Jonathan Pollard could still cause damage with what he knows, US intelligence community says


The U.S. intelligence community favors continued restrictions on Jonathan Pollard, arguing that the one-time spy for Israel could still damage U.S. interests by revealing methods and identifying characteristics of U.S. assets.

Intelligence community “sources and methods must be protected from disclosure in every situation where a certain intelligence interest, capability, or technique, if disclosed, would allow our adversaries to take countermeasures to nullify effectiveness,” said the June 17 filing by Jennifer Hudson, the director of information management for the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The filing, first reported Tuesday by the Daily Beast, was in response to a petition by Pollard’s lawyers to a Manhattan federal court to ease some of Pollard’s parole restrictions. His lawyers have argued that Pollard, a former analyst for the U.S. Navy who was released on parole from his life sentence last November, was jailed 30 years ago and would no longer possess relevant intelligence.

Hudson said Pollard also had access to human intelligence that could still prove harmful should it be disclosed.

“Even though the human resources are not identified by name, both descriptive details about the sources and the very nature of the information provided by the source could tend to reveal the identity since only a limited number of individuals may have had access to that particular information,” she said.

Her filing suggested that assets in place 30 years ago could still face repercussions.

“Revelation of the source’s secret relationship with the U.S. government could cause significant harm to the source, his or her family and his or her associates,” she wrote. “Even in cases where the source is no longer alive, such disclosure can place in jeopardy the lives of individuals with whom the source has had contact.”

Pollard’s lawyers to respond to a request for comment.

The restrictive conditions for Pollard’s five-year parole include wearing an electronic ankle bracelet with GPS tracking and surveillance of his and any employer’s computers. He also is confined to his New York home between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. — a condition, Pollard’s attorneys argue, that has precluded him from holding a job.

Pollard also is not permitted to join his wife, Esther, who he married while he was in prison, in Israel. He is restricted in his computer and internet use.

Contender for House speaker blasts Obama’s foreign policy


Republican U.S. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the leading candidate to be the next House speaker, voiced sharp disagreement with President Barack Obama's foreign policy on Monday with calls for a tougher response to Islamic State and Russian aggression in Ukraine.

McCarthy was strongly critical of the Democratic president in a speech that could increase his appeal to hard-line conservatives who sought to oust the current speaker, John Boehner. Boehner abruptly announced his resignation on Friday.

“The absence of leadership over the past six years has had horrific consequences all across the globe, and it is getting worse day by day,” McCarthy said in a speech to the John Hay Initiative, an organization of Republican foreign policy veterans.

McCarthy, 50, who as majority leader is the No. 2 House Republican, has emerged as the most likely candidate to be elected to succeed Boehner as speaker. The California congressman formally announced later on Monday that he had decided to run.

In his speech, McCarthy provided a list of foreign policy suggestions that largely conflicted with Obama administration policies.

There has been little common ground between congressional Republicans and Obama on foreign policy during Obama's time in office, and McCarthy's comments made clear that was unlikely to change if he were to become speaker.

He spoke on the same day that Obama gave a major foreign policy speech at the annual U.N. General Assembly.

McCarthy said the United States should provide lethal aid to Ukraine as it faces Russian aggression and target Russia's Gazprom energy company. He also spelled out strong opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran, calling for tougher sanctions.

McCarthy backed measures to deal with the crisis in Syria, including a no-fly zone in northern Syria and tougher measures against Islamic State militants. And he said the United States should consider putting U.S. Special Forces troops on the ground to help call in air strikes and provide more support for the Iraqi army and Kurds fighting the group, which has conquered wide swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

“We must wage this war against radical Islam as if our life depended on it, because it does,” McCarthy said.

22 senators sign letter to Obama urging Israel support


Nearly one-quarter of the U.S. Senate signed on to a bipartisan letter urging President Barack Obama to support Israel around the world.

Twenty-two senators signed the letter, which was written “in response to your welcomed recent remarks at Congregation Adas Israel” on May 22 concerning his commitment to Israel’s security. The letter was sponsored by Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

While welcoming Obama’s “unwavering commitment” to Israel’s security, the signers also want the Obama administration to remain committed to the United States’ “long-standing policy” of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as the way to peace.

The letter specifically asked the administration to oppose Palestinian efforts for membership in the United Nations and other international bodies.

Among the signers are five Jewish Democrats: Ben Cardin of Maryland, Barbara Boxer of California, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

The signers wrote that they were “deeply concerned by previously reported and unattributed comments by U.S. officials that the U.S. might change its approach to the peace process at the United Nations Security Council.”

“The United States has a critical role to play in facilitating these direct negotiations,” the senators wrote.

The Washington Dread and Denial Association


“Don’t do it!”

Stories, whether torn from history or made from whole cloth, can make us want to shout that. Don’t open that door at the top of the stairs. Don’t get on that boat. Don’t believe that president, general, journalist, preacher, cop. 

This packs a punch in a short story Delmore Schwartz wrote when he was 21, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” The narrator tells us he dreamed he was in a movie theater, watching an old film of his parents’ courtship. His father asks his mother to marry him, she says yes — and the narrator is galvanized to stand up and shout, “Don’t do it!  It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you.  Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal and two children whose characters are monstrous.” The whole audience is annoyed; the lady next to him tells him to be quiet, “and so I shut my eyes because I could not bear to see what was happening.” He awakens from the nightmare to the morning of his 21st birthday.

We can’t stop Othello from trusting Iago or Antigone from burying her brother.  We can’t stop America from swallowing President Lyndon Johnson’s lie about the Gulf of Tonkin, or President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from interning Japanese Americans. (Richard Reeves’ new book about that, “Infamy,” is horrifying.) But in real time, we want to forestall new bad things from happening, and the same bad things from happening again. When we fail, sometimes it’s a failure of clairvoyance, which is forgivable; sometimes it’s a consequence of our ignorance or impotence, and sometimes it’s because our default hardwiring is denial. 

Did you watch any of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner? Politico called it an “orgy of everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway … clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful.” The event, as usual, was crawling with celebrities. Cable panelists hammered the association for going Hollywood. President Barack Obama and comedian Cecily Strong seemed hip to how bizarre the evening was, “bizarre” being what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen called it on his blog, Pressthink, just before the red carpet glam began. He compared the press corps to a “big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion got real.” That terrible secret: the Iraq war. 

“For a press that imagines itself a watchdog,” Rosen writes, “failing to detect a faulty case for war, then watching the war unfold into the biggest foreign policy disaster in memory … is an event so huge and deflating that it amounts to an identity crisis.” 

That crisis hasn’t happened. Instead, the festive crowd at the Washington Hilton looked pretty much like it did in 2002 and 2003. Getting real about that terrible secret ought to be a prerequisite for the press to serve as watchdogs of today’s wars, as educators of citizen choices between “Don’t do it!” and “Do it!” Instead, the Beltway press says, as Obama did of the malefactors of the Great Recession, “Let’s move on.” In principle, history should guide us. In reality, Dick Cheney — “the worst president in my lifetime,” Obama called him at the dinner — is as belligerent about Iraq today as he was when he got Colin Powell to fool us at the United Nations.  

I think there’s a second terrible secret those playahs in that ballroom and those corporate after-parties also can’t face: the complete corruption of our political system by money. 

Much of the dysfunction that now poses a lethal threat to our politics and government is, ultimately, about money and the media it buys. From time to time, campaign-finance reform comes up — Hillary Clinton says it’s a big issue for her — but the Washington press corps treats the cesspool like old news. Maybe they’ve just gotten used to the smell. If the press weren’t in denial, if it truly functioned as a watchdog, that corruption would be BREAKING NEWS, and a public informed and therefore outraged about how far gone our self-governance is would be shouting “Stop! Don’t do it anymore!” But as the 2016 race begins, it’s normal — not bizarre and scary — when the Koch brothers say they’ll spend nearly $1 billion on the election, when Hillary Clinton’s supporters talk about her raising $2 billion. There is no brake on this train, nothing — not even the Constitution — to stop runaway oligarchs and deep-pocketed industries from hijacking American democracy.

The trouble, of course, is that we’re in denial about other terrible secrets as well. Our failure to prevent another financial meltdown. Or a global cyberwar. Or climate change. Or earthquakes. The devastating news from Nepal is prompting Californians to check our emergency water and batteries, but soon we’ll forget again that, at any instant, the worst earthquake in thousands of years could forever mark the biggest Before and After in the lifetimes of everyone who lives through and comes after it. 

I don’t blame us for wearing blinders. I think our brains would explode if we faced the realities of risk and mortality all the time. Yes, I know that climate change will be irreversible unless the world puts a price on carbon pollution and changes what we grow and eat. But thinking about that makes me feel depressed and helpless. Luckily, the human brain has a built-in proclivity for processing tragedy with magical thinking, for believing we’re being rational rather than actually being rational. That helps with the pain.

When Jon Stewart told a Guardian writer why he’s quitting “The Daily Show,” he said that his job — which requires him to watch news all the time — “is incredibly depressing. I live in a constant state of depression. I think of us as turd miners. I put on my helmet, I go and mine turds, hopefully I don’t get turd lung disease.” Our best satirists — Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, whose genius 2006 routine the WHCA received like a turd — try to wake us from our sleepwalking, to shake us from our amnesia. But there’s only so much reality you can take before — hey, is that Bradley Cooper with Justice Scalia?

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com. 

Ebola among top U.S. worries but well behind economy, jobs


A new poll on Tuesday showed Ebola has moved into the top 10 issues of concern to Americans but ranks behind the economy, dissatisfaction with government and other worries.

The Gallup poll was conducted before Monday's announcement that 51 people had been removed from watch lists in Texas after showing no signs of Ebola symptoms for 21 days. Scores of others are still being monitored.

The removal of dozens of people from monitoring may have eased anxiety about the potential spread of the disease in the United States, where three people have been diagnosed with the virus that has killed more than 4,500 people, mostly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

The World Health Organization's emergency committee planned to meet on Wednesday to review the growing epidemic in West Africa, which the agency has declared an international public health emergency. The committee can recommend travel and trade restrictions.

While the United States has seen only three infections and one death from Ebola, the issue has moved to the forefront in the U.S. election campaign as Republicans ramp up criticism of the government's response.

Ebola made its debut in the top 10 concerns of Americans but remained well behind five other issues: the economy, dissatisfaction with government, jobs, healthcare and immigration, the Gallup polling organization said after the survey conducted Oct. 12-15.

Ebola was tied with the federal budget deficit, education, the battle against Islamic State militants and the decline of morality as a top concern of 5 percent of the public, Gallup said. The economy ranked No. 1 at 17 percent.

'SHAMEFULLY' EXPLOITING CONCERN

Concerns that Americans might fall victim to scams because of fear about Ebola prompted a warning on Tuesday from New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman about bogus Ebola preparedness kits and preventative medications.

“Scammers are shamefully exploiting this moment of heightened concern about public health to defraud good people,” Schneiderman said in a statement.

There are no U.S. government-approved vaccines, medications or dietary supplements to prevent or treat Ebola.

Such schemes aim to prey on Americans' worries over the virus after the first patient diagnosed in the United States, Thomas Eric Duncan, died in Dallas on Oct. 8 and another infected patient, nurse Amber Vinson, flew from Texas to Ohio and back.

Vinson's mother, Debra Berry, told ABC News on Tuesday that her daughter is weak but recovering.

“She's doing OK, just trying to get stronger,” Berry told ABC's “Good Morning America” program. She said Vinson's family is “very confident” she was getting good care at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where she was taken last week for treatment.

U.S. hospitals are on high alert for possible cases, and some U.S. airports have begun screening passengers arriving from West Africa.

A study published in The Lancet medical journal on Tuesday said three Ebola-infected travelers a month would be expected to board international flights from West African countries suffering epidemics of the virus if no effective exit screening existed.

Researchers used modeling based on this year's global flight schedules and last year's passenger itineraries, along with current epidemic conditions, to conclude that 2.8 people with Ebola, on average, would board international flights every month. They said exit screening was far more effective than screening at the point of arrival.

Some U.S. lawmakers have called for a travel ban from West Africa to help stop the spread of the virus.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said on Monday he planned to introduce legislation when the Senate returns next month that would impose travel restrictions by creating a temporary ban on new visas for people from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the hardest-hit countries.

Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Jonathan Oatis

Israeli gov’t to fund abortions for women ages 20-33


Israeli women between the ages of 20 and 33 will be eligible to receive government-funded abortions in 2014.

The new eligibility is part of the country’s state-subsidized basket of health services for 2014, approved on Monday. Currently, the government only pays for abortions for medical reasons and for girls under 18.

Some 6,300 women between ages 20 and 33 are expected to have abortions in Israel in 2014. All the women still will be required to receive the approval of a government panel before undergoing the procedure; the panel approves nearly all cases.

The head of the health basket committee, Jonathan Halevy of Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, said the goal is eventually to raise the covered age to 40.

Contraception is not covered in the health basket.

The committee announced the approval of 83 new drugs and treatments for 2014.  The basket still must be approved by the Ministry of Health and the Cabinet.

Re-elect Shlump to Congress (again)


Obamacare: Glitches or death spiral?


It’s not easy to wrap your mind around a program as complex as Obamacare, which features 381,517 words in its actual bill and 11,588,500 more words in added regulations.

Thankfully and mercifully, in trying to understand this migraine-inducing puzzle, I found some relief in one simple idea: The system won’t work unless it entices enough young and healthy people to sign up.  

Right now, the big news is that the launch of the HealthCare.gov Web site has been a flop, with countless horror stories of people who haven’t been able to enroll because they were lost in a digital and bureaucratic maze.

Many liberal supporters see this initial failure (wishfully, perhaps) as a case of annoying but fixable “glitches” on the way to a more humane universal health care system.

Many conservative critics see it (wishfully, perhaps) as the kind of “disaster” that happens when Big Government bites off more than it can chew. 

As of now, the critics are on a roll. 

“With the GOP’s antics now over,” Kimberley Strassel of The Wall Street Journal writes, “the only story now is the unrivaled disaster that is the president’s health care law. Hundreds of thousands of health insurance policies cancelled. Companies dumping coverage and cutting employees’ hours. Premiums skyrocketing. And a Web site that reprises the experience of a Commodore 64.”

Even a liberal, fair-minded policy wonk like Ezra Klein of the Washington Post admits that, so far, Obamacare “is not working well at all.”

Conservative wonk Yuval Levin of National Review Online goes as far as seeing a potential “death spiral,” which he describes as follows: “The fact that it is so difficult to sign up for exchange coverage may mean that only highly motivated consumers do sign up, and those are likely to be people with high expected health costs.

“If the exchanges end up containing too many people in poor health and not enough people in good health, insurers could take massive losses in 2014 and be forced to dramatically raise premiums for 2015 plans. … Those higher premiums would cause even more healthy people to avoid getting coverage … and the cycle would continue.”

The importance of getting young, healthy people to enroll is echoed by Klein, who, after interviewing White House officials and asking “repeatedly” how they defined success, reported that “everyone in the White House shared a singular definition: Success meant setting up the exchanges and attracting enough young people [so] that premiums stayed low.”

Let’s face it — no matter where you sit, this is a scary thought: The success of Obamacare depends on getting millions of young people with short attention spans to spend hours in front of an exasperating government Web site with zero entertainment value — and trying to enroll in something they’re not sure they want.

But enroll they must, if they want to save the president’s plan. As Klein reports, the administration figured that if they got 7 million people to sign up for the exchanges in the first year, about 2.7 million needed to be young.

That’s 5.4 million jaded eyeballs to entice. 

You’d think that with the $600 million they budgeted for this Web site, the government could have splurged for a few creative types in Hollywood whose business is to keep people entertained. Put them together with the tech geniuses who built Amazon and you’d have at least the possibility of wooing these jaded eyeballs with something other than a threatened fine. 

But the user-unfriendly Web site, as bad as it is, is only a symptom of deeper issues. As Klein explains, what’s causing “deep problems” for the health care law is the mess in the infrastructure of the program, which he describes metaphorically: 

“In brick-and-mortar terms, it’s the road that leads to the store, the store itself, the payment systems between the store and the government and the manufacturers, the computer system the manufacturers use to fill the orders, the trucks that carry the product back to the store, the loading dock where the customers pick up the products, and so on.”

For the program to run smoothly, that whole infrastructure needs repair. The question is: Can the bureaucracy which created the mess do that repair work?

Many conservative critics believe that it can't, and that the program will fall under its own weight. Klein believes there’s still time to right the ship, but not much. He quotes health care experts who suggest that the Web site needs to be running smoothly by “Thanksgiving at the latest.” 

It shouldn’t shock anyone that Obamacare has been at the center of one of the nastiest partisan battles in recent memory. When a government tries to take over one sixth of the U.S. economy as it pushes through a controversial and gargantuan entitlement program on a strictly partisan vote, it can’t expect smooth sailing.

In any event, as Klein notes, the president’s program “isn't a political abstraction any longer. Its success doesn't depend on spin or solidarity. What matters for the law — and for the people who are depending on it — is how well it actually works.”

There’s something refreshing about that. After years of fighting, spinning and promising, we’re down to results.

Even a well-meaning and eloquent president has to face this reality: Ultimately, government comes down to how effectively you can solve people's problems. Either you do or you don’t.

President Obama fought tooth and nail for his 12-million-word health care legacy. Now, he needs the government he believes in and the young people who voted for him to help him deliver on that legacy. It’s far from clear that this will happen.


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

Palestinian prisoner release causes Israeli political stir


A planned release of 26 Palestinian prisoners has provoked feuding within Israel's governing coalition, already under strain from U.S.-brokered peace talks.

The inmates, all of whom were convicted of murder in the killing of Israelis before or just after the first interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accords were signed 20 years ago, were due to go free after midnight on Tuesday.

Cutting short their life sentences has been particularly grating for many Israelis because prisoner releases were a Palestinian condition for reviving peace talks last August that few people on either side of the conflict believe will succeed.

In all, 104 long-serving prisoners will go free. A first group of 26 was let out two months ago in keeping with understandings reached during shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“The release of terrorists in return for (Israeli chief negotiator) Tzipi Livni's dubious right to meet (Palestinian counterpart Saeb) Erekat is very grave,” the Jewish Home party, a far-right member of the government, said in statement at the weekend.

Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett, then tried to get a proposal to freeze further prisoner releases past a ministerial committee, where members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party voted it down on Sunday.

“The picture is now clear: the government, unlike one of its member-parties, is acting in the national interest…this government is moving the peace process forward,” Livni, head of the small, centrist Hatnuah party, wrote on her Facebook page after Jewish Home's proposed law was rejected.

[Former Shin Bet head: Release of Palestinian prisoners no threat]

The squabbling did not end there. Bennett criticised Likud ministers, saying: “The release of terrorists is immoral, it weakens Israel and endangers its citizens, and we will continue to fight it in a democratic way”.

In an apparent attempt to appease Jewish Home and hardliners within Likud, government officials said new housing projects would be announced soon in West Bank settlement blocs that Israel intends to keep in any future peace deal.

Israeli political commentators suggested that Bennett, whose party has 12 of parliament's 120 seats, had latched on to the prisoners issue as a way to swing Netanyahu's traditional right-wing supporters his way and establish himself as an alternative leader for the camp.

TRADE-OFF

Yuval Steinitz, Israel's strategic affairs minister and a Likud member, made clear in a radio interview on Monday that by agreeing to the prisoner releases, the government effectively had quashed a Palestinian demand to halt settlement building.

“The issue of freeing prisoners is certainly most painful for all of us. But strategically, the price of freezing construction in settlements would be much higher,” Steinitz said.

For Palestinians, who view settlements that Israel has erected on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war as obstacles to a state, brethren jailed by Israel are heroes in a fight for independence.

On the other side of the divide, families of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks held a vigil outside Ofer prison in the West Bank, where the prisoners slated for release were being held.

And at a military cemetery in Jerusalem, opponents of the release placed black signs, with a drawing of a bloody hand, on graves.

“As far as we are concerned, your death was in vain,” read the placards, signed “Government of Israel.”

Editing by Angus MacSwan

Where’s my check, Mr. Boehner?


Oh, thank you soooooo much! Some Republican members of Congress suddenly remembered they were Americans. Whoa, guys, that one was way too close. But thank you for postponing the end of this country for a few months. That way, holiday sales won’t suffer from wary consumers, just back from the Great Recession, slamming their wallets shut.

I am so tired of this dangerous nonsense.

I was wondering how so many people (who would be considered toxic misfits if they behaved the same way outside of Congress as they have in the House) could have been elected. This group of partisan fringe “true believers” has temporarily been beaten back in their crusade to impose their loony and dangerous ideas on the rest of America.

I also wonder how these Tea Party folks were raised. Most people are given limits and are expected to learn how to respect the limits of others. They also learn to raise their hand when they have something to contribute.  In this case, we have adults who have chosen to do whatever they want to do and to delight in the consequences to all Americans, as long as the Tea Party gets its own way. They were betting that Americans were more afraid of the Tea Party’s threats than they were afraid of an economic holocaust.

“Loser” is not in their vocabulary. When they were flattened by the steamroller of the vast majority of Americans (74 per cent) who say they disapprove of the Republican actions over the past few weeks, Tea Party stalwarts like Ted Cruz of Texas simply turn the facts on their heads and declare that the  American people are against Obama. Yet the targeted Affordable Health Care Act is the law with the Supreme Court refusing to diminish or repeal the Act.

All of this petulant and childish behavior brought us to the brink of economic extinction. The closer we got to the Tea Party’s “weapon of mass destruction,” (as Warren Buffet called the possible default) the greater the glee for the Tea Party.

Instead of using these next few months to develop a compromise, the Democrats should continue on the path set out by Obama: find more ways to just shut down the Tea Party. Any organized group that intends to harm this country through its actions, could be called a terrorist group. They attack the innocent civilians and leave a wake of misery wherever they go. It is not their misery, but that of all other Americans.

I have a few suggestions. They should have the same health insurance limitations as those faced by their constituents. They should take no more than three weeks vacation each year and be forced to retire on their anemic retirement accounts. Their children should be required to attend public schools as an act of patriotism and then be expected to do their duty in the military. They should pay the same taxes, receive the same benefits as those who elected them. Bank loans should be nearly impossible to get, even for Congress. 

During a campaign, the wealthy candidates may spend as much as they choose but their opponents will then receive matching funds from the IRS. If a law exists, they must follow it the same way those who voted for them must follow it. If they attack an established law such as the right to an abortion, they should be fined the same amount that it costs to raise a child to age 18. In this case, the rights of law abiding citizens to act in a legal manner trumps the free speech rights of those who would diminish the rights of others.

With less than a five percent approval rating from the voters, all members of this Congress should pack their bags and not let the door hit them on the way out. They have proven that they enjoy playing with matches, as long it is only other people who get burned.

Finally, unless supported by legitimate polls, any member of Congress who falsely claims to be speaking for the American people should be placed immediately on the next un- air conditioned bus headed for their home.  The American people let their opinions be known with no help needed from those who would profit from manipulation of the facts.

This latest Republican-created crisis cost the American people about $24 billion. Clearly, that money should be repaid by those who caused the financial losses. So, Mr. Boehner, where’s my check?

Government shutdown over, Iran sanctions force back at full strength


The U.S. government returned to work, and officials who track Iran sanctions compliance were working at a full complement.

Hundreds of thousands of government employees who had been furloughed since Oct. 1 returned to work on Thursday after Republicans in the House of Representatives agreed to pass a funding bill advanced by the Democratic-led Senate the previous night.

A spokesman at the U.S. Treasury confirmed that the employees included officials of its Office of Foreign Assets Control, the office responsible for monitoring international compliance with U.S. sanctions targeting Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Obama administration officials had said the shutdown was having an impact on sanctions compliance, and suggested that it could cost the United States leverage as it leads negotiations renewed this month between the major powers and Iran on its nuclear program.

The deal ratified in the Senate and House did not meet demands by House Republicans that any extension on funding government spending should be tied to undoing parts or all of President Obama’s 2010 health care reforms.

Obama blames government shutdown on ‘ideological crusade’


President Barack Obama on Tuesday blamed Republicans for an “ideological crusade” aimed at his healthcare program and urged lawmakers to vote to keep government operations running and to raise the nation's borrowing cap without conditions.

“They've shut down the government over an ideological crusade to deny affordable health insurance to millions of Americans,” he said in remarks in the White House Rose Garden.

“Many Representatives have made it clear that had they been allowed by Speaker (John) Boehner to take a simple up or down vote on keeping government open with no strings attached, enough votes from both parties would have kept the American people's government open and operating,” he said.

The president also warned Republicans against using a crucial mid-October deadline to raise the government's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling as leverage to try to reverse the health care law or achieve other political objectives.

“Congress, generally, has to stop governing by crisis,” he said. “I'm not going allow anybody to drag the good name of the United States of America just to refight a settled election or extract ideological demands.”

A debt default that would result if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling when it is reached in less than three weeks could be devastating, Obama said. The threat of default in 2011 resulted in a painful debt rating downgrade, he added.

“If they go through with it this time, and force the United States to default for the first time in its history, it would be far more dangerous than a government shutdown, as bad as a shutdown is. It would be an economic shutdown,” he said.

Palestinian prime minister’s quick exit exposes flawed framework


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah remarked when he was sworn-in to succeed Salam Fayyad at the helm of the Palestinian government earlier this month that his government’s life will by necessity be short-lived. It was intended to last until August, at which time it would be dissolved in order to pave the way for a long-awaited national consensus government comprised of both Fatah and Hamas loyalists. Doubtless, not even Hamdallah expected his tenure to last merely 18-days.

 Following intense back-and-forth between the recently-appointed prime minister and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamdallah on Sunday became the second “caretaker prime minister” in a month, when his resignation – submitted on Thursday – was accepted by Abbas.  Meanwhile, a power struggle is playing out in the Palestinian Authority.

At the heart of the political machinations according to sources inside the PA is the appointment by Abbas of two deputies to the prime minister: Muhammed Mustafa, Director of the Palestinian Investment Fund (PIF) and the other name bandied about as a leading candidate to replace Fayyad before Hamdallah was selected; and Ziad Abu Amr, a former foreign minister. While the pair of deputies was presumably a  bid by Abbas to assert more control than he had when Fayyad held the post, the absence of clear lines of authority, responsibility and procedure created an atmosphere described by on senior official as “conflicts and confusion.”

“There was a problem in forming the government from the beginning,” Hani Al-Masri, head of the Ramallah-based think tank Masarat told The Media Line. “Assigning two close aides to [President] Abbas [to serve] as the Prime Minister’s deputies is against the law.”

According to the Palestinian constitution, each member of the cabinet has to have a portfolio or a specific topic in which to be in charge. In addition, the constitution affords the Prime Minister the right to appoint a deputy of his own choosing. “This time, Abbas assigned the deputies himself and he didn’t assign them any department to oversee, which is in violation of the law,” explained Al-Masri.

“The classic power struggle between the president and the prime minister came between the prime minister and his [president-appointed] deputies,” according to writer and political analyst Jihad Harb. He told The Media Line that, “The presidency is trying to concentrate all executive powers and keep them in the hands of the Palestinian Authority practically, but not legally.”

Palestinian media was rife with reports of the alleged dispute between Hamdallah and his deputies that lead him to resignation. A journalist who spoke to The Media Line on condition that he remain anonymous explained that President Abbas gave Mohammed Mustafa, whom he appointed as the economic deputy to the Prime Minister, verbal approval to sign agreements with the World Bank without first referring them to the prime minister.

Muhammed Abu Khdeir, a senior journalist with Al-Quds, a leading Palestinian newspaper, opined that Hamdallah quit because he was “like a picture with no power.” He described Hamdallah as being “upset,” and not wanting to speak to anyone. Abu Khdeir said Hamdallah left Ramallah for Nablus, where he has been serving as the president of An-Najah University.

Masri blames the problem on the absence of a parliament and a viable system of accountability. “Anyone in the position of the Prime Minister will do the same thing. All Prime Ministers need authority and powers to function. Hamdallah is an academic with minimal experience, so it took him some time to understand the problem,” Masri told The Media Line.

The position of prime minister was created by Yassir Arafat only a decade after the Palestinian Authority itself was established as the result of pressure to institute a series of reforms in 2003.

That year, Abbas found himself in the same position Fayyad and Hamdallah now find themselves in when after only four months of leading the government under Arafat’s rule he resigned as the result of a power struggle with Arafat, primarily over control of the security forces.

In 2007, Abbas gave Fayyad the security and finance portfolios, but divisions between the two men intensified as Abbas tried to strip authority from the prime minister. “Abbas felt that Fayyad had political ambitions. Also, Fayyad refused to deliver a letter Abbas wrote to [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu,” Harb told The Media Line.  

Al-Quds journalist Abu Khdeir told The Media Line that Abbas is under pressure from Fatah because they want to lead the government. During the last five years, Prime Minister Fayyad replaced Fatah members with people on the political left like Foreign Minister Riyad Malki his chief aide Jamal Zakout. Senior Fatah members feel that Fayyad worked against both Fatah and Hamas.

A consensus of three possible scenarios has emerged among observers in the Palestinian Authority, first among them that Abbas himself will lead a unity government that will prepare for national elections. But this is not seen as a priority for either Fatah or Hamas. Such a government failed to take shape despite being agreed upon in the 2012 Doha agreement.

The second scenario sees Abbas appointing PIF head Mohammed Mustafa, a close aide to Abbas, and the candidate the president failed to appoint the first time around. Sources inside the Palestinian Authority speaking off the record told The Media Line that the primary reason Mustafa was passed over is because the United States Administration didn’t welcome his candidacy, fearing the Fatah-Hamas split might actually be ended.

Political analyst Harb agreed, telling The Media Line that, “I believe the Americans rejected Mustafa’s name as well as all other candidates because they didn’t want the reconciliation to be achieved.”

The third option is that Abbas will push for a Fatah-majority government led by a senior Fatah member. “There has to be cohesion and harmony between the president and the prime minister. A Fatah member will be less confrontational with President Abbas,” according to  Harb.

Abu Khdeir of Al-Quds sees a fourth possibility in Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh, a seasoned official who heads the Palestinian Economic Council for Development & Reconstruction (PECDAR). Abu Khdeir’s option recalls the importance Western nations placed in Salam Fayyad’s impeccable bona fides within the international financial community.  Abu Khdeir suggests that while Shtayyeh could possibly take the prime minister’s portfolio, but if not, Abbas could opt to retain it for himself if it is not determined to be illegal for him to do so.

The final scenario suggests that Abbas, too, does not want elections because Fatah is weak and either Hamas, as they did in 2006; or Islamist Salafis, could walk away with the electoral victory.

Defiant Erdogan denounces riots in Turkish cities


Anti-government protesters responsible for Turkey's worst riots in years are “arm-in-arm with terrorism,” Prime Minister Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, in a defiant response to four days of unrest in dozens of cities across the country.

Hundreds of police and protesters have been injured since Friday, when a demonstration to halt construction in a park in an Istanbul square grew into mass protests against a heavy-handed police crackdown and what opponents call Erdogan's authoritarian policies.

The demonstrations showed no sign of abating on Monday with protesters returning to Taksim Square. Barricades of rubble hindered traffic alongside the Bosphorus waterway and blocked entry into the area. Leftist groups hung out red and black flags and banners calling on Erdogan to resign and declaring: “Whatever happens, there is no going back.”

In Ankara, police charged mostly teenage demonstrators and scattered them using teargas and water cannon. Protesters had erected a barricade in the Kizilay government quarter and lit a fire in the road as a helicopter circled overhead.

Erdogan has dismissed the protests as the work of secular enemies never reconciled to the election success of his AK party, which has roots in Islamist parties banned in the past but which also embraces centre-right and nationalist elements. The party has won three straight elections and overseen an economic boom, increasing Turkey's influence in the region.

“This is a protest organised by extremist elements,” Erdogan said before departing on a trip to North Africa. “We will not give away anything to those who live arm-in-arm with terrorism.”

On arrival in Rabat, flanked by Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, Erdogan blamed parties that had lost elections for the violence, which he predicted would be short-lived: “In a few days the situation will return to normal.”

Turkey's leftist Public Workers Unions Confederation (KESK), which represents 240,000 members, said it would begin a two-day “warning strike” on Tuesday to protest at the police crackdown on what had begun as peaceful protests.

The unrest delivered a blow to Turkish financial markets that have thrived under Erdogan. Shares fell more than 10 percent and the lira dropped to 16-month lows on Monday.

The United States called for restraint in a rebuke to its NATO ally. “We are concerned by the reports of excessive use of force by police,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Washington.

WIND OF CHANGE

Since taking office in 2002, Erdogan has curtailed the power of the army, which ousted four governments in the second half of the 20th century and which hanged and jailed many, including a prime minister.

Hundreds of officers, as well as journalists and intellectuals have been jailed over an alleged coup plot against Erdogan. The wind of change has swept also through the judiciary. Where Erdogan was jailed in the late 1990s for promoting Islamism by reciting a poem, a musician was recently jailed for blasphemy after mocking religion in a tweet.

Erdogan said the protesters had no support in the population as a whole and dismissed any comparison with the 'Arab Spring' that swept nearby Arab states, toppling rulers long ensconced in power with the help of repressive security services.

His own tenure in office, with its economic and political reforms, was itself the “Turkish Spring”, he suggested.

He gave no indication he was preparing any concessions to protesters who accuse him of fostering a hidden Islamist agenda in a country with a secularist constitution.

Some object to new restrictions on alcohol sales and other steps seen as religiously motivated. Others complain of the costs of Erdogan's support of rebels in neighbouring Syria's civil war. Still others bear economic grievances, viewing the disputed development project in Taksim Square as emblematic of wild greed among those who have benefited from Turkey's boom.

SAFE FOR NOW

Walls around Taksim were plastered with posters of a policeman spraying tear gas at a young woman in a red summer dress, her hair swept upwards by the draught of the spraygun.

“The more they spray, the bigger we get,” read the caption.

Western governments have promoted Erdogan's administration as a democratic Islamist model that could be copied elsewhere in the Middle East after the fall of authoritarian leaders. They have expressed concerns about human rights standards discreetly, but last weekend's events prompted the United States and the European Union to openly criticise police action.

Erdogan appeared to reject accusations of heavy handedness, saying authorities were “behaving in a very restrained way”.

With strong support, especially in the conservative religious heartland of Anatolia, Erdogan remains Turkey's most popular politician and seems safe for now.

He said plans would go ahead to re-make Taksim Square, long a rallying point for demonstrations, including construction of a new mosque and the rebuilding of a replica Ottoman-era barracks.

The protests have involved a broad spectrum in dozens of cities, from students to professionals, trade unionists, Kurdish activists and hardline secularists who see Erdogan seeking to overthrow the secularist state set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Additional reported by Aziz El Yaakoubi in Rabat; Writing by Ralph Boulton; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Giles Elgood

Budget, Iran top priorities for new Israeli government


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government will face the immediate task of passing an austerity budget and the time-sensitive challenge of preventing what it believes is Iran's drive to develop nuclear weapons.

Following is a list of the coalition's main priorities as Netanyahu started his third term in office on Monday:

PASSING A BUDGET

After clinching coalition agreements last week, Netanyahu said his government's first task would be “passage of a responsible budget” – shorthand for widely expected spending cuts and tax rises.

The budget deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 – double the original target. It was cabinet infighting over the 2013 budget that led Netanyahu to call an early election.

Netanyahu now has 45 days to put together a budget and win parliamentary approval, or face another general election. Parliament could, however, use special legislation to extend the deadline to 120 days.

IRAN

Netanyahu has said his government's “paramount task” would be “to stop Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons”.

Last year, Netanyahu announced a “red line” for Iran's nuclear program, saying Tehran should not be allowed to obtain 240 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium, a point it could reach, he said, by spring or summer of 2013.

It was another heavy hint from Netanyahu that Israel could attack Iran's nuclear sites. But officials and analysts say Iran has slowed its mid-level uranium enrichment to stay beneath the Netanyahu threshold.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in an interview with Israel's Channel Two television last week, said it would take Iran more than a year to develop a nuclear weapon. Tehran denies seeking atomic arms.

SYRIA

Israel is closely watching Syria's civil war, with occasional spillover mortar fire into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Netanyahu has voiced concern that Syria's chemical weapons and other advanced arms could fall into the hands of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and al Qaeda.

In January, according to a Western diplomat and a source among Syrian rebels, Israeli planes bombed a convoy near Syria's border with Lebanon carrying weapons to Hezbollah.

ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACE

Netanyahu has said that Obama's visit this week would put the Israeli-Palestinian peace issue on his new government's agenda earlier than expected.

Beyond an oft-repeated call to the Palestinians to return to peace talks they abandoned in 2010 over Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank, Netanyahu has not voiced any new ideas on how to restart the negotiations.

Israel's new housing minister, a settler himself, said on Sunday the cabinet would keep expanding settlements to the same extent as Netanyahu's previous government.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Israel’s emerging new government


Barring a last minute glitch, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to sign coalition agreements that will give him a new government just two days before the deadline, and less than a week before President Barack Obama arrives in Israel. The new government will have a total of 68 seats in the 120 seat parliament.

“It’s an excellent government and it will have a chance to enact changes that should have been taken a long time ago,” Eytan Gilboa, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University told The Media Line. “It will try to correct distortions in army service by drafting the ultra-Orthodox and cut economic benefits to them as well. There will also be an opportunity to introduce changes to the economic system.”

For the first time since 2005, the ultra-Orthodox parties will not be inside the government. Also outside will be the center-left Labor party, as well as the Arab parties.

The election was held almost two months ago. Netanyahu’s Likud party, which ran on a joint slate with the hard-line Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel is Our Home”), won 31 seats—just over 25 percent, and a significant drop from their joint strength in the previous government. That meant Netanyahu needed to find at least 30 additional seats. Nineteen of those came from the election’s biggest surprise: Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”) the new party of television personality turned politician Yair Lapid, who is slated to become Finance Minister in the new government.

“This government represents a change—it’s the same Prime Minister and the Likud is the largest party, but it is a major, dramatic change,” Yehuda Ben Meir of the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) told The Media Line. “This will be more of a civilian government than a theocratic government, and it represents a wide segment of the Israeli population.’

Both Lapid and his junior partner, Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party, had been slated to become Deputy Prime Ministers. At the last minute, however, Netanyahu decided not to appoint any deputy prime ministers for the first time in 50 years. According to Israeli media, the Prime Minister's wife, Sara Netanyahu, harbors a lingering grudge against Bennett, her husband's former chief of staff, and she didn’t want him appointed to the position. Bennett said that Netanyahu's decision violates a previous agreement with his party.

The new government is expected to be sworn in on Monday, just two days before President Obama arrives in Israel. Under Israeli law, if an agreement had not been reached by Saturday night, Israel would have had to hold new elections. Most of the wrangling of the past few weeks was over who would receive which cabinet portfolios. For example, Lapid’s Yesh Atid party insisted on both the Education and Finance Ministries; Lapid himself was angling to become Foreign Minister. In the end, Netanyahu succeeded in holding on to that job for his partner, Avigdor Lieberman, who is currently on trial for fraud and corruption.

The first tasks of the new government will be to pass a new budget. Lapid is also insisting that Israel begin drafting the ultra-Orthodox to “share the burden” of military service. Some ultra-Orthodox have responded by sayng that they will leave Israel rather than be drafted. Most Jewish Israeli men serve for three years; women serve for two. One study has shown that if most of the ultra-Orthodox were drafted, all men could serve only two years, as well.

With a slim majority, 68 seats, the government may be fragile; if either Lapid or Bennett decides to leave the coalition, the government will fall and new elections will be held.

“If this government lasts more than two years, it will be a success,” Gilboa said. “It’s also like a period of apprenticeship for Lapid and Bennett. Both of them want to be Prime Minister in a few years.”

U.S., Israeli officials: Obama visit is on


U.S. and Israeli officials said President Obama would not delay his trip to Israel in the event that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unable to form a government.

“We have no scheduling changes to announce,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. “The president is looking forward to, very much, his trip to Israel and the region, and we’re on course planning that trip.”

An Israeli Embassy official in Washington described as “baseless” reports in the Israeli media earlier this week that Obama would delay his trip should Netanyahu fail to meet a March 16 deadline to form a government, a few days before Obama is due to arrive. 

The official told JTA that preparations for the trip were continuing apace and there was no sign of a postponement.

Netanyahu sets meeting to request extension in forming government


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with President Shimon Peres to request an extension in forming a government.

Their meeting was scheduled for Saturday night at the end of Shabbat, which is the deadline for forming a government.

Under law, Netanyahu can request an up to two-week extension, which Peres already has said he he will approve. With the extension, Netanyahu will have until March 16 — four days before the arrival of President Obama for his first trip to Israel as president — to form a government.

Netanyahu's Likud party said earlier this week that it was nearing an agreement with the right-wing Jewish Home party. Naftali Bennett, who heads Jewish Home, and Yair Lapid, chief of the centrist Yesh Atid party, have agreed to either enter the government or remain in the opposition together. Both parties have set as a priority passing legislation to require haredi Orthodox yeshiva students to serve in the military.

Observers say it is likely that Netanyahu will eschew the haredi Orthodox parties in order to sign coalition agreements with Jewish Home and Yesh Atid.

The haredi Orthodox Shas party said Thursday that it will not join the Netanyahu government in the future if it is not included from the start of the new government.

“We will not allow Netanyahu to create the coalition in two stages,” a senior Shas official told Haaretz. “If the prime minister doesn’t want us as part of the government now, we will take the opposition benches for the rest of the term and we will vote against his government’s policies.”

Schoolbooks ingrain Israeli-Palestinian enmity, study says


Israelis and Palestinians depict each other in schoolbooks as an enemy and largely deny their adversary's history and existence, according to a U.S. government-funded study published on Monday.

Young minds are inheriting a century-old struggle for land and legitimacy through their schoolbooks, said a panel of Muslim, Jewish and Christian social scientists from the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land.

Countries who give donations to the Palestinian Authority have studied Israeli allegations of incitement to violence and even anti-Semitism in Palestinian schoolbooks for over a decade, but the report said both sides bore blame for ingraining enmity.

“The schoolbooks offer narratives to motivate members of society to be part of the conflict,” Daniel Bar-Tal of Israel's Tel Aviv University, one of the lead researchers, told a news conference. “In conflict societies, people not only shoot at each other, but struggle for the narrative, the image of the other and of themselves.”

The conclusions drew strong reaction from the governments of each side, with Palestinians happy to have Israel included in a comprehensive study and Israel, which boycotted the investigation, calling it “biased and unprofessional”.

A bilingual research team examined 168 textbooks, homing in on cases in which the other side is discussed and assigning the passages with one of five labels, from “very negative” to “very positive.”

In a double blind study, researchers agreed on the designations in over 90 percent of cases, a degree of unanimity that authors say lent a degree of scientific rigor lacking in previous, more subjective examinations of the subject.

Among passages describing the other, the study classified 84 percent as “negative” or “very negative” in Palestinian books, compared with 49 percent in Israeli state schools and 73 percent in Israeli religious schools.

But of the passages designated “very negative,” most characterized the other “as the enemy,” rather than “de-humanizing” or “demonizing” them, the study by the Jerusalem-based think-tank found.

Along those lines, a 12th-grade Palestinian textbook described “Zionist occupation and its usurpation of Palestine and its people's rights” as “the core of the conflict”.

A fourth grade Israeli religious textbook teaches that “Israel is a young country surrounded by enemies, like a little lamb in a sea of seventy wolves.”

The study also found that Israeli state schools more directly tackled negative aspects of its own past – such as a 1948 massacre of unarmed Palestinian civilians – than Israeli religious and Palestinian schools did.

MAPS IGNORE THE OTHER SIDE

A vast majority of maps in Israeli and Palestinian textbooks either totally omitted the other side, or showed interim borders without naming the other side.

Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in a 1967 war. It annexed East Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and has accelerated settlement in the West Bank, while withdrawing from Gaza in 2005.

Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as their capital. Peace talks have been frozen since 2010.

Exercising limited self rule in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has struggled to build a national identity and institutions.

It recycled Jordanian and Egyptian schoolbooks until it began to write its own curriculum in 2000, progressively erasing confrontational references to Jews and celebrations of martyrdom.

But Israeli and U.S. officials have not been convinced by these changes, and say that Palestinian school materials continue to promote hatred.

Israeli non-governmental organizations have repeatedly presented findings alleging incitement to the U.S. Congress as well as the European and Canadian parliaments.

The U.S. State Department provided $500,000 for the latest research, after a study it performed itself in its annual rights review of the Palestinian Territories in 2009 faulted Palestinian textbooks for “imbalance, bias and inaccuracy”.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad “welcomed” the results of the new study, according to a statement from his office, saying it “absolved Palestinian textbooks of the flagrant accusation that they incite hatred toward the other”.

Israel's education ministry said that the findings' “attempt to draw a parallel between the Israeli and Palestinian education systems is baseless and has no grounds in reality.

“The result of the 'research' shows that the decision not to cooperate with the investigation was justified,” the ministry said in a statement sent to Reuters.

Reporting By Noah Browning; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Being American is bad for your health


“Americans are sicker and die younger than people in other wealthy nations.” 

That stark sentence appears in the January 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, and it comes from the authors of a landmark report – “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health” – on differences among high-income countries.

You probably already know that America spends more on healthcare than any other country.  That was one of the few facts to survive the political food fight pretending to be a serious national debate about the Affordable Care Act.

But the airwaves also thrummed with so many sound bites from so many jingoistic know-nothings claiming that America has the best healthcare system in the world that today, most people don’t realize how shockingly damaging it is to your wellness and longevity to be born in the U.S.A.

This is made achingly clear in the study of the “U.S. health disadvantage” recently issued by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, which was conducted over 18 months by experts in medicine and public health, demography, social science, political science, economics, behavioral science and epidemiology. 

Compare the health of the American people with our peer nations – with Britain, Canada and Australia; with Japan; with the Scandinavian countries; with France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  Side by side with the world’s wealthy democracies, America comes in last, and over the past several decades, it’s only gotten worse.

With few exceptions – like death rates from breast cancer – we suck.  Our newborns are less likely to reach their first birthday, or their fifth birthday.  Our adolescents die at higher rates from car crashes and homicides, and they have the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections.  Americans have the highest incidence of AIDS, the highest obesity rates, the highest diabetes rates among adults 20 and older, the highest rates of chronic lung disease and heart disease and drug-related deaths. 

There is one bright spot.  Americans who live past their 75th birthday have the longest life expectancy.  But for everyone else – from babies to baby boomers and beyond – your chances of living a long life are the butt-ugly worst among all the 17 rich nations in our peer group.

In case you’re tempted to blow off these bleak statistics about American longevity by deciding that they don’t apply to someone like you – before you attribute them to, how shall we put it, the special burdens that our racially and economically diverse and culturally heterogeneous nation has nobly chosen to bear – chew on this: “Even non-Hispanic white adults or those with health insurance, a college education, high incomes, or healthy behaviors appear to be in worse health (e.g., higher infant mortality, higher rates of chronic diseases, lower life expectancy) in the United States than in other high-income countries.”  And by the way, “the nation’s large population of recent immigrants is generally in better health than native-born Americans.”

Why are we trailing so badly?  Some of the causes catalogued by the report:

The U.S. public health and medical care systems:  Our employer- and private insurance-based health care system has long set us apart from our peer nations, who provide universal access.  The right loves to rail against “socialized medicine,” but on health outcomes, the other guys win.

Individual behavior: Tobacco, diet, physical inactivity, alcohol and other drug use and sexual practices play a part, but there’s not a whole lot of evidence that uniquely nails Americans’ behavior. The big exception is injurious behavior.  We loves us our firearms, and we don’t much like wearing seat belts or motorcycle helmets. 

Social factors:  Stark income inequality and poverty separate us from other wealthy nations, who also have more generous safety nets and demonstrate greater social mobility than we do.  In America, the best predictor of good or bad health is the income level of your zip code.

Physical and social environmental factors: Toxins harm us, but our pollution isn’t notably worse than in other rich nations.  The culprit may be our “built environment”: less public transportation, walking and cycling; more cars and car accidents; less access to fresh produce; more marketing and bigger portions of bad food.

Policies and social values:  To me, this is the richest, and riskiest, ground broken by the report, which asks whether there’s a common denominator – upstream, root causes – that help explain why the United States has been losing ground in so many health domains since the 1970s: 

“Certain character attributes of the quintessential American (e.g. dynamism, rugged individualism) are often invoked to explain the nation’s great achievements and perseverance.  Might these same characteristics also be associated with risk-taking and potentially unhealthy behaviors? Are there health implications to Americans’ dislike of outside (e.g., government) interference in personal lives and in business and marketing practices?”

My answer is yes, but I’d plant the problem in recent history and politics, not in timeless quintessentials.  Since the 1980s, in the sunny name of “free enterprise,” there’s been a ferocious, ideologically driven effort to demonize government, roll back regulations, privatize the safety net, stigmatize public assistance, gut public investment, weaken consumer protection, consolidate corporate power, delegitimize science, condemn anti-poverty efforts as “class warfare” and entrust public health to the tender mercies of the marketplace. 

The epidemic of gun violence has been fueled by anti-government paranoia stoked by the gun manufacturers’ lobby, the NRA.  The spike in consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has been driven by the food industry’s business decisions and its political (i.e., financial) clout.  In the name of fiscal conservatism, plutocrats push for cuts in discretionary expenditures on maternal health, early childhood education, social services and public transportation.  The same tactic that once prolonged tobacco’s death grip – the confection of a phony scientific “controversy” – now undermines efforts to combat climate change, which is as big a danger to public health as any disease.

More accidents may be shortening our lifespans.  But we’re not getting sicker by accident.


Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Obama’s likely takeaway from Israeli election: More two-state advocates


With the Israeli election results split evenly between the right-wing bloc and everyone else, no one in Washington is ready to stake their reputation on what the outcome means for the U.S.-Israel relationship and the Middle East.

Except for this: The next Israeli government likely will include more than two lawmakers committed to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

In mid-December, resigned to what then seemed to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s certain reelection at the helm of a hard-right government, staff at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv drew up what they believed would be the most likely new governing coalition. Then they researched each member and counted the lawmakers who had expressly committed themselves to a two-state solution.

They came up with a grand total of two: Netanyahu and Carmel Shama HaCohen, a real estate agent from Ramat Gan and a political up-and-comer.

HaCohen is unlikely to claim a seat in the next Knesset. He’s No. 32 on the Likud Beitenu list, which is projected to take 31 seats, though some ballots have yet to be counted. But the prospect of more than two two-staters on the governing side has risen dramatically with the split Knesset, while apprehension within the Obama administration about a Netanyahu driven into recalcitrance by hard-line partners has likely diminished.

White House spokesman Jay Carney eagerly took a question on Jan. 22 on what the elections meant for peace prospects, even before official results were in and when exit polls projected Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc emerging with a razor-thin majority.

“The United States remains committed, as it has been for a long time, to working with the parties to press for the goal of a two-state solution,” Carney said. “That has not changed and it will not change. We will continue to make clear that only through direct negotiations between the parties can the Palestinians and Israelis address all the permanent status issues that need to be addressed and achieve the peace that they both deserve: two states for two peoples with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel.”

The language was boilerplate, but the context was not: Just a week ago, the narrative was that President Obama had all but given up on advancing peace while Netanyahu was prime minister, believing that “Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are,” according to a report by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic.

David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with close ties to the major Israeli parties and the White House, said the Obama administration was likely to proceed with cautious optimism.

“We're entering into a period of uncertainty where Israeli politics will look like a Rubik’s cube,” Makovsky said. “But from Washington’s perspective, there might be more cards than a couple of weeks ago.”

The Obama-Netanyahu drama of recent years, arising from tensions over Israel’s settlement building and how aggresively to confront Iran, may not soon disappear. In his post-election speech, Netanyahu said preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon remains his No. 1 priority.

Obama also wants to keep Iran from having a nuclear bomb, which the Islamic Republic has denied it is seeking. But the two leaders have disagreed on the efficacy of sanctions and the timing of a possible military option.

Additionally, there is a sense among Israeli rightists that Obama’s remark was leaked to Goldberg in a bid to bring down Netanyahu’s poll numbers, although no evidence has emerged to support the claim.

The upside for Obama, however, is that Netanyahu will likely first court the centrist parties in coalition talks. According to news reports, he called Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, shortly after the polls closed on Jan. 22 and told him they had great things to do together. In his own speech, Netanyahu said he could see “many partners” in the next government.

Lapid, the telegenic former journalist whose new party snagged an unexpected 19 seats, was the surprise winner in the balloting. He backs negotiations with the Palestinians and withdrawal from much of the West Bank, although he also aggressively courted some settlers. More piquantly, his chief adviser is Mark Mellman, a pollster ensconced in Washington’s Democratic establishment who has close White House ties.

Netanyahu’s pivot to the center is to be expected, said Josh Block, who directs The Israel Project, a group that disseminates pro-Israel materials to journalists and opinion makers.

“Predictions of Israeli voter apathy and of a rightward shift in the Israeli electorate, both of which reached the status of conventional wisdom on the eve of the election, seem to have been incorrect,” Block said in an email. “The voting, which was marked by near-historic turnout, appears to show an Israeli electorate reflecting a practical centrism: a desire for strong security and peace with Palestinians, a focus on economic issues and needs of the middle class, and a commitment to free markets and religious secularism.”

Much of the election was fought on the widening income gaps in Israel, as well as on the role of the haredi Orthodox in Israeli affairs. Those issues likely will predominate in coalition negotiations, said Peter Medding, a political science professor at Hebrew University whose specialties include U.S.-Israel relations.

Medding said the negotiations could take weeks, particularly because of Lapid’s emphasis on drafting haredi Orthodox students and removing Orthodox influence from the public sphere.

“The kind of policies Lapid has been putting forward does not sit well with some of the right’s natural coalition partners, particularly Shas,” the Sephardic Orthodox party that won 11 seats.

Hungarian Jewish body to sue lawmaker for ‘Nazi’ speech


A Hungarian Jewish organization said it will file a complaint against a lawmaker who proposed drawing up a list of “dangerous” Jews in government.

“There is no alternative to legal recourse now,” the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation said  Tuesday in a statement about the parliamentary address the previous day by Marton Gyongyosi of the ultranationalist Jobbik party.

During a Parliament session on Israel’s latest clash with Hamas, Gyongyosi said that Jews in the government posed a national risk and should be monitored. He also said a census should be held of all Hungarian Jews.

Rabbi Slomo Koves, a Chabad emissary and director of the Budapest-based Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, said his organization is initiating a “criminal procedure” against Gyongyosi's “open Nazism inside Parliament.” The statement did not specify the procedure.

Koves also called on Hungarian democratic parties to “take action” on Jobbik, a party that the Anti-Defamation League calls “openly anti-Semitic.”

Several lawmakers in Hungary wore yellow Stars of David on Tuesday as hundreds of protesters rallied to condemn Gyongyosi for his speech, according to The Associated Press.

Protests after “Pharaoh” Morsi assumes powers in Egypt


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's decision to assume sweeping powers caused fury amongst his opponents and prompted violent clashes in central Cairo and other cities on Friday.

Police fired tear gas near Cairo's Tahrir Square, heart of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, where thousands demanded Morsi quit and accused him of launching a “coup”. There were violent protests in Alexandria, Port Said and Suez.

Opponents accused Morsi, who has issued a decree that puts his decisions above legal challenge until a new parliament is elected, of being the new Mubarak and hijacking the revolution.

“The people want to bring down the regime,” shouted protesters in Tahrir, echoing a chant used in the uprising that forced Mubarak to step down. “Get out, Morsi,” they chanted, along with “Mubarak tell Morsi, jail comes after the throne.”

Morsi's aides said the presidential decree was intended to speed up a protracted transition that has been hindered by legal obstacles but Morsi's rivals condemned him as an autocratic pharaoh who wanted to impose his Islamist vision on Egypt.

“I am for all Egyptians. I will not be biased against any son of Egypt,” Morsi said on a stage outside the presidential palace, adding that he was working for social and economic stability and the rotation of power.

“Opposition in Egypt does not worry me, but it has to be real and strong,” he said, seeking to placate his critics and telling Egyptians that he was committed to the revolution. “Go forward, always forward … to a new Egypt.”

Buoyed by accolades from around the world for mediating a truce between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip, Morsi on Thursday ordered that an Islamist-dominated assembly writing the new constitution could not be dissolved by legal challenges.

“Morsi a 'temporary' dictator,” was the headline in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Morsi, an Islamist whose roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood, also gave himself wide powers that allowed him to sack the unpopular general prosecutor and opened the door for a retrial for Mubarak and his aides.

The president's decree aimed to end the logjam and push Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, more quickly along its democratic path, the presidential spokesman said.

“President Morsi said we must go out of the bottleneck without breaking the bottle,” Yasser Ali told Reuters.

TURBULENCE AND TURMOIL

The president's decree said any decrees he issued while no parliament sat could not be challenged, moves that consolidated his power but look set to polarize Egypt further, threatening more turbulence in a nation at the heart of the Arab Spring.

The turmoil has weighed heavily on Egypt's faltering economy that was thrown a lifeline this week when a preliminary deal was reached with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan. But it also means unpopular economic measures.

In Alexandria, north of Cairo, protesters ransacked an office of the Brotherhood's political party, burning books and chairs in the street. Supporters of Morsi and opponents clashed elsewhere in the city, leaving 12 injured.

A party building was also attacked by stone-throwing protesters in Port Said, and demonstrators in Suez threw petrol bombs that burned banners outside the party building.

Morsi's decree is bound to worry Western allies, particularly the United States, a generous benefactor to Egypt's army, which praised Egypt for its part in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to a ceasefire on Wednesday.

The West may become concerned about measures that, for example, undermine judicial independence. The European Union urged Morsi to respect the democratic process.

“We are very concerned about the possible huge ramifications of this declaration on human rights and the rule of law in Egypt,” Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, said at the United Nations in Geneva.

The United States has been concerned about the fate of what was once a close ally under Mubarak, who preserved Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The Gaza deal has reassured Washington but the deepening polarization of the nation will be a worry.

“ANOTHER DICTATOR”

“The decree is basically a coup on state institutions and the rule of law that is likely to undermine the revolution and the transition to democracy,” said Mervat Ahmed, an independent activist in Tahrir protesting against the decree. “I worry Morsi will be another dictator like the one before him.”

Leading liberal Mohamed ElBaradei, who joined other politicians on Thursday night to demand the decree was withdrawn, wrote on his Twitter account that Morsi had “usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt's new pharaoh”.

Almost two years after Mubarak was toppled and about five months since Morsi took office, propelled to the post by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has no permanent constitution, which must be in place before new parliamentary elections are held.

The last parliament, which sat for the first time earlier this year, was dissolved after a court declared it void. It was dominated by the Brotherhood's political party.

An assembly drawing up the constitution has yet to complete its work. Many liberals, Christians and others have walked out accusing the Islamists who dominate it of ignoring their voices over the extent that Islam should be enshrined in the new state.

Opponents call for the assembly to be scrapped and remade. Morsi's decree protects the existing one and extends the deadline for drafting a document by two months, pushing it back to February, further delaying a new parliamentary election.

Explaining the rationale behind the moves, the presidential spokesman said: “This means ending the period of constitutional instability to arrive at a state with a written constitution, an elected president and parliament.”

“THIS IS NOT THE REMEDY”

Analyst Seif El Din Abdel Fatah said the decree targeted the judiciary which had reversed, for example, an earlier Morsi decision to remove the prosecutor.

Morsi, who is now protected by his new decree from judicial reversals, said the judiciary contained honorable men but said he would uncover corrupt elements. He also said he would ensure independence for the judicial, executive and legislative powers.

Although many of Morsi's opponents also opposed the sacked prosecutor, whom they blamed for shortcomings in prosecuting Mubarak and his aides, and also want judicial reform, they say a draconian presidential decree was not the way to do it.

“There was a disease but this is not the remedy,” said Hassan Nafaa, a liberal-minded political science professor and activist at Cairo University.

Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Sebastian Moffett in Brussels; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Millership and Giles Elgood

Judith Gross sues government, contractor on husband Alan’s behalf


Alan Gross' wife sued the U.S. government and the company that contracted his work in Cuba, alleging that their training was inadequate and a factor in his imprisonment.

A media release issued on behalf of Scott Gilbert, a lawyer, said that the lawsuit he filed Friday on behalf of Judith Gross in a federal court in Washington D.C. seeks to “hold Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI) and the United States Government accountable for their role in Mr. Gross’ detention and imprisonment, including their abject failure to advise, train and protect him.”

Gross, 63, of Potomac, Md., was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.”

He was arrested in 2009 for allegedly bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community. He has exhausted the appeals process.

Gilbert's release alleges that Gross' “role in the project required Mr. Gross to make multiple trips to Cuba over a short period, the fifth of which resulted in his wrongful arrest and detention.”

Gross, who had run similar projects in other countries, was subcontracting to DAI, which was running a contract for the State Department's U.S. Agency for International Development. 

“Mr. and Mrs. Gross claim that DAI and the U.S. Government failed to disclose adequately to Mr. Gross, both before and after he began traveling to Cuba, the material risks that he faced due to his participation in the project,” the release says. It does not mention the figure that the family is seeking.

DAI in a statement alluded to Gross' prior experience in such matters, and suggested that it did not want to say more pending continuing efforts to win Gross' release.

“Alan Gross is a colleague and friend whom we respect for his many years of international development experience and his expertise,” the DAI statement says. “We are disappointed that the Gross family has chosen to file a law suit at this point in time. As much as we would like to address the numerous disagreements we have with the content of the complaint, the fact is that doing so will not advance the cause of bringing Alan home, which remains our highest priority.”

Gross has become a cause for U.S. Jewish organizations, which have led protests and representations to U.S. and foreign officials on his behalf. His mother, who is 90, and his daughter are both struggling with cancer.

The State Department did not return a request for comment.

The space between the individual and the government


Is it the individual citizen who is more important in a free society, or is it the government? It’s easy to see this as the philosophical choice during this election season: One side seems to favor the liberty of the individual, while the other favors the primacy of the government.

But apparently it’s not so simple. 

In a provocative essay in the Weekly Standard titled “The Real Debate,” conservative writer Yuval Levin challenges the individual-versus-government cliché by explaining that “what matters most about society happens in the space between those two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government.”

He adds: “The real debate forced upon us by the Obama years — the underlying disagreement to which the two parties are drawn despite themselves — is in fact about the nature of that intermediate space, and of the mediating institutions that occupy it: the family, civil society, and the private economy.”

The problem, according to Levin, is that these mediating institutions have become a source of bitter ideological conflict. As he sees it, the bigger government becomes, the more it threatens the health of these institutions that live in the middle space.

“Progressives in America have always viewed those institutions with suspicion,” he writes, and have sought to empower the government to put in place “public programs and policies motivated by a single, cohesive understanding of the public interest.”   

Conservatives have resisted such a gross rationalization of society, Levin writes, and “insisted that local knowledge channeled by evolving social institutions — from civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, to charitable enterprises and complex markets — will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. 

“The life of a society consists of more than moving resources around, and what happens in that space between the individual and the government is vital — at least as much a matter of character formation as of material provision and wealth creation. Moral individualism mixed with economic collectivism only feels like freedom because it liberates people from responsibility in both arenas.”

But real freedom, Levin says, is “only possible with real responsibility. And real responsibility is only possible when you depend upon, and are depended upon by, people you know. It is, in other words, only possible in precisely that space between the individual and the state.”

As it turns out, I got a taste of that “intermediate space” last Sunday night in my neighborhood. 

The occasion was a community wedding at the Modern Orthodox YULA Girls High School.

Two months ago, members of the YULA community heard that one of their former students wanted to get married but couldn’t afford a wedding.

So, the head of school, Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, who always dreamed of using the school’s grounds for a simcha, and the dean of students, Brigitte Wintner, decided the school would “donate” the wedding. (I’m smelling a screenplay.)

Everyone in the community chipped in. Services like catering, flowers, rentals, bar, photographer, musicians, etc. all were either donated or offered at enormous discounts. YULA students, past and present, ran around setting everything up on the big day.

In the courtyard where my oldest daughter spent four years hanging out with her friends, there were now cocktail tables, a bar and waiters passing out appetizers.

In the parking lot where I would park when I had meetings with the head of school, there were multiple rows of folding chairs, a small chuppah and more rabbis than I could count.

On the far side of the lot was a tent covering enough tables to accommodate 250 guests.

Neighbors popped their heads out to discover there was an actual wedding happening on their street.

As I witnessed the ceremony, and saw more than a few grateful tears on the faces of family members, it struck me that maybe this is what Levin meant by the “space” between the individual and the government.

Yes, both the individual and the government are vitally important, but perhaps even more vital is the sacred space between the two.

In the Jewish world, this space is dominated by one word: community.

No matter how compassionate a government is, it could never create this community for us.

This community is created by the teaching of Jewish values and the living of those values in everyday life. One of those values is a sense of obligation toward other members of the community. This is not a theoretical or global value, it’s deeply local. 

It’s a value you see on the streets, in thrift shops, when people volunteer to clean the sidewalks, in warehouses that feed the needy on Shabbat, and, yes, even in weddings in schoolyards. 

It’s a value that is dependent not on government, but on character.

No matter who wins on Nov. 6, that truth will endure. 


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

Prop 32 – The final piece of election reform


The voters of California have put in place two elements of major reform to our election process.  The first was taking the redistricting process out of the hands of special interests and career politicians.  The second was an attempt to stem the highly partisan elections by giving voters in primaries an opportunity to vote for all the potential candidates.  The third and final reform that will clean up the election process is to put a stop to special interests spending hundreds of millions of dollars to taint the elections.  That is what Proposition 32 does and why it deserves your support.

Proposition 32 restricts special interests (particularly corporations and unions) from contributing directly to candidates or committees affiliated with the candidates.  It also goes on to restrict government contractors of any kind from making contributions to candidates.  It is pretty straight forward.

Ask yourself this question – has the state government in California been operating well?  The budget of the state has neither been balanced nor on time in a dozen years.  Because it is now the law that legislators pass a timely budget or lose their pay, they did that this year for the first time in a decade.  But the budget is only balanced with the assumption of the passing of Prop 30 to garner new revenues (from you) and an assumption that certain Californians will have huge profits from their sale of Facebook stock.  Is this really a way to run a government?

The local governments are in worse shape.  Stockton, Mammoth Lakes and San Bernardino, which have all declared bankruptcy, are just the tip of the iceberg of local governments on the precipice.  Many question when an even larger city, like Los Angeles, may have to enter bankruptcy because of being unable to meet its obligations.

The reason for this mess at the state and local level is abundantly clear.  It is what has come to be called “Crony Capitalism.”  The special interests give huge money to their favored candidates during the election.  Then once those politicians get into office they hear a knock on their door.  They are reminded of who gave them the money to get into office and asked to return the favor by protecting the projects or salaries or rich benefits of the patron saints. 40% of the legislation passed is written by lobbyists and just handed to the politicians to vote into law.  And who ends up paying for these boondoggles?  You and I do.  But we don’t have a say as the politicians cut backroom deals (often ones they don’t wish to participate in) against our interests. 

Think about it — government contractors win a contract and they can turn around and give a contribution to the very politicians who gave them the contract.  Sometimes they are so brazen that they make the contributions before the vote because they know no one is really watching them.  The press that used to look over their shoulders has gone out of business in this new age of electronic journalism.  The only newspaper watching the state legislature is the Sacramento Bee, and they don’t have the resources to keep an eye on all of them and the governor.  It is no wonder that the taxpayers are the losers in this entire process. 

You may have seen ads against Prop 32.  If you notice who supports those ads, it is the very special interests that are breaking the financial backs of our governments.  They want to protect their gravy trains which come out of your hard-earned paycheck.  They will tell you they are out helping you, but they are only lining their own pockets. 

After over a decade of financial disaster, it is time for the residents of California to take back control of their government.  We have taken the steps to stop politicians from protecting their seats from redistricting and stopped the wildly partisan election process.  Now we need to take the final step to stop the graft and corruption that is bringing our government to its knees financially.  Vote Yes on Prop 32 and change the course of California.


Mr. Bialosky was a presidential appointee to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Netanyahu announces early Israeli election


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced early national elections.

In a news conference on Oct. 9, Netanyahu announced that elections for the 19th Knesset will be held a year early. Although a date has not yet been announced, it is expected the vote will be held in early 2013, most likely in February.

A February election will be four years since the last Knesset election. The Knesset will return on Oct. 15, after which the government likely will pass a resolution to dissolve.

Netanyahu held meetings last week and on Oct. 9 with the heads of the other parties in his government coalition to decide whether to work to pass the 2013 budget or go to early elections. If the government cannot agree on a budget, it is grounds to go to elections.

Going to elections without an approved budget means that the ministries will operate on the 2012 budget allocations. A new budget would have seen deep cuts in many ministries.

“The country has actually been in election mode for over six months, which is unhealthy and should be stopped as soon as possible,” opposition Labor Party head Shelly Yachimovich said.

“The public must remember that Netanyahu is going to elections in order to immediately afterward pass a brutal and difficult budget that will harm the life of almost every citizen in the country, except for the very wealthy,” she told reporters.

Kadima set to leave gov’t after breakdown in conscription law talks


The Kadima party will likely leave Israel’s government coalition after negotiations with Likud over a universal draft bill broke down.

With the talks reportedly ending Tuesday morning, Kadima scheduled a faction meeting for the evening to discuss its future in the government coalition, according to Israeli media reports. It appears likely that Kadima will pull out of the coalition some 70 days after joining it.

On Tuesday, Kadima head Shaul Mofaz reportedly rejected a compromise offer from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that would have drafted half of the age-appropriate haredi Orthodox men into the military and the other half into national service.

The parties have been meeting to find an alternative to the Tal Law, which grants military exemptions to haredi Orthodox Israeli men. In February, the Israeli Supreme Court declared the law to be unconstitutional and set Aug. 1 as the deadline for a new law to be passed.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said Monday that he would extend the Knesset’s current session, and not send lawmakers on summer break as scheduled on July 25, until a conscription law that includes the haredi Orthodox is drafted.

Israeli political constellation realigns as Kadima quits government


For the second time in just two months, the Israeli political universe was upended when Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima Party voted to quit Israel’s governing coalition.

Kadima’s departure, the result of a breakdown in negotiations over reforming Israel’s military draft law to include Charedi Orthodox Jews, shatters the 94-seat super-majority that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu controlled in the 120-seat Knesset.

It also raises questions for the future of Kadima, Israel’s draft and the timing of new elections.

While the loss of Kadima’s 28 seats still leaves Netanyahu’s coalition with the majority it needs to govern, Netanyahu is now seen as more likely to move up Israel’s next elections, which now are scheduled for fall 2013.

Netanyahu had been set to dissolve the Knesset and call for new elections nine weeks ago when Mofaz stunned the Israeli political establishment by bringing Kadima, Israel’s main opposition party, into the governing coalition. The move was seen as a gambit by Mofaz, who had won Kadima’s leadership several weeks earlier, to stave off elections in which Kadima was set to lose significant ground.

For Netanyahu, the coalition deal was a way both to hobble the opposition and give him more leeway in formulating a new military draft law. In February, Israel’s Supreme Court struck down the current draft regulation, called the Tal Law, which excuses Charedi Orthodox from universal mandatory military service for Israeli Jews. The court ordered that a new law be enacted by Aug. 1 or else all Israeli Jews would be subject to the draft.

Netanyahu’s other coalition partners include Charedi Orthodox parties that oppose drafting large numbers of Charedi men or subjecting them to national service. 

The debate over the new draft law has roiled Israel in recent weeks. Many Israelis long have resented what they see as the free ride given to Charedi Israelis, who are not required to serve in the army but are still eligible for state welfare benefits.

In the end it was Kadima that quit the government in protest over proposed reforms that it said did not go far enough.

At a news conference on July 17 announcing Kadima’s decision to leave the government, Mofaz said he had rejected Netanyahu’s proposal of deferring national service until age 26; Kadima wanted the draft deferral to end at age 22.

“It is with deep regret that I say that there is no choice but to decide to leave the government,” Mofaz told a closed-door meeting of Kadima, according to the Israeli news site Ynet. Only three of Kadima’s 28 members voted in favor of staying in the coalition.

“Netanyahu has chosen to side with the draft-dodgers,” Mofaz told reporters after the meeting, according to Haaretz. “I have reached an understanding that the prime minister has not left us a choice and so we have responded.”

In a letter to Mofaz from Netanyahu’s office, the prime minister responded, “I gave you a proposal that would have led to the conscription of ultra-Orthodox and Arabs from the age of 18. I explained to you that the only way to implement this on the ground is gradually and without tearing Israeli society apart, especially at a time when the State of Israel is facing many significant challenges. I will continue to work toward the responsible solution that Israeli society expects.”

With just two weeks to go before the Tal Law expires, it’s not clear where Kadima’s departure leaves the future of Israel’s military draft.

What seems certain is that Kadima has been weakened by the episode. Two months ago, polls showed Kadima stood to lose two-thirds of its Knesset seats in new elections. Government opponents harshly criticized Mofaz when he then decided to hitch his centrist party to Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party.

“Unfortunately, everything I warned about two months ago and everything I expected to happen, happened,” said Haim Ramon, a Knesset member who quit Kadima when Mofaz joined the government. “Netanyahu’s allies are the Charedim and the settlers. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding himself and the public. This move has brought on Kadima’s demise, and Shaul Mofaz is the one accountable,” Ramon said, according to Ynet.

If new elections were held today, Kadima likely would implode, with the biggest chunk of its seats going to Likud (Kadima originally was created as an offshoot of Likud) and others to a new centrist party, Yesh Atid, or to left-wing parties.

On July 17, Yesh Atid’s chairman, Yair Lapid, called for Netanyahu to declare new elections immediately.

“We are ready for elections, and it’s time to rid Israel of this bad government,” Lapid said, according to Ynet.

For now, analysts are predicting that Netanyahu will call for new elections in early 2013.

Mofaz approved as minister, Yachimovich named opposition leader


Kadima party chairman Shaul Mofaz was approved as a government minister and Labor party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich was appointed head of the opposition.

Mofaz was approved as a minister without portfolio and as a deputy prime minister by the Knesset plenum on Wednesday by a vote of 71 to 23. He was sworn in after the vote.

The vote was held up after some opposition lawmakers claimed that Mofaz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made secret oral coalition agreements in addition to the agreements being voted on, including that other Kadima lawmakers would be appointed as government ministers. Netanyahu denied the accusations, saying that there had been discussions of other issues but that they had not reached the level of agreement.

Following the approval of the new coalition agreement, Yachimovich was appointed Mofaz’s successor as head of the opposition.

+