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entries tagged with: Israel


Pushing conversion bill is ‘the wrong fight at the wrong time’


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

Published: 24 September 2010
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<



Will the freeze freeze a peace deal?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is flanked by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Jerusalem on Sept. 15. Kobi Gideon/Flash 90

WASHINGTON – When the fat lady sings on Sept. 26, it may only be an intermission.

That’s the word from an array of Mideast experts across the political spectrum. They are predicting that the seeming intractability between Israel and the Palestinians over whether Israel extends a settlement moratorium beyond its end date will not scuttle the peace talks.

News Analysis

Instead, the observers say, the sides are likely employing the brinksmanship that has come to characterize Middle East peacemaking.

“Is this is a last-minute minuet before a compromise on both sides?” asked Steve Rosen, the former director of foreign policy at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I don’t see the kind of anxiety you would associate with a collapse. They seem to be acting with something up their sleeve.”

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, also saw compromise in the offing.

“Neither party can afford to be seen as scuttling the talks,” he said.

Israelis and Palestinians both are speaking — off the record, at least — in terms of an imminent threat of rupture, just weeks after direct negotiations restarted. Such talk begs the question of why the Obama administration relaunched the talks with much fanfare if the sides were not ready to go.

“It’s almost inconceivable that the administration would have gone down this road with all the hype without push and pull for both sides” on the settlement issue, said Aaron David Miller, a longtime negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, and now a fellow at The Woodrow Wilson Center.

Miller noted the praise lavished by Obama on the negotiators and the inclusion of the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders in the launch of the talks.

If the deadline scuttles the talks, he said, “it will go down as being one of the more boneheaded plays in the history of negotiations.”

Miller said he believes that the sides were bluffing when they hinted — or outright said — no compromise was possible. (See page 32.)

Each side has sent out mixed signals. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said last week that there was “no choice” but to go ahead with talks, before meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the same time, his aides were leaking to the media that continuing the talks depended on an extension of the moratorium on Israeli construction in the settlements.

Israeli officials have suggested that they are preparing some kind of extension by telling American Jewish groups that they will need their backing when the Israeli settlement movement reacts adversely to a building freeze beyond Sept. 26.

On the other hand, in a conference call Monday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mention the possibility of a compromise. And his top aide, Ron Dermer, made it sound as if Israeli officials were bracing for a period of tensions over the settlement issue.

“We might have to agree to disagree for the next few months,” Dermer said on the issue of settlements. The carrot for the Palestinians, he said, was a final-status agreement that would put both sides past the settlement issue.

The question is how to get past the looming Sept. 26 date — or at least Sept. 30, when Israel’s Sukkot holidays end and the construction industry returns to work.

Ibish predicted that Abbas and his negotiators could live with Israel moving ahead with the building starts that have been put on hold for 10 months, when Netanyahu imposed the moratorium — as many as 2,000, according to an Americans for Peace Now analysis — but only if the Netanyahu government did not launch major new projects.

“Whatever the Israelis say, no one is going to believe it because of the grandfathering built in” to the moratorium, Ibish said. “What’s important that the Israelis don’t do anything further to radically alter the landscape.”

That would include holding back on major starts outside the “consensus areas,” settlement blocks adjacent to Israel that are likely to be incorporated in a final deal in exchange for land swaps. According to this view, it would also mean no building in a corridor between Jerusalem and the west bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim that would choke off the main north-south route; no land appropriations; and no building in eastern Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods.

Rosen, who directs the Middle East Forum’s Washington project, said an out may be Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader who is visiting Washington and New York to meet with U.S. and United Nations officials.

As defense minister, Barak has veto over new initiatives: He could nix them while the Palestinians look the other way regarding settlement projects already in the pipeline. At the same time, Barak’s reputation as a go-it-alone dove could give Netanyahu cover with settlers. The prime minister could tell hawks that Barak is slightly out of control.

Meantime, each side is trying to extract as much as it can or concede as little as possible before talks continue, said Scott Lasensky, an analyst with the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace who tracks the region.

“Brinksmanship is a hallmark of Arab-Israeli negotiation. There’s no doubt the question will go to the last minute with uncertainty,” he said. “There’s been some good will, there’s been a warming of ties, everyone has an interest in making sure that this is renewed.”

Brinksmanship, on the other hand, often develops a momentum of its own, and there’s a chance it could scuttle the talks by the deadline, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.

The risk now, Makovsky said, was that with the talks still in their early stages, the sides were more beholden to hard-line constituencies than they were to a breakthrough.

“They don’t know if a deal is reachable, so why alienate your constituencies if a deal isn’t reachable yet,” he said.

Stephen P. Cohen, another longtime Middle East watcher and backer of an Israeli-Palestinian deal who has consulted with members of the Obama foreign policy team, said the administration’s leverage was the imminence of a permanent-status deal.

“I think Bibi [Netanyahu] wants to make a substantive agreement that would convince Abu Mazen [Abbas] that it’s worth staying even though he hasn’t renewed the settlement freeze because the substantive agreement allows Abu Mazen to stay,” said Cohen, the president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development.



Israeli Consul Gil Lainer makes his country’s case at JCRC meeting

Optimism, underlined by caution, was the message Monday night as Gil Lainer, consul for public diplomacy at the Israeli Consulate in New York, spoke of the prospects for peace in the Mideast and the challenges facing the Israelis and Palestinians in the quest for an accord.

Lainer, a career diplomat who has held postings in Africa and the United States, addressed a rapt meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey at the federation’s Paramus headquarters.

Going beyond headlines and sound bites, Lainer told of behind-the-scenes work done by Israelis to help developing countries. He cited the rapid response of medical teams to the recent earthquake devastation in Haiti, where Israel established a field hospital even before U.S. aid arrived.

He noted that Israel sent a 747 loaded with supplies even before it was known that the plane could land in Haiti.

Gil Lainer, Israel’s consul for public diplomacy in New York, sees signs of hope on Mideast peace. Charles Zusman

Lainer quoted from Monday’s speech by Israeli President Shimon Peres at the U.N. Millenium Development Goals Summit, where Peres noted the progress Israel has made in development, particularly in food production.

Five decades ago an Israeli farmer produced food for 15 people, but today produces enough for 120, Peres said. Peres’s message was that education and diligence lead to growth and peace, and this can work for countries around the world.

“We have so much to offer the world in so many areas,” Lainer said. Israel has been helping those in developing countries, notably Africa, for more than 50 years, he noted. Its experts have been training others, both as visitors to Israel and in their own countries, in fields such as medicine, education, agriculture, and fishery.

“We have been dealing with tikkun olam as a country for decades,” he said. But, he said, while not out to score points, Israel does not get the credit for its good works.

“We don’t ask anything in return,” he said. “We do what we do because it’s our role to give to the world, as Jews, as Israelis.”

Turning to the Palestinian issue, he cited statistics showing 9 percent GDP growth for the first half of 2010 in the west bank, where trade is blossoming and infrastructure projects are steaming ahead. While budget problems remain in the west bank, the Arab countries have not done their fair share to help out, he said.

The “numbers are amazing,” Lainer said, noting the statistics come from international, not Israeli, sources. He said they show increasing trade with Israel for the last four years, growth in tourism, and less unemployment.

“On the ground you can see the improvement, but we don’t get the international recognition I think we should get for that,” he said.

While Gaza is more problematic, being under the control of Hamas, the region still has had a 16 percent GDP growth for the period.

Concerning Gaza, he said the policy remains one of containment, but there is a much freer flow of goods into the area than before. While in the past there was a list of only what could go through, now the much shorter list just says what can’t, notably weapons.

Even cars are now legally imported, where before they were smuggled in, he said. This is hurting Hamas, which used to profit from the illegal trade, Lainer said.

On the peace talks, “there are serious people on both sides,” but serious compromises must be made. “The process has started again, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

He pointed to reports that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, had dined at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu’s house. “When you read more about what they ate than what they talked about, that’s a good sign,” he said.

He acknowledged that easing travel has brought more terror attacks, but also said that the security barrier is working and better training and enforcement by Palestinian police are having their effect.

Key, he said, is the realization by the Palestinians that peace is the only viable way forward. Palestinian Authority President Abbas is a hard-liner, but he is making a genuine effort toward peace, Lainer said.

On the negative side, the fate of Gilad Shalit, the Israel soldier captured by Hamas in 2006, is still unknown, and rocket attacks from Gaza have not stopped. “I haven’t seen any international condemnation of this,” he said.

Iran remains a threat, not only to Israel, but to the region and the world, he said. “We should not take our eyes off the ball,” he said. “A nuclear Iran is a threat to everyone.”

Israel would like to see stronger sanctions against Iran and condemnation from the world community, he said. Iran is keeping the pressure on Israel through its proxies in Syria and Lebanon, he said. “It’s a challenge to break that link,” he said.

In response to a question, Lainer critcized Russia’s decision to sell cruise missiles to Syria, particularly since Russia has been playing a role in the Mideast peace process. “This is a serious development we’re very unhappy about,” he said.

Concerning Shalit, Lainer said his fate remains a painful issue for Israel. He hoped further negotiations and progress on peace in general would lead to a resolution.

Asked about the U.S. sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, Lainer said Arab fears in the Mideast were focused on Iran, not Israel.

Lainer concluded his talk, which stretched for more than an hour, with a plea for help on the public relations front.

“We rely on you to get the word out” on the positive role Israel plays in the world, he said.

That message was seconded by Rabbi Neal Borovitz, JCRC chairman. “Our job is to get the message out,” he said. “Fighting for the hearts and minds of the public is our responsibility.”


The religious-industrial complex


Israeli women’s rights pioneer Marilyn Safir to speak in Tenafly

When Marilyn Safir arrived in Israel in 1968, she expected to find a society where women and men were “equally prominent.”

Instead, said the University of Haifa professor emerita, she quickly discovered that what she had read about Israel, and the situation she encountered, “did not seem to be the same.”

Safir, an early leader of Israel’s feminist movement and the founder of that nation’s first women’s studies program, will speak at Temple Sinai in Tenafly on Oct. 14.

The Brooklyn College graduate and former Syracuse University educator will discuss “Women in Israel — Is Equality a Myth?”

Safir, whose training is in experimental and clinical psychology, said she realized soon after coming to Israel that the idea of equality in kibbutzim was a “myth.”

Marilyn Safir has been called the mother of the Israeli women’s movement.

“The way work was divided was more stereotyped than in the city,” she said. “They had broken the typical family structure, but in the end made it more conservative. Women were primarily responsible for taking care of kids, while men took care of the productive end of the kibbutz.”

“People told me that 50 years earlier, men and women worked shoulder to shoulder, but women found it too hard and went back into the kitchen,” she said. Questioning that theory, she began doing research into the diaries of women who came to Israel at the turn of the century.

“It was quite clear that their concept of equality was different from that of women today,” she said. In the writers’ eyes, equality “allowed women to become more ‘male-like,’” with short hair and loose-fitting clothes. But men still controlled what was being done.

Still, she said, Israel is ahead of many countries in some areas, for example in paid maternity leave and the awarding of tenure in a way that recognizes women’s role in bearing and raising children.

She noted also that women hold primarily non-military roles in the Israel Defense Forces, which occasioned a split in the women’s movement.

“Some demanded that women get the kind of training that would allow them to become high officers,” she said. “Another group started protesting against war in general.”

Safir is the director of KIDMA: The Project for the Advancement of Women in Israel, established in 1984 and based at the University of Haifa. Initiated and led by women academics, KIDMA “aims to advance the status of women in Israel through creating programs to help women increase their positive involvement in Israeli society,” according to the group’s website.

The feminist pioneer noted that religion plays a “negative role” in the area of women’s rights in Israel, contending that there is no constitution because of a refusal to agree that women and men are equal before the law.

“Every now and then, someone says, ‘Let’s approve a constitution but leave that part out. We’ll work on that later.’” But once a constitution is drafted, “no one will work on it,” she said.

Safir said that while Israeli society is “caring, [with] much more interaction between families and helping one another,” there are still areas that need improvement.

For example, women still do not receive equal pay for equal work. In addition, while the Knesset now has more women than ever before, “women ministers are few and far between. Tzipi Livni is not getting the support she should because she is a woman,” Safir added.

She also suggested that in Israel, “if a woman can’t have a baby, she is made to feel useless,” pointing out that there are more fertility clinics in Israel per capita than in any other country.

The Haifa professor said it is important for liberal Jews, including Conservative and Reform Jews, to become more actively involved in Israel, “to follow what’s happening, come over, and have some input. They should become citizens and vote,” she said.

The Oct. 14 event is co-sponsored by the American Society of the University of Haifa, Temple Sinai of Bergen County’s Sisterhood and Renaissance Group, and the Jewish Women’s Connection of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. Pre-registration is required. Visit .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call (212) 685-7880, ext. 22.


American Jewish Committee’s Edward Rettig to explore Israeli, American Jewry

“What we have in the second half of the 20th century is the most revolutionary and unprecedented development in Jewish history,” said Edward Rettig, acting director of the Israel/Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee. “Until 1939,” Rettig continued, “80 percent of us were European; now it’s maybe 12 percent. We are the only ethnicity that has ever departed Europe to that degree — in the Holocaust and through emigration — going overwhelmingly to the U.S. and Israel.”

Rettig, who is writing a book about the history of cultural differences between American and Israeli Jews, will discuss “Israeli and American Jewry: Different people ... different cultures ... different threats?” Sunday, Oct. 17 at Temple Sinai of Bergen County on Engle Street in Tenafly. A bagel-and-lox breakfast at 9:30 will precede the 10 a.m. talk.

The American Jewish Committee’s Edward Rettig will speak in Tenafly about cultural differences between American and Israeli Jews.

The United States and Israel, home to 85 percent of the world Jewish population, “are radically different from everything that came before,” said Rettig, a U.S. native who immigrated to Israel in 1972 and served in the Yom Kippur and first Lebanon war. He holds a law degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a doctorate in modern Jewish history as well as rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College.

“Israel is a modern, Hebrew-speaking, independent state that represents national self-determination for the Jewish people, different than anything Jews had for 2,000 years,” he noted. “And America is radically different from any other country: It’s the only one in history whose culture is overwhelmingly a creation of radical Protestants.”

Whereas in the firmly individualistic American culture, Jewish identity is an identity of choice, “like the way you choose a spouse,” Israeli identity is more an identity of faith in the same way you don’t choose your parents, Rettig maintained.

“These are the two largest Jewish communities ever, and they constitute very different cultures that share common historical roots and a common future one way or another,” he said. “They can engage in dialogue to enhance both, or gradually drift apart — and that would be catastrophic because we need each other.”

Rettig sees American Jewry as a free marketplace of ideas encompassing a greater variety of Jewish ideas and practice across the denominations.

“Because American Jews are so creative and open to new ideas, they have to come up with answers to challenges they’re bombarded with in the realm of religion and values,” he continued. “It’s like a ship with a light anchor and large sail that can skip all over the bay, but how far will it go from shore? Israeli Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is like a ship with a heavy anchor and smaller sails that are not built to catch the wind.”

A meeting between the “boat designers,” Rettig said, “could be a fruitful thing.”

“You do have ‘pretend’ dialogues between groups of committed American and Israeli Jews who both want to promote Jewish identity, and then they have a group hug. But they haven’t actually agreed on anything because one is talking about something similar to choosing a spouse and the other is talking about something similar to how you honor and protect your parents. We’re not really having a dialogue. We need to talk for real, and promote programs that expose our problems.”

A good place to start would be in the educational system, he said. “On an intellectual level, there is not much relationship between contemporary Jewish thought coming out of America in Israeli culture, or the other way around. When we get these ideas floating around, the dialogue will be much more creative and important.”

Some of this already is happening in projects like Birthright, he acknowledged. Past participants “show significant differences in Jewish behaviors and affiliations after less than two weeks in Israel. Something grabs them and changes the wiring. They begin to appreciate some of the intense power of Israeli-style Jewish identity. And on the other hand, growing numbers of Israelis have gone to the States and have non-Orthodox Jewish experiences and come back with a sense that there’s another way to do this.”

Rettig explained that the AJC’s global Jewish advocacy covers four main components: interreligious dialogue; social justice in America; shaping contemporary Jewish life; and Jewish diplomacy aimed at protecting Jews and their interests worldwide. “In Jerusalem, what I do touches on all four of those goals,” he said.

He plans to encourage listeners to support programs such as the UJA’s Partnership 2000 as well as Birthright and adult education initiatives. “Go out and read,” he said. “Try to figure out how Israelis think differently. Look at the world from a very different but very Jewish standpoint and then you can have a true dialogue.”

Rettig’s talk is open to the public. For information or directions, call the AJC at (973) 379-7844 or Temple Sinai at (201) 568-3035.


Loathing the oath


Rabin remembered


Keep the Middle East Ping Pong match going

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