, and one encountered Israel's anti-missile missile. In response, the air force attacked a number of targets in Gaza. This was the second round of attacks and counter-attacks since the start of the cease fire. In neither case, did Israel attack prominent facilities or cause significant casualties.

Beer Sheva and some other communities in the south cancelled classes again in primary and secondary schools, after opening them for a day after the onset of the cease fire.

The same prime time news that coincided with missiles aimed at Beer Sheva also reported that the Gazan factions that led the escalation were declaring victory. They have 20 or so new martyrs to proclaim their bravery, and brought the economy of southern Israel to a stand still. They are warning that they have missiles in their stockpile that can reach even further into Israel.

Missiles continue to come sporadically. IDF personnel say this is routine. The current view is that escalation is not worth the price. The army will give them a few more days, and expect them to peter out.

It's not a call that is entirely welcome. Residents and local officials from the south say that the government and army have abandoned them, and should strike Gaza with a mighty fist.

The occasional missile, and Israel's modest response has the look of a ritual dance, meant to flex one's muscles, but to keep the tensions within an acceptable range.

Describe it as you wish.
•A chronic problem for Israel that can be dealt with but not solved.
•The price that a non-Muslim society must pay if it wishes to survive in the Middle East.
•Israeli restraint is in response to Jewish values, and/or meant to preserve Israel's status in the community of western democracies, along with its economic, political, and cultural connections.
•Israeli realization that it can put up with the annoyance and tensions associated with Arab fanatics, knowing that it has overwhelming power whose threat and occasional use minimizes the probabilities of serious damage.

Iran may be something else. Nobody's sure.

Now there is what may be the first report of an attack on Jerusalem's light rail. An Arab stabbed a female soldier, in what is described as mostly likely a "nationalist incident." He fled. The police are looking for him.

Until now, the light rail, with stops in Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, has been a successful experiment in mutual accommodation. There have been reports of minor confrontations, but also reports of pleasant conversations across the Jewish-Arab divide. My own experiences have been positive. Pessimists have said, "Wait until the first suicide bomber." This stabbing isn't that, but it may be something.

It ain't fun, but it keeps us alert, and it's how we live.

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 03:04 AM
March 13, 2012
It might have been a mini-escalation

There are reports about a cease fire, arranged by Egypt.

After the cease fire was said to go into effect, there continued some rockets and mortars fired from Gaza, but this was to be expected. Either groups are asserting their machismo and superiority, or there is a failure of whatever discipline can be exercised among them.

Israeli practice is to tolerate some firings, most of which do no damage, rather than to respond to every provocation.

It is said that Israel has agreed to stop targeted killings. Israelis officials have said they reserve the right to respond to attacks.

That means Israel can assassinate when it feels it appropriate, given that there will be occasional rockets fired from Gaza by one or another of several groups.

The score card of this recent episode is property damage in Israel, several Israelis with minor injuries, one Thai agricultural worker with serious injuries, numerous Israelis treated for anxiety, and thousands of Israelis made tense and kept away from school, work, and shopping. Officials are pondering appropriate compensation for individuals and business firms.

As many as 90 percent of missiles likely to hit populated areas were intercepted by Israeli missiles. As is typical, some of the missiles fired from Gaza fell in Gaza, and caused injuries and property damage. Israel's anti-missile missiles are expensive, and are programed to differentiate between missiles heading toward populated areas and those likely to hit empty fields or to not make it out of Gaza.

On the Gazan side, we've seen pictures of considerable damage to buildings. There were some 25 deaths, almost all of them fighters, and numerous injuries. News films showed at least as much tension among Gazans as among Israelis.

The heroes of Gaza can claim what they will.

Interpreting this is like finding meaning in an episode of the Hebrew Bible. Make your case and wait for an argument.

There are those who say that the IDF should not have killed the Palestinian who was planning a terror attack, but should have waited for the operation to begin, and then deal with it.

However, that argument assumes Israeli intelligence was complete enough to know all the details of the planned operation. And that Israeli officials were willing to risk civilians and soldiers when the Palestinian operation actually got underway.

Another view is that Israel had been waiting to strike Palestinian fighters hard, due to a gradual increase in their activities against Israel, and to send a severe message that would not only cause a temporary end of the missiles and mortars, but persuade the Gazans to stay out of any conflict with Iran.

Were the deaths, injuries and property damage, along with Israel's demonstration that it could deal with most missiles coming out of Gaza, enough of a lesson?

Here we are in the realm of fuzzy information. Intelligence personnel are likely to know more, but they aren't telling.

We heard that it was Israel's intention to send a message, or perhaps clean out Gaza's missile stockpiles, in advance of attacking Iran. If Israel's response to Gaza was limited, that would be an indication that it had no intention of attacking Iran.

Hamas stayed out of this fight, and the IDF was concerned not to attack its key personnel. Hamas has missiles that can reach further into Israel, and carry heavier warheads than those fired by various factions in this round of fighting.

It's usually best to keep as many Palestinians as quiet as possible, even while reminding them of what Israel is willing to do.

Israel imposed a heavy price on Gaza, but it came nowhere near to cleaning out the missile stockpiles accumulated in recent months. Many of them came from the weapons of Libya that were dispersed with the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, and passed through Egypt whose capacity to control its territory was weakened by its own domestic problems.

Those applauding the onset of Middle East democracy via Arab spring might take another look at the benefits and costs.

One of the questions we cannot answer is, was Israel's operation against Gaza sufficiently severe to serve as a lesson--even though considerably short of massive destruction--meant to keep Gaza quiet in the event of an attack on Iran.

And insofar as the leaders of Hizbollah know what happened in Gaza, will the lesson be enough to keep them quiet in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran.

Syria is part of the equation. It is now a doubtful asset in the Iran-Hizbollah-Hamas triangle.

In recent days we have heard Hamas and Hizbollah personnel say that they will not take part in any confrontation between Israel and Iran, and we have heard denials of those statements from other Hamas and Hizbollah personnel.

In other words, recent events were not so clear as to facilitate any assessment of Israel's intentions with respect to Iran, or what Israel can expect from Lebanon or Gaza in the event of an attack on Iran.

Again intelligence personnel may know more, but they don't tell us. They report to leading politicians, but we can't rely on them to tell us all they know.

And. as sceptics are saying, the Egyptian arranged cease fire may not be hold. IDF's spokesman has indicated that the military has plans and capacity to be much more severe, even without using ground troops against Gaza, and that it is prepared to use ground troops if it feels that appropriate.

So we'll have to want and see.

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 05:16 AM
March 12, 2012
Purim and politics

Wonder of wonders. I'm still learning.

For the first time this season I encountered two religious Jews, both sophisticated in issues of their faith and worldy in terms of their education and experiences, who told me that Purim is not their favorite holiday.

I have known for some time about the scholarly questions and quarrels about Purim. Why is there no mention of the Almighty in the Book of Esther? Is the story of a decree to liquidate all the Jews in a kingdom true? Did it occur in Persia? Was there a character like Esther who sacrificed her virtue for the sake of the Jews?

My two friends, members of different congregations who may be unaware of one another, were concerned about something else. Both expressed discomfort with the extreme nationalism promoted by Purim, and worried about the holiday's use by contemporary politicians.

One of my friends is at least a bit to the left of center. I had no trouble grasping his reservations. But the other is at least a bit to the right of center. I'm still pondering the source of his discomfort.

I had never heard of opposition to Purim, except perhaps about discomfort from the noises made during the reading of Esther at every mention of the evil Haman.

Depending on one's politics, one can say that Iran and/or Bibi Netanyahu turned this Purim from the Jewish version of Spring carnival to a nationalist symbol in behalf of aggression. Not only did the Prime Minister end his Washington speech with the story of Purim, but he added to the message by presenting a Book of Esther to Barack Obama.

Iran was not the only topic for which Purim served as leverage this year. Several rabbis who had signed on to the campaign to keep women in their place proclaimed that boys and men should not dress in women's clothes, and that men should not listen to a woman reading the Book of Esther.

Those rabbis not only went against heightened Jewish anti-clericalism spurred by some especially heavy handed actions against women. They also challenged the ethos of Jewish feminism that sees Esther as a national hero. Rabbinical campaigns against cross dressing go against a long tradition that has been a part of the ways to shed conventions in the spirit of carnival.

On the last school day before the holiday, the school yard that abuts our apartment shows a motley collection of Queen Esthers, Hamans, Mordecais, cowboys, Indians, clowns, pirates, medieval warriors in plastic armour, plus lions, monkeys, and other animals not known to any zoologist.

Reading the Book of Esther is the central religious event of the holiday, and its portrayals of sexuality and violence may lead religious Jews to say that it is their least favorite celebration.
•It indicates that women should recognize their subordination, show their beauty for the enjoyment of men, and come only when called. There is a competition of sexual performance leading to the king's choice of a replacement for the queen who no longer fit the image of propriety, and the maintenance of many concubines whose sole function was to provide pleasure.
•The recitation of anti-Semitic stereotypes given as reasons for liquidating an entire Jewish population

"There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king's laws: therefore it is not for the king's profit to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed. . . And the letters were sent by posts into all the king's provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day . . . and to take the spoil of them for a prey." (3:8-13)

The end of Haman was his hanging on a gallows fifty cubits high that had been built for the Jew Mordecai. (7:9) Not a fitting close for Jews who remember other Jews hanging in city squares, and who have turned against capital punishment.

A prominent feature of Israeli Purim is the Tel Aviv parade known as Adloyada (עד לא ידע ) named for the expression to revel, or to drink, until one no longer knows the differences between Mordecai the Jew and the evil Haman.

Floats, bands, individual musicians, dancing groups and individuals participate in the parade. It may not be the equivalent of Mardi Gras in Rio or New Orleans, but those are larger cities with even larger hinterlands.

Whatever the religious significance, i.e., Jews reading the Book of Esther or Christians having their last blowout before the harshness of the Easter season, both Jewish and Christian events may have grown against the background of pagan celebrations for the passage from Winter to Spring.

Muslims lack a Spring carnival. Their lunar calendar without a leap year means that holidays rotate from season to season, with none of them fixed to the onset of Spring. When I spoke about this to a Muslim friend, he said that his people did not need a carnival, because they wear masks all the time.

The comment may be too subtle for some of my overseas friends, but those who grasp its significance might tell others who think they understand the Middle East.

This year Israel's carnival coincides with heightened tensions about the nuclear weapons said to be developing in Iran and meant to liquidate Israel, as well as an increase in religious emphasis on gender. Politicians have taken advantage of the religious symbolism, and rabbis have emphasized the proper place of women and the violations committed by males who dress as females.

When a religious celebration is put at the service of controversial politics and religious doctrine, and its ritual features stories of violence, revenge, and the exploitation of women, we should not be surprised when some religious Jews describe it as their least favorite holiday.


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 01:53 AM
March 10, 2012
So far, only a mini-escalation

So far it's a mini-escalation in the south. As I begin this, some 60 rockets or mortars have been sent toward Israel in the last couple of days, several Israelis have been injured, one seriously. Twelve Gazans have been killed, including some ranking members of a fringe group sometimes allied with Hamas, sometimes working independently to attack Israel and perhaps to provoke something more heroic.

Each side blames the other for starting it. Israel's principal contribution to the escalation was the targeted killing of a factional leader said to be planning an attack within Israel.

In reality, the whole thing began whenever you want to begin reckoning-- a century ago, or when Israeli officials tired of the occasional firing of rockets and mortars that keep the cities and smaller settlements in the south in perpetual tension.

The numbers of rockets, injuries, and deaths may change before I finish this piece, or before it's read by those who decide not to delete yet another note from this troubling place.

It may be signifant that this is occurring in the shadow of the much bigger story surrounding Iran. Could this be the prologue to a massive Israeli operation meant to destroy the thousands of the weapons smuggled into Gaza since the collapse of regimes in Libya and Egypt? Perhaps to clear part of the threat against Israel in anticipation of an eventual attack against Iran?

More likely Israel will stop short of an onslaught, as it has done numerous times in the past. Despite one of my more rabid readers who writes that Israel treats Palestinians like animals, the reality is much different.

Israel's policy is primarily one of restraint. While it has the military capacity to destroy the stockpiles of weapons aimed at it from Gaza and Lebanon, and to produce the collatoral damage of civilian casualties that would be justified by those stockpiles being located in residential areas, Israel tolerates the problems of its own civilians who are kept tense, with occasional casualties, forced to remain in their homes or close to shelters, with the cancellation of school and other activities on account of periodic attacks.

The problem in recent years has been largely in the south. Hizbollah seems to exercise greater control over violence in Lebanon than Hamas does in Gaza. Hizbollah may be more sensitive than Hamas to what Israel has threatened against the national economy of a country it aspires to control.

Why is Israel restrained? And what can trigger a sizable operation that many governments will define as an overreaction?

These are issues that remain within the fog of ambiguity, and provide the opportunity for unrestrained speculation.

Are the reasons for the restraint Jewish values, and the concern of Israeli officials for human life?

Our detractors, if any of them read this, may already be screaming in anger or rolling on the floor in laughter.

Are the reasons Israel's concern for international condemnation, sanctions, the loss of overseas investments and sales, or the loss of support from the United States and other respectable democracies?

Ideologues will answer those questions more quickly than anyone likely to ponder the possibilities and admit a lack of certainty.

My anti-Israel correspondent does not distinguish between Israel's treatment of Arabs within Israel or over the borders into the areas controlled by Palestine.

"Israel tends to think of the Palestinians as animals, or at least treat them like animals. They certainly aren't treated as equal human beings compared to Jews, whether in Israel or in the West Bank. . . . in 2012 Arabs in Israel face more institutional barriers than blacks or other minorities in the US."

The data do not support those claims.

Figures from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics and the US Bureau of the Census indicate that income levels of Israeli Arabs and African-Americans both are about 60 percent of Jews or Whites.

Israel's compulsory and universal health insurance produces a situation where the longevity of its minority Arab population is 76.8 years for males and 81 years for females (compared with 80.4 and 83.7 years for Jewish males and females), while that of White Americans was only 75.9 years for males and 80.8 years for females. Black Americans' life expectancy was only 70.9 years for males and 77.4 years for females. US Statistical Abstract 2012, Tables 104 and 697; Statistical Abstract of Israel 2011, Table 3.24

With Israel's minority living longer than America's majority population, it is time to rephrase the question of who is treating who as animals.

A personal story may be relevant.

During the first intifada that began in 1987, our younger children were still in primary school. Among the dangers were Arabs attacking Jews with knives at bus stops or along the sidewalks. Insofar as French Hill is only 200 meters from Isaweea and we share the streets and sidewalks, bank, post office, stores, and bus stops with Arabs from that neighborhood, we urged our children to respect Arabs, but to be careful. If they found themselves walking in front of an Arab, it would be best to pause, and let the Arab pass in front of them.

The children were only 8 and 9. Insofar as their nursury school teacher had spoken about the Holocaust in language appropriate to three- and four-year olds, and they had put on gas masks and carried them to school at the ages of 7 and 8, we felt they were ready for our urging of caution along with respect.


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 12:30 AM
March 09, 2012
Innocents abroad

Mark Twain could return to describe the United States efforts in the Middle East.

Democracy in Iraq, a remaking of Afghanistan, the establishment of a peaceful Palestine alongside Israel are only three of Washington's efforts that have not gone well, despite considerable investment of high ranking officials' time, money, and the blood spilled by Americans, allies, and local residents.

In recent comments Barack Obama has mentioned signs of democracy in Egypt, but few who know the players would bet substantial resources that the elements of democratic infrastructure (i.e., free expression, continued political competition, moderate corruption, and decent public services) will result from the recent election.

The Libyan government said to be created after the street corner killing of Muammar Qaddifi seems to be unravelling into the prediction of regional and tribal animosities. The Assad regime has been at least as bloody as Qaddifi's in putting down domestic protest, and its slaughter of civilians continues. The American president has said that there will be no intervention. He has spoken forcefully against an Iranian nuclear weapon, but has left himself sufficient wiggle room to use when the need arises.

The Middle East is a collection of regimes looking out for themselves. American policymakers imagined that solving the Palestinian issue would have a positive impact on the whole region. In this, they seemed to take seriously the lipservice paid by the leaders of other Muslim regimes to Palestine. However, understanding the words in Arabic, and noticing that there is a common language and religion does not mean that the region is an integrated whole, or that its people mean what they say.

Expectations of a wave of democracy or some other enlightenment emerging from Arab spring have not occurred.

What has happened is that the Palestinian cause has dropped off the world's agenda. Perhaps because other Muslims are too busy; perhaps because the Palestinians overreached themselves with demands of the Israelis, their own inflexibility in response to Israeli gestures, and their failure to mobilize sufficient support to achieve statehood via the United Nations. The lip service of Muslim countries for the sake of Palestine appears in the gap between donations promised ($540 million in 2011) and received ($340 million).

Palestinian dithering with respect to an alliance between Fatah and Hamas also weakened their cause, with Hamas widely viewed as terrorist. Syria's problems have impacted by leading Hamas to abandon its headquarters in Damascus, and to debate whether to realign with Islamists in Egypt, their financial patrons in Teheran, and/or one of the principalities of the Persian Gulf. Most important, perhaps, is that the Israelis have concentrated their political energies on Iran, and have brought Washington and other capitals along with them.

Aspirations for Afghanistan are not faring any better. The New York Times has published yet another article on chronic corruption that reaches to the top of what serves as the Afghan government, and befuddles ranking Americans charged with de-corrupting the country.

"Despite years of urging and oversight by American advisers, Mr. Karzai's government has yet to prosecute a high-level corruption case. And now many American officials say that they have little expectation that . . . Washington will try to do much about it, especially after violent anti-American protests in recent weeks have sowed fresh doubts in the Obama administration over the viability of the mission in Afghanistan.

. . . the United States is leaving behind a problem it underwrote over the past decade with tens of billions of dollars of aid and logistical support: a narrow business and political elite defined by its corruption, and despised by most Afghans for it.

The Americans and Afghans blame each other for the problem's seeming intractability . . . What is clear is that the pervasive graft has badly undercut the American war strategy, which hinged on building the Karzai administration into a credible alternative to the Taliban.

My own travels in Afghanistan, before the country became a prime issue for the United States, led me to be sceptical in the extreme when the Bush administration went beyond punishing Taliban for 9-11, and sought to remake the country. The country--assuming we can call it that--is backward in the extreme, beyond the capacity of American money or personnel to make much of a dent.

One English-speaking villager asked me how long it took to get to America by bus. It can't be done, was my answer. Why? The ocean. What's that? He was polite enough to say that he understood, but then he told me that when the bus gets to the river, it goes onto a raft and is pushed to the other side. Why can't that happen when it gets to the ocean?

A few years later I visited Uzbekistan. There I saw carts pulled by oxen or camels. In Afghanistan, I saw the same kind of carts pulled by men.

The United States' problems in Afghanistan reflect not only its collection of tribal, family, ethnic and linguistic entities never effectively ruled from the center, but the clumsiness of American personnel. The burning of Korans is only the most recent blunder of troops inadequately trained and controlled. There have also been bombings of wedding parties, and who knows how many other civilians killed, or turned anti-American in the mayhem. All armies have such problems, but they are especially severe due to the limitations of military commanders and the politicians who direct them in knowing the culture, practices, personalities, and taboos.

The Middle East is highly varied, and generally not responsive to the stimuli that may work in western democracies with functioning national economies. Outsiders meddle at their peril.

Israelis have their own scars from clumsy efforts trying to manipulate Palestine or Lebanon. Scepticism about the fine words dealing with peace and two states reflect those scars, and show themselves in the government's hesitance to make extensive gestures without reasonable responses from the Palestinian leadership. Currently the issue of Iran is the highest priority, and it would be a mistake to expect anything more than polite platitudes about Palestine. There is coordination in a number of fields, including security, between Israelis and Palestinians, along with occasional incursions into Palestinian areas to deal with problems not solved by cooperation. That's likely to be the reality for some time to come.

Among the fascinations of the Middle East is the resilience of Israelis. The Prime Minister used the symbolism of Purim to heighten emotions at AIPAC. Then three of four days later, depending on whether their city had walls, Israelis donned customes, marched, partied, and drank, some of them until they could no longer tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai. This was yet another example of viewing doomsday as normal.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:00 AM
March 08, 2012
Does Israel know the costs?

Among the responses to Prime Minister Netanyahu's appearance at the recent AIPAC convention are assertions that Israelis must be aware of the costs of an attack on Iran.

They come from the the Foreign Minister of France, various unnamed sources said to be high in the American administration, plus a growing list of bloggers, journalists, and politicians, including Israelis.

In fact, Israelis have been discussing the pros and cons of an attack, including its costs. Israeli officials brought their concerns to the attention of Americans at least as early as 1992. For the better part of a decade at least, there has been no other issue so prominent in Israel's media.

Among the costs that have been recognized:
•The likelihood of Iranian retaliation in aircraft and missile attacks on Israel, as well as terror attacks on overseas Israeli and Jewish targets.
•An unleashing of the stockpiles of tens of thousands of missiles against Israel that are in the hands of Iranian clients in Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria.
•Estimates of Israeli deaths from the initial wave of attacks have ranged from 500 to several thousand.
•Iranian attacks on American civilian and military targets.
•Closing of the Persian Gulf, which would add to the spike in fuel prices caused by market panic that may already have begun on account of discussions about attack, and will increase dramatically with an actual attack.
•Drawing the United States and perhaps other countries into a war with Iran, which may spill over into a conflict with Iran's ally Russia, perhaps with an unleashing of the nuclear weapons of Pakistan in behalf of its Muslim coreligionists.
•A world wave of anti-Semitism, as Jewish provocation is blamed for the increase in fuel prices, economic dislocations that result, as well as all the material and human losses of whatever military actions follow Israel's attack.
•Among the harshest comments in domestic Israeli politics came from Tzipi Livni, still the leader of the opposition party Kadima. She attacked the Prime Minister for playing the Holocaust card in his Washington speech. To her, Israel is not the Jewish community of 1944, and Iran is not the Nazi regime.

An American correspondent perceived a serious escalation of anti-Semitism even before Prime Minister's appearance at AIPAC:

"The sad, scary and amazing fact is that the Jews will vote for Obama again. That would be akin to lining up for the trains once again. When Israel attacks, all unintended consquences will be blamed on the Jews. My gentile friends know that they may be hiding my family in their walls. Those who have told me honestly that they wouldn't take the risk for us are now off our list. Another gentile friend has set us up to meet a relative . . . who has an amazing underground shelter--maybe they will hide us. The anti-semites are coming out now, new ones every day. Thanks Obama."

Israel's media discussions have been nuanced, and deal with possibilities that run counter to the most dire of speculations.

We hear that the Israeli air force can deal with attacking Iranian aircraft, but not so thoroughly with missile attacks. There are recent reports that leading figures of Hizbollah and Hamas have indicated that they will stay out of such a fight, or not necessarily join it. These may reflect Israeli comments that it would be unrestrained in punishing Lebanon and Gaza in the event of any attacks from those sources.

While it has been suggested that the Syrian government might act against Israel in an effort to rally its population against the Zionist enemy, a counter assessment is that the Syrian regime is preoccupied with a far more serious internal problem. Indeed, the weakness of Syria, and its spillover to Hizbollah and Hamas are viewed as indications of greater Iranian vulnerability, which advocates cite in arguing for Israel acting against its principal threat.

Against those who worry about Pakistan's nuclear weapons are assessments that the majority of Sunni Muslims, and their governments, would support (at least quietly and perhaps actively) an Israeli attack against the aggressive Shi'ites of Iran.

Countering the comments of Tzipi Livni is a front page report in Ha'aretz that a recent poll shows that she would lead Kadima to 10 seats in the Knesset, down from its present 28. Netanyahu would lead Likud to 37 seats, up from its present 27. (Ha'aretz March 8)

See, for example,

At one time, it looked as if the United States and Israel might be engaging in a common effort of disinformation, reading from the same script meant to push Iran toward greater openness or greater receptivity to serious negotiations, or perhaps to push Europeans, Russian, and Chinese authorities to increased sanctions. However, Prime Minister Netanyahu was not reading from an Obama script at the AIPAC convention. A reading between the lines of his comments seemed closer to the script of the President's political adversaries in the ongoing Republican primaries.

Among the subtexts that it is possible to perceive in the Prime Minister's speech was not so much a threat to attack Iran in the coming days, but a prodding of the White House in the context of domestic American politics. Reports are that as many as one half the members of Congress were in the audience. An Israeli's optimistic reading of Defense Secretary Panetta's AIPAC speech (coming after those of the President and the Prime Minister) is that it took a firmer line toward an eventual American attack on Iran, perhaps reflecting the Administration's awareness of the political winds fanned by the Prime Minister.

All this discussion of speculation, and competitive reading of subtexts and tea-leaves should not overlook what appears to be a serious Israel concern, expressed by important figures at the summit of policymaking, although not necessarily shared by a majority of the population or all those who will take part in a decision. That was a prominent theme of the Prime Minister's speech, i.e., that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would amount to a strategic threat that bears comparison with the most momentous disasters of Jewish history.


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 12:59 AM
March 06, 2012
Avigdor Lieberman

Avigdor Lieberman is one of the more interesting creatures of Israeli politics.

He came to fame as a Netanyahu protege and Director General of the Prime Minister's Office during part of Benyamin Netanyahu's first term as Prime Minister (1996-99). Later he went out on his own to create the political party Israel our Home. Most of his voters are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and his party may receive more "Russian" votes than any other. His primary constituency amounts to more than a million in a total population of 7.7 million.

The record of Israel our Home is 4 Knesset seats won in the elections of 1999 and 2003, 11 seats in 2006, and 15 seats in 2009.

Currently Lieberman is Foreign Minister, which in formal terms means that he occupies one of the four most prestigious positions in Israel's government. Also at the summit are the Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and Finance Minister.

However, the picture is not so simple.

While Lieberman occupies the position of Foreign Minister, there is some question about his actual functioning in that job. Among his problems are a reputation as a political extremist, especially on the issue of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, and a tendency to be more outspoken, even blunt and blustering, than dignataries in the world of foreign policy and diplomacy are inclined to tolerate. He is not formally persona non grata in the major capitals, but the Prime Minister has taken on himself the heavy work of diplomacy. He has shared it with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and has accepted the assistance of President Shimon Peres.

Danny Ayalon is one of the non-Russian Knesset Members of Israel our Home. He comes from a background as career diplomat, and served in the Foreign Ministry's premier position as Ambassador to the United States. His formal role in the present government is Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, but at times he appears to be more the front man than Lieberman.

Lieberman has been prominent in delegations to less important capitals in Africa and Latin America, and in the not so unimportant capital of Russia. His Moldavan background and his command of Russian may help, as well as being a bridge between Russia and the million former citizens or still citizens living in Israel. There have been high profile meetings of Liberman with Vladimir Putin. One of them did not play well in international media, when Lieberman gave his blessing to an election that most other observers derided as severely flawed.

Another problem of Lieberman, beside his bluster and a reputation for extremism, is a long running police investigation into charges of financial irregularities with respect to political contributions and the management of businesses owned and managed either by him or (what some suspect are ficticious manipulations) by his daughter.

Something else that is not so simple is Lieberman's reputation as a political extremist. It rests, in part, on his proposal to solve the Palestinian problem by exchanging people and territories. He would transfer Israeli Arab towns to Palestine, in exchange for Jewish settlements over the 1967 borders in the West Bank. That has gotten him intro trouble with legal experts, civil rights proponents, and Israel's Arab citizens who wonder if they would have any say in the transfer, as well as what would happen to the pensions, health insurance, and other services that they receive as Israelis far above what they would receive as Palestinians.

Lieberman does not qualify as as extremist on other issues, unless the term is used for someone who has stood up to Israel's religious bloc in order to get a better deal for Israelis whose identity as Jews is not accepted by the official Rabbinate. Lieberman has pushed for civil marriages, or at least the enactment of legislation giving the partners of "civil unions" the same rights as married couples, and for more accommodating procedures of conversion for those who want to become Jews. In keeping with his distance from religious politicians, Lieberman has avoided the extremism of claiming that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jews.

Depending on what the public prosecutor decides about the file gathered about him, Lieberman may either be on the sidelines for the next election, or be in a position to garner support from anti-Haredi sentiments concerned with women, the rejection of military service, modern education, and work.

Consistent with his outspoken style, Lieberman finds support from Israelis who admire his candor. Some of them vote for him. Some of those, and others see him as heavy handed, use the term "gangster" for his autocratic manner in running his political party and his problems with the police. Nonetheless, some of his critics applaud him for speaking truth to power.

Most recently he has been in the headlines for decrying the impotence of foreign policy worthies from other countries who speak about the slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria, but do nothing tangible to help the victims. He has coupled that observation with asking how Israel can rely on overseas officials who repeatedly express guarantees for Israeli security, but so far have done nothing more than say that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and rely on sanctions and diplomacy that have not deterred Iran.

These latest comments have added to a media frenzy that has gone way beyond Lieberman. It consists of Barack Obama claiming in a speech to AIPAC that there has been no American President who was a better friend of Israel, a speech by Shimon Peres at the same session of AIPAC where the Israeli President seemed to be signing on to Obama's re-election campaign, and against both Obama and Peres a 30-minute film released by a group calling itself the Emergency Committee for Israel. It claims that Obama has been the worst President in failing to provide political support for Israel.

In Prime Minister Netanyahu' speech to AIPAC, he put himself on the same page as his former protege. Even while Netanyahu attested to his great admiration for President Barack Obama, he also compared Israel's situation to that of the Jews in 1944 when the American government refused its pleas to bomb Auschwitz. Commentators are reading between the lines of Netanyahu's speech a demand that the United States or Israel must take action before the November election.

Neither the Israeli public nor Israeli officials are of one mind about the wisdom of attacking Iran. Lieberman may not be crucial in Israel's decision to attack or to wait. At the very least, however, the point he makes about trust resonates. If Barack Obama wants cooperation from the Israelis who will decide about military action, he'd be advised to take note of what was said by our marginally undesirable Foreign Minister.

Among the things Israelis are quarreling about is whether the President's recent comments, and those of his Defense Secretary, have dealt with the issue of trust.

In some places, perhaps including the White House, Prime Minister Netanyahu is also marginally undesirable. Yet he will be among those making decisions about attacking 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 11:47 PM
March 05, 2012
A speech, or a gauntlet?

Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to AIPAC speaks for itself. Almost. There is enough there for several interpretations ranging to 180 degrees difference one from the other.

There is praise for Barack Obama.

On the other hand, the speech begins with a Holocaust story, of a small boy (Yossi Peled) being hidden with a Belgian family, retrieved by his sole surviving parent after the war, and brought to Israel where he became an IDF general and then a minister in Netanyahu's government.

Netanyahu dealt with the efforts of the United States and other countries to deter Iran's nuclear ambitions by diplomacy and sanctions.

"We've waited for diplomacy to work. We've waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer.

As Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live under the shadow of annihilation."

What most commentators heard so far see as the high point of the speech is the comparison between the Jews of 1944 and Israel of today. In 1944, the Jews could not persuade the American administration to bomb Auschwitz.

Netanyahu said that the present American government is different than that of 1944. Then that brief praise was followed by

"But here's my point.

The Jewish people are also different. Today we have a state of our own. The purpose of the Jewish state is to secure the Jewish future. That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.

We deeply appreciate the great alliance between our two countries. But when it comes to Israel's survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate."

Then he referred to Purim, due only three days after his speech, which celebrates when

"a Persian anti-Semite tried to annihilate the Jewish people. We will read how his plot was foiled by one courageous woman - Esther. In every generation, there are those who wish to destroy the Jewish people."

His conclusion was not to reiterate his appreciation of the Obama administration, but to emphasize the independence of the state that he leads.

"We are blessed to live in an age when there is a Jewish state capable of defending the Jewish people. And we are doubly blessed to have so many friends like you, Jews and non-Jews alike, who love the State of Israel and support its right to defend itself. Thank you for your friendship, Thank you for your courage, Thank you for standing up for the one and only Jewish state."

The headline on Israel's widely read Walla news site is, "Netanyahu at AIPAC: Impossible to wait any longer for diplomacy."

An earlier headline in the New York Times was, "Obama Presses Netanyahu to Resist Strikes on Iran."

No less telling than the speech was the gift that Netanyahu presented to Obama, the Book of Esther.

We can expect Israelis to be more divided about the wisdom of the Prime Minister's speech than about its meaning.

A day prior to the speech, we heard on a prominent discussion program an advocate of temperance. He claimed that Israel must not throw down a gauntlet before the President of the United States, and by no means act militarily without his consent. He went so far as to say that Israel has never acted without the prior consent of the United States. However, other sources noted that Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's nuclear facility took the United States by surprise.

So far, only a few hours after the speech, the theme of most commentaries is that a reading of the speech between the lines, or its subtext, reveals a clear throwing down of the gauntlet, and perhaps a demand that the United States--or Israel--must act before the November election.

Does this means that the Israeli Prime Minister was joining the Republican presidential campaign against the re-election of Barack Obama?

Not by anything he said, but read what you will between those lines.

One commentator views the speech as directed primarily to American Jews and others for whom Israel is important, and meant for them to increase their pressure on the White House to act decisively and soon against Iran.

Even before his speech, Netanyahu's posture was compared to that of Shimon Peres, whose fulsome praise of Barack Obama a day earlier was read, even by one left-wing commentator (Yaron London) as a challenge to the notion that the Israeli presidency is a representative office, whose occupant is expected to remain neutral on all controversial matters.

As far as I know, no one has yet said that Peres' 2012 AIPAC speech justified the 2000 decision of the Knesset to elect Moshe Katsav as president, along with the slogan, "Anybody but Peres."


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 11:41 PM

The Internet is one of the greatest inventions of my lifetime, along with computers and the advances in medicine that have kept me able to benefit from them. Computers have freed me from having to type, correct by pencil, and then typing again or--later in my career--having someone type and repeating the process until fatigue rules that enough is enough.

The Internet provides access to virtually all the media in a language I can read as well as an excellent encyclopedia, plus Google and other engines that direct me to as many facts and more opinions that I can use.

As a result of these notes, I've acquired numerous friends, most of whom I have not met face to face. Several have visited me in Jerusalem. Another is coming later this week. I've been discovered and querried by international journalists who reach me by telephone or come to my home with their video cameras. Reports are that I had five seconds on Icelandic TV and even more exposure in other exotic places discussing the Haredim of Beit Shemesh.

Important for whatever notice I receive is Jerusalem, still at the center of the world, even if not of an empire. It is more interesting, and interests more people than any of the other places I have called home.

Alas, there are problems in sorting through the variety of what is so easily available. The Internet holds an unlimited amount of junk, put there by anyone with lust, imagination, or political mission, without editors to sort out what is not useful, decent, or accurate. And some of it is useful and honest, but problematic.

Just last week I slipped, and urged the same slip on a journalist who had seen my note about the retirement of Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, but was more wary than I about one of the details.

It was two days after I had clicked on the send button that I recognized a problem.

I heard Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch say on television at the occasion of her retirement that her grandfather, grandmother, and sister had died in the Holocaust, and that she had been named Dorit as a child who would herald a new generation. I read in Wikipedia that she was born in Tel Aviv in 1942. That caused me to pause, but additional checking convinced me that her parents had left Europe late enough to make it possible that an older sister had perished there.

I found a clip of that news program I had heard originally, listened to it several times, and was sure that the Chief Justice had said that her sister had died. Varda's ears are better attuned to Hebrew than mine, and she also heard the Chief Justice say, "my sister."

Varda was more uncomfortable than I with the historical problem, and searched the Internet until she found an article in Ha'aretz that provided a detailed text of what the Justice had read from the podium. It did not say "my grandfather, grandmother, and sister," but my "grandfather, grandmother, and my mother's sister."

The difference in Hebrew is a great deal closer than the difference in English. The text to be read by the Chief Justice included the phrase, "סבי, סבתי ואחות אימי " and not "סבי, סבתי ואחותי ". The Justice's voice broke with emotion at the crucial moment, and blurred even more what she actually said. The difference between אחות אימי (achot emi, my mother's sister) and אחותי (achoti, my sister) is close in the best of cases, even without the distortions of emotion. .

Television, the Internet and all the other modern gadgets are great assets, but like my medications, each also has its risks.


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 12:46 AM
March 02, 2012
The latest, but not the last on Israel, Iran, and Washington

Two items in recent days have put the issue of Israel, Iran, and the United States in clearer perspective.

One comes from a former head of Israeli military intelligence, a man widely respected for his judgment, and not regarded as a hawk. The other comes from the New York Times journalist who spent several years as its principal correspondent in Israel. He received flak when his son entered the IDF, but he has met the demands of his profession without having bought into an Israeli narrative.

Both emphasize the same problem. Israel feels threatened in a fundamental way by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Israel has considerable military capacity to use against that threat, but not nearly as much as the United States. To be certain of setting back Iran's timetable, and hopefully ending its nuclear aspirations altogether, Israel must act earlier than the United States. Its weaponry, even assuming its success, could not deal with an more advanced and more bunkered nuclear program as well as American weaponry.

The question that is crucial is Israeli confidence in the Obama administration.

Against the oft repeated statement that Iran must not obtain nuclear weapons, the Obama administration is on record as asserting its faith in sanctions, and claiming that there is no hard evidence or absolute proof that Iran is intent on constructing nuclear weapons.

There is also a history going back to the beginning of the Obama administration of flaky aspirations about democracy in the Middle East, and confidence that the Palestinians can do what is appropriate to match an Israeli settlement freeze and other gestures.

One or another of these aspirations has produced a lack of confidence within Israel, as well among leaders of other Middle Eastern countries that the Americans consider their moderate allies. When the American administration threw its old friend Hosni Mubarak under the bus of chaotic Egyptian protests, Israeli doubters began speaking of Obama throwing their whole country under the bus of Middle Eastern madness.

Sanction supporter are cheering North Korea's commitment to suspend its nuclear program. Sceptics are citing North Korea's record of turning back on its commitments, and saying that Iran is learning from North Korea that it is possible to deal with the West via delay, obfuscation, and apparent concessions. They are also saying that Iran is more sophisticated technologically than North Korea.

In short, my speculative meter of likely Israeli initiative has moved away from the mid-line, in the direction of whatever you wish to call the area of action, pre-emption, or self-defense.

Israel is not big enough to throw the United States under the bus. It may be big enough to keep the Obama White House from sacrificing it to touchy feely aspirations for democracy, decency, or rationality in a country like Iran. Israel may also be big enough to pull the United States along with it, helped by an American election season when the President's opponents are claiming that he is too soft on Iran and too hard on Israel.

Among the concerns of the American president is the price of gas. The latest I've seen is that it is somewhere around than $3.75 a gallon.

Israelis are paying more than $8 a gallon. A recent survey showed American fuel prices ranked #101 from the top in a list of 141 countries. (The data is in cost/liter.)

View that in the context of US GDP/c ranked #9 from the top among more than 200 countries. Currently, the US figure is more than $47,000, and Israel's (ranked #45) less than $30,000.

A prevailing Israeli view is that the IDF cannot solve the problem of Iran once and for all. But an attack is likely to have ripples, that will involve American interests and perhaps even direct Iranian attacks on American forces or attempts to close the Straits of Hormuz.

If that happens, the United States will be under the bus along with Israel.

Those remembering my previous notes will know that I am less than enthusiastic about these prospects and their implications.

Iran is not the only issue in our headlines. On the day of the Prime Minister's flight to meet with officials in Canada and then the United States, a prominent daily published an interview with a former close aide who had fallen afoul of problems in the Prime Minister's Office. Friday evening television commentaries dealt once again with charges about the Prime Minister's inability to manage a governmental summit that works together in mutual trust, along with claims that the Prime Minister's wife is a major irritant. A short time ago Sara Natanyahu received a favorable judgment in a dispute initiated by a former household employee, but that was not a prominent feature of the Friday evening discussions.,7340,L-4197669,00.html

Whatever is decided in the meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the details available to the public are likely to leave us wondering.

As a retired professor, I'll stay with my role as observer and commentator, and not expect a telephone from on high asking me what to do.

And for those concerned about the blessings of nature on the Holy Land as well as its prospects for nuclear war, Whoever or Whatever is running the show has dropped more than 22 cm of rain, including a bit of snow, on our balcony during the most recent four days. And it's still coming. That's more than 8.6 inches in those peculiar American measurements..

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 10:09 PM