Window on Israel: We are back on autopilot

I admit that we are not perfect, but conclude that we are not doing badly given the constraints.

window88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem Monday's radio talk dealt almost exclusively, until 11:30 a.m., with Iran's nuclear program. Benyamin Netanyahu focused his primary campaign for the leadership of Likud on a one-sentence solution: act like our party hero Menachem Begin, and destroy Iran's nuclear option before it can produce a weapon. It does not deter the man of simple notions that Iran had learned from Begin. Its nuclear program is distributed among numerous sites, some of them buried deep underground. Experts countered Netanyahu with thinly veiled ridicule: what worked in 1981 was not a model for 2005. Israel can probably do no more than delay Iran's program, and even that at a considerable cost in international politics and by further elevating Iran's animosity. With an Egyptian running the UN effort against Iran, and Russia selling to Iran, Israel (along with Europe and the United States) may have to live with a nuclear-equipped Iran, just as Iran will have to live with Israel and others equipped with nuclear weapons. Netanyahu changed his tune at 11:30. His response to the suicide bombing in Netanya was, I told you so. The disengagement from Gaza encouraged terrorist groups to get more land by killing more Israelis. The radio gave him little time. It focused on the routine coverage of a terrorist incidence: interviewing eye witnesses against the background of sirens, reporting on the incidence of dead and wounded, later asking emergency rooms physicians about the injured, and reporting the announcement of Islamic Jihad that identified the bomber. Television coverage showed footage from security cameras, with arrows pointed to the bomber as he walked toward the shopping mall, and then the dust cloud caused by his explosion. Pictures of the scene showed large splotches of blood on the walls of the mall entrance, up to the level of the second floor. The evening meeting of government ministers concerned with security and key professionals put us back on autopilot, along the course we could have recited before the meeting. There will be a closure of the West Bank, a renewal of targeted assassinations, more intense sweeps by security forces through areas that supply the killers and support their organizations. There was a condemnation of the Palestine Authority for not acting to counter the violence, and a cancellation of meetings designed to coordinate progress with the Authority. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazan) condemned the terror as usual. He said it would harm Palestine, and ordered his security forces to move against Islamic Jihad. Later we heard of clashes between those forces and Islamic Jihad, and saw Islamic Jihad activists marching with their weapons, apparently as a sign of their victory against the efforts of the Palestine Authority. You can expect pictures of autos destroyed by missiles fired from Israeli helicopters, mass participation at the funerals of those who had been passengers in the cars, and daily counts of the fighters and managers of Islamic Jihad and other groups rounded up and put in Israeli prisons. Meanwhile, someone is still firing missiles from Gaza against Israeli towns. They have not killed anyone recently, so Israel has limited itself to firing artillery shells into empty fields and bombing empty buildings. Israeli rhetoric against the missiles is escalating. Officials are talking about extending the area to be shelled, of course after warning Palestinians to leave the sites to be targeted. All this will come along with United States and European Union cautions about overreaction, and condemnations of targeted assassinations. For those with doubts, I admit that we are not perfect, but conclude that we are not doing badly given the constraints. Our record at minimizing casualties is arguably better than Americans in Iraq, but the comparison may not be fair. Our professionals have been dealing with the problem all their working lives, and learned from two or three earlier generations who also spent their careers on the problem. Syria and Iran are mucking around in Palestine as well as Iraq, but it is more difficult for them here. Some American politicians are no less simple minded than Israeli counterparts, so in both places the domestic conflict will be as ongoing as the violence. I fear Israel is due for more of the same by virtue of its location. The United States is due for more of the same by virtue of its power. This is not fatalism, it is realism. Life is tough. But it is better than the alternative. * * * From a US visit Posted November 13, 2005 Rioting in France continues, but seemingly at a reduced pace. Three bombs killed 57 people in Amman. Our neighbors in Issawiya rioted at the gates of Hadassah-Mt Scopus Hospital. Shimon Peres has lost the leadership of the Labor Party. We are following all of this from a family visit in the United States. On the way to this stop I spoke to a small group of people, mostly right of center. One gave voice to the proposition that Iraq was a war pressed on the president by his Jewish advisors. Politics is nothing if it is not dynamic. It is possible to construct explanations for what has happened until now. It is much riskier-intellectually-to speculate about what they mean for the near and distant future. It is clear that our world is more than a bit muddy, chaotic, dangerous, and exciting. It may get worse before it gets better. More countries are going to have to face the issue of Islamic violence. For us, that is good; providing we do not get the blame. Sure, there were Jewish advisors who promoted the war in Iraq. But Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are not Jewish. And they selected, and continued working with advisors who advocated the war. The French and Germans may have been right about the whole enterprise. Saddam was contained. If the Europeans had their way, Iraq would probably not have become the nursery of ever more intense violence. But here we are. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and some Jews led us deeper into the swamp. Even the French, as well as Jordanians, Indonesians, Egyptians, and Saudis are sharing in the price. Politics does not necessarily concern itself with justice in its distribution of burdens. Shimon Peres' defeat may be nothing more than the vulnerability of an old man - with a reputation as a political loser - against a skillful campaigner. Politics moves on. There is no tenure. Ariel Sharon might be vulnerable to the same process. At least for the moment, however, he did away with Benyamin Netanyahu. There will be others, but not necessarily before the next election. It may get better, perhaps after it gets a bit worse. The lovers of peace will have to contend with the realists before they get power. Lots of Muslims see themselves suffering from what their brethren are doing. There is at least a small reason for a bit of optimism. Just how that optimism may play itself out, and when, is beyond the reach of political insight. * * * Dead Man Walking Posted October 23, 2005 Some years ago, one of my Palestinian students described Yassir Arafat as a "dead man walking." We saw how far he could walk: to the edge of his headquarters building, until the day he was bundled into a helicopter and went for his last ride to Paris. I fear Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazzan) is shuffling in Arafat's footsteps. Today he was welcomed at the White House. The President had some nice words to say about him, and reiterated the oft-said comments about Israel's obligations. But what else was Bush to do? He had invited Abbas some time ago to mark the new opportunities created by Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. Bush could not decently uninvite Abbas despite what has happened since the withdrawal, without losing a few more points among Arabs and Muslims (and he does not have too many to lose)... So Bush allowed his guest to take a few steps on the White House grounds, and expressed himself in a way that would not cause embarrassment. Bush is no longer in a hurry to produce his "two democracies living side by side." When asked about a timetable for the creation of a Palestinian state, he said that it would not necessarily happen during his presidency. Such a lack of confidence is unusual for politicians who want credit quickly. What has happened on the ground where it counts over the last couple of months is not contributing to Bush's desire or Abbas' political health. Two drive-by shootings this week killed three Israelis and wounded others. Abbas condemned the actions (Arafat always condemned killing), but a group affiliated with Abbas' own political movement claimed credit. The story in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal is almost daily violence among Palestinian groups. Abbas speaks about bringing all the groups all into the tent, but they do not seem inclined to come without their weapons. Sometimes they fire those weapons at, or even within the Authority's tents. The Palestinians themselves report that more Palestinians are being killed by Palestinians than by Israelis. Israel has been doing its best to make sure that the West Bank tents will not be too crowded. Since the spurt of violence after the withdrawal from Gaza, it has added more than 700 individuals to its stock of prisoners. Commentators say that Israel is aiding the moderates in the coming Palestinian elections by locking up a sizeable percentage of the non-moderate activists. Israel responded to the drive-by shootings by closing the main roads to Palestinian private cars. Palestinians can move between the major cities by public transportation only. The army is also reactivating a number of roadblocks it had left open during the recent period of relative quiet. The actions have brought criticism from the American State Department, but last night we saw pictures of the blockages in place on the roads feeding into the main route. It will complicate travel Nablus south to Ramallah and on to Bethlehem and Hebron. How long will this last? Maybe not forever, but meanwhile it weakens Abbas and his government. This afternoon the chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee said on Israeli radio that it is time to treat Abbas like Arafat. Abbas speaks a more decent line than Arafat, the MK said, but like Arafat he does not move seriously to curtail violence. This Member of Knesset is somewhat to the right of the center in Likud, but he is not an extremist. On the same program, a Labor Party Member of Knesset said that Abbas must move against the violence in his regime, and that Israel must continue to act as long as he does not. These two Members of Knesset are closer to the action than George W. Bush. Neither has a host's obligation to be decent to a guest whose invitation seems to have been made unfortunate by events. I continue to wish for something good from Abbas before he is bundled off to Paris or somewhere else, but I am past expecting it. * * * Paradise in the Promised Land Posted October 16, 2005 From the looks of things, we are in for an extended period with little movement. I know that politics does not tolerate stability. There are always individuals wanting to advance themselves or their cause by demanding change. I will get back to that, but first, the stability. The Palestinian leadership is in a box of its own making. They have had the help of Ariel Sharon. If anyone offers a Nobel equivalent for tactical maneuver, he deserves it. The Palestinians signed on to the Road Map to Peace. It requires them to renounce violence and disarm terrorists. It also requires some initial steps of the Israelis. But 9/11 and continuing events in Iraq, Afghanistan, Britain, Chechnya, Bali, Egypt, and elsewhere put the emphasis on terror. Sharon has withdrawn from Gaza and minimized friction there. The Palestinians are behind the fence, without easy access to targets among Israeli soldiers or civilians. Sharon is building a barrier between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank. It is not perfect, but it defines borders and makes it more difficult for the Palestinians to reach Israelis. Both the Gaza fence and the West Bank barrier have gates to allow the entry of Palestinians who want to work, visit, pray, shop, or seek medical treatment in Israel. Israel has shown that it can open or shut the gates in response to Palestinian behavior. When the gates are shut, Palestinians do not eat as well, or reach medical care in good time. They put pressure on violent cousins. The gates are the ultimate non-violent weapon in a war against terror. Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership is not powerful enough, or willing enough, to take on the extremists among themselves who want to continue the armed struggle. The result is that Israel does not have to do anything more than continue building the barrier, opening or shutting the gates in response to events, and occasionally entering Palestinian space to seize the bad people. There are enough Palestinians who help in that task by providing information in exchange for money or other benefits. Efforts to arrange a meeting between Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas demonstrate Palestinian bombast and weakness. Palestinian representatives demanded discussions about opening a sea port and airport in Gaza, regularizing border controls without Israeli participation, a land route between Gaza and the West Bank, and the cessation of building the barrier or even its dismantling. They could not agree to disarm Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups committed to violence. So it was not possible to schedule a meeting between Sharon and Abbas. Internally, Sharon has also maneuvered himself into a decent position. He is old and overweight, but as long as his health holds, he seems to be the obvious winner in the next election. Netanyahu tried to unseat him in Likud, but few Israelis want Bibi as leader. Sharon's new Finance Minister, Ehud Olmert, is flexible enough to produce a budget that will advance intra-party harmony, and keep Labor in the government until it is necessary to hold an election. Labor remains divided several ways, able to agree only on the leadership of 82-year old Shimon Peres, who probably cannot win anything other than a leadership contest within a highly divided party. Among the mostly Jewish parties, Agudat Israel is unique in being without internal crises. It will get the customary 4-5 seats, and continue to worry about Shabbat and kashrut. Forget about Arab political parties. They screach against conquest and discrimination, and vote against the government. They satisfy voters who want to punish themselves by staying out of the process that distributes benefits. Again, politics is not kind to stability. As you read this, Palestinian extremists are trying to move things along by one or another scheme of violence. Israeli leftists, some of whom think it is useful to call themselves "anarchists," are demonstrating against the barrier and other abominations. European and some American bureaucrats are demanding that Israel stop expanding settlements in the West Bank, and move against the hilltops that have a couple of trailers or shacks, and a handful of dedicated young people. Israeli Arabs continue to demand justice against the police who killed 13 people in what the Arabs call the peaceful demonstration of October, 2000. What I saw on television was closer to an armed uprising. The parents of Rachel Corrie likewise remain unsatisfied at Israeli responses concerning her death in Gaza while demonstrating against the Israeli military. Peaceniks should not wander onto an active battlefield and assume that shouts for justice will protect them from harm. The Supreme Court of Israel has ruled against a military procedure whereby a neighbor or family member is sent into a building where a wanted person is holed up, in order to urge surrender. The court said that the military cannot endanger civilians. Better to risk the lives of soldiers. The military is appealing the decision, and recently showed how it might cope with the constraint. It sent an armed bulldozer to start destroying a building, with the fugitive inside. Then it allowed the mother of the fugitive, concerned that the army stop destroying her home, to enter the building and tell her son to surrender. Abbas is scheduled to meet George W. Bush in Washington. Who expects anything from this other than a flurry of statements? I realize that prophecy is not kosher. There are no guarantees in this feisty corner of a dynamic world. But as long as terror remains a widely perceived threat, and as long as substantial numbers of Palestinians behave as terrorists or applaud those who do, I do not think Israel has much to worry about from domestic or international nitpickers who object to one or another tactic or event. Those who dream of paradise in the Holy Land should read Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Josephus, tales of the Crusaders, and Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. All other places that I know also fall short. Those satisfied with the lesser goal of a decent life might consider Jerusalem. It is always interesting, occasionally exciting, and its weather is better than most. * * * What happens next? Posted October 9, 2005 A few days ago the news featured Israel's targeted killings of prominent Hamas and Jihad personnel, the arrests of numerous lesser figures in the West Bank, and the array of artillery pointed at Gaza. Now the news is about meetings between ranking Palestinians and Israeli, the concessions one is likely to request and the other is likely to grant. The carrot after the stick? The influence of Ramadan? This month-long Muslim holiday features daily fasts from sunrise to sunset. Early enough before sunrise to allow a substantial meal before the fast begins, drummers march through Arab communities to wake the faithful. Those in the nearby neighborhood are also liable to wake us, sometime around 4 AM. It is not a lively rhythm that they play, but a simple dum, dum, de dum, over and over. Work can occur during the day, and each evening is a time for family feasting. We wish them well, and pleasant festivities that do not allow much time or energy for war. Insofar as the Muslim calendar is lunar, with no leap years, Ramadan moves from one season to another. This year it will overlap with Succoth, which in the past has been a time for Jewish crowds in Jerusalem and Palestinian responses. There are no guarantees, but we may have a peaceful holiday season. What happens next? If there are any optimists left, they may be expecting the onset of a peace process. Abu Mazan (Mahmoud Abbas) often speaks positively. But sometimes he does not, and the Palestinian street is a tough place. It includes those who truly hate Jews (and Christians) and aspire to slaughter, as well as those who just want to live and are willing to do that alongside of us. There are also those who see benefits in their association with Israelis, and those who make interesting and attractive neighbors, colleagues, students, and friends. Palestinian public opinion polls take note of many we can live with, as well as many others. In other words, good times and bad times are likely to be in our future. I would be more optimistic if Palestinian leaders spoke more clearly of what they will do, rather than focusing on their demands. I tell myself that that is the style of bargaining, and hope for long vacations between the violence. Even the Labor Party seems to have learned from the Oslo process. We are less likely now to dismantle our intelligence apparatus (spies or "stinkers") among the Palestinians; unmanned aircraft are relatively cheap and effective; and the fence keeps creeping along the landscape. May both the Muslims and the Jews have an easy fast, and a good holiday. * * * Is comic opera sad, or simply ridiculous? Posted Spetember 28, 2005 The other evening we saw for the nth time the performance of Palestinian security personnel. This group was dressed in clean and pressed bright blue camouflage outfits. Some of them rappelled down a training wall. Others did summersaults in the air. An officer patted the hood of one of the nicely lined up powder blue, new patrol cars donated by one of the European countries. When the troops were not rappelling or doing flips, they pranced from place to place, in almost perfect order, with arms swinging and knees high. On other occasions we have seen the trick of jumping through burning hoops. They really look good when they demonstrate how they drive fast, screech to a stop, and jump out of all the doors of a car in coordinated fashion and take up a position against whatever is their target. Some personnel demonstrate their fury by biting off the heads of live chickens. Animal rights activists be alert. Palestine is not your paradise. Armed groups are no less impressive. They, too march in uniform. They prefer black masks and green head bands. Some parade in white robes with suicide belts. Fighters strut with their weapons held high. Often they cannot resist the opportunity to fire in the air. Some of what seem to be rockets being carried are cardboard models. Others are the real thing. Friday something happened to the rockets arranged in a truck that was part of a parade to celebrate Hamas' success in pushing Israel out of Gaza. The rockets exploded, killing 19 and injuring more than 120. Participants said they saw missiles fired from Israeli helicopters. Israel denied that charge. Palestinian officials accused Hamas of violating agreements not to parade with weapons, and not knowing how to care for its rockets. Hamas could not accept responsibility. One of its operatives held up a tiny, twisted bit of metal that he said was part of an Israeli device. Friday night and Saturday Hamas and others fired more than 40 missiles toward the Israeli town of Sderot. Several of them managed to fly out of Gaza and actually reach Israel. Some of those landed in settled areas and injured civilians. Weddings and engagement parties are also occasions for enthusiasm. The Jerusalem police have tried to ban the firing of weapons in the air. Fireworks are allowed, which we see from our apartment. We also hear small arms fire, and take care not to be on the balcony. A young boy was killed in the Galilee by a bullet fired as part of one party this weekend, and a girl was injured while watching a party in Lod. Someone ought to tout the use of blank cartridges. They may satisfy, even if they are not the real thing. Palestinian speeches are no less impressive than the ceremonies of the security forces and families. There are declarations without limit. Some proclaim the near accomplishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem. Others say that the Authority will impose its discipline on all Palestinians. One flag, one nation, one government. When pressed, spokesmen say that Palestinian forces have been weakened by Israel and cannot keep order. The 30,000 or so security personnel cannot seem to do more than parade and do summersaults in their neat uniforms. Currently Israel is attacking Gaza from the air, assembling artillery for the first time since the intafada began five years ago, and rounding up Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists in the West Bank. It will not take long for Europeans and others to accuse us of overreacting. Maybe a few more powder blue patrol cars donated to Palestinian security forces will solve the problem.
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