Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Power & Politics Column: From minyan anxiety to female modesty

This week I attended a delightful Sheva Brachot, the festive meal held during the first week after a couple is married, during which seven benedictions are added to the standard Grace after Meals. In Orthodox tradition, this requires a minyan, or quorum of 10 men.

Ours was an eclectic gathering of Orthodox, Masorti and Reform Jews - mostly observant - as well as a number of non-observant Jewish people and a sprinkling of non-Jews from abroad. In such cases, etiquette requires that Orthodox standards be followed: It could not be 10 Jews - it had to be 10 Jewish men.

As we were about to begin the Grace, I noticed that we barely had a minyan, so I asked a guest who was about to leave if he could stay on.

"I promised I'd meet a friend and I'm already running late," he said, glancing nervously at his watch.

"In that case, do you know if Mike - sitting over there - is Jewish?"

The guest gave me a peculiar look: "I have no idea."

ONLY AFTERWARDS did it occur to me that he had no clue why I was trying to delay his departure with talk about "a minyan," or why I was uncouthly, it seemed to him, enquiring about the religious affiliation of a fellow guest.

Such misunderstandings are bound to follow when cultures - or sub-cultures - bump into each other.

I'm not talking about "culture" as in art or entertainment, but in the way anthropologists and sociologists understand it: "the integrated system of socially acquired values, beliefs and rules of conduct which delimit the range of accepted behaviors."

It's easy to see your own culture or sub-culture as normative while remaining oblivious to the values of others. And it takes hard work not to fall into that trap.

TAKE SHIGELLA, a bacteriological infection of the intestines, which recently spiked among the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect in Brooklyn. The disease is spread when infected fecal matter contaminates food or water, which is why the local health department suspected poor hygiene as the cause.

It's not that Satmar children don't wash their hands after going to the toilet, the problem is they don't necessarily use soap and hot water. Instead, they ritually wash by pouring cold water several times over each hand before reciting the Asher Yatzar prayer, which thanks God for the continuous daily miracle of the body's proper functioning.

No one is suggesting that ritual washing, per se, is the problem, only that the process probably needs to be supplemented by soap and hot water. Fortunately, the public health authorities in New York City are clued into the possibility that group values can provide insights into the spread of disease. Having solved the mystery, they've now distributed pamphlets in Yiddish on personal hygiene.

OF COURSE, even when we do pick up that a particular behavior is culturally rooted, that doesn't necessarily make it any more palatable. Under a current crackdown in Iran, for instance, women can be lashed if they appear on the street in "revealing" headscarves or outfits too suggestive of the female form.

While I understand that modesty plays an important role in Iran's cultural framework, it doesn't make me tolerant of lashing people in the streets.

Or take virginity. Many cultures - Islam in particular, but Orthodox Judaism probably no less - place paramount value on female virginity. Now medical advances make it possible, as The New York Times reported last week, for surgeons to restore the hymen in women who have been sexually active.

In one case, according to the Times, "a 26-year-old French woman of Moroccan descent said she lost her virginity four years ago when she fell in love with the man she was now planning to marry. She and her fiancee decided to share the cost of her $3,400 hymen-replacement surgery in Paris. His extended family in Morocco is very conservative, she said, and required that a gynecologist - and family friend - in Morocco examine her for proof of virginity before the wedding."

It's hard to get your head around this sort of hypocrisy, until you consider that Muslim women are often murdered in so-called honor killings for having sexual relations outside marriage.
What happens when Muslim mores and Western jurisprudence rub up against each is equally interesting. Last week, a French appeals court overruled a lower court decision that had annulled a marriage because the bride turned out not to be a virgin. French law says a marriage can be annulled if a person lies about his or her "essential qualities," though it does not define them.

POLITICAL BEHAVIOR can often be tied to culture. South Korea has lately been rocked by protests over a government decision to import American beef.

After an urban legend circulated on the Internet that the Korean race had a gene which made it particularly susceptible to mad cow disease, 700,000 people rallied in Seoul irrationally convinced that the racial homogeneity of their society was at imminent risk. When Korea's agricultural minister went to the rally to reason with the multitudes, he was quickly driven from the podium.

These are the "good" Koreans, mind you. God only knows what lessons may be drawn by policymakers trying to negotiate with the North Koreans.

And speaking of Koreans, one of the Hebrew papers reported on the many South Korean Bible students who arrive in this country - some going on to obtain PhDs from Hebrew University - without any knowledge of contemporary Israel.

Talk about cultural misunderstandings. One graduate student revealed: "I did not even know that Israel was a Jewish state. I didn't actually know what a Jew was. Only after I arrived did I realize, one day, that I was among Jews."

EVER SINCE a vacation in Cairo earlier this year, I've been fascinated by how Egyptian culture affects perceptions. In a series of brilliant vignettes about life in Egypt, New York Times Cairo bureau chief Michael Slackman has been illuminating the chasm between Western and Egyptian values.

Ask someone for directions, and they feel obligated to help: "'Here, even if someone sends you in the wrong direction, he still feels he did what he is supposed to do,' said Karam al-Islam, a professor of communications at Al-Azar university. 'He doesn't think he misguided you. He helped. Right and wrong is a relative thing.'"

In another brilliant piece, Slackman writes about the over-the-top use of the Arabic insha'allah, meaning "God willing."

Slackman orders a burger with onions at McDonald's. "Insha'allah, with onions," comes the reply.

A young, relatively secular Cairene tells Slackman about being invited to a party. She really doesn't want to go, yet doesn't want to offend with an explicit refusal. So she replies with "Insha'allah." Now no one can fault her for not showing.

This ubiquitous use of "insha'allah" reminds me of the way Orthodox friends use b'li naider, meaning, I can't absolutely promise because, at the end of the day, everything is in God's hands.
The moral of all this? Be sure - b'li naider - that you are never again oblivious to the role culture plays in the lives of people and nations. Insha'allah.

Wrap: Refugees,Donating, Hamas, Iran, Electoral Reform & Traffic

The other Mideast refugees (June 25, 2008)

The world knows of the pain and dislocation experienced by roughly 700,000 Palestinian Arabs when Israel was established; it knows little about the trauma borne by some 850,000 Jews from the Arab world who were uprooted from their homes.

The precise numbers and exact impetus for the departures, in these linked cases, remain in dispute. The motivations of the displaced in promoting their respective narratives are easily suspect because both Jewish and Arab refugee conundrums are tied to claims of "inalienable rights," for restitution and reparations, and (in the case of the Arabs) demands for repatriation.
In any journey toward genuine acceptance and reconciliation that the quest for peace demands, the two narratives will need to be mutually validated in some fashion.

THE PLIGHT of Jews who left the Arab countries has drawn relatively little attention, notwithstanding the efforts of individuals such as Heskel M. Haddad, a New York-based ophthalmologist of Iraqi origin. Recently, however, this cause received a boost from a non-binding US Congressional resolution adopted in April which urged the administration to raise the Jewish refugee issue whenever the Palestinian one arises. And this week a group called Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has been holding a conference in London to ensure that the narrative of Jewish refugees is told alongside that of the Palestinian Arabs.

It would be a tragedy if this campaign were dismissed as an attempt at one-upmanship in an arena so long dominated by supporters of the Palestinian Arabs; suffering does not negate suffering.

One approach for fair-minded individuals is to consider the Jewish refugees as human beings rather than as pawns in a vitriolic political dispute.

This is why the recent publication of Lucette Lagnado's The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is so welcome. In telling the affecting saga of her family's forced emigration from Cairo to New York, and by sharing memories of her proud father Leon's decline from boulevardier, poker player and businessman - who rubbed shoulders with King Farouk - to a refugee unable to raise the few thousand dollars necessary to open a corner candy store, Lagnado puts a human face on the other Middle East refugee tragedy.

Lagnado focuses on her own family's experiences, but let's not forget the episodic blood libels and riots that peppered the history of Egyptian Jewry, beginning in the early 1800s. As the Zionists moved ahead in creating a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine, and as the Palestinian Arab leadership adamantly rejected a two-state solution, Arabs elsewhere began to turn against the Jews in their midst.

There were riots in Alexandria and Cairo in 1938-39, and again in November 1945, when 10 Jews were killed and hundreds wounded. Synagogues were ransacked. Egyptian Jewry carried on as best it could even when 2,000 Jews were arrested and their property confiscated on May 15, 1948 - the day Israel declared independence. In June 1948, the community was obligated to "donate" to Palestinian Arab refugee relief. In September, 20 Jews were killed and 61 injured as Cairo's Jewish Quarter was bombed. Looting followed, and more Jewish property was confiscated.

After the 1956 Sinai Campaign, 4,000 Jews were expelled; allowed to take only a single suitcase each and forced to renounce any financial claims against Egypt. In 1957 all Jews not in "continuous residence" since 1900 were deprived of citizenship. By 1960, many synagogues, orphanages and homes for the aged had been closed down.

The Lagnados held out until 1963, eventually arriving in New York with $212, the maximum they had been allowed to take out of Egypt. By 1967, Jews still employed in government were dismissed; hundreds were arrested, some were tortured. That is how a community whose population numbered 80,000 in 1920 dwindled to today's perhaps 200 souls, mostly elderly widows.

Yet Egypt's treatment of its Jews was in no way the most egregious in the Arab world.

ROUGHLY 580,000 Jews from across the Arab world ultimately found refuge in Israel. Another 260,000 Jews were absorbed elsewhere.

For the Palestinian Arabs, by contrast, the disaster of dislocation was compounded by the decision of the 21 Arab states never to absorb them, and to force the UN to create UNRWA, whose surreal mission - with the acquiescence of the international community - is to perpetuate their homelessness in perpetuity.

Wisdom in charity (June 21, 2008)

Nachum: One kopek? Last week you gave me two kopeks.
Lazar-Wolf: I had a bad week.
Nachum: If you had a bad week, why should I suffer?

- Fiddler On The Roof

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the overseas arm of the US Jewish philanthropic system, announced last week that it was cutting programming to 25,000 recipients in the former Soviet Union and laying off 60 workers in Jerusalem, New York and the FSU. The reason: The falling dollar has created a 20 percent hole, or $60 million gap, in its budget.

As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported last week, the JDC's $325m. budget includes an $87m. contribution from the United Jewish Communities, which represents 155 federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across North America. The UJC's own operating budget stands at $37m., down from a peak of $46m. Other JDC money comes from individuals, foundations, Holocaust reparations, and the Israeli government.

The constraints now facing the JDC typify those of other organizations. The dean of a Jerusalem-based educational institute, which receives no government aid, told The Jerusalem Post that he had just returned from a successful fund-raising trip to the US bringing back pledges totaling $1m. Since he raises money in dollars but spends them in shekels, these funds are worth significantly less than just one year ago.

The crisis in the dollar, and how the organized Jewish world should respond, will be high on the agenda of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors when it meets today and Monday in Jerusalem. The agency is facing is own budget shortfall.

But the fall in the dollar is only one manifestation of the world economy's predicament. In New York City, for example, Jewish groups are being hard hit by municipal budget cuts that impact on their ability to deliver services to some 77,000 elderly Jewish poor. Funding for the homebound lunch program is being streamlined. The local Housing Authority says it can't continue to subsidize senior citizens centers in its buildings. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is grappling with a projected $3 billion-5b. budget deficit for the next fiscal year.
Philanthropists, who make their money in banking and on Wall Street in places such as Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers, have taken a financial beating. Nevertheless, observers counsel that there is still money out there.

THIS BRINGS us to a new buzzword circulating in Jewish organizational life - "silo." At all times, but especially in these, it is essential that key players engaged in communal work communicate, coordinate and network. As with an isolated silo, communication that is only vertical, that does not interface with other entities doing similar work, is an extravagance the Jewish world can ill afford.

In the 21st century, we cannot put up with organizational duplication, unnecessary competitiveness and petty rivalries. It would be tempting to go through the lengthy roster of organizations, from the 51 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to the scores of others orbiting the Jewish world - some like spent asteroids - and ask whether each is essential for Jewish security, welfare, administration and continuity. In our nonhierarchical world, however, only those who foot the bill have the prerogative of telling an organization: Your time has passed.

As fewer affluent young Jews donate to Jewish causes, private philanthropists and "boutique" charities are sometimes better positioned than large organizations to target money where it is needed. And yet, a mature analysis of Jewish organizational life is bound to conclude that if at least some of the groups now on the scene did not exist, they would have to be created ex nihilo.
The legendary Jewish leader Ralph I. Goldman offered this advice in 1981. "What is necessary is... to recognize that immortality does not apply to organizations and institutions... that going out of business is an essential quality of community service - not change for the sake of change, but change because it is necessary and good."

Implementing this sagacious recommendation depends on individual donors, organizations and foundations using sound judgment to evaluate which groups merit continued support. In today's economic climate, the imperative for such pragmatism is more urgent than ever.

The brewing storm (June 19, 2008)

On a cold and drizzly December morning the Israeli cabinet meets to approve a renewal of the cease-fire in Gaza, which has proven so successful. There have been no rocket, mortar or shooting attacks into Israel since the tahadiyeh was proclaimed by Hamas six months ago.
The Erez, Karni, and Sufa border crossings, along with the Nahal Oz fuel depot, have efficiently funneled a cornucopia of supplies into the Strip from Israel, while the Rafah crossing for goods and people leaving the Strip for Egypt is functioning smoothly under the watchful eyes of Egyptian officials and Palestinian border guards loyal to Mahmoud Abbas's administration.
Thanks to intensified Egyptian efforts, the flow of illicit weaponry into the Strip has been reduced to a trickle. EU officials have steadfastly rejected dealing with Hamas. The Islamist government has never been more unpopular because, despite the end of the "siege," it has proven incompetent in delivering basic services to the people. Polls indicate that in elections scheduled for January, a reformist-oriented Fatah ticket is expected to capture a majority in the Palestinian parliament.
Meanwhile, Gilad Schalit's book, In Hamas Captivity, tops the best-seller lists.

THIS SCENARIO is one way to envisage the evolution of the cease-fire with Hamas, which came into effect early Thursday. It is not, sadly, the way events are likely to play out.

Stage one - the cease-fire - is now in effect. On Sunday, in stage two, Israel is expected to begin easing the economic blockade of Gaza by opening most of the crossing points. Stage three, the opening of Rafah, is supposedly tied to progress on the release of Gilad Schalit. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's pledge, however, that Rafah will not open until Schalit is released is hardly credible. Hamas has been explicit: There is no connection between the cease-fire and Schalit's freedom. It demands and will likely receive, judging by the government's lack of fortitude, hundreds of terrorists "with blood on their hands" in exchange for the IDF captive.

This newspaper has argued that any trade for Schalit should be limited to enemy prisoners - such as the Hamas "parliamentarians" now in custody - taken after Schalit's capture.

As for the cease-fire, it is true that Israel's dysfunctional cabinet had to choose from an unpalatable menu of choices. But it is far from clear, following the government's September 2007 designation of Gaza as a "hostile territory," that our politico-military echelon exhausted a long list of measures that could have been pursued, short of retaking the entire Strip in an Operation Defensive Shield-like campaign.

These measures might have included ongoing large-scale military incursions (mostly abandoned in favor of episodic battalion or company level operations), and relentless pursuit of Hamas leaders so as to diminish their capacity to govern and hammer home the point that Jerusalem will not tolerate an Islamist regime between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. They could have been accompanied by an intensified embargo on fuel and electricity - presuming the government's willingness to stay the course in the face of unsympathetic media coverage.
INSTEAD, we may be witnessing the establishment of a nascent Palestinian state

uncompromisingly committed to the destruction of Israel. With Gaza in its grip, the Islamists will turn their full attention to the West Bank. Hamas can now more easily send its gunmen for specialized training abroad, while foreign "experts" will find it easier to infiltrate into the Strip.

Even if the Egyptians, using newly arrived American tunnel-detection equipment and limited but better-trained forces, make a strenuous effort to intercept the flow of arms - and Cairo insists it is now genuinely committed to this goal - chances are that anti-aircraft and anti-armor missiles, long-range rockets and sophisticated explosives will find their way into the Strip.

Finally, this cease-fire accelerates Hamas's ascendancy among Palestinians, and more broadly throughout the Arab world, even as the relative moderates associated with Mahmoud Abbas look ever-more impotent. Yet so long as it ostensibly adheres to the cease-fire, there will be those in the international community who will push for engaging Hamas "moderates."
Israeli decision-makers have purchased temporary calm for the battered communities bordering Gaza. The fear, underlined by bitter experience, is that it comes at the cost of a devastating storm brewing over the horizon.

Prodding the glacier

The glacial pace at which Europe has been working to get Iran to end its enrichment of uranium and give up its nuclear weapons program is slowly picking up. Britain and Europe are expected to freeze the assets of Bank Melli, the Islamic Republic's main financial conduit to the world and its channel for cash transfers to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The EU is also weighing sanctions against companies that invest in Iran's energy industry.

For its part, Iran has reportedly begun shifting cash out of European banks - $75 billion so far. Melli is switching its reserves into non-dollar currencies; and Iran is calling on other revenue-rich oil states to follow suit. Separately, Islamist Web sites aligned with al-Qaida have been urging their supporters to dump dollars.

Meanwhile, the EU continues to "engage" Iran using charm, suasion and incentives. Its foreign policy czar, Javier Solana, has just been to Teheran offering economic assistance and civilian nuclear knowhow in exchange for a halt to uranium enrichment. Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani pledged to "carefully study" the EU offer, though other government spokespeople have reportedly already rejected it.

In Iran, there are no "moderates" on the nuclear issue, but there are differences over how best to stonewall. If Solana wants to cut to the chase and receive straight answers to his proposals, he might try meeting directly with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Revolutionary Guard boss Mohammad Ali Jafari.

European apologists for Teheran are already saying Iran can't possibly accept the latest EU offer because Washington didn't formally sign on to it (though administration officials have endorsed EU diplomacy) and Washington hasn't publicly abandoned hopes for regime change. These apologists further claim that when the mullahs were (supposedly) not enriching uranium, Washington maintained sanctions nevertheless. And they argue that a more amenable president may replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2009.

EUROPE IS Iran's main import and export trading partner. According to EU data, in 2006, EU imports totaled more than €14.12 billion, while the value of EU exports (with Germany, France and Italy leading the way) amounted to more than €11.19 billion. Iran is Europe's fifth-biggest oil supplier. This means that the EU could live without Iran, though Iran would have a hard time managing without Europe.

Europe is thus still instrumental in keeping Teheran's economy afloat, yet it is doing precious little to explicitly isolate Iran. Regular international flights to the Islamic Republic still take off from most major European airports, and European countries maintain active embassies in Teheran.

IT'S LONG been suspected that the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, A.Q. Khan, sold bomb-making material to Iran. And this week brought revelations of computer blueprints being de-encrypted - which suggests Khan may also have peddled technology for building small, easily transportable nuclear weapons. We do not know if he sold the Iranians a design for a bomb small enough to be fitted atop one of their ballistic missiles; we do know that they have delivery vehicles able to reach Israel - and beyond - and are openly, feverishly enriching uranium.

A variation on Rudyard Kipling's "If" comes to mind: If Europe can keep its head when the rest of us are losing ours, maybe it doesn't understand the seriousness of the situation.

EVEN THE US, with the best of intentions, has not found it easy to impose a comprehensive sanctions regime. Which is why we applaud US Senator Max Baucus for his efforts to plug existing loopholes in American law.

For instance, while the export of US goods to Iran is already forbidden, there is a long list of exceptions, including parts for civilian airliners. It's still legal to import Persian carpets, caviar, nuts and dried fruit; "independent" subsidiaries of US corporations can still invest in Iran. Moreover, even though Moscow assists Iran's nuclear program, it remains legal to sell Russia nuclear equipment.

Finally, Baucus's bill would deduct US contributions to the World Bank proportionate to the funds the bank provides for programs defined as humanitarian in Iran. After all, money is fungible.

Were this the summer of 2002, when Iranian dissidents first revealed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the heavy-water plant in Arak, we might be more upbeat about the pace of European sanctions. Six years on, we are anything but.

A voice for the citizen (June 16, 2008)

Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but we have a long way to go before we can claim to have a genuinely representative form of government.

Our aspirations were set back on Sunday in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, when a bipartisan Knesset bill to reform the electoral system and allow 30 to 60 Knesset members to be elected by district was torpedoed. The remaining MKs would have been chosen under the current proportional method.

Backing for the reform came from Kadima, Labor and Likud, while the torpedoing was the handiwork of MK Meshulam Nahari of Shas, the Sephardi Orthodox party. The wishes of a single party with 12 parliamentary seats proved stronger than the combined efforts of parties with a total of 73 mandates - 84 counting Israel Beiteinu, which also backs electoral reform - because, as a coalition member, Shas has veto power over legislation which would modify "constitutional" Basic Law.

Shas likely opposed the bill out of fear that its electoral fortunes would suffer under a reformed system, though it claimed it voted against because it had not been sufficiently consulted.
As reported in The Jerusalem Post - no other newspaper ran this story on its front page - the initiators of the bill included Knesset Law Committee chair Menachem Ben-Sasson of Kadima, Gideon Sa'ar and Michael Eitan of Likud, and Labor MKs Ophir Paz-Pines and Eitan Cabel. It is virtually unprecedented for so diverse a group of legislators to unite behind such far-reaching legislation.

THE CASE for electoral reform is painfully clear: A system which in the previous century brought the likes of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin to power today attracts far more mediocre personalities even as it drives honest and decent people away.

The way we elect our leaders is also directly connected to why it is so hard to govern effectively, why so many Israelis feel alienated from the political system, and why average citizens have nowhere to turn with their grievances.

Public opinion surveys invariably show that a majority of Israelis support some form of district representation. And a commission headed by Hebrew University president Menachem Magidor which thoroughly examined our electoral system for 17 months also recommended, last year, reforms even more far-reaching than those now being put forward by Kadima, Labor and Likud. Magidor wanted to see half the Knesset - 60 MKs - directly elected in 17 districts. Each district would be represented by two to five MKs, the other half of the Knesset being elected by the proportional approach.

CONSTITUENCY representation is an essential ingredient in representative government. In the US, most members of the House of Representatives spend the bulk of their resources and energies on constituent services. Indeed, in just about every other democracy in the world voters have a particular politician who is accountable to them.

Moving away from the pure proportional system would also make Israeli politics less fragmented - and perhaps less ill-tempered - because a winner-take-all constituency system discourages single-issue parties that thrive on parochialism and abhor compromise. Smaller parties would fall by the wayside.

Major parties would focus on the good of the many over the interests of the few. Yet to attract voters, they would nevertheless have an incentive to embrace at least some of the causes of today's smaller parties.

With constituency representation comes direct accountability. It does not guarantee the absence of corruption, or that all politicians elected by district will selflessly devote themselves to the people they represent - but it does mean that good politicians could be rewarded and bad ones kicked out of office.

THE GOOD news is that the bill's defeat can yet be reversed. Ben-Sasson can still use the clout that comes with his committee chairmanship to maneuver around what observers suggest only appears to be a legislative dead-end. And as a last resort, the Knesset could support a private member's version of the bill vetoed by Shas.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the Hebrew language really does have a phrase for political constituency - mehoz bechira. Now if we could only convince our politicians that accountability is not an alien concept...

The road not taken (June 15,2008)

Ismail and Najuan Khualed and their seven-year-old daughter Eden, from the Galilee village of Sa'ab, were killed over the weekend a few hundred meters from their home on Road 70 between Karmiel and Acre. A truck driver traveling in the opposite lane lost control of his vehicle, which then overturned, slamming into the Khualeds' car. Their son Tamir is hospitalized in critical condition.

Not a weekend goes by, or so it seems, which does not close with awful news about traffic and road fatalities. This one was no exception: In addition to Ismail, 25, and Najuan, 22, three other citizens lost their lives.

In a three-month period his year, 89 people were killed; thousands were injured.
It is small consolation to the grieving families - or to our national psyche - that traffic-related fatalities have actually decreased. The statistics are mildly encouraging: In 2004, 428 were killed; 2005, 381; 2006, 373; and 2007, 351.

NO ONE would dispute that the main culprit is speed. Academic experts persuasively argue that as speed goes up, so does the frequency and severity of accidents. The police concur - speed is a factor in most accidents, directly causing 20 percent of fatalities.

Obviously, drivers must be more diligent about adhering to posted speed limits, and police need to do a better job of catching violators. Still, human nature being what it is, and since police can't be everywhere, experts argue that a state-of-the-art speed camera network ought to be installed across the country to detect and deter speeding. Such a network has been shown to reduce fatalities in the UK, Australia and France.

In Israel, cameras using comparatively archaic technology are in place along only relatively short stretches of road. Other "cameras" are actually decoys intended to fool drivers into thinking they're being monitored. Until now, budget constraints, red tape and a shortage of personnel (to retrieve and process the film) has hamstrung this old technology.
Why has the Finance Ministry failed to allocate the necessary funds for Israel to implement its own nationwide, state-of-the art speed camera program?

Dead citizens don't contribute to the economy, and shattered survivors often become burdens to society. The cost to tax-payers of medical care and rehabilitation for injured motorists can be staggering. So it makes economic sense - aside from being also the moral thing to do - to invest in safer roads.

We urge Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz to show leadership and lose no time in getting to work with the police and the Treasury. They must accelerate a viable timetable for making speed cameras a reality.

BUT SPEEDING is not the only problem. Even some major arteries are not properly lit at night. Some lack shoulders - including, villagers say, the area where the Khualed family lost their lives. Drivers also have a responsibility: to keep their tires inflated, their brakes in good condition and their windshields clean for good visibility. If there are population sectors which are disproportionately involved in accidents, remedial driver-education must be targeted where it will do the most good.

WHILE IT may be hard to quantify, most of us sense that there is also something about Israel's "culture" that contributes, if not to the actual carnage on the roads, then to the prevailing sense of intolerance and lack of consideration. Too many drivers fail to signal lane changes, or turns; rather than yield, they pursue self-defeating and dangerous "not-one-inch" tactics.

No one wants to be a freier - a sucker - and everyone is stressed. Yet it is intolerable that some people drive while cradling a cell phone, shaving, applying make-up or reading.

Public service ads have reeducated us about the need for passenger seat-belts, the danger of children dashing out between cars, and the benefits of keeping headlights on during the winter. The time is long overdue for a basic road etiquette campaign.

Driving in Israel, admittedly stressful, is still safer and less unpleasant than ever before thanks to improved roads, better lighting and, in urban areas, the growing utilization of roundabouts and speed bumps.

None of these improvements, however, makes us sanguine about the deaths of good people like the Khualeds.

Are you hearing us, Minister Mofaz?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Shunning politics

When politicians are unpopular that's their problem, but when polls show that the public is increasingly estranged from the political system itself, it's everyone's problem.

Think of "the system" as including all the variables associated with political life - institutions, players, even values. Yet no matter how serious the dissatisfaction, a political system's legitimacy is best judged by its ability to respond to citizen frustration. When too many people feel it doesn't deliver the goods and doesn't have the capacity to repair what's broken, legitimacy is at risk.

IT IS IN this context that we consider the 2008 Democracy Index-Guttman Center Survey conducted for the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), released earlier this week. The results reveal just how appalled Israelis are by the state of politics in this country.

Ninety percent feel the system is tainted with corruption - and the poll was conducted before the allegations involving Morris Talansky and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert became known.
These findings bolster a 2006 Transparency International report on "corruption perceptions," which placed Israel below the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Mistrust in government institutions, the IDI survey found, continues to grow - hardly surprising when the prime minister is under multiple investigations. Nor is it astounding that only 29% of Israelis trust the Knesset (down from 33%) given that 15 MKs are either under investigation or have been indicted or convicted. A minuscule 15% of Israelis trust their political parties.

In the survey's pre-Talansky finding, only 17% told the IDI they trusted the prime minister. An Israel Radio poll on Thursday found that a solid majority of Israelis feel Ehud Olmert has a mandate to make neither war or peace.

Only 35% of citizens see the Supreme Court as the primary vehicle safeguarding Israeli democracy - understandable given the spectacle of a sitting court president engaged in a ruinous public row with the justice minister over judicial philosophy.

FEWER PEOPLE express interest in politics - 60%compared to 75% last year - a sure indicator of the alienation which corrodes legitimacy. That may explain why only 63% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2006.

Many feel that the government is abdicating its responsibility to non-profit and volunteer organizations. We've seen how the nation's universities, for example, have become ever more dependent on foreign donors, even though it is the state's responsibility to educate its citizens; how our overworked social workers can barely eke out a living, much less effectively advocate for their clients. And, as the state looks away, even soup kitchens are cutting back on staff and services because of the drop in the dollar's value.

The survey asked about trust in political institutions. It is unsurprising that only 36% put their faith in the attorney-general, given the widespread perception that he is better at initiating investigations than in resolving them - witness the festering Katsav Affair. Nor is it surprising that trust in the police is down to 33% (from 41%). Many perceive the police as quick to leak information about ongoing investigations, yet sluggish in responding to more mundane demands - for instance, from citizens who've found themselves victims of burglary.

Summing up the survey's findings, IDI president Arye Carmon said: "The rise of anti-political sentiment reaches the point of delegitimizing the political and decision-making processes... It is not only about this person or that - it is the entire system. The Israeli public is turning its back on politics."

THE NEWS isn't all gloomy: 71% trust the IDF (down three points), and the president is trusted by 47% - up from 22% with the arrival of Shimon Peres.

Strangely, 43% of respondents (compared to 34% in 2007) claim to be satisfied with how Israeli democracy functions. That's probably because they confuse "democracy" with the take-no-prisoners political culture prevalent in this country, epitomized by the high-decibel talk shows and shrill Knesset "debates" which only paper over the system's gaping deficiencies.

The good news is that it's not too late for the country's elites to turn things around. A whopping 80% of Israelis remain proud of their country and wouldn't want to live anywhere else. What a heartbreak it would be if this devotion was betrayed by ongoing irresponsible governance.

Britain's fateful vote

The prime minister's popularity continues to hemorrhage. Though his party leads Parliament, he cannot count on winning a crucial vote without a tough fight. The government's number one agenda item is the threat of terrorism. A popular young foreign minister - a protégé of the previous leader - waits in the wings to displace him.

This is the scene as the British House of Commons prepares to decide today on what is perceived as - but isn't - a vote of confidence in the leadership of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

At issue is the government's Counter Terrorism Bill, which was introduced by Home Secretary Jacqi Smith. The legislation would allow the pre-charge detention of terrorist suspects to be extended from 28 to 42 days in exceptional circumstances; stiffen prison terms for convicted terrorists; allow for legal proceedings to be heard without a jury at the home secretary's discretion, and permit the public to be barred from national security trials. It would also confer additional powers, enabling the government to gather and share information for counter-terrorism purposes; amend the law relating to asset-freezing procedures, and curtail the civil liberties of paroled terrorists.

EXPANDING THE pre-charge detention period is needed, proponents argue, because of the severity and complexity of the Islamist threat. Authorities need more time to untangle plots and decipher encrypted material in Arabic.

So worried is the Labor government that it might lose the vote that it instructed Foreign Secretary David Miliband to cut short his visit to our region so he could take part in procedural hurdles leading up to the fateful Commons vote. Miliband met with PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad in Ramallah on Monday and was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but instead rushed home yesterday morning.

The bill faces opposition not only from the resurgent Conservative Party and the Liberals, but also from about 30 rebels inside Labor.

The Conservatives argue that the bill is political - designed to make Brown look tough on security. Opposition Leader David Cameron condemns the plan as bad for civil liberties and potentially alienating Britain's 1.6 million Muslims. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, says there is no "compelling evidence" that an extension is necessary.

Yesterday, Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a non-departmental public body independent of the government, announced that if the bill became law he would launch a legal challenge at the first opportunity. Grassroots opposition is being spearheaded by the Muslim Council of Britain, Amnesty International and Liberty, whose director, Shami Chakrabart, released 42 balloons outside Parliament yesterday to highlight his group's antagonism toward the proposals.

To allay legitimate concerns of civil libertarians and British Muslims, the government said it would compensate - at up to £3,000 per day - any person held beyond the current 28-day limit who is subsequently proven innocent.

With two-thirds of voters in favor, the bill has plenty of popular support, including from Khurshid Ahmed, leader of the moderate British Muslim Forum, who said: "I am reassured safeguards proposed go a long way in protecting civil liberties. As we saw in the July 7 attacks, Muslims are just as likely to be victims of plots as any other British people."

Also for the bill are Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, Sir Hugh Orde, chief constable of Northern Ireland, and Peter Clarke, former head of police anti-terrorist operations. The secret services, however - including MI5 - have remained publicly neutral.

Even as the bill is being debated, the current threat level in Britain is "severe," meaning "an attack is highly likely." Brown has said that the security services are right now tracking 2,000 potential terrorists, 30 potential plots and 200 terror networks. "I've tried to build consensus around our proposals, but I am determined that we stick to our principles... that up to 42 days' detention is - and will be - necessary in the future."

WHILE WE do not impugn the motives of those who genuinely oppose this legislation on civil liberties grounds, this is one vote where partisan politics - kicking an unpopular politician when he's down - is thoroughly unacceptable. For at stake is nothing less than providing tolerant Britain, a nation from which so many others take their moral lead, with the tools it needs to confront a murderous religious extremism.

A unifying doctrine

If only citizens of Israel living near the Gaza Strip border could be magically granted 24 hours of tranquility for every day Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have leveled worthless threats at the Hamas regime in Gaza. If only the Iranian menace could be banished by Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz's bellicose babble.

If only Israel could bluff its way out of its security conundrums.

Last Thursday, after a 120-mm mortar shell carrying 4.5 kilograms of explosives slammed into a factory at Kibbutz Nahal Oz and killed 51-year-old Amnon Rozenberg, Israeli policymakers unleashed another barrage of rhetoric. Barak cautioned "the sand of the hourglass is running out" and Olmert warned about "the pendulum" swinging toward "a harsh operation" instead of a cease-fire with Hamas.

TODAY, A three-way meeting among Olmert, Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is scheduled to discuss what to do about Gaza. The cabinet has been procrastinating since January as almost 1,000 rockets and over 1,000 mortars have struck the south. Eight people have been killed (compared to 10 last year) and innumerable citizens traumatized.

It is not as if the IDF has been sitting on its hands. Israel regularly sends aircraft, tanks and ground troops into the Strip. Hundreds of enemy targets have been hit and many hundreds of gunmen killed. Still, at the end of the day, the army has been unable to protect Israel's civilian population from attack.

Jerusalem is understandably not keen on launching a massive retaliatory operation in the Strip. Its goal is far from clear; there is trepidation over casualties (on both sides); and media coverage of Israeli tanks rumbling through the squalid and congested streets of Gaza would be nasty. Finally, there is a real prospect that, sooner or later, it will all have to be repeated.

So first, Israelis were told nothing would happen while the country was celebrating its 60th anniversary and world leaders were here. Then there were hints that Defense Ministry bureau director Amos Gilad, working via Egyptian intermediaries, had gotten as good a cease-fire deal as could be had with Hamas, and that Olmert, Barak and Livni were weighing whether to take it.
Now, with Shavuot over, our procrastinating decision-makers will have to choose either military action or a problematic cease-fire - and it looks like they will say "yes" to both options: first a military strike "to teach Hamas a lesson," then a temporary cease-fire which would presumably bring about the freeing of Gilad Schalit in exchange for untold numbers of hardened terrorists from Israeli prisons, but would also give Hamas time to rebuild its forces and solidify its hold.
This apparent combination of massive retaliation plus a cease-fire interlude, along with caving in to kidnappers' blackmail, strikes us as deeply flawed. There may be a better way.

ISRAELI policymakers need to enunciate a "River-to-Sea Doctrine" declaring that this country will not tolerate on territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan any foreign power that threatens the security of the Jewish state. Once approved by the cabinet, this principled national policy statement would be brought to the Knesset for bipartisan ratification and enshrined not as the policy of a particular prime minister, but as state policy.

Fulfilling this doctrine, the IDF could then be directed to topple the Hamas regime by whatever stratagem works best. And an exit strategy? Once the top echelon of the Islamist leadership is eliminated, its forces decimated and the structures associated with it razed, the way would be paved for the Palestinian Authority to resume control over the area; for international aid to flow more smoothly and, with any luck, for the process of rebuilding and rehabilitation to begin.

The chances of a deal with Palestinian relative moderates led by Mahmoud Abbas would, if anything, be enhanced by such a doctrine executed as bipartisan Israeli policy. More importantly, should the West Bank fall under Islamist control after Israel and the Palestinians sign a peace accord, the "River-to-Sea Doctrine" would automatically become operative.

In pursuit of war or peace, a doctrine like this would harmonize the will of the people, the policies of the government and the strategy of the military. And it would send an important message to the international community about where Israel draws its red lines.

The growth of Shavuot

One of the most affecting biblical stories is the Book of Ruth, set in ancient Israel during the period of the Judges. Ruth's character embodies all the virtues delineated by political philosopher William J. Bennett: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.

A family - Naomi, Elimelech and their two sons - is forced to abandon Judah for Moab to escape famine. The sons take Moabite wives, but before long the men all die and Naomi finds herself left alone with her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth. By now the famine is over and Naomi sets out on a return journey to Judah accompanied by the two young women. Knowing that she faces an uncertain future back home, Naomi pleads with them to remain in their own homeland. Orpah tearfully agrees.

Ruth's response captures our hearts: "Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried."

We won't give away all that happens next - the full account is recited on Shavuot, marked on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, which falls this year on Monday (and extends to the 7th of Sivan, Tuesday, in the Diaspora). Suffice to say that Ruth the convert becomes a forbearer of King David. And her tribulations become symbolic of the sacrifices the Jewish faith demands. Tradition also has it that King David's yarhzeit - the anniversary of his death - falls on Shavuot.
Shavout is one of Judaism's three pilgrimage festivals. It is observed at the end of the counting of the Omer - seven weeks from the first day of Pessah. In Temple times, the cycle began with a barley offering and concluded with a wheat offering.
WHAT fascinates is Judaism's vibrancy and adaptability,

how its traditions and customs evolved over thousands of years to accommodate changing circumstances in order to preserve continuity and cohesion. And so, what began as an agricultural festival was transformed.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, with the Jews cut off from their land, the Sanhedrin (circa 140 CE) introduced an additional motif for the holiday - commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Hence the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, is recited in the synagogue on Shavuot.

Cut off from the soil during their dispersion, Jews nevertheless recited the Torah portion pertaining to the Temple's agricultural sacrifices and decorated their synagogues with greenery for the holiday. In this way, they never lost sight of the bond between the Land, God and religion of Israel.

Each generation and locale added something to the accumulation of practices today associated with Shavuot. Mystics urged staying up all night learning so as to be wakeful at the precise anniversary of the giving of the Ten Commandments. The Kaballah teaches that those who remain awake studying will come to no harm for an entire year.

During the morning synagogue service, many Ashkanazi congregations recite Akdamot, an Aramaic rhyme of tribute to God for giving the Torah to the Jews. Aramaic was once the language spoken by most people and the rabbis wanted congregants to feel connected to the services. Though familiarity with Aramaic has fallen by the wayside, the melodic recitation of the poem survives as part of the liturgy.

As on other holidays, food plays a not insignificant pedagogical role. In medieval times, the practice of eating dairy foods was adopted to symbolize the Torah's association with milk and honey.

WITH THE return to Zion, the Jewish calendar took on added relevance. Even non-observant Israelis often maintain some of the holiday's traditions. For instance, kibbutzim hold ceremonies and parades on Shavuot displaying their produce. And younger school children craft and wear garlands of fresh flowers.

As Shavuot demonstrates, tradition does not mean standing still; it can denote redefining ancient practices to make them contemporary and ever meaningful. Tradition is an expression of respect for continuity, for connecting us with a shared past and - let us hope - a common future.

Friday, June 06, 2008

America at its best

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2008 Policy Conference which concluded Wednesday in Washington is an expression of all that is wonderful about America and about the US-Israel relationship. For AIPAC is not Israel's lobby in the US - it is the central address of pro-Israel Americans from across the political spectrum.

As Israelis watched in admiration from the other side of the globe, 7,000 US citizens - from the most powerful practitioners of politics to undergraduates taking their first politics course - gathered under the auspices of a body that is neither conservative nor liberal, Republican or Democratic, but quintessentially American.

And because this is an election year, the presumptive Republican and Democratic presidential candidates both gave defining speeches at the conference.

They knew their words would be deconstructed, analyzed and archived as the best, straight-from-the-horse's-mouth indicator of their respective stances on issues of concern to the pro-Israel community.

And by that criteria, the news is good.

A BLEARY-EYED Barack Obama was warmly greeted by an audience that knew he had just made the historic journey to becoming the first African American nominated by a major party. He began by both acknowledging, then deriding a negative e-mail campaign about him circulating within the Jewish community. Then, "speaking from the heart," Obama offered a stirring oration that repeatedly brought the audience to its feet.

"I will never compromise when it comes to Israel's security," he declared.

He argued that by pressuring Israel to allow Palestinian elections with Hamas participation, and by going to war against Iraq when "Iran was always the greater threat," administration foreign policy had made Israel less secure.

Obama dismissed the notion that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was at the root of Mideast instability; he said Israel's qualitative military superiority had to be preserved, and that Hamas must be kept isolated. He was committed to "two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state," but would not force concessions on the parties, only work to avoid stalemate. And he affirmed that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

On Iran, Obama said he would "do everything" - everything - to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. "I have no interest in sitting down with men like Ahmadinejad just for the sake of talking. But as president of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy... at a time and place of my choosing - if, and only if it can advance the interests of the United States."

One speech does not allay all Israeli concerns, certainly not when so many of Obama's pro-Israel advisers are associated with the failed Oslo policies. Still, the senator is to be applauded for his forthrightness. And Israelis need to remember that Oslo was largely a homegrown concept.

JOHN McCAIN came to AIPAC with far less political baggage, yet aware that no matter what he said, most US Jews would maintain their historic allegiance to the Democratic Party. A recent Gallop poll shows that 61 percent of Jewish voters intend to vote for Obama.

The senator from Arizona and former POW was welcomed warmly by the AIPAC audience, which included his friend Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Looking relaxed and confident, McCain identified himself with the legacy of senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, beloved in the Jewish world, noting that he made his first trip to Israel with Jackson in 1979.

In a far less policy-specific address, McCain too pledged to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge; said America's ties with Israel were unbreakable, and that the two countries were natural allies. He added that the Palestinians were badly led, and that the US ought not to confer approval on Hamas. Stating that "Teheran's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons poses an unacceptable risk, a danger we cannot allow," he criticized Obama's willingness to meet Iranian leaders. He advocated an escalating ladder of international pressure to "peacefully but decisively" change Iran's path.

McCain passionately argued that a withdrawal of US forces from Iraq would profoundly affect Israeli security and be catastrophic for the region.

The campaigns will now be shifting into lower gear until the respective party conventions at the end of the summer. Meanwhile, for the Jewish state - and its neighbors - this year's policy conference underscored that the America-Israel relationship is a bipartisan affair.

Yes: Urgency on Iran

Imagine how dangerous, how potentially destabilizing a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities could be to the region and the world. And yet any such attack would be infinitely less dangerous and less destabilizing than allowing nuclear bombs to fall into the mullahs' hands.
Now, with the civilized world at a crossroads, imagine being able to prevent both such chilling scenarios by making tough yet wise decisions in the next weeks and months.

That was the message Prime Minister Ehud Olmert brought to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday: "We must stop the Iranian threat by all possible means. Each and every country must understand that the long-term cost of a nuclear Iran greatly outweighs the short-term benefits of doing business with Iran."
The urgency of Iran was probably the reason Olmert travelled to Washington to meet with President George W. Bush so soon after seeing him in Jerusalem, and despite his political travails at home.

LAST WEEK the International Atomic Energy Agency essentially announced that Teheran was stonewalling the agency. And still Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to travel around the world - on Tuesday he was in Rome for a UN food summit - spewing hatred and talking genocide. Israel, he said, is "doomed to go." This from a leader who has repeatedly threatened to wipe Israel off the map, and who last month referred to the Jewish state as a "stinking corpse... on its way to annihilation," which has "reached the end like a dead rat."

To their credit, both Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and Pope Benedict XVI refused to meet Ahmadinejad.

THE IRANIANS know they are playing with fire. Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar has warned that "any attack on Iran would... result in painful consequences for the attacker... I believe the Zionist regime degraded itself when it proved powerless against Hizbullah - to such an extent that it would never be able to bear the first response of Iran."

Such saber-rattling accompanies Iran's gloating in the knowledge that it will very soon reach the point of no return in its acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Teheran continues unabated to build centrifuges (Ahmadinejad has boasted of 3,000 already in operation), enrich uranium, test high-explosive triggers for nuclear devices and redesign the nose-cone of the Shahab-3 rocket to accommodate nuclear warheads.

At this critical juncture, as time runs out, the reasons why the Iranians must not get the bomb bear repeating.
• Iran acts as a leading sponsor of terrorism in the world. It trains, finances, and equips Hamas, Hizbullah and extremists in Iraq.
• Iranian proliferation of nuclear technology to terrorist groups is a terrifyingly real possibility.
• Iran is not like the former Soviet Union. It is a fundamentally unstable regime. There are power struggles between the presidency, the parliament, the Revolutionary Guards and the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The country's foreign polices are often dangerously erratic.
• Finally, even the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) that governed the Cold War does not necessarily apply to a regime ruled by religious fanatics for whom martyrdom may well be not a deterrent, but an inducement.

WHAT THEN is the civilized world to do?

It must pressure the Iranian leadership - relentlessly - by imposing severe political, social and economic sanctions. It must freeze assets and outlaw business with the Central Bank of Iran. It must bar Iranian airliners from landing at major airports. Iranian leaders must be made personae non grata at international forums.

The commonwealth of nations has to know that if it does not change course and continues with the modest sanctions now in place, Iran is on track toward nuclearization.

Brazenly, Teheran has defied successive Security Council resolutions calling on it to suspend its uranium enrichment - including a round of sanctions approved by the council in December 2006, and a "tougher" round authorized three months later. It has rejected European offers of generous economic incentives, including support for a civilian nuclear energy program.

In his AIPAC address the premier spoke for all Israelis, when he declared: "The international community has a duty and responsibility to clarify to Iran, through drastic measures, that the repercussions of its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will be devastating."

Another bad deal

How astute is it to trade an unreconstructed killer for what, it is now increasingly feared, are the remains of two IDF fallen? When that killer continues to swear loyalty to the blood-soaked path of jihad? And when the exchange would further bolster Hassan Nasrallah's stranglehold on Lebanon?

This is the dilemma facing Israeli policymakers: whether to trade Samir Kuntar for Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Hizbullah has provided no sign of life from the soldiers since they were abducted on June 26, 2006 in the cross-border aggression that ignited the Second Lebanon War.

On Sunday, amid rumors of a far broader deal, Israel released Nissim Nasser after he completed a six-year espionage sentence and shipped him back to Lebanon. Nasser is a small fish, who did no irreparable harm.

At roughly the same time, in a step arranged via German mediation - but which both Israel and the Red Cross claim surprised them - Hizbullah released some of the assorted IDF body parts it had ghoulishly harvested from the battlefields of the war.

Nasser's release and the handover of body parts, plus recent statements by Nasrallah that Kuntar would soon be brought home all heightened speculation that a prisoner swap involving Goldwasser and Regev was in the offing.

Then Der Spiegel OnLine published the shattering report, based on German intelligence sources, that Regev and Goldwasser "are believed to be dead." The paper described the outlines of a deal proposed to the Israeli government: Jerusalem would release the last four Hizbullah terrorists in its custody - Kuntar included. It would hand over the remains of all other Lebanese from previous wars and provide maps detailing the location of minefields in southern Lebanon. After a suitable interval, it would also release dozens of Palestinian prisoners.

In return, Hizbullah would turn over the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev and provide unspecified data on Ron Arad. How this arrangement would impact ongoing efforts to free Gilad Schalit from Hamas captivity is unclear.

KUNTAR, a Lebanese Druse, is serving four life sentences for the 1979 deaths of Danny Haran, 28, his two daughters, four-year-old Einat and two-year old Yael, and the killing of police officer Eliahu Shahar in Nahariya. Some reports say Kuntar bashed Einat's head in with a rifle butt, or smashed her against a rock before her father's eyes, before shooting him dead at close-range.
Kuntar's actions are rendered even more monstrous by the way little Yael met her end. Haran's wife, Smadar, hid herself and the toddler from Kuntar and his gang in a crawl space above the couple's bedroom. In an effort to muffle Yael's cries, Smadar smothered the child.

Even if Goldwasser and Regev are alive, releasing this soulless unrepentant in exchange for their safe return would hardly be an easy decision. For he may represent Israel's last leverage in obtaining information about our other missing soldiers.

The enemy had claimed it had no more information about IAF navigator Ron Arad, who disappeared over Lebanon in 1986. Now it is reportedly offering such information. And next week marks the 26th anniversary of the battle of Sultan Yakoub, where Yehuda Katz, Tzvi Feldman and Zachary Baumel went missing. Eleven summers ago this August, Guy Hever disappeared near the Syrian border.

One senses that the enemy is not telling all it knows about these men. But beyond that, Israeli policymakers need to reevaluate their willingness to engage in lopsided prisoner exchanges. We recoil at them, and at the history of released captives returning to carry out further attacks. Yet such deals occur not infrequently. It is not only the exchanges themselves that are so trouble, but Israel's bargaining ineptitude: Too many living terrorists are being exchanged for dead bodies.

ARGUABLY the most egregious of the "crazy" exchanges so castigated by the Winograd Committee earlier this year was the May 1985 "Jibril deal," which traded 1,150 Palestinians for three live IDF soldiers. Granted, not all exchanges have been as lopsided: In 1998, Israel obtained the bodies of three naval commandos for 60 Shi'ite prisoners and 40 corpses, including Nasrallah's son. Other deals remain acutely hard to fathom. In 2004, 400 enemy combatants were exchanged for renegade IDF colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum and the remains of three IDF soldiers.

Israel's enemies know that Judaism attaches the highest priority to freeing captives and bringing closure to the families of fallen fighters. Isn't it time they also learned that Jews understand a thing or two about bargaining?

Jerusalem Day

There is not a stone in the city but has been reddened with human blood; not a spot but where some hand-to-hand conflict has taken place; not an old wall but has echoed back the shrieks of despairing women. Jew, Pagan, Christian, Mohammedan, each has had his turns of triumph, occupation and defeat...
For Jerusalem has been the representative sacred place of the world; there has been none other like unto it, or equal to it, or shall be, while the world lasts.
- 'Jerusalem' by Walter Besant and E.H. Palmer, 1870

This recollection helps us put into context why, 41 years after the reunification of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty, the passions, tensions and controversies surrounding our magnificent capital remain largely unresolved.

The successes and failures of Israel's administration of the city are best understood in the framework not only of the contemporary Arab-Israel conflict, but as part of an ancient, almost metaphysical struggle for the soul of Jerusalem. In other words, the conflict resolution lessons applied to modern contested cities - Berlin, Dublin, Gdansk, Trieste, Brussels, Montreal, Belfast and Nicosia - are not necessarily applicable to Jerusalem.

Centuries before Christianity and Islam came into history, the Psalmists wrote: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." This haunting Psalm, 137, recited daily in the Grace after Meals, begins with the poignant: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion."

Jews continued to remember Zion even after Israel's hard-fought War of Independence, when Jordan controlled east Jerusalem and Jews were barred from visiting the Western Wall and Temple Mount. Thus, in January 1950 the Knesset, meeting in west Jerusalem, declared the city Israel's capital.

On June 5, 1967, Jordan attacked Israel. King Hussein's legionnaires occupied UN headquarters, bombarded Mount Scopus (the Hebrew University enclave), and attacked Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. In this war of self-defense Israel threw back the invaders and unified the city.

TODAY the city flourishes. It is home to 746,000 souls, of whom 257,000, or 34 percent, are Arabs. Birthrates (Jewish and Arab) are booming and nearly identical. Fewer residents than in the past are leaving town. Health care for all is outstanding. On a summer weekend, you would be hard-pressed to find a hotel room, or a table at one of the city's fine restaurants. Tourism has never been better. The city's cultural attractions and trendy neighborhoods make Jerusalem an altogether delightful place. Even our gazelles were recently granted a secure area in which to flourish.

Yet all is not rosy.

The city desperately needs more jobs and affordable middle-class housing. Too many citizens work in the public sector. A disproportionate number of haredim are outside the workforce. Too many residents live below the poverty level - the city is Israel's poorest - and too many elderly rely on charity. While city managers have made driving in the center of town hellish, a much promised light rail system has been years in the offing.

WHILE ONE can evaluate conditions within the city using the criteria one would with any urban center, Jerusalem is unlike any other place: It is a focal point in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Solutions which may seem obvious from far away are impractical here on the ground. Those across the political spectrum who speak of "dividing" or "sharing" Jerusalem; of keeping it "united"; or of "east" as opposed to "west" Jerusalem are treading on dodgy semantic, political and geographical ground.

The city, spread out across hills and valleys, does need to be better integrated. With sovereignty comes responsibility - even over such mundane concerns as sewers, street paving and garbage collection. It is unacceptable that Arabs should live in more dilapidated neighborhoods, even though they have boycotted every municipal election and rejected representation at city hall. Mayors Teddy Kollek, Ehud Olmert and now Uri Lupolianski all failed to proactively provide equal services to Arab and Jewish areas, across the board. However, this is now beginning to change. More schoolrooms are being built, more housing units are to be approved.

Today, rejoicing that Jerusalem is again in our hands, we pray for the wisdom that will allow Israelis to help make it a true city of peace.

Britain vs. Islamism

When political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote his seminal "The Clash of Civilizations" in the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, he took academia and the punditocracy by storm. The Berlin Wall had come down (1989), the Soviet Union had collapsed (1991) and the Cold War, which had divided nations over ideology and economic philosophy, had ended.

Since politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, Huntington forecast another great clash which would be dominated less by ideology than by conflicts over culture, religion and tradition. Islam factored into his analysis, but was by no means central. He advocated that America spread its values and pursue a policy of accommodation where possible, but not shy away from confrontation where necessary.

The article appeared after the first attack on the World Trade Center in February 1993. Since then, Muslim extremists, whether inspired by Shi'ite Iran or Sunni al-Qaida, have sought to prove that their ideas are ascendant within Muslim civilization.

Day in, day out since "Clash" was published, Islamist violence has been ubiquitous, even outside the horrors perpetrated against Israel: Two deadly attacks against Jewish targets in Argentina (1992 and 1994); a Paris metro bombing (1995); attacks against tourists in Egypt (1996 and 1997) and Africa (1998); the crash of an Egyptian airliner off the US coast (1999) and the assault against the USS Cole (2000), culminating in the September 11 atrocities of 2001.

After 9/11, the rationale for these attacks came into better focus, yet many in the West remained in denial. Still the violence continued: Daniel Pearl's murder (2002); the Bali bombing (2002); more attacks in Riyadh (2003); the schoolhouse slaughter in North Ossetia, Russia (2004); killings of Christians in Indonesia (2005); the storming of the Washington state Jewish center (2006), and suicide bombings in Algeria (2007).

Six months into 2008, the onslaught continues. In May alone, Islamists carried out over 100 attacks in some 18 countries.

WESTERNERS in general, particularly Britons, have found it hard to internalize the nature of the aggression. The UK is a multicultural, post-modern and largely post-Christian society, much of whose political and media elite lack a useful frame of reference for analyzing violent religious zealotry. Now, though, Britain just might be taking a lead in confronting the danger.

The challenge has been direct and acute: On July 7, 2005, a series of coordinated bomb blasts carried out by Islamists killed 52 commuters and shut down London's transport system. On a summer morning in 2006, London's Heathrow Airport closed down after police uncovered plots to use liquid explosives to blow up a dozen trans-Atlantic airliners. And last year, Muslim terrorists struck at Glasgow airport using a jeep loaded with petrol. Others left a car bomb to explode in London's West End.

Some Britons, mobilized by a minority of academics, radical Muslims, the hard Left and its gormless fellow-travelers, blame British domestic and foreign policy for Muslim "discontent." These elements are also behind the renewed effort by the University and College Union (UCU) to boycott Israeli academics.

But others are beginning to understand what they are up against, and what they must do to preserve liberal society and the British way of life. Part of the solution relates to security, hence the government's moves to map the clustering of Islamist-oriented populations. Security officials have also called for terrorist suspects to be detained for up to 42 days.

Equally important, however, is empowering moderate Islam. Yesterday the Home Office announced a £12.5 million "de-radicalization" plan targeting Muslims who have been co-opted by radical Islam - people who have "already crossed the line" in terms of ideology, but not yet committed violent acts. The program offers mentoring and a form of amnesty for participants. British-born Muslim scholars would be called upon to teach the Islamic path toward tolerance and non-violence in state schools. The goal is not to have Muslims abandon their religion, but to systematically offer them a more moderate interpretation.

It is not clear whether Gordon Brown's shaky government will be able to implement these proposals, or even whether such brave and moderate Muslim educators can be found. But on the 15th "Clash of Civilizations" anniversary, Britain appears, finally, to be recognizing the menace radical Islam presents and willing to do something smart about it. The rest of the free world has an immense stake in its success.

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