Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Disengagement II: When will we ever learn?

I don't know whether or not Eyal Arad's latest trial balloon reflects the prime minister's thinking, though it seems likely. But it's hopelessly naive to think that Israel has the power to unilaterally determine its permanent border. A border by definition has (at least) two sides. So long as the Arabs refuse to accept our self-declared border, it will remain up for grabs.

Take the Golan Heights, for example. Or eastern Jerusalem. No country recognizes Israel's sovereignty over them, despite decades of formal annexation to Israel. And no country will until our enemies do. Until such time, they're on the negotiating table, whether we like it or not.

Unilateral withdrawals, aside from destroying Israel's military deterrence and undermining those among the Arabs who support a negotiated agreement, simply cannot achieve the objective of finalizing Israel's borders. The Arabs do not recognize the Israel-Gaza boundary as an international border, and, following them, neither does the United Nations or any individual nation.

If, as Arad suggests, Israel adopts "continuing unilateral disengagement" as a long-term policy, we will only confirm to our enemies that we plan to salami-slice ourselves out of existence. That may buy us some quiet as long as the slicing continues (or it may not), but it certainly won't bring us long-term security and stability, let alone international recognition of our "permanent border".

A final note: While our allies reluctantly accepted and eventually applauded our unilateral disengagement from Gaza, they would not have done so had the plan included the annexation of areas of territory adjacent to Israel. A "disengagement" plan for the West Bank such as Arad describes, which includes the annexation of settlement blocs, would not even achieve the support of our closest allies, including the Americans. (Bush's letter about settlement blocs refers to the position the U.S. would take in the context of final-status negotiations with the Palestinians; the U.S. has never accepted Israel's right to annex settlements unilaterally.)

Israelis have an apparent infinite capacity to believe that this next plan will finally solve our problems. Will they ever learn?

Ein simcha bikhfar ha-botz

If you understood the allusion in the headline, you probably agree with Michael Freund:

Why Israel needs baseball

Should we sing "Buy me some peanuts and sunflower seeds"?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Plia Albeck, of blessed memory

The little-known Plia Albeck, perhaps one of Israel's most influential lawyers in the 1970s and 1980s, passed away today aged 68.

Albeck, as this brief obituary notes, was the Israeli civil servant responsible for determining the legal status of land in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). On the basis of her legal opinions, over 100 Jewish settlements were established on lands she determined to be ownerless state land.

I had the privilege of meeting her once. She was possibly the leading expert ever on the complex legal issues affecting West Bank land, where the applicable laws derived from the Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli legal systems.

Ha'aretz profiled her in this April 2004 interview.

May her memory be blessed.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Roadkill myths II: Israel is worse than any civilized country

In this second installment of my series on road accidents in Israel, I promised to address international comparisons. This brings me straight to the second prevalent myth.

Myth II: Israel is worse than any other civilized country

This is a bit trickier to tackle than the first myth, since international comparisons are a tricky thing. For example, different countries have different definitions of what it means to be a traffic fatality. How soon after the accident does a victim have to die to be considered a road death?

Also, different countries gather and report different pieces of data, and use different methodologies in collecting them. Who gathers the statistics and how reliable are they? When data must be estimated, on what basis is the estimate made?

Finally, countries vary greatly in their road infrastructures, in vehicle use, in general levels of development and prosperity. What constitutes the typical "civilized country" Israel should be compared with? The wealthy U.S., with its high levels of vehicle ownership and low fuel prices? Other countries with Israel's level of economic development? Countries where most driving is on empty rural routes or in jammed urban areas?

Keep such factors in mind when evaluating the data. You can't draw meaningful conclusions from narrow statistical differences. That doesn't mean you can't assess the general trends, though. Let's see what we can do.

Per capita first
As before, there are (at least!) two main ways to compare fatality rates: per capita or per distance driven. As before, we'll look at both.

Per capita rates tell you how likely an average individual is to be killed in a road accident in a given year. In a sense, it answers the question, "How dangerous is it to live in this country?" with regards to traffic accidents.

Here's the answer for 2003:

Data is from this source; note the comments at the bottom of the page and remember the limitations of this sort of data. I've left out very small countries due to volatility of data. Incorrect Israel data point in this source has been corrected; Israel data for all graphs is from the Central Bureau of Statistics.

For easy identification, I've shown Israel's data in green, and a handful of major western countries in orange. Of the 45 countries shown, Israel ranks 6th. That is, only five countries had a lower fatality rate per capita. The United Kingdom placed 2nd, Japan 7th, Germany 13th, Canada 16th, France 18th, Italy 23rd, the United States a lowly 35th, and South Africa 44th between Russia and Malaysia.

In fact the U.S. fatality rate was more than double Israel's. The average person is twice as likely to be killed on the roads in the U.S. in any given year than in Israel. Israel's fatality rate is 16 percent higher than that of the supersafe U.K., though.

Surprised? Doesn't everyone know the roads are dangerous in Israel? Isn't it obvious to any American visitor, for example, that drivers are less cautious, cars are not as solid, and the roads are not as well maintained as they are at home?

All of that may be true, but that relates to how much risk is involved in driving a particular stretch of road. That is, as I explained in the previous installment, it's about not fatalities per capita but fatalities per distance driven.

Now per kilometer
Let's look at that next. The number of fatalities per distance driven answers the question, "How many people are killed in an average-distance trip in this country?" Again for 2003, the fatality rate per billion vehicle kilometers (fewer countries report this data, yielding a smaller but no less enlightening graph):

Data is from this source. Note that overall nationwide kilometers driven can be difficult to estimate, and methods may vary among countries.

By this measure, Israel fares less well. Out of 23 countries reporting, Israel places 15th. On the other hand, we're in good company. France, Ireland, Japan, Austria and New Zealand are within 10 percent of us. Israel's fatality rate is 23 percent higher than that of the U.S. but 21 percent lower than that of Belgium. Compared with the top-ranked U.K., we're 52% worse.

As you expected, the roads in Israel are, on the average, not as safe as those in the U.S. But the gap is not enormous. Clearly there's plenty of room for improvement. Still, we are far from having the worst road safety record of any developed country.

If Israel's roads are more dangerous than America's, why are so many more Americans killed per capita than Israelis? Simple: Americans drive much more than Israelis - over two and a half times as much on average. Cars in Israel are much more expensive, as is fuel, and the average salary is significantly lower. So the average Israeli spends much less time on the road than the average American, and thus his exposure to the risks is much lower.

From the above statistics, we can compute the average distance driven per capita in each country:

All else being equal, the less people drive, the fewer accidents there will be!

As time goes by
I mentioned the need for improvement. As we saw last time, road safety in Israel is improving over the years. But other countries aren't standing still. How does Israel's record stand up over time?

Again, let's start with the per capita data:

Data is from here.Again, incorrect Israel 2003 data point in this source has been corrected.

Sorry about the messy graph, but the overall picture is clear enough. Per capita fatalities are improving in most countries, some faster than others. Many, you can see, have improved faster than Israel (in green); on the other hand, most had a much worse starting point. Israel was one of the countries with low per-capita fatality rates in 1988; it remains so today. In the interim, though, the gap has narrowed.

Let's simplify that data by looking at just the percentage improvement:

Israel's fatality rate has dropped by over 40% in fifteen years, while other countries in the middle of the pack also improved by 35-40%. The biggest improvements were over 50%, yet all of the countries with massive improvements were the ones with the worst starting points - they had the most room to improve.

To round out our picture, let's see how per-distance fatality rates have changed over the years:

Data is estimated from the graphs in this PDF file; I haven't been able to find the raw statistics. View the file to see the yearly improvements by country.

As the data show, Israel's safety record was poor back in 1980, about twice as bad as developed countries such as the U.S., the U.K. and Scandinavia. By 2003, though, as we saw above, Israel was only 52% worse than the U.K. Note also that all the countries in the sample had safer roads in 2003 than even the best of them had in 1980. This demonstrates the power of gradual improvements over time.

For a better focus on Israel's improvement over time, let's plot that on its own:

Israel is among the leaders here, with an improvement of over 70%, more than the U.K. As with the per-capita improvements above, the countries which improved the most (including Israel) were generally the ones with the worst starting points.

It's all about economics
How could Israel show one of the biggest improvements in per-distance fatalities, but place below average in improvement in per-capita fatalities? I don't have the statistics, but there's only one possible explanation: Compared to other countries, Israel has had a far greater increase in road use per capita. Israelis drive much more today than they did in 1980, and that has kept the per-capita fatality rate from falling nearly as fast as the per-kilometer rate.

As long as Israeli economic growth continues at a strong pace, this will continue to be the case. Economic growth has two effects: Society can afford more road safety, but individuals can also afford to drive more. As the roads get safer, the public's exposure to the risks of the road rise, moderating the impact of the safety improvements. I demonstrated this point in the previous posting, but the international comparison highlights it again.

To summarize: Israel's per-capita road fatality rate is lower than average for developed countries, while its per-kilometer fatality rate is higher than average. The discrepancy is due largely to Israel's low rate of road use. It's safer, on average, to drive a given distance in the U.S. than in Israel, but people do it far more often.

Most importantly, over time Israel, like other countries, is making substantial improvements in road safety, gradually closing the gap in per-distance fatalities. It would be great to improve even faster, but Israel's record is nothing to be ashamed of.

Which brings me to one last point, and one last graph. Note that most of the other countries in these comparisons are much wealthier than Israel per capita. Like everything else in the physical world, safety costs money: Better roads, better cars, better driver education, better enforcement. All else being equal, rich countries can afford more road safety than poor ones. We can see this by ranking countries by GDP per capita:

GDP figures from here.

Of the countries near Israel's level of economic development, Israel has the lowest rate of fatalities per kilometer driven. In fact, we're well within the range of road safety parameters achieved by some far wealthier countries, such as France, Austria, Japan, Ireland and Belgium. While there's still plenty of room for improvement, I'd say Israel makes a pretty good showing. By no means are we "worse than any other civilized country"!

I'm still thinking about what issues to address in future installments in this series. Suggestions are welcome.

Update (Sep. 26): In a comment, David Boxenhorn of Rishon Rishon asked for a graph related to the last one. I've taken the liberty of answering with what he really meant, not what he asked for. The question is: How safe are the roads in different countries relative to their GDPs? That is, if richer countries can afford more road safety, how well are countries doing considering how much they can afford?

"The amount of road safety" is the inverse of fatalities per kilometer: the average number of kilometers driven per fatality. The higher the figure, the safer the roads.

David asked for one graph; I'll give him two. First, a scatter plot of kilometers per fatality versus GDP per capita, along with a linear regression estimating the relationship between them. (I haven't tried any sophisticated econometric analysis; this is the standard regression function built in to my spreadsheet.)

The distance of each dot from the line indicates how much better or worse the country's safety record is relative to what one would expect based on its GDP per capita. The United States, Belgium, South Korea and Greece, for example, are significantly below the line, indicating a poor level of road safety relative to GDP. Significantly above the line are Israel, the UK, Finland, the Netherlands and Australia, among others, indicating a low fatality rate relative to national income.

To summarize this variation in a single statistic, we can divide the amount of road safety by GDP per capita. I've decided to call this the Bang for a Buck Index: Kilometers per fatality divided by GDP per capita. The higher the index, the more road safety "bang for the buck":

Israel has nothing to be ashamed of. Not at all.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Caution - Slow blogging - Road work ahead

I haven't posted anything lately because I'm working on the next installment of my series on road accidents in Israel. As promised, next time I'll compare Israel's record with that of other countries.

Stay tuned. And drive carefully.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Gaza: The densest journalism on earth?

Is it true that Gaza is "one of the most densely populated places on earth"? Why do journalists mention it so often? What do they mean by it? Does that make sense?

Last August, David Margolis of the Jerusalem Report asked those questions, and answered them. Read the article here (sorry about the lousy formatting).

For the lazy and illiterate, the answers in brief: No, not by far. Because they're lazy. That Gaza is an unpleasant place to live. Not really - ask millions of residents of high-density Manhattan.

Monday, September 19, 2005

An'-ge-la Mer'-kel

I don't know much about German politics - I can't even figure out their electoral system - and I don't care much about who wins, beyond a vague philosophical preference for conservatives over socialists. But there's one thing I love about CDU leader and candidate for chancellor, Angela Merkel. And that's her name.

Compared to recent German leaders - the guttural roughness of Gerhard Schroeder, the heavy, plodding Helmut Kohl - Angela Merkel positively trips off the tongue. Poetry!

Opening with the "a" of "father", Angela Merkel then plunges into a quick cluster of hard and soft consonants pronounced in all parts of the mouth, strung together by quick vowels which are essentially variants of the schwa. What a workout for the tongue.

She's even got meter (dactylic). She could be a character from a nursery rhyme (try substituting her for Little Miss Muffet), or Dr. Seuss:
Angela Merkel
Slipped on a hurkle
Under Schmerkellestrasse...

Or a magic phrase: Abracadabra! Open Sesame! Angela Merkel!

I may be an obnoxious foreigner, but it saddens me that Merkel's supporters have taken to nicknaming her Angie, with a soft "g". It doesn't have the pizzazz.

Keywords: Angela Merkel, poetry

Sunday, September 18, 2005

J, P, E and D - meet Dov and Bear

DovBear yesterday issued the blogging equivalent of a subscriber marketing survey, breaking down his nearly 2000 posts into ten main categories and asking readers which they like best.

And that got me thinking (after briefly noting that I don't care for any of them): Can one man really write 2000 blog posts - many of them substantial and nontrivial, some even well-researched - in about eleven months? Seriously, that's an average of over 40 posts a week - and he's shomer Shabbos! And has a wife and kids!

Then I considered his list of categories, and the picture became clearer. Would the same man engage in "Partisan poo-throwing" (category 1) and discourse on "Torah / theology / history"? Would the same blogger alternate "Pope pounding" with "Stray thoughts and observations"? Of course not.

The explanation is simple: The DovBear Documentary Hypothesis. DovBear, as his dual moniker suggests, is in fact written by two separate bloggers.

The first - for convenience, let's refer to him as "Dov" - is an intellectual Orthodox Jew, middle aged, who long ago gave up on completing his Ph.D. He discourses on Torah, theology and history, points out interesting news articles and editorials, tosses around stray thoughts and observations, and engages readers in the comment section.

The second - "Bear", natch - is younger, probably still working on his bachelor's, who learned to write from TV sitcoms and likes to make fun of strangers in the street. He takes pleasure at poo-throwing (partisan and non-), clobbering Cross-Currents, lacerating Lazer Brody, Paloozing Toby and in general assaulting and offending anyone at hand in between bursts of toilet humor.

Further research is necessary, but clearly our current text of DovBear was redacted by an editor who attempted to reconcile the obvious disparities between these two traditional sources through stylistic editing of both, such as inserting blatant spelling mistakes, and adding cross-references between them.

There is no other reasonable explanation.

Update (Sept. 19): Friend and ally Soccer Dad has identified a third documentary strand in the multifacted writings redacted by DovBear. He calls this author "P", for reasons which will become clear.

Supply and demand in the Jerusalem Post newsroom

I've never worked for the Jerusalem Post, thank God, unless you count an occasional op-ed. But I've known Post employees off and on over the past fifteen years. It's hard to live in Israel as an English speaker without knowing someone who works for the Post. And, without exception, they have all attested to how awful a place it is to work.

It always takes outsiders by surprise, especially now that the Post has become (seriously) an excellent newspaper. Quality-wise, the Post has been good at times, barely adequate at others, but management's treatment of its employees has, at least according to the workers, ranged among various degrees of lousy.

When I was younger, I once contacted a friend who was then high up on the paper's editorial staff to ask about the possibility of an internship. He said he could probably arrange it, but I really, really didn't want to do that. Not if I had any self-respect.

Why should Israel's leading English language daily, seventy-plus years old, treat its staff like dirt? I explain it in economic terms: supply and demand. Israel has a constant stream of English-speaking immigrants, many with journalistic experience or aspirations, most of whom lack the language skills to work in the Hebrew media. There is a chronic surplus of Israelis desiring to earn a living writing in English relative to the number of jobs. (Unpaid amateur hacks like me surely don't make it any easier for them!)

As a prestigious international newspaper, the Post is especially attractive. However the Post treats its employees, however chintzy the holiday gifts and however often they cut their pay and however many they fire, there will always be newbies eager to fill their shoes.

So, while I don't begrudge them the right to kvetch, I don't have much sympathy for former Post staffers like Allison and Miriam as they gloat over the continuing Post-related legal disputes. The Post's working conditions were never much of a secret, certainly not to anyone in the business, and they could have made a point of finding out before signing on the dotted line.

They've had their time in the spotlight. Time to give some newbies a chance to be exploited.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Remembering 1995, or Who killed Oslo?

Tuesday was the twelfth anniversary of the festive White House signing of the Israel-PLO Oslo Accords. On the occasion the Jerusalem Post published two relevant opinion pieces.

Former Post managing editor Avi Hoffman takes the opportunity to lambaste the indulgent prison treatment of Yigal Amir, the assassin who murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. First, though, he credits Amir with sole responsibility for the destruction of Oslo's prospects for Middle East peace:
Yigal Amir is one of the most successful assassins in history. Ten years ago Amir's victim, Yitzhak Rabin, was riding a wave of glory.

Great and small nations of East and West were enthusiastically endorsing the Israeli premier's peace process with the Palestinians. Rabin was firmly navigating his country and the region into the promising waters of the "New Middle East." Rabin was the star of the Amman economic conference. Delegations from the Far and Near East, North Africa, Europe and the Americas vied for his attention. His keynote address was the main focus of the event.

Relations with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world had never been better.

Then Amir shot Rabin in the back.

As the murderer had intended, the peace process crumbled. Palestinian terror escalated into new levels of outrage. Palestinians and Israelis were thrust into a vortex of terror and counter-terror.

It probably didn't bother the assassin much that hundreds of Arabs were killed in the collateral fallout from Rabin's killing and the death of the peace process. But it might have given him some pause that hundreds of Jews were killed as well.

The story of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin is the stuff of high tragedy. What if Rabin had not been killed? Would he have succeeded in bringing peace to his people and the region?

So everything was beautiful on the road to peace under the leadership of the beloved wise leader Yitzhak Rabin, until Yigal Amir gunned him down, plunging the region into unstoppable violence. Right?

Set aside the rhetorical question of how genuine that peace could have been if it depended on the leadership of a single man. Sticking to the facts: the situation of 1995 Israel was far from Hoffman's description.

Already failed
By late 1995, the Oslo agreement was already viewed by most Israelis as a failure. Suicide terror bombings in Israel had begun with the 1994 launch of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and Jericho; 1995 had seen bombings outside Netanya, in Kfar Darom, in Ramat Gan and in Jerusalem. Arafat took no action to stop these attacks, and frequently spoke in praise of them. Clear majorities of Israelis opposed the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the remaining Palestinian cities, as called for in the Israel-Palestinian agreements.

Internationally, Israel and Israeli leaders may have been feted at conferences, but when negotiations broke down, Israel was always the one held accountable for not being "generous" enough. As long as there were more concessions on offer, they loved us. We may have won friends, but not allies.

Meanwhile, Rabin's government had also lost its majority in the Knesset; it governed with minority support. The second phase of the Oslo plan, including the withdrawals from the rest of the cities, passed the Knesset by a single vote, thanks only to two right-wing legislators Rabin had bribed with plum cabinet appointments.

On the popularity front, Rabin trailed steadily in the polls behind Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu throughout 1995: see here, here, here, here and here. We all know the limitations of polls, especially more than a year before the elections, but the mood was clear: Israelis had turned against Oslo and Rabin, disillusioned by the upsurge in terror and the repeated bad faith displayed by Arafat and his minions.

In short, it was not Amir who destroyed the peace process. It was already in tatters by the time he made his move. This does not make his action any less heinous, but clearly the Oslo process was already doomed by that time. If anything, the public backlash against Rabin's murder lent new support to the policies he had backed and anger at the opposition, who were tainted by Amir's association. Netanyahu immediately plunged in the polls, and only managed to pull even with Peres due to another wave of deadly suicide bombings - bombings triggered not by Amir or by the death of Rabin, but in response to Peres's decision to assassinate Palestinian bombmaker Yehya Ayash. Would Rabin have done any less?

Update (Sept. 16): Arguably, Amir saved Oslo. Had Netanyahu defeated Rabin, it would rightly have been seen as a public repudiation of the entire Oslo process. After the assassination, though, rejecting Oslo became tantamount to giving the murderer a victory. Instead, Netanyahu campaigned on a platform of insisting on reciprocity in Oslo's implementation, thus granting the agreement the Likud's retroactive stamp of approval.

For a different recollection of late 1995, see Emanuel Cohn's commentary from the same day:
Gaza, 1995. Though my tank brigade is stationed in the Jordan Valley, I am deployed to Rafiah. Rafiah lies in the Southern Gaza Strip, on the Israeli-Egyptian border. Together with some of my colleagues, I am charged with the mission of delivering weapons to the Palestinian Authority. Some of my fellow soldiers refuse this job, but I volunteer for it.

Read the rest. That's the 1995 I remember.

Postscript: Regarding Hoffman's main topic, I have no sympathy for Yigal Amir or his rights in prison. But the rule of law - worshipped dutifully by the Israeli left - demands that prisoners be treated equally, punished in accordance with their sentences as determined by law and the courts, however detestable their acts. This whole farce would be spared us if only Israel could mete out the only appropriate and just punishment for premeditated murder: the death penalty. But that, apparently, would be inhumane. The criminal deserves civil rights he never accorded his victim. Go figure.

Keywords: Israel, terrorism, peace, Palestinians

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

And they wonder why the public is cynical about rabbis...

From In Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Post's local supplement for Jerusalemites, comes a tale of politics and religion, scandal and blackmail - in the mehadrin (extra-stringent) department of the city's kashrut certification department. It disgusts me too much to repeat any of it here - Read it yourself.

Personally, there is an upside. Since I'm not one to succumb to rabbinically-decreed economic boycotts, this might be a good opportunity to dine in one of those always-crowded mehadrin establishments that are now being shunned by the haredi masses.

Ultimately, anyone who relies on occasional inspections and signed certificates to ensure kosher enforcement is somewhat naive about the restaurant business. The owners can easily outsmart the mashgiach if they feel the need. The upshot, as the owner of Angelo's restaurant notes in the last line of the article: "I think you need to trust the owner of an establishment more than the piece of paper on his wall." Very true.

Leftists making sense - III

It's been a while since my last installment of Leftists making sense. Admittedly, that's more my fault than theirs. Leftists have continued making sense - by which I mean agreeing with me! - without my recognition. Shame on me.

A good place to find leftists making sense is often the Washington Post, whose opinion pages generally showcase what one might call the sensible left. Today I'm happy to recognize veteran Post columnist Richard Cohen, writing with wit and perceptiveness about the lawlessness taking hold in Palestinian-ruled Gaza. The best paragraph:
At the recent Ambrosetti conference of Italian and other notables in Cernobbio, Italy, both Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, and Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, warned against blunt talk. Moussa insisted that anyone who questioned whether Arabs could have a democracy was a "racist." And Erekat, for his part, insisted that the term "Islamic terrorist" was likewise an expression of bigotry. This caused the plain-talking Sen. John McCain, a conference attendee, to suggest that the word "banana" be substituted for "Islamic" while I, exhaustively searching for the proper PC term, chanced upon "persons of terror." That cannot offend anyone.

On Sunday, it was columnist Michael Kinsley's turn, skewering claims that American politicians should have anticipated the New Orleans flood long ago and seen to adequate defenses. Writes Kinsley in "Hindsight: A User's Guide":
But just Google up a phrase like "commission warns," or "urgent steps," or "our children's future" -- or simply "crisis" -- and you may develop a bit of sympathy for the people who stand accused today of ignoring the warnings about anything in particular. Far from being complacent about potential perils, we suffer from peril gridlock.

Keep writing like that, guys, and your colleagues might revoke your Leftist Licenses.

Ravaging Gaza's greenhouses

This week's Carnival of the Capitalists linked to my commentary on the folly of expecting that the Gush Katif greenhouses can continue to be profitable after transferring them to Palestinian ownership. I wrote, skeptically:

Don't expect Palestinian laborers to receive much benefit from them. If they even stay in business for long.

Looks like I was overoptimistic. Barely a day after Israel's departure, and Palestinian mobs are looting the greenhouses:
During a tour of Neveh Dekalim, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei implored Palestinians to leave the structures intact, even as people scavenged through debris elsewhere in the settlement.

"These greenhouses are for the Palestinian people," he said. "We don't want anyone to touch or harm anything that can be useful for our people."

Just minutes away, crowds of looters in the Gadid settlement overwhelmed hundreds of guards trying to protect the greenhouses. Guards acknowledged that in many cases, they were unable to stop the looting.

"They are taking plastic sheeting, they are taking hoses, they are taking anything they can get their hands on," said Hamza Judeh, a Palestinian policeman.

He said about 80 percent of the greenhouses were still intact, but looters walked off with lighting fixtures, cables and wires. Many were undeterred by the police presence. Police said one man dropped his loot only after he was beaten by security forces.

Someday, maybe, the Palestinians will learn to prefer building to destroying. Maybe.

Monday, September 12, 2005

What's wrong with Roberts

The formal hearings are just beginning, but I like what I've seen of John Roberts. He is eminently qualified, widely respected, personally likable, principled but not dogmatic. He is an excellent nominee for the nation's highest court, and Bush should be commended for breaking with the post-Bork custom of nominating justices deemed unobjectionable due to their mediocrity. Judicial appointments are among a president's most important decisions, and nominations like this one easily outweigh my gripes with Bush's moves on assorted other issues, domestic and foreign.

I must register one note of protest, though: John Roberts is too young to be appointed to the Supreme Court, let alone as Chief Justice.

It's not about his qualifications, which are unimpeachable. Primarily, it's about the dignity and prestige of the court as the nation's highest tribunal. Serving on the Supreme Court should be the pinnacle of a distinguished career, not a mid-career promotion for a young jurist, however brilliant. Let Roberts continue to serve his country (or his clients) for another ten years or so before he joins the nation's senior court.

For Bush, Roberts's age is reportedly a plus. It gives him the chance to influence the court for a generation, health permitting. That is precisely the second reason to object to young justices. Lifetime appointments give the Supreme Court an important stability over time, with members replaced incrementally and sporadically. But that stability must not become rigidity; a modest rate of turnover of justices is healthy for the court and for the balance of the national political system, as different presidents and different political pressures contribute to shaping the court's contours.

The current vacancies on the court are the first in over ten years, the result of previous presidents themselves nominating young justices. On the most recent court: Rehnquist took office at age 47, Stevens at 55, O'Connor at 51, Scalia at 50, Kennedy at 51, Souter at 51, Thomas at a sprightly 43, Ginsburg (the oldest) at 60, and Breyer at 56. (Interestingly, Clinton's nominees were the oldest of the group.) It's telling that O'Connor is the first justice to leave the court who was appointed since 1980.

Of course, I'd rather have an excellent nominee such as Roberts despite his youth than a more senior but mediocre nominee. But it would be nice to have both.

Still, I can hardly fault Bush for doing the same as all of his recent predecessors. The fault is the system of life appointements, which tempts presidents to appoint young justices. The simple solution, as others have proposed: A term limit for justices. An eighteen year term would be long enough to ensure judicial independence and a fruitful career, while ensuring an average turnover of one justice every two years.

However brilliant or wise, no one should spend longer than that as one of the nine individuals empowered as the ultimate interpreters of the U.S. Constitution. That's enough absolute power for one lifetime.

Postscript: My pet pick for the court is a brilliant jurist and political thinker, combining wisdom and erudition, a man who is easily qualified to serve as chief justice: Robert Bork. I don't know if he'd accept the nomination, but today's Senate could easily confirm him, and doing so would give conservatives great satisfaction by succeeding where Reagan failed. I can dream, can't I?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

American Zionist trivia answers

The answers to the American Zionist trivia questions have been posted in the comments to that post.

Thanks to everyone who played!

The weirdness of a social pseudoblogger

As I note on my sidebar, I'm socially acquainted (to varying degrees of closeness) with a handful of fellow bloggers who, unlike me, blog without the cover of anonymity.

Naturally, I attend the occasional social event - bar mitzvahs, weddings, public lectures - and occasionally on such occasions I find myself chatting with someone I know as a blogger. As a pseudonymous blogger myself (a "pseudoblogger", maybe?), I don't let on that I have an alter ego, that I am the one behind Biur Chametz. I avoid commenting on his or her blog, or even indicating that I've heard of it. I maintain the conversation without so much as a reference to blogs.

I have to catch myself at times, to avoid remarks like, "Oh yes, you wrote about that last week, didn't you?" Or "I appreciated that comment you left at my site the other day." (Yes, some people do leave comments here. And yes, I've run into some of the commenters socially.)

It's a bit like I describe here (second item), except then I was wary of being found out unexpectedly. Socializing with people I know are bloggers - and even my own readers - increases the weirdness factor further.

Fortunately there aren't that many such people...

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Hillel, stop Halkin us a chinik!

As one might conclude from the portrait over his column, Hillel Halkin is in a funk. Unlike the rest of us, contrarian Halkin watched the uprooting of Jews from Gaza and concluded that the anti-disengagement camp has won. The outline of his case:

  1. "No formal, negotiated end to our conflict with the Palestinians is possible on terms acceptable to both sides"

  2. "Unless we Jews want to become a minority... between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, we have to retrench to new borders that we draw ourselves, e.g., to the West Bank security fence. A withdrawal from Gaza alone would be at best a temporary demographic palliative."

  3. "[The settlers] have shown us what it takes to move 8,000 Jewish settlers out of a far corner of the land of Israel having no great strategic value or Jewish historical significance. Does anyone care to imagine what it would take to move 60,000 or 70,000 settlers out the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria, which sits smack in the middle of this country, scant kilometers from Jerusalem? Just the physical logistics of it would be mind-boggling."

Hence, he concludes, there will be no disengagement from the West Bank, leaving Israel with the demographic problem only half solved.

In the second half of the essay (read it yourself), Halkin challenges settler supporters to explain, "Exactly where do we go from here?" And he wants a good answer, not one of the many unrealistic "solutions" often proposed by the Israeli right.

Readers responded. And this week, he reviewed their e-mails and found them lacking. More precisely, he lamented "the sheer, unmitigated, dunderheaded, hallucinatory unreality of the thinking of the 'Undivided Land of Israel' proponents who responded to my challenge. There wasn't a single halfway - halfway? hundredth of the way! - serious idea in the lot."

"Anyone want to try again?" he asked. "I'm still listening."

I'll try, Hillel, though I doubt you will be pleased by my response. (I should note, though, that like you, as much as I love the land of Israel, I could support territorial concessions were I convinced they would yield benefits commensurate with the loss.)

Challenging the premises
I must start by challenging your premises. Premise 1 is correct, and Sharon should be commended for taking as his starting point the assumption that there is no conceivable basis today for a negotiated solution.

Premise 2, however, needs improvement. Assuming that the gloomy demographers are right - and you surely are aware that their statistical assessments are questionable - what strategic significance is there to the percentage of Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan? Absent a decision to annex the disputed territories, the demographic balance of the Jewish state is not affected by the Palestinian growth rate. Palestinians have no right to vote in Israel; they do not live in Israeli towns and cities; they even retain voting rights for the semidemocratic Palestinian Authority with its limited powers and territory.

What, exactly, would change if Arabs became 51% or even 60% of the population between the river and the sea, instead of the 40-45% they represented for most of the last five decades? If anything, they enjoy greater political representation today than they did in the 1980s when they were a smaller percentage of the whole. Should we be making far-reaching strategic decisions out of fear of shifts in statistical analyses?

Furthermore, I hate to break it to you, but disengagement from Gaza has not changed the demographic balance between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Last I checked, Gaza remains on our side of the Mediterranean. It also hasn't changed the demographic balance of the State of Israel, since Gaza was always outside the sovereign territory of the state.

So what has been changed? The demographic balance of the territory under military control of the IDF? So what? If the Arabs has comprised more than half of the population between the river and the sea in 1967, would Israel have ceased to be a democratic state the moment it won the Six-Day War?

Before you demand clear, rational solutions, you must provide a clear, rational statement of the problem. I'm looking forward to it.

Regretfully (to me), Premise 3 is simply wrong. The Gaza operation (plus northern Samaria) demonstrated the ease of uprooting settlements. Most settlers have middle class, working families. There was no real violence because they are not violent people. There was no mass disobedience because they are devoted patriots, with an acute sense of the need for national unity in times of crisis. They put up a token resistance to emphasize their love for the land and their homes, and then they left, with heavy hearts.

No, sixty to seventy thousand settlers in central Samaria could not be evacuated at once. But the Gaza operation has demonstrated the strength of numbers. Salami tactics would work easily, taking one area at a time, with phalanxes of soldiers and police easily outnumbering the locals and imported protestors. Some nuts may be harder to crack, such as Kiryat Arba or Bat Ayin, but few would put up more than token resistance. I don't look forward to seeing that day, but I can see how easy it would be to carry out.

So, Hillel, from your perspective the way forward is visible: Disengagement II, III or IV. I reject that, as I did Disengagement I. So where do we go from here, were it up to me?

A shifting stalemate
Let me start by taking your first premise one step further: There is no foreseeable solution to our conflict with the Palestinians, or to the Israel-Arab conflict as a whole. Regardless of whether we strive for an elusive negotiated agreement or a unilaterally imposed arrangement, Israel will fail to achieve long-term security and stability, not to mention peace. Without a recognition and acceptance of this fact on the part of the public and its leaders, we are doomed to new rounds of anticipation and disappointment, negotiation and breakdown, over and over again.

Arguably, Israel and the Arabs have since 1949 been locked in a shifting stalemate. We are too strong militarily to be defeated but too weak diplomatically to reap the fruits of victory; they persevere in wringing diplomatic success from military failure, often wearing down our resolve but never breaking us. They have far more allies, but we have at least one strong enough to balance the scale.

There is no reason to believe we can break this pattern, barring inconceivable geopolitical changes.

Leveraging our strengths
What we can and must do is leverage our strengths, while ratcheting them up over the long haul.

Oil is currently booming, but this will not last forever. Ultimately, any commodity can be replaced, and commodity values inevitably decline over the long run. Israel, however, produces goods with no easy substitute: unique technologies, scientific research, military equipment. If Pakistan is warming to us, it is less due to disengagement and more in response to Israeli sales of leading-edge military technologies to its rival, India. Israel has even surpassed Saudi Arabia as Britain's largest trading partner in the Middle East. As Israeli exports grow, especially of high-value-added products based on intellectual property, so will its diplomatic leverage. Over time, Israel will grow stronger, wealthier and more influential.

Meanwhile, we will face round after round of military conflict with our hostile neighbors. What form that will take I can't say. It will be intense at times and quiet at others. We will need to remain vigilant, employing passive measures and, at times, active ones in deterring and combatting forces such as Hizbullah, Hamas, and presumably the Palestinian Authority.

We will need to maintain diplomatic pressure, enlisting our allies to actually support us in bodies such as the UN, demanding that the Arabs display good faith in restraining their terrorists, threatening force where necessary, while always holding out the prospect of tangible concessions in the context - and only in the context - of a genuine "end of conflict" agreement. Until then, we need not hand over more territory.

No peace in our time
We need to be strong, and vigilant, and steadfast, and sober in our assessments. No peace in our time, no rosy horizons, not until our enemies have geniunely undergone fundamental changes. Changes I don't expect to see in my lifetime. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

When I hear an Israeli leader honestly admit that he cannot promise us peace, we will at least be on the right road. It is not the Yellow Brick Road, but neither is it the Road to Perdition.

What is it about us Jews that makes us always demand visions of peace and security? There is no solution, Hillel, and I do not propose one.

Is that what you wanted to hear?

Must read: The Gaza settlements were not illegal

In today's Jerusalem Post, Max Singer of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies makes the crucial points that Gaza has never belonged to the Palestinians, and Israel's settlements in Gaza were never illegal. His conclusion:
It seems clear to most Israelis now that it was a mistake to create settlements in Gaza in the 1970s, but whether or not it was a mistake, it was not clearly illegal. Although there are legal arguments that can be made against the Israeli claims of a right to settle in Gaza, they are not strong enough to render our claims baseless. And many scholars believe that the Israeli legal claims are much stronger than any other.

The Palestinians are actively working to convince the world - including themselves and Israelis - that Israel is giving up the Gaza settlements like a thief finally being forced to drop stolen property. This is a dangerous libel, and Israel is weakening its security and morale by letting it go unchallenged.

Israeli young people, including those who strongly support the withdrawal, should understand very clearly that we are giving up Gaza to those whose legal claims are clearly inferior. Israel is sacrificing land to which it has strong legal, moral and historical claims in order, it is hoped, to improve our ability to defend ourselves against illegal Palestinian efforts to destroy Israel, including the Palestinian terror campaign.

Israel has no reason to feel guilty about Israelis having lived in Gush Katif for over 30 years, during which they produced great benefits for their Palestinian neighbors with whom they had lived largely in peace until Yasser Arafat was brought into Gaza by Oslo, which at the time also seemed to many like a good idea.

Our government - and its citizens - both orange and blue and in between, should emphasize that Israel voluntarily (that is, without compensation) turned over to the Palestinians land to which Israel has a stronger legal and historical claim. Although making this point may strengthen the Palestinian notion that they drove Israel off their land by their "resistance," it is more critical than ever that Israelis understand and assert the legal claims that were not only the basis of our presence in Gaza, but remain a foundation stone of our legitimacy as a state.

Read the whole thing...

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Pikuach nefesh and "land for peace"

The Big Three
Every child with a decent Jewish education knows about the "big three" sins, the only three for which we are required to give our lives rather than transgress. In the words of the Talmud:
R' Yochanan said in the name of R' Shimon ben Yehotzadak: "It was decided by a vote in the loft of the house of Nitezeh in Lod: For all the transgressions in the Torah, if a man is told, 'Transgress and you will not be killed,' he should transgress and not be killed, except for idol worship and sexual relations and bloodshed." (Sanhedrin 74a)

By extension, many modern rabbinical authorities have ruled that this applies to the question of whether the State of Israel may relinquish land for strategic reasons, even though settling the Land of Israel is a commandment and relinquishing land to the gentiles is a violation of it.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef shlit"a is well known for arguing that land may - indeed must - be relinquished if the objective is to save lives. It is less well known that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe essentially shared this analysis of the halacha, though he believed that relinquishing land would only endanger Jewish lives, not save them. R' Soloveitchik zt"l apparently shared this approach as well, though there may be some subtle distinctions among halachists regarding whether one would be required to trade land for peace or merely permitted to, and regarding who one consults in assessing whether or not lives would actually be saved.

Speaking in 1967, Rav Soloveitchik argued that such decisions are ultimately not for rabbis to make but for military and political experts. Regarding the specific point of pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives, he said:
If pikuach nefesh supersedes all other mitzvos, it supersedes all prohibitions of the Torah, especially pikuach nefesh of the yishuv in Eretz Yisrael.
(Hat tip: My Obiter Dicta)

The exceptions
I would never presume to compare myself with Rav Soloveitchik, or indeed any of the rabbinic giants who have made this argument. I'm not a rabbi, nor anywhere close to being one. But as simple and compelling this logic may sound, it strikes me as seriously flawed.

The Talmud indeed prioritizes the saving of lives over all the prohibitions of the Torah (except three). But then it proceeds to qualify this ruling in crucial ways:
When R' Dimi arrived, he taught: R' Yochanan said, "This [that one should transgress rather than be killed] was only taught when not in a time of royal decrees [against the Jews], but in a time of royal decrees even for a minor commandment one should be killed rather than transgress."

When Rabin arrived, he taught: R' Yochanan said, "Even when not in a time of royal decrees, they only said this regarding actions in private, but in public, even for a minor commandment one should be killed rather than transgress."

What is a "minor commandment"? Rava bar R' Yitzhak said in the name of Rav: Even to change the lace of one's shoe.

And how many is "in public"? R' Yaakov said: R' Yochanan said, "'In public' requires at least ten people." (Sanhedrin 74a-b)

The Talmud goes on to debate finer distinctions between the possible circumstances in which one might be called to decide between saving lives and violating commandments. But this much is clear: The original ruling that saving lives takes priority applies to individuals in private.

Should a thug threaten to kill you unless you cook on Shabbat, you should cook. But if an oppressive regime demands that the Jews cook on Shabbat or be killed, you must lay down your life rather than violate Shabbat. Similarly, if the same thug threatens you in front of a crowd of Jews, you must lay down your life rather than submit. In either of these cases, violating the Torah would constitute a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God's name, and is forbidden.

The upshot
When terrorists threaten to kill Jews unless the Jewish state hands over parts of the Land of Israel, how can this possibly be viewed as a case where the saving of life supersedes the Torah? When the nations of the world deny our very right to our land, is it not a chillul Hashem to surrender to their demands?

One could certainly argue that none of these categories are relevant. All these cases deal with individuals who must either transgress or die. They may be acting in private or in public, in a time of oppression or a time of liberty, but they are acting as individuals.

I would argue that the question of "land for peace" is of a different nature, as it falls upon the government of the Jewish people, which much decide which course of policy is best for our current and future security needs. Sometimes, the nation must make a tactical retreat in order to preserve more vital national goals. The most recent example - disengagement from Gaza - may be one of them, though I do not believe that it is.

Regardless, I fail to understand how the question of "land for peace" can be classified among the cases of "transgress rather than be killed", which applies only to individuals acting privately. Since several rabbinic giants have indeed viewed it that way, there must be something I'm missing. Can anyone offer an explanation?

Hat tip: I came across some of the above insights about pikuach nefesh in an article by Prof. David Rokeach, emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Managing Gaza's greenhouses

As disengagement approached, we started to hear concerns about the economic impact on the Palestinians of the uprooting of the settlements. Even recently, many Palestinians were employed in the settlements or the nearby industrial zones; all that has now come to an end.

Some proposed mitigating the harm by selling at least the highly profitable Gush Katif greenhouses to the Palestinians, allowing them to operate them after the Jews vacated. This ran into some obstacles, as the Palestinians refused to pay the settlers for property they believed to be rightly theirs in the first place. Then, days before Disengagement-Day, a deal was reached.

A private foundation founded by Israeli arch-dove Yossi Beilin agreed to purchase the greenhouses with privately-raised funds, and hand them over to the Palestinians:
The deal, reached just days before the Israeli evacuation of the 21 settlements in Gaza is to begin, is aimed at preserving the settlements' primary agricultural asset for Palestinian use. That could provide the impoverished territory with a much-needed economic boost after the hand-over.

The greenhouses use sophisticated techniques that were developed especially for Gaza's desert-like conditions. Many Palestinians are familiar with the growing methods used in the greenhouses from years spent working in them....

Win-win, right? The settlers are compensated for their businesses, while the Palestinians keep their jobs.

Except that this reflects flawed economic thinking. It assumes that it doesn't matter who owns a business. That assets which are profitable under one owner will continue to reap profits under another. That all that matters is having skilled employees. That anyone can run a business if the market is right.

So you can just hand the greenhouses to new owners, and expect them to continue churning out revenues.

The falsehood of this assumption is so obvious to me it's hard for me to make the argument. Business management is a skill, involving talent and experience. The managers with those skills have left Gaza, presumably for good. The former workers may know how to grow plants, but they don't know how to nurture relationships with suppliers and customers, how to assess market conditions, how to motivate employees. And, having received someone else's business readymade, they will never have the same devotion to maintaining and growing it as would those who built it in the first place.

Industrial capital is not an abstract mush which can flow arbitrarily from hand to hand. Its value depends on the talents of its owners and managers.

I bring this up today because the Washington Post discusses the Palestinians' current plans for the greenhouses:
Ziad Abu Amr, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament who often serves as a mediator between factions, said debate inside the government over how to manage the land was "quite a fight. It's very, very tempting to many interests."

The land and assets, including 4,000 greenhouses that make up the heart of the strip's agricultural industry, are being managed initially by the Palestinian Economic Development Corp., created by the cabinet in July with a budget of $100 million. The head of the agency, Bassil Jabir, is a Fatah member who previously ran the reform unit inside the prime minister's office.

In other words, the greenhouses will be transferred to a government company run by a politician. From there, they may or may not be privatized. More likely, they'll be used as patronage to reward political supporters.

Don't expect Palestinian laborers to receive much benefit from them. If they even stay in business for long.

Update (Sep. 13): Looks like I was overoptimistic.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Better no constitution than the wrong constitution

Keeping Iraq together
Shlomo Avineri, political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, critiques the Iraqi draft constitution, arguing that "even if ratified, it has a slim chance of becoming the operative basic document that could keep Iraq together."

Choice quotes: "It is obvious that it has no chance of ever being implemented." "It abounds in glaring internal contradictions." "The disintegration of Iraq is bound to continue."

I don't know enough about Iraq to agree or disagree. My point, rather, is in my headline, and is hinted at by the Dry Bones cartoon above: Better to have no constitution than to adopt the wrong constitution.

Constitution for Israel?
With increasing momentum in Israel recently for the adoption of a written constitution, this lesson is all the more important. American immigrants tend to be especially obsessed with the need for Israel to adopt a constitution, deriving, no doubt, from the near-sanctified status Americans accord their own Constitution.

But you don't have to know much about political history to understand that a written constitution cannot maintain the integrity of a nation destined to collapse. In fact, the wrong constitution can be far more devastating for a society than not having one at all.

France is on its Fifth Republic - what happened to its first four constitutions? Weimar Germany had a democratic constitution, which gave way to the Nazi takeover. The Soviet Union had a famously liberal constitution - not that it was ever taken seriously - until one day the USSR just vanished.

And then there's the U.S. The much-hailed Constitution was actually the second American constitution, adopted after the failure of its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution itself, due to its ambiguities and its papering over of severe internal differences, was arguably one of the causes of the American Civil War. To this day, disputes over the meaning of the Constitution are a constant feature of American political discourse.

As American scholar Robert Bork writes in a letter to Azure, "Written constitutions are not cure-alls; they can create perils and encourage corruptions of their own."

Ofir Haivry, writing for the editors of Azure: "Recent political experience... teaches that the absence of a compelling national idea can be enough to tear a state apart." He wasn't thinking about Iraq at the time, but it's as true for Iraq as it is for Israel.

What about the Palestinians?
To take things one step further: The lessons for the proposed Palestinian state should be obvious. No matter how much sovereignty and independence it is granted, a state comprising the separate territories of the West Bank and Gaza, joined by a narrow corridor through Israel, with residents separated from family members and compatriots who are Israeli citizens, home to millions who consider themselves refugees from their original family homes in Israel, will never have the coherence and common purpose necessary to build and maintain a state over time. Unless, of course, that common purpose is the destruction of Israel.

Interestingly, Ehud Ya'ari, perhaps Israel's leading commentator on Arab affairs, has concluded that the Palestinians do not really want a state of their own. Need I say it again? There will be no Palestinian state.

He should have targeted Israelis...

Man Gets 39 Years for Firebombing Temple

A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced a man to 39 years in prison for firebombing a Jewish temple and later trying to send a racist later to the congregation. The defendant raised his hand in a stiff-armed Nazi salute as the judge left the court.

Sean Gillespie, 21, of Spokane, Wash., was found guilty in April of three bombing-related charges for hurling a Molotov cocktail at Temple B'Nai Israel a year earlier. The act, which caused minor damage to a brick wall and a glass door, was captured on a security videotape.

Gillespie's sentence was lengthened because of the letter he attempted to send to the temple after his conviction. The letter, which was read in court, expressed hatred toward the Jewish people and a desire to spark a racial holy war.


Federal sentencing guidelines called for a minimum of 30 years in prison, but Cauthron said a greater sentence was warranted, citing the letter and the nature of Gillespie's crime.

"What you've done is not an act of vandalism, it's an act of violence," Cauthron said.

Palestinian terrorists in Israeli courts regularly get far more lenient sentences than that for more severe offenses - and then they're released the next time the diplomatic wheel starts turning. Thirty-nine years for throwing a firebomb and causing minor damage? In Israel, even murderers rarely spent 39 years in prison.

It takes an American judge to mete out appropriate punishment to an enemy of the Jews. Unfortunately, we don't have it in us.