Israeli security chief in DC reportedly to sign $38B defense assistance pact

Israel’s acting head of national security is in Washington, D.C., reportedly to sign a deal extending U.S. defense assistance to Israel for 10 years.

Jacob Nagel arrived Tuesday, and according to Israeli media reports, will meet with his U.S. counterpart, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, to sign the $38 billion military aid package.

The deal, called a memorandum of understanding, is expected to be rolled out officially within days, possibly as early as this week, Reuters reported Tuesday, citing unnamed sources familiar with the deal.

Nagel left for the United States on Monday night after meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, Haaretz reported. According to Haaretz, the meeting dealt with the final details of the agreement, including how it would be publicly announced.

The final package of $38 billion would be higher than the $3.1 billion of assistance provided annually in the expiring deal, but lower than the $45 billion sought by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to Reuters, the new deal will include missile defense cooperation, which had been considered separately from defense assistance. The change will make it harder for Israel to appeal directly to Congress for increases in missile defense.

Additionally, the deal over time will roll back the approximately 25 percent of the funds Israel may spend on defense equipment manufactured in Israel. Instead, the money must be spent on the U.S. defense industry.

Israel tells U.N. will defend itself against Hezbollah

Israel told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday it will take all necessary measures to defend itself after an exchange of fire between Hezbollah militants and Israel that has raised the threat of a full-blown conflict.

“Israel will not stand by as Hezbollah targets Israelis,” Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor said in a letter to the Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“Israel will not accept any attacks on its territory and it will exercise its right to self-defense and take all necessary measures to protect its population,” he added.

The attack occurred on Wednesday in the biggest escalation of fighting since a 2006 war.

Two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper were killed when Hezbollah fired a missile at a convoy of Israeli military vehicles at the Lebanon border. A U.N. spokesman and Spanish officials said the peacekeeper was killed as Israel responded with air strikes and artillery fire.

“Events in the north continue to unfold and Israel extends its condolences to UNIFIL and the Spanish government over the death of one of its soldiers earlier today,” Prosor said.

“I urge the Security Council to unequivocally and publicly condemn Hezbollah,” he added. “The terrorist organization must be disarmed and the government of Lebanon must abide by its international commitments and fully implement Security Council resolution 1701.”

Resolution 1701 halted the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in southern Lebanon. The south remains a Hezbollah stronghold.

Hezbollah said it carried out Wednesday's attack, which appeared to be in retaliation for a Jan. 18 Israeli air strike in southern Syria that killed several Hezbollah members and an Iranian general.

U.S. sells munitions to Israel from its surplus stockpile

The U.S. Defense Department sold to Israel munitions from its Israel-based surplus stockpile.

“The United States is committed to the security of Israel, and it is vital to U.S. national interests to assist Israel to develop and maintain a strong and ready self-defense capability,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in an email Thursday to JTA. “This defense sale is consistent with those objectives.”

The weapons released were 120mm tank rounds and 40mm illumination rounds. Israel made the request July 20, which was 12 days after the launch of the current Israel-Hamas conflict in the Gaza Strip. The items were released on July 23.

Kirby in his email noted that White House approval is not required for the sale of munitions in the Israel-based stockpile.

U.S. defense assistance to Israel has for years included the existence of a stockpile in the country of surplus U.S. weapons available for expedited sale to Israel.

Separately, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a phone call with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon repeated U.S. calls for a humanitarian cease-fire.

“Hagel called for the cease-fire and expressed concern about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths as well as the loss of Israeli lives,” said a statement by Kirby describing the phone call on Wednesday. “Hagel also reiterated U.S. support for Israel’s security and its right to self defense and said that any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups.”

Congress triples Obama’s request on defense cooperation with Israel

The final version of the congressional defense budget triples the Obama administration’s request for funding for joint U.S.-Israel defense cooperation.

The $284 million in the budget released jointly on Dec. 10 by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate budget committees — up from the $96 million requested by the Obama administration — includes funding for the Arrow long-range anti-missile system and the David’s Sling and Iron Dome missile defense systems. The full National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 is virtually assured passage.

Defense cooperation funding, to which Israel contributes, is separate from the $3.1 billion Israel receives in defense assistance as part of a 10-year package.

Additionally, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved legislation that would create a strategic energy partnership between Israel and the United States. The measure, referred to the full House on Dec. 10, amends the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and is designed to strengthen collaboration between Israel and the United States on energy development.

Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) led the charge for the countries to develop ways for long-term, strategic cooperation on energy matters.

In public shift, Israel calls for Assad’s fall

Israel wants to see Syrian President Bashar Assad toppled, its ambassador to the United States said on Tuesday, in a shift from its non-committal public stance on its neighbor's civil war.

Even Assad's defeat by al Qaeda-aligned rebels would be preferable to Damascus's current alliance with Israel's arch-foe Iran, Ambassador Michael Oren said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post.

His comments marked a move in Israel's public position on Syria's two-and-1/2-year-old war.

Though old enemies, a stable stand-off has endured between the two countries during Assad's rule and at times Israel had pursued peace talks with him in hope of divorcing Syria from Tehran and Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had long avoided openly calling for the Syrian president's fall. Some Israeli officials now worry that radical Sunni Islamist insurgents fighting Assad will eventually turn their guns on the Jewish state.

But with Assad under U.S.-led condemnation for his forces' alleged chemical attack on a rebel district of Damascus on August 21, Oren said Israel's message was that he must go.

“We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren't backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran,” Oren said in the interview, excerpted on Tuesday before its full publication on Friday.

Assad's overthrow would also weaken the alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, Oren said.

“The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” he said.

Oren said that other anti-Assad rebels were less radical than the Islamists.

Israel believes around one in 10 Syrian rebels are Sunni militants sworn to its destruction. Assad's Alawite sect is closer to the rival Shi'ite Islam of Iran and Hezbollah.

Oren, a Netanyahu confidant, did not say in the interview whether or how Israel was promoting Assad's fall.

Netanyahu casts Iran's disputed nuclear drive as the main menace to Israel and world stability.

Israel, which is widely assumed to have the region's sole atomic arsenal, has played down any direct Syrian threat to it but is concerned that a weak Western policy towards Assad could encourage Iran.

The Israelis have conferred closely with Washington as it first threatened military reprisals over the Damascus gas attack and then struck a deal with Russia for placing Syria's chemical weapons under international control.

Netanyahu has urged Syria be stripped of such arms, while insisting that his government was not getting involved in Assad's feud with the rebels.

Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan

Defense chiefs Hagel and Yaalon to meet in D.C.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Yaalon, will meet this week.

A Pentagon official told JTA that the two defense chiefs would meet in Washington on Friday, but did not provide further details.

Israel and the United States are closely cooperating in tracking Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and formulating strategy over how to prevent it.

Hagel and Yaalon met last month in Israel in their first meeting since taking their posts.

Iron Dome upgrade tests called successful

Israel said it successfully completed tests of the Iron Dome missile defense system following a system upgrade.

The announcement of the successful tests came in a statement from its Defense Ministry issued on Jan. 21.

“The series of tests is aimed at broadening and improving the capabilities and performance of the system in the face of an unprecedented array of threats,” the statement said. “The test, which was declared a success, will contribute to the improved operational capacity of 'Iron Dome.' “

The decision to upgrade Iron Dome was announced shortly before Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in which Israel said the system intercepted more that 80 percent of the hundreds of rockets fired at southern Israel.

Test of David’s Sling missile defense system deemed success

Israel successfully tested its newest missile defense system, called David's Sling.

The Israel Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency on Sunday announced that David's Sling, also known as Magic Wand, intercepted a mid-range missile during a test-firing of the system.

The system is being jointly developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems in Israel and the Raytheon Co. in the United States. It is designed to intercept missiles and rockets with a range of up to nearly 200 miles, especially rockets fired by Hezbollah from Lebanon, according to reports.

Iron Dome, which successfully intercepted between 80 percent and 90 percent of rockets fired from Gaza at Israel during the recent Operation Pillar of Defense, is designed to intercept short-range rockets.

David's Sling is scheduled for deployment in 2014.

Ehud Barak says he’s quitting politics

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he is leaving politics after more than half a century and will not run in the upcoming elections.

Barak made the surprise announcement Monday, less than a week after Israel's military ended its Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, for which he has received accolades for his successful leadership.

He said he would leave the government after the January elections. Barak, of the Independence Party, has been courted recently by left-wing and center-left parties to join with them for the elections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly demanded that Barak resign from the government if he decided to join another party.

Barak said he planned to spend more time with his family.

“I have never felt that politics was the height of my ambition,” he said at the Monday morning news conference. “I feel there is room now for other people to take up positions in Israel. There are many ways to contribute, but the state is not just politics.”

Barak served as prime minister in 1999, succeeding Benjamin Netanyahu, and simultaneously as defense minister. He left politics in 2001 after losing to Ariel Sharon, but returned in 2007 to serve as chairman of the Labor Party and defense minister for Ehud Olmert, and stayed on when Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009.

Barak left the Labor Party in January 2011 and formed the left-wing Independence Party to shore up Netanyahu's majority coalition government when Labor, minus Barak's faction, left the coalition. The Independence Party likely would not garner enough votes in the upcoming elections to break the 2 percent threshold to win seats in the Knesset, according to recent polls.

Former Kadima Party head Tzipi Livni is slated to announce this week her plans for the coming political season, as is former prime minister and Kadima chief Ehud Olmert.

Pogroms interrupted: The era of Jews fighting back

As I’ve been watching images of Hamas rockets falling on Israel, I’ve asked myself: If Hamas had the ability to murder thousands of Jews, wouldn’t they? And if Israel didn’t have a strong army, wouldn’t we surely witness another pogrom? 

Since the destruction of the Second Temple some 2,000 years ago, has there been a more physically abused people than the Jews?

How many Crusades and Inquisitions and pogroms have been recorded where Jews were virtually helpless to defend themselves?

Oh sure, we always managed to survive and pull through. We were strong with our values, our Torah, our culture and our wits in adapting to whatever limits were imposed on us.

But physically? We were always at the mercy of our landlords.

My ancestors in Morocco survived only because they knew their place. You never heard of a Moroccan Jew fighting for the same rights as Moroccan Arabs. Jews were the dhimmis, the second class citizens of the state. And still, there were stories of pogroms against Moroccan Jews.

The physical abuse of Jews reached its darkest and most murderous hour with the Holocaust.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say you have to reach your own bottom before you can turn things around. Well, the Holocaust was our absolute bottom.

Perhaps not coincidentally, within a few years we were blessed with our own sovereign state. What would happen now? Would our enemies still come after us?

Indeed they did, but this time, something weird happened.

The Jews fought back.

A ragtag band of Jews fought mano a mano against five invading Arab armies and won.

That miraculous victory saved Israel and signaled a new era in the story of the Jews.

The era of Jews Fighting Back.

We’ve been in that era now for 64 years, and the truth is, we’ve become pretty good at it.

This has shocked our enemies. After 2,000 years of seeing Jews cower so as not to get slaughtered, they've seen these weak Jews transformed into fighting warriors.

This doesn't seem very “Jewish.”

Even among Jews, this success has created a lot of handwringing and intellectual agony: What shall we do with all this power? Are we using it responsibly? Will it corrupt us?

I have to confess, I’ve had very little agony over this. The Jews’ ability to finally fight back has been a source of great satisfaction for me.

Of course, I’d be a lot happier if we were at peace and didn’t have to fight in the first place– if we weren’t surrounded by enemies trying to destroy us.

I wouldn’t have to shed tears when I’m alone in my car, thinking of Israel at war, or talk to my daughter in Herzliya about bomb shelters.

But if Israel is destined to live, at least in the near term, surrounded by enemies, what are we to make of this dark circumstance?

Is it possible that all this fighting might be serving an additional purpose, beyond the essential one of defending the country?

As I’ve been reflecting on all this, the thought occurred to me that maybe Israel is more than a country.

Maybe it’s also a statement.

An official statement that says to the world: The Jews will never go away.

This statement of strength after 2,000 years of weakness is so astonishing that it needed a singular, dramatic instrument to make the point.

And what better instrument than a strong country?

A country so powerful it has managed to thrive on so many levels despite being virtually under siege for 64 years.

So, that is my Jewish take on all this ugly fighting: Our enemies need to see, once and for all, that the Jews will never go away.

Maybe only then will there be peace.

The other night, at a Technion event at the home of Frank Lunz, our Consul General, David Siegel, said: “Our enemies have tried for thousands of years to destroy us, but they’ve always failed.”

The difference now is that we’re surviving on our own terms, not by cowering but by holding our heads high.

I’m sure some people will find this tone of defiance a little unseemly, not very nuanced.

But there’s no nuance in hatred. There’s no nuance in the desire to murder Jews. There never has been.

The statement that the Jews will never go away is a statement that must be made. We can thank Israel for making that statement in the most compelling way possible, even at the risk of upsetting a world not used to seeing Jews fight back.

At the Technion event, they played a video showing some of Israel’s global accomplishments, such as finding renewable energy, curing diseases and helping crippled people walk.

We can thank Israel for that statement, too: A world in which the Jews survive is not just good for the Jews, it’s also good for the world. 

U.S. Senate resolution backs Israel’s actions in Gaza

Thirty U.S. senators have signed on to a resolution expressing support for Israel's “inherent right to act in self-defense.”

The non-binding resolution, originally drafted by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), “expresses unwavering commitment to the security of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure borders, and recognizes and strongly supports its inherent right to act in self-defense to protect its citizens against acts of terrorism.”

The resolution, the first such proposed legislation in the wake of Israeli airstrikes launched Wednesday in retaliation for rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, may come to a vote as early as Thursday evening.

Unlike statements of support for Israel's actions from the Obama administration, the Senate resolution does not call on both sides to exercise restraint or express regret at casualties on both sides.

“We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence,” Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, told reporters on Thursday. “There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately in order to allow the situation to de-escalate.”

Sixteen Palestinians, including two children, and three Israelis have been killed in the escalated violence between Israel and Palestinian terrorists. Among the dead Palestinians is a terrorist leader, Ahmed Jabari.

A host of lawmakers have issued statements in support of Israel, and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on Wednesday briefed five senators from both parties — Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

“As a bipartisan group of Senators committed to Israel's security, we express our solidarity with Israel during this deeply challenging period and denounce the reprehensible and indiscriminate rocket attacks launched by Hamas and Islamic Jihad against innocent Israeli citizens,” the senators said in a joint statement.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee praised the outpouring of congressional support.

“These statements demonstrate that America continues to firmly stand with Israel and her right to defend herself,” it said. “No nation can tolerate constant barrages of rockets against its civilian population.”

Iron Dome anti-missile system installed in Tel Aviv

An Iron Dome anti-missile system battery has been installed in metropolitan Tel Aviv.

The system, which was installed on Thursday, is expected to remain in place for several days, as it calibrates itself to the area.

The battery has previously been installed at Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod.

Israel and the United States will hold Austere Challenge 12, a joint ballistic missiles exercise, at the end of October.

U.S. military official’s secret visit to Israel is revealed

The vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld, is in Israel to discuss security and defense issues.

Winnefeld's visit, which was revealed Thursday by Israeli's Army Radio on the last day of the meetings, reportedly was kept secret due to tension between Israel and the United States over the issue of an attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

The visit came days after the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he did not want to be “complicit” in such an Israeli strike.

Winnefeld reportedly is in Israel at the invitation of his counterpart, Brig.-Gen. Yair Naveh. The Israeli Defense Forces did not confirm the visit.

The commander of the 3rd Air Force, U.S. Air Forces Europe, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, is expected to visit Israel next week in order to prepare for next month's Austere Challenge 12, the joint ballistic missiles exercise between the IDF and the U.S. Army.

Egypt replaces tanks with armored vehicles in Sinai

Egypt's military is deploying light armored vehicles in Sinai to replace some heavy tanks whose presence at the border area had raised concerns in Israel, security sources said on Tuesday.A source said last week the army had begun withdrawing some of the tanks, after they had been deployed as part of an operation against militants who attacked and killed 16 border guards on August 5.

Disorder has spread in Sinai since former President Hosni Mubarak's overthrow last year. Analysts say Islamists with possible links to al Qaeda have gained a foothold, which has alarmed Israel.

The unrest has occurred mainly in North Sinai, where many people have guns and where Bedouin tribes have long complained of neglect by central government. They say they have seen no benefits from the expanding Sinai tourist resorts.

Hundreds of troops, along with tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters were sent to the area in a joint operation with police to raid militant hideouts, arrest suspects and seize weapons, including rockets and other arms, rife in the area.

But Israeli officials have privately voiced concerns about heavy equipment being sent to areas where there have been restrictions on weapon deployments under a 1979 peace treaty, the first such treaty reached between Israel and an Arab state.

“Twenty tanks have been withdrawn from the central sector of Sinai toward Suez,” a security source said, adding that about 20 armored vehicles have reached Al-Arish city, the administrative centre of North Sinai.

The sources did not give a clear answer to whether the withdrawal of tanks was taken in response to Israel's concerns or say how many tanks were still in Sinai.

The army said last week it would broaden its campaign in Sinai, involving a redeployment of forces but did not specify which areas they would redeploy to.

“The operation is entering a new phase that requires different equipment capable of facing and handling the situation in Sinai,” military official told Reuters on Tuesday.

Another security source said the tanks were removed to be replaced with more “useful equipment”.

Analysts said there was no doubt that the tanks were taken out to assuage Israeli concerns. “Egypt's decision to remove tanks was taken to calm Israel after it voiced concerns about the presence of tanks near its borders,” Safwat al Zayaat, a retired army general and military expert said.

“As if the tanks were, as Egypt is saying now, not useful then why did it send them there in the first place?” he said.

A security source said security forces defused a land mine and a bomb on Tuesday planted by militants east of Al-Arish. It was the fourth such incident since last week.

No one had yet claimed responsibility for the killing of the border guards on August 5. But a Sinai-based Islamist militant organization, the Salafi Jihadi Group – which denies any involvement in the border attack – warned the Egyptian army that the crackdown would force it to fight back.

Reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia, Yasmine Saleh and Marwa Awad; Writing by Tamim Elyan; Editing by Alison Williams

Israel opens up about national cyber plans

Israel will establish a national cyber situation room as part of a national cybernetic defense concept.

National Cyber Bureau head Dr. Evyatar Mataniah also announced Wednesday at Tel Aviv University’s Second Annual International Cyber Conference that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has approved the budget and work plan for the bureau that was established at the beginning of the year.

The announcement came on the heels of a speech by Defense Minister Ehud Barak in which he acknowledged for the first time that Israel has launched offensive cyberspace operations. He said Israel has been working on both cyber defense and offense, but stressed that defense is more important.

“Our goal with cyber defense, which is the more important and difficult component, is to prevent damage,” Barak said, according to Haaretz. “It is more than we can benefit from an offensive action, even though both aspects exist.”

It is suspected that Israel released the Flame virus that was discovered attacking computers in Iran and the West Bank, among other places, last month. The Flame virus reportedly shares some characteristics with the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and which Israel was accused of creating with U.S. cooperation.

House subcommittee set to OK $1 billion for Israel anti-missile programs

The U.S. House of Representatives defense appropriations subcommittee is set to approve nearly $1 billion for Israeli and joint Israeli-U.S. missile defense programs.

“This funding level is the highest ever appropriated in a single year for these life-saving programs,” Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), a member of the committee, said in a statement.

Some $680 million of the $947 million set to be approved Tuesday in a session of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee will go to the Iron Dome short-range anti-missile system, a result of legislation initiated by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), respectively the chairwoman and senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The bill was spurred by Iron Dome’s success in repelling a barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip earlier this year and the Obama administration’s readiness to consider further funds for the project.

The remaining $269 million will go to the short-range David’s Sling and long-range Arrow anti-missile programs, representing a hike from the $100 million proposed earlier this year in the Obama administration’s budget.

Those programs are joint U.S.-Israel projects, while Iron Dome is an Israeli project, although congressional appropriators have expressed interest in obtaining U.S. proprietary rights to Iron Dome.

House committee to propose Iron Dome boost

The House Armed Services Committee reportedly is proposing $680 million in additional funds for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

A number of news outlets reported over the weekend that the Republican-majority Armed Services Committee plans to increase the funding in addition to the $205 million that was appropriated under President Obama’s 2013 defense budget.

Capitol Hill sources told JTA that a final figure has yet to be determined.

Two congressional leaders pushed for the increase in funding the Iron Dome system when they introduced legislation in March.

The Iron Dome Support Act was introduced by Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). The act currently has 66 co-sponsors.

A week following the introduction of the legislation, the Pentagon announced that it would “request an appropriate level of funding from Congress … based on Israeli requirements and production capacity.”

The Armed Services Committee will begin marking up the defense budget on Thursday.

Netanyahu says sanctions hurting Iran but not enough

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that international sanctions were hurting Iran’s economy but not enough to persuade it to curb its nuclear ambitions even slightly.

“The Iranian government … is having economic troubles but it has yet to move backward, even a millimeter, in its nuclear program,” Netanyahu told a news conference he called to mark his right-wing government’s third anniversary in power.

“Will these difficulties bring the government in Tehran to stop its nuclear program? Time will tell. I cannot say to you that this will happen. I know there are difficulties, but there has yet to be a change.”

His comments came after a senior Revolutionary Guards commander was quoted as saying that the United States would not be safe from retaliation if Washington attacked Iran in an attempt to blunt its nuclear program.

On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to press ahead with tough sanctions on Tehran, saying there was sufficient oil supply in the world market to allow countries to cut Iranian imports.

In his own remarks, Netanyahu shed no new light on how Israel might deal with what he has said is Iran’s intention to build atomic weapons that could threaten the existence of the Jewish state.

Both Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, and its main ally, the United States, have held out the prospect of military action against Iran if sanctions do not work. Iran has said it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.

Returning to a familiar theme in Israel’s discourse on Iran, Netanyahu contrasted the helplessness of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust to the military strength and diplomatic influence of the Jewish state founded after World War Two.

“The Jewish people did not have these capabilities seventy, eighty ears ago. We did not have these tools. Today these tools exist, and it is our duty to use them in order to thwart the nefarious intentions of our enemies,” he said, without referring directly to Iran.

A rash of public comments two months ago by Israeli officials suggesting time was running out for Israel to mount any effective military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, some of which have been moved underground, stoked international concern.

But more recently, Israel has cautiously welcomed the planned resumption later this month of big-power nuclear talks with Iran.

“I will do all I can to fend off this danger,” Netanyahu said in reference to Iran’s nuclear program, “I hope we will be able to do this together with the leading players in the international community, it is a great danger to them, but first and foremost it is a danger to us.”

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Writing by Jeffrey Heller

IDF Chief of Staff Gantz: Iron Dome a game changer

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz called the success of the Iron Dome system in intercepting incoming missiles from Gaza a “serious and historical military change.”

Speaking Tuesday night in the Israeli city of Ashdod via satellite to the New York gala dinner of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Gantz also warned that if rocket fire from Gaza continues, Israel would retaliate.

A tense calm had been holding, with limited rocket fire from Gaza and no Israeli retaliation since Egyptian officials announced that they had brokered an informal truce between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza. In four days of fighting before the truce took effect, Iron Dome intercepted the vast majority of the long-range missiles fire from Gaza to Israeli cities, Israeli officials said. The cross-border rocket barrages began after the IDF’s killing in an airstrike of Zuhair Qaisi, leader of the Palestinian Resistance Committees.

[10 things you should know about Israel’s Iron Dome]

“Right now it’s fairly quiet, I’m pleased to say,” Gantz said Tuesday night against the backdrop of one of Iron Dome’s anti-missile batteries. “If fire will continue we will retaliate as we did before.”

A few hours after Gantz spoke, however, Israel carried out at least two airstrikes in Gaza, which IDF officials said targeted terrorist sites in response to rocket fire on Israel.

The $1,000-a-plate Friends of the IDF dinner Tuesday raised $26 million, according to organizers.

10 things you should know about Israel’s Iron Dome

Israel used a new missile shield, Iron Dome, to shoot down rockets fired by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in recent days.

Here are some details:

  • Developed by state-owned Rafael Advanced Defence Systems Ltd to counter rocket fire from Lebanon, which hit Israeli towns during the 2006 war with Hezbollah, and from Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas Islamists took control in 2007.
  • Each truck-towed unit fires radar-guided missiles to blow up short-range rockets, notably of the Russian Katyusha type, as well as mortar bombs, in mid-air.
  • It successfully shot down multiple rockets simultaneously for the first time in tests during July 2010.
  • In the past four days, Israeli officials said Iron Dome shot down 77 percent of those rockets it targeted coming in from Gaza. In all, Israel counted 170 incoming missiles, but the system does not target every one, only those deemed a threat.
  • Industrial sources put the base price of each battery at about $50 million. Each interception costs at least $25,000.
  • It was first deployed near Gaza in March 2011. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said 10 to 15 batteries would be needed to provide full, if not hermetic, cover.
  • Israel’s main ally Washington has underwritten development costs. U.S. President Barack Obama asked Congress in May for $205 million to support the project.
  • The U.S. Army was reported last year to be interested in buying the system to protect bases overseas. India and Singapore have also expressed interest as potential buyers.
  • The system’s radar, which detects targets, has been developed in Israel by Elta. The system which calculates the aim of each interceptor is from Israeli software firm mPrest Systems. Among weapons fired by Iron Dome is the Tamir missile.
  • Among computations the system is capable of, it can launch interceptors against only those incoming rockets that are on target to hit populated areas, saving on pointless firing. It also works out the safest spot to detonate the incoming missile.

Sources: Reuters/
Reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Opinion: Israel has a legal case for striking Iran

In a world where nuclear weapons could soon be in the hands of a rogue nation like Iran, an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be fully justified. Despite its ban on aggressive war, Article 51 of the United Nations Charter clearly recognizes a state’s inherent right of self-defense. Thus, Israel has full authority to act unilaterally or collectively in its self-defense.

Yet Article 51 does not create the right to self-defense; it is an inherent right of all states under customary international law. Hence, determining when self-defense is appropriate lies, as it always has, with each state.

Under the charter, however, the U.N. Security Council is charged with lifting the burden of individual national self-defense and taking appropriate steps to restore international peace and security. One must recognize, however, that the muscular Security Council envisioned in the charter has never materialized. As such, threatened states are almost always required to make their own decisions and bear their own burdens.

Article 51 allows Israel to use aggressive force against Iran’s nuclear program if an “armed attack” occurs. Its plain language is satisfied when one state has used armed force to attack another state. Under customary international law, a preemptive strike is also permitted when an armed attack is imminent.

Thus an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be legitimate for two reasons.

First, Iran already is conducting armed attacks under the plain meaning of Article 51 through Islamist terrorist surrogates Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, so a de facto state of war exists between Israel and Iran.

Second, even if one questions whether armed attacks have occurred (by discounting Iran’s use of surrogates), Iran’s development of weapons of mass destruction constitutes an imminent, existential threat to Israel.

Under customary international law, the Article 51 “armed attack” requirement that evokes a right of self-defense can occur when a state perceives that such an attack is “immediately impending and inevitable.” Thus, rather than waiting for an actual attack, a state may execute a preemptive strike on the hostile state.

Historically, two elements must be met to legitimize a preemptive strike: proportionality and necessity.

The necessity element is where attention is usually focused. The acting state must have exhausted all other alternatives of dealing with the problem, and the threat from the hostile state must be imminent. As with most preemptive strikes, imminence related to necessity will be the most contested issue in deciding the strike’s legality.

The traditional definition for imminent is when there is “some outward act that initiates the attempt to harm such that the actual harm is close at hand.” Historically an attack was considered imminent when a state could see the mobilization of enemy armed forces preparing for attack. However, according to the modern trend in international legal thought regarding imminent, the threatened attack must be perceived as “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” The hostile state must be about to launch an attack and not merely in the “preparatory stages of such an attack.”

Yet even the more “modern” definition has lagged the development of technology, particularly of WMDs and their rapid means of delivery. Under the historic definition, Israel likely would be required to wait until nuclear warheads were attached to missiles and about to be launched. But by then it would be too late. Failure to stop Iran before it reaches such a point invites disaster because of the potential destruction were such an attack to succeed.

The concept of imminence must be flexible over time, and the definition of “imminent attack” must be adaptable to modern warfare, since the traditional definition fails to account for the lethality and danger of WMDs.

If Israel deems that Iran is actively preparing for a nuclear attack against the State of Israel (an opinion amply supported by Iran’s continuous bellicose threats) and that failure to act would put Israel in grave danger of being unable to prevent that attack, the threat against Israel would in fact be imminent. As such, Israel would be justified in making a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, as long as the attack were proportional and Israel had exhausted all other meaningful alternatives.

While the general rule in international law is that a state may not initiate aggressive war toward another state, an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would not qualify as aggressive war; it would simply reflect Israel’s inherent right to self-defense.

Jay Sekulow is chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, based in Washington. Robert Ash is the group’s senior counsel.

In love and defense

I have a complicated relationship with Israel. My younger brother made aliyah last year and is currently serving as a paratrooper in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), leaving me feeling simultaneously proud, nervous and occasionally nauseous all at once. We were raised in a Zionistic home with a strong legacy of Israel support — our grandparents collected money in little blue tzedakah boxes before Israel even became a state. My own schooling taught me the importance of being informed about complex Middle East issues; as an educator, I confront the media bias and hatred of Israel and instead promote positive messages about the country and her people. Through professional work, I also lead an annual student delegation from Los Angeles to Israel, where I continually experience the Jewish homeland through my students’ eyes. 

A 2007 study by sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman explained that American Jews’ connection to Israel drops off with each generation, leaving many youth alienated and apathetic about Israel’s future. Since that study, Hamas has come to power in Gaza, a barrage of rockets have fallen on southern Israeli cities, the world has shouted in outrage over the flotilla incident, the controversial and emotional prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit’s release occurred, and the United Nations bid for Palestinian statehood is ever looming. Yet, the majority of American Jews have not felt compelled to get involved and advocate for Israel’s security.

I surmise the reasons for this disconnect are in one’s upbringing, lack of Jewish education (not just from day schools but without the Jewish learning provided by religious schools, supplemental programs, camps and youth groups), and absence of positive, personal experiences in Israel that bind one to the land and the people. The silence in response to threats against Israel is not just limited to the youth, however. Many parents are not imbuing their children with support for the Jewish homeland because they, too, do not believe in its importance. Too comfortable and too assimilated in American society, just as Jews were in different societies throughout history before becoming a scapegoat, these parents do not see Israel’s existence as a beautiful culmination to centuries-old longing and an integral piece of our past and future.

Since Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War,  public perception of has changed from Israel’s being the sympathetic underdog that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust to a powerful and accomplished nation. Particularly in the last decade, there seems to be a misplaced sense of liberalism that breeds exclusive concern for the Palestinians, coupled with virulent anti-Zionism (often cloaked anti-Semitism), affecting Jewish support.

Despite the 7,563 miles separating Los Angeles from Tel Aviv, my connection with Israel is strong and my commitment is unbreakable. Today I can say that I have come full circle — once a student at L.A. Hebrew High School, I’m now its program director. Israel and engagement in the Jewish community has always been a common thread in my life. Even during my college days, I was vice president of Hillel and a student leader with AIPAC. My administrative work today includes teaching a politics and values elective called Jewish Civics Initiative (sponsored by the Panim Institute), which happened to be my favorite class when I was 16 years old.  For the past four years, I also served as the Partnership Coordinator for the Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership School Twinning Program, which seeks to deepen the connection between American and Israeli teenagers to create a shared sense of Jewish identity and destiny. It has been amazing for me to head the programs that I had been involved in as a student and that had such an impact on my personal growth. Through my position, I focus on leadership training, to give the students the tools they need to be successful ambassadors for the causes that matter to them.

My students are the exception to the majority in that they understand the importance of using their voice to defend and strengthen Israel. When we returned from the Jewish Federation’s annual delegation trip to Israel in December, I was overwhelmed by the breadth of student testimonies that attest to the necessity of providing students with actual experiences that connect them to Israel. They talked about the importance of visiting and learning about the land for themselves:

“All my life I heard about Israel. How I need to be pro-Israel and love the country. My relationship to Israel was outlined by others, but now I can develop my own opinions on Israel based on firsthand experience. I own it.”

“What I loved about this experience was that I really got to connect to my Jewish roots and appreciate how we are all different but all the same.”

“Being pro-Israel means understanding its history, its present situation and most of all, protecting its future.”

“I never realized how such an amazing place can have so many problems and conflicts that seem to never end. I hope many things for Israel, but above all I hope one day this country will be at peace. I hope a day will come when all the fear will not exist and Israel can live freely and be secure.”

Many participants spoke in length about the shared values that both America and Israel stand for and how moved they were in actually looking at all accomplishments that these countries of immigrants have achieved. The group of Israeli and American teens discussed how it does not matter where you are from, Jews all over the world are bound together through their shared memories, and Israel is the center. The opportunity to actually travel to Israel cemented their feeling of Jewish unity and commitment to ensuring a strong Jewish future.

As demonstrated by these students’ thoughtful reflections, despite claims to the contrary, students do care. When an issue speaks to them, they are passionate. But when it comes to Israel, they need to first feel a sense of love and pride for the country and then be given the tools to defend her. We do not need to teach that Israel is always right or to support every policy, but our silence is inexcusable.

Many organizations are already producing effective programming and resources to explain why support for Israel is essential and well deserved. It is time for us as educators, congregations, community leaders and parents to utilize them in designing meaningful programs that educate the greater community about Israel. To create the next generation of leaders, we cannot simply provide talking points, a list of Israel’s technological innovations, or screen Israeli movies while eating falafel, nor can we expect support of Israel just because the Torah states it was our land for thousands of years. All of those activities may have an impact, but none can be done in a vacuum and expected to be successful in the long run.

There needs to be a multitiered approach to help students (both affiliated and unaffiliated) build their own relationship with Eretz Yisrael. We should teach the history of the Jewish homeland and facilitate honest dialogue about its ongoing challenges, while also celebrating its diverse culture and encouraging travel to the country. When this experiential learning occurs, as evidenced from the declarations from the students that participated in the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program, the youth will be empowered to answer the tough questions, correct misinformation with facts, and articulately respond to the anti-Israel rhetoric in college and throughout their life.

“I will fight because no one else will do it for me, no other nation will do what is necessary for Israel to survive,” my brother once wrote in an e-mail explaining to family and friends his reasoning for enlisting in the IDF.

He is right. Our actions are what define us, and this is our opportunity to act as Israel’s guardians and ensure that the Jewish homeland we dreamed about for so long continues to survive, thrive and hold meaning for future generations. One need not make aliyah and join the army, but we must find our own way to be a voice for Israel, whether it is in the media or over the dinner table.

“Israel is the greatest story ever told,” said one student from the Partnership program during our reflection activity in Tel Aviv. It is our responsibility to be the authors of our own narrative and keep telling it to future generations. Am Yisrael Chai.

Erica Solomon is program director for Los Angeles Hebrew High School (

Delay of U.S.-Israel anti-missile exercise fuels speculation

The decision by Israel and the United States to delay a massive joint anti-missile exercise set off a frenzy of speculation as to what the move says about relations between the two allies amid mounting tensions with Iran.

U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed to JTA over the weekend that they had delayed until the second half of 2012 what was to have been the largest-ever joint anti-missile exercise, Austere Challenge 12.

Speaking off the record, officials in the United States and Israel confirmed published reports that Iran factored into the decision. But just how Iran factored in they would not say, and they insisted that the overriding factor had to do with preparedness for the exercise and Israeli budgetary concerns.

A Pentagon spokesman, Capt. John Kirby, said in an e-mail that the exercise was canceled for routine reasons of wanting “optimum participation” by both sides.

“It is not at all uncommon for routine exercises to be postponed,” Kirby said. “There were a variety of factors at play in this case, but in general, leaders from both sides believe that optimum participation by all units is best achieved later in the year. We remain dedicated to this exercise and naturally want it to be as robust and as productive as it can be.”

On background, Israeli and U.S. officials said that “optimum conditions” had to do with defense spending, now the subject of a fierce debate in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure, after a summer of protests, to increase social safety net spending.

In October, Netanyahu said he would cut defense spending to fund social spending, but last week he reversed course, hiking defense allocations by $700 million.

The fluctuating positions have created uncertainty in Israel’s defense establishment, and U.S. officials confirmed an account originally reported by Laura Rozen of Yahoo News that it was Defense Minister Ehud Barak who requested the delay in December.

Critics of the Obama administration were not buying it, insisting that the delay revealed a fissure between President Obama and Netanyahu over how to handle Iran. Some suggested that the Obama administration feared the joint exercise would further ratchet up tensions with Iran.

Danielle Pletka, vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the announcement fit into a pattern of what she depicted as the Obama administration’s overly cautious approach to Iran’s aggression, including its threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, which would cut off much of the West’s oil supply.

“Now they cancel these exercises with the Israelis and make the Israelis say they asked for it,” she said. “For the Iranians there is only one message here. That is: ‘Our tactics are working!’ ”

One Israeli report, on the country’s Channel 2, quoted unnamed Israeli officials as saying that it was the U.S. that requested the postponement, although U.S. officials and other Israelis have pushed back, insisting that it was Israel that made the request.

Pentagon officials reached out to journalists Tuesday to reinforce their claim that it was Israel, not the United States, that requested the delay. According to an unnamed senior U.S. defense official cited by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Barak requested to cancel the exercise because he feared the Israeli military lacked the resources to carry it out effectively.

The official said that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta objected, fearing that it would send Iran a signal that Israel and the United States were wavering.

“Panetta’s initial reaction was, ‘I don’t want to take this off the calendar,’ ” Goldberg quoted the official as saying. Panetta, the official said, was unwilling to cancel the exercise but agreed to a postponement.

Still, speculation regarding the exercise’s postponement reflects worries over whether the United States and Israel are on the same page when it comes to Iran.

There have been reports that Obama is pressing Netanyahu not to strike Iran—or at least to notify the United States in advance of such a strike. More recently, the U.S. condemned last week’s assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, a killing that many commentators suggest was carried out by the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency.

One theory circulating in the wake of the cancellation of the postponement of the anti-missile exercises is that Israel may be retreating from close defense cooperation, in part because of the U.S. pressure to coordinate on Iran.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. joint military chiefs of staff, is due to arrive in Israel on Thursday and is expected to again press Israel not to strike Iran.

Eitan Barak, an assistant professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, suggested that Israel’s refusal to commit to notifying the U.S. in advance of any military plans “could be an exercise to employ pressure on the United States to urge it to act against Iran.”

He said that Israel has in the past ratcheted up its defensive posture as a means of pressuring the United States and the West to confront a regional threat. He noted that during the first Gulf War, in 1991, Israel pulled its missiles out of their silos after suffering a barrage of Iraqi Scud missiles. Israel was signaling impatience with the failure of allied forces to take out Scud missile launchers in western Iraq.

“Once the U.S. satellites detected the missiles, the United States took Israel seriously” and started hitting western Iraqi targets, the Hebrew University’s Barak said. “It was a clear signal, if you don’t do something, we will.”

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst who lives in Israel, said the announcement of the decision to delay the anti-missile exercise could as easily be spun as a tale of closer Israel-U.S. cooperation.

“The preference here is for a negotiated settlement,” Javedanfar said. “Nobody in Israel wants Iran to havea nuclear bomb—this is one of the few nonpartisan issues—but we are also aware that the war with Iran could have far-reaching consequences, including our relationship with the United States.”

The decision to postpone a robust U.S.-Israel show of strength could be tied to signals that Iran is softening its position on negotiations over increasing the transparency of its nuclear program, he suggested. Western nations believe the program is aimed at building a bomb, while Iran insists it is peaceful.

Iran has invited inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit its facilities later this month, a key U.S. demand, and the Obama administration reportedly is considering a Turkish offer to broker new talks on making transparent Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

“The Israeli way of making Khameini sit with Obama is to make it clear all options are on the table,” Javedanfar said, referring to the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. “The idea is to get Khameini to return to the table with a serious offer.”

Netanyahu, Barak vow to stop extremist attacks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a West Bank military base that was vandalized by extreme rightists vowed to stop such attacks.

“This is a stain on all of Israel and on a population of settlers that are not part of this phenomenon,” Netanyahu said Tuesday night at the Efraim Regional Brigade base near Kalkilya. “We must join forces against this extremist phenomenon and erase this stain.”

Netanyahu and Barak lit Chanukah candles at the base on the first night of the holiday.

Netanyahu condemned so-called price tag violence, saying “we cannot accept vandalism of mosques or harming police officers, soldiers or innocent people. This can happen, but if it does, we must act with full authority against the perpetrators.”

Barak said that a “small group of extremists” attempted to undermine the rule of law and that it was unacceptable.

“We will act with all of our might, within the IDF and with all the law enforcement agencies, to entrench the reality that even with all the legitimate internal disagreements, no one will raise their hands against a soldier or a commander of the IDF, or for that matter a police officer,” he said, adding that “No one in the State of Israel is above the law.”

Barak told reporters that he believed that recent incidents, including the vandalizing of the army base and the torching of mosques, were terrorist acts.

Last week, about 50 right-wing activists, mostly youth, entered the base and vandalized military vehicles. The brigade’s commander was hurt after a rock struck his head. The activists also threw stones at passing Palestinian cars and military vehicles.

Netanyahu shores up his power at home

He may be a lightning rod for criticism abroad, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is consolidating power at home.

On Dec. 5, Netanyahu announced that elections for leadership of his Likud Party would be held Jan. 31, 2012. The decision came as something of a surprise; primaries in Israel were expected to be held closer to the next general elections, which are set for October 2013.

Leading Likud ministers — except for Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom, who had harbored unrealistic hopes of challenging Netanyahu — strongly supported Netanyahu’s decision, timed to take advantage of the prime minister’s relative popularity.

“A strong prime minister makes for a strong Likud,” said Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

In an opinion poll based on 505 respondents published in the Israeli daily Haaretz at the beginning of December, Netanyahu’s approval rate stood at 49 percent. It has bounced back from 32 percent in a July Haaretz poll, when demonstrations were raging against socioeconomic inequalities and the cost of living.

According to the December poll, if parliamentary elections had been held in November, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, the second-largest coalition party, both would have gained two Knesset seats. The poll predicted that leading opposition parties Kadima and Labor would not be able to seriously challenge the right’s dominance.

Indeed, Netanyahu and his coalition — buoyed by a solid base of Charedi Orthodox Jews, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, religious Zionists and secular right-wingers — enjoy impressive political stability.

However, for all his strength at home, Netanyahu has had rocky relations with some of Israel’s allies, including the United States.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made separate remarks that were taken by some as implicit rebukes of the current Israeli government, though others have suggested that their remarks were not intended in that spirit.

In an address to the Saban Forum in Washington, Panetta suggested that Israel needed to “mend fences” with its neighbors. And in response to a question about what Israel should do to advance peace, Panetta said, “Just get to the damn table.”

Responding to a question in an off-the-record session at the same conference, Clinton reportedly expressed some concerns over the state of Israeli democracy. She was said to have criticized gender-segregated buses serving the Charedi Orthodox community and a proposed Knesset measure aimed at constricting left-wing NGOs.

After the comments by Clinton and Panetta were made public, influential Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit accused Netanyahu of sacrificing the support of the democratic West — which he said over the years has supported Israel politically, militarily and economically — to maintain his base of “nationalists,” “national-religious” and “Charedim.”

Shavit and other centrists would have preferred to see Netanyahu form a coalition with Kadima and Labor following the 2009 elections. If he had, some argue, Israel may have made more headway in peace talks with the Palestinians and been on better terms with the Obama administration and with Western European countries.

But if Netanyahu had formed such a coalition, it is not at all clear that his position within the Likud would have been as strong as it is today. Nor is it clear that Netanyahu would have enjoyed the sort of political stability he has with his current partners.

The apparent tensions between Jerusalem and Washington have fueled speculation that Netanyahu’s call for an early leadership vote was connected in part to the U.S. presidential elections in November 2012. Some commentators have speculated that Netanyahu fears a victory by President Barack Obama.

According to the theory, Netanyahu is afraid that Obama in a second term will renew pressure on Israel to freeze building in the West Bank, dismantle outposts or take other proactive steps to jump-start negotiations — steps that, if implemented, could endanger the stability of Netanyahu’s coalition and turn hawkish Likud Knesset members against the prime minister.

Some have suggested that a second Obama administration may even attempt to send out signals of dissatisfaction with the Netanyahu government ahead of the 2013 Israeli elections in an attempt to influence the outcome.

There are precedents: Bill Clinton, fed up with Netanyahu’s settlement policies, used the tactic to help Ehud Barak defeat Netanyahu in the 1999 Israeli elections, and George H.W. Bush, angered by Yitzhak Shamir’s intransigence on peace talks with the Palestinians, did the same in 1992 to help Yitzhak Rabin to victory, according to Zalman Shoval, who was Israel’s ambassador to the United States in Likud-led governments during both periods and now heads the prime minister’s advisory forum on U.S.-Israel relations.

Holding the Likud leadership race in January would enable Netanyahu to advance the general elections to as early as July 2012 if he sees Obama doing well in the polls, though the scenario seems far-fetched. Also, moving up the vote would depend on Netanyahu’s ability to muster a majority in the Knesset for early elections — no easy task.

Nevertheless, such speculation reflects the perception in Israel that relations between the Israeli government and the Obama administration have deteriorated.

Still, Shoval, who recently returned to Israel from a trip to the United States, where he met with senior White House officials, said the recent comments by Panetta and Clinton should be taken “with a grain of salt.” Shoval said he was told that the comments were made “off the cuff.”

“I’ve never felt such strong support for Israel in Washington,” he added.

Shoval also dismissed the idea put forward by Shavit that the Netanyahu government is moving away from the values of Western democracies.

“Unlike in the U.S., we have no death penalty for criminals, openly gay soldiers have long enjoyed full rights in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], we have no problem with abortions and there is no political intervention in the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court,” Shoval said.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, also dismissed claims that Israel was drifting away from the West.

“Israel has its own form of democracy, a Jewish democracy,” Rotem said. “And this Jewish democracy is no different from Western democracies — it defends itself when it is attacked.”

Though he is widely seen as hawkish, Netanyahu has taken steps to position Likud as a more centrist party. He called the snap leadership race to coincide with a previously planned Likud Central Committee election. Doing so is expected to increase the chances of a large turnout from about 100,000 eligible party members, because the last Central Committee election was last held a decade ago and many will not want to miss the chance to choose a new committee.

A large turnout not only will give more legitimacy to Netanyahu’s victory, it also might help him to further sideline far-right party activist Moshe Feiglin, Netanyahu’s only competition, who garnered 23 percent of the vote in the last primaries, held in 2007, thanks in part to the mobilization of a highly motivated minority against a more complacent pro-Netanyahu camp.

Netanyahu also has taken steps to partially roll back affirmative action measures that have encouraged West Bank settlers to participate in the Likud’s Central Committee by giving them proportionally more representatives relative to their size.

While solid, the stability of the current Israeli government is not unshakable. A possible corruption indictment against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, upon whom Yisrael Beiteinu’s other largely unknown Knesset members rely for political currency, could devastate the party.

The Sephardic Charedi Orthodox party Shas, another key coalition partner, would be vulnerable in the event of a number of possible developments, including the sudden death of its spiritual leader, nonagenarian Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, or a challenge from its charismatic former political leader Aryeh Deri.

These potential dangers to his coalition’s stability, which might lead to early elections, may have provided additional impetus for Netanyahu to consolidate his power now.

Israel burnishes preventive strike capability

Israel said it could strike Iran’s ballistic missile batteries pre-emptively, if necessary.

“We have our ability, which is essentially the ability in terms of airpower and early intelligence-collection, to hit launch sites everywhere—from a range of a few kilometers in Gaza and Lebanon to a range of hundreds of kilometers deep in Lebanon and Syria,” Civil Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said Wednesday.

“And beyond that, at far greater ranges, including if we find ourselves involved in the matter of Iran,” he told the annual Israel Aerospace International Conference and Exhibition in Jerusalem.

“This strike capability is a core element in defending the State of Israel’s home front.”

With the United States and Western allies imposing new sanctions against Iran, and international speculation simmering that Israel might attack its arch-enemy’s nuclear program unilaterally, the Netanyahu government has tried to rein in belligerent rhetoric.

Vilnai addressed a common concern—that Iran could retaliate for a future strike by firing intermediate-range Shehab missiles at Israel.

Missile expert Uzi Rubin, who also spoke at the conference, estimated that Iran has around 400 Shehabs, a capability amplified by the shorter-range rockets of Tehran’s terrorist proxies Hezbollah and Hamas.

But Vilnai, a retired army general, voiced cautious confidence in Israel’s superior firepower after it was demonstrated in the Lebanon War in 2006 and the Gaza war in 2008-09.

“Today, too, Hezbollah in the North and Hamas in the South are deterred by the IDF’s might,” he said, “but that is something that is true as of this morning and could change at any moment.”

Romney would up defense aid to Israel

Mitt Romney said he would increase defense assistance to Israel, raise the U.S. military profile near Iran and recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and frontrunner in the bid to secure the Republican nomination for president, delivered the first major foreign policy speech of his campaign Friday at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina.

He cast President Obama’s policies as contributing to Israel’s isolation.

“I will bolster and repair our alliances,” he said. “Our friends should never fear that we will not stand by them in an hour of need. I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.”

The Obama and Netanyahu governments have smoothed relations in recent months, and Israeli officials credit the administration with tightening defense ties and backing Israel at the United Nations. Obama also refers to Israel as a Jewish state, althoug he has not issued a formal declaration of such a recognition.

Romney suggested Israel might be further isolated by 2015 if Obama remains in office.

“Will Iran be a fully activated nuclear weapons state, threatening its neighbors, dominating the world’s oil supply with a stranglehold on the Strait of Hormuz?” he asked. “In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran’s suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world. “By 2015, will Israel be even more isolated by a hostile international community? Will those who seek Israel’s destruction feel emboldened by American ambivalence? Will Israel have been forced to fight yet another war to protect its citizens and its right to exist?”

Romney said that as president he would “enhance our deterrent against the Iranian regime by ordering the regular presence of aircraft carrier task forces, one in the Eastern Mediterranean and one in the Persian Gulf region. I will begin discussions with Israel to increase the level of our military assistance and coordination. And I will again reiterate that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.”

He also said he would centralize U.S. Middle East policy to ensure “that the Arab Spring does not fade into a long winter.”

The speech came a day after Romney published a list of his foreign policy advisers, including many who have been active in or are close to the pro-Israel community.

U.S. to help Israel buy more Iron Dome systems

The United States will help Israel buy four more Iron Dome short-range anti-missile systems, a Pentagon official said.

Lt.-Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, told the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee Wednesday that the agency has included in its budget a proposal to pay for four more of the protection systems, which each cost about $50 million.

The system, which has been deployed near Beersheba and Ashkelon, has intercepted rockets fired from Gaza on southern Israeli communities.

Israel’s state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. developed the Iron Dome on its own, but the United States reportedly believes its troops could benefit from a similar system.

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Israel’s military ordering more Iron Dome defense systems

Israel’s military is ordering four more Iron Dome missile defense systems, which successfully deployed during recent rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

The Israel Defense Forces said Monday that it would order the batteries from the Israel-based Rafael Advanced Defense Systems at a cost of up to $80 million each. The units reportedly will be delivered in a year-and-a-half and be ready for immediate use.

Funding for the new defense batteries, which intercepted all of the rockets in its coverage area in recent Gaza terrorist activity, is slated to come from an extra security aid allocation from the United States. The military aid, $3 billion for 2011, plus an additional $205 million for Iron Dome, has been tied up for five months due to a budget impasse in Washington.

President Obama is scheduled to sign the 2011 budget bill, which includes the aid to Israel, later this week.