Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem July 23, 2017. REUTERS/Abir Sultan/Pool

Netanyahu, a dead man walking (aren’t we all?)


When there is no news, there is speculation. And in recent days there has been very little news about the criminal investigations into allegations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Investigations are slow and, besides, there is a gag order that’s preventing the news media from reporting about any developments. So there is a vacuum, and the vacuum is filled by speculation, and by ever-chatting politicians and pundits. Some of them try to convince us that the prime minister is a dead man walking. Some are trying to convince us that “there will be nothing, because there is nothing,” which is Netanyahu’s usual response to questions about the investigations.

He is not dead yet. But the potential of a sudden political death no longer can be denied. Netanyahu suffered a blow last week when his close aid, Ari Harow, signed a state-witness agreement. One assumes that such an agreement only is signed with a witness who has something incriminating to say. One assumes that Harow was in a position that provided him unique access to Netanyahu. What did he tell the investigators? We don’t know. What does he tell his acquaintances? “I did not rat out Netanyahu” is what he says.

Is that possible? Is it possible that the police signed an agreement with a state witness when the witness believes that he said nothing incriminating about his former boss? In fact, it is. It’s possible if what Harow has to tell is open to interpretation. Harow told the investigators stories that he considers legal and they might consider illegal. Harow told them stories that he believes are not incriminating enough to put Netanyahu on trial and they might believe are incriminating indeed and strong enough to indict Netanyahu.

He is not dead yet. But the potential of a sudden political death no longer can be denied.

Harow might be naïve. He might not understand the severity of his actions. The investigators might be overeager. They might not see that in their zeal to search for an elusive truth, they criminalize trivial actions. As I remarked four years ago, prosecutors have sniffed around every prime minister for nearly two decades, with mixed results. Netanyahu, first term: investigated, not charged. Ehud Barak: investigated, not charged. Ariel Sharon: investigated, not charged. Ehud Olmert: investigated, charged, found guilty (mostly for his actions as the mayor of Jerusalem). Netanyahu, second term: under investigation again.

Olmert was forced out as prime minister because of the investigation and indictment. Netanyahu has vowed not to repeat Olmert’s actions, that he will not leave his position even if an indictment is put before the court. There is no clear indication in the law that a prime minister must resign if he is indicted.

For now, his coalition partners support his position. But political grounds can shift. Today’s support is essential but hardly guarantees tomorrow’s support. The legal situation might be navigable. But Olmert was pushed out by the political system: The Labor party’s Barak forced the Kadima party to get rid of Olmert or else (the coalition would crumble). And, of course, Barak said at the time that his motivation was pure and that his ambition was for Israel not to be corrupt.

Still, more cynical observers and members of the political cast believed at the time, and still believe, that Barak wanted Olmert ousted because of personal ambitions and his belief that a vacuum created an opportunity for him to become more powerful.

So, Netanyahu’s political fate is hanging in the air and a decision to cut short his time in office could only begin with the political system. And that comes with a lot of ifs: if the prime minister is indicted, if the public (not just his rivals but also voters of coalition parties) wants him out, if his fellow politicians master the courage to stand up to him, if coalition partners believe they can benefit from a new election or get more from another prime minister.

Last week, it appeared that some of Netanyahu’s colleagues were beginning to entertain such thoughts. This week, the tide turned, and Netanyahu proved, once again, that he is quite good at disciplining his party members. Likud ministers who were somewhat reluctant to defend him are back on the airwaves, declaring his innocence. They do it not because they like Netanyahu, not because they want him to stay as their leader, not because they are truly convinced that he is innocent; they do it because that’s the smart thing for them to do politically. It is the smart thing to do as long as Likud voters want Netanyahu to stay.

There are four scenarios under which Netanyahu could be forced out. One: If the politicians decide it is time. Two: If Netanyahu believes he needs to step aside and take care of his legal troubles. Three: If he is indicted and found guilty. Four: If the court interprets the law in a way that forces out the prime minister as soon as he is indicted.

What is the timetable for these scenarios to materialize? With politicians, one never knows, but for now, there is not one important member of the ruling coalition who wants Netanyahu to step aside. There also is no sign that Netanyahu is considering leaving. In fact, he has vowed time and again to fight and remain in office. Indictments take time. A lot of time. In any of these scenarios, Netanyahu is not leaving anytime soon.

Of course, there still is the option of a court decision that forces him out. This will not be an easy decision, because unlike throwing out a minister in Israel — a decision that is problematic personally for the minister but hardly impacts the public — throwing out a prime minister would be perceived as a political revolution by the court.

The bottom line is simple: Either we see a change of political hearts or we are destined to slog through a very long process. That Netanyahu might have to leave at some point is true. But that was true even before the investigations began (it is true with every prime minister). That the end is much closer today than it was before also is true.

But that was true even before the investigations began — it is true for all of us with every passing day.

Four ways Jews and Arabs live apart in Israeli society


Betzalel Smotrich, perhaps the most right-wing member of the current Knesset, caused a storm when he endorsed the idea that Arabs and Jew should be segregated in Israel’s maternity rooms.

Smotrich was responding to a report on the Israel Broadcast Authority that several hospitals practice de facto segregation of maternity rooms — placing Jews with Jews and Arabs with Arabs. Such segregation is prohibited by law.

“There are mental gaps, and it’s more comfortable for both sides to be with themselves,” Smotrich, a member of the religious Zionist Jewish Home party, tweeted on April 5. “It’s really not racism.”

In a subsequent tweet he wrote that it’s “natural that my wife wouldn’t want to lie next to someone who just gave birth to a baby, who may want to kill her baby 20 years from now.”

Smotrich’s remarks were panned by lawmakers from left and right, including Naftali Bennett, the leader of Jewish Home. Responding to Smotrich, Bennett tweeted a rabbinic passage about man being created in God’s image, adding, “Every man. Jew or Arab.”

Jews and Arabs are afforded equal rights under Israeli law. But in many ways, the two sectors live in separate societies — attending different schools, living in different cities, reading different newspapers and espousing different political ideals.

Unlike the prescribed, top-down segregation supported by Smotrich, much of this separation stems from longstanding structural factors like language, culture and religion.  

“In most places, there’s no problem. The Arab population lives in totally Arab villages,” said Nachum Blass, a senior researcher at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.

But the divisions between Israeli Jews and Arabs, who represent 20 percent of the population, have also contributed to economic disparities between them. And despite laws meant to prevent discrimination, Arabs point to studies showing persistent disparities in education, social services, income and political participation.

“There’s definitely discrimination in every aspect” of Israel’s education system, Taub said.

Nongovernmental organizations and government bodies have worked to promote a “shared society” in economic development, higher education and the labor market.

Here are four ways Jews and Arabs live apart in Israeli society.

Jews and Arabs attend separate schools.

Israel’s schools are separated by both religion and race. Jewish students attend either secular, religious or haredi Orthodox schools, while the Arabs attend separate Muslim, Christian and Druze systems taught in Arabic. Of the 1.6 million total students in grades 1 through 12 last year, fewer than 2,000 attended the handful of joint Jewish-Arab schools.

The split education system, where students are taught in their own language and according to their own cultural norms, according to Blass, “answers the [Arab] community’s needs.” But it has also led to lower educational achievement among Arab Israelis.

In 2012, two-thirds of non-haredi Jews qualified for university, as opposed to less than half of Arab students. Israel’s universities are more integrated, but Arabs make up a low proportion of students. In 2012, Arabs made up only 12 percent of bachelor’s degree students, and 4 percent of doctoral students, according to Sikkuy, an organization that aims to foster Jewish-Arab coexistence.

Jews and Arabs live in separate towns.

In addition to studying separately, Israeli Jews and Arabs mostly live in separate cities. Two of the country’s largest cities, Jerusalem and Haifa, have substantial Arab populations, but even those cities are often separated by neighborhood. Nearly all of Jerusalem’s Arab residents live in the eastern half of the city.

Aside from a handful of other mixed Israeli towns, most of the country’s cities are more than 90 percent Jewish or Arab. Though Arabs make up nearly 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry, the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, Israel’s largest, is nearly 95 percent Jewish.

The Jewish-Arab division is also marked by economic gaps. Arab cities have higher poverty rates and, in general, worse municipal services than their Jewish counterparts. Eight of Israel’s 10 poorest towns are Arab. The richest 30 are Jewish.

“It’s not a problem in principle to live in different places,” said Rawnak Natour, co-director of Sikkuy. “There needs to be a possibility to live together, that there will be [cultural] symbols and the ability to encompass the different cultures.”

Their political leaders rarely work together.

Israel often points to its Arab-Israeli lawmakers as proof of the country’s democratic chops. Arabs hold 16 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and the body’s third-largest party, the Joint List, is Arab. Arabs have also risen to the top of other branches of government, including sitting on Israel’s Supreme Court.

But Israeli Arabs’ political leadership perpetually sits in the Knesset’s opposition, and few politicians in the government are Arab, such that the two communities’ agendas rarely align. The only Arab in Israel’s political leadership is the deputy minister of regional cooperation, Ayoub Kara, who is part of the Druze minority.

Arabs are barely present in Israel’s mainstream media.

Lucy Aharish, the young Arab co-host of a morning show on a leading Israeli TV station, speaks accent-less Hebrew, has gained admirers for her forthrightness and was even honored with a role at the country’s official torch-lighting ceremony on Independence Day.

But she’s one of the few Arab faces and voices Israelis will see and hear on their TVs and radios. Israeli Arabs have their own active press, but they are vastly underrepresented in mainstream Israeli media, comprising fewer than 3 percent of total interviews on leading Israel stations in January and February, according to a study by Sikkuy and the Seventh Eye, a media watchdog.

The number drops even lower when it comes to news segments not directly related to Israeli Arabs. Aharish’s Channel 2, for example, spoke to only 11 Arabs out of more than 5,500 total such interviews in January.

“You have low representation, and the moment you have it, it’s about specific topics and a very specific framing, which is crime and the conflict,” Natour said. “The way they’re interviewed is a negative framework that perpetuates the stigmas about the Arab population in the state.”

Meet the Islamic Movement, Netanyahu’s newest public enemy


In assigning blame for the recent wave of violence in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has turned to the usual suspects – Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

But he has also accused a lesser-known group that operates within Israel’s borders: the Islamic Movement, a religious political group and social service organization.

Netanyahu has seized on the inflammatory rhetoric of the movement’s northern branch, which claims the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is “in danger” and has funded protest groups that harass Jewish visitors to the site. Netanyahu has blamed the movement’s rhetoric for inciting the attacks and is seeking to formally ban its activity.Here’s what the movement does, what it believes about the Temple Mount and why it might be difficult to ban.

What is the Islamic Movement?

The Islamic Movement is a political organization, religious outreach group and social service provider rolled into one. Formed in the 1970s, the movement’s overarching goal is to make Israeli Muslims more religious and owes much of its popularity to providing services often lacking in Israel’s Arab communities. Today the group runs kindergartens, colleges, health clinics, mosques and even a sports league – sometimes under the same roof.

“Their popularity stems from the fact that they had, in every place, changed the face of the local village or town,” said Eli Rekhess, the Crown Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University. “It’s this combination that underlies the Islamic Movement’s formula.”

The movement split two decades ago. One faction, known as the southern branch, began fielding candidates for Israel’s Knesset in 1996 and now is part of the Joint List, an alliance of several Arab-Israeli political parties. Three of the Joint List’s 13 current Knesset members are part of the movement.

The more hardline northern branch rejects any legitimization of Israel’s government and has called on its adherents to boycott elections. The branches now operate essentially as two separate organizations.

The ‘Al-Aqsa is in danger’ conference

The movement’s northern branch is in Netanyahu’s sights now for its aggressive advocacy for Islamic control over the Temple Mount, the Jerusalem shrine known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The branch’s leader, Raed Salah, has called on his followers to “redeem” the mount, which houses the Al-Aqsa mosque, from purported Israeli aggression.

Every year, Salah hosts a conference titled “Al-Aqsa is in danger,” and has promoted the idea — hotly disputed by Israeli officials — that Israel seeks to change the status quo at the site.

The movement also funds a group called the Mourabitoun, whose protests against Jewish visitors at the Temple Mount have occasionally turned violent. On Sept. 9, Israel banned the group from the mount, sparking the riots that preceded the current wave of attacks. Salah has accused Netanyahu of declaring war on the mosque.

An offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

Netanyahu also sees the group as something of an Islamist fifth column within Israel. The movement, according to Haifa University’s Nohad Ali, is an ideological offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, as is Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.

Though they all share the same principles and operate similarly — Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood also operate educational and social service programs in addition to their political activities — the Islamic Movement has no organizational relation to the others. Rekhess says remaining separate gives the movement a niche within Israel. And Ali says keeping its distance from Hamas helps the movement avoid prosecution. Which is why …

There’s not much Netanyahu can do to ban it

Salah has served prison time for assaulting an Israeli police officer and is appealing a conviction for incitement, but several experts say Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to outlaw the whole group for incitement to violence. Its official pronouncements are too ambiguous to qualify as illegal, they say.

“They don’t call for violence,” Ali said. “They know that use of violence will cause the destruction of the movement. I’m not saying they’re angels or that they oppose violence, [but] they’re using vague concepts.”

Outlawing the group could also spark a broad backlash in Israel’s Arab sector. Knesset member Talab Abu Arar, a member of the movement’s southern branch, said he could view any ban on the group as an attack on Arab-Israelis as a whole.

“The Islamic Movement includes most of the Arab public in Israel,” Abu Arar told JTA. “Outlawing it, you could say, is outlawing the entire public from the land.”

In Tel Aviv, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales likes Israel but stays neutral


In 2003, two years after the website was founded, the editors of Wikipedia faced a dilemma: How should they refer to the part-fence, part-wall Israel was building along the West Bank border?

The article’s first iteration — published amid the bloody second intifada, or Palestinian uprising — called it a “security fence” and focused on Israeli support. Within a half-hour, another editor added a sentence about a United Nations condemnation. Later that day, the phrase “apartheid wall” appeared, using the Palestinians’ preferred term.

Following thousands of edits on the free online, crowdsourced encyclopedia, the article now calls it the “Israeli West Bank barrier” and links to a list of alternative names, from “separation fence” to “wall of apartheid.”

“The right thing to do, if you’re new to the issue, is you should be told what is this debate about,” Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, told JTA on Sunday during an interview here. “That’s a struggle. You have to be taught about those issues. You don’t want to, in an unclear way, use language that carries with it a hidden conclusion.”

Wales was in Israel — he’s been here more than 10 times, he says — to accept the Dan David Prize, an international award of $1 million given yearly at Tel Aviv University. Wales was chosen for spearheading what the prize committee called the “information revolution.”

“We could come together and give the great gift to the world of a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet,” Wales said during his acceptance speech, describing Wikipedia’s mission. “Wikipedia is not just this one website but a movement to share knowledge globally.”

Wales prizes neutrality on Wikipedia, and few topics present as great a challenge to that value as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where every word or snippet of information can be imbued with ideology. His response is to provide as many facts as possible, aiming to overwhelm any chance of bias.

“You can imagine some historical incident where [the late Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon said this, [the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat said that,” Wales told JTA. “You present what all sides have said and leave it to the reader to come to the answer.”

Not all Israel advocates agree. In 2010, the right-wing Israeli organization My Israel recruited activists to edit Israel-related Wikipedia articles and give them a Zionist slant. Wales said nothing came of the effort, though now only registered Wikipedia editors may edit the “Israel” entry.

Rather than risking bias, each Wikipedia article’s multiplicity of voices makes it more valuable, says Hagit Meishar-Tal, a professor at the Holon Institute of Technology who studies Wikipedia’s influence in the classroom. Readers who peruse histories and discussions among Wikipedia editors, she said, can gain a deeper understanding of an issue.

“This discussion can create relevant information on where there’s disagreement, on what the arguments are between Wikipedians,” Meishar-Tal said. “The mechanism tries to create consensus, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

While Wikipedia strives for objectivity on Israel, Wales is unabashedly pro. The annual Wikimania conference, hosted by the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, was held in the northern Israeli city of Haifa in 2011, and Wales appeared at the Israeli Presidential Conference that year.

Ahead of the Haifa conference, Wales defended Israel in a Facebook exchange with a pro-Palestinian activist, Joey Ayoub, that Ayoub subsequently published. Responding to Ayoub’s accusations of Israeli apartheid, Wales wrote, “How about those rockets? Complaining any about those?” Presumably he was referring to Hamas shooting rockets into Israel from Gaza.

“I’m a strong supporter of Israel, so I don’t listen to those critics,” Wales told JTA.

Wales said he backs Israel for “all of the standard reasons — the support for freedom of speech is very important to me, the rights of women, proper democracy. You can support all those things while still having criticism of actions and policies that aren’t good.”

After this trip Wales, whose work has largely been not-for-profit, will return $900,000 richer (10 percent of the prize goes to doctoral students).

Along with Wales, this year’s Dan David Prize was awarded to historians Alessandro Portelli and Peter Brown, and bioinformaticians Cyrus Chothia, David Haussler and Michael Waterman. In the past, figures such as former Vice President Al Gore and filmmakers Joel and Ethan Cohen have won the award.

Israeli couples say ‘I don’t’ to Orthodox Jewish weddings


For most Israelis in the Jewish state, there is one legal way to get married – God's way.

Israeli law empowers only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at Jewish weddings, but popular opposition is growing to this restriction and to what some Israelis see as an Orthodox stranglehold on the most precious moments of their lives.

Some of Israel's most popular TV stars and models have come out this week in an advertisement supporting a new bill allowing civil marriage. A political storm is likely when it eventually comes up for a vote in parliament.

The Rabbinate, the Orthodox religious authority that issues marriage licences in Israel, says it is charged with a task vital for the survival of the Jewish people, and a recent poll showed more Israelis oppose civil unions than support them.

Nevertheless, many Israelis want either a secular wedding or a religious marriage conducted by a non-Orthodox rabbi. Facebook pages have been popping up, with defiant couples calling on others to boycott the Rabbinate.

In September, Stav Sharon, a 30-year-old Pilates instructor, married her husband in an alternative ceremony performed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi.

“We wanted a Jewish wedding despite being secular. We feel connected to our Judaism, even if we are not religious. It is our people, our tradition,” Sharon said.

Weddings such as Sharon's fall into a legal no man's land. They are not against the law, but neither are they recognised as valid by the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for registering marital status on the national identity card every Israeli is required to carry.

In a twist in the law, the ministry will register as married any Israeli couple that weds abroad – even in a non-religious ceremony – outside the purview of the Israeli rabbinate.

Some couples hop on the short flight to Cyprus to marry. The Czech Republic is another popular destination for Israelis wanting a civil wedding.

Sharon and her husband decided against that option. “Marrying abroad means giving in. We wanted to marry in our own country,” she said.

No formal records are kept on the officially invalid alternative ceremonies held in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly 39,000 Jewish couples married via the Rabbinate in 2011. About 9,000 couples registered that year as having married overseas.

Muslims, Druze and Christians in Israel are also required to marry through their own state-recognised religious authorities, making interfaith weddings possible only overseas.

WHO IS A JEW?

Secular-religious tensions have simmered in Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state, since its establishment in 1948.

About 20 percent of Israeli Jews describe themselves as Orthodox while the majority of citizens are only occasional synagogue-goers. There are also non-Orthodox communities such as Reform and Conservative, but these are proportionately smaller than in Jewish populations abroad.

Ultra-Orthodox zealots have drawn anger in recent years for separating men and women on some public buses and harassing women and girls for what they see as immodest dress. Orthodox rabbis insist that brides take ritual baths to purify themselves before marriage, a practice to which some Israeli women object.

Immigrants to Israel, which since its inception has appealed to Jews around the world to live in the Jewish state, can find marriage through its Rabbinate a gruelling process.

Anyone wed by the Rabbinate is required to provide evidence of being Jewish, usually a simple and quick process.

But when it comes to new immigrants, the Rabbinate requires an affidavit, usually from an Orthodox rabbi in their home country, attesting they were born to a Jewish mother – the Orthodox criterion for determining if someone is a Jew.

And, Orthodox authorities in Israel can pile on more problems by digging even deeper into Jewish roots by requiring additional documentation proving that a bride or bridegroom's grandmother was Jewish.

“It took a year,” said a 34-year-old Argentinian immigrant to Israel, who asked not to be identified.

“They said the papers I had were not sufficient. They kept asking for more and more crazy documents. At one point they wanted me to provide a witness, from Argentina, who knew my grandparents and who had seen them, inside their home, celebrating a Jewish holiday,” he said.

His case was ultimately brought before the Chief Rabbi who ruled the man was Jewish and could marry his bride-to-be.

Israel's government is less strict in determining “who is a Jew” and therefore eligible to immigrate to Israel. Under its Law of Return, proof that someone has at least one Jewish grandparent is enough to receive automatic citizenship.

The Rabbinate says it is charged with preventing intermarriage and assimilation with non-Jewish communities which would endanger their people's survival.

Ziv Maor, the Rabbinate's spokesman, said strict adherence to Orthodox ritual law and practices had bonded Jews across the globe and set common rules for all.

“A Moroccan Jew knew he could marry a Jewish woman from Lithuania,” he said. “Rabbinical law guides us in a very clear way on who is Jewish and who is not … and we do not have permission from past or future generations to stray even a hair's breadth from those criteria,” Maor said.

According to the Rabbinate, only two percent of the men and women who apply to it for a marriage licence are turned down because they are found not to be Jewish.

GAY MARRIAGE

There are other groups to whom marriage is forbidden by rabbinical law.

Same-sex marriage, as in other religions, is out of the question as far as the Rabbinate is concerned. Israel's Interior Ministry recognises gay marriage – but only if it is conducted in a foreign country where it is legal.

Margot Madeson-Stern, a business consultant, was wed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi at a celebration attended by more than 300 guests. The ceremony had no legal foundation in Israel.

“The (Rabbinate) would not marry me. The person I fell in love with was a woman,” said Madeson-Stern, 30. “I'm Jewish. I wanted a Jewish wedding. It's my family, my tradition, it's how I grew up.”

She later travelled with her wife to New York for another wedding ceremony. New York recognises gay marriages, so Israel's Interior Ministry did the same, registering them as a couple.

At least two parties in the coalition government are promoting a bill to allow civil marriage in Israel, including for same-sex couples. One of them is Yesh Atid, which tapped into anti-religious sentiment in last January's national election and finished in second place.

“It cannot be that people who do not believe or whose lifestyle does not suit the Rabbinate will be forced to get married by people whose way is not their own,” Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid told Israel Radio this month.

But tradition could die hard in Israel. A poll published in November in the Israeli newspaper, Maariv, showed that while 41 percent of Jewish Israelis supported Yesh Atid's Civil Union bill, 47 percent objected.

Such bills have been floated at Israel's parliament before. But for the first time in years, ultra-Orthodox parties, which oppose civil marriage, are not in the government.

Yesh Atid believes it has enough votes from lawmakers across the board to pass the law in the next few months. The Rabbinate says it will oppose the measure strongly.

“Matters of marriage, divorce and conversion are our most important fortress. It must not be touched and we will defend it fiercely,” said Maor.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and David Stamp

At AIPAC confab, sequester looms large


Imminent threats threading through the rhetoric at AIPAC conferences is hardly new, but this year’s alarm raising had a unique wrinkle: In addition to the prospect of a nuclear Iran, the other danger AIPAC targeted was domestic — sequestration.

The message hammered home throughout the March 3-5 American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference was that looming spending cuts mandated by the 2011 sequester could endanger Israel and America’s leadership throughout the world.

The showcase for the message was legislation introduced Monday night by two Floridians — Reps. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, a Republican, and Ted Deutch, a Democrat — that would designate Israel a “major strategic ally,” a one-of-a-kind definition.

One of two initiatives that AIPAC's 13,000activists are taking with them to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the legislation enshrines much that is already in existence, including $3.1 billion in annual defense assistance to Israel and missile cooperation programs. But that redundancy is precisely the point.

At a time when the president and Congress are considering how best to distribute across-the-board 8.5 percent spending cuts, AIPAC wants Congress to keep funding to Israel as is.

Citing “the growing instability in the region and the mounting threats on Israel's borders,” Ester Kurz, AIPAC’s top congressional lobbyist, told the activists just before they headed for the Hill that, “despite growing budget pressure, it is critical that Congress fully funds this aid.”

Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, cast it as a matter of life and death, in his traditional Tuesday morning pep talk.

“You see, when in a few moments we depart this convention center and make our way to Capitol Hill, it is vital that we carry with us these stories,” he said, referring to a battery of presentations on how Israeli innovation is improving lives worldwide and how American funding for missile defense has allowed Israel to flourish. “We must understand that we are not lobbying today for legislation. We are lobbying for life. “

The other legislation backed by AIPAC would sharpen Iran sanctions and call on the president to back Israel should it feel “compelled” to attack Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.

AIPAC's effort to exempt Israel from the chopping block comes after weeks in which Republicans and Democrats, caught up in marathon budget negotiations, have made Israel and the Iran threat a talking point. John Kerry, in one of his first acts as secretary of state, warned Senate appropriators that aid to Israel could be affected by the sequester.

On Feb. 27, freshman Jewish Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), attending what was supposed to be a bipartisan tribute to the Iron Dome missile defense system, made an urgent appeal to the Jewish leaders assembled in the stately Russell Building conference room.

“With the sequester looming and deep defense cuts coming, Congress must act,” he said. “My colleagues must come together once again and protect funding for critical programs such as this.”

It’s a message that has resonated in Israel, where Yuval Steinitz, the finance minister, said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting that potential cuts had him “very worried.”

Republicans have cited the Iran threat in charging the Obama administration with reckless defense cuts in the name of the sequester; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called last month’s recall of an aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf “catastrophic.”

Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military defense chief, said at the conference that he was “quite concerned” that removal of the carrier reduced the credible threat of a military strike should Iran advance toward a nuclear weapon.

In an interview, a top congressional Republican aide said that such politicking was par for the course, and would not affect AIPAC’s profile on the Hill. Lobbies advocate for their cause and are not expected to take into account Democratic arguments for increased taxes and Republican arguments for spending cuts.

“Both sides can list off the bad things that come from sequestration,” the aide said. “Throwing Israel into it is a red herring.”

Can Bibi’s wife Sara spoil Israel’s coalition?


Forging a coalition is, without a doubt, the most difficult part of the election process in Israel.

After a long, hard fought and often ugly election battle, it falls to the future prime minister to make deals with those who were, until recently, his nemesis all in order to obtain the required 60 Knesset seats necessary for his party to govern the country. Election planks and platforms are first weighed and then cast away in favor of the issues of power, control and of course, prestige.

Well before the final results were in, Benjamin Netanyahu placed calls to potential coalition partners. Immediate calls went out to the ultra orthodox Sephardi party Shas which then won 11 seats, the ultra orthodox Ashkenazi party United Torah which then won 7 seats and the anti ultra orthodox Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party which in the end won 19 seats.

The call Netanyahu did not immediately make was to the party that, to all appearances, is the natural partner to his own Likud/Yisrael Beitenu party. Netanyahu did not place a call to Ha Bayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) party, a modern Zionist orthodox party which garnered 12 seats, until late Thursday. And there is a simple reason for that.

Netanyahu's wife Sara did not want him to make the call. There is bad blood between Naftali Bennett, the leader of The Jewish Home, and Mrs. Netanyahu. The feud goes back to the time before Bennett headed and then sold a multi-million dollar start-up it goes back to the time when Bennett was chief of staff in the office of the prime minister.

Imagine the pressure in the Netanyahu household. Netanyahu needed to weigh the sides to weigh the wrath of his wife against his need for a successful coalition that would insure his position as prime minister. Not an easy decision to make. Sara has a strong hold on her man, but the pull of the prime ministry may be even stronger. Despite the protestations and clash of personalities, Bennett can only help Netanyahu and the phone call was made.

Sara Netanyahu is known to have a long memory and to hold a grudge. Many an adviser who crossed paths with this first lady ended with crossed swords and was tossed out with the trash. She is probably no different than Barbara Bush or Nancy Reagan or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton. But she is definitely less subtle. In the end Sara will probably lose this battle, but she will come back later with a vengeance.

Israel is thought to be so easily understood by Western commentators and analysts. Pollsters think that it is an easy nut to crack. But unless you understand the nuance of the country, unless you can read the people, commentators, analysts and pollsters will get it wrong every time.

They think that because English is so readily and often eloquently spoken and because so many Israelis have been educated in the United States or other Western countries that Israel is a Western culture. But it is not. Israel is almost Western, but it is also very much a Middle Eastern country — albeit a modern Middle Eastern country, and that makes all the difference.

Many western commentators don't really take the time to analyze Israel. That is why for months now commentators and analysts have been talking about the radicalization of Israeli politics and bemoaning the fact that mainstream Israel was leaning more and more to the right.

If this election teaches us anything it teaches us that they were wrong. Why were they so wrong? They failed to do their own analysis and instead, these observers of Israeli politics swallowed hook, line and sinker the Palestinian line. That line is simply anti-Israel. And so anything that is not decisively pro-Palestinian is seen by commentators as rabidly right wing and as an extremist point of view.

By now the picture of true Israeli society should be perfectly clear. The centrist Atid party with nineteen seats is now the 2nd largest party in the Knesset only after Netanyahu's Likud. And it will almost certainly insist on playing a major role in the ruling coalition. The most important platform put forth by Atid is the universal draft – a requirement that every Israeli serve in the army. This general platform resonated with masses of Israelis and was also referred to as 'an equal burden' to be shared by all Israelis, including Arab Israelis. This issue catapulted Atid into a major position in the 19th Knesset.

Interestingly, the other new and newly huge party in the Knesset, Habayit HaYehudi or The Jewish Home, now the fourth largest party in the country, believes in the same principle. And both parties believe in the breakdown of the power of the ultra orthodox rabbinate.

These two new parties, both led by young new political leaders, obtained a combined thirty Knesset seats. That is exactly 25% of the Israeli parliament. They are not extremist. They are a real reflection of the new Israel.

With Netanyahu and his 31 seats, Yair Lapid and his Atid party with 19 seats and Naftali Bennett and his The Jewish Home party with 12 seats these three parties combined have 62 seats, a perfect number to form a ruling coalition. They make up just over half of the 120 seats needed to form a government.

Sara Netanyahu had better start getting used to it. I think that her husband will be spending a lot more time with Naftali and Yair than he will with her in the very near future. The rest of Israel made the decision for him.

Social protest leaders hope to shake up Israel ballot


They are young and they are driven. They got half a million Israelis out on the streets demanding social justice. Now they want their votes.

The leaders of a grassroots social protest movement that swept Israel in 2011 have shot to the top of a rejuvenated Labor party that polls say will at least double its power in a January 22 general election that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud is forecast to win.

“The next stage is to continue what started in the streets, to bring that to the ballot … so that we can translate it into achievements in budgets, laws and a change of policy,” said 32-year-old Itzik Shmuli, who as head of the student union was one of the most prominent leaders of the protest movement.

It began with a handful of youngsters who pitched tents along Tel Aviv's luxurious Rothschild Avenue to protest against high housing costs. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated weekly across the country.

Inspired also by the Arab Spring that swept the region, the protesters, chanting “the people demand social justice”, dominated headlines in Israel in the summer of 2011, and posed a new challenge to the government.

Political parties soon saw potential vote magnets in the movement's leaders, who were often portrayed in the media as idealists with just the right mix of innocence and savvy to promote a message of hope and change.

Shmuli quit the student union this year to win the number 11 spot on Labor's list of parliamentary candidates, running a distant second to Likud in the upcoming election.

“The answer the government gave was a thin, cosmetic and cynical one. They did not want to truly deal with the problems raised by the protest,” Shmuli said.

Israel has a relatively low unemployment rate of 6.7 percent and a growing economy, but business cartels and wage disparities have kept many from feeling the benefit.

In parliament, Shmuli and his allies hope to push affordable housing, reform the education, welfare and health systems and to narrow the gap between rich and poor in Israel, which the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has said is among the highest in developed countries.

In response to the protest, Netanyahu, a free market champion and fiscal conservative, vowed to revamp the economy and lower living costs. Some of the government's steps have eased the pain for the middle and lower classes.

But other measures are moving slowly or have had no major effect. With rising food and fuel prices, few feel significant change in the cost of living since the protest.

“It means that we were mistaken when, as a young generation, we thought we could avoid sitting in the places where we make the most important decisions,” said Stav Shaffir, 27, another of the movement's leaders.

Shaffir is now eighth on Labor's list. Polls show that like Shmuli, she will be a member of Israel's next parliament, with her party winning about 16 to 20 of the 120 Knesset seats.

“There is something pure and beautiful about a popular protest,” Shaffir told a group of students in December. “But the change it brings comes only after generations … and we don't have that time if we want to change policy.”

UNDER THE TANKS

Shaffir lives with four roommates in a Jaffa apartment. Shmuli moved to the run-down town of Lod last year to set up a student community outreach program. Both say they have no intention of changing their dwellings after becoming lawmakers.

At the protest's peak, Shmuli addressed about half a million people at one of the biggest rallies ever held in Israel. He spoke to the cheering crowd about “The New Israelis”, who will fight for a better future and social equality.

But that was in September 2011. The question now is whether the “New Israelis” who cheered for Shmuli will turn up to vote for him.

The summer of 2011 marked one of the only times that social-economic issues consistently topped the agenda in a country whose population of 7.8 million is usually preoccupied with matters of war and peace.

Yariv Ben-Eliezer, a media expert at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a college near Tel Aviv, says those issues have once more taken a back seat.

In November, Israel carried out an eight-day offensive in Gaza with the declared aim of ending Palestinian rocket fire into its territory. The same month the Palestinians relaunched their statehood bid at the United Nations and won great support.

“Before the (Gaza) operation, Labor was rising in the polls and Likud was sliding. There was a feeling that the social protest should be moved into politics. But the main issue has gone back to being defense,” Ben-Eliezer said.

Shmuli disagrees. Called up to the Gaza border for reserve duty during the offensive, he took shelter with fellow soldiers under their tank when rockets from Gaza hailed down.

“While all these missiles were flying over us, we had to find a way to pass those 10 minutes under the tank – and what did we talk about? About housing and about the high living costs.”

Many of the protesters came from the middle class, which bears a heavy tax burden and sustains the conscript military.

“We will always be there for our country – whenever it needs us, but the big question is, when we are out of our uniforms, will the state be there for us?” Shmuli said.

Tamar Hermann at The Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said a Netanyahu election win would not spell defeat for the social protest movement.

“Now we see the social-economic issues taking a much more significant role in the discussion over the future of the country,” Hermann said. “All the parties feel obliged to relate to the issues that were raised by the protest movement.”

MAKING POLITICS SEXY

Israel's election had been set for late 2013 but the government failed to agree on a state budget, which it said would require harsh austerity steps.

Netanyahu called an early vote in what commentators said was an attempt by the prime minister and partners in his governing coalition to avoid the risk of going to the polls after imposing unpopular cuts.

Labor has focused its campaign almost entirely on social and economic issues, and its projected gains in parliament are largely attributed to the protest movement.

If Netanyahu, against the odds, chooses to include Labor in his next government, some of the movement's demands will undoubtedly be part of that deal, said Yossi Yonah, a Labor candidate who has advised social protest leaders.

Labor chief Shelly Yachimovich, an advocate of a welfare state, has not ruled out serving in a Netanyahu administration. But the option seems remote given their opposing economic views.

Looking ahead to likely budget cuts after the election, Yonah predicted such steps could revive and bolster the protest movement, if it combines civil action on the streets with a combative parliamentary opposition to Netanyahu.

“The protest's impact cannot be judged after only one year,” Yonah said. “Eventually something must give.”

Both Shaffir and Shmuli hope to draw young people who are disillusioned with politics to come vote.

“Our parents brought us up to believe that if we work hard, study and try then everything will be okay, we will succeed. But when we grew up, when we were released from the army, we looked around and this society we were told about was gone,” Shaffir said.

Instead, she said, they found corrupt politicians who were not looking out for young people's interests.

The tents that Shaffir helped pitch are long gone and life has returned to normal on Rothschild Avenue, which is lined with banks, shops and cafes.

“We need to make politics sexy again,” Shaffir said, sitting on a bench on the trendy avenue filled with people walking their dogs and riding bicycles.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Janet McBride

Netanyahu aide Ron Dermer brings American sensibilities to Israeli politics


Like many Israeli politicians, Ron Dermer is an unapologetic defender of Israel’s actions, even if it might mean being undiplomatic.

But like a seasoned diplomat, Dermer — senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — knows his way through Washington’s backchannels and has cultivated relationships with senior U.S. policymakers.

Most important, say those who know him, he has Netanyahu’s ear.

“Netanyahu likes him, respects him and listens to him,” said Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s national security adviser until 2011. “I often asked for his advice. In many ways he was a guy to listen to. When it came to knowledge and being cultured and erudite and intellectually inclined, that’s him.”

Dermer’s name was floated last week as a possible successor to Michael Oren as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. Though the report about Dermer — published last Friday in Israel’s Makor Rishon newspaper — was denied almost immediately, it could be a trial balloon. Oren is set to return to Israel in the spring, providing an opening at the most important overseas post in the Israeli diplomatic corps.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the report; the Israeli Embassy in Washington called it baseless.

If Dermer were to go to Washington, he would be the second U.S.-born Israeli ambassador to the United States in a row.

Born and raised in Florida and educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Dermer, 41, started his career working with Republican strategist Frank Luntz on the Republicans’ 1994 midterm election victory. From there he went to earn a master's degree at Oxford, intermittently traveling to Israel to work on the Knesset campaign of Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who then headed the Russian-immigrant Yisrael B’Aliyah party.

Dermer immigrated to Israel in 1997 and stayed with Sharansky for his 1999 Knesset drive. He continued consulting after the election, and in 2001 began writing a weekly Jerusalem Post column, The Numbers Game, which became an outlet for his hard-line views. In 2003, for example, Dermer wrote that in agreeing to the U.S.-sponsored “road map” plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel had given up its sovereignty.

“It is one thing for Israel to take into consideration what America says,” he wrote. “In fact, Israel's national interest demands that it do so. But it is quite another to cede to a third party, no matter how friendly, the right to determine Israel's future.”

In 2005, with Netanyahu serving as Israel’s finance minister, Dermer returned to Washington to become the economic charge d’affaires at Israel’s embassy. He had to surrender his U.S. citizenship to take the job, and in a column in the New York Sun wrote that he “left America because I wanted to help another nation I love defend the freedoms that Americans have long taken for granted.”

That conviction came through in “The Case for Democracy,” a book Dermer co-authored with Sharansky in 2004 on the importance of democracy for newly independent nations. The book reportedly was a major influence on President George W. Bush’s worldview.

Dermer returned to Israel in 2008 to work on Netanyahu’s successful campaign for prime minister and has stayed with Netanyahu. Colleagues say he brings American sensibilities — and an acute understanding of Washington politics — to the job.

“He understands how Americans view Israelis and how Israelis view Americans,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster who met Dermer as an adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “He knows how to work [in Washington] and has personal relations.”

In his current role, Dermer has been a pugnacious public defender of Netanyahu, the prime minister’s speechwriter, and a liaison between the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House.

“He’s American born, he brings with him a professional understanding of America and he’s an admirable exponent of America,” Arad said. “He has been working with the key Americans with this administration.”

Dermer has never been shy about promoting his political viewpoint. In a 2009 interview he gave to the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, Dermer criticized as “childish” the political “focus given to the matter of two states for two peoples instead of dealing with core issues.”

In a 2011 open letter to The New York Times, Dermer slammed the newspaper and its Op-Ed page.

Times columnists “consistently distort the positions of our government and ignore the steps it has taken to advance peace,” Dermer wrote in the letter, which was published in The Jerusalem Post. “It would seem as if the surest way to get an op-ed published in the New York Times these days, no matter how obscure the writer or the viewpoint, is to attack Israel.”

“He calls it like he sees it,” Barak said. “It’s widely known that he’s heavily identified with the Republican Party and conservative politics.”

The right-wing orientation could hinder Dermer if he is tapped for the ambassador job, according to Bar-Ilan University professor Eytan Gilboa. Gilboa says U.S.-Israel ties have deteriorated during Netanyahu’s term, citing as an example what some saw as Netanyahu’s tacit support of Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the presidential campaign.

“People say that Netanyahu understands American politics, but judging from [his staff’s] behavior, they don’t understand American politics,” Gilboa said. “When you have a president like Obama with an opposite worldview, you cooperate as much as possible, but it seems like Netanyahu is fighting.”

Gilboa said Dermer’s philosophy in “The Case for Democracy” was “good for Bush, but it doesn’t work with Obama.”

But Aaron David Miller, who served as an adviser on the Middle East to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, said that as ambassador, Dermer’s personal views wouldn’t have much effect on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Miller called Dermer a “tough, pragmatic hawk.”

“I don’t attach much importance to mid- or senior-level officials in terms of altering the nature of the relationship between leaders,” said Miller, now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington. “They can facilitate improvements or make matters worse through their own missteps, but leaders have an ultimate responsibility for how the relationship evolves.”

Ex-Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman indicted for fraud


Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein submitted the indictment Thursday against Lieberman for allegedly advancing the position of Zeev Ben Aryeh, Israel's former ambassador to Belarus, in exchange for information on an investigation against him. The indictment followed more questioning this week of members of a Foreign Ministry appointments panel as well as further questioning of Lieberman.
Lieberman resigned last week as foreign minister, although he remains a member of the Knesset and the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

His resignation came days after Weinstein on Dec. 13 closed a 12-year investigation of Lieberman, dismissing most of the charges but saying he would file the indictment for fraud and breach of trust. Last spring, Ben Aryeh confessed that he had received and passed documents to Lieberman in 2008.

The filing of the indictment had been postponed following a report on Israel's Channel 10 news that several members of a Foreign Ministry appointments panel were not questioned in the Ben Aryeh case and that their knowledge could lead to more serious charges against Lieberman.

New evidence includes a conversation between Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon that reportedly shows Lieberman actively lobbying for Ben Aryeh's appointment as ambassador to Belarus.

Lieberman announced recently that Ayalon would not be included on the Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset list for the Jan. 22 elections. The party is running on a joint candidates' list with the ruling Likud Party. Ayalon has stayed on at the Foreign Ministry despite Lieberman stepping down.

Moral turpitude was not added to the charges, though it had been expected. Those convicted of moral turpitude cannot seek public office for at least seven years.

Kadima crumbles, Labor emphasizes social issues and Likud still dominates


Two months ago, the strategy for victory was clear: To unseat Benjamin Netanyahu in elections on Jan. 22, Israel’s handful of center-left parties had to unite under one banner and choose a leader who could challenge the Israeli prime minister on issues of diplomacy and security.

Instead, the opposite has happened. Netanyahu’s opponents have become more fragmented, and the center-left has focused more on social issues than security.

The Knesset’s largest party, Kadima — founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon as a centrist breakaway from Likud, and later led by Tzipi Livni — appears to be collapsing. Members have rejoined Likud, defected to Labor or are joining Livni’s new centrist party, called the Movement. Some polls are saying that Kadima may not even make it into the next Knesset.

Shelly Yachimovich, who heads Labor — historically one of Israel’s two biggest parties but the fifth largest in the current Knesset — has made socioeconomic issues her focus.

The emphasis on socioeconomic policy represents “a reshuffling of the system far from the dominance of security issues,” says Tamar Hermann, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

But ceding the debate over security policy to Netanyahu, who has more security experience than Yachimovich, a former journalist, clearly gives the prime minister the upper hand.

Meanwhile, the right wing has consolidated, virtually assuring a third term for Netanyahu. Recent polls show the prime minister’s ruling Likud Party, which has merged lists with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, winning 38 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Labor, polling in second place, might not break 20.

Netanyahu’s poll numbers have fallen since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza last month. Some analysts say right-wing Israelis are unhappy that the prime minister agreed to a cease-fire rather than pressing ahead with a ground operation. But with Netanyahu still controlling a daunting lead, center-left parties are scrambling to find a strategy that gives them a shot at winning the premiership.

Yachimovich’s focus on social issues, including calls for lower prices and more social welfare, represents an effort to harness the energy of the mass social protests Israel saw in the summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to agitate for more help for the middle class. But Labor thus far has failed to reignite the spark that propelled the protests.

With the Israeli left in shambles — less than 10 percent of Jewish Israelis identify with left-wing ideology, polls show — Labor has pivoted to the center, trying to rebrand itself from a left-wing party to a centrist one.

“The Labor Party is located and has always been located in the center of the political map,” Yachimovich told Army Radio on Nov. 25. “Its strength is from its pragmatism, its Zionism, its very pragmatic struggle for peace and especially from Labor's being a social democratic party.”

Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, said, “Labor finally figured out that the only way it has a chance for a comeback is if it distances itself from Oslo,” the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accords. Labor under Yitzhak Rabin engineered that peace accord, which many Israelis now view as having failed.

“We’re seeing a revision of the left,” Halevi told JTA. “The mainstream left is trying to return to the mainstream” of Israeli society.

But the center is already crowded with other Israeli political parties all competing for the same votes. Yesh Atid, a new party led by former journalist Yair Lapid, has generated excitement by calling for a lower cost of living and universal military service. Livni’s new party is stressing the importance of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that would result in partition and a Palestinian state — not for the Palestinians' benefit or out of some idealistic vision of coexistence, but as a pragmatic necessity to secure Israel's democratic future.

Not everyone believes the fragmentation of the center is bad for the centrists’ cause.

“What’s important is the size of the bloc, not the party,” says Hebrew University political science professor Gideon Rahat. “Every party will try to emphasize a different aspect of policy. It’ll be the same, as if they were united.”

In her speech announcing her return to politics, Livni said the Movement aims to take votes from Likud and “provide an answer for people who have no one to vote for.” (Livni had quit after losing an election in March for Kadima’s chairmanship to Shaul Mofaz.)

Livni’s decision is likely to deal the biggest blow to Kadima, once the flag-bearer of the political center in Israel and, from its founding in 2005 until 2009, the party of the prime minister — first Sharon, then Ehud Olmert.

On Thursday, former Labor leader Amir Peretz said he was joining Livni's party. Peretz, who served as defense minister under Olmert, had been a subject of much derision for his disastrous performance during the 2006 war with Hezbollah, when at one point he was photographed observing the fighting through binoculars that had the lens cap on. But Peretz's reputation was revived in recent weeks as a result of the success of the Iron Dome missile defense system during the mini-war in Gaza; Peretz had been the main champion of Iron Dome and overcame military resistance to its development.

While Netanyahu watches the centrist infighting from a distance, his Likud has shifted further to the right. In last month's party primaries, several hawkish settler advocates captured top spots, including Moshe Feiglin, leader of the Jewish Leadership faction of the party. Occupying spot No. 15 on the Likud list, Feiglin advocates for annexing the West Bank and wants to encourage Israeli Arabs to leave the Jewish state. Some moderate Netanyahu allies, by contrast, won't get another term in the Knesset.

Hermann says it’s still too early to predict a winner based on how the polls fluctuate in Israel.

“There are new issues at play, so three, four or five seats can change the picture,” she said. In polls, “a few Knesset seats is within the margin of error. You can’t build a theory on it.”

A year after signing power transfer deal, Yemenis divided over government’s performance


[SANA’A] Last week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary-General Abdullatif Bin Rashid Al Zayani visited Yemen to mark the first anniversary of the deal that saw former President Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquish power to his longtime deputy, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

On November 23 last year, after 10 months of deadly protests calling for his ouster, Saleh was forced to sign the agreement initiated by the Saudi-led Gulf monarchies and backed by the West.

Analysts say Ban's visit to Yemen, which made him the first UN chief to visit the country, was mainly intended to push for launching the second phase of the power transfer deal, which includes holding an inclusive national dialogue, reorganizing the divided army and security forces, and rewriting the constitution.

“The UN chief's visit at this critical time was designed to demonstrate the entire international community’s support for Hadi and his power-sharing government, and deliver a warning message to those who are trying to hinder the process of transition,” Abdusalem Mohammed, chairman of the Abaad Studies and Research Center think tank, told The Media Line.

“The visit, which came as violence was raging between Gaza and Israel, was also aimed to deter any militant group from attempting to exploit the situation and stir chaos,” he added. 

With the passage of one year since the ouster of the former president, many Yemenis are assessing the performance of Hadi and his power-sharing government.

“Actually, nothing has changed at all,” accountant Saleh Ali, 27, told The Media Line. “The same policies are applied. Only officials have been replaced and that essentially does not make any difference by itself.”

“We were better off before the revolution erupted. It only helped divisions to deepen, tensions to heighten and poverty to increase,” said Ali, who wore traditional Yemeni clothing including a Janbiya — a dagger with a short curved blade worn on a belt. Other passengers on the same bus disagreed sharply with Ali. One went so far as to call him one of Saleh's thugs.

College student Rami Khalid, 23, told The Media Line, “I feel like I was not alive before the overthrow of Saleh. Thank God he's gone. Things have looked up since he was ousted.”

However, Khalid, who was chewing leaves of Khat, a narcotic plant chewed daily by more than half of Yemen's population, admitted that living standards had dropped, but said this will be temporarily.

“Hadi and the national unity government managed to get things back on track after tensions were running high and the country was heading toward a civil war,” Ali Al-Sarari, political and media advisor for Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwah, told The Media Line. “They managed to restore relative security across the nation and drive out Al-Qa’ida militants from their strongholds. Any citizen can clearly notice the difference in the public services such as tap water and electricity.”

During the uprising against Saleh, public services significantly deteriorated.

Al-Sarari says he believes the government’s biggest accomplishment so far was achieved in the area of combating corruption. “The new government revoked the long-term contract with [marine terminal operator] DP World which had deliberately undermined the strategic Aden Port. It has also managed to negotiate with the French oil company Total a rise in the ‘unfair’ price that Yemen's liquefied gas is sold for,” he said.

“Hadi and his national unity government have so far been successful at their job at the helm of Yemen,” said Abdusalam Mohammed of the Abaad Studies and Research Center. “In the transitional stage, they are not required to boost development or improve the struggling economy, rather to prevent the country from descending into a full-blown civil war, which they did.”

Dr. Yahya Al-Thawr, chairman of Modern German Hospital in Sana’a, agreed with Mohammed and added, “So far, their performance has been satisfactory. But many people want to see improvements in the economy and development, and that's impossible because these sectors need time to progress.”

“Hadi is steering Yemen toward a successful, national dialogue and resolving long-standing problems,” Al-Sarari said.

While Al-Thawr and Mohammed shared his thinking, although they noted that the transitional process is very slow, political analyst Abdul-Bari Taher says that the indications do not show that Yemen is heading toward reconciliation.

“There are many challenges and obstacles facing the transitional process in the country. The situation is very complicated: Militant groups are currently amassing weapons, and the media war between the political factions is at its peak. Even the mosque's podiums have been used to spark tensions instead of easing them,” Taher told The Media Line.

“Actually, the situation looks as if Yemen is heading toward war — not dialogue and reconciliation. I'm afraid that neither President Hadi nor the prime minister will be able to do anything to stop the simmering tensions,” said Taher.

Mohammed, Taher, Al-Sarari and Al-Thawr all agree that in the coming months Hadi will have to take bold measures to end the divisions and disunity in the army. They say reorganizing the military is imperative for creating a conductive environment and laying the groundwork for the upcoming national dialogue conference.
 
Perhaps because of its strategic location – three million barrels of oil pass through the country daily – the international community showed considerable support for Yemen's stability and for President Hadi.

In a meeting in Riyadh on September 4, friends of Yemen pledged $ 6.4 billion in aid for Yemen's transitional period. At another meeting in New York on September 27, additional pledges totaled $1.5 billion, bringing the total to $7.9 billion.

In October, key Defense Ministry officials told local media outlets that Yemen is expecting an arms shipment from the U.S. as a grant for the poorest Arab state. The shipment includes four highly-advanced drones.

As Barak bids politics bye bye, questions remain about his legacy and future


Is Ehud Barak a calculating political survivor or a military man who, in his own words, “never had any special desire” for political life? Will he be remembered as a warrior or as a seeker of peace? And what will he do next?

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s announcement of his retirement from politics on Monday raised more questions than answers, both about what his departure means for Israel and how Israelis will look back on his legacy.

“I have exhausted the practice of politics,” Barak announced at a press conference. “There is space to allow new people to enter senior positions in Israeli politics. Replacing those in positions of power is a good thing.”

But Barak’s political career may have been over even if he hadn’t decided to retire. Barak’s small, centrist Independence faction was polling poorly ahead of Israel’s Jan. 22 election, and it is possible that he would not have made it into the next Knesset had he decided to run again.

“He understood that he has a political horizon,” said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “He has no more chance to keep his job or to advance. He’s already stayed too long, much after he lost political strength. He doesn’t really have a party.”

Barak, who said he will stay on as defense minister until a new government is formed, will leave behind a complicated political legacy. As prime minister from 1999 to 2001, Barak withdrew Israeli forces from southern Lebanon and offered unprecedented Israeli concessions — including in Jerusalem — to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians at the unsuccessful Camp David peace summit. In the 2001 elections following the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Barak was soundly defeated by Ariel Sharon and then resigned as head of the Labor Party.

In 2007, Barak mounted a political comeback, recapturing the leadership of the weakened Labor Party. He returned to government as defense minister, a post from which he has emphasized the threat from Iran’s nuclear program and ordered two military operations in Gaza — 2008’s Cast Lead and the recent Pillar of Defense.

Barak brought credibility to the position of defense minister, conferred on him by his distinguished military career, He served as the Israeli Defense Forces’ chief of staff in the 1990s and became the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history.

He was proud of his decades of service in the elite commando unit Sayyeret Matkal, and would tell stories about his secret missions targeting terrorists – including a famous one where he entered Beirut dressed as a woman.

In the end, though, politics may have done him in. A close relationship with right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – dating back to the days when Barak was Netanyahu’s commander in Sayeret Matkal — pulled Barak progressively further from many in his center-left Labor Party. In 2011, he split off with four other Labor Knesset members to form his own Independence faction.

The move was widely seen as a self-serving political ploy.

“He doesn’t know how to work with people,” Rahat said. “He used to be prime minister, and he ended with a five-person party. He always cared about himself.”

Before Barak announced his retirement from politics, Independence was polling at anywhere between 0 to 4 seats in the next Knesset, though Barak’s performance in the recent Pillar of Defense campaign boosted his popularity.

But Barak’s decision not to run for reelection may not necessarily mean the end of his career in government. Some political observers speculate that if Netanyahu is reelected, he could reappoint Barak as defense minister even though he wont hold a Knesset seat.

Hebrew University political science professor Shlomo Avineri told The New York Times that Barak’s move “maximizes his chances of being the next defense minister,” adding: “If he got 2 percent, it would be difficult to appoint him. Now he’s not running, it’s easier. He is considered by the Israeli public to be a responsible adult.”

But others argue that the Likud’s shift rightward in this week's primary election for the party’s candidates' list makes such an outcome less likely.

If Netanyahu “has a comfortable coalition, he’ll call him back,” said Bar-Ilan University political studies professor Shmuel Sandler. “Chances of that don’t seem good because the Likud candidates’ list is very right wing.”

Likud leaders are said to prefer current Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon, a Likud member and former army chief of staff who is to Barak’s right.

Barak had been a key player on the issue of Iran. He was generally seen as a close ally of Netanyahu in advocating an aggressive stance toward the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, but was also considered a potential restraining force on the prime minister’s impulses.

Sandler said that the government’s policy toward Iran won’t necessarily change with Barak’s departure.

“Yaalon was against an attack,” Sandler said. “Netanyahu is for an attack. It will depend on how much sanctions work, and on the U.S.”

Notwithstanding Barak’s failure at Camp David, Sandler said that Barak kept his focus on the issues that were at the center of his past peace efforts. He remained opposed to West Bank settlements as defense minister, refusing to grant official university status to a so-called “university center” in the settlement of Ariel, and stressing the urgency of negotiations or unilateral Israeli action to end the conflict.

Barak also placed a high value on maintaining strong U.S.-Israel relations, even breaking with Netanyahu earlier this year when the prime minister publicly criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the Iranian nuclear issue. Rahat suggested that Barak’s departure could cause a bit of a setback in relations between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration.

“Our relations are based on a lot more than people, but Barak was more accepted in the While House than Netanyahu” or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Rahat said. “It’ll make it a little harder, but it’s not the end of the world.”

Likud Party primary yields more right-wing Knesset list


Members of the Likud Party voted out moderate party stalwarts and elected more right-wing candidates to fill the realistic spots on its Knesset list.

The primary election results were announced late Monday night after two days of voting marred by malfunctions at computerized voting booths in polling stations throughout the country. The primaries extended into a second day Monday to allow all voters an opportunity to cast their ballots. Some 59 percent of party members turned out to vote over the two days.

Current Education Minister Gideon Saar garnered the most votes, but current government ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, who are party moderates, failed to get elected to the first 20 spots on the party list, considered to be places that will be seated in the next government. Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter and Minister Without Portfolio Michael Eitan also missed getting realistic spots on the list.

Since the Likud is running on the same list as Avigdor Liberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party, every two Likud Party names will be followed by a Yisrael Beiteinu name on the list.
Moshe Feiglin, who heads the right-wing Manhigut Yehudit – or Jewish Leadership –  faction of the Likud party, placed 15th in the primaries. Feiglin has previously run for the party leadership against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and also has failed to garner a realistic spot on party lists in previous primaries.

The top ten include Netanyahu, Saar, Gilad Erdan, Silvan Shalom, Yisrael Katz, Danny Danon, Reuven Rivlin, Moshe Yaalon, Zeev Elkin, and Tzipi Hotovely. Four women were among the top 20 vote getters.

“I respect all the people who found themselves off the list, but it's a generational thing. There is new blood in Likud's leadership,” Danon told Ynet after the final tally.

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.

Poll shows gap between Republicans and Democrats in backing Israel in Gaza


A CNN poll showed a considerable gap between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to backing Israel in the current Gaza conflict.

In the CNN poll published Monday, respondents were asked whether “Israel was justified or unjustified in taking military action against Hamas and the Palestinians in the area known as Gaza.” Among Democrats, 40 percent said Israel was “justified,” compared to 74 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of independents.

In all, 57 percent of those polled said Israel was justified in launching the operation in the Gaza Strip. The poll, carried out by ORC International in 1,023 phone interviews from Nov. 16 to Nov. 18, has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Israel launched air and naval attacks on Gaza on Nov. 14 after an intensfication of rocket fire from Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas.

Meanwhile in a Gallup poll, Americans cited keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon among the top three priorities of President Obama's second term.

Gallup asked respondents to rank 12 issues as “extremely,” “very,” “somewhat,” “not too,” and “not at all” important.

The top three ranked were taking “major steps to restore a strong economy and job market,” with 95 percent of respondents ranking it as “extremely” or “very” important; taking “major steps to ensure the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare,” ranked “extremely” or “very” important by 88 percent of respondents; and preventing “Iran from developing a nuclear weapon,” cited by 79 percent of respondents as “extremely” or “very” important.

The rankings broke the same when respondents were identified as Democrats, Republicans and Independent, although the numbers were slightly different.

Gallup polled 1,009 adults by phone Nov. 9-12. The results have a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Five challenges facing the American pro-Israel community in the next four years


The American pro-Israel community has a lot of work to do. While many pro-Israel organizations in the United States, including AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, Stand with US and Hasbara have been extremely effective in defending the Jewish State, there is always more we can do. Here is a list of the five greatest challenges facing the American pro-Israel community in the next four years.

The University

Unfortunately, the place where we send our children to grow up and obtain wisdom, the university, is the hotbed of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in America. Who can forget the exchange between David Horowitz and an anti-Israel student at UC San Diego a couple years ago? Mr. Horowitz asked her, “I’m a Jew. The head of Hezbollah has said that he hopes that we will gather in Israel so he doesn’t have to hunt us down globally. [Are you] for it or against it?” The student answered “For it.”

Incitement against Jews and Israel at the university is not unusual at the hate-fest known as “Israel Apartheid Week,” where anti-Semites are invited to rail against the Jewish State. At one event at UC Irvine, Imam Amir -Abdel Malik-Ali—who has called Jews “the new Nazis”— blamed the financial crisis on “Alan Greenspan, Zionist Jew, Geithner, Zionist Jew, Larry Summers, Zionist Jew.” A few years ago, after visiting several universities in the U.S., Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh described what he observed: “I discovered that there is more sympathy for Hamas there than there is in Ramallah…What is happening on the U.S. campuses is not about supporting the Palestinians as much as it is about promoting hatred for the Jewish state. It is not really about ending the ‘occupation’ as much as it is about ending the existence of Israel.”

Up against such hate and propaganda, the pro-Israel community must fight back. The Horowitz Freedom Center has been very effective, launching important counterattacks like Islamic Apartheid Week and the Wall of Truth, which expose the hateful lies and hypocrisy of Israel’s enemies. The Jewish community must continue to give money to on-campus Israel advocacy organizations, and we must all redouble our efforts to make sure that Israel is adequately defended and promoted at American universities.

The Fringe of American politics

Thank God a majority of elected representatives in both parties strongly support the State of Israel. These members must make sure that the views at the fringe of their parties do not become mainstream. The Republican Party must guard against the likes of Ron and Rand Paul, who would like to see America pull back from the world stage and cease its support for Israel. Fortunately, this movement does not seem to be gaining steam, as every poll shows that the Republican Party overwhelmingly supports Israel.

Unfortunately, however, any serious reflection by pro-Israel Democrats must conclude that there is a problem within their leftwing ranks. Though most pieces of pro-Israel legislation overwhelmingly pass both Houses of Congress, those who abstain or vote in the negative are disproportionately Democrats. In 2009, the House passed a resolution condemning the Goldstone report–which had accused Israel of war crimes—by a vote of 344 to 36. 33 of the 36 who voted against the resolution were Democrats. In 2010, 333 members of the House signed onto a letter re-pledging their support for the American-Israel relationship. 7 Republicans and 91 Democrats withheld their signatures. Furthermore, according to a recent Gallup Poll question–“Are your sympathies more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians?”—78% of Republicans and 53% of Democrats answered Israel. This poll was reaffirmed when at least half the Democratic delegates to their convention in August expressed their disapproval of Jerusalem being recognized as the capital of Israel.

I am not writing this to score political points for Republicans, but to reveal a real problem within the Democratic ranks. This is so disappointing, because the liberal case for Israel is such a compelling one. Israel treats its minorities better than any other country in the Middle East—out of the 120 member Israeli Knesset, 16 are not Jewish. During its short existence, Israel has welcomed millions of immigrants from all over the world, including Africa and Russia. Israel has a very liberal supreme court, which routinely places restrictions on its military in times of war. Israel is also leading the way with game changing green innovations that will reduce CO2 emissions. In addition, Tel Aviv annually hosts a gay pride parade! What other country in the Middle East would be so inclusive?

American Jewish liberals must do a better job of making this case forcefully and passionately to their Democratic allies.

Apathy

Jews shouldn’t be ashamed to say that support for Israel ranks among their most important political priorities. If it doesn’t, then there is a problem.

According to an American Jewish Committee survey, when asked what political issue was most important to them, 4.5% of American Jews said U.S- Israeli relations, and a paltry 1.3% said Iran’s nuclear program. This is very troubling. If American Jews don’t care enough about Israel’s survival, and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, then who will?

Jews in America clearly underestimate how important a strong and prosperous Israel is to the collective Jewish psyche. After all, the welfare of Israel is not disconnected from that of American Jews. If something terrible were to happen to Israel, or should there be a mass migration of Jews out of Israel, the status of the Diaspora would be negatively impacted forever, including in the United States.

A strong Israel with a strong military also serves as a deterrent against terrorist attacks against Jews all over the world. Furthermore, a strong Israel is in America’s national self-interest, as Israel is on the front line in the war against radical Islam.

Using these arguments, the pro-Israel community must do a better job of encouraging our friends and family to become more politically active, in order to promote a strong American- Israel relationship.

Iran and the Economy

America has been mired in an economic crisis since 2008. As such, American citizens and its elected representatives have been almost single mindedly focused on improving the economy. The race for the Presidency has largely been defined by whom could best promote a strong economy, even though the most important Constitutional powers of the President reside in the realm of foreign policy. This is understandable. However, it is up to those in the pro-Israel community to ensure that preventing Iran—which is led by a fanatic who denies the holocaust and wishes to wipe Israel from the earth–from obtaining a nuclear capability is not overlooked.

Unfortunately, this issue has not been addressed adequately to date. Though tough sanctions have been passed against Iran, it continues to spin its centrifuges. We in the pro-Israel community must insist that a credible American military threat be understood by Iran as a reality. This is the only way they will peacefully give up their nuclear weapons program.

To this end, we must write letters to our Congressmen, join pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC, give money to pro-Israel causes, and encourage our friends and family to do the same.

Israeli Delegitimization

The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign—which encourages people to refrain from doing business with Israeli companies and universities –was launched against Israel several years ago. The campaign is meant to portray Israel in the same light as apartheid South Africa, a country that institutionalized segregation. Of course, this is complete nonsense, as more than one million non-Jews in Israel enjoy the same rights as Jews.  Furthermore, as cited above, there are 16 non-Jews serving in the Israeli Knesset.

Many college professors and pop music figures in America have embraced this campaign. Roger Waters, the former lead singer of Pink Floyd, is spearheading it. He refuses to perform in Israel and is encouraging his musical cohorts to join him. The Pixies, Elvis Costello, The Gorillaz and Carlos Santana have followed his lead, and have all canceled their scheduled performances in Israel. Famed American actress, Meg Ryan, refused to attend an Israeli film festival, because of what she viewed as Israel’s indefensible actions in response to the Gaza flotilla.

This is deplorable. The pro-Israel community must make it known that boycotting the only Jewish State will not go unnoticed. It is one thing to criticize Israel, which, in proportion and without demonizing, is acceptable. However, it is totally unacceptable to try to destroy Israel economically, which is the BDS campaign’s primary goal.

The pro-Israel community should not support those who engage in the BDS campaign; don’t buy their CDs, don’t go to their shows, and encourage your friends and family to do the same.

If Romney wins: Five things every Jew should know about Mormonism


1. Devout Mormons can be found all across the political spectrum.

The Mormon Church doesn’t endorse candidates or political parties, and although most American Mormons are Republicans, a Mormon Democrat has served as the Senate Majority Leader for the last five years. Owing to our history of persecution and emphasis on self-reliance, there is also a noteworthy group of Mormons with libertarian sympathies who do not easily identify with either party.

Mormons can be found on all sides of most issues. On immigration, for example, many Mormons tend to be more liberal than other Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter). Many of us have served missions abroad, and tend not to be too judgmental of people who come here seeking a better life. Although Mormons generally agree on many important moral issues (see below), there is no consensus on economics and the proper role of government. We all agree, for example, that we have an obligation to help the poor. However, the extent to which government should help meet their needs by taxing others is a point of contention among followers of most faiths, including ours.

2. Mormonism is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Our church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) bears the name of the Christian Savior, we believe in the God of Israel, we accept the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as Scripture, we worship in chapels and temples, and we consider ourselves to be covenant Israelites. Mormons follow the Ten Commandments and are Noahides. In addition, the Abrahamic Covenant is central to our faith. Like Jews, the family is central to our faith, and our idea of heaven is to live with our spouses and families for eternity.

3. A Mormon president would not take orders from Salt Lake City.

If Mitt Romney wins, he’ll undoubtedly have the same arrangement with top church leaders that other Mormons have with local leaders: They don’t tell us how to do our jobs, and we don’t tell them how to run the church. Even Romney’s most intractable foes haven’t accused LDS church headquarters of drafting Romneycare in Massachusetts, and it’s safe to assume that church leaders aren’t behind Harry Reid’s shameful promotion of Las Vegas gambling interests in Washington. Mormons are used to looking to their leaders for spiritual advice, not professional guidance. While I would certainly expect Romney to consult with Mormon leaders as part of his general outreach efforts to faith communities (including Jewish leaders), I am confident that he will be his own man when it comes to formulating policies for the nation. I am also confident that Mormons will not be overrepresented in his administration, as Romney has a history of hiring capable people from all backgrounds to work for him.

4. On moral issues, Mormons are not extreme right-wingers.

A closer look shows the views of most Mormons on these issues to be much more nuanced. Let’s take abortion, for example. The LDS church is very much against it but does allow for possible exceptions in the case of rape, incest, a threat to the mother’s life or when the baby is not expected to survive childbirth. That’s pretty much Romney’s campaign’s abortion platform.

On gay issues, it is accurate to say that Mormons oppose state-sanctioned, same-sex marriage. However, it is both inaccurate and insulting to say that we are anti-gay. We can and do support many other issues that are important to gays. For example, former LDS Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) introduced a Senate bill that would have added sexual orientation to the list of protected categories for hate crimes. Every Mormon I know is opposed to discrimination against gays in education, employment and housing. We also support rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, probate rights, etc., so long as the integrity of the traditional family is not affected. As for theology, the LDS church teaches that homosexuality is not sinful in and of itself, as long as one remains chaste.

Although Mormons tend to have more children than the national average, our church doesn’t take a position on birth control. In addition, the church takes no position on capital punishment, stem-cell research, evolution or global warming. As a result, faithful Mormons are advocates for positions on all sides of these issues. 

5. Mormons are philo-Semites and pro-Israel. 

One of our basic Articles of Faith affirms: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes.” In 1841, LDS Apostle Orson Hyde offered a prayer on the Mount of Olives dedicating the Land of Israel for the gathering of the Jews. Israel went on to receive at least 11 apostolic blessings before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. For more than five decades (1870s-1920s), the church seriously considered establishing a Mormon colony in Palestine. Today, Brigham Young University has a beautiful center on Mount Scopus with the best view of the Old City in Jerusalem.

In the United States, Mormon pioneers arrived in the Utah territory in 1847. The first Jews arrived two years later, in 1849. The first Jewish worship service was held in 1864 in Salt Lake City. Rosh Hashanah was celebrated in Temple Square (the city center) in 1865. Brigham Young donated his personal land for a Jewish cemetery in 1866. In 1903, church President Joseph F. Smith spoke at the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for the state’s first Orthodox synagogue, which was largely paid for by the church. The second and third Jewish governors in the country were elected in Idaho (1914) and Utah (1916), the two states with the highest percentage of Mormons. Salt Lake City had a Jewish mayor by 1932, more than four decades before New York City.

Most Mormons in this country are very pro-Israel, and Romney is no exception. He has a close, decades-long personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks likely to be elected to another term. If Romney is elected, Jews and Israelis can be assured that they will have a true friend in the White House.


Mark Paredes writes the Jews and Mormons blog for the Jewish Journal and is a member of the LDS church's Jewish Relations Committee for Southern California. Read the Jews and Mormons blog at

The American election and Israel


Americans who care deeply about Israel have to make two decisions regarding the upcoming election.

The first decision is whether a candidate’s or a party’s level of support for Israel should be the most important consideration in determining their vote.

If the answer is in the affirmative — or even if support for Israel is but one of a number of important considerations — Americans who care deeply about Israel then need to determine whether there is a significant difference between candidates or parties.

Let me begin with the first question.

From any perspective, an American voter ought to be preoccupied with issues other than, or at least in addition to, Israel. Even the voter for whom Israel is the greatest priority needs to be preoccupied with America. If the United States weakens in any way — economically, militarily, in international stature, morally — it affects its ability and/or its will to support Israel.

So it would seem to be myopic to vote solely based on the question of which candidate or party will more strongly support Israel.

But note that I write “would seem.” Because a legitimate case can be made for seeming to put the cart (support for Israel) before the horse (other American matters).

The reason is this: The attitude of a party or candidate toward Israel tells you more than perhaps any other issue about that party or candidate. Treatment of and attitudes toward the Jews and Israel is an almost perfect indicator of a party’s, a country’s or a candidate’s values.

Support for Israel does not guarantee a person will be a great leader. But apathy, not to mention hostility, toward Israel guarantees a bad leader (of any country). 

As ironic as it may appear, therefore, even an American who is not interested in Israel has every reason to be quite concerned with a party’s and a candidate’s attitude toward Israel. I cannot come up with an example of a great, moral leader anywhere who was weak on Israel.

The Jews and the Jewish state are the world’s canary in the coal mine. This is a role that Jews play in the world. Even miners who have no interest in canaries know that if the canary dies, it is a signal that noxious fumes are present and must be fought — or the miners will die.

This is not a role that Jews or Israel have ever asked for. But it has always been true.

It is therefore very important for voters — again, whether or not they are greatly concerned with Israel — to ascertain which party and candidates are pro-Israel.

Many supporters of Israel in the Jewish community (for the record, most American supporters of Israel are Christians) maintain that there is little that distinguishes the Democratic and Republican parties generally or Mitt Romney and Barack Obama specifically.

If only this were the case. 

While I never believed that Obama was personally hostile to Israel, it takes a willful disregard of inconvenient truths to argue that he and the Democratic Party are as supportive of Israel as are Romney and the Republican Party.

First, virtually every observer of contemporary international relations believes that President Obama dislikes the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Supporters of the president contend that this is Netanyahu’s fault. But fault-finding here is irrelevant. Whatever the cause, this hostility remains a fact. And that is bad for Israel. 

If there is a modern precedent of a president of the United States refusing to meet the prime minister of Israel when the latter was already in the United States, and had requested such a meeting (either in New York or in Washington), I am unaware of it. And this was how Obama treated the Israeli prime minister just weeks before a national election when Jewish votes matter. Imagine how Netanyahu — Israel’s democratically elected leader, let’s remember — will be treated if  Obama is re-elected.

As reported in the Guardian, the major left-of-center newspaper in the United Kingdom: “The chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, described attending a ‘very tense’ and argumentative meeting between Netanyahu and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, in late August at which the pair had ‘elevated’ exchanges.
“Rogers described Netanyahu as at his ‘wit’s end’ over Obama’s refusal to set red lines for Iran.

“It was very, very clear that the Israelis had lost their patience with the administration,’ Rogers told a Detroit radio station. ‘We’ve had sharp exchanges with other heads of state and other things, in intelligence services and other things, but nothing at that level that I’ve seen in all my time where people were clearly that agitated, clearly that worked up about a particular issue, where there was a very sharp exchange.’ ”

And as regards the Democratic Party, one need only recall the vote of the Democratic delegates at their national convention in Charlotte, N.C., regarding the omission of any mention of Jerusalem (and God) in the Democratic Party platform. As anyone could hear, there were at least as many votes against mentioning Jerusalem as there were for it, and there was sustained booing after Jerusalem and God were reinserted into the platform.

The fact is that throughout the Western world — take Canada today, for example —  conservative parties and leaders support Israel far more than liberals and leftists do.

When all this is added to President Obama’s goal of sharply reducing American military spending, it should be clear to any honest observer that a Romney and Republican administration would be far more supportive of Israel.

None of this will matter to most American Jews. 

Netanyahu announces early Israeli election


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced early national elections.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romney: Same ‘red line’ as Obama on Iran, but a different strategy


Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggested that he had the same “red line” as President Obama on Iran but a different strategy to prevent the Islamic Republic from crossing it.

Romney told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News that his “red line” on Iran was the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

“My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon.  It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world,” Romney said in the interview, which was released Friday. “Iran with a nuclear weapon or with fissile material that can be given to Hezbollah or Hamas or others has the potential of not just destabilizing the Middle East.  But it could be brought here.”

Stephanopoulos noted that Obama has said that it would be unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons and suggested that Romney’s red line was the same as the president’s.

“Yeah, and I laid out what I would do to keep Iran from reaching that red line,” Romney responded, explaining that he had said five years ago at Israel's Herzliya Conference that “crippling sanctions needed to be put in place immediately.”

At that conference Romney called for sanctions on Iran “at least as severe as the sanctions we imposed on apartheid South Africa.”

In his ABC interview, Romney also stressed that the U.S. needed to stand with Iranian dissidents, which he said the Obama administration had failed to do, and reiterated his call — made also in his 2007 Herzliya speech — for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be indicted under the Genocide Convention.

The Obama administration has built international support for sanctions that have been imposed on Iran, but it has reportedly rebuffed Israeli requests to set “red lines” that would lead to U.S. military action.

An unnamed senior administration official told The New York Times that Obama reassured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call Tuesday that the U.S. would not allow Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon but that the president would not specify a trigger for a military strike.

“We need some ability for the president to have decision-making room,” the official told the Times. “We have a red line, which is a nuclear weapon. We’re committed to that red line.”

Obama in rabbis call: No ‘space’ with Israel on Iran, but also no red lines


President  Obama told rabbis in a pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call that there is “no space” between the United States and Israel on Iran, but added that he would not make public a red line that could trigger a strike against Iran.

“There may come a time” Obama told 1,200 rabbis of all denominations on the call Friday, that the United States would “exercise a military option” to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon

He said, however, he would not set red lines or a deadline, as Israel has demanded, noting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would also not make public its own trigger for military action.

“No leader ties his own hands,” he said.

Still, Obama said, “there is no space between the U.S. and Israel” on Iran.

He also said that “I have been explicit and clear that we will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Obama reiterated his belief in exhausting other options. “There remains time and space for diplomacy,” he said.

Obama also spoke about the recent anti-American violence in the Middle East. “We knew this process would not be easy,” he said, referring to the development of democracies in the wake of the Arab Spring. “The United States must be aligned with democracy and human rights.”

The rabbis asked Obama why he has been focused so much during this election year on the middle class, at times seemingly to the exclusion of the poor.

Obama responded that the programs he has championed as benefitting the middle class, including expanded health care, would also benefit the poor.

Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, “wish you a happy and sweet New Year.”

The rabbis, in introducing Obama, also noted their outstanding plea that he commute the life sentence of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

The call was organized by the rabbinical umbrellas of the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox streams.

Democrats return to the economy after Jerusalem detour


It was the nuts-and-bolts convention that nearly broke down over the most ethereal of issues: Jerusalem and God.

But by its third and final night, the Democratic National Convention had gotten back on message: jobs, jobs, staying on course with getting the economy back on track, and — oh, yes — jobs.

It was a course correction after two days in which convention organizers — and, in particular, the campaign’s Jewish surrogates — scrambled first to explain how recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and mentioning God got left out of the party platform, and then hustled to get them back in over the objections of some noisy and unhappy delegates.

The convention in Charlotte, N.C. — like its Republican counterpart, which last week nominated Mitt Romney in Tampa, Fla. — was mostly about the economy.

Foreign policy barely surfaced at either convention, and social issues — while prevalent on the streets outside the Charlotte convention, where protesters on both sides of the abortion debate competed for sidewalk space — were addressed, but not paramount.

Vice President Joe Biden, whose foreign policy experience over decades in the U.S. Senate was made a centerpiece of President Obama’s choice of VP four years ago, barely mentioned foreign policy in his speech Thursday night.

America’s posture overseas was left to two of Thursday’s convention speakers: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 nominee who is now a widely touted possibility as secretary of state if Obama wins a second term, and Obama himself.

“Our commitment to Israel’s security must not waver, and neither must our pursuit of peace,” Obama said to applause during a short foreign policy aside in a speech that was otherwise dedicated to staying the course on his plans for economic recovery. “The Iranian government must face a world that stays united against its nuclear ambitions.

Democrats had scrambled to contain an embarrassing breakout after Republicans had seized on the removal of Jerusalem and God from the platform, grabbing headline space Democrats had hoped would contrast the enthusiasm in Charlotte with the relatively subdued Tampa convention.

The language was returned in a quickie session on Wednesday, but that also was not without its awkwardness: the convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, had to call for three voice votes before declaring a two-thirds majority. But those on the floor said the vote actually was much closer – and there were boos.

Those who objected ranged from Arab Americans who had praised the removal of the Jerusalem language as an acknowledgment of the claims both Palestinians and Israelis have on the city, to religion-state separatists who objected to the God language, to delegates who were outraged at what they saw as a rushed amendment process.

Jewish Democrats, who helped drive the return of the language, depicted the change as Obama’s initiative and a sign of his control over the party.

“The difference between our platform and the Republican platform is that President Obama knows that this is his platform and he wants it to reflect his personal view,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, told CNN after Robert Wexler, a member of the platform draft committee and a chief Jewish surrogate for the Obama campaign, told JTA that Obama directly intervened to make sure the platform was changed.

“President Obama personally believes that Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel,” Wasserman Schultz said.

But that claim was at odds with repeated statements by Obama administration figures in recent months that Jerusalem remains an issue for final-status negotiations — itself the position of a succession of Republican and Democratic presidencies for decades.

Jewish Democrats acknowledged at the outset of the convention that they needed to address perceptions that Obama was distant from Israel before pivoting to the area where they feel Obama far outpaces Romney among Jewish voters — domestic policy.

Kerry, in his speech, cited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in making the case for Obama’s Israel bona fides.

“Barack Obama promised always to stand with Israel to tighten sanctions on Iran — and take nothing off the table,” Kerry said. “Again and again, the other side has lied about where this president stands and what this president has done. But Prime Minister Netanyahu set the record straight: He said our two countries have 'exactly the same policy … Our security cooperation is unprecedented …' When it comes to Israel, I'll take the word of Israel's prime minister over Mitt Romney any day.”

Yet while the convention was under way, a story broke that underscored the ongoing tensions between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations over how best to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu, a top U.S. lawmaker said, erupted in anger at the U.S. ambassador to Israel over what Israel's government regards as unclear signals from the United States on Iran.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, described for a Michigan radio station, WJR, an encounter he witnessed last month when he was visiting Israel. The interview was picked up Thursday by the Atlantic magazine.

“It was very, very clear the Israelis had lost their patience with the [Obama] administration,” Rogers said.

Rogers described Israeli frustration at what he depicted as the administration's failure to make clear to Israel or Iran whether and when it will use military force to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

By Thursday, the convention’s message about the economy and the role of government in guaranteeing a social safety net was once again front and center — and among Jewish delegates, who crowded the floor sporting Hebrew Barack Obama buttons.

Cheers erupted when Carol Berman, a retiree from Ohio now living in West Palm Beach, Fla., lauded the president’s health care initiative.

“I'm one of the seniors who retired to this piece of heaven on Earth and I'm as happy as a clam,” Berman said. “It's not just the sunshine; it's Obamacare. I'm getting preventive care for free and my prescription drugs for less.”

Berman’s was the kind of “personal story” that Democrats had urged Jewish advocates to use when they made the case for Obama to the 5-10 percent of Jewish voters they estimate voted for Obama in 2008 and might be reconsidering this year. Wasserman Schultz also shared her personal experience with breast cancer in making the pitch for Obama's health care legislation.

The convention’s most sustained standing ovation was for Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman recovering from being shot in the head in January 2011. Giffords came to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, walking on her own with a cane and accompanied by a watchful Wasserman Schultz. The two women are close, having bonded as being the first Jewish women elected to Congress from their respective states.

The theme of collective responsibility informed the one rabbinical benediction of the convention, which closed Wednesday night’s events, by Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Wolpe ad-libbed a Jerusalem reference in his speech, slightly tweaking the prepared remarks delivered to reporters before he spoke.

“You have taught us that we must count on one another, that our country is strong through community, and that the children of Israel — on the way to that sanctified and cherished land, and ultimately to that golden and capital city of Jerusalem — that those children of Israel did not walk through the wilderness alone,” Wolpe said.

Israel trip helps Polish Jews in Jewish rediscovery


After Jerzy heard about frequent vandalism at an old Jewish cemetery in his home city of Gdansk, Poland, he decided to visit the graveyard.

It had fallen into such disrepair that “people would go there to drink beer,” said Jerzy, who gave only his middle name due to fears of anti-Semitism. 

He made a few trips to the cemetery, meeting a member of the local Jewish community who invited him to come to Friday night services and Shabbat dinner. 

“I liked Jews all my life,” said Jerzy, 32, who although not raised Jewish had worn a Star of David as a child. “It was the opposite of all of Poland.” Around Gdansk, he said, he sometimes sees graffiti of a Jewish star hanging from a gallows. 

As he learned more about Poland’s Jews, Jerzy began to research his own family history. He traveled to his father’s birthplace near Lublin to find his father’s birth certificate; soon afterward, he learned that his father and his maternal grandfather were Jewish.

Three years later, Jerzy — whose arms are covered in tattoos — has across the back of his neck a huge Hebrew tattoo that reads “Shema Yisrael.” He is converting to Judaism to gain recognition from traditional denominations.

Jerzy was one of 19 participants to travel to Israel last month on a trip for Poles with newly discovered Jewish roots. The trip, according to Shavei Israel, the group that organized it, aims to teach participants about Judaism and to involve them more in Jewish life and support of Israel.

“The Jewish people are a small people, and there are these communities out there that were once a part of us,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. “When someone discovers or rediscovers their Jewish roots, it makes them more sympathetic to Israel and Jewish causes, so it’s something we stand to benefit from [regarding] diplomacy and hasbarah,” Israeli public relations.

Based in Israel, Shavei Israel also runs programs for those with Jewish roots in Spain, Portugal, India and Russia.

The two-week August trip took participants throughout Israel. They traveled through Jerusalem, to northern Israel and also to West Bank settlements such as Hebron and Mitzpeh Yericho, where they spent Shabbat. Freund said that the visits to settlements do not indicate that the trip takes political positions.

“We stay completely away from political messaging,” Freund said. “There is no political agenda here. The agenda is to give them an opportunity to see the land of Israel and visit important historical sites.”

The group also visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, to gain an Israeli perspective on a tragedy also etched deep in Polish national memory.

Trip leaders did not discuss politics, participants said. Several said that their favorite part of the journey was the feeling of being in a Jewish society where they were free to wear kippot on the street and to try out their Hebrew. 

After doing advanced coursework in Jewish studies, Gosia Tichoruk, 35, learned two years ago that her maternal great-grandmother was Jewish — and therefore that she, her mother and her grandmother were as well, according to Jewish law. In Israel, “The first thing that struck me was you’re walking down the beach, and you have Jews all around you,” she said. “It’s this safety you have, people greeting you with ‘Shavuah tov’ and ‘Shabbat shalom.’ “

Like a few of the participants, Tichoruk has started keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and learning Hebrew. She said Jewish life is sparse in her hometown of Poznan, but cities such as Krakow and Warsaw have more Jewish resources.

The Krakow Jewish Community Center has been a boon to Jedrek Pitorak, 23, who goes there for Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations and Hebrew classes. Pitorak, who has known he is Jewish his entire life, was one of the group’s most experienced Israel tourists. Unlike many who were first-time visitors, he came here in 2009 on Taglit-Birthright Israel, which sponsors free trips to Israel for young adults.

Pitorak is heartened by “how many small children we see here. It’s a bright sign.” Although he’s involved in the contemporary Polish Jewish community, he does not think his homeland will become a center of Jewish life, as it was before almost all of its Jews perished in the Holocaust. Approximately 4,000 registered Jews currently live in Poland, although community leaders suspect that tens of thousands of Poles may not have identified as Jewish.

“There are many old people and the community is not growing,” Pitorak said of Krakow’s Jews. “If you come to the JCC, you see more volunteers and sociologists than real Jews.”

Participants said that they enjoyed Israel’s religious options, historical sites, beaches and food. But one of the features of Israeli life that Pitorak likes best may surprise Israelis and American tourists alike. He appreciates “how polite the drivers are to each other and the pedestrians.”

Romney blasts Obama on Iran, Israel


President Obama’s approach to Iran has made Americans “less secure,” Mitt Romney said in his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination.

“Every American was relieved the day President Obama gave the order, and Seal Team Six took out Osama bin Laden,” Romney said Thursday evening at the Republican National Convention. “On another front, every American is less secure today because he has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat.”

He criticized Obama’s strategy of diplomatic engagement with Iran. “In his first TV interview as president, he said we should talk to Iran,” Romney said. “We’re still talking, and Iran’s centrifuges are still spinning.”

While the speech was mostly focused on introducing Romney to the nation and to attacking Obama’s economic record, the GOP nominee devoted several paragraphs to foreign policy. He accused Obama of having “thrown allies like Israel under the bus,” echoing language he had previously used in criticizing the president’s approach to the Jewish state.

Romney nodded only briefly toward social issues.

“As president, I will protect the sanctity of life. I will honor the institution of marriage,” Romney said. “And I will guarantee America’s first liberty: the freedom of religion.”

He also disparaged the Obama administration’s emphasis on countering climate change.

“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans,” Romney said, pausing amid laughter from the assembled delegates, “and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”

Jewish Dems slam GOP for Ron Paul tribute


Jewish Democrats slammed Republicans for planning a tribute to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) at the Republican convention.

In a press call Friday, a top aide to Rommey confirmed that there would be a prime time video tribute to Paul.

“Paying tribute to this man who disparaged the U.S.-Israel relationship on Iranian television and empathized with Iran’s nuclear weapons program—on top of the history of his hate-filled newsletters—is a national disgrace,” the National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement. “Romney and the RNC should cancel the tribute and end this dangerous strategic partnership once and for all.” The RNC refers to the Republican National Committee.

Paul, a libertarian who this year sought the GOP presidential nomination, has opposed foreign assistance, including to Israel, and has criticized multiple administrations, including that of President Obama, for what he describes as an overly militant posture in the Middle East.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he also published eponymous financial advice newsletters that mined racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic tropes, although he now insists that he did not vet everything in the publications, and blames past associates for the offensive material.

The Romney aide, in the call, said Paul’s showing during then primaries merited the tribute.

“Gov. Romney and Rep. Paul, while they certainly disagree on many issues … they’ve always had—if you watched part of the debates this year, you’ve have seen there’s a lot of mutual respect between the two of them,” Russ Schriefer was quoted by Talking Points Memo as saying. “And so Rep. Paul’s people came to us and said they’d like to do a short tribute to him, and we said absolutely, it would be a good time to do that.”

Paul and Romney generally avoided attacking each other during the campaign, and other contenders accused the two of forging an alliance to marginalize opponents to Romney, in exchange for guaranteeing Paul and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) greater influence within the party.

The younger Paul, who also backs cutting off foreign assistance, including to Israel, and who will have a convention speaking role, has otherwise avoided the incendiary statements that have marked his father’s career.

Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the video tribute was a “small price to pay” for denying Ron Paul a convention speech, and his delegates the opportunity to vote for him—agreements that the Romney campaign apparently extracted in exchange for the tribute.

Brooks had criticized Democrats for assigning a prime time convention speaking spot to former President Jimmy Carter, who has offended Jewish groups with his warnings that Israel’s West Bank policies could culminate in Apartheid.

Adelsons donate to PAC supporting Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s campaign


Casino mogul and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson and his wife have contributed to an independent super PAC to support Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s congressional candidacy.

Adelson and his wife, Miriam, each gave $250,000 to a new independent super political action committee, the Patriot Prosperity PAC, which is supporting Boteach’s New Jersey congressional run in a newly redrawn voting district against Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, an eight-term incumbent, The Wall Street Journal reported late Monday, citing “people close to the Adelsons and the PAC.”

The Adelsons previously have given directly to the Boteach campaign, according to the newspaper. Sheldon Adelson and Boteach are also personal friends, as well as mutual acquaintances with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the newspaper reported.

Through political action committees, Adelson and his wife have funneled $10 million toward presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s election effort, after spending an equal amount on the failed campaign of Newt Gingrich. Adelson has said he’s willing to spend up to $100 million to defeat President Obama.

Adelson has given nearly $100 million to Birthright Israel, the program that brings Jews ages 18-26 to Israel for free. He gave a $25 million gift to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem in 2006. From 2007 to 2009, he funded a $4.5 million strategic studies center in his name at the Shalem Center, a think tank in Jerusalem. His relatively smaller donations have helped bolster groups such as the Zionist Organization of America.

Boteach’s stated platform includes support for school vouchers, a flat tax and making marital counseling tax deductible in an effort to lower the divorce rate. He has criticized what he sees as an excessive Republican focus on sexual issues such as gay marriage.

Boteach, who once was affiliated with the Chabad movement, bills himself as “America’s Rabbi.” He hosts a show on TLC called “Shalom in the Home” and is the author of several books, including “Kosher Sex,” “Kosher Adultery,” “The Kosher Sutra” and, most recently, “Kosher Jesus.”

Romney, Obama show love for Israel in their own separate ways


It was a weekend of Israel love politically that highlighted two approaches to showing affection for the Jewish state: Go to Israel, as Mitt Romney did, or go pro-Israel, as the Obama administration did.

The pictures told the story, or as it were, stories: Romney in a kipah at the Western Wall on Sunday, Obama in the Oval Office two days earlier surrounded by go-to Jews from Congress and the Jewish organizational world to witness the signing of a bill enhancing U.S. defense assistance to Israel.

The reasons for the pitches were both practical and ephemeral: Each campaign scored major Jewish donations leading up to Romney’s trip, and Republicans claimed they would make inroads into the Jewish vote, although polling showed Obama ahead of where he was at this point four years ago.

Each approach had as its centerpiece the threat that Israel perceives from Iran’s suspected nuclear program.

“We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option,” Romney said, speaking in Jerusalem to the Jerusalem Foundation, the body that solicits philanthropy for the city. “We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability. We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded.”

All of these points have been made by Obama, who also rejects “containing” a nuclear Iran and emphasizes diplomacy while reserving military action as an option. Romney’s only seeming difference was that he would not allow any enrichment of uranium, while Obama has not counted enrichment at 3.5 percent to 5 percent for research.

Romney’s points were made, however, in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has expressed skepticism about Obama’s strategy, which has involved pressing Israel to refrain from striking Iran until all options are exhausted. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is due to meet Netanyahu on Wednesday in what has become a parade of top U.S. officials headed to the Jewish state to make the case that Obama’s strategy is the likeliest path to success.

Netanyahu did not appear to be buying it. “We have to be honest and say that all the diplomacy and sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota,” he told Romney in a meeting.

If Netanyahu wasn’t on board, that didn’t stop Obama from selling his approach to the pro-Israel community. In the Oval Office he signed a bill that would enhance security cooperation and increase anti-missile assistance to Israel, all in the presence of two past presidents of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Howard Friedman and Lee Rosenberg; the current chairman of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, Richard Stone; and two of the bill’s sponsors and among the most consistent advocates of Israel in Congress, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

Obama emphasized the bigger picture, saying that the deadly attack earlier this month on a Bulgarian tour bus packed with Israeli tourists reinforced his resolve to keep Israel safe.

“The tragic events that we saw in Bulgaria emphasize the degree to which this continues to be a challenge not just for Israel, but for the entire world—preventing terrorist attacks and making sure the people of Israel are not targeted,” he said.

Obama also cast the bill against the suspected Iranian threat, noting that Panetta and Israeli leaders would “further consult and find additional ways that we can ensure such cooperation at a time when, frankly, the region is experiencing heightened tensions.”

If that weren’t friendly enough, after the signing he teased Boxer, telling the senator, “You’re getting too skinny.”

The signing was followed by a flurry of administration initiatives that appeared to be calibrated in part at reminding American Jews that the administration cared.

On Monday, Obama’s chief of staff, Jack Lew, met with leaders of the Jewish community in New York in what is becoming for him an almost weekly klatsch with Jewish leaders. Also, the State Department released its religious freedom report that described a “rising tide” of anti-Semitism worldwide, although it did not quantify any real increase over previous years.

The following day, the White House introduced new sanctions targeting the slew of groups and individuals that have fronted for Iran in the wake of existing sanctions on its financial and energy sectors.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, meantime, continued to roll out a series of ads featuring Jews who had voted for Obama in 2008 but are disappointed with his Israel policies and now pledge to support Romney.

Jewish votes, however, are never entirely the point of such pro-Israel outreach, principally because support for the Democratic president seems budgeable by only a few percentage points, according to polls. Obama, in fact, fared better in June among Jews than he did in the same month in 2008, according to Gallup tracking polls, which have a margin of error of 5 percentage points: This year he’s at 68 percent, 6 percent higher than in the same month of ‘08 during his first run for the White House.

The real prize is keeping donors on board, and in this area both campaigns had a million-dollar punchline: Romney raised more than $1 million at a Jerusalem fundraiser that included major American Republican givers, among them Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who has sworn to spend tens of millions of dollars to defeat Obama. Haim Saban, the kiddie entertainment mogul who suggested last year that he was no longer enamored of Obama, donated $1 million earlier this month to political action committees dedicated to reelecting the president.

For Knesset’s Danny Danon, unapologetic Israeli nationalism is key to political success


If there’s one thing Danny Danon doesn’t do, it’s shy away from controversy.

Danon, a deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset and chairman of World Likud, has come under fire for describing African migrants in Israel as a “national plague,” for hosting controversial U.S. TV personality Glenn Beck at the Knesset and for demanding government investigations of left-wing NGOs.

Though Danon is in his first term in the Knesset, his profile is rising quickly on the Israeli political scene—perhaps more than anything else because of his unapologetically nationalist vision for Israel’s future.

He wants Israel to annex all the Jewish-occupied and uninhabited land in the West Bank. He wants Palestinians living on the remainder of the West Bank to become part of Jordan, Egypt to take control of the Gaza Strip and the international community to reject the establishment of a Palestinian state on the west bank of the Jordan River (it’s fine by him if the Palestinians take over the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on the east bank). Danon does not believe in land for peace or the two-state solution.

Danon outlines his blueprint for Israel’s future in a book due out in September, “Israel: The Will to Prevail,” though the book focuses more on history than the details of the blueprint.

“I’m working very hard to present a different approach for the peace process,” Danon told JTA in a recent interview in his Knesset office. “Our goal should be to annex the maximum land with the minimum Arab population,” he said of the West Bank. “We should speak about our rights and not apologize for it. We have biblical rights, historical rights, rights according to international law. We also have common-sense rights: We won the war.”

While his ideas might seem far-fetched and antiquated—a throwback to notions that haven’t been discussed with much seriousness since the pre-Oslo era—Danon believes Israelis are warming to them.

“We live in the Middle East; everything is dynamic here. With time it can be feasible,” he said. “I don’t accept that my views are on the fringe. I do believe one day they will be accepted.”

Danon’s detractors fear this is becoming true – in Israel, at least.

“Ostensibly, one could even ignore the existence of this Likud backbencher, but little Danny Danon will be big, the sugar of the Israeli right,” Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, a left-wing critic, wrote last summer. “So it’s better to pay attention to him now rather than later.”

Levy’s column compared Danon to Joe McCarthy for backing legislation targeting left-wing nongovernmental organizations and for initiating a bill to dismiss Israeli-Arab Knesset member Hanin Zuabi for participating in a flotilla aimed at breaking Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

“Danon’s contribution to the political discourse is important: Enough with the euphemisms, dump the deceit, down with the pseudo-democracy under which one can be both a proponent of the occupation and a democrat, an oppressor of minorities and a liberal, a nationalist and enlightened, the way Likud ‘moderates’ are trying to be,” Levy wrote. “True, Danon is making Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look like a moderate and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz look even better, but Danon is Likud’s 3G.”

Born in Ramat Gan, a city contiguous with Tel Aviv, Danon, 41, was raised in a deeply Zionist household. His father, who immigrated to Israel from Egypt in the early 1950s, was wounded in 1969 while serving in the Israel Defense Forces during the War of Attrition with Egypt. Danon grew up steeped in the Beitar youth movement, the Revisionist Zionist society founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Aside from his penchant for controversy, Danon has a few things going for him: He’s personable, media savvy and articulate in English. (He earned a bachelor’s degree at Florida International University and later worked in Miami as an emissary for the Jewish Agency for Israel.) Earlier this year, Danon won praise for co-sponsoring a Knesset bill that compelled advertisers to disclose on their ads whenever they digitally alter images to make models appear thinner.

But Danon is better known for sponsoring nationalist legislation targeting left-wing groups and Israeli Arabs. Aside from his bills aimed at Zuabi, Danon in 2008 filed a petition with the Israeli Supreme Court to rescind the citizenship of former Arab Knesset Azmi Bishara for possibly aiding Hezbollah in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. The effort, aimed at stripping Bishara of his Knesset pension, ultimately failed.

Danon, who accuses Israeli-Arab leaders of trying to “use democracy to destroy democracy,” also wants to outlaw Israeli-Arab incitement against Israel. Under his plan, Arab Israelis would be required to take an oath recognizing Israel as a Jewish, democratic state; those who refuse would not be able to obtain a passport or driver’s license.

When a growing chorus of left-wing Israelis backed a boycott last year of a new cultural venue in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Ariel, Danon proposed a law allowing settlers to sue those behind the boycotts. The bill passed.

And when controversy erupted in May over illegal African migrants in Israel, Danon led the calls for their immediate expulsion, using his bully pulpit as chairman of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs to warn of the influx of Sudanese Muslims into the Jewish state.

It’s all part of Danon’s ultimate goal: the fostering of an unabashedly Zionist state stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River with as few non-Jews as possible.

More often than not, Danon has found himself on the wrong side of history.

When Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 during the signing of the Oslo Accords, Danon, 22 at the time, was on the street out front protesting. When Ariel Sharon pulled Israel out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, Danon opposed it. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed a demilitarized Palestinian state in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, Danon spoke out against it.

“I haven’t changed my policies or ideology for last 20 years, since the Oslo Accords,” Danon said.

But now, Danon believes, history is coming around. Israelis’ confidence in the principle of land for peace has been shaken by the Arab Spring and the newly bellicose tone from Egypt; by the wars and rocket fire that has followed Israel’s withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza; and by the instability of the Arab regimes around Israel. While polls show most Israelis remain committed to a two-state solution, few think it’s achievable right now. Israel’s left-wing opposition is in tatters; the right wing is growing.

The idea of scrapping a Palestinian state and letting Israel annex most of the West Bank may be a non-starter internationally—not to mention in most of Tel Aviv—but Danon has one word: Wait.

“In the Middle East you cannot put a time frame on peace. People look for an instant solution, but it’s not going to work,” he said. “I think we have to fight to present our case. I don’t have control over what happens in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, but I want control over what’s happening in my backyard.”

Opinion: Romney is more than a fair-weather friend of Israel


At the end of the month, Mitt Romney will visit Jerusalem. It has become a ritual of American politics for presidential candidates to pay a visit to Israel, but this is certainly not Romney’s first trip to Israel—this will mark his fourth visit—and it won’t be his last.

I’ve known Mitt Romney for a long time, and what I know makes his sincerity and deep commitment to the security of the State of Israel part of his core.

That commitment flows from his understanding of Israel’s society and history. Romney is a democrat, with a small “d.” Israel is a thriving democracy, living in mortal danger throughout its modern history. Romney is full of admiration not only for Israel’s democratic political order, but also for the way Israelis have defended themselves against all odds since Israel’s founding as a state in 1948.

By sheer coincidence, Romney is an old and personal friend of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Romney’s first job after finishing up at Harvard was at the Boston Consulting Group, and Netanyahu was working there at the time and sat in an office down the hall. The two struck up a friendship and have remained close. If Romney were to become president, it would be an extraordinary chapter in U.S.-Israeli relations.

“There is little precedent,” The New York Times wrote recently, “for two politicians of their stature to have such a history together that predates their entry into government.”

Certainly Israel could use a close friend in the White House these days.

Israel’s position in the Middle East has become more precarious than at any time since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. It faces grave challenges and even existential threats. Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons while making no secret of its hatred for Israel and its desire to wipe it off the map of the Middle East.

Thanks to the revolution in Egypt, the future of the Camp David Accords and peace on Israel’s southern flanks hangs in the balance. To Israel’s north, in Syria, we see the brutality that some of Israel’s neighbors are capable of exercising even against their own people. And as we saw this week in Bulgaria, remorseless terrorists continue to attack Israeli civilians around the world.

Israel has always insisted, rightly, on defending itself by itself. It doesn’t want or need others to fight its battles. But it has also always looked to the United States as an ally in the same fight for freedom and the right to live in peace.

Over the last three years, however, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has been troubled.

President Obama does not seem to have personal affection for the Jewish state. He has publicly castigated Israel, including at the United Nations. He was caught on a hot microphone denigrating Israel’s prime minister, and when Netanyahu came to Washington he received him with marked coolness, neglecting to hold the customary joint news conference before asking the Israeli leader to exit through a rear door.

Far more significant than these indignities has been the relative passivity of the president toward the mounting threat posed by Iran. Even as the ayatollahs have pressed forward with their bomb-building project, and even as they continue directing genocidal threats toward Israel, Obama has naively sought to “engage” Iran in “dialogue.” Through this process, the Iranians have gained what they needed most: time. According to the latest intelligence reports, they are using that time to rush forward and realize their nuclear ambitions.

When ordinary Iranians bravely took to the streets in 2009 to protest their country’s stolen election, the Obama administration was shamefully silent. We cannot say what would have happened had America’s moral authority been brought to bear, but we can say that with the bloody suppression of the protesters, a once-in-a-generation chance to rid the world of a vicious regime was missed.

The failed record of Barack Obama’s diplomacy suggests he does not take seriously the threatening words of the Iranians and is therefore not taking seriously the threat they present to both Israel and the United States. If Iran is permitted to acquire nuclear weapons, it will dominate the Middle East, igniting proxy wars with impunity and making nuclear terrorism a perpetual and horrific danger.

We need a leader in the White House who both understands these perils and will act to avert them. We cannot afford to wait until the dangers are already upon us.

As president, Obama has toured the world and toured the Middle East, choosing Cairo as the location to deliver a major address. Yet he has yet to visit Israel, our closest ally in the region. He seems to labor under the illusion that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute lies at the center of the Middle East’s problems, even as the region is wracked by war and revolution unrelated to Israel.

Mitt Romney has a different view. He understands that Israel is targeted by the region’s failed states as a convenient scapegoat. He also understands that there is a worldwide campaign to demonize the Jewish state. It is for this very reason that he has pledged that his first foreign trip as president will be to Jerusalem. He intends to send a signal to the world—and especially to Israel’s adversaries—that the United States is not a fair-weather friend of Israel, but a partner in an abiding relationship based upon a common commitment to our most fundamental values.

Norm Coleman served as a Republican U.S. senator from Minnesota from 2003 to 2009, and currently is Of Counsel at Hogan Lovells US LLP.

+