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Settlers step up protests, but Netanyahu is politically strong

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West bank settlers and their supporters, including yeshiva students, try to block traffic entering Jerusalem on Monday to protest the settlement freeze. Abir Sultan/Flash 90/JTA

JERUSALEM – In the wake of the Israeli government’s freeze on building in west bank settlements, Jewish settlers are planning widespread protests and demonstrations, including blocking roads in Israel proper.

Their aim is to delegitimize the freeze decision among the public. The danger for the settlers, however, is that if they are perceived as too extreme, their actions could actually hurt their public standing.

In a campaign reminiscent of actions by the far right in the aftermath of the Oslo agreements in the mid-1990s and the run-up to the Gaza disengagement in 2005, young radical settlers plan to keep the police guessing as they turn up randomly at major thoroughfares at different times to block the traffic.

Their first target was traffic to and from Jerusalem, where dozens of settler youths were quickly dispersed by police Monday after trying to block the main entrance to the city.

Settler youths also have been at the forefront of moves to harass government inspectors entering the settlements to issue warrants against further building. In several cases this has led to violent confrontations between settlers and police protecting the inspectors.

The worst settler violence, however, has been against Palestinians. In what they call “the price tag” policy, extremists attack nearby villages whenever they feel the government is trying to restrict settlement in any way. Over the weekend, settlers rampaged through the village of Einbus, near Nablus, torching vehicles and setting a home on fire.

Although settler leaders have spoken out against violence, they are not fully in control of the situation, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned the settler community not to cross the fine line between legitimate protest action and open rebellion. And while the mood is not as ominous as it was in the days leading up to the Rabin assassination in 1995, the Shin Bet security service has intensified its already close protection of the prime minister.

Besides the protests and demonstrations, the settlers plan legal and political action against the freeze. They have petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that the authorities had no right to implement a political freeze without the settlers first being given a hearing.

Their main hope, though, is in the political arena, where the settlers are banking on a rebellion within the Likud Party. Although the two most hawkish parties in the government, Yisrael Beiteinu and Jewish Home, have expressed deep sympathy for the settlers, they show no sign of bolting the coalition over the freeze.

Inside Likud, there has been a degree of unrest, as government ministers and Knesset members criticized the freeze as antithetical to party ideology. No one, however, has threatened to resign over it, and the chances of a full-scale rebellion within the party — like the one against Ariel Sharon over the Gaza disengagement in 2005 — are remote.

In 2005, Sharon found himself under attack from leading Likudniks like Uzi Landau and Netanyahu himself, who were ready to resign their ministerial posts to throw in their lot with the settler cause. That is not the case today, and there seems to be little likelihood of Netanyahu’s government being shaken by internal party ferment.

Nevertheless, given the threat, Netanyahu has been working hard to cultivate wide party support. He has been able to play on the trauma of the break with Sharon and to urge the rebels not to take action that again could split the party.

His second argument has been to stress that the freeze is for 10 months only and will not be repeated. On the contrary, Netanyahu says, as soon as it lapses, building will be resumed at an accelerated rate.

The prime minister also assured would-be rebels Sunday that there would be no second disengagement Gaza-style, and that the future of the west bank would be decided only in a final peace deal with the Palestinians, who thus far are showing no interest in making peace.

Apart from the fact that no ministers or Knesset members have walked out on him, Netanyahu has received strong backing from some 50 of the Likud’s veteran mayors. His position in the party seems unassailable.

Despite all the settler agitation, the government has been unwavering in its determination to implement the freeze. It has taken satellite photographs of the region to make it easy to pick up any new building, and mobilized dozens of inspectors to monitor the situation on a daily basis. Seasoned officers in the Israel Defense Forces say that for the first time, the government has issued clear and serious instructions on how to implement a building freeze.

The big question, though, is how serious Netanyahu is about using the freeze as a springboard for cutting a deal with the Palestinians. Serious implementation of the freeze doesn’t necessarily mean serious strategic intent, and several leading pundits see the freeze as nothing more than a tactic to blame the Palestinians for failure to make peace. Netanyahu himself has hinted as much, adding that the freeze also was necessary to get America in Israel’s corner on other key issues, like Iran.

His message to the settlers seems to be to wait out the 10 months, during which time nothing will happen on the Palestinian front, and then, together with the government, they can go back to the business of settlement building.

The trouble is, the settlers don’t trust Netanyahu and fear that, under pressure from the international community, he will sell them out and the freeze will serve to prepare public opinion for a territorial compromise with the Palestinians at their expense.

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

Do indirect peace talks have a shot?

JERUSALEM – Although Israeli and Palestinian leaders are pessimistic about the chances of a breakthrough in the U.S.-mediated proximity talks that begin this week, the Americans hope the process itself will generate a new peacemaking dynamic.

Whether or not the parties make headway, Israeli analysts anticipate a major U.S. peace push this fall.

Over the past few months, U.S. officials have made it clear that the Obama administration sees Israeli-Palestinian peace as a major U.S. interest. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the point in a Washington speech last month. Not only does the lack of peace threaten Israel’s future and hold back the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, it “destabilizes the region and beyond,” she said.

That position has translated into tough messages to both sides from the Obama administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace, George Mitchell, who got the two sides to agree to launch the indirect talks and is now set to mediate between them.

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Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak talks with the Obama administration’s special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv before their April 25 flight to New York. Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

Mitchell has made clear that he has no intention of merely shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah carrying messages, but that he intends to put forward American bridging proposals wherever they might be helpful. He also has indicated to both sides that if the talks falter, the Obama administration will not be slow to blame the party it holds responsible. Indeed, Palestinian officials say Mitchell told them that the United States would take significant diplomatic steps against any side it believed was holding back progress.

The Americans see the proximity talks as a four-month preparatory corridor leading to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The strategy seems to be to get the process moving quickly and with as much intensity as possible until next September, when the Israeli moratorium on building in west bank settlements is due to expire.

Then, Israeli analysts say, President Obama will reconsider his options: If the talks are progressing well, Washington will try to persuade the Israelis to extend the building freeze and the Palestinians to agree to direct negotiations. But if the talks are foundering, Obama may consider putting an American peace plan on the table and calling an international peace conference to pressure the parties to move forward, according to a recent report by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, which quoted senior administration officials.

Israeli media also have reported that Obama told several key European leaders that if the talks stall, he will convene an international peace conference in the fall.

The Israeli aim is first and foremost not to lose the blame game.

The Netanyahu administration in Jerusalem sees in the proximity talks as a means of managing the conflict and keeping the international community at bay as long as it is seen to be giving peacemaking a chance. Israeli officials have little faith in the Palestinians’ negotiating intentions and suspect them of planning to use the talks to generate further U.S. pressure on Israel.

Thus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone out of his way to convince the Americans of his good faith. Contrary to his previous position — that core issues like borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security and water could be discussed only in direct talks —Netanyahu has agreed to have everything on the table in the proximity phase.

More important, he pressed for a vote in his Likud Party last week deferring internal party elections for two years, defeating inveterate party hawks, and giving himself new wiggle room to maneuver in the peacemaking arena.

In the proximity talks, Netanyahu wants to discuss security and water issues first. He has ordered his staff to work on an eight-point brief on security prepared by the previous Israeli government under Ehud Olmert. Before Israel makes any commitments on permanent borders, Netanyahu wants to clarify the precise details of Palestinian demilitarization, Israeli rights in Palestinian air space, the functioning of border crossing points, and the deployment of Israeli forces along the Palestinians’ eastern border with Jordan to prevent arms smuggling.

At one point Netanyahu considered offering the Palestinians an interim mini-state with temporary borders, according to Israeli media, who reported that President Shimon Peres and Defense Minster Ehud Barak, both apparently with Netanayu’s approval, tried to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept an interim state on about 60 percent of the west bank.

This would have removed any lingering doubts about Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution without entailing a major Israeli withdrawal from the west bank.

But Abbas, fearful that the temporary measure could become permanent, quickly shot down the idea. A spokesman for Netanyahu told JTA that the interim plan “was out there” and that Abbas had rejected it.

Instead, Netanyahu may be ready to hand over more west bank land to Palestinian political and security control in a goodwill gesture designed to show Israel’s ultimate readiness to roll back its occupation of the west bank.

Like Israel, the Palestinians’ primary goal is not to lose the blame game.

Abbas is convinced that a deal with Netanyahu’s hawkish government is not possible. Leading Palestinians for months have been saying that talks with the Netanyahu government would be futile.

In a speech to his Fatah Party in late April, Abbas called on Obama to “impose” a solution that would lead to an independent Palestinian state.

“Mr. President,” he said, “since you believe in this, it is your duty to take steps toward a solution and to impose a solution.”

Israeli intelligence has been warning that Abbas’ aim is to get the international community, led by the United States, to impose a settlement on Israel. The Palestinian leader also wants Washington in his corner should he decide to go to the United Nations for a binding resolution recognizing a Palestinian state and delineating its borders.

Given the current lack of trust between Israel and the Palestinians, American thinking along similar lines is starting to take shape.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national security adviser, is proposing that Obama put a new set of peace parameters on the table and urge the parties to negotiate a final peace deal within the U.S.-initiated framework. Should either side refuse, Brzezinski says the United States should get U.N. endorsement of the plan, putting unbearable international pressure on the recalcitrant party.

Brzezinski reportedly outlined this position to Obama in a meeting of former national security advisers convened in late March by Gen. James Jones, the current incumbent.

This is precisely the type of scenario Israeli analysts are predicting for September, especially if the proximity talks fail to make progress: binding American peace parameters serving as new terms of reference for an international peace conference and subsequent Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

According to senior Israeli officials, the conference would be held under the auspices of the international Quartet — the grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia — with the aim of forging a wide international consensus for the creation of a Palestinian state.

JTA

 
 

With school controversy, secular-haredi tensions reach boiling point

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Haredi children protest opposite the Ramle prison, where a group of haredi parents were jailed June 18 for defying a court order to send their daughters to a school in Emanuel. Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90/JTA

The showdown between Israel’s Supreme Court and the parents of students at a haredi Orthodox school found guilty of discriminatory practices against Sephardic girls has brought already strained secular-religious relations in Israel to a fever pitch.

A remark by Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy that the court’s decisions are not subject to rabbinical approval went straight to the heart of the matter, with irate haredi demonstrators declaring that if they had to choose between the court and their rabbis, the rabbis always would come first.

The fundamental argument over whether the courts or the rabbis have the ultimate authority reflects a long-standing clash between Theodor Herzl’s vision of a secular democratic state for the Jews and haredi notions of a Jewish state subject to rabbinical law.

For secular Israelis, impugning the authority of the courts means anarchy. For the haredim, overriding rabbinical rulings means perverting God’s will. At issue is a test of the capacity of the Zionist, secular state to impose its will on a large group of haredim who often are derisive of its democratic, secular institutions.

The latest angry confrontation between the state and the haredim began with a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court in April ordering a school run by Ashkenazi Slonim chasidim in the west bank settlement of Emanuel to stop excluding Sephardic girls from their regular classes.

In the state’s view, the practice constituted a form of intolerable segregation and violated basic principles of equality and human dignity. The offending Beit Yaakov school agreed to more mixed classes.

But rather than comply, the Ashkenazi parents started their own school next door. They argued that the segregation wasn’t ethnic but religious. The Sephardic girls, they said, came from homes less strictly observant than their Ashkenazi daughters — for example, homes with television sets and Internet connections — and they didn’t want their daughters influenced by those who were less religious. They said Sephardic girls were welcome at the Ashkenazi-dominated school if they met the standards for stricter religious observance.

The court ordered the parents to send their children back to Beit Yaakov or face fines. The parents ignored the court order and didn’t pay the fines. The court found them guilty of contempt and ordered that they be sent to jail for an initial two-week period to reconsider their position.

Amid defiant singing and dancing, 35 of the 38 fathers went to jail last week. The mothers failed to report for their prison terms on the grounds that they needed to be home to look after their younger children.

There are conflicting accounts over what caused the brouhaha and what it means.

The Slonim chasidim say that in a true democracy, they should have the right to educate their children in any way they please. They say the Israeli state, like the Romans and Greeks before them, is interfering in matters of religious principle. Just like their ancestors, they say, they’d rather face punishment than compromise their religious beliefs. In the chasidic account, the parents’ going to jail was presented as a form of martyrdom, showing up the inhumanity, lack of values, and wanton persecution of the haredi Orthodox by the secular Israeli state.

Secular Israelis see things quite differently. Many regard the Emanuel school case as a reflection of a much wider phenomenon, that of the haredim milking the state for funds without accepting its authority or performing the ultimate duty of Israeli citizenship: army service.

Haredi schools are largely state-funded but do not teach the country’s core curriculum. The secular press in Israel has been inundated with articles blasting the haredim for defying the state’s authority while tapping into its budgets for health, education, and welfare. Nowhere else in the world would haredi Jews have the temerity to behave this way, the secularists say; nowhere else would they defy state law or mock the Supreme Court.

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Before a father’s incarceration for defying a court order to send his daughter to a school in Emanuel, he tries to console his crying child. Abir Sultan/Flash90 /JTA

Many see the standoff as a test of strength the liberal democratic state cannot afford to lose.

“Don’t give in to Emanuel,” the liberal daily Haaretz exhorted in an editorial.

“We must not surrender,” echoed journalist Yair Lapid, who reportedly is on the brink of launching an anti-clerical successor party to Shinui, the party once led by his late father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid.

The Orthodox-Sephardic Shas Party was more ambivalent. Shas was created in the mid-1980s to combat Ashkenazi discrimination against Sephardim, so it might have been expected to take up the cause of the Sephardic students and families. But to do so would have seemed like siding with the Supreme Court, which is anathema for Shas. Its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, resolved the dilemma by coming out against discrimination, but more strongly against taking the case to the Supreme Court.

“Anyone who appeals to the secular courts will have no share in the world to come,” Yosef declared.

Other recent rulings by the Supreme Court have compounded the strains between the haredim and the state, as well as a string of violent clashes between haredi demonstrators and police. In mid-June, the Supreme Court ruled against state stipends for married yeshiva students on the grounds that similar stipends for married university students were abolished in 2000. A seven-member panel ruled that this constituted a violation of the principle of equality in the distribution of public funds. Either all married students should get the stipend or none, the court ruled.

Shas leader Eli Yishai has vowed to introduce legislation to overrule the Supreme Court decision.

The ruling was seen as a major blow to the haredim, many of whom choose to study Torah rather than work for a living. This exempts them from mandatory army service.

The haredim also clashed recently with police during demonstrations against building on sites where ancient bones are believed to be buried. These often violent protests were led by a small radical group in the haredi camp known as the Atra Kadisha. In May there were clashes over the removal of bones — believed to be pagan — from the site of a new rocket-proof emergency room at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon; in June there were protests in Jaffa over bones at the construction site of a boutique hotel.

For its part, the Israel Defense Forces is considering launching a new plan that would allow more yeshiva students to enlist and more yet to join the labor force. At present, yeshiva students must remain in school until middle age in order to stay out of the army.

Meanwhile, with the basis of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government a strategic alliance between Likud and Shas, government ministers have had very little to say on the Emanuel school brouhaha for fear of upsetting their haredi coalition partners. But it also means that Shas is unlikely to do anything that could topple the government.

If tensions remain high, it could strengthen secular parties in the Knesset willing to take a stand against the haredim. That’s what happened in 2003, when Shinui won 15 seats. But three years later it lost the seats when members defected to other parties.

Whether the current haredi-secular tensions will translate into a political shift, and whether that could be sustained, remains to be seen.

JTA

 
 

MKs: New peace initiative to rely on international law

Knesset members — one a Druze — in Englewood

Two Israeli parliamentarians and a political activist told some 35 people last week at a gathering in Englewood of their concerns about attempts to delegitimize Israel.

Ayoob Kara, deputy minister for development of the Negev and Galilee and deputy minister for regional cooperation, is a Druze member of the Knesset for the Likud Party. (The Druze, an Arabic-speaking religious community, serve in the Israel Defense Forces.)

Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev is a member of the Knesset from the Shas Party, which he cofounded in 1984. He spoke to the attendees in Hebrew; his address was summarized in English by Karen Pichkhadze, executive director of the National Organization for Political Action, which sponsored the event at a private home.

The MKs were with Shoshana Bekerman, director of the Jerusalem-based Knesset Caucus for Judaism and Global Ethics. They plan to present the Jerusalem Initiative for Peace in the Middle East to Congress and the United Nations. The brainchild of Ze’ev, who chairs the caucus and who worked on it in cooperation with Kara, it seeks to combat the delegitimzation of Israel.

Speaking at the home of Irene and Robert Gottesman, Bekerman said that the delegitimization campaign started in Europe and has spread to the United States. The fight against it, she said, “is a tougher battle that any of the wars we have had to face.”

For Orthodox Jews, she said, the right of all Jews to Israel is based on the Torah, but today “you have to talk the language of international law, as our claims have to be based on international law,” which has given Jews legal instruments throughout history to make their case.

Some of those documents are from the 1937 Peel Commission, which suggested the partition of Palestine, and the 1923 British Mandate for Palestine, which favored the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” there.

The latest document is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Bekerman said, which was adopted by the United Nations in 2007 after 20 years of formulations. One hundred and forty-four countries voted for it and four against it, including the United States. Israel did not participate in the formulations.

The declaration purposely did not define the term indigenous, she said, but the United Nations does have a “working definition” of it.

According to that definition, indigenous people have a connection to the land through religion, history, language, culture, and economics.

“We definitely fit that description,” said Bekerman.

However, she added, Palestinians have been claiming their rights as indigenous people but Jews have not made use of the declaration because they lacked knowledge about it.

That lack, she said, was also evident among the politicians the MKs and Bekerman visited in Washington during their trip, Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who told them they had never heard about the document before.

Calling Israel an “occupying power” is a misuse of the term and manipulation by groups that have received money from leftist and Muslim organizations, Bekerman said, and also historically, morally, and legally wrong.

The Jerusalem Initiative, on the other hand, bills itself as “an innovative proposal presented within the framework of the two-state solution announced by Prime Minister Netanyahu and is intended to bridge the gap between the Israeli government, the Quartet, and the Saudi Initiative.”

It urges the Quartet to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital based on the indigenous right of Jews to the city and calls for maintaining the status quo regarding its population. It also accepts that an eventual Palestinian state may have its parliament in the Arab sector of the city.

The document asks the Quartet to recognize the rights of Jewish settlements, which should not be uprooted without the consent of the “indigenous Jewish inhabitants of the settlement.”

According to the project, the issue of refugees from the Middle East must be resolved in a way that includes recognition of the rights of those displaced from Arab countries, including Jews, Christians, and other groups.

Kara, the Druze MK, was critical of several of Israel’s past policies and said the Oslo accords “gave the criminal Palestinian leadership that was in Lebanon and Tunisia the legitimacy to be leaders in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.”

Peace in the region is far off, he said, as Israel has not found a partner or someone to lead an eventual Palestinian state.

Ze’ev said that his ancestors came to Israel from 10 different Middle Eastern countries, “leaving behind everything they had, leaving empires behind to come naked to our country, where we didn’t demand everything.”

But now, Ze’ev said, “we are fighting against people who are coming to the country demanding everything they can possible get for something they did not work for.”

According to Ze’ev, Israel needs members of Congress to understand the position it is in and the fact that “you can’t negotiate with enemies; it is impossible to do so with someone who believes you should not exist.”

Asked about the Jerusalem Initiative, Ben Choauke, NORPAC’s president, said, “You need every tool available to increase the standing of Israel before world opinion and the United Nations itself.”

The Initiative was presented in Paris in July and will be presented at the European Union Parliament in the near future.

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From left are Knesset members Ayoob Kara and Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev, and NORPAC President Ben Choauke. The MKs spoke at a NORPAC gathering in Englewood last week. Daniel Santacruz
 
 

Ill-advised settlement freeze weakened Israel strategically

 

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

 
 

Palestinians gain ground in PR, diplomatic war

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center, hosting a luncheon for Israelis in the west bank city of Ramallah, on Dec. 19. Issam Rimawi/FLASH90/JTA

In the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict, score some recent victories for the Palestinians.

It’s not that Israel has given an inch in the territorial dispute over the west bank, or that the Palestinians in Gaza have achieved new military victories against the Israelis, despite increased rocket and mortar fire from the coastal strip in recent weeks.

Rather, the Palestinians have scored a series of diplomatic and public-relations successes against a Jewish state weakened by fraying relationships and a declining reputation internationally.

On the diplomatic front, Palestinian leaders announced this week that 10 European Union countries were upgrading their ties with the PLO. Earlier this month, three Latin American countries — Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia — issued formal recognitions of the state of Palestine.

On Sunday was the much-publicized lunch hosted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for Israeli politicians and activists in Ramallah. Numerous Op-Eds followed in the Israeli media and overseas, saying that there is a Palestinian partner for peace even if there isn’t an Israeli one.

Then there was the early December decision by the Obama administration to drop its effort to persuade Israel to agree to an additional 90-day freeze of Jewish settlement construction in the west bank. Commentators cited Israeli intransigence as the primary reason.

“Israel,” columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in a Dec. 11 Op-Ed in The New York Times, “when America, a country that has lavished billions on you over the last 50 years and taken up your defense in countless international forums, asks you to halt settlements for three months to get peace talks going, there is only one right answer, and it is not ‘How much?’ It is: ‘Yes, whatever you want, because you’re our only true friend in the world.’”

Over the last few months, Israel’s declining international reputation has given the Palestinians and their allies an opening they have exploited by effectively casting Israel as the bully and the unyielding party in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It is a message that is promoted relentlessly by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to make Israel an international pariah, and it is reinforced by negative assessments of Israeli actions such as the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza two years ago, the deadly Turkish flotilla incident of May 31, and Israel’s daily treatment of west bank Palestinians.

If the goal is to increase pressure on Israel to accede to the creation of a Palestinian state, a strategy that focuses on diplomacy and PR appears to have a greater chance of success right now than the Palestinians’ decades-long strategy of terrorism and war.

That strategy — call it the violent one — was snuffed out in recent years by Israeli military operations, Israel’s erection of the west bank security fence, and a recognition by leading Palestinian figures that the violence was doing more harm to the Palestinian national cause than good.

“We tried the intifada, and it caused us a lot of damage,” Abbas told an interviewer with the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat in September.

Abbas said the Palestinian Authority would not revert to violent uprising even if peace talks collapsed.

With relative moderates like Abbas in charge of the Palestinian Authority in the west bank — the primary public face of the Palestinians — there is a greater understanding that to achieve statehood the Palestinians must win the world to their side. That, after all, paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel, after the United Nations voted in November 1947 to recognize a Jewish state in Palestine.

Now the Palestinians are setting their sights on a similar goal.

U.N. recognition would shift the conflict from one over “occupied Palestinian territories” to a conflict over an “occupied state with defined borders,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “We urge the international community to salvage the two-state solution by recognizing a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.”

While U.N. recognition of Palestine might make a diplomatic end run around Israel, it hardly would result in an immediate Palestinian state. The United Nations would have no way of enforcing its decision, and Israeli troops and settlers would remain in the west bank.

What it would do, however, is significantly ratchet up the pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinians.

“Widespread international recognition of Palestine’s legitimacy and existence has very significant consequences,” Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, wrote on his blog earlier this month.

That pressure isn’t just coming from outside Israel.

“The Palestinians will declare a state. Virtually the whole world will recognize it. And we will be left without security arrangements,” Israeli Trade and Industry Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer warned in October.

There is pressure even from inside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. Likud veteran and cabinet minister Michael Eitan has proposed moving settlers willing to accept compensation and relocation out of the west bank and into Israel proper to signal to the world that Israel is serious about wanting peace with the Palestinians.

This week, Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar wrote that Israel needs to be saved from itself.

“Almost no day goes by without some other country recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders,” Eldar wrote. “According to the WikiLeaks documents, even the Germans, Israel’s steadfast supporters in Europe, have lost their faith in the peaceful intentions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.”

Whatever criticism there is inside Israel about the Israeli government’s approach toward the Palestinians, the criticism outside Israel is sharper.

The main holdout is the United States, where recent polls show that the American people overwhelmingly favor Israel over the Palestinians, and Congress remains steadfastly pro-Israel.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is aiming to change that. Using everything from campus activism to boycotts of stores that sell Israeli food products to bus ads promoting pro-Palestinian messages, the movement is hoping to sway public opinion.

Starting Dec. 27, the two-year anniversary of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, a group called the Seattle Midwest Awareness Campaign will be running ads on the sides of Seattle buses featuring photos of children looking at a demolished building under the heading “Israeli War Crimes: Your tax dollars at work.”

At Princeton University in New Jersey, DePaul University in Chicago, and on the streets of Philadelphia, pro-Palestinian activists have campaigned to have Israeli brands of hummus removed from campus cafeterias or store shelves. In New York, boycott supporters demonstrated outside a store belonging to the Israeli chocolatier Max Brenner.

“The relics of the past boycotts — from Nuremberg to Damascus — are back,” Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote in a JTA Op-Ed. “Its proponents seek to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into every sphere of American life.”

In the zero-sum game that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that’s good news for the Palestinians.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Ehud Barak quits Labor

Political betrayal or precursor to something bigger?

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Defense Minister Ehud Barak announcing his intention to quit the Labor Party he heads to form a new faction, called Independence, on Jan. 17. Photo by Abir Sultan/Flash90

JERUSALEM – Was it an act of political self-preservation, a feat of political destruction, or a bid to stabilize Israel’s government ahead of some dramatic move?

And for Israel’s Labor Party, was it another sign of the once-leading party’s demise, or a precursor to a revival and the ideals for which it stands?

What’s certain is that Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision this week to quit Labor, which he had headed until Monday, has sent shock waves throughout the Israeli political establishment.

News Analysis

Ironically, the split of Labor — until this week a part of the Israeli government but now in the opposition — may yet strengthen the coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak’s decision to quit Labor and found a new political party along with four other Labor defectors leaves Netanyahu with eight fewer members in his coalition, but the 66 who remain are considered far more stable than the 74 he had pre-defection.

Before Barak’s dramatic announcement, Labor was threatening to withdraw all 13 of its Knesset members unless Netanyahu could show real progress in peacemaking with the Palestinians. That would have left the prime minister with only 61 coalition members, the vast majority right-wingers and the minimum necessary to stay prime minister in the 120-seat Knesset. Such a narrow coalition would have opened up Netanyahu to harsh domestic and international criticism for leading a perceived hard-line government.

Now, in what appears to have been a coordinated move, Netanyahu and Barak have pulled the rug out from under the feet of their opponents. With a more stable coalition, Netanyahu almost certainly has secured a full term in office, until 2013. Barak pre-empted attempts to oust him as Labor leader and force him to leave the Defense Ministry by cutting a deal in which he can stay on as defense minister after leaving Labor.

Many Israelis on the left and right viewed Barak’s move with deep skepticism. The new party he heads, called Atzmaut, which means Independence, has a hazy future other than the assurance of four ministerial berths in Netanyahu’s government and the chairmanship of a Knesset committee.

The leader of Israel’s opposition, Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, called it the “dirtiest and ugliest maneuver” in Israel’s political history. Her own party was a breakaway from Likud in November 2005, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led an exodus of moderates, including Livni, from the Likud.

The regional implications of the upgraded Netanyahu-Barak partnership could be far reaching.

It would appear that the peace process with the Palestinians is over, as the more dovish members of Netanyahu’s coalition have exited. Even if Netanyahu wanted to cut a deal with the Palestinians, his remaining coalition partners likely would block it.

Barak and Netanyahu, however, put a much different gloss on things. Until now, the Palestinians had been hoping for the Israeli government to fall and be replaced by one more amenable to their demands, representatives of the two men argue, and this has kept the Palestinians away from serious peace talks. Now, with a more stable government, the Palestinians will see this is who they have to deal with for the foreseeable future and may become more serious about returning to the negotiating table.

Furthermore, Netanyahu and Barak confidants have been dropping broad hints that a new Israeli peace initiative is in the offing, suggesting that this is part of a Netanyahu-Barak understanding.

There is another theory for Barak’s move: that Netanyahu is seriously contemplating a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear installations and believes he needs Barak at his side. According to this line of thinking, with the Labor Party threatening to force Barak to leave the government, Netanyahu could have found himself with a new defense minister who was less inclined to attack Iran. The front-runner would have been the Likud’s Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon, a super-hawk on the Palestinian issue but very cautious about striking Iran.

It would be understandable, commentators said, if Barak’s decision was part of a bid to revive peace talks with the Palestinians or take action against Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons. But if not, the move is nothing more than a cynical act of political self-preservation.

In the media, Barak’s move was excoriated as a betrayal of those who voted for him and the party that had given him his chance in politics.

Barak’s leadership of Labor had been under severe threat. Would-be successors had called for an early party convention, expected to take place in late February or early March, with two issues on the agenda: deciding whether to stay in the government and setting a date for new leadership primaries. Within the space of a few months, Barak could have found himself out of the Defense Ministry and supplanted as party leader.

Barak says his new party will run in the next elections. But many Israelis are wondering if Barak really intends to make an electoral pact with Netanyahu and run on the Likud ticket.

Where does all this leave the Labor Party?

Many had accused Barak of ruining the party with his high-handed leadership style, lack of people skills, and loss of ideological direction — and now delivering the coup de grace by splitting the party in two. Many Israelis believe that the party, whose leaders founded and built the state, holding uninterrupted power for Israel’s first three decades, has run its course and that a new left-center constellation will rise from the ashes.

But the eight former ministers and Knesset members who have remained in the party insist that it could still be at the heart of a center-left revival.

One of the contenders for the party leadership, Yitzhak Herzog, said Barak’s departure has freed Labor of its biggest obstacle in the way of rehabilitation, and now the party can rebuild and recapture some of its former glory.

“Labor got rid of the hump on its back,” he declared.

Party activists, especially the young guard, say that with Barak gone, people will rejoin in droves.

Labor overcame its first serious hurdle on the way to rehabilitation when four Knesset members led by former party boss Amir Peretz — who had been considering a second split off from Labor — decided to stay. But the four have made it clear that unless there is a modicum of cooperation with them, they will leave at a later date, precipitating another major crisis.

Much will depend on who takes over as Labor’s leader. Early polls showed that Herzog enjoys 20 percent public support, with former party leader Amram Mitzna and Knesset member Shelly Yacimovich each with 18 percent.

But these polls are largely irrelevant. It is not clear who the final contenders for the Labor leadership will be, what new parties will emerge before the next elections, and what the center-left political map will look like.

More important, the results of the next election likely will be decided by how the new Netanyahu-Barak partnership fares. That has only just begun.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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