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.

Trump: Bibi is ‘devastated’ over the Iran deal


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump unleashed a barrage of fire over what he described as being wrong in America in an over 90-minute campaign speech in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Thursday evening.

During his speech, which included personal insults on two of his closest rivals in the race, Trump also lashed out at Hillary Clinton, saying she was the “worst Secretary of State,” only to immediately draw it back.

“Probably John Kerry might go down as the worst because, honestly, Kerry made the Iran deal,” Trump said. “He may be the best thing that’s happened to Hillary; he made the most incompetent deal I’ve ever seen.” Later on, Trump came back to highlight’s Hillary’s record as Sec. of State. “Think of Hillary, every single thing that she touched turned to garbage. The entire Middle East in her rein and the rein of Barack Obama went to hell.” Adding, “It’s only going to get worse. I know Hillary, I am from New York.”

Trump also reiterated comments he’s made in the past about the President’s policy on Israel. “Israel has been treated so badly by Obama – it’s beyond belief – I’ve so many Jewish friends, and they are really good friends, and great people, and they supported Obama – it is almost like automatic, ‘Oh, we’re having a fundraiser’ — He’s been a horror,” the presidential hopeful said. “He is one of the worst things that has ever happened to Israel. President Obama is one of the worst things. I mean, that Iran deal — Bibi Netanyahu is a good guy – I actually did commercials for his reelection. I’m one of the only celebrities; he wanted me to do a commercial, I did a commercial, and he won. So, I am happy. Okay? — But he’s a good guy –and he’s devastated over that. That deal will lead to nuclear proliferation and made a terrorist nation rich.”

Over the next five minutes, Trump went on to criticize the deal in length, repeating statements he’s written in his book, “Crippled America,” over the matter. “I would’ve never given them back the $15o billion. I would’ve told them, ‘The money of off the table. Now, let’s negotiate,’” he stated. Adding that the deal shouldn’t have taken more than “a week, if things are bad.”

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.

Will Obama and Netanyahu reconcile next year?


Now that enactment of the Iran nuclear deal appears to be a sure thing, the profound and often personal disagreement between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran is not about to go away.

In the contemplative spirit of the Days of Awe, we canvassed the experts to recommend a way forward for the two leaders.

Stop the sniping and work out differences behind closed doors

However you come at the U.S.-Israel rupture, pointing a finger at Team Obama or Team Bibi — or blaming both — there’s a consensus: Stop the public sniping.

“Take a timeout,” said Joel Rubin, until recently a deputy assistant secretary of state and now president of the Washington Strategy Group, a foreign policy consultancy. “You maintain the security relationships and you intensify them, so the security officials are made aware of what’s going on and are confident. At the political level, I don’t know what you can do to change the dynamic.”

He added, “The Israeli leadership will have to make a decision to stop attacking Obama.”

Amon Reshef, a retired Israeli major general, said both leaders need to rise to their better selves.

“Both parties, the United States and Israel, should change the course of the direction of diplomatic relationship,” Reshef said. “Both leaders are mature enough to behave not just as politicians but as leaders. They have to get together behind closed doors to come to some kind of agreement to move ahead.”

Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said there is little the Obama administration can do in the near term to assuage Israeli nerves rubbed raw by the perception that Obama officials sidelined Israel during the Iran talks.

“I know the administration has reached out to Israel to work together to combat Iran’s regional influence,” he said. “But the Israelis see the United States as playing the role of arsonist — and firefighter.”

Hey, remember Palestine?

A year ago, the one significant outcome of the failed U.S. effort to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace seemed to be creativity in the epithets that Israeli and American leaders were lobbing at one another.

An unnamed senior Obama administration official called Netanyahu “a chickenshit” in an interview last October with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. The previous January, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon reportedly described U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as “messianic.”

Working together on peacemaking with the Palestinians as part of a broader regional peace may be a way out of the Iran-centered tensions, said Reshef, who heads Commanders for Israel’s Security, an assembly of former senior Israeli military officers who want Israel to advance a regional peace deal.

“The best thing for Israel, a kind of historical opportunity, is to deal with the mutual relationship with the United States on the one side and with neighboring Arabs on the other side,” he said.

In any case, a return to the Palestinian issue may be inevitable because of volatility in the Gaza Strip, said Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“Israeli officials, both in the political establishment and at the security level, are concerned about the potential of another conflict,” said Wittes, who was a senior Middle East policy official in the State Department in Obama’s first term. “And there’s no military answer.”

U.S. and Israeli officials could come together in the twilight of Obama’s presidency and consider a way out.

“Is there a way to address the stagnation in Gaza in a way that can be a springboard toward Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation?” Wittes asked.

Schanzer said the United States could show good will ahead of the U.N. General Assembly in September by making clear that Washington would stop any attempt by the Palestinians to gain statehood recognition in the world body and by intensifying opposition to the movement to boycott Israel.

“That could help shore up support for Israel and let them know the United States is working with them on some key areas,” he said.

Hire new wingmen

A key feature of the U.S.-Israel relationship has been designated buddies: two people who are each as close to their bosses as to one another, and who always pick up when the other’s face pops up on the smartphone.

That’s what Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, was supposed to be when he arrived in the United States — Netanyahu’s right-hand man sent to forge close relationships with top Obama administration officials.

It didn’t work out, to put it mildly. Dermer, who without telling the White House worked with Republicans to set up Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March, is seen by the Obama administration as a partisan. Dan Shapiro, his American counterpart in Tel Aviv, is well regarded by the Israeli political establishment, but is also seen as too closely identified with the Obama administration.

Ilan Goldenberg, until last year a senior member of the State Department team brokering the Israeli-Palestinian talks, suggests hiring wingmen not associated with the current debacle. He suggested national security advisers known to have worked well together in Obama’s first term, America’s Tom Donilon and Israel’s Yaacov Amidror.

“That would be a perfect start, an additional channel to add some sanity,” said Goldenberg, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Stop throwing weapons at the region, start throwing ideas

The Obama administration is pitching weapons upgrades throughout the region as a means of offsetting Iranian mischief, should the Islamic Republic feel empowered by the nuclear deal. Israel is nervous because although it, too, is due to get a bundle of goodies, it fears enhanced military capabilities among neighbors that in the past have been hostile.

“What you have now is an effort to arm the Saudis and other Gulf states,” Schanzer said, “but it erodes Israel’s qualitative military edge” — the U.S. policy of keeping Israel better equipped and prepared than its neighbors.

Goldenberg suggested collaborative regional efforts to combat terrorism and cyber attacks. Additionally, the Obama administration should show Israel it is invested in keeping Iran from arming Israel’s enemies, he said.

“Every couple of years Israel stops ships with Iranian weapons on them, and takes pictures and sends them out to the world,” he said. “What if the U.S. were to send those pictures? It would send a signal to the Israelis and embarrass the Iranians.”

Get over yourselves, there’s more work to do

The ongoing problems of the Middle East ultimately may be what forces back together the hard-heads who have fomented the U.S.-Israel crisis. The United States and Israel have common interests in Lebanon, Syria and across the region.

The U.S.-Israel relationship — one that is between stable democracies with a shared interest in fending off Middle Eastern threats — is larger than any differences between Netanyahu and Obama, said Dennis Ross, Obama’s top Iran adviser in his first term and now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“This issue is taking place in a reality where the region is in a place of turmoil and uncertainty, where the state system is under assault,” he said, referring to the Iran deal. “Whether it gets implemented or not, that remains true.”


Ron Kampeas is JTA's Washington bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter at @kampeas

Letters to the editor: Jews in Turkey and Zionophobia on campus


Playing Telephone in Turkey Misses the Point

Sorting out the entire history of Turkish-Jewish relations spanning more than five centuries via editorials and interviews is ineffective, unrealistic and unfair (“At a Breaking Point in Turkey,” March 20).  Lost in such “he-said-she-said” treatments is the true nature of those special relationships. You don’t have to go back far. Just in 1999, after the huge earthquake, when the Jewish and Israeli philanthropists built a school that was leveled by the quake, they established a perpetual source of good will toward Jews in general and Israel in particular. Most if not all of that good will evaporated with the 2010 “Aid-Raid.” When Israeli tourists come to Turkey, Turkish people love it; but when Gaza attacks happen, all that good will is lost again. These kinds of ebbs and flows will happen. We need to stay above it and try to see beyond daily events. Let’s all cool it a bit and resist the temptation of quick scores with a view toward continuing the lasting, historic friendship. Enough with this gloom and doom already.

Ergun Kirlikovali via jewishjournal.com

After the attacks on HSBC Bank, the British Consulate of Istanbul, Neve Shalom and Bet Israel synagogues, I requested and received permission from the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., to participate in the Istanbul marathon on behalf of all the victims of these cowardly acts of violence and hate. I believed as a result of all these communities experiencing these painful events that they would be better able to understand the grief, the fears, the isolation of the other, and as a result would begin to work together. What I found instead was each of the groups targeted was not about to do anything that might be a response of partisans – out of the question. While my receptions in all these communities was generous and polite, it wasn’t until three months later, when I had returned home, that the letters of appreciation for the attention and support invested on their behalf began to arrive.

I thank Simone Wilson for her eyes that captured the mood, her ears that heard the words that were missing and for this word huzun, that describes completely the Istanbul I encountered.

Thank you for your considerable efforts and the grace with which you presented the community.

Jerry Daniels, Malibu

Bibi is no Moses

Rob Eshman lives in a secure environment (“Bibi, You’re No Moses,” March 6). Who is he to judge Israel and the threats they live under? To them, it is not left or right. It is a matter of survival. He and his family do not have the threat of missiles or nuclear missiles by the thousands rained upon them. If he is Jewish, then he should remember German Jews who were German above all else yet were sent to the gas chambers by the millions. Does he think that can’t happen here? As long as there is Israel, he and his family will not be sent to the gas chambers.

There are enough non-Jewish anti-Semites — don’t be a Jewish anti-Semite. Israel will never let you down if you need a haven. Remember that.

Ron Heller via email

I am a conservative liberal secular Jew who believes in and supports Bibi 100 percent, and I think that Barack Obama will go down in history as the worst president ever to hold that office in the U.S.

Elias Goldstein, Highland Beach, Fla.

Zionophobia or Anti-Semitism?

I agree wholeheartedly with Judea Pearl’s assessment of Zionophobia at UCLA (“At UCLA, Zionophobia Trumps Anti-Semitism,” March 20). I see it a dangerous direction for universities to take, to be happy and encourage their institutions to make votes denouncing anti-Semitism. I have seen this at Berkeley and UCLA this past month. But meanwhile the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) votes are still on the books. What this does is separate anti-Israel from anti-Jew. Not a good path to take, as we know that the relationship between Israel and the Jewish people is intertwined and intrinsic and not something we would want the world to see as different and separate. To applaud the pro-BDSers for their vote against anti-Semitism but not to tie these two issues together is missing the point.

Judith Alban, Northridge

Thank you to Yehuda Pearl for his clarity of thought and his courage to be such an articulate spokesperson. Yasher koach!

Laura Cher via jewishjournal.com

correction

An item highlighting Sally Drucker’s 100th birthday (“Moving and Shaking,” March 20) should have said she was born before World War II. 

Beyond the toxic rhetoric: Obama, Bibi and prospects for peace


President Barack Obama remains furious at Benjamin Netanyahu. He and many European leaders were counting on Israelis to get rid of an intractable “hawk” and replace him with Yitzak (Bougie) Herzog, the more flexible “dove.” With Bibi out of the way, the path would have been cleared for a quick final deal with Iran (including immediate removal of sanctions) and hasten a two-state solution in the Holy Land, before President Obama’s second term ended.

But how realistic was that? Let’s say that Bougie had won 30 seats en route to setting up a center-left coalition, Prime Minister Herzog would have to strive mightily to thwart Tehran going nuclear. Ayatollah Khamenei and his lackeys would still be plotting the Jewish State's annihilation. Israel's Prime Minister would also be challenged by a new strategic threat from Iran and its Hezbollah terrorist allies, who are busily building a new missile-laden front to threaten the Galilee and Israel's northern panhandle from Syrian territory–opposite the Golan Heights. To date, these provocative moves by Tehran haven’t raised any protest from either the U.S. or the European Union.

Without doubt, a Left-led coalition is much more strongly committed to a Two-State solution than the Netanyahu-led Likud ever was; though it is hard to see how a deal could have been reached by Herzog during the next two years. Hamas’ continued terrorism and genocidal hate, and the embrace by leaders of the corrupt-riven Palestinian Authority of terrorist murderers of Jews, leave many Israelis on the Left doubtful that President Mahmoud Abbas has either the power or desire to negotiate a final settlement. His game plan remains relying on the U.N., the E.U., and (perhaps) the U.S. to force Israel into a deal that heavily favors maximal Palestinian aspirations. Israelis across the political spectrum still want a peace deal with their Arab neighbors, but even a Herzog-led coalition still needs a Palestinian partner prepared to tell his constituents in Arabic that their Jewish neighbors are there to stay and that they too have rights to be in the Holy Land. Tragically, there is no Palestinian Anwar Sadat on the horizon.

For now, Obama seems intent on pummeling and punishing Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, the suggestion of a game-changing U.S. support of an U.N. Security resolution that would effectively force a shotgun marriage between Jerusalem and Ramallah is a terrible idea. It would only backfire, weakening Israel's left and further emboldening Hamas and Hezbollah to ramp up terror attacks against a Jewish State that may no longer have the U.S. in its corner.

In fact, the road to real progress towards peace starts in the Oval Office through Ramallah. Here are five suggestions for the next Obama-Abbas call:

1. No more International Criminal Court shenanigans. Seeking indictment of your negotiating partners for crimes against humanity is a deal-killer.

2. No more unilateral moves to gain U.N.-recognized statehood without negotiating with the Israelis.

3. Including Hamas that refuses to drop its genocidal anti-Israel agenda – in a Palestinian government is untenable. PA must take back control of Gaza. If the PA can’t even enter, let alone control, the largest Palestinian communities, how can Israel expect that the PA can deliver on any commitment.

4. No more anti-Semitic attacks and incitement by Palestinian media, religious and other elite. Stop denying the Jewish people's link to its ancestral homeland. Such hatred incenses Israelis and contributes to the explosion of anti-Semitism across Europe and on North American university campuses.

5. The US and European donors are ready to invest billions more in peace. For that to happen, transparency must reign–insuring that help actually reaches Palestinians who need it. The brutal truth is that if elections were held on the West Bank right now, Hamas would win in a landslide, because of one central issue: corruption.

And Bibi? He walked back his election campaign statement that there will be no Palestinian state under his watch. But he knows that if and when a viable partner emerges from the Palestinian camp, any elected Israeli Prime Minister will have to rush to the negotiating table.

Prime Netanyahu must also do everything in his power to de-personalize disagreements with President Obama. But no one should expect Netanyahu to step back from his stance on Iran. He (and every Jew) is right to take the Mullahocracy's existential threats at face value.

I was present at our Nation's Capitol for Bibi Netanyahu's speech on Iran. Love him or hate him, everyone there, and all Israelis watching at home, saw a true world leader in action. In the end, his respectful and masterful speech reminded everyone, that he has earned his place on the international stage, no matter how discomfiting his message is to some.

If the Obama Administration really wants to reach Israelis, denouncing the democratic results of the Israeli electorate, is not the way to go. What they want to hear from Washington is a coherent plan for fighting terrorism in their neighborhood and the details of a deal with Iran that, to paraphrase Netanyahu, Israelis and Iran's Arab neighbors, can “literally” live with.

Hopefully, the mushrooming dangers in the region will help both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu recalibrate their rhetoric and refocus on the enormous challenges at hand.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Three ways Netanyahu actually lost last week’s Israeli election


Today Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured backing from the required parliament members to form the next governing coalition. It was an undeniable victory for Bibi, after a nail-biter run up to last week’s legislative election. But Netanyahu’s triumph belies many shifts in Israel’s politics and society that could undermine his future.

For starters, it would be foolhardy to see Netanyahu’s victory as a victory for conservatives, en masse. Netanyahu’s party, the Likud, grew mainly by diminishing its allies on the right, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu, which saw their seat numbers drop to eight and six, respectively.

And the left didn’t quite lose. The Zionist Union ran a campaign focusing on economic stagnation and the lack of homes for the young and the poor. It worked: the Union got 24 seats, up sharply from the 15 Labor had held before.

In a piece written just before the election, Paul Krugman wrote that “according to Luxembourg Income Study data, the share of Israel’s population living on less than half the country’s median income — a widely accepted definition of relative poverty — more than doubled, to 20.5 percent from 10.2 percent, between 1992 and 2010.” The gap between the ultra rich and the middle class, in a country that had been sternly egalitarian well within living memory, has reached U.S. levels. The left hammered this lesson in — and it worked well.

Support for Netanyahu was spotty among the parliament’s — Knesset’s — center as well. He secured backing from the Kulanu party. But Yesh Atid denied Bibi its support. Yes, Yesh Atid is diminished but still, at 11 seats, it’s substantial in Israeli political terms — there are only 120 seats in the Knesset. The party’s upper-middle class electorate may be restive that Netanyahu is increasingly marginalized by world opinion — a marginalization that prompted the American-Palestinian commentator Yousef Munayyer to write that he was relieved by Netanyahu’s victory, since it would now bring more international pressure on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Naomi Chazan, a former deputy speaker of the Knesset, then a representative for the leftist party Meretz, offered a withering critique: “Jews outside of Israel had look[ed] to the country and supported it. Now, liberal Jews may say: what’s the point of supporting if the government has cast aside a two-state solution?”

As Netanyahu assembles his governing coalition, he faces several challenges: A revived left; a large part of his population dissatisfied with their economic lot; a U.S. president so distant that he could not bring himself to congratulate Netanyahu on his victory on the night; an impatient world community; increasing violence on his borders; and no deal yet to prevent Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon. This is a different Israel.

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.

COALITION TACTICS

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.

Bibi, you’re no Moses


So, he spoke.

And while his rhetoric soared, his ideas sank.

He gave us a thousand reasons why the deal whose details he may not know is a flawed one. He gave us not a single pragmatic better option.

Not one.

And life, they say, is not about what’s ideal. It’s about what’s possible. 

Bibi said he wants Iran to abandon its nuclear program, renounce its desire to obliterate Israel and stop supporting terrorism. Ideally the Iranian regime would react to continuing or increased sanctions by doing those things.  

But expert after expert tells us that if these talks fail, there’s a far better chance the sanctions regime, which is dependent on the cooperation of Russia, China and other ornery nations, will fall apart, and whatever hobbles are now on Iran’s nuclear development will fall away. 

In other words, the most dangerous thing for Israel, America and the world might possibly be for Bibi to get his way.

If Iran is as crazy, messianic and violent as Bibi spent a good third of his speech asserting — then his proposal makes even less sense. The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from crazy people is first keep them away from dangerous weapons — not make them promise to change. Maybe Bibi has the right ideas, but they’re in the wrong order.

In fact, Bibi’s speech — solid, stirring as it was — left me more perplexed than convinced. I couldn’t agree more with him about the historic levels of support the Obama administration has shown for Israel, and about the very real, existential danger the Iranian regime poses for Israel.  

But these other applause lines made me wonder:

“Now we’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war,” Bibi said. “That’s just not true.”

Note that Bibi said, “war,” not “military action.” It is more likely a breakdown in talks will compel the latter, even if Israel and the United States are able to avoid the former. But in any case, unless Bibi can say — and he couldn’t — what a better deal is, his words here ring hollow. 

Remember Colin Powell testifying in the run-up to the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein was trafficking in yellow cake uranium — an assertion that proved false and helped lead us into a disastrous war? If Bibi’s planless plan fails, well, this might be Bibi’s yellow cake moment.

“The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal. A better deal that doesn’t leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and such a short break-out time. A better deal that keeps the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in place until Iran’s aggression ends.”

And that better deal is …? 

Barack Obama, as opposed to his predecessors, worked to get the world on board for a sanctions regime predicated on getting Iran to agree to a reasonable deal. 

If those countries aren’t on board, those sanctions, in the words of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “are going to get leaky very soon.” 

With no deal and no sanctions, Iran will continue to develop its nukes uninspected. 

“Imagine 10 years of no deal,” said Zakaria, “and where will Iran be at that point?”

My friends, for over a year,” Bibi said, “we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal.

Actually, the administration has made clear the opposite is the case.

“I have repeatedly said that I would rather have no deal than a bad deal, but if we are successful in negotiating, then in fact this will be the best deal possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said, reacting to Bibi’s speech. “Nothing else comes close. Sanctions won’t do it. Military action would not be as successful as the deal that we have put forward.”

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

Bibi likes to paint Obama as the over-eager suitor to the borderline offensive stereotype of the wily Oriental bargainer.  But in doing so, he ascribes great rationality to a regime he just convinced us was nuts. The truth is, there is ample historical precedent for Iran choosing principle over payout. 

“This is why … as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”

This hubris played well in Congress and perhaps back home — though we won’t know how well until Election Day in Israel two weeks from now.

There was a time in Jewish history when Israel tried to stand alone: It’s called Masada.  In modern Israeli history, Israel has never stood alone — it couldn’t survive five minutes without the backing of a superpower. Every prime minister has understood this.  That Bibi pretends otherwise — and, in recent weeks, has acted otherwise — endangers Israel’s security.

Bottom line:  Bibi provided a clear path away from negotiations, but not toward a non-nuclear Iran. 

At the end of his speech, he pointed to a painting of Moses that adorns the Capitol. You have to love the irony. Moses, you’ll remember, had a speech impediment. He never could have been as eloquent as Bibi. Then again, great speeches alone don’t get you to the Promised Land.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

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.

In front of 16,000, Rice opposes AIPAC’s Iran agenda, Menendez opposes Rice


National Security Advisor Susan Rice‘s speech on Monday may go down as the most contentious in recent memory at an AIPAC policy conference, during a historically tense period of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

She began by heaping praise on Israel, saying some words in Hebrew and making clear – to roaring applause – that a “bad deal” on Iran’s nuclear program is worse than “no deal.”

But then her remarks took a sharp turn to highlight the Obama administration’s differences over Iran policy with AIPAC.

“We cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal,” Rice said of the ongoing negotiations with Iran. “I know that some of you will be urging Congress to insist that Iran forego its domestic enrichment capacity entirely.”

And with that, Rice left no room for doubt – in front of 16,000 of Israel’s most ardent American supporters – that she and the Obama administration oppose what AIPAC has tasked its delegates with as they lobby Capitol Hill on Tuesday; namely, asking Congress to pass legislation, in the midst of negotiations, that would automatically hit Iran with sanctions if a deal is not reached by the March 24 deadline. AIPAC is also supporting a bill that would give Congress final say on any deal reached with Iran, a bill the White House said President Obama would veto.

The audience members, instead of booing Rice as she labeled their goal an “unachievable ideal”, applauded loudly, clearly signaling, in as polite a manner as they could, that they disagree.

Rice continued: “If that is our goal our partners will abandon us and undermine the very sanctions we have opposed so effectively together. Simply put, that is not a viable negotiating position.”

Criticizing the aim of of de-nuclearizing Iran as unrealistically expecting Iran to “unlearn the scientific and nuclear expertise it already possesses”, Rice then said, “Some would argue that we should just impose sanctions and walk away.”

And again, the crowd, in disagreement, gave a loud and energetic applause. Unfazed, Rice continued:

“Congress has played a hugely important role in helping to build our sanctions on Iran but they shouldn’t play the spoiler now,” she said. “Additional sanctions or restricted legislation enacted during the negotiations would blow up the talks, divide the international community and cause the United States to be blamed for failure to reach a deal.”

Although Rice spent much of the speech documenting both her support for Israel when she served as ambassador to the U.N., and the Obama administration’s support of the U.S. ally, her explicit, on the record opposition to AIPAC’s agenda this year stole the show.

And it was amplified because of her comments on “Charlie Rose” on Feb. 24 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Tuesday address to Congress would be “destructive of the fabric of the relationship”, comments that upset many attendees here.

Shortly before Rice's address, Obama gave an interview in the White House to Reuters correspondent Jeff Mason, in which he said new sanctions wouldn't make Iran abandon its nuclear program and that Netanyahu “made all sorts of claims” when the interim nuclear deal was announced in November 2013, claims that Obama said haven't come true.

“We should let these negotiations play out,” Obama said. Asked whether he agreed with Rice's characterization of Netanyahu's upcoming speech as “destructive”, the President responded, “I don’t think it’s permanently destructive. I think that it is a distraction.” 

Obama further implied that Boehner invited Netanyahu for partisan reasons and that he's “less concerned” with Netanyahu's address than with Iranian nuclear legislation Congress is considering; the bills that AIPAC supports.

Rice’s speech Monday evening followed two morning speeches by U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, and Netanyahu, in which both gave reassurances of the close U.S.-Israel alliance and more or less avoided discussing the disagreements underlying recent fissures in relations between the two governments, particularly between Obama and Netanyahu.

After Rice’s speech, which appeared to both shock and enliven much of the crowd, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), perhaps Israel’s leading supporter among Senate Democrats, took the stage, almost immediately taking a shot at Rice.

“I must disagree with those who say the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States is destructive to U.S.-Israel relations,” Menendez said.Tomorrow I will be proud when I escort the Prime Minister to the House chamber to give his speech.”

Coming just minutes after Rice’s remarks, the crowd gave Menendez a rousing applause, this time as a sign of adoration.

“I am not intimidated by anyone,” Menendez said. “Not Israel’s political enemies and not my political friends.”

He slammed Rice’s remark that the White House wants to keep Iran’s “breakout capacity” – the time it would take Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon – at one year.

“It is not a good deal if it leaves Iran as a threshold nuclear state,” Menendez said. “If we have no more than a year to respond, it’s not enough time for us to do anything other than exercise a military option.”

By the end of Menendez’s speech, the crowd’s applause sounded at least as loud as the one it gave Netanyahu after his address Monday morning, a speech that – combined with Samantha Power’s – gave the impression that there’s less tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship, or at least the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, than reports have suggested.

Netanyahu spent about half of his 20-minute speech Monday morning reassuring the reported 16,000 AIPAC delegates in attendance that America and Israel are “mishpucha” (Yiddish for “family”), that he wants Israel to remain a bipartisan issue, and that he “regrets” that his address to Congress has been “misperceived” as a partisan and political tactic.

“You’re here to tell the world that reports of the demise of U.S.-Israeli relations are not only premature, they’re just wrong,” Netanyahu said. “Our alliance is stronger than ever.”

He publicly thanked President Obama for U.S. military aid, intelligence sharing and reliable and friendly votes in the U.N., and described what is not the purpose of his Tuesday speech before he discussed what is the purpose.

“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds,” Netanyahu said. “I have great respect for both.”

But, he added, the nuclear deal that is coming into focus as the ostensible March 24 deadline approaches is one that, in its current form, may “threaten the survival of Israel.”

“We have a voice. I plan to use that voice,” Netanyahu said. “I plan to speak about an Iranian regime that is threatening to destroy Israel, that is devouring country after country in the Middle East, that is exporting terror throughout the world and is developing, as we speak, the capacity to make nuclear weapons – lots of them”

Netanyahu spoke shortly after an address by Power, who was the first White House official to speak at this year’s conference, and who was greeted warmly by the crowd.

AIPAC’s apparent concern, though, that some delegates would react hostilely to Power – as a representative of an administration perceived by many here as antagonistic to Israel’s security interests – was made clear by a slide that flashed on the wall of Casper the Friendly Ghost that read: “Don’t boo! Be friendly.” And before Power took the stage, a line from a presentation video reminded the crowd “to treat all of our speakers and fellow delegates as guests in our home.”

The American ambassador, like Netanyahu, reaffirmed America’s alliance with Israel and said that debate amongst allies on how to prevent Iran from going nuclear “is a necessary part of arriving at informed decisions – politicizing that process is not.”

“The stakes are too high for that,” Power said, all but certainly alluding to Speaker of the House John Boehner’s controversial invitation to Netanyahu to speak to Congress about the Iranian negotiations, and Netanyahu’s acceptance.

With the presumed architect of the Boehner-Netanyahu invitation – Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer – sitting a few feet from the podium, Israel’s leader said the “last thing” he or anyone who supports Israel would want “is for Israel to become a partisan issue.”

“I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that,” Netanyahu said.

Although some of AIPAC’s leadership was reportedly upset over Netanyahu’s handling of the impending Tuesday speech, neither they nor the audience expressed their annoyance publically Monday. After AIPAC president Bob Cohen announced Netanyahu, the crowd gave him a rousing minute-plus standing ovation as he walked to the podium. And when Netanyahu publicly thanked Dermer, the crowd again stood and cheered as he appeared on the multiple large screens set up around the hall.

The difference between Washington and Jerusalem over Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Netanyahu said, is just the most recent one in a decades long friendship that has survived numerous disputes.

“Despite occasional disagreements the friendship between America and Israel grew stronger and stronger decade after decade,” he said. “Our friendship will weather the current disagreement.”


Mar. 2, 11:20 p.m.: This story has been updated with more details.

Our annual Purim cover: Kanye interrupts Bibi, Foxcatcher gets sequel, Lyft offends with logo


Click on cover image to enlarge.

Cover design by Lynn Pelkey. Headlines by Jewish Journal staff, Esther D. Kustanowitz and Elon Gold.


More Purim 2015

Events calendar
Recipe: Funfetti cheesecake hamantaschen
Recipe: Bibi’s hamantaschen
Recipe: ‘Pop Tart’ hamantaschen
Recipe: Taco hamantaschen

How not to bomb Iran


Oh, to be in Geneva right now, facing the Iranians across a long polished table in a quiet hotel room–  because everywhere else the debates over their nuclear ambitions are raging, and the anxiety, accusations and intrigue are exasperating. Never have so many weighed in on so much while knowing so little.

After a dramatic lead-up worthy of a political thriller, or at least a reality show, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will finally step in front of Congress on March 3 and do his best to convince the House of Representatives, the Senate and the American people that the deal President Barack Obama is currently negotiating with Iran over its nuclear development will be a bad one.

The negotiators in Geneva, including Secretary of State John Kerry, are telling the press that productive talks may lead to a historic agreement by their self-imposed March 31 deadline. They won’t say what the particulars of the agreements are, only that Bibi’s criticisms of them are inaccurate.

We are all bystanders to this political showdown, a tense two-hander all but guaranteed to produce a winner and a loser.  

Will Bibi pull off a speech of such eloquence, power and insight that he will win over the majority of Americans? Enough even to convince Democrats to snub Obama and support Bibi’s point of view?

Or will his speech be met by an equal and opposite reaction from the Obama administration, which even now could well be developing plans to undercut the Israeli prime minister with facts they’ve withheld to render his objections impotent?

Will Bibi’s Hail Moses enable him to inch in front of his rivals in the Israeli elections?  Or will a bad showing here seal his doom back home?

Will Americans perceive Bibi as forcing the president out of a deal and into a military conflict on Israel’s behalf?

Or will they come to thank this man who rode in from out of town for saving them from an agreement that could lead to a nuclear Iran and a Shiite/Sunni nuclear arms race?

Even though I think Bibi made a huge mistake by going behind the president’s back in speaking to Congress — he could have given the same speech on the same trip to AIPAC without the blowback — my mind remains wide open to his arguments, as well as to those of Obama and the negotiators.

It seems to me that’s only honest position: We don’t know the substance of the deal, or Bibi’s specific disagreement, or something else — the alternatives.

Because lost amid the grogger-like chorus of dissent is the sound of a better idea. 

We know there are some really bad ones still kicking around. The people who brought us the Iraq war have for years been pushing for a military strike against Iran, though there’s barely a credible military or intelligence expert in America or Israel who thinks that’s the best possible course. 

As for the argument that military threats and tougher sanctions alone will convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, it’s easy to make the case that the effect has been and will be the exact opposite. If you’re constantly being threatened by a far superior power, you can be sure those threats lose their power the second you get the N-bomb. Nobody’s talking about invading North Korea these days.

There’s another group, especially within the Jewish community, that decries any concessions to Iran as capitulation. But ever since the Bush administration allowed Iran to spring forward with its nuclear program while we were busy invading Iraq and Afghanistan, the non-nuclear ship sailed. Negotiations will never bring back the shah, though anything short of that elicits cries of “Munich!”  from too many otherwise-smart people. Negotiations mean carrots, not just sticks.

Finally, there is the “No deal is better than a bad deal” mantra. That’s something we’ve also tried in the past, only to discover that there’s no such thing as the status quo in Tehran. When we walk away, they build.

So, let’s put aside these far worse or unrealistic alternatives. The question we should ask after Bibi speaks and Obama or his people respond is this: Is there any possible deal that can bridge American and Israeli differences? Or, to put it another way, is there a simple cure for what ails Bibi?

The answer, I think, is one word: verification.

Beyond all the posturing and speechifying, the bottom line is this: Israel doesn’t trust Iran, and it shouldn’t. That’s only partly because Iran, like enemies in the past, has threatened to destroy Israel. It’s also because Israel knows well how countries can lie, deceive and connive their way to a bomb — because back in the 1960s, Israel did just that.

So the best alternative to a bad deal, or no deal, is a deal that has stringent, intrusive and long-lasting inspections of all nuclear facilities. As Ambassador Dennis Ross has pointed out, the verification regime has to be accompanied by clear consequences, spelled out in advance, if Iran breaches any part of the agreement.

Such a deal, Ross wrote in the Washington Post, “just might also bridge the gap between Obama and Netanyahu.”  

That’s what I’ll be looking for as the drama unfolds in the coming weeks — a way short of bombing to thwart Iran — and bridge the gap.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

How Bibi could surprise the world


When the eyes of the world are on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu on March 3 as he speaks to the U.S. Congress, he’ll have an opportunity to shock them all – Congressmen, Israeli voters, the foreign press, European leaders, Arab dictators, the United Nations and President Barack Obama.

He won’t shock them with his widely anticipated message about the dangers of making a bad deal with Iran. That message is hugely important and must be shared, but that cat’s already out of the bag.

As I touched on in my last column, the political uproar over “Bibigate” has had an unintended consequence – it has broadened the debate. We’re no longer talking just about tougher sanctions against Iran in case an agreement isn’t reached, or the president’s threats to veto such sanctions. 

We’re now talking about the agreement itself. We’re talking about strategy, about the danger of rushing headlong into what Israeli author Ari Shavit last week called “Obama and Khamenei’s disastrous deal.”

Bibi’s speech will milk this. He will rail against the number of centrifuges inside Iran, but also against the growing number of terror states under Iran’s umbrella. He will rail against allowing the chaos in the Middle East to turn a predatory Iran into an ally of the West. He will warn of the dangers of starting a nuclear arms race in the world’s most explosive and unstable neighborhood.

For Bibi to reach greatness, he’ll have to add something new, something epic, something totally unexpected.

In short, Bibi’s address will reinforce a message of risk – the risk of basing a grand bargain with an evil regime on the hope that that regime can, in time, become less evil.

But as crucial as that message will be – and I believe it’s the most crucial foreign policy message of our time – it’s already being delivered by others, and it’s what everyone is expecting to hear. For Bibi to reach greatness, he’ll have to add something new, something epic, something totally unexpected.

Something that will reward the Democratic congressmen who attend the speech despite opposition from their own president.

Something that will belie his reputation as a political opportunist who’s using this high-profile forum to solidify his base back home, two weeks before national elections.

Something that will confront the albatross around Israel’s neck that is fueling the BDS movement and eroding Israel’s global standing.

On March 3, to really shake up the world, Bibi will have to commit to a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative and make a serious announcement regarding settlements.

Here’s what I propose: Assuming he remains prime minister, Bibi would invite the Palestinian Authority (PA) back to the negotiating table, and, while negotiations are ongoing, commit to freezing construction in West Bank settlements outside of the main settlement blocs.

Yes, I know, this will lead to a few coronary attacks in his Likud party and make his opponents on the far right salivate. But it would also transform Bibi into a global leader, one with the courage to challenge his own base and risk his political future for the good of his country.

And make no mistake – this would be good for Israel. Even if you believe Israeli settlements are not illegal (as I do), the hard reality is that Israel has lost that argument with much of the world. That reality, however, presents an opportunity: A concrete gesture regarding settlements will disarm our enemies. Why? Because that’s pretty much all they’ve got on Israel. 

PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has been cleaning Israel’s clock for years now with the diplomatic bomb of Israeli settlements. Think of how depressed he would be after this announcement, deprived of that most precious weapon with which to batter the Jewish state.

And no, this would not be like the previous freeze. This would be initiated by Israel and would be conditional—they don’t negotiate, Israel doesn’t freeze. How do you beat that for an incentive?

Think also of the U.S. Congress, the most powerful legislature in history and Israel’s greatest friend. Sadly, we’re seeing some of this bipartisan support start to fray. I can’t think of a better way to reinforce that support than to give the Democrats and President Obama a diplomatic initiative they could willingly embrace.

This is not about naively pushing for a peace deal – everyone knows that’s a pipe dream right now. It’s more about demonstrating intent and good will. This good will would surely come in handy when Israel needs maximum congressional support as the zero hour approaches on the nuclear deal with Iran. 

There’s been more than enough bad blood surrounding Bibi’s speech. The differences between Bibi and Obama on Iran are serious and real. On March 3, as he expounds on these differences in front of the world, it wouldn’t hurt to spring a sweet surprise.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Why Bibi should give his speech


Like many other American Jews, I’ve had serious reservations about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s decision to speak to Congress on March 3, against the wishes of President Barack Obama. I’m in that camp of Israel supporters who are obsessed with keeping the most powerful man in the world as squarely on the side of Israel as possible. So if that man tells me he’s unhappy with something Israel has done, well, it gets my attention.

It’s clear from all reports that President Obama is very unhappy with Netanyahu for accepting House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak. It’s also true that Obama expressed no opposition in 2011 when the same event occurred, albeit in less heated circumstances. In any case, if the most powerful man in the world is upset about something, you can’t afford to just shrug that off.

Furthermore, Obama’s negative reaction has put politicians of his own party in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between pleasing him and attending Bibi’s speech. This has awoken the unpleasant scenario of Israel as a partisan issue, bringing down even more wrath on Bibi.

Throw in the fact that the speech comes two weeks before the Israeli elections, and the decision to bash Bibi for his RSVP has become as easy as bashing the Kardashians for lowering our cultural conversation. In much of the Jewish world right now, Bibi-bashing is the safe thing to do if you want people to nod feverishly and agree with you.  

And yet, as much as I’ve had my issues with him over the years, I don’t feel like joining in the anti-Bibi frenzy. Something’s fishy. It’s too easy. It’s too perfect. It's too simple.

Here’s what smells: What is Obama so afraid of? Is it possible that he’s afraid to start a vigorous debate on his Iran strategy that will expose it as potentially harmful to America’s or Israel’s interest?

With the stakes so high and the deadline for a deal so close, it’s about time we have this crucial debate.

Let’s put aside all the hysterics about politics and protocol and how Bibi has ticked off Obama. As sobering as those things may be, they pale in comparison to the strategic issue of how Obama deals with the Iranian nuclear threat. If he’s about to sign an agreement that many experts agree is a bad one, don’t we deserve a national debate? 

There’s good reason to be concerned about what Obama has up his sleeve. In calling for a national debate, an editorial in the Washington Post last week made that clear: “As the Obama administration pushes to complete a nuclear accord with Iran, numerous members of Congress, former secretaries of state and officials of allied governments are expressing concerns about the contours of the emerging deal…We share several of those concerns and believe they deserve a debate now—before negotiators present the world with a fait accompli.”

The editorial outlined three major areas of concern:

“First, a process that began with the goal of eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons has evolved into a plan to tolerate and temporarily restrict that capability.

“Second, in the course of the negotiations, the Obama administration has declined to counter increasingly aggressive efforts by Iran to extend its influence across the Middle East and seems ready to concede Tehran a place as a regional power at the expense of Israel and other U.S. allies.

“Finally, the Obama administration is signaling that it will seek to implement any deal it strikes with Iran — including the suspension of sanctions that were originally imposed by Congress — without a vote by either chamber. Instead, an accord that would have far-reaching implications for nuclear proliferation and U.S. national security would be imposed unilaterally by a president with less than two years left in his term.”

Those are not tactical concerns; they are urgent, strategic concerns with global implications.

Now, put yourself in Obama’s shoes. You’re very eager to close a deal with Iran. You’ve kept your cards close to the vest. You know your strategy is high-risk and debatable. And you know that if the Israeli prime minister addresses Congress, he may ignite a heated debate about the wisdom of your strategy.

So, what do you do? As the most powerful man in the world, you make a big stink about Bibi’s appearance and hope that that snuffs out the debate.

So far, in the Jewish world at least, it has mostly worked. Jews are talking more about Bibi than about Iran. They’re talking more about cancelling Bibi’s speech than about rolling back Iran’s nuclear program.

But I sense that a backlash has begun, that a debate about Obama’s Iran strategy is finally, haltingly, starting to take hold.

A seminal essay by Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, has detailed the highly risky strategy of allowing Iran to become what Obama has called “a very successful regional power.” Similar pieces by Walter Russell Mead and Lee Smith have taken the president to task on this grand strategy. And when a powerful mainstream voice like the Washington Post expresses concern about the president’s approach and calls for an urgent national debate, you know something’s up.

With the stakes so high and the deadline for a deal so close, it’s about time we have this crucial debate. So far, most of the debating has been about the tactical issue of sanctions. Now, we need a more fundamental debate about strategy.

Bibi’s high-profile speech to Congress on March 3 will make sure that the strategic issues and concerns stay front and center. That’s not just good for Israel, it’s also good for America.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.


Read Rob Eshman's counter-point here: Bibi, call off the play

Letters to the editor: Running Springs, Mel Brooks and Sun City


We Report, You Decide

Thanks for telling a complicated story so well (“The Rebirth of Running Springs,” Jan. 30). Bravo to the Journal for reporting the facts for all to see. To those who criticize the story, it could have been far more damaging to Chabad by reporting other issues like this in Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin’s business dealings. But the writer let the facts speak for themselves, without inuendo and implied guilt.

Jim Ruxin via jewishjournal.com

While I’m a big fan of Chabad, this article has soured me toward them. It appears that Chabad purchased a quite expensive campground, stopped making mortgage payments soon thereafter and also stiffed an elderly lady out of her estate. There are more sickening aspects of the article. Cunin and his sidekicks have some chutzpah.

A. Joans, Los Angeles


Necessary Evil

Rob Eshman rightly fears the misuse of drone technology if it gets into the wrong hands  (“Drones, Jews and Morality,” Jan. 30). However, he does not share the pride that small Israel, who has been battling against Islamic terror decades before the rest of the Western world, has been a frontline technological innovator in the fight against today’s evil.  

He does not appreciate the value and purpose of the drone — to minimize not only casualties of our own soldiers, but the innocents on the enemy side as well. 

There is simply no question that if drones did not exist, the percentage of enemy innocents caught in the vicinity of the targeted bad guys would grow exponentially.

Richard Friedman, Culver City


Thank You, Mel!

I want to respond to Danielle Berrin’s wonderful and insightful interview with Mel Brooks (“Shmoozing With Mel,” Jan. 30). A few summers ago, my wife and I were visiting Cordoba, Spain, and while wandering the alleyways, we heard the sounds of Gregorian chants wafting into the street. Following the lovely music, we found ourselves in the Museum of the Inquisition, which consists of several gloomy chambers filled with instruments of torture, accompanied by descriptions of how they were used. 

The only way I could counteract these disturbing images and regain my equilibrium was to replay in my head the “Spanish Inquisition” song from Brooks’ movie “History of the World Part 1,” which is performed in the style of a grandiose Busby Berkeley production.

I don’t mean to minimize the suffering of Inquisition victims, nor, I’m sure, did Brooks. On the contrary, we should all be aware of what happened in order to prevent such a horrific event from occurring again. But we also need to recognize that humor can be a potent remedy for the paralyzing darkness and negativity that can ensue from such encounters.

Joel Stern, Los Angeles

Mel, we love you, but seriously, you must not leave this world before trying our original Hungarian kosher stuffed cabbage. The best in the world, I won’t let you down. Call me!

Balazs Tibor via jewishjournal.com


Bibi Butts in

With typical eloquence, Michael Berenbaum has clearly made the case that Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement to address a joint session of Congress is a profound insult and, ultimately, a mistake (“Boehner Invitation to Bibi Signals Congress, White House Showdown,” Jan. 30). Americans of all political persuasions should take offense at the attempts of a foreign prime minister to interfere in American policy matters, Netanyahu clearly intended to stick a thumb in the eye of the president of the United States, and I for one am outraged. I now must work to separate my support for Israel from my disgust with its leader.

Barbara H. Bergen via email


From City of Angels to City in the Sun

Congratulations to Tess Cutler for the wonderful and beautifully written column on her one-month visit to Sun City in Palm Desert (My Life as a Retired Millennial,” Jan. 30). Although she didn’t love the Sun City lifestyle as a 21-year-old, we are here to report that, as seniors who have been residing in Sun City for three years, it is a fabulous community with lots of activities, friends and things to do. When we receive the Jewish Journal delivered to our door, we reconnect with Los Angeles Jewish life and enjoy reading every column. However, we turn the pages first to read the article written by Cutler. Hers are the best!

Sydney and Hale Porter via email


correction

In a Jan. 30 letter to the editor about school endowments (“With Help, Local Schools Grow Their Endowments, Jan. 16), an incorrect title was listed for Arlene Agress. She is the director of the Jim Joseph Foundation High School Affordability Initiative at BJE (Builders of Jewish Education), Los Angeles.

Showdown on the Beltway


Do you know why the whole Bibi-Obama-Boehner-Iran mess gives me such a headache? There are too many moving parts: Bibi shouldn’t tick off Obama; Obama should be tougher on Iran; Boehner shouldn’t go behind Obama’s back; Bibi shouldn’t interfere with American politics; Obama shouldn’t interfere with Israeli politics; Israel shouldn’t become a partisan issue; all parties should stop playing politics, and so on—I’ve read it all.

No wonder they’re calling this a diplomatic meltdown.

As things stand, the United States Congress is considering legislation that would toughen sanctions against Iran in case the nuclear talks fail, a move President Obama has opposed. Raising the ante, House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on March 3, presumably to help sell a “tougher” approach on Iran.

Remember “High Noon”? “Gunfight at the OK Corral”? This is the big “Showdown on the Beltway.” And, just to add a little drama, Bibi’s speech to Congress will coincide with his speech at the annual AIPAC convention.

Who said politics was boring?

As March 3 approaches, the tension will mount. Bibi haters will have a field day, and so will Obama haters. Bibi’s violation of diplomatic protocol, coupled with his intrusion into U.S. politics, has drawn the wrath of the White House. At the same time, since a nuclear Iran is an existential issue for Israel, it looks like Bibi has chosen to go all in and take his lumps.

For many Israel supporters who are hawks on Iran, it’s a question of priorities: A diplomatic row with your top ally may be very bad, but an aggressive nuclear Iran on your doorstep is a whole other level of bad.

“Across the greater Middle East, Iran's efforts to extend its influence have been blunt and brutal,” Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who has criticized Bibi’s snubbing of Obama, wrote in December. “And certainly its unceasing threats to eradicate a fellow member-state of the United Nations, Israel, suggest that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has a vision for Iran that differs from Obama’s.”

With this kind of predatory regime, you can’t afford not to play hardball. But predatory or not, Obama believes Iran is a rational actor. “If you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive,” he told Goldberg in an interview. “They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits.”

The question, then: Is Obama making the cost of sanctions greater than the strategic benefit of becoming a nuclear power? I’m not sure.

After all, if Iran is, indeed, a rational actor, you can argue that the Congressional threat of more sanctions would give Obama more leverage to make a better deal. But, as he’s made very clear and public, Obama’s not buying it. Even though conditional sanctions would not violate the interim agreement, he believes it would upset the mullahs and make them bolt from the negotiating table.

In poker, we call that showing your anxiety and tipping your hand. As Dennis Ross, Obama’s former point man on Iran, said last week, you can’t make a good deal if the other side thinks you want a deal more than they do. And the mullahs, just like the rest of the world, know how eager Obama is to make a deal.

He’s so eager, in fact, that he’s playing hardball with Congress instead of with the mullahs.  

All this brouhaha about “Bibigate” is a distraction from the one thing that matters most: If Obama is unwilling to play hardball with Iran, the deal on the table will be a bad deal. All the rest is commentary.

“With all the justified criticism against Bibi's political clumsiness, let's not lose sight of what's really happening here,” author and political analyst Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in an email from Jerusalem. “The real villain isn't Bibi but Obama, who is clearly planning a sell-out deal with Iran which would leave Teheran within easy reach of nuclear breakout. After years of negotiations, this is the worst possible outcome.”

In other words, all this brouhaha about “Bibigate” is a distraction from the one thing that matters most: If Obama is unwilling to play hardball with Iran, the deal on the table will be a bad deal. All the rest is commentary.

Which makes me wonder: Why would Congress push conditional sanctions to induce Iran to sign a deal that it knows would be a bad deal? And why would Bibi wade into this political mess and tick off the White House just to give the same speech he can give at AIPAC?

If we agree that no deal is better than a bad deal, then what’s the best we can hope for? That negotiations will drag on another 18 months until a hard-nosed negotiator enters the White House in 2016? Like I said, somebody pass the Advil.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Netanyahu fumes at ‘chickenshit’ slur


An anonymous U.S. official's reported description of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “chickenshit” drew a sharp response on Wednesday from the Israeli leader – no stranger to acrimony with the Obama administration.

The American broadside, in an interview in The Atlantic magazine, followed a month of heated exchanges between the Netanyahu government and Washington over settlement-building in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, which Palestinians seek as the capital of a future state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

[Related: Friends and allies shudder … despots and bullies rejoice]

“The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” the unidentified official was quoted as saying, using Netanyahu's nickname and a slang insult certain to redden the ears of the U.S.-educated former commando.

“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, alluding to past hints of possible Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear program. “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states.”

Netanyahu, the official was reported to have said, is interested only in “protecting himself from political defeat … He's got no guts.”

Israeli leaders usually do not respond to comments by unidentified officials. But Netanyahu addressed those remarks directly in opening a memorial ceremony in parliament for an Israeli cabinet minister assassinated by a Palestinian in 2001.

“Our supreme interests, chiefly the security and unity of Jerusalem, are not the main concern of those anonymous officials who attack us and me personally, as the assault on me comes only because I defend the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

“…Despite all of the attacks I suffer, I will continue to defend our country. I will continue to defend the citizens of Israel,” he said.

PURPORTED SLUR DISMISSED

Such pledges by Netanyahu have resonated among Israeli voters, even amid fears his strained relations with U.S. President Barack Obama could ultimately weaken support from Israel's main diplomatic ally and arms provider.

After Netanyahu's speech, Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, dismissed the purported slur, denying that it reflected how the Obama administration felt about the Israeli leader.

“Certainly that's not the administration's view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counter-productive,” he said.

Asked though whether the administration would try to uncover and punish the official who made the comment, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters: “I don't know of any effort like that under way right now.”

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham condemned the remarks, saying they did “nothing but harm to America's national security interests.”

“We know that relations can be strained at times. But there is no excuse for Obama Administration officials to insult the Prime Minister of Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East,” the senators said in a joint statement.

Some Israeli pundits predict an Israeli election in 2015, two years early, speculation seemingly supported by increasingly vocal challenges to his policies from senior ministers to the left and right of him within the coalition government.

FRICTION

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, whose ultranationalist Jewish Home party belongs to the coalition but who has had testy relations with Netanyahu, defended him on Wednesday.

“The prime minister of Israel is not a private person. He is the leader of the Jewish state and the entire Jewish people. Cursing the prime minister and calling him names is an insult not just to him but to the millions of Israeli citizens and Jews across the globe,” he wrote on Faceboook.

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog sounded a more critical note, telling Channel Two television: “Netanyahu is acting like a political pyromaniac, and he has brought our relations with the United States to an unprecedented low.”

In a series of recent speeches widely seen in Israel as setting the stage for a possible poll, Netanyahu has highlighted growing security concerns in the wake of the July-August war with Hamas in Gaza and regional unrest that has brought Islamist militants to Israel's northern border with Syria.

Israel also worries that U.S.-led world powers will agree to what it sees as insufficient curbs on the nuclear program of its arch-foe, Iran, in talks with a looming Nov 24 deadline.

Fears of a possible new Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, have been stoked in Israel by now-daily rock-throwing by Palestinians in Jerusalem amid Muslim fears of an end to an Israeli de facto ban on Jewish worship at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in the holy city where Biblical temples once stood.

Netanyahu has pledged to preserve the “status quo” at the site, a commitment Palestinian leaders view with suspicion.

MORE SETTLER HOMES

But drawing Palestinian outrage and a State Department accusation that Israel was distancing peace, Netanyahu pledged on Monday to fast-track plans for 1,000 new settler homes in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu described such criticism as being “detached from reality”, saying Jews had a right to live anywhere in Jerusalem, regarded by Israel as its united capital – a claim that is not internationally recognized.

Baskey, the U.S. spokesman, acknowledged longstanding policy differences between Israel and Washington over settlements.

“Obviously, despite the extremely close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, we do not agree on every issue,” he said.

“For instance we have repeatedly made clear the United States’ longstanding view that settlement activity is illegitimate and complicates efforts to achieve a two-state solution.” Despite these differences “the U.S.-Israel relationship remains as strong as ever”, Baskey added.

Most countries and the World Court deem the settlements Israel has built in areas captured in a 1967 war to be illegal. Israel disputes this, and has settled 500,000 Jews in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, among 2.4 million Palestinians.

Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Dan Williams and Tom Heneghan

The Netanyahu ‘chickenshit’ slander: Friends and allies shudder … despots and bullies rejoice


A top, unnamed Obama administration official calls an important leader a “chickenshit.” Was this a hard-nosed warning aimed at Ayatollah Khamenei to pressure Iran to destroy those 23,000 centrifuges before next month’s nuclear negotiating deadline? Perhaps it was a signal to the emir of Qatar, to stop being the paymaster of terrorists? Or just maybe, a well-deserved barb at our Turkish “ally” Erdoğan to stop acting like a regional bully and more like the eastern guardian of NATO?

Of course not. No one in this White House or State Department would ever deign to insult America’s enemies. Unfortunately, and too often such special treatment has been dished out against our only reliable friend and ally in a region that is rapidly self-destructing – Israel.

It is Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu who is “courageously” singled out for public humiliation by an administration official who calls Netanyahu a coward but lacks the decency to use his own name.

The immediate fallout from this slur, the State Department’s non-stop finger wagging at Israel for real and imagined sins, and the Administration’s insistence that violence-inciting, terrorists-honoring, Mahmoud Abbas is the one partner committed to peace in the Holy Land:

– Say goodbye to The Israeli Street. For a two-state solution to have any chance, Israelis have to know that the US has their back. Forget about it. The Obama Administration’s carefully calibrated rhetoric is shoving Israelis further to the right. Forget the Israeli cabinet, Israeli taxi drivers no longer trust President Obama.

– Iran, Hamas, Qatar. They are emboldened to push their anti-American, pro-terrorist, and anti-peace agendas by a leader perceived as soft in word and deed.

– American Jewry. Even those Jews whose democratic creds are deeply embedded in their political DNA, are insulted by a slur, that had it been uttered in any other country would have been denounced by the State Department’s Special Envoy on Anti-Semitism. Of course Jewish supporters of President Obama would be right to point to the President’s vital support for Israel’s defensive needs, including the Iron Dome. But even those American Jews and other critics of Bibi’s policy and style, still worry about the safety of the world’s largest Jewish community that is threatened by Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and ISIS.  Will it impact on Jewish voters next Tuesday? Useless to predict, but friends of Israel fear may have been provided a foretaste of the direction of the President’s foreign policy over the next two years. Friends and allies are shuddering Despots and bullies, rejoice.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center

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’s office denies son dating non-Jewish woman


The son of Benjamin Netanyahu is not dating a non-Jewish Norwegian woman, an official in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office reportedly told the head of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party.

Israel’s Channel 10 reported Wednesday that the official told Aryeh Deri in a meeting that Yair Netanyahu, 23, and Sandra Leikanger, 25, who both study at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, only study together and are not dating.

Deri publicly criticized the prime minister for his son’s choice of romantic involvement, saying on Monday in an interview with the haredi radio station Kol Barama, “Woe is us if it is true.”

“I try not to raise personal criticism, but if, heaven forbid, this is true it is no longer a personal matter — it is a symbol of the Jewish people,” he said.

Deri also said he was concerned about how the relationship would appear to people “who invest tens of millions, hundreds of millions to fight assimilation throughout the world.”

The prime minister’s official also denied that Netanyahu had spoken of the relationship with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Soldberg last week at the Davos Economic Forum, as has been reported in Israeli media.

In case you missed it, Bibi doesn’t like Rouhani


Say what you will about Bibi, but the guy stays on message.

In his speech at the U.N. yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drove home the same point he’s been repeating since he (re)took office in 2009: Iran’s trying to get the bomb, we need to stop it and the way to do that is sanctions plus a credible military threat. In many ways, it was a lot like the speech he gave at the U.N. last year.

Here are a few similarities and differences that jumped out at me: 

  • This time, it’s personal. With the newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani leading a full-throttle charm offensive in New York, Bibi turned his attack on the Iranian leader himself. The prime minister mentioned Rouhani 25 times in the first 24 minutes of the speech, mostly calling him (in so many words) a dissembling servant of a violent, oppressive regime. I didn’t watch many other speeches at this year’s General Assembly, but it would surprise me if any other world leader spent as much time as Bibi did talking about another head of state.
  • Bibi, as always, is a student of history. He began the speech talking about 4,000 years of Jewish history (though Walter Sobchak would disagree) and ended by quoting the prophet Amos. He said that Israel’s relations with Iran go back millennia  to the ancient King Cyrus. He mentioned his grandfather’s experience of anti-Semitism, the Nazis and the Maccabees — not to mention a string of attacks sponsored by Iran. It’s often been said that Bibi sees himself in an epic role — the modern-day Churchill. But that’s, just, like, his opinion, man.
  • He’s also quick with the wordplay. Maybe Bibi didn’t brandish a cartoon bomb this year, but he sneaked in some pithy phrases: Ahmadinejad was a “wolf in wolf’s clothing,” while Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing;” Rouhani wants “to have his yellowcake and eat it, too;” Bibi juxtaposed “Iran’s savage record” with “Rouhani’s soothing rhetoric.”
  • Of the speech’s 33 minutes, Bibi devoted about 30 to Iran. Since Bibi last addressed the U.N., peace talks with the Palestinians have begun, Syria has — according to most — used chemical weapons and Egypt is in a new round of turmoil. But Bibi hardly mentioned any of that. He devoted two minutes to the peace talks, mentioned Syria only in the context of Iran and didn’t mention Egypt at all. Iran, it seems, has remained his top priority.
  • And like all of Bibi’s international speeches, this was at least in part meant for a domestic Israeli audience. It helped that it aired on prime-time Israeli TV. Facing some internal criticism for being too soft in the Palestinian negotiations, Bibi sent the message to his citizens that Israel will “stand alone” if necessary — and the speech seemed to at least partially work. Yediot Aharonot, a leading paper that’s long been sharply critical of Bibi, wrote in an editorial today that “Yesterday he seemed – and this is not a printing mistake – trustworthy.”

North Korea to Bibi: Israel’s ‘a cancer’


A week of debate at the United Nations came to a close this week with a much-anticipated address from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who, as expected, devoted nearly all of his speech to Iran’s nuclear program.

Then, things got interesting.

See, there’s this thing at the United Nations called the right of reply. Basically, if someone takes a shot at you in a U.N. meeting, you have the right to respond. Then the person who was replied to can speak again. And then the first replier can have a second go.

Not surprisingly, Iran had a few things it wanted to get off its chest. First it disputed Bibi’s claims of nefarious nuclear intent, noting that he had said little different from last year, except this time he had left the cartoons at home. The Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, also offered a dark warning that Israel better not misinterpret Iran’s commitment to non-aggression as an indication that the country can be messed with.

“Iranians are the best at exercising their inherent right of self-defense,” Zarif said. “Therefore the Israeli prime minister had better not even think of attacking Iran, let alone planning for that.”

Got that Bibi? Don’t even think about it.

I expected Israel to jump in at this point, but instead a round robin began involving Bolivia, Libya, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and both Koreas. Armenia and Azerbaijan have a longstanding dispute over a territory that sounds like it was named for the forgotten daughter of a certain singing rabbi, which one of their leaders made the mistake of mentioning in his address. Their respective representatives basically took turns calling each other liars.

Bolivian leader Evo Morales had pointed to the intervention in Libya in his speech several days ago as a case study in Western imperialism, which of course could not be left unanswered, so those two countries had a go at it as well.

Then North Korea jumped in. Netanyahu had used the North Korean example as a warning of what happens if the world is not sufficiently resolute in confronting aspiring nuclear powers. The representative from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea responded with a withering attack on Israel.

“It is a cancer in the Middle East,” the North Korean said. “It is disturbing the peace and security, shifting blame to all other countries in the region.”

Then the South Korean representative took the floor to say that North Korea does the exact same thing.

All the while, John Ashe, the heroic Antiguan who has presided over a whole week of speechifying, looked as if he was containing a geyser under his shiny bald pate. After a week of this, even the looser format of the replies apparently wasn’t enough to command his interest. His you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me expression as replies unfolded looked like a man on the verge of release from prison who had just learned that a bureaucratic snafu was keeping him in the slammer for an indeterminate period. Poor guy. President of the General Assembly must look like a great job on paper.

Obama: ‘Bibi and I have a terrific, businesslike relationship’


President Obama said he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have “a terrific, businesslike relationship.”

“We get stuff done,” Obama told an interviewer from Israel's Channel 2 in an interview aired Thursday night, in advance of his visit to Israel next week.

Obama said the fact that his government is more center-left and Netanyahu's more to the right has put a “strain” on the governments, but that it is “not personal.”

“There have been times when Bibi and I have had differences, but the relationship between our countries is so strong,” Obama said, adding that the differences “are bridged and resolved.”

Obama reiterated that his goal during his trip is to listen and to speak directly to the Israeli people as often as he can. When asked why it took him so long as president to visit Israel, Obama said that there have been “some big crises in the United States.”

On the topic of Jonathan Pollard, the spy for Israel in prison in the United States, Obama said he has “no plans of releasing Jonathan Pollard immediately.” He said the U.S. justice system, with its system of periodic reviews of early release for prisoners, should be allowed to take its course. “I recognize the emotions involved in this,” Obama said. “I am sympathetic, but as president my first duty is to observe the law in the United States and make sure it is applied consistently.”

Obama said he regretted that as president he cannot wander the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem or go to a bar in Tel Aviv and meet regular Israelis.

On Iran, Obama said that “all options are on the table” but that there is still time for sanctions to work.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama said it is essential for Israel to resolve the Palestinian issue and that it would be “good for Israeli security.” He added, “Obviously Israel cannot resolve it by itself, but it should not stop trying.”

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.