February 26, 2013
Forked tongues

In the westerns that I saw as a kid, at a cost of $0.25 on Saturday afternoons, the meaning of "speaking with forked tongues" was clear. White man lied to the Indian.

The Hebrew equivalent is כפל לשון (keffel lashon), double tongue.

The Palestinian leadership is speaking in כפל לשון. They are inciting their people to demonstrate/riot, and claiming that it is not they who are arousing the population.

According to Mahmoud Abbas, it is Israel that wants chaos in the West. Bank, and the Palestinians will not allow it.

The Palestinian physician who attended the autopsy of the prisoner who died suddenly announced that he had been tortured to death, even though a formal report is still waiting laboratory tests. Mahmoud Abbas, in his message of sympathy to the family, said that the prisoner died from abuse and a lack of appropriate medical attention.

It is not the Palestinian leadership who is promoting demonstrations, according to what we hear from Ramallah, but the population's frustration at continued Israeli occupation, a lack of Israeli responses to Palestinian needs, and the failure to improve the lot of security prisoners and to release them wholesale.

Such claims come along with denials that the demonstrations have anything to do with Barack Obama's visit to the region.

One of the Fatah factions seeking the freedom of Palestine from Gaza joined the party by sending a missile toward Ashkelon. It was the first to reach Israel since the dust up of November. It damaged a roadway and brought a warning of retaliation from no less than Israel's Peace Advocate in Chief, President Shimon Peres.

Israel is not innocent of כפל לשון. Tsipi Livni has joined Benyamin Netanyahu's new government, she with a certainty that she can produce a breakthrough with the Palestinians, and he with an insistence that negotiations cannot succeed without the Palestinians agreeing to things that they have already rejected.

With reference to what is happening just to the northeast of here, US Secretary of State John Kerry has said, "We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it's coming."

The Syrian rebels should take account of what John Foster Dulles said at his confirmation hearings about the "liberation of captive peoples" living under communist rule, and what the US actually did when the Soviet tanks entered Budapest.

כפל לשון is the language of politics.

A lot has been written about dissimulation in politics. That's a polite word for כפל לשון. Individuals who aspire to lead nations, political parties, or even smaller entities have to win support from contentious constituencies.

Palestinians may be an extreme example, with religious and nationalist fanatics, some of them willing to commit suicide for their cause, alongside those who aspire to live in peace and with as much prosperity as they can attain, and are willing to do so alongside Israel.

Israeli politicians contend with a smaller proportion of fanatics inclined to violence. Suicide for the sake of Israel is not part of the vocabulary. Yet there is a wide range of views nationally and within the larger parties about what is appropriate in regard to Palestine, as well as disagreements about domestic economic and social issues.

Americans are familiar with their own conflicts, some of which derive from responsibilities acquired since World War II for extensive international involvement, along with no end of disputes about domestic matters that bubble up to frequent crises involving White House and Congress.

All should act at their peril on the basis of what is said.

Those who wish to interpret proclamations like those now heard from Palestinians that fan protest and claim to be not fanning protest should take account of a population that has shown itself to be inclined to mass excitement and violence.

Actions are more important than words, but should also be viewed with care. Are the latest actions the most reliable? What if they run counter to what has been done over the long haul?

Israelis and Palestinians each have reasons to distrust the other. Moreover, both should view with suspicion all outsiders who offer help. A great deal of the money promised to Palestine from Muslim governments has not come. For those believing American pledges that Iran will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, it is time to pass the salt.

Currently the assessment of Palestinian unrest is that it is moderate and manageable. Israeli commentators tend to agree that it is the product of incitement, that various sectors in the Palestinian community are more or less prominent in the incitement, and that some are trying to manage a delicate balance between demonstrating Palestinian needs prior to Obama's visit, but keeping a lid on violence so as not to discourage the American President from helping Palestine.

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have reason to expect the other to act differently than its established pattern in any negotiations, assuming they can get over the hurdles on the way to them.

There are no changes in the air I am breathing, which is often tainted by a burning tire across the valley.

If the intention of those burning the tires is to threaten Israelis with air pollution, they should have learned that God is on our side. The wind is almost always from the west, so it is Palestinians who get the stink and sore eyes. Israelis see the ugliness of thick black smoke rising from one of the nearby Palestinian neighborhoods, and drifting over other Palestinian neighborhoods.

The bottom line is that we are stuck with one another, reinforced by distrust anchored in the comments from this morning and several decades of action. Palestinians may hope for salvation from the UN, the European Community, the White House, or Human Rights Watch. However, all the good words from those sources harm Palestine, by encouraging the Palestinians that they do not have to make any concessions for the sake of peace, or begin convincing the people that they will not get all that has been promised over the course of 60 years.

Israelis should not expect salvation from any source. We should continue to cope, currently with a perception that Arab chaos (including that among the Palestinians) is on our side, along with European and American preoccupations with their own economic and political issues.

We can't solve this. There is no sign that Palestinians are willing to accept decent offers Israelis are willing to make. Our own politics and morality, and our dependence on European and American good will keep us from acting so firmly against the Palestinians that the vast majority of them will leave the West Bank, Gaza, or areas within Israel.

We can expect Obama to come, unless there is a significant escalation in Palestinian violence, but maybe without an Israeli government in place.

No doubt he will speak well. There isn't much by way of tangible expectations.

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

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

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 10:31 PM
February 24, 2013
Palestinians and Haredim

Palestinian unrest is competing with domestic unrest about the Haredim as the principal items in Israel's media.

Has the third intifada already started? Is it only a matter of time?

It appears that the Palestinian leadership on the West Bank has no desire for a full blown rebellion. They know what happened to Gaza, even though they join with Gazan in declaring victory. However, the same leadership glories in popular demonstrations against "Israeli occupation," and they may not be able to control the spill over from middle-level protests to the kind of violence that will make the IDF even more violent in return.

The infrastructure for trouble has been around since the 1920s, with additions traced to 1948, 1967, and the most recent victory in the United Nations General Assembly. It components include
Islam, which comes along with the notion that the Middle East should be ruled by Muslims
A surplus of unemployed, or underemployed young men
Six decades of a leadership promising that "refugees" and their descendants will eventually return to homes that no longer exist, whose return would require the moving aside of several million Jews defended by an army and other security forces that far outweighs anything the Palestinians can do
A current uptick associated with the UNGA's upgrading of Palestine to partial recognition as a state, further spurred by a leadership wanting to make a point when Barack Obama visits next month, spurred even higher by support for security prisoners on a prolonged hunger strike, topped off by the recent death of another Palestinian in an Israeli jail
Along with the persistent demand to end Israeli occupation, demonstrators are now demanding the freedom of Palestinians in Israeli security prisons.

Many of those are serving multiple life sentences for multiple murders.

So far the IDF and Border Police have been able to contain things with their skills and tools of crowd control. Current pictures on TV and Five Broken Cameras show young men in Israeli uniforms shooting gas grenades, stun grenades (loud noise, no shrapnel), and rubber bullets, along with trucks armed with water cannons dealing with crowds that throw stones and an occasional homemade fire bomb, but retreat in the face of the Israelis. Some individuals respond badly to the gas, and occasionally a rubber bullet does serious damage or even kills. Thrown stones injure Israelis, some seriously. Media personnel suffer from the missiles of one side or the other, depending on where they are recording the action. For the most part, the scenes on both sides have remained at a tolerable level.

It will change if the Palestinians escalate to suicide bombers.

Also involved are what a Palestinian often interviewed on Israeli media called "your crazies." He was referring to extremist religious settlers who claim to be responding to Palestinian violence and thievery by destroying Palestinian property and using their firearms against individual Palestinians.

The Palestinian and Haredi issues are associated. The IDF and other security forces are hard pressed with multiple personnel-intensive tasks. There are security barriers to patrol throughout the West Bank, along the Sinai border with Egypt, across the northern border with Lebanon, and being upgraded along the Golan border with Syria. There are checkpoints where roads used by Palestinians reach Israeli settlements. And now the frequent demonstrations.at low to moderate levels of violence require small unit responses, backed up by larger cadres in case things get out of control.

The combination weighs on the professionals at the upper levels of security, on the media, and politicians. The Haredim represent a sizable pool of untapped manpower (no one has mentioned recruiting Haredi womanpower), at least some of which can be trained to take part in the current needs of national defense.

That's where we are. Where we go depends on the Palestinians, the Haredim, and whatever emerges as the nation's political leadership.

There is considerable discipline on the Israeli side, along with a present inability of party leaders to agree among themselves within the rules about forming a government. The Haredim will follow their rabbis, but the rabbis differ in what they are promoting. They range from flexibility with respect to young men who want to leave the academies for the military, social service and work, to a firm insistence that the status quo must continue.

The rabbis may change their tunes if the buses used by their congregations and the rest of us begin to explode.

Palestinians are the most unsettled part of these calculations. Some of their political leaders say they are willing to live alongside of Israel. Others are extreme, itching to use their weapons and home made explosives in order to expel the Zionist enemy. There are also unaffiliated individuals who nurse their anger and occasionally go on rampages of deadly violence. Palestinians have attacked Jews on the street with kitchen knives, and the drivers of trucks and tractors have gone amok on crowded city streets and driven into crowds on the sidewalk.

The Israeli government has changed direction on the matter of releasing money collected at the ports as taxes on imports for Palestine. After the Palestinians pursued their UN decision, Israel began withholding the funds to pay the Palestinians' electric bill. Now the government has given into the demands of its own security advisers, and has decided to resume transfers. Much of the money is used to pay the salaries of Palestinian security personnel, who have cooperated with Israel in controlling their demonstrations.

We cannot forget Iran, even though the prospect of an Israeli attack is not receiving much attention.

Not likely are conventional attacks by Arab armies. They are dealing with civil wars at high or low intensity.

And here comes Barack Obama. Who know what he expects, and what he is prepared to offer and demand?

My mailbox is open should any of you have an answer to those questions, or any of the others implied in the above.

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 09:22 PM
Getting ready for the President

The coming attraction is Barack Obama's visit to Israel.

It reminds me of what I learned in Kenya 40 years ago. A presidential visit was an opportunity for the provinces. There would be money for paving the streets and repairing the buildings, as well as banners and flags, and telling the residents they were expected to line the streets and applaud the great man.

Here the equivalent of fixing the streets and buildings is the opportunity for politicians, commentators, and activists from across the spectrum to urge their panaceas as fitting the great man's agenda.

And that agenda is ? ? ?

There are some who think the principal reason for the visit is Iran. That is the idea of Israelis on the right, most prominently Benyamin Netanyahu, who do not want to move on anything else.

There are some who think that the principal reason is Palestine.

The Palestinians are prominent in that camp. Since their UN victory and the announcement of Obama's visit, they have been heating the air with marches, demonstrations, an uptick in violence, and mass enthusiasm about ending "occupation" (which some define as Israel's existence), and supporting a hand full of security prisoners doing their part via an extended hunger strike.

Just yesterday, Palestinians received the gift of death from another prisoner, who was not involved in the hunger strike. Ranking Palestinians have proclaimed that he died of torture. Israelis are saying that it was a sudden death due to heart failure. Officials have invited the man's family members, his attorney, and a physician representing the Palestine Authority to attend the autopsy. No matter what the findings, the chants will be that Israel killed him.

Also involved are two films nominated for Oscars in the category of documentaries, that appeal to those inclined to bash Israel.

The Gatekeepers presents interviews with retired heads of Israeli security units.

Five Broken Cameras is the work of a Palestinian amateur photographer along with a professional Israeli editor (producing an argument as to whether it is an Israeli or Palestinian film) showing several years' demonstrations against the construction of the security barrier on land claimed by a Palestinian village alongside the new Haredi city of Modiin Ilit.

Both films make Israelis uncomfortable, or satisfied, most likely depending on pre-existing attitudes.

The Gatekeepers shows thoughtful individuals who dealt with difficult decisions, revealing ambivalence and remorse about the conditions in which Israel exists, and their own lack of capacity--along with everyone else's--to fix things in an appropriate manner.

In Five Broken Cameras, we see angry Palestinians outweighed by Israeli soldiers and police.

An Israeli can see each film as justification for guilt. Or compare the thoughtfulness of ranking officials and the clumsy efforts at crowd control by police and soldiers to more than 60,000 deaths in Syria and perhaps a million in Iraq.

The President's visit is one of the reasons that several of Bibi's obvious partners has so far refused to join his coalition. Tsipi Livni could not overlook the obvious opportunity to get something for her six MKs.

With the arrangements for a Presidential visit in high gear, the Prime Minister needs a government in order to speak with the President about Israeli-American cooperation. The visit is four weeks away, and Bibi has three more weeks to put together a coalition. So the price is high for Lapid's, Benet's, and Mofaz's cooperation.

The Israeli left is making the same point as the Palestinians-- the President wants to quiet the Middle East by pressuring Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. Israel must make an offer that the Palestinians cannot reject without earning widespread condemnation.

There are several reasons for jest.

There is nothing Israel can offer short of sending its people back to Poland, Iraq et al that will satisfy Palestinian rejectionists.

There is no connection between Palestine and the rest of the Middle East. The Economist has it right. A recent article deals with Syria, but could also be written about every other country in the region. Each has been cobbled together from a collection of contentious ethnic and religious minorities. Syria and Iraq are currently unraveling or already unraveled. Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Iran and Palestine suffer from the same condition. Afghanistan never was a country with a functioning central government.

The plight of the Palestinians is a convenient symbol for autocrats sitting on their social volcanoes who hope to postpone the next rebellion. The problems in each of those places dwarf whatever can be said about their concern for Palestine.

Barack Obama may have learned something about the Middle East since his Cairo speech of 2009. He has spoken about downsizing aspirations. Yet John Kerry is hoping for a Palestinian State before the end of his term. No doubt there is the pressure within the Oval Office, by individuals far from this region, to make one more grand effort to use Palestine as the key to quiet the Middle East.

The Economist is familiar with the European colonial tradition that sought years ago to deal with various parts of the Middle East by the simple device of national governments put on top of diverse populations. Perhaps some on the staff recognize that their own analysis runs counter to their usual line of urging Israel to solve what no one can.

As in the case of Kenyatta's visit to a distant province, Israelis will get the flags up on the routes to be traveled by the President. There will be opportunities for the residents to applaud, with ranks of American and Israeli security personnel protecting the great man and his huge entourage. We can expect a rich collection of signs calling for an end of occupation, a Palestinian state, peace, Iran, and who knows what else.

But there may not be an Israeli government at the end of the red carpet.

Has someone on high considered that commotions due to the visit may prevent the creation of an Israeli government? And that the appropriate response is to postpone the event, and let the various parts of the Middle East attend to themselves?

It is time for someone to update that song in Fiddler on the Roof, that asks God to bless and keep the Czar-- far away from 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 01:52 AM
February 22, 2013
Fortress Israel, without a coalition

Bibi currently has 37 MKs in his coalition, but maybe not. The candidate who presented herself as highly principled, i.e., Tsipi Livni, signed on, but in the process threw her number #2 under the bus and may have provoked a split in her new party, "The Movement." Amram Mitzna expected to be first in line after Livni to receive any ministerial plums associated with joining the government, but Amir Peretz, number #3 on the list, got the nod from Ms Livni. In a clip seen time and again on television, we see Peretz offering to shake Mitzna's hand on the occasion of Mitzna's birthday, with the offended MK ignoring the offer.

It should be easy for Netanyahu to add the two ultra-Orthodox parties to his coalition, which will bring him to a maximum of 55 MKs, assuming that Mitzna does not bolt and bring other colleagues with him.

Netanyahu may try to persuade Shaul Mofaz to bring along his 2 Kadima votes, but Mofaz remembers the last time he joined Netanyahu with a perceived commitment to do something about the Haredim. Mofaz left that arrangement in a huff

Bibi needs 61 MKs.

The sticking point is the Haredim. Lapid and Benet are holding fast, and now have extended their alliance to include Mofaz. They demand a program that will push the vast majority of young Haredi men out of their academies, and into the military or national service, and then to a life of work and self-support.

Lapid and Mofaz could accept an opening toward the Palestinians favored by Livni, who was given responsibility for negotiations in her agreement with Bibi, but that agreement has provoked high fever among the MKs of Jewish Home. They are resisting being quieted by the assertion that Bibi will manage the negotiations that Livni conducts, and that there is no chance that the Palestinians will participate in serious negotiations.
One prominent commentator has suggested that the baton may pass from Bibi to someone else in Likud, who does not have a personal problem--or whose wife does not have a problem--with Benet.

Involved in the domestic political fray is the current security challenge faced by Fortress Israel.

The armed forces of all the bordering countries are busy with domestic matters, ranging from full blown civil war in Syria to something close to that in Lebanon, and violent demonstrations in Egypt and Jordan.

There remains two principal missions. One is the strategic threat from Iran that demands the political skill of Israel's government along with the most sophisticated preparations of the air force, plus what may be cyber warfare and attacks against key Iranians.

At a much different level of sophistication are patrols and responses to demonstrations, efforts at infiltration, and what may be moving toward a third intifada. That mission requires numerous personnel trained for non-lethal crowd control. Most recent are marches, stone throwing, and fire bombs in support of security prisoners engaged in a hunger strike. The tasks of the IDF in these cases are closer to those of police than military.

(Anyone concerned about the conditions of Palestinian security prisoners might pause on their way to a demonstration to realize that many of them would be on death row or beyond if they had done in numerous states of the US what they did here.)

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have crossed borders seeking refuge in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. There has been fighting among Syrians alongside the border with Israel on the Golan Heights. A handful of wounded Syrians were allowed to cross the border, and were brought to an Israeli hospital. The IDF has strengthened the barriers and increased its patrols against the possibility of mass incursions. Israel's Physicians for Human Rights has demanded that the border be opened to accept perhaps 10,000 refugees, but security and government personnel have shown little interest in such a gesture.

The IDF keeps its assessment of personnel needs highly secret, but it appears hard pressed to meet the demands requiring large numbers of personnel to patrol the border fences in the West Bank and along the Sinai, as well as to deal with the marches, stone throwing, and fire bombs of Palestinian demonstrations.

The impression easy to achieve from observing Haredi young men is that many are not fit physically for military service. Many would also fail a selection process that involved a basic knowledge of history, geography, or society. However, even the most unfit could be put to work carrying bed pans and serving meals in hospitals, or doing other tasks in social service agencies.
Netanyahu's principal economic adviser has proposed to employ a combination of economic and administrative measures.to pressure an increasing number of young Haredi men to leave their academies for the IDF or social service, and then to work. However, initial responses from Lapid, Benet, and some members of Livni's party have been "not enough."
SHAS MKs have spoken about the possibility of accommodating demands for a greater equality of burdens. However, leading rabbis associated with Torah Judaism have dug in their heels and proclaimed something like "not one inch."

Important to the Haredim, and perhaps especially to the Ashkenazim, is a concern to maintain the isolation of their communities. There are few contacts between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis. The novel that Benjamin Disraeli wrote about different classes in mid-19th Britain--Sybil, or The Two Nations--would serve as a useful description for Israel, adding the Arab minority as a third nation.

The fear among Haredi leaders is that a period in the military or social service would expose the young men to influences they could not resist. There are rabbis who forbid the use of television or the Internet. If those are steps on a slippery slope to secularization, the military and employment outside of Haredi "ghettos" would be ever more threatening.

The IDF has isolated the few Haredim who have chosen to enlist until now from female soldiers, and has provided them with short term service and time for prayer and study. Such entitlements may not be feasible in a situation of more extensive recruitment, with the Supreme Court looking over the military's shoulders and insisting on something close to an equality of burdens.

(There is also an issue of equal burdens for Israeli Arabs, but that has not made the political impact associated with the Haredim.)

Alongside shared burdens is the issue of the overall economic burden to the society associated with the Haredi life style. Israel has moved to a position unique in Jewish history, where the state provides financial support to as many Haredi men who wish to avoid work for the sake of study. The support takes the form of welfare payments for the Haredi families that increase in size with every child, financial support for academies that do not charge tuition, special deals on housing, mortgages, taxes, and water bills, lower than usual bus fares on lines that serve Haredi neighborhoods, and outlets of social welfare organizations in Haredi neighborhoods that sell food and household products at low cost.

Politics is the way for civilized societies to deal with their problems. "Deal with" need not entail complete treatment, or anything like full equality. "Final solution" is not a label Israelis employ. Jews are generally skilled at coping, and accepting less than an ideal treatment of serious problems. Essential, however, is a government with a substantial degree of social legitimacy. The current "transition" government has all the legal authority necessary to deal with essential needs, but does not reflect the recent election.

Adding to the pressure is the high profile visit next month of President Barack Obama. When that was announced, it was widely assumed that Israel's political crisis would well passed by the time Air Force One actually arrived.

Wisdom and flexibility may come. Bibi likes surprises. He may have a rabbit ready to spring. But this is not an occasion for predictions.

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 12:07 AM
February 19, 2013
Higher education

Higher education has always been a dicey enterprise, bringing enlightenment as well as threats to the establishment. It is not difficult to find assertions, from ancient times to not so long ago, that providing literacy to the masses is a sure path to hell.

A current worry coming from the poorly educated and overprivileged is the wave of extremism directed at this little country. BDS (Boycott, Disvestment, Sanctions) is the fashion among students and lecturers with too much time on their hands, and too little sense of reality and proportion.

My current purpose is not to convince them of their own injustice by demonstrating once again the relative decency with which Israel deals with extreme threats. Neither is it appropriate to rank once again Israel's social indicators--including those relevant to the Israeli Arab minority--compared to the United States and other countries. Students and faculty members at a fever pitch of political excitement would not pay attention to an Israeli academic, nor would they hesitate to claim that--despite Israel's comparative standing--comparison is less important than their own absolute standards of justice.

Palestinians have no small share in the stimulation of these offenses to truth and balance. If we can believe a Palestinian website. BDS is largely their work. Parents paying upwards of $40K per year are having their kids learn at the feet of Middle Eastern political activists, about a community that is widely viewed as mired in corruption, terror, and religious fanaticism. Enthusiasts may view BDS and related campus activity as part of their nonviolent struggle against Israel, but their contribution to political extremism is no less offensive to the values of truth and comity than blowing up buses and restaurants. The results are less bloody in an immediate sense, but the applause for such a difference should be made with one hand.

The contribution of the BDS movement and other offenses against academic and political decency are also not likely to advance anything within the Palestinian community. Dealing with their corruption and violence would be more useful. Unless there is a major change in world order and the Middle East, Palestine needs the cooperation of Israel in order to develop. However, the present campaign adds to the sense among Israelis and their friends that the level of Arab extremism--intellectual as well as political--is too great to support endorsement of a Palestinian state.

The spread of such nonsense across campuses of the US and Europe is not even. In judging the "threat" to Israel, one should not overlook the efforts of Jews and others among students, faculty and administrators to deal with extremism. Insofar as higher education has a high incidence of Jews, the overall danger may not be great.

Anyone with a sense of history should not be surprised that there are Jewish students and teachers entusiastic about BDS. There is no indication that the disease has spread widely among Jews. Even the moderates of J Street are a minority among Jews. I have seen no indication that the majority of non-Jewish students and teachers care all that much about Israel or Palestine.

Perhaps the greatest shame in all of this is what it says about the quality of higher education in those places where BDS is the fashion.

Students unfortunate enough to have chosen to study in academic departments affected by the malady are not getting what they pay for, either in tuition or the time they could be devoting to more worthy pursuits.

It is not hard to imagine the anxieties, endless arguments and worry about grades felt by students in affected departments, and faculty members concerned about their opportunities amidst crazed colleagues.

Fashions change. Those of us old enough to remember Joe McCarthy, the Ku Klux Klan, the Weathemen and other insults to civilized discourse may hope that those passionate for Palestine may turn to something else, or simply mature from political passion, and go on to passivity or more personal worries.

In the early 1970s it was newly independent Africa that was the darling of those who thought of themselves on the frontier of progress. A glance at Syria may help those with a bit a realism to know what Arab spring has unleashed. Those with curiosity about history may discover that the Middle East was not a paradise prior to this onset of unrest. Who knows when--or if-- the realization of civil violence in the Middle East does what African civil wars did for interest in that continent.

We can hope the best, without expecting that it will be here tomorrow.

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 09:12 PM
February 17, 2013
Full gas in neutral

We've had a few days rest from coalition negotiations. Media and political personalities have been busy with Prisoner X, i.e., Ben Zygier. For all that has cost Israel in embarrassment (due to a prisoner who committed suicide while he was supposed to be under 24-hour supervision two years ago, and the government press corps not having a story ready when the news broke last week), there may be no serious repercussions. Journalists, politicians, and government professionals are still working on this issue, most prominently in Australia and Israel. As far as is apparent to date, however, it falls within the category of foul-ups that occur in public (and private) bureaucracies. This one's connection with death and the murky world of espionage make it spectacular, but perhaps not all that meaningful.

Now we're back to coalition-making. But not really. From all the signs available to us commoners, not much is happening. The scene behind the curtains may actually be quiet, as the realities have hit home. Lapid and Benet don't want to join a coalition with the Haredim. Bibi wants the Haredim. He cannot form a coalition without Lapid and/or Benet, and they will not agree individually. Lapid and Benet, for their part, cannot make a government without Bibi.

Several commentators have employed the classical Hebrew expression, פול גז בנוטרל (full gas in neutral) to portray negotiations producing considerable noise but no movement.

What to do?

Reports are that Bibi has offered to break the jam by assigning the honey pot of the Finance Ministry to the head of the Labor Party, Shelly Yehemovich. The prospect has its own spectacular features against the backgrounds of Bibi's commitment to free enterprise and Yehemovich's campaign verging on socialism. So far she is sticking with her insistence that she will not join a Bibi government. That may be due to her realization of the policy gaps she would encounter with the Prime Minister, as well as her realization that the Finance Ministry is not about to be its usual honey pot, or even a small step on the road to socialism. In the cards are massive cuts in spending and/or tax increases to deal with deficits that have gotten out of control. We can assume that those budget cuts and tax increases will weigh heavily on Israel's middle class, i.e., the bulk of the individuals who receive social services, pay taxes, and vote. Those unpleasant actions appear to be inevitable, and are merely waiting for a new government, with a Finance Minister who is willing to harm his/her political career by signing the appropriate documents.

There is speculation, both by commentators and a senior Likud politician (Tzachi ha-Negbi ) that it might be necessary to call another election due to the political impasse. Netanyahu may have offered Benet a place in his coalition, without Lapid, with the warning that there will be another election if Benet does not accept.

A campaign would feature each of the parties blaming the others for the impasse. It will not help Likud our Home that Avigdor Lieberman's trial on charges of corruption has begun, and is likely to continue throughout the campaign.

It will be a crap shoot of a gamble about who would lose, and if any of the parties would gain enough to be able to enjoy an advantage in the composition of the government.

Netanyahu has used only two weeks out of the six allotted to the composition of a coalition. What we are hearing may by nothing more than the warm up when all participants proclaim their maximum demands, realizing that serious negotiations, and the phase of mutual flexibility, will not occur until the deadline is closer.

Meanwhile, not all of the negotiations focus on Netanyahu. Knesset Members and activists associated with the various parties are meeting, and trying to strenghten or weaken lines of cooperation. Likud and SHAS have each tried to break the alliance between Lapid and Benet. They are appealing to members of Jewish Home on grounds of their affinity with SHAS and Torah Judaism on issues of Judaism, or their affinity with Netanyahu for issues of settlement and resistance to the idea of a Palestinian state.

The politics of coalition formation are reminding us about the nature of Judaism. By some reports there are more Jews who consider themselves religious in this Knesset than in prior delegations, but not all are similarly Jewish. Most marked is the divide between Haredim and Orthodox, with several of the latter being "religious nationalists" along the model of what had been the National Religious Party. The delegation of Jewish Home is revealing tensions between those who consider themselves closer to the Haredi or closer to what can be called Modern Orthodox. It is these tensions that SHAS MKs are trying to exploit in order to bring Jewish Home into their camp against the more overtly secular of Lapid's There is a Future.

Lapid's party also has its secular-religious divisions. Among its MKs is an Orthodox rabbi, who aspires to be Minister of Education, and Dr. Ruth Calderon. Dr. Calderon's PhD in Talmudic Studies is from the Hebrew University. In her maiden speech in the Knesset, she quoted the Talmud in Aramaic, and expressed her commitment to bringing Jews of various congregations--presumably including the Reform and Conservative--closer to one another and their common spiritual roots. The contents of her speech and her problems with Aramaic produced some mild ridicule from Haredi Knesset Members. None has yet gone so far as their constituents who would delegate Dr Calderon to the back of the bus.

Each of the ultra-Orthodox parties have their own internal problems between competing rabbis, along with the traditional tensions between the Sephardim of SHAS and the Ashkenazim of Torah Judaism. For the time being, those tensions are less important than both parties' concern that a government with Lapid and Benet would cut severely into the resources and privileges provided to their constituents.

Experience may count for something. Neither Lapid, Benet, nor Yehemovich have been as close as they are now to real power. They all have advisers they have employed, and are getting advice from many more activists who want to be part of the action. It is not yet apparent if they are playing by the conventional the rules of the game, where maximum demands inch downward and fall significantly when participants seek to achieve part of what they desire.

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 09:53 PM
February 14, 2013
The costs of war

Currently we are reading a lot, but not everything about Ben Zygier, or Ben Alon, or Ben Allen. We are pretty sure that he was an Australian Jew who migrated to Israel, served in the IDF, was recruited to Mossad, and died in Ayalon prison in 2010. We hear that he served the Mossad in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, presumably helped by his Australian passport. Also, that he was proud of his service to Israel, liked to talk, and met with students from Iran and Arab countries while a student--after his Mossad service--in Australia. Further into the realm of speculation are explanations for why he was accused and jailed in secret.

Reports are that he hanged himself in his cell. Due to the fact that he was in one of Israel's most closely guarded sites, there is speculation about the sloppiness of supervision, and even the possibility that his death was not due to suicide.

Journalists from several countries are all over this story, but so far have not confirmed what seem to be its most important elements, i.e., what he did to provoke Israeli authorities, and what kind of evidence of his crimes was available to Israeli authorities.

Israel deals with highly sensitive issues by means of gag orders to block dissemination to the public of what journalists might know. A committee of media editors meets with government officials in extraordinary cases in order to obtain compliance.

Such mechanisms have limited effectiveness in an age of the Internet and smart phones. Israeli journalists have been known to tip off overseas colleagues of a juicy story--like Zygier's--and then evade a gag order about reporting what they have learned in Israel by quoting what is reported in the overseas media.

Zygier's case hit the media fan during a session of the Knesset being broadcast live, when three leftist Knesset Members asked questions of the Justice Minister about the suicide of a prisoner hitherto unknown to the public, who was a foreign national and imprisoned under a false name.

There is a subordinate flap about the immunity of Knesset Members against prosecution for revealing a story when there is a a gag order about a matter of national defense.

Security officials interviewed about Zygier have not provided any detailed information, but have asserted that secret incarcerations are approved only at the highest levels, and with the participation of a judge.

Such reports beg the question of which judge. Another of Israel's media events this week came when the head of the Supreme Court said that a number of the country's judges have served beyond the point where they are effective, and are staying on only to assure themselves a pension.

Even though security and judicial bureaucracies may not longer be able to keep things as quiet as they wish, they remain successful--to date--in keeping mum the reasons for Zygier's imprisonment.

That has not stopped some tricks to convey what a lot of Israelis are already concluding. Yedioth Aharonoth put a large headline in the form of a question on its front page, "?סוכן המוסד בגד" --Mossad Agent Turned Traitor?.

Members of Zygier's family in Israel and Australia have refused to speak to journalists, beyond stating that they have already suffered enough. Friends of Zygier have told journalists that he was strange, boasted of his service in the IDF, and was a blabbermouth.

The case of Zygier has some similarities to that of Jonathan Pollard. Like Zygier's service in the Mossad, Pollard served the United States in a sensitive position, with access to secret material. Pollard broke the rules by sharing his information with foreign nationals. And like the stories about Zygier, there are stories about Pollard that he was talkative and boastful, in his case about contributions to Israeli security.

Both cases raise questions about justice. It is not easy to applaud secret trials and incarcerations like Zygier's, or plea bargains that are overturned by the judge, as in the case of Pollard. In Pollard's case, there are also the issues of his sharing information with an ally of the United States, the assertion that he has already served long enough for his action, that he is being used as a warning to other American Jews not to identify too closely with Israel, and that the principal actor in causing a life sentence was Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who may have been too sensitive about his own family's Jewish background.

Justice is not something that lends itself to easy decisions, despite the reams of sophisticated writing from ancient times onward.

War has always been unfair in the selection of victims, and both Zygier and Pollard appear to be victims of a war no less messy and no less difficult to wage than those of history. Thanks to World Wars I and II, the Holocaust and other extreme violations of decency, there is a sizable collection of rules and laws for what is acceptable. However, they have limited utility beyond the combat between governments that ascribe to them. They do not clarify how governments should combat organizations and individuals operating outside the framework of states that target civilians under the imperfect heading of "terror."

Both Israel and the United States have suffered from terror, and both have exposed themselves to criticism as to how they fight terrorists and those who support them. Among the charges against the United States are incarcerations in Guantanamo and various "black prisons" managed by countries of Eastern Europe and and the Middle East that do not abide by the rules that apply within the United States. President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 with a promise to close Guantanamo, but experience and advice seem to have overcome that bit of his naivete.

Both Israel and the United States have been charged with injustice due to targeted killings by drones and other means, and especially due to cases of missed targets or the casualties of those who happened to be near the persons targeted.

Most recent is an accusation by Human Rights Watch that the IDF violated the laws of war in its recent Gaza operation.

"Israeli forces too often conducted airstrikes that killed Palestinian civilians and destroyed homes in Gaza without apparent legal justification."

According to HRW, hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza indiscriminately into Israeli populations centers do not exonerate the IDF from compliance with international law.

Against the quality of justice meted out to Pollard, Zygier, the people sitting in Guantanamo and elsewhere, or the collateral damage due to targeted killings and other actions by the American or Israeli security personnel, we can put in Justice's other scale the 3,000 Americans who died on 9-11, and 1,100 Israelis who died while riding buses or eating in restaurants during the second intifada.

Demands for Pollard's release continue. The woman he married while in prison has asked Barack Obama to free him and bring him to Israel during his visit next month. Journalists here and elsewhere will continue to peck at officials, family members and friends to obtain more details about Ben Zygier.

Among the lessons that bureaucracies dealing in sensitive matters might learn from Zygier and Pollard are to make greater efforts to screen prospective employees and train them. It's not a trade for those who like to boast.

Individuals attracted to the exciting stuff of working undercover might also learn from those cases. Individuals anxious for adventure, who like to boast of their exploits, should select opportunities with less ominous costs.

The world we live in is far from ideal, and war is one of its messiest corners.

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 04:28 AM
February 12, 2013

North Korea's nuclear test has cast a shadow over Barack Obama's visit to Israel.

Speculation was that a key item on the agenda would be Obama's pressure that Israel forget about its own attack on Iran. We're hearing that Israel might have been planning such a thing in the spring, and that Obama is convinced that any hint of an attack would get in the way of his being able to persuade the Iranians to abandon a nuclear option via negotiations along with sanctions.

If there were any Israelis who expected results from the Obama approach to Iran, especially with the appointments of John Kerry to State and Chuck Hagel to Defense, the North Korean explosion will make those Israelis even more remote from where things are decided.

Sanctions and diplomatic pressure could not keep the poor and isolated regime of North Korea from developing its nuclear option, so how can they possibly work against energy rich Iran that also claims world leadership of Shiite Muslims?

If Israelis and others needed another reminder of how out of sync is the United States, it came in the news that several hundred thousand homes remained without electricity days after a snow storm. What is arguably the richest country in the world and more certainly the most powerful has yet to learn how to bury electric lines and thus to keep the residents of cities and towns from the agony of no current for several days when trees fall, as they will in high winds and snow, and the crews cannot cope with the incidence of damaged wires.

Along with guns, murder rate, and shocking indicators of life expectancy, the backward infrastructure of exposed electric wires makes the US an across-the-board laggard.

Clumsiness, and lack of accomplishments in international affairs also makes it easy to think of the US as the dullest boy in class who is also the strongest, and most inclined to tell others what to do.

Israel's own options with respect to Iran are far from rosy. One has to listen closely to hear anyone close to the seat of power say that Israel can set back Iran's nuclear ambitions significantly, then escape from a counter attack plus international condemnation.

Also on the President's agenda is to move Israel and the Palestinians to conversations and maybe negotiations. Netanyahu reiterates that he remains in favor of a two state solution, Palestinians say they cannot negotiate as long as Israel continues to build in the settlements, and just this week Israel has given final approval to the construction of 90 housing units in the settlement of Beit El.

One can quarrel whether Beit El is one of the major settlement blocs that are bound to remain with Israel. Its population is somewhere around 6,000, but it is beyond the security barrier seen as a likely border.

Especially now that North Korea is doing what it wishes, can the President persuade Bibi to behave himself on settlements while also relying on a force-avoiding leadership in the Untied States to keep Iran from going nuclear?

Tit for tat is one of the informal rules of international relations. Even a country as strong as the United States cannot demand too much of a country even as dependent on it as Israel.

If the North Korean nuclear test casts one shadow over the Obama visit to Israel, the muddied results of the Israeli election cast another shadow. Bibi is having trouble putting together a coalition. There may be be another election. or a government cobbled together with flimsy promises that cannot survive.

If any prospective coalition partner is making a strong case for concessions to the Palestinians, it has not penetrated the loud noises from those demanding to rein in the Haredim, and the counter insistence from the Haredim that they cannot accept anything that would force young men to leave their academies. There are compromises conceivable that would substantially increase the exit from the academies to the IDF, national service, and then employment. However, it is not clear that prevailing extremists in the Haredi and anti-Haredi camps can agree on anything reasonable.

Also in the air are reports of European government preparing sanctions against Israel on account of Bibi's mollycoddling of settlers, and fibbing to international counterparts about being willing to negotiate Palestinian statehood. Most apparent are demands that products from industries over the 1967 borders stop calling themselves Israeli and stop qualifying for the agreements that make them attractive in European markets. Even more ominous is the prospect of requiring visas for Israelis wanting to visit member countries of the European Union.

It's hard to know how serious are those threats. They are being promoted locally by commentators from the left, who claim they are already drafted and waiting a nod from someone on high to being implemented. Actually, they may be nothing more than ideas floated by left-leaning European bureaucrats, and still far from being approved by political leaders who are wary about pushing Israel too far.

Israel's options in the event of sanctions may be limited, but substantial nonetheless. The first to suffer from limitations on products produced over the 1967 line will be Palestinians who work in those locations. Israel can also respond by again withholding funds from Palestine in order to cover its unpaid electric bill, increasing construction in the settlements, and even to begin building in E 1.

Living close to the mayhem of Syria, we may be forgiven if we do not assume that all actions relevant to us are moderate and subject to negotiations.

The North Korean nuclear explosion is another reminder that madness remains an element in international relations. What can that country expect to accomplish from nuclear arms acquired at the cost of considerable suffering by its population? Surely it ahready had enough conventional arms to deter any conceivable aggression from South Korea or elsewhere. And any use of its nuclear weapons would invite a catastrophe produced by the conventional weapons of South Korea or Japan, or a nuclear retaliation by the United States.

Iran may be more justified than North Korea in being wary of an attack, but there, too, the cost to citizens of the existing sanctions is considerable, and the payoff of having nuclear weapons is doubtful.

A primary task of politicians in the enlightened part of the world is to keep one another from extremism.

Let us hope that Europeans as well as Americans and Israelis know how to do that.


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 04:15 AM
February 09, 2013

In all the blather from politicians and media personalities following Israel's indecisive election, it is possible to see two ideas that might provide a map to the country's future.

One is the equalizing of the burdens between the Haredim and the rest of us. Prominent in the explanation of Yair Lapid's 19 Knesset seat victory are the mass demonstrations that occurred during the summer of 2011. That was hardly a united movement. Chants and signs demanded too great a variety of injustices to be corrected. What was clear, however, was that there were few if any Haredim among the marchers. Lapid's campaign, especially since the election, has emphasized the injustice of the Haredi freedom from military or national service, as well as the substantial sums going to a population that is not working and paying taxes.

The Haredim are not living high on the hog. The payments made to families via several sources, not all of them transparent, provide a bare minimum, in crowded, unaesthetic neighborhoods, small flats, and lots of children. In total, however, a lot of money goes to a growing population that is arrogant in claiming to preserve the society through prayer and the study of archaic texts that do not hold the keys to current problems.

The other idea has been given a boost by two individuals of high prestige, well placed in the military and Likud establishments. One is General Yaakov Amidror, currently serving as National Security Adviser, who went public with the warning that construction in West Bank settlements is losing Israel the support of its most important friends.

"It's impossible to explain the issue of settlement construction anyplace in the world . . . It's impossible to explain this matter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel or even to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Construction in the settlements has become a diplomatic problem and is causing Israel to lose support even among its friends in the West."

Such comments have not ended Amidror's career. Currently he is engaged, along with Americans, in arranging the upcoming visit of President Obama. Prime Minister Netanyahu has chosen to confirm that Amidror said something like the media is reporting, without extensive comment.

On the same wave is Dan Meridor, a second generation member of the Likud elite, at various times Knesset Member and holder of ministerial portfolios. He is widely respected for his thoughtful opinions despite having lost a seat in the Knesset due to the right wing onslaught in the primaries that also unseated other Likud moderates. Meridor has come out against further construction in the West Bank, outside of the major settlement blocs. He would continue building in neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and in settlements that Israel is bound to maintain, but cease further construction in the scattered settlements that are least defensible politically, and provide no tangible benefits to Israel.

Meridor is far from certain that his idea will produce any response from the Palestinians. He is doubtful that a Netanyahu government will offer Abbas anything more--or even as much--as Abbas rejected in 2009. He also suggests that the Palestinians may not be willing to accept anything an Israeli government can offer. His eyes are on international politics beyond the Palestinians, and what Israel should do in order to support a reasonable and defensible strategy in the presence of Arab hostility.

Neither the Lapid nor the Amidror-Meridor ideas may survive the current maneuvering toward an Israeli government. If Netanyahu chooses the easy road of coalescing with the Haredim and enough hangers-on to give him a bare majority, the secular middle of Israel can forget about equalizing the burdens between the Haredim and themselves. And if Netanyahu includes Jewish Home in his coalition, Israelis concerned about an international initiative can forget about a moderate settlement policy.

On the other hand, Netanyahu is a four-star politician, skilled in finding the wind and sailing accordingly. Among the reasonable guesses is a large government with Lapid, Jewish Home, and the Haredim, but with commitments to reducing the benefits of the Haredim and making an effort at talking with the Palestinians. It is possible to see an implementation of something that Amidror and Meridor could sell to Europeans and Americans.

And if not, one can imagine pressure building, Lapid on the outside making an issue of the Haredim, along with international pressure against settlements that combine to increase the tension on Netanyahu and shorten the life of his government. Lapid has threatened that he will be the next prime minister if he must serve as Leader of the Opposition. Likudniks have ridiculed him as a freshman politician who has jumped higher than his pupik. So far Lapid appears to be holding firm to his demands that the price of joining the government is serious action to reduce the benefits of the Haredim. He would be a formidable annoyance if not in the government. Netanyahu wants him on the inside. Perhaps Bibi is thinking of LBJ's comment about a problematic antagonist (J. Edgar Hoover), "It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."

Netanyahu also wants the Haredim inside his tent, for pretty much the same reason.

There is no simple solution either for the Haredim or the Palestinians. Even an aggressive effort could not bring the Haredim into the economic mainstream in less than a generation. Most of the men have no education that would help them find productive employment. Most of those over the age of 30 already have lots of kids and may be too set in their routines to expect serious training for secular employment. Too great and too quick a reduction in their benefits could cost more in the budget supplements necessary for welfare and the police than is saved from direct payments to the Haredim and their academies.

Also a possibility, and consistent with Netanyahu's skills and previous practice, is to include all of the above in his tent, on the basis of promises that he keeps in small part, if at all. If that happens, and Lapid quits in frustration part way through the government's tenure, he will have tarnished his reputation and join the substantial club of promising Israeli centrists who tried, failed, and retired early from

any aspiration to leadership.

There are lots of possibilities. A wise observer should avoid predictions.


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 03:19 AM
February 08, 2013
Sara Netanyahu

How important is Sara?

She is prominent in the realm of politics as theater, presented by the media as a public spectacle.

She is a frequent subject of the cartoonist for Ha'aretz, who depicts her like a creature that would remove the certificate of kashrut from Israel's hotels.

It's no great surprise that the editor-in-chief of Israel Hayom concerns himself with the choice of pictures that the newspaper publishes.

Several of Israel's "first wives" (of the prime ministers or presidents) have provided material for the media, but none with such a prominent negative tilt as Sara. There have been stories of Sara's "difficult" relationships with household help, including screaming and suits claiming her failure to abide by labor laws, along with Sara's charges of libel. Journalists who write about her must about coming up against the legal talent available to the family of the prime minister.

The most recent flap concerns a dress that she wore to the ceremonial swearing in of Knesset said to be way too revealing for a public figure. According to one article, "Sara Netanyahu is an advertisement for tires."

Only a puritan would call the dress risque, but this is Israel. Knesset Members of Torah Judaism and SHAS, and some of Jewish Home do not look directly at a woman who is not their wife, and refrain from any physical contact including shaking hands.

Among the problems that Naftali Benet is getting from politicians in the religious camp (some associated with the political party that he leads) is criticism that he hugs and kisses his wife and other women in public gatherings, that his kipa is not big enough, and that he is a false front for a party that claims to be religious.

Benet is also part of the Sara story. He fell outside the realm of individuals working with Bibi who were acceptable to Sara. On one occasion when she demanded his cooperation, he said that he worked for the prime minister and not for her. That may have been the issue that ended his tenure as Netanyahu's chief of staff, and caused the bad blood between him and both members of Israel's ruling family.

From a columnist in the Jerusalem Post:

"The energy that Mrs. (Sara) Netanyahu invests in her pathological hatred of (Benet) . . . could power the country's entire electricity grid."

Disturbing the household help and the prime minister's aides, and exciting the media, is about as close as Sara gets to issues of public importance. She trained as a psychologist, works in the field, and has been involved in matters concerned with Israel's less fortunate, but nothing close to issues of high policy. Americans looking for a comparison should not think of her as anything like Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton. Maybe Lady Bird Johnson's concern with highway billboards. However, Sara has not been involved in a campaign as prominent as Lady Bird's concern with the beautification of public spaces.

Even Sara, and moreso other wives of Israeli politicians, have been minor figures in Israeli media compared to America's obsession with presidential wives. Most Israeli counterparts of presidential wives have gotten some attention, but nothing like the reporting about even the most shrinking from public view, like Pat Nixon or Bess Truman. No wife in Israel's history compares with Jackie Kennedy. Sara's recent dress comes as close as anything to Michelle Obama's inaugural dress, but that was as rare an event for Israeli fashion mavens as comments about Michelle's clothes are the standard stuff of American media.

Paula Ben Gurion is remembered for her sharp tongue, directed against her husband as well as others. At one state dinner she noticed that the Prime Minister had become engrossed in conversation with high ranking officials. She called out from her end of the table, "David, eat your chicken."

At the extreme of reticence was the late Sonia Peres. She refused to leave her Tel Aviv home when Shimon won his term in the presidential mansion. We heard that she was sick of public life, and upset that her husband had violated a commitment to retire.

Compare these stories to one about Sara Netanyahu that occurred at the site of an overseas conference during Netanyahu's first term.

"One day Netanyahu came back to his room late, because his talks with world leaders had lasted longer than planned. Sara . . . refused to open the door for him. The security guards tried to persuade her, but she, on the other side of the locked door, shouted that for her part he could stay outside all night. ... Only hours later did one of the security guards succeed in convincing Sara to allow the prime minister to enter his room."

In regard to how important is Sara for Israel's politics or public policy, the simple answer is, "not very."

No doubt that the coverage has been as negative as any given to a prominent Israeli wife, but there is nothing in the public record to associate her with the approval or veto of any major public venture, or to conclude that she has been an asset or detriment to her husband's career.


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 07:36 AM
February 06, 2013
An occasion for hope, or wonder?

I went to bed after a limited time with the news focused on the ceremonial swearing in of Knesset Members, and what seemed like the circular going nowhere blather about what kind of coalition Benyamin Netanyahu can assemble. Already well known are the problems. Yair Lapid and his second-largest party (There is a Future) wants to even the playing field between the Haredim and Israel's secular middle class, and to start a peace process with the Palestinians. Naftali Benet, the newly arisen leader of Jewish Home wants nothing to do with a Palestinian state, but also is no friend of the Haredim. Netanyahu wants the Haredim on the inside rather than the outside, and they have about the same number of votes as Lapid and Benet together. However, the arithmetic is that Netanyahu needs both the Haredim and Lapid and/or Benet to create a coalition. Neither Mr nor Mrs Netanyahu likes Benet personally. Moreover, Benet's party colleagues in the Knesset include some wild types who say that God settled things by giving all of His Promised Land to the Jews. Tsipi Livni (Movement) and Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) are somewhere, and talking about a peace process, but with not enough votes to be critical.

I woke up to the news that Barack Obama was coming to Israel.

That was a game changer, at least with respect to media speculators .
•Does this mean that the President is serious about jump-starting a peace process, despite all the well known problems in Israeli politics, Palestinian politics, and the chaos to the southwest in Egypt, the northeast in Syria, and tensions in Jordan, Lebanon, and the looming issue of Iran's nuclear program?
•Does Netanyahu's agreement to the visit at this time signal his seriousness with respect to the peace process, and will he use it to pressure Lapid and the Haredim to sit together, along with Livni and Mofaz, and use a coalition of that kind to try again with the Palestinians?
•Does the American President reckon with the charge that he is meddling in Israeli politics at an especially critical time, when he seems involved in pressuring wavering politicians to join a government coalition?
• Or alternately, does the American President reckon with the possibility that planning will go forward, but Netanyahu will agree to a coalition that makes any payoff of the visit highly unlikely?

The triumvirate of Obama, Kerry and Hagel (assuming Hagel wins Senate confirmation) produces some tingling in Israeli breasts. It suggests that peace may actually have a chance with a Washington cadre putting muscle behind something or other. Yet the reputations of naivete shared by those Americans lead to the concern that the disproportionate pressure will be on Israel rather than the Palestinians.

Being the much stronger and more stable element in the presumptive negotiations, it is fair to ask more of Israel than the Palestinians.

The question concerns the limits and the prospects.

Looking at Mahmoud Abbas, already four years beyond the end of his term, sounding grandfatherly decent along with a firm refusal to give up on the idea of refugees' return "home," and his weakness with respect to Palestinian factions even further into the wonderland of demanding everything, makes one ask about the political sanity of Barack Obama, as well as many other leading figures in America and Europe, and a few in Israel.

Only the infantile or the mad should expect Israel to concede the rights of Palestinian "refugees" and their descendants, or to withdraw anything like 50,000 or more "settlers" from the area of the West Bank beyond the lines of 1967. Note that 50,000 is a paltry 10 percent of the total, and withdrawing 50,000 is beyond imaging by anyone realistic about Israel.

Arafat and Abbas already said no to Israeli offers that Netanyahu-Lapid-Livni-Mofaz might repeat, but are unlikely to make more generous. Those who applaud Israel's democracy have to live with it. After two intifadas, several rounds with Gaza and Lebanon, the population is not enamored of snuggling down with cuddly Palestinians and expecting anything good.

While Israel's protocol squads may be preparing the wines and gefilte fish, the IDF is putting more anti-missile batteries in the north, and strengthening the barriers along the border with Syria.

Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah are threatening to revenge Israel's strike against whatever it destroyed last week in Syria, as well as renewing their established threats against the Zionist entity.

One needn't be a Neanderthal or God-reliant messianic to wonder about Obama's timetable. Even Ha'aretz, the canon of the Israeli left and guardian of Palestinian rights, has questioned the President's aspirations. Israel Hayom, financed by you know who and firmly in Bibi's corner, has a picture of Bibi and Barack, both smiling, and leads off with the expectation that the visit will be about Iran.

If Barack Obama's primary intentions concern the Palestinians, and if he is not prepared to get more from them than could Bill Clinton plus Ehud Barak in 2000 or Ehud Olmert in 2008-09, then the American President should stay home and save us Jerusalemites the traffic jams inherent in a Presidential visit.


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 12:43 AM
February 04, 2013
Another look at American Jewish power and Israel

We hear from the anti-Israel rabble, as well as some highly placed politicians and professors that a pro-Israeli lobby is much too powerful and may even dictate things in Washington concerned with the Middle East.

It ain't that simple.

No doubt that AIPAC is one of the most prominent of the Washington lobbyists. To read some of its clippings, it might be called the NRA of American foreign policy. On the other hand, there is also J Street. It is be a little brother in comparison with AIPAC, but it's a feisty little brother and usually somewhere else on the political map.

The current activity surrounding confirmation of Chuck Hagel sheds another kind of light on the Israeli lobby. Most of the noise seems to be coming from American Jews. Ha'aretz, which arguably represents an important slice of the Israeli elite, led off one article on the confirmation with

"Republicans and Democrats, with a prominent element of Jews, have gone overboard in the struggle over the appointment to Defense. Their involvement of Israel in the discussions is exaggerated and embarrassing. If the predictions prove correct, and former Senator Chuck Hagel wins confirmation, some of the credit will be due to the extreme nature of the opposition. The loud and aggressive lobbying is part of the warfare of the Conservative Right and Jews against President Barack Obama. In such a situation, Democratic Senators have no choice but to stand with the President and his nominee."

The article goes on to comment on the disproportionate attention paid to Israel in this and other American controversies. It raises the question of the damage to Israel resulting from its prominence in yet another losing political scuffle, and notes that the Israel itself is not an active participant in regard to Hagel. The article expresses hope that Yair Lapid may become Foreign Minister, and succeed in "rescuing Israel from the danger of being at the focus of disputes in America in recent years, and return it to a more appropriate and secure level of modesty."

It should be no surprise that Israel Hayom has a different view about the Hagel nomination. It noted that the Washington Post had published an editorial indicating that "Chuck Hagel is not a good choice," and "President Obama could make a better choice." Israel Hayom termed the position of the Washington Post as "strong opposition" to the appointment. My own reading of the Washington Post editorial is that it was more nuanced, but the curious can decide for themselves.

Israel Hayom is pretty much the voice of its owner, Sheldon Adelson, known for spending $100 million in a losing campaign to defeat Barack Obama, and said to be a major source of the funding to defeat Hagel. Whether that money contributes more to Israel's defense than to anti-Semitism is a question that begs attention, even if no one may be able to answer it with certainty.

Also prominent in the anti-Hagel campaign is Christians United for Israel (CUFI), said to have a choke hold on the votes of numerous Republican Senators, and--with Adelson's help--targeting Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014.

One can hope that most decisions taken by President Obama and Defense Secretary Hagel--each working along with massive institutions--will reflect their calculations about American national interests. Here and there, however, there might be at least a marginal element of revenge for the efforts of Jews seen as speaking for Israel in the campaigns to defeat them both.

It is not my intention to endorse Hagel. The history of his comments and actions in the Senate are problematic, even leaving aside what may be viewed as an outburst against the pressure of Jewish lobbyists. His appointment should worry those concerned about Obama's naivete about Islam and its role in the larger Middle East. Even supporters criticized Hagel's performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. One writer emphasized that he was not making a Jewish point, but said that "schlemiel" was the best word to describe him.

No less than Hagel, the Israel-centered campaign against him is also a source of worry. What goes around comes around. The response of those who already concern us may not be long in coming.

On such things, along with everything else, Jewish communities do not speak with one voice. While some view that as a weakness, the trait is well established in Jewish history, and is better viewed as a source of strength. Jewish creativity did not come from being a nation that thought or spoke in unison.

While the right wing extremism represented by the campaign against Chuck Hagel appears to be more the inclination of American Jews than Israelis, any effort to contrast American Jewish and Israeli opinions is bound to be muddy. The views and money of Sheldon Adelson are associated with Israel's Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Adelson's Israel Hayom is the country's most widely distributed newspaper, abeit helped in the competition by being a giveaway. Each can judge it on English or Hebrew websites. Critics refer to it as Pravda or Bibipress. While its politics are obvious, its quality as journalism does not fall below those of other dailies, and it is not noticeably more to the right of center than is Ha'aretz to the left of center.

The views on prominent issues by Israeli Jews and those of the United States and other centers in the Diaspora may overlap. However, the interests and inclinations of the various community are not identical. It would be a fascinating but difficult undertaking to define the political centers of gravity and the ranges of opinion expressed. Who is a Jew? would be an especially difficult puzzle in Diasporas with a high incidence of intermarriage and issues of Jewish self-identity.

Just to note a few examples of what would be described, the Israeli range between aggressively anti-Arab settlers and Peace Now seems to be about as wide than that between American Jews outspoken in their concerns about anti-Semitism and the threats to Israel represented by Barack Obama and Chuck Hagel, and those larger numbers who actually voted for Obama. The Israeli community exhibits the Adelson-Netanyahu connection, the warm reception the Israeli Prime Minister gave to a visit by Mitt Romney in the midst of the campaign, the low public opinion support for Obama shown by Israeli Jews at various points from 2009 onward, and then what may be described as a 25 percent decline in Netanyahu's support in the recent election.

Those fascinated by balance and diversity cite George Soros as a counter to Sheldon Adelson. It would take great work to produce a reckoning of which is more influential.

Another mystery concerns how much of the political and material support given to Israel by the United States comes from the weight of American Jews.

Israel's opponents and friends among Americans are more certain of the answer than is warranted.

Israel and the United States have common interests that go beyond the platitude that both are democracies. During the Cold War, Israel and the United States shared a concern, and were both active against the anti-Israel and anti-American alliances between the Soviet Union and various Arab governments and popular movements. Since the Cold War, much the same can be said about the common interests and activities of the two countries against Islamic radicalism. In neither period should one exaggerate the common interests of the United States and Israel. There were disputes as well as shared information and other forms of cooperation.

There is no obvious metric to weigh the importance of an American Jewish lobby against other factors in the cooperation between Israel and the United States, while correcting for the weight of American and Israeli leftists who have expressed themselves more or less continuously against that cooperation. Or how much damage American Jews--and right wing Christians--do to Israel while using "support Israel" as their common theme in American controversies.


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 01:02 AM