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entries tagged with: Uriel Heilman

 

Rotem conversion law in Israel is under debate

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

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

News Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regev says this is ridiculous.

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

JTA

 
 

Déjà vu in Ahmadinejad performance at U.N.

NEW YORK – When Iran’s president spoke from the podium at the United Nations this week, the scene it sparked was something of a repeat from his address at the U.N. Durban Review Conference a year ago in Geneva.Then as now, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks prompted delegates from several Western countries to walk out of the plenum — this time when he accused the West of double standards on nuclear technology.

It was political theater that has become a standard part of the drama surrounding Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West.

While the United States, European countries, and Israel press for Iranian nuclear transparency, Tehran does what it can to avoid tougher sanctions and divert attention from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Ahmadinejad’s appearance Monday at the review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, when he tried to draw attention to U.S. and Israeli nuclear weapons, was of a piece with that effort.

“Regrettably, the United States has not only used nuclear weapons, but also continues to threaten to use such weapons against other countries, including my country,” said Ahmadinejad, the only head of state to attend the conference.

Turning to Israel, he said, “Although the Zionist regime stockpiles hundreds of nuclear warheads, wages numerous wars in the Middle East region, and continues to threaten the people and nations of the region with acts of terror and threats of invasion, it enjoys the unconditional support of the Unites States government and its allies and receives the necessary assistance to develop a nuclear weapons program.”

Heeding a call issued by Jewish groups in the days leading up to the conference, delegates from the United States, Britain, France, Hungary, New Zealand, and the Netherlands walked out as Ahmadinejad spoke. Israel, one of three U.N. member nations that are not members of the nonproliferation treaty, along with India and Pakistan, was not at the conference.

“Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability poses a threat to the region and the entire Western world,” the president and executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Alan Solow and Malcolm Hoenlein, said in a statement before the conference urging delegates to walk out when Ahmadinejad spoke. “To have President Ahmadinejad address this review conference makes a mockery of the efforts of many countries to prevent nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism from becoming the gravest global threats of this century.”

While Ahmadinejad tried to focus the conference attention on Israel’s non-participation in the international nuclear treaty, Western leaders sought to spotlight Iran’s noncompliance with nuclear inspectors.

“Iran’s president offered the same tired, false, and sometimes wild accusations against the United States and other parties at this conference, but that’s not surprising,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the conference. “Iran will do whatever it can to divert attention away from its own record and to attempt to evade accountability. Ultimately, however, we will all be judged not for our word but for our action.”

Jewish groups organized protests and a news conference outside the United Nations.

At one event, several members of the U.S. Congress and Jewish organizational officials gathered across the street from the U.N. building, calling the proceedings on the opposite side a sham. The protesters called for tougher sanctions against Iran and demanded that corporations stop doing business with the Islamic Republic. JTA

Ari Bildner contributed to this report.

 
 

Netanyahu hints at flexibility on Jerusalem

It was an otherwise wholly unremarkable stump speech before a friendly audience in New York.

On the evening of July 7 at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, the Israeli prime minister addressed a roomful of more than 300 Jews on the subjects of Iran, his government’s eagerness for direct peace talks with the Palestinians, and the swell meeting he had just had with President Obama at the White House.

News Analysis

But then, in an off-the-cuff remark to a question on Jerusalem from the audience, Benjamin Netanyahu dropped a hint that his government’s insistence on Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem might not be ironclad.

“Everybody knows that there are Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that under any peace plan will remain where they are,” Netanyahu said in response to the question read by the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein.

The implication of Netanyahu’s remark — that other neighborhoods of Jerusalem may not remain “where they are,” becoming part of an eventual Palestinian state — was the first hint that the Israeli leader may be flexible on the subject of Jerusalem. Until now, Netanyahu has insisted that Jerusalem is not up for negotiation.

While the prime minister surely did not intend the gathering under the aegis of the Presidents Conference to serve as his forum for opening up negotiations over Jerusalem, the impromptu remark before an audience of prominent New York Jews and a handful of elected officials cast a slim ray of light on what Netanyahu thinks might be the Israeli capital’s ultimate fate.

He reiterated the point on Sunday in an interview with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”

“Are you willing to put East Jerusalem as a possible capital of the Palestinian state on the table?” Wallace asked, according to a transcript provided by Fox News.

Netanyahu responded, “Well, we have differences of views with the Palestinians. We want a united city. They have their own views. We can — this is one of the issues that will have to be negotiated. But I think the main point is to get on with it.”

The remarks on Jerusalem were significant because Netanyahu’s true intentions regarding the peace process remain largely opaque, the subject of much debate from Washington to Ramallah. Netanyahu was a latecomer to the two-state position — endorsing the idea of an eventual Palestinian state only a year ago, after much prodding by the United States — and the governing coalition he has assembled is composed largely of right-wing parties that do not believe in the current Palestinian Authority as a partner for negotiations.

In public, President Obama declared last week that he believes Netanyahu is genuinely committed to seeking a two-state solution.

“I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace,” Obama told reporters following his Oval Office meeting with Netanyahu. “And during our conversation, he once again reaffirmed his willingness to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians around what I think should be the goal not just of the two principals involved but the entire world, and that is two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Privately, however, some U.S. administration officials have expressed doubts about Netanyahu’s ability to make good on that vision. Other Obama supporters have questioned Netanyahu’s commitment to that goal, and the Palestinian Authority leadership says Netanyahu’s interest in negotiations is not serious.

“Words, not deeds,” was the assessment of chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who dismissed Netanyahu’s lip service to the peace process in an interview with The New York Times following the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. “We need to see deeds.”

Netanyahu insists he is serious about peace talks, and that it is the Palestinians who are playing games.

“You either put up excuses or you lead,” the Israeli leader said in his New York speech. “I want to enter direct talks with the Palestinian leadership now,”

“I think we can defy the skeptics,” he said, recalling the doubters that abounded when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin began talking to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the lead-up to the Camp David Accords, and when Richard Nixon visited China. “This is a challenge I’m up to.”

Was it hyperbole or a sign of the legacy Netanyahu hopes for himself?

If Netanyahu is interested in following Begin and Nixon’s model, leading a conservative government to a historic rapprochement with a longtime foe, eventually he will have to include Jerusalem in negotiations with the Palestinians; they won’t sign a peace deal without it. If not, Netanyahu is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the skeptics.

“This is going to be a very, very tough negotiation, but I’m prepared to negotiate,” Netanyahu insisted last week. “But I cannot engage between someone who won’t sit at the table.”

JTA

 
 

Can Kutsher’s, the Catskills’ last kosher resort, be saved?

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The lake at Kutsher’s offers boating and fishing. Uriel Heilman

For Yossi Zablocki, it was the phone call of a lifetime.

Last February, the manager at Kutsher’s Country Club, the last kosher resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains, called him in a panic with news that owner Mark Kutsher was thinking of retiring and closing down the place.

Zablocki, 37, had spent his summers growing up at the famed resort in Monticello, N.Y., graduating from camper to lifeguard to gabbai and leader of High Holiday services. Suddenly he had an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream — and he jumped at it.

“He always dreamed of taking over Kutsher’s,” Zablocki’s wife, Daniela, said between bites of egg salad in Kutsher’s dining room. “He really does think of it as a second home. When the opportunity to take it over came up, he asked me, but I think it was a given this was not something I could say no to.”

Now a criminal defense attorney for the New York Legal Aid Society and a general contractor living in Elizabeth, N.J., Zablocki saw the opportunity to run Kutsher’s not just as a third job but as the fulfillment of a calling.

Within days, Zablocki was booking guests for Passover and laying plans for the summer high season — when his endeavor will undergo its real test. If his new programming and marketing approaches work, Zablocki may be able to restore Kutsher’s lost sheen as a thriving retreat for kashrut-observant Jews. If not enough summertime guests show up, the Catskills likely will lose its last kosher resort.

Half a century ago, Kutsher’s was part of a thriving Catskills culture that served as a summertime haven for city Jews to stay cool, eat well, be entertained, and revel in the company of landsmen from near and far.

“In the past, these hotels opened the doors and guests just fell in from the sky,” Zablocki said. “Everyone was coming to the Catskill hotels. They didn’t have to sell themselves.”

But the advent of air conditioning, the end of restricted hotels, and the assimilation and gentrification of American Jewry changed all that, turning many Jewish Catskills resorts into ghost towns. Over the past couple of decades the few remaining Jewish resorts in the region have shuttered their doors, been sold to non-Jewish owners or become chasidic summer camps.

Zablocki is seizing Kutsher’s status as the only kosher resort left in the mountains to draw new customers who require the services of a kosher hotel. His vision is to bring guests back to this relic of American Jewish life with a combination of new programming and aggressive marketing. His target audience is a younger, modern Orthodox crowd that may not know from the Borscht Belt.

“I have someone calling every single yeshiva day school in the Northeast saying, Why don’t you come up to Kutsher’s instead of going to some roadside Best Western and bringing in your Torahs, kosher caterer, etc.? Come here. We have everything,” he said. “You don’t have to bring food, siddurim, or even Shabbos candles. You don’t have to worry about electronic key cards or walking around without an eruv. Everything is taken care of.”

In addition to indoor and outdoor swimming pools, an 18-hole championship golf course, a health club, a lake, boating, tennis, bocce ball, shuffleboard, children’s activities, an eruv enclosure, and, of course, lots and lots of food, Zablocki’s “new Kutsher’s” is booking entertainers like singer Neshama Carlebach, comedian Yisroel Campbell of the off-Broadway show “Circumcise Me,” and the Orthodox rock band Soul Farm, as well as magicians and entertainers for kids.

Zablocki also is updating the resort: He has added a hot tub to the indoor pool, brought in spa treatments, and fixed up the children’s playground.

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Helen Kutsher, whose son Mark owns the Catskills resort that bears their name, is flanked by Yossi Zablocki, right, and the resort’s caterer, Mickey Montal. Uriel Heilman

Yet in many ways, walking around Kutsher’s on a summer weekend is like traveling back in time. Gray-haired tuxedoed waiters still whisk around dishes of chopped liver, schav, pierogi, and, of course, cold borscht. There’s still a cosmetics shop in the lobby called Justine’s Makeup Counter, an Automat, and vending machines that date back to the 1950s. And Jackie Horner, who served as the inspiration for the hit 1987 film “Dirty Dancing,” is still leading dance classes, exercise routines, and “Bingo for Bucks.”

Except Jackie is now in her 70s, the old chairlifts on the ski hill haven’t worked in years, and the grand stage in the cavernous Stardust Room is dark except on weekends.

But dozens of elderly Jews from Florida still flock here every summer to take up their usual places in the dining room, the kitchen is open, tickets are on sale for the High Holidays and next Passover, and comedians from the city are making the two-hour drive up from New York to coax laughs out of overfed Jews. The Catskills culture lives.

It’s something you can’t take for granted, Zablocki warns. Kutsher’s almost didn’t open at all this year.

“Once this era is gone, the Borscht Belt will be completely forgotten,” said Mickey Montal, who runs the kitchen at Kutsher’s. “You can go to a Sheraton anytime. We want to preserve the kosher hotel and the nostalgia of the area. It’s an intimate part of Jewish life in America. People that come here enjoy it immensely.”

If things go well, Zablocki hopes he won’t just be saving an American Jewish icon but also creating an avenue for his other dream: making aliyah with an American salary. Though he immigrated with his family to Israel at age 12, Zablocki came back at 18 and has lived in the United States ever since.

“As crazy as it seems, I will have an easier time making aliyah and running a hotel in the Catskills than if I wasn’t running a hotel in the Catskills. If it works out, I can leave my other jobs,” he said. “The new Zionist dream is to work in America and live in Israel. My legal aid career doesn’t really allow for that, nor does the construction business. Since most of what I do here during the fall, winter, and spring is phone-oriented and computer-oriented, I could do it.”

Whether that’s a pipe dream remains to be seen. The hotel still needs some work, and Zablocki still has a formidable challenge in making back the money he invested to open the hotel and lease it from the Kutsher family.

Most important, the guests must materialize. The hotel has 250 operational rooms; Zablocki figures he needs an average of 150 of them occupied on summer weekends — about half that midweek — to break even.

Zablocki says he has lost about 30 pounds since taking control of the hotel.

“I’ve stopped eating. I used to come here for the food, but I can’t enjoy a meal. I’m constantly doing everything,” he said. “There’s definitely much more to running the hotel than I initially thought.”

If anyone can do it, Zablocki can, his sister says.

“Yossi’s a bulldozer,” Chana Zablocki told JTA. “When another brother of ours had a brain tumor everybody said was inoperable, Yossi was the one who got on the phone and found a surgeon in Arizona who had done 200 of these surgeries. And today, thank God, our brother is married and healthy.”

Ultimately, success or failure will hinge on whether the American Jews of today are interested in what Kutsher’s has to offer.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people that come here are coming to have a version of the Catskills hotel experience: as much food as you can eat, entertainment, shows. We’re figuring out how to recapture and capitalize on that,” Zablocki said.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel. People should have a nostalgic feeling when they come here. We’re keeping this as a Catskills-style resort.”

JTA

 
 

Israel’s cooperation on U.N. inquiry signals tactical shift

The decision by Israel to participate in the U.N. probe of the Turkish flotilla incident marks a stark departure from Jerusalem’s practice of opposing the world body’s investigations of Israeli actions.

A year and a half ago, faced with a similar decision when the U.N. Human Rights Council decided to appoint a fact-finding mission to investigate Israel and Hamas’ actions during the Gaza war, Israel boycotted the inquiry led by retired South African judge Richard Goldstone. Israel would pay a heavy diplomatic price: The Goldstone report was harshly critical of Israel and generated months of negative publicity for the Jewish state.

News Analysis

A year later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking the opposite course with the U.N. review panel looking into the May 31 flotilla confrontation. Nine Turks, including a Turkish-American, were killed in the mélée that ensued when Israeli commandos tried to board the Mavi Marmara, part of a flotilla of ships sailing for Gaza in a bid to break Israel’s blockade of the strip. The incident drew worldwide condemnation of Israel.

“Israel has nothing to hide. The opposite is true,” Netanyahu said in a statement Monday. “It is in the national interest of the State of Israel to ensure that the factual truth of the overall flotilla events comes to light throughout the world, and this is exactly the principle that we are advancing.”

The U.N. inquiry out of New York will be led by a former prime minister of New Zealand, Geoffrey Palmer, and will include the outgoing president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, as well as a Turkish and an Israeli representative who have yet to be named. The panel is expected to begin its work Aug. 10 and submit a progress report in mid-September.

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Footage taken from cameras aboard the Mavi Marmara on May 31 shows passengers apparently preparing for a confrontation with Israeli soldiers, May 31. IDF/Flash90/JTA

The decision to cooperate with the U.N. probe comes after two months of Israel resisting calls for an international inquiry and signals a tactical shift for Israel when it comes to dealing with U.N. investigations of its actions. It marks the first time that Israel will be part on a U.N. committee looking into Israeli actions.

“This could be viewed as a new approach,” confirmed a source at Israel’s embassy in Washington.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed it as an “unprecedented development.”

Israel’s decision to cooperate on the probe follows weeks of urging by the Obama administration, but it’s also a way for Israel to mollify Turkey, which had threatened to sever diplomatic ties with the Jewish state unless Israel acceded to an international probe or apologized for the flotilla deaths.

Israel had launched its own investigations of the incident. An Israel Defense Forces investigation found intelligence failures in the IDF’s preparations for stopping the flotilla but no fault with the soldiers’ actions, and a government committee probe is still ongoing. Turkey, however, was not satisfied.

Concerned about the rupture between Turkey and Israel over the incident and its long-term implications for the future of the Middle East, the Obama administration was keen on finding a way for a probe that would satisfy both Turkey’s demands for an international inquiry and Israel’s concerns about bias against it. The new probe was the result of negotiations with Israel and Turkey.

“For the past two months, I have engaged in intensive consultation with the leaders of Israel and Turkey on the setting up of a panel of inquiry on the flotilla incident of 31 May,” the U.N. secretary-general said in a statement Monday. Ban said he hoped the inquiry would “impact positively on the relationship between Turkey and Israel as well as the overall situation in the Middle East.”

After the Goldstone report was issued a year ago with findings that tarnished Israel’s international image, some in Israel argued that it had been a mistake to boycott the inquiry. Rather, they said, Israel should have cooperated in a bid to ensure the least damaging report possible. With Israel now choosing cooperation over rejection on the new flotilla probe, some in Israel are cautioning against comparisons between the two.

In the Goldstone case, they note, the original mandate for the inquiry prejudged Israel as guilty and came from the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, which has a record of singling out Israel for opprobrium while ignoring human rights violators around the world. In the flotilla case, the probe will be conducted under the aegis of the U.N. secretary-general, who is seen as mindful of Israeli concerns.

“You have to make a distinction between the Human Rights Council, which is partisan and has an anti-Israel obsession, and between the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, whom we hold in the highest esteem,” a senior Israeli official told JTA on condition of anonymity. “After ongoing discussion with the secretary-general, we are convinced that what he is proposing is credible and objective. I wouldn’t apply either of those two adjectives to the Human Rights Council, which is a travesty.”

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, implied that she hoped it would cancel out the Human Rights Council inquiry into the flotilla raid.

“The United States expects that the panel will operate in a transparent and credible manner, and that its work will be the primary method for the international community to review the incident, obviating the need for any overlapping international inquiries,” Rice said.

“That was an unmistakably derogatory reference to the U.N. Human Rights Council probe,” observed Hillel Neuer, the executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based pro-Israel watchdog organization. “A shadow has been cast on the U.N. Human Rights Council probe, and it was done so expressly.”

Neither the U.N. probe in New York nor the one being carried out in Geneva by the Human Rights Council will have legally binding consequences. JTA

 
 

Why Israel allowed the settlement freeze to expire

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Bulldozers get to work in the Israeli west bank settlement of Revava on Sept. 27, the day after Israel’s 10-month settlement construction freeze expired. Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – In the four weeks since direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed, settlement construction has been identified widely as the most immediate obstacle to the survival of negotiations.

In media accounts about the diplomatic standoff over the issue, Israel’s decision not to extend its self-imposed 10-month freeze on settlement building has been portrayed as a slap in the face to the Obama administration, deepening Israel’s occupation of the west bank and creating more stumbling blocks to a final peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians.

News Analysis

This week, world leaders reportedly telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urge him to extend the freeze. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for an end to settlement building following a meeting in Paris with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Quartet peacemaking envoy Tony Blair met with Netanyahu twice over four days. All to no avail.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, say they will wait a week before carrying out the threat of withdrawing from the peace talks.

“Of course we don’t want to end negotiations; we want to continue,” Abbas told Europe 1 radio, according to Israel’s daily Haaretz. “But if colonization continues, we will be forced to end them.”

In Israel, the only response is the rumbling of earth-moving equipment headed for construction sites in the west bank.

That’s because what is perceived around the world as Israeli stubbornness is seen much differently in Israel. The differences in outlook cut to the heart not only of how Israelis view these negotiations but how they view the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state.

In Jerusalem, it is the Palestinians who are seen as stubborn for sticking to their insistence that settlement building be halted before coming to the negotiating table. Never before had such a precondition been imposed on negotiations; in the past, Israelis and Palestinians talked while both continued to build in their respective west bank communities.

Having offered the freeze unilaterally 10 months ago to coax the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and satisfy U.S. demands for an Israeli goodwill gesture, the Israeli government sees itself as the accommodating party whose gesture was never reciprocated. Rather, it took the Palestinian nine months to agree to resume negotiations, leaving virtually no time for substantive progress before the freeze expired.

Then there are the political considerations: Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition partners made clear that extending the freeze was a nonstarter. Perhaps most important, however, the freeze was seen by many Israelis as unfair.

The vast majority of the 300,000 or so Jews who live in the west bank are families living in bedroom communities within easy commuting distance of Jerusalem or metropolitan Tel Aviv. While some Israelis moved to the settlements for ideological reasons, for many the motivating factor was economic: Housing was much cheaper in the west bank than in Israel proper.

What’s more, for decades the government offered Israelis economic incentives to settle across the Green Line — the 1949 armistice line that marked the Jordan-Israel border until the 1967 Six Day War.

During the freeze, these Israelis saw themselves as unfairly penalized: Why were they barred from expanding their homes when their Palestinians neighbors were not?

“Stop making us look like monsters,” Yigal Dilmoni, director of the information office for the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, told JTA in a recent interview.

The problem, of course, stems from the ambiguous nature of Israel’s presence in the west bank.

Most nations view the area as illegally occupied by Israel. The Israeli government views it as disputed territory captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. While Israel annexed some territories captured in that war (eastern Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria) and withdrew from others either unilaterally or within a peace deal (the Sinai Peninsula in a deal with Egypt, the Gaza Strip unilaterally), Israel left the west bank in legal limbo.

The Palestinians claim the land as the site of their future state.

In Israel, many on the right believe that Israel should not cede an inch, and many on the left say settlements are a crime and the west bank should be entirely Palestinian. But the majority Israeli view is that most of the west bank will end up as Palestine, while parts of it — large Jewish settlement blocs adjacent to the Green Line — will be annexed to Israel.

In almost all the scenarios, Israel plans to keep the major settlement blocs. Among them are Gush Etzion, a largely religious cluster of towns with some 55,000 people less than 10 miles from Jerusalem; Maale Adumim, a mixed religious-secular city of some 35,000 about five miles east of Jerusalem; and Modiin Illit, a haredi city of some 45,000 located less than two miles inside the west bank, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

More difficult is Ariel, a city of 18,000 located approximately 13 miles inside the west bank. Israel also aims to keep the smaller settlements near the west bank-Israel boundary. This plan encompasses the vast majority of the settler population.

Israeli officials say they have received assurances from U.S. officials that this would be the case — most notably in the April 2004 letter by then-President George W. Bush to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Operating under this assumption, the Israeli government viewed a complete, open-ended settlement freeze as unreasonable: If the major settlement blocs will be Israeli, why stop building within them?

After 10 months of an experimental freeze to see what it would elicit from the Palestinians, their return to the negotiating table was not enough. It was time for the experiment to end.

JTA

 
 

Claims Conference: No survivors were victims of fraud

Uriel HeilmanWorld
Published: 12 November 2010

NEW YORK – In a news conference Tuesday at which it was announced that 17 people have been charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York with participating in a $42.5 million fraud of the Claims Conference, the organization’s officials stressed that no Holocaust victims were deprived of any funds because of the alleged crime. Manhattan District Attorney Preet Bharara praised the Claims Conference for going to the authorities as soon as the fraud became apparent and for cooperating with the FBI throughout its investigation.

Former and current employees of the Claims Conference are among 17 people charged.

The alleged ringleader oversaw two funds from which tens of millions of dollars allegedly were obtained fraudulently from the Claims Conference, which distributes more than $400 million per year from the German government to victims of Nazism.

“If ever there was a cause that you would hope and expect would be immune from base greed and criminal fraud, it would be the Claims Conference, which every day assists thousands of poor and elderly victims of Nazi persecution,” Bharara said. “Sadly, those victims were themselves victimized. Without the extraordinary cooperation of the Claims Conference in ferreting out this alleged scheme to defraud them, it never would have been exposed.”

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Gregory Schneider, executive vice president at the Claims Conference, which together with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Tuesday announced the discovery of a $42.5 million fraud scheme. Claims Conference

Claims Conference officials first noticed about a year ago that several claimants had falsified information to receive payments from the Hardship Fund, an account established by the German government to give one-time payments of approximately $3,600 to those who fled the Nazis as they moved east through Germany.

They were alerted when multiple claimants used the same language and details in forms in which they documented evidence of victimization by the Nazis. That prompted a wide internal investigation that turned up thousands of additional fraudulent claims. The alleged fraud, which dates back to the mid 1990s, remained hidden so long because Claims Conference staffers at various levels conspired to hide and manage the false claims.

In all, 4,957 one-time payments totaling $18 million were obtained from the Hardship Fund through the alleged fraud. Another $24.5 million went to 658 fraudulent pension claims drawing from the Article 2 Fund, through which the German government gives pension payments of roughly $411 per month to needy Nazi victims who spent significant time in a concentration camp, in a Jewish ghetto in hiding, or living under a false identity to avoid the Nazis.

Alleged ringleader Semyon Domnitser oversaw the two funds for the Claims Conference until he was fired in February. Domnitser could not be reached by JTA for comment for this story.

The other 16 people involved with the fraud all live in Brooklyn and have been charged with mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Eleven were arrested Tuesday morning. Charges against five others, four of whom pleaded guilty, were unsealed Tuesday. The charges carry possible sentences of up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

Since its founding shortly after the Holocaust, the Claims Conference has processed more than 600,000 individual claims with total payments exceeding $4.3 billion. The money came from the German government following negotiations with Claims Conference officials and Jewish leaders. The Claims Conference continues to negotiate with the German government for the expansion and continuation of various restitution programs.

In addition to processing restitution payments from the German government to Nazi victims, the Claims Conference is the trustee of money from the sale of heirless Jewish properties in the former East Germany that had been seized by the Nazis and are being restored to the Jewish community. It uses the money from the sale of those properties to fund institutions that aid survivors and Holocaust education programs, distributing approximately $135 million per year.

About eight months after the fraud was discovered, Claims Conference officials went public with the news. In July, the agency announced the discovery of at least $7 million in allegedly fraudulent payments and said it had dismissed three employees in New York. Of those charged this week, six worked for the Claims Conference and 11 did not.

On Tuesday, Claims Conference officials stressed that the fraud represents a minimal amount of the annual payouts to survivors through the Hardship and Article 2 funds.

“The stealing of $40 million is disgusting,” Gregory Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, told JTA. “But it’s less than 1 percent of funds distributed under those programs.

“No amount of fraud will be tolerated,” he said. “We identified it, documented it, investigated, and brought it to the FBI.”

In recent months, the Claims Conference said, it has taken steps to strengthen anti-fraud safeguards, overhauling procedures and shifting some claims processing away from New York. The Claims Conference also said it retained K2 Global Consulting, an international firm, to review its procedures and make recommendations.

JTA Wire Services

Uri Fintzy contributed to this report.

 
 

Israel OKs another 8,000 Ethiopian immigrants — but these may be the last

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This family in the Gojam region of Ethiopia, pictured in 2005, comes from an area where there may be additional Falash Mura who were excluded from the Nov. 14 Israeli government decision to bring up to another 8,000 Ethiopians to Israel. Uriel Heilman

The decision this week by Israel’s cabinet to bring as many as 8,000 additional Ethiopians to Israel over the next four years and then close the door on mass Ethiopian aliyah has a familiar ring to it.

That’s because it has happened several times before.

In 1991, 1998, and 2008, Israel declared an end to mass Ethiopian immigration, only to reopen the gates after intense lobbying and pressure by advocates for Ethiopian aliyah.

On Sunday, again after dogged lobbying by advocates — including a former president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, or NACOEJ; a former Israeli Supreme Court justice; Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi; a former Canadian justice minister; and myriad other figures inside and outside the Israeli government — the Israeli cabinet again voted to expand Ethiopian aliyah.

This time, however, it will be different, promised one of the main advocates for the aliyah, Joseph Feit, the former president of NACOEJ. His New York-based organization advocates for Ethiopian aliyah and runs aid compounds in the Ethiopian city of Gondar that provide some food, schooling, and jobs to the would-be immigrants to Israel.

“Everybody’s working in cooperative mode,” Feit said in an interview from Israel a day after the Israeli cabinet voted to expand by as many as 7,846 the number of additional Ethiopians who will be allowed to immigrate to Israel under special criteria established for the so-called Falash Mura — Ethiopians who claim links to descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago, but who now are returning to Jewish practice.

What’s different this time, Feit said, is that NACOEJ has agreed to withdraw from Ethiopia and cease all aliyah advocacy if the additional Ethiopians are brought to Israel in accordance with the government decision at the rate of 200 per month.

Under the agreement, NACOEJ will turn over operation of its aid compounds in Ethiopia to the Jewish Agency for Israel three months after the aliyah begins, and NACOEJ will end all its activity in Ethiopia and aliyah advocacy once those among the 8,000 who meet Israel’s criteria for aliyah are brought to the Jewish state.

It’s not the first time such an agreement has been reached. An identical deal was proposed in 2003 and signed in 2005, and since then thousands of Ethiopians have been brought to Israel and been made citizens.

NACOEJ did not cease its aliyah advocacy, however; Feit said it was because the 2005 agreement was never implemented. He said the Jewish Agency never took over the aid compounds, and the Israeli government dragged its feet on bringing the Ethiopians, stretching out the aliyah for years in fits and starts.

In addition, Feit said, several thousand Ethiopians who were supposed to be considered for aliyah were never included in the immigration. Adjusting for natural growth, those are the 8,000 or so Ethiopians in Gondar seeking to make aliyah, he said.

“The numbers have not changed,” Feit said. “These are the people left over after artificial caps.”

But a former Jewish Agency official who headed aliyah operations in Ethiopia for four years disputes that notion. Ori Konforti said the numbers are constantly changing in a ruse to keep Ethiopian aliyah going as long as possible.

Rather than capping Ethiopian aliyah, the government’s decision this week actually sets a dangerous precedent by potentially opening the doors to even more Ethiopian immigration because it dramatically eases the criteria Ethiopian petitioners must meet to qualify for Israeli citizenship, Konforti said.

For the first time, an Israeli government will be allowing Ethiopians to apply for aliyah who were not counted in the Efrati Census of 1999 — a tally of would-be Ethiopian immigrants carried out by a former director of Israel’s Population Registry, David Efrati.

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” Konforti said. “Half of Ethiopia has relatives in Israel.”

Until now, any Ethiopian seeking to immigrate under the special criteria for Falash Mura had to be on the Efrati list. Now, however, Ethiopian petitioners who were not on the list but have Jewish lineage on their mother’s side will qualify for aliyah.

Rabbi Menachem Waldman, director of the Shvut Am Institute, which is involved with Ethiopian aliyah and preparing the immigrants for conversion to Judaism, said that in all likelihood no more than 6,500 additional Ethiopians will come to Israel as a result of this week’s decision. That number represents those who qualify for aliyah but were not counted on the Efrati Census because they were in rural villages where the census tally was imprecise.

“We said all these years that there were a certain number that were not in the census,” Waldman told JTA.

He estimated the number of Falash Mura villagers who were not counted by the Efrati Census at about 5,000. The figure of 8,000, he said, includes those villagers who migrated to Gondar between 2003 and 2007 and people from the Efrati Census whom the Israeli government mistakenly failed to verify for aliyah eligibility, plus natural growth due to births and marriages.

“With this decision, I think the government went to the maximum,” Efrati, who conducted the original census, told JTA this week. The 8,000 figure, he said, was the maximum number agreed upon by Ethiopian families in Israel, public figures, advocacy groups, their American Jewish sponsors, the Israeli government, and the Ethiopian government.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t others in Ethiopia — a country of 88 million whose population believes it is the product of the offspring of an illicit union 3,000 years ago between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba — who may be eligible to make aliyah, Waldman acknowledged.

“In the villages, not all the censuses were precise,” Waldman said. “I think there are more in Gojam,” a rural Ethiopian province. “But we took a decision in 2007 that we were closing the list at 8,700 to send a message to the Israeli government that we are advocating to bring only those who abandoned their homes, came to Gondar, and are living as Jews. Someone who lives in his village and goes to church on Sunday morning and merely has Jewish lineage — I never advocated for him.”

Any Ethiopian who can prove eligibility for aliyah under the standards of the Law of Return — practically impossible for the Falash Mura — may immigrate to Israel regardless of this decision.

The question at the heart of the dispute over the aliyah of the Falash Mura is how many remain in Ethiopia, and therefore whether the aliyah will ever end.

Opponents claim the number changes constantly because Ethiopians desperate to escape Africa’s poverty for Israel’s comforts are manipulating the immigration system. Advocates claim the numbers have changed only due to natural growth and to earlier Israeli government mistakes in counting the Ethiopians.

They say a combination of factors will help make sure that this time the Ethiopian aliyah ends for real: the Israeli government and the advocates agreed on a cap; to be eligible, would-petitioners had to have moved to Gondar by 2007, so newcomers cannot be added; the advocates have agreed to cede operations in Ethiopia to the Jewish Agency, which will shut down the aid facilities and school once the eligible petitioners are brought to Israel; and the Ethiopian government does not want mass emigration to continue beyond these agreed-upon 8,000.

“All the parties dealing with this subject for 20 years were active in reaching this consensus,” Waldman said. “The list is closed.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

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

 
 

Arab unrest alters power balance in as yet unseen ways

They were the devils they knew.

Though Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by countries whose leaders or people wish its destruction, over the years it had adjusted to what was the status quo, more or less figuring out how to get by while keeping an eye on gradual change.

News Analysis

But the sudden upheaval in the region that in a matter of weeks has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens autocrats in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere, is forcing Israel to grapple with how to recalibrate for dramatic change.

For the time being, as Israel sits and watches how things play out from Tripoli to Manama, Bahrain, it’s not clear exactly how the game will change.

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A demonstrator with an anti-Gaddafi sign outside the Libya Embassy in Cairo Feb. 22 shows his solidarity for Libyans protesting their leader. Sierragoddes via Creative Commons

“The best answer is we don’t know,” Ron Pundak, the director of the Peres Center for Peace in Herzliya, said this week at the J Street conference in Washington.

“The biggest change since 1967 is this tsunami rolling across the region whose end results no one really can foresee,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who attended the conference. “Something new is happening in the Arab world.”

In some places, like Libya, the immediate effects on Israel are minimal. Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s state has had no ties to Israel, so the dictator’s demise — if it comes — wouldn’t change much for Israelis.

“The civil war raging in Libya poses no immediate cause for concern in Israel,” Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff wrote in Haaretz.

However, the cumulative effects of the Middle East unrest are prompting shifts throughout the region that may require dramatic strategic rethinking in the Jewish state.

Every time a protest movement in the Middle East succeeds, protest movements elsewhere are emboldened, and that has put many regimes that for decades have not been hostile to Israel — including those of the Persian Gulf, Jordan, and North Africa — on alert and at risk.

With Israel and the West engaged in a proxy war with Iran for regional hegemony, the fall of autocratic regimes allied with the West provides an opening for Iran to expand its power and sphere of influence.

And Iran is intent on doing so. It was no accident that just days after the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tehran dispatched two warships to sail through the Suez Canal — something Iran had not dared to do since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The ships docked in Syria in what Iran’s navy chief, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, described as “a routine and friendly visit” to “carry the message of peace and friendship to world countries.”

In truth, it was an exercise in saber-rattling.

Iran is projecting “self-confidence and certain assertiveness in the region,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN. Nevertheless, he said, “I don’t like it, but I don’t think that any one of us should be worried by it.”

When a pair of rockets fired from Gaza hit the Israeli city of Beersheba last week, some Israeli analysts saw it as another example of Iran’s saber-rattling. Iran has sent weapons to Gaza and seeks more influence there, even though the strip’s Hamas rulers are Sunni Muslims, and Iran is a Shiite power.

“I do not recommend that anyone test Israel’s determination,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the rocket attack.

The great fear is that regimes somewhat friendly toward Israel (Egypt, Jordan), or friendly with Israel by proxy via the United States (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain), or not actively hostile (Libya, among others), will be co-opted by elements with greater animus toward the Jewish state.

That hostility could come from any one of a number of places. On the Egyptian front, the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Hamas, stands to gain greater power. In the cases of Tunisa and Libya, there is fear that al-Qaeda could capitalize on a power vacuum and take root. In Bahrain, which is overwhelmingly Shiite but ruled by a Sunni king, the concern is that genuine democracy could throw the country the way of Iran.

“The regional balance of power is changing, and not necessarily in Israel’s favor,” Robert Serry, the U.N. secretary-general’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said at the J Street conference.

But there could be some good news, too. The uprisings that have spread from North Africa to the Persian Gulf have been broad-based, loosely organized protest movements led by young people networking through the Internet and social media like Facebook. They have not been dominated by Islamists, and the protesters have not made Israel a focal point.

Whether these young people really will take hold of the levers of power, and how they will relate to Israel in the future, are open questions.

For those concerned with Israel, the unrest is being interpreted one of two ways, depending largely on political leanings. Those on the right point to the instability as a reason for Israel to be more wary of concessions in any peace agreements, since their peace partner could disappear at any time.

“Why should Israel expect that another agreement would not be overturned by some new revolution, change of mind, or cynical long-term plan?” columnist Barry Rubin wrote in The Jerusalem Post.

Those on the left say that if Israel does not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly with a peace deal, the new generation of leaders emerging in the Arab world won’t be able to see Israel as anything other than an occupier and repressor of Palestinian rights. Arab commentators echo that thinking.

“The hatred of Israel will not end until you start treating Palestinians with freedom and dignity,” Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy said at the J Street conference. “This is the time for Israel to sit down and make concrete concessions.”

In Jerusalem, the government is still in the wait-and-see mode, albeit with as much handwringing as possible.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, speaking Tuesday in Brussels, warned that the danger is that democracy movements in the Arab world will be “hijacked,” emulating the “model of Iran, the model of Hamas in Gaza, the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon,” according to the German news agency DPA.

Ayalon also said the unrest in the Arab world demonstrates that the notion of the Arab-Israel conflict being the region’s most serious issue is just not true.

“The real major problem of the Middle East, which is now so glaringly evident, is the dysfunctionality of the Arab societies,” Ayalon reportedly said, noting the absence of “rights of any kind.”

For more about the J Street conference, go to jstandard.com.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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