Netanyahu opens school year with visit to Arab town

More than two million Israeli children headed to school for the 2016-2017 school year.

Thursday was the first day of school for most Israeli children from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed students to their first day of school at Tamra Haemek public elementary school in Tamra, an Israeli Arab town in northern Israel.

The lawmakers were welcomed during an opening ceremony  by the school’s approximately 200 pupils in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Netanyahu told the students to listen to their teachers and to listen to their parents.

“I want you to learn – learn to write, learn to read, learn Hebrew, Arabic and English. I want you to learn mathematics. I want you to learn science. I want you to learn history – history of the Jewish People, the history of your public. I want you to learn the truth, and the truth says that we were destined to live together,” Netanyahu told the students according to his office.

“I want you to be doctors, scientists and writers, and be whatever you want to – and are able to – be. I want you to be loyal citizens, integrated into the State of Israel; this is your state,” he said.

Of the 2.2 million Israeli students who started school on Thursday, some 159,000 are entering first grade and 123,000 are entering their last year of high school.

There are some 180,000 educators working in the Israeli school system, including 9,000 who are teaching this year for the first time.

The speech Bibi should have made at the U.N.

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen.

Today I will not invoke Iran, the Syrian crisis, ISIS’s murderous expansion — to name but a few of the major concerns for Israel and the Middle East. Instead, I will speak about an issue that has received scant attention in the deliberations in this hall this week: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its eventual resolution. 

[RELATED: How Mahmoud Abbas lies to incite violence]

Israel’s late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared: “We will prevail because we regard the building of peace as a great blessing for us and for our children after us. We regard it as a blessing for our neighbors on all sides.  

In view of the violence taking place in Israel and many other areas of the Middle East, I add the following: Israel will never allow extremism and violence to gain the upper hand and further escalate. Therefore, Israel will crush any attempt to use terror and hostilities.

Heeding Prime Minister Rabin’s statement, which is my message today, I call on my fellow leaders President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, King Abdullah II of Jordan, King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and the leaders of the Gulf Principalities: Let us engage in a candid dialogue about normalizing our mutual relationships and about countering terrorism, fanaticism and extremism jointly. Subject to Israel’s serious reservations about the Arab Peace Initiative, I am ready to explore it as an eventual avenue for peace.

To Palestinian President Abbas I say: Let us resume our negotiations toward an agreement of two states for two peoples. I truly hope that a serious, continuous and binding process would eventually lead to an end of the conflict and a resolution of all core contentious issues.

There are enormous pits and deep holes on the road, but we will find ways to overcome the difficulties.  

As we are tragically witnessing even in the holy city of Jerusalem, when blood is spilled people are filled with vengeance and anger, along with despair, bereavement, mistrust, and frustration. Even for the non-radical person, emotions run high and harsh rhetoric tends to eclipse hope. Therefore, stop inciting and spreading hatred.  There should be ways to resolve, or at least mitigate, even complex, violent, and protracted conflicts between communities and nations like ours. It is our joint responsibility as leaders.

To my fellow Israeli citizens and Palestinians alike I point out that Israel’s May 1948 Declaration of Independence reads: “This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable. This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” 

This Zionist vision cannot be achieved unless a border is drawn between the secure, democratic nation-state of the Jewish people and a viable, demilitarized nation-state of the Palestinian people. I seek to strengthen the future of Israel for generations to come through a negotiated agreement.

Therefore, I declare that I am willing to meet immediately with President Abbas and negotiate an agreement based on two states for the two peoples, with the border between them to be agreed based on the 1967 lines with equal territorial swaps. 

Moreover, to demonstrate my determination to attain that goal, I hereby announce that Israel has no sovereignty claims east of the West Bank security fence.  In addition, I intend to pass a law in the Knesset that will enable the settlers residing in these areas to voluntarily relocate to Israel-proper and provide assistance for their move.

Regardless of the Palestinian response to this plan, it is my responsibility to delineate a provisional border, incorporating the large blocks of settlements so that our borders will encompass a clear Jewish majority and a true democracy within secure boundaries. 

One word to my brethren, the settlers:  You are the pioneers of our time.  You served as emissaries by the governments of Israel, and led the struggle for the independence and security of our country.   That struggle will achieve one of its most significant milestones with a two-state solution and the recognition in the Arab world of Israel’s legitimacy. However, some of you will have to relocate when the main blocks of settlements, encompassing 80% of you, are incorporated into Israel. 

Finally, I call on all of the parties: the United Nations, the Palestinian people, the Arab world, the international community, the different factions of the Israeli society:  let us all act now on behalf of the future of our hatred-torn Middle East.

Gilead Sher, Chief of Staff for former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Israeli senior peace negotiator, heads the Center for Applied Negotiations at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv and is a co-founder of the Israeli NGO Blue White Future.

Bibi’s fate hangs in the balance as Israel votes

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a fight for his political survival on Tuesday as Israelis voted in an election that opinion polls predict the center-left opposition could win.

After a bitterly contested campaign, the election has turned into a referendum on “Bibi” Netanyahu, 65, who has been in power for a total of nine years spread over three terms.

If he narrowly loses the vote, Netanyahu is probably still better placed than the opposition Zionist Union to cobble together a coalition, setting him on track to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

However, a fourth term would probably also prolong his prickly relationship with Israel's main ally, the United States, at least as long as Barack Obama is in the White House.

Netanyahu has focused on the threat from Iran's nuclear program and militant Islam. But many Israelis say they are tiring of the message, and the center-left's campaign on social and economic issues, especially the high cost of housing and everyday living in Israel, appears to have won support.

In a possible sign of edginess, Netanyahu took to Facebook to denounce what he said was an effort by left-wing non-profit groups to get Arab-Israelis out to sway the election against him. “The right-wing government is in danger,” he wrote. “Arab voters are going to vote in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

He also took the unusual step of calling the media to his official residence for a statement while voting was underway, only to repeat his concerns about the opposition winning and to urge people to vote for him.

When the last opinion polls were published on March 13, the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog held a four-seat lead over Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, a margin that had the opposition set for a surprise victory.

But in the last days of campaigning, Netanyahu fought to shore up his Likud base and lure voters from other right-wing, nationalist parties, promising more building of Jewish settlements and saying the Palestinians would not get their own state if he were re-elected.

Those sweeping promises, if carried out, would further isolate Israel from the United States and the European Union, which believe a peace deal must accommodate Palestinian demands for a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

But they may go some way towards persuading voters to stick with what they know, rather than another candidate on the right.

Surveys show around 15 percent of voters are undecided, meaning the result could swing widely – opinion polls have rarely been good predictors of Israeli elections in the past.

When Netanyahu called the election in December, two years early, he looked set for an easy victory. But Herzog has mounted a resilient campaign and there is a sense that change could be in the air. Some voters have talked of Netanyahu fatigue.

By 6 pm (1600 GMT), turnout was running at 55 percent, slightly lower than the last election. Voting ends at 10 pm, with the first exit polls published immediately afterwards.

If Netanyahu can draw votes from other right-wing parties, he may be in a position to be asked first by Israel's president to try to form a coalition.

No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel's 67-year history. Coalition-building is an unpredictable game, with any number of allegiances possible among the 10 or 11 parties expected to win a place in the 120-seat Knesset.

It also takes time: the party invited to try to form a government has up to 42 days to negotiate a coalition. It may be mid-May at the earliest before Israel has a new government.


Since there are more parties on the right and far-right, Netanyahu would have the advantage in coalition building if the Zionist Union wins by only a small margin. But if the center-left wins by four or more seats, it should get the nod first to try to form a government.

Under sunny skies, Netanyahu went to vote early with his wife at a school near their home in Jerusalem. He acknowledged that it was a tight race and urged voters to back the right.

Herzog, who has overcome criticism of his slight stature and reedy voice to lead a strong campaign, voted in Tel Aviv, where he emphasized that the election was about a new direction.

“Whoever wants to continue the way of Bibi – despair and disappointment – can vote for him,” he said. “But whoever wants change, hope, and really a better future for Israel, vote for the Zionist Union under my leadership.”

The son of a former president and the grandson of an eminent rabbi, Herzog, 54, is as close as it gets to having Kennedy-style heritage in Israel. While his leadership has been criticized in the past, he has shown wit and intellect on the campaign trail, bolstering his image among voters.

“For the first time in my life, I'm going to be voting for Labour, that is the Zionist Union,” said Dedi Cohen, 39, a lawyer in Tel Aviv. “The risk of Netanyahu building the next government is too big. How long has he been in power? Nine years? It's too much. Enough.”

Three or four parties are likely to decide how the balance of power tips in the coalition building.

Moshe Kahlon, the leader of Kulanu, a centrist party that broke away from Likud, is seen as perhaps the most important “kingmaker”. A former communications minister credited with bringing down mobile phone prices, Kahlon could ally with either Netanyahu or Herzog, bringing up to 10 seats with him.

One of the party's candidates, Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, has said that whoever wins must try to repair relations with Washington, which have been under particular strain since Netanyahu addressed Congress on March 3, attacking a possible nuclear deal with Iran sought by Obama.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, could also ally with either side, bringing 12-14 seats. But he does not sit comfortably with religious parties, making him less flexible in coalition talks.

If the center-left is to assemble a coalition, it will also need the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, which are expected to win around 13 seats.

Another factor is the parties from Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, which for the first time have united under one list and are expected to win around 13 seats as well. While they are unlikely to join a center-left coalition, they could give it tacit support and create a block against Netanyahu.

Is Bibi a mansplaining Orientalist?

Is Bibi a mansplainer?

Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, all but said so after Netanyahu’s Congress speech Tuesday:

As one who values the U.S. – Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the Prime Minister’s speech – saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, “mansplainer” has been in the lexicon for at least six years; this Urban Dictionary definition dates from 2009:

To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether.

Pelosi’s point – and I’ve heard this before from Democrats on the Hill – is that they feel that Netanyahu and his proxy here, Ambassador Ron Dermer, start conversations by presuming their interlocutors know nothing.

One “mansplaining” moment in Netanyahu’s speech, for instance, might be the passage where the Israeli leader informs Americans how many Americans Iran and its proxies have killed.

Iran took dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran, murdered hundreds of American soldiers, Marines, in Beirut, and was responsible for killing and maiming thousands of American service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The tone of Netanyahu’s speech clearly matters, particularly with the multiple caveats at the beginning of his speech that he was not interested in reaching just one side of the partisan divide.

I know that no matter on which side of the aisle you sit, you stand with Israel. The remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States has always been above politics. It must always remain above politics.

So was Pelosi oversensitive?

Consider another blip in the speech, having to do with Iranians.

Here’s the setup:

The people of Iran are very talented people. They’re heirs to one of the world’s great civilizations.

OK, condescension.

And here’s the thrust, my emphasis added:

Now, if Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff. They’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.

So, yes, it’s a throwaway reference to a tactic that actually prevails in the Middle East, the market walkaway. Big deal. To be offended by this would be political correctness run amok, right?

Maybe. Except it is reductive (imagine “and this often happens in a Jewish pawn shop – call their bluff.”). And it lit the Internet on fire, with a number of people decrying the reference as racist and “Orientalist,” akin to using “Jew” as a verb.

While PC terminology may be annoying, one would think it might matter a little to a leader trying to reach both sides of the aisle.

On packed flight to Israel, hundreds of American Jews, emboldened by Gaza crisis, start lives anew

Daniel Knafo was wide awake aboard the Boeing 747 as sunlight began peaking over the northern horizon of the Mediterranean Sea early on the morning of Aug. 12.

Less than 10 hours earlier, he was at the departure terminal of John F. Kennedy International Airport with more than 300 American Jews, all of them embarking on a journey to start new lives in Israel.

And shortly before that, the teenager was at Los Angeles International Airport, bidding farewell to the city he called home for the first 17 years of his life.

At about 5 a.m., Knafo was standing in the aisle of El Al chartered flight 3004, which was cruising above the Mediterranean and less than two hours west of Ben Gurion International Airport, where the Woodland Hills native  would step on to the tarmac with the other 338 other Jews onboard—young, old, married and single.

Guy Zohar and Daniel Knafo, both from the San Fernando Valley, at Ben Gurion Airport.

Of those, Knafo was also one of 108 young Jews planning to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces within the first few months of making Israel home. This flight was chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that promotes aliyah to Israel from North America and the United Kingdom. The group assists families and individuals in making the move, with financial support, assistance with the job hunt and other myriad obstacles that immigrants have to navigate.

It was the organization’s 52nd chartered aliyah flight since its founding in 2002, during which time, according to its website, Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped more than 30,000 diaspora Jews move to Israel.

The timing of this particular flight full of immigrants, or olim, may strike some as particularly poignant, given the on-and-off war that has enveloped Israel for the past several weeks—Hamas has fired 3,500 rockets into Israel since July 8, according to the IDF. And in response to the rockets and the discovery of more than 30 underground cross-border attack tunnels, Israel’s military launched a ground and air assault on Hamas’s strongholds in Gaza, most of which are densely populated within civilian neighborhoods. The war has left a reported 64 Israeli soldiers, three Israeli civilians, and 1,881 Palestinians dead.

But for Knafo and numerous other American olim interviewed by the Journal at JFK airport and aboard the flight, the Gaza war is not a deterrent to making aliyah—it is, at least in part, a catalyst to move to the Jewish state.

“I want to be there more than ever,” Knafo said, as dozens of fellow soon-to-be soldiers socialized around him. “Nothing will stop me from joining.”

Knafo, who attended El Camino Real High School and graduated from New Community Jewish High School, hopes to serve either in the IDF’s paratrooper unit (Tzanchanim) or in the elite Golani Brigade. He is honest with himself about the risks he will face. “If they tell you they are not scared, they’re lying,” he said of all the  young immigrants preparing for military service.

Not long before leaving, on July 20, Knafo attended an evening candlelight vigil in Los Angeles for Max Steinberg, another former student at El Camino Real High School who left Los Angeles to volunteer in the IDF. Steinberg and six other soldiers were killed in Gaza when their Golani unit’s vehicle was struck by Hamas anti-tank missiles in the first days of the IDF’s ground incursion.

Knafo said that he felt guilty leading a normal life while Israel was embroiled in war.
“It kills me that while they are fighting I’m in L.A. living the life, driving my car, going to the beach,” he said. “I don’t think its right. That’s why I want to be there more than ever.”

Knafo is one of 49 Jews from California who landed at Ben Gurion Airport early on the morning of Aug. 12 on the chartered flight—25 of whom will be joining the IDF. And while a large swath of the plane’s other passengers were also from New York and New Jersey (117 and 45, respectively), the group of olim hailed from places as far north as Alaska and Canada’s British Columbia, and as far south as Georgia and Florida.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, also from Los Angeles, decided that this would be their last chance to make the move with their three children. Their oldest, Yishai, 8, was approaching the age when, Matt said, he and Ariella wouldn’t feel as comfortable starting a new life for the entire family.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, moving to Israel from Los Angeles, with their three children at JFK after a ceremony led by Nefesh B'Nefesh

The Rosenblatts plan to stay with relatives this week until they receive the key to their apartment in Efrat; Matt, who had a job as an actuary in Los Angeles, will follow up on some work leads in Israel. Shortly before a joyful and celebratory departure ceremony at JFK—where the olim were greeted by Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor and American-born Knesset member Dov Lipman — Matt said he and Ariella discussed the distinctive timing of their move, but decided against delaying or cancelling .

“Had we been there already two months and then this started up while we were already there, we wouldn’t have come back, so, really, what’s the difference?” Matt said.

The Rosenblatts a few moments after landing in Israel. They will soon move into an apartment in Efrat.

Onboard, as the flight neared Israel, Ariella was keeping an eye on 1-year-old Yair, her youngest, and recalling the couples’ conversations about the fact that their children would eventually have to serve in the Israeli military.

“We’ve talked about it. We were like, ‘Wow, that’s two sons in the army,” she said. “It’s scary.”
Feeling “excited” and “a little nervous,” Ariella added, seeing your children serve in the military is a price of living in Israel, and that, “We need to be home when our country is in this situation.”

Throughout the group, not one person interviewed expressed regret or fear, either at the decision to start anew in Israel, or at the choice to go now and not wait until the advent of cease-fires that would endure in longer than 72-hour intervals.

In fact, the spirited mood on board the airplane echoed, on the one hand, the feel of a Jewish summer camp field trip (with teenagers and young adults mingling, sitting on laps and barely sleeping), and on another hand, the patriotic Zionist mission that it was. Many passengers wore shirts that read, “Aliyah is my protective edge,” a reference to Operation Protective Edge, the IDF’s official moniker for its Gaza campaign.

Whenever a Nefesh B’Nefesh staff member referenced over loudspeaker those on the flight who would be enlisting with the IDF, much of the plane erupted in applause.

And, upon arrival at Ben Gurion, the new arrivals were greeted by Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s recently appointed president, and Natan Sharansky, the renowned Soviet refusenik and chairman of the Jewish Agency—as well as hundreds of cheering Israelis and dozens of reporters and cameramen covering the arrival of the newcomers from North America.President Reuven Rivlin and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky greet the olim as they descend to the tarmac.

Lena Elkins, who flew Friday from her hometown of San Francisco to New York, was one of a small number of young olim aboard the flight who will jump straight into her professional life without first joining the military. A recent graduate of the University of Oregon, Elkins’ younger sister moved to Israel last year and is in the IDF.

Living in Israel, Elkins said a few hours into the flight, has been on her mind since a visit six years ago with the Jewish Federation’s Diller Teen Fellows Program. And while she wishes she had served in the military, she said finding work is her priority now. Doing so in Israel, she said, particularly now, is also a major part of the Zionist project.

“I think it [Gaza] honestly has strengthened it [aliyah],” Elkins said. “It’s what Israel needs right now. This is what Zionism is. It’s people being there for Israel.”

Shortly after stepping foot on the tarmac and getting a feel for the love Israelis heap on diaspora Jews who move here, Channah Barkhordarie, a recent doctoral graduate of UCLA, said aliyah entered her mind last September, when her PhD advisor moved to Israel.

Barkhordarie, like Elkins, has no plans to enlist in the military and views her decision to live here as a way to “support this state.”

“Coming here and studying here and living my life here—that’s my show of support,” she said.

Everyone, it seemed, had made their aliyah decision long before this summer’s turmoil but that decision was only rendered more meaningful by the recent war, as well as the deaths of three Israeli teens by terrorists that provoked the fighting.

Toby and Chaby Karan, from Riverdale, at JFK airport.

“We just couldn’t cope with just being here,” Toby Karan, who moved from Riverdale, N.Y. with his wife, Chava, and four children, said at JFK airport before departure. “There were days through the past two months, the hardest days, that we said we’d never more wanted to live in Israel.”

On the flight, Liat Aharon, 18, sat calmly in her seat as many of her friends around her bounced around the cabin. “It seems like a dream,” said the Encino native of the approach to Israel, but she added, “It keeps getting scarier and scarier; I can’t believe it’s already happening.”

When asked, though, whether she felt as if she was leaving home or going home, she responded immediately:

“I’m going home.”

Netanyahu tackles tricky coalition-building

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Thursday with Yair Lapid, the surprise runner-up in an election last month, to try to draw him into a broad government that could bridge Israel's religious divide.

In the January 22 ballot, centrist candidate Lapid's rallying cry, “equal sharing of the burden”, touched a nerve among voters angered by military exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox students and state stipends for large, religious families.

Lapid, a former TV anchorman who leads the new middle-of-the-road Yesh Atid, has been publicly sparring with Netanyahu, even suggesting that he could become Israel's next leader within 18 months should Netanyahu fail to form a stable government.

Netanyahu, looking to clear the air just days after the president asked him to form the next government, held a two-hour session with Lapid to lay out his vision for a coalition of center, rightist and religious parties.

“The meeting … was conducted in a very good atmosphere. It was a agreed that another meeting between the two would be held soon,” Yisrael-Beitenu and Yesh Atid said in a brief joint statement.

In a major political surprise, Yesh Atid captured 19 of parliament's 120 seats, compared with 31 for Yisrael Beitenu, which had 42 legislators in the previous Knesset.

Netanyahu needs at least 61 seats for a parliamentary majority and has 42 days to do it. He has several options, ranging from a narrow coalition with traditional right-wing and religious partners to broader alliances with centrist parties.

A government with centrist partners could help Netanyahu project a more moderate image as he prepares for a visit to Israel this spring by U.S. President Barack Obama, with whom he has had a testy relationship.

Two major international issues – frozen peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and possible Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear program – were eclipsed during much of the election campaign by domestic social and economic concerns.

For Netanyahu, adding ultra-Orthodox parties – traditionally focused on their religious constituencies rather than on foreign policy – to a governing coalition could make it easier to leave out far-right factions and move forward in peacemaking.

“The voter wanted Netanyahu to be prime minister and Lapid to be the senior partner,” Vice Premier Silvan Shalom of Likud-Beitenu told Army Radio before the two convened at the prime minister's Jerusalem residence.

“And the voter also wanted there to be a national unity government … so we would like to see everyone inside,” Shalom said. “We are making every effort vis-a-vis the ultra-Orthodox, too. They also understand that times have changed, that something must be done.”

Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18. However, exceptions are made for most Arab citizens of Israel, as well as ultra-Orthodox men and women.

About 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men engage in full-time Jewish religious studies, keeping them out of the labor market and burdening the economy and state resources.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

Who is Yair Lapid? [VIDEO]

Shmuel Rosner, Senior Political Editor of the Jewish Journal, speaks with Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman about the results of the Jan. 23 Israeli election.

Opinion: Is Obama good or bad for Israel?

During this latest episode of the long-running Israel-America reality show – which began May 19 with President Barack Obama’s infamous “1967 lines” speech, followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiant response at the White House the next day, and, finally, Obama’s more conciliatory address at the AIPAC convention on May 22 — I vacillated between my emotional “Sephardi hothead” side and my calmer “Ashkenazi tachlis” side.

My Sephardi side was fuming at Obama for ambushing Bibi with his explosive “1967 lines” speech just before Bibi got on a plane to fly to Washington. Not a way to treat a guest and a friend. As for the 1967 lines, this was the first time that an American president had explicitly endorsed the green line as a basis to negotiate a border — another unwelcoming thought.

I was also fuming at the fact that Obama had asked Israel to take “bold” steps and make painful concessions without recognizing how often Israel has done so in the past and gotten burned, and without asking the Palestinians to take any equivalent steps, such as compromising on the right of return, which everyone knows is a deal-killer.

My Sephardi side also got upset at how Obama spent so little time on the biggest existential threat to the Jewish state and the real problem in the Middle East today: Iran and its terrorist proxies.

My Ashkenazi side, however, stayed calm and kept repeating these words: Business is business — what’s best for Israel? This made me confront the brutal reality that most of the world is against us, and Israel is holding a very crummy hand.

In a few months, for example, the U.N. General Assembly is expected to vote unanimously to recognize a Palestinian state along Israel’s “indefensible” 1967 borders. As a result, as Peter Beinart warned in The Daily Beast: “According to international law, Israel will be occupying a sovereign nation. The result will likely be a bonanza of lawsuits, divestment campaigns and cancelled business deals. Israelis will feel more and more besieged.” As if things weren’t bad enough already.

With this “tsunami” right around the corner, I couldn’t help but see President Obama in a different light.

Despite my misgivings, I had to recognize that Obama had said plenty of supportive things about Israel. As Ari Shavit summarized in Haaretz: “He blocked the Palestinian initiative to unilaterally establish a Palestinian state. He condemned the Palestinian effort to delegitimize Israel. He came out against Hamas. He did not demand a total and immediate freeze on settlement construction. He did not embrace the Arab peace initiative. He showed that he has internalized Israel’s security problems and defense concerns. Above all, he adopted the two main principles of Israel’s peace doctrine: Israel as a Jewish state and Palestine as a demilitarized state.”

Love him or hate him, that’s not a bad list. I said to myself: Here’s the most powerful man on earth, leading the most powerful nation on earth, and he’s saying he wants what’s best for Israel. OK, how do I get him totally on my side for the stormy days ahead?

Well, here’s the deal as I saw it: Israel accepts the formulation, “1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps,” and, in return, the most powerful man on earth backs us to the hilt and protects us against a hostile world.

Honestly, I don’t think I would have had the chutzpah to say no.

Instead, I probably would have given a diplomatic and qualified yes: “Israel accepts, as a starting point for negotiations, the president’s formulation of ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps,’ provided this does not preclude secure borders and the retention of key settlement blocks.”

In addition to buying Israel some gratitude (and latitude), this would have given Obama more leverage to garner allies for Israel against the coming Palestinian onslaught at the U.N. and other international forums.

It would also have shifted the pressure onto the Palestinians. Just like the Palestinians used Obama’s “settlement freeze” to turn Israel into the main obstacle to peace, Israel could have used Obama’s anti-Hamas statement to turn the Palestinians into the main obstacle. Just like they made Israel squirm over settlements, we would have made them squirm over Hamas.

But by responding with an emphatic no, Bibi kept the spotlight squarely on Israel and missed an opportunity to turn the tables on the Palestinians.

It wouldn’t have cost us much to play along. Unlike the settlement freeze — which required 500,000 Jews to stop all construction — the latest American request only required Israel to say a qualified yes. Because the Palestinians are always saying no, this would expose them, rather than Israel, as the no people.

In any event, what Israel desperately needs right now is priceless: the unqualified support of the most powerful man on earth.

Seen in that light, it doesn’t matter if I think Obama is good or bad for Israel. What matters is that he’s really important for Israel — and I need him squarely on my side.

Like I said, business is business, whether you’re Ashkenazi or Sephardi.

Letters to the Editor: Ryan vs. Obama, Bibi, Palestine and dancing rabbis

Paul Ryan vs. Barack Obama

It is very telling that in both of the articles criticizing Paul Ryan’s courageous budget proposal, many words (and much hand wringing) are expended defending existing entitlements that are bankrupting our nation but not one word addresses the unsustainable cost of these programs or how we will pay for their escalating costs (“Obama’s Way: Maintain Support for Social Programs” and “Threat to Food Stamps Lies Hidden in Ryan’s Plan,” April 22). These authors exhort our national leaders to craft policy with their “hearts” based on “compassion.” Much of the nation is realizing instead that it is necessary to make policy decisions with our heads based on logic, and taking into account basic financial arithmetic. The American dream is not one of dependency, but of striving, individual freedom and the satisfaction that comes from independence. Our collective future depends on returning to these values.

Eric Swanson
via e-mail

Arnold Steinberg’s paean to Congressman Paul Ryan and Ryan’s ill-conceived budget plan is filled with distortions and misinformation (“Ryan’s Way: Stop Government Excess,” April 22). More disturbing than the lack of factual accuracy, however, is the ill-mannered, nasty and pejorative nature of the essay. The piece is filled with derogatory remarks about — in no particular order — Democrats, liberals, people needing food stamps, the “dependent class,” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Henry Waxman, Medicare as a Ponzi scheme, government unions, unemployment insurance, etc. Perhaps Steinberg is dreaming of a career succeeding Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage. It seems that they’re reading from the same playbook. I am appalled at the lack of civility in this polemic. It completely precludes any productive discussion of the issues and merely evokes anger and rejection.

Barbara H. Bergen
Los Angeles

Plan for Bibi

David Suissa, in his column of April 15 (“Bibi Needs a Plan, Fast”), wonders what Bibi should do regarding the impending U.N. recognition of Palestine. The answer is simple: He should publicly welcome it with open arms, and then invite the Palestinians to sit down and negotiate the details.

Adar Belinkoff

David Suissa overlooks the opportunity presented by the U.N.’s anticipated recognition of a Palestinian state. He sees the issue narrowly as a public relations disaster, to which Israel should respond by presenting a peace plan. Rather, many countries in the world, as well as much of the U.S. Jewish community, realize that peace and normalcy will never be restored in the Middle East unless there is a solid boundary between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, clarifying who has legal jurisdiction over their respective geographies. With an internationally recognized border, encroachments by either sovereignty will be obvious, and the citizens of both polities can get down to the serious business of state-building and economic development. This process took place in the 19th century between the U.S. and Mexico, and despite repeated military incursions and a nationalistic antagonism on both sides, disputes over the land and water boundary are now amicably resolved. There is no reason why Israel and Palestine cannot do the same.

Peter L. Reich
Professor of Law & Director,
Mexico City Program
Whittier Law School
Costa Mesa

Dancing Rabbis

In response to Dennis Prager (“Dancing With the Rabbis?” April 15), I state that my valued teachers, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and my fellow colleagues Rabbis Mark Borowitz, Nina Feinstein and Zoë Klein, beautifully preserve the dignity of the rabbinate on a daily basis. I credit them with their dedication to raise funds by participating in this event.

Prager equates preserving the dignity of the rabbinate with addressing rabbis by their titles. He references the beginning of the 1960s, when these “past values” were overthrown. However, in 1913, Conservative Judaism’s founder, Dr. Solomon Schechter, emphasized that Conservative Judaism would typify “a Jewry related to modern living.”

We rabbis dance in public, we wear bathing suits in public, and some even take ballet classes on our days off. And yet, when we teach, we are called “rabbi,” we lay tefillin during daily morning davening, and we study weekly. We earn the title “rabbi” through our personal relationships with Jews and our ability to balance being an authority figure and a human being.

Is it possible that we have a “liberal-conservative” divide here, as Mr. Prager claims? Perhaps he would prefer that we be “conservative” Conservative rabbis. But if this means I must leave post-modernity behind and abandon modeling a balanced rabbinic life, then I embrace striding the liberal-conservative divide. I am a real-life Conservative rabbi who thanks my colleagues for being real-life rabbis.

Rabbi Susan Leider, Associate Rabbi
Temple Beth Am
Los Angeles


In “Search for Polish Past Inspires Film, Education” (April 22), the first caption should have read: Gertrude Bloom (daughter of Leah Tickotsky) with her husband, Hyman.

In “Etta Israel Expands Programs” (April 22), the $200,000 Cutting Edge grant Etta Israel received was awarded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

Netanyahu to answer questions on YouTube

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will answer questions from people around the world when he appears on YouTube’s World View.

Netanyahu will be the third world leader to appear on the citizen-powered interview program with his live-streamed interview on March 23.

YouTube is partnering with Israel’s Channel 2 News for the interview with Netanyahu; Channel 2 newsreader Dana Weiss will facilitate the broadcast. The 40-minute interview will be broadcast live, in Hebrew, on Israeli television and on YouTube simultaneously. YouTube also will stream the interview in English.

The questions can be uploaded to the website by video, text or Twitter (#AskNetanyahu). The deadline to submit questions is March 21 at 8 p.m.

President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have appeared on the program.

“I invite Arab viewers and Palestinian viewers to have this exchange with us because I think we have to clear the air,” Netanyahu said in a pre-recorded message. “I think people have to understand what an open, liberal, tolerant society Israel is and how much it desires peace.”

The Itamar murders: Double incitement

You’ve got to hand it to Bibi Netanyahu, who somehow managed to turn international outrage over the brutal massacre of a young Jewish family on the Shabbat as they slept in their beds into widespread criticism of his aggressive settlement policy.

The most frequent question I get in speaking to Jewish groups around the country is “Why doesn’t Israel get better PR advice?”  The answer is simple: the problem isn’t PR, it’s policy and the way it’s announced to the world.

One Israeli friend emailed me this week, ” For a person supposed to be a seasoned, articulate ‘hasbarah guru,’ Bibi certainly clouded the water in the pond.”

Presented with an opportunity to focus international condemnation on Palestinian incitement and the PA’s refusal to return to the peace table, Netanyahu grabbed the spotlight for himself and turned the discussion to settlements.

A headline writer in one Israeli paper summed up the PM’s response: “They shoot, we build.”

Who benefits?  The rejectionists on all sides who don’t want peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Playing to his right wing base, Netanyahu not only announced the construction of 500 new homes but he also is trying to bring into his governing coalition the farther right National Union party, which includes an unabashed admirer of the late Meir Kahane.

An equally tone deaf Mahmoud Abbas failed to grasp the importance of this heinous crime. After much private and public prodding – Netanyahu labeled the initial PA response “weak and mumbled”—he went on Israeli radio to condemn this “abominable, inhuman and immoral” act.  It remains to be seen whether he will repeat that on Palestinian media in Arabic.

While the five members of the Fogel family, three young children and their parents, were being buried in Itamar, a few miles to the south in the town of Al-Bireh, Palestinians were dedicating a town square in the memory of the leader of Fatah terror cell which killed 35 Israelis and an American in a 1978 bus hijacking.

The Israel Today newspaper raised the possibility that extremist settlers could put a “price tag” [revenge] on the Itamar murders and try to collect from the Palestinians, which could kindle another violent intifada.

Both Netanyahu and Abbas had an opportunity to calm the waters and use the incident as an opening to return to the peace table, but, as usual, neither appeared interested.

It seemed as though everyone wanted to exploit the tragedy for his or her own purposes. 

For Israeli rejectionists it was more evidence that the Palestinians have no interest in peace and that withdrawing from the West Bank would be a disaster for Israel.

For the left it was proof of the need to accelerate peace talks, as if a signed agreement would somehow tamp down the overflowing animosities that undoubtedly motivated last week’s murders.

Hamas and the Islamists praised the murder as a “heroic” act of resistance. 

And among Jewish groups there were even those who saw it as a fundraising opportunity and mailed out appeals for contributions.

Several media organizations looked like they were out to prove their reputation for anti-Israel bias.  CNN seemed to question whether the murders were an act of terrorism when on its web site it put quotes around the term “terror act.” 

The BBC, with a longstanding reputation for bias, said the killer was an “intruder…whom the Israeli military calls a terrorist.”  And Reuters referred to the IDF as “the Israeli occupation forces” and then had the chutzpah to say there was nothing pejorative about using a term popular among anti-Israel activists.

Others used the incident to spread their ideology, facts be damned.  The notoriously unreliable DEBKAfile, an Israeli website that claims to be an intelligence and security news service, offered a totally unsubstantiated but incendiary claim suggesting Abbas himself was personally responsible for the murders.  It reported, “Abbas had quietly ordered heads of his Fatah organization to throw its support behind the atrocity.”

Netanyahu is right: incitement is a major source of friction and distrust.  But both sides play that game.  He should listen to the invective of some of his own ministers. One took the unprecedented – and inflammatory step – of publishing the grizzly crime scene pictures.  And does the PM think the announcement of 500 new settlement homes does not rile the Palestinians as well as Israel’s friends?

When he could have calmed the waters and displayed statesmanlike leadership, Netanyahu, who is often ridiculed for comparing himself to Churchill, chose instead to pander to his extremists. Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said “The buck stops here.” Bibi needs one that says “Sheket Be’vakasha.”

With pressure mounting, will Bibi go left or right?

Israel is staring at a fork in the road, with potential disaster along either path.

On the path to the left lies a major Israeli peace initiative that deals with all the core issues under dispute with the Palestinians. On the path to the right lies more waiting, possibly with some kind of offer of an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians, until conditions are right for something more.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man behind the wheel at this critical juncture, is expected to announce a new peace initiative within the next two months, and the battle over which path it will hew to is causing serious divisions within his Cabinet.

His defense minister, Ehud Barak, says the only way to head off a “diplomatic tsunami” that will engulf the Jewish state is by pressing for a major initiative on the Palestinian track that deals with all the core issues. Likud moderates such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan support Barak’s stance.

Hard-liners from the ruling Likud Party warn that if Israel makes premature territorial concessions, disaster will follow. Benny Begin, Silvan Shalom and Moshe Ya’alon are leading this very strong and vocal campaign against Barak’s proposal.

The debate has brought to the fore the fundamental differences within the Cabinet on the Palestinian issue.

Barak argues that unless Israel has a peace plan on the table within the next few months, it could suffer its worst-ever diplomatic defeat. With Israel failing to offer any alternative, he envisions a situation in which the Palestinians take their case to the United Nations in September and get wall-to-wall international recognition of their state along the 1967 lines without having to make concessions on borders, refugees or Jerusalem—or even declare an end to the conflict.

In Barak’s view, if Israel wants its case to be heard, it must offer an alternative plan. Otherwise, it will find itself under increasing international pressure to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines without even its most basic security demands taken into account. Israel also will face growing delegitimization as an occupying power in defiance of the will of the international community.

“It would be a mistake to ignore this tsunami,” he said Sunday at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Israel’s delegitimization is just over the horizon, even if the public doesn’t see it. It’s very dangerous and we need to act.”

For the hard-liners, the danger lies in what they call Barak’s “delusional” approach. Ya’alon, who like Barak is a former Israeli army chief of staff, argues that it is dangerously naive to think the conflict can be solved by territorial concessions when the real problem is a fundamental Palestinian refusal to come to terms with Israel’s existence.

Ya’alon says that even moderate Palestinian leaders such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas would like to see Israel disappear, and that peace will be possible only when the Palestinian mind-set changes and all forms of anti-Israel education and incitement stop.

It’s a view that has gained some more traction among the Israeli public following the brutal killings last Friday night of five family members in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Itamar.

For now, Ya’alon says, the focus should be on Palestinian institution-building and economic improvement; in other words, slow bottom-up building of a Palestinian capacity for peace. Big ambitious peace moves like Barak’s inevitably will fail and likely spawn new violence, he says. Ya’alon insists that any proposed new peace plan should have no territorial dimension.

Which way is Netanyahu likely to go?

On the one hand, he and his closest advisers have a great deal of respect for Barak and are well aware of the widespread international perception that it is Netanyahu’s foot-dragging on peacemaking that is responsible for the current impasse. Indeed, the leaks on Netanyahu’s purported new peace plan followed a heated telephone exchange in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly accused Netanyahu of having “done nothing to advance peace.”

Similarly, on March 1, President Obama told a roomful of American Jewish organizational leaders that they and their friends and colleagues in Israel should “search your souls” over Israel’s seriousness about making peace.

On the other hand, Netanyahu’s circle is comprised of hard-liners who are widely believed to wield much influence over the prime minister. The prime minister also has made some recent hard-line moves—for example, appointing the hawkish Yaakov Amidror as his new national security adviser and holding talks with the far right National Union Party on joining the governing coalition.

The question is not whether Netanyahu will present a peace plan but how far he will go.

Despite Ya’alon’s reservations, the plan is expected to focus on territorial and security issues, and the linkage between them. The way the plan is shaping up, Israel probably will offer to hand over more territory to full Palestinian jurisdiction ahead of negotiations on final borders and allay Palestinian fears that the interim stage will become permanent.

Under the plan, the United States will assure the Palestinians that final borders will be based on the pre-1967 lines with relatively minor land swaps, and Israel will seek U.S. assurances for an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and for retention of large settlement blocs as part of Israel proper.

On the basis of the plan, reflecting Israeli good will and seriousness about peacemaking with a strong international underpinning, the Palestinians will be invited to talks on all the core issues.

Due to the differences between Cabinet moderates and hard-liners, Netanyahu has not discussed the plan in the Forum of Seven senior ministers, which includes Barak, Meridor, Begin and Ya’alon. Instead he is holding a series of one-on-one consultations.

There will also have to be detailed talks with the Americans to finalize a package in which they have a major role.

Despite the hype surrounding the new peace package, it remains too early to gauge whether Netanyahu is serious about peacemaking, as he insists, or simply playing for time, as his critics contend.

But with perception growing overseas that Netanyahu is the problem, not the Palestinians, the onus is on the prime minister to prove that this time he means business.

Bibi sends Obama letter requesting Pollard release

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Neyanyahu wrote President Obama urging clemency for Jonathan Pollard.

“At the time of his arrest, Jonathan Pollard was acting as an agent of the Israeli government,” Netanyahu wrote in his letter, sent Tuesday. “Even though Israel was in no way directing its intelligence efforts against the United States, its actions were wrong and wholly unacceptable. Both Mr. Pollard and the Government of Israel have repeatedly expressed remorse for these actions, and Israel will continue to abide by its commitment that such wrongful actions will never be repeated.”

Netanyahu read his letter Tuesday evening to a Knesset plenum discussion.  His letter, Israel’s first formal request for Pollard’s release, came a day after similar urgings from over 500 clergy in a letter to Obama.

“After more than two and a half decades in prison, Mr. Pollard’s health is declining,” reads the letter sent Monday from rabbis representing all streams, as well as a number of leading Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy. “He has repeatedly expressed remorse for his actions, and by all accounts has served as a model inmate. Commuting his sentence to time served would be a wholly appropriate exercise of your power of clemency—as well as a matter of basic fairness and American justice. It would also represent a clear sense of compassion and reconciliation—a sign of hope much needed in today’s world of tension and turmoil.”

The letters are the latest in a surge of pleas to free Pollard, a U.S. Navy analyst who spied for Israel and who has been in prison since 1985.

A raft of Democratic Congress members urged Obama to release Pollard late last year, and a number of officials who were involved in investigating the matter also have signed on to the effort.

Among the signatories of the clergy letter was Rabbi Donald Levy of Temple Beit Torah in Colorado Springs, Colo., a former Navy cryptologist who participated in the damage assessment after Pollard’s arrest.

“There was nothing that we came across to indicate that Pollard gave information to any country but Israel,” said Levy said in a separate statement. “Further, the information he probably disclosed consisted primarily of daily operational intelligence summaries, information that is extremely perishable. It did not appear to me at the time that the information he gave Israel should have resulted in a life sentence.”

Also signing the letter were leaders of lay Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, B’nai B’rith International and the Zionist Organization of America.

Netanyahu in his letter, first obtained by Ha’aretz, cited reports of Pollard’s ill health.

“Jonathan has suffered greatly for his actions and his health has deteriorated considerably,” he said. “I know that the United States is a country based on fairness, justice and mercy. For all these reasons, I respectfully ask that you favorably consider this request for clemency. The people of Israel will be eternally grateful.”

Obama-Netanyahu meeting looks good, but what did they talk about? [VIDEO]

The optics were perfect, but the meaning was elusive.

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat together Tuesday, joshing and smiling, trying to project a clear message: The rift was over. Israel and the United States are on the same track again.

Read the transcript of the meeting here.

“In terms of my relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I know the press, both in Israel and stateside, enjoys seeing if there’s news there,” Obama said. “But the fact of the matter is that I’ve trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected president, and have said so both publicly and privately.”

The meeting capped months of tensions sparked by Israel’s announcement in March of a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during an official visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.

The image of a friendly encounter between the two leaders was almost tainted in the lead-up to the meeting when it was leaked that Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, had warned in a private conversation of a “tectonic rift” between the two countries. Oren later explained that he had been misquoted: “Shift,” he said.

Story continues after the break.

In any case, U.S. officials said in a rare on-the-record call last Friday, there is no fissure.

“There’s absolutely no rift between the United States and Israel,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said in the conference call.

Dan Shapiro, the senior National Security Council official who runs the Israel desk, said he “can certainly underscore the incredible richness and intensity and quality of the exchange between our governments in military channels, in political channels, in intelligence channels.”

Officials were brimming with superlatives. Details, however, were lacking, and in some areas there was evident disagreement.

The leaders agreed, for instance, on the need to go to direct talks with the Palestinians; the Palestinian Authority has resisted pending a full settlement freeze.

Obama, however, set a deadline of sorts when he made clear that he wanted such talks to start before September, when Netanyahu’s self-imposed 10-month settlement freeze lapses.

“My hope is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success,” Obama said.

Israeli officials, speaking on and off the record, made it clear that they were not confident the Palestinians were ready for direct talks and would not commit to a deadline.

The sides also spoke of confidence-building measures. Pressed for specifics, Obama cited the need for the Palestinians to further inhibit incitement, and called on Israel to “widen the scope” of Palestinian security responsibilities in the West Bank, given the advances that a U.S.-led team has had in training Palestinian security forces.

In the meetings before and after lunch, however, Netanyahu and his team suggested that the Israelis were not confident enough in the Palestinians to assume greater security control in areas outside their current purview of a handful of cities.

Most tellingly, Obama administration officials said the peace process and moving to direct talks was reason No. 1 for the Obama-Netanyahu meeting.

Bibi: Rahm Emanuel is a “self-hating Jew”

At about 3:15 P.M. yesterday, the government’s 100th day in office, political correspondents’ beepers went off. In an unprecedented move, the Prime Minister’s Bureau was inviting the correspondents to a press conference at the Knesset that was slated to begin in 15 minutes. This was the start of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s panicked, disproportionate response to the criticism senior Kadima politicians had leveled at him three hours earlier.

Kadima MKs had attacked Netanyahu at a press conference under the banner “100 days, zero gains. It’s the same old Bibi.” Later, Kadima supporters handed out stickers with anti-Netanyahu slogans in the Knesset cafeteria. Read the full story at

Bibi gets his first date thrill, but what about the relationship?

With a presidential pledge to hang tough on Iran under his belt, Benjamin Netanyahu could be forgiven for thinking Barack Obama was an easy first date.

Wait until he hears about what happens when the relationship gets serious.

The Israeli prime minister walked away from his first leader’s summit with the U.S. president with a tangible prize: a commitment to a timetable on Obama’s bid to use diplomacy to persuade Iran to end its nuclear weapons program.

“The important thing is to make sure that there is a clear timetable of—at which point we say these talks don’t seem to be making any serious progress,” Obama said after the 2 1/2-hour meeting Monday, an hour longer than expected. “By the end of the year I think we should have some sense as to whether or not these discussions are starting to yield significant benefits, whether we’re starting to see serious movement on the part of the Iranians.

“If that hasn’t taken place, then I think the international community will see that it’s not the United States or Israel or other countries that are seeking to isolate or victimize Iran.”

In return Obama received, in effect, nothing from Netanyahu: No stated commitment to Palestinian statehood, no pledge to freeze settlements.

No wonder, then, that Netanyahu was as eager as a prom date to lavish the love.

“You’re a great leader—a great leader of the United States, a great leader of the world, a great friend of Israel, and someone who is acutely cognizant of our security concerns,” Netanyahu said, leaning toward Obama during an Oval Office photo opportunity. “And the entire people of Israel appreciate it, and I speak on their behalf.”

The “entire people of Israel” might be overstating it, but with Obama’s commitment on Iran, Netanyahu swept aside concerns that he would repeat the disastrous opening months in 1996 of his first prime ministership, when he alienated then-President Bill Clinton by dismissing the Oslo peace process. Israeli voters cherish the U.S. alliance above all else, and that fiasco helped doom Netanyahu’s chances for re-election in 1999.

Yet between the lines and in his emphases, Obama made it clear throughout the news conference that this was no one summit stand: He expects tangible commitments from Israel further down the road.

“Israel is going to have to take some difficult steps as well, and I shared with the prime minister the fact that under the ‘road map’ and under Annapolis that there’s a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements,” Obama said, referring to the most recent peace process agreements. “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That’s a difficult issue. I recognize that, but it’s an important one and it has to be addressed.”

Obama also called on Israel to ease humanitarian access to the Gaza Strip in the wake of the devastation caused by the war between Israel and Hamas in January.

“The fact is, is that if the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can’t even get clean water at this point, if the border closures are so tight that it is impossible for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel’s long-term security or a constructive peace track to move forward,” Obama said.

And Obama stressed the two-state solution, the phrase that has yet to escape Netanyahu’s lips since assuming office in early April.

It was clear as well that Obama wants action soon. Insiders have said that George Mitchell, Obama’s chief envoy to the region—who also attended Monday’s meeting—expects a final-status deal within two years. Obama is blitzing Middle East heads of state, meeting this month with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, and readying an address to the Muslim world to be delivered next month in Egypt.

Netanyahu appeared unmoved. Statehood, he said, was a matter of “terminology,” and he was silent on settlements.

Senior Israeli officials said afterward that they would look for signs of Palestinian reciprocity on security issues before dismantling even those settlement outposts considered illegal under Israel’s laws. They did not define what constituted “reciprocity.”

Senior U.S. officials, including James Jones, the national security adviser who joined Obama in the meeting, believe that Palestinian Authority security forces trained by a U.S.-led team have made strides in placating the West Bank.

The Israeli officials also said it was too early to remove roadblocks to ease Palestinian day-to-day living, although that also has been an oft-repeated Obama administration request.

There were signs of tension on the Israel-Palestinian issue. When Obama pressed Netanyahu on the statehood issue, the Israeli prime minister told the president that Israel was committed to prior agreements—including those that envision statehood—but that he thought it wiser to look forward to a new process.

Both leaders strenuously denied that either side was pressing linkage, contrary to recent reports that Israel wants to see substance on Iran before moving forward with the Palestinians and that Obama wants to see results on the Palestinian front as a means of advancing international unity on the Iran issue.

Still, Obama said that if there were linkage, he saw its sequence as Palestinians first, then Iran.

“If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way,” he said, replying to an Israeli reporter’s question about reports that Netanyahu wants to see evidence of an effort to isolate Iran before making bold peace moves. “To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians—between the Palestinians and the Israelis—then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”

Overall, however, the Israeli team reveled in its two “gets”: Obama’s commitment to review the policy of outreach to Iran by the end of this year—close to zero hour, in Israeli assessments of when Iran might go nuclear—and his commitment to extract from moderate Arab nations a commitment to active participation in the peace process beyond lip service.

Not only did Obama outline an Iran timetable, the president said he was ”not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions, in assuring that Iran understands that we are serious.”

Mention “options” or “steps” in a sentence about Iran and the Israelis understand it to mean that the United States is keeping a military option open. Netanyahu made it clear that was his interpretation.

“I very much appreciate, Mr. President, your firm commitment to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear military capability, and also your statement that you’re leaving all options on the table,” he said.

Israeli officials later suggested they also perceived the threat of military action behind Obama’s twice-repeated warning that Iran’s entry into the nuclear weapons club was “extraordinarily dangerous for all concerned, including for Iran.”

Obama-Bibi: The Preview

The pundits and papers are weighing in as Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu get set for their first White House meeting:

Ha’aretz has put together slideshow of previous meetings between U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers. Plus columnist Aluf Benn weighs in with a piece titled “How does an Israeli diplomatic visit to the U.S. work?,” outling the step-by-step standard protocol for such powwows. And Sunday the newspaper ran an editorial calling on Netanyahu to say “yes” to Obama: “Now Netanyahu must show he can set aside his ideological opposition to dividing the country and support for expanding settlements and, for the good of the state, strengthen relations with the United States and advance the peace process with the Palestinians and the Arab states. The Israeli public expects him to adjust his political stances to international reality. The Haaretz-Dialog survey published Friday showed a clear majority—57 percent—wants Netanyahu to embrace the ‘two states for two peoples’ principle when meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House tomorrow.”

Herb Keinon (Jerusalem Post): Summit meetings at this level have two components, a policy component and a personal one. In this case the personal component – since this is the first meeting of the two men since they have taken over leadership of their respective countries – is no less important, and perhaps even more important, then the policy component. Netanyahu understands this, and will strive—according to senior officials—to develop a positive relationship based on mutual trust. Netanyahu understands this particularly well, especially since he failed to develop that type of relationship during his first tenure as prime minister with then-president Bill Clinton. Netanyahu would do well to take a page out of Ariel Sharon’s playbook. Sharon, during his first meetings with then-US president George W. Bush, said that while Israel and the US would not always see eye to eye, ‘there would be no surprises,’ and that he would be frank with the US and ‘do what he said he would do and always mean what he said’ to the US president. Though there will be those pundits who will parse every phrase, and scrutinize every piece of ‘body language’ when Netanyahu and Obama come before the cameras following their meeting on Monday, it will be difficult to judge at this time whether the two ‘clicked.’ That will only be apparent to the public with time.”

Jackson Diehl (Washington Post): “Today Barack Obama will begin a diplomatic relationship that is likely to be as complex, as vexing and possibly as troubled as any he will have during the first years of his presidency. His meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu won’t produce the blow-up some expect; a smooth veneer of harmony is more likely. Yet it will quietly inaugurate a contest of wills between two very different politicians—one that could help determine whether the Middle East shifts toward an era of negotiation and detente, or of deepening conflict. … Sometime in the next few months, one of these men may give way. Obama could come to accept that frontal confrontation is the only option for Iran and that Middle East peace talks must take a back seat to it; Iranian behavior could well make such a conclusion inescapable. Or Netanyahu could abandon his campaign pledges and offer the Golan Heights to Syria. Perhaps an incipient initiative to broaden the Middle East peace process so that Israel bargains across the board with Palestinians and Arab states over a comprehensive settlement will take on momentum, with help from Jordan’s King Abdullah. An equally likely scenario, however, is that Obama and Netanyahu will simply thwart each other—to the delight of their common enemies. The resulting friction would be more dangerous for Netanyahu, who learned a decade ago that an Israeli prime minister who falls out with Washington cannot easily survive in office. If he is to succeed in the Middle East, Obama may need to use that leverage. He can start now by reaffirming U.S. support for Israel—while leaving room for distinction between the country and its prime minister.”

Jeffrey Goldberg (New York Times): “When the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visits the White House on Monday for his first stage-setting visit, he will carry with him an agenda that clashes insistently with that of President Obama. Mr. Obama wants Mr. Netanyahu to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state. Mr. Netanyahu wants something else entirely: the president’s agreement that Iran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Daniel Pipes: “Question: How deep runs Obama’s antipathy toward the Jewish state? Some predictions: (1) Iran being Netanyahu’s top priority, he will avoid a crisis by mouthing the words ‘two-state solution’ and agreeing to diplomacy with the Palestinian Authority. (2) Democrats too will be on their best behavior, checking their alienation through Netanyahu¹s visit, momentarily averting a meltdown. (3) Obama, who has plenty of problems on his hands, does not need a fight with Israel and its supporters. His move to the center, however tactical, will last through the Netanyahu visit. Short term prospects, then, hold out more continuity than change in US-Israel relations. Those concerned with Israel’s security will prematurely breathe a sigh of relief – – premature because the status quo is fragile and US relations with Israel could rapidly unravel.”

Shmuel Rosner: “It was very convenient for Israel to have 16 years in which two consecutive Presidents (Clinton, Bush) that were also great friends. Israel can not and should not delude itself into thinking that all future American Presidents will be as friendly as those two. If Obama proves to be a ‘friend,’ and not a ‘great friend,’ that’s fine.”

Reuel Marc Gerecht (Wall Street Journal): “Can the United States and its European allies peacefully prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons? And if not, would Israel try to do so militarily, even if doing so greatly angered President Barack Obama? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington today. These questions could well make or break his premiership and Mr. Obama’s presidency.”

Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now: Right wing Israeli politicians once believed that they can score popularity points domestically if they demonstrate national honor by standing up to American presidents. Israelis and their leaders know better now. With hemorrhaging popularity, Netanyahu will not want to be portrayed in Israel as jeopardizing Israel’s relationship with Washington. Netanyahu wants his visit to Washington to be a success. To portray it as a successful visit, he may be willing to demonstrate flexibility. The question is whether the Obama administration would be able to follow up on the narrow openings that Netanyahu may offer on Monday and broaden those cracks to push through them a diplomatic breakthrough.”

Roger Cohen (New York Times): So here’s what Obama should say to Netanyahu when he says Arab states have identical fears over Iran: “We’re aware of this, Mr. Prime Minister, which is why we sent Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others to reassure Arab allies. But the U.S. interest is not served by the Mideast status quo. Our interest lies in new region-wide security arrangements that promote a two-state peace, end 30 years of non-communication with Iran, and ultimately afford Israel a brighter future. You can’t build settlements and expect Iran’s influence to diminish.” When Netanyahu demurs, Obama should add: “And you know what the Arabs tell me in private? That Israeli use of force against Iran would be a disaster. And that it’s impossible to tell Iran it can’t have nukes when Israel has them. They say that’s a double standard. And you know what? They may have a point.”

Max Boot (Commentary): an Obama administration official, pressed as to why prospects for peace talks are not unreservedly bleak, told me privately that Bibi might be prepared to do a “Nixon in China”–i.e., to make concessions from the right. That is what Menachem Begin did in the Camp David talks. But the historical figure we should be invoking is not Nixon, Carter, or any other U.S. president. It is Anwar Sadat. …Where, oh where, is the Palestinian Sadat–i.e., a responsible negotiating partner who can make peace and mean it? Until such a statesman arises, there is little or nothing that either Israeli or American leaders can do to bring a final resolution of the never-ending peace process.

Mitchell Bard of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise: Netanyahu will not clash with Obama because he understands the United States and America’s interests in the region. They may disagree over Israel’s settlement policy, but this is nothing new; it is an issue that has been contentious for almost four decades. This will hardly overshadow the far more extensive areas of agreement on the desirability of continuing negotiations with the Palestinians and the threat posed by Iran.Some people are hung up on trying to get Netanyahu to say the magic words “two state solution” as if the mere utterance would bring an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The phrase is meaningless, particularly in the present context where a civil war is ongoing among the factions of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, which seeks the destruction of Israel, controls Gaza and hopes to take over the West Bank. Fatah is desperately clinging to power in the West Bank, but cannot negotiate or implement any agreement with Israel. Obama cannot change the Palestinian reality so it will do no good for him to pressure Israel to make concessions that will not be reciprocated.

Mustafa Baghouti (Los Angeles Times): Icannot recall a more important meeting between an American president and an Israeli prime minister than today’s meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Will the Obama administration have the courage to challenge Netanyahu, or will all the talk of change dissolve in the face of a concerted one-two punch from Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? I am increasingly convinced that if Obama fails to speak out now, it will doom the two-state solution forever. Further fiddling in Washington—after eight years of it—will consign Jerusalem, the West Bank and the two-state solution to an Israeli expansionism that will overwhelm the ability of cartographers to concoct a viable Palestinian state.

Finally, what’s Netanyahu bringing the president as a gift? A Mark Twain book, reports Haaretz: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with a copy of “Pleasure Excursion to the Holy Land,” from Mark Twain’s book “The Innocents Abroad,” when they meet in Washington today. Netanyahu received the book, along with a newly published version in Hebrew (translated by Oded Peled), from the Kinneret Zmora-Bitan publishing house. In his travel memoir, Twain describes a 1867 trip to the Land of Israel, which he finds a backward and desolate place devoid of culture or law. “Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village,” he states, calling it a country where prosperity had died out, a place of lost splendor and beauty where joy has turned to sorrow, and where silence and death prevail in its holy places.

As Olmert Exits, Creeping Doubts About His Ouster

After finally leaving office this week, Ehud Olmert will have his hands full fighting the corruption charges against him.

There is little sympathy in Israel for the outgoing prime minister, who is widely viewed as a corrupt politician who failed to achieve the lofty goals he set for himself when he took office.

But there are some nagging doubts about the system that brought down Olmert: An elected prime minister has been forced out of office even though he has yet to be found guilty of any crime.

Three major investigations against Olmert—for allegedly tampering with terms for the sale of Bank Leumi to help a friend, and receiving substantial discounts in the rental and purchase of two Jerusalem apartments in return for favors—have been closed for lack of evidence.

It’s possible that Olmert was forced out of office by muckraking political opponents without his having committed any crime, Olmert confidants say.

In a mid-February interview in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot, Olmert’s wife, Aliza, implied as much, saying politically motivated people had been out to get her husband. She declined to go into detail.

Amnon Dankner, a former chief editor of the daily Ma’ariv and a close friend of Olmert, was more forthcoming.

“From the moment he placed himself as the predominant leader of the peacemaking left,” Dankner wrote of Olmert in Ma’ariv last August, “right-wing elements started digging through his affairs going back down the years to produce suspicious material for the authorities.”

On the face of it, Dankner’s allegations seem to have merit.

Yoav Yitzhak, the investigative journalist who produced the allegations on the two Jerusalem apartments, was instrumental in bringing down another peace-leaning politician, the late President Ezer Weizman. The official who came up with the Bank Leumi allegations was then-accountant general Yaron Zelekha, who is close to Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime Olmert rival. And Moshe Talansky, the American Jewish businessman who allegedly gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash, and who then testified against the prime minister, has spoken of his disappointment in the once hawkish Olmert’s transformation to a political dove.

The trouble with the picture of Olmert as victim, however, is that some of the allegations against him seem to carry merit: Police have recommended that Olmert be indicted in three separate cases. If Olmert’s political enemies found serious instances of fraud and breach of trust, what difference does it make if their initial muckraking motivation was political, Olmert’s critics ask.

In two of the cases, Israel’s attorney general has decided to indict Olmert pending a hearing: the Talansky affair, in which Olmert is alleged to have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash over a 13-year period, and the Rishon Tours affair, in which Olmert allegedly double-billed for trips and lectures he made abroad, using the excess money to finance travel by family members.

The fact that the attorney general has decided to indict is no small matter. It means that after going through all the material, he is convinced the state has enough evidence to convict.

Indictment by the attorney general is generally considered the signal in Israel for ministers under investigation to resign. In Olmert’s case, the pressure on him to step down was so great that he tendered his formal resignation last September, even before the attorney general announced his intention to indict.

Two other Olmert investigations are ongoing: awarding contracts to his former law partner Uri Messer and appointing cronies when Olmert was minister of trade and industry from 2003 to 2006.

The sheer weight of police probes and corruption scandals with Olmert’s name on them may be about to catch up with a man who long has operated under a cloud of investigations.

In 1981, Olmert received a $50,000 loan via Yehoshua Halperin, CEO of the Bank of North America, which he was never pressed to pay back. Although the circumstances suggested a possible attempt to bribe a sitting Knesset member, Olmert was not prosecuted.

In 1997, Olmert was acquitted in court of responsibility for an election scam in which Likud officials provided fictitious receipts to donors in 1988, when Olmert was the party’s co-treasurer. Olmert successfully pleaded ignorance, but three other Likud officials were convicted.

In 1999, as mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert was investigated for arranging a reception for the mayor of Athens as an alleged favor to an Israeli developer seeking to build an ambitious tourist facility on a Greek island. The developer had just promised to support Olmert in an upcoming race for Likud leader. The case was dropped.

The problem facing the Israeli legal system is finding a balance between fighting corruption in high places and not allowing political opponents of incumbent politicians to abuse the system to subvert the democratic process.

Hebrew University’s Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel’s top political scientists, says the main problem is the slow pace of investigation. In the case of public figures, drawn-out investigations are not only unfair to the politicians, but they hamper government functioning and can pervert democracy, Avineri says. Investigations should be expedited, he says.

Some have suggested adopting the French system, under which the country’s leader cannot be investigated while in office. Another possibility would be something akin to the U.S. system of impeachment: no indictment unless and until a politician is impeached by a two-thirds majority in the Knesset.

As for Olmert, he’s still hoping his name will cleared—and once it is, he will find a way back to the top sooner than most people think.

LABOR JOINING BIBI: Kosher Stamp or Fig Leaf?

Depending on one’s interpretation, Labor’s decision to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition grants Israel’s incoming government either a kosher seal of approval or a fig leaf to disguise a right-wing agenda.

Either way, Labor’s move will make Netanyahu Israel’s next prime minister.

After a contentious meeting of the Labor Central Committee on Tuesday, members voted 680-570 to join the coalition, which already includes the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties. The vote provides Netanyahu the Knesset majority he needs to form a new government.

Labor’s decision has important implications for the country and the party.

Arguing in favor of joining the government, Labor leader Ehud Barak told party members that Labor’s participation in the coalition was necessary to counteract right-wing forces, ensure that Israel remains committed to the peace process and help the country face uniquely grave threats from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

“We won’t be anyone’s fig leaf or anyone’s third wheel,” Barak told the Central Committee. “We will act as an opposing force that will ensure there will not be a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that looks after the State of Israel.”

In exchange for Labor joining the coalition, Netanyahu agreed to commit the government to all agreements signed by previous Israeli governments, the pursuit of regional peace and enforcement of the law when it comes to illegal Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank. The deal also allows Barak to stay on as defense minister and makes him a full partner in the diplomatic process.

For Barak—and perhaps for many of Israel’s international partners—the Netanyahu-led government is now palatable.

For Netanyahu, the partnership with Labor, historically a center-left party, burnishes the image of an incoming government that until Tuesday risked being comprised solely of right-wing and religious parties. While such a government would have been a welcome change in some corners of Israel, it likely would have been ill received by Israel’s allies overseas.

Some European officials already had expressed public misgivings about Netanyahu’s coalition, especially the prominence of controversial Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who was promised the portfolio of foreign minister. While the Obama administration was careful publicly to maintain a neutral stance on the composition of Israel’s government, Israeli observers have predicted that a right-wing coalition would be on a collision course with Washington.

Netanyahu himself expressed a preference for avoiding a narrow coalition even before the Feb. 10 vote, which saw significant gains for Israel’s right wing. All along the Likud leader said he’d like to see a national unity government comprised of his party, Labor and the current ruling party, Kadima—and led by him. Like Barak, Netanyahu says the seriousness of the threats Israel is facing mandates a strong, stable government.

Critics, including some in Labor who spoke out before the committee vote Tuesday, say what Netanyahu really seeks is diplomatic cover to pursue a right-wing agenda.

“We would be entering this government as a third wheel, as a wagging tail, not more than that,” Labor Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich said before Tuesday’s vote. “There is no shame in sitting in the opposition. On the contrary, it’s an honor.”

Following Tuesday’s vote, the “honor” appeared to be reserved for Kadima. Despite Netanyahu’s entreaties, the party has refused to join the coalition. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni said she would not join the new government unless Netanyahu committed to the pursuit of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and agreed to a rotating premiership that would make her prime minister for two years.

By staying in the opposition Livni—whose party captured 28 seats in the Feb. 10 vote, one more than Likud—believes she will be able to solidify Kadima’s position as an alternative to the Likud-led government.

Livni is betting that Netanyahu will run into trouble—with allies abroad, if he pursues a right-wing agenda, or within his own government, if he follows policies that anger his right-wing partners. That, she figures, would set the stage for Kadima to lead the next government.

Livni’s critics say she is putting party before country at a time when Israel can ill afford an unstable government. Iran is pushing forward with its nuclear program, Hezbollah in Lebanon now has missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and Hamas in Gaza continues to fire rockets deeper and deeper into Israeli territory.

With Barak, the opposite is true. He can claim he is putting country before party by helping Israel’s government deal with these threats and mitigating any right-wing tendencies, but the upshot may be the collapse of the Labor Party.

Labor and its predecessor, Mapai, dominated Israeli politics for the country’s first three decades, leading every government from 1948 to 1977. Though its representation in the Knesset suffered somewhat in ensuing elections, Labor remained the voice of the center-left until 2005, when Ariel Sharon broke away from Likud to form the centrist Kadima Party.

Kadima’s establishment pulled supporters from Labor, and in last month’s national election Labor fell to an all-time low of fourth place, capturing just 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

While Labor’s decision to join Netanyahu’s coalition gives Barak a personal boost—keeping him in the important post of defense minister—it erodes Labor’s place in Israel’s political spectrum as the party of the center-left.

Kadima arguably can now claim that mantle. If Netanyahu succeeds, Likud will gain rather than Labor. And if Netanyahu fails, Kadima stands to gain, not Labor.

For a related story, click here.

Briefs: Secular candidate new Jerusalem mayor, Netanyahu would nix talks

Poll Shows Barkat Winning Jerusalem Mayoralty

Secular businessman Nir Barkat appeared to be the new mayor of Jerusalem, according to exit polls.

Channel 1 TV showed Barkat with 50 percent of the vote Tuesday to 42 percent for Rabbi Meir Porush, an ultra-Orthodox Knesset member. The third contender, former Russian oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak, was well behind.

Early exit polling, however, has proved to be unreliable in the past.

Many Jerusalemites view this year’s municipal elections to replace the current mayor, Uri Lupolianski, as a turning point for a city that is Israel’s poorest, still vulnerable to terrorist attacks and wracked by economic, political and religious divisions. Still, turnout was low, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Lupolianski was the city’s first Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, mayor.

Netanyahu Would Halt Annapolis-Launched Talks

Benjamin Netanyahu would end Israel’s current negotiations with the Palestinians if elected prime minister, his office said.

A spokeswoman for Netanyahu, the Likud Party candidate for prime minister in elections scheduled for Feb. 10, said Netanyahu believes the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched a year ago at a peace summit at Annapolis, Md., have failed, The Associated Press reported.

“It’s premature to talk about a final peace deal, and sharing control of Jerusalem is out of the question,” Netanyahu spokeswoman Dina Libster said, adding that the Likud leader believes talks with the Palestinians should focus on economic issues.

On Monday, the AP reported that Netanyahu said he would continue Israeli-Palestinian peace talks but that negotiating over Jerusalem was out of the question.

Biden, Livni Discuss Iran, Peace

Joe Biden discussed Middle East peace and Iran in a phone call with Tzipi Livni.

The U.S. vice president-elect spoke to the Israeli foreign minister after last week’s elections, said a statement released Tuesday by Livni’s office.

Biden, a senator from Delaware for 35 years, is expected to take a lead foreign policy role in the Barack Obama administration. He is well known to Israeli leaders, having made his first visit to the region just before the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

“Livni thanked Vice President-elect Biden for his long-standing friendship and support of Israel and said that she looks forward to continuing to work with him,” the statement said. “They agreed to work together to advance the shared interests and values of Israel and the United States in the Middle East.”

The statement emphasized concerns about Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and control of the Gaza Strip by Hamas terrorists.

“It is very important that we continue our cooperation and work together against the Iranian threat,” it quoted Livni as saying. “Time is not working in favor of the moderates in Iran. Hamas and the extremist elements are studying our moves and they must understand that the world will not tolerate extremism and terror.”

Livni is leading the centrist Kadima Party in Feb. 10 elections.

Enriched Uranium Reportedly Found in Syria

Investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reportedly found traces of enriched uranium in Syria.

The finding by the agency, which works under the auspices of the United Nations, is a potential sign that Syria had been attempting to develop a nuclear program, Reuters quoted diplomats familiar with the IAEA probe as saying.

According to Monday’s report, the uranium was discovered at the same site that was allegedly bombed by the Israeli Air Force in September 2007.

The leaked information came shortly after the IAEA Director Mohammed El Baradei announced he would release a formal, written report on the subject, Reuters reported. The IAEA had no immediate comment.

“It isn’t enough to conclude or prove what the Syrians were doing, but the IAEA has concluded this requires further investigation,” a diplomat with ties to the organization said.

Birthright Cuts Budget by $35 Million

Birthright Israel is cutting its budget by $35 million for 2009.

Birthright, which sends Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 on free 10-day trips to Israel, had a budget of $110 million in the fiscal year that just ended, enabling the organization to send some 42,000 people to Israel. In the coming year, Birthright will only be able to send 25,000 because the program’s budget is dropping to $75 million, the president and CEO of the Birthright Foundation, Jay Golan, told JTA.

Golan, however, said that Birthright will most likely not be affected by the financial troubles of the company of its largest private benefactor, Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands company. The casino company is on the verge of bankruptcy, according to Bloomberg News.

Adelson gave some $60 million to Birthright Israel in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, he pledged $30 million to the organization to be paid out over the next two years. The money will pay for 6,000 trips, Golan said.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Yes, we cantankerous

Israeli policy headed for radical changes in post-Olmert era

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to resign after a new Kadima Party leader is elected in September has opened up the possibility of radical new directions in Israeli policy.

As of now Olmert has four potential successors, since Kadima’s new leader may not be able to stave off new general elections.

Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party and Shaul Mofaz of Kadima are inveterate hawks who see peace, if it is at all possible, being achieved only in drawn-out, painstaking stages. Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of the Labor Party are pragmatic doves ready to cut to the chase but wary of illusory quick fixes.

Important differences exist within the two camps.

Netanyahu views the current attempt by the Olmert government to reach final peace deals with the Palestinians and the Syrians as foolhardy. He is against what he calls “endism”—trying to end the complex Israeli-Arab conflict with a single stroke—and instead advocates a measured, step-by-step approach.

For example, on the Syrian track, Damascus would have to break with Tehran and demonstrate over time that the breach is final before Israel returns any part of the Golan Heights. Other powers interested in moving Syria away from Iran, including the United States and the European Union, would be called on to provide much of the quid pro quo to Syria, making it possible for Israel to retain at least part of the strategic Golan.

On the Palestinian track, Netanyahu regards the “shelf agreement” Olmert is negotiating with the relatively moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank as meaningless. Under present conditions, with Hamas controlling Gaza, Netanyahu sees no way to implement an agreement now or in the foreseeable future.

Instead, he again advocates a step-by-step framework in which each side progresses only after the other has fulfilled a commitment. Under Ariel Sharon, this performance-based, reciprocal approach led to a stalemate.

Netanyahu hopes that the creation of new economic realities in the West Bank will provide the infrastructure for political progress. The former prime minister strongly backs efforts to that effect by Tony Blair, the special envoy of the Quartet grouping of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Like Blair, Netanyahu sees economic progress driving a peace process, not the other way round.

Netanyahu’s top priority, however, would be stopping Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. He has been urging world leaders to impose stronger economic sanctions on Tehran to alleviate the need for force. But if Netanyahu becomes prime minister, a pre-emptive Israeli military strike cannot be ruled out.

Mofaz, although he abandoned the Likud for Kadima, is as hawkish as Netanyahu. In fact, were the current transportation minister to win the Kadima leadership, the split between Likud and Kadima could become a thing of the past. Mofaz left Likud reluctantly when pressed by Sharon, Kadima’s founder, and after Sharon promised to make him defense minister.

The Iranian-born Mofaz takes a long view of historic processes in the Middle East who sees change evolving slowly over decades. Peace, in his view, will come only when conditions are ripe and cannot be accelerated artificially.

On the Syrian track, Mofaz says he is ready to offer “peace for peace”—an old Likud counter to the Arab land-for-peace formula. He also would be unlikely to make territorial concessions on the Palestinian front.

Indeed Mofaz, a former army chief of staff and defense minister, would likely be less industrious than Netanyahu in creating conditions for peace, but more proactive in trying to stop Iran from going nuclear.

Mofaz, who heads the Israeli team in strategic dialogue with the United States, has warned that Iran will cross the nuclear weapons threshold in 2009 or 2010 and said that if the international community fails to interdict the process, Israel will.

Like his colleagues on the right, Barak sees the Middle East as a tough, unforgiving neighborhood in which the weak are devoured—he once famously described Israel as a “villa in the jungle.”

The difference between Barak and the hard-line Netanyahu and Mofaz is his conviction that Israel to survive must be strong and divest itself of the West Bank to ensure a Jewish majority in a democratic state.

After the failure of the Camp David negotiations with Yasser Arafat in 2000, the then-prime minister Barak was quick to claim there was no genuine Palestinian peace partner. That led him to back the notion of unilateral withdrawal as the only way to establish a border between Israel and the Palestinians.

Barak modified his thinking, however, when Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by ceaseless Kassam rocket attacks. He still seems to envisage an eventual unilateral pullout from the West Bank, but only after Israel has an effective anti-missile defense system.

As defense minister, Barak has made the development of a multilayered anti-missile system—one that provides protection against long-, medium- and short-range missiles—a top priority.

Livni, whose parents both fought for the prestate Irgun underground, entered politics in 1996 holding fiercely hawkish positions. But as minister for regional cooperation in the first Sharon government in 2001, she underwent a profound ideological metamorphosis, turning from hawk to relative dove.

A lawyer by training, Livni places supreme importance on Israel retaining international legitimacy by withdrawing to a line close to the 1967 borders and allowing the Palestinians to establish a state of their own.

Livni, now the foreign minister, sees one of the main tasks of government as securing the best post-withdrawal conditions for Israel. For example, she insists that no Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel proper, arguing that the Palestinians cannot simultaneously demand a state and insist that their refugees be settled somewhere else.

Livni was one of the chief backers of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but also after the Kassams from Gaza, she says Israel cannot simply leave the West Bank and “throw the keys over the fence.”

Thus, unlike her three main rivals, Livni advocates intensive negotiations with the Palestinians on a final peace deal and bringing in an international force to help implement it. But Livni is in no hurry and would be less likely than Olmert to make concessions on key principles—like the refugee issue—for a deal.

The first stage in the battle to succeed Olmert is scheduled for Sept. 17, when Kadima holds its primary. Livni and Mofaz are the runaway front-runners: A recent poll in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv gave Livni 51 percent of the party vote to Mofaz’s 43 percent.

The second stage in the leadership stakes could come as soon as early 2009. If Kadima’s winner fails to assemble a coalition government, the Knesset will be dissolved and early general elections would be held, bringing Netanyahu and Barak into the picture.

Whoever finally emerges as the new prime minister, a break with Olmert’s policies seems certain.