Israel’s Security Cabinet approves Turkey reconciliation deal


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Embattled from the outset, new Netanyahu government sworn in


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Interpreter apologies,” the interpreter responds.

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

Israel’s Cabinet approves reduced defense cuts


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Obama administration also supported the Israeli operation.

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

Israeli cabinet authorizes mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOLIDARITY VISIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Citing leak, Netanyahu disbands security cabinet meeting


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel’s Cabinet approves plan to empower women


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

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

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

The recommendations from the committee put into effect:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibi bypassing Cabinet on extending yeshiva students’ military service law


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

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

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

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

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

Israel, Hamas agree on Gilad Shalit prisoner swap


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO WILL BE FREED?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Argentinian Cabinet head expresses Israel support


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

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

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

Raze illegal outposts, Israeli Cabinet orders


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Israeli military is investigating the use of live ammunition.

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

Tzipi Livni to seek new elections as coalition effort fails


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olmert submits resignation, promises to help Livni


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALTTEXT

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

Briefs: Hamas kills off faux Mickey Mouse; Rabbi named to new British cabinet



Click for Hamas TV
Hamas Kills Off Its ‘Mickey Mouse’

Hamas plans to replace the Mickey Mouse look-alike that was killed off in its controversial children’s program.

Reuters this week quoted producers at Hamas’ Al-Aqsa Television as saying that Farfur, which drew international outrage by calling on young viewers to fight Israel and promote radical Islam, would be succeeded by other famous characters.

Farfur was a clone of the Walt Disney cartoon.

Farfur, the star of a show called “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” suffered a grisly end last week at the hands of an actor posing as an Israeli security agent. Hamas said he had been “martyred.”

Chabad Creates Sderot Relief Fund

Yosef Eliezrie was counting the hours in isolation at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, where he was recovering from shingles and the lingering side effects of leukemia treatment. At the same time, he was thinking about the rockets falling on Sderot and wondering what he could do to help.

So he spoke with his father, Rabbi David Eliezrie, one of the main Chabad voices in Southern California. They decided to create the Chabad Sderot Relief Fund, and the younger Eliezrie set out to build a Web site where people could donate. It went live last week at www.helpsderot.com.

“It’s really something that is in my heart,” said Yosef, 21, who is coordinating the project. “I heard peoples’ stories and was devastated. I wanted to do what I could.”

Sderot, near the northern Gaza border, has been under a constant barrage of Qassam rockets. Last month, two Israelis were killed there by rocket fire. Money donated through the Web site will be sent to Chabad Sderot and used to distribute food, rebuild homes and fortify schools.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Contributing Writer

Israel Cracks Hamas Ring in Jerusalem

Eleven Palestinians from East Jerusalem are in custody on suspicion of raising money for Hamas terrorism and to enlist the support of Israeli Arabs, the Shin Bet announced Monday. The suspects — 10 of whom have Israeli identity cards — are accused of trying to establish virtual Hamas control of the Temple Mount by bankrolling renovations around two major Muslim shrines there. That was a direct threat to the prestige of Jordan, an Israeli ally that formally oversees the administration of the Temple Mount’s mosques. It was not immediately clear how the detainees would plead to the charges. Hamas declined comment.

Israel has stepped up its scrutiny on suspected Hamas activities in Jerusalem since the terrorist Islamist group swept Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006.

Katsav Complainant Considers Civil Suit

A woman who accused former Israeli President Moshe Katsav of rape is considering a civil suit. Complainant A., whose name has been withheld for privacy reasons, responded angrily to the attorney general’s plea bargain in which Katsav confessed to minor sexual misconduct in exchange for the dropping of rape charges. The complainant’s lawyer, Kinneret Barashi, said Tuesday that a claim for civil damages could be her client’s best recourse.

“We definitely disagree with the plea bargain and are considering this other option,” Barashi told Israel Radio.

Katsav has denied any wrongdoing in the affair.

Israel’s Finance Minister Quits Amid Probe

Israel’s finance minister formally quit over a fraud and embezzlement investigation against him. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert informed his Cabinet on Sunday that Abraham Hirchson told him he was relinquishing the finance portfolio. Hirchson took a leave of absence in April after police started probing allegations that he pocketed funds while in a previous post. Hirchson has denied wrongdoing. Leading candidates to replace him include Roni Bar-On, currently Israel’s interior minister, and former Justice Minister Haim Ramon.

But Ramon’s prospects have been clouded by his conviction on charges of sexual misconduct after he admitted to forcing a kiss last year on a female soldier.

Poll: Most Israelis Still Favor Two States

Most Israelis still would support a two-state peace settlement with the Palestinians despite recent events, a poll found. According to a Peace Index survey released this week by researchers at Tel Aviv University, 70 percent of Israeli Jews want to see a peace deal that would create a Palestinian state, though 55 percent believe it is not achievable at this time. The findings suggest that Israelis’ preference for a two-state settlement persists despite Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip last month, which prompted a dramatic split with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction. The poll found that 26.5 percent of respondents do not want a two-state solution. About 67 percent of respondents said Israeli moves to shore up Abbas should be conditioned on his security forces cracking down on terrorism.

The survey, conducted last week, had 580 respondents and a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Israel Begins PA Tax Handovers

Officials said Monday that Israel had transferred some $120 million to the new Palestinian Authority government set up by President Mahmoud Abbas after he broke with Hamas last month. Israel, which collects some $50 million in customs dues every month on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, began withholding the money after Hamas swept Palestinian Authority elections in January 2006. The funds have accrued and now amount to upward of $700 million. Israeli officials said they expect the remainder of the money to be handed over in stages over the next six months under a mechanism meant to ensure that none of it reaches Hamas.

Israel also said it will resume its monthly tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority this week.

British PM Appoints Rabbi

Britain’s new prime minister appointed Rabbi Dame Julia Neuberger to his Cabinet. Neuberger will advise Prime Minister Gordon Brown on issues relating to the voluntary sector, especially in the arena of public health services, the area on which she speaks for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

The appointment was announced over the weekend as Brown unveiled the remainder of his Cabinet choices. As Britain’s first female rabbi to have her own congregation and synagogue, Neuberger is Britain’s best-known female rabbi.

Dutch Auschwitz Panel Wants Victims’ Wall

The Netherlands Auschwitz Committee wants to erect a Wall of Names listing the 110,000 Dutch murdered by the Nazis in concentration camps.

The committee wants the memorial to stand in the Wertheim Park in Amsterdam, near the Jan Wolkers Auschwitz monument. The wall, to be completed by 2009, would feature mostly the names of Jews but also would include resistance fighters and political prisoners, according to Dutch press reports.

Jewish U.S Soldier Buried

More than 1,000 mourners attended the funeral of a Jewish soldier from South Florida who was killed in Iraq.

U.S. Army Specialist Daniel Agami, 25, affectionately known in his unit as “G.I. Jew,” was killed in Baghdad on June 21 when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle.

Agami was buried last week with full military honors at the Star of David Cemetery in North Lauderdale, Fla. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal.

Agami was a graduate of the Hebrew Academy Community School in Margate. Rabbi Yossi Denburg, dean of the school, said at the funeral that Agami “kept kosher while in the Army, he slept with an American and Israeli flag over his bunk, his rifle had a sign titled ‘The Hebrew Hammer’ and he named the U.S. Army-issued yarmulke his ‘Combatika.’ “

The Hebrew Academy has set up a scholarship fund in Agami’s name.

Capt. Jared Purcell, an army public affairs officer in Baghdad, said that in addition to his role as a combat soldier, Agami was a mentor to orphaned children in Iraq.

Renewal Gathering Draws 700

Nearly 700 Jewish Renewal practitioners are attending the movement’s biannual international gathering this week in Albuquerque, N.M. They have come to pray, study and create a “sacred community” at the 13th biannual Aleph Kallah hosted by Aleph: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Aleph’s executive director, Debra Kolodny, said there are 140 members of the Renewal rabbinic association, Ohalah, and 115 candidates enrolled in Aleph’s training program for rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors.

Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shelomi, the 88-year-old founder of Jewish Renewal, sent a taped address to the opening-night session.

Only 43 of the participants are non-American, hailing from a handful of other countries.

Abraham Klausner, Advocate for Survivors, Dies

Rabbi Abraham KlausnerRabbi Abraham Klausner, the first Jewish chaplain (photo, left) in the U.S. Army to enter Dachau after its liberation, died at age 92. Klausner died June 28 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M., several years after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, his wife told The Associated Press. Klausner had been a leading advocate for Holocaust survivors, collecting and publishing lists of survivors in volumes called “Sharit ha-Platah,” or “Surviving Remnant,” to try to reconnect children of the Holocaust to their families.

“He saved the lives of thousands of Jewish survivors and brought them together as much as he could with any families that would still be alive,” his wife, Judith Klausner, said.

Born in 1915, Klausner was the leader of Temple Emanu-El in Yonkers, N.Y., for a quarter century, until he retired in 1989.

Study: ‘Nachas’ Pays Off

Researchers at Haifa University’s school of social work, having monitored 216 pairs of grandchildren and their grandparents, reported Tuesday that there was a definite “quid pro quo” element in the emotional interaction between the two groups.

“The study results reveal that not only did grandchildren who were taken care of by their grandparents express a desire to help, they were actually very involved in helping with day-to-day things like transportation, shopping, nursing care, emotional support and initiating visits,” the university said.

While granddaughters tend to express greater desire than their brothers to aid their grandparents, in actuality the sexes are equally helpful, the researchers found. They recommended that families treat grandchildren as a key factor in caring for elders.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Challenges Loom for New Olmert Regime


Just in time for Israel’s 58th Independence Day, Ehud Olmert has clinched his new coalition government.

But while the prime minister promises to set the Jewish state’s borders and to calm, if not end, the conflict with the Palestinians, domestic realities post serious challenges.

Olmert’s Kadima Party on Sunday signed up a third faction, Shas, and has thus gained control over 67 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Having a parliamentary majority is crucial for Olmert, who has vowed, in the absence of peace talks with a Palestinian Authority ruled by Hamas, to implement major moves in the West Bank — the evacuation of isolated settlements and annexation of major settlement blocs.

Ceding more land after last year’s Gaza Strip withdrawal is bound to be opposed by right-wing parties. Olmert would appear to have forestalled this obstacle by enlisting a range of coalition partners from the center-left Labor Party to the religious and rightist Shas. However, Shas joined up on the promise of getting key social portfolios in the Cabinet and without expressly endorsing the planned removal of settlements — raising the potential of a falling out just when Olmert’s “convergence plan” kicks off.

Avigdor Lieberman, whose nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party was briefly courted by Kadima, predicted that Olmert would be hobbled, saying, “It is clear to me that this government will not be capable of carrying out evacuations.”

Another potential pitfall is in the nomination of Labor Party leader Amir Peretz as defense minister, a role crucial to what may be the most complicated military redeployment in Israel’s history.

There is also a possible flareup of fighting with the Palestinians to worry about, not to mention Iran’s nuclear program. Yet Peretz, a veteran trade unionist, lacks any military pedigree. A Yediot Achronot poll found that 76 percent of Israelis do not want him running the Defense Ministry.

Sima Kadmon of Yediot Achronot wrote that Peretz’s nomination compounded a sense of unease over having Olmert as prime minister and his Kadima comrade, Tzipi Livni, as foreign minister. Despite their evident talents, both Olmert and Livni are considered relatively new to national politics.

“This may be the most inexperienced leadership Israel has had,” Kadmon wrote.

Peretz has done little to mollify concerns over his own prospects. When building Labor’s roster of seven Cabinet ministers, he pointedly shunned Ami Ayalon, Danny Yatom and Matan Vilna’i, three former members of the military top brass who might have lent him some gravitas. In turn, the veterans mounted an internal rebellion, trying to persuade the Labor Central Committee to require that ministers be chosen by a vote, rather than by Peretz. That resolution was defeated by a very slim margin.

Peretz received a boost from the freshest additions to Israeli politics, 79-year-old Rafi Eitan of the pensioners’ party, Gil. The former spymaster was quoted as saying he would back up Peretz in the Security Cabinet.

But Eitan has his own woes in the form of a High Court petition lodged against his Cabinet appointment by Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy analyst serving a life prison sentence in the United States for spying for Israel. Pollard accused Eitan, his former handler, of “abandoning him in the field,” conduct he says is unbecoming of political office in Israel. Eitan, who took full responsibility for the Pollard affair when it broke in the mid-1980s, has pledged to lobby from the Knesset for the spy’s release.

The new Cabinet will see some old faces, however. Shimon Peres, the 82-year-old former prime minister, will hold the Negev, Galilee and regional development portfolios. Shaul Mofaz, who was ousted as defense minister, will take over the transportation portfolio and play a part in the Security Cabinet.

Invasion Pros and Cons


Israel this week is weighing the interim results of the largest military operation it has mounted during the past 13 months of violence. The balance is complex, informed observers say, with both pros and cons. Israel Defense Force (IDF) troops and tanks pulled back from Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jalla, just south of Jerusalem, overnight Sunday, after a day in which Palestinians desisted from shooting at the nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

IDF generals reached a detailed agreement with the commander of the Palestinian Authority preventive security service, Jibril Rajoub, that his men would take over the policing of the "front line" and ensure that it remained quiet. By midweek, that local accord appeared to be holding.

The three members of the inner security cabinet — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer — presumably hoped that withdrawing from the Christian holy city of Bethlehem would alleviate some of the criticism that Israel’s armored incursions into the seven Palestinian cities was stirring abroad.

TV footage of the damage and destruction the IDF had wrought in the two towns and adjacent refugee camps, shown Monday in many Western countries, did little to relieve Israel’s image problem.

And its continued defiance of American demands that it pull out of all the Palestinian cities — the others are Ramallah, Kalkilya, Jenin, Nabulus and Tulkarm, all in the West Bank north of Jerusalem — plainly grated on the Bush administration.

But some observers here suggested that the feud was not as bad as portrayed. For one thing, after the initial heated reaction, the language used in American statements was relatively restrained. For another, the spat was confined to words, with no hint of punitive action. And for a third, these observers say, Israel was demonstrating to the Palestinians, and to the wider region, that it has the strength and guts to stand up to Washington when its vital interests are at stake.

In addition, the unrest may have stirred the beginnings of real diplomatic activity. The longer the troops stay inside Palestinian-ruled areas, the more pressure grows inside the Labor Party to leave the government. Reflecting these pressures — or perhaps heading them off — Peres let it be known midweek that he is drafting a new peace plan to get the diplomatic process moving again.

According to a report in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, the plan calls on Israel to withdraw completely from the Gaza Strip, dismantling settlements where about 7,000 Israelis live amid a hostile Palestinian population. Peres also envisions a Palestinian state that would be "political, not military," and the deferment of the status of Jerusalem for a period of years.

Even Sharon had spoken positively of a Palestinian state just days before Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi was killed. The assassination effectively ending a string of minor, but positive, steps between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, plunging the region back into violence.

According to The Associated Press, Peres’ spokesman, Yoram Dori, confirmed that the foreign minister was "preparing a peace plan" to be released in coming days. "Whether Sharon agrees or not, he will have to say," Dori said.

Indeed, some pundits speculated that, if it contains elements Sharon opposes, the Peres plan might hasten the downfall of the unity government. Until Peres releases his plan, however, Israelis were left debating whether the IDF operation really had served vital national interests.

Official spokesmen explained last week that the incursions aimed to arrest or kill terrorists and to prevent or preempt planned attacks.

Military sources say at least 40 terrorists and suspected terrorists have been arrested, and some 20 were killed in encounters with elite units. IDF officials initially claimed that Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian involved in the Oct. 17 assassination of Ze’evi were apprehended, though later claims contradicted that. The two men believed to have actually carried out the murder remain at large.

But two drive-by terror shootings on Sunday undercut the assertion that IDF occupation of Palestinian cities is effective in blocking assaults. The killers in the two attacks came from Tulkarm and Jenin. The first killing was claimed by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, the second by Islamic Jihad.

The claims reflected widespread resistance to Arafat’s public orders to the various Palestinian military and paramilitary groupings, and to the opposition factions, that it was in the Palestinians’ national interest to observe a cease-fire. Although in another major address, to trade unionists in Gaza, Arafat gave precisely the opposite message, calling on the Palestinians "to continue fighting — fighting, determinedly and forcefully."

Arafat repeatedly has spurned Israel’s demand to hand over Ze’evi’s killers. Israel has received no real backing from the United States or the rest of the international community for the demand, which many see as an unrealistic stumbling block to the diplomatic process.

At best, Israel may make do with a proposed international monitoring mechanism — details of which are still vague — designed to ensure that terrorists arrested by the Palestinian Authority do not shortly walk out the other side of a "revolving door."

Politically, at least, the operation in the West Bank seems to have benefited Sharon. Its scope seems to have assuaged Ze’evi’s National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu faction, which has indefinitely deferred an earlier decision to quit the government.

On Tuesday, Knesset member Benny Elon took over as Ze’evi’s replacement. For Sharon, who, is fighting to hold his coalition together and ward off incessant criticism from his Likud Party rival Benjamin Netanyahu, this is a gratifying development.

Empathy in Tragedy


Israel’s civilian and military authorities swung into full alert after the magnitude of the terror attacks against the United States became apparent.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon summoned an emergency session of the Security Cabinet on Tuesday, together with key defense and security personnel.

The country’s air space was closed to foreign aircraft, and other measures apparently were taken that were not publicized. Abroad, Israeli embassies and other trade and diplomatic missions were ordered to close completely, or, in certain cases, reduce to skeleton staffs.

Beyond the emergency measures and the wave of shock and sympathy that swept the nation, analysts predicted several potential implications for the Jewish state: namely, the attacks on New York and Washington would bring home to an apathetic world the real meaning of terrorism — which Israelis have understood for years — and perhaps would create greater sympathy for Israeli counterterrorism efforts

Terror “is the No. 1 enemy of mankind,” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said. “It is a threat to humanity.”

Peres voiced his confidence that the United States would “know how” to counter the threat. “The account must be rendered to state after state, without mercy, until this is eradicated,” he said.

There is some anxiety that any American response, when it comes, could somehow involve Israel. Just as the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War led to Iraqi Scud missile attacks against Israel, Israelis worried this week that countries targeted by Washington, or countries sympathetic with those targeted, would hit back at the Jewish state.

Another political assessment is that, in the wake of this cataclysmic event, American sympathies and perhaps other Western opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could tilt in Israel’s favor.

Bolstering this assessment were the demonstrations of glee and gratification among Palestinians, both on the West Bank and in refugee camps in Lebanon. These manifestations were quickly picked up by international media and could discredit the Palestinians.