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Israeli, Palestinian ministers trade blame for stalled peace process


Israel Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and his Palestinian counterpart, Economic Minister Dr. Hassan Abu-Libdeh, sought to tackle a host of economic issues in a private meeting in Jerusalem on Wednesday, but the two agreed that economic cooperation couldn’t substitute for a peace agreement.

Speaking at a briefing organized by The Media Line’s Mideast Press Club, the two ministers traded blame for stalled negotiations. Ben-Eliezer urged Palestinians to drop their demands for a settlement freeze and resume talks immediately, saying Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was sincerely interested in reaching a pact. Abu Libdeh cast doubt on the Israeli prime minster’s intentions.

“Mr. Netanyahu isn’t a man of peace. He was elected by right-wing Israelis. He wants everything, including a quasi-Palestinian state with no content at all,” Abu Libdeh told reporters at the briefing. “Sixty percent of the West Bank is reserved for settlements and other security activities.”

Ben-Eliezer, who belongs to the Labor Party, the most dovish of the parties in Netanyahu’s coalition government, defended the prime minister’s intentions. He warned that Israel and the Arab world had to resolve the Palestinian issue in order to face up to the threat to region posed by Iran.

“If I were [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], I would call Netanyahu tomorrow morning to come to Ramallah and address all the critical issues for the sake of all of our children,” Ben Eliezer said. “The question of a settlement freeze right now is marginal.”

The two sides resumed talks briefly in September under U.S. auspices, but the negotiations broke off after a temporary Israeli freeze on building in areas acquired in the 1967 war expired. Palestinians have conditioned further talks on a renewed freeze, but U.S. President Barack Obama has so far failed to find term satisfactory to Israel. 

But even as the two sides have so far failed to find a formula for reviving peace talks, the economies of Israel and the Palestinian areas have enjoyed strong growth. The International Monetary Fund forecasts Palestinian gross domestic product will expand 8% this year, boosted by large infusions of foreign assistance, while it expects Israeli GDP will grow 4%, led by exports.

Nevertheless, Palestinian economic prospects have been stymied by Israeli restrictions on the movement of goods and people. The two ministers met Wednesday to try and resolve some of these issues, including allowing Palestinian products to enter Israel more freely and removing obstacles to development of the Jenin industrial zone in the West Bank.

Ben-Eliezer said Israel would back the Palestinian Authority’s bid to get observer status at the World Trade Organization, the main global body dealing with the rules of trade between nations. The two, who last met in August, agreed to discuss economic and commercial matters on a regular basis.

Israel has imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip since the Muslim fundamentalists group Hamas seized control of the enclave. Since June, Israel has eased some of its restrictions, allowing more goods to arrive and this week allowed the first of fresh produce to leave Gaza for markets in Europe in a program that will allow Gaza farmers export 700 tons of strawberries and 30 million carnations this season.

In the West Bank—where the Palestinian Authority with whom Israel is holding peace talks governs – Israel maintains hundreds of security checkpoints along the area’s roads, slowing the movement of people and goods.

But Ben-Eliezer told the briefing, which was attended by dozens of Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists, Israel had reduced its security presence in the West Bank. He said there were only 14 permanent roadblocks and that the number of other security measures, such as flying checkpoints, Israel imposes had fallen to about 300.

“What was two or three years ago and what is now, you can’t compare,” he said, noting that most of the work in suppressing terrorism is now being handled by PA security forces.

Felice Friedson, president and chief executive officer of The Media Line, told the briefing that Israelis and Palestinians must decide whether co-existence means economic cooperation or a parallel but separate economic life. 

“There are glimpses of cooperation,” she said. “This week for instance, the story broke of Israel green- lighting the export of Gaza strawberries to the world markets. On the other hand, Bashar Al-Masri, the developer of Rawabi, the first Palestinian planned city, told me that he is still awaiting approval from Israel defense minister for the city’s access road.”
Abu-Libdeh defended a PA campaign to boycott Israeli communities in the West Bank. Palestinians violating the ban, including buying products made in the settlements and working in construction jobs, face up to five years in jail and fines of up to $14,000.
“We believe what we are doing is the right thing and we will continue to do the right thing,” he said about the boycott, in which he has taken a leading role. “We very much want to cooperate with Israel in terms of the economy and other spheres, but first we have to create the proper conditions for the two peoples to make pace.”
An estimated 22,000 Palestinians work in the settlements in factories, farms and in construction. Ben-Eliezer said he was “not pleased” with the boycott campaign, saying economic issues should be kept apart from politics, but didn’t say what steps Israel might take to counter it.
Commercial ties between the two sides have remained limited as Palestinian unrest during two Intifadas caused Israel to prevent Palestinians from working in Israel and blocked trade to prevent terror attacks.

Even though Palestinian constitute a market of four million people right next door, Israeli companies sell very little to the West Bank and Gaza, according to a Bank of Israel study released last month.

Tax figures show Israeli businesses sold $3.2 billion worth of goods to the Palestinians in 2008, which would make the West Bank and Gaza a bigger market for Israel than any single European country. In fact, about 60% of that $3.2 billion is imported goods trucked into Palestinian areas by Israeli companies, the Central Bank said. The Palestinian market accounts for just 0.15% of Israeli GDP and for 3,000 jobs, it estimated.

The West Bank and Gaza had exports of $500 million to Israel in 2008, the last year figures are available from the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics.

The Mideast Press Club seeks to advance professional and personal relationships between Israeli and Palestinian journalists through programs, master classes and incentives for the study of journalism and the enhancement of coverage of the Middle East. Heading into its sixth year, the Mideast Press Club is an initiative of The Media Line (TML), a non-profit American news agency specializing in coverage of the Middle East and journalistic education.

Shalom Auslander is my failure


A review of Shalom Auslander’s new memoir caught my eye — was this author the curly-haired boy who had been my ninth-grade student at Yeshiva University High

School?

Reading the review confirmed, first, that it was the same person, though now the curls had given way to a contemporary buzz cut, and second, that his writing was to Noah Feldman, another controversial former yeshiva student, what Junior Classics are to Shakespeare.

Then I saw his eponymous Web site, and realized that my initial estimate had been over generous. Self-promotion, biblical inaccuracies, shock value, uber alles. I have no admiration for what my former high school student has done. I can sympathize with his pain growing up, but abuse doesn’t produce pseudo-philosophy of this caliber. Neither does a school.

If Feldman wants acceptance, Auslander wants a book tour and a cheeseburger without the guilt. But shorn of the elaborate gyrations that don’t quite succeed in justifying a lifestyle of pot, pork and pater-bashing, Auslander has hit on a point that troubles every thinking religious person.

It’s a lot easier to believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God than a benevolent one. Bad things do happen to good people — all the time — and the believer spends a great deal of spiritual energy putting aside, and keeping aside, creeping doubts in God’s goodness. When I let it, my mind wanders to my first trip to Israel in 1983, when I was accompanied by my 22-year-old sister, and seriously dated a former classmate from Ramaz. A dozen years later, both women would be dead from cancer, and I would be a rabbi, teaching people that there is a good God and a reason for everything. They would forever be connected in my memory to Effi Chovers, my sister’s classmate at Ramaz, who was killed in 1982, in Operation Peace for the Galilee. But God has His reasons.

In my pastoral work, the instances of suffering are multiplied. A couple, long infertile, finally pregnant, struck with a miscarriage; a congregant’s child afflicted with illness; a wrecked marriage leaving both partners savaged — sometimes the emotional effect feels cumulative, and it is very tempting to point an accusing finger upward. I can walk into a wedding, and feel tears fill my eyes from the knowledge of the silent sorrow of so many families around me. And, of course, looming above my life is the spectre of the Holocaust, in which my father’s whole family perished, and whose icy grip accompanied me growing up.

Part of me wonders: Am I blinded by self-interest to take up the cause of God simply because He is not currently aiming his bow at me? Am I dishonest to preach belief in a good God, when so many around me are suffering? When I help comfort a mourner or ease the pain of another human being, am I God’s partner as I preach, and as I dearly want to believe, or am I cleaning up after Him, saving His creatures from His wrath?

But I am not the first to struggle with these questions. From Abraham to Aher, Jeremiah to Job, the Aish Kodesh to Elie Wiesel, those who have seen and understood more than I, have struggled to keep love in their lexicon. And one of the least-answerable post-Holocaust questions is how so many survivors succeeded in rebuilding not only their lives but their faith. My father (z”l) was one such survivor, but his formula was ineffable, nontransferable, to be emulated, but never duplicated, even by a son. And yet I remember the hours he spent, staring out our apartment window, murmuring niggunim, laden with unshed tears. I never asked him about the inner struggles of those moments. I didn’t have to.

In this area, like dieting, you can only adopt what works for you. For Sherlock Holmes it was the aroma of the rose, wholly unnecessary from an evolutionary point of view, that “proved” the existence of a benevolent God. For others it is a personal experience of miraculous salvation. For me it was a chocolate cake.

It was 1985, and I was back in Israel, at a yeshiva. It was my birthday, and I was unutterably lonely. My mother’s care package, having arrived early, was long-since dismembered, devoured and forgotten. It was my first birthday away from home, and nobody remembered. In my mind, I played the maudlin and the miserable to the hilt. I decided to visit married friends in a nearby neighborhood. Their door was open, but no one was home. On the table stood a homemade cake and a note — “Sorry we couldn’t be here in person. Happy Birthday and many happy returns.” That cake did more than sate my sweet tooth. People like that convince me that God is good.

So, too, does the rabbi whom I call upon to answer questions posed to me that I can’t handle myself. He has yet to tell me how inane my queries really are, or that if I cracked open a Shulchan Aruch, I could find the answers myself. And the people of my community who rallied around us when my wife was on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy, or when I sat shiva. From people like these, I extrapolate to God.

This doesn’t answer my questions. It doesn’t staunch my tears. I don’t sleep better. I don’t justify terrible things when they happen to others, and I don’t know why they don’t happen to me. But I know that just as surely as there is inexplicable evil in the world, there is inexplicable good, as well. It’s something to put on the other side of the scale, something to attribute to a good God.

And while I am awake at night I also ask myself: Should I have baked Auslander a chocolate cake?

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg serves as rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y., and teaches at the SAR Academy.


Beyond the Orange Curtain


The recent revelations about the South OrangeCounty Community College District’s desire to offer a course that, inpart, blames the Mossad and the Anti-Defamation League for theassassination of President John F. Kennedy read something like a badclipping from the area’s far-right past.

Even as the county continues to emerge as anincreasingly cosmopolitan, high-tech region, it appears that theregressive gene, with its racist and anti-Semitic characteristics,remains all too embedded in the county’s public policy. Despite thecancellation of the course (due to various outside pressures), theelected head of the board of trustees, Steven T. Frogue, continues tospew out the right-wing conspiratorial line, which, in other parts ofSouthern California, has thankfully receded into history.

Indeed, despite rapid demographic and economicchange, the county still is bedeviled with a significant, highlyvisible group of people whose views seem more in line with the MiddleAges than the Information Age. Of course, such views do not representanything like a majority in Orange County, notes UC Irvine’s MarcBaldassare, the region’s leading pollster. By his estimation, no morethan 20 percent of Orange County residents share the kind of”hard-right” politics that produces leaders such as Frogue. Evenwithin the Republican Party, Baldassare believes, the vast majoritytend more toward a libertarian, fiscally conservative but sociallymoderate philosophy.

“The whole right-wing social agenda, ‘familyvalues’ thing does not play well here,” Baldassare says, noting thatin the 1996 elections, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole wononly 50 percent of the Orange County vote and moderate DemocratLoretta Sanchez upset far-right (but not anti-Semitic) incumbentCongressman Bob Dornan. “I don’t think there’s a vast undercurrent ofracism or anti-Semitism here at all. That conflicts with theprevailing sense of personal rights and responsibility.”

Rabbi Arnie Rachlis of University Synagogue inIrvine essentially shares these views, suggesting that the region’sJewish community, estimated to be between 70,000 and 100,000 strong,has little to fear from anti-Semitism from its non-Jewishneighbors.

Life in Orange County may be plagued by a kind of”Stepford Wives” suburbanite conformity, but not by rabidanti-Semitism. “People like Frogue are exceptional,” Rachlis says.”When you go out to soccer practice, it’s white, Gentile andconservative, but not a bunch of Birchers and skinheads.”

Perhaps so, but having Frogue entrenched as anelected official still should give pause to Jews in Orange County andthroughout Southern California. For one thing, Frogue’s anti-Semiticpolitics are not a new development on the other side of the OrangeCurtain.

Since the 1920s, racist, anti-Semitic and nativistsentiments have surfaced repeatedly in Orange County politics.Indeed, back in the 1920s and 1930s, the Ku Klux Klan gainedpolitical power in cities such as Anaheim, Fullerton, Brea and LaHabra; the rabidly anti-Semitic group was hardly on the fringe. Asone scholar noted later, most Klansmen were considered “civicallyactive, substantial citizens.”

Nor did the extremist element die with the demiseof the Klan in the 1930s. Although Jews, African-Americans andAsian-Americans were only a tiny proportion of the county’spopulation — itself nearly 75 percent white Protestant — the racistculture continued to exist in Orange County’s fertile soil. Into the1960s, extreme right-wing politicians, such as James B. Utt,represented the southern end of the county, even proposing aconstitutional amendment that called for official recognition of “theauthority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of Nations.” TheJohn Birch Society also found its strongest California base in OrangeCounty.

As the county grew in population and economicpower, far-right anti-Semitic and racist elements still found succorwithin prominent institutions, such as Knott’s Berry Farm. In thiscase, recalls marketing consultant Bob Kelley, it may have been morea matter of indifference and ignorance than outright activeanti-Semitism. Walter Knott, Kelley says, was himself not ananti-Semite and even had Jewish secretaries, but he tolerated afundamentalist-run bookstore that openly sold anti-Jewish tracts.Eventually, Kelley and other advisers persuaded Knott to shut downthe bookstore.

But Kelley, my own longtime personal friend and aprominent adviser to many Orange County high-tech companies, believesthat the region is now at a crossroads between its far-right,intolerant past and a more cosmopolitan future. The bulk of OrangeCounty’s increasingly high-tech and trade-oriented businessleadership remains politically conservative but far from racist orexclusive. Indeed, Kelley points out, some of the county’s leadingbusiness figures — such as Quicksilver Software’s Bill Fisher,Westec’s Michael Kaye and Toshiba Information Systems’ Paul Wexler –are themselves Jews.

“In the high-tech and medical world that I dealwith, it’s pretty Jewish these days,” Kelley says. “In that world, Inever encounter anti-Semitism. But, sometimes, when I was dealingwith car dealers and with insurance brokers, well, some of themclearly came from wherever rednecks are minted.”

In other words, Kelley and other business leaderssuggest, Orange County’s new, and buoyant, economy, increasinglydominated by Asians and Latinos, has no room for bigots — even ifonly in its own self-interest. To compete for educated workers,capital and media attention against Silicon Valley or other high-techregions, Orange County must purge itself as much as possible of itsugly regressive genes. It may be blind optimism to believe this willhappen, but I’m betting that it will.

Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin Fellow at thePepperdine Institute for Public Policy.