Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Bernie Sanders sponsors event supporting Palestinian village of Susiya


Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is sponsoring a September 19th briefing on Capitol Hill to highlight the cause of the Palestinian village, Susiya, which is designated for demolition by the Israeli Army, a Senate staffer confirmed to Jewish Insider.

[This article originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

While the briefing marks International Peace Day which is September 21, due to the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, it has been moved to the 19th to allow those celebrating to attend, according to a copy of the invitation. The organizer Rebuilding Alliance declined to publicize Sanders’ sponsorship in its invitation.

The California-based Rebuilding Alliance is slated to fly-in children from the West Bank villages of Susiya and Al-Aqaba along with Gaza. “It is our hope that upon hearing their presentation, members of Congress will personally make calls to the Israeli Embassy to express concern, stop the demolitions, recognize Palestinian planning rights, turn on the lights, and assure due process,” the event explains.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Susiya is an illegally constructed outpost near Hebron and “are continuing to build in defiance of a court order.” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has written multiple letters to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling on Jerusalem not to demolish the contested village.

Earlier this year, Sanders was one of four Senators to send a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson highlighting the case of Palestinian activist Issa Amro, who is charged by the Israeli military for obstructing soldiers. The Vermont lawmaker also delivered a harsh critique of Israel’s conduct in the 1948 war at the J Street conference last February. “Like our own country, the founding of Israel involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people already living there, the Palestinian people. Over 700,000 people were made refugees,” he said.

The September 19 briefing will be the second pro-Palestinian event on Capitol Hill this year. In June, Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI) sponsored an event titled: “50 Years of Israeli Military Occupation & Life for Palestinian Children.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). Photo by Jacob Kornbluh

After amendment, Booker now supports Taylor Force Act


With a significant change in the latest version of the Taylor Force Act, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) will now support the effort after an amendment was agreed to on Thursday by the Appropriations Committee, a Booker aide told Jewish Insider. The New Jersey lawmaker was one of four Democratic Senators to vote against the Taylor Force Act in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

According to section five of last month’s bill, all U.S. funding to programs in the West Bank and Gaza would end unless the Secretary of State could certify every 180 days that the Palestinian Authority is taking credible steps to stop violence against Israelis, in addition to ending all payments to terrorists and their families.

However, in an updated version advanced out of the Appropriations Committee on Thursday, and sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the text clarifies that the U.S. funding to the West Bank and Gaza would only be severed for assistance that “directly benefits the P.A.” Therefore, U.S. funding towards humanitarian projects assisting Palestinians would now be permitted, a key demand by Booker who was concerned about the impact of cutting off U.S. aid to Palestinians not involved with committing acts of terrorism.

Programs that will now be exempted include “Kids4peace” which connects Israeli and Palestinian children from West and East Jerusalem to celebrate religious diversity. Additionally, the “Olive Oil without Borders” project that builds economic cooperation between Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians and encourages women-led businesses.

Earlier this week, the hawkish Committee for Israel launched an attack ad against Booker accusing him of “throwing Israel under the bus” for his vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Booker is considered a possible 2020 Presidential candidate.

Originally introduced in February, the legislation would cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority until they cease payments to families of terrorists. Graham included the provision into the Fiscal Year 2018 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill on Thursday. The bill is named after a former U.S. Army officer who was stabbed to death while participating in a study abroad program in Tel Aviv last year.

In a statement released last month, Booker explained his committee vote, “As recently as the day before the vote there was confusion among State Department officials over provisions in the bill and exactly what impact they would have on Israel’s security and the stability of the region.”

However, even the revised version of the bill faces other considerations. As Jewish Insider first reported, the U.S. will likely be unable to participate in the water agreement trumpeted by the Trump administration due to cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.

Given the scarcity of floor time in the Senate, it appears that the Taylor Force Act will go to the floor through the annual appropriations bill rather than in a standalone bill.

Jason Greenblatt in Israel. Photo from Facebook

Greenblatt’s Gaza proposal leaves more questions than answers


Towards the end of Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt’s trip to the Middle East this week, he visited the Israeli-Gaza border with IDF Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. “It is clear that the Palestinian Authority must resume its role in managing the Gaza Strip,” Greenblatt declared and explained, “since Hamas has severely harmed the residents and failed to meet their most basic needs.”

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

Yet, Middle East experts questioned how realistic Greenblatt’s proposal is and urged more clarity from the Trump administration in how they would implement the return of PA rule in Gaza. “I think it is good that the Trump Administration expressed support for PA governing Gaza,” explained David Makovsky, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The question remains how to make this happen. Abbas missed a moment to establish the PA back in Gaza after the 2014 war. The PA has yet to put forward a plan that would make Gazans believe they care about them. For Abbas to win back Gazans, he cannot speak in generalizations but he needs a plan. The US cannot want the PA back more than the PA itself.”

Following the 2014 Hamas-Israeli conflict, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected a United Nations Security Council resolution supported by the United States, France, and Jordan to return PA forces to Gaza, Walla News reported.

“Absent any strategy or structure, it’s a pipe dream today,” said Grant Rumley, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). “There are no incentives for Hamas to relinquish control of Gaza when it can have (Abdel Fatah) Sisi or (Mohammad) Dahlan and the U.A.E. bail it out, and there are no incentives for Abbas to risk troops and political capital without guarantees that a repeat of the 2007 civil war won’t happen. Re-inserting the PA into Gaza will require a framework, regional buy-in, and a leadership in Ramallah that is willing to take risks — I see none of those on the horizon today.”

A White House spokesman declined Jewish Insider’s request for comment on the White House’s proposal.

Conditions in Gaza remain dire. Power in Gaza has declined to approximately four hours a day after the P.A. reduced fuel payments to the impoverished enclave. Unemployment in the impoverished enclave has spiked to 42% and among youth it’s at 58%. Hamas and Israel have fought three bloody wars resulting in thousands of casualties between 2008-2014.

Khaled Elgindy, a Brookings fellow focusing on Palestinian politics, cautioned, “Various Palestinian officials have said in one form or the other that they will not go back to Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks. The fact that this statement is coming from the Trump administration may not be helping things. People in Hamas may be looking at it: ‘Wait a minute, Is this an attempt to try and impose something on Hamas?’”

The timing of Greenblatt’s statement supporting the return of Fatah rule in Gaza is noteworthy in light of a senior Israeli government official’s comments to Yediot Achronoton Tuesday clarifying that Jerusalem is “interested in the stability of Hamas rule in Gaza.” Elgindy asked, “Does that mean the US and Israel are not on the same page when it comes to Gaza?”

While backing the Trump administration’s focus on the challenge of Gaza, Rumley concluded, “Unfortunately, absent any parameters or way forward, the Trump administration is likely to reach the same dead-end as the Bush and Obama administrations.”

Jared Kushner, left, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Aug. 24. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/Israeli Government Press Office

Jared Kushner was in the Middle East. Did Trump’s A team bring a peace plan?


Seven months into the Trump presidency, Israel and the Palestinians, along with other countries in the Middle East and experts on policy in the region, are still waiting for the U.S. administration to describe its preferred framework for peace there.

Kushner, who Trump has charged with brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, arrived Wednesday in Israel for his third visit to the region. He and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s top international negotiator, and Dina Powell, a deputy national security adviser, held meetings the following day with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before wrapping up a Middle East tour that the U.S. described as “productive,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

“Something has to come out of this trip that demonstrates that the peace process is not dead and buried,” Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents who is now president at the Wilson Center, told JTA. “The whole world is watching. Some sort of event or framework is necessary.”

Husam Zomlot, the Palestine Liberation Organization envoy in Washington, D.C., was more blunt at a meeting earlier this month with reporters.

“We need them to tell us where the hell they are going,” he said.

For its part, the Trump administration does not appear to be poised on the brink of a breakthrough. The Palestinians had hoped for a commitment to two states — Trump in February had retreated from 15 years of explicit U.S. commitment to the outcome. But on Wednesday, as Kushner’s party was landing in Israel, Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, made it clear that nothing on the two-state front had changed.

“We are not going to state what the outcome has to be,” she said. “It has to be workable to both sides. And I think, really, that’s the best view as to not really bias one side over the other, to make sure that they can work through it.”

The inclination toward caution — leaving the pace of advancement to the parties — is a reaction to the burns suffered by the United States when previous administrations took a more proactive role in brokering peace.

It’s an experience Kushner is keen not to revisit — something he made clear earlier this month in a leaked chat with congressional interns. Kushner rarely speaks in public, and the exchange last month was a rare insight into how he has been approaching the renewal of the peace talks. It underscored how embryonic the administration’s approach was to peacemaking.

“So what do we offer that’s unique? I don’t know,” Kushner said in a recording obtained by Wired magazine. “And we’re trying to work with the parties very quietly to see if there’s a solution. And there may be no solution, but it’s one of the problem sets that the president asked us to focus on.”

Kushner’s remarks — hesitant, if not feckless — were  in contrast with the intensity of the Trump administration’s activity at the start of his presidency, said Daniel Shapiro, the Obama administration’s ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. In addition to Greenblatt’s near constant presence in the region and the two visits by Kushner, Trump visited Israel and the Palestinian areas in his first overseas trip as president, and has hosted Netanyahu and Abbas at the White House.

“Trump obtained a significant degree of leverage through his first meetings” with Netanyahu and Abbas, Shapiro said. “That kind of leverage is wasting an asset if it’s not used.”

A perception that has arisen: One of the obstacles to a coherent White House Middle East policy was infighting between relative traditionalists like Kushner and Powell — a Middle East hand who served in senior positions in the George W. Bush administration — and hard-liners like Stephen Bannon, the former White House strategist. Vanity Fair reported this week that Bannon lobbied hard to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and “pushed a tougher line against the Palestinians than Kushner did.”

Pro-Israel groups that favor a hard line in dealing with the Palestinians lamented the appointment of David Satterfield, a veteran U.S. diplomat with experience in the Middle East, as acting assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. The Zionist Organization of America worries that Satterfield will bring “unwarranted pressure on Israel.”

ZOA has also labeled Powell, who directed charitable activities at Goldman Sachs after serving as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs in the George W. Bush administration, as “hostile to Israel.”

If Bannon’s exit from the White House means the administration will adopt a more traditional “honest broker” approach to the Middle East, some suggest that Kushner is likelier to push for talks — and compromise — on both sides.

The ex-negotiator Miller said that didn’t seem likely. Bannon’s preoccupations were elsewhere, he said, and in any case, it’s not as if Kushner and Greenblatt — Orthodox Jews with longstanding ties to Israel, including to its settlement movement — were slouches when it came to defending the country’s interests.

“You didn’t need Steve Bannon to create a huge sort of tsunami tilt in favor of Israeli sensibilities,” Miller said, as opposed to the coolness of U.S.-Israel relations under the Obama administration.

Another factor inhibiting a breakthrough is the domestic tribulations of each leader. Both Netanyahu and Trump are facing the possibility of criminal inquiries into their administrations, and Abbas faces the old internal challenge from Hamas, the terrorist group running the Gaza Strip, and newer ones from younger leaders in his own Fatah movement.

Still, the itinerary of the Kushner trip suggests the nascent stages of a grander strategy, according to Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The U.S. delegation, which included stops in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

“There is still interest across the region to explore a regional architecture for peace,” Schanzer said, referring to plans that Trump and Netanyahu have touted in the past that would create the conditions for a broader and simultaneous peace deal among Israel, the Palestinians and other Arab states.

“This idea is that the Israelis and the Arabs could find ways to ensure a better quality of life and some progress toward autonomy for the Palestinians while simultaneously exploring shared regional priorities with the Arabs,” he said, including shared strategies to confront Islamist terrorist groups and contain Iran’s influence. “If done in parallel, it could be productive.”

The time to strike on such a regional approach was now, Schanzer warned, noting that both Russia and China were making inroads into the region.

“You’ve got the Russians effectively commanding the Israelis to pay visits,” he said, referring to Netanyahu’s visit this week to Moscow, which seemed to preoccupy the Israeli leader more than the Kushner visit.

Russia maintains a presence in Syria, and Israel is pressing Russian President Vladimir Putin to make sure that any outcome in that country’s civil war is not to the benefit of Russia’s de facto allies in the conflict, Iran and Hezbollah.

According to Schanzer, “The Trump administration needs to guard this portfolio jealously if they want to maintain control” in the Middle East.

A Palestinian protester hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes near the border between Israel and Central Gaza Strip July 28, 2017. Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/REUTERS.

Can the Trump administration prevent another Gaza war?


Within a span of six years, Israel and Hamas have fought three bloody resulting in thousands of casualties. Gaza remains one of the most sensitive and explosive areas dividing Israelis and Palestinians. A senior Israeli military official noted in April that the severe electricity crisis facing Gaza may lead to an imminent clash. With the Trump administration announcing last week that it will send top advisors to the region once again to secure the “ultimate deal,” the question remains what is the most effective U.S. policy to prevent a fourth Hamas-Israel war and alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza?

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“If the administration’s concern was the plight of Gazans then there would and should have been some pushback when (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas decided to cut off funding for the electricity,” explained Grant Rumley, a researcher at the Foundations for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). Power in Gaza has declined to approximately four hours a day after the P.A. reduced fuel payments to the impoverished enclave. Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has decided that it no longer wishes to subsidize Hamas’ rule in Gaza. “The IDF comptroller report pointed to the humanitarian disaster in Gaza as a key factor in why the 2014 war happened and by any measure the humanitarian crisis is worse today,” Rumley added.

Alan Dershowitz, former Harvard University Professor of Law, called for a hawkish U.S. approach towards Gaza. “The policy should be to see the destruction of Hamas and see the people of Gaza wanting to associate themselves with the peace camp and the Palestinian Authority,” he said. While some analysts call for U.S. pressure on Israel to ease the economic burden of Gaza, Dershowitz rejects those arguments. “I don’t think the U.S. should be helping Gaza economically since every time they have been given resources, they have diverted it to terror tunnels and rockets,” he emphasized.

In addition to the electricity crisis, the economic conditions in Gaza continue to deteriorate. For young adults in Gaza, unemployment has spiked to almost 60 percent and around 70 percent of residents rely on international humanitarian organizations to survive. Despite relative calm, Palestinians have fired at least seven rockets into Israel from Gaza this year.

A White House official told Jewish Insider on Sunday, “The United States continues to look for ways that we can lawfully expand our assistance to the people of Gaza and alleviate their suffering.  When we have more concrete details to provide, we will do so.”

Rumley, who recently co-authored a biography of Abbas, remains skeptical of the White House’s efforts. “Do they (the Trump administration) have a vision of what role Gaza plays in whatever this peace process is or what to do with Hamas writ large, I don’t think they do,” he explained. Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director of the Arab Center Washington, DC, noted, “Let’s assume that this administration succeeds in initiating a negotiated process: They need that segment of Palestinian society (Gaza), approaching two million people, to participate in the process. To keep them out would be asking for subverting the process itself.”

Brent Sasley, Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas and an expert on Israeli politics, emphasized that given Gaza’s complexities, the Trump administration should “bring career civil servants and diplomats more deeply into the policy process” who have “experience dealing with all sides.” With the economic despair deepening, Sasley recommended that Washington “Put more pressure on Netanyahu to open up fishing and farming space in Gaza,” while working with U.S. allies to increase aid into the impoverished enclave.

White House senior advisor Jared Kushner listens as President Donald Trump speaks to reporters. August 11, 2017. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS.

The peace process merry-go-round


U.S. President Trump to send top envoys to region in bid to re-launch Israel-Palestinian negotiations

“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me for twenty-five years, I’ll try the same thing over again…”

This play on words of an age-old adage may aptly describe the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, defined by a quarter century of perpetual failure to implement the “two-state solution,” which envisions the creation of an independent Palestinian country in exchange for an end-of-all-claims agreement with Israel.

Most observers concede that the sides today remain as far apart as ever on the so-called “core issues,” including the delineation of borders, dividing Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, etc.; in addition to which, they contend that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is too weak to deliver an accord to a population that has not been conditioned to accept the permanency of a Jewish state. Where Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is concerned, the consensus is that he either opposes the formation of any Palestinian entity outright or could likewise never push an agreement through his right-wing coalition.

There is also the Gaza conundrum and what to do about Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement which rules the Strip and which despises Abbas only slightly less than it longs for Israel’s destruction. Catch-word elements such as “settlements,” “territorial contiguity,” “bi-national,” among many others, serve to entrench the notion that there is no rational justification for the belief that any peace, let alone an enduring one, may be in the offing.

In the result, why, then, is U.S. President Donald Trump dispatching three top envoys to the region later this month, with the aim of jump-starting renewed peace talks? Without the White House having signaled any fresh approach or original ideas, and without any indication that the conditions on the ground are ripe for a breakthrough (rather, the recent crisis over the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque suggests quite the opposite), what purpose can possibly be served by the upcoming visit of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt—Trump’s point men on the conflict—as well as Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell?

One theory is that Trump is trying to “internationalize” a potential solution, evidenced by the fact that his diplomats are slated to meet with, in addition to the Israelis and Palestinians, leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. But this approach is not new; rather, the Arab Peace Initiative has been on the table since 2002 and was just re-endorsed earlier this year at the Arab League summit. And while there has indeed been a quiet rapprochement between Sunni regional countries and Israel, it is based foremost on the converging interest of countering Shiite Iran’s expansionist ambitions.

A peace deal with the Palestinians would no doubt enhance these bourgeoning relations, but it seems unrealistic to expect Netanyahu to make the far-reaching concessions stipulated by the Arab proposal, even as an initial framework for future talks. From his point of view, Riyadh, for example, currently needs Israel more than it needs the Palestinians. Conversely, to expect the Saudis to modify their longstanding positions in order to bring relations with a Netanyahu government “above the table,” so to speak, likewise defies strategic sense.

Meanwhile, a White House official last week reiterated that, “peace between Israelis and Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the two parties;” thereby throwing cold water on the so-called “outside-in” tactic of devising the parameters to be dictated to the parties.

These issues are compounded by the problems Trump has directly encountered during his peacemaking efforts, which reportedly included a March blow-up with Abbas in Bethlehem over the Palestinians’ refusal to stop paying stipends to prisoners convicted of security offenses in Israel. Both Kushner and Greenblatt have purportedly similarly sparred with Palestinian officials, with allegations of bias having recently been levelled against the former after he was caught on an open mic ostensibly siding with Israel’s decision to install security measures at the Temple Mount following last month’s deadly attack there.

Coupled with the fact that Trump’s Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has essentially been declared persona non grata in Ramallah due to his past support for the settlement enterprise, along with increasing criticism directed by Palestinian leaders at Trump’s actions thus far, major doubts arise regarding the practicality of renewing any process, never mind forging a broad accord. Accordingly, many have started promoting a method that relies on intermediary deals to sufficiently narrow the gaps between the two sides to enable an eventual final agreement.

Gilead Sher, a Senior Fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, believes that a “more moderate setting of the bar is required that encourages a process towards a two-state reality, which, in turn, would lead to a two-state solution.” To this end, the former chief of staff to Ehud Barak and lead Israeli peace negotiator laid out for The Media Line a multi-dimensional approach in which bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are revisited “in order to replace the formula of ‘nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to’ with ‘whatever is agreed to should be implemented.'”

This, Sher contended, “would entail a mutual understanding of the necessity for a gradual and transitional process rather than a one-off, stand-alone comprehensive deal.” Moreover, he elaborated, “independent, constructive steps could also be taken by either party in order to reverse the trend towards the materialization of one state, which would be a disaster for Israel and the Palestinians.”

To this end, Sher does not rule out the possibility of “Israel unilaterally delineating a border—even a provisional one—as such will ultimately ensure the country remains both Jewish and democratic.”

While acknowledging that the Palestinians might not approve of such measures, Sher stressed that “their all-or-nothing approach, combined with an international campaign [to delegitimize] Israel has not yielded any results.” As such, in his view, “the international community should encourage this type of gradual process,” which can prevent “extremists on both sides from forging a reality that is unsustainable.”

In fact, this was the initial approach taken in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords, which did not call for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state. Rather, the deal was officially named the Declaration of Principles on Interim (emphasis added) Self-Government Arrangements, clearly indicating that an all-encompassing pact was to be achieved over time.

Oslo II, as it is known, was signed two years later, dividing the West Bank into areas A and B, over which the Palestinians were granted a measure of autonomy, as well as area C, which remains under total Israeli control and which is home to the vast majority of Jewish communities across the 1967 borders. Thereafter, the Hebron and Wye Agreements, formalized during Netanyahu’s first premiership (1996-1999), stipulated further Israeli military redeployments from the West Bank, thereby increasing Palestinian self-rule. Overall, then, the first seven years of the peace process, leading up to then-U.S. president Bill Clinton’s Camp David summit in 2000, were based on the premise of “interim” agreements.

The problem, however, is that Yasser Arafat ended up rejecting then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s proposal for full-blown statehood and instead launched the Second Intifada. Given this catastrophe, as well as the futility of subsequent intermediary proposals—notably George W. Bush’s “Roadmap For Peace” in 2003 and, most recently, Barack Obama’s 2014 “Document Of Principles—questions arise as to the validity of repeating these, or any analogous, approaches while both sides remain so deeply at odds.

According to Dr. Gershon Baskin, Co-chairman and Founder of Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives, “if Trump’s people are listening carefully to what both sides are saying, they are probably hearing that it is impossible at this point with Netanyahu and Abbas to reach a permanent status agreement.” Furthermore, he explained to The Media Line, “while the majority of both the Palestinian and Israeli publics want peace, most do not believe it is presently possible because neither side thinks they have a legitimate partner in the other.”

In Dr. Baskin’s estimation, “the only possibility for a breakthrough is for a change of leadership, either on one side or both. This way, some new kind of dynamic could open up a possibility for a real negotiation, which would most likely take the form of a direct back-channel and not a very public process.” Nevertheless, he concluded, it is “potentially dangerous” to forgo a process altogether and to say “there is nothing left on the table.” On the flip side, past failed attempts at peacemaking served only to sow additional frustrations, which then boiled over into violence.

As if to tackle history head-on, Trump remains “personally committed” to renewing some form of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as an end in and of itself. For now, then, “around and around the peace process will go, where she’ll stop no one knows.”

One thing, however, seems eminently clear—the unlikelihood that the final station on this circular diplomatic track will be named “Palestine.” Therefore, it may be high time to drop all pretense and simply resort to baby steps, with the modest aim of improving the lives of both peoples even while they remain at conflict with each other; in essence, replacing “peace” with “honest” in a process that fewer and fewer people believe in.

The Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades cadets marching in the town square of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip on June 15, 2015. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Israeli tank fires on Hamas post in Gaza in retaliatory strike


An Israeli army tank attacked a Hamas post in the southern Gaza Strip in response to rockets fired on southern Israel.

The Israeli attack came early Monday morning after two rocket attacks Sunday on Israel — in the morning and late evening. Both rockets fell in open areas and did not cause any damage, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

The Code Red siren alerts were not sounded since both rockets were heading toward unpopulated areas.

There were no reports on damages or casualties in the retaliatory attack.

A Palestinian girl looks through the gate of the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip on July 6. Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

How to save Gaza: A Palestinian American argues it’s time to bring in the UN and stop blaming Israel


Ten years ago, terrible events were unfolding in my native Gaza Strip. The Fatah-Hamas conflict was escalating, and all signs were pointing to an outcome that many in the George W. Bush administration did not want to believe was coming.

Despite millions of dollars in cash and arms from Arab countries and the United States, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas misplayed his hand and failed to stop Hamas’ violent military takeover of the coastal enclave, thereby raising tensions within Palestinian communities and with Israel.

By sheer coincidence, the very day the Islamist movement declared Gaza under its full control, June 14, 2007, my interview for political asylum status in the United States was underway.

Now, as an American citizen living in San Francisco, I can write about my experiences and perspectives in ways that many in Gaza cannot, fearing only that my parents, siblings and other family members who remain there are not held responsible for my opinions. My folks are sometimes jealous of my ability to speak my mind and remind me frequently to consider the implications for them of what I say.

While Israel continues to play a significant role in Gaza’s affairs, the grim anniversary of the Hamas takeover warrants focusing less on Israel than the role that Palestinian political organizations have played in worsening the misery for Gaza’s more than 2 million residents. And that has led me to conclude that the United Nations, for all its problems and the hate it incurs by Israelis, is perhaps Gazans’ best hope for progress.

After Hamas won local and parliamentary elections in 2006, Fatah — led by Abbas — was reluctant to relinquish executive authority to what it believed was an incompetent ideological group, unfit to govern and lacking the international recognition necessary for success. Hamas, on the other hand, felt emboldened by its popular victory to take the helm from Fatah, whose corruption had reached epic proportions that caused many — even some seculars — to vote for Hamas, hoping for change.

The years that followed have proved that change remains elusive. Gazans’ hope for a better life was never realized. An Israeli and Egyptian blockade, initiated because of security concerns after Hamas seized power, set the stage for the degradation of the quality of life in the troubled Strip. The three major conflicts with Israel that followed in 2008, 2012 and 2014 worsened conditions and caused tens of thousands of causalities and billions of dollars in damages to the economy and infrastructure. And while hundreds of trucks carrying goods enter Gaza from Israel on a daily basis, restrictions prevent numerous consumer, industrial and even medical items from being sold to Gazans because of Israeli concerns over potential dual-use.

Virtually every aspect of life in Gaza continues to deteriorate. One can start with the crippling electricity outages, which can last as long as 21 hours a day, or the heavily polluted drinking water. Chronic illnesses have become untreatable. Massive unemployment, especially among youth and college graduates, is a major source of misery and uncertainty — it’s been reported as the highest in the world.

Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib on the Egyptian side of Gaza’s Rafah border in 2012 after accompanying his brother, who was visiting with him in Cairo, to the furthest part of Egyptian soil. Alkhatib hasn’t been in Gaza since July 2005. Photo courtesy of Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib

 

While some parts of Gaza have had a chance to rebuild since the last war, others still lay in ruins, and millions of gallons of untreated raw sewage continue to flow in streets and into the Mediterranean Sea, forcing most beaches to close. Then there are the contrasts between those living in sheer poverty and the flashy shopping malls — unaffordable to most people — that have popped up in some parts of town.

Darkness resulting from the electricity crisis makes Gaza feel like a sad, miserable place, particularly at night. It would not be an exaggeration to say that if given a chance, more than half of Gaza’s population would choose to leave the Strip for any other place in the Middle East or Europe, in pursuit of a better, more secure and stable life.

Ongoing bickering between Hamas and Fatah only serves to increase the suffering. In an effort to pressure the Islamist movement, Abbas is retiring more than 6,000 Gaza-based Palestinian Authority employees. Red tape and politics are impacting the permitting process for Gazans who need to travel outside the small enclave to receive medical treatment. With several major heat waves and no electricity, nor, at times, water to cool off, people are experiencing hell on earth.

The humanitarian conditions are spiraling downward and may hit the point of no return. To hit back at the PA, Hamas is entering into an unorthodox alliance with Mohammed Dahlan, the group’s former enemy with whom it clashed in 2007, and the current arch-enemy of Abbas. This resulted in the recent delivery of Egyptian industrial diesel fuel for Gaza’s sole power plant but resulted in no tangible improvement in the electricity disaster.

When Hamas approached the elections in 2006, it had two goals. First, it was convinced that it could bring its agenda of armed resistance against Israeli occupation to the global stage through the PA, which was created by the Oslo peace accords — the very agreement that Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, despises and rejects. The group also believed that its Islamic principles would result in better governance in Gaza, based on integrity, honesty, discipline and compassion. Surely, many believed, the religious folks would be better than the secular nationalists with their scandals and unchecked corruption.

However, even in power, Hamas has failed to convince the world that its armed struggle against Israel is, in fact, legitimate. To many around the world, engagement in a political process often means abandoning violence. Shooting unguided rockets into Israeli communities — and in the process endangering many local lives through inevitable Israeli retaliations — does not effectively foster international compassion for one’s cause. Nor does digging smuggling tunnels near residential areas without the consent of local residents, many of whom are intimidated into silence.

As for Hamas’ second objective, the international and Israeli blockade against Gaza has meant that the group had virtually no financial or political capital for improving lives. Promises of better infrastructure, power-sharing and improved government-to-people relations were never kept because there was no way for them to be realized given Hamas’ ideological stance. This has hindered its ability to rule effectively.

To its credit, Hamas has been able to restrict the public flaunting and use of firearms in Gaza, and it holds a monopoly on force. It has established an agreement whereby armed groups cannot engage Israel militarily at random. And it has cracked down on ISIS-inspired Salafists in recent months.

Overall, however, Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip was a grave miscalculation that resulted in nothing short of a disaster for the people. Ask most people on Gaza streets today about what their concerns are: Most are worried about not having power, water, clean air, housing, jobs, quality health care and other necessities that Hamas’ government has been unable to deliver. It is unlikely that you’ll encounter many people concerned with long-term issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas’ decade-long adventure has reduced people’s interests to the mere basics, destroying their hopes for a resolution to the big and historic challenges.

Still, it is terrifying to know that Gaza is a powder keg, with many young people who are desperate and vulnerable to radicalization and violent tendencies. Gaza also is full of young people who have dreams just like Israeli and other youth do, but they lack the means to pursue their aspirations and realize their true potential as capable, talented contributors to humanity.

The Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, shares responsibility for the misery in Gaza. Fatah derives much of its legitimacy from two things: its historic battles with Israel before the Oslo accords and the ability to create public service jobs that reduced unemployment. But it was the corruption and failures of the PA that paved the way for Hamas’ takeover. Despite dozens of redundant security services, safety in Gaza was a serious issue and rampant gun violence promoted desperation for change.

The Palestinian authority and Hamas have failed the people of Gaza miserably.

Gazans feel that the PA has abandoned them. This is evidenced in the recent cuts to the salaries of public servants on the PA’s payroll: My mother, who teaches high school math, had her salary reduced by 40 percent last month just as she is about to retire. In April, the PA stopped paying for electricity being generated by Israel in an effort to apply further pressure on Gaza’s rulers. After the Hamas takeover, the PA told many of its employees to stay at home and not work for Hamas. Many of these public servants have been decaying at home, their skills diminished and mental health worsened by their inability to work daily and to be contributing members of society.

The PA and Hamas have failed the people of Gaza miserably. People’s lives are reduced to waiting for change that cannot come as long as this stagnant impasse continues. How is it that a jewel on the Mediterranean with one of the most strategic locations and a nearby unused gas field does not have a functional airport, a seaport, a vibrant economy, sound infrastructure or robust exchange with its neighbors?

We cannot place the entirety of the blame at Israel’s feet. After the Israeli withdrawal in 2005 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian leadership missed an opportunity to demonstrate to the entire world that, when given a fair chance, Palestinians are able to govern effectively and create the foundations for a state worth living in. Success in Gaza could have demonstrated that the West Bank would look the same, were Israeli settlements vacated. Instead, we have made the lives of pro-occupation political parties in Israel much easier, affirming the claim that security threats have been too great to give back the land.

So, what can be done? As someone with deep roots in Gaza, I cannot consider the status quo a viable option. Hamas and Fatah are ideologically and politically irreconcilable. It is almost certain that corruption and incompetence will continue to hinder the establishment of robust systems in Gaza to turn things around and improve the lives of its residents.

The best way forward may be back.

After the 1956 Suez crisis, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) established its headquarters in the Gaza Strip to facilitate military disengagement after the war ended. The multinational force maintained peace for almost a decade. It even operated an airport that facilitated the movement of goods and passengers, local and foreign.

Although Egypt was administratively in charge of the Gaza Strip, U.N. agencies provided the foundation for the stability and well-being of local Palestinians. The ill-advised decision by then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to demand the withdrawal of the UNEF set the stage for problems that Palestinians continue to face.

However, 50 years after the UNEF left Gaza, conditions are very different, with Egypt overtly allied with Israel to combat terrorism in Sinai and restrict movement and access to Hamas-controlled Gaza.

A damaged UN school and remnants of the Ministry of the Interior in Gaza City, as seen in 2012. Many parts of Gaza have not been rebuilt following several conflicts with Israel. Photo from Wikimedia

 

In 2014, because of concerns that the Hamas regime would collapse, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for Gaza to be placed under a U.N. mandate to facilitate the Strip’s resurgence as a vibrant territory. Although many ridiculed the proposal at the time, I was one of the few who vocally supported certain components of the idea because it would have removed Gazans from the control of intransigent Palestinian-Israeli political dynamics.

Furthermore, the U.N. has a track record of carrying out major interventions in places that suffer from instability, violence, collapsing infrastructure and political deadlock. Since the 1980s, the United Nations has been involved in significant humanitarian operations, using ground and aerial assets and networks, in countries such as Afghanistan, Liberia, North and South Sudan, Mali, Libya, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Pakistan, Nepal, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

A great example of such involvement is Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), a consortium of U.N. agencies and international organizations operating in South Sudan to deliver humanitarian aid and assistance throughout the war-torn and drought-afflicted regions.

OLS was established in 1989 after it became apparent that major intervention was needed because of the second Sudanese civil war and a devastating famine. As a result of practical and detailed negotiations, the U.N., the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army agreed to deliver humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need regardless of their location or political affiliation. Civilians in need of travel were transported in and out of certain areas using various U.N. mechanisms, including aircraft. The northern Kenyan town of Lokichogio and its airport became primary staging areas for U.N. humanitarian air operations that serviced South Sudan. The U.N. dealt with a non-state armed group out of necessity, but without conferring recognition upon it.

Because the U.N. has been operating in Gaza for decades, it already enjoys a status in Palestinian society as a humanitarian platform and provider of essential services. A transitional period of five or 10 years could prove vital in stabilizing the Strip by preventing another war, reversing the deterioration of living conditions, initiating infrastructure renovations and managing aid money in a professional, nonpartisan manner. This stability could break the current deadlock and allow political resolutions that would empower the Palestinian people to truly achieve self-determination, with a focus on the needs of future generations.

Many nations and organizations can operate under the U.N.’s umbrella, which is the most accepted international entity to Gazans sensitive to the potential of “another foreign occupation.” Criticism may be hard to hear, but we all have an obligation to speak out against the continuing gradual destruction of hope for our Palestine.

Gaza is at a critical juncture. Internationalizing it offers the only hope for a pragmatic way forward. Conditioning improvements to Gaza’s situation upon Hamas’ departure from power or a fundamental change in its ideology only will further the suffering of Palestinian civilians, who are paying the price for circumstances over which they have no control.

I am optimistic that there’s a way forward to fulfill the needs of Gazans while addressing Israel’s legitimate security needs.

As someone who received political asylum status in the United States in 2008, I am one of very few lucky Gazans who have acquired this status over a 20-year period. I enjoy great privileges, now as an American citizen, but I won’t enjoy those alone: I cannot let go of where I came from. And I refuse to be hopeless.


AHMED FOUAD ALKHATIB is a San Francisco-based Palestinian-American humanitarian activist from the Gaza Strip and founder of Project Unified Assistance, which advocates for the establishment of a humanitarian United Nations-operated, Israel Defense Forces-approved airport in the Gaza Strip.

Jason Greenblatt, left, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Jerusalem on March 13. Photo by Government Press Office

A Palestinian state: Like Gaza, only bigger


“Two-state” Middle East proposals are alluring given the prizes they offer each side: a Jewish, democratic Israel; and an independent Palestine. But any real two-state “solution” (and not just a two-state result) must improve the daily lives of both Israelis and Palestinians. For Palestinians, that’s unlikely.

Ten years ago this week, the radical terrorist group Hamas took control of the already-miserable Gaza Strip – and daily life in Gaza has only worsened in the decade since. Indeed, two million Gazans face massive unemployment and daily struggles to find adequate food, housing, electricity, clean water, and medical care. The United Nations predicts the area will be “unlivable” by 2020.

Gaza’s dire straits are usually blamed on the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, as well as other travel and economic restrictions that wouldn’t apply if Palestine were independent. But Palestinian structural, political, and cultural problems mean the Gaza script is all too likely to be replayed on the West Bank in the event of a two-state resolution. How long before the Palestinian residents of Nablus and Hebron begin pining for the good old days of Israeli presence?

With all the complaints about Israeli checkpoints and other restrictions, it’s easy to forget that Israel built the skeleton upon which Palestine has rested, for better or worse, for half a century.

I’m not sure Israel would simply hand over the infrastructure it created – let’s face it, mostly for its own citizens – in the event of a Palestinian state. Two states would not reflect a “divorce” as in Czechoslovakia in 1993, since the land for Palestine originally came from Jordan and Israel was never binational. If Palestine asks Israel to defer to its declaration of independence, it can’t reasonably expect to simply keep everything Israel built within its borders. The two states would have to negotiate the disposition of the West Bank’s water systems, telecommunications, transportation, electric grid, and more.

But even if Israel did abandon all claims to the foundation it built through massive investment in the West Bank, Palestinians have no experience administering and operating it efficiently. Over in Gaza, the technical problems are not solely due to Israeli interference; Hamas blunders also play a role.

The currency Palestinians use – even in Gaza – is the Israeli shekel. An independent Palestine would have its own currency, which – even if pegged to the dollar or the Euro – would be untested and a risky change from Israel’s currently robust shekel.

People often forget that Israel’s military presence in the West Bank modulates the territory’s internal conflicts. Palestinians are sharply divided, particularly regarding the religious and political shape of any future state. Israel’s army has kept those tensions from boiling over into civil war. Who will play that role if Israel withdraws?

And some of Gaza’s plight results from Palestinian cultural factors that would stymie a healthy democracy. (Indeed, the technically democratic Palestinian Authority hasn’t held an election in 11 years.) Notorious corruption on the West Bank combined with tribal and regional rivalries suggest a constantly destabilized Palestine, particularly after it can no longer (well, should no longer) unify its people by blaming its disarray on Israel.

Of course, one of the reasons for Gaza’s hardship is the three short but devastating wars it fought with Israel. Israel had to invade each time because of rockets being fired at its civilians – and not only by militants controlled by Hamas. An independent Palestine will be hard-pressed to prevent individuals and groups from launching missiles on Israel – this time from closer range to Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv. Palestinians bemoan the deaths of Gaza residents from Israel’s “disproportionate response” to its defensive actions. Independence in the West Bank would double down on that problem.

Why are Palestinians even pushing for an independent state given its likely failure to improve their lives? It’s not like they are unaware of the obstacles. Well, for many of them, an independent Palestine is just one step toward the ultimate goal of a unified nation including all of their “heritage” – and that includes Tel Aviv and its suburbs as much as it does Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem.

Not every world problem has a solution. Korea remains divided and China still occupies Tibet. Many Israelis have welcomed he Trump Administration’s signals it is not wedded to the two-state approach. Perhaps Palestinians should also be heartened and eager to explore different strategies for easing the conflict, lest a two-state result produces a Palestinian state that is basically Gaza, only bigger.


David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and Muckrack.com/DavidBenkof, or E-mail him atDavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Mai Shbeta during a recent trip to Los Angeles. Photo by Scott Brockman.

Mediator approaches Arab-Israeli peace from both sides


From the moment she was born, Mai Shbeta couldn’t escape a sort of responsibility to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There’s no other choice for me,” she said during a recent interview at the Jewish Journal office in Koreatown. “I was born to work for peace for as long as I live.”

Her maternal grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, while her father is a Palestinian Muslim. Since before she was born, she straddled the dividing lines in one of the world’s bitterest conflicts.

Shbeta, 25, recently visited Los Angeles as an emissary for the village known as Neve Shalom in Hebrew and Wahat al-Salam in Arabic, both of which translate to “Oasis of Peace” in English. Located about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it’s the only place in Israel that intentionally integrates Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, consisting of 50 families, with more slated to move in.

Even within the village, though, Shbeta is an exception: Hers is the only interfaith family there, a microcosm within a microcosm.

At the mixed Arab-Jewish primary school she attended, students learn together every day of the school year — except for one. On Israel Independence Day, Jewish students celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut while Arab students learn about the Nakba, or catastrophe, their term for the events of 1948 that resulted in the Jewish state. As a child, Shbeta was asked to choose which event she would attend.

“It was horrible for me, just impossible to choose,” she said. “Like choosing between Mom and Dad.”

In the end, she attended both ceremonies. And, in general, she remembers her childhood as an idyll of coexistence. But Neve Shalom lacks its own high school, so she was forced to leave the village and become part of a much more complicated reality.

“There it hit me. … It’s the first time I understood there’s a lot of hatred there,” she said.

From then on, Shbeta was an ambassador for peace. At 19, she presented at the World Economic Forum and continues to be involved with that body.

Shbeta went on to study law at Bar-Ilan University, a school founded on Jewish religious principles and still considered to be politically right of center. She found, though, that her experience growing up in Neve Shalom helped her navigate the complex politics of coming from both Jewish and Muslim backgrounds at a religious Zionist university. Today, she’s married to an Arab Israeli of mixed Muslim and Christian heritage.

Trained as an attorney, Shbeta now works as a professional mediator. She bristled when asked if she would go into politics, noting the acrimony of Israeli elections. But she said in the following interview, edited for length and clarity, that she would continue working for peace in every way she knows.

JEWISH JOURNAL: Do you find that you’re able to make a difference when speaking with people about the conflict?

MAI SHBETA: Meeting people already makes a difference. You can easily hate someone that you didn’t meet because you’ve heard this and that about him. But when you meet the person and he doesn’t have horns or he’s not the devil, then that already makes a difference. Israel’s very segregated. … People eat at the same restaurants or buy at the same shops, but they’re not really speaking.

JJ: Do you find that for religious Jews and religious Muslims, you’re a living example of everything they’re scared of — of intermarriage?

MS: Yeah. I’ve had it all. I’ve met people who — it’s really rare — but people who say, “Oh, your mom did the greatest mistake.”

JJ: People have said that to you to your face?

MS: Yeah. I can act as if I’m completely Israeli-Jewish. People will not notice if they don’t know my last name. I could be Arab and people won’t know it. But there’s also not being either. When I’m in my dad’s [Palestinian] village, they know, “Oh, the one with the Jewish mother.” People always tend to find what’s different, not what’s mutual and the same.

JJ: Can you talk to us about your experience at Bar-Ilan University?

MS: I found my friends. They were really right-wing, some of them. But that’s the beautiful thing about the village. You learn to understand and accept everyone. I could talk to settlers and understand them and feel with them. Even now with settlers, I feel them. I understand them. I can accept anybody because I know that people are not bad.

JJ: Do you think you might want to go into politics?

MS: I was thinking about it. I do want to do politics, but not as a proper politician. I don’t know. Israeli politics — it’s just horrible. I was thinking of working as an assistant [to a politician] and checking it out, but I haven’t had a chance to do that yet. Maybe one day.

JJ: You’re still very young.

MS: Yeah, well, I think that I want to open or start my own organization. That’s one of my goals, by the end of this year, to know what exactly is needed and what I have to do. And do it in the politics field, but maybe in a different way. I’m more into bringing people together and mediating and being a bridge.

JJ: So many great Israelis just don’t want to get involved because it’s such a cesspool.

MS: You have to play by their rules, that’s why. … I really think even if there is a peace agreement, that’s when the real work starts. Then Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom will be needed the most. It doesn’t matter what peace agreement it will be, people will still hate each other. And people have to get to know each other. They have to meet the enemy in order to achieve real peace.

JJ: When people ask if you’re a Zionist, what do you say?

MS: I wasn’t raised Zionist. My mom was. I’m sorry to say that for Palestinians, Zionist is like the worst. But you know, my grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. … I do believe Jewish people have to have a state. I wouldn’t say that I’m Zionist.

JJ: Have you noticed people moving further or closer to peace? Do you feel like there’s progress?

MS: It’s horrible. People are losing hope. It’s getting harder from year to year. I think that what’s happening is that my parents and the people from that generation, they used to go to Gaza to eat hummus. Now, the people my age, they never got the opportunity to do that. Things are getting worse, but maybe, I don’t know, if things are getting worse, that’s the place to go up. It can’t get worse. … No mom wants her son to go serve in the military. I think that when people understand that peace is for their own good [and] they don’t want their tax money to go for security, then maybe they’ll vote for someone who wants to make peace. Not for the sake of peace and love, but for their own good.

From left: Jibril Rajoub, Secretary of the Fatah Central Committee, DF Brigadier General (Res.) Michael Herzog, and moderator Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for ME policy at Brookings

We need to ‘seize opportunity’ with Trump, Palestinian official says


Conditions are ripe for a regional peace initiative given President Donald Trump’s interest in achieving a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians with the backing of Arab countries, says IDF Brigadier General (Res.) Michael Herzog, who was involved in every round of negotiations since the Oslo Accords, including in the years 2013-2014 on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

During a panel on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with Jibril Rajoub, Secretary of the Fatah Central Committee, hosted by the Israel Policy Forum in New York on Wednesday, Herzog said that one of the reasons the most recent regional peace initiative (in 2016) fell apart was because the Obama administration didn’t want to be part of it. “I think they did not believe that this would yield results. To my knowledge, both sides – the Israelis and Palestinians – did not trust the [Obama] Administration to be the leading part of that initiative and the administration didn’t want to be part of it,” he explained.

The principles of the initiative were agreed upon during a secret peace summit between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in Aqaba, according to a report by Haaretz. The proposal later served as a basis for talks between Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog on joining a national unity government. As reported by Haaretz, the plan was laid to rest after the coalition talks fell through in late 2016.

During Netanyahu’s meeting with President Trump in February, the two leaders agreed on reviving that plan with the backing of Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf region.

“This administration is willing to involve the region in the peace process,” said Herzog. “I still don’t know how they are going to design the process. I don’t know if they have a strategy yet. We just have to wait and see. But it’s clearly a priority for this administration.”

Following a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan on Wednesday, Trump said, “I’m working very, very hard on trying to finally create peace between the Palestinians and Israel, and I think we’ll be successful,” The President called Abdullah a “tireless advocate” for a peace settlement “and he’s going to help me with that and help me at the highest level. And we will be consulting with him closely in the days ahead.”

Rajoub, after expressing regret at some of his past statements and promising to be more cautious in the future, agreed that the Palestinians need to “seize this opportunity” with the Trump Administration to renew peace talks. Asked if the Palestinians would agree to enter into negotiations without a full settlement freeze, Rajoub told Jewish Insider, “The settlements, believe me, brother, its existence is a threat to the state of Israel. We are talking about two states – with two territories. Why expand it? Listen, I think it’s the time to freeze all settlement activities. Believe me, it’s a benefit to the Israelis like it’s a benefit to the Palestinians.”

According to Herzog, Trump has leverage on the Palestinian Authority to bring them to the negotiation table if Israel follows through with the new policy restraint in settlement activity. “I think the Palestinians will demand a freeze,” Herzog told Jewish Insider after the event. “However,  I believe that if the Trump Administration pushes them to enter negotiations even with Israel just restraining settlement activity, I don’t think they have an alternative. I do think Trump has leverage over them. You don’t want to mess with him. And since he prioritizes the peace process and wants a deal, he has leverage on them. They will have to do with some kind of restraint, and if he pressed them they will follow.”

The Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades cadets marching in the town square of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip on June 15, 2015. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Hamas hangs 3 accused of collaborating with Israel in killing of commander


Hamas hanged three men in Gaza accused of “collaborating” with Israel.

The death sentence was carried out Thursday by the terror organization that controls the coastal strip.

The men were accused of being involved in giving information to Israeli military intelligence to aid in the assassination of a top Hamas commander, Mazen Fuqaha, late last month in Gaza, which Hamas blames on Israel. Israel has neither affirmed nor denied involvement in the killing.

The men, aged 32, 42 and 55, were charged with providing information on the location of Hamas operatives and military sites over the past three decades. Hamas said they were allowed to defend themselves as provided under Sharia law.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the executions and said they were illegal because Hamas did not get the permission to execute from P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas.

Human Rights Watch also condemned the hangings.

“The abhorrent executions by Hamas authorities of three men in Gaza deemed to be collaborators project weakness, not strength,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the organization’s Middle East division, said in a statement. “Hamas authorities will never achieve true security or stability through firing squads or by the gallows, but rather through respect for international norms and the rule of law.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Bernie Sanders asks envoy nominee David Friedman whether some funds for Israel should go to Gaza


Sen. Bernie Sanders asked David Friedman, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Israel, whether he would back using funds earmarked for assistance to Israel to help rebuild the Gaza Strip.

Sanders in a letter he handed Friedman after they met Wednesday also asked whether he thinks the tax-exempt status of groups that fundraise for settlers should be reviewed. JTA obtained a copy of the letter on Thursday.

The questions in the letter are significant as they suggest the path forward for Israel policy among progressive Democrats.

Sanders has emerged as a de facto leader of progressives following his insurgent but unsuccessful campaign last year for the Democratic presidential nomination. In perhaps the best-received speech over the weekend at the annual conference of J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, Sanders pushed the theme that pro-Israel Jews need not hesitate to criticize Israeli government policies.

His letter outlines three questions for Friedman: whether he supports a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the appropriateness of an ambassador having deep involvement in the settler movement as a fundraiser and advocate, as Friedman does; and regarding Israeli assistance.

Two states has long been Democratic policy and for 15 years was official U.S. policy until Trump retreated into agnosticism on the issue when he met last month with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The second two points, however, venture into areas that Democrats have yet to embrace.

“As ambassador, would you take steps to end the flow of donations to illegal settlements, perhaps by supporting the re-examination [of] their tax-exempt status?” Sanders asked.

David Friedman. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

David Friedman. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

J Street has advocated for withdrawing tax-exempt status for groups that fundraise for settlements. Other pro-Israel groups – including some of J Street’s allies on the left – oppose the position, in part because it could trigger far-reaching consequences for all nonprofits on the left and right while turning tax-exempt status into a political battlefield.

Sanders also asked Friedman whether “a portion” of the $38 billion in defense aid to Israel over the next 10 years under an agreement signed last year by former President Barack Obama “should be directed toward measures that would facilitate a much greater flow of humanitarian and reconstruction materials” to Gaza.

Aid to Israel in Congress and the pro-Israel community has been sacrosanct, and no president has seriously proposed cutting it since Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s. Subsequent presidents used short delays in delivery of assistance and the amount that the United States guarantees Israel’s loans as means of leveraging pressure on Israel, but assistance has been untouched.

Sanders cast the proposal in part as one that would help secure Gaza by stabilizing the strip. But it comes at a time that Republicans in Congress are proposing cutting assistance to the Palestinians as a means of pressuring them into direct talks with Israel and pushing the Palestinian Authority to end subsidies for the families of jailed or killed terrorists.

Friedman, a longtime lawyer to Trump, did not reply to a request for comment. His ambassadorship is controversial in Congress and in the Jewish community because of his past involvement with settlers, and because of the rhetoric he has used to describe Jews who disagree with him.

An exhibition of the artwork of Hadar Goldin, who was killed by Hamas in August 2014. Photos by Bart Batholomew/Courtesy of Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Slain Israeli soldier’s art inspires parents’ mission


Leah and Simcha Goldin are grieving parents. Frustrated, vocal and driven, they have traveled from the Knesset to the United Nations to, just last week, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, bringing with them a traveling collection of their son’s artwork known as “Hadar Goldin: The Final Peace” to bring attention to his plight.

“It is our mission to bring Hadar home,” Leah said with a straight-ahead gaze, her voice shrouded in a thick Israeli accent.

Bring Hadar home.

Leah Goldin has uttered those words too many times since August 2014, when her son first went missing.

When Hadar comes home, they will not embrace, as mother and son ought after being separated for so long. There will be a ceremony and, most likely, a press conference. But Hadar’s remains will be in a coffin with an Israeli flag draped over it. A grave will be filled, topped with tilled soil. This is what “Bring Hadar home” means.

Of course, that’s if Hadar comes home. But to Leah, a doctor of computer science, and her husband, Simcha, a professor at Tel Aviv University, there is no “if”: They have dedicated themselves to make sure that day comes.

“Hadar is a victim of a cease-fire, rather than a victim of a war,” his mother said, nearly three years after that breach of cease-fire, which took her son’s life.

On Aug. 1, 2014, after a flare-up of escalations between Israel and Hamas during Operation Protective Edge, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire. Two hours into that ceasefire, Hamas ambushed Israeli soldiers in the southern border town of Rafas, a raid resulting in Hadar’s death and the kidnapping of his body, which was dragged back to Gaza through a network of underground tunnels. He was a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces at the time.

During that summer conflict, the body of staff Sgt. Oron Shaul also was captured. Both bodies are still in Hamas’ custody, and the Goldins want the international community to pressure Hamas for the return of their son’s body.

So it’s through Hadar’s traveling collection of art — with pieces ranging in style from expressionist paintings to daily life sketches to journal entries — that the Goldins hope to make strides on the matter. They first got the idea to put together a collection while sitting shivah for their son, after being approached by art curators from Ein Hod  (an artists village near Haifa). “And they advised us to put up an exhibition; we didn’t realize we could do it,” said Leah.

In September, the collection was on view at the United Nations in New York during the General Assembly. “Since this cease-fire was brokered by John Kerry, secretary of state, and Ban Ki-moon, general-secretary of the U.N., they should be held responsible. They should be accountable for his return,” Leah said. Neither Kerry nor Ban came to the exhibition, she said.

“And they knew about the exhibition,” Leah added. “I cannot tell you why they did not want to go. You should ask them.”

“It’s a question of responsibility,” Simcha added.

“And accountability,” Leah said. “Sometimes if you don’t face it, it’s a way to say, ‘I don’t know about it. It does not exist.’ But it does exist. It exists with the exhibition, with showing Hadar’s portrait, with his uniform,” she said.

art-parents-exhibitThe Goldins have traveled to New York, Miami and Los Angeles, lobbying for the return of their son’s body.

“We are looking for ways to raise it as an American issue. And by that, getting the support of the U.S. administration to motivate Hamas to bring Hadar home,” Leah said.

At the collection’s opening Feb 15 at the Museum of Tolerance, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, delivered a sermon, referring to a passage from Exodus, where Moses made an oath to carry his ancestor’s bone into the Promised Land.

“We have the obligation to retrieve the bones of our lost brother like Moshe Rabbeinu,” his voice, a desperate plea, echoed through the microphone. “We must do everything we can.”

On Feb. 20, the collection moved from the Museum of Tolerance back to Israel, traveling, yet again, to the Knesset before going  to the Opera Tower in Tel Aviv. The Goldins are asking the community for help.

“We’ll appreciate any advice and any help to resolve it and bring some closure to our case,” Leah said.

Plain and simple, they want to give their son a proper Jewish burial.

Who was Hadar Goldin? He was a son, a brother, a fiance, an intellectual, and an artist. He was a voracious reader, a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and an espresso drinker.

“I used to do still photography until Hadar took my camera when he was a teenager,” his mother said, “and then he was the one behind the camera.”

Hadar observed the world. Ever since he was a kid, he liked to draw and write. He was a doodler, illustrating scenes of daily life, jazz on a street, caricatures of people he knew. He’d draw in pocket notebooks, on scraps of paper, whatever he could find. On the back of an equipment list while stationed near Gaza, he drew his wedding invitation, a scene portraying his fiance and himself in a house, ripened pomegranates in the trees. He painted oil-on-canvas scenes of a man fishing; deer in a pasture; the war-torn skyline.

Hadar Goldin was 23 years old when he died, three weeks before his wedding.

There is a piece in the collection that hangs in Simcha’s study at home when it isn’t traveling with the exhibition.

“You need to see it,” Simcha said. “It’s a long debate whether it’s a bird or something else.”

It looks like a dove, hovering over a lake, its wings stretched out in full extension. An orange sun bleeds into the sky as a girl, doused in a powdery white light, watches from a distance.

“The sad thing is it’s only the potential. He was killed, so you can only see his potential on the walls. It’s very sad. It’s very painful,” Simcha said about his son’s artwork.

“But on the other hand, it’s there. It’s unique. It’s nice,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”


Correction: 3/1 – This story originally said Leah Goldin is a computer programmer – she is a doctor of computer science.

From left: Claudia Puig, president of the L.A. Film Critics Association; Robert Magid, producer of “Eyeless in Gaza;” Hollywood journalist Alex Ben Block; Creative Community for Peace co-founder David Rezner and Tribe Media Corp. President David Suissa. Photo courtesy of Roz Wolf.

Moving and Shaking: New Gaza film screening, local olympian celebrated, TIOH Rabbi announces retirement


“Eyeless in Gaza,” a documentary that attempts to show how Israel suffered from biased media coverage during its 2014 war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, had its Los Angeles premiere on Feb. 6 at the iPic Theaters in Westwood.

The film incorporates news footage of the war, including that of a media company capturing on camera Hamas fighters setting up rocket-launch sites in densely populated Gaza neighborhoods. Israel has long maintained that this is standard practice by Hamas and that it is part of the reason why Israel inflicts high civilian casualties on Gaza in the event of violent conflicts with the anti-Israel terrorist organization.

The 50-minute film also incorporates original interviews with Hamas officials; Israeli-Canadian journalist and author Matti Friedman, who formerly served in the Israel Defense Forces and pro-Israel attorney Alan Dershowitz. It delves into the history of Israel’s relationship with the Gaza Strip, beginning with Israel’s 2005 withdrawal and its dismantling of settlements in the region.

During the 2014 war, mainstream media depicted Israel as using disproportionate force against the Gaza people. Reporters cited the uneven death toll — 1,483 Palestinian civilians killed compared to five Israeli civilians, according to gazadeathtoll.org, which cites the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs — as evidence of Israel’s brutality.

The film explains that Israel’s Iron Dome defense prevented Israel from suffering higher casualties despite the constant rocket fire on Israel from Gaza.

About 60 people attended the screening, including pro-Israel philanthropists Naty and Debbie Saidoff.

A post-screening panel featuring the film’s producer, Robert Magid; Hollywood journalist Alex Ben Block; Creative Community for Peace co-founder David Renzer; and Tribe Media Corp. President David Suissa examined the media’s portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Los Angeles Film Critics Association President Claudia Puig moderated the panel.

The film will be available Feb. 28 on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime and Vimeo.


From left: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinsky; Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI) Executive Director Rabbi Dave Sorani; NBC Universal Vice Chairman Ron Meyer; and JGSI Director of Operations Rabbi Matthew Rosenberg attend the Jewish Executive Leadership Conference. Photo courtesy of Jewish Graduate Student Initiative.

The Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI) on Jan. 29 drew the largest crowd ever to its Jewish Executive Leadership Conference, which was held at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

More than 400 Jewish graduate students and recent college graduates attended the conference that featured 50 panelists and three keynote speakers.

The goal of the conference was “to create a forum for Jewish graduate students and young professionals to interact with high-level Jewish executives who share insights into their careers and industries while impacting upon them the importance of philanthropy and community leadership,” said Rabbi Matthew Rosenberg, JGSI director of operations. “Participants are then introduced to volunteering opportunities with a full range of L.A.’s premier Jewish nonprofits.”

The featured speakers addressed a variety of topics, including real estate, finance, law and the entertainment industry. The three keynote speakers were Scooter Braun, founder of the entertainment and media company SB Projects; Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBC Universal; and Elaine Wynn, co-founder of Wynn Resorts.

“This year was our best-attended and most successful conference ever, with our best lineup of speakers to date,” Rosenberg said. “We look forward to hosting an even bigger and better event next year and getting even more young people involved in their Los Angeles Jewish community.”

— Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer


World Swimming Championships XOlympic champion swimmer Anthony Ervin, a native of Valencia, is among inductees elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame for 2017.

Ervin captured a pair of gold medals at last year’s Olympics in Brazil in the 50-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter relay. His performances were a near repeat of his gold- and silver-medal-winning efforts in the same events at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia. He now resides in Florida.

The other inductees to the hall of fame include two Americans, a Canadian, a Hungarian, an Israeli, a New Zealander and a Russian.

One of the Americans, who among all the inductees arguably has had the longest impact on spectator sports, was the late Albert Von Tilzer, a New Yorker who wrote the immortal baseball anthem “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in 1908. The other American, Thelma “Tybie” Thall-Sommers, was a two-time world champion in table tennis. In 1948 she paired with Richard Miles to become the first Americans to win the world mixed doubles title. In 1949, as a member of the U.S. team, she won world championships in singles and doubles. She also won several national titles during her career.

The other inductees are:

The late Hy Buller of Canada, a National Hockey League star who played for the New York Rangers. He set a rookie record in 1951-52 for scoring the most goals, and ranked second for most goals among all NHL defensemen in three consecutive seasons.

The late Joszef Braun, who joined the MTK Budapest soccer club in 1916 at age 15 and three years later was named Hungary’s “Player of the Year.” His team won nine national championships through 1924. Braun perished in a Nazi forced labor camp in 1943.

Israel’s Lee Korzits, a four-time world sailing champion, who won her first Mistral-class title in 2003. After a long layoff due to injuries, the Hadera native won world gold medals in 2010, 2012 and 2013.

New Zealand sailing champion Jo Aleh, who won gold medals (with Olivia Powrie) in the women’s 420 Class event at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and at the 2007 and 2013 world championships.

Swimmer Semyon Belits-Geiman, a Moscow native who broke 67 Soviet national freestyle records, set a world 800-meter freestyle record in 1966, and the same year won two gold medals at the European championships. In 1999, he and his wife moved to Stamford, Conn.

The election results were announced in December by the hall of fame’s co-chairmen, Alan Sherman of Potomac, Md., and R. Stephen Rubin of London. Formal inductions are slated for July 4 at the hall of fame’s museum on the Wingate Institute campus in Netanya, Israel.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor



rabbi-rosove-headshotT
emple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) Senior Rabbi John Rosove has announced his plan to retire from TIOH and become the Reform synagogue’s rabbi emeritus, effective June 30, 2019.

By the time he retires, Rosove will have served as senior rabbi at TIOH for 30 years and “will have completed 40 years of service to the Jewish people since my ordination” at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, in 1979, Rosove said in a Feb. 8 statement.

“Though my retirement is still two-plus years away, I am announcing now to give our Temple leadership the time necessary to thoughtfully establish a process that will ensure the best and wisest selection of my successor as Senior Rabbi,” he said.

Rosove assumed the position of senior rabbi at TIOH in 1988. The Los Angeles native graduated from the UC Berkeley in 1972.

He is the board chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America; holds a seat on the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; serves as a Jewish Agency for Israel committee member; recently was national co-chair of the rabbinic cabinet of J Street, a left-leaning, pro-Israel organization and more.


From left: Westwood Village Synagogue Rabbi Abner Weiss; actor and comedian Elon Gold; Shalhevet High School senior Micha Thau; and Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal participate in a discussion about Orthodox Judaism and the LGBT community. Photo by Eitan Arom.

From left: Westwood Village Synagogue Rabbi Abner Weiss; actor and comedian Elon Gold; Shalhevet High School senior Micha Thau; and Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal participate in a discussion about Orthodox Judaism and the LGBT community.
Photo by Eitan Arom.

In middle school, Micha Thau wanted to live what he called “the Jewish Orthodox American dream” — a future with a house in Beverlywood with a Honda Odyssey in the driveway, four kids and a pretty wife eight years his junior. When he realized he was gay, in eighth grade, “it spit in my face, robbed me of all motivation.”

Now a senior at Shalhevet High School, Thau spoke at Westwood Village Synagogue on Feb. 8 as part of a panel called “Modern Orthodoxy and LGBT: Navigating a Complex Reality,” alongside Shalhevet head of school Rabbi Ari Segal; actor and comedian Elon Gold; Westwood Village Synagogue Rabbi Abner Weiss; a clinical psychologist, and moderator Alexander Leichter.

In high school, Thau was ready to come out to his community. “It came to the point where staying in the closet was so much more painful than anything that could happen outside of it,” he explained to about 50 people who gathered at the synagogue, upstairs from Peet’s Coffee and Tea in Westwood.

Something clicked for Segal when he realized Thau had spent years worrying if Shalhevet would ostracize him for being gay. “I made a decision at that moment,” he said. “We were going to have a [gay-straight alliance], we were going to stop pretending that we don’t have gay kids at the school.”

After that, Segal wrote an editorial for Shalhevet’s newspaper calling LGBT acceptance “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.” With Thau at the helm, Shalhevet issued a pledge Jewish schools can sign to commit themselves to supporting gay students. So far, Shalhevet is the only school to have signed it, Segal said.

Gold, an observant Jew, played a gay father in the web series “Bar Mitzvah.” He spoke about his brother, Ari, who came out at the age of 18. To this day, his brother doesn’t feel comfortable within the Orthodox community, Gold said. “He is a very proud Jew,” he said. “He just feels like he can’t stay observant. It’s too conflicting.”

— Eitan Arom, Staff Writer

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

A Jewish man covered in a talit, prays in the Jewish settler outpost of Amona in the West Bank on Dec. 18, 2016. Photo by Baz Ratner/ REUTERS

Poll: Americans nearly split over support for Palestinian state


Americans are nearly evenly divided over support for a Palestinian state, according to the latest Gallup poll.

Some 45 percent of Americans back the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and 42 percent oppose it, according to the poll taken during the first week of February. Some 13 percent said they have no opinion.

One year ago, support for a Palestinian state was at nearly the same level, 44 percent, but a lower percentage, 37 percent, opposed it. At that time, 19 percent said they had no opinion.

Broken down by political party affiliation, 61 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Independents are in favor of a Palestinian state.

The results are from Gallup’s annual World Affairs poll conducted Feb. 1-5. A random sample of 1,035 Americans over 18 was polled. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

The poll also asked respondents if their “sympathies” lie more with the Israelis or the Palestinians.

Some 62 percent of Americans said they sympathized more with the Israelis and 19 percent with the Palestinians in numbers that are similar to the past several years. Another 19 percent responded with no preference, broken down into 5 percent who say they sympathize with both equally, 6 percent who sympathize with neither, and 8 percent who responded that they have no opinion.

In the splits by political party, 82 percent of Republicans, 47 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Independents said they sympathized with Israel.

Asked about their opinions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, some 49 percent of respondents said they viewed him favorably and 30 percent unfavorably — both figures the highest recorded in the poll — with 13 percent saying they never heard of him and 8 percent saying they have no opinion.

Broken down by party, 32 percent of Democrats viewed Netanyahu favorably and 41 percent unfavorably, and 73 percent of Republicans viewed Netanyahu favorably and 11 percent unfavorably. In 2015, before Netanyahu spoke against the Iran nuclear deal in Congress, a speech that was boycotted by several Democratic members of Congress, 31 percent of Democrats viewed him favorably and 31 percent unfavorably, and 60 percent of Republicans favorably and 18 percent unfavorably.

Rep. Brian Mast (R–Fl.)

The U.S. Army vet, IDF volunteer, now in Congress


From Jewish Insider.

He has quite the resume. Freshman Congressman Brian Mast (R-Fla.) served 12 years in the U.S. Army earning a Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart Medal, in addition to obtaining an economics degree from Harvard. For many in the Jewish community, the icing on top is that Mast volunteered with the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in January 2015, packing medical kits at a military base near Tel Aviv.

However, the Florida legislator’s climb from the U.S. Army to Capitol Hill has not been without challenges. Stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Mast lost both legs along with his left index finger in the blast. In an interview with Jewish Insider from his Congressional office, Mast focused on the high cost of war including the 67 friends he has lost while serving overseas. “I have seen the gamut of instances from friends of mine getting sprayed by automatic weapon to stepping on explosive devices, like I stepped on, to falling off the side of a mountain or a cliff. Everyone sticks out very vividly, very clearly.”

Mast has formed an especially close relationship with the Jewish community. After the interview, he showed Jewish Insider a shirt sitting in his office of the Congressman’s name written in Hebrew letters above an American flag. Calling the White House’s omission of Jews in its statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day a “missed opportunity,” the Florida lawmaker invoked his previous visit to the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem.

The 2014 war in Gaza strongly impacted Mast, who is married with three children. After observing anti-Israel protests in Boston during the conflict, he noted the “hypocrisy” of those demonstrating. “I said that if any of our neighbors were firing rockets into the U.S. like that, guys like me would go and kill them immediately and every American would be proud of us for doing so.”

Already last summer, he endorsed Trump as President, even when many Republicans were fleeing from the real estate mogul. Explaining his support, Mast told Breitbart News in June, “If you have an infestation of rats and rodents in your home and you need to call the exterminator, you don’t necessarily care about the personality of the exterminator. You just care that he gets rid of infestation.”

Mast also backed the White House’s decision to place a temporary travel ban of individuals from seven predominantly Muslim nations including Iraq and Syria. With approximately 500,000 killed in Syria and 4.5 million refugees, Mast contrasted the mass exodus with how he believes Americans would have handled a similar situation. “For everybody that I know here in the U.S., if that (Syria) was the kind of reality that we faced, we as a people here would fight until our last breath to protect our communities. You wouldn’t see us seeking refuge somewhere else.”

image1-2The Army vet’s recent election to Congress continues his longtime service to his country. “Everyone has their place in life. Some people want to build the biggest business or save the most children. My purpose was service to this country and the military is the place that you go in my opinion to serve at the highest level for your country.”

Jewish Insider: You served for 12 years in the U.S. military including overseas in Afghanistan.  What were the most powerful moments of your service? 

Congressman Brian Mast: Probably the most powerful moments that I had were those times when I lost friends — of which I lost 67 friends to date. There is undoubtedly, a cost to war, especially when you have been at it for 15 years. I have been removed from the battlefield for six years now. I have seen the gamut of instances from friends of mine getting sprayed by automatic weapon to stepping on explosive devices, like I stepped on to falling off the side of a mountain or a cliff. Everyone sticks out very vividly, very clearly.

JI: Did losing your own two legs in addition to the deaths of so many of your colleagues cause you to question the lengthy U.S. involvement in Afghanistan?

Mast: No. The immediate time of going over there, right after the events of 9/11. A reckoning that had to happen. We were attacked and there was absolutely going to be a response to that attack. Beyond that, there have been refugee places, terrorist safe havens and terrorist training camps. And that is exactly what Afghanistan was prior to 9/11 and prior to us going into there. So, that had to be eliminated as a pipeline. One of the things that you realize as the ongoing war on terrorism is that while there should certainly be a strategy to exit these places, there also has to be a very specific strategy to maintain and not become like Iraq or Syria right now where you can say probably the biggest mistake that was ever made was withdrawing too soon and leaving a vacuum in place there that allows for the facilitation of the kind of situation that we have going on with ISIS right now.

JI: What motivated you to join the U.S. military?

Mast: I loved the military. I knew at a very young age it was where I was going to end up. It’s what I wanted to do. It’s just the right place for me. As I always tell people, I was like a round peg in a round hole. Everyone has their place in life. Some people want to build the biggest business or save the most children. My purpose was service to this country and the military is the place that you go in my opinion to serve at the highest level for your country. So, I loved it. I knew I was going to be there.

Mast: You established a very strong connection with Israel that led you to even volunteering with the IDF. Can you describe how Israel became such an important personal cause?

I grew up in a Christian home and Christian school my whole life. I was always raised for support of Israel. It was certainly always part of my household. That doesn’t mean that I always knew why that was the case. It was just the way that I was raised. But, there was actually a very specific catalyst for me going and serving with Israel. This goes back to 2014. I was injured in 2010. This was after I was injured and out of the army. I am studying up in Cambridge and we lived right next to the Boston Commons. That summer was Operation Protective Edge, there were a lot of protests going on around the country, people that were protesting Israel for defending itself from the barrage of rocket attacks. I didn’t agree with those that were protesting Israel. It seemed completely hypocritical especially those in the U.S. I said that if any of our neighbors were firing rockets into the U.S. like that, guys like me would go and kill them immediately and every American would be proud of us for doing so for defending our country in that way so it seemed like a very hypocritical, double standard.

The catalyst was one specific night when all of these protests were going on, there were people out in the Boston commons and they started saying things to me and my family, harassing us about me being a U.S. service member which really, really struck me. It was that moment that it really sank in the parallel that exists between the United States and Israel and what we represent: those things that unfortunately become all too cliche to say, but it’s very serious to say that we do represent freedom, democracy and human rights for all people. Those are things that are not represented throughout the rest of the Middle East. Those protestors recognizing as a U.S. service member, I fought for the exact same things that those Israeli service members were out there fighting for that instigated them to pinpoint me. It is not hard for people to figure out that I am a U.S. Service member. I don’t have any legs and I always have that hat on that is sitting right behind you that says Army Rangers on it so most people can figure it out pretty quick. So when I saw this parallel playing out, I said to my wife that night, ‘I don’t know what it’s going to look like. I want to find a way to show my support for Israel because these people out there protesting them in the drop of a dime with no provocation decided to start harrassing us. It speaks so perfectly to how you can’t appease these ideologies of hatred.

JI: The White House issued a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day without mentioning Jews or anti-semitism, a move widely criticized among American Jews. How do you interpret the Trump Administration’s statement?

Mast: It’s incredibly important that we do remember the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the number of survivors that we have from the Holocaust are dwindling. It was probably a mistake to not very specifically mention that. It’s a big missed opportunity, especially if it is something that falls on your heart and not go out there and speak passionately on that day.

JI: Among the Republican party there is a debate about whether to support the two state solution. What is your opinion on the issue?

Mast: I am a person that says that the future of Israel should be decided by Israel. I don’t mind the USA playing an invited role in diplomatic negotiations, but I don’t think for us to go out there and impose our will or our blueprint for peace is something that would be lasting. The blueprint for peace has to be decided by the climate in Israel and those stakeholders and come to an agreement. That involves us not playing a role or pushing for a two state solution, that is not something that I personally push for in any aspect whatsoever.

JI: So, do you believe the Palestinians should ever be granted statehood? 

Mast: I don’t see a desire for them to have a state, certainly before they were to normalize their relations with the world. Do I see the need for the creation of another terrorist state in this world? Absolutely not. When you have the leaders– if you want to call it Palestine– that call for the destruction of Israel and praise the destruction of Israel and call for the same thing for the U.S. that is not a state that I think is beneficial for us to play a hand in creating.

JI: During a House floor debate last month you said: “Palestinians [are] a group that has been historically defined by their responsibility for terror.” What did you mean by this statement?

Mast: When you look at their background and acts of terrorism: That is what they are defined by. There is a reason that you see a large fence all the way around and a guarded area throughout the area that they reside in. There was a time when that didn’t exist. Why was that fence put up? That fence was put up because of the rash of bombings that occurred. You look at their leaders. You look at the ways they praise acts of terrorism. That is what they are defined by. That has been probably one of their chief exports has been terrorism, so I think that is something that defined them as a people.

JI: Did you support President Trump’s travel restrictions including the indefinite barring of Syrian refugees from entering the United States?

Mast: Yeah. I think there is something very prudent about the U.S. analyzing who we allow entry to in this country and how we allow entry to them. When you look at the time periods that are proposed: 90 days and 180 days, these are not big, long lasting time periods. If you look at any U.S. government action, there are very few things that you can point to that happen in 90 or 120 days in order to do something well and do something right. So, yeah, I think it is prudent when you look at the State Department’s recommendation on travel to these countries, it’s important to ask yourself: if we don’t recommend travel there why would we necessarily want travel allowed in and that is a reason to answer those questions. People tell me, ‘well these are law abiding citizens coming from these countries,’ I think it is very important to scratch the surface of that and say what are the laws that are being adhered to when you have largely Shariah-driven countries like Iran where the execution for someone for being homosexual or the severing of limbs are things that you can still find essentially on the books. That’s what it means to be a law abiding citizen in some of these places.

It’s very hard to imagine Iraq and Syria in any semblance of what they were in the past. The kind of nation states they were in the past. It is even more difficult to imagine them returning to that kind of thing if you allow everybody that you would consider to be moderate, the kind of people you would want to build a government around, middle class people that have skills and the ability to build infrastructure in that country without those people in place and as difficult as it is to say, I think I have the ability to say this as well as anybody. I know the cost of war, I know the cost of war on myself.

What I can tell you is that for everybody that I know here in the U.S., if that (Syria) was the kind of reality that we faced, we as a people here would fight until our last breath to protect our communities. You wouldn’t see us seeking refuge somewhere else. That is who we are as Americans and that is part of what makes us great. If they ever want to have a kind of future for their nation states that they want to be proud of again, they have to find that resolve to stay and fight and create a kind of country they want to create just like we did during our own revolution.

Enemies and economics: Doing business at the Israel-Gaza border


In his disquisition on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Dec. 28, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the “dire” humanitarian situation in Gaza. On this point, he was accurate, noting that “Gaza is home to one of the world’s densest concentrations of people enduring extreme hardships with few opportunities.” 

Kerry added that “1.3 million people out of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million are in need of daily assistance. … Most have electricity less than half the time and only 5 percent of the water is safe to drink.”

He rightly blamed Hamas, which, instead of building economic infrastructure and taking care of its people, “continue to re-arm and divert reconstruction materials to build tunnels, threatening more attacks on Israeli civilians that no government can tolerate.” 

What Kerry failed to mention — though he made a passing reference to the “closing of crossings” that have choked off supplies from Gaza — is that for the past decade, Israel has consistently and judiciously provided for Gaza’s needs, through an import-export nexus at their border, known as Kerem Shalom.

Since 2006, when Israel imposed an air, land and sea blockade on Gaza — a response to Hamas launching rockets into southern Israel — Kerem Shalom, nestled on the border between Israel, Gaza and Egypt, became a lifeline for the 1.8 million living in the strip. Much of the time, Israel is solely responsible for the flow of goods going in and out of Gaza. This is not either country’s wish, of course; but Israel took measures to protect itself, and ever since, has had to face the unique predicament of providing for her enemy.

Over the past decade, Israel and Egypt tried sharing responsibility for this effort, but Egypt has proven a temperamental partner and often closes its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, shutting down trade completely. 

When this happens, Israel finds itself — sometimes for months— totally responsible for Gaza’s civilian needs. 

Imagine bearing sole responsibility for stimulating your enemy’s economy — for providing its civilians with water, gas, electricity, medical supplies, building materials, even butter. Imagine also, the task of operating an import-export point in which you cannot trust your trade partner, your trade partner does not trust you, and you must ensure that the tons of goods that pass through on nearly a thousand trucks each day do not contain materials that can kill you.

Welcome to Kerem Shalom, ground zero of this operation.

“We don’t want any photographs of dogs, scanners or soldiers with weapons,” the Israeli official managing Kerem Shalom on behalf of the Israeli Ministry of Defense warned me when I visited there last month at the invitation of the government.

“This is a special mission to support an enemy people,” he declared, and for security reasons could not divulge his name. “Most [Gazans] are innocent, but Gaza is occupied by Hamas terrorists.”

He pointed to a collection of mortar shells and rocket parts that sit on a table at the back of his office — strewn about like collectibles. “We’ve been hit by Gaza; we’ve been attacked by Gaza; and we have to serve Gaza,” he said.

Each day, 200 people work at Kerem Shalom, including 75 Palestinians from Gaza, paid by the Palestinian Authority. “There’s no trust between sides, but we have to work together,” the official said.

In this tense operation, workers on either side unload each truck and the driver is sent away. Goods are loaded onto a second, on-site truck, and put through a series of security inspections — massive scanners capable of scanning 100 tons of goods in seven minutes, then Malinois wolf-dogs and, finally, human beings. After goods pass inspection, they are loaded onto a third truck belonging to whichever side is their destination. “Everything here is risk management,” the official said. “Nothing that can hurt Israel can come through here.”

Part of that risk management — for Israelis — includes deciding how many “dual-use” materials they should allow into Gaza. Seemingly innocent items such as cement, for example, can be used for building housing or building tunnels. 

Last August, Israeli authorities intercepted a shipment of commando knives hidden among tools. Other checkpoints in Israel have intercepted electrodes (hidden in butter), ammonium chloride (disguised in table salt) and wet suits (believed to be for a seaborne attack) — all on their way
to Gaza. 

Nevertheless, business at the border is booming: In 2012, 69,000 trucks delivered goods through the crossing; in 2016, that number rose to 190,000, according to statistics from the Ministry of Defense. 

Kerem Shalom hardly makes Gaza perfect. Residents have electricity for only eight hours per day (though those infamous Hamas tunnels were powered 24/7). There’s also high unemployment, inflation and a black market that makes regular goods unaffordable for most people.  

Kerem Shalom is a bittersweet compromise for both parties, wherein the risks are high and the benefits, measured. In a better world, it wouldn’t have to exist at all, and the blockade would end. 

It would have been nice if Kerry had acknowledged Israel’s delicate balancing act between security and civility. Israel’s policies toward Gaza may not be charitable, but they are compassionate; something the world never sees when foreign journalists only swoop in to cover conflict. The situation is not ideal, but it is humane.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Trump’s triumph: Netanyahu is in a good mood


Love him or loathe him, when Benjamin Netanyahu walks into the room, everyone pays attention. 

Bibi could be in a good mood, or a bad mood, or a little bit of both, but he is always an energy vortex: the center and the star, chest out, chin up, basking in the limelight.

Last week, I was in the room when he entered with the force of a wind tunnel. I was among a group of Jewish journalists from the United States, Europe and Latin America who were invited to Jerusalem at the invitation of his government and watched as Bibi used his charismatic power to polarizing effect. 

In a stunning switch from his usual apocalyptic diatribes — including, most notably, to the U.S. Congress — Bibi was in a triumphant, optimistic mood. During a 30-minute, carefully planned press conference, with questions and questioners selected in advance, the Israeli prime minister decided to flout the rules and go off script. 

We could ask him anything we wanted, he said.

But when Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, introduced the group and attempted to ask her first question, the impatient prime minister interrupted. 

“Is this a speech or a question?” he asked. 

He dismissed her inquiry about anti-Semitism in the U.S. — whether from the alt-right or the far left — as a “fringe phenomenon” and pushed the conversation where he wanted it to go.

“After you ask me all these things, I’ll tell you a few things,” he said in his deep, velvety voice. “You might ask me whether something is changing in the world about Israel. What about Israel’s isolation? You gotta ask me that! If you don’t, I’m gonna ask it: Israel’s growing isolation in the world. We have to talk about it.”

He caught our group off guard when he challenged about 50 journalists to guess how many world leaders he is scheduled to meet with in 2017. “Isolation” implies not many, but Bibi didn’t really want us to guess — he wanted to brag.

“Two hundred and fifty!” he exclaimed. 

This new Bibi wasn’t pounding the table about Israel as pariah state, or holding up graphs about nuclear proliferation red lines. He was proclaiming the Jewish state as the world’s most popular. He was eager to enumerate a list of recent accomplishments, including lucrative trade deals with Asia and renewed ties to Latin American leaders who want to “change their relationship to Israel.” Then, he borrowed a play straight from Fidel Castro’s playbook and drew our attention to a PowerPoint slide about Israel’s record-shattering dairy cows. 

Occupation be damned! Israel now truly can call itself the Land of Milk and Honey.

But things didn’t come across as so sweet to Bibi’s audience, an informed and impassioned group who follow the prime minister’s every move and weren’t buying his bravado. 

“I’ve seen the prime minister many times interact with journalists, diplomats and other officials and I’ve rarely seen him act in such a mean-spirited manner,” an Israeli journalist, who asked not to be named because he covers the prime minister, told me. “He appeared annoyed, arrogant, irritated … and he seemed not interested in what people had to say and what they care about. He just wanted to get his talking points across.”

“He turned our press conference into his press conference,” an Austrian journalist agreed. “He’s the master of the show, not us.”

“I was entertained,” a Dutch television reporter confessed at dinner. 

The Americans were thoroughly disgusted. The Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt recalled another occasion, many years ago, when Bibi was dismissive of the Jewish press. Rosenblatt said he was in the room for back-to-back press conferences in New York, one for mainstream media and the other for Jewish journalists, and watched Bibi go on a charm offensive for the likes of Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters, only to appear listless and gloomy for the Jewish outlets. 

How strange that a prime minister who fancies himself “the leader of the Jewish people” would behave so erratically and offensively when he has home-court advantage. Rather than a show of respect and appreciation — he had invited us there, after all — we got a show of swagger and superiority.

“I think for right-wing populists in Europe, Bibi is a sort of role model,” the Austrian journalist said, referring to well-documented ties between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and one of Austria’s far-right political leaders. “Because of his rhetoric, because of his behavior to the press, and [because] he’s survived any scandal that’s ever taken place here.”

If I hadn’t been to the Gaza border earlier that day, on a visit coordinated by Netanyahu’s own government, I might be more excited about the astonishing dairy cows. But Israel still faces real threats and harsh choices. So while there are many reasons to celebrate her wonders, there also are reasons for her leader to show a little modesty. 

But instead of destroying golden calves, Bibi has become one. The day of our press conference, Tel Aviv sculptor Itay Zalait erected a 14-foot golden effigy of “King Bibi” in Rabin Square — a statement-making art installation that captured worldwide attention and drew comparisons between Bibi and dictators like Saddam Hussein. The prime minister’s supporters roundly condemned the stunt and the statue was toppled quickly.

But the artist’s point was made: If Bibi is more than merely a modern statesman and sees himself as the leader of the Jewish people, he is heir to the leadership tradition of Moses — who was “more humble than any other person on earth.” 

Signing trade deals doesn’t obviate the lessons of Torah.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Jeremy Ben Ami and Morton A. Klein talk Israel, Palestinians, settlements and the two-state solution


Teenage daughter of Jerusalem light rail attacker released from detention


The teenage daughter of the eastern Jerusalem gunman who killed two Israelis in a shooting spree in an attack on a light rail stop was released by Israeli security forces.

Eiman Abu Sbeih, 14, was released on Sunday, a week after the attack, by Israeli security forces, on condition that she stay away from Jerusalem for two months, not give interviews and not post on social media, Ynetreported. Her family also was fined about $650. Her 18-year-old brother was arrested over the weekend and her twin brother also remains in custody, the Palestinian Maan news agency reported.

The teen was arrested on Monday, hours after a video of the teen  praising her father, Misbah Abu Sbeih, 39, of the Silwan neighborhood, went viral on Facebook.

“We deem my father as martyr,” Eiman said in the video, according to Maan. “We hope he will plead for us before God on judgment day. … I am proud of what my father did.

“We’re very happy and proud of our father,” she also said. “My father is a great man. Our relationship, as father and daughter, was excellent.”

Abu Sbeih shot and killed at least one person at the Ammunition Hill light rail station in northern Jerusalem, then continued shooting as police pursued him on Oct. 9. Officers ultimately shot and killed the assailant, who had been expected to report to an Israeli prison at the time of the attack to serve a four-month sentence for assaulting a police officer in 2013.

The Hamas terror organization in Gaza claimed Abu Sbeih as one of its operatives and praised his “operation.”

Rocket from Gaza strikes southern Israel for second day in a row


A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip struck Israel for the second day in a row.

The rocket fired Thursday afternoon landed in an open area in a southern Israeli community near the border with Gaza. No injuries were reported.

It triggered the Code Red rocket warning system in communities near the border with Gaza, sending residents scurrying for bomb shelters.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. Reports from Gaza on social media said the Israel Defense Forces were retaliating.

On Wednesday, a rocket fired from Gaza landed on a residential street in the southern Israeli city of Sderot. No injuries were reported, though two residents, ages 15 and 60, were treated for shock at a nearby hospital. The road, as well as cars parked nearby and houses near the landing site, was damaged.

About an hour later, Israeli tanks reportedly shelled Hamas targets in northern Gaza. Later in the day, Israeli Air Force jets also hit a number of Hamas posts in northern and southern Gaza, according to the IDF.

Israel holds the terrorist organization Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza. Late Wednesday, the Islamic State-affiliated Ahfad al-Sahaba-Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis terrorist group claimed responsibility for that day’s attack.

In mid-September, Israeli airstrikes struck three Hamas targets in northern Gaza in response to a mortar shell fired from Gaza into Israeli territory. In August, the IDF carried out dozens of air and artillery strikes on Gaza after a rocket fired from the coastal strip struck a residential area in Sderot.

Israel’s best kept secret (weapon) is a tour guide


Our group’s infatuation with Michael Bauer began in a small conference room at Tel Aviv's Carlton Hotel, where he stood at the front of the room armed with a set of maps and taught the history of Israel — from Abraham to Operation Protective Edge, the most recent Gaza war — in 45 minutes.

It deepened in the Golan Heights, when he stood atop a bombed-out Syrian bunker captured by Israel in 1967 and explained the modern history of Syria — from Assad I to the rise of political Islam and ISIS — as the distant thrum of explosions rocked our consciences for 17 heavy minutes.

On a Jerusalem promenade overlooking the Western Wall, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of Holy Sepulchre, Bauer offered Bible passages and Koranic stories to illustrate why the magical city sparkling beneath us has remained for thousands of years the most ardently loved and hotly contested real estate in the world.

Each time he finished, our group would erupt in cheers.

“I’m a bit like a performer,” Bauer, 43, admitted when I met with him separately one evening in Tel Aviv. “I enjoy the drama.”

For us, members of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation’s “Reality Storytellers” trip last month, Bauer, our tour guide, was a highlight among highlights. What began as a light infatuation eventually morphed into something resembling rock-star obsession, as our group frequently chanted his name and compared him to the fictional Jack Bauer from “24.” (Ever the on-guard Israeli, Bauer sometimes carried a gun.)

In case you’re thinking we were easily impressed, allow me to disavow you of that notion. We were about 50 people familiar with excellence – among us were prominent political speechwriters, screenwriters, actors, entrepreneurs, executives and foundation directors; some who call the Obamas and Clintons their bosses, others who work for prominent media companies including the New York Times and Facebook. Part of why Bauer was so effective at telling Israel’s story is because he spoke to all of us — Jews and non-Jews; Israel veterans and Israel first-timers; those already highly educated about the country and the conflict and those just beginning to understand how Israel ended up with the West Bank and Gaza to begin with. Bauer refused to oversimplify; rather than present “two sides,” he’d instead offer multiple competing perspectives that sometimes contradicted each other. “Teaching these topics is so complex, and if you do not understand the complexity, you miss the whole thing,” he told me.

Bauer has spent more than 20 years guiding groups through Israel, Jordan, the Sinai and Turkey, as well as Poland and Germany, via his company, Bauer Trails. His expertise in minority relations, religion, history and the Arab-Israeli conflict has attracted an international clientele that includes foreign diplomats – including members of the Clinton and Bush administrations, as well as a former Prime Minister of Canada – in addition to Hollywood celebrities like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Bauer’s reputation for presenting facts unalloyed to politics, and his theatrical gift for storytelling has also won him repeat business from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Columbia University’s Middle East Institute. It’s safe to say he’s probably Israel’s top tour guide, but that would not encapsulate the additional work he does teaching at Israeli colleges or within the intelligence unit of the Israel Defense Forces.  

Only once did Bauer reveal his emotional side. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, Bauer surprised the group when he abruptly paused his tour in the Warsaw Ghetto section to share a personal reflection. As light streamed down from the sole window in the museum’s interior, Bauer said, “I can’t tell you how huge this event is in the Israeli psyche. This is the part of the Holocaust Israelis study the most – the Jewish uprising.”   

In person, Bauer looks more like the combat commander he once was than the educator he is now — shaved head, intense blue eyes and a face lined by desert sun. Though his formal education was standard, Bauer has been reading books, he said, “all my life.”

“I’ve loved history since I was kid, and Israel is a haven for history,” he told me. “I was also always curious. Even in the military, I was always trying to understand why are we doing what we’re doing.”

Photo by Neta Cones

Bauer grew up in a middle class, center-left neighborhood in an agricultural village outside Tel Aviv. Today he lives on a Kibbutz southwest of Jerusalem with his wife and five young children. When I asked him what it’s like raising children a few miles from the Green Line, where there are occasional violent skirmishes, he said, “I could live anywhere in the world; I live here out of choice. And I believe that my [kibbutz] is the best place to raise kids.”

Even though Bauer’s tours are exceptionally fair-minded and apolitical, his passion for where he lives pulsates through his prose. “I love my country,” he said, when someone in our group asked about his personal politics. Looking down as he answered, he nestled his feet in the gravel. “I love the rocks.”

There is something almost mystical about Bauer’s teaching, beyond the obvious spiritual subject matter. It shows in the way he marries history, religion and archaeology, or the way he lights up when reading passages from Torah or the New Testament that he can prove actually happened. This quality is part of why our group felt so in awe of him; teaching the history of the world, he somehow made the world make sense. In seven days, Bauer transcended the role of tour guide and simply became our Rav, our teacher.  

Not that he sees himself that way: “For me, I’m not a spiritual person,” he insisted. “The Bible is an unbelievable text and book, and I do believe in many things that are written in it, especially when I can prove it academically. And what I cannot prove, I am full of appreciation for, because I cannot argue with a text that has influenced so many people. I have respect for the Bible — beyond.”

When I pointed out that “beyond” is a spiritual word, Bauer laughed.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about him isn’t his lack of spirituality, but his lack of ego and material ambition. He was mostly unfazed by all the adulation and attention he received. “I’m not a big deal,” he insisted. And later, when I asked him what he dreamed of, he said: “My true mission is to be able to raise my family and support my kids.”

Since he values family so deeply, I asked how a secular Israeli might express his gratitude.

“I say, ‘Thank God,’” he replied automatically. Then he cracked a smile.

“I do say ‘Thank God.’”

Danielle Berrin: Why were you drawn to the study of Arab-Israeli relations?

Michael Bauer: It’s something that shapes our life over here. I live on the green line, so I see Arabs, fences, borders every single day. And I see Israeli-Arab relations as the future; whether it’s negative or positive, it’s a crucial part of our life.

DB: As an Israeli, can you teach the conflict objectively?

MB: It’s not that I don’t have a political view, I do; but I don’t have an agenda. My agenda, if there is one, is that at the end of a program of mine, I’d like you to appreciate Israel and respect Israel, with its complexity.

DB: What do you hope someone who has no prior experience of Israel will learn from your tour?

MB: The importance of size and location. Location in the context of the Middle East [matters], but location is not only geographic. It’s always political. Understand that we are now sitting in Tel Aviv, and two days ago, there were missiles an hour away from here. [My first night home from our tour last week,] I was drinking wine and telling my wife about the group, and I could hear ‘BOOM’ and see the lights.

It’s also very important to understand the history, including [the religious texts]. There’s a deep connection of people to the ground over here.

DB: What do you hope someone who already knows a great deal about Israel learns from you?

MB: For people that know all the facts, the next thing they need to learn is the [role of the] psyche. There’s a gap sometimes between the facts and what people think and believe. Christians believe Jesus was resurrected from the Church of Holy Sepulchre, and Jews and Muslims think not. The Muslims think that Mohammad rose up to heaven on a night journey from Al-Aqsa, and the Christians and Jews think not. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what really happened; it’s only what people think and what they’re willing to do about it. Same with discrimination in Israel: If I tell you there’s discrimination, you can tell me there isn’t discrimination, and then we can argue about it. But if I tell you Arabs feel discriminated against, that you cannot argue. That is a fact. If the Palestinians feel there is an occupation, it doesn’t really matter what is happening on the ground – I mean, it matters — but it matters more what they feel when they get up in the morning. If Jews wake up in the morning and they’re afraid, you can’t tell them they shouldn’t be afraid because they have an F-16. That’s irrelevant. People need to consider feelings as given facts.

DB: So how do you teach the deep, psycho-spiritual connection people have to this land?

MB: If people really want to know, they need to go back to Abraham and then all the way to yesterday.

DB: What do you wish the world knew about settlements that isn’t  considered in media coverage?

MB: Someone that tells me “I am in favor of the settlements” or “I am against the settlements,” for me, that’s very shallow. It actually means they don’t know much. There are different settlements and different settlers. You have smaller, isolated settlements that are religiously ideological; you have settlements along the valley that are more agricultural, very strategic, less religiously ideological. You’ve got big settlement blocs of 30,000-40,000 people, which are Ariel, Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion. Then you have a few you need to argue [about]; then you have a few that are near the Green Line. And then you have East Jerusalem — the Jewish quarter, Gilo, French Hill and so on. All of that is different.

If you were to go to French Hill tomorrow and make elections, you would realize that a majority of them are voting for Meretz, which is an anti-settlement party. Which means, they don’t see themselves at all as settlers. Are we allowed to build in the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem? Most Israelis will say ‘Yes.’ Most Israelis are not aware that they’re actually on the other side of the Green Line. They’ll say “I’m against settlements.” And you’ll say, “What about Gilo?” “Oh, that doesn’t count.” So if you don’t know the nuances of settlements, don’t hold an opinion.

DB: How do you talk to people about the occupation? Do you even use that word?

MB: When someone says “occupation,” I need to understand what is it exactly that they’re talking about. Because when Hamas says “occupation,” we are right now in Tel Aviv, sitting in “occupied” land. So what is occupation?

It’s true that Israel, in 1967, occupied territory. That’s a fact. But the moment I start using the word “occupation,” it becomes politicized.

If you ask me, “What do you think about the occupation?” I’ll ask you: “Which occupation?” Right away. And then you will tell me about the West Bank, and I’ll say, “OK, you’re asking about the policies of Israel in the West Bank.”

The fact is that tomorrow Palestinians will wake up in the morning and they will feel occupied. There’s not one soldier in Gaza, but they feel occupied. Why? Because they are encircled by Israel and also Egypt, which is hostile to them as well. And because Palestinians, most of them, see all of Israel as occupied. That’s also fact. Who is responsible for the occupation? That’s a political argument. Now the question is, what is the solution?

DB: How do you reconcile feeling rightfully rooted in this land with Israeli policies that have caused suffering to others who also feel rightfully rooted in this land?

MB: I do not want to belong to an occupying force, and I do not want to rule other people as an Israeli. But given the fact that an agreement that I believe was fair was offered and rejected by the Palestinians in 2000 — and then came the disengagement in 2005 — [those] for me, as an Israeli, were crucial for feeling well when I look in my mirror.

DB: How do you talk to your young children about where they live?

MB: I believe that we have to be honest no matter what. Usually we’re not honest with our kids because we want to protect them. I am always honest. During [Operation] Protective Edge, when there were missiles falling on our kibbutz, I told them “There are missiles.” They knew it came from Arab people in Gaza strip that are led by an organization called Hamas. At the end of the day, you don’t want them to be terrified and hate Arabs, so it’s a complicated balance. Many times, they see me armed, and they’ll ask me suddenly, “Why are you armed?” So how do I tell them I am taking a gun, but they are safe so they should not be afraid?

Photo by Rick Sorkin

MB: As a secular Israeli, how do you think about the fact that the Bible and the history of this land intersect?

For me the Bible is a book of history, literature and philosophy. And I fully accept the fact that for a lot of other people, it’s a spiritual book, which requires a little faith. I’m not a spiritual person, but I do work with people of Jewish faith, Christian faith, atheists, Buddhists. Everything. And I need to make it relevant for everyone.

When I can take that book and prove that a lot of it happened, that it was written here, and I can connect the geography, the culture, the people and the land, I do get excited by the fact that I belong to this people, and they are my ancestors in those texts.

And when I prove to Christians who are not devout that [a lot of] what’s written in the New Testament makes sense — I can actually prove it to them — I love it. I’m a Jew, and I’m strengthening Christian identity! It’s very funny because I’m not spiritual, but strengthening people’s spirituality makes me very happy.

MB: Where is your favorite place in Israel?

I like to go to the Negev or Judean desert, because I love the wilderness. All religions were born in the desert, so that’s where I like going more than any other place.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Rabin’s granddaughter, ex-military and gov’t officials call for Israeli referendum on territories


The granddaughter of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin joined a group of former Israeli military and government officials in launching a campaign demanding a referendum on the future of the West Bank and Gaza.

Groups including Peace Now and Blue White Future also initiated the campaign, titled “Decision at 50,” to consider the future of Israel on the 50th anniversary of its capture of the West Bank. Artists and social activists also signed on.

“This is the most sensitive and explosive issue in Israeli society today, and we demand that after 50 years we will get the right to decide on our own future,” the founders of the initiative said in a statement Monday. “We cannot allow ourselves another 50 years of governments’ indecision, during which decisions are made every day on the ground.”

Officials of the movement on Monday sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling for the promotion of a referendum and requested a meeting with him.

“A decision through a referendum on the most critical question for the future of Israel will be a statement regarding where Israel is heading and provide guidance to Israeli governments in their policy making on this crucial matter,” the letter reads.

Among those who have signed on are Noa Rothman, Rabin’s granddaughter; Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet and an ex-Knesset member; Gen (Res.) Amram Mitzna, a former Labor Party chairman; Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former Knesset member; Gilead Sher, chief of staff and policy coordinator to Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and defense minister.

Netanyahu says Netherlands, Israel to improve water, gas supply to Gaza


The Dutch government will assist Israel in improving water and gas supplies to energy-strapped Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday during a visit to the Netherlands.

Netanyahu said that while his government is in a conflict with “terrorists” in the occupied territories, Israel still wishes to improve the quality of life for most people living there.

“We have no battle, no qualms with the people of Gaza”, he said. “The first step is to improve the supply of energy and water to Gaza, including laying a gas pipeline.”

He said he was publicly committing to making it happen.

Gaza faces an energy crisis due to damage to its electric network from past conflicts, together with Israel's coastal blockade and other sanctions and restrictions.

Currently the country has electricity less than half the time, using an 8-hour on, 8-hour off rationing system.

A gas pipeline from Israel could allow Gaza's power plant to double generation from around 200MW at present.

Water supplies to Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank have long been a point of tension between the neighbours, with the Palestinians saying Israel prevents them from accessing adequate water at an affordable price.

Netanyahu did not elaborate on details of the gas pipeline plan, saying only the Dutch, with their long history of water management, would help.

Israel to pay Turkey $20 million in compensation after six-year rift


Turkish lawmakers on Wednesday submitted to parliament a settlement deal with Israel that would see Israel pay Ankara $20 million within 25 days in return for Turkey dropping outstanding legal claims, ending a six-year rift.

Relations between the two countries crumbled after Israeli marines stormed a Turkish ship in May 2010 to enforce a naval blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, killing 10 Turks on board.

Israel had already offered its apologies for the raid. Both countries are to appoint ambassadors, and Turkey is to pass legislation indemnifying Israeli soldiers as part of an agreement partly driven by the prospect of lucrative Mediterranean gas deals.

2nd Gaza humanitarian worker indicted for assisting Hamas


A United Nations humanitarian aid worker in Gaza used his position to provide material assistance to the terrorist efforts of Hamas, Israel’s Shin Bet security service said.

Waheed Borsh, 38, was indicted in Beersheba District Court on Tuesday for assisting Hamas. It is the second indictment of a Gaza Palestinian aid worker accused of assisting Hamas in the last week.

Borsh was arrested on July 16 by the Shin Bet and the Israel Police, the Shin Bet said in a statement issued Tuesday. The statement said Borsh confessed that he carried out activities that aided Hamas.

Borsh, from Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip, has worked for the United Nations Development Programme, or UNDP, in Gaza as an engineer since 2003. His areas of responsibility include demolishing houses damaged during armed conflicts and clearing the rubble from sites after demolition.

The UNDP, one of the world’s largest multilateral development agencies, conducts development and rehabilitation projects for the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip. The projects include assisting in the rehabilitation of housing damaged during armed conflicts.

The Shin Bet said its investigation of Borsh discovered that he had been instructed by a senior member of Hamas to redirect his work for UNDP to serve Hamas’ military interests.

In one such activity last year, he helped build a military jetty in the northern Gaza Strip for Hamas naval forces using UNDP resources, the Shin Bet said. Borsh also persuaded UNDP managers to prioritize the rehabilitation of housing in areas populated by Hamas members in response to a request by Hamas.

Borsh, who told investigators that there are other Palestinians employed by aid organizations that are working for Hamas, also disclosed information on Hamas tunnels and military bases that he had been exposed to during his work in Gaza, the Shin Bet said.

The Borsh case “demonstrates how Hamas exploits the resources of international aid organizations at the expense of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip,” according to the statement.

On Thursday, the Shin Bet announced the arrest of Mohammed El-Halabi, 32, director of the Gaza branch of the international humanitarian aid organization World Vision, on charges that he funneled tens of millions of dollars from the charity to Hamas.

DNC video highlights Clinton’s Israel record, role in Iran deal


On Tuesday, as delegates and party leaders gathered to formally nominate Hillary Clinton for president in Philadelphia, the Democratic National Convention Committee released a five minute video highlighting Clinton’s accomplishment and leadership skills as secretary of state.

The video, titled ’67′ (Clinton served as the 67th secretary of state) – aired on stage during prime time – touts Clinton’s brokering of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, mediating peace talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as rallying the world’s major economies to build a crippling sanctions regime that led to Iran coming to the negotiating table and paved the way for the Iran nuclear deal, among others. 

“She understands that peace calls for patience,” former Israeli president Shimon is quoted as saying by an on screen script, followed by footage of rockets fired into Israel and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. “She is very formidable and indefatigable,” the campaign quotes former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.