Briefs: U.S. House approves Iran divestment; Olmert real estate deals probed; Barghouti seen leading

House Votes to Sanction Iran

The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to toughen sanctions against Iran. The Iran Counter-Proliferation Act bans American firms from using foreign subsidiaries to bypass current sanctions against Iran’s energy sector; bans nuclear dealings with entities that trade with Iran’s nuclear sector, a measure that would cut off nuclear cooperation with Russia; bans free-trade agreements with countries investing in Iran; and tightens the president’s ability to waive the sanctions.

The 397-16 vote was well ahead of the 290 votes the House would need to override a presidential veto, but the bill’s companion in the Senate is stalled and likely won’t be considered this year. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee strongly praised the bill’s passage as a step toward discouraging Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons ambitions.

“To change Iran’s course, the United States and the international community must use every economic, diplomatic and political tool available,” AIPAC said in a statement. “U.S. sanctions have already helped to discourage investment in and banking cooperation with Iran, and further international action may be able to persuade the Iranian government to comply with its international obligations.” The bill was initiated by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), the Jewish chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Olmert Probed on Real Estate

Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz on Monday ordered an investigation into prime minister Ehud Olmert’s purchase of a house in Jerusalem after a state audit suggested the price was unreasonably low. That raised suspicion that Olmert was put in a position of returning favors to the property’s former owner. The Prime Minister’s Office called the probe “gratuitous.” Olmert, who is under investigation in two other affairs, has denied all wrongdoing. Many of the suspicions against him originate with State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, whom the prime minister has accused of conducting a witch hunt.

Clinton’s Jewish Donors Meet

The Clinton Jewish Leadership Finance Council launched two days of discussions in Washington on Tuesday. A minimum $10,000 contribution to JACPAC, a Jewish political action committee, was required to attend. Those who qualified discussed strategy, reaching unaffiliated Jewish voters and foreign policy. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential candidacy.

Barghouti Seen Leading Palestinians

Marwan Barghouti is the next leader of the Palestinian people, a senior Israeli official said. National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Tuesday that Israel, which jailed Barghouti, a charismatic Fatah lawmaker and terrorist, for life in 2003, should now consider freeing him as a means of offsetting the influence of Islamist Hamas.

“Anyone who has the safety of life in Israel in mind knows there is no alternative to releasing Marwan Barghouti because he is the strongest party on the Palestinian side,” Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio. “In my humble opinion, this man will be the next leader of the Palestinians. For us he is a murderer, but Arafat was no less a murderer than he, and yet Rabin extended his hand to him. We have to think differently and make an effort in this direction.”

Ben-Eliezer said any clemency for Barghouti should be conditioned on the release by Hamas of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage in the Gaza Strip since June 2006. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ruled out releasing Barghouti. But political sources recently revealed that Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, proposed letting the Fatah leader go in exchange for the United States granting an early release to jailed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Washington rebuffed that idea.

Israel to Fund Aliyah Groups

Nefesh B’Nefesh, the United States-based aliyah organization, and Ami, a French aliyah organization, will now receive about $1,000 per immigrant directly from Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya’acov Edri supported Sunday’s funding decision. The organizations, which previously received some funding through the Jewish Agency, are seeking to become wholly independent.

Non-Jews Can Lease JNF land

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) told Israel’s High Court on Monday it will lease land to non-Jews. The court delayed a ruling for three months on whether the JNF should be obligated to lease land to non-Jews in order to give the organization time to reach an agreement with state Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. In the meantime, the JNF and the Israel Lands Authority agreed to formalize an interim land-swap agreement wherein the JNF will be compensated with land from the ILA whenever the JNF leases land to non-Jews. This arrangement ensures that the amount of Jewish-owned land in Israel remains the same, a spokeswoman for JNF said. JNF owns 13 percent of Israel’s land, or about 650,000 acres, some in high population areas. The High Court case stems from a petition filed in 2004 by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. Adalah said it would appeal JNF’s about-face Monday and instead seek a precedent-setting ruling to cement the JNF’s obligation to lease land on a religion-blind basis.

Barenboim Named U.N. Peace Envoy

Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim joins a Jordanian princess, a Brazilian writer and a Japanese-American violinist as Messengers of Peace for the United Nations, a post in which he will promote peace around the world, The Associated Press reported. The foursome were to be honored Friday in a ceremony marking the International Day of Peace. A world-renowned conductor and pianist, Barenboim co-founded an orchestra bringing together young Israeli and Arab musicians. He recently initiated a music education project in the territories.

Report: Madonna Eyes Tel Aviv Apartment

Madonna, who spent Rosh Hashanah in Israel along with fellow kabbalah enthusiasts, has voiced interest in a luxury residential complex going up in northern Tel Aviv, Yediot Achronot reported Sunday. Prices for apartments there begin at $1 million. Other prospective clients include Steven Spielberg, the daily added. When Madonna was in Israel two years ago, local media reported that she might buy a house in Rosh Pina, a village near the mystical town of Safed.

YouTube Contest Aims to Boost Israel’s Image

The Israeli consulate in New York has launched a video competition on YouTube to boost Israel’s image. The best videos will be aired Oct. 11 at Madison Square Garden in New York, when Israel’s perennial basketball champion Maccabi Tel Aviv plays the New York Knicks. Fans will watch the clips on the arena’s giant screens and choose their favorite. The winner will win a round-trip ticket to or from New York and two tickets to a Knicks game. The game will help raise funds for Migdal Or, an organization that helps thousands of children from broken homes. To participate in the video competition, which ends Sept. 30, upload a 30-second clip to YouTube and send a link to David Saranga, the consulate’s media attache, initiated the project. “We chose YouTube as a platform because by doing it we also increase the amount of positive videos about Israel,” he said. “Today a search for the term ‘Israel’ yields many inciting clips.”