December 31, 2012
Wretched and powerful

Turning on the radio and opening my browser early in the morning of January 1 in Jerusalem, the news from the world capital, where it was still yesterday, was that the White House and Congress were close, but not yet there with legislation that would keep the American economy--and most likely the rest of us--from suffering another problem. It was time to remember those irresponsible mortgages and a few other great American ideas that spread disaster outward from the imperial center.

Also in recent days, the looming of a fiscal cliff produced another telling of a story about David ben Gurion. Told that a drought was imminent, he asked, "Where?" Israel, was the response. That's okay, he said, as long as it is not in the United States.

The United States has been our capital, and the principal source of what has been good and bad more or less since World War II. With the collapse of its increasingly rickety competitor in the late 1980s, it has been even more prominent at the pinnacle of world affairs. Size, natural resources (especially agriculture), population, economic power, high quality science and industry, and the world's most powerful military cause all the rest of us to genuflect, or as least to pause in what we are doing and consider what will come from the United States.

Along with that, and causing us to ponder, scratch our heads, and ridicule while we worry, are a series of indicators that reflect conditions making the United States the most wretched place among what we can call the first world, western democracies, or civilized countries. You might think of this note as a reconsideration, but coming to similar conclusions as in a book I published in the 1970s, The United States: A Study of a Developing Country. I was led to that by having spent my first 17 years in Fall River, a city where adults had an average 8.2 years of schooling, where unemployment was 25 percent, and 30 per cent of my peers did not finished high school. Yet another experience that led me to that book were several years as a young academic at the University of Georgia and traveling widely for research throughout the deep south.

More recently I've taken another look at the data for Fall River. Now the average adult now has a bit over 9 years of education.

Other markers that indicate the wretched nature of the imperial capital--all of them compared to the cluster of well-to-do democracies:
•The lowest life expectancy
•The highest incidence of murder
•The highest incidence of private gun ownership
•The highest incidence of prison inmates
•The highest incidence of overweight individuals
•The poorest record of health care delivery
•The sharpest differentials between the incomes received by the well to do and poor

Along with these indications of domestic misery are some real accomplishments spread to the world.

Most important on my list is American pressure and assistance that has brought about the European Union. In place of chronic warfare has been 70 years of peace along with the accomplishment of better health and welfare than in the United States. If you want to visit well tended and safe cities with delightful places to walk, eat and drink, along with reliable public transportation within them and between them and other cities, the place to go is Western Europe. Pity Americans that it is a long and expensive flight, or a long and cheap flight in planes that have all the allure of an American intercity bus. Bring your own lunch and hope that you do not sit on the remains of the lunch left behind by the last occupant of your seat.

Also largely to the credit of American enterprise, science and technology are the medical advances keeping us alive longer than our parents, and the gadgets that make those lives more interesting, productive, and occasionally frustrating as we struggle to master what we cannot resist buying.

Also pity the Americans that the best of health care--while mostly available to the rest of us via public programs in every other well to do democracy--are available only to the most coddled of Americans able to afford the best insurance or still covered by the policies arranged by large or well-to-do employers. There is hope for improvement as more of Obamacare comes on line, but the readings I've seen from the 2,700 or so pages of the key legislation is that most Americans will still lag behind the rest of the civilized world in terms of what they are able to obtain.

Ignorance in high American places about the rest of the world along with certainty in the use of great power is our greatest danger. Many Americans may not care a great deal about how many Iraqis died as a result of George W. Bush's adventure (a couple of hundred thousand or more than a million, depending on one's sources), along with whatever has happened as a result of American blunders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, we dependent outsiders must worry about the next time such a gross combination of wild aspiration and limited information gets itself into the Oval Office.

Why Americans have the best and the worst remains a puzzle for social science. It has something to do with receiving the dregs of the Old World's population, and providing the resource and opportunities for individuals to overcome the barriers of family background and reach the peaks of personal achievement. Much of the population remains without personal achievement and can expect early death. Individualism has been important since the country's emergence from colonial status. There are opportunities associated with overall wealth, but individuals have to be alert, or lucky in having someone help them, and work hard in order to achieve success.

It's somewhat clearer how inexperienced individuals are able to reach the most powerful office in that country and the world. A combination of campaigning for presidential primaries spread over several years with unlimited resources for media advertising can push fresh, well-spoken, and media savvy individuals from the lowest to the highest office, without passing through positions of increasing responsibility that provide for learning and testing.

Whatever the reasons for the nature of American culture and leadership, we're stuck with the power of the United States, along with its benefits, a population fanatic about preserving a way of life that produces violence, with an intensity of partisanship that can keep its people and the rest of the world wondering if they will agree to a reasonable resolution of a problem, or lead themselves and us into another morass created by American stupidity.


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 11:07 PM
December 29, 2012

Even in the best of times, voting is something of a crap shoot for citizens who wish to influence what their government does. Candidates speak in general terms in order to appeal as widely as possible and to give themselves room to maneuver in the face of conditions bound to change. And that statement assumes that candidates are honest. Hah. Maybe some of them. Moreover, no victor is able to make policy alone. A chief executive must work with a legislature. Even if it is controlled by the chief executive's party, there are bound to be competing personalities and factions.

Israel's voters have the additional problem of knowing that the government will be a coalition. They have all been coalitions. The Jews and others of this small country have never produced a majority. A collection of five or six parties is not unusual. Occasionally parties come and go as coalitions expand or shrink with circumstances between elections.

What does this mean for a voter's calculations?

It's not enough to think about the most desirable candidate or the most desirable party platform, even assuming that the leading candidate, the published platform, and the themes of campaign slogans, billboards, and speeches provide clear clues as to what the party will support. If there is a chance that one's favorite party will get enough votes so its leader will be asked by the President to create a government, the questions are which parties will that party leader invite into the government, which ministries will each of the parties receive, and which individuals will each of the parties select to actually serve as the ministers? While the Prime Minister is expected to be dominant, the chances are that the Prime Minister will focus on a few issues at the top of the agenda, whatever that becomes in the situation of a small country battered by political and economic pressures from outside its borders. Ministers have various kinds of discretion and autonomy within their own fields, although whoever is the Finance Minister has a powerful upper hand via control over money.

Currently, one of the topics more prominent than others, and more problematic than others is what comes under the heading of "settlements," or more broadly, "what to do about the Palestinians?"

The history and current pressures are well known. They involve Israeli frustrations at being unable to reach agreement with Palestinians, the current split among Palestinians between what might generously be called the accommodationists of the West Bank and what are more certainly the rejectionists of Gaza, a steady drum beat from overseas--alternately led by Washington or European worthies--condemning Israeli settlement activities and demanding that Israel and the Palestinians work harder at reaching an agreement, along with the recent symbolic accomplishment of the Palestinians in the United Nations and the frequent threats by various Palestinians that if Israel is not more accommodating it will be necessary to disband the Palestinians Authority and give Israel responsibility for governing Palestinians, or alternately that it will be time for another intifada.

What faces the Israeli voter in terms of what the various parties are promising with respect to settlement or the Palestinians?

The present and most likely future Prime Minister is promising to support settlement. He led a decision to punish the Palestinians for the UN maneuver by advancing planning for several thousand housing units beyond the 1967 borders, including an especially controversial area (E1) between Jerusalem and Maale Adumin. Since then, he has backtracked, said more or less clearly that E1 is not due for any actual construction in the foreseeable future, and emphasized Israel's right to build within the Jerusalem municipality. We all know that only Israel recognizes the post-1967 boundaries of Jerusalem, but there is wide support for building within the new neighborhoods.

Tsipi Livni, whose party is called The Movement led by Tsipi Livni, is the one prominent voice emphasizing the need to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians in order to reach a two-state solution. Livni says that she was involved in Ehud Olmert's negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, and she sounds confidant that she can reach an agreement with Abbas. Her party has been polling at the level of 11 seats, and there are some not altogether reliable reports that her people are negotiating with Netanyahu's people about her entering the government as Foreign Minister.

The surprise of this campaign is Jewish Home led by Naftali Benet. He is the most outspoken candidate in behalf of settlement and has spoken more or less explicitly against the creation of a Palestinian state. He got some bad press about a comment that, if called to reserve duty in the IDF he would refuse orders to remove Jewish settlers from their homes, but the polls continue to show rising support for Jewish Home. Currently it is at 15 seats, likely to be the third largest party, and closing in on Labor, currently the second largest party, but according to one poll likely to win only 17 seats.

Also in the air is a squabble between Netanyau and SHAS over the Ministry of Housing and Construction. That might not be important for the American White House, Downing Street, Paris, or Berlin, but it is to Israelis. The Ministry has been in the hands of SHAS, and the housing created at its behest has been disproportionally meant for ultra-Orthodox families. That appears not only in the style of construction (cheap and crowded), but in the criteria as to who will get preferential mortgages. This involves criteria that benefit couples who have been married for several years and have not yet purchased an apartment. Since Haredim marry young, they are more likely than secular families to benefit from favorable mortgages based on the criteria of length of marriage.

Avigdor Lieberman has also spoken of taking the Ministry of Interior away from SHAS, and making it more friendly to his constituency of Russian-speaking immigrants. Perhaps one-third of those immigrants are not Jews according to religious law, there are controversies about conversions, the Interior Ministry has a role in recording the identity of individuals, and it has the patronage-heavy task of allocating money to local governments.-


Lieberman does not have a strong record of following through with his promises for the sake of his constituents, and his own role in the next government will depend on what the courts decide about his indictment on a criminal offense.

SHAS is threatening to stay out of a Netanyahu government if he will carry through with his promise to give the Housing and Construction Ministry or Interior to someone other than SHAS

It is hard to believe that SHAS will stay out of a Netanyahu-led coalition, but it is also hard to believe that Netanyahu will carry through with a promise to depart from his hitherto favorite strategy of creating a right of center coalition, with SHAS, Torah Judaism, and Jewish Home.

My guesses may be better than yours, but mine will be far from certainties.


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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:05 AM
December 26, 2012
Do unto others

For those who enjoy the cut and thrust of electoral politics, this is the season to unlimber your Hebrew dictionaries and connect with the web page of Israeli media (

There are no less than three simultaneous performances of the cardinal principle, "Do unto others," along with the lucious taste of revenge for all to witness.

In Cinema #1, we see Avigdor Lieberman and Dan Ayalon. Their backgrounds--for those who have not followed this saga--Aylon was #2 in Lieberman's party, and a former Foreign Ministry professional, who became Lieberman's Deputy in the Foreign Ministry, but often was the more prominent diplomat in a situation where Lieberman was not to be warmly welcome in important places.

Earlier this month, to the surprise of one and all, Czar Lieberman did not include Ayalon in his list of candidates for the coming election. Moreover, the notice may have gone out to Aylon, if at all, shortly before the official closing of all lists. Ayalon could not, if he wanted to, go shopping for a place on another party's list.

According to one report, Lieberman punished Ayalon for leaking Ministry information to the media. By another report, Lieberman was miffed at Ayalon's enjoyment of a better press than himself.

Whatever the reason, Ayalon appeared to be screwed.

Until it appeared that Ayalon held the keys to Lieberman's future, and maybe his prison cell.

The State Prosecutor indicated his intention to indict Lieberman for improprieties dealing with the appointment of the Ambassador to Latvia. The candidate for the position had earlier broken the rules when he was Ambassador to Belarus by providing information to Lieberman concerned with police investigations of Lieberman's activities. According to the Prosecutor's charge, Lieberman paid him back with another ambassadorial appointment.

According to Lieberman, he made no effort to influence the appointment.

Guess who was the chair of the appointments committee, and who the police have been asking if, indeed, Lieberman sought to influence the appointment?

You guessed it, Dan Ayalon.

We do not know what Ayalon said to the police, but signs are that it was not an endorsement of Lieberman's story, and that Lieberman is now unlikely to see his judicial problem solved before the election and the creation of the new government.

In Cinema #2, we see Avigdor Lieberman again, also without great personal success. Here is paired with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Last month they surprised us by announcing that their two parties (Likud and Israel our Home) would run a united campaign under the heading of Likud our Home. At the time--in the Knesset ending its term--the two parties had 42 seats together. By combing forces, they hoped to at least preserve that number, and hopefully add to it.

Likud our Home was down to 35 seats last week, when its leader spotted a ripe target in the ascendant Jewish Home, led by Naftali Benet. Benet had said in an interview that, if called to the IDF, he would not obey orders to remove Jewish settlers from their homes. That violated widely honored norms that put the IDF at the center of Israel's civil religion, and led the Prime Minister to a sanctimonious declaration that anyone sticking to the posture of not honoring military orders would not be minister in his government.

Since then, Likud our Home has dropped from 35 to 34 seats, and Jewish Home has gone from 11 to 15 seats.

In Cinema #3 we see Amir Peretz, a firebrand socialist, former head of the Labor Federation, misplaced as Defense Minister in Ehud Olmert's government who had the bad luck of having a war on his watch (Lebanon II). The iconic photo from that experience was Peretz intent on watching action through a large pair of binoculars while the lens caps were still on the lenses.

Peretz's latest prominence came when he was number #2 on the Labor Party list for the coming election, and declared--without clearing things with party leader Shelli Yehimovich--that the party must not join any government with Benyamin Netanyahu.

There was also a history behind this saga. Yehimovichhad defeated Peretz in a contest for party leadersip, but Peretz didn;t seem to realize who won.

After his "never with Bibi" pronouncement did not go over well with Shelli, Amir left Labor in a huff and joined at the last moment possible the list of Tsipi Livni. After the 2009 election, Livni had refused to join with Netanyahu, so Peretz may have thought himself with a partner he could rely on.

The latest news is that representatives of Livni and Netanyahu are discussing the prospect of Livni accepting the position of Foreign MInister in Netanyahu's government.

Note that this means both Peretz and Lieberman are being screwed, the first by the head of his new party, and the second by the State Prosecutor, with Netanyahu preparing to replace the Foreign Minister who may not be able to serve while indicted and waiting trial.

Events in Cinema #4 are showing that Netanyahu still is on the top of the pile, but not sitting so pretty. The center-left cluster of three (Lapid-Yehimovich-Livni) haven't taken off. They persist in avoiding a joint effort, apparently because none can subordinate him/herself to another, and are stuck in the range of 39 seats all together. Currently that is more than Likud our Home is polling, but the largest of the ununited triumverate (Labor) in polling only about about half the number of seats as Likud our Home.

While these three are on Bibi's left, Jewish Home is on his right. It appears certain that the President will give Netanyahu the first chance of forming a government, but he'll have to work in order to get it done. A month ago, the betting was that it would be a quick and easy task of going to his traditional partners the ultra-Orthodox along with Lieberman, perhaps with the addition of what was then a minor party Jewish Home (3 seats in the outgoing Knesset).

Complicating that scenario was Benet's caputure of Jewish Home's leadership, and problems between Sara Netanyahu and Benet.

Another complication comes from what apperas to be Netanyahu's present desire to gain votes by promising to limit the ultra-Orthodox. They are as unpopular as ever due to their appetities for resources along with exemptions from the military and employment.

So who should Netanyahu pick as partners with Lieberman in trouble with the State Prosecutor, the Haredim no longer ideal, and Benet in trouble with Sara and likely to be too settler friendly for those North Americans and Europeans looking over Netanyahu's shoulder and wanting peace with the Palestinians?

One prospect is Livni's party. Despite Peretz's proclamation against Netanyahu, Livni may be tired of her indecision and be willing to have another go at power as Netanyahu's Foreign Minister. Yair Lapid is also a prospect. He's a great purveyor of platitudes with no political experience, and may come cheaply. However, Bibi plus Lapid plus Livni are still a half dozen or so short of a Knesset majority.

Shelli also wants in, but she speaks too often for increased social benefits, while Bibi prefers a different kind of economic wisdom, and the tea leaves are showing that Israel must cut its budget drastically after the election.

The voting is January 22nd. We should have the results by the next morning, but it will be some time before the dithering and bargaining produces a government.


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 08:59 PM
December 25, 2012
This isn't America

Twice in recent days I've run afoul of American parochialism. You've already read more than enough about my encounter with gun control enthusiasts. The second is with Reform and Conservative Jews, brought about by an article in the New York Times that bemoans the inability of Reform and Conservative women to pray as they want, where they want, alongside the Western Wall.

The article is far below the NYT's usual level of journalism, with virtually no probing of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaisms' standing in Israel, or the history that lies behind several detailed controversies.

The NYT article, and the notes I have received about it, treat this as an Israeli abomination dictated by the power of the Orthodox, and reinforced by a Supreme Court insensitive to the rights of non-Orthodox Jews.

Alas, the reality clashes with the parochialism of that article. That Israel is not the United States should be clear to one and all, but not to Americans who expect to be treated here as there. Not only this country, but all others have their own histories, politics, laws, definitions of rights, privileges, and obligations, and practices employed in the actual observance of what is written in official documents.

No doubt I'm sensitive to such things by being a student of government and society, and having worked and lived for extensive periods of time in different kinds of countries (Kenya and Australia as well as the US and Israel), with prolonged visits for professional purposes in a sizable number of others. Religiously motivated Reform and Conservative women who fly here from American and expect to be treated as at home need more than a few lessons in history, sociology, government, politics, and law.

American Judaism took root in an overwhelmingly Christian country. The mass of Jews who migrated from Eastern Europe from the late 19th century left the Orthodoxy they brought with them after a generation. They either assimilated completely or adopted the Reform Judaism brought earlier by German Jews or its Conservative or Reconstructionist spin-offs. American Jews have absorbed American religiosity, their styles of worship are those of orderly Christian congregations, and the norms learned in their schools are those of equality of sexes and freedom of religion with a minimum interference by the state.

In contrast, the early modern Jewish migration to Palestine included a large number of young people rebelling against religion as well as families. They established varieties of secular Zionism that laid the roots for what long has been the Israeli condition of a secular majority, along with Orthodox communities that never assimilated to Christian styles of worship or the political norms written into the US Constitution.. There were few non-Orthodox observant Jews among the immigrants to Palestine/Israel.

The political groupings given responsibility for Jewish governance in the pre-state period included Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and secular parties. There have been Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset since the establishment of the state. Individual Knesset members may have affiliated with non-Orthodox synagogues, but none overtly so to my knowledge, and there is never been a party in the Knesset representing non-Orthodox religious Jews. Among the 42 parties that talked about running in this election campaign, and the 34 that actually registered, there is no sign of a concern for non-Orthodox Judaism among what they have claimed as their intentions.

In contrast to what is written in the NYT article, Israel's Supreme Court is widely regarded as a bastion of democracy and civil rights. It has stood apart from the government and Knesset with expansive readings of existing laws, and is often charged--as was the Warren Court in the US--for improper judicial enactments in the direction of too much liberalism.

The Supreme Court's decision about non-Orthodox women who wish to read from the Torah and pray at the Western Wall with kipot, tallitot, and tfillim, is to forbid that on the grounds of avoiding civil unrest. There is a portion of the Wall, south of the main plaza, set aside for the women to do as they want. However, activist women view that as intolerable segregation, and a denial of their inherent freedom to observe their religion as they think proper.

What they come up against are long established Orthodox principles dealing with the segregation of the sexes and a Biblical norm that women should not dress as men (Deuteronomy 22:5). One can quarrel with the origins, the consistency over time, and interpretation of sacred text and religious practices, but the prevailing view among Orthodox rabbis--and that of the official body given responsibility for management of the Western Wall--is against the demands of non-Orthodox women. Indeed, Orthodox rabbis tend to view Reform and Conservative practices as something other than Judaism.

Israel does not shy away from the involvement of the state in matters of religion. Quite the opposite. The state identifies and registers individuals as members of religious communities, and assigns to religious functionaries a substantial share of the state's authority in matters of marriage, divorce, burial, conversion, kashrut, and education.

Non-Orthodox Judaisms have acquired partial recognition by Israeli authorities. Congregations get money from governmental and quasi-governmental sources, and have established synagogues as well as primary and secondary schools in numerous locales. The language of conversation in non-Orthodox congregations tends to be American English, but there are Israelis from a variety of backgrounds attracted to the synagogues and schools. Overall, however, non-Orthodox Judaism has not made much of a dent on the country's demography.

There remains official opposition to giving non-Orthodox rabbis authority to perform marriages in Israel, or to recognize conversions to Judaism performed outside of Orthodox institutions.

One can argue about the history of the Western Wall. The Palestinian and Muslim narrative is that it is not and never has been Jewish. However, it is the principal iconic site of the Orthodox Rabbinate, and there its rabbis dig in their heels against women dressing and praying in violation of what they view as rabbinical norms.

One can disagree with all of this, or look askance at the disputes as do many secular Israelis, but that is the way religion operates in this country.

Non-Orthodox Jews often express their disappointment at their lack of support by secular Israeli Jews, but they should not be surprised. The attitude of secular Israelis toward religion varies from occasional participation in the rituals through apathy, to mild or intense antipathy to religion, religious leaders and activists, and their demands on the society.

Few secular Israelis are inclined to support one religious community in the Jewish firmament against others. Secular political activists may be moved to oppose the Orthodox on settlements in the West Bank, and to oppose the privileges of the ultra-Orthodox concerned with avoiding military service, work, equal kinds of taxation, water bills and mortgages. Secular Israelis may ridicule or ignore the Haifa Rabbinate's threat to remove the Certificate of Kashrut from any hotel that hosts a New Year's party on December 31st, without thinking it's a topic worthy of a demonstration. Likewise, the topic of non-Orthodox women who dress like rabbis is a curiosity, and may provoke a smile of wonder, if it is noticed at all, but it is not much of an issue.

Non-Orrhodox peoteats are not without consequences. One can regret whatever friction they cause with American friends and relatives, and how they may add to the latter-day anti-Zionism of liberal American Jews. They also reflect the self-centeredness of Americans who think that their rights should transfer elsewhere without regard to the nature of other societies. As in my debate with American gun lovers, I have no doubt that the tendency among Reform and Conservative activists is to think that everyone else is wrong.


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

Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:21 AM
December 24, 2012
An immodest proposal

I've tried to convince my American friends how out of step they are on firearms. Being number one in gun ownership and number one in murder does not seem to impress them. Perhaps it stimulates their pride in being different. Everyone else must be off kilter, insofar as individual freedom is the prime American value. They learned it in school, reinforced by John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and lots of others. Europe meant repression in 1776, and still at the end of 2012.

I'll make one last try, with a suggestion I have not yet seen in my browsing of the Internet. Lots of people would deal with the insane, marginal and otherwise, either by forced drugs or segregation, all the while not thinking about that other American cherished value of privacy. Many of the same people, and lots of others would increase the availability of arms. Guards at every school, coffee shop and shopping mall, with a shoot to kill training, and no more flexible than all those people working for airport security.

No one has yet proposed my idea of a way to accommodate all those Americans who love their guns, and the unknown number--not yet registered in the Association of Americans Without Rifles (AAWR)--who don't want any guns or the people who admire them nearby.

I suggest turning part of the US into a gun zone, and make the rest of it like Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, and some other civilized places that make do with little or no private gun ownership and murder rates half to less than a quarter of that in the US.

Where to put the guns and gun enthusiasts? I initially pondered the huge empty spaces provided from the Dakotas west through Idaho, and down through Wyoming and the central and western parts of Nebraska. Lots of space, plenty of wild west shoot'em up traditions, but some drawbacks on weather. Texas appears a better alternative. Varied weather, along with space, experience with killing and being killed, a well used execution chamber and staff to put in the needle and press the button for those who exaggerate their use of gun rights.

There should be enough enthusiasm for creating a gun ghetto in order to pass a constitutional amendment clarifying the rights that some see in #2, but limiting them to Texas, and outlawing private ownership in the other 49 on a date sufficiently distant to give enthusiasts an opportunity to sell their bars, gun and motorcycle shops and other rooted fixtures, and move themselves to the Texas ghetto. The few Texans who might not want weapons would be free--indeed encouraged--to leave for safer opportunities.

To make it work best, the Israeli company that mass produces 24 foot high concrete components of the wall used to enclose Palestinians can set up a training facility for Texans and folks in the immediate neighboring states to make enough of those components quickly enough to surround the ghetto, and thereby prevent any stray shots from hurting innocent outsiders.

New and old Texans could leave their ghetto to visit other places, but they'd have to check their weapons at the gates. Visitors could--perhaps be required to--rent guns for protecting themselves and family members when they enter the gun state for business, pleasure, or family reunions.

My remaining worry concerns the size of Texas and its capacity to absorb all the gun lovers. On this, I'll invite comments, and remind you all that I'm flexible. If there are way too many gun lovers for Texas, perhaps every state but Rhode Island would be appropriate. Or maybe not. Providence has been home to some nasties who wouldn't be inclined to move anywhere for the sake of decency. New Jersey would fail on similar criteria. Perhaps Delaware. You could put those concrete barriers around that little state, which may be large enough for the Americans who do not like guns, apply it for membership in the United Nations and the European Union, and be damned with the rest.

I expect that some people reading this will be revolted at what they perceive--incorrectly--as an effort to ridicule a nation in deep morning about a cruel tragedy. Most clearly they are wrong in seeing their country in deep mourning. There are signs of sadness, but also signs that owning weapons is more important to a great many Americans than the lives of young children. I have no doubt that Barack Obama's tears and intentions are serious, but the most powerful man on earth has only so much time he can devote to this issue, and he knows his chances are limited. Overall, America's mourning is being done with no more than half a spirit, with the other half--at the least--reserved for demanding the right to own weapons and suggestig how to protect the innocent without depriving gun lovers. There's already been one multiple murder and suicide that I'm aware of since Newtown, and the Presidential commission meant to propose solutions hasn't yet begun to work.

This is a season of hope. To paraphrase Pope John Paul II, I wish our Christian little brothers all the appropriate blessings, with my additional plea that they finally learn how to live in peace, and then succeed in teaching the rest of 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 01:51 AM
December 22, 2012
As usual, more questions than answers

Thirty-four parties are running in Israel's election, but there are fewer real contenders. Prominent are Likud a bit to the right of center, and Labor a bit to the left of center. There are parties further to the right and the left, each for their true believers, plus two ultra-Orthodox parties, one for the Ashkenzim and one for the Sephardim, another religious party (Orthodox but not ultra-Orthodox), which since 1967 has appealed to settlers and others who want to maintain or expand Israel's control over the West Bank, and three parties for the Arabs or for Jews of the far left. Those are the more or less fixed parameters that have been with us for a long while.

Also with us for a long while, at least since the late 1970s, is a search for something new. Something ideally in the middle, pragmatic and current, without being commited to or against the Palestinians, settlers, socialism, or a fairer deal for Israelis in need of economic help. New parties have risen and declined. Individuals who came to prominence via the military or the media have created most of them, and ridden them to a position of moderate strength for one or two parliamentary terms. Kadima was the most successful, created by Ariel Sharon who left Likud as Prime Minister after his party rebeled against his withdrawal from Gaza. Kadima was the only new party that elected a prime minister (Ehud Olmert in 2006 after Sharon's disabling stroke), repeated as the largest party in the 2009 election, but then withered to the point where it may not win enough votes to enter the Knesset as a result of next month's election.

Inherent in the new parties is a lack of infrastructure and political experience. Politics is not a game for amateurs. It is a profession crucial to good government. Great thinkers from Aristotle to James Madison and lots of others have worried about the politics that appeals to current passions, but lacks the balance and skills necessary for getting through the heat of what the people want now.

Parties are also important for political longevity. They not only get out the vote on election day but provide a framework that recruits and rewards workers, provides them with something to do between elections, has mechanisms to test and weed out people as their try to ascend within the organization. A belief, ideology, or tendency with respect to government policy helps tomaintain a party, even if the belief is flexible and the leaders do not adhere to all that the believers want.

It is popular to attack political parties as being concerned more for themselves than for the quality of government. "Machines" and "bosses" have been prominent in the histories of several countries, and came to be viewed as standing in the way of what the people need and want. From time to time, those arguments carry the day, and fresh looking candidates manage to "throw the bums out." Occasionally an established party disappears. More usual, however, is for parties to ride out some bad years and come back. Israel's Labor Party looks again to be one of the two largest parties. Polls are showing it winning as many as 18 seats in the next Knesset, after falling to only 8 out of 120 seats in the present Knesset.

There is less than a month to go in this campaign, but it already looks like two new faces are demonstrating the value of political experience. Yair Lapid came from a career in the media, with prom-king good looks and a media stars' capacity to think and speak quickly and clearly, promising a new centrist approach free from the tired routines of the major parties. Early polling indicated that his new party, There is a Future, would win as many as 15 seats. However, the gloss dimned as Lapid's sound bite pronoucements made it unclear just how he differed from competitors. Currently he is stuck somewhere around seven seats.

Naftali Benet is another rising star who may be in free fall. He took over the Orthodox and settler party Jewish Home (formerly the National Religious Party) in a primary contest with its older leadership, and has led a campaign that attracted an impressive number of younger supporters, secular as well as religious. Some of the support resulted from a linkage with another right wing party that had represented secular Israelis wanting to maintain control of the West Bank, and some came from Likud voters unhappy with what was happening within that party, including its alliance with Avigdor Lieberman and his indictment for a violation of public trust.

Then Benet answered one question too many on a prominent interview program. As an officer in the reserves, he would refuse an order to remove Jewish settlers from a place where the government ordered the IDF to remove them.

The leaders of the three parties closest to Jewish Home are piling on. Bennet violated the most sacred symbol of modern Israel. For secular Israelis and many of the Orthodox (perhaps not the ultra-Orthodox) the IDF is above politics and synagogue, no matter what one thinks about the Almighty and His Promise of the Land.

The secular equivalent of Shema Israel is the assertion that country's survival as a Jewish democracy depends on a military that accepts the decisions of the elected government, and carries out the orders down through the military hierarchy, whether or not the officers or soldiers like those orders.

Benet is trying to backpedal and deny what is recorded on tape and being played time and again. He claims that he is not preaching a violation of orders. He is standing by the dictates of his conscience and would prefer time in a military prison to carrying out an order to remove Jews from a settlement.

The nuance is delicate and difficult. Israelis may recognize the value of conscience even while accepting the sentencing of a conscience-holder to prison, but not its promotion in a campaign that can spread to others. Early polls are showing a loss of 2 seats from the 11 Jewish Home reached in previous polls, after climbing from the 3 seats in the present Knesset.

Likud is the party closest to Jewish Home on the political spectrum, and the two had been expected to sit together in the next government. Likud was also the party most threatened by an ascendant Benet, and Benyamin Netanyahu has been his most forceful critic. "Someone who adheres to a posture of refusing military orders will not be a minister in my government."

"Adheres to" sounds like the key element in this sentence, which may have enough wiggle room for Netanyahu to accept Benet as minister of something if Benet succeeds in getting enough votes and is clear enough in his efforts to retract what he said.

Also unclear is how a head to head conflict over settlement will eat into Likud's support. Ha'aretz is not enthusiastic about either candidate. As the issue was peaking, the paper's cartoonist depicted Netanyahu putting the roof on a settler's new home, while Benet is carrying in some of the furniture.

Established parties and experienced politicians usually come out on top, but the rules of political science do not hold like those of physics. The variables are many and fluid. Tongues are slippery, and can talk their owner's way out of problems as well as into problems.

Also pending is whether Netanyahu will extend his "Someone who adheres . . . " to the Haredi parties. Due to a split among rabbis claiming leadership of Torah Judaism (the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party), contenders are digging in their heels on the issue of service in the IDF. If "Haredim should not respond to orders to report to the recruitment office" is equivalent to Benet's refusal to remove settlers, then Netanyahu will have a problem joining again with one of his traditional allies.

Then there is the high ranking member of Labor's list, who urged parents to thnik twice about sending their children to be soldiers--later modified to urging the government to do all possible to make peace before sending their children into battle.

Could it be that Israel's most experienced and polished politician has joined one of its newest and least experienced in letting his tongue commit him to one step too many? So far we have not head Netanyahu starting to wiggle his way out of what he said about Benet in order to allow Torah Judaism, and maybe Labor, into his next government.

And note the subtext in all of the above. None of Israel's polls or commentators is suggesting that anyone other than Benyamin Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister. What will Barack Obama do if he ever finishes with the fiscal cliff and gun control?

So many questions. So few answers.

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 11:50 PM
December 20, 2012
Exceptionalism and parochialism

According to the über-encyclopedia that teaches all of us everything,

"defense mechanisms are psychological strategies brought into play by the unconscious mind to manipulate, deny, or distort reality (through processes including, but not limited to, Repression, Identification, or Rationalization), and to maintain a socially acceptable self-image or self-schema."

Defense mechanisms abound in political discussions. They appear in the lip service, or the balanced diplomatic expressions routinely issued by governments and international organizations, carefully designed to remain within the conventional and acceptable, but without actually accomplishing anything. Today it is a condemnation of Israeli intentions to build in "settlements" including what Israel considers to be neighborhoods of Jerusalem, along with condemnations of Palestinian calls for Israel's destruction, coupled with urgings of both Palestinians and Israelis to begin negotiations.

What attracts me to the issue of defense mechanisms are responses to notes about the latest outrage associated with firearms in the United States, made even more outrageous than usual insofar as most victims were little kids.

To my mind, that glories in the simple connections easy to understand, there is an obvious linkage between the United States having the highest incidence of guns in private possession, and having two to four times the incidence of murder than in any other western democracy.

Not for a number of the people reading my notes. It's not guns, but something else.
•"If you would do your research you would find that the individuals that caused the mess were mentally ill. And like our tunnel visioned liberals they want to blame the tool and not the source( the person)! And if you /and your friends that are responsible for this article would have really done some research you would have found that the system in the USA for treating mentally ill persons has been shamefully handicapped by the ACLU , when they brought a lawsuit in 1972 that changed how the states can handle them or hold them! This is the problem--- not the guns!"
•"The problem of firearm homicide is disproportionately (though of course not exclusively) one of young black urban males shooting at each other. The "civilized" countries of Western Europe (whose civility dates back to May 1945), for all their faults, at least had the good sense not to import slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries."
•"I live some of the year in the South, which has a very deeply ingrained gun culture. One would naturally expect that the preponderance of mass murderers would come from the lunatic Bubba fringe, but that has not been the case. Instead, it's been the white, middle-class, educated Northern nut-job who is your typical mass murderer, coming from a culture that tends to be liberal. I think the answer is that Southerners have more solid values than Northerners. All those years of Bible study have paid off."
•"From the moment news emerged Friday that a young man had carried out a horrific massacre of elementary-school children, politicians from local city halls to the White House have been restoking the age-old push for more gun control. While guns have been a common denominator in mass slayings at schools by teens, there's another familiar element that seems increasingly to be minimized. Some 90 percent of school shootings over more than a decade have been linked to a widely prescribed type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, according to British psychiatrist Dr. David Healy, a founder of, an independent website for researching and reporting on prescription drugs."
•" It would be a good idea if guns were better controlled in USA, but that isn't the main problem. The real problem is that the radical left prevents or obstructs the use of all the best known and most effective crime reduction methods, such as police anti-gang programs, strict enforcement of traffic safety laws, DUI traffic checkpoints, surveillance cameras, shot spotter systems, surveillance drones, you name it, every effective method of reducing crime is obstructed by the radical left. "
•" The recent murder of kids and teachers in the USA was not a gun control issue. It was one of suicide and the desire some suicides have of wanting to take other with them. Could have used a truck loaded with petrol or fertilizer or a vest rigged with explosives. Either other method would have taken others with him. 6 or 7 year olds could torn limb from limb. There had been an altercation the previous day at the school. So there ought to have been armed police officers stationed at the school."
• "With all due respect, I see you've fallen into the same trap by a fixation on the presence of a gun, per se, as something always a present danger, if not an existential evil. It's becoming tiresome to point out there are knives in the house as well, and perhaps a baseball bat. Seriously, what is it that drives the probability numbers concerning a gun in the home? It's size, color, and weight? I am a rationalist. That's why I say it has to be the gunner, not the gun."

There is also a view, so far not expressed by any of my Internet friends, that the problem is not enough guns. If school teachers had firearms training and quick access to weapons, somebody would have been able to put down Adam Lanza before he did what he did (and, hopefully, before some of the six-year olds got their hands on a teacher's gun).

I sought to enlighten some of my Internet friends with a Jerusalem Post article about the procedures used by Israel to control guns. They are severe limits on hunting, the types of weapons and a maximum of 50 bullets available over a lifetime even to those who pass police and medical screening, with reexaminations required periodically. Moreover, approvals are limited to individuals living or working in sensitive areas or working in specified occupations.

In response I received

"All the JPost article told me was that in Israel the Government exercises a higher degree of control over its citizens whereas in America a citizen is free of such silly restraints over the ownership of firearms. It's not a matter of "thinking." It's a matter of political freedom.The JPost writer did make a comment about the distribution of guns in Israel. I chuckle at the stupidity of the government of Israel to so hamper its citizens on the ownership of guns while it has no idea of the number of armed Arabs within its midst but there may be half a million illegal guns in the Arab sector "floating around" but immediately concedes no one knows the number. If I were an Israeli, I would own a gun, with more than 50 rounds. I'll bet there are many Israelis who own a gun "illegally"-- and the Government be dammed. That's clear "thinking" in my book, especially given the intentions of my "peaceful" neighbors."

Israel's efforts and those similar throughout much of Europe are not perfect. The criminal underground has its ways of obtaining weapons, used largely for internal enforcement, and Israeli Arabs are more likely to acquire weapons than Jews, many of which they use against one another in family feuds. Jews outside of the underground appear to accept the rules. When violence in Arab communities goes beyond a vague line of tolerance the response is likely to be severe enough to acquire an extended period of quiet.

Details are less important than the overall record. Israel's murder rate is half that of the US. An extensive public health system, similar to those in most European countries, where a visit to the family physician is without financial outlay and a visit to a specialist requires an outlay of about $5, may help identify individuals requiring treatment and/or supervision before they burst upon an innocent population.

One of my correspondents, a Jew who compares Israelis to Nazis, views my notes on gun control as so anti-American as requiring that I give up my US citizenship.

Alas, I learned in the schools of Fall River, and have taught throughout my career that criticism--often severe, biting, and sarcastic--is essential to democracy.

You've discovered America is an expression whose Hebrew version means that one has expressed the obvious. It usually does not refer to America, per se, but in this case it is especially appropriate.

It will not be easy for the Obama-Biden team to come up with a meaningful deal that passes Congress. Hunters, target-shooting enthusiasts, gun manufacturers, retailers, and the community of advocates centered around the NRA will be formidable obstacles. Even though comparison is essential for understanding what is possible for public policy, Americans' faith in themselves also gets in the way. For many Americans, Europe remains a symbol of too much government and too little freedom. That Europeans (along with Japanese, Israelis, Australians, New Zealanders and a few others who act like Europeans) are safer, healthier, and live longer than Americans, does not easily penetrate Americans' pride in their way of doing things.

The noted historian Perry Miller wrote about American exceptionalism from the time of the Massachusetts Puritans. The Promised Land, City on the Hill, and New Jerusalem are ideas that they sunk deep into American roots. Mormons reinforced those notions, with special attention to the West and Utah. America is the place of a new beginning, separate from the cruelty of the Old World.

The Wikipedia article on defense mechanism notes their contributions to mental health, but also their dangers.

"Healthy persons normally use different defences throughout life. An ego defense mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behaviour such that the physical and/or mental health of the individual is adversely affected."

Travel and education may have blunted Americans' feelings of exceptionalism, but not entirely. It is a short step from exceptionalism to parochialism. And while the people of every country and region may be self-centered, the wealth and political weight of the United States add to the significance of Americans' attitudes toward themselves and others. In the case of gun control, the primary sufferers are Americans. Many do not accept that they are suffering, much less why, and the steps that every other Western democracy has taken that should lessen what Americans do to themselves.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)

Department of Political Science

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Cell: +972-54-683-5325

Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:09 AM
December 18, 2012
Coping with gun addiction.

Can Americans cure themselves of gun addiction?

It's a daunting assignment, and raises a question about coping. Gun addiction may be insoluble, and there may be no way for individuals to cope with the malady that infects so many of their fellow Americans as to make no place suitable as a refuge.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution appears to be one of the bulwarks of the addiction. And insofar as Americans tend to view their Constitution as holy ground (altered only 15 times since 1804), a change by constitutional amendment seems an unlikely avenue for reform.

However holy, the Second Amendment is not an absolute barrier.

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

It remains an open question as to whether the weight of that language protects "a well regulated Militia" or "the right of the people to bear Arms." Moreover, "infringed" also lends itself to interpretation. It is clear from the history of federal, as well as state and local enactments that the Second Amendment does not stand in the way of regulation, even of the most severe variety.

The catastrophe of Newtown, Connecticut might be one of those events that spurs action. Barack Obama was at his best in demonstrating his own feelings, and testifying to the need for change. We'll have to see how his concern interacts with the Republican House, a number of Democrats lawmakers also part of the gun culture, ongoing emphasis on the fiscal cliff, and the certainty that other crises as yet unknown will also compete with gun control for a place on the agenda.

One can quickly drown in the debate about guns as dangers or protections against danger. The intensity of belief and the power of anecdotes overwhelms any rational capacity to argue from reliable data.

What is missing are statistics showing the incidence of life and property actually protected by privately owned guns, in comparison to the lives lost by having a gun in one's home.

There are studies, which I interpret as showing that the dangers outweigh the benefits. However, they have invited critical responses from sceptics, at least some of whom express themselves as pro-gun ideologues.

It is not difficult to identify lacunae, reservations, and other limitations in the research that shows the dangers from guns being greater than the protections. However, if 50 years as a social scientist have convinced me of anything, it is that no social research (and perhaps no research in medicine or the natural sciences) is without blemish.

What the gun advocates have not produced, as far as I can tell, is research showing a relative benefit from gun ownership on the measures of protection vs danger. Time spent on the NRA web site did not convince me that its material or its links would supply answers.

Coping via a call for action or partial treatments may be the policymaker's last line of defense in the face of a problem without a complete or quick solution. For the politician wanting to demonstrate activity, it is possible to
•Call for change in the national spirit
•Create a task force to deal with the issue, with someone prominent designated as its chair
•President Barack Obama has called for change, and has named Vice President Joe Biden to head his effort
•Among the ideas that may come from such a task force are defining national regulations under the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. The possibilities include
◦Demand significant screening of a customer before a gun may be sold
◦Require licensing of gun holders, with a national registry used to limit the number of guns and the amount of ammunition in an individual household
◦Outlaw the sale of automatic weapons capable of firing more than one shot at a time
◦Create severe penalties for gun sellers who violate the regulations
◦Offer a period of amnesty for turning in weapons that have been outlawed, to be followed by penalties for those not taking advantage of the amnesty

Insofar as the news from Washington is that the President is thinking beyond gun control to addressing mental illness and violence in popular culture, he may be casting the net so broad as to lose the chance of catching any fish.

KISS (keep it simple, stupid) is a useful guide to making policy, but may be beyond an administration that produced a 2,700 page bill meant to bring American health insurance closer to international norms.

Keeping guns out of the hands of an enthusiast who passes all the tests, but has a relative on the border of something dangerous--as in the case of Nancy Lanza--may be beyond the range of what can be implemented in a society that balances public safety with personal privacy.

Coping is far from perfect. We must remember that it involves dealing with a problem that won't go away. Chronic illness and irrevocable bad habits may condemn us sooner or later. Old age is a sure killer.

Other than moving to Canada or some other place that is relatively free of the gun culture, individual Americans have fewer ways to cope than do policymkakers concerned about the big picture. Getting a permit to live and work, and health insurance in a better country may lie beyond one's capacity. Unless regulation moves far beyond where it has been to date, staying away from guns may be impossible in a population that has already acquired almost one gun for every resident.


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 09:11 AM
December 16, 2012

How extreme is Avigdor Lieberman?

Compared to what?

The question begs an answer in light of my recent note ("He's a gangster, but he's our gangster") a couple of the responses accusing me and Israel of harboring political extremists, and the most recent tragedy in the country that is arguably several times more extreme in its culture and its leadership than anything Israeli.

No doubt that Avigdor Lieberman has an image problem with the worthies of the West. He goes beyond the politically correct assertions that the terrorism is not Islam by speaking explicitly about Arab violence, and he throws the charge of double standards in the face of officials who claim to be Israel's friends. His styles of speech and body language add to the image. Years under investigation by Israel's police and prosecutors do not help him. If there's smoke, there must be fire.

It would take more paint than at my disposal to whitewash Avigdor Lieberman. It is a legitimate question to ask how a man under investigation and not welcome in western capitals made it to the office of Foreign Minister, even while was he kept away from high profile activities. In the most important places, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Lieberman's deputy Dan Ayalon did the serious work of representation and negotiations.

The answers lie in the politics of Israel's democracy, Lieberman's standing with a million-strong ethnic group that comprises some 15 percent of the total population, and his leadership of the country's #3 political party by virtue of its seats in the Knesset, that became #2 with erosions in Kadima.

Not all politics is pretty, here or anywhere else. However, questions about Lieberman's morality in the heavy handed way he speaks, controls his party, or deals with money is, arguably, no worse than Richard Nixon's Watergate manipulations, the sexual extremism of John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, or the rise to riches of Lyndon Johnson.

Lieberman has resigned as Foreign Minister. He--and many others--are saying that the accusation which survived the disputes among state prosecutors is not likely to produce a verdict of guilty, or a guilty verdict that comes along with a designation of shame (equivalent to a felony conviction in the US) that would preclude his serving as a Minister for some years. He remains a candidate for re-election to the Knesset, which is lawful, but perhaps not overly wise for the Prime Minister's political party that now includes Lieberman's. Pressures may increase on Lieberman to resign from the list and prove even more than he has to date that he is pragmatic and plays by the informal as well as the formal rules.

My own best examples of political extremism come not from Avigdor Lieberman or anywhere else in Israel but from the United States.

Leaving aside the juicy but relatively harmless activities of Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton, a good place to start is the violence associated with George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Bush's invasion of Iraq, partly under the heading of bringing democracy to a country with a cruel but strong and stable leadership may have produced, to date, more than one million deaths. Bush's invasion of Afghanistan, escalated by Obama's surge, is minor league in comparison, due to the smaller and less complex population, and limited wealth worth fighting about. However, the aspirations announced to reform that country are extreme in their bombast and foolishness, if not in the number of deaths produced.

Obama's major claim as an extremist rests on that speech he gave in Cairo. It earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, but that burst of Scandanavian political correctness should not blunt the realities. To the extent that his call for democracy and equality in the most prominent of Muslim capitals contributed to Arab spring, Obama's deserves at least partial credit for more than 50,000 deaths. Most of those have come in Libya and Syria. The best cases, i.e., Tunisia and Egypt, have seen moderate and secular dictatorships pass into the hands of Islamic opponents of what we in the West call enlightenment, i.e., secularism, humanism, and democracy.

We have all heard that "violence is as American as apple pie." Rap Brown set himself off from the mainstream by saying "cherry pie."

The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut points once again to an extremism that stains whatever the United States has contributed to the world.

The United States is the word leader in the private possession of firearms per capita. There are almost as many guns as people. The US is not a world leader in murder. That designation goes to one or another country of the Third World, especially those of Central America and Africa. Countries there have murder rates in the range of 40 to 90 per 100,000 population. The US rate is a "modest" 4.2. However, that makes it the most violent by far of Western democracies. Israel's rate is 2.1; the figure for northern and western Europe is less than 2 murders per 100,000 population.

Traditions of the Wild West, a problematic amendment to the Constitution, and the NRA keep American politicians commiserating with the families of victims, and unable to bring the country into line with more civilized places. The Supreme Court could, theoretically, read the Second Amendment to assure the existence of the National Guard, but not private gun ownership. The chances of reform via 3/4 of state legislatures approving a new amendment are not worth discussing. Even a favorable decision by the Supreme Court would not assure subsequent cooperation from Congress in writing detailed legislation. And if all those chips fell unexpectedly into place, the task of implementing a ban against private handguns similar to those in Western Europe, and cleaning the country of almost 300 million weapons, defies imagination.

It may be convenient to accuse Avigdor Lieberman of one or another variety of extremism. To the extent that the accusation is appropriate, his "extremism" in official capacity has been associated with utterances and financial manipulations. The criminal charge that did not produce an indictment may qualify him for membership in the large group of politicians who have used questionable ways to raise campaign contributions. His colleagues may be accused of extremism by appointing a tarnished personality to the distinguished position of Foreign Minister.

Compared to the extremism of the deaths attributed to American adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan, applauding Arab spring as the onset of democracy, and the all too frequent stories of mass murder by marginal individuals using legally-obtained weapons, Lieberman's activity is a caricature of modesty.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 06:12 AM
December 14, 2012
"He's a gangster, but he's our gangster."

The Attorney General has announced a long expected decision. He will not bring charges against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the big case that has been under investigation for 3 to 16 years, depending on how one counts. That concerns financial transfers via fictitious companies located overseas formally controlled by Lieberman's daughter. However, there will be charges on counts of fraud and violation of public trust concerning Lieberman's relations with an ambassador who served in Lithuania and won appointment as Israel's ambassador to Latvia, who was then accused of passing information improperly to Lieberman. According to the indictment against Lieberman, the Foreign Minister paid off the ambassador by supporting his appointment to Latvia. For a decent account in English of prominent details, see this.

The issue is front and center in all Israel's media. Prominent politician, senior minister, and most prominent ally of the Prime Minister in the current election campaign, accused of a crime.

Is the accusation important enough to require Lieberman to resign as Foreign Minister, Member of Knesset, and candidate for re-election?

So far we've heard Lieberman's narrative of being persecuted because he is Lieberman, his account of the accusation as dealing with an incident of omission rather than commission, and minor in the extreme. He has received legal advice that it is not necessary to resign from anything.

From commentators we've heard accusations that the prosecutors were too lenient. Long ago they should have brought a case to court, despite doubts about being able to achieve a guilty verdict, and to have allowed the judges to decide the matter.

From politicians in the center and left, we have heard demands that Lieberman resign immediately, given the substantial stains on his reputation and credibility, and the damage done to Israel's reputation by having him as our Foreign Minister currently and perhaps after the election as well.

From the prosecutors, both in documents and comments to the media, we have heard that the decision not to prosecute on the major case is not a certificate of Kashrut, purity or integrity for Lieberman. The case was problematic, involving foreign governments whose personnel were lax in cooperating, and a key witness from overseas who changed her story from one that would have helped convict Lieberman to "I really don't remember all the details." The message from the prosecutors is that Lieberman is a problem for the voters, to decide if he or his party deserves support.

There are signs in the latest polls that Likud our Home is suffering. Voters have gone not to parties in the center or left as much as to a likely partner of Netanyahu on the right, i.e., Jewish Home.

Stepping back from the details, still quite fluid, Lieberman's case tells us something about Israel, and especially that slice of its population represented by the roughly one million Russian-speaking immigrants who have arrived since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The culture brought by those new Israelis includes several elements. As in all descriptions of "political culture," the effort is at least partly impressionistic, informed by surveys, writings by insiders and serious students of the population, and numerous conversations with Russian speakers from a variety of geographical and professional backgrounds who have become close friends.

It is conventional to say that Lieberman appeals to much of that population on account of the force by which he articulates opinions and reports about threats against Israel. The threats come not only from Palestinians and other Arabs, but from Western politicians beholden to the Arabs and/or do not care what happens to the Jews, as well as from intellectuals, and media personalities (some of whom are Jews and Israelis) who think along the same lines as those politicians.

Consistent with his style were condemnations he expressed this week about European governments anxious to condemn Israel for its settlements but unwilling to condemn Hamas for its violence and repeated refusal to recognize Israel's legitimate existence. Lieberman compared the Europeans with those of the 1940s who turned a cold shoulder to Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis.

One of the themes in the culture brought by immigrants from the former Soviet Union is an admiration of strong leadership. The theme goes back to the Czars and Stalin, and affected Jews in the Soviet Union even though they suffered from such leaders, and appears in the support by Russians (and Lieberman) for the current strong man, Vladimir Putin.

Another theme, somewhat in contradiction to admiration of strong leadership, but also rooted in the Soviet experience, is suspicion of government and its authorities. A number of our Russian friends began a relationship suspicious of our questions. Would we be like the neighbors they knew from their homeland who report unusual behavior to the secret police?

Lieberman benefits from both streams. He is forceful as a speaker and runs his political party singlehandedly. There is no primary open to dues-paying members. The committee that decides about the listing of candidates accepts his dictates. At the same time, he is the ultimate outsider, with enemies in the offices of the state prosecutor and harassed by western-oriented intellectuals and media personalities who are also too much inclined to an excessive accommodation with the Palestinians and other enemies of Israel.

One of my Russian speaking friends supplied the quotation that heads this note. He concedes that Lieberman goes over the lines of legality and morality in his personal and political dealings. "He's a gangster, but he's our gangster."

Intense support of the undesirable is by no means a uniquely Israeli phenomenon. I once heard a ranking member of an American administration use virtually the same phrase (in English not Hebrew) about the head of a Latin American government supported financially, militarily, and politically by the United States.

The forceful personality of an outsider persecuted by the legal and intellectual establishment worked to Lieberman's advantage as head of Israel our Home, a political party that may have attracted 80 percent of the Russian-speakers' votes, and whose electorate was perhaps 80 percent Russian-speaking.

A short while ago, however, Lieberman and Netanyahu agreed to run together under the banner of Likud our Home. Netanyahu inserted Lieberman's hand-picked candidates into the list decided by a primary election open to Likud dues paying members. Likudniks charged that Lieberman got the better deal in the arrangement, and that Bibi caved in to Avigdor.

There is another change in the air. The mass migration from the former Soviet Union came mostly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The migrants have aged, and many are no longer with us. Their children and grandchildren have gone to school, the IDF and universities in Israel. For many, their Hebrew is better than their Russian. They are more Israeli than Russian.

Are the tensions between Israeli and Russian cultures already showing up in the first polls showing a decline in overall support for Likud our Home the day after the Attorney General's announcement of a indictment? Will there be a serious further erosion in the support of Likud our Home that might not have happened--or been as great--if Lieberman was running as the head of Israel our Home? Will there be pressure from Netanyahu, or those close to him, for Lieberman to do what is appropriate for the co-head of the leading party before that party loses the momentum that had seemed destined to keep it as the party that would form the next government?

Whatever happens might also reflect developments 200 meters to the east of these fingers and elsewhere in the West Bank. Palestinian youths continue to throw stones and fire bombs, there has been one death and numerous injuries from what may be the increasing severity of responses from the police and IDF. Israelis are pondering the onset of intifada #3. If escalations of violence and counter-violence continue, they may overcome the noise against Lieberman and aid Likud our Home as well as other parties to the right of center.

Sabbath Eve and Sabbath itself are not usually occasions for great drama and decisions in this Jewish country. Next week will be interesting, and might be exciting.

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 03:48 AM
December 10, 2012
It's simpler than it looks

Choosing among 34 political parties is much simpler than it may first appear. The first step is deciding who you are, and what is important to you. The second step is to avoid wasting time thinking about 20 or so parties beyond the edge of reality.

It is easiest for the ultra-Orthodox. For many--perhaps the vast majority of them--they follow their rabbi's instructions. And their rabbis follow the rabbis at the head of their cluster, congregation, or movement in ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

The rest of us are likely to begin with feelings about the most important issues. The prominent alternatives are:
•Security, i.e., what to do about Palestinians and other Arabs?
•What to do about settlements? For many, this is a subset of security. A tough line on the Palestinians comes along with a willingness to expand settlements. A feeling that Israel should be more accommodating with respect to Palestinians comes along with the attitude that settlement is a national disaster, or time bomb ticking toward explosion
•Social issues, i.e., who should get what share of the economic pie?

What to do about the Haredim, i.e., the ultra-Orthodox, whose males claim to spend their lives assuring the Almighty's concern for Israel by studying sacred texts, avoid work, taxes, and military service, but do make lots of boys who will grow up like their fathers, and vote for political parties that demand special deals for them on housing, mortgages, taxes, water bills and who knows what else?.

All of the above pertains to the 80 percent of Israelis who think of themselves as Jews, with or without the Rabbinate's certificate of authenticity.

Personal and family traditions are also important. Not all Israelis think like professors.

Arabs as a group are more tradition-bound and followers of family leaders than Jews, although some of them are professors, or think like professors and decide what is best for them. Somewhere off in a corner of this campaign are Jewish Knesset members who want to ban individual Arab candidates or Arab parties on account of their helping Israel's enemies. Arabs are threatening a general boycott of the election--and even worse behavior--if those efforts succeed.

I'm attaching a voters guide that has been circulating on the Internet.

Parties emphasizing Israel's concerns for security with support for settlement are best positioned to come out of the election with the largest number of votes and become creators of the next government coalition. Likud our Home and Jewish Home are polling close to or a bit more than 50 Knesset seats together. That means they will have to coalesce with other parties, but Likud will be given the President's nod to go ahead and negotiate.

Word is that Sara Netanyahu does not like the leader of Jewish Home. That can complicate everything.

Currently, however, both Likud our Home and Jewish Home are celebrating the latest demonstration of Arab mobs cheering extremist politicians. Khaled Marshaal, one of the figures claiming leadership of Hamas, recently made an intemperate speech before thousands in Gaza in which he praised comrades and martyrs for their victory in last month's confrontation, and promised more actions that would eventually provide them with all of Palestine from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.

The security-oriented and settlement-friendly parties are also celebrating the impotence of the parties advocating a mixture of accommodation with Palestinians and social justice among Israelis. The most extreme of those parties (Meretz) shows little movement beyond the three seats currently held, and leaders of the the more prominent cluster of Labor, Lapid, and Livni are letting ego overcome the advantages of partnership.

Overall, the security-settlement vs accommodation-social justice competition looks something like 50 against 35, depending on the poll.

If the past will guide the near future--and it usually does--the security-settlement cluster is most likely to coalesce with the ultra-Orthodox parties, whose recent poll results of 15-17 will bring the security-settlement cluster over the line to a Knesset majority.

Those hoping for some movement on social justice, or limiting the parasitic behavior of the ultra-Orthodox see another alternative. However, the recent behavior of Labor-Lapid-Livni makes one wonder if Labor and Lapid can turn their polls totalling about 25 into something the security-settlement leaders will buy. Livni is not a good bet for those seeking flexibility of her basic principles, whatever they are.

Earlier this week the government (i.e., Benyamin Netanyahu) signaled the likely future by a back door maneuver that will extend the Haredim's exemption from military service. This has spurred some action from Lapid and Labor toward the Supreme Court and street demonstrations that may keep anti-Haredism in the headlines and influence some voters. Most likely, however, is a reinforcement of existing tendencies, or some shifting among Lapid-Labor-Livni, rather than any grand movement from elsewhere to one of those parties.

On the fringes is a new party led by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who split from SHAS and is offering a list that is partly secular and in favor of pressing more Haredim into the IDF, national service, and work. One of the wet dreams keeping Israelis awake sees that party attracting protest voters, and winning enough seats to become an element in coalition arithmetic.

Against this is the chronic impermanence of new parties, and the major players' reluctance to offend ultra-Orthodox parties that are in politics for the long haul.

Life in other western democracies may be less threatening or less exciting, depending on what affects one's inner balance. Americans may think that their politics are simpler, but that is only true if they avoid voting for their state's treasurer and superintendent of schools, referendum questions great or insignificant, their county's sheriff and the council that makes decisions about sewage and water, the local school board, and a slew of judges ranging from those who will decide about the state constitution to those who punish neighbors for not cutting their lawn or shoveling the snow.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 02:05 AM
December 08, 2012
Politics and political theater

Politics is serious business. It is how societies move from disputes about issues large and small to the selection of their leaders, choices between public policy alternatives, and the actual implementation of what government does.

Politics is also theater. It provides the platforms for the best and most bizarre actors of a country or locality. It is common to acknowledge that politicians lie, exaggerate their promises to the voters before an election and to one another in the forums where they define what government will do. Ambiguity and misleading are part of the profession. That's how they attract as wide a possible cluster of supporters from different wings of the community.

Israel's national election, pointed toward voting on January 22nd, is providing its usual opportunity to see the country's prominent players at their political best and worst, and showing some of the oddities reflecting irrepressible individualism, narcissism, or genuine hopes of lesser-known individuals to reach the top and shape the future.

A week ago some 42 groupings were calling themselves political parties. Now we have passed the deadline for registering parties and their lists of candidates for the Knesset. There are 34 of them.

None of the major parties are exactly like they were in the outgoing Knesset.

The largest party (Kadima) may disappear entirely, due to indecision and infighting at its top, and then its gradual abandonment for other opportunities by middle and lower ranking MKs. The former leader of Kadima, Tsipi Livni, has created The Movement led by Tsipi Livni, and has provided what a critic terms a refugee camp for politicians unhappy with Kadima or the Labor Party. Recent polls indicate that The Movement led by Tsipi Livni will get 9-11 seats in the 120 seat Knesset.

Labor--once Israel's dominant party and having its ups and downs since Menachem Begin brought Likud to the government in the election of 1977--has had more downs and ups since the 2009 election. It went from 13 to 8 seats with the mid-term split off of Ehud Barak and his new Independence Party.

Independence has gone belly up with Barak's announcement of his retirement from politics (without forswearing another term as Defense Minister if called to that by Benyamin Netanyahu), and is not fielding candidates in the present campaign.

Labor is looking better. Polls show it getting 16-22 seats. Its most recent loss (or gain depending on perspective) was the 11th hour defection of Amir Peretz to The Movement led by Tsipi Livni. He may be taking his voting pull equivalent to 2-4 seats with him. Or he may not be worthy anything, or even be a liability insofar as Livni is sharing in the widespread condemnation of Peretz for being an opportunist, led by personal pique to shed an affiliation with a political party whose principles he had recently swore to uphold and advance..

Yair Lapid is still in the race, but his avowedly centrist party with a left-leaning social policy agenda, There is a Future, has not done well in competing with the equally avowedly centrist parties with left-leaning social policy agendas (Labor and The Movement). Polls are showing Lapid's party winning 5 or fewer seats.

Once the campaign had already begun, Benyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman declared that their two parties would campaign together with a joint list called Likud our Home. Polls are putting it somewhere in the mid- to upper 30s of MKs in the next Knesset. It is likely to be the largest party, and--especially given the rivalries among parties claiming to be centrist and leaning left on social issues--the best positioned to form a governing coalition with other right of center parties, or maybe with Labor and/or There is a Future. Tsipi Livni is sticking to similar principles she followed while crippling Kadima, and is unlikely to join a Likud-led government.

Netanyahu's most likely partners will be those he has worked with in the most recent and earlier Knessets. They include the Orthodox and settler party Jewish Home (formerly the National Religious Party), which has been through one of its periodic generational upheavals. A younger leadership increasing its likely poll from 3 to 11 or more seats.

The two established ultra-Orthodox parties are likely to return to the Knesset and partner with Netanyhu, but may not match their previous success.

The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party (once Agudat Israel now Torah Judaism) is suffering from a tiff between two 90+ year old rabbis competing over the succession after the recent death of the party's previous 90+ year old spiritual leader. The supporters of one competing rabbi have actually split from Torah Judaism and registered a new party they call Eternity (נצח) . In the nature of shrill and sometimes violent nastiness between the congregations of different rabbis (i.e., non-fatal beatings, stone throwing and curses having a doctrinal flavor) but eventual reconciliation, this split may resolve itself prior to the election. We can expect the vast majority of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox to follow their rabbis and vote the party line. If the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox hold together, they may get the same 5 seats in the next Knesset as in the outgoing Knesset.

The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS may also be in trouble, despite the re-entry of a former popular figure from a political time out in prison. One of SHAS's MKs has split with its leadership and created his own party whose name (עם שלם) may be translated as Complete Nation or Fulfilled People. He is running against several conventional themes of the ultra-Orthodox. The ranking members of his list include women and leaders of the movement to demand the service of ultra-Orthodox young men in the IDF. SHAS has 11 seats in the outgoing Knesset. Various polls show the new party not making it over the minimum required for entry to the Knesset, or getting as many as 4 seats.

There are no prominent changes apparent in the three largely Arab or Arab-Jewish parties that chronically oppose all governments, with a total 11 seats in the outgoing Knesset. Also no change apparent in the most left-wing of the largely Jewish parties, Meretz, polling close to its present 3 seats. The far right wing Jewish party has re-juggled itself from what had been National Unity, now with the designation Power to Israel, and with candidates even closer to the ideas of Rabbi Meir Kahane. It seems likely to return to the Knesset with at least the 2 seats held in its previous formulation.

Even greater oddities and theatrics appear in the 20 parties not so far mentioned, none of which are expected to enter the Knesset. The best current rendition that I have found of their leading personalities and programs appears here. (Readers whose Hebrew is not up to snuff can try the translators of Google or Bing).

The list includes three perennials.
•Pensioners, which actually entered the Knesset in the election of 2006 when it became a last-minute darling of Israelis looking for a protest option. It enrolled 7 MKs, but suffered from the criminal charges eventually brought against some of its unknown and inexperienced MKs, including one case of sexual harassment brought by an elderly lady against an elderly gentleman, both members of the Pensioners' delegation.
•Green Leaf, trying once again on the theme of legalizing marijuana.
•Greens, emphasizing the environment.

Four parties are emphasizing a theme of social justice, without so far clarifying how they differ from one another or from the more established parties also claiming to advance social justice.

Life with Honor

New Land

Social Justice

Power to Influence

One additional party promoting social justice (One Future) makes a pointed reference to its concern for Israel's Ethiopian immigrants. It is likely to compete for some of the same votes as a party more explicitly concerned with Ethiopian-Israelis (We are Brothers).

Yet another party emphasizing its concern with humanitarian values (Light) makes a point of advocating a separation of religion from the state.

A party with the name We are All Comrades claims the leadership of the charismatic ultra-Orthodox movement identified with Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. It is hoping to cash in with the votes of the thousands who fly on key dates in their calendar to Uman in the Ukraine to visit the rabbi's grave. Its platform promises to bring peace among all citizens of Israel according to the ways of Israel's grandfathers.

Also on the religious fringe, with a similar platform but without the advantage of a symbol quite as powerful as Rabbi Nachman, is Fathers' Tradition.

Getting the most media attention is a party calling itself Pirates. Its leadership appeared before the Elections Committee dressed in pirate customs, but the Supreme Court Justice sitting as the chairman of the Committee ordered them to defrock before presenting their documents. The Pirates' program includes what its leaders describe as a radical conception of individual freedom, turning the country's politics and economics upside down, promoting transparency, freedom of information, change in the ownership of information, and rights of privacy. Given Israelis' penchant for the free downloading of copyrighted music, films and books from the Internet (i.e., pirating), it is possible to see an endorsement of this practice between the lines of the party's program.

Two parties describing themselves as Arab or Arab and Jewish (Arab-Jewish Workers' Party with an Arab woman at its head), and Hope for Change.

A party calling itself Israelis wants to change the structure and procedures of Israeli government. The Economic Party would reform the economy to give greater opportunities to enterprises located outside of Israel.

Israeli parties invest heavily in their ads and jingles. They are worth the time of political mavens who can understand the Hebrew, and should be available in a month or so on the web sites of Israel's radio and television stations.

This report of 34 parties in the campaign, with 10-12 likely to reach the Knesset, will bring forth complaints that the numbers explain Israel's inability to govern itself well.

The reality is that they reflect the social mosiac of Israel, along with the principle of proportional representation put in place even before the state was created. Numerous parties are key elements in the checks and balances that help keep the country sane. They accomplish what factional and personal competition do in other countries. Americans claim to have two parties, but actually they have many more given the weakness of party discipline and the prominence of individual players with their own agendas who rise to positions of committee chairs in Congress. Democracy is not supposed to produce quick and efficient decisions, but negotiations between the holders of different perspectives. Those unconvinced should look again at the Federalist Papers. Autocracy's greater efficiency comes from its lesser responsiveness.

No doubt that Israel suffers from a surplus of serious problems. One cannot know for sure, but its ability to cope with the insoluble might be lessened by a simpler way of choosing a smaller number of leaders who could decide on war, peace, religion, and other issues without the wide consultations required by multi-party government.


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 09:23 PM
December 06, 2012
Pushy Jews and other issues

Should Israelis worry about a lack of public support?

For some time now we have not been popular with the crowds of Western Europe. Overall sentiment in the United States remains favorable, but not in the liberal wing of the Democratic party.

Thomas Friedman writes about the contrast between Israeli support for right of center parties and a growing isolation that comes from a failure to deal effectively with the issue of Palestine. As usual, he gets some of the story right, but is led by his ideology into a blind corner. More on Friedman below.

There are several explanations for the souring of sentiment toward Israel. There is no metric to rank or weigh each of the possibilities, but they all make a contribution.
•Concern for the underdog. No doubt this now benefits the Palestinians, years after the same sentiment helped the Israelis. The tipping point was 1967, when the image of occupation began to take over from the image of Holocaust survivors.
•The weight of Muslim countries in the international economy and international politics. Spell this as oil and gas, along with one billion Muslims, and their governments' votes in international forums.
•Israeli arrogance. The image of the underdog and the weight of all those Muslims and energy may be the major elements putting Israel in an unpleasant corner. Israeli arrogance, currently typified by the style of Prime Minister Netanyahu, may add no more than an element to the animosity, but it is an element that figures in media portrayals, public opinion, and the attitudes of Western leaders who have to deal with Israelis.

Israeli arrogance deserves extensive and careful comment. What comes next may upset some of you, insofar as it comes close to the problematic borders between accusing some of our adversaries of anti-Semitism, while admitting that Jews' behavior is one of the factors that sustains anti-Semitism.

Henry Kissinger represented the tensions about these issues as well as anyone. His own writings and the mass of writing about him reveal his discomfort in being a Jew, a leading representative of the United States, an emigre from Nazi Germany, and having to deal with the pushy Jews at the head of the Israeli government. The discomfort reached its peak during the Yom Kippur War when Israelis wanted more support and accused him of using his leverage to pressure them into concessions that were not in their interest. The issue of his Jewishness was always relevant to Israelis, as well as the Arabs, Russians, and Americans with whom he worked.

Jewish pushiness has a history of about 3,000 years. Its first sign may have been self-designation as God's Chosen People and all that went with it, including a Promised Land. The source of pushiness may have been Jewish weakness. Surrounded by larger and more powerful people who could be vicious, moving in time from the Egyptians to Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and on to various European Christians or Muslims of the Middle East, depending on which Jews and where they lived.

The Jews of North America have enjoyed three or more generations of security to wash out inbred Jewish concerns about the goyim. Also at work are the norms learned in multi-cultural societies where it is neither wise nor polite to emphasize ethnicity or religion. Alas, the Jews of Europe have had less time to have their sensitivities washed out of them. And we needn't remind ourselves why there are now so few Jews remaining in Europe to have learned those lessons.

The vast majority of Israeli Jews came from places where the Jews were not secure, and had never learned the etiquette of multi-culturalism. They have remained threatened unto the present generation, with the difference being that they have also become threatening. Palestinians feel themselves insecure alongside Israeli Jews just as Israeli Jews feel themselves insecure alongside Palestinians and just about everyone else.

It helps to understand Bibi's pushiness in this context. Whether he is repeating himself about Iran, the rockets from Gaza, or the stubbornness of West Bank Palestinians, he is expressing the traditional posture of Jews under pressure. What is curious is the confluence of these traits with his American education and language. His English resembles that of American Jews even while he embarrasses American Jews who wish he would tone down the rhetoric.

One doesn't know how Bibi really feels. He is a skilled politician, who may have crafted his image and messages in keeping with what it takes to be on top of the Israeli electorate.

If Bibi is the archetype of the pushy Israeli Jew, Thomas Friedman is the archetype of the assimilated American Jewish publicist, writing for a newspaper owned, managed, and read by assimilated American Jews. The theme that Friedman returns to time and again is urging, wishing, and demanding Israelis to be more forthcoming in order to make the embarrassing problem of the Palestinians go away.

The Palestinians, for their part, are acting rationally. Their various factions and 60 years of emphasizing their view of injustice preclude an agreement with Israel. It is easiest to continue with the theme of refugees' misery, Israel's occupation, the land grab by expanding settlements, all in the context where the the image of exploited underdogs plays well in the affluent West.

The wet dream of the Palestinians if that someone else solves their problem. Perhaps the UN, EU, and US will impose a solution on Israel that is favorable to them.

They have many--perhaps most--people of Western Europe on their side, and an increasing incidence of Americans to the left of center. The image of occupation, especially one expanding with increased settlement activity, is more salient to the media and the crowds than details of how Israelis have tried--time and again--to offer a decent accommodation. Palestinian leaders said no to Ehud Barak in 2000, responded with violence to Ariel Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and again said no to Ehud Olmert in 2007.

Still with Israel are the governments of Western Europe and the United States. They may bow to the crowds with an occasional censure of Israel, but have not shown an inclination to add meaningful sanctions. Government elites are aware of Palestinian stubbornness and violence, and recognize problems in Syria, Libya, Iran and maybe Egypt and Turkey that dwarf those coming to them from Israel.

The current source of greatest friction is E 1. It is in the headlines due to the Palestinian maneuver in the United Nations, helped along by an upcoming Israeli election. Friedman himself notes that Palestinian stubbornness has pushed the Israeli electorate to the right. Bibi's party is ahead in the polls, but there is no sure thing in a feisty democracy. So announcing further planning for E 1 is an obvious gambit.

Is it a serious move, portending imminent construction?

It may be nothing more than the goat in the tent.

For those unfamiliar with Jewish folklore, the goat is an unpleasant issue introduced as a bargaining point, meant to be withdrawn eventually. It's purpose is to make one's adversary accept something that is less objectionable, but which might not have been acceptable without the goat.

Remember those housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, whose approval by planning authorities some idiot midway in the Israeli pecking order announced just as Vice President Biden was visiting the country?

They were delayed as a result of condemnation from outside, and are here again as part of the 3,000 said to be moving forward in response to the UN decision. If E 1 is the goat, then Ramat Shlomo and some other places--less objectionable than E1-- can get their allocation of new housing.

The same speculation may lead Israel to go forward with E 1 sometime in the future. There will be another crisis, and an even more objectionable goat may be let into the tent in order to facilitate construction in E 1.

There are no certainties here, but a lot of possibilities.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 04:03 AM
December 03, 2012
What we are hearing

Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks is a classic story of a family that opens with a great celebration of wealth and success and proceeds to its downfall.

From what we are hearing from reliable sources, that is the model likely to develop after Mahmoud Abbas' celebrations for achieving Palestinian statehood from the UN General Assembly.

Don't ask for documentation for what follows. The details come in part from people who talk to people close to the action. The overall picture makes sense, but some of it is fuzzy, and it may not develop as will be laid out below.

The image portrayed is of a regime--Abbas' Fatah Party government in the West Bank--propped up financially by the US, European governments and Israel--that has exhausted the tolerance of its backers, cannot pay salaries, hasn't had an election for leadership since Abbas' term expired four years ago, and is behind in the polls--by some reports 70-30 to Hamas.

Israel is responding to Abbas' pursuit of UN recognition by deducting the Palestinians' electric bill and other obligations from the taxes collected from imports for Palestine coming through Israeli ports. Employees of the Palestine Authority won't be getting full paychecks, or maybe no paychecks.

The great hope of the West--a Palestinian leadership that swears by peaceful means rather than violence--continues to find reasons for not moving toward negotiations. Yet it is to push toward negotiations that has been the justification for the US and European governments to provide Abbas et al with financial support. Muslim governments have promised money, but have stopped delivering. They see Hamas as the wave of the future, and are sending money to Gaza.

Arab Spring may have come from Barack Obama's Cairo speech. He and his supporters still say that it is the onset of democracy. If democracy is in the future, however, the near term has been victories for Islamic parties in Tunis, Egypt, and expected to come from the bloody chaos of Syria. Rich Muslims can read the cards as well as anyone. Those among them concerned with religious extremism are following the established practice of contributing to the least undesirable, and hoping for the best. At the least, their money may provide them with protection from the rising tide.

The West Bank has a corrupt leadership that uses power to enrichen itself and family members. Authorities do not press for tax payments. They have learned to rely totally on outside support, but if that ends history will go forward without them.

Hamas has acquired a reputation for collecting taxes, improving welfare and education. Albeit the welfare programs are meant to buy support and the education provided is religious and extremist. However, it is not all that different from education in the West Bank whose textbooks glorify a Palestinian narrative with maps of the region that omit Israel.

What does this mean for Israel?

Western minders might want Israel to soften its demands, sweeten by a great deal the offers made to Palestinians in 2000 and 2007, hope that Abbas accepts them and that outsiders continue to bankroll a regime that does not support itself despite tangible signs of private investments and improved living standards.

Would this be better for Israel than the spread of Hamas to the leadership of all Palestine?

How much would Israel have to sacrifice for the sake of Abbas and his successors in Fatah, which by the most generous interpretation are about as humane, democratic, and responsive as the government of Hosni Mubarak?

Stop settlement expansion where it is, and turn over to Palestine some acreage equivalent to the size of the large settlement blocs?


Accept the idea of Palestinian control of the Jordan Valley and enough of Jerusalem to call it their capital?

Not something to be conceded in the early stages of negotiations, and perhaps not at all if Likud remains in control and takes seriously the slogan of a united Jerusalem under Israeli control.

Accept Palestinian "refugees" and their descendants moving back to Israel?

This may be a deal breaker. Abbas says that he does not want to return to Safed, but lots of Palestinians continue to demand residence where they or their grandparents lived.

Withdraw some 50,000 or more Jewish settlers beyond the security barrier?

Not likely in the wake of what followed the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza.

Decide that Islamication is the inevitable wave, and accept Hamas' spread to the West Bank on the assumption that it will behave itself under a balance of threat?

The cease fire in Gaza is not yet a month into its trial period. Too early to declare it a reliable model for all of Palestine.

Will Israel's election return to power a more centrist-leftist coalition more capable than the incumbants of reaching agreement with Abbas and/or living at peace with a Palestine governed by Hamas?

So far the polls are showing that Israel's next government will resemble its present government. The competing parties of Labor, Lapid, and Livni have recruited some attractive people to their lists of candidates, but rivalry remains the theme among their leaders. A day after Labor's primary there was a nasty confrontation between leaders of two factions within the party over basic issues of strategy and policy direction. Those optimistic of a centrist-leftist coalition must also include the Arab parties in their grouping, and that is on the border--or beyond the border--of realism. The prospect requires a shift in the self-conception of Arab party leaders. And even the prospect might move Jewish voters further to the right.


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 12:41 AM
December 02, 2012
Symbolic blusters or the onset of confrontation?

Scarcely a day after the UN General Assembly voted to name Palestine a state, and Israeli officials said they would not mete out a punishment for their neighbor's chutzpah, the punishment came.

The government approved construction of 3,000 housing units in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and made reference to an especially sensitive area called E1, between East Jerusalem and the desert city of Maale Adumim. Maale Adumim is Israel's largest "settlement" with close to 40,000 residents.

E1 has been mentioned several times as a place of obvious settlement, to link Maale Adumim more firmly to Israel, but has always brought forth the loudest squawks from the United States and our other minders. The claim is that settlement in E1, along with Maale Adumim, would impose a imposing divide between the major towns of the northern and southern West Bank. No longer would it be easy for Palestinians to create links between Ramallah, Nablus and other towns in the north to Bethlehem, Hebron and other places in the south.

The squawks were not long in coming, but it is hard to tell how serious they are this time. With the United States miffed at Palestinians for going ahead with the UN bid, the comment from the US National Security Council was a modest, "We reiterate our longstanding opposition to settlements . . . ."

The State Department was even more modest.

"In the context of the move in New York. . . you had a risk of action causing reaction. So you know, in the context of this, we're going to be evenhanded in saying we don't want to see provocative action. Instead, we want to see the parties focused on coming back to the table without preconditions."

Only a couple of days from Palestine's UN victory and a day from Israel's initial retaliation, it remains possible that there is nothing more than bluster in both moves. If Palestine has a state, it is without borders, recognition from the two countries most important (Israel and the US), and any capacity to acquire significant arms or any other imports--including food, fuel, and electricity--without Israel's cooperation.

Israel's "retaliation" remains only on paper. What was done involves government approval of a planning process, which is likely to take months to complete even if it goes forward with all the vigor possible. It will be even longer before the rumble of bulldozers and other construction activity. One can expect that the units designated for neighborhoods of East Jerusalem are most likely to go ahead. Building in its capital represents policy of high importance for Israeli Jews of virtually all political parties. Such construction has been postponed only under the most intense of international pressure which does not seem to be in the cards at this point.

The symbolism of Israel's decision is in the number 3,000. However, the majority of those units are meant for neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the major settlement blocs of Maale Adumim and Ariel, and areas of the West Bank on Israel's side of the security barrier.

E1 is another story. We may not see any signs of construction there unless the Palestinians move beyond the symbolism of UN granted statehood.

Most concerning to Israel is the prospect of Palestinians trying their hand as a state enabled to bring cases in international courts. If Mahmoud Abbas takes seriously the expressions he included in his UN speech and formally accuses ranking Israelis of war crimes and ethnic cleansing, those Israelis would have to watch out where they travel out of concern for being picked up on international warrants. Israeli diplomats will be working to assure military and political officials' immunity from such actions, but the very threat may cause the bulldozers to prepare the ground for construction in E1.

That, in turn, may feed into an escalation that produces actual indictments in international courts, counter-suits by Israel against Palestinians in the same courts, intifada #3, and whatever comes in their wake.

We can expect hyperbolic threats from both Palestinians and Israelis. Already one well placed Likudnik, Tzachi Hanegbi, has talked about retaliating for the UN action with thousands more apartments in the West Bank. Individual Palestinians express their certainty about using international courts against Israel. The remains of Yassir Arafat have gone to France to be tested for poisoning. Palestinians are sure he was killed, that Israel did it, and that an international court will decide against those guilty.

Even if Israel does build in E1, it needn't curtail the prospects of a Palestinian state. Details of terrain and existing construction complicate any simple assertions of what is desirable or possible.

The Palestinians could build a road from Ramallah to Beitlehem that would avoid actual construction and tunnel under parts of an Israeli settlement. It would be on the model of Israel's road that twists and turns, and employs tunnels to avoid Palestinian settlements on the route from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion.

Arab construction is already encroaching on the roads from Jerusalem to Maale Adumim, leading Israelis to promote construction to safeguard Maale Adumim's connection with Israel

There remains the knotty question as to how important are the settlements generally as frustrations for the peace process. Palestinian leaders rejected offers to set the boundaries of a Palestinian state, and presumably put an end to settlement activity within those boundaries under Prime Minister Barak in 2000 and again under Prime Minister Olmert in 2007. Disputes within the Fatah leadership and sharper disputes between Fatah, Hamas, and factions even more extreme lead many Israelis to distrust Palestinians' claims of seeking a peace agreement that is final and binding.

Israeli optimists--including politicians to the left of the present government--are saying that the Palestine's recognition by the UN provides an opportunity to agree on one or another set of details that have been circulating at least since the Oslo Accords of 1993. Israelis who see an opportunity for accommodation urge the start of negotiations with both sides ratcheting down their preconditions. Opponents of settlement see their expansions as ultimately threatening Israel by adding to Muslim animosity, and limiting the support possible from Western governments.

Other Israelis say that the Palestinians' pursuit of statehood via the UN rather than via negotiations with Israel proves that Oslo is dead. Those who distrust Palestinians and bristle at the support given them by a large majority of the world's countries urge an escalated land-grab throughout the West Bank. The preoccupation of Syria, Egypt, and other Arab countries with their domestic problems may provide a window of opportunity.

Western governments, including that of Barack Obama, may have tired of providing anything more than lip service to Palestine.

Israel's impending election, the tilt to the left in Labor Party's primary, two new centrists parties nipping at the moderate wing of Likud, and competition from the right in the shape of the resurgent settler-religious party Jewish Home may be involved in those 3,000 new housing units.

So far Israel's action is modest, not comparable to the Begin government's attack on Iraq's nuclear facilities three weeks in advance of the 1981 election. Israelis are still arguing if that attack, or its timing, was politically motivated.

Need we say the name of Iran? A confrontation there, with or without the United States and others, may dwarf the issue of E 1 or any other other settlement activity.

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