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entries tagged with: Avigdor Lieberman

 

Rotem conversion law in Israel is under debate

According to Knesset member David Rotem, if he has his way, Israel will enact a new law to make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis to convert to Judaism.

This will have the effect of better integrating tens of thousands of Israelis of Russian extraction, if not hundreds of thousands, into Israeli Jewish society, according to Rotem and Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, whose party, the Russian-dominated Yisrael Beiteinu, is sponsoring the bill. Most important, they say, the measure will make it easier for the Russians to marry other Israelis.

News Analysis

But critics, including some diaspora Jews and non-Orthodox leaders in Israel, are not happy with the proposal. They say the bill does not go far enough to ease the conversion process, expands the power of the Chief Rabbinate, delegitimizes non-Orthodox conversions, and does nothing to secure recognition in Israel for conversions performed in the diaspora.

The objections are part of what prompted a U.S. tour this week by the two legislators from Yisrael Beiteinu, whose leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, promised in the last campaign to tackle marriage and conversion issues. Rotem and Ayalon spent three days visiting American Jewish organizational leaders in a bid to allay concerns about the proposed bill.

The point of the tour, Ayalon explained, was “to alleviate any concerns from our brothers and sisters in the Conservative and Reform movements that they would be adversely impacted by any form of the bill.”

Rotem and Ayalon also met with the Orthodox Union and federation executives, among others, to discuss the proposed legislation.

Rabbi Uri Regev, a leading Reform rabbi in Israel and now president of Hiddush, a group that advocates for religious freedom in Israel, says that American Jewish leaders should not be distracted from the real harm the bill does in Israel.

“The devil is in the details,” Regev said. “What he’s not telling you is that the bill would result in serious ramifications in terms of the legal status of converts in general, of non-Orthodox converts in particular, and will not provide Russian olim with the kind of access and protection he claims.”

The conversion bill aims to address several problems with the status quo in Israel, according to Rotem, the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

In the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent. While most of the Russian-speaking immigrants were Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law, many did not have a Jewish mother and so were classified in Israel as non-Jews. That has led to all sorts of problems for the estimated 350,000 to 400,000 Israelis in this category, particularly when it comes to marriage. Israeli law makes no accommodation for civil marriage, whether between a Jew and a non-Jew or between two people of no religion. So the only way these Israelis can wed is if they convert to Judaism — no easy process in Israel.

Would-be converts must take classes, pass exams, and pledge to be religiously observant, and the approval for conversions is subject to the whims of special conversion courts. Complicating matters further, rabbinical courts in Israel in the past two years have invalidated a number of conversions performed years ago, casting doubt on thousands more conversions and provoking a firestorm of controversy. The Israeli Rabbinate also has circumscribed acceptance of conversions performed overseas, including Orthodox conversions, rankling diaspora rabbis.

Rotem says his bill would address some, but not all, of these problems.

The measure would empower any rabbi who is or was on a district rabbinate in Israel, or was or is the chief rabbi of a city or town, to perform a conversion for any Israeli regardless of place of residence. This would free would-be converts from the whims of the special conversion courts. It also would eliminate the current curricular requirements for converts, instead leaving conversion to the discretion of local rabbis.

Under the proposed law, conversions could be voided only if the rabbinical court that conducted the conversion determined it took place under false pretenses, subject to the approval of the president of the national Rabbinic Court of Appeals. And under Rotem’s proposal, a convert seeking to marry but encountering obstinacy from his local rabbinate could return to the rabbinical court that converted him to acquire his marriage license.

A few months ago, Rotem managed to get a separate bill passed to enable couples with no religion to enter into civil unions. Critics complain, however, that the law’s limitation to couples of no religion limits its impact to some 100 to 200 couples in Israel per year, and that it leaves unclear whether these unions will be recognized overseas as marriages. The bill does nothing to help interfaith couples, who are barred by law from marrying in Israel, or Jews who want to get married civilly rather than through the rabbinate.

The conversion bill faces significant hurdles in the Knesset. Ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, parties are fighting provisions of the bill that would ease the conversion process, and some non-Orthodox leaders complain that certain provisions of the bill may make matters worse for converts.

Rotem says the conversion bill is essential for Israel’s future. Without it, he warns, the non-Jewish, non-Arab population of Israel will swell to 1 million by 2035.

Regev, a staunch critic of the bill, says that while well-meaning, the measure contains several dangerous provisions. For one, it expands the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate’s jurisdiction by bringing conversions, until now the province of special conversion courts, under the explicit authority of the Chief Rabbinate.

For another, it requires the consent of the president of the nation’s Rabbinic Court of Appeals for a conversion to be revoked. While that might be an improvement over the current situation, in which lower rabbinic courts can unilaterally void conversions, it also raises the specter that the position could be taken up by a fundamentalist who would take a tougher line against converts.

Moreover, the conversion bill does not guarantee that rabbinates in Israel will recognize conversions performed overseas. While Israeli law recognizes such conversions as valid, in practice Israeli rabbinates often disregard them and bar such converts from marrying Jews — particularly in the case of non-Orthodox conversions.

Rotem dismisses this problem, saying that a convert from the United States always can find some rabbinate in Israel willing to grant him a marriage license — it’s just a matter of “legwork” going from city to city to find one.

Regev says this is ridiculous.

“Instead of allowing people to marry as they see fit, with the starting point being freedom of marriage, there are acrobatics when the chief rabbi of the city makes problems for a convert who wants to marry,” he said.

JTA

 
 

Bibi on Jerusalem Day cites ‘unbreakable bond’

_JStandardWorld
Published: 14 May 2010

JERUSALEM – “The struggle for Jerusalem is a struggle for the truth,” Benjamin Netanyahu said in remarks in honor of Jerusalem Day.

“The truth is that Jerusalem is the very air that our people breathe. We have an unbreakable bond with Jerusalem — one that has lasted thousands of years; over 3,000 years to be precise,” the Israeli prime minister said Tuesday night at the start of a Jerusalem Day rally at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem. “We never ever relinquished that bond.”

Jerusalem Day marks the date on the Hebrew calendar that Israeli forces captured eastern Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War, thus reuniting the city.

Netanyahu said that under Israel, all religions have free access to Jerusalem.

“We are not banishing anyone, we are not removing anyone, because the second half of the truth is that no other people has the connection the people of Israel have with Jerusalem and Zion,” he said. “However, there was also no other people that allowed other religions freedom of worship and freedom of access to the holy places other than the people of Israel. When we renewed our hold over all parts of the city, we renewed freedom of worship and allowed the members of all religions to pray and follow their faith under Israeli sovereignty.”

More than 2,500 police officers and soldiers were deployed around Jerusalem on Tuesday night and Wednesday during ceremonies and events to mark Jerusalem Day.

Thousands of people, including yeshiva and seminary students from throughout the country, were set to take part in the annual flag march through Jerusalem late Wednesday afternoon, ending at the Western Wall.

Also Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in Tokyo during an official visit to Japan that “normal life” would continue in Jerusalem.

“There is no agreement about freezing building in east Jerusalem and normal life in Jerusalem will continue as in every other city in Israel,” he told reporters.

JTA

 
 

Is Netanyahu alienating Israel’s friends in Europe?

JERUSALEM – On the day last week that Israel gained admission to the prestigious Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel’s continued control over the Palestinians was eroding its global standing.

Whereas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Israel’s joining of the OECD as an economic and diplomatic coup, Barak warned of a growing tide of international isolation unless Israel comes out with a major peace initiative of its own, irrespective of the OECD membership.

News Analysis

The differences between Netanyahu and Barak lie at the heart of the debate over how central the Israeli-Palestinian process is to Israel’s diplomatic efforts worldwide.

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Angel Gurria, right, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, congratulates Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 10 after Israel’s admission into the OECD. Moshe Milner/GPO

Some believe Israel can safely ride out the storm of international pressure for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. But many others argue that a credible peacemaking orientation is an essential component of Israel’s standing in the world, and that Netanyahu is alienating Israel’s few friends.

Barak, the Labor Party leader, makes no secret of his concern at the way differences over peacemaking have embroiled the Netanyahu government not only with the Obama administration, but also with some of its closest allies in Europe.

Israel long has had a rough ride in European public opinion, but since Netanyahu came to power in March 2009, there have been growing signs of tensions with friendly European leaders and governments, particularly Britain, Germany, and France.

Part of Netanyahu’s image problem has been his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is widely perceived in Europe as a crude anti-Arab bulldozer against peace. But mainly it is skepticism over Netanyahu’s own seriousness about peacemaking that is hurting Israel. European leaders are not convinced of the genuineness of his commitment to the two-state solution, and they also see his declarations about continued construction of Jewish housing in eastern Jerusalem as unnecessarily provocative.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s oscillation between peace commitments to satisfy President Obama and construction promises to appease his right wing have led to a loss of credibility on the international stage.

Britain, for example, has been one of Israel’s staunchest allies in Europe. On a visit to Israel in July 2008, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown underlined the intimacy of the relationship by addressing the Knesset and launching a new Britain-Israel partnership for research and academic exchange. Brown also was one of six European heads of government who made a solidarity visit to Israel at the height of the war with Hamas in Gaza in January 2009.

But after Netanyahu came to power two months later, the Brown government’s policies quickly took an anti-Israel turn. In July, Britain decided not to renew five military export licenses, all for spare parts for naval guns, to protest Israel’s alleged use of disproportionate force in Gaza.

“We do not grant licenses where there is a clear risk that arms will be used for external aggression or internal repression,” a British Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv declared.

In December, the British Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs ruled that produce from west bank settlements could no longer be labeled “produced in Israel,” but must be tagged “product of the west bank.” An optional additional label could clarify whether the origin was an Israeli settlement or Palestinian — a move Israel saw as encouraging a boycott of settler produce.

Also in December, much to Israel’s consternation, Britain backed an abortive Swedish move to have the European Union recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine.

Relations were strained further by the British government’s failure to take promised action against legislation enabling anti-Israeli groups to bring war crimes charges against Israeli leaders and generals.

Alarmed by a move to press war crimes charges against Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, British leaders in December again vowed to repeal the offending legislation — but so far to no avail.

Tension between the two countries came to a head in February when it became apparent that suspected Israeli Mossad agents allegedly used forged British passports, among others, for the assassination in Dubai of a leading Hamas operative. The British responded by expelling an unnamed Israeli diplomat from London.

Things may be worse with Germany, where Netanyahu got into a spat with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who probably has been Israel’s best and most influential friend on the continent. It happened in a telephone conversation in mid-March.

According to the German version, Merkel called Netanyahu at Obama’s request to urge no further building in eastern Jerusalem. She asked that the call be kept secret and promised to refrain from public criticism of Israel’s construction policies.

Netanyahu, however, immediately arranged for a briefing of Israeli journalists and told them he had called Merkel to inform her of Israel’s building plans in eastern Jerusalem.

Merkel felt Netanyahu had betrayed her trust, according to senior German sources. The Germans then released their version of the conversation and, during a news conference the next day, Merkel publicly criticized Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem.

Netanyahu apparently also is on the outs with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, once a close friend. In mid-April, Sarkozy told Israeli President Shimon Peres that he was disappointed in Netanyahu and found it hard to understand the prime minister’s political thinking.

“I don’t understand where Netanyahu is going or what he wants,” the French president was quoted as saying.

Sarkozy also has been outspoken about Lieberman’s presence in the government. In a meeting with Netanyahu in Paris last June, he urged Netanyahu to replace Lieberman as foreign minister with Livni and “make history.”

“You must get rid of that man,” Sarkozy was quoted as saying.

The fact that Israel has strained relations with its three most important backers in Europe has yet to translate into dramatic change in EU policy. Israel’s requested upgrading of ties with the European Union remains on hold, but that was the case before Netanyahu came to power. And Israel’s acceptance to the OECD was unanimous by the group’s members.

However, if there is a showdown between Israel and the Palestinians over the peace process, Europe could well be more supportive of the Palestinians. As with the Obama administration, the major European powers make the distinction between fundamental support for Israel’s security and right to exist, and criticism of the policies of the current government.

That same distinction is also being made by Jews on the left in Europe, following the lead of J Street in America. In early May European Jews, backed by notable intellectuals such as Bernard Henri Levi and Alain Finkielkraut, formed JCall, a new Jewish organization “committed to the state of Israel and critical of the current choices of its government.”

The friction with Obama and Europe and the loss of automatic Jewish support in both Europe and America are causing concern among many in Jerusalem.

“For first time we have a government that is succeeding … in causing the rest of the world to hate us,” Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel’s most respected political scientists, wrote recently in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The conclusion of politicians on the center left, from Livni to Barak, is the same: Israel under Netanyahu needs credible peace policies to turn around in its diplomatic fortunes.

Some of Netanyahu’s defenders say the perception that he isn’t serious about peacemaking is not fair. The question is, does Netanyahu believe his policies are alienating Israel’s friends, and what will he do about it?

JTA

 
 

As Israel’s image sinks, whither Israeli PR?

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Theresa McDermott, an Edinburgh postal worker who was a member of the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, speaks at a Boycott Israel demonstration in Edinburgh on June 5. Richard Milnes/Creative Commons

JERUSALEM – In the war of public relations for Israel, the past few weeks have been full of setbacks.

Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla sparked countless angry editorials, demonstrations, and condemnations. The assassination in Dubai in January of a Hamas operative by agents widely believed to have been Israelis — using faked passports — resulted in the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from the countries whose passports had been faked. Even leading musicians have canceled performances in Israel in recent weeks, citing political circumstances.

These developments have brought Israel’s growing image problem into sharp relief.

The fear is that Israel is subject to a growing tide of delegitimization that, if unchecked, could pose an existential threat. The nightmare scenario has the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement gaining more traction and anti-Israel opinion moving from Western campuses to governments, followed by a lifting of the protective American diplomatic umbrella.

More than ever, Israel needs an efficient PR machine capable of undermining the would-be delegitimizers and getting across the Israeli narrative.

That raises the question: Who is running Israel’s PR — in Hebrew, called hasbara — and why have they not been more successful?

The public face of Israel, the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak government, wins few points on the international stage. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely perceived as uninterested in making peace, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is seen as a racist bully, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak is seen as not doing enough to press for more peace-oriented policies.

Another problem is the large number of agencies within the government dealing with public relations. To name just a few, there is a directorate for PR in the National Security Council, and PR divisions in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and the Israel Defense Forces.

They are not always coordinated. For example, the Foreign Ministry’s quick response team and the IDF spokesman’s office argued over who should present the initial Israeli version of what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-flagged ship that greeted Israel’s commando raid with violence. As a result, the Israeli account did not come out for about 10 hours after the incident, a lacuna the Turks and other detractors were able to take full advantage of.

Israel’s “rebranding” strategy also seems to have had little success.

For years, a Foreign Ministry team under Ido Aharoni has been trying to improve Israel’s image by branding it as a fount of “creative energy,” emphasizing Israel’s high-tech and scientific achievements, burgeoning economy, entrepreneurial zeal, energetic lifestyle, and vibrant diversity of opinion and culture. The core idea behind the campaign is that focusing on Israel beyond the conflict would deflect attention from its negative image as an occupying power.

Not only has the campaign failed to achieve its main goal, but politics has penetrated nonpolitical realms. Musicians such as Elvis Costello, the Pixies, and indie rocker Devendra Banhart have canceled concerts here, citing politics. The Madrid gay pride parade banned an Israeli float sponsored by the city of Tel Aviv, citing the raid aboard the Mavi Marmara.

Earlier this year the Reut Institute, a nonpartisan Tel Aviv-based think tank, issued a comprehensive report analyzing Israel’s delegitimization problem and the tools needed to combat it. The report argued that the time has come for the government to take the delegitimization challenge as seriously as it does the military threats facing Israel.

In its report, presented to the cabinet in February, Reut pointed to an increasingly effective alliance between Islamist rejectionists and radical left-wing groups in the West whose common goal is to destroy Israel by isolating it politically and economically, ultimately forcing a one-state solution with a Muslim majority. The delegitimizers are particularly active in places like London, Madrid, and the California bay area, which Reut called hubs, where they form grassroots networks of activists, NGOs, and fellow travelers against Israel. The tipping point in their work would be a growing international consensus for a one-state solution, the report said.

“Perhaps the existential threat to Israel is not yet around the corner, but as we know from history, state paradigms collapse exponentially,” Eran Shayshon, one of the authors of the Reut paper, told JTA. “Suddenly a few things happen to create an irresistible momentum, as happened with the Soviet Union or with apartheid South Africa.”

In order to meet the challenge, Reut proposes a complete overhaul of Israel’s foreign service. It argues that instead of an outmoded diplomacy geared toward handling states and continents, the new focus should be on the hubs where the delegitimizers are particularly active and where dozens of additional diplomats should be deployed to engage as many people as possible among the decision-making elites.

In addition, Reut recommends building anti-delegitimization networks worldwide based on Jewish and Israeli groups abroad, including NGOs. The main goal of the multifaceted campaign would be to prevent delegitimization from spreading from the fringes to the mainstream.

According to the Reut paper, the aim is to drive a wedge between bona-fide critics of specific Israeli policies and promoters of delegitimacy, thereby winning over the nonpartisan political center and creating a “political firewall around Israel.”

So far, there is no sign the government intends to adopt any of this. While pro-Israel NGOs from Jerusalem to New York are involved in trying to defuse deligitimization campaigns against Israel, some PR experts argue that the problem is more a question of government policy than organizational structures or efforts.

Israel will continue to suffer on the PR front unless it launches a major peace initiative, this school of thought says. That is one of the reasons Barak has been urging Netanyahu to come out with a new peace initiative, carefully coordinated with and backed by the Americans.

Such an initiative almost certainly would not impress the delegitimizers, but it probably would give Israel a better chance of stopping the erosion of its international standing by driving a wedge between them and the rest of the international community.

JTA

 
 

Netanyahu’s choice

 

Proposed law to probe Israeli rights groups prompts fierce criticism in Israel

JERUSALEM – Knesset legislation calling for an investigation of Israeli human rights groups has sparked a fierce argument over who is doing more to hurt Israel’s reputation: human rights organizations critical of the Israeli government and army, or the politicians who want to investigate them for allegedly going too far.

By a vote of 47-16, the Knesset last week gave preliminary passage to proposed legislation calling for the establishment of a parliamentary panel to investigate the funding and activities of a long list of left-leaning human rights groups.

One of the co-sponsors, Faina Kirshenbaum of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, charges that the groups are working under the guise of human rights advocacy to discredit the Israel Defense Forces’ presence in the west bank, criminalize its soldiers, and encourage draft-dodging — with the overall aim of weakening the IDF and delegitimizing Israel.

News Analysis

“These groups provided material to the Goldstone commission and are behind indictments lodged against Israeli officers and officials around the world,” Kirshenbaum declared during a Knesset debate, referring to the U.N.-endorsed Goldstone report on the Gaza war, which among its findings included allegations of war crimes violations by Israel.

The heavy vote in favor of the legislation reflected widespread concern in Israel at the activities of human rights groups, some of which receive foreign government funds and whose goals may be seen as potentially inimical to the national interest.

Much of the subsequent criticism was directed at the choice of mechanism to deal with the issue: a parliamentary committee in which politicians would be interrogating their political opponents.

After days of criticism for the “undemocratic” nature of the proposed investigatory committee, Lieberman invited cameras into the normally closed party caucus meeting Monday to show he had no intention of backing down.

In his remarks, he suggested that Israel’s delegitimizers rely on the subversive work of Israel’s Haaretz daily newspaper; Yesh Din, a group that monitors the rule of law in the west bank; and Yesh Gvul, an organization that defends Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the west bank. He called the organizations “collaborators in terror.”

“There wasn’t a single meeting abroad where I spoke about delegitimization of Israel and people didn’t say look at what Haaretz wrote or what Yesh Din, Yesh Gvul, or Yesh Batich published,” he said, the last name a derogatory play on words meaning “There is Zero.”

Critics — from both the left and right wings — have accused Lieberman of McCarthyism. They argue that establishing a parliamentary mechanism to hound political opponents is patently undemocratic and brings to mind the witch-hunting days of anti-communist fervor in the United States in the early 1950s.

Israeli law already requires full transparency on funding, most of the named NGOs are fully transparent, and there is a registrar of NGOs where funding information already is in the public domain, critics of the new legislation maintain.

NGO Monitor, an organization often harshly critical of left-leaning Israeli human rights groups, went so far as to publish an Op-Ed criticizing the proposed law as unhelpful and polarizing. (See it at http://www.jstandard.com.)

As for activities such as pointing out transgressions by IDF soldiers, opponents of the proposed law contend that such criticism shows the strength of Israeli democracy rather than casting aspersions on the IDF as a whole or bringing the country into disrepute. On the contrary, setting up a McCarthyist parliamentary committee would do far more damage to Israel’s good name, they argue.

The proposed law, wrote NGO Monitor President Gerald Steinberg, provides “more ammunition for Israel’s most ardent critics to proclaim the ‘death of Israeli democracy,’ further contributing to Israel’s isolation.”

Several of the singled-out groups monitor IDF activities in the west bank. The groups say this is precisely what the role of civil society groups should be: ensuring that the occupation is as humane as possible. If their funding or activities contravene the law in any way, they should be dealt with by the police, not a politically weighted Knesset committee, they insist.

Several Likud leaders, including Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Michael Eitan, and Reuven Rivlin, say they, too, are appalled by Lieberman’s approach.

“It’s a mistake to establish a parliamentary committee in which Knesset members will interrogate their opponents,” Meridor, a deputy prime minister, told Israel’s Channel 2. “It will turn our country into something it never was or ought to be.”

Critical pundits warn of a vicious circle: Threatened by a highly focused international campaign of delegitimization, they see Israel turning on itself, with figures like Lieberman attacking Israeli human rights organizations, thereby laying it open to further delegitimizing attacks.

There is a significant domestic political context to the proposed law. Lieberman’s move to take on the human rights organizations is part of a deliberate campaign aimed at displacing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the natural leader of the Israeli right wing. The proposed Knesset legislation came a week after Lieberman publicly repudiated Netanyahu’s policies on reconciliation with Turkey and peace with the Palestinians.

The opposition by senior Likud members to Lieberman’s proposed investigatory committee gave Lieberman another opening to seize the right-wing mantle.

“These backsliders in the national camp, who are ready to sacrifice its interests, are responsible for the fact that the national camp has never ruled Israel even when we won elections,” Lieberman said, referring to Likudniks like Meridor and Begin.

On the Turkish and Palestinian issues, Netanyahu failed to censure Lieberman, prompting commentators to criticize him for weak leadership. But he did not leave the foreign minister’s broadside against the Likud unanswered, arguing that his party is just as determined to fight organizations that act illegally against the state or the IDF, but that there are different ways of going about this.

“The Likud is a democratic and pluralistic party, and not a dictatorship of a single view,” Netanyahu said, sniping at Lieberman’s high-handed leadership of Yisrael Beitenu and insinuating what kind of regime Lieberman might impose if he were to become prime minister.

The big loser in all this will be Israel, say some in the opposition.

Knesset member Yisrael Hasson, who left Yisrael Beiteinu in 2009 to join the centrist Kadima Party led by Tzipi Livni, accuses Lieberman of cynically undermining Israeli foreign policy in a bid to enhance his domestic political standing.

Lieberman is a “foreign policy pyromaniac” with license from an irresponsible prime minister to start fires all over the place, Hasson told JTA.

What makes this particularly dangerous, Hasson says, is that it comes in the context of the campaign to delegitimize Israel: The fires Lieberman starts can turn people who are neutral on Israel into opponents, fueling the campaign to delegitimize and isolate Israel.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

The wrong Lieberman is retiring

 

Money makes the world go around

 

Ahead of Palestinian U.N. gambit, Europe is in play

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French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe visits the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on June 2 during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority territories. Isaac Harari/FLASH90/JTA

JERUSALEM – It was a sign that ties between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations remain strong despite the apparent tensions two weeks ago when the two leaders met at the White House.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shot down a French proposal for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that had put the Israeli leader in a quandary.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted the French proposal, which included a settlement freeze, his right-leaning coalition partners might have bolted the government. If he refused, it would have made it seem as if he were the intransigent party in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — a perilous position as France and other leading European states consider voting for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September.

During a visit to Israel and the west bank in early June, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe outlined his plan for restarting the stalled peace process: The goal would be to establish two states for two peoples on the basis of the 1967 lines with land swaps; borders and security would be discussed first, Jerusalem and refugees later. That part of the proposal mirrored Obama’s call two weeks ago for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks.

But the French proposal also envisaged achieving a full-fledged permanent peace deal within a year and a freeze of any unilateral steps in the interim. For the Palestinians, that would mean not petitioning the United Nations for statehood in September. For Israel, it would mean halting settlement construction in the west bank.

Juppe invited Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas to an international conference in Paris in July to kick-start the process. Abbas quickly replied in the affirmative. Netanyahu said he would first consult with the Americans.

The package was attractive to the Palestinians because of its clear focus on the 1967 lines and its relatively short timetable. The sweetener for Israel was the explicit reference to “two states for two peoples,” implying that Israel would be, as Netanyahu insists, recognized as the state of the Jewish people.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu found himself in a bind. He already had said no to negotiations structured that way when Obama raised the issue. Netanyahu insists the Palestinians first recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a sign of readiness to end the conflict. In addition, Hamas, the terrorist organization that is now part of the Palestinian leadership following the recent reconciliation with Fatah, must recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and accept all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements before a credible peace process can be contemplated.

But perhaps even more important, Netanyahu has serious issues with the 1967 lines plus land swaps formula. He insists on maintaining an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and, besides the large settlement blocs, he wants to retain security areas along the Samarian mountain ridge, as well as sites of historic importance such as Hebron.

This goes well beyond anything that could be construed as being “based on the 1967 lines.”

Were Netanyahu to accept the French proposal, coalition partners like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party might quit the government, and Likud hard-liners like Benny Begin and Moshe Yaalon might challenge Netanyahu’s authority.

Still, despite these very serious obstacles, the prize for taking up the French offer was tempting: Palestinian deferment of plans to seek U.N. membership this year. There was also a big stick: If Netanyahu rejected the French offer, Juppe intimated that France and several of its European allies would vote for U.N. recognition of Palestine.

With Clinton’s nix, Netanyahu is off the hook.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has quit trying to prevent the Palestinians from obtaining the two-thirds majority they need for recognition in the 192-member U.N. General Assembly. Unlike in the U.N. Security Council, where Obama has promised that the United States will veto any unilateral vote on Palestinian statehood, General Assembly votes do not carry the force of international law.

Yet even in the General Assembly, Israel hopes to obtain as many “No” votes as possible from democratic countries. This, Israeli officials argue, would carry enormous moral weight.

Thus the European Union, with its 27 democracies, is crucial. Over the past two months, Netanyahu has traveled to Berlin, London, and Paris in an effort to convince key European leaders not to back Palestinian U.N. membership. Had he been the one to reject the French offer, his European strategy could collapse.

Netanyahu’s critics say that even if Israel wins this battle, a General Assembly vote favoring statehood will deliver the Palestinians a major diplomatic triumph and possibly trigger a new wave of Arab Spring-style protests in the west bank.

The Israeli government’s failure to take serious action to pre-empt the Palestinian U.N. move and its consequences has drawn strong domestic criticism in Israel.

The most powerful voice in recent days has been from Meir Dagan, who recently retired from his post at the helm of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.

Dagan says that Israel should have responded positively to the 2002 Arab peace initiative, come up with an initiative of its own, and pressed for a negotiated solution with the Palestinians. He also has expressed deep discomfort with the judgment of Israel’s current political leaders, hinting darkly that they might even contemplate attacking Iran’s nuclear weapons program to divert attention from the United Nations in September.

For now, a Palestinian U.N. move in September is still not a foregone conclusion.

By quashing the French plan, Clinton kept the initiative firmly in Washington, where the Americans are talking to both the Israelis and Palestinians in an attempt to create conditions for a renewal of peace talks that would render the Palestinian U.N. gambit superfluous.

In the next few weeks, in what could be the defining moment of his premiership, Netanyahu will have to decide whether to embrace a last-chance initiative to avert the U.N. imbroglio in September or to stay put and risk the potential diplomatic fallout while keeping his coalition intact.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Pressure mounts on Palestinians to abandon U.N. statehood gambit

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An Arab man passes graffiti in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah. Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90/JTA

JERUSALEM – The pressure on Mahmoud Abbas to back down from plans to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September is intensifying.

Squeezed by a combination of concerted American pressure and intense Israeli diplomacy, some top Palestinian leaders are urging the Palestinian Authority’s president to drop his September plan.

Abbas, however, says he still intends to go ahead with the U.N. move, unless key international players can get serious peace talks going before then.

A pro-Western wing of the Palestinian leadership, led by P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and including former Palestinian envoy to the U.N. Nasser al-Kidwa, is advising Abbas to drop the U.N. initiative mainly for the sake of good relations with the United States.

They also fear that a U.N. resolution that fails to change anything on the ground could spark a new cycle of violence and retaliation, destroying years of state-building achievements, especially in the Palestinian economy and security forces.

To soften U.S. opposition, Palestinian supporters of the U.N. gambit, like Abbas and his chief negotiators Saeb Erakat and Nabil Shaath, are proposing sending an accompanying letter to the U.N. recognizing Israel in the 1967 borders and committing to resume negotiations immediately on a state-to-state basis. That, however, is unlikely to cut much ice.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has launched a worldwide campaign against U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state, instructing Israeli embassies across the globe to leave no stone unturned. Even in countries considered lost causes, diplomats have been ordered to do all they can to turn things around.

The aim of the intense Israeli diplomatic activity is twofold: first, to prevent the Palestinians from winning a two-thirds majority in the 192-member General Assembly. Then, if that fails, at least to win what Israeli officials are calling a “moral minority” — in which most Western countries, with their moral authority as democracies, vote against recognition of a Palestinian state.

“There is no possible configuration in which Israel wins the vote,” a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told JTA. “But if we can get that ‘moral minority,’ then the resolution will be reduced to nothing more than another U.N. anti-Israel piece of paper.”

As part of the campaign to win over the European democracies, Netanyahu has been warning European leaders that a U.N. resolution that enshrines the 1967 borders will kill off the peace process.

He argues that no Palestinian leader will be able to accept anything less, undermining the long-accepted principle that in any peace treaty the 1967 lines will have to be modified.

“It will have the same effect as the 1948 U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 had on the refugee issue,” the Netanyahu aide insisted, referring to the resolution that stipulated that Palestinian refugees wishing to return to home should be permitted to do so, and that compensation should be paid to those who do not.

“Everyone understands that in a peace treaty Palestinian refugees will return to Palestine, not to Israel,” the aide said. “But because of 194, you have a situation in which no Palestinian leader is ready to say so in public.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman goes further. In a mid-June meeting in Jerusalem with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, he warned that if the Palestinians made a unilateral approach to the United Nations, they would be in violation of the Oslo agreements, and Israel would no longer consider itself bound by them. Lieberman was picking up on the opinions of several leading Israeli legal experts, including former foreign ministry legal adviser Alan Baker.

Baker, who was closely involved with the Oslo negotiations, claims that by trying to get the international community to unilaterally impose Palestinian positions on Israel, the Palestinians are in breach of the 1995 Oslo interim agreement, which set up the Palestinian Authority and its presidency and parliament on the understanding that all remaining differences would be resolved through negotiations.

“The Palestinian approach to the U.N. violates the interim agreement and, in so doing, undermines the legal basis of the P.A. and all the other Palestinian institutions, creating the potential for legal chaos,” Baker told JTA.

Israel’s legal and diplomatic arguments have apparently struck a chord in some European capitals. Germany, Italy, and the European Parliament have all made their opposition to a unilateral Palestinian U.N. move clear.

Clearly, Abbas is trying to use the specter of September as a stick to get a resumption of peace talks on his terms. But as long as Hamas is part of the Palestinian government, the chances of talks being renewed are slim.

And unless Abbas is persuaded to back down at the 11th hour, the diplomatic battle is more likely to shape up over what comes next: Does U.N. recognition of Palestine isolate Israel, or does it backfire and leave the Palestinians worse off than before?

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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