Israel’s Security Cabinet approves Turkey reconciliation deal


Israel’s Security Cabinet approved the reconciliation agreement with Turkey restoring diplomatic ties after a six-year freeze.

Following a discussion of more than four hours, the Security Cabinet voted 7-3 to approve the deal, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked dissenting.

Relations between Israel and Turkey broke down in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, when Israeli commandos boarded and killed nine Turkish citizens in clashes on a boat attempting to break Israel’s Gaza blockade. The votes against the agreement were in part over the payment of reparations to the families of the Mavi Marmara victims.

 

The Security Cabinet also said it would take up a discussion on the conditions of incarceration of Hamas prisoners in Israel as long as the issue of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers presumed dead and two Israeli citizens being held in Gaza is unresolved.

As part of the agreement, Turkey has committed to help pressure Hamas to repatriate the soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, and the citizens, Avra Mangisto and Hisham Al-Said, being held there.

Under the deal, Israel will create a $20 million humanitarian fund as compensation to the families of the Mavi Marmara victims, which would not be released until Turkey passes legislation closing claims against the Israeli military for the deaths. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apologized for the deaths, another Turkish condition for the resumption of diplomatic ties.

Turkey withdrew its demand that Israel halt its Gaza blockade, but Israel will allow Turkey to establish building projects in Gaza with the building materials entering Gaza through Israel’s Ashdod Port. The building projects reportedly include a hospital, power station and desalinization plant.

Embattled from the outset, new Netanyahu government sworn in


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new rightist coalition government, hobbled by a razor-thin parliamentary majority, was sworn in late on Thursday amid wrangling within his Likud party over cabinet posts.

The evening ceremony in the Knesset was postponed by two hours so Netanyahu could divvy up for Likud the remaining ministries, after others were assigned to its four partners. Some Israeli commentators called the manoeuvring “farcical”.

The coalition with conservative, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties controls 61 of parliament's 120 seats, auguring difficulty for the fourth-term Netanyahu in passing controversial policies or even surviving no-confidence votes.

Blowback abroad is also expected. Prospects for resolving deadlocked U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians are dim, Netanyahu is at loggerheads with Washington over its nuclear negotiations with Iran, and Western diplomats recoil at nationalist legislation championed by some in the coalition.

Seconds into his speech unveiling the government, as he pledged that it would “safeguard security, work toward peace,” Netanyahu was interrupted by opposition heckling and guffaws.

But coalition lawmakers managed to get the new government approved by a 61-59 vote, to allow its inauguration by midnight.

Netanyahu has retained four cabinet portfolios for himself, at the cost of leaving key Likud loyalists feeling bereft. That has stirred speculation he is holding the ministries in reserve for Isaac Herzog, head of the centre-left opposition, should they eventually join forces in a “national unity” government.

“I am leaving the door open for broadening the government,” Netanyahu said in his speech. “The country needs this.”

Herzog was combative when he took the lectern, however: “No decent leader would join the 'Netanyahu circus' that you put together at the last minute, on the strength of one seat, only to extend your rule,” he said.

Shortly after winning a March 17 election, Netanyahu appeared to be coasting toward a comfortable 67-seat majority. But in a surprise move last week, he was abandoned by long-time ultra-nationalist coalition ally Avigdor Lieberman.

The guidelines of the new government make no mention of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after talks collapsed in April last year. Instead, they pledge in general terms to “advance the diplomatic process and strive for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and all our neighbours”.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he had not given up hope for peacemaking.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday he was willing to revive peace talks but the onus was on Netanyahu to change course and end Israel's settlements in the West Bank  by 2017.

Israel OKs call-up of additional 40,000 combat reservists


Israel’s Cabinet approved the call-up of as many as 40,000 additional combat reservists.

The approval came Tuesday afternoon, hours after army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz requested the added troops with the start of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in an effort to stop a rocket barrage on southern Israel. Israel’s military is planning a possible ground invasion of Gaza, according to reports.

Also Tuesday, the Tel Aviv municipality said it would prepare and clean public bomb shelters as Hamas threatened on its official websites that it would fire rockets at the city. In addition, Israel Railways has halted service between Sderot and Ashkelon in both directions, where a significant number of rockets have been aimed, following orders from the Home Front Command.

The Palestinian Health Ministry on Tuesday afternoon reported that at least seven Palestinians were killed and 25 injured in an Israeli airstrike Tuesday on the home of a Hamas operative.

Hamas and other terror organizations in Gaza have fired more than 130 rockets into civilian areas of southern Israeli since Monday night. In response, the Israeli military has targeted about 150 of what it calls “terror sites” in Gaza.

 

 

Israel’s Cabinet OKs $124 million plan to deal with illegal migrants


Israel’s Cabinet allocated nearly $124 million to a plan designed to have illegal African migrants return to their countries of origin.

Most of the money allocated from the plan approved unanimously on Sunday will go toward building a new migrant detention center in southern Israel and paying migrants who agree to leave the country up to $3,500.

The plan also is aimed at reducing the presence of migrants in city centers and increasing security for Israelis.

It calls for adding 550 positions to law enforcement teams from the Public Security Ministry, the Population and Migration Authority and the Economy Ministry that will carry out enforcement against the illegal migrants and their employers. The number of police officers in areas of south Tel Aviv frequented by illegal migrants also will be increased.

“We are determined to deport the tens of thousands of illegal migrants who are here after having reduced to zero the number of illegal labor migrants who enter Israel’s cities,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the meeting, according to his office.

“The steps that we unanimously approved today are proportionate and necessary for maintaining the Jewish and democratic character of the state and will restore security to Israel’s citizens while upholding the directives of the High Court of Justice and international law.”

The plan is in conjunction with a new illegal migration prevention law that allows illegal migrants to be held for one year in a closed detention facility rather than three years. The Israeli Supreme Court struck down the original law.

The new detention facility will provide the migrants with food, sleeping accommodations, and health and welfare services, and will be closed only at night. However, the migrants will have to appear three times a day for roll call and are not permitted to work.

Yachimovich ousted as head of Israeli Labor, Isaac Herzog wins


Israeli Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich lost primary elections for the party leadership to Isaac Herzog.

The 53-year-old Herzog, a veteran lawmaker, is a former Cabinet minister and high-profile lawyer, and the son of former Israeli President Chaim Herzog.

He won 58 percent of the vote in the leadership primary compared to 41 percent for Yachimovich, who led the party for two years. In total, some 28,473 people cast their vote out of 60,392 registered voters within Labor.

“We are facing a historical moment, you can almost feel the ground move,” Herzog said in a speech Friday, referring to Iran and peace talks with the Palestinians, according to the Jerusalem Post. “Only real steps and peace would allow us to prevail on all fronts, and I highly doubt Prime Minister Netanyahu can see that. This can be Labor’s greatest hour.”

Under Yachimovich, jobs and the economy featured prominently on the agenda of Labor, Israel’s main opposition party. Some argued that that emphasis came at the expense of the party’s promotion of peace deals with the Palestinians.

In national elections in January, Yachimovich led the party to a disappointing third-place finish, with only 15 seats out of 120 in parliament.

Netanyahu offers inquiring U.N. interpreter a job in Israel


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there will always be a job waiting in Israel for a U.N. interpreter caught wondering aloud at the excessive number of anti-Israel resolutions.

Netanyahu played a video recording of the incident during Sunday’s regular Cabinet meeting and called the unidentified interpreter “brave.”

The interpreter’s remarks came during the Nov. 14 meeting of the U.N. General Assembly’s Fourth Assembly attended by representatives of all 193 United Nations member states. Nine of the 10 resolutions adopted at the meeting condemned Israel.

“I mean I think when you have five statements, not five, but like a total of 10 resolutions on Israel and Palestine, there’s gotta be something, ‘c’est un peu trop, non?’ ['It’s a bit much, no?'],” the interpreter said in English and French in remarks heard live by the delegates. “I mean I know, yes, yes, but there’s other really bad s*** happening, but no one says anything about the other stuff.”

Amid titters of laughter from the delegates, the committee secretary says, “I understand there was a problem with the interpretation.”

“Interpreter apologies,” the interpreter responds.

Netanyahu said, “I would like to tell this interpreter that she has a job waiting for her in the State of Israel. There are moments that tear the hypocrisy off the unending attacks against us, and this brave interpreter did so.”

Violence overshadows new Egyptian cabinet; seven killed


Seven people were killed and more than 260 wounded when Islamist supporters of Mohamed Morsi fought opponents of the deposed Egyptian president and security forces, marking a return of violence that overshadowed the naming of an interim cabinet.

Egyptian authorities rounded up more than 400 people over the fighting which raged through the night into Tuesday, nearly two weeks after the army removed Morsi in response to mass demonstrations against him.

Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi is forming a government to lead Egypt through a “road map” to restore full civilian rule and to tackle a chaotic economy.

A spokesman for the interim president said Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood had been offered cabinet posts and would participate in the transition. The Brotherhood, Egypt's leading Islamist movement, dismissed the remarks as lies, saying it would never yield its demand for Morsi's return.

Crisis in the Arab world's most populous state, which straddles the Suez Canal and has a strategic peace treaty with Israel, raises alarm for its allies in the region and the West.

Morsi's removal has bitterly divided Egypt, with thousands of his supporters maintaining a vigil in a Cairo square to demand his return, swelling to tens of thousands for mass demonstrations every few days.

Two people were killed at a bridge in central Cairo where police and local Morsi opponents clashed with some of his supporters who were blocking a route across the River Nile overnight. Another five were killed in the Cairo district of Giza, said the head of emergency services, Mohamed Sultan.

Morsi is being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location. He has not been charged with any crime but the authorities say they are investigating him over complaints of inciting violence, spying and wrecking the economy.

CALM SHATTERED

A week of relative calm had suggested peace might be returning, but that was shattered by the street battles into the early hours of Tuesday morning, the bloodiest since more than 50 Morsi supporters were killed a week ago.

“We were crouched on the ground, we were praying. Suddenly there was shouting. We looked up and the police were on the bridge firing tear gas down on us,” said pro-Morsi protester Adel Asman, 42, who was coughing, spitting and pouring Pepsi on his eyes to ease the effect of tear gas.

The new cabinet is mainly made up of technocrats and liberals, with an emphasis on resurrecting an economy wrecked by two and a half years of turmoil.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – rich Gulf Arab states happy at the downfall of the Brotherhood – have promised a total of $12 billion in cash, loans and fuel.

Investors do not expect major reforms before a permanent government is put in place. The new planning minister, Ashraf al-Arabi, said on Monday that the Arab money would sustain Egypt through its transition and it did not need to restart talks with the International Monetary Fund on a stalled emergency loan.

Egypt had sought $4.8 billion in IMF aid last year, but months of talks ran aground with the government unable to agree on cuts in unaffordable subsidies for food and fuel. Arabi's comments could worry investors who want the IMF to prod reform.

Ahmed Elmoslmany, spokesman for interim President Adli Mansour, said the authorities expected the Brotherhood and other Islamists to agree to participate in national reconciliation and had offered them positions in the interim cabinet.

“I am hoping and expecting, and I am in contact with members from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I can see there is an acceptance to the idea,” he said.

But senior Brotherhood figure Mohamed El-Beltagi said the movement had not been offered posts, and would reject them if it had. “We will not see reconciliation unless it's on the basis of ending the military coup,” Beltagi said at a square near a Cairo mosque where thousands of Morsi supporters have maintained a vigil into its third week.

BURNS SPURNED?

By sunrise calm had returned. The unrest is more localized than in the days after Morsi was toppled when 92 people died, but Egyptians still worry about the continued unrest.

At Tahrir Square, rallying point for anti-Morsi protesters, a Reuters reporter saw teenagers in civilian T-shirts being handed rifles by troops in an armored vehicle. It was not clear if they were civilians or security personnel in plain clothes.

The violence took place on the last night of a two-day visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the first senior Washington official to arrive since the army's takeover.

Washington, which supports Egypt with $1.5 billion a year mainly for its military, has so far avoided saying whether it regards the military action as a “coup”, language that would require it to halt aid.

The United States was never comfortable with the rise of Morsi's Brotherhood but had defended his legitimacy as Egypt's first elected leader. Its position has attracted outrage from both sides, which accuse it of meddling in Egypt's affairs.

“Only Egyptians can determine their future,” Burns told reporters at the U.S. embassy on Monday. “I did not come with American solutions. Nor did I come to lecture anyone. We will not try to impose our model on Egypt.”

The Islamist Nour Party and the Tamarud anti-Morsi protest movement both said they turned down invitations to meet Burns. A senior State Department official denied Burns had been shunned.

“I don't think we're losing influence at all,” the U.S. official said. “I don't know what meetings he has, but he has seen a range of people in Cairo in the interim government, in civil society … so it's hard to say he has been spurned by both sides. I don't accept that is the case.”

At the bridge in the early hours, young men, their mouths covered to protect them from tear gas, threw stones at police and shouted pro-Morsi and anti-military slogans, as well as “Allahu Akbar!” (God is greatest).

Military helicopters hovered overhead and police vans were brought in to quell the trouble. When that didn't work, dozens of riot police moved in. Medics treated men with deep gashes to their eyes and faces nearby.

“It's the army against the people, these are our soldiers, we have no weapons,” said Alaa el-Din, a 34-year-old computer engineer, clutching a laptop during the melee. “The army turned against the Egyptian people.”

Many of the top Brotherhood figures have been charged with inciting violence, but have not been arrested and are still at large. The public prosecutors' office announced new charges against seven Brotherhood and Islamist leaders on Monday.

The fast-paced army-backed “road map” to full civilian rule calls for a new constitution to be hammered out within weeks and put to a referendum, followed by parliamentary elections in about six months and a presidential vote soon after.

A former ambassador to the United States has been named foreign minister and a U.S.-educated economist is finance minister. A police general was put in charge of the supply ministry, responsible for the huge distribution system for state-subsidized food and fuel.

A musician was named culture minister, an appointment with symbolic overtones: she had been head of the Cairo Opera until she was fired by Morsi's Islamist government two weeks ago, prompting artists and intellectuals to besiege the ministry.

Additional reporting by Tom Finn, Yasmine Saleh, Edmund Blair, Alexander Dziadosz, Shadia Nasralla, Ali Abdelaty, Omar Fahmy, Peter Graff, Patrick Werr and Mike Collett-White in Cairo, Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Mike Collett-White and Peter Graff; editing by David Stamp

Israel’s Cabinet approves reduced defense cuts


Israel’s Cabinet unanimously approved a proposal to moderate cuts to the defense budget as part of sweeping austerity measures.

The Cabinet opened its 2013-14 budget talks on Monday with discussions on defense.

Following a meeting of the security Cabinet that lasted much of Sunday, Treasury Minister Yair Lapid agreed to a reduction in the defense budget of 3 billion shekels, or $840 million, with another 1 billion shekels, or $280 million, coming from the defense budget reserves. Lapid originally had proposed cutting 4 billion shekels, or about $1.1 billion.

“We need the IDF to continue becoming more efficient, but we also need additional Iron Dome batteries, and I believe that the path I am proposing today strikes a proper balance between the needs of the economy and security needs,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who brokered the compromise, said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Austerity measures include a reduction in the child allowance and raising taxes, including a 1.5 percent hike on income and a 1 percent rise in the value added tax to 18 percent. The fiscal plan must be passed by Aug. 1.

The Cabinet is expected to approve the entire budget late Monday.

Following extension to form government, Netanyahu calls for parties to unite


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Israeli political parties to “come together and unite our forces,” hours after being granted an extension to form a new government.

He used the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons to illustrate why the country's politicians must remain united.

Israeli President Shimon Peres on Saturday night gave Netanyahu a two-week extension, as permitted by law, to continue his efforts to form a coalition government.

Netanyahu reported to Peres that in discussions with potential coalition partners he has made “significant progress” on foreign affairs, economic issues and universal military or national service, but that he has been unable to form a government due to a “boycott” of the haredi Orthodox parties.

“There is a boycott of a sector of society in the State of Israel and that doesn't fit my view. I am doing everything within my power to unite the nation; I believe that we as Jews have suffered from boycotts. We know that Israel is boycotted in international forums; we are rightly outraged when goods from the settlers in Judea and Samaria are boycotted. More than anyone it is the settler population in Judea and Samaria who should understand this as they suffer from daily boycotts,” Netanyahu said Saturday night.

The Yesh Atid Party has said that it will refuse to sit in a government with the haredi Orthodox parties and the Jewish Home Party, widely supported by voters living in the settlements, has said it will only join the government if Yesh Atid does.

At the opening of Sunday's regular Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said he was briefed on major powers' talks with Iran on the nuclear issue, which he regards as an effort by Iran to stall for time as it continues to process uranium to make nuclear weapons.

“I must say that at this time our enemies are uniting in order to bring about not only atomic weapons that could be used against us, but other deadly weapons that are piling up around us. At a time when they are coming together and uniting their efforts, we must come together and unite our forces in order to repel these dangers,” Netanyahu said. “I regret that this is not happening. I will continue my efforts in the coming days to try and unite our forces and bring them together ahead of the major national and international tasks that we face. I hope that I will succeed, I will continue to try.”

Yesh Atid Party head Yair Lapid wrote on his Facebook page over the weekend that it would “not be a tragedy” if the haredi Orthodox parties did not sit in the new government. Also over the weekend, senior advisors to the prime minister told Israeli news outlets that the new government will have to freeze construction in Jewish settlements outside the large West Bank settlement blocs in order to appease the international community.

Senate approves Jack Lew as Treasury Secretary


With a strong bipartisan majority, the U.S. Senate confirmed Jack Lew, President Obama's nominee to be Treasury Secretary.

Lew, formerly Obama's chief of staff, was confirmed late Wednesday in a 71-26 vote, with 20 Republicans voting for him.

Lew, an observant Jew from New York, also has served twice — under Presidents Clinton and Obama — as chief of the Office of Management and Budget and, under Obama, as a deputy secretary of state.

Lew faced questions over a $685,000 severance payment he got when he resigned as executive vice president of New York University, and also met some resistance from Republicans who said Lew, as OMB chief, was too closely identified with the current impasse over passing a budget.

Nonetheless, his solid majority was in contrast to Chuck Hagel, Obama's Defense Secretary nominee, who garnered the support of just four Republicans and was approved earlier in the week by a majority of 58.

Knesset approves plan to recognize Bedouin settlement


Israel's Cabinet approved a plan to formalize the status of Bedouin settlement in the Negev.

The plan recommended by outgoing Likud Minister Benny Begin would officially recognize most Bedouin settlements in southern Israel and offer compensation to those Bedouin required to move off state-owned land. Compensation will be given in full either in land or money, according to the Prime Minister's Office.

Bedouin being required to move have five years to accept the compensation.

As part of the plan, the government will invest some $322 million over the next five years to promote economic development and growth among Negev Bedouin, and to develop infrastructures in Bedouin communities.

“The goal of this historic decision is to put an end to the spread of illegal building by Negev Bedouin and lead to the better integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement released by his office.

As it pummels Gaza, Israel faces a Hamas with stronger missiles and closer allies


In some ways, Israel’s latest confrontation with Hamas looks like past conflicts in the Gaza Strip. Operation Pillar of Defense has left some key Hamas leaders dead, depleted weapons supplies and hit more than 1,000 targets in Gaza.

“We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas and the terrorist organizations” in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at his Sunday Cabinet meeting.

But there are also some important — and more worrisome — differences that Israel is seeing in Hamas this time around. The terrorist organization that rules Gaza is using more powerful missiles, with a range that can reach the Israeli heartland, and Hamas has closer and stronger allies at its side.

In the past, Hamas rockets threatened only Israel’s South. At their farthest, the projectiles could reach the desert metropolis of Beersheva and the southern coastal cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod.

This time, however, the rockets have flown nearly 50 miles, reaching the densely populated center of the country: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, making Hamas’ rockets no longer just a problem for Israel’s “periphery.” Taken together with Hezbollah’s increasing firepower from Lebanon, terrorist missiles can reach virtually all of Israel.

Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which shoots incoming missiles out of the air, has helped limit the damage from Hamas' rocket attacks. The system is deployed to eliminate missiles headed for Israeli population centers, and Israeli officials say the interception rate is near 90 percent. As of Monday, Iron Dome shot down 350 of 1,000 missiles overall aimed at Israel; most landed in unpopulated areas and were not targeted by Iron Dome.

Complicating matters further for Israel, Hamas has a steadfast ally in Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Last week, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil visited Gaza and voiced support for Hamas. Egypt also recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv after the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari, which marked the beginning of the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Pillar of Defense.

On Saturday, Hamas hosted Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, who during his visit to the Gaza Strip condemned “blatant Israeli aggression.”

Cairo’s sympathies make the conflict especially complicated for Israel, which hopes to safeguard its treaty with Egypt even as it attempts to subdue Hamas. So far, the government of Egypt is playing the role of mediator between Israel and Hamas as the two sides discuss a possible cease-fire.

By Monday, the conflict had claimed three Israeli fatalities — from a missile strike on an apartment building in the town of Kiryat Malachi — and dozens of injuries. In Gaza, about 100 Palestinians were reported dead and more than 600 injured.

Even as cease-fire negotiations took place, some 75,000 Israeli reserve troops were activated, and military personnel and equipment arrived at the Gaza frontier in preparation for a possible ground invasion. On Saturday night, rows of military jeeps and armored cars sat parked at a gas station near the border while dozens of young soldiers in full uniform — some with helmets and others with vests — stood in groups or clustered with middle-aged officers around tables. For many, the immediate concern was about where to find some food.

“There’s nothing open,” one soldier complained as he watched a nearby restaurant shutter its doors.

Chaim, a soldier who did not give his last name due to IDF restrictions on speaking to the media, told JTA that Israel should act forcefully.

“Everyone wants to go in,” he said of a ground invasion. “We’ve waited too long. I’m calm. We have a father in heaven.

“We need to keep going,” he said, until the terrorists “don’t exist.”

Yossi, a soldier from Ashkelon, a frequent target of Gaza’s missiles, said he’s excited to serve.

“I take it,” he said of the rocket fire, “and I also defend.”

Polls show Israelis are strongly supportive of the operation in Gaza, and Netanyahu’s political opponents have lined up behind him, notwithstanding the elections in January.

“Israel is united in the war against terror,” Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, a Netanyahu rival, wrote last week on her Facebook page. She called Jabari an “arch-terrorist,” writing, “His assassination is right and just.”

The Obama administration also supported the Israeli operation.

“There’s no country in the world that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” President Obama said at a news conference Sunday. “We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces, and potentially killing civilians.”

Israeli cabinet authorizes mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists


Israel's cabinet authorized the mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists late on Friday, preparing the ground for a possible Gaza invasion after Palestinians fired a rocket toward Jerusalem for the first time in decades.

Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial centre, also came under rocket attack for the second straight day, in defiance of an Israeli air offensive that began on Wednesday with the declared aim of deterring Hamas from launching cross-border attacks that have plagued southern Israel for years.

Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, claimed responsibility for firing at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Israel said the rocket launched toward Jerusalem landed in the occupied West Bank, and the one fired at Tel Aviv did not hit the city. There were no reports of casualties.

The siren that sounded in Jerusalem stunned many Israelis. The city, holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, was last struck by a Palestinian rocket in 1970, and it was not a target when Saddam Hussein's Iraq fired missiles at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a four-hour strategy session with a clutch of senior ministers in Tel Aviv on widening the military campaign, while other cabinet members were polled by telephone on raising the mobilization level.

Political sources said they decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000. The move did not necessarily mean all would be called into service.

Hours earlier, Egypt's prime minister, denouncing what he described as Israeli aggression, visited Gaza and said Cairo was prepared to mediate a truce.

Officials in Gaza said 29 Palestinians – 13 militants and 16 civilians, among them eight children and a pregnant woman – had been killed in the enclave since Israel began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

The Israeli military said 97 rockets fired from Gaza hit Israel on Friday and 99 more were intercepted by its Iron Dome anti-missile system. Dozens of Israeli bombing raids rocked the enclave, and one flattened the Gaza Interior Ministry building.

In a further sign Netanyahu might be clearing the way for a ground operation, Israel's armed forces announced that a highway leading to the territory and two roads bordering the enclave of 1.7 million Palestinians would be off-limits to civilian traffic.

Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the border area on Friday, and the military said it had already called 16,000 reservists to active duty.

Netanyahu is favorite to win a January national election, but further rocket strikes against Tel Aviv, a free-wheeling city Israelis equate with New York, and Jerusalem, which Israel regards as its capital, could be political poison for the conservative leader.

“The Israel Defence Forces will continue to hit Hamas hard and are prepared to broaden the action inside Gaza,” Netanyahu said before the rocket attacks on the two cities.

Asked about Israel massing forces for a possible Gaza invasion, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said: “The Israelis should be aware of the grave results of such a raid, and they should bring their body bags.”

SOLIDARITY VISIT

A solidarity visit to Gaza by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, whose Islamist government is allied with Hamas but also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, had appeared to open a tiny window to emergency peace diplomacy.

Kandil said: “Egypt will spare no effort … to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce.”

But a three-hour truce that Israel declared for the duration of Kandil's visit never took hold.

Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent said the army's Homefront Command had told municipal officials to make civil defence preparations for the possibility that fighting could drag on for seven weeks. An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

The Gaza conflagration has stoked the flames of a Middle East already ablaze with two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to leap across borders.

It is the biggest test yet for Egypt's new President Mohamed Morsi, a veteran Islamist politician from the Muslim Brotherhood who was elected this year after last year's protests ousted military autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are spiritual mentors of Hamas, yet Morsi has also pledged to respect Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, seen in the West as the cornerstone of regional security. Egypt and Israel both receive billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to underwrite their treaty.

Mursi has vocally denounced the Israeli military action while promoting Egypt as a mediator, a mission that his prime minister's visit was intended to further.

A Palestinian official close to Egypt's mediators told Reuters Kandil's visit “was the beginning of a process to explore the possibility of reaching a truce. It is early to speak of any details or of how things will evolve”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-2009, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

Tunisia's foreign minister was due to visit Gaza on Saturday “to provide all political support for Gaza” the spokesman for the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, said in a statement.

The United States asked countries that have contact with Hamas to urge the Islamist movement to stop its rocket attacks.

Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. By contrast, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel, but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Abbas's supporters say they will push ahead with a plan to have Palestine declared an “observer state” rather than a mere “entity” at the United Nations later this month.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Giles Elgood and Will Waterman

Report: Netanyahu to ask Cabinet to approve panel’s findings on legality of settlements


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will ask his Cabinet to approve some of the conclusions of a report that says that West Bank settlements are legal under international law.

A resolution to adopt some of the findings of the Levy Committee's report could come in the next week or two, Israel Radio reported.

The Levy Committee, which was formed by Netanyahu and headed by former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, said in its 89-page report released in July that “Israel does not meet the criteria of ‘military occupation’ as defined under international law” in the West Bank, and that therefore settlements and West Bank outposts are legal.

The report recommends changing the legal regulations concerning Jewish settlement in the West Bank in the areas of zoning, demolitions and building.

The committee calls for the legalization of all outposts and allowing land owners to register land in the West Bank under their own names, as well as allowing people who built homes on Palestinian-owned land to pay compensation to the alleged owners if the construction was made in good faith.

Netanyahu established the committee in January after settler leaders called for a response to the 2005 Sasson Report on illegal outposts, which concluded that more than 100 West Bank settlements and outposts constructed from the 1990s and forward were illegal.

German Cabinet schedules circumcision amendment


Germany's Cabinet has scheduled a discussion on an amendment that would formally legalize ritual circumcision but place some restrictions on who could circumcise and how.

The discussion was set for Oct. 10, the German paper Die Welt reported. To become law, the amendment needs to pass a vote in the Bundestag.

Amendment 1631d to the law code on the rights of children was devised following a controversial ruling in May by a court in Cologne that said circumcision amounted to a criminal act.

If passed, the amendment would legalize religious circumcision of male minors when performed by a person who is medically qualified; with parental consent and under anaesthesia. Under the amendment, mohels, or Jewish ritual circumcisers, would be able to continue perform circumcisions if they obtain the relevant medical qualification.

Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has said in a statement that “it is especially welcome to hear that circumcision will not be regulated by criminal law but by family law.” He called the amendment “a step in the right direction.”

Representatives of the Green Party, the Social Democrats and the Left Party already have protested the new proposal, according to the German news agency DPA, calling it “alarming” that the protection of a child from bodily harm seems to have taken secondary importance.

Citing leak, Netanyahu disbands security cabinet meeting


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disbanded a meeting of his security cabinet after information from the previous cabinet meeting was leaked to the press.

Netanyahu ended Wednesday’s meeting early, citing a leak that led to a report in the Israeli daily Yediot Acharonot that Tuesday’s security cabinet meeting included conflicting views on the deadline for a possible attack on Iran’s alleged nuclear program.

The security cabinet is made up of 14 government ministers and discusses issues of Israeli national security.

“The security of the state and its citizens depends on the ability to hold confidential and in-depth discussions in the security cabinet,” read a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office. “There, all the facts are shown, all opinions and all implications. This is a basic work tool in managing state security. Yesterday, somebody severely undermined the confidence that Israeli citizens give to this forum.”

The statement did not say when the next meeting would be, nor did it identify the leak.

Yediot’s article on Tuesday reported that Iran is continuing its quest for a nuclear weapon, and that cabinet members differed on when Iran will enter the “zone of immunity,” the point when Iran’s nuclear program becomes impenetrable.

Israel’s Knesset dissolved, new elections called for Sept. 4


Israel’s Cabinet agreed to hold early elections for the 19th Knesset on Sept. 4.

The Cabinet on Sunday authorized the Ministerial Committee on Legislation to submit a law for Knesset approval to hold the vote on that day.

New elections did not need to occur before October 2013, the official end of the current Knesset’s term.

“I would have been very happy if we could have completed the term, which was also my goal, but it is no secret that with the start of the government’s fourth year, the coalition is fraying somewhat,” Netanyahu said at the start of the Cabinet meeting. “It therefore seems to me that the right thing to do is to go for a brief election campaign.”

“We are proposing Sept. 4, after which, God and voters willing, we will receive a mandate, create stability and successfully lead the State of Israel in dealing with the great challenges we still face.”

Netanyahu said he intends to form “as broad a government as possible” following the upcoming elections. Current polling data shows that his Likud Party could garner up to 30 seats, up from its current 27, in the next election.

Netanyahu was embarrassed Sunday night at his party’s convention, where he had hoped to be elected president of the Likud Central Committee in order to determine who will be chosen to fill the new Knesset seats.

Hundreds of Central Committee members signed a petition calling for a secret ballot for the vote; an open vote reportedly would have increased the chances of Netanyahu being elected. Lawmaker Danny Danon will challenge Netanyahu for the position.

The vote for president of the Likud Central Committee was delayed. Likud primaries are expected to be held in early June.

Israel’s Cabinet approves plan to empower women


Israel’s Cabinet approved a plan to increase the participation of women in municipal government.

The plan, part of the Knesset’s marking of International Women’s Day, is meant to increase the representation of women on local councils from its current 12 percent.

The Cabinet also put into effect some recommendations of the Committee to Prevent the Exclusion of Women, which deals with complaints from the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women hotline, and an advertising campaign to increase awareness regarding the exclusion of women.

The recommendations from the committee put into effect:

* The Civil Service Commission issued directives against the exclusion of women at government and state ceremonies.

* The Transportation and Road Safety Ministry opened a hotline to deal with instances of women being excluded on public transportation. The ministry will require transportation companies to post signs banning such exclusion.

* The Religious Services Ministry will instruct burial societies, the Chief Rabbinate and religious councils to ban preventing women from participating in eulogies and the burial of loved ones.

* The Justice Ministry will evaluate instances in which women have been restricted in media subject to regulation.

* The Israel Police will step up enforcement regarding offenses against women.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the place of women in the public space must be ensured and equal.

“Israel is a democratic country. There is no place in it either for harassment or for discrimination,” he said. “We will act against cases of exclusion and will encourage the involvement of women in public life.”

Netanyahu added, “In a country with women pilots, women will be everywhere.”

Bibi bypassing Cabinet on extending yeshiva students’ military service law


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will bring a vote on extending a law that allows yeshiva students to delay their military service directly to the Knesset floor, bypassing his Cabinet.

Netanyahu’s office said Thursday that the Cabinet will not vote on extending the Tal Law at its regular meeting on Sunday. Netanyahu had said last week he would ask the Cabinet to extend the law, which was adopted 10 years ago to allow haredi Orthodox students to delay military service and then make the transition to a shorter service, for five more years.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said he would like to end the Tal Law ended and have a fairer system put into place.

The Tal Law allows yeshiva students older than 22 to take a year off their studies for professional training without being drafted. In doing so they must commit to a shorter army service or a year of national service, or return to yeshiva studies.

Also Thursday, Israeli reserve soldiers set up what they are calling a “suckers camp” in Tel Aviv to protest a decision to extend the Tal Law. Politicians, high school students about to be drafted and university students visited the camp, Haaretz reported.

Israel, Hamas agree on Gilad Shalit prisoner swap


Israel and Gaza’s Hamas Islamist rulers agreed on Tuesday to swap more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Israeli captive soldier Gilad Shalit, resolving one of the most emotive and intractable issues between them.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who won overwhelming cabinet approval for the lopsided exchange at a special night-time session, has been under constant public pressure to bring Shalit home. He said the soldier would be reunited with his family “in the coming days”.

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip greeted the agreement, brokered by Egypt and a German mediator, with celebratory gunfire. Hamas confirmed that it only remained to conclude technical arrangements for the trade.

The breakthrough pact, after many false dawns in years of secret efforts to free Shalit since he was captured in 2006, has no direct bearing on Middle East peace negotiations.

But it was likely to improve the climate for international efforts to restart peace talks. On the sidelines of the agreed swap, the United States said it was hopeful Israel and the Palestinians would hold a preliminary meeting to revive the negotiations on Oct. 23 in Jordan.

Prospects for peacemaking have been clouded by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s request for U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state and by Israeli settlement expansion, which Abbas has said must stop if negotiations are to begin again.

A source involved in the talks said the long-elusive pact had been mediated by Egypt. Its role is likely to strengthen Israel’s ties with Cairo, which have suffered since the fall of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in a revolution this year.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said Israel would release 1,027 prisoners in two stages. Within a week, 450 will be swapped for Shalit and the rest will be freed two months later. Twenty-seven women are among those due to be freed.

WHO WILL BE FREED?

It was not immediately clear how many of the prisoners had been jailed for attacks that caused Israeli casualties. Under Israeli law, opponents of their release have at least 48 hours to appeal to courts to keep them behind bars.

Yoram Cohen, head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service told reporters 110 of the prisoners slated for release in the first stage would return home to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Another 131 would go to the Gaza Strip, where they reside. Six Israeli Arabs were also on the list.

Cohen said 203 prisoners from the West Bank would be exiled to the Gaza Strip or abroad. The move appeared to be an attempt by Israel to prevent Hamas from regrouping in the territory, controlled by Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

Two of the most famous Palestinian militants serving time in Israeli prisons are not part of the swap, Cohen said.

He said he believed Hamas had softened its demands in the hope of winning favour with Egypt while unrest rocks Syria, a main ally of the group.

Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic leader of Abbas’s Fatah faction serving five life prison terms for murder, and Ahmed Saadat, found guilty of ordering the murder of Israel’s tourism minister in 2001, will not be freed.

While Shalit’s parents have publicly campaigned for his freedom, relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks have lobbied Netanyahu not to give in to Hamas by releasing prisoners with blood on their hands.

“Murderers are going free and we feel for their victims’ families … but Gilad is coming home,” said a woman in the tumult of a crowd who sang aEditing by Kevin Liffeynd danced at a protest tent that Shalit’s family erected months ago near Netanyahu’s residence.

There 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are regarded as heroes of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and quest for statehood.

“We are happy with this great achievement and we thank our God for that. But our happiness is mixed with sorrow because we were not able to gain the freedom of all prisoners,” Meshaal said in a televised address from Damascus.

Israeli television quoted Netanyahu as telling Shalit’s parents that, ever since he took office three years ago, “I’ve been waiting for the chance to make this telephone call” to inform them of the deal.

Shalit’s family had accused him of not doing enough to secure his release.

Announcing to his cabinet, and television cameras, that a deal had been signed earlier in the day, Netanyahu said he feared time was running out for Shalit amid political upheaval in the Arab world.

“I believe we have reached the best agreement possible at this time, when storms are raging in the Middle East. I don’t know if we could have reached a better agreement, or even achieved one at all, in the near future,” he said.

“It’s possible that this window of opportunity would have closed for good and we never would have brought Gilad home.”

In Gaza the families of men jailed for life by Israel waited to see if their names would be on the list.

Israel has carried out several lopsided prisoner swaps in the past, notably in 1985 when hundreds of Palestinian prisoners were freed in exchange for several soldiers captured by a guerrilla group in Lebanon.

The ordeal of Shalit, a fresh-faced corporal, transfixed Israel after the tank gunner was captured by militants who tunnelled their way out of Gaza and then forced him back over the border.

He was 19 at the time and had begun his mandatory three-year army service nearly a year earlier.

Shalit, who also holds French citizenship, was last seen in a videotape released by his captors in September 2009, looking pale and thin.

He received no visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross, despite many appeals. (Reporting by Nidal al Mughrabi, Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Ali Sawafta, Jeffrey Heller, Ori Lewis and Douglas Hamilton; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Argentinian Cabinet head expresses Israel support


The head of the Argentina cabinet expressed support for Israel during a Holocaust Memorial Day program.

Anibal Fernandez, one of the main spokesmen for President Cristina Fernandez, spoke Monday before a crowd of nearly 2,000 at an event in Buenos Aires organized by DAIA, the umbrella organization for Argentinian Jewish institutions.

Fernandez cited the anthem of Jewish partisans from the Vilna ghetto during World War II in expressing his support for Israel and its right to exist.

Raze illegal outposts, Israeli Cabinet orders


Israel’s Cabinet has ordered the demolition of all illegal West Bank outposts built on private Palestinian land by the end of the year.

Monday’s decision, echoing one announced earlier this month, comes in response to a petition submitted by Peace Now to the Supreme Court calling for the demolition of six outposts: Ramat Gilad, Mitzpe Yitzhar, Givat Har’eh, Givat Asaf, Ma’aleh Rehavam and Mitzpeh Lachish.

According to the document submitted Monday by the Cabinet to Israel’s Supreme Court, the state will raze 47 homes in five of the outposts. Mitzpe Lachish is located on state land and Givat Assaf is built on Palestinian land. The other four outposts are built both on Palestinian and state land.

The decision exempts the home of slain Israeli soldier Eliraz Peretz, who was killed in Gaza more than a year ago.

The decision comes a week after Israeli troops and settlers clashed during and after the demolition of three structures on the Gilad Farm outpost.

Peace Now says that 64 other outposts are partially or fully built on private Palestinian land.

Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, a settlers’ umbrella group, called Monday’s announcement “an act of provocation that will only serve to incite and anger while serving no practical purpose in bettering relations with our Arab neighbors.”

“This is a situation which can be addressed through negotiations and solved amicably rather than through this provocative approach being proposed by the government,” Dayan said of the outposts on Palestinian-owned land. “We would implore the prime minister and his government to act sensibly and place the Israeli people’s interests before the constantly changing whims of the international community and a handful of Peace Now activists.”

Also Monday, nine Palestinians were reported injured after Israeli soldiers fired on Palestinian villagers during clashes with Jewish settlers near Nablus. One Israeli also was hurt after being hit in the head with a rock, according to reports.

Soldiers said they opened fire because they felt threatened by the Palestinians, according to Haaretz.

Palestinians say the clashes began after a group of settlers cut down a field of olive trees. Settlers say Palestinians armed with knives attacked them at the Eli Ayin outpost near the Shiloh settlement.

The Israeli military is investigating the use of live ammunition.

Meanwhile, the structures demolished at Gilad Farm have been rebuilt and four new structures are being set up, Ynet reported.

Senate confirms Jack Lew to OMB Cabinet post


The U.S. Senate confirmed Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew, to the Cabinet level position of the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The confirmation Thursday night means Lew will reprise the job he held late in the Clinton administration, and elevates him from his current job as deputy secretary of state. He replaces Peter Orszag, who left for the private sector.

Lew has close ties to the capital’s Jewish groups and often speaks at public events of the difficulties of reconciling 24/7 government jobs with his 24/6 orthodoxy.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) had held Lew’s confirmation up for months while she sought assurances from the administration that it would reissue oil drilling licenses in the Gulf after wells were shut down in the wake of the summer’s catastrophic oil leakage.

Like many other such Senate holds, Landrieu’s objections had nothing to do with the target.

Lew was approved in a voice vote.

Jewish organizations mostly at ease with Obama appointees


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” is turning into a collection well known to the Jewish community, which should comfort those who expressed apprehension about who the president-elect would appoint to his Cabinet.

Obama is fulfilling pledges he made during a grueling election campaign by reaching out to notables in both parties with deep wells of experience.

While Obama has yet to announce his foreign policy team formally — he publicized his economic team Monday — a welter of leaks has lined up U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as secretary of state and former NATO commander Gen. James Jones as his national security adviser.

Some Jewish observers are uneasy over who might prevail in a rivalry between Clinton, who is seen as pro-Israel, and Jones, about whom some Jewish observers have expressed reservations.

Steve Rosen, the former AIPAC foreign policy chief who now writes a blog hosted by the Middle East Forum, has raised concerns about Jones that have redounded in the conservative Jewish world through e-mails. Rosen’s piece on Jones was titled “Jones to be National Security Adviser; wrote harsh report on Israel.”

Condoleezza Rice, the current secretary of state, added Jones last year to her team of generals monitoring the “road map” peace plan launched by President Bush in 2003. Jones reportedly wanted to publish a report that was harshly critical of Israel’s failure to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian security force and to allow more freedom of movement for the Palestinians.

But the report, which was never published, also was tough on the Palestinian force, expressing doubts about its readiness to meet Israeli expectations that it would contain terrorism. And in public forums and as NATO’s commander in chief, Jones has been friendly to Israel and its regional security concerns.

As for Clinton, her deep ties to the pro-Israel community date back to her days as the first lady of Arkansas, when she gained an admiration for the Jewish nation after introducing Israeli early childhood programs in Arkansas.

She endured some criticism from pro-Israel groups while her husband was president — for her infamous embrace of Yasser Arafat’s wife and for being a stalking horse for Palestinian statehood, floating the idea without President Clinton’s administration formally proposing it — but as a U.S. senator Clinton has been solidly pro-Israel, emphasizing the need for Palestinians to temper incitement against Israel as a precondition for peace.

Her likely deputy will be James Steinberg, a deputy national security adviser under President Clinton. Deputy secretaries of state often serve as day-to-day point men in dealings with the Middle East, and Steinberg’s record is reassuring to the pro-Israel establishment. He has advocated an increased role for Arab states in helping to create conditions for a Palestinian state, long the position of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Some in the pro-Israel community have expressed concerns about others who might make it into Obama’s inner circle, noting that after the election it emerged that Obama had been speaking frequently with Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush who supports making eastern Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state and advocates putting an international peacekeeping force in the West Bank.

In an Op-Ed column in the Washington Post of Nov. 21, Scowcroft argued in favor of those positions in a piece that was co-authored by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser and a longtime critic of the pro-Israel lobby.

But Steven Spiegel, a UCLA political scientist who advises the Israel Policy Forum, said the fact that Scowcroft and Brzezinski felt they needed to make their case in a newspaper rather than privately to Obama demonstrates that they don’t have the president-elect’s ear when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“If Scowcroft was sure the president-elect was on his side, he wouldn’t be taking this public,” Spiegel said.

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Obama’s deliberative style means that he’s unlikely to press Israel into an accelerated peace process, especially with Hamas terrorists still controlling the Gaza Strip and making a comprehensive deal unworkable.

“He’s very pragmatic, during the campaign and in his appointments,” Reich said of Obama. “For those who want him from day one to put two feet in the peace process, it’s not going to happen. It’s going to be deliberate; nothing’s going to happen overnight.”

Obama’s emphasis will be the economic crisis, Spiegel said. On foreign policy, he said, Obama is deliberatively choosing people who will have the independence to handle the international stage, but without drama: Clinton as diplomat, Jones as a tough-minded coordinator.

“What these appointments suggest to me is that he’s got to solve his economic problems first and foremost,” Spiegel said.

It was “ridiculous” to worry about Jones, he said, with a Cabinet that includes Clinton and a White House that has as senior advisers Rahm Emanuel and David Axelord — both of whom are deeply pro-Israel.

Meanwhile, Obama’s domestic choices have been widely praised among Jewish groups.

The United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization has issued several news releases hailing Obama’s appointments, including the selection of former Sen. Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as chief of Homeland Security.

By contrast, over the past several years the UJC criticized the Bush administration for starving federal entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Obama also pledged during the campaign to move away from Democratic Party dogma when it comes to church-state issues, favoring, for instance, vouchers for families who send their children to private schools, including parochial schools.

The Jewish community is divided on the voucher issue and is waiting to see what Obama’s education appointments augur.

However, the Orthodox Union already has praised two appointments announced Monday to the White House’s Domestic Policy Council: The incoming director of the council, Melody Barnes, and her deputy, Heather Higginbottom, are both former Senate staffers who helped author legislation protecting religious rights in the work place and in federal institutions.

ANALYSIS: Livni’s failure to build coalition could help or hurt in new elections


JERUSALEM (JTA)—With Israel now headed for new general elections probably some time early next year, supporters and opponents of Tzipi Livni are putting a very different gloss on her failure to form a governing coalition.

Opponents say Livni’s inability shows she is not yet seasoned enough to lead. Supporters counter that the reasons for her failure show precisely why she is the best candidate.

Livni says that had she been willing to give in to excessive political and budgetary demands by prospective coalition partners, she easily could have formed a government. Instead she took a stand.

The foreign minister, who won the Kadima primary in September to succeed party leader Ehud Olmert, portrays herself as a tough-minded patriot who sacrificed the premiership to stave off demands that would have hurt Israel’s national interest.

Her opponents suggest a less high-minded narrative: They say Livni bungled coalition negotiations because of a fundamental lack of experience.

Livni’s coalition effort was badly hurt by the adept political maneuvering of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party. Netanyahu was able to convince three of Livni’s prospective coalition partners—the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party, United Torah Judaism and the Pensioners’ Party—that he probably would win in a general election campaign and would be more amenable to their political and budgetary demands than Livni.

Netanyahu focused on Shas, the largest of the three with 12 Knesset seats. The former prime minister spoke of renewing the “historic alliance” between Likud and the right-wing Shas, declaring that if he won the election Shas would be the first party he would ask to join his coalition.

Shas probably would have been a difficult nut for Livni to crack in any situation. Insiders say party leader Eli Yishai made a strategic decision several months ago to force early elections and pre-empt a looming leadership challenge from his charismatic predecessor, Arye Deri.

Indeed, there were serious doubts as to whether he had negotiated with Livni in good faith. Yishai made two key demands: an allocation of 1 billion shekels—approximately $260 million—for child allowances, and a promise that Jerusalem would not be up for negotiation with the Palestinians. On Jerusalem, Yishai demanded that Livni actually sign a letter vowing to exclude the city from future peace talks.

Even if she had been ready to meet the budgetary demands, the written commitment on Jerusalem was out of the question.

“No American president would return a call from any Israeli prime minister who signed such a letter,” Kadima negotiator Yisrael Maimon, a former Cabinet secretary, declared.

Other challenges also made it difficult for Livni to cobble together a coalition.

Such negotiations typically take place after elections, with a full four-year term looming. But because of Olmert’s resignation, Livni came in mid-term with elections no more than two years away.

The notion of spending an abridged term in the opposition was less of a deterrent for prospective coalition partners, and they consequently raised their coalition demands. Even the Pensioners’ Party produced a document with some $786 million worth of new demands.

In the end, Livni said, she had no choice but to stop the horse trading and go for early elections.

Olmert likely will stay on as the caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed after the elections. Though he is a lame duck – and a disgraced one at that, having resigned under a cloud of corruption investigations—Olmert may press ahead with his peacemaking efforts to turn the next election into a referendum on peace.

Olmert also could step down and hand over the premiership to Livni, giving her the incumbency advantage going into the next election. Some Kadima leaders are talking openly about urging Olmert to make such a move, but Olmert has not offered any indication that he is willing to consider it.

Livni wants to hold new elections quickly. According to law, a majority in the Knesset could have coalesced around another candidate for prime minister and thereby averted the need for early elections, but President Shimon Peres announced Monday that after meeting with party leaders, no such possibility existed.

Elections must be held by mid-February, but the Knesset could speed or slow down the process by passing a law to dissolve itself and set a precise election date. Livni prefers this route and has instructed the Kadima caucus chairman to submit a bill with an election date as early as possible.

Livni likely will base her campaign on her squeaky-clean image in an era of political corruption and argue that of all the candidates, only she can restore the public’s confidence in its government and politics.

She will cite her failure to form a coalition as evidence of her high-principled approach, and her refusal to sign the “Jerusalem letter” with Shas as proof of her sincere commitment to peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu will emphasize his experience, political smarts and special economic skills—he is a former finance minister—in light of the global financial crisis. He also will claim to be the only candidate who can be counted upon to preserve a united Jerusalem.

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who was pilloried in the media for demanding special powers in his coalition talks with Livni, will stress his experience as a former prime minister as well as Labor’s long leadership tradition.

Labor and Kadima are facing a serious tactical dilemma: They will be competing for the same center-left political space, but if they attack each other too viciously, Netanyahu will be the main beneficiary.

In the latest polls, Livni is slightly ahead of Netanyahu, with Barak a very distant third.

A Yediot Achronot poll gives Kadima 29 seats, Likud 26 and Labor 11; Ma’ariv has Kadima earning 31 seats, Likud 29 and Labor 11.

In the Yediot poll, the left-center and right-religious blocs are tied with 60 seats each in the 120-member Knesset; Ma’ariv has the left-center ahead, 61-59. The next prime minister needs a minimum of 61 seats in his or her coalition.

Both polls show that the three large secular parties—Kadima, Likud and Labor—could easily form a national unity government of 66 to 71 seats on their own.

That means Yishai, who sparked the election by refusing to join Livni’s coalition, could find himself out in the cold.

Tzipi Livni to seek new elections as coalition effort fails


JERUSALEM (JTA)—Tzipi Livni has called for new general elections in Israel, saying she failed to form a coalition government.

Livni, the foreign minister and prime minister-designate, won the Kadima Party primary in September following Ehud Olmert’s resignation. But she was unable to assemble a governing majority and on Sunday said she would not ask Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, for more time to bring coalition partners on board.

Livni had managed to bring the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, on board, but she failed to reach an agreement with the Orthodox Shas party or other potential coalition partners to pass the 61-seat threshhold necessary to become prime minister.

Livni made her decision late Saturday night during a party meeting that included her main Kadima rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. The meeting was called after the Shas and Degel Hatorah, another Orthodox party, said they would not join Livni’s government. The Pensioners’ Party also announced Saturday night that it would was backing out of negotiations with Livni.

“After the primaries, I said that I believed in stability and was committed to seeing through the process of forming a government,” Livni told Israel’s Cabinet meeting on Sunday. ” Recent days have seen coalition demands become impossible, and there was a need to draw the line, to say ‘no more.’

“I was prepared to pass budgets I believe in for needy families and social causes, but when it became clear that every person and every party was taking advantage of the situation to make illegitimate demands—both economic and diplomatic—I decided to put a stop to it and go to elections.”

Although Peres is likely to recommend going to new elections, the president has three days to appoint another lawmaker to form a new government within 28 days. If the country goes to new elections, they likely will be held in February or March. Until then, Olmert will stay on as caretaker prime minister.

Briefs: Kadima sends coalition plan to Labor, budget woes close colleges


Kadima Sends Draft Coalition Pact to Labor

Labor would be the senior partner in a new government, according to a draft coalition agreement reportedly sent on by Kadima. Associates of Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni reportedly passed the draft agreement Sunday to the Labor Party.

Israeli media are reporting that the agreement will serve as the basis for continuing talks between the ruling Kadima and Labor.

A deal between the two parties is expected soon.

According to Ynet, the agreement would make Labor the senior partner in the new government, with its chairman, Ehud Barak, serving as a senior deputy prime minister and playing a significant role in negotiations with Syria. Barak reportedly is concerned that the Shas party will not join a Livni-led government, and that Labor will be stuck in a government with a narrow ruling coalition, thereby hamstringing the party.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the chairman of the Likud Party, met Monday with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, to encourage him not to join a Livni government. Livni has until Oct. 20 to form a new coalition government, although she can ask President Shimon Peres for a two-week extension.

West Bank Closed for Sukkot

The West Bank is under a general closure for the Sukkot holiday. The Israel Defense Forces sealed off the area at midnight Sunday. It will remain closed until Oct. 21, according to a statement from the IDF spokesman’s office. Palestinians will be allowed to move in and out of the area for humanitarian and medical reasons only with authorization of the army’s district coordinator.

“The IDF regards the Festival of Tabernacles as a highly sensitive time,” according to the statement. “Accordingly, the IDF will be on higher alert in order to ensure the safety of the citizens of Israel, while preserving, to the best of its ability, the daily routine of the Palestinian population.”

Meanwhile, on Sunday night, the IDF arrested three Palestinians carrying nine pipe bombs at an army checkpoint near Nablus, preventing a planned terror attack on Israel.

Synagogue Near Temple Mount Reopened

The Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter was abandoned in 1938 by a group of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews called the Shomrei Hachomot, or Guardians of the Walls, in the face of Arab violence.

It is also known as the Ungarin Shul since it was founded by Hungarian Jews in 1904, according to the Jerusalem Post. American philanthropists Irving and Cherna Moskowitz bought the property rights to the synagogue, which is located about 100 yards from the Temple Mount, and funded the refurbishing. The Temple Mount, home also to the Dome of the Rock mosque, has been at the center of tension between Jews and Arabs, particularly in the past two decades.

Israeli Universities Say They Can’t Reopen

Cutbacks will prevent Israeli universities from opening for the new academic year, according to the university heads. With more money slashed from the Finance Ministry’s budget for higher education, the universities will not open Nov. 2 as scheduled, representatives of the country’s universities told an emergency session of the Knesset Education Committee on Sunday.

“After seven years of continual cutbacks we have reduced the number of courses, we have raised the number of students in classes and we have banished an entire generation of lecturers overseas,” Rivka Carmi, the president of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, told the committee. “We’re not issuing a threat not to open the academic year; we simply can’t open the year.”

The threat was made just a week after The Hebrew University of Jerusalem was ranked 93rd in the world by the Times Higher Education survey, jumping 35 places since last year.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Briefs: Peace process proceeeds, says Livni; Bush waives Palestinian aid rules


Livni Says Peace Process Will Move Forward

Tzipi Livni said the peace process will move forward and that Israel will be able to face challenges better with a stable government.

The Israeli prime minister-designate, who is working to form a new government coalition, made her first national policy address Sunday at the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s conference on policy and strategy.

“Israel wishes to arrive at peace with all of her neighbors — the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon and the Arab nations,” Livni said. “We have proven our willingness not only by embarking on diplomatic processes but by evacuating Gaza.”

She added: “The process should continue, and we should press ahead and conduct ourselves correctly. Don’t let incidental dates or political changes get in the way of a responsible process.”

Livni said the government must achieve both financial and political stability. She took a swipe at other political parties that are making budgetary demands in order to agree to join the coalition.

“We must maintain financial stability, and in order to safeguard [the economy], we must also preserve the political balance; we must achieve political stability quickly,” Livni stressed. “Therefore, we are in need of a government that will maintain the equilibrium, a government that can transcend partisan demands.”

Earlier at the same conference, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said that Israel had failed to live up to the commitments it made at the Annapolis peace summit in 2007.

“We believed in what was promised — that this year would be different,” he said. “But we are already in October, and we are losing hope that by the end of the year we will see the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and the end of the occupation.”

Al-Maliki warned that the failure to come to a peace agreement would lead to the domination of Hamas and a return to violence.

Bush Waives Palestinian Aid Restrictions

President Bush waived restrictions on direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

“I hereby certify that it is important to the national security interests of the United States to waive” restrictions on direct funding for the Palestinian Authority, Bush wrote in a message Monday to the State Department.

The waiver allows Bush to transfer as much as $75 million to the Palestinian Authority. Such direct funding is otherwise subject to conditions, including proof that the Palestinian Authority has disarmed terrorists and ended incitement.

Bush is making an end-of-presidency push for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Most funding for the Palestinians in recent years has been directed through nongovernmental organizations, partly to avoid the taint of corruption and terrorism that had attached itself to the Palestinian Authority.

The Bush administration has praised the new P.A. leadership for reforms and said it needs the money in part to meet challenges from Islamist extremists.

Obama Campaign Returns Gazans’ Cash

The Obama campaign returned $33,000 to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who purchased a large quantity of campaign T-shirts.

The revelation arises out of a Republican request to the Federal Election Commission to investigate thousands of small donations to the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Republicans claim that some of the donors are from overseas, which is illegal.

Reporting the request Monday, the Washington Post noted that Newsweek, its sister publication, reported that two Palestinian brothers had paid $33,000 for a bulk order of T-shirts. Such purchases from online stores are counted as donations.

The campaign returned the money and said its staff had mistaken the brothers’ address abbreviation for Gaza, “Ga.,” as the U.S. state of Georgia.

Papers Reveal Israel’s Confusion in ’73 War

Top Israeli army officials did not know what was happening in the field during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, according to newly declassified documents. Israel’s Defense Ministry declassified documents Tuesday relating to the investigation of failures of the war.

The deliberations of the Agranat Committee, which was established to investigate the conduct of the military and the government during the war, including testimony of senior officers such as Ariel Sharon and Moshe Dayan, were made public nearly 35 years to the day after the outbreak of the war.

Former Prime Minister Sharon, who commanded the 53rd Division during the war, told the committee at the time that the higher command “had no idea of what was happening on the ground,” according to a report in the newspaper, Ha’aretz. Sharon also discussed his plan to cross the Suez Canal, which led to Israel’s victory.

Dayan’s testimony was reminiscent of issues that arose following the 2006 Second Lebanon War, including not calling up reservists right away and not anticipating a full-scale war.

U.S. Could Waive Israeli Visa Requirement

The United States could soon waive the need for an entry visa by Israelis. In a meeting in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Israel Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit discussed waiving the need for a visa for Israelis to visit the United States, the newspaper, Yediot Achronot, reported Oct. 3.

The change in policy would begin to be formulated later this month. To qualify, Israel would have to switch from a paper to a biometric passport system.

Approximately 313,000 Israelis have traveled to the United States so far this year. The current process for obtaining an entry visa requires a fee, embassy interview and a long wait.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Olmert submits resignation, promises to help Livni


JERUSALEM (JTA)—Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has submitted his letter of resignation to President Shimon Peres

Olmert visited the president’s official residence in Jerusalem Sunday evening to deliver the letter.

“This is not an easy decision, and I am convinced that this is a difficult evening for him,” Peres said following the meeting. “I wish to take this opportunity to thank the prime minister for his service to the people and the state over the course of many years of public activities: as the mayor of Jerusalem, as a minister in the government and as the prime minister of Israel.”

Peres will meet with the heads of the party factions and give one of them, most likely Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, up to 42 days to form a new coalition government. He was scheduled to meet Sunday night with the Kadima Party, which is led by Livni after her narrow primary victory last week.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday morning, Olmert told his Cabinet that he would resign.

“I must say that this was not an easy or simple decision,” he told the Cabinet. “I think that I have acted properly and responsibly, as I promised the Israeli public from the beginning.”

Olmert congratulated Livni and said he would help her to form a coalition government. Livni has said she plans to form a new government by the start of the winter session on Oct. 27.

Olmert will remain the head of a caretaker government until a new coalition is formed or until after new general elections if agreement on a coalition government cannot be reached.

ALTTEXT

Livni and Olmert at Cabinet meeting Sunday (screen grab from Israel Channel 2 News)

Tzipi Livni wins Kadima contest — now the real work begins


JERUSALEM (JTA) – With her decisive win in the Kadima party primary on Wednesday, Tzipi Livni’s next major task will be assembling a coalition government so she can become prime minister.

Then all she’ll have on her plate is figuring out how to arrest the threat to Israel from Iran, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a historic peace deal, neutralize the threat on Israel’s northern border from Hezbollah and run the country.

If she ever gets to it.

The immediate challenge faced by Livni, until now the foreign minister, is piecing together a coalition that will hold without pulling her government in too many different directions. If she fails, Israel will be headed for new general elections.

In Wednesday’s vote at 114 polling stations around the country, about 50 percent of Kadima’s 74,000 members voted for party leader – relatively low turnout by Israeli standards. Even so, Livni complained of “congestion” at polling stations and argued for an extension of voting time by an hour. In a compromise, Kadima decided to extend voting by 30 minutes.

Exit polls showed Livni won about 48 percent of the vote, beating out her primary rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, by at least 10 points and avoiding a runoff by surpassing the 40 percent threshold. The two other contenders in the primary, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, garnered an estimated 7 percent each.

Livni’s victory is historic in several respects. She won the first-ever primary held by Kadima, the three-year old political party founded by Ariel Sharon. Her election also brings an end to the Olmert era, though Ehud Olmert will stay on as caretaker prime minister until a coalition is assembled.

And once she puts together a coalition, Livni will become Israel’s second female prime minister, following Golda Meir.

Livni will have 42 days to form a government. She has made it clear that she wants to base her new government on the existing coalition – Kadima, Labor, Shas and the Pensioners party — with the possible addition of other parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu on the right, Meretz from the left and the fervently Orthodox Torah Judaism party.

Livni wants to limit the current transition period, which she sees as a potentially unhealthy period of two-headed government. Olmert will continue as acting prime minister until Livni forms a new government.

Kadima leaders argue that there already is a functioning government and there is no reason it shouldn’t continue its work. They maintain that all the Labor party asked Kadima to do was change its leader, and, now that Kadima has done that, continuing with the present coalition shouldn’t be a problem.

But Livni’s main coalition partners have no intention of giving her an easy ride. Labor argues that a prime minister effectively elected by only 18,000-20,000 Israelis has no legitimacy and that the Israeli people as a whole should be allowed to have their say in new elections.

Shas is also threatening new elections unless Livni meets its demands for more generous child allowances and a pledge to keep Jerusalem off the negotiating agenda with the Palestinians.

If Livni fails to form a coalition, there could be an election as early as next spring. If she succeeds, she could govern for a year or two before going into a new election with the incumbency advantage.

During the campaign, Livni gave a slew of interviews in which she spelled out her priorities:

  • Moving ahead on the Palestinian track: Over the past few months, she and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia have been drafting a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Both sides say that although they have made progress, closing the wide gaps that still exist will take time.

    Once Livni is installed as prime minister, one key issue will become more difficult to resolve: refugees. Livni has repeatedly said that she will not agree to any resettlement in Israel proper of Palestinian refugees, because allowing just one Palestinian refugee in would chip away at Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

    Livni might ease conditions on the ground by dismantling illegal settler outposts in the West Bank, which successive Israeli prime ministers have failed to do. She argues that any government she heads will assert the rule of law.

    As for Gaza, Livni warns that she will consider a large-scale ground offensive if Hamas uses the current truce to smuggle in huge quantities of arms.

  • Ascertaining the seriousness of the Syrian track: Ever since Israel and Syria started conducting new peace feelers through Turkish auspices in January 2007, Livni has not been in the loop. She has argued that by going public with the talks, Israel has given Syria a degree of international legitimacy without getting very much in return.

    Livni will want to see for herself whether Syrian President Bashar Asad is ready for a peace with Israel that entails a significant downgrading of his relations with Iran.

  • Dealing quietly with the Iranian nuclear threat: Livni says as far as Israel is concerned “all options are on the table” and that to say any more would be irresponsible. But she has intimated in the past that Israel could live with a nuclear Iran by establishing a very clear deterrent balance.
  • Introducing a new style of cleaner government: Livni, who won the leadership race at least partly because of her squeaky clean image, will want to signal early on that she intends to introduce a new style of governing. Livni will want to clean up party politics by breaking the power of the Kadima vote contractors who drafted people en masse to vote for a particular candidate. One idea is to set a minimum membership period — say, 18 months — before party members get voting rights.

By electing Livni, Kadima voters seemed to be saying enough of the generals at the top, and enough of wheeler-dealer politics. Livni, dubbed Mrs. Clean, is seen as a straight-thinking, scandal-free civilian clearly out to promote Israel’s best interests.

She has a full agenda, a chance to change the tenor of Israel politics and to make historic moves vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Syria.

But first she will have to put together a viable coalition.

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