With Euro Cup brawl and Olympics doping scandal, Russia deepens its sense of isolation

In authoritarian political systems, sports take on outsized importance. After all, national greatness is part of the bargain: a measure of democratic freedom is traded for strength and victory, whether on the battlefield or in the stadium. That logic holds for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, too—which is why you could say Putin has had very bad month. In France, at the Euro Cup, the violence of Russian hooligans almost got the national team banned, before a humiliating loss to Wales took care of that, sending the Russians home doubly embarrassed. Days later the International Olympic Committee upheld a ban on Russian track-and-field athletes at the forthcoming Rio Olympics in response to evidence of a widespread, state-sponsored doping project. Seeing as the legitimacy of the Putin system comes less from the ballot box than from the deliverance of national pride and success, it was likely not the most upbeat of weeks inside the Kremlin.

Dating back to the Cold War, Soviet rulers embraced sports as a vehicle to prove Communism’s superiority, at whatever the cost. International sporting events are a way of forcing the West’s acceptance, as Putin achieved in hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics two years ago, and of delivering a sense of national pride by winning. The Russians were so desperate to win we now know they resorted to extensive doping. These days, it seems like international sports deepen Russians’ sense of grievance and isolation from the world. Sports have become a microcosm of Russians’ conflicted desire to gain the respect and validation of an international world order whose legitimacy they question, and seek to undermine. 

Successive generations of Kremlin rulers have tried to project the image of the country as a besieged fortress, alone in the world and surrounded by enemies. For Vladimir Putin and those around him, Russia’s latest tribulations in the world of global sport seem to bear out that worldview. First came the clashes in Marseille, in which Russian soccer fans fought with England supporters during the EuroCup. Some Russian fans shot flare guns towards the English section of the stands and burst into the section as the match ended. Fights spilled out in the streets, as well. More than 30 people were hospitalized, including several with critical brain injuries.

Russian soccer fans are late to international hooliganism, but the Western press and French law enforcement still managed to make it sound like there was something novel and sinister about the Russian version of the problem, calling Russia’s violent fans “well-trained” and organized. Russians, in turn, pointed to the bad press as yet another example of Western institutions’ inherently anti-Russian ideology. 

Similar to how Russian officials have responded to, for example, Western sanctions over Ukraine, they hit back on criticism over fan violence, conceding nothing and instead raising the rhetorical temperature. Vladimir Markin, a top law-enforcement official, suggested that Europeans couldn’t handle Russia's soccer fans because they are more accustomed to gay-pride parades than dealing with “real men.” Igor Lebedev, a deputy in parliament and member of Russia's football union, said, “Nothing wrong with fighting. Keep it up boys!”

With time, however, the tone changed. The Russian team was fined 150,000 Euros and given a suspended disqualification from the tournament—one that proved superfluous after the disastrous 0-3 loss to Wales—which appeared to convince Russian officials that the matter was serious enough not to be laughed away. The ugliness of the violence immediately raised questions about Russia’s ability to host the 2018 World Cup, which will be held in 11 cities across the country. Even before the brutal scenes in France, Russia’s World Cup was already tarnished, marred by the specter of corruption and vote-buying. Putin has been a lonely defender of ousted FIFA president Sepp Blatter, the man who presided over the selection of Russia to host in 2018 and who has since been brought down by allegations of corruption. With an event of such national prestige at stake, officials began to display uncharacteristic contrition. The country’s sports minister, Vitaliy Mutko, said that violent fans in masks “brought shame on their country.” For his part, Putin condemned the attacks in Marseille, calling them a “disgrace.” But Putin couldn’t help himself, adding that “I truly don't understand how 200 of our fans could beat up several thousand English.”

Although some anonymous British officials theorized the Russian hooligans were part of the Kremlin’s strategy of “hybrid war”—using a patchwork of covert, deniable means to undermine the Western security order—that seems an unfounded and paranoid exaggeration.  Over the years, nationalists and football hooligans have periodically been convenient allies of the Kremlin, but ultimately the Putin state is wary of uncontrolled violence, which could one day threaten its own power. The young men who came to France from Russia may have been well prepared for a fight—armed with metal bars and fingerless gloves—but in many respects, their inspiration comes more from the football hooligans of England of the 1970s and 80s than anything homegrown.

Just days after the soccer hooligan controversy, on June 17, the International Association of Athletics Federations, the governing body for track and field competitions, banned Russian athletes from the 2016 Rio Olympics for sustained and wide-reaching doping violations. The decision was historic: individual athletes have been barred from international competition for doping, but never entire national teams. Investigations into Russian doping suggested an illicit program with alleged support of the country’s security services. To date, Russia’s response to the allegations, which have gathered in strength and damning detail in recent months, has been to try and cauterize the wound, admitting to a certain degree of malfeasance while denying a deeply rooted culture of doping condoned at the top. After the ban was announced, Putin tried this tactic anew, suggesting doping violations were limited to a few individuals, and that banning the whole track and field team amounted to “collective punishment,” saying it was akin to a prison sentence for “an entire family” if one relative committed a crime.

The International Olympic Committee upheld that ban, while keeping open the possibility that individual Russian athletes who go to extraordinary efforts to prove they are clean could be allowed to compete. Either way, the whole affair casts a far more humiliating note on Russian sporting exploits. It’s possible Russia may turn its back on Rio in a huff. A widely circulated tabloid with Kremlin ties asked the question, “Is it worth Russia going to Rio?” After all, the editorial posited, “They want us to crawl to them on our knees, ask forgiveness, and beg to be let in.”

For Putin and those close to him, efforts to exclude or punish Russia, whether for its annexation of Crimea or support for state-sponsored doping programs, are seen sees as pieces of a larger conspiracy. Today’s Russian elite sees plots against its power and authority everywhere it turns: some of those visions are grounded in actual Western policy, if a distorted understanding of it; others are nothing more than baseless, paranoid fantasy; and, like its poorly performing soccer team or apparently state-run doping program, no small number are problems of Russia’s own making. After the loss to Wales, a fitting joke started to make the rounds, playing Russia’s sporting woes off the geopolitical tensions it has encountered over the years. Echoing a comment that Putin made in 2014, when he said that unidentified soldiers in Crimea weren’t Russian troops but had purchased their military gear in a shop, the joke has Putin saying “those aren’t our soccer players on the field, they just bought their uniforms in a shop.”

Joshua Yaffa is a New America fellow and a contributor to The New Yorker based in Moscow. 

This article originally appeared on Zocalo Public Square.

Sheldon Silver found guilty on all counts in corruption trial

Former Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver was found guilty on all counts by a jury on Monday.

Silver, 71, faced seven counts, including mail and wire fraud, extortion and money laundering after his arrest earlier this year. He was accused of using his position at a law firm to conceal more than $3 million he earned from referring asbestos cases to the firm from a doctor who received undisclosed state grant money. Separately, Silver took in $700,000 from steering real estate developers with business before the legislature to another law firm, prosecutors said. He was also accused of putting most of that money into an investment vehicle and then taking official actions to benefit the investor who provided him access.

The verdict came in the fifth week of the trial in Federal District Court in Manhattan. He was convicted on all counts.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the chief prosecutor in the case, said in a short statement, “Today, Sheldon Silver got justice, and at long last, so did the people of New York.”

Before his resignation, Silver claimed the title of the 2nd longest-serving Democratic Speaker in the history of the state and became the most powerful politician in the state. He was denied the title of the longest-tenured speaker after resigning in January. Silver was first elected as interim speaker on January 25, 1994, at the age of 49, replacing Saul Weprin, who suffered a severe stroke a week earlier, and officially became the speaker on Feb. 11, 1994, after the sudden death of Weprin.

Jerusalem Day and justice under siege

Rabbi Goren sounding the shofar of the just-captured wall is connected in our memory with General Moshe Dayan’s terse message – Har HaBayit BiYadeinu – “the Temple Mount is in our hands”. The hierarchy and progression seemed Messianically clear: First we take The Wall, then we rise to The Temple Mount. That problematic itinerary is most troublesome in that it leaves out what the Temple Mount housed: the High Court of the Hewn Stone – Lishkat HaGazit.

The Kotel lacking halakhic significance, but imbued with unrivaled popularity, reflects the will and desire of the Jewish people. There, Jews assemble freely and happily to pray and celebrate; despite the conflict over whom can lead services. At the same time, the Temple is thought of vaguely as the sacred spot. But it has another dimension in its historic housing of the Sanhedrin. What this signifies is that Law must rule over both sanctity (the Temple) and popular will (the Kotel). The Mishneh Sanhedrin 2:1 tells us “the High Priest can participate in High Court deliberations, but is also judged by the High Court” for any and all violations of Law – ritual, moral and civil. The High Court watches over the Temple, the people, and ideally the king himself. The Talmud reports (Sanhedrin19) that the Mishneh should have added that “the Court judges the King.” But powerful King Alexander Yani (126 – 76 BCE) massacred the members of the Sanhedrin when they tried to curb his illicit use of power. Halakha retreated “allowing” the king his power and scrambled to create a separate domain for itself.

Jerusalem Day should commemorate the triumph of modern Mishpat – justice. Our Supreme Court has put “kings” – both a sitting President and a Prime Minister in jail, overturning their powers, connections, and ability to manipulate popular will. This is only the apex of the Court’s achievements. It is known for its brilliance and most importantly its incorruptibility. The Knesset has the trust of 35.2% of Jewish citizens and 36.3% of Arab citizens; the Supreme Court enjoys the trust of 62% of Jews and 59.6% Arabs.

Incorruptibility is not simple to accomplish. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, a Talmudist and signatory to the Declaration of Independence, favored a reestablishment of the actual Sanhedrin, and was challenged with “where will you find ‘sonei batzah’ – haters of bribery?”, a key requirement of Moshe’s original Sanhedrin (Ex. 18:21). He ironically replied with the well-known Yiddish quip – “mit gelt alts kaufen” – “for money you can buy anything!” thereby illustrating the great accomplishment of the formation of an honest High Court.

Nonetheless our Court and our national commitment to mishpat are under siege. One does not have to look far. Recently, Justices upholding the Knesset’s severe restriction on free speech, as one cannot advocate boycott upon areas of Israel (a boycott that I abhor). Clearly, opposition on the Court crumbled in the face of fierce popular opinion. They have also allowed for confiscation of Jerusalem land from absent Arab landholders without a same demand upon Jewish owners, a rejection of equality. They have not sufficiently supported the police in limiting Jewish entry to the Temple Mount, even though such entry is both a security risk and halakhically prohibited. In these cases they have caved before Jewish populism. But popular will is the very reason we are supposed to have mishpat – to curb its lust for self-aggrandizement and blind, short term accomplishment. Nevertheless, the current Prime Minister, the King of Israel – a functional halakhic definition long favored by national religious thinkers – wishes to “massacre” – like Yani – the Court and mishpat itself. Further, the cause of Justice faces a tenacious and pernicious foe in newly appointed Justice Minister Shaked who justified the bombing of women and children in Gaza, and has pledged to overturn Court rulings – even on the Basic Laws of Human Dignity. The move to subject court decisions to be overridden by the Knesset is worthy of a banana republic or the tyranny of cynically exploited popular will. Furthermore the pressure to appoint Justices with politicians dominating the selection committee will be an open door to the worst kind of deal making in an arena where no deal of any kind should be allowed.

The common prayer of grace over meals contains the blessing “Blessed are Thou O’ Lord who redeems Jerusalem BiRachamov – with mercy.” The luminary of modern Judaism, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797) removed the wording “with mercy”. He quoted Isaiah, “Zion will be redeemed through mishpat – justice” (I: 1:27). The cause of celebration of Jerusalem is intertwined with the “crown of glory and diadem of beauty” upon those possessing … ruakh mishpat la yoshev ‘al HaMishpat – “a spirit of Justice for those who sit in judgment” (I: 28:5-6).

Nisman mystery: Who killed AMIA prosecutor?

The mysterious death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman seems ripped straight out of a crime thriller.

Nisman — the indefatigable prosecutor collecting evidence of culpability in the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people — was found dead in his apartment just hours before he was to present evidence to Argentina’s congress that he said implicated his country’s president and foreign minister in a nefarious cover-up scheme.

The charge? That the two agreed to whitewash Tehran’s role in the AMIA bombing in exchange for oil shipments to energy-hungry Argentina.

Nisman’s body was discovered late on Jan. 18 in his 13th-floor apartment with a single gunshot to the head.

Officials connected to the president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, quickly said evidence pointed to suicide, noting that a .22-caliber pistol and spent cartridge had been found near Nisman’s body.

But the suicide theory was dismissed out of hand on the streets of Buenos Aires and among people around the world familiar with Nisman and his work investigating the AMIA attack. Instead, they said Nisman, 51, was the victim of foul play. The suicide theory lost more ground on Jan. 20 with the revelation by the prosecutor investigating Nisman’s death, Viviana Fein, that no traces of gunpowder were found on Nisman’s hand. There also was no suicide note.

“The Jewish community has lost a stalwart hero, and Argentina and all people who pursue the truth and justice with a passionate zeal have lost a great fighter,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “Throughout the years, all kinds of forces have tried to put him down, to destroy him. Every time he uncovered new stuff or exposed some interests that weren’t happy, they set the courts against him or they set the police against him. And every time they tried to put him down, he fought it, he got up and beat them.”

The investigation of the 1994 bombing — the deadliest terrorist attack in Argentine history and one of the worst incidents of anti-Jewish violence in the Diaspora since World War II — was seen as hopelessly inept and corrupt until Nisman took over the case in 2005.

There were no significant arrests for years after the AMIA bombing, which was preceded by the deadly 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29. After 20 local men, including 19 police officers, were put on trial in 2001 on charges of involvement in the Jewish center attack, the investigating judge, Juan Jose Galeano, was caught on video offering one of the men a bribe in return for evidence. The case collapsed, the police were acquitted, and Galeano eventually was removed from the case and impeached.

Appointed to take over the case by then-President Nestor Kirchner, the late husband of the current Argentine leader who had called the handling of the case a “national disgrace,” Nisman launched a more professional investigation. He traced the links from the Iranian leaders who ordered the attack to the Hezbollah operatives who planned its execution, formally charging Iran and Hezbollah in 2006. Interpol eventually issued arrest warrants for six Iranian officials in connection with the bombing, including Iran’s defense minister at the time, Ahmad Vahidi. The Islamic Republic denied any connection and refused to hand over the suspects.

In 2013, when Argentina and Iran signed a joint memorandum of understanding to investigate the bombing, Nisman and Jewish community leaders in Argentina and abroad decried the deal as a farce. Many were particularly incensed that the deal was negotiated by Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, a prominent Argentine Jew whose father, Jacobo Timerman, had been a well-respected Argentine-Israeli human-rights activist. The governments of Israel and the United States also denounced the deal.

Nisman challenged the arrangement in court as “wrongful interference” by the president in judicial affairs, and the probe never was implemented.

All the while, Nisman and his investigating team continued to press forward with their effort to bring those responsible to justice. Last week, Nisman filed a 300-page complaint alleging that Kirchner, Timerman and others were seeking to “erase” Iran’s role in the AMIA bombing in exchange for establishing stronger trade relations, including oil sales to Argentina. He was slated to present his evidence to Argentina’s congress on Jan. 19.

A few years ago, during a 2009 visit to New York, Nisman said a trial of the AMIA bombing should be moved outside Argentina if it is to have any chance of success.

“We’re thinking of taking this case to a court in a third country due to the challenges of pursuing it in Argentina,” Nisman said at a briefing at ADL’s national headquarters. “There is a practical impossibility of doing it in Argentina because Iran has said it won’t deliver the people we have accused. It’s also been hard for Interpol to arrest those people because whenever they leave Iran, they do so under diplomatic immunity.”

Even outside Argentina, Nisman said, it was highly unlikely that Iran would submit suspects for trial, but the move could bring some closure to the families of the AMIA bombing victims.

“I’m following the wishes of relatives and looking for a way to get them some closure,” Nisman said through a translator. “I cannot give up on ways of trying to get justice.”

Among Argentina’s 200,000 Jews — the largest Jewish community in Latin America — Nisman, who also was Jewish, was seen as a crusading hero.

So who could have wanted him dead? Many Argentines are pointing the finger at President Kirchner. By the night of Jan. 18, thousands had gathered outside the presidential palace to protest Nisman’s death, with some holding aloft signs reading “Cristina murderer.” The hashtag #CFKAsesina — Kirchner’s initials and the Spanish word assassin — was one of the top topics trending on Twitter in Argentina on Jan. 19.

In Jewish and Israeli circles, some analysts speculated that Nisman may have been killed by Hezbollah, whose operatives were fingered for carrying out the AMIA bombing on behalf of Iran.

Just hours before Nisman’s death — he did not eat dinner on Sunday night, investigators said, suggesting he likely was shot before dinnertime — several Hezbollah fighters were killed in an airstrike in southern Syria attributed to Israel. Among the dead were Mohammed Allahdadi, a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Jihad Mughniyeh, son of the late Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a February 2008 car bombing in Damascus. Mughniyeh was the one whom Nisman found had coordinated and oversaw preparations for the AMIA bombing.

Hezbollah accused Israel of being behind the Jan. 18 airstrike. Israeli officials, adhering to protocol in such cases, declined to comment. But an unnamed senior Israeli security source confirmed to Reuters that Israel was behind the strike, but said it wasn’t meant to target a senior Iranian general.

“We did not expect the outcome in terms of the stature of those killed — certainly not the Iranian general,” the source told Reuters. “We thought we were hitting an enemy field unit that was on its way to carry out an attack on us at the frontier fence.”

Could Hezbollah have pulled off Nisman’s killing so quickly after the airstrike in Syria? It would be uncharacteristic for the Lebanon-based group, which typically has carried out its well-planned reprisals months or years after Israeli attacks. But some analysts noted Iran and Hezbollah have sleeper cells that can carry out operations on short notice.

The circumstances of Nisman’s death, assuming he indeed was murdered, certainly represent a failure of the Argentine authorities. Nisman had been under police protection, including the positioning of police guards outside the luxury high-rise where he was found dead.

Nisman had made several prescient references to the possibility of his untimely demise, saying as recently as Jan. 17, “I might get out of this dead.”

On Jan. 18, the guards assigned to protect Nisman said they hadn’t been able to reach him by telephone, and his newspaper lay untouched outside his apartment door. His mother was called and came with her spare key, but the lock was jammed with the key stuck in the other side. After a locksmith opened the door, Nisman’s body was found in the bathroom.

Jorge Kirszenbaum, a former president of the Argentine Jewish community’s political umbrella group, DAIA, said that a cousin of Nisman who visited the crime scene found a note to the maid with the next work day’s tasks spelled out.

Argentine-Israeli journalist Roxana Levinson, whose uncle, Jaime Plaksin, was killed in the AMIA attack, called Nisman’s death devastating.

“This death is like another bomb,” she said. “It’s a death sentence for truth and justice in the AMIA case.”

Now that Nisman is gone, it’s not clear what will happen with the AMIA investigation or his accusations against Kirchner and Timerman.

In another one of his eerily prescient comments, Nisman told a TV interviewer last week after news of his accusations against the president made the papers, “With Nisman around or not, the evidence is there.”

— A JTA correspondent in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.

The ironic ma nishtana

There are two ma nishtanas – one adorable, and one ironic. 

They both mean the same thing in Hebrew: “What is different?”  “What has changed?”

The adorable one gets its charm from being sung by the youngest child at the Passover seder.  Ma nishtana starts the sentence setting up the Four Questions: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  They are the questions of an innocent puzzled by the changes at the evening meal, and even if the 8-year-old asking now also asked last year, and will ask again next year, and knows what the four answers are, everyone around the table is glad to play their roles in Pesach theater.

If you’ve been to a seder, you know that the Four Questions are about things like why do we eat matzah instead of bread, and what’s up with this biting into a horseradish; they also prompt the telling of the Exodus story, which is the purpose of the holiday: to pass the once-we-were-slaves-in-Egypt legacy to the next generation. 

The ironic ma nishtana is not part of Passover, though it could well be said while passing the seder brisket, in response to the report that Cousin Harold’s new girlfriend is 15 years younger than him, or that Aunt Yetta blew her Social Security check at the slots.  This one means, “So what else is new?”  “Tell me something I don’t know.”  “What a surprise.”  

This is the been-there-done-that ma nishtana, the wry, weary voice of experience about the way of the world.  A non-Hebrew version of it is a rhetorical question and answer that goes something like this:  Q: “What do you call it when a Wall Street banker who sells worthless junk to pension funds gets a bailout and a bonus instead of jail time?”  A: “Tuesday.”  Another day, another garden-variety outrage.  Welcome to normal.  If you’re surprised by sin, you haven’t been paying attention.

Usually, when I encounter some appalling evidence of immorality or injustice, when I see some deception or ignorance flushed out by facts, my first instinct is optimism.  Michael Lewis reveals the predatory practices of high-frequency traders in his new book, ““>The Unknown Known,” and I anticipate the accountability his documentary will inaugurate.  General Motors, BP, Kerr-McGee and Massey Energy are caught red-handed, and I think, “Surely this will deter future corporate criminality.”  Jon Stewart shows videotape that nails politicians and journalists for their hypocrisy, Bill Moyers disinfects corruption with investigative sunlight, and I celebrate their speaking truth to power and the miracle of checks and balances. 

But then I wake up and smell the ma nishtana.  If it’s plutocracy, this must be Tuesday.  Nice nations finish last.  The golden rule isn’t “do unto others”; it’s “don’t get caught.”  Hope isn’t “the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson called it.  It’s the thing with denial. 

When a magnitude 5.1 earthquake shook Southern California a couple of week ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a front page “>piece by Stanford neuroscientist Robert M. Sapolsky called “Hoping against hope: Humans are forever running up against the limits of optimism,” pegged not to the earthquake, but to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the persistence of the hope that its passengers survived.  Depressed people, Dr. Sapolsky wrote, “are often more accurate in their assessment of the world” than healthy people.  Depression is “a failure of the human capacity for denial and self-deception…. For those counted among the affectively healthy, hope is sustaining.  We are able to ignore the reality of death…. We believe our love will be requited, our efforts rewarded and that nothing bad would ever happen to Bambi’s mother in real life.” And, I’d add, that justice and freedom will prevail, as it does in the Exodus story. 

So ma nishtana is an auto-antonym. Like the word “sanction” – which means both “to approve” and “to forbid” – it contains its own opposite.  It’s the anthem of spring, hope and liberation, and it’s also the story whose moral is “sadder but wiser,” plus ça change, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”  We won’t get fooled again?  Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.  Moses may have led us out of the land of Pharaoh.  But that golden calf?  Ma nishtana.


Let’s be Brazil

I have outrage envy.

For nearly two weeks, more than a million citizens across Brazil have taken to the streets to protest political corruption, economic injustice, poor health care, inadequate schools, lousy mass transit, a crumbling infrastructure and — yes, “>massive demonstrations have “>income inequality, ranking 121st out of 133 countries.  But the U.S. ranks 80th, just below Sri Lanka, Mauritania and Nicaragua.

Wealth distribution.  There are only six countries in the world whose “>growth in student achievement in math, reading and science in Brazil is 4 percent of a standard deviation.  But U.S. educational achievement is growing at less than half that rate: 1.6 percent, just below Iran.

Corruption.  Brazil ranks 121 in “>U.S. ranks 25th – below most other advanced industrial countries and even behind some developing nations, like Oman and Barbados.

Health care.  Brazil’s health care system ranks 125th out of 190 countries.  But the U.S., jingoistic rhetoric notwithstanding, is only 38th.  Among our peer nations – wealthy democracies – “>least progressive in the industrial world.  The most massive transfer of wealth in history, plus a cult of fiscal austerity, is destroying our middle class.  Tuition is increasingly unaffordable, and retirement is increasingly unavailable. The banks that stole trillions of dollars of Americans’ worth have not only gone unpunished; they’re still at it.

For a moment, it looked like the Occupy movement might change some of that.  It’s striking how closely the complaints within Brazil about their protesters are already tracking the criticism of Occupy made in the U.S.:  The only thing keeping them going is the police’s overreaction.  They have too many demands.  Their demands are “>They’re violent. They’re vandals, delinquents, drunks, druggies, terrorists. 

Here at home, those charges, and the advent of cold weather, proved fatal.  So oligarchs rock, plutocrats roll and Occupy rolled over.  Today, with both political parties hooked on special interest money, with demagogues given veto power and media power, hope feels naïve.  You’d have to have just fallen off the turnip truck to look at our corrupt and dysfunctional government and believe that we are the change we’ve been waiting for.

That learned helplessness is what democracy’s vampires drink.  Wouldn’t it be sweet if Brazil’s protest movement turned out to be the garlic we’ve been waiting for?

Marty Kaplan is the “>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com

Lieberman to be questioned again

Former Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman will be questioned again in connection with allegations that he advanced the position of Israel's former ambassador to Belarus in exchange for information on an investigation against him.

Lieberman resigned last week as foreign minister, although he remains a member of the Knesset and the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party.

His resignation came days after Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein on Dec. 13 closed a 12-year investigation of Lieberman, dismissing most of the charges. But Weinstein said he would file an indictment of Lieberman for fraud and breach of trust for advancing former ambassador to Belarus Ze'ev Ben Aryeh's position in the Foreign Ministry allegedly in exchange for information about an investigation against Lieberman being conducted in Belarus. Last spring, Ben Aryeh confessed that he had received and passed documents to Liberman in 2008.

The filing of the indictment was then postponed after a report on Israel's Channel 10 news that several members of a Foreign Ministry appointments panel were not questioned in the Ben Aryeh case, and that their knowledge could lead to new, more serious, charges against Lieberman.

Police are currently questioning the members of the committee, which approved Ben Aryeh's appointment as Israel's ambassador to Latvia, Ynet reported. One committee member allegedly said that Liberman pushed for the appointment to go through, according to Ynet.

A hearing also will be set to allow Lieberman to respond to the charges. 

The further questioning and hearings mean that it is unlikely that the case will go to trial before a new government is formed after the Jan. 22 elections. Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party is running on a joint candidates' list with the ruling Likud Party.

Budapest Jewish cemetery being probed for corruption

Police are investigating allegations of corruption relating to fees charged for interment and other funerary arrangements at Budapest’s main Jewish cemetery.

Witnesses said police late last week conducted a search of the Jewish community’s downtown offices, including the office of the chevra kadisha, or burial society, and also at the office of the vast main Jewish cemetery on Kozma Street in an outlying district of the city.

The magazine Index in an article last week raised allegations of financial wrongdoing including embezzlement, double-entry bookkeeping and transactions without receipts in the sale of burial sites and interment services at the cemetery.

In response to the allegations, the umbrella Hungarian Jewish organization Mazsihisz issued a statement saying that the Budapest Jewish community had uncovered one case of abuse several months ago. It said the irregularity involved a false receipt issued for a sum that was not paid into the relevant account. The cemetery director was fired after repaying the money, the organization said.

“The irregularities that were committed did not involve the invoicing system of the funerary department” of the chevra kadisha, according to the Mazsihisz statement.  However, it added, “further inspections establishing possible penal responsibility and calling the perpetrators to account will remain at the discretion of the investigation department and of the court of law.”

Worker employed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s wife is arrested

Israeli police arrested a foreign worker accused of being employed illegally by Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s wife.

The Filipina, known as Virginia, was arrested Sunday in Tel Aviv in a joint raid with the Oz immigration unit, Haaretz reported.

Barak’s wife, Nili Priel, admitted last week that she had illegally employed a foreign worker a year after it was revealed that the woman worked as a housekeeper in the Barak-Priel household.

The woman had been employed legally in Israel as a caretaker, but remained cleaning houses after her license expired, according to reports.

Priel made her confession after the case was closed for lack of evidence. The case was reopened recently by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein shortly before the worker was arrested. She was located by a reporter for Israel Radio.

Priel’s request that she be levied a fine in order to end the case was rejected. A full investigation is now in the offing.

Olmert indicted in corruption case

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted in three corruption cases.

Israel’s State Prosecutor’s Office filed the charges on Sunday in three cases alleging that Olmert double-billed for overseas trips, made improper appointments when he was minister of trade and labor and accepted cash from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky. The charges include fraud, breach of trust, tax evasion and falsifying corporate records. The indictment does not include charges of bribery, for which police investigators reportedly had been pressing.

It is the first time that the former Israeli prime minister has been criminally indicted.

Olmert’s former bureau chief, Shula Zaken, also was indicted for her alleged involvement in two of the cases.

Three other corruption investigations against Olmert were closed this summer.

Stop and smell the roses in Pakistan

As an Egyptian whose country’s military dictators are either taken by God or an assassin’s bullet, I envy the Pakistani people’s ability to now use the term, “former president.”

As former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf contemplates how his friends in the U.S. administration dropped him quicker than you can say “hot freedom fries,” for those of us from the Muslim world — awash in military dictators who have friends in high places in Washington — his exit from Pakistan’s frenetic political stage is miraculous.

The naysayers will remind us of all the “ifs” and “buts” that remain for Pakistan. For starters, Musharraf’s two main rivals, who engineered the threatened impeachment elbowing him toward resignation — Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari — are nowhere near perfect leaders, especially since the only factor uniting them is now contemplating the real estate of exile sites in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Sharif — the former prime minister swept aside by Musharraf’s bloodless 1999 coup — was himself in exile until last year, when he returned home vowing political revenge. He wants to try Musharraf for treason. Meanwhile, Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has taken a more conciliatory line.

They might disagree on Musharraf’s future, but what they do have in common is ignominious histories of corruption — a reminder that dictators like Musharraf are experts at stifling the life out of their country’s politics and leaving poor alternatives to their rules by coup d’état.

We will be reminded that the Taliban and Al Qaeda and all those other scary figures Musharraf dutifully fought as part of his card-carrying membership in the war on terror are now celebrating in every cave that straddles Pakistan’s troubled border with Afghanistan.

Last year, militant friends of the newly insurgent Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies slaughtered hundreds of Pakistanis in waves of suicide bombings across the country. But much like his fellow Muslim dictators befriended by Washington, Musharraf just perfected his technique of using them as Islamist bogeymen.

My country’s president, Hosni Mubarak, points to the Muslim Brotherhood. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas points to Hamas. But neither can beat having Osama bin Laden allegedly hiding somewhere in his country.

Although he presented himself as a secular leader, Musharraf gave free rein to those same Islamists that he was warning the West about, because they were a foil to Pakistan’s vibrant liberal community.

It’s unclear who will become Pakistan’s next president, but there’s no doubt that the ruling coalition’s challenges are many now that Musharraf is out of the picture: fighting inflation, reducing the gap between rich and poor and continuing to fight militancy in the nuclear-armed country. For Pakistan, politics has been a roller-coaster ride since its birth in 1947 as a partition from India.

But let’s stop for a moment and appreciate what has just happened in Pakistan: The constitution and the justice system of a Muslim country were about to impeach a sitting president who was once head of the armed forces. Rather than face such accountability, that president resigned.

To further put Pakistan’s achievement in context, consider that had he insisted on fighting impeachment, Musharraf faced charges of violating the constitution and gross misconduct. Why?

Because he imposed six weeks of emergency rule and fired dozens of judges last November, when the Supreme Court met to decide his eligibility to stand for re-election for a third term as president while still army chief.

Egypt has lived under emergency rule for each and every one of Mubarak’s four terms in power straddling 26 years. In 2006, his regime showed a similar allergy to an independent judiciary. Mubarak’s regime disciplined two senior judges and arrested and beat dozens of their supporters when the judges had the temerity to press for an inquiry into electoral fraud during the 2005 parliamentary elections, which Mubarak’s party swept. The elections were marred by violence, several deaths and plenty of intimidation.

Just like Musharraf, Mubarak recognized the dangers of an independent judiciary — which in many Muslim countries constitutes the most potent secular opposition. But don’t hold your breath for Mubarak’s impeachment any time soon.

“Let’s hope we can learn from this in Egypt,” my dad told me as we discussed Musharraf’s resignation. “It will tell our dictators, ‘You are not more powerful than the people.'”

It will also signal to our various dictators that no matter how tight you are with Washington, no matter how well you have managed to persuade your American friends that you’re the only thing that stands between them and Islamist lunatics, they will look away when your people have had it with you.

For years, Pakistan has been home to much that ails the Muslim world: coups, dictatorship, militancy and corruption. Let’s recognize it now as home to judges and lawyers who won their staredown with the dictator.

And let’s remind Sharif, Zardari and whoever becomes Pakistan’s next president: “Hey, those same judges and lawyers against whom Musharraf foolishly picked a fight and lost are there keeping an eye on you, too.”

To the people of Pakistan — I salute you!

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

Analysis: Olmert’s journey from right-wing idealogue to unsuccessful pragmatist

WASHINGTON (JTA)—The day after Ehud Olmert buried his own political career, he announced plans to commemorate Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the ideological proponent of Greater Israel whose vision Olmert has done much to bury.

It was an odd closing of a circle: Olmert’s signature achievement may be how he guided his nation away from Jabotinsky’s vision of an Israel spanning the “river to the sea,” the Jordan to the Mediterranean.

His signature failure may be how the allegations of personal corruption that ended his career exemplified the Jewish state’s departure from the lean, ethical Zionism espoused by Jabotinsky.

Left unanswered is how Olmert’s departure affects the prospects for peace with Syria and the Palestinians, his signature projects, or his efforts to isolate Iran.

Olmert’s career at first typefied those of many other scions of the families who believed Jabotinsky’s grand vision one day would be vindicated, waiting patiently for the implosion of a Labor Party bloated with patronage.

In the 1950s Olmert’s father, Mordechai, had been a Knesset member for Herut, Likud’s predecessor, during the party’s lonely decades as a struggling opposition party. Ehud Olmert won election to the Knesset at the tender age of 28, in 1973, when the Likud won enough seats to form a viable opposition. Four years later it won the government outright.

Olmert during his first years in government was a strident advocate of Jewish settlement expansion. As a member of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from 1981, he helped push through budgeting for new settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and was an uncompromising spokesman for the government’s policy at the time of not countenancing any outreach to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The first sign of change came after the 1988 elections, when Olmert became a minister without portfolio in charge of minority affairs. In interviews immediately after the elections, he said his first priority would be to crush the nascent Islamist movement winning municipal elections across Israel’s Arab sector.

Within months, however, Olmert was delivering that rarest of political pronouncements: an apology. The Islamists, he said, were principally interested in bettering the lives of their constituents and he was ready to work with them.

It was around then that the other strand of Olmert’s career also emerged, as he found himself the subject of criminal allegations.

As Likud campaign manager in the 1988 elections, he was accused of authorizing the wiretapping of Labor Party headquarters. Though the accuser was the private detective who had carried out the wiretapping, Olmert managed to emerge unscathed.

Olmert began entertaining party leadership ambitions, sowing an intra-party enmity with Benjamin Netanyahu, another Likud scion. Olmert always seemed the less likely candidate: He lacked the smoothness of his rivals, and preferred the crude thrust in his political rhetoric, venturing into territory others would avoid.

In his successful run for Jerusalem mayor in 1993, Olmert mocked legendary mayor Teddy Kollek’s advanced years. Three years later he told reporters that between Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, Netanyahu was the “more Jewish” candidate for prime minister—a loaded reference to longstanding slanders that Peres’ mother was an Arab.

Yet Olmert when he wanted could be charming, especially when it came to the Americans. He formed fast friendships with American Jewish organizational leaders, members of Congress and others—particularly Rudolph Giuliani, another blunt-talking mayor.

For a political survivor, Olmert at times betrayed a surprisingly thin skin, calling newspapers and asking them to remove reporters he did not favor. When a local Jerusalem newspaper in 1994 uncovered his ties to a group that advocated in the 1970s for the aliyah of American Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky—an association Olmert did not need as he climbed the political ladder—Olmert strode over to the newspaper’s editor at a party and tossed a glass of water in her face.

His two terms as Jerusalem mayor were undistinguished. His most ambitious project, an expensive light-rail system, remains mired in the planning and construction stages five years after Olmert’s reign. Poverty in the city grew during Olmert’s 10-year tenure, infrastructure suffered and, unlike Kollek—who made a point of hearing out Arab complaints—Olmert essentially shut down the municipality’s Arab affairs department.

It was around the time that Olmert served as mayor that he cultivated many of the relationships with U.S. Jewish leaders that would culminate in this year’s multiple police investigations. Wealthy Jewish businessmen were attracted by Olmert’s pledges to preserve Jerusalem’s Jewish character. Allegedly that’s when the envelopes stuffed with cash—ostensibly for political campaigns—began changing hands.

Such behavior did little to dispel accusations by his rivals that he was using the mayor’s office to set up another run for prime minister. In 2003, Olmert rejoined the Knesset, again running the Likud’s successful campaign. His loyalty to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his political skills won him the post of deputy prime minister, even though he remained one of the party’s less popular figures.

Less popular in Israel, that is: Olmert remained well liked among American Jews, where he spearheaded the campaign to explain Sharon’s late-life conversion to land-for-peace policies. Olmert also formed a close friendship with President Bush.

If at first it seemed that Olmert, the veteran politician, was leaning where the political winds blew, his interlocutors soon realized his conversion on the peace process was genuine. His wife and children, all well-known doves, had had an effect on his thinking. More substantially, the shock of the violence of the second intifada in the early 2000s, which Olmert witnessed firsthand as Jerusalem mayor, convinced him that it was time to tease apart two states, Israel and Palestine.

“It was a genuine conversion,” said M.J. Rosenberg, the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, the dovish group that formed a close relationship with Olmert after his change of heart. “Olmert’s unique value was that he approached peace as a pragmatist—none of this starry-eyed Peres stuff. It was, ‘we Israelis want to have normal lives. We want to have nice houses and take our families to football games and make money. To do this we have to lay this conflict behind us.’ There was no mush.”

Palestinians, too, appreciated Olmert as a straight-shooting partner who treated them as equals. Olmert lacked the imperiousness of Ehud Barak or the paternalism of Peres.

It was Olmert’s practical vision that finally won him widespread popularity, and the premiership in January 2006, after Sharon went into a coma from a stroke. Olmert won general elections two months later.

Within months, however, the honeymoon unraveled.

Hezbollah launched an attack that July, and the Olmert government’s belligerent response seemed hapless. Israel’s air-based war did little to prevent substantial Israeli casualties and earned international opprobrium for the destruction it caused in Lebanon. Hezbollah also suffered heavy losses, but rallied as a political force in Lebanon and is now a veto-wielding presence in the country’s Cabinet.

Hezbollah also has rebuilt its forces and missile arsenal—to three times its prewar size, according to Israeli estimates.

At the same time, Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, sold hard by Olmert at the time, also was coming apart. Hamas terrorists had driven moderates from Gaza and were behind daily barrages of rockets into southern Israel.

The need to isolate Hezbollah, Hamas and especially their backer, Iran, drove Olmert to push harder for peace. It led to the re-launch last year of peace talks with Palestinians at Annapolis, Md., and to this year’s renewed talks with Syria under Turkish auspices.

In his resignation speech Wednesday, Olmert clearly hoped the peace talks would be his legacy.

“I continue to believe with all my heart that achieving peace, stopping terrorism, strengthening security and creating different relations with our neighbors are the most vital goals for the future of the State of Israel,” he said. “We are closer than ever to concrete understandings that are likely to the basis for agreements in the two strands of dialogue, the Palestinian and the Syrian. The moment we achieve peace we will stand baffled and wonder how we did not achieve this earlier.”

When it came to the corruption charges, he sounded defiant – a legacy perhaps pf his childhood weaning on the works of Jabotinsky, who famously counseled followers to “never surrender.”

“I have been forced to battle ceaseless attacks,” he said. “Everyone knows that things have been blown out of proportion.”

Probe of Olmert could derail peace process

The corruption investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which is threatening to bring down the Israeli government, potentially may have far-reaching consequences for Middle East peacemaking.

The contours of the probe against Olmert are still unclear. After questioning Olmert and his longtime former bureau chief, Shula Zaken, multiple times, police requested court permission to take testimony under oath from a foreign citizen currently visiting Israel.

A strict gag order prevented the disclosure of the allegations against the prime minister or the foreigner’s identity, but the New York Post identified him as Morris Talansky, an American businessman from Long Island, N.Y.

In the meantime, police and political officials are saying that the allegations, if true, could spell the end of Olmert’s political career.

The latest corruption affair surfaced May 2 as Olmert seemed to be making significant diplomatic progress on three fronts: negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ moderate government in the West Bank on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal; an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip; and the reopening of peace talks with Syria following an intensive Turkish mediation effort.

But if Olmert is forced to step down, Israel will be thrown into a maelstrom of political uncertainty, potentially freezing peacemaking efforts for months. If the political turmoil results in an early election, peacemaking in its current form could cease altogether if, as polls suggest, the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu wins the election.

New signs of progress appeared on the Palestinian track before the dramatic news of the investigation of Olmert broke.

In the run-up to a meeting Monday with Olmert, Abbas declared that some 80 percent of peace-related differences with the Israelis had been resolved. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Gheit echoed that claim, insisting the two sides keep Egypt and other key players abreast of progress he said was being made.

After the Olmert-Abbas meeting, the Israeli side was even more effusive.

“The discussions are probably the most serious ever to be held between Israeli and Palestinian leaders,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the prime minister.

Significant progress had been made on delineating borders and security arrangements between Israel and a future Palestinian state, other officials said. Although no maps have been made public, the officials estimated that Israel’s withdrawal to the new borders would entail the evacuation of 60,000 of the 250,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Regev, however, added a caveat: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. For example, if one side has made a move on one issue, it is conditional on the other side moving on something else.”

In other words, Israel sees a deal on the four core issues — borders, security, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees — as a package, and if Israel has been generous on one, it will expect Palestinian concessions down the road on another.

Some right-wing Israeli politicians doubt whether the claimed progress is genuine and see it as nothing more than spin to help the beleaguered prime minister. Others fear Olmert may be selling out Israel as part of a desperate attempt to save his skin.

Even in Olmert’s own Kadima Party, legislators have their doubts about the prime minister.

“If it transpires that the various affairs have had a direct or indirect influence on the substance of the negotiations, any agreements that may have been reached will be null and void,” Kadima legislator Otniel Shneller said.

If it becomes clear that Olmert is about to be indicted on corruption charges, Israeli law allows him the option of declaring himself temporarily unable to do his job and to take a leave of absence. In that case his deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, would take over as acting prime minister for 100 days.

As far as the various peace tracks are concerned, this would be a relatively seamless transition.

Although Livni theoretically could form a new coalition in the current parliament after the 100 days are up, that road is fraught with political difficulties. Labor leader Ehud Barak might not want Livni to gain credibility as a bona fide prime ministerial candidate ahead of the next elections, and neither will Netanyahu.

The smart money in the Knesset is saying that the smell of new elections already is in the air, with politicians and pundits talking about a date sometime in November.

If that happens, Barak and Livni probably will both paint Netanyahu as likely to destroy the peace process and trigger new regional violence.

But unless a sea change in public opinion occurs, Netanyahu probably would capture the office of prime minister. Should that happen, all Middle East peace tracks would be reassessed.

Netanyahu is convinced that a peace deal with Abbas’ Palestinian moderates would do more harm than good. He warns that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would lead quickly to a Hamas takeover of the territory, and Hamas terrorists then could fire rockets at strategic targets like Ben-Gurion Airport, Jerusalem and central Tel Aviv rather than just the southern town of Sderot.

Israel would find itself surrounded on all sides — from Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon — by Iranian proxies. To prevent that, Netanyahu likely would look for a modus vivendi, based on economic cooperation with Palestinian moderates, that leaves the Israeli army in control of most of the West Bank.

“I am for promoting economic peace while keeping security in our hands,” Netanyahu declared in an interview Monday in the Israeli daily newspaper Yisrael Hayom.

As for Gaza, Netanyahu regards a cease-fire as the worst possible option for Israel because it would enable Hamas to build its military power on the model of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Instead, he says Israel must take action to smash the Hamas military machine.

The main thrust of Netanyahu’s regional policy probably would be to break what he sees as Iran’s stranglehold on Israel. That could mean Israel trying to initiate tougher diplomatic sanctions on Iran, but possibly also pre-emptive strikes against Hamas, Hezbollah and maybe even Iran itself.

Independence creates uncertainty for Kosovo’s Jews

Katsav cops plea in sex charges

His reputation in shambles from a sex scandal that broke a year ago and swelled in subsequent months, Israel’s outgoing president, Moshe Katsav, put an end to the sordid chapter by agreeing to a plea bargain after months of insisting he was innocent.

His reputation in shambles from a sex scandal that broke a year ago and swelled in subsequent months, Katsav put an end to the sordid chapter by agreeing to a plea bargain after months of insisting he was innocent.

Under the deal announced Thursday, President Moshe Katsav will plead guilty to sexually harassing and molesting female staff in exchange for prosecutors’ agreement not to pursue rape charges against him. He will resign early, receive a suspended prison sentence and pay compensation to the complainants.

This marks the first time an Israeli head of state has been convicted of sexual misconduct – — a legacy many hope soon will be forgotten after Shimon Peres takes over the presidency July 15.

For much of this year, Katsav was on a leave of absence and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik served as acting president.

“Israel’s ‘No. 1 citizen’ has become a convicted sexual offender,” Attorney General Menachem Mazuz told reporters. “The shame will accompany him forever.”

The deal was deplored by women’s rights groups and others who saw the plea bargain as an easy pass for a member of Israel’s political elite, the latest in a long string of lenient convictions and sentences for a corrupt Israeli leadership.

The attorney for the employee of the president’s residence who had accused Katsav of rape, known as Complainant A, petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice on Thursday in an effort to block the plea deal, but her request was denied.

“The attorney general gave in to pressure, and the prosecutor forfeited the doing of justice because we’re talking about the president,” attorney Kinneret Barashi told reporters. “This is a black day. At issue is a complainant who told her truth, in which she believes. Along with her I will fight by all means in order to change this decision and bring justice to light. I have a great deal to say, and the last word has yet to be said.”

Mazuz said the State Attorney’s Office entered the plea bargain because it saw difficulties in proving the toughest allegations, some of them dating back years.

“A confession by the president is no trivial matter,” Mazuz said, defending the agreement.

But the Association of Rape Crisis Centers said in a statement in response, “The plea bargain sends a clear message to sexual assault victims: Better to stay quiet, better not to tell. In the State of Israel, there is no one to safeguard the victims of sexual assault.”

When Mazuz’s office first said in January that it was considering a rape indictment, Katsav took a leave of absence but angrily denied wrongdoing. In a raucous speech in which the president clearly lost his temper, Katsav spoke of himself as the victim of a “witch hunt” targeting successful members of Israel’s Sephardi underclass.

The leaders of Israel and of the Jewish people are failing us

I write in sadness — deep sadness.

Almost 25 years ago, I read a one-line description of Jewish leadership that has haunted me ever since. The author, whose name I have repressed, wrote: “Only a confirmed anti-Semite could believe that the Jewish people have the leadership they deserve.”

I protested his statement then, but I am not sure I can disagree now.

The problems the State of Israel faces within the region are serious enough that even the best of leadership would struggle under the current situation.

One wonders how a weak leadership without moral standing or demonstrated competence can bear these burdens and how the citizens of Israel permit themselves such political leadership. Who could possibly imagine that in 2007:

  • The president of Israel stands accused of rape and did not resign.
  • The minister of finance of Israel was accused of embezzling funds from the March of the Living.
  • The foreign minister attempted to topple the prime minister, failed to do so but would not resign.
  • The minister of defense did not have knowledge or experience in military, political or governmental matters or good knowledge of the basic principles of using military force to achieve political goals.

Quoting the Winograd Commission: “The prime minister made up his mind hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him and without asking for one…. His decision was made without close study of the complex features of the Lebanon front and of the military, political and diplomatic options available to Israel.

“He made his decision without systematic consultation with others, especially outside the [Israel Defense Forces] IDF, despite not having experience in external political and military affairs. In addition, he did not adequately consider political and professional reservations presented to him before the fateful decisions of July 12th.”

And then there are the issues that affect domestic policy in Israel. The prime minister enjoys but 2 percent public support and still will not step aside. The defense minister ran on a platform of helping the poor and the underprivileged, yet once elected, did not attempt to act on those promises.

In the past, when there wasn’t enough food to go around, it was possible for the state to feed the entire Israeli population. Yet now, even with a budget surplus, the Jewish state is forcing hundreds of thousands of Jewish children [and Arab children] and elderly Holocaust survivors to go to bed hungry.

Any moral person reading these descriptions might immediately say, “Throw the bums out!” But who is there to replace those bums?

Opposition leaders made the decisions that led to the IDF’s ill-preparedness for the last war. They cut the budget, they chose to purchase the wrong military equipment, they mistrained the army and they were overly reliant on technological weapons to the exclusion of ground forces. They developed the economic policies that have led to hunger in Israel, a reality that the government of Israel — past and current — is too ashamed to recognize and too embarrassed to deal with.

One wonders why the Israelis can’t find leaders who are both competent and ethical. Yet, the Israeli leadership problems will not be solved by resignations. They are deeper. They go to the very quality of people who have stayed in the political arena and to the structure of parties and of government.
Closer to home, the situation of former World Jewish Congress (WJC) General Secretary Rabbi Israel Singer has gone from tragedy to farce.

For decades, Singer and WJC President Edgar Bronfman were a formidable team, pressing the issue of Jewish material interests with Swiss Banks, the German and other European governments and the general public. The power and prestige of Bronfman and the brilliance and bravado of Singer achieved significant results.

They embodied competence and wrapped themselves in the justice of their cause.

But after two years of investigations by the New York attorney general, which found financial irregularities, though it stopped short of labeling them criminal, the relationship between these two powerful men imploded. When the clash between the two partners went public, Singer was fired. When Bronfman resigned, the WJC posted a dossier on its Web site that brought the financial management of the organization into disrepute and will probably force the attorney general and the IRS to re-open inquiries.

Singer, who serves as president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against the German Nation, in which he had no financial responsibilities but brilliantly and ably led the Claims Conference’s negotiations with the German government, refuses to step aside, even long enough to clear his name. He refuses to indicate whether he is a candidate for re-election when his term expires in July. And the Claims Conference board seems unwilling or unable to remove him or to ask him to step aside — even temporarily.

It is a sad ending to an extraordinarily effective and daring career that served the Jewish people exceedingly well. But Singer must surely step aside — if only to attempt to clear his name. If he does not, he must be pushed aside, in order to clear the name of the organization he heads.

The WJC’s major resources have always been its title, the prestige of its chairman, the skill of its staff and the location of its headquarters in New York. The WJC is in New York because of the way American Jews are perceived in Europe and throughout the world, where the organization’s claim to speak on behalf of the Jewish people is widely accepted and respected.

Yet there are just four candidates with enough money in their pockets poised to lead it. One is European, another South African and two are American billionaires. Put a European leader into the mix and the power of the organization is diminished. A white South African in the leadership shears away the cloak of justice. An Israeli at the helm would make the WJC indistinguishable from the Israeli government, whose standing in Europe is controversial at best. The American candidates must have the foreign policy experience and the drive to speak for the survivors the way Singer and Bronfman did.

To complicate matters further, there is widespread suspicion that former Israeli Prime Minister/Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who threatened to destroy the Claims Conference if Israel was not given control of Claims Conference negotiations and allocations — is operating through supporters who discredit the operation. At the same time, the Jewish Agency and others are attempting to force the Claims Conference to move to Jerusalem — yet their track record and the record of the Israeli government in support of survivors is problematic at best.

If the Israelis have their way, since funds are fungible, it would become difficult to distinguish the Claims Conference from the Israeli government, and European leaders and their citizens would be unlikely to consent to giving restitution funds to the Israelis.

Jews have been asking the perennial question about which president and presidential candidate is best for Israel. The truth is that I am less interested these days in what American presidents and presidential candidates will do to support Israel and much more interested in what Israelis will do for themselves to purge themselves from the corruption at the helm and instill ethics and values in their leadership and what American Jews will do to assist the process.

Still, the only thing more depressing than Jewish leadership these days is the leadership of the United States and that of Arab states and causes.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of theology (adjunct) at American Jewish University.

Israeli Electoral Reform Dream: What a Headache

When I left Los Angeles for Israel many years ago, two of the 15 members on the L.A. City Council, who are elected by voters in their geographical district, were widely rumored to
be corrupt and a third councilman didn’t even bother to hide it. Yet these three guys kept getting re-elected every four years like clockwork.

All told, the 15 elected council members, each of them answerable to their separate constituencies, included effective politicians and hapless ones, brave leaders and cowards, lawmakers of integrity and plain whores.

I only know this because I was a reporter covering L.A. City Hall before I made aliyah. Ordinarily, I would have had no idea what my council member or any other council member was doing, and neither did anybody I knew. We also had constituency elections, or district voting, for L.A. County supervisor, state assemblyman, state senator and U.S. congressman. Very few people even knew who these officeholders were.

In fact, the only politicians whose performances were of interest to much of the public were the big leaguers, the ones who got elected at large — the governor of California, the state’s two U.S. senators and, of course, the president.

I bring this up because there’s a belief among many Israelis, or at least among many “Anglos” (native English speakers), that if we change the electoral system and divide Israel up into geographical districts so that the Knesset, or at least half the Knesset, is elected by district voting, we will get a higher class of politicians and a cleaner, better political life in this country.

There will finally be accountability, goes the argument. The politicians will know they are answerable to a specific community of voters, and that if they don’t keep that community satisfied, they will be out on their ear in the next election. A citizen will know that he can call up his district Knesset member and get his streetlight fixed, because the Knesset member will be afraid to disappoint his newly empowered constituent.

The way it is now, say proponents of district elections, there’s no accountability, because everybody votes for one or another national list of Knesset candidates, which means each Knesset member has a constituency of everybody, which effectively means that he’s answerable to nobody. So between elections, the politicians do whatever they want, and the voters have no control over them. And this, say advocates of electoral reform, is one of the main reasons why Israeli politics is in the mess it’s in.

I must say, I don’t get it. What are Israelis’ complaints about the politicians — that they’re corrupt? Fine, let’s say they’re corrupt, but how would constituent elections make them any less so?

Wouldn’t a Knesset member elected in Knesset District 47 be just as able to do a favor for some rich guy and get paid for it — and then cover it up — as he would if he were elected as he is now on the Knesset list of Kadima or Labor or Likud or Shas or anybody else?

What other complaints do the voters have? That the politicians running the government botched the war in Lebanon? Even if that’s true, would district elections have made any difference? Under the current electoral system, Israeli voters have been able to elect great warriors as prime ministers — and they all proved to be fallible or worse at providing security.

Let’s have some more complaints against Israeli politicians: They promise big and deliver little, they’re beholden to powerful interests, they don’t care about the ordinary citizen, they say whatever the polls tell them to say, they poison the atmosphere with vicious attacks on their opponents.

Right. Hanging is too good for them. But again, how are district elections supposed to improve their behavior? These are the same complaints against politicians made by voters in the United States, despite their district elections. In the whole world, is there any country, no matter what its voting system, where the people don’t find their politicians to be corrupt, irresponsible, phony, etc.?

In Israel, there is, however, an example of how electoral politics might look with district voting, with more of a grass-roots element, with politicians being accountable to a geographically compact, relatively small population of voters. It’s called local government, municipal government. Isn’t it wonderful? Especially in all these little towns with 30,000 or 40,000 people, where the mayor and the council members know all the residents, and the residents all know them. Isn’t this the way Israeli national politics, Knesset politics, ought to be?

You should know that I’m joking. We just missed a national strike last month, and we may not be so lucky in the weeks to come, because dozens of municipalities haven’t paid their workers in months, due to their locally elected politicians’ corruption, cronyism, wastefulness and other skills.

Local government in Israel, especially in some of these little towns where residents really do call up their friends at City Hall to get their streetlights fixed, is known for being an easy target for crooked contractors, for mafionerim. The violence and lawlessness between rival camps is much, much worse in the towns and cities than it is at the national level. In politics, familiarity is liable to breed contempt.

Finally, let’s remember that the current Knesset and national government are the way they are after about 15 years of experimenting with electoral reform. First the good-government types said we needed direct election of the prime minister to end the small (i.e. Charedi) parties’ blackmail; then, when the blackmail continued anyway, they decided to go back to the old system. First everybody used to complain that Israeli governments fell every 18 months; that there were too many elections. Now they’re complaining that the Olmert government stinks, but you can’t get rid of them; that there won’t be another election until way off in 2010.

After 15 years, electoral reform in Israel has turned out to be an exercise in exchanging one headache for another. The problem isn’t the system, whatever it may be. The problem isn’t lack of accountability, either.

Israel in Wonderland

These days, I feel a little like Alice falling down a deep dark hole and landing in a world turned so upside down that right is wrong and wrong is everywhere.

Just when you think it
can’t be any more topsy-turvy in Israel than it already is, the president addresses the nation with nonsensical shrieks and accusations in a parody of leadership so bizarre that you wonder whether the Jewish state has turned into Wonderland.

Even in a country accustomed to shocking news, a culture permeated with ad hominem attacks, even for us Israelis, this was beyond belief. The man ostensibly safeguarding Israel’s moral authority is defending himself against charges of rape and sexual harassment, and trying to bring down the whole house of cards — the legal, security, political and media establishment — with him.

Transformed before our very eyes from mediocre president to raving megalomaniac, from small town mayor to Mad Hatter, Moshe Katsav tried to thrust the entire nation into an alternate reality.

The first casualty of the Katsav rampage was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose address to the Herzliya Conference was unexpectedly and completely upstaged by the nearly hour-long tirade. Scheduled to conclude a four-day gathering devoted to exploring Israel’s national strength, security and diplomatic horizons, Olmert, himself under investigation for unlawful influence in the sale of Bank Leumi, chose to speak about Iran and thus avoid mention of the more problematic areas related to his performance, namely the war in Lebanon or the peace process.

Olmert’s focus fit in well with the overall tone of the conference — the clanging of alarm bells for our national and Jewish future. From raging anti-Semitism in Europe to the threat of genocide from Iran, speaker after speaker warned that today we Jews are living in a watershed period, one of the most dangerous times in our history. With his declaration, “Anyone who threatens us, who threatens our existence, must know that we have the determination and capability to defend ourselves, to respond with force, with discretion and with all the means at our disposal as necessary,” the prime minister made clear that this time our muscles are flexed.

“I do not suggest anyone err and conclude that the restraint and responsibility that we are displaying will affect our determination and our ability to act when this is required,” he cautioned.

But for the man or woman in the street, Iran is a long-term problem, a strategic horizon, a geopolitical issue. Of greater immediate concern are the scandals at home. Temporarily titillated though they may have been by the president’s surreal performance on live TV, Israelis came away with a new dose of demoralization.

A modest list of some of the other figures currently under investigation includes not only Olmert, but Finance Minister Hirschson, Justice Minister Ramon, head of Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Tzachi Hanegbi, and top officials of the Israel Tax Authority. And then there’s the hard-working Winograd Committee, which will eventually tell the public which leaders are to blame for last summer’s botched war in Lebanon.

Small wonder, then, that a new survey on patriotism presented to the Herzliya conference by professor Ephraim Yaar of Tel Aviv University indicated a significant erosion of public confidence. While patriotism is an abstract category, Yaar’s reasonable assumption was that “the strength of the state cannot be assessed without addressing the patriotic component of its citizens.”

The good news in his report was that despite the difficult events of the past year and a half, including both the war in Lebanon and disengagement, “not only did the degree of patriotism of the Jewish public not weaken, the emotional affinity to the state even strengthened.”

But, he continued, “the bad message is that an unprecedented decline was measured in regard to the public’s confidence in the government and the Knesset. Moreover, there is a steep decline in the confidence in the defense forces, which have always enjoyed a high level of support.”

Noting that there is a contradiction between the high assessment of the steadfastness of the civilian population and the low estimation of the leadership, Yaar explained: “The public draws a line between the society and the state, especially the leadership. The public says — we are patriotic, we love our country, don’t get us involved in your failures, and we need to rectify the situation.”

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the Jewish public is proud to be Israeli and more than 90 percent of Israelis are ready to fight for their country. The IDF, traditionally a chief source of pride, is now in third place in the public’s estimation, following Israel’s scientific and technological accomplishments, and artistic and cultural achievements. In 2005, 88 percent of the population was proud of the IDF; in 2006 it dropped to 64 percent. In last place, in the public’s view, are government institutions and the Knesset.

There are practical consequences to these shifts in opinion. Following the resignations of Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch and Major Gen. Udi Adam, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz resigned two weeks ago, and Major Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, former head of the Northern Command and deputy chief of staff, was confirmed this week as his replacement. President Katsav was temporarily relieved of his duties and the race to succeed him is well underway. Tax Authority officials were placed under house arrest, banned from re-entering their offices. And, finally, there is a petition to the Supreme Court to publicize the Winograd hearings so that this entire sorry mess can be made public, play-by-play.

Meanwhile, the country is at a standstill. With everybody fighting indictments and facing commissions of inquiry, we have a right to ask who is worrying about the vital matters of state. The suicide bomber that killed three people in an Eilat bakery this week reminds us that even when quiet abounds for nine months, we cannot begin to pretend that the conflict has been resolved. Peace requires courageous leadership and vision, focus and dedication. In this time of deep national crisis, when the external threats are indeed enormous and when terror has once again burst into our reality, we are suffering what Yaar calls a critical “breach in confidence.”

It may well be that the corruption from within is more terrifying than the enemy from without. The time has certainly come for the country to regain its balance, rehabilitate moral and legal boundaries, and set a new political table, tea cups and all.

Roberta Fahn Schoffman heads Mindset Media and Strategic Consulting. This essay originally appeared at Whitefire Theatre

Scandals and war fallout cast doubt on Olmert’s leadership

Following the sudden but not unexpected resignation of the Israeli army’s chief of staff, pundits are asking how much longer Ehud Olmert, the country’s beleaguered prime minister, can survive in office.

Under investigation for corruption and with his approval ratings at an all-time low, Olmert is facing increasing public pressure to quit.

Things could get even worse for him if the Winograd Commission, which is investigating last summer’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, is critical of his role when it presents preliminary findings at the end of the month.

But Olmert is a tough customer unlikely to resign of his own accord. And the way the Israeli system works, it could be difficult to force him out.

The fact that Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz chose to resign clearly marks last summer’s war in Lebanon as a failure. And the fact that he has already gone puts the Winograd spotlight on those up the line — Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Olmert himself.

The Winograd mandate includes asking the big questions: Why did the prime minister decide to go to war so hastily, just hours after the ostensible casus belli, the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah along the border with Lebanon? Why didn’t Olmert pressure the army to launch a major ground strike much earlier in the campaign to stop rocket fire on Israeli civilians? And why didn’t the government do more to move civilians out of the line of fire?

According to Yoel Marcus, the doyen of Israeli political analysts, the perceived failure in the war, the corruption clouds and the absence of clear leadership on peacemaking with the Palestinians or the Syrians has spawned a dark public mood that the Olmert administration will not survive.

“In this grim atmosphere, the public is not going to sit back and allow the chief of staff to take all the blame for the second Lebanon War while the political leaders who initiated and planned it are let off the hook,” Marcus wrote in Ha’aretz. “Maybe there won’t be a Yom Kippur War-style earthquake. But Labor MK Avishai Braverman is right in predicting that the pair of duds known as Olmert and Peretz are living on borrowed time. Sooner or later they will be toppled from government by the Domino effect.”

Although nothing has been proven against Olmert, the accumulation of corruption scandals involving him or close members of his administration has eroded public confidence in the prime minister. Olmert is being investigated on suspicion of rigging a tender for the sale of Bank Leumi, Israel’s second largest bank, when he was finance minister in 2005-06.

Olmert says the changes he made were to maximize state profits from the sale. The prosecution has ordered the police to investigate whether the changes were meant to help his billionaire friends, American S. Daniel Abraham and Australian Frank Lowy — although in the end they did not make a bid.

Olmert also is suspected of giving preference at the Investment Center to clients of a former law partner and of making dozens of political appointments in the Small Business Center when he was minister of industry and trade in 2003-05.

He also has been tainted by suspicions of corruption by association: His close friend, Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson, is suspected of involvement in a sick-fund scam, and his longtime secretary, Shula Zaken, is suspected of helping to appoint cronies to the National Tax Authority in return for tax reductions for pals.

Even if Olmert is innocent, critics say he won’t be able to govern because he’ll be too busy trying to clear his name.

Olmert also is under fire for a perceived lack of political leadership. He says he doesn’t have the political power to make major diplomatic moves, but critics say he doesn’t seem to have an agenda for peacemaking with the Palestinians or the Syrians, or any unilateral alternative either.

The resulting loss of public confidence in the prime minister is reflected in recent public opinion polls. A mid-January survey in Ha’aretz gave Olmert an approval rating nationwide of just 14 percent. A few days later the news for the prime minister was even worse: A poll aired on Israel’s Channel 10 TV claimed that 69 percent of Israelis actually wanted Olmert to resign.

Ironically, although Olmert is probably the most unpopular prime minister in Israeli history, he has one of the strongest coalitions based on the support of 78 of the 120 Knesset members.

So how could he be forced out of office? One way would be for a majority of 61 Knesset members to vote for early elections. But since many of them are unlikely to be re-elected, pundits reckon the chances of that happening any time soon are remote.

A more likely move is a vote of “constructive no-confidence” in which 61 Knesset members coalesce around an alternative candidate for prime minister, thereby installing a new national leader without holding new national elections.

Here pundits see two possibilities — a split in Olmert’s Kadima Party in which half the Kadima legislators return to their Likud origins or at least make a pact with Likud, bringing its leader Benjamin Netanyahu to power.

The second constructive no-confidence scenario involves Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and a coup in Kadima in which she replaces Olmert as leader. Polls show Livni with a 51 percent approval rating to Olmert’s 14 percent, and see her as three times more likely than Olmert to win a new election.

Another scenario that could bring down Olmert would be Labor leaving the coalition, but that’s unlikely to happen before Labor elects a new leader in May. If Labor does pull out then, it would leave the Likud in a position to decide whether to join Olmert in Labor’s place or to force new elections.

Most pundits agree that the countdown on Olmert’s government has begun, but they differ on how long it will take before it falls. And despite his obvious weakness, most pundits think Olmert will be able to stumble on for some time yet.

But where Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, was able to ride out a rebellion in the Likud and a string of corruption scandals, most pundits believe that even if he gets by the Winograd Commission, Olmert does not have the political clout in the longer term to emulate his illustrious predecessor.

Pride of the Zionists

Surrounded by seven young children, Yehuda Richter tells me over Shabbat lunch how he decided to move from Los Angeles to

Elon Moreh, a settlement on the outskirts of the place Jews call Shechem and the Arabs call Nablus.

He was 14 years old and playing basketball with some black guys in the La Cienega neighborhood near Fedco (RIP), some 25 years ago.

“Are you a Jew,” a black player asked him.


“Man, you guys are bad!” he said, meaning “good.”

Then the black guy recounted how some Jew boy was roughed up at a neighborhood pinball joint. The following Saturday night, some brawny Jews from the Jewish Defense League (JDL) visited the joint, punched some noses and knocked over a few tables, saying, in so many words, “Don’t mess with the Jews.”

It was the first time that Richter felt distinct pride to be a Jew. Then he went to hear a lecture by Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the JDL, at Beth Jacob Synagogue, and immediately became his disciple.

Out of the blue, Richter sings, a la John Denver, his own “Elon Moreh” anthem, his long black beard and payes swaying:

“Hotzei Shomron [Samaria Divide], take me home, to the place I belong.”

Richter certainly didn’t belong in Los Angeles, the city where I, too, was born and where my parents still live. Nor would Kahane, were he still alive, fit in so well at most Los Angeles shuls. Kahane’s political party, Kach, was banned in Israel in 1988 for anti-Arab views that were widely denounced as racist. It was listed as a terrorist group by the FBI and U.S. State Department. In 1990 Kahane was assassinated in New York by an Arab affiliated with a terrorist organization.

These days, many residents of Elon Moreh, a natural habitat for Kahane followers and sympathizers, feel more threatened by the Israeli government than by Arabs. At any moment the government could choose to end their way of life by forcefully evicting them from this spot, just as it did with the settlers in Gaza. Located near major Arab population centers in the West Bank, Elon Moreh is the heart of the storm.

Elon Moreh was practically empty during last summer’s Disengagement (or “expulsion,” as they call it here) because most residents were out protesting. The Israeli army recommended terminating the hesder status of the Elon Moreh yeshiva, which combines Torah and military study, which would prevent it from receiving financial subsidies and service reductions for its students. Its rabbi had called upon soldiers to refuse Disengagement orders.

But the rest of the community is on shaky ground with the authorities as well. During the Sukkot holiday, police searched cars randomly, including school buses.

Community members call it harassment and collective punishment in the wake of attempts by settler youth to set up a tent on a deserted hill adjacent to Elon Moreh, an illegal outpost, according to the government. The youth were no contest against the police, who came to knock down the tent, but it did cost the security forces a few punctured tires.

The police say the checks are routine — to ensure proper licenses and permits.

Residents aren’t buying it.

“They came in here looking for trouble,” says Pinchas Fuchs, who directs Friends of Elon Moreh. “They wanted to arrest a couple of the kids who they claimed were involved in who-knows-what-where. They decided to take it out on us.”

It is Fuchs, a New Jersey expatriate, who is hosting me for Shabbat. Fuchs looks like a Jewish Santa Claus, with a white beard and warm blue eyes. I can imagine Jewish children sitting on his lap during Chanukah, while he asks “Were you a good Jew this year?”

He takes me to the hilltop and explains to me that this settlement was officially and legally established in 1980 on barren slopes overlooking the heart of Shechem. Then he shows me where the Jewish people were born. He must have given the speech to visitors hundreds of times, but his enthusiasm makes it seem as though he has just discovered the biblical valleys the day before.

God promised Avram the land in Genesis 12, he explains. Later in the Bible, Jacob purchases a “portion of the field” in Shechem; Dina, Jacob’s daughter, gets raped by the city’s namesake — the rape is then brutally avenged by her brothers; Joseph is sold into slavery and also buried in Shechem. (The place regarded as Joseph’s traditional burial site was turned over to Palestinian police after a violent outbreak there at the start of the second intifada. Palestinians then ransacked the site. An American-born Elon Moreh rabbi was found murdered not far from it.)

“This is where the Jewish people encamped when they entered the Holy Land,” Fuchs says, arms wide open to the expanse of the hills, its valleys spotted with Arab homes and buildings. “That’s Mount Eval and Mount Grizim, where the children of Israel had to choose between the blessings and the curses. That’s where archaeologist Adam Zartal discovered an altar dating to the time of Joshua.”

Not far away from where we stand is an Israel Defense Forces base overlooking Shechem to monitor Arab activities.

Elon Moreh is home to some of the most ardent religious Zionists. It started with 12 seed families and has grown to more than 250 clans. The architecture and lawns remind me more of suburban Los Angeles than crowded Tel Aviv. There are many two-story homes, a lot of trees and parks, but with an atmosphere and terrain that can never be duplicated anywhere else.

There is a feeling among the settlers that, to the Israeli government, they are guilty unless proven innocent and that due process doesn’t apply to them. A 21-year-old about to start medical school was charged with attempting to burn tires on a road and sentenced to two years.

“Look how much time and effort they put into arresting these poor kids blocking roads when there’s all this corruption in the government,” Fuchs says.

Los Angeles’ own, Richter, was sent to administrative detention during the Disengagement on suspicion of various anti-Disengagement “crimes,” but released after five days.

“Really they didn’t want me to be around for the Northern Shomron expulsion,” said Richter, an active protester.

Fuchs suspects his phone is tapped; he sometimes answers, “Good morning, everyone.”

Everyone can’t help but wonder if the government is preparing their own expulsion.

“We’re all aware of it,” says Fuchs’ curly-haired, 24-year-old daughter, Nurit, who teaches autistic children in Jerusalem. “But we’re not going to make it easy.”

Fuchs’ 28-year-old son, Bentzi, a counselor for troubled youth in the Golan, opens a pamphlet listing activities religious Zionist teens are running all over the country to infuse Israelis with a Jewish identity, the lack of which they believe is the cause for the country’s turmoil and a willingness to retreat from the biblical heartland.

Fuchs would be happy to go back to pre-Oslo days when Judea and Samaria were under Israeli rule.

“We had a fantastic situation until 1992,” Fuchs says. “We weren’t buddy-buddy with the Arabs, but it was live and let live. We had school buses driving through Shechem every day. Many would like to go back to that situation, but it’s too hard now.”

Time, however, does not appear to be on the settlers’ side. Demolitions and expulsions are slated for parts of settlements in Hebron, Elon Moreh, and Amona.

At the Tapuach Junction, construction has mysteriously begun to alter traffic flow near the mountains of the blessings and the curses.

“They’re getting ready for the next expulsion,” says a hitchhiker I pick up on my way out

“How so?” I ask.

“They’re making a crossing so they can limit traffic, as they did for Gush Katif,” she says.

The Israel Defense Forces respond that workers are constructing an improved vehicle passageway to improve security inspection without delaying drivers. But the settlers are very suspicious.

As I leave the community, I can’t help but feel energized by the pride of the people I met. But I also couldn’t help but feel increasingly sad that Israel is turning into a country where you’re treated as a criminal if you love too passionately your people, your heritage, and your history.

On the way home near the Hotzei Shomron road, I shut off my new Madonna CD, and begin to sing: “Hotzei Shomron, take me home, to the place I belong.”

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at arfa@netvision.net.il.


Give Peace a Shot

Mahmud, 24, and I, met at a Moroccan falafel place near Dupont Circle on a surprisingly sunny December afternoon. I’d guarantee that even if you looked carefully around the D.C. area, you would find very few “couples” like us — a Palestinian from Nablus, and an Israeli from Herzliya, talking with such sincerity for more than two hours, catching up on life. A week prior to our meeting, Mahmud had returned from a visit to Nablus, his hometown, after four years away living rather comfortably in the United States. The story I heard that sunny afternoon accounts for why Hamas won the Palestinian elections in such a landslide.

“My best friends in Nablus are either masters of card games and snooker, or militia leaders,” Mahmud said. “Most of them, even those who graduated from university, are unemployed. All they do is sit around and play cards. Others who are bored with cards join the city gangs and take arms.”

“Against the Israelis?” I asked, assuming that the answer was yes.

“No,” Mahmud said. “These militias run the city by instilling terror in Nabulsis themselves. They smuggle arms, kidnap people and threaten their lives. They have nothing to do with the Israelis … well, not directly, if you know what I mean.”

The picture of Nablus became clearer as dusk devoured Dupont Circle. Nabulsis were locked in Nablus, unable to commute to other cities for jobs and leisure. Most of the youth were unemployed, and thus occupied themselves in illegal, worthless activities. Disillusionment with Fatah and its leaders Abu Mazen was ubiquitous. Abu Mazen has been promising reforms, but nothing on the ground has changed. The roads were broken, electricity often was shut down and jobs were scarce. Amidst the despair rose Hamas.

“You know, Shira,” said Mahmud to me, our eyes fixated on each other with unusual sincerity, “Hamas is nothing like Fatah. When you go to a Fatah gathering in the city, the chairs are disorganized and people shoot with their guns at the air to demonstrate power and control. At a Hamas rally, which usually takes place in elementary schoolyards, the chairs for the guests are in perfect lines — as orderly as disciplined soldiers — and there is not a single shot heard in the air. It is weird,” he paused, “I think the more conservative you are, the more orderly you become. This is how Hamas operates in Palestine. And people respect that, Shira. Because people know, if Hamas promises something, Hamas makes true. Unlike Fatah, whose words are null and void.”

I listened in silence, holding my head between my hands.

Let the moral of this story be very clear. The outcome of the Palestinian elections reflects not the heroic victory of Hamas, but the crushing defeat of the Fatah. Corruption, empty promises and a deteriorating economy have given way to loyalty to the people and potentially a brighter economic future for the average Palestinian. Sound obnoxious to be attested by an Israeli? It is about time that we begin to talk with our Palestinian neighbors and learn what is happening in the Palestinian streets, before we speculate and are caught unprepared.

My hunch is that Hamas, now controlling most of the Palestinian parliament, will remain passively loyal to its 22nd clause calling for the destruction of Israel. Nonetheless, it will not embrace terrorism as its foreign policy and will remain generally calm and in a state of hudnah (truce) with the Fatah opposition and with Israel. It is in Israel’s hands — it is Israel’s responsibility — not to panic now, as it is standing in a crucial crossroads prior to the Israeli March elections.

If we panic now, and let public opinion shift to the right, Benjamin Netanyahu will rise to power. Being the only real hawk that promises to be harsh on terrorism, he will behave like a bull in a china shop. Wandering between the shelves with good intentions and no real desire to harm, he will shatter the little china figures into pieces and lead us to disaster. Israel will have to pay the price of its own panicking. Again, like in Netanyahu’s previous term in office, buses will be blowing up in the center of Tel Aviv. Four years of sleepless nights are guaranteed.

No, Israel must remain calm. We already know that violence begets violence begets violence. Has anyone tried anything else recently? Let us remain calm and allow Hamas to politicize itself, perhaps re-examine its agenda, now that it is a majority in the Palestinian parliament and responsible for the entire Palestinian population. Let us not panic before we are provided with the reason to do so. Let us not crush with our hands the opportunity for a change before it even surfaces. Let us be unlike ourselves, and just give it a shot. At the end of the day, it’s either we give it a shot, or we shoot at it.

The author is an Israeli sophomore from Herzliya studying government at Harvard.


Abramoff Linked to Jewish Ventures

Reading the indictment against Jack Abramoff, one might not know that he was prominent in Washington Jewish circles. But in coming months, his ties with Jewish and Israeli organizations may emerge as a prominent piece in the lobbyist’s web of questionable activities.

Last week, Abramoff pleaded guilty to multiple felony counts in Washington and Miami as part of a settlement in which he agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in their ongoing government corruption probe. In the Washington case, the 46-year-old lobbyist admitted defrauding at least four Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars, enticing government officials with bribes and evading taxes. In the Miami case, Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud stemming from his purchase of a fleet of casino boats.

While Abramoff is best known as a political wheeler-dealer, he also was a player in the Jewish community of the nation’s capital, starting several short-lived, money-losing ventures to fill what he perceived as religious gaps in the city’s Jewish world.

He also used his largess to further Israeli businesses and charities that appealed to his conservative worldview. Some of these activities have come to light in connection with the cases outlined in the federal indictments.

Specifically, Abramoff allegedly using money from a Washington charity he oversaw to fund military-style programs in the West Bank. Indian tribes donated money to tax-exempt charities, believing they were supporting anti-gambling foundations, but the money was redirected to help a “sniper school” in the West Bank, operated by a friend of Abramoff.

According to congressional documents, Abramoff sought night-vision goggles and a vehicle for the sniper-training facility.

Abramoff also allegedly worked on behalf of an Israeli firm that sought to wire the Capitol for cellular phone use. While leading cell phone manufacturers in the United States settled on JGC Wireless to install antennas in repeaters in House buildings, an Israeli company with ties to Abramoff, Foxcom Wireless, ultimately won the bid.

The switch is allegedly linked to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, who accepted numerous favors from Abramoff over the years, and placed comments in the Congressional Record favorable to Abramoff’s ventures.

Foxcom didn’t pay Abramoff to lobby for the House job, but it did donate $50,000 to the Capitol Athletic Foundation, an Abramoff charity, the Washington Post reported.

Foxcom has changed its name to MobileAccess and moved its headquarters to Virginia. A spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Abramoff also has been tied to two rabbis, the Lapin brothers from South Africa, who aided his political and personal ventures. David Lapin was hired to run a Jewish school Abramoff created in suburban Maryland to teach his children and others.

Lapin also received close to $1.2 million to promote “ethics in government” to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, one of Abramoff’s clients. Officials on the island said Lapin did little for the money.

His brother, Daniel Lapin, is president of Toward Tradition. Abramoff allegedly asked him to create an award to bestow upon Abramoff to help his acceptance into Washington’s Cosmos Club. Abramoff suggested he could be a “scholar of Talmudic studies” or a “distinguished biblical scholar.”

Lapin said yes, according to e-mails obtained by congressional investigators, and asked whether Abramoff needed a letter or a plaque. Lapin told the Washington Post he meant the exchange to be tongue-in-cheek and never produced an award for Abramoff.

Two other Abramoff aides moved to Israel last year as investigators continued their probe. Sam Hook and his wife, Shana Tesler, both worked at Abramoff’s law firm and had been cooperating with investigators before moving to Israel in July, according to The Hill, a Washington newspaper. The Orthodox Jews had long planned to move to Israel, their attorney said last year.

Abramoff also made contributions to several Jewish lawmakers, among numerous congressmen Abramoff and his associates help finance. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) donated $7,000 — the amount he received from Abramoff — to charity last week.

A spokesman for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) did not respond to questions about his own donation from Abramoff — in the amount of $1,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

In Washington, Abramoff was well-known for the idiosyncratic use of his money. He shunned other religious schools in the area, choosing to open Eshkol Academy specifically for his children’s education.

The school closed within two years, and several teachers say they are owed back pay. David Lapin, the school’s dean, was not an active administrator, former teachers said.

Abramoff also opened several kosher restaurants that failed quickly. Stacks, a deli, was welcomed by the city’s Jewish community, but never made money. A more formal restaurant upstairs, Archives, never stayed open for more than a few weeks at a time.

Some Jewish professionals found it noteworthy that the Abramoff that appeared outside a Washington courthouse Jan. 3 — with a long, double-breasted black coat and black hat — resembled a devout Jew on his way to Shabbat services. In a New York Times interview last year, Abramoff compared himself to the biblical character Jacob, saying his involvement in lobbying was similar to Jacob’s taking the identity of his brother, Esau. A spokesman for Abramoff later told JTA his client was misquoted.


Israel Skeptical of Abbas Moves


The appointment of new commanders to lead a reformed Palestinian Authority security force would seem to be a step toward meeting one of the Palestinian Authority’s key obligations under the “road map” peace plan.
Yet far from winning plaudits for P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, the move has hardly moved Israeli officials, who remain skeptical of Abbas’ ability to root out Palestinian terrorism.
Their concern reflects a deeply rooted lack of confidence in Palestinian capabilities and intentions, which could have far-reaching political ramifications: Pundits on both sides agree that unless the Palestinians convince Israel over the next few months that they are waging an effective anti-terrorist campaign, the chances of renewing peace talks after Israel’s scheduled withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank this summer are extremely remote.
In late April, Abbas announced a shake-up of the P.A. security set-up. The number of services would be reduced from 11 to three and would be put under new commanders: Suleiman Khellis in charge of the national security forces; Tareq Abu Rajab as head of military intelligence; and Alaa Hosni to lead the police.
The three services would be unified under the command of Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, and more than 1,000 officers over 60 years old would be retired.
The reform signals a clear break with the past: Men appointed by the late President Yasser Arafat are out and new, younger commanders, not tainted by corruption, are in.
While Arafat was notorious for his deft manipulation of the plethora of armed organizations to consolidate his power and wage a terrorist war against Israel that couldn’t be traced back to him, the unified new force is intended to become an organ of state, dedicated to maintaining law and order and preventing terrorism.
Indeed, Abbas is presenting the force as a significant move toward implementation of his dictum of “one authority, one law and one gun” — in other words, a Palestinian entity with only one legal armed force and no rogue militias.
The trouble is that Israeli officials see the reform as merely a declaration of intent, rather than a done deal. Israeli officials point out that Abbas has done nothing so far to disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad — which, they say, makes a mockery of the “one gun” claim.
Indeed, they note that Abbas has not even delivered on the deal he made with Israel on rogue militiamen wanted for their involvement in terrorism.
The Israelis demand that these men be disarmed and promise that once they are, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) will not target or arrest them. Instead, Abbas has allowed the wanted men to keep their weapons and join the Palestinian armed forces
“They don’t even bother to disarm them first. It’s pushing terror into the services and it’s like asking the cat to guard the cream,” Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim said.
Boim said Abbas’ biggest mistake has been his failure to demand that Hamas and Islamic Jihad hand in their weapons, not only because these might be turned on Israel but because one day they might be turned on Abbas himself.
Abbas claims his policy is working and that Hamas will hand in its weapons after participating in parliamentary elections scheduled for July. However, Hamas spokesman Mushir Al-Masri flatly denies this, saying Hamas will keep its weapons until Israel ends its “occupation” of Palestinian land.
The exchange highlights the difference between the Palestinian and Israeli approaches to the terrorist groups: Abbas wants to talk them into surrendering their weapons voluntarily; Israel wants to see a military-style clampdown before it takes Abbas’ “one-gun” slogan seriously.
The Palestinians argue that the relative quiet since Abbas took over in January shows they’re making progress in the fight against terrorism, even if they refuse to confront the radicals head-on.
Terror attacks are down by 80 percent, they say; there is security cooperation with Israel; and P.A. forces have foiled a number of attacks, in some cases even handing captured weapons and suicide belts to the IDF.
Moreover, they say, Abbas has not been given credit for his courage in dismissing the entire cadre of senior officers associated with Arafat — a move that pundits say could weaken Abbas’ Fatah movement before the upcoming elections.
Abbas complains that Israel is not giving him a chance. Last week he summoned Israeli journalists to his Ramallah office to make his case.
“There has not been a single minute without criticism, without complaints, without incitement — just like the first government I headed we can’t get a moment’s rest … and just like during that first government, we are not being given a chance,” he protested.
The reference was to the brief period in 2003 when Abbas served as prime minister under Arafat.
The key question is what all this means for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank this summer. Ostensibly, by reforming his security forces and helping to reduce terrorism significantly, Abbas has done enough to warrant engagement in peace talks within the framework of the “road map.”
But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is hanging tough. In a string of Passover interviews, he repeated several times that Israel would not go forward with the road map — designed to lead eventually to a Palestinian state — unless the Palestinians meet their commitment to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure by disarming Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The United States supports Israel’s approach, Sharon claimed.
“I suggest that the progress be slow. I’m not saying it should be halted, but we must insist that their commitments are thoroughly met and we must not give an inch on their obligation to prevent smuggling, prevent terror, dismantle the terror organizations and stop producing weapons,” he said. “The Americans also don’t propose that we yield on these things.”
With Israel and the Palestinians divided over how much progress Abbas is making on his road-map obligations, it seems certain America will be asked to judge.
After his mid-April visit to President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, Sharon claims he has the United States on his side.
Abbas will go to Washington in May in an attempt to redress the balance — and his well-timed security shake-up, announced just weeks ahead of the visit, will be one of his strongest cards.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report


Little Scandal Becomes Big Deal

The still-simmering flap over forged endorsements for Mayor James Hahn is the classic scandal that didn’t have to be. A little more than a week ago, this incident grew from niche story — something that only Jewish Journal readers might notice — to the week’s hottest local political fracas, with widespread coverage in newspapers and on radio and TV.

And it was the Hahn campaign that made this happen.

This episode began as the tale of an odd mistake. Some of the same names appeared on endorsement lists of Hahn and of one of his challengers, Bob Hertzberg. The Hahn list appeared in published advertisements, including in The Journal. Six people on Hahn’s list complained in a letter that they are not supporting the incumbent mayor. The Hahn campaign noted that its ad was based on signed endorsement letters, but also said that it would remove the six names.

So far so good for the Hahn campaign.

It’s what transpired next that incensed a portion of the Jewish community that could have supported Hahn in the May 17 runoff. At this point, the mayor’s lieutenants had the option of apologizing profusely and carefully double-checking all potentially suspect endorsements, just to be sure.

Instead, some say, Hahn’s campaign staff, notably veteran political adviser Kam Kuwata, adopted an approach that came across as cavalier and insensitive. It started with Kuwata’s presumption that producing the endorsement forms would settle the issue — that citing these forms was all he needed to do.

Journal reporter Idan Ivri showed the letters to the people who purportedly signed them. They said their signatures had been forged. Kuwata downplayed that issue, while insisting that the strange occurrence was limited to those who signed the letter. Yet the problematic endorsements began to grow in number. To date, community leaders have specified 30 false endorsements. As of this writing, The Journal has contacted about one-third of these individuals — all of whom insisted they never endorsed Hahn.

Kuwata cemented this public-relations debacle when he identified the source of the documents as Joe Klein, who died last June at age 69.

So, if you’re keeping track, the Hahn campaign’s first message was: These complaints are no big deal, not worth bothering with. The second tack was to blame a revered member of the Orthodox community, who’s conveniently not around to defend himself.

If Klein had left behind a signed confession attesting to the forgeries, it still would have been bad politics for the Hahn campaign to hide behind his tombstone.

As it happens, many of the bad endorsements were those of people who’d supported Hahn — often at Klein’s behest — in 2001. The 2005 campaign, however, included Hertzberg, a Jewish candidate who appealed to these voters on key issues, not to mention a Hahn who’s been tarnished by ongoing corruption investigations.

The fake endorsement issue didn’t hurt Hahn in the March 8 primary, because the news emerged too late. Hertzberg narrowly missed the runoff. But the flap surely presents a gift to City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who’ll face off with Hahn on May 17.

The damage done is embodied in Dr. Irving Lebovics, a dentist who chairs Agudath Israel of California, an Orthodox group. Lebovics is among those who say his signature was forged on a letter endorsing Hahn. He’s unhappy about that, but he’s especially upset at what he regards as the outrageous vilification of Klein.

“It’s a matter of integrity,” he said. “Integrity is very important to me.”

Lebovics has nothing against Hahn’s performance as mayor; he’ll even allow that Hahn’s been a good mayor, but he’s now leaning toward Villaraigosa. Lebovics attended a hastily called Friday press conference at which he was among four Orthodox Jewish leaders who defended Klein and criticized Hahn. Lebovics declined to state his preference for Villaraigosa while tape was rolling, because he didn’t want the focus to stray from his issue with Hahn’s campaign.

Another speaker was Rabbi Steven Weil of Temple Beth Jacob, who clearly was angry about the alleged forging of his own signature. He, too, evinced no interest in promoting Hahn’s challenger, whose name he pronounced as “Villagarosa” in response to a reporter’s question.

But this event wasn’t entirely without political orchestration. The sound system was provided by the Villaraigosa campaign. And the master of ceremonies was City Councilman Jack Weiss, a Villaraigosa stalwart. Reached earlier by phone, the press deputy for Weiss referred to the press conference as a “Villaraigosa event” that was unrelated to the official business of the council office.

Kuwata of the Hahn campaign fired back at Weiss, calling reporters’ attention to thousands of dollars in fines that Weiss faces for mistakes made in his 2001 City Council campaign. That got reported, too, but didn’t have the legs of the dodgy endorsements, which made it on at least two TV stations’ newscasts, on two radio stations, and into the pages of the Daily Breeze and the Los Angeles Times.

At this juncture, Hahn hopes for a tight race — that would mark an improvement over his lagging second-place primary finish. And if it’s close, last week’s missteps could cost him. Members of Orthodox congregations tend to vote, and they respect their leaders’ endorsements — their real endorsements, that is.

In 2001, Hahn won over substantial numbers of Anglo, moderate and middle-class voters with a campaign that subtly reminded them that Villaraigosa had dark skin. The campaign also painted Villaraigosa as too liberal overall and too dangerous on matters of crime.

In 2005, despite his second-place primary finish, Hahn could yet prevail, but it’ll be more difficult to win with a similar campaign. For one thing, Villaraigosa plans to fire back with City Hall corruption allegations. And now he’s got additional ammunition provided courtesy of the Hahn campaign.

Third-place finisher Hertzberg hasn’t made an endorsement, but his legions already are debating where to go. They include affordable-housing developer Stanley Treitel, Klein’s brother-in-law. Treitel is no Westside lockstep liberal. For one thing, he supports vouchers for private schools, because he’d like government subsidies to help pay for children who attend Orthodox academies.

Could Treitel possibly go for Villaraigosa, the teachers union favorite, the ultimate anti-voucher man?

Yes, he could. And now he does.

U.S. Faces Tough Policy Challenges


With Sunday’s elections, the Bush administration got something it demanded from the Palestinians: the beginnings of a democracy. Whether that produces a real, functional democracy remains to be seen — and as that drama plays out, the administration faces some tough decisions and some big policy snares.

Mahmoud Abbas won the battle to replace the late Yasser Arafat as undisputed Palestinian leader, after a campaign that included both examples of his vaunted “moderation” and statements suggesting that he isn’t so different from his predecessor, after all — such has his insistence that he will never abandon the demand for an unlimited Palestinian right of return, a guaranteed deal breaker.

Peace process supporters in this country say that was just an acknowledgment of the political realities he faces; critics say it’s the same old Palestinian line in a new package.

All of this will create some huge challenges for the Bush administration in the months ahead. Here are a few of the big questions officials here will face:

How Much Democracy?

When, exactly, will the Palestinians have achieved enough democratic reform to justify a serious, new U.S. peace push, not just feel-good talk about Palestinian statehood?

Abbas will probably be a big improvement over Arafat, but he will be setting up his government in a society seething with undemocratic forces and in a region where democracy is regarded as toxic by autocratic leaders.

The transition will be uneven and incremental, providing the perfect excuse for those here and in Israel who want to use the democracy demand as a way to bar any new peace negotiations or any new U.S. pressure on Israel.

Finding a realistic democratic threshold that encourages the Palestinians to move forward and strengthens Abbas, without letting him get away with just the trappings of democracy, will be one of the toughest tasks for the administration in the next few months.

What About Hamas?

In recent municipal elections, the terror group decided to engage in the electoral process and did much better than analysts predicted. It boycotted the presidential election but did nothing to interfere, and has promised to cooperate with Abbas.

What will the U.S. attitude be if Hamas involvement grows, especially after parliamentary elections in June?

Will the Bush administration make the judgment that these groups are moving toward peaceful coexistence with Israel, and that participation in the emerging Palestinian democracy could accelerate the process? Or will it react according to its post-Sept. 11 view of a world sharply divided between terrorists and their uncompromising opponents?

A lot of that will depend on how Hamas leaders respond. Softening their rhetoric, curbing attacks and indicating a willingness to accept Israel’s existence will make it easier for the administration to give a cautious yellow light to their political involvement, or at least not to regard it as the poison pill of Palestinian democracy.

The Corruption Conundrum.

International donors have met in recent weeks to discuss a big infusion of aid to help a Palestinian population mired even more deeply in poverty, and President Bush has given $20 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, with promises of more to come.

But this time, international donors are demanding mechanisms for accountability and transparency to make sure that the money doesn’t end up lining the pockets of P.A. officials or financing new weapons. But financial responsibility — not exactly the norm in the Arab world — won’t come overnight, and the need for an infusion of aid is immediate and overwhelming.

Just how accountable do the Palestinians have to become before they get the aid that’s been dangled before them? Without aid, the plight of ordinary Palestinians will not improve, spawning new terrorism and dimming hopes for new negotiations. But throwing more money at corrupt officials could undermine the Palestinian experiment in democracy.

Dealing With Sharon.

With Abbas’ election, there is a widespread assumption that the administration will become a little firmer in pressing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to fulfill his part of the Mideast “road map” peace plan, including freezing settlements and rooting out illegal outposts. But Sharon is also in the middle of a ticklish Gaza disengagement plan, which the administration has incorporated into its road map.

Just how hard can Washington push without creating a domestic backlash in Israel that will make it harder for the premier to get out of Gaza quickly?

Too often in the past, Sharon has used the specter of domestic opposition to turn aside prodding from Washington, but with settlers in open revolt and the threat of virtual civil war looming, there’s little question he faces an unprecedented domestic challenge.

Pressure is a matter of fine tuning that will test the talents of incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Too much pressure could topple Sharon’s shaky coalition and derail the Gaza plan; too little could damage U.S. credibility in the region.

What About Europe and the Arab Nations?

How can the Bush administration encourage these countries — too often the willing enablers of corrupt, reckless Palestinian leaders — to play a more constructive role?

Without U.S prodding, these nations could lapse back into their unhelpful role, but too much prodding will only play into the reflexive anti-Americanism that leads many to oppose almost anything America proposes, with especially disruptive results in the Middle East.

That will require nuanced diplomacy, not the brute-force approach to international relations that characterized the first Bush administration.


Vote Scandal Could Cost Likud Election

Until now, the Israeli election campaign has seemed like a formality: The only question seemed to be how large a majority Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon would win when the ballots were counted.

Not any more. Pundits say a police investigation into allegations of corruption in the selection of its Knesset candidates could cost Likud enough seats to lose the election.

While the Labor Party is facing its own investigation, analysts say the scope of the Likud scandal could be enough to swing the Jan. 28 election to Labor.

According to the Likud’s own internal polls, the scandal — which broke last week with allegations that aspiring Knesset members had been asked to pay for political support — already has cost Likud two or three seats. Party insiders say the trend seems to be continuing.

Before the scandal, polls showed the Likud’s right-religious bloc leading Labor’s left-center bloc by about 65 seats to 55, with parties likely to join their coalitions included. That means that a swing of just five or six seats from right to left could make Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna prime minister, not Sharon.

As Mitzna himself says, his dream is no longer "pie in the sky."

The trouble for the Likud started when several defeated candidates went public with stories of approaches from "vote contractors" offering to deliver votes in return for cash. There also were tales that members of the Central Committee, the 2,940-member body that chose the candidates, were wined and dined by would-be legislators.

Two members of the Central Committee were detained Monday and placed under house arrest Tuesday. The arrests were carried out by the Israeli police force’s fraud division.

Some of the money for this heavy-duty canvassing was believed to come from underworld figures, some of whom recently joined Likud. Enigmatic reports surfaced in the press about "criminal families" having funded campaigns of Cabinet ministers and Knesset members, and of "current or past criminals" who had hosted senior ministers at their homes for lunch or dinner.

If the reports are true, would some of the Likud’s representatives in the Knesset or in the Cabinet be beholden to their benefactors, political observers here asked.

What made the alleged extortion and funding attempts possible was the Likud’s decision to switch from nationwide primaries back to a system in which the Central Committee chooses the party’s Knesset list. Nationwide primaries would have put the decision in the hands of the Likud’s 300,000-strong membership, making it virtually impossible to buy votes and difficult to put together decisive voting blocs.

In contrast, it’s relatively easy to reach the much smaller pool of Central Committee members to make deals and deliver votes. Indeed, one of the Likud’s means to deflect the criticism has been to blame the system.

Sharon, in fact, lost no time in asking Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit to suggest an alternative system. Likud spin doctors dutifully emphasized Sharon’s courage in taking on the Central Committee and moving to divest it of its most important power.

Labor, which did hold nationwide primaries for its Knesset list and stood to gain most from the Likud’s embarrassment, has not emerged entirely unscathed. Following a complaint from the Association for Good Government, Israel’s attorney general ordered a police investigation into allegations of irregularities in two Labor Druse precincts.

Labor members argue, however, that alleged voting irregularities in just two of more than 600 precincts nationwide isn’t akin to the large-scale buying and selling of votes by criminals.

The fact that both Likud and Labor are under investigation could help smaller parties in the Labor’s left-center bloc, such as Shinui and Meretz, which have made cleaner politics part of their campaign platforms. Both Shinui and Meretz have been trying to pull voters from the two larger parties, and are getting set to play political hardball. They will be helped by the fact that Likud and Labor will fight viciously against each other.

The Likud had not planned on a negative campaign against Labor or its leader. Campaign strategists argued that to attack Mitzna, who is not so well-known, would give him free exposure. Now they have changed their minds.

Likud will attack Labor over the associations that helped finance Ehud Barak’s victorious prime ministerial campaign in 1999, and which were subsequently the subject of a wide-ranging police investigation. It also will attack Mitzna for an American bank account set up in his father’s name — apparently quite legally — to collect donations, and anything else they can dig up.

Labor is sure to keep the Likud bribery and corruption allegations on the public agenda for as long as possible. The campaign still will focus primarily on Israel’s security and economic problems, but it will be accompanied by a degree of mudslinging no one anticipated this year.

Following Arafat’s Money Trail

The Palestinian people are being betrayed and misled by the one "trusted leader" who is responsible for protecting their interests. Yasser Arafat chairman of the Palestinian Authority, has diverted funds allocated specifically for humanitarian aid purposes directly into his own pocket.

Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi (Farkash), head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Military Intelligence Corps, reported to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Arafat is worth an estimated $1.3 billion. Is Arafat’s priority peace and the alleviation of the plight of the Palestinian people, or is it to profit personally?

Ze’evi also reported that Arafat’s current financial adviser, Muhammed Rashid, is continuing to channel funds to Arafat, despite the progress made by newly appointed Finance Minister Salem Fayed in taking control of the ministry’s finances to eliminate corruption.

The accusation of corruption by diverting funds comes also from one of his own, Jaweed al Ghussein, former treasurer of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), who told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that the leadership is corrupt and the Palestinians deserve a democracy. Al Ghussein was quoted as saying, "I found out how he took aid money earmarked for the Palestinian people to his own account."

The former treasurer alleged Arafat moved up to $8 million to his personal account every month and was aware of widespread corruption. Al Ghussein’s allegations come amid strong international pressure on Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to reform a leadership that has been accused of rampant corruption since it was established in 1994.

Al Ghussein has been paying a high price for his honesty. His son, Tawfiq, and his daughter, Mona Bauwens, told Ha’aretz their father was kidnapped several times by the Palestinian Authority.

Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority has put al Ghussein under "house arrest" in order to silence him from telling the truth. Adding insult to injury, the Palestinian Authority has also confiscated his Palestinian passport in order to prevent him from seeking badly needed medical treatment abroad.

Despite the overwhelming documentary evidence and facts, Palestinian Authority officials dismiss the claim of corruption amongst their leadership ranks.

The unveiling of Arafat’s corruption supports President Bush’s public denouncement that Arafat is incapable to lead the Palestinian people to peace and ultimately a future. The U.S. government recognizes the corruption of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority as well as the partnership with terrorism. Undoubtedly, Arafat has not acted as a responsible leader in the best interests of the Palestinian people.

A solution to stop Arafat’s corruption and penalize him for sponsoring terrorism is the legislative bill HR 4693, known as the "Arafat Accountability Act" sponsored by Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks). According to HR 4693, Arafat has been directly implicated in funding and supporting terrorists who have claimed responsibility for homicide bombings in Israel. HR 4693 will penalize Arafat for sponsoring terrorism against both American and Israeli citizens in the land of Israel. Furthermore, it will hold Arafat, the Palestinian Authority and the PLO accountable, freeze their assets and provide for sanctions.

Congress finds the PLO, under the leadership of Arafat, has failed to abide by its promises, enumerated in the Oslo accords, to commit itself to a "peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides." The PLO continues to use terrorism and other acts of violence in an effort to extract political concessions. Congress also finds that "Yasser Arafat has failed, through words and deeds, to offer credible security guarantees to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, and has once again violated his commitment to peace through the purchase of 50 tons of offensive weaponry from Iran." In other words, the money to alleviate Palestinians’ suffering is being used to promote terrorism.

For example, Arafat promoted the instigation of acts of terrorism by smuggling illegal weapons of mass destruction aboard the Karine A. This ship was owned, operated and purchased by the Palestinian Authority for the express purpose of "smuggling illegal weapons" to Gaza to support the intifada violence against Israel. The cargo contained explosives, Katyusha rockets, missiles, mortars and rifles.

Arafat and the forces directly under his control are responsible for the murder of hundreds of Israelis and the maiming of thousands more since October 2000; not to mention the sacrifice of his own people.

As a direct result of his corruption and terrorism, each and every shahid (martyr) becomes a victim of Arafat’s personal greed.

Evidence shows that Arafat has been directly implicated in funding and sponsoring and supporting terrorists who have claimed responsibility for the homicide bombings such as the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an off-shoot of Arafat’s Al Fatah faction.

Affiliated terrorist militias also include Force 17, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Tanzim. All have claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks.

Again, let’s follow the money trail.

During the IDF Operation Defensive Shield, many computers and documents were confiscated from Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah, as well as other Palestinian Authority offices, directly linking Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to the acts of terrorism. Arafat had not only enriched himself, but he also failed as an honest peace broker, and as an honest leader for the progress of Palestinians.

Unquestionably, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority must take immediate action to not only to condemn — but stop — all acts of terrorism, especially the homicide bombings that have plagued Israel during the current intifada. Arafat must immediately confiscate and destroy the infrastructure of terrorism, including weapons, bomb factories and other offensive weapons. Furthermore, Arafat must urge all Arab nations and individuals to immediately cease funding for terrorist operations and payments to the families of terrorists. The huge question that looms large is whether Arafat will go against his own financial interest by stopping terrorism and will the international community allow him to keep diverting the funds?

While the Palestinian people languish in squalor with inadequate education, food, health care and shelter, Arafat enriches his bank accounts, "deep pockets" and personal wealth.

Tragically, the Palestinian people are bankrupt at the hands of their very own leader. Arafat’s expropriated wealth of $1.3 billion from the diverted funds exceeds the personal fortune of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com ($1.23 billion) according to Fortune Magazine. Statistics of nongovernmental organizations providing humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian Authority point out that $1.3 billion could do a lot to alleviate the plight of his Palestinian people. For example, it could feed 3 million Palestinians for an entire year and still leave $892 million to be spent on 1,000 mobile intensive care units ($69,900 each), as well as funding 10 hospitals, such as Gaza’s Ahli Arab Hospital, for 10 years, leaving $585 million to fund other special projects such as the computerization of 10 hospitals at a cost of $4.57 million, the annual salaries of 10,000 medical employees ($4,200 each) and hospital vaccinations for 3 million Palestinians ($11.25 per injection). Moreover, 40,625 six-family dwellings could be built for Palestinians ($32,000 per unit).

Is it more important for Arafat to spend the money allocated for humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people on homicide bombing missions and the smuggling of 50 tons of "illegally smuggled" arms of mass destruction or provide proper education, food, health care and shelter?

One thing is clear. Peace is not profitable for Arafat. While the Palestinian people suffer economic hardships, their "trusted leader" profits personally. Arafat must be held accountable. Ethically. Financially. Morally. Politically.

Will the international community continue to support Arafat’s corruption and the murder of innocent Palestinians as well as Israelis? Make no mistake, the ethical and financial responsibility belongs not only to Arafat but also to the entire international community to follow the final destination of the funds: Arafat’s pocket or the Palestinian people.

Power to the People

During the early years of the 20th century, a jour-nalist, Lincoln Steffens, published a series of exposés that were eventually turned into the book “The Shame of the Cities.” It was a sensational work of non-fiction, but it was also quite depressing. Steffens uncovered corruption from the top on down in one city after another across America. It was a portrait of how American democracy was not working, and it did not inspire much confidence in our urban future.

The mayor, the judges, the police, the city’s new business leaders, and the ward bosses who controlled a city’s political machine at the turn of the century all formed something akin to an interlocking directorate. Their purpose: To ensure that the city government ran smoothly, that those in power retained power, and that enough money was distributed to keep everyone happy — and more than a few people quite wealthy.

When reformers asserted themselves and were able to sweep the city clean of the party bosses and the ruling elite, the story rarely had a happy ending. Within four or eight years, the corruption had taken hold once again. A new system, sometimes with the same faces, sometimes with new ones, was back in charge running the city in the old way, but with some new refinements. Business as usual, only with a modern, updated twist. Who said there was no progress? The question arose: Were human beings — at least those who were wealthy and successful — just plain rotten, or was the system itself so open to manipulation and rule by a clever, protected group of men that it was all but impregnable?

This is no history lesson, though it should be added that 100 years ago Jews in those “shameful” cities could be numbered among the have-nots. Today in Los Angeles (and elsewhere), we are counted as part of the ruling elite. We are a dominant minority on the City Council, in the legal profession and within the judiciary. We are also well represented in financial and corporate L.A.

The mayor himself is not Jewish, but he owes his election in some measure to financial and electoral support from our community. It is only within the police force itself that we might be seen as underrepresented. Perhaps that accounts for the relative silence within the Jewish community over the Rampart Division police scandal. It is not that Jews themselves are especially involved, so much as that we identify with the “haves” who helped lay out the goals nine years ago for the present system, which apparently has gone so far awry. Now the challenge for us is to reform our city, albeit in ways that sidestep the dangers that took hold during Steffens’ day. And, yes, there are actions we can take that should produce change.

When Mayor Riordan swept into office in 1993, he and the City Council and the then police chief identified gang rule as inimical to the welfare of Los Angeles. They made a concerted effort to sweep gangs from our city streets. Who could object to that? Not us, even though most of our neighborhoods were gang-free. Not the Latino community, which found itself forced to choose between gang or police rule.

And so we watched as the system took hold, with some (definitely not all) police, prosecutors and judges enforcing what they saw as a mandate. Get rid of the gangs, through legal or extralegal methods. It was the end that was important, not the means. It was like watching an old Western, with the town hiring a gunslinger to rid it of an oppressive group of outlaws; or vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. We had only to turn to our own history and romantic myths to understand what we were about.

In the process, L.A.’s gang members, their friends and associates all became the enemy; in some cases, for good reason. They were dehumanized, targeted, perceived as an insurgent force that had to be eliminated by whatever tactics were available. And, not surprisingly, some police took on the coloration of a corrupt gang themselves — only they were in control and wearing badges.

Along the way (and also over the years) the police established a culture of silence, protecting one another against an enemy world outside. That world consists not only of gangs, but of bureaucrats, journalists, and us, the citizens they are protecting. What an irony: They are representatives of our government, operate on our behalf and in our name, and we are part of their problem.

Not too many of us know gang members or even have friends who live in those neighborhoods. After all, we no longer identify with the have-nots, and the geography of our city enforces a rigid separation of classes and ethnic groups. When an acquaintance is affected, we often rationalize the experience away as an aberration. I know of a photographer in L.A. who covered the gangs in the city for a number of journals. He did not portray them as villains, nor did he demonize them.

When the police broke into a party where the gang was celebrating, he was present. And recognized. According to his description, the police began to taunt him as they destroyed his equipment and beat him savagely. He has not recovered from the experience. Well, someone I know said, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. True. But of course next time it could be someone else; and the time after that maybe a party that was closer to home. No one is immune to the fist of unchecked power.

Irecite this tale not in the voice of the public interest. There is no such thing as the public interest, only our own special (competing) interests and views. My interest is in seeing that the police, the prosecutor’s office, the judiciary and the mayor are all accountable to us. And that we have authority to replace them with dispatch when they overstep their authority. That’s my (selfish) interest. Maybe some atavistic memory is at work here, and I am simply recalling the Cossacks riding into my great-grandfather’s village outside Kiev.

Does this mean I want the gangs to ride roughshod over Pico-Union and other neighborhoods? Definitely not. Does this mean I believe gang members are the product of poverty, dysfunctional families and poor education? Young men without hope who therefore need to be excused for their criminal excesses? No, again. It seems to me possible to prosecute lawbreakers and to lean on gang members without shooting them, abusing them and faking criminal charges. That road leads to our own corruption, our own criminality, even though we may run this city.

Can we do anything? Most certainly. We need to figure out what we want and use our political smarts (and our power) to achieve our goals. I personally would like to see an independent commission step in and look at the entire criminal justice system; I want a commission beholden to no one, and not linked directly or informally to an old-boy network that runs the city. You may disagree.

I also want to single out all the responsible players and apply pressure. The mayor, not up for re-election, values his good name. We all know people in our community who are friends of Mayor Riordan. We can urge them to impress on him that his reputation is at stake.

Six members of the City Council out of 14 voted for an independent commission to examine the actions of the police and the criminal court system. We need two more votes. Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, recommended to a forum convened by the Progressive Jewish Alliance last week that we apply pressure on Council members Ruth Galanter and Mike Hernandez, neither one of whom voted for an independent commission. I’m for that; and for threatening politely to help turn them out of office if they don’t support my cause.

We — on this newspaper and at the L.A. Times and the L.A. Weekly — have been delinquent as well. We have failed to identify the judges and prosecuting attorneys who have played a leading role in this scandal. We need to “out” them before the next election; failing that, we can at least lay out the facts so that their role is public knowledge; in short, so that their neighbors and associates under-stand who they are and what they have done or failed to do.

I have more suggestions, but no more space. I never was a fan of the Black Panthers, but I loved their slogan: “Power to the people.” Even when the people are part of the establishment, just like us. — Gene Lichtenstein