Netanyahu’s efforts to form Israeli government go down to wire


Benjamin Netanyahu, locked in down-to-the-wire coalition talks, faces a midnight deadline to form a government or risk being denied a fourth term as Israel's prime minister.

Nearly two months after a convincing election victory, Netanyahu is struggling to build a solid parliamentary majority, with a former ally abandoning him this week.

The key to his political future now lies with the ultranationalist Jewish Home party, which advocates annexation of parts of the territory Palestinians seek for a state.

Shortly after the March 17 vote, Netanyahu and his Likud party appeared to be coasting toward a right-leaning government with control of 67 of parliament's 120 seats.

But on Monday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose once-strong relationship with the Israeli leader turned sour long ago, dropped a bombshell by taking his far-right Yisrael Beitenu party out of the coalition talks.

That left Netanyahu with the support of two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and a centrist faction, a total of 53 seats, making the addition of Jewish Home's eight legislators crucial for a majority.

Such a narrow government would make Netanyahu vulnerable to policy demands from even his most junior coalition partners, continuing a long tradition of unstable politics.

Jewish Home is certain to push for the expansion of Jewish settlement, a policy that could deepen Israel's rift over the issue with its main ally, the United States, and the European Union.

The party's leader, Naftali Bennett, has called for the annexation of parts of the West Bank. That goes beyond Netanyahu's pledge to continue to build in settlements in areas Israel intends to keep in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Bennett is also a strong supporter of a bill, promoted by Netanyahu, that would anchor in law the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Critics, among them Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, have said it runs counter to the founding fathers' vision of equality for Arab citizens.

RIGHT-WING LEGISLATION

Other proposed legislation likely to be pursued by a new Netanyahu government would seek to limit the power of the Supreme Court to overturn laws passed by parliament and tighten controls over foreign donations to left-wing organizations.

Zeev Elkin, a Likud negotiator, said Bennett was demanding the justice minister portfolio for Jewish Home, a post critical to the smooth passage of cabinet-approved legislation to parliament for ratification.

“I think this is extortion, I have no other way of describing it,” Elkin said on Army Radio. But political commentators predicted Netanyahu would bend.

The 14-day extension Rivlin granted Netanyahu to announce a new government, after an original 28-day period ran out, expires at midnight (05:00 p.m. EDT).

Under Israeli law, Rivlin can then assign the task to another legislator, with Issac Herzog, leader of the centre-left Zionist Union, the likely candidate.

A coalition pact between Netanyahu and Herzog would ensure a broad government, but the Zionist Union chief has not strayed from his post-election pledge to take to the opposition benches.

Herzog: I won’t join a national unity gov’t


Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog said he will lead the opposition rather than join a national unity government with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

“We will be an appropriate, real alternative in all areas and all subjects to this extreme-right government whose days are numbered,” Herzog said at a party meeting Wednesday, a day after his party finished with 24 seats in Israel’s elections, behind Likud’s 30.

The election winner must assemble a coalition of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset in order to obtain a ruling majority and become prime minister. The right-wing and Orthodox camp won at least 57 seats, and the center-right Kulanu party, led by ex-Likudnik Moshe Kachlon, won an additional 10 seats.

Herzog said his party would continue to lead the camp of those who want a state that is “Jewish, democratic, secure and just.”

His campaign partner, Tzipi Livni, said the battle was not over.

“There are two paths with different values: one path of Netanyahu and his partners, and the other of ours and our natural partners,” she said. “We will continue to represent our path. Hope is not lost.”

Deep divisions apparent as Israelis head to polls


Relaxing on a bench on Rothschild Boulevard here, first-time voters Ellie Ashkenazi and Ziv Oran, both 18, talked about wanting to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But they couldn’t agree on which party to support to meet that end.

Voters needed to close ranks around Netanyahu’s main challenger, Isaac Herzog, Ashkenazi said, adding that the the policies of the staunchly leftist Meretz — not least the idea of dividing Jerusalem — were too “brutal” for her.

“I’m left wing, I believe in Bougie and I want to replace Bibi,” she said, using the nicknames for Herzog and Netanyahu. “I’m worried about Bibi winning again. Anything is better than Bibi.”

Much to her chagrin, Oran had cast his ballot for Meretz — “to annoy me,” Ashkenazi joked, nudging him. But Oran worried that with left-wing votes consolidating around Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union, Meretz would not acquire enough votes to even enter Knesset and its voice would be absent.

“I believe in their social policies,” Oran said. “I’m center-left and I want them in Knesset. Meretz will recommend Herzog [to be prime minister], so you’re not losing votes.”

In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, voters took advantage of the Election Day national holiday to stroll the streets with their kids, picnic on urban patches of grass and go shopping. They walked among political banners and dodged volunteers angling to stop them with a last-minute appeal.

But behind the carefree attitude, voters were divided — not just between left and right, but between whether to support the flagship party of their political camp or one of the smaller, more ideologically driven factions.

“There shouldn’t be extremes this way or that,” said Yakir Yaakovi, 23, a dried-fruit merchant in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market and a Netanyahu voter.

“He’s the only real one, he doesn’t mess around,” Yaakovi said of the incumbent. “If the left governs, God help us. There will be a civil war.”

Netanyahu campaign advertising dominated Jerusalem’s streets, with groups of young Likud volunteers clustering in public spaces and banners lining central squares. A man with a white beard sat outside the Central Bus Station singing Sephardi hymns and drumming a tambourine bearing a Likud sticker.

The late Likud push reflected fear that it could lose the election as right-wing voters defect to other parties. Netanyahu gave several interviews over the weekend and spoke at a large rally in Tel Aviv to warn against right-wing division. On Election Day, Likud sent out a controversial message urging voters to come out, warning that “droves” of Arab-Israelis were heading to the polls.

Such efforts didn’t faze Gershon Swimmer, who moved to Israel in 2008 from Atlanta and was voting for Jewish Home, the religious Zionist, pro-settler party headed by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Swimmer felt confident that Netanyahu would win reelection and wanted to push him further to the right.

“I feel Naftali Bennett and the party represent me,” he said, sitting at a restaurant on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street. “He doesn’t want to give back land, he’s strong on the economy and he’s religious.

“I think Bibi will probably be prime minister. I’m more worried the left will get in the government and give away the country. I want to vote to help push Bibi to do the right thing.”

Some voters hadn’t chosen a side in the Netanyahu-Herzog debate. Florist Roi Mothada, 27, voted for the centrist Kulanu, which has emphasized its economic platform and plans to join the coalition whether it’s left wing or right wing.

“I don’t support one or the other,” Mothada said, referring to Netanyahu and Herzog. “One will be elected, but I want Kulanu to be as strong as possible. It’s a decision between bad and worse.”

Some voters went even further in their protest against both left and right. Haya Dahan, a 47-year-old mother of two, cast a blank ballot, writing in her young daughter’s name instead of choosing any of the 25 possible parties. In Israel, such ballots aren’t counted as valid votes.

“I don’t know who to vote for,” she said. “I don’t trust anyone. I hope in four years someone will prove themselves.”

Bibi’s fate hangs in the balance as Israel votes


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a fight for his political survival on Tuesday as Israelis voted in an election that opinion polls predict the center-left opposition could win.

After a bitterly contested campaign, the election has turned into a referendum on “Bibi” Netanyahu, 65, who has been in power for a total of nine years spread over three terms.

If he narrowly loses the vote, Netanyahu is probably still better placed than the opposition Zionist Union to cobble together a coalition, setting him on track to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

However, a fourth term would probably also prolong his prickly relationship with Israel's main ally, the United States, at least as long as Barack Obama is in the White House.

Netanyahu has focused on the threat from Iran's nuclear program and militant Islam. But many Israelis say they are tiring of the message, and the center-left's campaign on social and economic issues, especially the high cost of housing and everyday living in Israel, appears to have won support.

In a possible sign of edginess, Netanyahu took to Facebook to denounce what he said was an effort by left-wing non-profit groups to get Arab-Israelis out to sway the election against him. “The right-wing government is in danger,” he wrote. “Arab voters are going to vote in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

He also took the unusual step of calling the media to his official residence for a statement while voting was underway, only to repeat his concerns about the opposition winning and to urge people to vote for him.

When the last opinion polls were published on March 13, the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog held a four-seat lead over Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, a margin that had the opposition set for a surprise victory.

But in the last days of campaigning, Netanyahu fought to shore up his Likud base and lure voters from other right-wing, nationalist parties, promising more building of Jewish settlements and saying the Palestinians would not get their own state if he were re-elected.

Those sweeping promises, if carried out, would further isolate Israel from the United States and the European Union, which believe a peace deal must accommodate Palestinian demands for a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

But they may go some way towards persuading voters to stick with what they know, rather than another candidate on the right.

Surveys show around 15 percent of voters are undecided, meaning the result could swing widely – opinion polls have rarely been good predictors of Israeli elections in the past.

When Netanyahu called the election in December, two years early, he looked set for an easy victory. But Herzog has mounted a resilient campaign and there is a sense that change could be in the air. Some voters have talked of Netanyahu fatigue.

By 6 pm (1600 GMT), turnout was running at 55 percent, slightly lower than the last election. Voting ends at 10 pm, with the first exit polls published immediately afterwards.

If Netanyahu can draw votes from other right-wing parties, he may be in a position to be asked first by Israel's president to try to form a coalition.

No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel's 67-year history. Coalition-building is an unpredictable game, with any number of allegiances possible among the 10 or 11 parties expected to win a place in the 120-seat Knesset.

It also takes time: the party invited to try to form a government has up to 42 days to negotiate a coalition. It may be mid-May at the earliest before Israel has a new government.

COALITION TACTICS

Since there are more parties on the right and far-right, Netanyahu would have the advantage in coalition building if the Zionist Union wins by only a small margin. But if the center-left wins by four or more seats, it should get the nod first to try to form a government.

Under sunny skies, Netanyahu went to vote early with his wife at a school near their home in Jerusalem. He acknowledged that it was a tight race and urged voters to back the right.

Herzog, who has overcome criticism of his slight stature and reedy voice to lead a strong campaign, voted in Tel Aviv, where he emphasized that the election was about a new direction.

“Whoever wants to continue the way of Bibi – despair and disappointment – can vote for him,” he said. “But whoever wants change, hope, and really a better future for Israel, vote for the Zionist Union under my leadership.”

The son of a former president and the grandson of an eminent rabbi, Herzog, 54, is as close as it gets to having Kennedy-style heritage in Israel. While his leadership has been criticized in the past, he has shown wit and intellect on the campaign trail, bolstering his image among voters.

“For the first time in my life, I'm going to be voting for Labour, that is the Zionist Union,” said Dedi Cohen, 39, a lawyer in Tel Aviv. “The risk of Netanyahu building the next government is too big. How long has he been in power? Nine years? It's too much. Enough.”

Three or four parties are likely to decide how the balance of power tips in the coalition building.

Moshe Kahlon, the leader of Kulanu, a centrist party that broke away from Likud, is seen as perhaps the most important “kingmaker”. A former communications minister credited with bringing down mobile phone prices, Kahlon could ally with either Netanyahu or Herzog, bringing up to 10 seats with him.

One of the party's candidates, Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, has said that whoever wins must try to repair relations with Washington, which have been under particular strain since Netanyahu addressed Congress on March 3, attacking a possible nuclear deal with Iran sought by Obama.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, could also ally with either side, bringing 12-14 seats. But he does not sit comfortably with religious parties, making him less flexible in coalition talks.

If the center-left is to assemble a coalition, it will also need the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, which are expected to win around 13 seats.

Another factor is the parties from Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, which for the first time have united under one list and are expected to win around 13 seats as well. While they are unlikely to join a center-left coalition, they could give it tacit support and create a block against Netanyahu.

Israel’s Arab parties unite, could help Netanyahu rivals


Four political parties that mostly represent Israel's Arab minority have decided to run together in elections on March 17, creating a potential counter-weight to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies.

Opinion polls suggest the united Arab list could secure 11 seats in the 120-seat parliament, around the same level as they hold individually but with their political influence increased.

The joint slate, finalised on Thursday, was in part a bid for electoral survival since the government has backed legislation raising the threshold for getting into parliament, leaving two of the four parties on the brink of extinction.

The four – Raam (United Arab List), Taal (Arab Movement for Renewal), Balad (National Democratic Assembly) and Arab-Jewish party Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) – cover a range of ideology from Islamist to secular to ex-Communist.

Despite that, Raam lawmaker Masud Ganaim said the list was united in its support for Palestinian statehood and concern about Netanyahu's efforts to enshrine Jewish statehood in law.

“The Arab community in Israel wants us all to join forces, so we can have more influence and challenge the Netanyahu government's racist and Judaizing policies,” he told Reuters.

Pre-election polls put Netanyahu's Likud party neck-and-neck with the centre-left alliance of Labour leader Isaac Herzog and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Who gets to form the next government could come down to who garners more partners.

Ganaim said his four-party list may back Herzog and Livni.

“It is being considered,” he said. “We think the political map will shift toward the centre-left, and in such a situation we will have an important role. We would tilt the balance.”

Arabs, mostly Muslim, make up 20 percent of Israel's population. Ganaim said some 55 percent of them take part in national elections, with more than 80 percent of votes going to Arab parties while a minority back mainstream “Zionist” parties.

Balad leader Jamal Zahalka deemed the four-party list a rebuke to ultra-nationalist Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has sought to sideline Arab politicians he deems disloyal to the state.

“Those who didn't want Arab parties to have 10 seats in parliament will see them get 15,” Zahalka told Israel radio.

Lieberman's Israel Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party, hit by corruption probes and high-profile resignations, is seen taking around 6 parliamentary seats – down from its current 12.

Netanyahu could still find a potent future ally in Economy Minister Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party, which is predicted to win some 15 seats.

Is Livni’s move to team with Labor one of principle or opportunism?


In the latest episode of the satirical show “State of the Nation,” the zingers aimed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weren’t coming from the comedians.

Tzipi Livni, who until last month was Netanyahu’s justice minister, called the prime minister a “zero” on the program Saturday night and promised to “take out the trash” in the March election.

But her most brutal jab came when she defended the recent union of her center-left Hatnua party with Labor, led by Isaac Herzog. The parties will run as a joint slate in the upcoming national elections and, if victorious, Herzog and Livni would each serve two years as prime minister.

“I thought a rotation of two potent prime ministers is better than one prime minister who’s impotent,” Livni said. “In my new pairing with Herzog, we’re going on a new path that will give hope to the nation of Israel.”

The Labor agreement is one more stage in what has been a tumultuous political decade for Livni.

A former minister of the right-wing Likud, Livni is joining her fourth political party in nine years and leading a campaign to replace the current Likud government with a left-wing coalition.

Her allies say her progression reflects a steadfast commitment to sensible policies amid a chaotic political landscape. Critics say the party switching reeks of opportunism.

“At this point in time, party institutions are weak, so we’re in a place where every candidate makes his own calculation for every election,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who served with Livni in the Kadima party and now heads the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. “The lines blurred, so it allows much more flexibility in people moving between parties.”

A daughter of former militants in the right-wing Irgun militia, Livni began her political career with Likud in 1999. She ascended to Cabinet minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and followed Sharon when he split with Likud in 2005 to form the centrist Kadima.

Livni became foreign minister when Kadima won the 2006 elections, and rose to lead the party in 2008 after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned. But she lost the 2009 elections to Likud and left Kadima in 2012 after losing in the party primary.

Ahead of the 2013 elections she founded Hatnua, promising to depose the Likud government and sign a peace accord with the Palestinians. But when Hatnua took only 5 percent of the vote, Livni joined a Likud-led coalition. That government broke up last month when Netanyahu fired Livni from her post as justice minister, and she united with Labor about a week later.

Throughout the changes, Livni has sought to portray herself as a principled leader who has stayed the course as the political ground has shifted beneath her. She advocates for minority rights, tough security measures and territorial compromise with the Palestinians — policies, she says, that a rightward-shifting Likud has mostly abandoned.

“I’m in the same place, with the same positions and the same opinions,” she said on “State of the Nation.” “Likud is escaping to the extreme right. Others are going to delusional places. I’m continuing with what I believe.”

Livni’s opponents in Likud, quick to document her zigzags across the political spectrum, counter that her willingness to discard party loyalties shows that she’s interested only in her own career.

“The unholy alliance between Herzog and Livni breaks a new record of political cynicism,” Likud lawmaker Yariv Levin wrote on Facebook last week. “Livni’s journey of switching from Likud to Kadima, from there to Hatnua and now to the Labor party, shows that a loss of direction, despair and small politics have taken over the Israeli left.”

Despite the criticism, the union with Labor seems to have elevated Livni’s public standing. Recent polls show the Labor-Hatnua list as the leading party heading into the elections. Before the merger, polls showed that Livni would barely have garnered enough votes to enter the Knesset.

Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Hebrew University, said voters might not mind Livni’s maneuvers because party switching has become a mainstay of Israeli politics. Sharon helped form Likud in 1973 only to leave it, rejoin in 1977 and leave again in 2005. Former President Shimon Peres was a member of three parties during his nearly 60-year political career. And changing loyalties, Avineri said, has only become more frequent in recent years.

“The last 10 years have been characterized by some very centrist people in the Likud leaving the Likud and moving toward a more centrist position,” Avineri said. “People in the center are usually not party loyalists. They can go either way.”

Israeli markets cheer centrists’ election gains


Israeli markets rose on Wednesday on investor hopes that the outcome of the previous day's election means Benjamin Netanyahu will remain prime minister and ultra-Orthodox parties have no role in government.

The blue-chip Tel Aviv 25 index rose 1 percent to 1,204.65 points, near last week's year-high of 1,225.76, while the broader TA-100 index closed 0.9 percent higher.

Government bond prices gained as much as 0.5 percent and the shekel appreciated 0.4 percent to 3.722 per dollar from Monday's fixing of 3.738, near a 10-month peak.

“We will enjoy this for a few days,” said Zach Herzog, head of foreign sales at the Psagot brokerage. “The downside will be if the coalition talks drag on or if we see Labour or (ultra-Orthodox) Shas in serious talks to get involved.

“This can be a launching pad for a positive 2013,” he added.

Herzog said a coalition government more centrist than Netanyahu's current right-wing and religious administration would be better placed to impose needed budget cuts.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have traditionally demanded budget-draining state subsidies for their institutions in return for joining coalitions in Israel, where no one party has ever won a parliamentary majority on its own.

Results of Tuesday's parliamentary vote showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud-Beitenu group emerging on top with 31 of parliament's 120 seats, albeit dropping sharply from the current 42 after voters shifted support to centrists focusing on Israelis' rising cost of living.

Yesh Atid, a new centrist party that has pledged to ease the burden of Israel's middle class, took 19 seats, one more than the number won by ultra-Orthodox parties.

If Yesh Atid's leader, former TV news anchor Yair Lapid, opts to join a Netanyahu coalition, along with the far-right Jewish Home party, the prime minister would likely control 61 seats, giving him a narrow parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu, however, has said he hopes to form as broad a government as possible, signaling the way was open for ultra-Orthodox factions to participate.

BUDGET DEFICIT

Netanyahu's reputations as a skilled economic operator was harmed just before the election when data showed Israel posted a budget deficit of 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 – more than double its initial target.

To meet a target of 3 percent in 2013, the government – which overspent heavily the past two years to keep its previous coalition partners happy – will have to find some 15 billion shekels ($4 billion) of cuts, as well as raising taxes.

Credit agency Fitch forecast the deficit reaching 3.8 percent of GDP this year, saying the stable outlook on its 'A' rating risked being downgraded in the event of “serious fiscal slippage”.

But a move towards the government's 60 percent debt-to-GDP target could result in positive ratings action, its sovereign ratings director Paul Gamble said in a report on Wednesday.

He also said the coalition talks would focus on budgetary issues and likely be time-consuming.

Psagot's Herzog said the market was also pleased that the centre-left Labour Party, whose leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has railed against capitalism during the election campaign, received just 15 seats, a poor than expected showing.

“In addition to the positive result that Netanyahu was re-elected as prime minister, you have a significant blow to the prestige to the anti-business candidate,” Herzog said.

A currency dealer at a large Israeli bank said most of Wednesday's dollar selling came from local rather than offshore customers. He said there was still a way for the dollar to fall before its next support level at 3.7050 shekels.

According to financial information services firm Markit, Israeli five-year credit default swaps – which insure against debt default – edged up 125 basis points from 123 on Monday. They had been at 156 basis points in November when military tensions escalated in the Gaza Strip.

Additional reporting by Tova Cohen and Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, John Stonestreet

Rabbi Uziel’s overture to Muslim leaders


During our Sephardic Film Festival this past week, we screened a film telling the intriguing and inspirational life story of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. Rabbi Uziel’s motto was “Loving Truth and Peace.” We also screened a film about Muslims saving Jews during the Holocaust, and another film reflecting co-existence and friendship between Jews and Muslims in Morocco. In the very spirit of these films, a delegation of 19 Muslim leaders from France visited Israel this week, for the specific purpose of improving relations between Jews and Muslims in France. During their visit to Yad Vashem, delegation leader Imam Hassen Chalgoumi said this trip reinforced the importance of combatting Islamic fundamentalism and Holocaust denial. “Life is more important than holy books,” Chalgoumi said in a speech outside Yad Vashem.

All of this, while the Hamas terrorist organization and other Islamic extremists launch deadly rockets on civilian populations in Israel, and the IDF enters a potentially protracted military operation in yet another attempt to destroy the terrorist cells in Gaza.

In the spirit of the films we screened this week, and with the visit of the French Imams to Israel – I offer you my translation of of a letter co-authored by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Uziel and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Herzog. It was written in 1948, during the Hebrew month of Kislev – the same month we started today.

Here is the text of their letter:

21 Kislev, 5708

“A Call to the Leaders of Islam for Peace and Brotherhood.”

To the Heads of The Islamic Religion in the Land of Israel and throughout the Arab lands near and far, Shalom U’Vracha:

Brothers, at this hour, as the Jewish people have returned to its land and state, per the word of God and the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, and in accordance with the decision of the United Nations, we approach you in peace and brotherhood, in the name of God’s Torah and the Holy Scriptures, and we say to you:

Please remember the peaceful and friendly relations that existed between us when we lived together in Arab lands and under Islamic Rulers during the Golden Age, when together we developed brilliant intellectual insights of wisdom and science for all of humanity’s benefit. Please remember the sacred words of the prophet Malachi, who said: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we break faith with one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?” (Malachi 2:10).

We were brothers, and we shall once again be brothers, working together in cordial and neighborly relations in this Holy Land, so that we will build it and make it flourish, for the benefit of all of its inhabitants, without discrimination against anyone. We shall do so in faithful and calm collaboration, so that we may all merit God’s blessing on His land, from which there shall radiate the light of peace to the entire world.

Signed,

Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel
Yitschak Isaac Ha-Levi Herzog

64 years later, as we begin this year’s Month of Kislev with Israelis under siege from the rockets of Muslim extremists, it is very sad that the Muslim leaders in 1948 never responded to the beautiful overture to peace from the Chief Rabbis. Just imagine what Israel, the Middle East, the Arab World, and the entire world would have looked like this past 64 years had they answered in kind to the above letter.

In the meanwhile, all we can do is defend ourselves, all the while praying and continuing to hope that some day – for the sake of Israeli children, Arab children, and all children – that Muslim leaders might wake up and respond to this letter, or to the many other peaceful overtures of Israeli governments and leaders.

If that would happen, then relations between Jews and Muslims would no longer be characterized as “cool topics” for feature and documentary films, and Imams would not need to visit Yad Vashem to shock themselves into cordial relations with Jews. Rabbi Uziel and Rabbi Herzog’s grand vision would not feel so prophetic, but would be – as they said – the way we lived once upon a time.

Until then, we pray for peace and God’s protection.

Chicken and Duck Soup


You will need one whole duck for this preparation. Have your butcher separate the breasts and legs from the bird and de-bone the legs. All the leg and breast meat should still have its skin on. Ask your butcher to grind all the meat for you. You will have approximately 1 3/4 pounds of ground duck. Make sure you collect all the bones from the duck for the broth.

Duck Dumplings

2 boneless duck legs with their skins (approximately 3/4 lb.), put through a meat grinder

2 duck breasts with their skins (approximately 1 lb.), put through a meat grinder

4 cloves of garlic, minced

1/2 medium-sized Spanish onion, minced

1 tsp. ground cardamom

1/2 cup matzah cake flour

3 tsp. salt

Broth

3 lbs. of chicken back bones

The bones of one de-boned duck with its wings

2 tbs. olive oil

2 large onions, peeled and quartered

3 ribs of celery, whole

1 carrot, 1/2-inch-thick pieces

1 head of garlic sliced in half, separating the top from the bottom

1 tbs. turmeric

4 dried Persian limes (lemon omani*), put in a towel and crush the limes open.

1/2 tbs. dried mint

Sea salt to taste

1 cup chopped fresh spinach

Juice from 1 fresh lime

Fresh herbs such as mint, dill and parsley, chopped

Rinse bones with cold water and set aside. In a large stock pot heat olive oil and add the onions, celery, garlic and carrots, and stir while cooking for approximately five minutes until onions become translucent but not brown. Adjust the flame in order to not brown vegetables. Add the turmeric, crushed dried limes and the mint, and continue to sauté for an additional two minutes. Add the chicken backbones, duck bones and enough water to cover the bones by approximately six inches. Bring to a boil and ladle off the coagulated albumin and fat that will rise to the top. Reduce to a low flame and simmer for 2 1/2 hours.

In the meantime, to make the dumplings, mix the ground duck meat with the garlic, onion, cardamom, matzah cake flour and salt. Roll into 1-inch diameter meatballs. Refrigerate until the broth is ready.

When the broth is ready, carefully pour broth through a strainer and into a clean pot. Bring the broth back to a simmer and add the chicken dumplings. Place a lid on to the pot, and let cook for ten minutes or until the dumplings have cooked all the way through.

To serve, place a couple of dumplings into each soup bowl along with some freshly chopped spinach, herbs and, if using, the blanched fava beans. Taste the remaining broth and adjust the saltiness. Add the juice of the fresh lime and ladle the soup into bowls.

To find lemon omani visit these Web sites: www.kalustyans.com and www.sadaf.com

Just breathe: Herzog legacy lives on with new wines


When Eugene Herzog was driven from Czechoslovakia by the communist regime in 1948, he was forced to leave behind his wineries. With little money to his name and his family in tow, he moved to Brooklyn and took a job at a small kosher winery. But the types of wine they sold horrified him: sweet, syrupy Concord grape, produced locally with lots of sugar to raise the alcohol content.

As a vintner with experience in kosher and non-kosher labels, Herzog knew real wine. After all, his grandfather, Philip Herzog, had made wine for Emperor Franz-Joseph, who had made him a baron.

By 1958, Eugene Herzog had inherited the winery, calling it Royal Wines. The next few decades were an era of sweet wine, with boldly unapologetic ad campaigns such as, “Wine so sweet you can cut it with a knife” and “the sweeter the better,” solidifying — sullying — kosher wine’s reputation — until today.

No wonder why when last Passover a man ordered thousands of dollars worth of the finest wines from the new Herzog winery in Oxnard, he included a case of Créme of Concord Malaga. “Sir, why, among all these wines are you ordering this sweet stuff?” asked Joseph Herzog, the youngest of Eugene’s grandsons, who runs the Oxnard winery, gift shop and its gourmet restaurant, Tierra Sur. “This is what we always drank at our seder,” the man, a secular Jew, told him.

“But that’s because you had to drink that,” Herzog argued. “There were no other kosher wines then. Today, you can drink good wine at your Seder, kosher wine, red wine. I’m sure your father and grandfather would have done the same.”
This wine aficionado, according to Herzog, just shrugged and went ahead with his purchase.

It’s hard to fight tradition.

But that’s what the Herzog family — and the entire kosher wine industry — is trying to do: change how people perceive kosher wine.

“Kosher wine has the baggage of being thought of as sweet wine or blessed wine. People hear it’s blessed, and they don’t want to taste it. We want to change the image.”

Herzog is just one of many kosher labels around the world that hope to change the image of kosher wine. It’s a two-pronged battle: The first is to change the perception of kosher wines in the mainstream world; the second is to change the kosher wine drinker’s palate to appreciate finer wines.

Consider this: Before Passover, many supermarkets feature Herzog wines in a special display in the front of the store. “They’ll buy the wine and then come back [after Passover] and ask where is the Baron Herzog?” Joseph Herzog said. “When they’re shown to the kosher section, they won’t buy it again.”

“We’re trying to get our wines in non-kosher sections,” he said. Stores like Trader Joe’s don’t separate out kosher wines. “We’re trying to make wines where people say, ‘Wow! I never knew kosher wine is that good!’ It’s made the same, the only difference is that Orthodox and Shabbat-observant people make it.”

Which is not exactly true. While kosher wine and non-kosher wine mostly use the same ingredients — except for animal-based fining products and uncertified yeasts — and they utilize the same winemaking process, kosher wine must be made only by Sabbath-observant Jews. This is because in biblical times, wine was used in idolatry, so rabbis forbade use of any wine or grape juice that had been handled by a non-Jew.

Today, a non-Jew cannot have touched uncooked grape products for them to be kosher. How can anyone drink kosher wine then?

Most commercial kosher wine is pasteurized, or cooked (mevushal). Like a number of other high-end kosher wineries around the world, Baron Herzog Royal Wineries label, started in 1985, sells a limited amount of nonpasteurized wine — for example, its new port and pinot noir, which could not survive the cooking process — but those products have limited usage for religious Jews, for example, who might be worried about a non-Jewish housekeeper or guest touching the bottle.

For the most part, kosher wines from around the world — Australia, Spain, France, Italy and, of course, Israel — have been reviewed well by wine critics and have scored competitively against their non-kosher counterparts.

But the main consumers of kosher wines are still people who keep kosher. Do the dry, refined wines appeal to them?

Gracing many an Orthodox Shabbat table as regular as gefilte fish is the iridescent blue glass of Bartenura, a sweet, bubbly libation with a low alcoholic content, that tastes more like fizzy cotton candy than wine.

“What’s happening in the food world is happening in the wine world,” said Herzog, referring to the gourmet revolution that has influenced many kosher consumers. “There’s a new generation who are interested in drier wines,” he said, noting that there are many people becoming kosher who want the same type of wines they had when they weren’t observant.

As to others who prefer grape juice, dessert wines like muscat (very popular) and wine-cooler-like liquid — those who don’t know any better — Joseph Herzog said the company produces “stepping-stone” wines before they go for the big leagues.

“People are afraid to try cabernet. Real dry wine that dries out your whole mouth,” he said “We’re trying to get them educated into the better wines and change the meaning of kosher wine.”