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Netanyahu’s second term and the Israeli consensus

Shmuel SandlerOp-Ed
Published: 11 September 2009
 
 

Federations look to the future

JCorps founder wins first Jewish Community Heroes award

After weeks of deliberation and the tally of more than 600,000 online votes, the Jewish Federations of North America has named its first Jewish Community Hero — Teaneck native Ari Teman, the founder of JCorps.
A panel of judges from outside the federation system chose Teman, 27, for the $25,000 Jewish Community Heroes prize after whittling down a list of more than 400 nominees, which also included Rabbi Ephraim Simon, director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County in Teaneck. Simon, who was nominated because of his donation of a kidney to a stranger, garnered 8,210 votes to make it into the list of top 20 semifinalists but was not chosen to be among the top five.

The Jewish Federations announced the winner Tuesday at the closing plenary session of its General Assembly in Washington. The contest was part of the federation system’s new multimillion-dollar marketing and rebranding strategy to broaden its base of support.

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Ari Teman

Teman’s organization sets up young Jews with volunteer opportunities in nine cities over three continents — all while working on virtually no budget.

“We’re all a product of a community,” Teman, a graduate of Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, said during a press conference after he was declared the winner. “I was raised in Teaneck and I benefited a lot from the education system in Teaneck.”

Noting that Chabad had a large share of nominees in the general pool and in the top 20, Teman credited the organization for its work and for pulling him back to Judaism after he wandered away during college. The outreach group, he added, has also had an influence on JCorps.

“Chabad is way ahead of us,” he said. “If you’re traveling somewhere in the world, in some far remote village there’s a Chabad guy willing to let you in no matter what. We’ve been able to borrow from them [the philosophy of] ‘a Jew is a Jew’ and not get into the conversation of what kind of Jew are you. We got that from Chabad.”

Teman, a standup comedian by day, runs JCorps as a volunteer on a budget that is probably less than the award he will take home. Yet the organization has enlisted some 10,000 volunteers for local community service projects in the United States, Canada, and Israel.

“This will enable us to take in a lot more volunteers rapidly without having to worry, ‘Do we have to slow it down because we can’t afford to bring more people in?’” Teman said.

He started JCorps in 2007 on something of a late-night whim, he said, about how he could meet more Jewish people.

The money will help the program expand and perhaps allow Teman to hire his first professional staff member.

“The first year we started with $300,” he said. “We like to say that if we had no money we could still keep running, which is great, because it means the money we put in is for growth.

JTA/Jewish Standard

 
 

Federations look to the future

Sharansky: Israel needs the diaspora

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Natan Sharansky, right, new head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a former prisoner in the Soviet Union, chats with two active members of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, Eva and Leo Gans. Josh Lipowsky

Israel may need the diaspora just as much as the diaspora needs Israel, Natan Sharansky, the newly appointed head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told members of the GA delegation from UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey during a private meeting on Tuesday.

Sharansky, a former minister of diaspora Affairs and a former prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, took over JAFI earlier this year.

“I am trying now to refocus the Jewish Agency, a huge organization with a lot of idealistic people,” Sharansky told the group. Echoing what he said at the plenary session on Monday, he said, “I believe that [Jewish] identity has to be put in the center.”

Responding to a question from UJA-NNJ executive vice president Howard Charish on the role of Israelis in diaspora communities and an unspoken directive not to engage them in local affairs, Sharansky said he was never one to follow instructions. The model where the diaspora looks to Israel for a Jewish connection but not vice versa, which he said was likely directed by Israel itself, is outdated.

“We are one people,” he said. “We’re a global world. I think you have to do your best [for] Russian speakers and Spanish speakers and Hebrew speakers.”

Many Israelis who leave Israel often leave behind their connections to the Jewish people — until they realize that their children are growing up without that connection, and then they begin to engage, Sharansky continued.

“Israelis are also discovering for their own interests they need the diaspora, to connect to Jewish history and tradition,” he said. “It’s less about how one helps the other but how you’re helping yourself.”

Turning toward JAFI’s role as a facilitator of aliyah, Sharansky said that though the decision today is mostly aliyah by choice, the Jewish world must be prepared in case aliyah becomes a rescue option.

Program such as MASA, which enables young Jews to study in Israel, provide professional development and connect Jews around the world to the Israel experience, he said.

North American aliyah, he added, has increased to some 4,000 a year and JAFI has dreams of it soon reaching 7,000.

“That will come only if we continue building strong Jewish communities,” he said. “It’s challenging times but I think we will succeed.”

Sharansky shared a story that when the Soviet Union prepared its case against him, prosecutors had amassed 15,000 pages of documents, listing every Jewish and anti-Soviet organization he was affiliated with. These organizations did not communicate well with each other, he said, but there they were, all listed together.

“For our enemies we are all on the same page,” he said.

UJA-NNJ makes it a point to schedule private meetings like these at the GA, Charish said afterward. Past meetings have included former UJC executive committee chairs Kathy Manning and Joe Tauber and former JAFI head Ze’ev Bielski. Some members of the local delegation told Charish that the Sharansky meeting was the best session they had attended that week.

“We felt privileged to be in his company given the fact that he’s a hero of our time and has a distinguished record of service since coming to Israel,” Charish said. “It’s good to have that small group discussion to get clarifications and understandings of positions.”

 
 

Federations look to the future

Kehillah Partnership: ‘Doing together what no agency can do alone’

Many came to the GA looking for ways to re-energize their communities and bring new and younger people into the fold. UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and the YJCC of Bergen County came to Washington with their solution: the Kehillah Partnership.

The program, created in 2006, links the YJCC, UJA-NNJ, synagogues, and other communal organizations through cost- and resource-sharing. Rabbi Noam Marans, associate director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee, presented the program during a panel on Monday called “You Had Me at Shalom,” exploring new methods to engage young families.

“The Partnership is a place where local community agencies and institutions … work together to foster innovation and connectedness, doing together what no agency can do alone,” he told the standing room-only session. “Institutions maintain individual identities and allegiances but embrace the benefit of working together with others.”
During a Kehillah Partnership-sponsored reception later that evening, Marans, who lives in Teaneck, said the program had been well received at the conference, which made him optimistic that it could be replicated nationally.
“The greatest accomplishment is that thoughtful people in Jewish education and in institution-building have recognized the Kehillah Partnership as a national model that can be implemented locally,” he said. “We hope to enable other communities to apply the lessons we’ve learned to the specific circumstances of their communities.”

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Rabbi Noam Marans talks about the Kehillah Partnership. Josh Lipowsky

Evie Rotstein, program consultant for the Partnership, said organizers have been able to capitalize on a grant they received last year from the Covenant Foundation to develop a new curriculum for sixth-grade Hebrew school teachers that integrates the arts.

“This is a very special kind of professional development for teachers,” she said. “It’s infusing arts into the curriculum and nowhere else is that happening in the U.S. Teachers are learning to utilize videography, art, dance, photography, airplane-making, jewelry-making…. They’re using the skills of the artists in bringing that back to the classroom.”

The Partnership recently brought the national PJ Library, geared toward getting young children and their families to read Jewish books, to the area. That program crosses all denominations, but for the most part, the Partnership has focused on Conservative and Reform synagogues. That, said YJCC director Harold Benus, is only because the partnership has concentrated on congregational Hebrew schools. Programs such as a planned cost-sharing initiative will reach across the Jewish community, he said.

“It’s a matter of the stage of life that we’re at,” he said. “When we can start other programs through adult programming, with broader appeal, we’ll be more successful at reaching other synagogue communities. We are in a pilot stage right now.”

The 10 congregations involved in the pilot program all agreed that the congregational schools should be the first step, Marans said. Eventually, the program will expand to include not only more synagogues, but more Jewish institutions. This will help build community “from the bottom up,” he said.

“We have learned,” Marans added, “that if one creates an environment of trust between institutions, the institutions and their lead players will work together on projects for the betterment of the entire community.”

 
 

Federations look to the future

GA shows ‘collective will’ to build and rebuild

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. Robert Cumins/Jewish Federations of North America

A delegation from UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey joined some 3,000 Jewish professionals and lay leaders from around the world in Washington this week for the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, formerly the United Jewish Communities.

Traveling with UJA-NNJ executive vice president Howard Charish was a mix of seasoned and new leaders, 36 in all, looking for new ideas and to see how their colleagues were facing the recession that has hurt campaigns across the board.

“There’s no question times are difficult,” Charish said at the end of the confab, “but also I believe there is a collective will to get through it and focus on building and rebuilding.”

He noted that at one session he attended, Steve Shrager, head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, reported that it is expecting an $8 million shortfall this year. The organization borrowed 10 percent from its endowment last year and is taking another 11 percent this year.

“The facts of the downturn are ever-present,” Charish said. “They of course condition yearly operations. However, there have been hard times before, and one of the things that we consistently have noted is the resilience of the Jewish people and the fact that we have a history of meeting challenges.”

Meeting challenges and looking toward the future was a theme the leadership of JFNA kept touching on. “We’re going to have to stop making Shabbat separately and start making Shabbat together,” said Jerry Silverman, JFNA’s new president and CEO, during a press conference on Sunday, the opening day of the meeting. “We need to think boldly,” he continued, “and generate an abundance of ideas and engage … new consumers and lapsed users to connect with new ideas.”

UJC’s rebranding and the appointment of its new CEO point to the need to update the federation system to maintain relevance in the changing world, said Alan Scharfstein, UJA-NNJ president.

“This was a very positive meeting in terms of understanding how all the federations are looking to change the nature of the federation system and focus on problems [whose solutions would] really make a difference,” Scharfstein continued. “There seems to be a realization across the federation system that these changes we’ve been talking about are essential to keep federation relevant and move it forward.”

This was the second GA for Alan Gallatin of Wyckoff, a member of the National Young Leadership Cabinet, and despite the faltering economy, he noted a sense of optimism among participants. “The programs themselves have been painted that way,” he said. “It’s clearly a message they’re trying to get out there, but it’s a theme that’s caught on.”

The conference also included panels led by members of the UJA-NNJ delegation. Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck gave a presentation on the Kehillah Partnership, a project of the YJCC of Bergen County, UJA-NNJ, and other community organizations. Leonard Cole of Ridgewood introduced a panel called “Birthright: Paradigm or party,” which explored the relationships forged between the Jewish communal world and the alumni of the popular free trip to Israel. With more than 200,000 participants since the program’s inception in 1999, it has directly or indirectly affected more than one million people, Cole said, adding, “I’ve met many people inspired to take trips because of the experiences of their kids.”

The panel’s moderator, Leah Stern, an alumna of the first trip who has since made aliyah, said the program “brought abut the rebirth of my life.”

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Leonard Cole of Ridgewood praised Birthright, the popular free trip to Israel offered to young Jewish adults. Josh Lipowsky

A recent Brandeis University study examined increased Jewish participation among Birthright alumni. They are 24 percent more likely to feel connected to the Jewish community, said panelist Leonard Saxe, the study’s author. Participants, he continued, are 23 percent more likely to feel connected to Israel, and non-Orthodox participants are 54 percent more likely to marry Jews.

“Birthright proves that a bold and creative and audacious plan can not only be successful but can transform behavioral patterns,” said panelist Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week and a Teaneck resident.

President Barack Obama had been scheduled to address the conference, but canceled in order to attend a memorial service at Fort Hood, Texas. After JFNA received word of the cancellation, a group of some 40 federation volunteers and executives were invited to a reception with the president Monday evening at the White House. There, Charish said, Obama apologized for not making it to the GA, but wished the leaders well in their mission. According to Charish, Obama said that he had been trained by the Chicago Jewish federation, knew the meaning of tzedakah, and that the federation system mirrored the American value of serving those in need.

“It was very important to receive the acknowledgment by the president of the role that Jewish federations play in communal life,” Charish said. “It was a geniuine display of friendship with the Jewish community.”

A “special moment” for Charish came when he shook hands with Obama while thanking him for his support of non-profit organizations. “I was very proud to be there,” Charish said.

GA attendees did hear from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as scheduled, about the challenges facing Israel and the peace process.

“He has never given a speech that I haven’t been impressed with,” said Gallatin. He laid out a nice vision. Better than most politicians, I think he’s not afraid to call it as he sees it, and he gives a good rationale for his plan. I hope that others are going to step up to the challenges he put out there.”

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The UJA-NNJ delegation relaxes at Eli’s Restaurant. Top right: Malcolm Hoehlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. JOSH LIPOWSKY

Harold Benus, executive director of the YJCC, said he thought Netanyahu was sincere in his calls for peace.

Federations, Benus noted, are beginning to look for new models to attract younger donors, and he said he was pleased with what he saw this week. “The Jewish Federations of North America are currently undergoing a transition to determine a new direction for the future,” he said. “Considering where they are, I was happily surprised about the ability for them to carry [the conference] off.”

 
 

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

 
 

Newspaper fight gets political

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 01 January 2010

JERUSALEM – Should a billionaire tycoon who lives abroad be entitled to use his money to influence Israeli political life?

This question came to the fore in early December when a group of Knesset members moved to bar American Jewish casino mogul Sheldon Adelson from owning a free Israeli daily newspaper that supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Knesset bill, which is being promoted by a collection of interested parties ranging from owners of competing newspapers to rival politicians, stipulates that, as is the case with the electronic media in Israel, only Israeli citizens or residents should be eligible for licenses to own Hebrew language newspapers.

News Analysis

“Imagine if a Saudi businessman were to own a newspaper in Israel,” Kadima legislator Yoel Hasson declared somewhat disingenuously, since the bill clearly was directed at Adelson.

It’s far from clear that the anti-Adelson campaign will succeed even if the bill is passed. Adelson easily could appoint a straw-man owner, or even hand over the paper to his wife, Miriam, who is Israeli-born.

The arguments for and against, however, go far beyond the Adelsons, and touch on the very essence of democracy and free speech in Israel.

The newspaper, Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today), was launched two and half years ago and has been so uncritical in its support of Netanyahu that it has been dubbed the “Bibiton,” a play on Netanyahu’s nickname and the Hebrew word for newspaper, iton.

Its opponents say it provides a venue for foreign money to shape the Israeli agenda. Additionally, they complain, Yisrael Hayom is nothing more than a propaganda sheet for Netanyahu posing as a genuine newspaper and taking in masses of gullible readers. For Netanyahu to buy that kind of publicity would have cost millions; the free newspaper with nationwide distribution could be seen as campaign funding from a foreign source, which might run afoul of Israel’s very strict campaign financing laws. Worse, say critics, the newspaper’s free distribution — some even get home delivery for free — and super-low advertising rates create an uneven playing field that threatens to destroy the competition.

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Copies of the free daily Hebrew newspaper Israel HaYom are distributed in Jersualem. Hovev Shira/Creative Commons

The loudest complaints come from journalists at the daily Maariv, which is already tottering. Maariv columnist Ben Dror Yamini said Adelson is ready to spend as much as it takes to wipe out all the existing Hebrew dailies. He predicts that Maariv will be the first to go, followed by Yediot Achronot. Within a few years, Yamini says, Israel will be left with a monopolistic party political pamphlet and no free press. His Maariv colleague Ben Caspit calls it a hostile takeover of democracy and free speech.

Their dire predictions, though, appear somewhat exaggerated. Besides Yisrael Hayom, Israel has only three other Hebrew dailies: Maariv, Yediot, and Haaretz. And although Maariv is not expected to survive much longer, Yediot remains a powerful economic empire. For Haaretz, the emergence of Yisrael Hayom has actually provided a boost in the form of significant printing revenues: Adelson’s newspaper is printed on Haaretz’s press.

For his part, Adelson dismisses the agitation against him as a ploy for power and market share by his competitors, notably Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yediot.

“Mozes, the publisher of Yediot, is the most powerful man in the State of Israel, and all he wants is to maintain his power, and he manipulates the government,” Adelson told JTA in an interview last month.

Adelson also said the notion that Yisrael Hayom is a vehicle for Netanyahu is nonsense.

“Everybody thinks I started the newspaper Israel HaYom purely to benefit Bibi. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Adelson said. “I started the newspaper to give Israel, Israelis, a fair and balanced view of the news and the views. That’s all.”

In a long, often angry response to the charges against the paper, Yisrael Hayom’s editor, Amos Regev, echoed those arguments, accusing the owners of Maariv and Yediot of acting out of fear of losing their once prodigious influence.

Regev also argued that since electronic media use airwaves, which is state-owned space, the government is entitled to impose limitations on their ownership. Print journalism makes no use of public resources, however, and therefore should not be subject to restriction. Regev cited numerous examples of major newspapers around the world run by overseas owners, noting Australian-born Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire.

Others on Regev’s side add that newspapers are entitled to have political agendas and to support politicians; for example, American newspapers regularly endorse candidates for political office. As for the claim that Adelson’s pockets are so deep that Yisrael Hayom competes unfairly by offering free distribution, Regev says this is necessary for print newspapers to compete with free internet news Websites.

Dahlia Dorner, the president of Israel’s Press Council and a former Supreme Court justice with considerable moral authority in Israel, calls the Knesset bill to outlaw foreign ownership of Israeli newspapers “inappropriate.” Dorner supports Regev’s distinction between TV channels and newspapers and says it would be wrong to limit newspaper ownership.

This analysis, of course, makes two implicit assumptions: That all the other newspapers don’t fold because of the uneven playing field, and that at least some continue to carry out the fourth estate’s most important functions: democracy watchdog and fearless critic of the powers that be.

JTA

 
 

How Israel is implementing the settlement freeze

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Jewish settlers protest the government’s decision to freeze settlement-building in the west bank on Jan. 4 by breaking a house they built from ice near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s house. Miriam Alster/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – While an Israeli magician sat in an ice cube in Tel Aviv for 64 hours in a bid to shatter a world record, settler leaders in Jerusalem prepared to smash an ice cube of a very different sort this week opposite the prime minister’s residence.

The frozen block in Jerusalem that was shattered Monday by the leaders of west bank communities was meant to symbolize the 10-month construction freeze Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is imposing on Jewish communities in the west bank. Settler leaders are holding a weeklong demonstration outside the prime minister’s residence to protest the freeze, and the leader of the main settler umbrella group is encouraging people to keep building in violation of the freeze.

In the meantime, however, construction in many Jewish west bank towns has ground to a halt.

Some 230 stop-work orders were issued on projects in approximately 150 Jewish west bank towns visited by government inspectors. In addition, 36 pieces of building equipment used in illegal construction were impounded, according to a spokesman for the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, which is responsible for law enforcement in the west bank.

“The Civil Administration is carrying out the government’s decision regarding the suspension of building in Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria,” the spokesman told JTA.

Netanyahu ordered the freeze in late November in a bid to draw the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table and satisfy the Obama administration’s demand for a halt to settlement-building. While the Palestinians have rejected the temporary freeze as an inadequate measure, Israeli authorities have been laboring to enforce it just the same.

The question for many Israelis is how far, exactly, the government is willing to go on enforcement.

Israeli newspapers recently printed the contents of a leaked Israeli army memo showing detailed plans to demolish illegal buildings under construction in the west bank, and Israeli Border Police and soldiers reportedly are poised to carry out the demolition orders.

The freeze is being enforced “meticulously” and in an “extreme way,” criticized Dani Dayan, head of the Council of Jewish Settlements of Judea and Samaria, the main settler umbrella group.

Dayan said Israeli government inspectors have visited every community in the west bank and “looked with a magnifying glass” to see whether buildings under construction match aerial photographs taken the day after the freeze was announced. (Netanyahu’s freeze allows for 3,500 buildings already going up when the freeze was announced to continue construction.)

But an official at Peace Now, which advocates a full halt to Israeli settlement construction and monitors Jewish growth in the west bank, said it’s too early to determine whether Netanyahu’s freeze order is being enforced.

Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project, said the proof will be in how the government deals with freeze violations — including those she and Peace Now volunteers say they have seen firsthand in recent visits to Jewish towns in the west bank.

“There are places where construction was halted and places where they did not,” Ofran said.

While she praised the freeze as the most dramatic ever by an Israeli government, and noted that it does not distinguish between far-flung settlement outposts and the large settlement blocs near the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the west bank, Ofran said Netanyahu’s freeze still doesn’t go far enough. It should have covered construction of any kind and been long-term, she said, otherwise construction will resume with lightning speed as soon as the 10 months are up.

Netanyahu’s freeze was minimal and done to “satisfy the Americans,” she said. “On the ground, the Palestinians do not see any real change.”

But settlers are complaining that the freeze goes too far. Dayan said Israeli authorities are using “a lot of unnecessary force” to enforce the freeze, and that the halt in construction is causing great personal hardship for Jews living in the west bank.

As an example, Dayan noted that recently married couples in his own community of Maale Shomron who are ready to build new homes on recently purchased property now must shell out rent for at least 10 more months before they can begin building. Prohibiting work on homes, he said, is a violation of settlers’ “civil rights.”

Aside from encouraging people to continue building despite the freeze, Dayan said, he’s encouraging communities to continue with planning and approval processes and land development, so construction can begin immediately when the freeze is lifted in September.

JTA

 
 

Squabbles dogging U.S. ‘big picture’ in Middle East

imagePalestinian Islamic Jihad supporters in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip rally on Feb. 26 against an Israeli plan to renovate two Jewish holy sites in the west bank. Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90

WASHINGTON – Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama’s big-picture guy, is set to draw it for the Israelis next week in a major address: Confront Iran internationally, talk peace regionally. (See also page 18.)

Bold strokes, but already Biden’s initiative is being dogged by scribbly little details — timing on Iran, building in Jerusalem, restoration in the west bank, and just how far apart will Israelis and the Palestinians sit.

Biden was set to meet Tuesday afternoon with pro-Israel leaders and the White House’s top Middle East staffers, evidently in a bid to see how he can smooth the picture’s corners before heading to Israel. The meeting, at the vice president’s home, is hush-hush — a sign of how vexing some of the problems have been.

Among them:

• Plans by Jerusalem’s mayor to level some Palestinian dwellings and move the families elsewhere;

• Israeli government earmarks for preserving Jewish holy sites in predominately Palestinian areas in the west bank;

• A Palestinian reluctance to return to direct talks, resulting in awkward “proximity” talks, where the parties communicate only through a U.S. interlocutor;

• Israeli anxieties about the Obama administration’s reluctance to go for the jugular ASAP in confronting Iran.

The decision causing the greatest waves this week has perhaps the smallest bore: Netanyahu announced plans to include the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem among 150 heritage sites entitled to about $100 million in renovation funds.

Both sites are in heavily Palestinian areas. U.S. officials reportedly have blasted their Israeli counterparts for the decision, and the Palestinian cabinet held its most recent meeting in Hebron to protest. Palestinian protests in Hebron last week spilled over into Friday afternoon rioting at the ultra-sensitive patch of Jerusalem land where two mosques abut the Western Wall.

Hamas, the Islamist terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip, called for the launch of a new intifada, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas fretted that the Israeli decision could lead to religious war.

“These sites are in occupied Palestinian territory and are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well,” said Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.

True enough, Israeli officials say — and they have facilitated renovations to the Muslim part of the Patriarchs’ cave in the recent past, undercutting arguments that this is part of an attempt to “Judaize” the sites.

“This is not in any way changing the status quo,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told JTA. “This is about renovating important historical and religious sites of the Jewish people.”

Settler leaders said the Palestinian reaction underscored how important it is to remind the world of the Jewish stake in the sites.

“The reaction of the Palestinians shows how important it was,” Danny Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip told JTA. “They erroneously thought the Jewish people had abandoned” the sites.

Netanyahu is not insensitive to the appearances of such initiatives.

On Tuesday, his government talked Jerusalem’s hard-nosed mayor, Nir Barkat, into delaying a scheduled rollout of his plan to move out Palestinians living in Silwan, neighboring the Old City, and to raze their homes for a park. The mayor would offer the Palestinians the opportunity to build elsewhere.

But the prime minister leads a government that is predominantly right-wing, and that includes parties that draw support from west bank Jewish settlers and their sympathizers. In a bid to simultaneously please the United States, Israel’s best and closest ally, and his hardest-line constituents, he ends up veering both ways.

Still, the Obama administration “appreciated” Netanyahu’s intervention into Barkat’s plan, with State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley saying later Tuesday that the U.S. government “welcomed the intervention.”

In meetings last week, top Israeli officials dropped their demand for direct talks with the Palestinians and agreed to “proximity” talks, the cumbersome process where every back-and-forth runs through U.S. diplomats.

That was a “get” for the Obama administration, but it was followed this week by Israel’s announcement of building starts in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood Pisgat Ze’ev. And that earned a rebuke.

“We have relayed our strong concerns to the Government of Israel that this kind of activity, particularly as we try to relaunch meaningful negotiations, is counterproductive and undermines trust between the parties,” Crowley said in a statement Monday.

The Obama administration advocates a holistic approach to tamping down Middle East tensions. Its officials want to see Israeli-Arab talks moving while rallying international efforts to isolate Iran as long as it fails to make transparent its nuclear plans.

Again, the Israelis are happy with any effort to push Iran back from the nuclear brink — but the devil is in the details. The Obama administration is still operating on assumptions that the Iranians are several years away from weaponization, while the Israelis are convinced that it will happen before 2010 is out.

That has led Israel to press the Obama administration to adopt unilateral and punishing sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector immediately. Such sanctions are written into bills that have passed both chambers of the U.S. Congress and are backed by almost every pro-Israel group.

The Obama administration will not count out the so-called crippling sanctions, but prefers for now to focus on getting the U.N. Security Council to adopt more narrow sanctions targeting the Iranian leadership.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak made his country’s case last week in Washington in meetings with top U.S. officials. He emerged confident that the relationship was as sound as ever, but nonetheless noted differences on Iran in an address Feb. 26 to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“There is, of course, a certain difference in perspective and difference in judgment, difference in the internal clocks, and difference in capabilities,” he said. “And I don’t think that there is a need to coordinate in this regard. That should be understood; it should be exchange of views — we do not need to coordinate every step. We clearly support the attempt to solve it through diplomacy.”

Barak, however, could not resist a subtle jab at Americans who do not have the same stake in protecting the region from Iranian hegemony.

“We clearly think that in spite of the fact that from America, when you look at a nuclear Iran, you already have, just besides allies like France and UK, you have a nuclear Russia, nuclear China, nuclear India, nuclear Pakistan, North Korea is going toward turning nuclear,” Barak said. “So probably from this corner of the world, it doesn’t change the scene dramatically.

“From a closer distance, in Israel it looks like a tipping point of the whole regional order with a quite assured, quite certain consequences to the wider world, global world order.”

JTA

 
 

U.S.-Israel search for Middle East peace: Beyond Ramat Shlomo

 
 
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