By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Where do we stand?


By Ira Sharkansky

The people of Israel continue to live in a condition that is marked on the one side by the theme of the national anthem, Hope, and on the other by the national slogan, oy gevalt.

Once again, this New Year has its reasons for optimism, not unblemished by worries.

Life is good for most of us. Measures of health rank Israelis as one of the most long-lived of people (Jews and others), with a medical system considered among the best in the world. 

Hospital care does not provide the luxuries associated with private rooms enjoyed by Americans with the best insurance, but here the whole population is more likely to get the best of what is available. 

Economic indicators put us up there with the rich. Including among us the Jews of the Diaspora we are, by some indications, the most well-to-do of ethnic and religious groups. 

As ever—going back to Josephus’ Against Apion and the ugliness in the New Testament, on through Christian anti-Semitism, the Protocols, Nazis, and now the Muslims—success comes along with envy and hatred.

This evening we can expect the roads to be jammed as people move from one part of the country to another in order to enjoy what the various participants have brought with them. The star of our evening will be a little granddaughter whose heritages from Germany and Iraq symbolize Israel’s climb from disasters to strength and success.

The neighborhood is even more restless than usual. The U.S. is moving toward something in Syria. We are beholden to America, and evaluations of the president are problematic. The prime minister has wisely stifled any comments from members of his government, and he has said little more than no one should attack Israel; that our response will be massive. President Shimon Peres has limited himself to praise and support for Obama. 

Commentators tend to the critical of the American president, some of them well into the range of ridicule for limiting his options, tying himself to Congress, and providing all the time needed for Assad to protect his assets. 

Others note that consultation with Congress may actually toughen the response that the U.S. will make. 

Overall, Israeli writers are wary of an American president who seems to have accepted views of Islam that moderate Muslims have described for their faith. While he has repeated several times his commitment to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the center of gravity is somewhere between suspicious and doubtful.

There are commentators so enamored of the U.S. as to qualify for the label of sycophants. For them the deliberations toward a strike against Syria represent the essence of what is good about America. It takes its time to decide, and then does what it should. Those who see the grass as much greener in America say that Israeli politicians, in contrast, speak grandly and do very little.

I suspect that few if any of those commentators are aware that the field in political science that goes by the name of Implementation was born in the United States. For the most part, its message is that implementation is a problem. Laws are passed, regulations have to be written, but are delayed, add or delete provisions with respect to what the chief executive and members of the legislature thought they were enacting. And then there are further delays in actually working according to the regulations. Some of them remain on the books forever without the money or the personnel assignments necessary to put them into effect. 

One test of this literature will come with the various stages of what’s called Obamacare.

Currently we are hearing that Congress will include in its resolution that there be no American “boots on the ground” in Syria. That, too, is the president’s commitment. Yet we are hearing that there are already several hundred pairs of American boots on the ground in Syria, with the feet of American troops in those boots.

The U.S. military, its ancillaries and contractors remain active against bad guys in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and maybe elsewhere. My Muslim friends are sure that the U.S. is engaged in a crusade against their faith.

Whatever happens here or in America will owe a great deal to politics.

For me, politics is the essence of civilization. I consider myself privileged to be working in an intellectual stream going back to Aristotle. Politics is the decent way to deal with differences in perspective prior to taking action. There are Hebrew as well as Greek roots in this perspective. By argument, we can see the value in other views, and alter our own.

There are numerous ways to do politics. The separation of powers inherent in the U.S .presidential manner of government differs from that of the parliamentary arrangements in Israel and western Europe. 

Democracy in all its forms is messy. There is mud-slinging, back-biting, dealing and going back on deals, and decisions so convoluted as to defy anything that would go by the word implementation.

Israeli media are currently transfixed on Syria, whatever America might decide, how that affects what happens in Iran, the possibilities of attack by Syria and Hezbollah, and what the IDF might do in response to all the above.

There are signs that Egypt’s government is moving against the threat to that country and ours from Islamic extremists in Sinai and elsewhere.

There remain unresolved disputes in our domestic politics. They have been pushed aside until after the holidays, and after whatever occurs in Syria et al. The list includes the education, financial support, and pushing toward work via the military or national service of ultra-Orthodox, and whatever is happening in those secret talks between our representatives and the Palestinians.

There is some dispute that Winston Churchill deserves the credit for the thought, but among his one-liners worthy of repeating is, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

The range of decision-making apparent in democracies is most suitable to the cultures likely to be shared by most of the people reading this note. Two hundred meters from here is a border between civilizations. On the other side is a culture that—to the limited extent I understand it—I do not envy.

Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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