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Settlers step up protests, but Netanyahu is politically strong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

Multiple battlegrounds in fights over eastern Jerusalem

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Israelis and Palestinians protest the eviction of Palestinian families from a pair of Jewish-owned buildings in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah on March 26. David Vaaknin/Flash 90/JTA

JERUSALEM – The day that Zacharia Zigelman, 26, moved into a home in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, in eastern Jerusalem, he got beaten up, he says.

“You get used to it,” Zigelman said of the incident, which occurred about six months ago.

Zigelman, his wife, and 5-month-old son are one of seven Jewish families living in two buildings from which members of an extended Palestinian family were evicted last summer after Israel’s Supreme Court determined that the property was owned by a Jewish group called Nachalat Shimon. Several members of the al-Kurd family continue to live in a wing of one of the homes, which has only added to the tension.

The home is one of several in the neighborhood that Jews and Arabs are fighting over.

So far, three Palestinian families have been evicted from their homes there, and Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that four other Arab families must vacate their homes. Six other cases are under deliberation, and two additional claims were filed last week by Nachalat Shimon, which purchased title to the 4.5-acre property from its original Jewish owners several years ago.

Protesters have staged frequent demonstrations in front of the homes now occupied by the Jews. At times, violent riots have erupted, leading to the arrests of Palestinian and left-wing demonstrators. The new Jewish residents and counter-demonstrators have also been accused of incitement; in one case, Jewish teenagers tore down a courtyard fence erected by the al-Kurds.

The dispute in Sheik Jarrah is one of many pitting Arab against Jew in the battle over eastern Jerusalem. Increasingly, this battle is the subject of international scrutiny and — when it comes to Jews moving into eastern Jerusalem — widespread condemnation.

In Israel, it is the projects to settle Jews in predominantly Arab neighborhoods like Sheik Jarrah that have proven most contentious. Overseas, any effort to house Jews across the Green Line — the line that divided Israel from Jordan between 1948 and 1967 — has proven controversial lately.

Tensions between the Obama administration and Israel reached an all-time high last month following an announcement during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden that Israel planned to build 1,600 new housing units in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.

Home to approximately 18,000 residents, Ramat Shlomo is one of many Jerusalem neighborhoods that today are fully Jewish but were built on vacant land Israel captured in the 1967 war and annexed in 1980. Most Israelis believe in Israel’s right to build on this land without restriction, considering it distinct from Jewish settlements in the west bank, which Israel never annexed. But U.S. officials and others around the world do not recognize that distinction, calling Jewish neighborhoods built in the 27 square miles of eastern Jerusalem — including Gilo, East Talpiyot, Pisgat Ze’ev, and Ramot, where Ramat Shlomo is — settlements. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not include the neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem in the 10-month settlement construction freeze he began last November.

Perhaps the most controversial method by which Jews have moved into eastern Jerusalem has been through the use of the 1950 Absentee Property Law, which allowed Israel to seize the property of Arabs who fled Palestine to enemy countries during Israel’s War of Independence and did not return by Sept. 1, 1948. After Israel captured eastern Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, this law was also applied to Palestinian property there — meaning that properties in the area owned by Arab families living elsewhere could be subject to seizure without compensation.

Meanwhile, the Absentee Property Law bars Palestinians from making claims on their former dwellings inside Israel. Arab rights groups say the law is discriminatory.

Application of the law in eastern Jerusalem “opens a Pandora’s box of the Palestinian and Israeli property issue,” says Tali Nir, an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). “This is a huge violation of their basic rights for shelter and dignity, and of their property rights.”

Since annexing eastern Jerusalem, the Israeli government has expropriated more than 6,000 acres of property privately owned by Arabs — more than a third of eastern Jerusalem, according to ACRI.

According to Ir Amim, an Israeli group that advocates for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, the Absentee Law also has been used to expropriate sizable parts of the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, which were then given over for construction of the City of David, a Jewish archeological site and visitors’ center. Located downhill from the Old City, some 2,600 Palestinian families and about 70 Jewish families live in the 30-acre area.

The dispute over the homes in Sheik Jarrah, where Palestinian families are being evicted for non-payment of rent to the properties’ Jewish owners, has proven no less contentious.

The homes under dispute sit on a 4.5-acre parcel owned by Jews during the Ottoman era that came under Jordanian rule when eastern Jerusalem fell to Transjordan during the 1948 war. Between 1948 and 1967, 28 Palestinian refugee families that fled Israel during the 1948 war were settled on the property in exchange for paying a symbolic rental fee and ceding their refugee status.

In the early 1980s, years after the area was captured by Israel in the 1967 war, two Jewish organizations came forward with Ottoman-era documents showing the property belonged to them. Israeli courts upheld the authenticity of the documents, which Arab groups maintain are forgeries. In 1982, an attorney for the Palestinian families living on the property inked a deal with the Jewish owners under which the Palestinian families would remain protected tenants as long as they continued to pay rent.

But most of the families refused to pay the rent, in part because it would recognize the Jewish groups as the rightful owners of the property and because the families believed the United Nations had promised the land would be registered in their names after a certain number of years, according to Orly Noy, spokeswoman for Ir Amim.

Then, more recently, a group of investors formed Nachalat Shimon to develop the property for Jewish housing. The group purchased the property from the two original Jewish groups that owned it and, eventually, began eviction proceedings against the Palestinian tenants who failed to pay their rent. No action has been taken against those who continue to pay their rent.

Chaim Silberstein, who helped bring together the Nachalat Shimon investors, said the case is one of Palestinian families “living illegally on property that does not belong to them.” Before eviction proceedings began, he said, Nachalat Shimon offered all of the Palestinian families currently facing eviction compensation to leave voluntarily.

Nachalat Shimon reportedly plans to raze the existing buildings and create a 200-apartment enclave for Jewish families in the Arab neighborhood.

It’s not the only property in Sheik Jarrah owned by Jews. American Jewish businessman Irving Moskowitz purchased the Shepherd’s Hotel area with the intention of turning it into about 20 apartments for Jewish families. That plan has been approved by Jerusalem municipality housing and planning committees.

Stephan Miller, spokesman for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, told JTA that City Hall does not get involved in issues of ownership. These disputes, he said, “are addressed in the courts of law, not by politicians.”

JTA

 
 

Palestinian village and Israeli town build rare partnership across line

WADI FUKIN, west bank – Mohammed Mansara, a 70-year-old farmer who goes by the name Abu Mazen, indicates with a sweep of his arm the fruit trees and vegetables he grows on his small plot of land in this Palestinian village in the west bank, population 1,200.

Then he points to a small green hill on the western side of the village topped by a tidy cluster of red-roofed homes. That is Tzur Hadassah, an Israeli community of about 5,000 Jewish residents.

“Tzur Hadassah has such nice people,” he says in Hebrew. “They are great neighbors.”

Mansara could walk from his home to Tzur Hadassah in about half an hour, but it’s illegal. Wadi Fukin sits smack on the Green Line, the demarcation between pre-1967 Israel and the west bank. A portion of the west bank security fence is slated to go through the valley, cutting off Wadi Fukin from Tzur Hadassah and from much of what remains of its agricultural land.

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Palestinian farmer Mohammed Mansara, in his home village of Wadu Fukin, has close ties with residents of an Israeli town just across the Green Line. Sue Fishkoff

Similar stories repeat all along the Green Line, as Israelis and Palestinians jostle over the route of the fence.

What makes Wadi Fukin’s case different is that it has strong allies across the Green Line: Tzur Hadassah residents who buy fresh produce from village farmers, and Friends of the Earth Middle East, or FOEME, an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental organization that is challenging the route of the security fence here in Israel’s Supreme Court.

Three hundred Tzur Hadassah residents have signed a petition against the fence being built in their valley.

Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah have had a relationship since 2001, when they became two of the first members of FOEME’s Good Water Neighbor project. The project, which now works with two dozen towns and villages, brings together Palestinian and Israeli communities to protect their shared water resources, fostering peace and long-term cooperation based on shared environmental interests.

Tzur Hadassah resident Tamar Gridinger says FOEME’s project prompted her to visit Wadi Fukin for the first time several years ago. A group of Tzur Hadassah residents had been buying organic fruits and vegetables from another source, she says. Then they learned that FOEME had brought in permaculture experts to help Wadi Fukin farmers give up pesticides and return to the sustainable agricultural practices used by their grandfathers.

“When we realized that Wadi Fukin farmers were growing organic vegetables, it was like a gift,” Gridinger says.

Now she and 25 other Tzur Hadassah families participate in a Community Supported Agriculture project, where they pre-buy a month’s supply of fresh produce from the village and pick up their allotment every week. (Israelis may cross the Green Line into the west bank, but Palestinians need a special permit to cross the line into Israel.)

“Both sides gain from it,” Gridinger says. “We get inexpensive, organic fruit and vegetables, and they earn money.”

Since 2001, relations between Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah have deepened. Wadi Fukin farmers invite co-op members to an annual hafla, or celebration, in the village, and Tzur Hadassah residents have helped villagers navigate the Israeli bureaucracy. When one young villager with leukemia needed weekly medical treatment at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, co-op members would pick him up and drive him across the checkpoint reserved for Israelis, saving him hours of waiting at the border.

“I’d never met my neighbors in Wadi Fukin before, and now they have become my friends,” says Gridinger, showing off a scarf Mansara brought back for her from Mecca, where he recently went on a haj, or pilgrimage. “Not because of the ‘great principles’ of the project. Abu Mazen is just a friend.”

Relations between Wadi Fukin are not as good with its Israeli neighbor to the east: Betar Ilit, a fast-growing ultra-Orthodox settlement of some 35,000 residents on Mansara’s side of the Green Line built in part on land originally belonging to the village.

Since construction began at Betar Ilit in 1985, Wadi Fukin’s 11 natural springs have dried up, and when Betar Ilit’s sewers back up, Mansara says, the effluent pours down the hill into the village fields. The Israeli government has sent notices to Betar Ilit to resolve problems caused to Wadi Fukin.

“The main spring is just a trickle now,” Mansara says, showing visitors an empty reservoir where water used to flow. “The water would go into a channel and then to the fields. Now the channel is filled with garbage.”

On March 17, UNESCO declared that the territory of Wadi Fukin and the neighboring village of Battir represent “the best preserved and continuously managed cultural landscape of its type in all the west bank,” and merit protection as a World Heritage Cultural Landscape.

To farm, the villagers use terraced agriculture, where water from natural springs is channeled into more than 70 manmade pools and used later to irrigate the fields.

“The farmers of Wadi Fukin have been using the same agricultural system for over 2,000 years,” says Gidon Bromberg, FOEME’s Israeli director.

FOEME will use the UNESCO document to back up its case that the west bank security fence should not go through this valley. Lawyers for the village are arguing their case on environmental grounds — a first in a security fence dispute, Bromberg says.

The section of the fence proposed for Wadi Fukin is a secondary barrier, Bromberg says. The primary security fence already stands east of Wadi Fukin, circling the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. The Wadi Fukin section is slated to stop just south of the village, meaning villagers, or anyone else, could walk around it and enter Israel.

“It makes a mockery,” Bromberg says. “If you have this open area a kilometer south of Wadi Fukin, why do you need a fence here at all?”

Following objections to the fence’s route in the Wadi Fukin area, a hydrological study and a study of the route’s environmental impact were performed, according to a spokesman for the Israel Defense Force.

“It was decided that the fence would be constructed utilizing various engineering solutions that will limit environmental damage to a minimum,” the spokesman said, but the plan is still to build it along the original route.

Even if Wadi Fukin manages to get the court to change that, it may only be a temporary stopgap in the inevitable demise of the village’s agricultural lifestyle.

Mansara farms because his father, his grandfather, and his grandfather’s father all farmed this land. But none of his five sons have gone into the field. They are doctors, lawyers, and engineers, and have moved away from the village.

About a dozen farmers remain in Wadi Fukin, and Mansara is glad his children aren’t among them.

“I didn’t want them to go into farming,” he says. “You can’t make a living from it.”

JTA

 
 

Do indirect peace talks have a shot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JTA

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

'Iran has been stirring the pot'

Much of the international spotlight these past two weeks has focused on Israel, which, according to political analysts, is exactly what Iran wants — to deflect attention from its nuclear pursuits.

Even as the U.N. Security Council passed another round of sanctions against Iran on Wednesday, worldwide concern grew that the Islamic Republic could spark a military conflict in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkey, which launched last week’s flotilla, has increasingly aligned itself with Iran — which also pulls the strings of Hamas and Hezbollah — stoking more fears of a new regional terror-supporting alliance.

“Iran has been stirring the pot,” said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers, Newark. “It’s no secret that weapons from Iran and individuals from Iran have found their way to Gaza — smuggled in via Iran’s friends from Syria and elsewhere.”

The Iranian Red Crescent — the equivalent of the Red Cross — announced plans this week that it planned to launch its own aid flotilla to Gaza. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has said that it would escort such a flotilla if ordered.

“To openly engage Israeli forces, which is what would happen if openly identified Iranian contingents tried to break the blockade, would be a huge escalation in Middle East tension to have Israeli and Iranian military forces shooting at each other,” Cole said. “If initiated in Israel’s neighborhood, it could well escalate into Israeli military action much closer to or directly at Iran.”

The Iranians are trying to make a statement, said Iran analyst and Fox News guest commentator Lisa Daftari. And, she added, Israel has not said how it would specifically respond to such a provocation — except that it would not allow Iranian ships through the blockade.

“Iran has flexed its muscles and shown it can politically run circles around our government,” said Daftari, a Paramus native. “While we’re having summits and meetings, thinking how to next negotiate with Iran, Iran is carrying on its own agenda.”

Cole does not believe Iran would carry out its threat to openly send military forces to Gaza because it’s not interested in a conflict in the Mediterranean. Daftari declined to hazard a guess as to what might happen if Iran tries to break the blockade, but said the government is looking to shift blame onto Israel for any regional conflict. If the activists aboard last week’s flotilla actually cared about getting aid to the Palestinians, she said, they would have diverted to Israel’s Ashdod port as requested.

“The Palestinian people are not the main issue,” she said. “There’s an Islamist agenda here that Iran has been carrying on for years.”

Iran would like to get rid of Israel, said Dan Kurzman, the North Bergen resident who penned biographies of former Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. Mutually Assured Destruction kept the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal in check during the Cold War, but Kurzman does not think that policy would work with Iran.

“These guys in Iran are not rational,” he said. “If they’re willing to kill themselves because God wants them to, why should they care if they kill a million Jews? This is really dangerous.”

To head off the Iranian threat, Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians, Kurzman said. After that, it can more easily forge deals with the rest of the Arab world against Iran.

“The Arab world doesn’t fear Israel,” Kurzman said, “but it does fear Iran.”

Because of this, Israel has a chance to pull the Arabs to its side — if it can make peace with the Palestinians, Kurzman said.

“Iran says they want to destroy Israel with an atom bomb and they’re close to getting a bomb. All of this wouldn’t have happened if there was peace,” he said. “They wouldn’t have an excuse for getting a bomb.”

The author cast blame on Israel not just for its handling of the Mavi Marmara, but also what he called the collective punishment of Gaza. He agreed that cargo should be inspected before entering the coastal strip but he railed against the blockade.

“It’s the wrong policy from the beginning,” he said. “You don’t punch everybody for what the terrorists do. It’s really shooting yourself in the foot. Israel is now in a terrible position where the whole world’s against them.”

Despite the provocations aboard the Mavi Marmara, Kurzman said, Israel made a mistake in the way it handled the activists.

“There are ways of stopping a ship and making them come to a halt and eventually getting on board to check on this stuff,” he said. “It’s riot control. There was a riot aboard the ship, and in a riot you don’t just shoot into crowds. This was a terrible mistake that could have been avoided.”

Kurzman recalled that after the Six Day War, Ben-Gurion said there was no chance of making peace if Israel didn’t give up the west bank. Neither Ben-Gurion nor Rabin would have agreed to give up Gaza without a peace treaty, though, Kurzman noted. He called the disengagement from Gaza an “absolute disaster.”

“Israel brought this on itself,” Kurzman said. “That’s the great tragedy of history. Israel thinks it’s invincible, but it isn’t.”

 
 

Palestinian leaders must foster hope, not hate

 

With wineries and tourism, settlers try to rebrand settlements for Israeli public

_JStandardWorld
Published: 24 September 2010
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The winery in the Jewish settlement of Psagot, in the west bank. Abir Sultan/Flash90/JTA

PSAGOT, west bank – Inside the cool of a cavernous wine cellar stacked high with oak barrels of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to fade away, even at this Jewish settlement in the heart of the west bank.

This is precisely the message a stop at the Psagot Boutique Winery is meant to convey.

It’s part of a new strategy by settler leaders to “rebrand” settlements, offering tours of settlement communities in a bid to win over an Israeli public they fear may have abandoned them either through apathy or outright hostility.

“We have been feeling that enough is enough. Stop making us look like monsters,” said Yigal Dilmoni, who directs the newly created information office for the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, which is organizing the tours.

“Most people don’t realize how regular our lives here are. People wake up in the morning, go to work and are not engaged in the world of politics,” Dilmoni said.

The tours are meant to strike a stark contrast to what Dilmoni described as the common media image of settlers as violent radicals on the prowl for brawls with neighboring Palestinians.

For the Yesha Council, the significance of not having the Israeli public behind the settlement project hit home in wake of the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, when some 8,000 Jewish settlers were evacuated, some forcibly. It was a traumatic episode for the settler movement — not only because of the evacuation, but also because there was no broad Israeli uproar against it.

It was a lesson, too, in the important role played by opinion-makers — journalists, media personalities, and business leaders — in shaping Israeli society’s views, settler leaders said. This is why the Yesha Council has decided to start bringing such opinion-makers to settlements as the first phase of their attempt to improve their public standing.

Avri Gilad, a well-known Israel media personality, told listeners on a radio show the day after he returned from such a tour that it dramatically changed his view of the settlements.

“I went on a tour that revolutionized my awareness of settlements in Samaria,” he said on the show. “I visited places I was raised to detest. I returned in a state of confusion: confusion about the injustice done to citizens who were called on by the state to settle, given building permits, and then frozen out. I was surprised to meet people with whom I had a lot to talk about, with great warmth and intimacy.”

An earlier public relations strategy, an ambitious project of billboards and advertisements briefly launched in 2008 under the slogan “Judea and Samaria, The Story of Every Jew,” proved successful but too expensive to maintain over the long term, Dilmoni said.

Dilmoni, 40, an earnest and energetic geographer and urban planner by training, believes that no one comes away unmoved from seeing the settler enterprise up close, even if political opinions remain unchanged.

About 320,000 Israeli Jews live in the west bank. They believe the land is their biblical birthright, and successive Israeli governments have supported that notion. But the land also is territory that Palestinians claim as their future state.

The settlements, viewed as illegal by much of the international community and a threat to the country’s long-term survival by critics inside Israel, have become one of the major issues of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They also threaten to derail the recently relaunched direct peace talks between the two sides. (See pages 15, 16, and 27.) Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has declared that he’d pull out of the talks if Israel did not extend a 10-month freeze on construction in settlements that is set to expire Sept. 26.

The message of the tours, Dilmoni said while driving visitors along a stretch of highway that cut through a valley surrounded by ancient terraced hilltops, is “Come here and see what has been built here and then decide what to think.”

The settlement tours constitute a packed day. They begin early in the morning, end at sunset, and include stops and conversations at a range of settlements — large and more urban ones like Ariel, and smaller ones like Kida, which have sweeping views of the desert unfolding into Jordan. They end with a return to the Israeli side of the Green Line — the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan that demarcates the west bank.

In the past, when settlers gave tours of Judea and Samaria — the biblical name for the west bank — the focus was on security and the role of their homes as strategic buffers because they sit on the mountain range overlooking the Mediterranean coastal strip to the west and Jordan to the east.

Now a “softer,” more human-interest spotlight has been purposefully chosen, one in which visitors can do a wine tasting at the winery in Psagot, part of a new multimillion-dollar visitors’ center for the Binyamin region that is set to open over the Sukkot holiday.

During a visit there last week, workers were rushing to finish building a room that will house more than a dozen touch-screen computer terminals offering information about the area. The center is a sleek new complex that also boasts event space and a small movie theater with plush orange seats that will show a short feature film about a young man who, on the verge of leaving the country for a job in London, “returns to his roots” to tend land on a settlement.

The itinerary for the settlement tours also includes home visits. At the edge of the settlement of Eli, home to 700 families, a woman named Eliana Passentin, 36, stands in her backyard overlooking an expanse of sloping terraced hillsides and speaks of her passion for living alongside the history of the Bible.

Explaining the view, she points out an Arab village whose name in mentioned in the Bible for producing especially fine wine. She also points to the ancient site of Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was once housed, providing the central site for Israelite worship for 400 years.

Passentin describes how her home, located in a neighborhood the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled was built illegally and has ordered to be razed, was built with the area’s history in mind.

“The dining room windows look out onto Shiloh,” she said, “and from the living room we can see the site of Judah Macabee’s first and then final battle.”M.p<

JTA

 
 

Poll: Jewish support for Obama falling

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Answers to question No. 5 in the American Jewish Committee poll indicated falling support for Obama’s handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship American Jewish Committee

WASHINGTON – Jewish approval of President Obama is dropping, a new national survey has found.

Some 51 percent of American Jews approve of the job Obama is doing, compared to the 44 percent who disapprove, according to a just-completed American Jewish Committee survey. The numbers represent a drop from the 57 percent approval rating Obama got from Jews the last time the AJC did a survey, in March, and a sharp decline from the 79 percent approval rating Obama had among Jews in a May 2009 poll. Obama captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the presidential election two years ago.

The survey also showed 49 percent approving of the Obama administration’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations and 45 percent disapproving. The AJC’s March survey registered a 55 percent approval rating for Obama on that issue, with 37 percent disapproving.

The differences between the two polls taken six months apart show both waning Jewish support for Obama and a narrowing of the gap between Jews and non-Jews regarding their opinion of Obama. Until now, Jewish approval of Obama has usually exceeded that of the general population by more than 10 points; this latest poll puts Obama’s Jewish approval rating at just 6 points higher than the national average of 45 percent.

The poll also showed a spike in Jewish support for Republicans in Congress — from percentages in the low 20s in previous elections to 33 percent in this poll.

The margin of error for the poll is 3 percent. For the survey, Synovate, formerly Market Facts, interviewed 800 self-identified Jews selected from a consumer mail panel between Sept. 6 and Oct. 10.

Regarding the issue of Obama’s handling of the economy, Jewish approval has declined since the March survey. In the current poll, 45 percent approve and 51 percent disapprove of Obama’s actions. In March, the numbers were 55 percent approving and 42 percent disapproving.

David Harris, executive director of the AJC, said the downward trend of Jews’ opinion of Obama is a reflection of “Where are we?” anxieties.

“To me, the common denominator pretty much across the board is a sense of growing anxiety and apprehension,” Harris said, noting the decline in Obama’s approval ratings on the economy and foreign policy since the March poll. “There’s a sense that things here and abroad are not necessarily getting better.”

By contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approval has risen: 62 percent of the respondents approve and 27 percent disapprove of his handling of U.S.-Israel ties, compared to 57 percent approving and 30 percent disapproving in March.

Harris said the most surprising result of the poll is that a majority of Jewish voters back Arizona’s new immigration law, which encourages police to check the immigration credentials of persons being questioned on other matters. The law already has sparked an exodus of undocumented workers from the state.

The survey asked its Jewish respondents: “A new law in Arizona gives police the power to ask people they’ve stopped to verify their residency status. Supporters say this will help crack down on illegal immigration. Opponents say it could violate civil rights and lead to racial profiling. On balance, do you support or oppose this law?”

The result was a slim majority in favor of the law: 52 percent to 46 percent.

“That one elicited the most surprise here,” Harris said. “You form a notion in your mind of what you think the likely response is to each question and then you check it against the reality. We did not expect to see majority support for the Arizona law.”

The poll also showed that American Jewish confidence in Obama’s approach to Iran has fallen, with 43 percent approving of the administration’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue compared to 47 percent in March. Some 46 percent disapprove, up from 42 percent. In a related question, about 59 percent of respondents support and 35 percent oppose the idea of the United States taking military action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And about 70 percent support and 26 percent oppose the idea of Israel taking such military action.

A series of questions regarding the Arab-Israeli peace process yielded results similar to those of previous surveys, showing continuity in American Jewish views regarding a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and west bank settlements.

Matching the March results, the new survey found that 48 percent favor and 45 percent oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state.

A majority of American Jews, 60 percent, continue to support a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while 35 percent said Israel should compromise on the city’s status in a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Regarding the dismantling of west bank settlements as part of a permanent agreement with the Palestinians, 6 percent said that all such settlements should be dismantled, while 56 percent called for some and 37 percent called for none to be dismantled.

American Jews remain nearly unanimous, at 95 percent, in supporting a proposal requiring Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in a final peace agreement. In March and in 2009, the figure was 94 percent.

JTA

 
 

Palestinian gambit for statehood puts Israel against wall

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, seen here greeting Finnish President Tarja Halonenin in the west bank city of Ramallah on Oct. 14, may appeal to the international community for recognition of statehood. Issam Rimawi/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – With talks at a stalemate and no agreement from the Israelis to reinstate a settlement freeze, the Palestinians are playing a new card: an end game to statehood through an appeal to the international community.

The card hasn’t actually been played, but the mere threat that the Palestinians would push for international recognition of a state from the United Nations has been enough to push the Israeli government to reconsider options to return to the negotiating table.

News Analysis

On Sunday, partly to pre-empt a Palestinian move toward statehood that would bypass negotiations with Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is working intensively with the Obama administration on a formula to restart the stalled peace process.

“We are in close contact with the American administration with the aim of restarting the peace process,” Netanyahu said at his weekly cabinet meeting. “Our aim is not only to renew the process, but to renew it in such a way that it won’t collapse in a few weeks or in two months, but that we will go into a full year of serious negotiations on the core issues in an effort to reach a framework agreement on the way to a peace deal.

“Any attempt by the Palestinians to circumvent this process by going to international organizations,” he said, “is not realistic, and will not in any way advance a genuine peace process.”

Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. leaders all say publicly that a negotiated peace deal is much preferred to unilateral steps that could spark a sharp response from the other side. But the Palestinians warn that if the direct peace talks remain on hold, they will consider approaching international bodies for recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.

It isn’t clear whether this is merely a tactic to frighten Israel back to the peace table — talks that were renewed in early September broke down four weeks later over Israel’s refusal to extend a building freeze in the west bank — or part of a new strategy aimed at achieving a better deal for the Palestinians through the international community.

Either way, given Israel’s precarious position on the international stage and the lack of international support for its west bank settlement construction policy, the Palestinian threat carries weight and is being taken very seriously in Jerusalem.

Much depends on the American stand, which gives the Obama administration added leverage over Israel.

The new Palestinian thinking has been evolving over the past few years and is based on two key principles: winning enhanced international support for Palestinian goals and, in parallel, building the institutions of a functioning Palestinian state from the bottom up.

The idea is that if the American-mediated peace process with Israel proves fruitless, the Palestinians can invoke Plan B: Gaining the world’s approval for an already functioning Palestinian state, on conditions favorable to the Palestinians, at a time of their choosing.

With Palestinian confidence in the Israeli government on the wane and Israel’s international standing in decline, Plan B has emerged as a genuine threat to Israel.

Last week, the Palestinians made their first significant move for recognition as a state by approaching the International Criminal Court at The Hague to urge recognition of the Palestinian Authority as the equivalent of a full-fledged state government. That designation would enable the Palestinian Authority to press war crimes charges against Israel for its conduct in the 2008-09 Gaza war because only states have standing before the court.

Recognition of the Palestinian Authority by the international court not only would open a crack for the possible prosecution of Israeli civilian and military leaders, it also would hand the Palestinians a major PR victory in their quest for internationally recognized statehood. The Palestinians would be able to cite the court’s recognition as legal backing for their case for a state.

Last week the court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, heard arguments from legal experts, backed up by nongovernmental organizations, from both sides. The Israeli side argued that the Palestinian Authority is not a state and therefore cannot claim standing before the court, and that in any event, the court is not empowered to prosecute a state like Israel, which has effective and credible legal mechanisms for dealing with suspected war crimes.

A decision is not expected for several weeks.

If the Palestinians do press ahead in earnest with Plan B, the United Nations will be the main battleground. Given the certain backing for a Palestinian state by the non-aligned and Muslim states, the Palestinians easily would be able to secure a majority in the General Assembly — the same body that granted Israel international recognition in November 1947 by a vote of 33 to 13.

But the Palestinians want more than mere recognition: They want a binding allocation of territory based on the 1967 borders. For that they will likely seek a resolution from the U.N. Security Council, whose votes are binding. Such an effort likely would be blocked by the United States, which has veto power in that body. Therefore, for such a gambit to work, it would need to have the backing of the Obama administration. That’s unlikely.

In the run-up to a crucial Arab League meeting in early November that will discuss the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been canvassing Arab leaders on his U.N. strategy.

The Palestinians see an important convergence in early November of key events for the future of the peace process: the Arab League meeting and the U.S. midterm elections. They believe that after the midterm elections, President Obama will have a freer hand to deal with Israel and will press Israel to return to the negotiating table on the Palestinians’ terms to head off any U.N. strategy.

For Israel this constitutes a major headache. The Netanyahu government fears that many countries, including the Europeans, would go along with the Palestinians and recognize a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan.

If Israel remains in control of large swaths of the west bank after a Palestinian state is declared and recognized, even if just in the General Assembly, it would further sink Israel’s international reputation and provide additional fodder for the campaign to delegitimize Israel. (See page 24.)

“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 said Monday.

Israel’s response to the challenge has been a combination of defiance and diplomacy.

“Like Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu will not allow the United Nations, or any other organization, to dictate our borders,” Israel’s U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren, said last Friday. “They will be determined through negotiations.”

Privately, some Israeli cabinet ministers have been proposing unilateral Israeli responses, such as Israeli annexation of a significant part of the west bank or redeploying inside the large settlement blocs to create a de facto border along Israeli terms.

Behind the scenes, Israeli diplomats have been warning their colleagues in Washington and Europe that if the Palestinians act on the U.N. strategy, the current peace process, and the Oslo process on which it is based, would be over.

For now, however, Israel is focusing its efforts on putting direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track and undercutting the Palestinians’ U.N. strategy. Netanyahu’s special envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, is in Washington this week working with his American counterparts on the details.

“Peace will only be achieved through direct negotiations,” Netanyahu said Sunday, “and I hope we will return to this avenue in full force very soon.”

JTA

 
 
 
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