Commentary Magazine


Topic: electricity

Hamas at the Hajj

There is a story that went unnoticed in the furor over the NIE last week, a story that also contains elements of deception and perfidy. This one reveals where two of America’s key Arab allies stand when it comes to the peace process.

The Palestinian Authority had made a special arrangement with Israel to allow 2,000 Palestinians to leave Gaza in order to make the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. These Gazans were to leave Israel by way of the Kerem Shalom crossing in Gaza and the Allenby Bridge crossing in the West Bank, their PA-organized travel meant to show the residents of Gaza that Mahmoud Abbas can make things happen for them — in contrast to Hamas. But Cairo and Riyadh had made their own special arrangement with Hamas.

The Egyptians allowed 700 Palestinians on Monday and 1,300 on Tuesday to cross the border into Sinai, where buses were waiting to take them to Saudi Arabia.

“The Egyptians stabbed us in the back,” a senior PA official said. It turned out that the move had been coordinated with the Hamas government and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi embassy in Cairo swiftly processed the Gaza pilgrims’ visa applications sent by the Hamas government, while the Saudi embassy in Amman held up all the visa applications sent by the PA, even those of West Bank pilgrims. The PA, which had invested huge efforts in organizing the pilgrims’ trip to Saudi Arabia in a bid to improve President Mahmoud Abbas’ status in the Gaza Strip, was enraged by Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s conduct.

Not a very nice thing to do to the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Not a very nice thing to do to Condi Rice and the peace process, either. So why did these two countries pull such a petty and antagonistic stunt?

The Egyptians have been worried since the summer that Israel and America will succeed in isolating Gaza, and that Israel would thereby be able to accomplish the total severance of contact between the two territories. Since only Israel and Egypt share a border with Gaza, if Israel manages to get itself off the hook for providing fuel, electricity, water, and the like to Gaza, then these will become Egyptian responsibilities — and Gaza will have been turned into largely an Egyptian, instead of Israeli, problem.

Obviously, the Egyptians want none of this, which is why they’ve become so remarkably unable to stop the proliferation of smuggling tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza border, a subterranean network that allows Hamas terrorists to train in Iran, import explosives and rockets, and thereby ensure that Gaza will indeed remain Israel’s problem. So the Egyptians showed up in Annapolis, smiled wryly, winked at the Saudi foreign minister, and returned home to continue doing their part to keep Hamas in the picture and to make Abbas look foolish (which is never very hard).

What are the Saudis up to? It seems plain to me that the Saudis have never been on board with the idea of isolating Hamas. Recall that the Saudis hosted the leaders of Hamas and Fatah in Mecca early this year to encourage the formation of a national unity government. This obviously was a colossal failure, as a few months later Hamas showed the Saudis what it thought of reconciliation by instigating its six-day gangster takeover of Gaza. But the Saudis remain undeterred, and this weekend hosted Hamas’s Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshal, once again for national-unity talks. The Saudis continue to encourage the political currency of Hamas because they wish to prevent the group from completely casting its lot in with Iran, and also because they see the Hamas-Fatah fight as a needless distraction from the more important, and beneficial, Palestinian fight against Israel. And now they have been joined by Egypt.

None of this is to suggest that the Abbas government, even with Saudi and Egyptian support, would be able to accomplish much more than the mau-mauing of a few more billions from western governments and the UN. But the hajj scandal does go a long way to illustrate the extent to which America’s Arab allies, which Annapolis was largely convened to cajole into the peace process, care little for America’s strategy, or for the peace process itself. Secretary Rice, of course, has been silent on the matter, lest it be revealed as another embarrassing demonstration of the flawed thinking behind Annapolis, and indeed of the improbability of her larger revitalization of the peace process.

There is a story that went unnoticed in the furor over the NIE last week, a story that also contains elements of deception and perfidy. This one reveals where two of America’s key Arab allies stand when it comes to the peace process.

The Palestinian Authority had made a special arrangement with Israel to allow 2,000 Palestinians to leave Gaza in order to make the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. These Gazans were to leave Israel by way of the Kerem Shalom crossing in Gaza and the Allenby Bridge crossing in the West Bank, their PA-organized travel meant to show the residents of Gaza that Mahmoud Abbas can make things happen for them — in contrast to Hamas. But Cairo and Riyadh had made their own special arrangement with Hamas.

The Egyptians allowed 700 Palestinians on Monday and 1,300 on Tuesday to cross the border into Sinai, where buses were waiting to take them to Saudi Arabia.

“The Egyptians stabbed us in the back,” a senior PA official said. It turned out that the move had been coordinated with the Hamas government and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi embassy in Cairo swiftly processed the Gaza pilgrims’ visa applications sent by the Hamas government, while the Saudi embassy in Amman held up all the visa applications sent by the PA, even those of West Bank pilgrims. The PA, which had invested huge efforts in organizing the pilgrims’ trip to Saudi Arabia in a bid to improve President Mahmoud Abbas’ status in the Gaza Strip, was enraged by Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s conduct.

Not a very nice thing to do to the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Not a very nice thing to do to Condi Rice and the peace process, either. So why did these two countries pull such a petty and antagonistic stunt?

The Egyptians have been worried since the summer that Israel and America will succeed in isolating Gaza, and that Israel would thereby be able to accomplish the total severance of contact between the two territories. Since only Israel and Egypt share a border with Gaza, if Israel manages to get itself off the hook for providing fuel, electricity, water, and the like to Gaza, then these will become Egyptian responsibilities — and Gaza will have been turned into largely an Egyptian, instead of Israeli, problem.

Obviously, the Egyptians want none of this, which is why they’ve become so remarkably unable to stop the proliferation of smuggling tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza border, a subterranean network that allows Hamas terrorists to train in Iran, import explosives and rockets, and thereby ensure that Gaza will indeed remain Israel’s problem. So the Egyptians showed up in Annapolis, smiled wryly, winked at the Saudi foreign minister, and returned home to continue doing their part to keep Hamas in the picture and to make Abbas look foolish (which is never very hard).

What are the Saudis up to? It seems plain to me that the Saudis have never been on board with the idea of isolating Hamas. Recall that the Saudis hosted the leaders of Hamas and Fatah in Mecca early this year to encourage the formation of a national unity government. This obviously was a colossal failure, as a few months later Hamas showed the Saudis what it thought of reconciliation by instigating its six-day gangster takeover of Gaza. But the Saudis remain undeterred, and this weekend hosted Hamas’s Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshal, once again for national-unity talks. The Saudis continue to encourage the political currency of Hamas because they wish to prevent the group from completely casting its lot in with Iran, and also because they see the Hamas-Fatah fight as a needless distraction from the more important, and beneficial, Palestinian fight against Israel. And now they have been joined by Egypt.

None of this is to suggest that the Abbas government, even with Saudi and Egyptian support, would be able to accomplish much more than the mau-mauing of a few more billions from western governments and the UN. But the hajj scandal does go a long way to illustrate the extent to which America’s Arab allies, which Annapolis was largely convened to cajole into the peace process, care little for America’s strategy, or for the peace process itself. Secretary Rice, of course, has been silent on the matter, lest it be revealed as another embarrassing demonstration of the flawed thinking behind Annapolis, and indeed of the improbability of her larger revitalization of the peace process.

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The UN’s Last Chance

On Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued its long-awaited report on Iran’s nuclear program to its 35 board members. The report states that Tehran is prohibiting inspections at sites that may be housing a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, the IAEA says the scope of Iranian cooperation is diminishing.

So is Iran building a bomb? The IAEA has no conclusive proof one way or another, and, it appears, neither does any other party outside the country. Yet we do not need to know the answer to that question. The report’s most important conclusion has been known by the international community long before the agency began its most recent investigations: the mullahs are continuing to enrich uranium. The report backs up Tehran’s claims that it is operating 3,000 centrifuges in Natanz. That number of machines, if working well, can produce enough weapons-grade material for a single nuclear weapon in a year’s time.

The spinning of centrifuges is by no means proof of bad intent. The machines can produce both lowly enriched uranium to generate electricity and highly enriched uranium for the cores of weapons. Which is it? In my view, that’s irrelevant because the United Nations has previously demanded that Iran halt enrichment and has imposed two sets of sanctions for its failure to stop.

Nuclear weapons are so inherently dangerous that merely violating the mandates of the United Nations with regard to them should, by itself, be considered grounds for the use of force. The Bush administration should not have tried to make the case that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. It should have premised its decision to go to war on the inarguable failure of Saddam Hussein to comply with the U.N.’s weapons inspection regime. On Tuesday, Ronald Kessler released a book, The Terrorist Watch, which reveals that the Iraqi dictator was bluffing about his possession of weapons of mass destruction in order to forestall an attack from Iran. In order to maintain the appearance of the possession of an arsenal, he made a mockery of UN inspections. So in the process he undermined the security of the international community by weakening its first line of defense against the spread of the world’s most destructive weaponry.

There is no point in maintaining an organization designed to provide collective security if it cannot enforce its mandates. The UN failed with regard to Iraq and left the matter to the United States and the other members of the Coalition in 2003. The world body has one more chance to prove that it still has a role in the world. And on Thursday, the IAEA put the issue squarely before the Security Council.

On Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued its long-awaited report on Iran’s nuclear program to its 35 board members. The report states that Tehran is prohibiting inspections at sites that may be housing a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, the IAEA says the scope of Iranian cooperation is diminishing.

So is Iran building a bomb? The IAEA has no conclusive proof one way or another, and, it appears, neither does any other party outside the country. Yet we do not need to know the answer to that question. The report’s most important conclusion has been known by the international community long before the agency began its most recent investigations: the mullahs are continuing to enrich uranium. The report backs up Tehran’s claims that it is operating 3,000 centrifuges in Natanz. That number of machines, if working well, can produce enough weapons-grade material for a single nuclear weapon in a year’s time.

The spinning of centrifuges is by no means proof of bad intent. The machines can produce both lowly enriched uranium to generate electricity and highly enriched uranium for the cores of weapons. Which is it? In my view, that’s irrelevant because the United Nations has previously demanded that Iran halt enrichment and has imposed two sets of sanctions for its failure to stop.

Nuclear weapons are so inherently dangerous that merely violating the mandates of the United Nations with regard to them should, by itself, be considered grounds for the use of force. The Bush administration should not have tried to make the case that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. It should have premised its decision to go to war on the inarguable failure of Saddam Hussein to comply with the U.N.’s weapons inspection regime. On Tuesday, Ronald Kessler released a book, The Terrorist Watch, which reveals that the Iraqi dictator was bluffing about his possession of weapons of mass destruction in order to forestall an attack from Iran. In order to maintain the appearance of the possession of an arsenal, he made a mockery of UN inspections. So in the process he undermined the security of the international community by weakening its first line of defense against the spread of the world’s most destructive weaponry.

There is no point in maintaining an organization designed to provide collective security if it cannot enforce its mandates. The UN failed with regard to Iraq and left the matter to the United States and the other members of the Coalition in 2003. The world body has one more chance to prove that it still has a role in the world. And on Thursday, the IAEA put the issue squarely before the Security Council.

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Hamas, Three Months After

It has been three months since Hamas took power in Gaza, and what a short, strange trip it’s been. In the beginning, Hamas spokesmen assuaged the consciences of credulous op-ed page editors everywhere with submissions that promised an enlightened, progressive Islamist government. One spokesman wrote in the New York Times that “Our sole focus is Palestinian rights and good governance.” He also said in a Washington Post op-ed that Hamas’s ambitions in Gaza are actually western ambitions: “self-determination, modernity . . . and freedom for civil society to evolve.” Another wrote, in the Los Angeles Times, that “Gaza will be calm and under the rule of law—a place where all journalists, foreigners, and guests of the Palestinian people will be treated with dignity.” (At the time he offered no word on how many yoga studios and organic food stands would be opened.)

The English-language spokesmen for Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups have long since mastered the democratic political lexicon, and the number of westerners eager to be taken in by such clichés has always been high. But now that Hamas has been in power for a quarter-year, it has an actual political track record to observe. And this record shows that Hamas, in defiance of the fervent wishes and predictions of its western apologists, has behaved exactly as many of us predicted at the beginning of the summer: In ideology, ambition, and style of governance, Hamas has come to resemble most closely its major regional patron, Iran.

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It has been three months since Hamas took power in Gaza, and what a short, strange trip it’s been. In the beginning, Hamas spokesmen assuaged the consciences of credulous op-ed page editors everywhere with submissions that promised an enlightened, progressive Islamist government. One spokesman wrote in the New York Times that “Our sole focus is Palestinian rights and good governance.” He also said in a Washington Post op-ed that Hamas’s ambitions in Gaza are actually western ambitions: “self-determination, modernity . . . and freedom for civil society to evolve.” Another wrote, in the Los Angeles Times, that “Gaza will be calm and under the rule of law—a place where all journalists, foreigners, and guests of the Palestinian people will be treated with dignity.” (At the time he offered no word on how many yoga studios and organic food stands would be opened.)

The English-language spokesmen for Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups have long since mastered the democratic political lexicon, and the number of westerners eager to be taken in by such clichés has always been high. But now that Hamas has been in power for a quarter-year, it has an actual political track record to observe. And this record shows that Hamas, in defiance of the fervent wishes and predictions of its western apologists, has behaved exactly as many of us predicted at the beginning of the summer: In ideology, ambition, and style of governance, Hamas has come to resemble most closely its major regional patron, Iran.

The new climate in Gaza is fearsome. Hamas has banned unapproved public gatherings, routinely beaten political opponents, intimidated journalists, and imposed a de facto regime of shari’a law. The internal purge continues, with regular death threats against Fatah loyalists and in many cases the firings of Fatah-associated doctors and other professionals. The only parts of the Gaza economy that still have a pulse are those bankrolled by foreign aid. In a long report in yesterday’s Washington Post, Scott Wilson gives readers a taste of the new Gaza:

After Friday prayers in recent weeks, Fatah supporters have marched through Gaza’s streets in protest against the Hamas administration. “Shia! Shia!” the demonstrators shouted, an insulting reference to the Sunni Muslim movement’s inflexible Islamic character and financial support from the Shiite government of Iran.

Their numbers have swelled into the thousands, and Hamas’s patience appears exhausted. The Palestinian Scholars League, an Islamic council dominated by Hamas clerics, issued a fatwa early this month prohibiting outdoor prayer.

The past three months have also been a test of the theory that power would moderate Hamas. After Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, many people—including President Bush—predicted that a certain pragmatism finally would be forced on the Islamist group, and that it would be compelled to shift its focus from terrorism to the humdrum of daily governance.

But the decline of Gaza has not given Hamas’s leaders a moment’s pause in their pursuit of an external war against Israel and an internal war against Fatah. Rockets are fired from Gaza on a daily basis, and attempted infiltrations of Israel, many of them for the purpose of abducting another IDF soldier, are a regular occurrence. In many ways Hamas has been emboldened by the continued arrival, regardless of its terror war, of foreign aid money and water and electricity from Israel. Hamas, in other words, has been given the ability to run a consequence-free jihad.

The only good news to come out of all this is that at least for now, the movement to “engage” Hamas—most popular in Britain and Europe—has fallen into dormancy. Such calls might be revived as planning for the Bush administration’s regional conference intensifies, but the Hamas leadership may yet prove to be so ideologically stubborn and politically obtuse that even people like Daniel Levy and Colin Powell will not be able to help.

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No Good Options

How should Israel respond to the relentless missile fire emanating from Gaza? At first glance, there appears to be an array of good options, from targeted killings to air strikes to a cutoff in fuel, water, and electricity to a ground incursion. (And certainly there is no question that Hamas and Islamic Jihad deserve any and all of these punishments, and then some.)

But a problem arises when one considers the current political and diplomatic environment, specifically, the American and Israeli project to prevent the West Bank, a more populous and less containable territory than Gaza, from being turned into Hamas’s next battleground. Setting aside the question of whether this project is a good idea, the pursuit of it remains a powerful delimiting force for Israeli action, and it is thus that the array of options for Gaza suddenly shrinks.

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How should Israel respond to the relentless missile fire emanating from Gaza? At first glance, there appears to be an array of good options, from targeted killings to air strikes to a cutoff in fuel, water, and electricity to a ground incursion. (And certainly there is no question that Hamas and Islamic Jihad deserve any and all of these punishments, and then some.)

But a problem arises when one considers the current political and diplomatic environment, specifically, the American and Israeli project to prevent the West Bank, a more populous and less containable territory than Gaza, from being turned into Hamas’s next battleground. Setting aside the question of whether this project is a good idea, the pursuit of it remains a powerful delimiting force for Israeli action, and it is thus that the array of options for Gaza suddenly shrinks.

In this context, it is not the least bit unrealistic to imagine the fallout from a strong Israeli military campaign or aid cutoff in Gaza: Mahmoud Abbas, who is involved in delicate negotiations with Israeli and American officials, would almost certainly be compelled to denounce Israel; the schizophrenic Palestinian “street” in the West Bank would be galvanized in support of Hamas; and Fatah’s security forces (which have been penetrated thoroughly by Hamas supporters) would have their incompetence exposed, and might become complicit in terrorist attacks against Israel—attacks ordered by the Hamas leadership in Damascus. In other words, the entire project of bolstering Fatah in the West Bank as both a counterexample to Gaza and a competent vehicle for curtailing Islamist influence seriously would be debilitated and possibly even scuttled.

In setting themselves this course, America and Israel preemptively have denied themselves the ability to strike at Hamas in Gaza in any meaningful way. The only option left is the one Israel appears to be following: limited strikes on Qassam missiles, launchers, and factories; a few targeted killings; and idle threats of water and electricity cutoffs. This, though, is too much of a bad deal for Israel, and an intolerable one for the residents of the border town of Sderot. A renewed Fatah kleptocracy in the West Bank is not a sufficient benefit given the cost entailed—namely, that of a Gaza Strip that can terrorize Israel with impunity.

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The Candidate

The summer trailers are about to end. This week, after several production delays, The Candidate, starring Fred Thompson, will open at a theater near you.

Senator Thompson faces stiff challenges, from a late entry to disappointing fund-raising figures to the fact that he has spent time recently outside the world of politics. The other candidates have been at this for a while now, honing their messages and building organizations. They are a debate-tested and impressive—if far from invincible—group. Thompson has almost no opportunity for a learning curve and very little margin for error. He’s got to be good, very good, right from the start.

At the same time, Senator Thompson has some advantages. At the start of the summer, he was considered one of four top-tier candidates; at the end of the summer, he’s one of three (McCain having dropped like a stone in the sea). Nationally, Thompson is running second to Giuliani and is doing well in some key early states.

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The summer trailers are about to end. This week, after several production delays, The Candidate, starring Fred Thompson, will open at a theater near you.

Senator Thompson faces stiff challenges, from a late entry to disappointing fund-raising figures to the fact that he has spent time recently outside the world of politics. The other candidates have been at this for a while now, honing their messages and building organizations. They are a debate-tested and impressive—if far from invincible—group. Thompson has almost no opportunity for a learning curve and very little margin for error. He’s got to be good, very good, right from the start.

At the same time, Senator Thompson has some advantages. At the start of the summer, he was considered one of four top-tier candidates; at the end of the summer, he’s one of three (McCain having dropped like a stone in the sea). Nationally, Thompson is running second to Giuliani and is doing well in some key early states.

The moment is also right for a Thompson entry. The GOP is dispirited. Rudy Giuliani is the only other candidate in the field who can send a jolt of electricity through the Republican base—but Giuliani may also be radioactive to a significant portion of it. Thompson has the potential to energize Republicans without offending them. He also has some impressive skills. At his best, he comes across as serious, informed, reassuring, self-possessed, and manly. Some people dismiss these things as matters of style; in fact, style matters quite a lot in politics. It helped that John Kennedy projected an aura of vigor and youth and that Ronald Reagan was movie-star handsome and a riveting speaker.

The most important thing Fred Thompson has to provide, though, is a compelling rationale for his candidacy. His success depends on convincing conservatives that he is, deep in his bones, one of them—and has been for some time now. There has to be more than a check-the-box quality to his conservatism, which needs to be shown both by his record and by the manner in which he articulates his governing philosophy. He shouldn’t simply insist to voters that he’s a conservative; rather, he should go about the task of speaking as a conservative, with ease and command, explaining why conservatism is the right philosophy for this new century.

Will Fred Thompson be as good as advertised? We’ll see. But here’s what we know: in the current political environment, being a good, solid, acceptable candidate probably won’t be enough. Republican hopes in 2008 rest on a candidate emerging who is in possession of uncommon dexterity and ability, someone with authentic star power. Fred Thompson has the potential; within a few weeks we’ll know whether The Candidate has a plausible chance of becoming The Nominee.

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Another Battle in Gaza

Hamas and Fatah recently accused Israel of preventing fuel supplies from reaching the Gaza Strip—a move that has deprived nearly 600,000 Palestinians of electricity for the past five days. Israel, the two parties claimed, is responsible for the power stoppage because of its “ongoing siege” of the Gaza Strip.

Sadly, many in the international media were quick to endorse the Hamas-Fatah version. Headlines in major newspapers and reports on television networks quoted Hamas and Fatah spokesmen as saying that the IDF had banned fuel supplies to the power plant in the Gaza Strip as part of its policy to “punish” the innocent Palestinian population.

But now the real story behind the electricity fiasco has surfaced. The same Hamas and Fatah spokesmen who had blamed Israel now were accusing each other. The EU, it emerged, had stopped funding the fuel supplies, after being told by Fatah leaders in Ramallah that Hamas had taken control of the electricity company in the Gaza Strip, and was planning to extort money from customers through electricity bills.

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Hamas and Fatah recently accused Israel of preventing fuel supplies from reaching the Gaza Strip—a move that has deprived nearly 600,000 Palestinians of electricity for the past five days. Israel, the two parties claimed, is responsible for the power stoppage because of its “ongoing siege” of the Gaza Strip.

Sadly, many in the international media were quick to endorse the Hamas-Fatah version. Headlines in major newspapers and reports on television networks quoted Hamas and Fatah spokesmen as saying that the IDF had banned fuel supplies to the power plant in the Gaza Strip as part of its policy to “punish” the innocent Palestinian population.

But now the real story behind the electricity fiasco has surfaced. The same Hamas and Fatah spokesmen who had blamed Israel now were accusing each other. The EU, it emerged, had stopped funding the fuel supplies, after being told by Fatah leaders in Ramallah that Hamas had taken control of the electricity company in the Gaza Strip, and was planning to extort money from customers through electricity bills.

For the first time, I found myself this week agreeing with both Hamas and Fatah when I heard them trade allegations. How can one disagree when Hamas calls Fatah’s leaders a bunch of corrupt opportunists bilking the international community of millions of dollars under the pretext that the alternative would be the rise of Muslim fundamentalism ? And how can one disagree with Fatah’s accusations that Hamas is a bloodthirsty terrorist organization that is driving the Palestinians towards the abyss?

As the electricity crisis shows, Hamas and Fatah are prepared to use all methods in their power struggle, even if hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have to spend days and nights without electricity.

Fortunately, the Palestinians have not made the mistake that many foreign journalists did when they rushed to blame Israel for the latest crisis.

The majority of the Palestinians have already paid a heavy price for the continued power struggle between Hamas and Fatah. That’s why the Palestinians react to statements made by the two sides’ leaders with skepticism and extreme caution. Perhaps it’s time that foreign journalists sitting in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, who these days rarely visit the West Bank and Gaza Strip, follow suit, and display a degree of caution when it comes to reporting on the Hamas-Fatah fight.

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Cleaning Up Israel

The sorry spectacle of Israel’s political system going through one financial scandal after another—the latest involves finance minister Abraham Hirchson, accused of embezzling large sums of money when he headed an HMO in the 1990’s—is more than just an embarrassment. Coupled with the growth of organized crime and frightening rumors of its inroads into politics and law enforcement, these scandals are making Israelis feel these days as if they were living in a Jewish Sicily.

Is it that bad? Probably not, although it’s hard to say. Corruption in Israel is something that, even today, you’re far more likely to read about in the newspapers than to experience personally. Israel is still a country whose citizens assume, when dealing with government officials, the police, or business contacts, that they are facing someone honest. It’s not some third-world state or banana republic where you routinely slip money into your car registration papers when you’re asked for them by a traffic cop, leave a gift on the desk of the official you’ve applied to for a building permit, or promise a kickback to the executive you’re negotiating a contract with. But then again, I don’t suppose that routinely happens in Sicily, either.

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The sorry spectacle of Israel’s political system going through one financial scandal after another—the latest involves finance minister Abraham Hirchson, accused of embezzling large sums of money when he headed an HMO in the 1990’s—is more than just an embarrassment. Coupled with the growth of organized crime and frightening rumors of its inroads into politics and law enforcement, these scandals are making Israelis feel these days as if they were living in a Jewish Sicily.

Is it that bad? Probably not, although it’s hard to say. Corruption in Israel is something that, even today, you’re far more likely to read about in the newspapers than to experience personally. Israel is still a country whose citizens assume, when dealing with government officials, the police, or business contacts, that they are facing someone honest. It’s not some third-world state or banana republic where you routinely slip money into your car registration papers when you’re asked for them by a traffic cop, leave a gift on the desk of the official you’ve applied to for a building permit, or promise a kickback to the executive you’re negotiating a contract with. But then again, I don’t suppose that routinely happens in Sicily, either.

In this sense, Israel is in the third and murkiest of the three categories that you can divide the world’s countries into. There are countries in which corruption hardly exists and no one would dream of trying to solve his problems by resorting to it. There are countries in which it is omnipresent and everyone understands that it is the only way to get things done. And there are countries, like Israel, in which the rules are simply not clear, and you never know if a bribe will pay off, be dismissed by whoever it is offered to with an indignant glare or weary smile but no worse, or land you in jail. Most people would never run the risk, but most people have also heard rumors or stories of others who have run it successfully. This makes corruption a phenomenon that everyone is aware of but of whose true dimensions no one has a clear idea.

The fact of the matter is that, even in cleaner times, Israel was always a country in which the rules were never quite clear. I’ve heard it said that there are countries, like Japan, in which “yes” never means “yes.” But in Israel, “no” has never meant “no.” It has always meant, “Let’s argue and negotiate.” And in Israel, you negotiate with everyone: the phone company about its bills, the storekeeper about his prices, the teacher about his marks. You don’t generally do this by offering bribes. You do it by reasoning, wheedling, shouting, crying, pleading, threatening, joking. Only suckers take “no” for an answer.

It took me a while to learn this when I immigrated to Israel in 1970. One of my first lessons came when filling out my first Israeli income-tax return. When it came to house expenses such as electricity and water bills—on which, as a self-employed writer living at home, I had a right to a partial deduction—the accountant scratched his head and said, “You know what? Let’s try deducting 50 percent.”

“What do you mean, let’s try?” I said. “What are the rules?”

“There are no rules,” said the accountant. “And even if there are, they’re too complicated to figure out.”

“Then why don’t you call the tax authorities and ask?” I suggested.

My accountant looked at me with astonishment. Clearly I had been born, not yesterday, but sometime in the previous hour. “If I ask, they’ll tell me it’s 10 percent,” he said. “Let’s put in for 50.”

We put in for 50, and it worked. Since then, I’ve deducted 50 percent of my house expenses from my tax returns every year. Is that what the law permits me to do? Don’t ask me, I just do it.

All this has a certain charm. It can be frustrating and unnerving, of course—there’s something to be said for knowing where you stand, instead of having to find out ad hoc each time—but it has made Israel in many ways a much more flexible place to operate in than other countries. Although people complain about Israeli bureaucracy, Israeli bureaucrats are models of human kindness compared to bureaucrats I’ve encountered in other places. You can actually get them to change their minds or make an exception for you if you’re skillful enough in presenting your case.

Such a modus operandi becomes deadly, however, the minute corruption enters into it. It’s one thing for an official behind a desk to give you the permit he really shouldn’t have given you because you’ve burst into tears or turned out to be his third cousin once-removed. It’s another thing for him to give it to you because a wad of cash has fallen unnoticed from your wallet while you were leaving. And this, once rare, is becoming a more and more accepted practice.

If Israel is not going to end up in corruption category 1, it is going to have to change its ways of doing things and learn to go by the rules—everywhere. In some ways this will be too bad. Just last week my wife phoned the cable TV company and got it to lower the rates it charges us by threatening to move to a rival. An Israel you can no longer do this in will be a less simpatico place. But it will also be a cleaner one.

Indeed, if one wants to be optimistic, this is what is happening in Israel right now. Case after case that might have gone unprosecuted before is now ending up in the courts, the cases of ranking politicians not excepted. It looks bad, and it is bad. But eventually, the lesson may sink in. There may be a golden mean between Denmark and Nigeria, but if you have to choose, it’s a lot better to be Denmark.

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