Clashes erupt in Egypt despite proposal to end crisis


Islamists fought protesters outside the Egyptian president's palace on Wednesday, while inside the building his deputy proposed a way to end a crisis over a draft constitution that has split the most populous Arab nation.

Stones and petrol bombs flew between opposition protesters and supporters of President Mohamed Morsi who had flocked to the palace in response to a call from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Two Islamists were hit in the legs by what their friends said were bullets fired during the clashes in streets around the compound in northern Cairo. One of them was bleeding heavily.

A leftist group said Islamists had cut off the ear of one of its members. Medical sources said 23 people had been wounded in clashes.

Riot police deployed between the two sides to try to stop the confrontations which flared after dark despite an attempt by Vice President Mahmoud Mekky to calm the political crisis.

He said amendments to disputed articles in the draft constitution could be agreed with the opposition. A written agreement could then be submitted to the next parliament, to be elected after a referendum on the constitution on December 15.

“There must be consensus,” he told a news conference, saying opposition demands had to be respected to reach a solution.

Facing the gravest crisis of his six-month-old tenure, Morsi has shown no sign of buckling, confident that Islamists can win the referendum and a parliamentary election to follow.

Many Egyptians yearn for an end to political upheaval that has scared off investors and tourists, damaging the economy.

Egypt's opposition coalition blamed Morsi for the violence around his palace and said it was ready for dialogue if the Islamist leader scrapped a decree he issued on November 22 that gave him wide powers and shielded his decisions from judicial review.

“We hold President Morsi and his government completely responsible for the violence happening in Egypt today,” opposition coordinator Mohamed ElBaradei told a news conference.

POLARIZATION

“We are ready for dialogue if the constitutional decree is cancelled … and the referendum on this constitution is postponed,” he said of the document written by an Islamist-led assembly that the opposition says ignores its concerns.

“Today what is happening in the Egyptian street, polarisation and division, is something that could and is actually drawing us to violence and could draw us to something worse,” the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog added.

Opposition leaders have previously urged Morsi to retract the November 22 decree, defer the referendum and agree to revise the constitution, but have not echoed calls from street protesters for his overthrow and the “downfall of the regime”.

Morsi has said his decree was needed to prevent courts still full of judges appointed by ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak from derailing a constitution vital for Egypt's political transition.

Rival groups skirmished outside the presidential palace earlier on Wednesday. Islamist supporters of Morsi tore down tents erected by leftist foes, who had begun a sit-in there.

“They hit us and destroyed our tents. Are you happy, Morsi? Aren't we Egyptians too?” asked protester Haitham Ahmed.

Mohamed Mohy, a pro-Morsi demonstrator who was filming the scene, said: “We are here to support our president and his decisions and save our country from traitors and agents.”

Mekky said street mobilization by both sides posed a “real danger” to Egypt. “If we do not put a stop to this phenomenon right away … where are we headed? We must calm down.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed into Egypt's political debate, saying dialogue was urgently needed on the new constitution, which should “respect the rights of all citizens”.

DIALOGUE

Clinton and Morsi worked together last month to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip.

“It needs to be a two-way dialogue … among Egyptians themselves about the constitutional process and the substance of the constitution,” Clinton told a news conference in Brussels.

Washington is worried about rising Islamist power in Egypt, a staunch U.S. security partner under Mubarak, who preserved the U.S.-brokered peace treaty Cairo signed with Israel in 1979.

The Muslim Brotherhood had summoned supporters to an open-ended demonstration at the presidential palace, a day after about 10,000 opposition protesters had encircled it for what organizers dubbed a “last warning” to Morsi.

“The people want the downfall of the regime,” they chanted, roaring the signature slogan of last year's anti-Mubarak revolt.

The “last warning” may turn out to be one of the last gasps for a disparate opposition that has little chance of scuttling next week's vote on the draft constitution.

State institutions, with the partial exception of the judiciary, have mostly fallen in behind Morsi.

The army, the muscle behind all previous Egyptian presidents in the republic's six-decade history, has gone back to barracks, having apparently lost its appetite to intervene in politics.

In a bold move, Morsi sacked Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the Mubarak-era army commander and defense minister, in August and removed the sweeping powers that the military council, which took over after Mubarak fell, had grabbed two months earlier.

The liberals, leftists, Christians, ex-Mubarak followers and others opposed to Morsi have yet to generate a mass movement or a grassroots political base to challenge the Brotherhood.

Investors have seized on hopes that Egypt's turbulent transition, which has buffeted the economy for two years, may soon head for calmer waters, sending stocks 1.6 percent higher after a 3.5 percent rally on Tuesday.

Egypt has turned to the IMF for a $4.8 billion loan after the depletion of its foreign currency reserves. The government said on Wednesday the process was on track and its request would go to the IMF board as expected.

The board is due to review the facility on December 19.

Elijah Zarwan, a fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that if Egypt was to find a compromise solution to its crisis, it would not be through slogans and blows.

“It will be through quiet negotiation, not through duelling press conferences, street brawls, or civil strife.”

Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Tamim Elyan and Edmund Blair; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Andrew Roche

Morsi removed Israel-friendly references from speech


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi removed from his prepared speech to the United Nations two positive references to peace with Israel.

Morsi's remarks, as prepared for delivery and distributed by the Egyptian mission to the United Nations on Sept. 26, included an endorsement of the Saudi-initiated Arab plan, which would exchange pan-Arab recognition of Israel for Israel's return to the 1967 lines and a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.

It also included a recommitment to Egypt's prior international agreements, which include the 1979 peace accords with Israel.

Morsi removed these two elements in his spoken remarks, instead endorsing Palestinian statehood without noting whether his vision would accommodate Israel.

The discrepancy emerged in a JTA analysis this week; Morsi's speech, delivered on Yom Kippur, had not drawn much Jewish attention.

Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who assumed the presidency in June, has made a point of not mentioning Israel in his public pronouncements.

He drew Jewish criticism in mid-October for appearing to say “amen” while nodding when an Imam pleaded to God to “deal harshly” with the Jews.

Paraguayan Jewish soccer boss suspended for racial slurs against Arabs


Paraguay’s soccer association has suspended the Jewish president of a team for hurling racial slurs at a colleague of Arab descent.

During a match last month, the president of Asuncion’s Olimpia soccer team, Marcelo Recanate, accosted Juan José Zapag, the president of a rival team.

Recanate will be suspended for four months and suffer a 60-month reduction in pay, Dr. Raul Prono of the ethics committee of the Association of Football in Paraguay said on Thursday.

In a recording of the incident, Recanate is heard repeatedly cursing Zapag “and all of his countrymen.”

Recanate has apologized for the insults in a press conference, which he convened shortly after the incident.

“I want to offer my apologies to the father of my fathers all the way to Abraham, and the patrimony of the Jewish and Arab people. There can be no place for racism against my brothers,” he said at the press conference.

Olimpia has won 39 national titles, more than any other team in Paraguay.

Israeli teen to serve 8 years in prison for killing Arab


Israeli teen was sentenced to prison for killing an Arab man in Jerusalem.

The killer, 17, was sentenced Thursday to eight years by the Jerusalem District Court as part of a plea bargain.

In all, three teens were accused of attacking two Arab men in the city center in February 2011. The youths reportedly had been drinking.

Hussam Hasan, 24, was killed after being stabbed multiple times with a razor blade; the Jewish youths shouted “Death to Arabs” during the attack. A friend of Rawidi’s escaped from the attackers and called police.

The killer turned himself in to police three days later at a West Bank checkpoint. His friends had been arrested at the scene.

Latin American Jewish, Arab leaders reiterate peace hopes


Representatives of Latin America’s Jewish communities at a summit with Arab community leaders reiterated the Diaspora’s commitment to peace in the Middle East.

The summit was held Wednesday at the Brazilian Foreign Ministry in Buenos Aires.

“In Latin America, Arabs and Jews coexist side by side, harmoniously,” said Jack Terpins, president of the Latin American Jewish Congress, a summit participant. “We can bring our testimony in order to built a sustainable peace.”

Terpins participated in the panel “Side by Side: The Diaspora’s Role in the Middle East Peace Process” along with Brazil’s foreign minister, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota; Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the Syrian-born founder of the Forum of Arab Thinking; Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese writer and member of the French Academy since 2011; and Israeli journalist Henrique Cymerman.

Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, who also participated in the panel, told JTA that “Instead of importing the Middle East conflict to our region, Arabs and Jews must export from here the idea of the coexistence. Argentina is a clear example of that.”

Earlier this year, the presidents of the World Jewish Congress and Latin American Jewish Congress met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to express hope for progress in Middle East peace talks.

“Jewish and Palestinian Diaspora communities have a role to play in fostering better understanding,” WJC President Ronald Lauder told Abbas during a January meeting in London.

UN chief to Syria’s Assad: World is waiting for you to implement peace plan


Arab leaders dropped a demand that Bashar Assad give up the presidency of Syria but urged him to act quickly on a U.N.-backed peace plan he has accepted as fighting between Syrian troops and rebels killed at least 22 people on Thursday.

“The solution for the crisis is still in the hands of the Syrians as a government and opposition,” Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told Arab heads of state at a summit meeting in Baghdad.

Syria’s opposition groups continue to demand that Assad must go and have not agreed to peace talks.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon kept up pressure on Assad, saying he must turn his acceptance of the six-point peace plan into action, to shift his country off a “dangerous trajectory” with risks for the entire region.

“It is essential that President Assad put those commitments into immediate effect. The world is waiting for commitments to be translated into action. The key here is implementation, there is no time to waste,” Ban told the Arab League Summit.

In Istanbul, Syrian opposition representatives met to try to settle deep internal disputes before the arrival of Western foreign ministers for a “Friends of Syria” conference on Sunday to map out where the year-old uprising is heading.

The chances of Western powers deciding to arm the insurgents at this point appeared to be very remote.

BATTLES AND AMBUSHES

Reports from the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence, said at least 16 people and six government soldiers were killed across the country – in army raids on villages, in a rebel ambush and in clashes.

The state news agency SANA said two colonels were assassinated in a morning attack in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, while on their way to work. It said gunmen kidnapped Air Force General Mohammad Amr al Darbas in Damascus province.

The United Nations says Assad’s forces have killed 9,000 people. Damascus blames foreign-backed “terrorists” for the violence and says 3,000 soldiers and police have been killed.

Western powers have expressed skepticism about Assad’s acceptance of the peace plan. Russia has urged Western-backed opposition groups to match Damascus and endorse the proposals of Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general who is now special Syria envoy for the U.N. and the Arab League.

Syria’s big-power backers, Russia and China, have turned up the heat on Assad by endorsing the Annan plan, with the unspoken implication that if he fails to act on it, they may be prepared to back action by the U.N. Security Council.

ARAB VIEWS DIFFER

Sunni Muslim powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar have led the campaign to isolate Syria, suggesting arming Syria’s mainly Sunni opposition.

Arab states outside the Gulf, such as Algeria and Shi’ite Muslim-led Iraq, urge more caution, fearing that toppling Assad – a member of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, a branch of Shi’ite Islam – could spark sectarian violence.

Annan’s six-point plan calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centers, humanitarian assistance, the release of prisoners and free movement and access for journalists.

Diplomats say one of his ideas is for a U.N. observer mission to monitor any eventual ceasefire, a mechanism likely to require a U.N. Security Council mandate. An Arab League monitoring mission late last year failed to make any difference to the crisis.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed for Saudi Arabia and later Turkey to consult Gulf states and promote unity in Syrian opposition ranks, but there was no sign that President Barack Obama was about to drop his hands-off approach.

Unless opposition splits are healed, there is little chance that Assad’s opponents can oust him without a military intervention the West clearly does not want, and some analysts are saying it is time to force the opposition to talk to Assad.

The Obama administration’s approach to the crisis will continue to be “wary and slow-moving”, said Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution.

“If Assad has reached a turning point and really made headway against insurgents, I believe there is a good chance he will ‘win’ without too much American pushback,” O’Hanlon said.

Global March to Jerusalem could bring thousands of Arabs to Israel’s borders


If pro-Palestinian calls for a so-called Global March to Jerusalem are heeded, thousands of Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria could converge on Israel’s borders.

The day, March 30, marks Land Day, which commemorates the deaths of six Arab Israelis killed in 1976 during protests against Israeli government land policies that confiscated privately owned Arab land.

While last year’s Land Day commemorations were held without incident, rallies two months later to mark the anniversary of what the Palestinians call the Nakba—the “catastrophe” of Israel’s founding in 1948—brought thousands of Arabs from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza to march on Israel’s borders, and 13 marchers were killed.

A month later, on June 5, hundreds of Syrian protesters stormed the border with Israel on Naksa Day, the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, and there were more casualties.

“The IDF is prepared for any eventuality and will do whatever is necessary to protect Israeli borders and residents,” the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesman told JTA this week when asked how the IDF is preparing for Land Day.

Citing senior defense officials, Haaretz reported that the IDF is prepared for “relatively serious events.” The Israeli daily added that the most current intelligence assessments believe that the demonstrations Friday will be “limited.”

Preparations for Land Day security have used last year’s Nakba and Naksa day rallies as models, according to reports. Security forces have updated their knowledge of non-lethal crowd dispersal methods, while border troops have gone on higher alert and additional IDF troops have been moved to the borders.

Israeli officials reportedly were most concerned about the Lebanese border and asked the Lebanese government to rein in protesters. The main Lebanese demonstration is planned for the Beaufort Castle, which is several miles north of the Israeli city of Metullah, rather than the border with Israel, the Lebanese branch of the Global March to Jerusalem announced last week. The number of demonstrators at Beaufort will be limited to 5,000, according to the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper, citing organizers of the march.

March general coordinator Ribhi Halloum told reporters earlier in the week that the march would be peaceful.

“The aim of the Al Quds march is to express a message of protest and condemnation against the policy of Israeli occupation in the occupied Palestinian territories,” he said, using the Arabic name for Jerusalem. “We will under no circumstances agree to violence or a violation of the borders. We will maintain the policy of nonviolent protest we have agreed to uphold.”

Land Day events also will be held inside Israel’s borders under the auspices of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee with the banner “Save the lands and prevent the Judaization of Jerusalem.”

Israeli police have been cautioned to keep out of Arab villages in Israel in order to maintain calm.

Meanwhile, jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in five murders during the second intifada, called on Palestinians to launch a popular resistance campaign against Israel. His statement, issued in advance of Land Day, called on the Palestinian Authority to stop all coordination with Israel in the economic and security realms and to stop peace negotiations.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority currently are not engaged in negotiations.

‘Friends of Syria’ to demand ceasefire


Western and Arab nations will demand that Syrian forces implement an immediate ceasefire to allow relief supplies to reach desperate civilians in bombarded cities such as Homs when they meet in Tunis on Friday.

Piling pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, U.N. investigators accused his security apparatus of crimes against humanity as world outrage mounted over violence that has cost thousands of lives during an almost year-long popular revolt against his 11-year rule.

The Syrian uprising will only intensify, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a London conference. “There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures,” she told reporters.

The “Friends of Syria” meeting, that Clinton will attend, will call on Syrian forces to stop firing to give international aid groups access to areas worst hit by the violence which are running out of medicine and food, according to a draft declaration obtained by Reuters.

The draft also “recognized the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change,” a phrase which appeared to fall short of full endorsement of the most prominent group opposed to Assad.

About 70 nations, including the United States, Turkey, and European and Arab countries that want Assad to step down, will take part in the talks, but Russia and China, which have jointly vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria, say they will stay away.

U.S. officials avoided answering questions on whether the group may discuss the possibility of arming the opposition, something that some nations favor and that the United States, in a change in emphasis, on Tuesday suggested could become an alternative.

The Syrian National Council is allied with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up mostly of army deserters fighting security forces that have sought to crush protests against Assad, whose minority Alawite sect dominates Sunni-majority Syria.

Syrian security forces lined up and shot dead 13 men and boys from one extended family, which has the same name as the FSA’s commander Riad al-Asaad, in the village of Kfartoun in Hama province on Thursday, activists in Hama city said.

It was not immediately clear if the victims were related to Asaad, who is based in Turkey and comes from the northwestern province of Idlib.

Activists said three people were also killed in shelling of the nearby village of Soubin. The bodies of five Syrian workers who disappeared two days ago after crossing from Lebanon on their way to Hama were found on Thursday, they said. Two people were killed by troops at a checkpoint inside the city.

CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY

Such accounts are hard to verify due to Syrian government restrictions on independent journalists.

U.N. investigators said Syrian forces had shot and killed unarmed women and children, shelled residential areas and tortured wounded protesters in hospital under orders issued at the “highest levels” of the army and government.

In their report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, they called for perpetrators of such crimes against humanity to face prosecution and said they had drawn up a confidential list of names of commanders and officials alleged to be responsible.

The commission found that Free Syrian Army rebels had also committed abuses “although not comparable in scale.”

Syrian authorities have not commented, but they rejected the commission’s previous report in November as “totally false.”

Rockets, shells and mortar rounds rained on the Baba Amro district, where armed insurgents are holed up with terrified civilians, for the 20th day in a row, activists said. The Sunni Muslim quarters of Inshaat and Khalidiya also came under fire.

Homs-based activist Abu Imad said tanks had entered the Jobar area in the south of Baba Amro.

“Explosions are shaking the whole of Homs. God have mercy,” Abdallah al-Hadi said from the city, where more than 80 people, including two Western journalists and Syrian opposition citizen journalist Rami al-Sayed, were reported killed on Wednesday.

Western diplomats said it had not yet been possible to extract the bodies of Marie Colvin, an American working for Britain’s Sunday Times, and French photographer Remi Ochlik.

Two journalists wounded in the same attack – British photographer Paul Conroy and French reporter Edith Bouvier, along with French photographer William Daniels, who was unhurt – were also awaiting evacuation from the Baba Amro neighborhood.

Bouvier, in a YouTube clip posted by activists, said she urgently needed an operation on a broken leg and appealed for a ceasefire and medical transport to neighboring Lebanon.

The Syrian Information Ministry rejected accusations that Syria was responsible for the deaths of journalists, who “infiltrated into the country on their own responsibility.”

HUMANITARIAN ACCESS

The army is blocking medical supplies to parts of Homs and electricity is cut off 15 hours a day, activists say.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying to arrange daily two-hour ceasefires, so far without success.

To further isolate Assad’s government, the European Union will impose more sanctions on Syria next week.

The bloody siege of parts of Homs has aroused widespread international indignation, but the world has so far proved powerless to alleviate the predicament of civilians there.

Footage shot by activists in Homs shows blasted buildings, empty streets and doctors treating casualties in makeshift clinics in Baba Amro after nearly three weeks of bombardment.

Several hundred people have been killed in Homs by troops using artillery, tanks, rockets and sniper fire.

Residents fear Assad will subject the city to the same fate his late father Hafez inflicted on Hama, where many thousands were killed in the crushing of an armed Islamist revolt in 1982.

The state news agency SANA said three members of the security forces were killed and seven wounded by a bomb planted by “armed terrorists” near the city of Idlib. It also reported the funerals of 16 security force members killed by rebels.

Assad has called a referendum on a new constitution on Sunday, to be followed by a multi-party parliamentary election, which he says is a response to calls for reform. The plan is supported by his allies Russia and China but Western powers have dismissed it and the Syrian opposition has called for a boycott.


Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Erika Solomon and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Arshad Mohammed in London and Don Durfee and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Sophie Hares

Iran warns region against ‘dangerous’ stance on Hormuz


Iran’s foreign minister warned Arab neighbors on Thursday not to put themselves in a “dangerous position” by aligning themselves too closely with the United States in the escalating dispute over Tehran’s nuclear activity.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, used for a third of the world’s seaborne oil trade, if pending Western moves to ban Iranian crude exports cripple its lifeblood energy sector, fanning fears of a slide into wider Middle East war.

European Union foreign ministers are expected at a meeting on Monday to agree an oil embargo against Iran and a freeze on the assets of its central bank, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said, confirming diplomatic leaks.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s No. 1 oil exporter, riled Iran earlier this week when it said it could swiftly raise oil output for key customers if needed, a scenario that could transpire if Iranian exports were embargoed.

“We want peace and tranquility in the region. But some of the countries in our region, they want to direct other countries 12,000 miles away from this region,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in English during a visit to Turkey.

The remark was an apparent reference to the alliance of Iran’s Arab neighbors with Washington, which maintains a big naval force in the Gulf and says it will keep the waterway open.

“I am calling to all countries in the region, please don’t let yourselves be dragged into a dangerous position,” Salehi told Turkey’s NTV broadcaster.

He added the United States should make clear that it was open for negotiations with Tehran without conditions. He referred to a letter Iran says it received from U.S. President Barack Obama about the situation in the Straight of Hormuz, the contents of which have not been made public.

“Mr Obama sent a letter to Iranian officials, but America has to make clear that it has good intentions and should express that it’s ready for talks without conditions,” he said.

“Out in the open they show their muscles but behind the curtains they plead to us to sit down and talk. America has to pursue a safe and honest strategy so we can get the notion that America this time is serious and ready.”

The United States, like other Western countries, says it is prepared to talk to Iran but only if Tehran agrees to discuss halting its enrichment of uranium. Western officials say Iran has been asking for talks “without conditions” as a stalling tactic while refusing to put its nuclear program on the table.

IAEA CHIEF SAYS MUST ALERT WORLD ABOUT IRAN

The International Atomic Energy Agency chief said it was his duty to alert the world about possible military aspects to Iran’s nuclear campaign, keeping the heat on Tehran ahead of a rare visit by senior IAEA officials for talks on January 29-31.

“What we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons,” he was quoted as saying in comments published in the Financial Times Deutschland on Thursday. “We want to check over everything that could have a military dimension.”

An IAEA delegation, to be headed by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts, is expected to seek explanations for intelligence information indicating Iran has engaged in research and development applicable to nuclear weapons.

Tehran denies wanting bombs, saying it is refining uranium only for electricity generation and medical applications.

Salehi said on Wednesday that Iran, the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter, was in touch with world powers to reopen talks that he expected to be held soon.

Washington and the EU quickly denied this, saying they are still waiting for Iran to show it wanted serious negotiations addressing fears that it trying to master ways to build atom bombs behind the facade of a civilian nuclear energy program.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said after meeting Salehi that all sides were willing to resume talks but the time and place need to be settled. “I will tell Ms. Ashton about the talks today,” he told reporters, referring to the EU foreign policy chief who represents the powers on Iran.

“We have always said we are ready for dialogue,” France’s Juppe told reporters in Paris. “Ashton has made concrete offers, but sadly until today Iran has not committed transparently or cooperatively to this discussion process.”

He added: “It’s for this reason that to avoid an irreparable military option we have to strengthen sanctions.”

Iran has wanted to discuss only broader international security issues, not its nuclear program, in meetings with the powers held sporadically over the past five years.

“RED LINE”

Iranian politicians said Obama had expressed readiness to negotiate in a letter to Iran’s clerical supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“In this letter it was said that closing the Strait of Hormuz is our (U.S.) ‘red line’ and also asked for direct negotiations,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted lawmaker Ali Mottahari as saying.

Washington declined to comment on whether Obama had written to Khamenei.

The stage was set for international oil sanctions against Iran when Obama signed legislation on December 31 that would freeze out any institution dealing with Iran’s central bank, making it impossible for most countries to buy Iranian crude.

Diplomats said the EU’s 27 member states were still mulling details such as when an embargo would start. They were looking into a grace period that would end in July to help some debt-ridden EU states that rely on Iranian oil to adjust to a ban.

“On the central bank, things have been moving in the right direction…,” an EU diplomat said. “There is now wide agreement on the principle. Discussions continue on the details.”

CHINA DEFENDS OIL TRADE WITH IRAN

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao defended his country’s extensive oil trade with Iran against Western sanctions pressure in comments published on Thursday. Nevertheless, he said, Beijing firmly opposes any Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons.

The last talks between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – along with Germany stalled in Istanbul a year ago, with the parties unable to agree even on an agenda.

The six have also failed to agree on a common line in their approach to Iran, a lack of unity that led to a watering down of four earlier rounds of U.N. sanctions adopted since 2006.

An IAEA report in November lent weight to concerns that Iran has worked on designing a nuclear weapon, and Tehran is shifting enrichment to an underground bunker in a mountain fortified against air attack.

Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal but sees Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a mortal threat, and the United States have not ruled out military action as a last resort to prevent an atomic “breakout” by Tehran.

However, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday that any decision about an Israeli assault on Iran was “very far off.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the last-ditch military option mooted by U.S. and Israeli leaders would ignite a disastrous, widespread Middle East war. Russia also opposes the new push for oil sanctions, calling it counterproductive.

Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Phil Stewart in Washington, Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Peter Graff

Hamas reportedly leaving Damascus


Hamas is reportedly thinning its ranks in Damascus as pan-Arab pressure builds on the Syrian regime.

Diplomats said this week that the Palestinian Islamist group, which has long had its headquarters in the Syrian capital, has been quietly relocating staff to Gaza following the Arab League decision to suspend Syria over its bloody crackdown on anti-regime protestors, according to news reports.

A Hamas spokesperson denied the report, according to the Jerusalem Post.

According to the diplomats, Hamas has been leaving quietly to avoid Syrian state scrutiny as well all that of Iran, an ally of Damascus and a financial backer of Palestinian terrorist groups. Another Islamist militia supported by Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has emphasized that its alliance remains sound.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah lauded Syria as a “resistance regime” during a surprise appearance Tuesday before ecstatic crowds of Shi’ite supporters in Beirut. Nasrallah has kept largely out of view since the 2006 war with Israel.

“Every day we are growing in number, our training is getting better, we are becoming more confident and our weapons are increasing,” he said.

Arabs, Israel to attend nuclear talks, Iran uncertain


Arab states and Israel plan to attend a rare round of talks next week on efforts to free the world of nuclear weapons but Iran has yet to say whether it will take part, diplomats said on Wednesday.

The November 21-22 forum, hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, is seen as a symbolically significant bid to bring regional foes together at the same venue, even though no concrete outcome is expected.

If conducted smoothly with relatively toned-down rhetoric on all sides, it could send a positive signal ahead of a planned international conference next year on ridding the Middle East of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

“It is a good opportunity for everybody to sit and talk but

I don’t think it is going to achieve a tangible result,” a Western diplomat said.

An Arab ambassador said he and others would probably mention Israel’s assumed nuclear arsenal in their statements, but would not include anything “that would create polarization” in the meeting room.

“We expect to pinpoint the issues that could be an obstacle or impediment to establishing a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East and possibly how to deal with them,” the envoy said.

“Everybody knows that the Israeli nuclear capabilities are a big obstacle in this endeavor,” the Arab diplomat said.

Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, and faces frequent Arab and Iranian condemnation.

Israel and the United States regard Iran as the region’s main nuclear threat, accusing Tehran of trying to develop an atomic bomb in secret. An IAEA report last week added weight to those allegations, which Iran denies.

Next week’s discussions, convened by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, will focus on the experiences of regions which have set up Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones (NWFZ), including Africa and Latin America.

IAEA member states decided in 2000 to hold the meeting but it has taken this long for the parties involved to agree on the agenda and other issues.

All 151 IAEA member countries have been invited to the forum, to be chaired by senior Norwegian diplomat Jan Petersen, but dialogue and debate among Middle East envoys will take center stage.

“I think there is a genuine will to make this a positive experience,” Petersen told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m encouraged about what I heard during the consultations.”

NUCLEAR MEETING IN FINLAND

Diplomats said Israel and Arab states had accepted the invitation but that there had as yet been no word from Iran, which in September said it saw no justification for such a meeting now and took a swipe at arch-enemy Israel.

Israel, the only Middle East country outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons under a policy of ambiguity to deter numerically superior foes.

It says it would only join the treaty if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace with its longtime Arab and Iranian adversaries. Israel would have to renounce nuclear weaponry if it signed the 1970 agreement.

Last month, the United Nations said Finland agreed to host a potentially divisive international meeting in 2012 to discuss ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

The idea for that conference came from Egypt, which pushed for a meeting with all states in the Middle East to negotiate a treaty that would establish a nuclear arms-free zone.

Washington’s commitment will be key to the success or failure of next year’s talks, Western diplomats have said, as it is the only state that can persuade Israel to attend.

“If successful, it (next week’s forum) may be a building block toward 2012,” Petersen said.

The Arab ambassador and others said setting up this kind of zone in the Middle East would not happen soon.

“It is very distant. It is a very complicated issue. There is a lot of mistrust among the parties,” the envoy said.

Editing by Andrew Roche

Arab League to ask U.N. for Palestinian state


The Arab League will ask the United Nations to grant full member status to the Palestinian Authority.

The organization will seek the upgrade to full member nation, which includes recognition of a state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital, at the General Assembly meeting in September, Reuters reported, citing a draft statement from an Arab League meeting in Doha, Qatar on Thursday.

The League must submit an official request, which it announced that it would do.

The U.N. Security Council will debate at the end of July the prospect of Palestine becoming a member state of the United Nations, during the Security Council’s open debate on the Middle East.

Street smarts


An organization of which I think very highly e-mailed a poorly worded headline this week.

“Arab Mobs Attack Israel on All Fronts,” screamed the subject line of a May 15 e-mail alert from The Israel Project.

The attached story reported how “tens of thousands of Arab protesters marking Palestinian Nakba Day (the day of the catastrophe) have marched on Israel, from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.”

The story neglected to mention that Israeli police and soldiers opened fire on the protesters, killing at least 12. Some of the protesters had stones and slingshots; most were unarmed.

The Israel Project does a good job providing fair context of the Middle East crisis to international (including Arab) journalists. In this case, it stumbled, assuming that the words “Arab Mobs” would automatically sway journalists to the Israeli point of view.

The reality that The Israel Project, Israel’s supporters and Israel had better get used to is this: the Arab mob has been rebranded.  What used to conjure up images of bearded, flag-burning, hate-filled and violent men now connotes something much different: brave men, women and children, standing shoulder to shoulder as they face down tanks, secret police, snipers and thugs of autocratic regimes. The Arab spring has redefined the Arab mob.

The same goes for what used to be the central address of the Arab mob, the Arab street.

For decades, the West viewed the Arab street as a roiling, bloodthirsty thoroughfare. The Arab street! Run for your lives!  Whereas in English the idea of “Main Street” or “the man on the street” conjures up homey, Rockwellian charm and common sense, “the Arab street” only appears paired with words like “angry” and “erupts.”

This year, that all changed, beginning in Tunisia, where the Arab street overthrew a corrupt government, then in Egypt, where unarmed Arab mobs clashed with government thugs, then in Bahrain,  Libya and Syria, where the sustained bravery of the Arab street is threatening one of the world’s most corrupt and backward regimes.

“The mob characterization of the ‘Arab street’ especially evident in Western usage, simply does not fit the current uprisings in the Arab world,” professors Terry Regier and Muhammad Ali Khalidi wrote in The Middle East Journal. “Demonstrations have been largely peaceful, disciplined, organized — and in Tunisia and Egypt, ultimately successful. Those violent confrontations that have occurred appear to have been instigated by the regimes rather than by protesters.”

Through blood and sacrifice, these protesters have convinced the world that what they really want is what we all want: economic opportunity, free speech, honest government. In other words, the Arab spring has planted in the Western mind the radical thought that Arabs are people, too.

None of this is to say the revolutions won’t backslide into more oppression, religious fundamentalism or chaos. Those are worries, but not givens. Much depends on the internal dynamics of fragile societies ground down by decades of (often American-supported) despots. I am hopeful we have a president who understands that a historic opportunity has occurred on his watch, and history is watching for his response. If President Obama doubts that, he can read the glowing historical accounts of the George H.W. Bush presidency, due to Bush’s handling of the fall of the Soviet Union.

As for Israel, it, too, faces historic choices. Simply put, it is no longer open season on the “Arab mob.” Whether the circumstances are different, similar or the same, the world looks at those Arabs commemorating the Nakba differently now, and answering them with gunfire, as a Mubarak would, as an Assad would, is a tragic mistake.

In the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla shootings almost a year ago, in which nine people were killed aboard the MV Mavi Marmara, many Monday morning quarterbacks suggested ways in which Israel could have dealt peacefully with the flotilla campaign. One I especially liked was to send a “peace” flotilla of private Israeli sailboats out to block the “Freedom Flotilla.”  Good press for Israel, no shots fired.

I know ideas like these come easier in hindsight, but Israel must strive to pre-think how it will deal with what The Economist reported as an awakening of nonviolent Palestinian protest, Facebook-organized mobs, and what is looking like a steady march toward Palestinian statehood.

Israel must think and act fast to stay on the right side of history, because it is on the right side of history. The members of the Boycott, Sanction and Divest (BDS) movement who relentlessly target and defame Israel, as they have again this month at UC Irvine, should be ashamed that they utter not a peep as Arab regimes have killed, beaten, tortured and imprisoned thousands of Arabs and dozens of journalists over the past year.

Israel, a country that prides itself on innovation, needs to innovate nonviolent actions that meet, address and defuse the issues these protesters raise. The country that perfected preemptive warfare cannot indulge in reflexive violence. Next year, the marchers at the northern border should be met with a giant stage and a “Concert for Free Syria” featuring top entertainers, blasting out across the hilltops.

Of course, all this works when Israelis and the world are convinced Israel’s leaders are doing all they can to address not the past, but the future. Israel needs a new strategy to face its own Arab street, because, nowadays, “the Arab street” is the road to a better future.

With border breaches, has the Arab Spring reached Israel?


If a single phrase could capture the sentiment that motivated thousands of Arabs to try to cross Israel’s borders on Sunday to “retake Palestine” from the Jews, it would be this: Yes, we can.

That can-do attitude had toppled regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, and threatened dictators from Tripoli to Damascus. So why not apply it toward Israel? If Arab leaders weren’t willing to send their armies to storm the Zionist state, the Arab protesters figured, well then, they’d just do it themselves.

The charge toward Israel’s borders from Arabs in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank led to the most violent day in Israel in months, with about a dozen protesters reportedly killed by Israeli fire—some on foreign soil—and a suspected terrorist attack in Tel Aviv that left one Israeli civilian dead.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late Sunday that Israel would do what it needed to defend itself.

“Let nobody be mistaken, we are determined to defend our borders and sovereignty,” he said.

Coming on Nakba day – the annual date Arabs mark the “catastrophe” of Israel’s birth on May 15, 1948 – the protests signaled that the Arab Spring, which until now has spared Israel, may be arriving at the borders of the Jewish state. Among Palestinians, calls for a third Palestinian intifada are rising – at least on Facebook.

“The whole Arab world is roiling around the Nakba,” Professor Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies, told JTA. “Add to that that youngsters think they can make a difference. They decided that instead of just shouting and demonstrating, they’d go across the border.”

For Israel, the breach of the Syria-Israel border came as something of a surprise. It marked the first major violence along the border since the May 1974 disengagement agreement that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

In the Golan Heights, hundreds of Arabs from Syria reported to be Palestinians surged through a part of the border known as the Shouting Hill, so named because Druze relatives on opposite sides of the boundary use it to shout to each other by bullhorn. The few Israeli troops stationed in the area tried to keep the marchers at bay. Shots were fired; as many as four people were reported killed.

As scores surged across the border and into the Druze town of Majdal Shams—near one of the only parts of the border not covered by mines because it occasionally serves as an international crossing point—the Israel Defense Forces dispatched reinforcements and set up checkpoints around the town to catch infiltrators. The infiltrators who were caught were sent back to Syria.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops stationed along the international boundary with Lebanon used live fire to keep back thousands of protesters from Lebanon. At least 10 people were reported killed, some by Lebanese army fire, according to the IDF.

In Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinian demonstrators attacked Israeli checkpoints, and Israeli soldiers responded mostly with tear gas. Demonstrators in Egypt and Jordan also sought to force their way into Israel, but they were held back by local troops.

Eli Malka, head of the Golan Regional Council, called on residents of northern Israel to prepare to take up arms to defend the homeland, warning on Israel Radio: “Sixty-three years on, the War of Independence of the State of Israel is not over.”

Malka described the border breaches as a new form of warfare against Israel: by citizens from neighboring states intent on retaking “Palestine” with their own hands.

On Monday, the Israeli airwaves were rife with talk of how to deter further border breaches, from laying anti-personnel mines along the boundary to mobilizing Israeli residents of border towns against possible infiltrations to bombing Damascus—which many Israelis held responsible for Sunday’s border breach in the Golan.

In Syria, one cannot charter buses to the Golan or approach the border area without the say-so of the regime of Bashar Assad, noted Effi Eitam, a former Israeli Knesset member.

“This was a deliberate provocation,” he told Israel Radio, suggesting that any response should be directed toward Damascus.

The border breach also was seen as a warning by the Syrian regime of what could happen in the region if Assad’s government were to fall. For weeks, Assad’s security forces have been responding to widespread protests against it with deadly violence; an estimated 800 people have been killed.

In contrast to Libya, the subject of a U.S.-led bombing campaign, the Syrian regime has drawn only subdued protestations from Western powers who fear that the collapse of Assad’s rule could herald even more turmoil in the region, including trouble for Israel.

Israeli leaders have kept mostly silent about the unrest in Syria, guessing that the devil they know in Assad would be better than the alternative of a Syria in the throes of anarchy or a militant Islamic government.

Sunday’s violence on the Syrian border should serve as a cautionary tale, Israeli analysts said.

Likewise, the suspected terrorist attack in Tel Aviv by a 22-year-old Israeli Arab from Kafr Kassem who rammed his truck into cars and pedestrians on a busy street, killing one, was a warning that the next Palestinian uprising against Israel might not be limited to West Bank Palestinians.

Indeed, Palestinian media have been rife in recent weeks with calls for a third intifada.

On Monday, Israel was mostly quiet, as the IDF imposed a full closure on the West Bank and deployed in greater numbers along Israel’s borders.

The question now is whether Arabs from the Palestinian-populated territories and Israel’s Arab neighbors will be encouraged or discouraged from their experience on Nakba Day.

When the unrest began spreading across the Arab world this winter, threatening autocratic regimes all around the region, Israel appeared to be an island of stability—a testament to its democratic character and, perhaps, to Israeli security strategy.

Sunday’s border breaches suggest that if Israel doesn’t take effective steps to stanch any unrest along its borders or in the West Bank—with the minimum possible loss of life so as not to inflame the Arab world—the honeymoon might be over.

For Israel’s Arabs, sense of disenfranchisement as Israel marks 63rd birthday


In an elegant limestone building in a Jerusalem neighborhood that before 1948 was home to the city’s Palestinian elite, a group of Jewish and Arab Israeli academics recently tried to untangle one of Israel’s most complex and charged questions: the status of its Arab minority.

“The discussion here is so important because we are trying to see if this is a zero-sum game or if it’s possible to find the way to coexistence,” said Anita Shapira, the Israeli historian and former dean of Tel Aviv University who presided over the symposium on the topic organized by the Israel Democracy Institute.

As Israel celebrates 63 years of independence this week, relations between its Arab and Jewish citizens are marked by a palpable and growing sense of alienation. As often occurs on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the marking of Israel’s Independence Day served to highlight the divisions between Israel’s Jews and Arabs.

Just a few weeks ago, the Knesset passed a new law that mandates fines for state-funded groups that question the country’s status as a Jewish and democratic state. Critics say the so-called Nakba law—aimed at outlawing marking Yom Ha’atzmaut as the Arab Day of Catastrophe, or Nakba—limits the right to freedom of expression and is an attack on the country’s Arab minority.

That and other recent Knesset measures—from a bill attempting to cancel Arabic’s status as an official language in Israel to proposals for a mandatory loyalty oath—have sharpened feelings of disenfranchisement among many Arab citizens of Israel.

“I have no problem with your religion, but I also want you to acknowledge my history,” said Aziz Haider, a Hebrew University sociologist, during one of several heated exchanges at the symposium. “There is a State of Israel and Israel’s establishment is the result of our Nakba.”

Nakba is how Palestinians commonly refer to the events of 1948, which led to Israeli statehood but also to Palestinian dispossession.

“Israel, instead of going toward reconciliation, is headed towards confrontation,” Haider said.

How to reconcile an Arab minority in a state that defines itself as both Jewish and democratic remains one of Israel’s greatest challenges.

On the one hand, Israel’s Arab citizens, who number about 1.6 million in a country of 7.7 million, are more “Israeli” than ever before. They are fluent in Hebrew, are intimately familiar with Israeli culture and are present in relatively large numbers as students in Israeli universities. In recent years, the government has begun to address the imbalance in allocating resources among its Jewish and Arab citizens.

On the other hand, that imbalance still exists, Arabs still rank among Israel’s poorest citizens and they live largely apart from Jews.

In recent years, Israeli Arabs also have embraced a more assertive political voice, expressing solidarity with their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza, and growing more vocal in their criticism of the Israeli government.

Arab Israelis say they feel more threatened in Israel—the current Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, advocates transferring some Arab Israeli towns to a future Palestinian state in the event of a peace deal, and wants Arabs to be required to take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state—while Jews say they feel more threatened by radicalized Arabs.

“There is a psychological problem for both the Jews and the Arabs,” Shapira said. “The Jews today still feel as if their majority status is under attack.

“On the Arab side, the Arabs are not used to being a minority, and they demand every now and then rights that belong not only to the Arabs as individuals but also want collective rights. This causes a clash.”

At the symposium last month, Professor Yedidia Stern, who teaches law at Bar-Ilan University, cited a recent poll finding that the majority of Israeli Jews are against any notion of universal rights for minorities.

Meanwhile, political discourse among Israeli Arabs in recent years has focused on stripping Israel of its Jewish symbols in the name of democracy and minority rights, including changing the flag and national anthem.

“For Jewish Israelis, the situation seems very pessimistic, like we are on a collision course,” Oded Haklai, a political science professor at Queen’s University in Canada, said at the symposium. “But if one looks comparatively, it can be seen that the behavior of Arabs in Israel show they have accepted the rules of the game of democracy as the only game in town. Political violence, for example, is very rare, and that is something we take for granted.”

As Israelis prepared to celebrate Independence Day, Issa E. Boursheh, an Arab graduate student at Tel Aviv University, published a personal plea for mutual understanding in an Op-Ed in The Jerusalem Post on Monday.

“While Jewish Israelis are honoring their heroes, Palestinian-Israelis have the right to honor theirs,” he wrote. “The Israeli and Palestinian narrative may never agree, but I trust that in the long term, with proper steps taken now, we will be able to reach a point of understanding. We might never celebrate Independence/Nakba together, but we may be able to have sympathy toward a hope that is not lost—to be free people in our land.”

Prominent Israelis to unveil peace initiative


A group of leading Israelis, including former heads of the country’s secret services and the military, will put forth a peace initiative, The New York Times reported.

The authors of the two-page Israeli Peace Initiative hope the document, which they are calling a direct response to the Arab Peace Initiative offered by the Arab League in 2002 and revived in 2007, will generate popular support in Israel and influence the Israeli government, according to the Times.

The group includes scholars, businesspeople, and the son and daughter of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The initiative is set to be unveiled Wednesday, though a copy reportedly was sent Sunday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It reportedly calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in most of eastern Jerusalem, an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and a set of regional security mechanisms and economic cooperation projects, according to the Times.

Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem would be in Israel and Arab neighborhoods in the Palestinian state. The Western Wall and Jewish Quarter would go to Israel and the Temple Mount would be under no sovereignty. The plan suggests that Palestinian refugees be returned to the Palestinian state with financial compensation, with a symbolic number repatriated to Israel.

The statement recognizes “the suffering of the Palestinian refugees since the 1948 war, as well as of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries” and says, as does the Arab Peace Initiative, “that a military solution to the conflict will not achieve peace or provide security for the parties.”

U.S. freezes weapons shipments to Lebanon’s military


The United States has frozen weapons shipments to Lebanon’s military following the collapse of the Arab country’s government in January.

The arms freeze had been approved recently by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but it was not announced publicly so as not to interfere with the formation of a new government, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

The freeze came amid concern that Hezbollah would emerge from the popular revolt stronger than ever following the fall of Lebanon’s pro-Western government.

Unnamed defense officials quoted by The Wall Street Journal said that the United States continues to provide training and non-lethal assistance to the Lebanese military.

The U.S. has provided more than $720 million in support to the Lebanese military since 2006, according to the newspaper. A senior defense official is quoted as saying that the Pentagon is now reviewing all U.S. security assistance to the Lebanese military “during this period of government formation.”

The newspaper cited congressional aides as saying that legislation is likely to be introduced in the coming weeks to cut off assistance if the next Lebanese government is dominated by Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.

Hezbollah-backed billionaire Najib Mikati was selected as the country’s new prime minister in January. His predecessor, Saad Hariri, had been backed by the Western powers.

Israel released an intelligence map last week showing hundreds of Hezbollah bunkers in southern Lebanon.

Ahmadinejad: Arab world conflicts will lead to collapse of Zionist regime


The latest conflicts in the Arab world would eventually lead to the collapse of Israel, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Monday.

“The latest conflicts will leave no chance for the Zionist regime [Israel] to survive as all the involved countries are against the occupation of Palestine,” Ahmadinejad said.

He added that the Arab states should be careful not to rely on the United States and its allies, “as their ultimate aim is to save” Israel.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Safed teens indicted for torching Arab cars


Two Jewish teens from Safed have been indicted for setting fire to two cars owned by Arab students.

The teens were indicted Thursday for torching the cars as revenge for the murder of five members of the Fogel family in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Itamar. They deny the allegations.

The two cars owned by Arab students at the Safed Academic College were set alight March 16 following a campus event to promote dialogue between Jews and Arabs.

Anti-Arab graffiti also was spray-painted on the walls of the college following the event, according to reports. “Arabs get out,” “Death to Arabs” and “Kahane was right” were among the epithets.

The event broke down into heated discussions, including whether Arabs have a place in the Jewish state, Haaretz reported.

Tensions between Jews and Arabs in the mixed city have been on the rise for months, spurred by a call last fall from the city’s chief rabbi asking Jews not to rent to non-Jews, specifically Arabs.

Many Arab students attend the college and rent apartments nearby.

Some 1,500 Israeli Arabs take part in Land Day protest in Lod


Some 1,500 Israeli Arabs protested in Lod on Tuesday against government policies which affect Israel’s Arab sector, launching the events of Land Day, to be marked on Wednesday.

The protesters were demonstrating against the government demolition of the houses of the Abu Eid family, which left some 50 family members, 30 of them children, without a home.

The protesters raised Palestinian flags, carried signs reading “Enough with the Ethnic Cleansing” and burned pictures of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Arab-owned cars set afire in Safed


Two cars owned by Arab students at the Safed Academic College were set alight following a campus event to promote dialogue between Jews and Arabs.

Anti-Arab graffiti also was spray-painted on the walls of the college following Tuesday night’s event, according to reports. “Arabs get out,” “Death to Arabs” and “Kahane was right” were among the epithets.

The event broke down into heated discussions, including whether Arabs have a place in the Jewish state, Haaretz reported.

The college condemned the incident. Galilee police are searching for the vandals.

Tensions between Jews and Arabs in the mixed city have been on the rise for months, spurred by a call last fall from the city’s chief rabbi asking Jews not to rent to non-Jews, specifically Arabs.

Many Arab students attend the college and rent apartments nearby.

Yemen’s president: Israel planned, funded Arab uprisings


Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, blamed Israel for planning and funding protests in several Arab states.

“There is an operations rooms in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world,” Saleh reportedly said Tuesday during a speech at Sanaa University, adding that the operations room is “run by the White House.”

“The wave of political unrest sweeping across the Arab world is a conspiracy that serves Israel and the Zionists,” he also said.

Yemen has been the site of anti-regime protests for the past two weeks—one of several Arab countries in which protesters have attempted or succeeded in deposing their rulers.

Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years, has rejected calls to step down.

Yemeni opposition leaders rejected an offer for a unity government on Monday. Some 24 people have died in the violence.

Saleh has promised to step down when his term ends in 2013 and that his son would not seek the top job.

Mubarak’s fall heralds new power player in the Mideast: the Arab street


Hosni Mubarak’s resignation Friday from Egypt’s presidency following three weeks of intense street demonstrations raises a host of questions not just for the future of Egypt and its peace treaty with Israel, but for the entire Middle East.

The most remarkable feature of the developments in Egypt—and, several weeks before it, the ouster of the longtime dictator of Tunisia amid similar protests—is the introduction of a major new power player in the Middle East: the Arab street.

Until recently, the Arab street—essentially, popular will—often was viewed as little more than an irritant by autocratic regimes from Cairo to Tehran that sought to repress its power or, occasionally, redirect its anger against some outside foe, like Israel or the United States.

When massive street protests greeted the dubious re-election in June 2009 of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, popular will was successfully repressed by the government’s deadly security tactics. Eventually, popular will (in this case, the Persian street) was rendered irrelevant.

But the success of the Arab street in Egypt and Tunisia raises the prospect that people elsewhere in the autocratic Middle East will feel emboldened to rise up and seek to overthrow their unelected leaders.

Already, protesters in Yemen and Jordan have staged massive demonstrations against their governments, and smaller protests have taken place in Algeria and Syria. In Iran, the government is trying to keep a budding protest movement in check for fear it will redirect its rage toward the regime in Tehran.

For Israel and its allies, the ascendancy of the Arab street could be a game changer.

While Israel has cultivated relationships with the leaders of many of these countries—in some cases, as in Saudi Arabia, with Washington as an intermediary—Israel remains largely reviled by the Arab street.

In Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab countries that have full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, professional unions still maintain a boycott against any interaction with Israeli colleagues. A 2009 Pew Research Center survey conducted in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon showed unfavorable views of Jews at 95 percent, 97 percent and 98 percent, respectively.

So if the Arab street becomes more powerful, Israel’s relationships in the Middle East will be at risk. For example, while the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia see eye to eye on such issues as the Iranian nuclear threat and the rising danger of Shiite power, including Hezbollah’s ascendancy in Lebanon, the Saudi people—like the people in Egypt and Jordan—are more inclined to view Israel as a hated foe rather than a country with which they share common cause.

On the other hand, if countries like Egypt or Tunisia were to become true democracies, they could become inherently more stable and less belligerent toward Israel. In this respect, Turkey could be the model: a democracy in a Muslim country whose relationship with Israel persists even at times when its government and people engage in harsh, anti-Israel rhetoric.

Until the situations in Egypt and elsewhere around the Middle East sort themselves out, it seems there’s not much Israel can do but wait and watch and pray for the best.

That’s not the case for the United States, which wields influence in Arab capitals through a combination of aid, trade and diplomacy. With future control over the reins of power uncertain, however, the United States is trying to keep all its options open.

The balancing act the Obama administration has tried to practice throughout the Egyptian crisis is a prime example of this.

With Egypt a longtime reliable and stable ally, President Obama didn’t want to alienate Mubarak in the event he stayed in power; otherwise, Washington would be viewed as a turncoat, not a friend. But if the street were to triumph, Obama did not want to be seen as an enemy of Egyptian popular will.

With Mubarak now gone, it’s not clear whether Obama’s balancing act did the trick—especially because it’s not at all clear who will lead Egypt.

If the Egyptian army controls the reins of power, either overtly or behind the scenes, it’s likely that things will not change drastically in the near term. The army, much of it funded by the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt, is vested in its positive relationship with the United States and its working relationship with Israel.

Along with the Mubarak regime, the army has been key to the fight against Islamic terrorism, and it has helped contain Hamas in the Gaza Strip and kept anti-Israel elements in Egypt at bay.

The only thing that seems assured is that more uncertainty lies ahead, in Cairo and beyond.

Tunisia: the first Arab revolution


Every July 23 for the past 58 years, Egypt, my country of birth, has celebrated its “July revolution” that overthrew King Farouk and ended the monarchy and British occupation once and for all. It was no revolution: It was a coup staged by young army officers.

And so it has been with a series of “revolutions” around the Arab world in which a succession of military men went on to lead us in civilian clothes — some kept the olive drabs on — and rob generations of the real meaning of revolution. For years I looked at the Iranians with envy — not at the outcome of their 1979 revolution, but because it was a popular uprising, not a euphemism for a coup.

So you’ll understand why, along with millions of other Arabs, I’ll forever cherish Jan. 14, 2011 — the day Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, his 23-year rule toppled by 29 days of a popular uprising. A real revolution for a change.

It’s the first time Arabs have toppled one of their dictators, so you’ll understand why, despite the reports of chaos, looting and a musical chairs of caretaker leaders, I’m still celebrating. Let’s have no whining about how those thousands of pesky Tunisians who risked their lives to face down a despot ruined the idyllic package-holiday-in-a-police-state for so many European tourists.

The equations circling Tunisia right now are very clear: We have no idea who or what kind of coalition of leaders will emerge, but there is no doubt who’s rooting for the failure of this revolution: every Arab leader who has spent the past month watching Tunisia in fear. You can be sure the region’s dictators are on their knees right now praying for chaos and collapse for Tunisia.

Some Arab countries have simply ignored what happened: no official statement from Algeria or Morocco. Others said they respect the wish of Tunisians but filled their state-owned media with reminders that they weren’t anything like Tunisia: Egypt.

Leave it to Muammar Gaddafi, the world’s longest-serving dictator, to best portray that panic. Addressing a nation where thousands had faced down the bullets of Ben Ali’s security to protest unemployment, police brutality and the corruption of the regime, Gaddafi told Tunisians they were now suffering bloodshed and lawlessness because they were too hasty in getting rid of Ben Ali.

If every Arab leader has watched Tunisia in fear, then every Arab citizen has watched in hope because it was neither Islamists — long used by our leaders to scare many into acquiescence — nor foreign troops that toppled the dictator: It was ordinary and very fed up people.

Tunisians must remember that during these days of chaos. We’re hearing reports that neighborhood watch committees have sprung up to protect against looting and violence, which many blame on Ben Ali’s loyalists.

Interestingly, both Western observers and Gaddafi have been crediting WikiLeaks but for different reasons. By buying into the idea that leaked U.S. embassy cables about corruption “fueled” the revolution, commentators smear Tunisians with ignorance of facts and perpetuate the myth that Arabs are incapable of rising up against dictators. Gaddafi railed against WikiLeaks because he, too, wants to blame something other than the power of the people — and cables from Tripoli portray him as a Botox-using neurotic inseparable from a “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse.

Gaddafi’s Libya has had its own protests over the past few days. Nothing on the scale of Tunisia, but enough that his speech to Tunisians could be summarized thus: I am scared witless by what happened in your country.

That’s why I insist we stop and appreciate Tunisia: Relish the revolution that is not a euphemism for a coup.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. This essay originally appeared in The Guardian and is reprinted with permission of the author.

The dreadful ‘D’ words


Divorce, dissolution, divestment: These are words that spell the end of a relationship and of what might have been — through time and patience — a meaningful and inspiring marriage.

We know how often this happens to people we know, and so it is happening at this moment to the State of Israel. Like meddling in-laws, we, the world community, sit in the family room voicing our interests in the couple’s future, yet the minute we sense marital discord, we rush for the exit or take sides and fan the flames.

Israel has a population of 7.2 million — 76 percent Jews, 20 percent Arabs and 4 percent immigrant workers. The Israeli-Arab citizenry breaks down as 82 percent Muslims, 9 percent Christian and 9 percent Druze. All these groups live together in an intricate array of diverse ancestry, professional ties and domestic dependence. Each citizen has a vote in the functioning democracy that is the State of Israel, and by extension a voice at the family table of the Knesset.

The entire world debates how to intervene in this contentious and vociferous marriage, whose every dispute we mostly hear second-hand from the world media. Do we continue to support Israel, even though we know there are serious domestic disputes and inequities? Should we divest from, abandon, a world leader in high-tech, biotech, medical and environmental enterprises that benefit the world? In our desire to punish the couple, or one partner, do we ultimately punish ourselves?

These were some of the questions we sought answers to when we joined the Los Angeles Religious Leaders Delegation in an interfaith mission to Rome, the Vatican, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in January 2008, a group of Jews, Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians and a Muslim.

Israeli society is far more complex than we had envisaged. With the exception of the Druze and Bedouins, the Christian and Muslim Arab citizens of Israel identify themselves as Palestinian by nationality and Israeli by citizenship. Nowhere is this glass partition more apparent than in Jerusalem, where we experienced the psychological barrier between Arabs and Jews. Although many Israeli-Arabs earn more than their counterparts in other Middle Eastern countries, their wages and the social services they receive in Israel are not on par with Israeli Jews. This Israeli-Arab minority needs to be nurtured, ensured equal social status and accorded full civil rights and municipal services.

According to Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, who covers the West Bank and Gaza for various publications and with whom we met, the employment discrepancy can be attributed to two factors: a lower level of education in the Arab work force, resulting in skills more suited to lower paying jobs, and anti-Arab employment discrimination, at all levels of business sectors. Toameh — respected by both Israelis and Palestinians — outlined proposed solutions to the problem, noting that the Israeli government is prioritizing educational reform in the Arab sector, and making genuine efforts to increase Arab employment in higher-paid professions.

As a Christian and a Muslim, who ourselves would be minorities in Israeli society, we believe our most constructive role should be to support responsible investment in Israel, not punishment through divestment actions destined to backfire.

Rather than divestment, we support investment — financial and otherwise — in Israeli enterprises that address social and economic inequalities, enable joint business enterprises, increase employment among the Arab population, and offer high-quality social services to underprivileged and minority citizens. Such enterprises are seeding the ground for a flourishing, mutually beneficial society for Israelis and Palestinians.

For example, at Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin School, at-risk students from lower socioeconomic level Jewish and Arab families and children of immigrant workers harmoniously coexist in a project partially funded by Cisco Systems. Children find a safe haven at Bialik-Rogozin, and receive a quality kindergarden through 12th-grade education. At Mishkenot Ruth Daniel Multicultural Center in Jaffa, Jewish and Arab teenagers interact socially and engage in a variety of social justice projects together, many of which benefit Palestinians in the West Bank.

We also came to understand how successive corrupt Palestinian leaderships have fed the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in the territories. Any wishful thinking that divestment will lead to military calm along Israeli-Palestinian borders is strategically flawed. The present war of attrition between Israel and self-governing Gaza has been instigated and sustained by the extremist Hamas leadership whose charter calling for the eradication of Israel harms the very people it claims to serve, malnourishing the nascent Palestinian state which otherwise has the support of virtually the entire international community.

On the occasion of Israel’s 60th birthday, we believe people of good will should turn away from the destructive D words of Divorce, Dissolution and Divestment, and work instead for peace, security and happiness for both Israelis and Palestinians. We believe in supporting the prosperous marriage that can result from targeted investment and economic partnerships between the respective states, and between their many peoples.

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson oversees 390 United Methodist Congregations in Southern California, Hawaii, Guam and Saipan. Dr. Nur Amersi is the executive director of the Afghanistan World Foundation.

Mideast Fighting Strains Fragile Interfaith Ties


For more than three decades, Rabbi Allen Krause has believed in the power of interfaith and intercultural dialogue, especially between Jews and Muslims.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the head rabbi of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo offered to have members of his congregation guard local Muslim day schools, he stood alongside other religious leaders to publicly decry a vicious assault on a Yorba Linda Arab American high school student and he invited a Palestinian to address his congregation to talk about the hardships of living in the territories.

However, the interfaith ties that Krause and others like him have carefully cultivated are now being tested as never before. Against the backdrop of Hezbollah rockets raining on Israel and Israeli bombs exploding in Lebanon and Gaza, friends are splitting into two sides. In mid-July, several Muslim members of Common Ground, an Orange County interfaith group Krause helped found, declined to attend a scheduled meeting, because they “might say things they might regret,” he was told.

Krause’s experience is not unusual. As war in the Middle East rages, one of the casualties has been the fragile ties between Muslim and Jewish interfaith and other groups. Already weakened by the failed peace promise of Oslo and the second intifada, in recent weeks Muslim-Jewish relations have hit their lowest ebb in more than a decade. The increased strain has re-sown the seeds of mistrust in some interfaith group that enthusiasts hoped to have forever banished.

To be sure, a few Muslim and Jewish groups have redoubled their efforts to bridge the growing chasm. The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) will soon announce a sweeping interfaith collaboration with a yet-to-be-named Muslim group, said PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which has a longstanding relationship with the Islamic Center of Southern California, soon plans to open a Center for Religious Inquiry that would invite members of all faiths, including Muslims, Jews and Christians, to discuss and examine the world’s major religions, said Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein. A new outfit named L.A. Jews for Peace recently held two peace vigils outside the Israeli Consulate and sent a representative to a large anti-Israel peace protest co-sponsored by Muslim and other organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Overall, though, Jewish-Muslim relations are strained, and tensions will likely worsen before getting better, predicts Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

“I think the current state [of Jewish-Muslim relations] is non-existent and will be even more alienated in the near future,” he said.

Rosove, once a major proponent of the Jewish-Muslim Dialogue, quit the now moribund group soon after Sept. 11 when, he said, several Muslim participants savagely criticized attempted to de-legitimize Israel. The dialogue, founded in 1998 amid great expectations, lost considerable Jewish and Muslim support over the years, including the withdrawal of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and CAIR, because of internal arguments over the Middle East. The group has not convened a meeting in more than a year.

David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los-Angeles-based human relations organization that promotes civil rights, said he favors Jewish-Muslim dialogue. However, “unrelenting” anti-Israel attitudes he believes are shared by the majority of Muslim-American leaders makes that dialogue all but impossible.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to find moderate Muslim voices. They’re out there; they’re just not leading the Muslim organization that Jewish organizations have traditionally dealt with,” said Lehrer, who served as the ADL’s regional director when the group quit the Jewish-Muslim Dialogue after Sept. 11.

On the other side, Reed Hamzeh, an L.A.-based attorney and regional director of the Arab American Institute, a civil rights group, believes that Israel’s actions in Lebanon are stoking anti-Semitism as well as anti-Americanism in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

“I’ve spoken to many Jewish-American friends,” said Hamzeh, whose parents were visiting Lebanon when the bombing began there. “We are in agreement that Israel’s actions are not in the best interest of Israel, the Jewish people and for the prospects of peace in the region, which should be everybody’s desired goal.”

In one reflection of the changing climate, a longtime Jewish member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) blasted the group’s local chapter for planning to honor an activist whom he characterizes as an anti-Israel propagandist. Joel Bellman, press deputy to County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, sent a blistering e-mail on July 20 to the ACLU questioning the local chapter’s intention to honor Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) at the ACLU’s 43rd annual Garden Party in September.

“I guess I’m extremely pissed off, because MPAC has been extremely successful in packaging its message in very soothing and moderate tones,” Bellman said. “But when you strip away the dainty and decorous language, their positions are almost indistinguishable from anti-Israel, anti-Jewish attitudes found in much of the Muslim and Arab world.”

This is not the first time that Al-Marayati has been the focus of controversy: In an interview just after the Sept. 11, attacks, Al-Marayati suggested that Israel could be behind the terrorists. He later apologized for his comments and said they were taken out of context.

Al-Marayati, who said Bellman’s attack caught him by surprise, also said his group supports a two-state solution, denounces terrorism and reflects the outlook of moderate American Muslims. Yet Al-Marayati says that now more than ever, Jews and Muslims need to work together on issues of mutual interest such as hate crimes, civil rights and the separation of church and state, despite their differences about the Middle East.

Sande Hart, the Jewish co-founder of the Orange County-based Spiritual and Religious Alliance for Hope (SARAH), a four-year-old women’s interfaith group, also believes Jews and Muslims need to talk to one another as never before. Unfortunately, she said some Jewish and Muslim members no longer want to interact for the time being. Two Christians, no Muslims and just two Jews attended the group’s most recent meeting. Typically, two to three Muslims, five Jews and several Christians come to the interfaith gatherings. Hart said both Muslim and Jewish SARAH members told her they needed “space.”

“Our common ground is a little smaller than it was three weeks ago,” said Hart, who vows to patch-up relations among the group’s members.

Like their Jewish counterparts, many Muslims fear that events overseas could poison relations locally. They have expressed surprise at what they characterize as the “ferocity” of Israel’s strikes against Lebanon and Gaza.

Orange County resident Osman Umarji called Israel’s military campaign “vicious,” and said it nearly claimed the life of a close friend, who, in attempting to flee from the fighting in southern Lebanon , crossed a bridge with his mother just moments before Israeli bombs destroyed it.

The former president of the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine — a group often at odds with pro-Israeli student groups at the university — said he thought Israel’s war in Lebanon would galvanize pro-Palestinian forces and breathe new life into the divestment movement at UCI and other campuses.

“I’m sure the discussion will intensify, and more Muslim and Arab students will get involved in educating people and speaking out against the atrocities Israel’s committing,” said Umarji, now an engineer at Broadcom Corp., a global leader in semiconductors for wired and wireless communications.

For Hussam Ayloush, Israeli “aggression” is personal. The executive director of the Southern California chapter of the CAIR said he grew up in Lebanon and left in 1989 during the civil war. Coming to America to study, he eventually settled in Southern California. Now married with three children, he said he returns to Lebanon once every couple years to visit family members, including a brother who lives in the capital city of Beirut.

Soon after Israel’s air campaign began, Ayloush said he fell out of contact with his brother and his parents for four long days (His parents were in Lebanon visiting their son). Scared for their safety, Ayloush said he barely slept. He checked e-mails incessantly and watched the news round-the-clock. Although relieved when he finally reached his loved ones, he said he knows their lives continue to remain in peril.

“We would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t realize that this new conflict will increase hatred among Arabs, Muslims and Jews. It’s not going to just increase anti-Semitism but also Islamophobia and anti-Arab feelings,” Ayloush said. “That’s a tragedy.”

But not all hope for continued dialogue has been dashed. Despite the July disappointment, Temple Beth El’s Krause persisted with his group, and after some heart-to-heart talks, the Muslim members have agreed to attend a mid-August gathering, much to Krause’s satisfaction and
relief.

Teens Find Peace On and Off Stage


“We don’t care about politics; we just like each other,” says Shira Ben Yaakov, a cheerful brunette who is an eighth-grade student at Tel Aviv’s A.D. Gordon Junior High School.

Ben Yaakov is referring to Israeli-Arab friends she has met through the Peace Child Israel drama group, which meets weekly, alternating between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The group consists of 20 Arab and Jewish teens from Jaffa and Tel Aviv, proof that friendship between Jews and Arabs can exist, even in post-Intifada Israel.

“Even though Arabs live close to me, I have never had the chance to get to know them. I have always been afraid of Arabs as a group and now I know this fear has been unjustified,” Ben Yaakov says.

Maya Smolian, another member of the group, says she was “thrilled” to meet Arab kids her age. Having the opportunity to perform together is just another incentive to be a part of the group.

Peace Child Israel was founded in 1988 by the late Israeli actress Yael Drouyanoff and uses theater and other art forms to encourage dialogue between teens who might otherwise never meet. So far, seven groups have been formed, pairing Jewish and Arab towns throughout Israel, among them Misgav-Sakhnin, Raanana-Qalanswa, and East and West Jerusalem.

In January, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa group toured the United States, visiting Philadelphia and communities throughout New Jersey. Their hosts were Jewish families in each of the cities, as well as students from Changing Our World (COW), a teen drama and arts group with similar methods and objectives. Students from the two countries bonded quickly.

Deb Chamberlin, a singer, songwriter and co-director of COW, initiated the venture. She contacted Peace Child after two visits to Israel, where she was touched by the country and its people.

“I looked to cooperate with a group similar to my own. Once I heard about Peace Child, I knew this was the group I was looking for,” she says. “When I returned to the States, I looked to share my feelings with other people, [to] let them know what Israel is all about.”

Chamberlin wrote Peace Child’s new anthem “The Time Has Come for Peace,” which the group sang on a Philadelphia television morning show and then subsequently recorded with help from some local singers.

“We made a beautiful CD and now wish to promote this anthem as a song for global tolerance and peace,” Chamberlin says.

The group’s original musical, “On the Other Side,” was also adapted for American audiences and has been performed in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The play is inspired by the students’ personal experiences in their native Israel and addresses the sensitive issue of Israel’s security fence from the teens’ point of view. The two groups found they share many of the same challenges in overcoming barriers between cultures.

“The COW group brings together students from different backgrounds,” Chamberlin explains. “Our group consists of Latin, Afro-American and Jewish students; they study in a public school of 3,000 students, most of whom are white Christian Americans. Before meeting with Peace Child, the students would usually socialize with their ‘own kind.’ When they witnessed the beautiful friendships that exist between the Jewish and Arab members of Peace Child, they realized what they were missing. As a matter of fact, many stereotypes were broken on that tour.”

“During one of our workshops, Hiba Salila an Arab student, admitted that before coming on the tour, she was convinced the Americans would prefer the Jewish students to the Arab ones,” Chamberlain says. “It surprised her when they didn’t. Another Jewish student says COW students form a bridge between Arab and Jewish students with their love for us.”

Language was not a barrier. “Though the Jewish kids had better English, the Arab students compensated with their Spanish, so they could all communicate,” Chamberlin says. “On the bus from Washington to northern New Jersey, the students cried because it was their last journey together. We promised to keep in touch and start making arrangements for our visit to Israel. The hosting families intend to help me found ‘The American Friends of Peace Child’. Knowing there are more people willing to work for the success of this project was quite a relief for me. I delivered this baby but now a whole new future awaits it.”

The 10-day tour culminated at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where groups of American teens joined Peace Child along with an appreciative audience of 500.

“People were deeply touched by the show,” says Melisse Lewine-Boskowich, director of Peace Child, who noted that North Star, an African American teen group, and Intellectual Journey, a band of Jewish and Arab musicians working in the U.S., joined them on stage. “The tour opened many … opportunities for us and now the sky’s our limit.”

” target=”_blank”>http://www.thecowproject.com/

Sima Borkovski is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

 

Sowing Islamic Seeds in Students


Chairs are lined up in neat rows. Coffee is brewing, muffins arrayed. The table is thick with handouts.

One of them is Saudi Aramco World, a magazine published by Aramco, the Saudi government-owned outfit that is the largest oil company in the world.

“The Arab World in the Classroom,” published by Georgetown University, thanks Saudi Aramco on its back cover. Alongside it is the brochure of The Mosaic Foundation, an organization of spouses of Arab ambassadors in America, whose chairwoman and president of the board of trustees is Her Royal Highness Princess Haifa Al-Faisal of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia.

If you think this is a meeting of Saudi oil executives or Middle Eastern exporters or Saudi government officials, you are wrong: It’s a social studies training seminar for American elementary and secondary teachers, held last year at Georgetown University.

It’s paid for by U.S. tax dollars, as the organizer points out in her introduction.

“We are grateful to the grant we have under Title VI of the Department of Education that underwrites these programs,” Zeina Azzam Seikaly, outreach coordinator of Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, tells the more than three dozen current and former teachers at the seminar.

Georgetown’s Middle East outreach program is one of 18 affiliated with federally designated national resource centers, each of which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds under Title VI of the Higher Education Act.

Much has been written about the biased nature of Middle East studies programs at universities around the country.

Less known is that with public money and the designation as a national resource center, universities such as Georgetown, Harvard and Columbia are dramatically influencing the study of Islam, Israel and the Middle East far beyond the college campus.

As a condition of their funding, these centers are also required to engage in public outreach, which includes schoolchildren in Grades K-12. Through professional development workshops for teachers and resource libraries, they spread teaching materials that analysts say promote Islam and are critical of Israel and the West.

Georgetown’s outreach and the materials it disseminates are singled out for special praise by Dar al Islam.

Its Web site lists four other outreach centers it admires: the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.

Professional development workshops like the one at Georgetown provide the most frequent paths for the dissemination of supplementary materials to history and social studies teachers, according to education expert Sandra Stotsky’s “The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America’s History Teachers.”

The problems with many of the supplemental materials, Stotsky said in her report, stem from “the ideological mission of the organizations that create them.

“Their ostensible goal is to combat intolerance, expand students’ knowledge of other cultures, give them other ‘points of view’ on commonly studied historical phenomena and/or promote ‘critical thinking,'” she wrote.

But an analysis of the materials convinced her that their real goal “is to influence how children come to understand and think about current social and political issues by bending historical content to those ends.

“They embed their political agendas in the instructional materials they create so subtly that apolitical teachers are unlikely to spot them.”

Among the materials Stotsky cites is “The Arab World Studies Notebook,” which has been widely criticized for bias, inaccuracies and proselytizing.

Two school districts have banned the book, and the AJC has urged others to follow suit.

“Notebook” editor Audrey Shabbas rejects the criticism.

“We’re providing the Arab point of view,” she said.

Responding to criticism that the material paints an overly rosy picture of Islam, she said, “My task is not to defend what Muslims do in the world” but to focus on the “difference between what people call themselves and what they do.”

Experts say the materials are popular because they’re recommended by the national resource centers of prestigious universities.

In an interview with JTA, Stotsky recounted that in the summer of 2002, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Massachusetts Department of Education decided to offer a seminar on Islam and the Middle East for area teachers. They accepted a proposal from Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies that “looked very promising.” One of the organizers of the seminar was Barbara Petzen, the center’s outreach coordinator.

But when Stotsky and other officials saw the syllabus, which included the “Arab World Studies Notebook,” they requested that the course present a more balanced view of Islam. Officials wanted at least to include a book by Bernard Lewis, a Princeton University professor emeritus who is considered one of the pre-eminent authorities on Islam.

But Petzen and her colleague “ducked recent history” by agreeing only to include one of Lewis’ older books from the 1970s, rather than one of his more recent critical perspectives on Islam, Stotsky said.

Petzen could not be reached for comment.

Stotsky was further shocked when she saw the lesson plans created by some of the seminar participants. One, which required the students to learn an Islamic prayer and design a prayer rug to simulate a mosque in the classroom, crossed the line. “It’s really indoctrination to have students do such religious things,” she said.

While there is no way to know the extent to which the teachers from 20 Massachusetts schools ultimately incorporated their proposed lessons into the classroom, the assumption of the Education Department, which paid for the seminar, “is that the teachers use the material they learned,” Stotsky said.

In New York City, meanwhile, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has barred the head of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute from lecturing to city teachers enrolled in professional development courses on the Middle East.

Klein’s move in February against Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair at Columbia, was in response to “a number of things he’s said in the past,” said Michael Best, the department’s general counsel, according to The New York Times.

Khalidi declined to comment on the issue.

A spokesman for Klein said last week that “nothing has changed” in Khalidi’s status, meaning that he still is barred from lecturing at teacher-training seminars.

For Stotsky, a major problem with the teacher-training seminars is the lack of oversight.

“What teacher or principal is going to challenge [material that comes] “with the sterling credentials of Harvard?” she said.

While she doesn’t claim to have all the answers, Stotsky recommends halting public funding for professional development until there is “strong evidence that most history teachers learn something useful from a majority of workshops they attend.”

 

 


Tainted Teachings


Jordan King Courts U.S. Jews on Future


Jordan’s king believes Jews can play a key role in his campaign to win back the Muslim street.

“The Amman message,” initiated by Abdullah II, brought together scholars from the eight main streams of Islam in July to issue edicts that marginalize terrorists who purport to act in the name of Islam — particularly Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

The next step is to bring the message to Jews and Christians, according to Joseph Lumbard, the young American Muslim hired by the king to coordinate outreach.

“We want to get beyond the idea of a clash of civilizations to a dialogue of civilizations,” Lumbard said. “We would like to expand the term ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ to ‘Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.'”

Abdullah and his Palestinian-born queen, Rania, met recently with Pope Benedict XVI and followed it up with a policy speech at Catholic University in Washington.

Last week, he spoke on “Judaism and Islam: Beyond Tolerance” to more than 80 rabbis from around the United States gathered in Washington.

“Our communities must see each other as sharing a common heritage and a common future,” the king said.

The speech, drawing on Quranic verses and Jewish readings that counsel accommodation and respect for other monotheistic faiths, was well received.

“It was very impressive, eloquent and pointed,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel. “One hopes the message will take root in Islam and serve to further the goal he set forth of mutual respect between Muslims and Jews.

More than any other Arab leader — and even more than his father, the late King Hussein — Abdullah has attached his fate to the West. He has opened Jordanian markets and plans to introduce Western democratic reforms. Like his father, Abdullah also has fostered the only truly warm Arab-Israeli peace, and he met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the United Nations earlier this month.

Coupled with a biography firmly rooted in the West — his mother is British and his schooling is American and British — these goals deny Abdullah the appeal among ordinary Arabs that many of his contemporaries have, despite his lineage: Hashemite kings are believed to be direct descendants of Mohammed.

Abdullah’s solution is to use the Arab street’s hardiest vehicle — Islam — to move it toward his vision of moderation. The July assembly in Amman of 180 Islamic scholars from 45 countries concluded with 17 of the most senior scholars issuing religious edicts outlining two principles: Fatwas issued by Muslims not formally trained in Islamic law are not legitimate; Muslims must refrain from calling other Muslims apostates. The two statements were clearly aimed at Al Qaeda and its leaders.

Lumbard, a Cairo-based scholar who helped organize the summit, said the pedigree of the scholars at the Amman meeting lent heft to their fatwas in a way that multiple other efforts to moderate Islam — many of them stemming from Western capitals — could not.

Whether the effort resonates remains to be seen. Lumbard acknowledged that even those scholars, respected as they are, have become remote from an Arab street succored by the Internet and satellite television. The next step, he said, was to compete in those fields with the radicals who advocate terrorism.

Abdullah, 43, places much stock in youth, because half of Jordan’s population is 18 or younger. His first stop in the United States was a meeting with a group of high school students from two Washington public schools, the Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Md., and the Islamic Academy in Fairfax, Va.

Significantly, the most skeptical students at the gathering appeared to be Muslims from the Saudi-backed academy. When one young woman in a scarf expressed doubts that Abdullah’s moderation reflected the Arab world’s “general consensus,” Queen Rania struggled for a response, and could cite only an outpouring of Arab sympathy for Americans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

By contrast, the Jewish students were clearly impressed.

“He’s very courageous for taking such a message,” said Moshe Broder, a senior at the Hebrew Academy. “He’s a pioneer.”

Abdullah will have to start at home, and that could be a problem. Creating change in Jordan’s highly conservative and tribalized political culture has never been easy. A recent campaign against “honor killings” of women has had mixed results at best, and the royal court’s embrace of peace with Israel is not shared by other Jordanian elites, never mind ordinary Jordanians.

The king will have to flex the kind of muscle his father occasionally did to overcome skeptics who see him as ensconced in the West, said Hiam Nawas, a Jordanian expert on political Islam.

“Abdullah will have to spend a fair amount of his own political capital if he wants his message to become authoritative in Jordan,” she said.

One way to sell the moderation is to show that it brings results — hence Abdullah’s appeal in the West, simultaneous with his religious outreach, for expanded trade and political ties.

“Even as we work for peace, development must go forward,” he said at the United Nations last week. “When developed nations commit to active, increased development support, they advance global progress for all. The world knows what is needed — fair trade, increased direct assistance and debt relief.”

That means persuading the West that Islam has a place alongside Judaism and Christianity as an equal. That’s where Abdullah’s current tour of the major faiths comes in.

He has some persuading to do. As welcome as the Amman summit was, it falls short of specifically addressing terrorist acts or of addressing the virulent strain of Islamic anti-Zionism that undermines some fundamentals of Jewish and Israeli co-existence.

Marc Gopin, an Orthodox rabbi and a religion professor at George Mason University in Virginia who helped organize Abdullah’s address to rabbis, said Jews should see the July fatwas as a crucial first step in marginalizing extremism.

“This helps cut off terrorism’s legs, because terrorism is based on fatwas,” he said. “That may be dissatisfying from the Israeli-Palestinian perspective, but it’s an admirable goal and one we should support.”

Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, added, “We’re encouraged by what he has been saying and doing. He’s a model of what we would like to see elsewhere in the Middle East.”

By reaching out to religious leaders, Abdullah also addresses a facet of the conflict that diplomats often neglect, said Robert Eisen, who heads the religion department at George Washington University — that the men and women of the Middle East viscerally see the conflict as not just about borders but about beliefs. The king could demonstrate that the language of religion is as much a basis for reconciliation as for conflict, he said.

“Jews and Muslims share common moral values that should allow us to find common ground to fight the extremists in our religions,” he said.

 

Israel, Russia Sign Memo on Terrorism


Israel has a new, if somewhat reluctant, partner in the war on terror: Russia. Reeling from the loss of at least 335 of its citizens, roughly half of them children, at the hands of Chechen terrorists, Moscow signed a security cooperation memorandum with Jerusalem on Monday, despite a lingering diplomatic dispute on how terrorism should be defined.

"The terrorism that struck Russia is exactly the same kind of terrorism that strikes us," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, referring to last week’s siege of a school in the disputed Russian region of North Ossetia.

Visiting Russian Minister Sergei Lavrov said contacts were already underway between the two countries’ security agencies and thanked Israel for its help but demurred at the bid by Sharon to establish a sense of common cause.

Although he called terrorism a "universal evil," Lavrov suggested that the Palestinians could be seen as resisting Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while the Muslim separatist cause based in Chechnya is illegitimate.

Russia, a member of the Middle East "Quartet" that pushed the now-moribund "road map" peace plan, was also at pains to make clear that it would not neglect the Arab world.

"I believe the key to the solution of the problem is to bring all countries to fight terror, and I can assure you that in addition to our very close counterterrorist cooperation with Israel, we have similar counterterrorist cooperation with Arab countries," said Lavrov during his one-day visit as part of a Middle East tour.

It was not clear what form the new Israeli-Russian cooperation would take.

Yet, for many in Jerusalem, just the declaration of empathy from a major European player was an achievement. Israeli media quickly called the outrage at the school in Beslan "Russia’s 9/11," hinting that it could bring Moscow more into line with the U.S. war on terror launched following the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking attacks.

"The Soviet Union was notoriously pro-Arab, and the sense in Israel is that Russia has not quite gotten over that," a Sharon confidant said. "It was important that Russia understand, even the hard way, the sort of terrorism we have endured for decades, and especially over the last four years."

Despite killing more than 100,000 Chechens in its 13-year crackdown on the restive region, Russia has regularly censured Israel for its handling of the Palestinian revolt.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom put the new security pact to its first test by calling on Russia to oppose anti-Israel moves by the Palestinians and their Arab backers at the United Nations. In the last 21 U.N. resolutions on Israel, Russia has voted against the Jewish state 17 times and abstained on the others.

Russia did not immediately respond.