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Is Bibi beholden to the right wing?

JERUSALEM – As the dust settles in Jerusalem after the U.S.-Israel confrontation over building in the city east of the 1967 Green Line, one key question comes to the fore: To what extent is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beholden to and dependent on the more hard-line elements in the Israeli right?

The answer will have major ramifications for the viability of the peace process with the Palestinians and future ties between Israel and the United States.

Netanyahu came to power last year on a cusp of right-wing support. Even though his Likud Party won one seat fewer than Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, all the right-wing parties backed Netanyahu, ensuring that he and not Livni would have a majority in the Knesset and become prime minister.

Netanyahu’s connections to the right run deep.

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Deputy Knesset Speaker Danny Danon, right, a member of the Likud Party, visits the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, where an announcement about Israeli housing starts became a flashpoint in U.S.-Israeli relations. David Vaaknin/ Flash 90 / JTA

In 2007, the Likud worked out a strategy for regaining power based on an alliance with the right-wing Orthodox Shas Party. Working in tandem with his Likud colleague Yisrael Katz, Netanyahu promised Shas leaders political gains that Kadima would never grant them. A bargain was struck and Shas delivered.

First, Shas prevented Livni from forming a government in the autumn of 2008, after Ehud Olmert resigned as Kadima leader. Then in 2009, Shas backed Netanyahu for prime minister. Likud leaders see the bond with Shas as a long-term investment to keep Likud in power.

Although there is no similar pact with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu owes Lieberman for tipping the scales in his favor in last year’s standoff against Livni for the premiership. Part of the payoff was to make the bellicose Yisrael Beiteinu leader foreign minister. Indeed, the fact that Netanyahu appointed Lieberman, of all people, to Israel’s top diplomatic post shows just how much he feels he needs him.

Coalition partners aside, potential right-wing constraints on Netanyahu start closer to home.

A majority in his own Likud Knesset faction opposes Palestinian statehood, to which Netanyahu is ostensibly committed. Many also oppose the 10-month freeze on construction in west bank settlements that Netanyahu agreed to last November and are insisting that it be rescinded as soon as it expires, irrespective of the state of negotiations with the Palestinians.

One of the Likud hard-liners, Deputy Knesset Speaker Danny Danon, claims he has a hard and fast promise from Netanyahu to resume building on Sept. 26. Danon and his fellow hard-liners hope to tie Netanyahu’s hands here with a binding Likud Central Committee resolution next month.

Danon warns that if Netanyahu insists on making serious moves toward Palestinian statehood, he will face rebellion both in the coalition and the party. But Danon does not expect it to come to that. On the contrary, he claims that Netanyahu’s mind-set is no different from Likud hard-liners.

“It’s not as if he is prepared to pay a price for peace the way former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were,” Danon told JTA. “He fully understands that there is no viable Palestinian partner, and that what we need now is to manage the conflict and not try to solve it.”

Netanyahu brought the Labor Party into the coalition and publicly sought, but failed, to do the same with Kadima. But some pundits argue that Netanyahu, himself not enamored of the two-state solution, deliberately surrounded himself with coalition partners who would not allow him to make a move.

The result has been a performance strikingly similar to that of Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. Then, too, he navigated between a U.S. administration seeking movement on the Palestinian track and a defiant right wing. Eventually he was brought down by the right for succumbing to U.S. pressure to hand over 13.5 percent of the west bank to the Palestinian Authority.

While those like Danon recognize the existential importance for Israel of the strategic relationship with Washington, they believe wholesale concessions to the Palestinians could put Israel’s survival at risk. They argue that once started, there is no saying where an inevitably salami-like process of compromise will end.

“I think the prime minister realizes that every concession he makes simply invites more pressure,” Danon said. “If he hadn’t agreed to freeze construction in the west bank, no one would be demanding a freeze in Jerusalem. Every time he gives in, he invites more pressure from the American administration — and we get nothing in return.”

In the past, Netanyahu has spoken of a need for flexibility on the Palestinian track for the sake of more intimate cooperation with the United States against the far greater Iranian nuclear threat. Some pundits have even suggested the possibility of a “grand bargain” under which Israel helps boost America’s regional standing by making serious peace moves with the Palestinians in return for which Washington helps neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat.

The hard-liners tend to reverse the linkage: First defang Iran to facilitate peacemaking — or to decouple the Iranian and Palestinian issues altogether. They argue that defanging Iran is as much an American as an Israeli interest, and should have nothing to do with the state of play on the Palestinian track.

But those close to Netanyahu acknowledge that any perceived tensions in the Israeli-U.S. strategic alliance could send the wrong message to Tehran.

“There must be a perception in Tehran of a strong, coordinated Israel-U.S. strategic alliance,” Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who now advises Netanyahu on American affairs, told JTA. “Otherwise the Iranians will say if America and Israel are not on the same wavelength, we can certainly go on doing what we are doing to develop a nuclear capability.”

Some observers argue that the right-wing hold over Netanyahu — or any prime minister, for that matter — goes well beyond party and coalition politics.

In a new book titled “The Shift: Israel and Palestine from Border Conflict to Ethnic Struggle,” Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, maintains that elements of the pro-settler right have infiltrated the establishment on a scale that makes withdrawal from the west bank in the context of a two-state solution with the Palestinians virtually impossible.

“That’s one of the main reasons that the political leadership is backing away from the showdown, because it will mean confrontation with large segments within the establishment itself,” Klein told JTA.

If Klein is right, Netanyahu, a prisoner of the right, will not be able to make serious moves toward a deal with the Palestinians even if he wishes.

JTA

 
 

Settlement freeze, Iran, peace talks to headline vital Obama-Bibi meeting

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rear left, and President Obama, flanked by Israeli and U.S. officials, are pictured at a Sept. 22, 2009 meeting in New York. The pair are scheduled to meet on July 6. Avi Ohayon /GPO/Flash 90/JTA

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters this week that he was misheard when he was quoted as telling Israeli diplomats that a “tectonic rift” was emerging between Israel and the United States. The Israelis didn’t get it, said the U.S.-born Oren: He meant there was a “tectonic shift.”

Whether there is a difference, and whether it’s meaningful, no one was going to say. The point was to get it right this time when the U.S. president and Israeli prime minister meet at the White House on July 6 or face a worsening of U.S.-Israel ties.

“The Americans and Israelis with whom we’ve met all seem quite optimistic that both sides are intent on having a positive meeting,” said the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, who is in Israel this week. “Both sides understand that there’s a lot at stake in having a positive outcome.”

As opposed to the last two — or almost two — times.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last visit to Washington, in late March, was marred by the aftermath of the tensions that followed Israel’s announcement about two weeks earlier of new building in eastern Jerusalem just as Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel for a visit. Top U.S. officials called the announcement an insult, and when Netanyahu and President Obama met they kept their deliberations behind closed doors, failing even to issue a summary statement.

Both sides spent subsequent weeks making up, with Obama administration officials emphasizing practical U.S. defense support for Israel and Netanyahu pressing hard for direct talks with the Palestinians. By the end of May, things looked good for a June 1 meeting at the White House.

But then came Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla. Netanyahu, already in North America, canceled his White House meeting and rushed back to Israel.

The Obama administration ostensibly supported Israel during the widespread outrage that followed, but the administration also pressed Netanyahu to set up an investigatory commission and flip its Gaza sanctions policy: Instead of a “white list” of permissible products to be allowed into Gaza, Israel created a blacklist of products it would bar from import to Gaza. That allowed a much broader array of goods into Gaza and marked a diplomatic loss for the Israeli government.

The sides are likely to come to the July 6 meeting with two items unresolved: What Israel plans to do once its 10-month partial freeze on west bank settlement building lapses in September, and how the sides plan to confront Iran.

The first issue is likely to be the most contentious: The Obama administration wants to keep the Palestinian Authority in the process, having finally lured it into proximity talks. But if Netanyahu doesn’t have direct talks to show for his efforts, it will be a hard sell to keep his right-leaning cabinet on board.

As an extra burr, Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat — who has national ambitions — is pressing ahead with plans to build in Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem.

On Iran, the difference may be more fundamental. Ostensibly the news for Netanyahu is good: The U.N. Security Council passed expanded sanctions this month against Iran in light of its recalcitrance on making its nuclear program transparent. The sanctions themselves lacked serious bite, but they set the stage for much tougher sanctions — one set approved by the European Union and another passed by the U.S. Congress.

The congressional sanctions are the toughest ever, targeting third parties that deal with Iran’s energy and financial sectors. They have been welcomed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, signaling the likelihood that Obama will adopt at least some of them. Already the Treasury Department has expanded sanctions targeting Iran’s shipping and banking sectors based on existing law.

The problem is, Israel’s establishment no longer believes sanctions will be effective and is eager to hear what, if anything, the Obama administration has planned for the military front. Obama thus far has laid back on such plans, or even on whether he would consider drawing up such plans for such a contingency.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the United States last week, and in his meetings with Clinton, national security adviser James Jones, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Barak outlined what is shaping up as his proposal to synthesize the two emerging crises: Barak wants Netanyahu to announce a bold peace initiative with the Palestinians as a means of freeing Israel diplomatically to operate in the military sphere should the need arise with Iran.

It’s not clear what his American interlocutors thought of the plan or whether it has resonance in Israel. A key element involves bringing into the government the centrist opposition party, Kadima, whose leader, Tzipi Livni, in recent weeks has indicated receptiveness to such overtures.

An Israeli initiative is necessary “to prevent our descent into isolation,” Barak told reporters after his meetings. “It is the only way to achieve real freedom to act when there are security events.”

JTA

 
 

Can Netanyahu accept new settlement freeze? U.S. might have to sweeten the deal

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen here at his weekly cabinet meeting on Oct. 4, reportedly is trying to convince cabinet members to agree to extend the west bank settlement freeze by 60 days. Kobi Gideon/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Following reports of an unprecedented U.S. offer of a host of assurances in return for a 60-day extension of the freeze on building in west bank settlements, some political analysts are wondering why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not grabbed the deal with both hands.

According to the reports, President Obama is offering Netanyahu pledges that the United States will:

News Analysis

• Not ask for additional extensions on the partial ban on settlement building, which expired Sept. 26;

• Commit to using the U.S. veto to prevent U.N. recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail to bear fruit;

• “Accept the legitimacy” of Israel’s security needs as defined by the Netanyahu government — understood as referring to Netanyahu’s demand for a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, in the eastern west bank;

• Broker talks with neighboring Arab states on a “regional security structure” — a nod to Netanyahu’s desire for cooperation on confronting Iran;

• Enhance Israel’s security through the sale of a second squadron of state-of-the-art stealth F-35 fighters and space cooperation, including access to U.S. satellite early warning systems.

The price: Israel must agree to extend for 60 days the recently expired west bank building freeze.

If Netanyahu spurns the offer, Israel not only would lose out on all the above, but the Americans would come out publicly in support of the 1967 borders as the basis for all future territorial negotiations with the Palestinians.

On its face, the deal would seem like a no-brainer for Netanyahu to take. So why hasn’t he?

For one thing, it’s not only up to Netanyahu. He needs the approval of a settlement freeze extension from his 29-member cabinet or at least his 15-member security cabinet, and he doesn’t have enough votes yet in those bodies. While by most accounts Netanyahu is inclined to take the deal and is pushing for cabinet members to approve it, the United States first might have to sweeten the pot.

The U.S. offer followed intensive negotiations in Washington between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and an American team led by veteran Middle East adviser Dennis Ross. The idea was to affirm the U.S. commitments in a presidential letter to Netanyahu to persuade him and pro-settlement members of his government to go along with a new temporary freeze — and in so doing keep alive the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched in early September. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to quit the talks if the freeze is not extended.

For now, the Israeli prime minister is being pressed by cabinet hard-liners not to accept the American package as is. They warn that it is all very general and that much of it will not stand up in practice.

The hard-liners are suspicious, too, of Barak’s motives. They believe Barak is behind the American offer because he fears that if the peace talks with the Palestinians break down, his Labor Party would be forced to withdraw from the government. Such a move would cost Barak the post of defense minister and, in all likelihood, his political future.

As things stand, Netanyahu does not have the votes for the deal.

In the full 29-member cabinet, 14 ministers are for extending the freeze and 15 are against. In the 15-member security cabinet the count is seven for and eight against, and in the unofficial forum of seven top advisers, three are for extending the freeze and four are against. In Netanyahu’s governing coalition, without the support of Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and Likud hard-liners, the prime minister would have the support of fewer than 40 members of the 120-member Knesset.

Netanyahu’s greatest political fear is of a repeat of 1999, when after making concessions to the Palestinians at Wye Plantation, he lost his right-wing political support base and was roundly defeated by Barak in the ensuing election. This time, the scenario that Netanyahu wants to avoid is accepting an American package, going ahead with the peacemaking, and then losing the next election to Kadima’s Tzipi Livni.

Even if Netanyahu could jettison the pro-settler parties from his coalition and bring in Kadima — changing the balance of power in the government and the Knesset in favor of pro-negotiation parties, and accepting the U.S. package — it could cost him the premiership.

Netanyahu therefore is being extra careful about making any moves that could lose him large swaths of what he sees as his natural constituency.

The Israeli prime minister also has a major strategic concern. According to confidants, he fears that as soon as any new 60-day freeze ends, the Americans will put a “take it or leave it peace plan” of their own on the table. With the U.S. midterm elections over, Obama might feel able to publicly present parameters for a peace deal that Netanyahu would find impossible to accept.

Israel might then find itself totally isolated and under intolerable international pressure. That is a scenario Netanyahu hopes the current negotiations with the Americans will help him avoid.

So far, Netanyahu has spoken of ongoing “delicate” negotiations with the Americans and implied that much of what has been reported in the press is inaccurate.

As so often in the past, Netanyahu is caught between the U.S. administration and his right-leaning coalition. If he chooses his coalition, he risks losing the support of the current administration; if he chooses America, he fears he could lose his coalition and, with it, the premiership.

What Labor and Likud moderates reportedly are telling him is that it is not 1999, and that now he can have his cake and eat it, too: If he goes with the Americans and the peace process, he will win the next election hands down.

JTA

 
 

Loyalty oath law in Israel met by U.S. Jewish silence

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At the Israeli cabinet meeting on Oct. 10, ministers voted 22-8 in favor of a measure to require non-Jewish immigrants to take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state.Yossi Zamir/Flash90/JTA

WASHINGTON – A day after Israel’s cabinet announced that it would consider making a loyalty oath mandatory for non-Jewish immigrants, the question put to The Israel Project’s president and founder was simple enough.

“How did your organization react?” Natasha Mozgovoya, the Washington correspondent for Israel’s daily Haaretz, asked Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi at a news conference last week announcing an expansion of The Israel Project’s activities.

“We didn’t put out a press release” was all Mizrahi would say.

The story, making headlines in Israel and around the world, redounded into emptiness in the mainstream American Jewish establishment even after the cabinet approved the oath in a vote Sunday.

The silence reflected a reluctance to criticize Israel at a delicate period in its negotiations with the Palestinians, and as Israel gears up for what could become intensified confrontation with Iran.

The loyalty oath, which must be approved by the full Knesset to become law, would require non-Jewish immigrants to swear allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” It was a longtime condition of participation in the governing coalition by Yisrael Beitenu, the party that helped crown Benjamin Netanyahu prime minister in early 2009 by joining his Likud Party in the government.

A measure that has drawn sharp criticism on the Israeli left, and from some figures on the political right and center, was supported by 22 cabinet members and opposed by eight — Labor’s five ministers and three from Likud.

In America, Mizrahi’s Israel Project was one of the few organizations other than solidly left-wing ones willing to say anything on the record. Most major centrist groups, including those that lean toward liberal, even kept their refusal to comment off the record.

“The timing is not right,” one official said, referring to the diplomatic impasse in the Middle East.

Others simply declared that they were not prepared to deal with the issue.

The American Jewish Committee said its staff was busy analyzing its latest poll of Jewish voters, and that it might have a statement later this week. The Anti-Defamation League did not address the content of the oath but said it should extend to all new immigrants, Jews and non-Jews.

Groups on the American Jewish left denounced the proposed law in the same strong terms used by their Israeli counterparts. J Street and the New Israel Fund even cited prominent Israelis, like Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor of Likud, in opposing the oath.

“The proposal would harm relations with Israel’s Arabs and damage the country’s international reputation,” NIF quoted Meridor as saying in its action alert. “Act now to stand up for Israel and its democratic future,” the alert said, urging supporters to contact Netanyahu’s office directly.

The law’s defenders frame it as an appropriate and effective way to deal with efforts to delegitimize Israel.

“Currently, Israel faces the greatest delegitimization campaign of any nation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a member of Yisrael Beitenu, wrote in The Jerusalem Post. “One of the main targets is its national character. Unfortunately, too many Israeli Jews have internalized this assault and have either forgotten, misunderstood, or are actively working against the raison d’etre of the re-establishment of Israel.”

What sticks in the craw of opponents is making loyalty to the Jewish state a specific attribute requiring the fealty of non-Jews. Ayalon and others have defended the oath as not differing from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance required of new citizens. The pledge, however, does not defer to any cultural, religious, or ethnic designation.

“It is one thing to require adherence to the law,” Hagai Elad, who directs the NIF-backed Association for Civil Rights in Israel, wrote to supporters. “It is another altogether to demand that free individuals in a democracy sign on to a specific ideology or identity — and specifically one with particular religious content.”

Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima Party, depicted the proposed law as a blunt instrument.

“This law does not contribute anything — the opposite is true,” The Jerusalem Post quoted her as saying. “It will cause internal conflicts. This is a bad proposed law that does not protect Israel as the Jewish national home, and even harms it.”

The ADL’s concern — that the law’s main fault was in its discriminatory application to non-Jewish immigrants only — also was reflected at the cabinet meeting, where Yaakov Neeman proposed an amendment to make it a requirement for every immigrant, regardless of religion. It did not pass.

Ayalon said Jewish immigrants were entitled to the assumption of loyalty.

“The pledge becomes unnecessary for those who join us by virtue of their national and historic ties to our land and people,” he wrote in his Op-Ed. “The Jewish state was created to deal specifically with the issue of the Jewish people, and the return of any Jew to his or her land is the fulfillment of this principle.”

JTA

 
 

Shlomo Molla, Ethiopian member of Knesset, brings message of diversity to North Jersey

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Knesset member Shlomo Molla meets with members of Solomon Schechter Day School’s student government. Josh Lipkowsky

Few members of Israel’s Knesset can say their journeys to Israel included walking hundreds of miles and escaping from a Sudanese prison.

Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian member of Israel’s Knesset who came to the Jewish state as a teenager, told his story to members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter and students at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford last Friday.

During his talk at Emanu-El, which attracted more than 40 people, he spoke about the challenges of his Kadima Party’s remaining outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the Iranian threat, and Israel’s need to be a Jewish state but not necessarily one based on Jewish law.

“He’s very quick to have those conversations with people as a black Jew because he knows what it’s like to be told you don’t count,” said Emanu-El’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, who met Molla at AIPAC’s Policy Conference earlier this year and arranged the visits.

At Schechter, Molla recounted his harrowing journey to Israel. Molla grew up in the Ethiopian village of Gandar, whose Jewish community traced itself back 2,500 years to the expulsion from Jerusalem after the destruction of the First Temple. The 16-year-old Molla had heard about the Jewish state, and he and a group of friends began a 780-kilometer journey on foot across Ethiopia to reach “the land of milk and honey and gold.”

It was a dangerous journey, Molla said, but they were motivated. Their planned route was from Ethiopia to Sudan to Egypt and finally to Israel. When they reached Sudan, however, they were accused of being spies for Ethiopia and Israel and were thrown in prison, where Molla saw one of his friends murdered. They were soon taken to a Sudanese refugee camp, where an Ethiopian reached out to Molla and his friends. He directed them to a clandestine location, where they were met by Israeli commandos who brought them to Israel in 1984.

His first shock, Molla said, was seeing all the white people. He wondered if they were really Jews, he said. He now praises the Jewish state for its diversity.

“Israel is not like America,” Molla told an assembly of SSDS’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes. “Israel is the Jewish homeland, a country for each minority of Jews.”

Eventually, Molla went to work in the same absorption centers that helped him adapt to his new life in Israel, and he became a champion of Ethiopian rights. When former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forming his new Kadima Party, he encouraged Molla to join its parliamentary list, and Molla has been a member of the Knesset since 2008.

Molla left nine brothers and two sisters in Ethiopia. He had no contact with his family there until they came to Israel seven years later as part of Operation Solomon in 1991, when Israel covertly airlifted more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in 36 hours.

The story of the Ethiopian immigration is largely unknown to American Jewish children, Molla told The Jewish Standard. He spent last week visiting schools and synagogues in New Jersey and New York, as well as meeting with political leaders in Washington to discuss the peace process and U.S.-Israel relations.

“We need the United States to stand behind Israel,” he said, noting that the Israeli public is mostly unaware of the support President Obama has provided Israel militarily and financially.

When Obama spoke in Cairo, Germany, and Turkey during the early days of his administration, he missed an opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli people, Molla said.

“Obama must come talk to the Israelis eye to eye,” he said.

Molla is the second Knesset member to visit Solomon Schechter in as many months. Last month, Dalia Itzik, Israel’s first female Knesset speaker and also a member of Kadima, addressed the students.

“It’s an inspiration,” said Schechter’s head of school, Ruth Gafni, who praised the politicians as role models for the children.

While Itzik brought a message of accomplishment for Schechter’s female students, Molla reinforced ideas of diversity and inclusiveness, said Gafni, who added how important it is for the children to see that there are black Jews.

“Our goal at the school is to provide the children an opportunity for learning from the experts in any field and to inspire them with role models in any field, and have them be eyewitnesses to history,” she said. “It’s a powerful foundation they’ll carry with them for a lifetime.”

 
 
 
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