Kerry on MOU agreement: ‘The sooner the better’

The sooner the post-Iran deal security package and the “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) between the U.S. and Israel on strategic cooperation is signed, the better it would be for both countries, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday.

“We are working on it now; we are in negotiations. We have never, ever put any of Israel’s needs or challenges on the table with respect to other issues between us,” Kerry said Thursday morning during a hearing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”I am confident we will get an MOU at some point and time. The sooner the better because it allows everybody to plan appropriately.”

Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told cabinet members that it’s unclear whether the two countries will come to an agreement during Obama’s term. “[We] need to see if [we] can achieve a result that will address Israel’s security needs or perhaps we will not manage to come to an agreement with this administration and will need to come to an agreement with the next administration,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying by Haaretz.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Monday that the security package will likely be complete “in the coming weeks.” Netanyahu is expected to travel to the U.S. next month to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference. It remains unclear whether he will meet with President Obama to finalize the details and sign the decade-long agreement.

“Israel’s security comes first and foremost. President Obama has, I think, unprecedentedly addressed those concerns with the Iron Dome, with assistance, with our efforts on global institutions to not see Israel singled out, and we will continue to do what is necessary to provide Israel with all the assistance necessary so it can provide for its own security,” Kerry said.

During the hearing, Kerry reiterated the administration’s opposition to BDS activities against Israel.

Is Oren’s call for ‘no surprises’ in U.S.-Israel ties possible?

Israel’s former ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, caused a stir this week by publicly accusing President Barack Obama of abandoning the two core principles that undergird the U.S.-Israel relationship: no public disagreements and no surprises.

But should there be no public disagreements – “no daylight,” in diplomatic parlance – between the United States and Israel, and is that kind of shoulder-to-shoulder closeness even possible between allies?

Oren, the American-born diplomat who served as Israel’s ambassador in Washington from 2009 to 2013 and is now a Knesset member in Israel’s center-right Kulanu party, outlined his argument in an Op-Edpiece in The Wall Street Journal. The piece appeared the same week as the launch of Oren’s new book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.”

“Immediately after his first inauguration, Mr. Obama put daylight between Israel and America,” Oren wrote in the Op-Ed.

“With the Middle East unraveling and dependable allies a rarity, the U.S. and Israel must restore the ‘no daylight’ and ‘no surprises’ principles,” Oren wrote. “Israel has no alternative to America as a source of security aid, diplomatic backing and overwhelming popular support. The U.S. has no substitute for the state that, though small, remains democratic, militarily and technologically robust, strategically located and unreservedly pro-American.”

David Makovsky, a member of the U.S. State Department team that last year attempted to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, said open disagreements and mutual surprises have characterized the relationship for decades.

He mentioned events starting from President Dwight Eisenhower’s threats to isolate Israel during the Suez war in 1956 through President George W. Bush’s endorsement in 2002 of Palestinian statehood, which caught Israelis by surprise. Makovsky also noted Israeli decisions that caught Americans off guard, such as the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and Israel’s entry into Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War.

“Aspirationally, there should be no surprises,” said Makovsky, who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, a think tank regarded to have close ties to the U.S. and Israeli governments. “In all candor, this is not always the case on either side.”

While it’s true that disagreements long have characterized U.S.-Israel ties, Obama was the first president to make a policy of “daylight,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies whose expertise includes the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

“This is the first time that this has been a systematic approach to Israel,” Schanzer said, noting the report cited by Oren that Obama in July 2009 told Jewish leaders he believed the policy of no daylight was contrary to American and Israeli interests and to advancing the peace process.

“When tensions came up in the past, the approach was to try to downplay it,” said Schanzer, who monitored terrorist financing at the U.S. Treasury during the George W. Bush administration. “Over the last six years, when there has been a disagreement, this administration has doubled down on the conflict that existed and used those disagreements for political gain.”

Ilan Goldenberg, the chief of staff for the U.S. Middle East peace team until last year, said Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have made their grievances public.

He noted Netanyahu’s strategy of public lobbying against the emerging nuclear deal between Iran and the major powers. Obama favors the deal, and his administration officials have urged Netanyahu to make his disagreements known in a private setting.

“Obama has been willing to express disagreement more than previous presidents,” said Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for a New American Security. “But the big violator of no daylight now is Netanyahu, much more than Obama, even as Obama tries to reach out.”

Goldenberg also took issue with some of Oren’s examples. Oren wrote that Obama abrogated the “no surprises” principle “in his first meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, in May 2009, by abruptly demanding a settlement freeze and Israeli acceptance of the two-state solution.”

Those positions should not have taken Netanyahu by surprise, Goldenberg said: Two states had been a principle since the Clinton presidency, and freezes on settlement growth were the policies of U.S. administrations since almost immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured disputed territories.

“Saying ‘two states and 1967 lines with land swaps’ was unprecedented was dubious given 242 and the Clinton parameters,” Goldenberg said, referring to the 1967 U.N. Security Council resolution that called for Israel’s withdrawal from territories captured during the war.

Heather Hurlburt, a director at the liberal New America think tank, said she was taken aback by Oren’s insistence in the Op-Ed that Netanyahu’s offenses, including announcements of settlement building, were missteps, while Obama’s offenses were deliberate.

“Everything the Israeli side did that was damaging was accidental, but everything the Obama side did was a personal decision of Obama?” she asked incredulously.

The penning of such an Op-Ed by a recent ambassador suggests deeper problems in the U.S.-relationship, Hurlburt said.

“If that’s how he perceived it” when Oren was an ambassador, “it’s an enormous problem,” Hurlburt said. “This is recriminating over who hurt the other person more in the relationship. It’s embarrassing. When you get to that point in a relationship, you’re usually done.”

Obama administration: Israel must quit distorting details of Iran talks

Israel is distorting the U.S. negotiating position in nuclear talks with Iran and must stop, Obama administration officials said.

“The United States is mindful of the need to not negotiate in public and to ensure that information that is discussed at the negotiating table is not taken out of context and publicized in a way that does not distort the negotiating position of the United States and our allies,” Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Wednesday when asked to comment on reports that the Obama administration was withholding details of the talks from Israel.

“There’s no question that some of the things the Israelis have said in characterizing our negotiating position have not been accurate, there’s no question about that.”

Neither Earnest, who was addressing the daily media briefing, nor Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, would give details of which details they think the Israelis are distorting. But a New York Times report on Wednesday said U.S. officials are angered that the Israelis seem to be leaking the number of centrifuges that the Iranians would be permitted to operate under an agreement while omitting details of other means of keeping at a minimum Iran’s uranium enrichment.

“Its safe to say that not everything you’re hearing from the Israeli government is an accurate reflection of the details of the talks,” Psaki said at her own daily briefing. “There’s a selective sharing of information.”

Psaki and Earnest each emphasized that U.S. negotiators continue to brief their Israeli counterparts.

“There is no country that is not participating in the negotiations that has greater insight into what’s going on at that negotiating table,” Earnest said.

Netanyahu, meeting Wednesday in Jerusalem with Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), said he was aware of the details of the proposal.

“The Iranians of course know the details of that proposal and Israel does too,” the Times of Israel quoted him as saying. “So when we say that the current proposal would lead to a bad deal, a dangerous deal, we know what we’re talking about, senator.”

Cleveland State University signs agreement with University of Haifa

Cleveland State University and the University of Haifa signed an agreement to develop joint programming.

David Faraggi, rector of Israel’s University of Haifa, signed the memorandum of understanding to formalize their collaborative relationship with CSU President Ronald Berkman on Wednesday in Cleveland.

Faraggi was in Cleveland for a two-day visit to meet with college deans and community leaders.

The two universities plan to develop joint programs in natural sciences, Middle Eastern studies and educational leadership, according to Cleveland State.

During a trip to Israel with a group of students in CSU’s executive MBA program in April, Berkman met with the leaders of several of the universities in Israel, the Cleveland Jewish News reported. The University of Haifa was found to be the most similar to Cleveland State.

Although Cleveland State has numerous international agreements, this is the first time the university has entered into an agreement with a school in Israel, according to the Cleveland Jewish News.

“CSU and the University of Haifa share many similarities as urban universities with diverse students and a commitment to providing a global experience,” Berkman said in a statement. “Cleveland also includes a large and engaged Jewish community. Our students and faculty will gain access to a university deeply rooted in Israel’s innovation-driven economy, and we offer access to exceptional resources in business, urban affairs, natural sciences, health care and biotechnology.”

U.S. Army to build large security complex near Tel Aviv

The U.S. Army is preparing to supervise the construction of an underground military complex near Tel Aviv.

The five-storey complex, dubbed “Site 911,” is expected to take more than two years to build and will cost up to $100 million, according to a report in the Washington Post Thursday by national security journalist Walter Pincus. It will be situated inside an Israeli Air Force base.

The construction of the facility, to be supervised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will have classrooms on Level 1, an auditorium on Level 3, a laboratory, shock-resistant doors, protection from nonionizing radiation and very tight security.

Only U.S. construction firms are  allowed to bid on the contract and proposals are due Dec. 3, according to the paper, which quoted the latest Corps of Engineers notice.

Within the past two years the Corps, which has three offices in Israel, completed a $30 million set of hangars at the IAF Nevatim base, the paper reported.

Site 911, which will be built at another base, appears to be one of the largest projects undertaken by the Corps in Israel. Each of the first three underground floors is to be roughly 41,000 square feet, according to the Corps notice.

The lower two floors are much smaller and hold equipment.

BIRD Foundation awards $8 million for U.S.-Israel research

A foundation that works to support industrial research and development to benefit the United States and Israel will invest more than $8 million in nine new projects.

The projects approved at last week’s board of directors meeting of the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development, or BIRD, Foundation, include advanced developments in life sciences, information technology for medical applications, electronics, software and energy.  Among the companies participating include Pioneer (a subsidiary of Dupont), Access USA and MedStar Health.

The BIRD Foundation promotes cooperation between Israeli and American companies in various fields of technology and helps locate strategic partners in both countries for joint product development. The newly approved projects add to the more than 820 projects in which the foundation has invested some $290 million in the past 34 years. The projects have produced direct and indirect sales of more than $8 billion.

“American companies are investing considerable resources in innovation, including identifying unique solutions worldwide,” Dr. Eitan Yudilevich, CEO of the BIRD Foundation, said in a news release. “In Israel they find an inexhaustible pool of creative ideas and innovation. Synergetic connections are created between American and Israeli companies, with the assistance of the BIRD Foundation, creating a great advantage to both parties, which eventually leads to manufacturing jobs, sales and profits.”

U.S. delegation visits jailed contractor Alan Gross

A delegation of Americans visiting Cuba met with jailed American contractor Alan Gross.

The group met for two hours with Gross, 62, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for “crimes against the state” for distributing laptop computers and connecting Cuban Jews to the Internet, on June 10 in Havana. They delivered a letter to him from his Washington-area synagogue, according to Reuters.

Gross was convicted and sentenced last month. Cuban authorities detained Gross in late 2009 on his way out of the country, saying he was a spy. He has appealed his conviction and prison sentence.

The group came to Cuba under the auspices of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, which advocates for better U.S.-Cuba relations.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Gross in March.

Gross is in ill health. His daughter has breast cancer and his mother was diagnosed with cancer as well.

Cuba and the United States have not had diplomatic relations since the 1960s. The U.S. has economic and financial sanctions in place against the island nation.

Iran: Israel and U.S. are trying to provoke a regional war

Iran blames Israel and the U.S. for trying to provoke a military conflict in the region, Israel Army radio reported on Wednesday. According to the report, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said that the two countries are conspiring against Iran.

“The Americans believe that the immediate result of a military conflict in the area will be saving the Zionist regime,” he said, adding that the U.S. and Israel are trying to “weaken the popular uprisings in the area, in order to stop the spread of Islam to their regional allies.”

“Obama wants to continue the Western hegemony in the Middle East and destroy the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said.

On Monday, Iran announced it had sent submarines to the Red Sea. “Iranian military submarines entered the Red Sea waters with the goal of collecting information and identifying other countries’ combat vessels,” reported the semi-official news agency Fars.


Most U.S. Jews see Israel as serious in peace bid, poll finds

American Jews strongly believe in Israel’s commitment to peace, and largely think the Palestinian leadership and people are opposed to it, according to a new poll.

Eighty-four percent of respondents in the survey released last week said the Israeli government is committed to a lasting peace, compared to just 20 percent who said the same about the Palestinian Authority. More than half think the Palestinian people are opposed to peace with Israel.

Sponsored by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, the poll sampled more than 1,000 American Jews several days before President Obama called for the 1967 borders to be used as the basis for negotiations for a future Palestinian state.

More than 75 percent of those polled said the biggest obstacle to peace in the region is the Palestinians’ “culture of hatred” and promotion of anti-Israel sentiment.

Seventy-eight percent said it was essential for the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and 62 percent did not believe that Israelis would be free from Palestinian terror attacks even if a Palestinian state were created in the West Bank and Gaza.

Nearly one in four said they would consider it “the biggest tragedy of my lifetime” if Israel were to no longer exist, and 58 percent said they would call it “a major tragedy that personally concerned me.”

Andrea Levin, executive director of CAMERA, said in a release that the results get to what most Jews in the United States believe.

“Some news media accounts have tended to amplify a vocal fringe in the American Jewish community that espouses extreme views and policies far out of the mainstream,” Levin said. “This poll clarifies what American Jews actually feel and believe.”

In unusual U.S. visit, Israeli Knesset members try listening

Hardly a week goes by that the Israeli Knesset doesn’t receive a delegation of visiting American Jewish VIPs. They come from Jewish organizations, federations and communities, sometimes with U.S. politicians, business leaders or big donors in tow.

There’s a lot less traffic in the other direction.

When Knesset members do come to the United States, it’s usually for meetings in Washington or to deliver a speech at some event or another. Often, they do a lot of talking without having to do much listening.

But a visit last week to Boston and New York by six Israeli Knesset members from the Likud, Kadima and Labor parties was all about listening—part of a new effort by an American Jewish foundation to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship by educating Israeli political leaders about the American Jewish community.

One by one, each of the Knesset members present on the trip’s final day described being startled at one point or another by what they encountered over the course of their week in the United States.

“I came knowing very little about American Jewry,” said Carmel Shama of Likud. “In the short run, Israel and American Jewry can exist and get along without each other, but not in the long run.”

Labor’s Daniel Ben Simon was shocked by the grace and tolerance of a rabbi in Boston who helped him find some non-kosher ice cream even though Ben Simon had just eaten kosher meat. “He helped us sin with grace and with a smile,” Ben Simon said.

Kadima’s Ronit Tirosh was surprised to learn that the protesters who disrupted one of the trip’s events—a speech at Brandeis University by participant Avi Dichter, a Knesset member from Kadima and former Shin Bet chief – were Jews and Israelis. “I thought: American Jews—they are born as Jews so they favor Israel,” Tirosh remarked.

Shama said that, after listening to American Jews, he now has a completely different view of the debate surrounding the controversial Rotem bill – proposed Knesset legislation that has upset a wide array of American Jewish groups for the way it would change how Israel handles converts from abroad and conversions at home. “Now, I look at the Rotem issue in a wider and deeper way,” Shama said.

That, said Jay Ruderman, whose family foundation sponsored the inaugural trip for Knesset members in conjunction with Brandeis’ Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, was precisely the point.

“Israel is the center of the Jewish world, and the Knesset makes decisions that affect the whole Jewish world,” said Ruderman, who immigrated to Israel from the Boston area five years ago. After making aliyah, he said, he discovered that Israelis didn’t know about the world from which he came. The new Ruderman Fellows program, which he plans to replicate with other Knesset members, aims to change that.

The Knesset members met with religious leaders from the major Jewish denominations, talked with college students, toured Boston, saw a Broadway show, went to a $200-a-plate dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, visited the Boston Jewish federation, had lunch at the Harvard Club, stopped by a Jewish day school, and took in lectures about American Jewish history, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and anti-Semitism in America. They were accompanied throughout the week by Ruderman and Jonathan Sarna, who teaches American Jewish history at Brandeis and helped design the itinerary.

Sarna said that during a sabbatical in Israel last year he was struck by Israeli ignorance of American Jewry. “Even the leading figures in Israel do not feel they understand American Jewry appropriately,” he said.

Some of the Knesset members who participated are regular visitors to the United States. Dichter says he comes about twice a year. Ben Simon was here only a few weeks ago, when he spoke at the J Street conference in Washington. But others, like Labor’s Eitan Cabel, who has been in the Knesset since 1996, had never been to America before.

“Even here there are Jews with the same problems we face in Israel,” Cabel said, sharing some of what he said he learned on the weeklong trip. “We can’t forget that after Israel, this is the biggest Jewish community.”

Perhaps more than anything else, the Knesset members said the trip showed them that Israel has much to learn from the liberalism, pluralism, diversity and tolerance that exists in the American Jewish community. Shama noted that it would be nice to have haredi Orthodox Knesset members go on such a trip.

While many Israeli politicians bristle at the notion of American Jews tinkering in Israeli politics – last month the Knesset held hearings investigating J Street, which seeks to pressure Israel into reaching a settlement with the Palestinians—Ben Simon said American Jews need to play a bigger role in Israeli political and social debates.

“You should take a position because it will affect American Jews here,” Ben Simon said. “You’re not courageous enough to tell Israeli leaders: What you’re doing has an impact on us.”

In his halting English, Cabel said, “We must AIPAC and we must J Street.”

Since the Labor Party split several weeks ago, both Cabel and Ben Simon are in the Knesset opposition. Ben Simon criticized the current government, calling it “not friendly to American Jews” and citing the investigation of J Street as one example.

“We have to be more in contact with American Jewry,” Tirosh. To that end, she said, she’d like to create a caucus in the Knesset focused on North American Jewry.

Israel, U.S. woo Latin America after neglect leads to tilt away

It’s time for the West to woo Latin America—some will say it’s about time.

The United States and Israel appear to be heading toward increasing their focus on the area following years of neglect that has resulted in closer ties between Latin America and Iran—and gains for the Palestinians. The shift comes amid Iran’s deepening influence in the region, as well as the successes of a Palestinian diplomatic offensive that has seen eight Latin American nations agree to recognize a Palestinian “state” in recent months.

President Obama’s visits this week to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador follow on the heels of a visit to Israel last month by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials and American Jewish groups that focus on Latin America say the West’s attention to the area should have come sooner.

“Latin America has suffered benign neglect both from the United States and Israel,” said Dina Siegel Vann, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Latin American Institute.

“When you have a vacuum it will be filled,” she said, referring to Iran’s courting of Latin American countries that chafe under U.S. domination of the hemisphere—chief among them Venezuela. “This is the point of view of many Latin American Jewish communities who feel that they have not been treated as a priority.”

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity acknowledged the neglect, saying it was primarily a function of resources diverted to peacemaking in the region since the launch of the Oslo process in 1993.

That has been redressed in recent months with several high-profile visits to the continent, including Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Brazil visit in July 2009, and then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s return visit a year ago.

The outreach is coordinated with the local Jewish communities, and Vann noted a number of successes, including the visit to Israel this month of Chile’s president and last year of Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli.

Jewish lobbying helped moderate Chile’s recognition of Palestine with enough qualifications that the recognition was almost a moot point, Vann said.

“They spoke about Israel’s right to exist within secure borders, they said negotiations have to continue and that an agreement has to be part of bilateral negotiations,” she said. “In the end, the Israelis were happier with it than the Palestinians.”

Vann and her boss, AJC director David Harris, just returned from a high-profile tour of Argentina, Brazil and Chile to address issues of concern to Jewish communities.

The highest-profile effort is Obama’s tour of Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. Obama did not publicly address the Middle East when he met over the weekend with Dilma Roussef, his Brazilian counterpart. The visit focused on free trade with Latin American nations as the continent is showing an economic turnaround at a period when much of the West is otherwise struggling with recession.

Nonetheless, the joint Obama-Roussef statement pointed to an effort to bridge differences that erupted last year over the refusal by Brazil and Turkey to join the international effort to isolate Iran over its nuclear weapons program.

The statement underscored closer defense cooperation in recent months.

“They reaffirmed both countries’ commitments on disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, with a view to achieving the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” it said.

Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said it was his understanding from his administration contacts that Obama in private meetings is sounding out Roussef to see if she plans on continuing the tilt of her predecessor, Lula, toward setting Brazil apart from the U.S. policy on the Middle East.

“From what I understand, he’s going to ask where will Brazil be going from this particular point,” said Mariaschin, who spoke to JTA a day before the summit, and who was slated to head to Latin America this week. “He will be raising the issue to try and discover if there is daylight in the policies between Lula and Roussef.”

Lula, who was Roussef’s mentor, was behind both Brazil’s decision to recognize Palestine and to attempt, with Turkey, to strike a separate nuclear inspections deal with Iran. Brazil predominates in South America, and its decisions had a domino effect, particularly on recognizing Palestine.

Vann said Lula had his eye on history as he left office.

“He wanted to go out with a bang,” she said.

That’s typical of a region that often has sought to distinguish itself from its powerful northern neighbor, Mariaschin said.

“There’s an interest in showing bona fides to the Islamic world, the Arab world, the non-aligned, that these countries in Latin America are of an independent mind,” he said.

Other factors have played into the pro-Arab tilt of an area that once was perceived as a redoubt of pro-Israeli sentiment; Latin America votes tilted the U.N. 1947 vote toward creating a Jewish state.

Among them are the substantive Arab diasporas in the region, including what is believed to be the largest Palestinian diaspora in the world in Chile and a Lebanese community in Brazil that is said to outnumber the Lebanese in Lebanon.

Another factor is the tendency of Latin America nations to follow each other’s leads. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez courted Iran as a means of needling the United States, which had sought his ouster in the early 2000s because of his nationalization of the oil industry.

“More often than note, there’s a tendency among Latin Americans to vote as a bloc” in international bodies, Mariaschin said. “I don’t think that’s helpful or healthy.”

The Iranian influence on Latin America was especially troublesome, he said, not just as it related to how it hindered efforts to set up a united front against the prospect of a nuclear Iran, but also in the reports of the infiltration of Iranian terrorists into the region.

U.S. lawmakers, led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, have pressed the Obama administration to make a priority of driving Iran influence away from Latin America.

The threat is real, Vann said, particularly in the little-policed “triangle” where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet.

“Iran’s presence in the region is very detrimental, and it’s not theoretical,” she said, pointing to the certainty in Western intelligence circles that Iran was behind deadly attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and its AMIA Jewish community center in 1994.

Vann cautioned against overstating Iran’s danger, however, noting an incipient skepticism in the region of such claims stemming from how the evidence the Bush administration used to make the case for the Iraq War turned out to be unfounded.

“They truly don’t believe Iran is a threat, and they draw parallels with Iraq and WMD,” she said, using the acronym for weapons of mass destruction.  “We have to be careful not to magnify the problem.”

Currently, she said, the only solid evidence of illicit Iranian activity in the region points to money laundering. Accusing the Iranians of planning imminent terrorist attacks, for instance, could undermine the case for tracking Iranian activity.

Iranian officials blame Israel, U.S. for protests

Iranian officials blamed Israel and the United States for protests that broke out in the Islamic Republic, leaving one dead and dozens injured.

“The parliament condemns the Zionist, American, anti-revolutionary and anti-national action of the misled seditionists,” Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said Tuesday during an open session of parliament a day after the demonstrations in support of the peoples’ revolution in Egypt that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

During the session, lawmakers called for the execution of opposition leaders and former presidential candidates Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Moussavi. They also chanted “Death to Israel” and “Death to America,” according to reports.

“We have information … that America, Britain and Israel guided the opposition leaders who called for the rally,” deputy police chief Ahmadreza Radan said, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

The demonstrations ended by Tuesday, according to reports.

Dozens of opposition protesters were arrested in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, and Iranian security forces fired tear gas at protesters marching in central Tehran toward Freedom Square on Monday, Reuters reported.

Iranian officials banned rallies in support of Egypt. Opposition leaders reportedly had planned such rallies after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in public remarks that the Egyptian reformists had taken a page from Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 in toppling a monarchy supported by the West.

Also Monday, anti-government protesters demonstrated in the streets of Yemen and Bahrain. 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed the Iranian protestors, telling reporters Monday in Washington that they “deserve to have the same rights that they saw being played out in Egypt and are part of their own birthright.”

The European Jewish Congress called on European leaders to press unequivocally for democracy and freedom for the Iranian people and express concern about the situation in Iran.

EJC President Dr. Moshe Kantor called on European leaders to issue similar responses that were released during the recent demonstrations in the Arab world.

“In the spirit of the ongoing fight for democracy in the region, it is vital that the European leaders do not suddenly fall silent when they are needed the most,” Kantor said. “As Europeans we should fully support those who fight for freedoms that we take for granted.”

Israeli organized crime suspects extradited to U.S.

Two Israeli brothers suspected of involvement in organized crime were extradited to the United States.

Meir and Yitzhak Abergil boarded a U.S. government plane Wednesday afternoon accompanied by American federal marshals. The United States requested their extradition more than two years ago on charges of money laundering, extortion and drug trafficking. They also are accused of killing a drug dealer.

Three other Israelis also were extradited Wednesday on the same charges. They were indicted in 2008 by a California court following a six-year police investigation in several countries.

If the Abergils are convicted and sentenced to jail, they will be permitted to serve out their time in an Israeli prison, according to reports.

U.S. prosecutors have called Yitzhak Abergil one of the major importers of narcotics into the country, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Toward defending Israel, mainstream U.S. Jewish groups critique it

Enmeshed in the battle against Israel’s delegitimization, mainstream American Jewish organizations are embracing a strategy of acknowledging what’s wrong about Israel as a way of getting across what’s right about the nation.

The strategy is hardly fresh—the New Israel Fund claims it has been doing this for years. But the recent outspokenness of advocates of the approach reflects concerns among U.S. Jewish establishment organizations that defending Israel in the public arena will not resonate without credibly addressing what some characterize as the deterioration of Israel’s civil society.

The American Jewish Committee and the Union for Reform Judaism have delivered broadsides in recent days against recent Israeli government initiatives targeting nongovernmental groups in Israel that monitor human rights. Last week, the Knesset approved in a preliminary reading a bill that would investigate the funding sources of nongovernmental groups that monitor and criticize the Israeli army.

“The Knesset’s action today contravenes the democratic principles that are Israel’s greatest strength,” AJC Executive Director David Harris said after Israel’s parliament voted Jan. 5 to investigate human rights groups. “Israel’s vibrant democracy not only can survive criticism, but it also thrives and is improved by it.”

Echoing demands from Israel’s left, the AJC and the Reform body instead called for across-the-board transparency in Israel.

In its statement the Reform movement suggested that such actions make it more difficult to defend Israel in other forums.

“The recent initiative undermines Israel’s place in the global community and is a source of concern to the Jewish community throughout the world and to Israel’s friends everywhere,” the statement said.

That was a theme picked up by the Anti-Defamation League, which in a statement posted on its website did not directly address the proposed Knesset law but expressed concerns about the “highly disturbing trend” of “Israeli intolerance.”

“Inflammatory statements have a negative impact on attitudes toward Israel around the world, even in friendly countries like the U.S.,” the ADL statement said. “More important, however, is the impact they have within Israel, undermining the democratic fiber, creating a mean-spiritedness in society and enlarging already significant communal rifts.”

The significance of such statements was in their bearers—mainstream American Jewish organizations, which are more accustomed to slamming Israel’s critics. In the past, these groups have targeted manifestations of bigotry by marginal Israeli groups, Israeli government discrimination against non-Orthodox religious streams and, in some cases, remarks by Israeli officials about the country’s Arab citizens.

What’s new is the concern by U.S. Jewish groups that discrimination and a diminishing of democratic values is becoming mainstream in Israel.

These American Jewish groups remain dedicated to defending Israel. Indeed, representatives of the same groups will attend conferences in Miami later this month aimed at combating boycotts and delegitimization of Israel.

But they are no longer holding back on criticizing Israel—criticism they view as constructive.

“There are things that Israel can and should do to make it a better country,” said William Daroff, the Washington director of Jewish Federations of North America.

“Diaspora Jewry has an obligation to stand up. People should not be hasbara agents,” he said, using the term for public relations.

A spokeswoman for the New Israel Fund, Naomi Paiss, said it’s about time.

“For a long time, there was probably the misconception that supporting Israel meant enabling bad behavior,” she said. “It’s becoming clear that supporting Israel means calling it to account when its most anti-democratic trends cannot be ignored.”

On Sunday in Washington, a slate of local representatives from national Jewish organizations—including pro-Israel stalwarts such as B’nai B’rith International and the Orthodox Union—joined Israel’s embassy in sponsoring a day’s discussion on “challenges and opportunities” for Arab citizens of Israel.

Noam Katz, a public diplomacy officer at the embassy, launched the proceedings with what participants said was a candid assessment of the discrimination still facing Israeli Arabs. That helped those in the audience who otherwise may have felt the reflex to protest criticism of Israel to listen and contribute, said Rabbi Sid Schwartz, who helped organize the conference.

Schwartz, also the founder of Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, said the event, which included Israeli-Arab activists, helped convey a sense that this was an area that American Jews could influence.

“If American Jews start to take note of this issue, we can have more impact on policy in Israel than we can have on the peace process,” he said, suggesting that peacemaking is subject to vicissitudes beyond the reach of American Jews.

Anne Clemons, a local community activist who is active with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, among other groups, said she helped organize the event in part to push back against the delegitimization of Israel.

“I felt the community would benefit, the young generation and the press would benefit from learning what Israel was doing to help its Arab citizens,” she said.

Clemons said she believes the American Jewish community also has a responsibility to raise the issue with Israel’s leaders.

“The American Jewish community is supportive, but when we see there are issues that may need changing, we bring it up with the leaders within the Israeli government,” she said.

Not everyone is on board: The Zionist Organization of America issued a statement lauding the crackdown on human rights groups operating in Israel.

“These groups have also shown clearly by their actions that despite their protestations of seeking to serve Israel democracy, they actually seek to bypass Israeli democratic institutions and the Israeli public square by pressing for international pressure on Israel and its democratically elected government by corrupt, dictatorship-dominated bodies like the U.N. Human Rights Council,” ZOA said in its statement.

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America quoted Im Tirtzu, an Israeli group that opposes human rights groups, as saying the issue at hand was foreign funding for such groups, many of which are Israeli.

“The organizations that call themselves human rights groups actually belong to the extreme left and seek to force their radical values on others through foreign funding,” said the Im Tirtzu statement quoted by CAMERA in an e-mail exchange Tuesday with The Washington Post.

The targeted rights’ groups say the claim of foreign funding is a red herring, noting that the bill does not pretend to examine groups that receive foreign funding but that back government policies. In any case, the targeted groups say, they are transparent about their funding.

Netanyahu: Only ‘credible’ military threat led by U.S. can stop nuclear Iran

Only the convincing threat of military action headed by the United States will persuade Iran to drop plans to build an atomic bomb, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

Speaking to foreign journalists, he said that although the latest round of international sanctions were hurting Iran, they would not be enough to force a u-turn on nuclear weapons.

“You have to ratchet up the pressure and … I don’t think that this pressure will be sufficient to have this regime change course without a credible military option that is put before them by the international community led by the United States,” he said.


Napolitano visiting Israel to check security projects

United States Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is in Israel to check on joint security projects between the two countries.

Napolitano visited Israel Monday and Tuesday as part of a multi-country tour that has included stops in Ireland, Afghanistan and Qatar. She will head to Belgium to meet with European Union and World Customs Organization officials, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

“The United States and Israel have a strong and enduring partnership, and the reason for my visit is to make sure that all the things that we’re doing in partnership with Israel—aviation security to cyber-security, to science and technology, research that we are undertaking together focused on security—that all of those activities are being done in a productive and robust fashion,” Napolitano said Monday during a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Also Monday, Napolitano visited the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, where she participated in a wreath-laying ceremony honoring the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. She also met with Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who is the minister of Intelligence and atomic energy, and Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz to discuss threats from terrorism and the ongoing security partnership between the United States and Israel, according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security.

During the meetings, Napolitano reiterated her commitment to promoting enhanced international aviation security and sharing information and best practices with Israeli aviation authorities in order to counter threats of terrorism, according to the DHS.

Napolitano was scheduled to meet Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visit the Ben Gurion International Airport to meet with airport officials.

In U.S., Israeli expats turn to growing number of Israeli rabbis

Itzik Abu-Hatzera rarely attended synagogue in his native Haifa when he lived in Israel.

But last December his family was among those of nearly 200 other Israelis in South Florida at a Chanukah party sponsored by the Chabad Israeli Center in Boca Raton.

“In Israel you don’t need it, Jews are all around you,” says Abu-Hatzera, who moved here 10 years ago.

Like Abu-Hatzera, the rabbi of the Chabad center, Naftali Hertzel, is Israeli. At the Chabad he runs with his wife, Henya, Hebrew is the lingua franca. That, rather than the specific religious components of the evening, was why Abu-Hatzera and his family came here rather than to one of many similar Chanukah events organized by American Jews in this heavily Jewish area.

“It’s the Hebrew, the culture, everything,” says Abu-Hatzera, a 35-year-old father of two.

Waving his arm at the loudspeaker blasting Israeli pop music and the buffet table laden with falafel and sufganiyot—Israeli jelly doughnuts—he says, “It’s what I belong to.”

About140,000 Israelis live in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, though Jewish and Israeli sources say the number actually is closer to 500,000. Whatever the exact figure, many if not most of the Israeli expatriates in America are secular, like approximately 80 percent of Israeli Jews.

While few of the Israelis in this country went to shul in Israel or consider themselves religious, now that they are far from home some have begun attending services and making sure their children receive some kind of formal Jewish education.

Some say they are doing it for themselves, to feel closer to what they left behind. Some are doing it for their children, so they will grow up with a sense of Jewish identity.

Whatever the reason, the phenomenon seems to be growing. In recent years a number of Israeli rabbis have set up shop in the United States to minister to Israelis in their own language.

It’s easier to bring Judaism to Israelis when they’re outside the Jewish state, says Rabbi Menachem Landa, an Israeli-born Chabad emissary who runs the 4-year-old Chabad Israeli Center in Palo Alto, Calif.

“They’re more open, they’re looking for friends and to deepen their Jewish identity,” he says.

Some two dozen Israeli Chabad rabbis are gearing their outreach work to Israelis in the United States. Most of the rabbis arrived here within the past five to seven years, according to Landa, and are located in areas with large Hebrew-speaking populations such as New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Atlanta. They support each other through informal networks, including special programming during the annual Chabad emissary conference in Brooklyn, N.Y., every fall.

It’s not just Chabad. The Shehebar Sephardic Center, which has ordained 150 Sephardic rabbis at its Jerusalem yeshiva, has sent 10 of its graduates to pulpits in the United States, most within the past five years. They work among the Hebrew-speaking Sephardic populations in Florida, Texas and Los Angeles, as well as along the Eastern seaboard.

Many Israeli-born Chasidic rabbis also are serving various Chasidic communities in North America. But it’s the Israeli Chabad and Sephardic rabbis, along with individual non-chasidic Israeli rabbis, who represent a new phenomenon: Israeli rabbis in the United States reaching out to largely non-observant fellow expats.

“Our main job is outreach, to instill an awareness of Judaism, tradition and culture in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people,” says Rabbi Sam Kassin, founder and dean of the Shehebar Sephardic Center, one of the few institutions that trains rabbis in the Sephardic tradition. “We feel that the best rabbi to address the needs of Israelis is someone who knows the language and understands their cultural needs. That’s why we place Israeli-born rabbis, who also speak some English, in Israeli neighborhoods in the U.S.”

Yoav Kiesler, who moved from Israel to the San Francisco Bay Area 13 years ago, began studying Jewish texts with Landa five years ago.

“I clicked with him, even though he’s from Bnei Brak and I served in the Israel Defense Forces,” said Kiesler, who lives in San Rafael, just north of San Francisco. Bnei Brak is a heavily Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv.

“You’d think we have little in common,” Kiesler said. “But I felt we shared the same background. When someone speaks the same language, things flow much easier.”

Eyal Shemesh, the Los Angeles-based publisher of We in America, a Hebrew-language magazine catering to Israelis in Southern California, left Israel for the United States 25 years ago, right after his military service.

He says the American Israeli community is mixed, comprised of newcomers, temporary residents and long-timers like his family. Shemesh and his Israeli wife have been here for decades and have U.S.-born children that move between both cultures.

Shemesh says even so-called secular Israelis like him attend Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services in America, and need the Jewish community to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, as well as for other lifecycle events.

If there is no Israeli congregation, he says, local Israeli Jews will go to “an American synagogue,” but that’s not their first choice.

On the High Holidays, the Shemesh family joins many other local Israelis in a rented hall for services run by Rabbi Rafael Gaye, an Israeli rabbi who is the spiritual leader of Shuva Israel, a Sephardic congregation in nearby Tarzana, Calif.

“We’re secular, but we still respect the traditions,” Shemesh said. “And sometimes the synagogue is part of meeting each other, a social center.”

Children are a big impetus for both Israeli and American Jews. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Sholom, a large Conservative synagogue in Encino, Calif., notes that the Israelis who move to America as adults have grown up in a predominantly Jewish culture and have absorbed more of the religion than they realize. They come here, don’t join a synagogue and are shocked when their children don’t have a strong Jewish identity.

“There’s a rude awakening when they realize their kids aren’t growing up Jewish,” Feinstein says. “I’ve had some difficult conversations with parents.”

Professor Steven Gold of Michigan State University, author of the 2002 book “The Israeli Diaspora,” says two groups of Israelis are living in the United States, with different preferences.

There is the more educated, professional Israeli, often Ashkenazi, who is secular in Israel and feels more comfortable in a liberal, American synagogue.

“They realize if they don’t do anything their kids won’t have a Jewish identity living in the United States, so they join a Reform, Reconstructionist, even a Conservative synagogue where the family can sit together,” Gold says. “It’s more compatible with their lifestyle.”

Then there are the more traditional Israelis, often Sephardim, “who want to maintain their traditions and feel more comfortable in an Israeli setting,” Gold says. “It’s a class and an ethnic divide.”

Feinstein says it doesn’t matter which synagogue Israeli Jews choose, as long as they go somewhere.

“I’m delighted that Israelis are affiliating anyplace,” Feinstein says. “Whether they affiliate with Hebrew-speaking or English-speaking congregations isn’t as important as the fact they’re coming to America and living as Jews and raising their kids as Jews.”

PA, Israeli officials in D.C., but not in talks

Palestinian and Israeli leaders will not meet for negotiations although they will be in Washington this weekend, the U.S. State Department said.

“Right now, I’m not anticipating that we would have Israelis and the Palestinians in the same room at this time,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday.

The United States this week abandoned efforts to persuade Israel into extending a moratorium on settlement building as a means of pulling the Palestinians back into direct talks. Crowley’s remark suggested that the Obama administration for the time being was giving up on direct talks.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad will be in Washington this weekend to address the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

At the same event, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton willl outline U.S. plans for the talks going forward. George Mitchell, Clinton’s top envoy to the talks, will be in the region next week.

In a separate interview with Israeli media, Crowley said the U.S. posture opposing settlements remained the same.

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, and we will continue to express that position,” he was quoted by Haaretz as saying.

Diplomats: U.S. will not pressure Israel on nukes

A statement from the major powers committing to a nuclear-free Middle East will not result in pressure on Israel, according to two diplomats familiar with the issue.

Reuters reported Wednesday that the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council—including the United States—have prepared a unanimous statement committing “to a full implementation of the 1995 NPT resolution on the Middle East and we support all ongoing efforts to this end.”

The NPT, or nuclear non-proliferation treaty, commits signatories to not acquiring nuclear weapons or to reducing existing stockpiles. Israel, which is not a signatory, is believed to possess as many as 200 warheads.

In a related story, the Associated Press said U.S. officials were discussing with Israel “practical measures” toward Israel’s NPT compliance.

Two diplomats separately told JTA that such discussions would not amount to pressure on Israel to end its nuclear capability.

One of the diplomats said “practical measures” could include a moratorium on testing or setting up a body to deal with nuclear disarmament. Such steps would not affect Israel’s alleged existing reserve of nuclear weapons.

It seems clear, however, that any Israeli cooperation in such a venture would require a degree of transparency. Until now, Israel has refused to confirm or deny its nuclear capability.

Talks on NPT compliance, initiated by the United States and under United Nations auspices, are under way in New York.

Egypt is leading an effort to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone and, with Iran, wants to cite Israel in any such resolution.

The Western diplomats told JTA that the United States and its Western allies would quash any such mention.

Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman delivers mixed review of Obama’s Israel policy

“I know why you’re here, and I want to address it, but I think it’s a tempest in a teapot,” Brad Sherman, the Democratic Congressman from Sherman Oaks said Wednesday evening at a town hall at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. The meeting was called to focus on U.S.-Israel relations.

About 500 people, mostly middle-aged and senior citizen Jews, attended the discussion arranged by resident Rabbi Stewart Vogel, a self-proclaimed personal friend of the Jewish congressman.  In his introduction, the rabbi said, “Tonight is not a political endorsement. He is here to speak to the people.”

Those who came expecting Sherman to emphatically denounce the president’s recent behavior with regard to the building of apartments in East Jerusalem, or to warn of Obama’s ill will toward the Jewish State, were likely disappointed.  “It would be much better if we didn’t have this tiff,” Sherman said, stating nevertheless his belief in a unified Jewish Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and that the buildings were not “settlements.”

The congressman spent the first half hour of his talk focusing instead on Iran: “Hashem put the oil in all the wrong places. The real threat to America and Israel is the Iran nuclear program. I’ve served three presidents, and they all did a terrible job with this. I’ve been pushing for sanctions against Iran. This administration is proposing ‘smart sanctions,’ that are dumb sanctions,” Sherman said.

He warned the audience about the potential results of an Israeli strike against Iran. These included the death of many Israelis at the hands of Iran-backed Palestinians. “If Israel bombs Iran, gas prices will be $8 per gallon on Ventura Boulevard. If you think it’s hard to convince Gentiles why to be pro-Israel now…,” he added.

Vogel asked Sherman a series of questions submitted in writing by audience members. One asked why the President seems more interested in chastising Israel than the Palestinians, and why anyone should believe that Obama is on Israel’s side.

“It is regrettable that Israel is held to a much higher standard than appropriate,” Sherman responded.

He said the $2.8 billion America gives in aid annually to Israel is a reason to believe in the president.  “There is no stronger statement and the aid is not going to be reduced by any of this,” he assured the audience. When Vogel asked why the president has not visited Israel yet, the audience broke into applause. “I don’t know, he should,” Sherman said.

The question of whether more Jews will vote Republican in the next election received the loudest applause. Vogel asked for a show of hands of how many voted for Obama and how many against. The vote appeared to be split 50-50.

Sherman reminded the group that Israel is not the central issue on the minds of non-Jewish Americans.  “If we had a town hall in Lincoln, Neb., what Obama said to Netanyahu would not come up. You’ve got to remember, this is not the whole country. Omaha, Neb. Exists, and most of you don’t have relatives there,” Sherman said.

Toward the end of the evening, Vogel accused his friend of “skirting the issues.” Sherman responded that he was not doing so and encouraged repeat questions. At one point when asked about the future, Sherman turned toward the rabbi and said, “I think this is in your realm. I think we need divine intervention.”

ANALYSIS: Israel and NGOs Clash Over Gaza War Assessments

The fighting in Gaza ended months ago, but the fight over the war rages on between Israel and NGOs.

NGOs have been issuing reports accusing Israel of war crimes. In response, the Israeli army recently released a 163-page, 460-point account seeking to rebut such claims and discredit those making them.

At issue is the three-week Israeli invasion of Gaza starting in December 2008, launched in response to thousands of Palestinian rocket attacks against civilian targets in the south of Israel. Approximately 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, many of them militant fighters associated with Hamas, the Palestinian group in control of Gaza. But hundreds of Palestinian civilians are also believed to have been killed.

Thirteen Israelis were killed, including several civilians. Hamas rockets during the war reached as far as the Israeli cities of Yavneh, Beersheva and Kiryat Gat.

Some of the arguments between Israel and the NGOs revolve around alternating versions of the facts of the war, others address theories of the laws of war, and still others lunge with ferocity at the very legitimacy of one side or the other to even make an argument.

The stakes are high — as high as the threat of charges against Israeli officers and an effort by some Israeli officials to use the law as a weapon to limit international funding of human rights groups.

From the outset, the Israeli report cites an array of international law readings to show that Israel’s war was just. It also takes aim at what it describes as the tendency of some critics to rush to draw conclusions of national guilt from scattered evidence. “Often,” the Israeli report stated, “these leaps of logic bypass the most basic steps, such as identification of the specific legal obligation at issue and explanation of how it was violated.”

To buttress its case, the Israeli army paper cited a wealth of recommended practice from U.S., British and Dutch military manuals, as well as rulings concerning the NATO action against Yugoslavia in Kosovo in 1999; the goal was to establish that there is a legally tolerable threshold of civilian deaths, particularly in cases of urban warfare.

At times, the Israeli report devolves into petty sniping at critics. Meanwhile, in recent weeks, top Israeli officials have smeared critics with ancient guilt-by-association accusations.

It’s not much prettier on the human rights side: Reconstructions of the horrific death of civilians replete with painstakingly gathered evidence are coupled with bewildering omissions of context and blended into a package that assumes an inherent Israeli immorality.

The Israeli report repeatedly expressed frustration with efforts to turn criticism of individual officers and soldiers into a wholesale indictment of Israel’s military establishment and the decision to resort to military force.

It’s a pattern that is in evidence in three successive reports published by Human Rights Watch, perhaps the most prominent of the groups engaged by the government since the end of the war. One in March dealt with the use of white phosphorous; another in June dealt with high-precision missiles fired from pilotless drones; the most recent, earlier this month, deals with the killings of individuals bearing white flags.

Only the first report, on the use of phosphorous, chronicles what could be described as an alleged pattern of abuse.

The other two reports from Human Rights Watch focus on a relatively small number of cases: six instances of Israeli drones allegedly hitting civilian targets isolated from fighting and seven shootings resulting in 11 deaths. Still, even in those reports, Human Rights Watch uses language suggesting pervasive violations.

The Human Rights Watch reports fail to assess evidence — including videos of Israeli forces holding their fire because of the presence of civilians — that Israel has provided to show that such incidents were the exception to the rule; they fail to examine what measures Israel has taken to prevent civilian deaths, which would be pertinent in examining any claim of war crimes.

Israeli officials are also guilty of omissions. The army report cites tonnage of food and medical equipment allowed into Gaza during the operation for humanitarian relief; it does not, however, translate these raw figures into proportions and fails to address claims by an array of groups — including Human Rights Watch — that Israel used humanitarian relief as leverage, and the result has been malnutrition and want.

Similarly, in describing the lead up to the war, the Israeli army provides a persuasive, blow-by-blow account of the intensification of indiscriminate rocket fire that led it to launch its invasion; but it omits any mention of the three-year siege Israel has imposed on Gaza, or that Hamas rulers in Gaza used the siege as a pretext for the rocket fire. In one line, the Israeli report states that Gaza is free of occupation, but fails to note that Israel continues to control all but one point of entry into the area.

One of the more bizarre omissions in the Israeli army report is how it deals with the deaths of 42 police cadets in a missile strike in the first days of fighting. Human rights groups allege that the police were not a legitimate target; they were recruits, drawn from the massive ranks of Gaza’s unemployed, who were “at rest” at a graduation ceremony. Moreover, they were supposedly slated for non-combat civil defense roles.

The Israeli army report does not mention the strike at all, or the deaths. Instead, it spends five pages generally justifying attacks on police, and noting that in some cases terrorists have doubled as police — although groups, including B’Tselem, have suggested that in the matter of the cadets, this assertion was questionable at best. Two high-ranking Hamas security officials present at the ceremony were also slain in the attack, one of at least 30 strikes on police stations on Dec. 28, the second day of the war.

Israeli spokesmen also repeatedly question the reliability of the human rights reports, saying witnesses must be compromised by fear of Hamas retaliation. “Human Rights Watch is relying on testimony from people who are not free to speak out against the Hamas regime,” Mark Regev, the prime minister’s spokesman, told the BBC on Aug. 13. In fact, Human Rights Watch attempts to get witnesses alone, and corroborates their accounts with medical examinations and forensic evidence.

Israeli government spokesmen, moreover, do not account for the fear of retaliation — albeit of a less lethal kind, involving social ostracization — when they dismiss accounts of atrocities compiled from soldiers by groups such as Breaking the Silence.

Then there are the examples where facts simply diverge: Israel says it used white phosphorous as an obscurant when it faced Hamas anti-tank forces; human rights groups have alleged that the presence, in some cases, of armed forces was minimal and did not justify the use of the phosphorous, which upon skin contact may maim and kill. Israel says the number of civilians killed numbered in the low hundreds; human rights groups place it at closer to 1,000.

Some divergences have to do with the perspective of the claimant. The Israeli army report says warnings to civilians to leave an area were as precise as they could be without betraying tactics and putting soldiers in danger; Human Rights Watch says the warnings, while welcome, were often too generalized and even confusing.

Such differences might have been addressed by dialogue and an exchange of information that would observe limits aimed at preserving Israeli tactical secrecy. Israeli officers, for instance, have said that they have names to attach to fatalities that show that the vast majority were combatants; but they have not provided these to human rights groups.

Human rights groups have constantly pressed Israeli authorities to address specific claims, and have been brushed off. Yet the release of information that at least 13 incidents were under criminal investigation prior to the July 29 publication date of the military’s report might have gone some way toward refuting claims that Israel was cavalier about abuse allegations.

Instead, Israeli officials have devolved into name-calling, backed by an array of pro-Israel NGOs and lobbying groups that distribute — sometimes anonymously — “backgrounders” that attempt through sometimes-tenuous links to discredit the human rights groups. The foreign ministry recently distributed material implicating Human Rights Watch editor Joe Stork with disseminating radical, anti-Israel and pro-terrorist material in the 1970s; it was an odd volley from the office of a minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who says police investigations of criminal conduct and a youthful flirtation with the racist Kach movement should not bear on his current diplomacy.

More substantively, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is now seeking ways to legally cut off foreign government funding for Israeli human rights NGOs.

The human rights groups are not above using the law to make an exception of Israel; Human Rights Watch frequently calls for international investigations, saying that Israel has repeatedly failed “to conduct credible investigations into alleged violations of the laws of war.”

The problem with such calls is that Israel believes such international mechanisms cannot be trusted because they are wrapped into the United Nations — a worry Human Rights Watch admits is credible. Moreover, left unsaid is the failure generally among Western democracies to dig too deep when human rights abuses are at hand. The Obama administration reportedly is considering a strategy for prosecuting individuals who carried out torture, but not those who ordered it.

Israeli army spokesmen say it is fairer to note what Israel is doing to prevent the recurrence of abuses, citing as an example the introduction of the ultra-precise missiles.

Israelis catch U.S. election fever

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Just beyond the beer taps at a Tel Aviv bar with an American flag hanging out front, a makeshift polling station draws dozens of Americans in Israel casting their vote for the U.S. election, 6,000 miles away.

“This is more fun than voting in the Bronx,” said one voter, sealing his ballot in an envelope Sunday night at the Dancing Camel, the Tel Aviv bar where the Vote From Israel organization set up its absentee voting operation in the city.

Israelis — including the American citizens among them, as many as half of whom hail from swing states — have been closely following the election campaign across the ocean.

Hourly radio news bulletins routinely report the latest U.S. polls, Israeli media have dispatched reporters to cover the campaign trail and have been rebroadcasting Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonations on “Saturday Night Live.” Some Israelis have even gotten involved on the grassroots level. One group produced a YouTube video called Israelis for Obama that has been seen some by some 400,000 viewers.

All the while, Israelis have been following the disproportionate mention of their small country in the campaign with a mix of amusement and validation (in the vice presidential debate alone, Israel got 17 references).

The visits to Israel this summer by both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain lent further credence to the Israeli joke that Israel is America’s 51st state. During their visits, both candidates made the perfunctory pledges of support for Israel. The gestures may have been meant for Jewish voters back home, but they also put at ease Israelis not too familiar with either candidate.

Israelis “feel very much involved in this election and have deep opinions about it,” said Abraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist.

The author of a new book on the history of the U.S. presidency titled “The Presidents,” Diskin said he was surprised by the high level of demand in Israel for his new book, which includes chapters on Obama and McCain and features the two on its cover.

With the U.S. election just days away, poll results released this week by the Rabin Center for Israel Studies found that 46.4 percent of Israelis would vote for McCain and 34 percent for Obama, with 18.6 undecided. Nearly half of the 500 Israelis surveyed, or 48.6 percent, said McCain would be better for Israel; 31.5 percent said Obama would be better.

The results are very different from U.S. polls showing Obama in the lead, including among American Jews. They reflect the wariness some Israelis, including Americans living here, have about Obama’s untested relationship with Israel. With the growing threat of a nuclear Iran high on Israelis’ minds, some Israelis see McCain as the safer choice, due to his foreign policy record and experience and more hawkish line on national security.

Others support Obama’s message of change and are eager to see a U.S. president with a less unilateral approach to foreign affairs than President Bush and whose actions will boost America’s standing in the world, which is seen to benefit Israel. They also support the Democratic candidate’s positions on abortion rights, health care policy and the economy.

Among registered Democrats in Israel, Obama lost in the primaries to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). who beat Obama 54 to 45 percent. Clinton polled better in Israel than both Obama and McCain; her popularity here is thought to be due to her familiarity to Israelis and to the popularity of her husband in Israel.

With its large community of expatriate Americans — Israel is thought to have the fifth-largest U.S. expatriate community in the world, after Canada, Britain, Germany and Mexico — Israel is seeing its share of political activity around the U.S. election.

One New Jersey native now living in Israel, Noah Hertz-Bunzl, 22, founded a group called Americans in Israel for Obama, which coordinated efforts with the Obama campaign for two voter registration events. The group also has been calling Jews in swing states to convince them to vote Obama.

“The basic point we make is not to be scared off by Obama and to counter the misconception that Israelis are opposed to him,” Hertz-Bunzl said.

Kory Bardash, co-chairman of Republicans Abroad Israel, said that he expects most American voters in Israel to side with McCain, noting that in 2004 approximately 70 percent of Israel’s Americans voted for Bush.

“People who vote in Israel are typically either religious or people who care about Israel,” Bardash said. “It’s foreign policy and the economy that matter, and traditional liberal issues do not play so much of a role here.”

McCain’s support among Orthodox Jews is stronger than among liberal ones.

Elliott Nahmias, 37, originally from California, said he’s voting McCain in large part because of foreign policy considerations.

Jennifer Shapiro, 27, who grew up in New Jersey, said she’s become obsessed with the elections, even from the distance of Israel.

“I don’t do anything but read and watch news about the election,” she said.

Shapiro said she is supporting Obama because she favors his international outlook and his positions on domestic issues, including health care and the economy.

When it comes to Israel, she says the Jewish state will know how to take care of itself no matter who is president: “It will do what it needs to do to protect itself,” she said.

Twinning builds friendships between U.S. and Israeli youth

The first time Sarah Blau, 17, visited Israel, she felt like a tourist. But her second trip to the Jewish homeland in March 2007 was quite a different experience.

“My second time there I was like, wow, I have a family here,” said the Oakwood School student, who also attends Los Angeles Hebrew High School. “I want to join the Israeli army or there’s a three-year ulpan I can do after college. I know I have to do something, because I really do have a connection to it now.”

Blau’s life-changing journey was part of The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership’s school twinning program. The partnership, a 10-year-old program, matches Los Angeles and Tel Aviv schools to form a relationship between the two communities. American and Israeli students correspond via e-mail, online chats and video conferencing; share a joint curriculum, and participate in travel exchanges to meet one another and spend time in their mutual countries.

The goal is to maintain a strong bond between Jews in the United States and Israel. Currently, 18 Los Angeles schools participate in the program. Participating students, or “delegates,” range from fifth to 11th grade, depending on the school.

While Jewish day schools were among the first Los Angeles schools to participate, the twinning program recently expanded to include supplemental schools. The religious schools within Temple Judea of Tarzana, Temple Israel of Hollywood and Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay are among the new participants.

“We want to reach those kids who are not in the day schools and who are less connected to Israel,” said Ahuva Ron, The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles senior education director.

When Temple Judea’s religious school joined the twinning program three years ago with its Tel Aviv twin, Ironi Yud Daled, the shul community’s interest in Israel changed dramatically.

“Israel was a back-burner issue for a lot of our families,” said Rabbi Bruce Raff, the religious school’s education director, who travels with his students during the exchange. “Now there is tremendous enthusiasm about Israel that has become so pervasive in our religious school that children younger and younger can’t wait until I take them there.”

This communitywide passion has inspired the synagogue to organize other yearly trips to the Holy Land, including an adults-only trip and a family trip, not to mention the subsequent trips that former delegates often take with their families after their partnership experience.

While supplemental twinning programs are clearly transformational, they present a unique set of challenges. Since afternoon schools usually only meet once or twice a week, it takes more time for teachers to get through the curriculum.

“What we can accomplish in one week in day school, we need a month in afternoon schools,” Ron said.

At Los Angeles Hebrew High School, students must correspond with their Israeli counterparts in their free time because some of their classes are held at Pierce College, where they do not have access to computers for in-class chatting, video conferences or e-mail.

Because religious school students attend a variety of different public and private schools, conflicting vacation schedules can make travel schedules difficult. While Jewish day schools are very accommodating when their students travel to Israel for the partnership, other schools are not always as supportive.

“One of the challenges is that our kids are missing school, and they are missing schools that don’t sanction our trip,” said Raff from Temple Judea. “Many of the schools are not happy about the students leaving for an extended period of time.”

In addition to helping the delegates get permission from their schools, trips are sometimes planned over spring break so that students usually miss no more than one week of school. Consequently, this means that the trip takes place during the Israeli students’ school break. Because of these circumstances, these delegates spend only a day or so at their Israeli school.

Administrators at Temple Israel of Hollywood plan to assist their religious school students in gearing up for their April trip.

“We’ll be in close contact with the principals about what [the students are] set to gain from this experience and how their learning experience will outweigh what they’re missing,” said Eden Sage, the interim religious school director. “We’ll be working closely to make sure these kids have the support they need from their schools.”

While traveling to Israel makes history come to life for delegates, it is clearly the new lifelong friendships that solidify the students’ connection to Israel. For Ben Poretzky, a Temple Judea delegate from 2007, loving Israel is very much tied to his friendship with his former host, Lior Salter.

“Sitting in Lior’s basement playing Ping-Pong, noshing on chips and staying up until 4 a.m.” and playing early morning soccer with Lior are among the 16-year-old’s fondest memories. He is planning another trip to Israel either next summer or in college.

The students are not the only ones who benefit. When Bobbie Blau, an Encino parent, chaperoned her daughter, Sarah’s, partnership exchange, she developed strong friendships with the teachers she met at their twin school, Ironi Daled, with whom she remains close. In addition, Blau’s younger daughter, Emily, 15, hosted Israeli student last March and will travel to Israel in December to stay with her. The younger Blau, too, has begun to foster a lifelong friendship.

“They’re our friends now. It’s personal now,” Bobbie Blau said. “I don’t feel like I’m a tourist there either, now. My daughters have that feeling, and their children will have that feeling.”

Will new ‘Cold War’ play out in Middle East?

When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert goes to Moscow next month, his first order of business will be to make sure the Russians don’t sell sophisticated new weaponry to Syria that could alter the military status quo in the Middle East.

Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Russia to make a pitch for the arms, new anti-aircraft missiles and ground-to-ground rockets that would put all of the Jewish state within range of Damascus.

Though Russia rejected the request, the Russians apparently are prepared to sell Syria other anti-aircraft missiles, state-of-the-art anti-tank missiles and fighter planes.

In January 2005, Vladimir Putin — then Russia’s president and now its prime minister — promised Israel not to sell arms that might upset the strategic balance in the Middle East. So far, Putin has kept that promise.

But with talk of a new Cold War in the offing following Russia’s recent military successes in Georgia, Israel is worried Russia might reassess this policy and use the sale of new weaponry to Syria — or the threat of it — to strengthen Russia’s hand vis-à-vis Israel’s primary ally, the United States.

Some experts are concerned that the growing clash between Russian and U.S. interests will prompt Moscow to feel freer to sell its arms to countries outside the U.S. orbit that also happen to be hostile to Israel. The worst-case scenario, experts say, is that Russia would revert to its Soviet role as Middle East spoiler, fanning the flames of conflict and undermining peace efforts.

Most say, however, that Russia will always stop short of direct confrontation — and the Georgia episode hasn’t changed this approach.

“There is no way the Russians are going back to the Cold War or anything like it,” one Israeli official said on the condition of anonymity.

But Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who is now at Tel Aviv University, argues that Russia has emerged much stronger from its Georgia campaign and that this will have repercussions for the Middle East.

In Rabinovich’s view, U.S.-Russian cooperation on Iran is now far less likely, and Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria are much more likely.

Israeli analysts say the Russian military industry long has been pushing for unrestricted weapons sales, but Putin has been wary of selling weapons that could spark regional flare-ups and involve Russia in head-to-head conflict with the West.

In the past, Russia has refrained from selling strategic weapons like the Iskander-E ground-to-ground rocket or the S-300 anti-aircraft missile to Syria.

The Iskandar is far more accurate than the Scud rockets currently in the Syrian arsenal and could pinpoint any target in Israel from Haifa to Eilat. The S-300 has a range of 125 miles and can handle 36 targets at once. Deployed in Damascus, it could threaten aircraft deep inside Israeli airspace.

With Moscow emboldened after its dramatic success in Georgia, some Israeli analysts worry these weapons eventually could find their way to Damascus.

In the telephone conversation last week during which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev invited Olmert to Moscow, the Israeli prime minister bluntly conveyed the extent of Israel’s opposition to any such sale to the Syrians. It would be a pity for Assad to spend billions on arms Israel would be forced to destroy, Olmert reportedly warned Medvedev.

The Russian-Syrian connection goes back to the mid-1950s, when the Soviet Union turned the Arab-Israeli conflict into a proxy war with the United States.

In those days, the Soviets were perceived as a real threat to Israel’s existence and as an obstacle to peace. Syria became Moscow’s chief client state after Egypt expelled the Soviets in 1972 and made peace with Israel in 1979. This changed only in the late 1980s, when Syria no longer could afford to buy conventional weapons from Russia.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia pursued a more evenhanded policy in the Middle East. Although it continued to sell arms to Syria, it developed economic ties with Israel worth more than $2 billion a year — a volume of non-military trade that exceeds that between Russia and the entire Arab world.

Israeli officials do not expect this to change much in the wake of the Georgia campaign.

The key question is what the Russians do in Iran. The record so far is not encouraging.

Russia has done little to help stop the Iranian nuclear weapons drive. On the contrary, Russia has signed lucrative contracts to develop Iranian nuclear plants and oil fields; blocked U.N. Security Council proposals for stricter sanctions; built Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor; reportedly started supplying Iran with $4 billion worth of air defenses, including S-300 missile systems, to thwart a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities; and reportedly signed contracts worth about $20 billion to build 20 civilian nuclear power stations by 2020.

Israeli officials believe that Russia ultimately does not want to see Iran with a nuclear bomb — that would threaten Russian interests, too. Rather, Israel expects Russia to try to reap as much economic benefit as possible from its Iranian connections while stopping short of allowing Iran to acquire the bomb.

The question going forward will be whether the tension between Moscow and Washington heats up or cools down.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is hoping any potential Moscow problem can be defused with incentives from the West. During a visit to Washington in July, Barak proposed that the United States give up its planned missile defenses in Eastern Europe in return for a clear-cut Russian commitment on Iran.

The Americans, however, were not convinced.

Sunday wrapup from Beijing: U.S. swimmer Torres wins two silvers; Israelis lag

BEIJING (JTA)—United States’ swimmer Dara Torres won two more silver medals in Beijing.

Torres won the medals Sunday in the Women’s 50m Freestyle and the Women’s 4x100m Medley Relay.

Jewish-American swimmers Jason Lezak and Garret Weber-Gale both added another gold medal to their collection, joining Michael Phelps and teammates to win the Men’s 4 x 100m Medley Relay.

Israeli athletes did not fare as well Sunday. Alex Shatilov finished last in the Men’s Floor Exercise final, the only apparatus final the Israeli gymnast qualified for in the Beijing Games.

Shatilov fell on his final landing, and received a score of 14.125 after a .400 penalty. The gold medalist in the event was Zou Kai of China, with a total score of 16.050.

Shooter Doron Egozi finished 36th, while Gil Simkovitch finished 38th, in the Men’s 50m Rifle 3 Positions event. Shooters Guy Starik and Simkovich also competed Friday in the Men’s 50m Rifle Prone qualification round, but neither advanced to the final. Starik came in 12th with a score of 594, while Simkovich came in 22nd with 592 points. This finish was an improvement on Starik’s Athens finish of 16th. He joins sailor Yoel Selais as the only Israelis to compete in four Olympics.

Israeli windsurfer Shahar Zubari, who was leading in first place after five races, slipped to third place after his seventh race in the Men’s RS:X competition. Zubari finished 17th in race 5, sixth in race 6, and 19th in race 7. He was able to maintain a first place position after race 5 because he is allowed to drop his worst performance, but after continuing to perform outside of first place, he no longer retains his top rank.

Israeli windsurfer Maayan Davidovitch is 14th in the Women’s RS:X competition after seven races.

Israeli sailing duo Nike Kornecky and Vered Bouskila finished their eighth race in first place, and moved up to number three in the ranking of the Women’s 470 two-person dinghy event. With two more races until the top ten boats in the fleet qualify for the medal race on Monday, the Israeli pair looks solid for advancement.

New Presbyterian statement irks Jewish groups, sparks divestment fears

NEW YORK (JTA)—Just days before they are due to consider a range of motions on the Middle East at their biennial convention, the Presbyterian Church USA has released a document on combating anti-Jewish ideas. But Jewish organizational leaders say the statement is “infused with the very bias” it purports to condemn.

The document, “Vigilance Against anti-Jewish Bias In the Pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian Peace,” aims to help Presbyterians advance existing church policies opposing Israel’s occupation and the construction of the West Bank separation barrier, while avoiding anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish rhetoric.

“The purpose of this resource is to help Presbyterians guard against anti-Jewish bias, even as they make a strong stand for justice, and work in sustained ways for peace,” the document reads.

But to some Jewish ears, the document lays blame for the conflict squarely with Israel, avoids any substantive treatment of Arab support for terrorism, and is yet another church statement that appears to hold Israel responsible for the violence directed against it.

An unusually large coalition of 13 Jewish organizations—the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, and the major bodies of the Conservative and Reform movements among them—harshly denounced the document last week.

The document’s release has generated fear that years of Jewish-Presbyterian dialogue following pro-divestment votes in 2004 and 2006 have yielded little fruit.

A feeling of betrayal was evident in a separate protest from the leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogue associations, who wrote to the clerk of the Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Cliff Kirkpatrick, warning the document “marks a new low-point” in intercommunal relations.

In the letter, the leaders say the statement, which replaces an earlier one that was welcomed by the Jewish community, has generated “deep suspicion” that the Presbyterians are engaging in a “bait and switch.”

Presbyterian officials did not respond to requests for comment.

But Rev. Charles Henderson, editor of the interfaith publication Cross Currents and a member of Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish and Christian Relations, said the document’s authors were not being deceitful. Henderson shares the concerns of Jewish leaders, but thinks the church’s pro-Palestinian factions were responsible for amendments to the original document.

“I think it was simply the fact that Jay Rock and others who may have been involved in the production of the document in the first place didn’t realize the firestorm they may have been stepping into,” Henderson said. “I know the people who are involved as players and I don’t think it was a deceitful bait-and-switch process at all.”

Rev. Jay Rock is the church’s coordinator for interfaith relations.

“A paper that supposedly is dealing with removing anti-Jewish bias in fact becomes a paper on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you read it through, that’s really the major theme,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “And it presents that conflict in a terribly one-sided way. Ultimately, the anti-Semitism part seems in many cases like an afterthought.”

Particularly galling to Yoffie was a lengthy quotation lifted from a recent speech in which he urged Jews to avoid alliances with conservative Christian Zionists like Pastor John Hagee. In that speech, he asserted that they don’t have Israel’s true interests at heart. The Presbyterians cited Yoffie to support their opposition to Christian Zionists whose beliefs, the document says, “negatively affect” Israelis and Palestinians.

“What infuriates me here is they quoted that and embedded it in a doctrine that is so hostile to Israel,” Yoffie said. “I’m not uncomfortable on the substance of the matter.”

In 2004, the Presbyterians became the first Protestant church to endorse divestment from companies doing business in Israel. The vote prompted a flurry of Jewish outreach, leading the church to retreat partially in 2006 with its call for engagement with companies engaging in peaceful pursuits.

After working to help defeat several divestment motions at the recent general assembly of the Methodist Church, Jewish leaders were hopeful that the divestment push could be similarly quashed at the Presbyterian conclave, which begins June 21 in San Jose, Calif.

But the release of the new document has darkened the forecast. It updates an earlier statement on the same subject, released in May, that addressed more fully Christian complicity in anti-Semitism and the tendency of Palestinian liberation theology to displace Jews from the biblical story of the Exodus.

In the liberation narrative, Palestinians are also sometimes compared to Jesus on the cross, which implicitly brands Israelis as Christ-killers in an echo of classic anti-Semitic charges.

“It’s a return to 2004,” said Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “Divestment was always in the realm of symbolism. While there’s a calling to have their investments in peace that is understandable, there’s also a strategy that was unfolded at Durban to paint Israel as an apartheid state. We felt that was employed in 2004 and rejected in 2006.”

If the document does reignite the divestment push, it would appear to validate the claims made after the Methodist conference by Jewish Voice for Peace, a left-wing group based in San Francisco that stands virtually alone among Jewish organizations in supporting selective divestment as a means to pressure the Israeli government.

Jewish Voice for Peace saw the Methodist conference, which decided to keep divestment on the table even while rejecting several resolutions specifically targeting Israel, as a victory. The Jewish group also supports the new Presbyterian statement.

“To me, the question is not whether the statement was changed from A to B, but whether B is good,” wrote Sydney Levy, the group’s director of chapters and campaigns, in an email to JTA. “The answer is unequivocal: Yes. The current statement strikes a good balance between the two concerns of the church on this issue.”

2008: The contest for the Jews

With Hillary Rodham Clinton’s

Olmert in D.C.: Iran talk, not goodbyes

WASHINGTON (JTA)—Expressions of love, walks down memory lane, even the rain lashing the capital’s monuments.

The latest meeting between Ehud Olmert and George Bush played out like the end of a movie romance. Only the Israeli prime minister says he’s not going anywhere because there is work to be done, especially when it comes to facing down Iran.

“I came in with a number of questions regarding this complex issue and I came out with a lot fewer,” Olmert said of Iran’s suspected nuclear program after meeting last Wednesday with President Bush at the White House.

Bush is increasingly perceived as a lame duck, and Olmert is dogged by corruption investigations and calls from his governing coalition to step down. So it follows that much of the prime minister’s visit this week had a melancholy tone.

In his speech last week to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference, Olmert even said he had thought twice about whether to attend.

“Given the recent political developments in Israel, of which I am sure you are all aware, I hesitated as to whether it was the right time and the right thing to leave everything behind and meet with you today,” he said.

Before Olmert’s meeting with Bush, the two leaders traded fond memories, particularly of the president’s 60th anniversary visit last month to Israel.

“From a personal point of view, I can only say that I admire your friendship and your commitment, and your emotions as they were expressed in such a powerful manner in your visit to the State of Israel,” Olmert told Bush in the Oval Office as their gazes locked. “You are loved, you and Laura, very much. And part of my mission is to make you feel this way.”

An hour or so later, Olmert made his way across Lafayette Square through a thunderstorm to Blair House, where state visitors stay. He was all business, especially the business of keeping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

Olmert said he and Bush discussed “means, ways and a timetable” in getting Iran to end its suspected program.

“Each day that passes we take another step to deal with this effectively,” Olmert told reporters after the meeting. “The United States is not just a partner but the leading factor in these efforts.”

He would not provide specifics beyond his challenge in his AIPAC speech to the international community to end the sale of refined gasoline to Iran, which would sow unrest in an economy in which the product is heavily subsidized, as well as to ramp up banking sanctions. AIPAC is backing such efforts in Congress.

Asked particularly about reports that he is urging Americans to lead a blockade of Iranian ports, Olmert would say only that “it is important to tack action not just through the U.N. Security Council. Nations can also take steps.”

Bush and Olmert also discussed Israeli-Palestinian talks. Olmert would not offer an assessment of talks that have been famously leak-proof, saying it would be “impetuous” to declare a deal at this point. He sounded a cautious note about striking a deal before year’s end.

“I hope we can make the timetable we hoped for—hoped for, not committed to,” he said.

Olmert was hopeful as well that Egyptian-brokered efforts to arrive at a cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip would achieve results, but said Israel was ready to launch a major military operation if it did not.

Olmert and Bush also discussed recently renewed talks with Syria, which Bush administration officials have not heartily endorsed, believing Syria to be too entrenched in the Iranian sphere.

Those talks have yet to be fully embraced by the pro-Israel community. Olmert said he hoped that would change after his AIPAC speech and a closed meeting with the lobby’s leaders.

“I said things in that meeting that cannot be mistaken,” he said.

Olmert said he was impressed by all three presidential candidates, who spoke at the AIPAC forum, and their commitment to Israel and isolating Iran. He also said he focused in all his talks on campaigning for the release of three Israeli soldiers held captive by terrorists in Lebanon and Gaza.

Commenting on the prospects of his government while visiting Washington would be “inappropriate,” Olmert said, adding that he did not regret coming.

“The issues are so great,” he said, “it would have been a mistake to miss it.”

U.S., Iran are obstacles in new Israel-Syria talks

In their sixth major peacemaking effort since the unsuccessful 1991 Madrid peace conference, Israeli and Syrian negotiators face even tougher challenges than their failed predecessors.

All the old questions — borders, security arrangements, the nature of the peace, water, the timetable for implementation — are back on the table.

And two major obstacles have been added: the United States and Iran.

The United States, which would have to underwrite any agreement for Israel-Syria peace to be viable, for the first time is absent from the negotiating mix. Also, Syria’s ties with Iran, which would have to be downgraded significantly for Israel to sign an agreement, are much deeper than when the last Israel-Syria peace effort collapsed in March 2000.

Meanwhile, Israeli domestic opposition to a deal that entails withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights remains as strong as ever.

So why should the parties succeed this time when past negotiations with ostensibly better opening conditions failed?

Obviously, given the obstacles, success is not guaranteed. But if there is a chance, it is because both sides now know exactly what the other’s needs are and can rely on the work done in previous rounds on the core issues.

Furthermore, because the geopolitical stakes are now much higher, each side has more to gain from a peace deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insists he gave the Syrians nothing to get them to agree to reopen the dialogue. That was one of Israel’s great achievements in the current process, he told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee Monday.

But both the Turkish mediators and the Syrians suggest the prime minister reaffirmed the so-called Rabin “pocket,” or “deposit.” That was a promise that if Israel’s needs on security and the nature of peaceful ties are met, the Jewish state will withdraw to the pre-Six-Day War borders of June 4, 1967 — in other words, hand back the entire Golan Heights.

The border issue in fact was the main focus of the recent indirect Turkish-mediated talks between Israeli and Syrian representatives in Ankara. The Syrians described those exchanges as very encouraging and said they laid the basis for substantial progress.

But even if Olmert has reaffirmed the Rabin “pocket,” that does not mean the border issue has been settled — far from it.

One problem is it’s not clear where the 1967 border was, because no such line was ever demarcated. After the 1949 armistice that ended the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, which itself was based on an earlier 1923 border between Syria and Palestine, the Syrians persistently encroached on no-man’s land, moving the border by their physical presence closer to Lake Kinneret.

In the last round of negotiations, in Shepherdstown, W. Va., and Geneva in January 2000 and March of that year, the Israelis suggested drawing a line to reflect where the Syrian armed forces were situated on June 4, 1967. The Syrians claimed that at some points they were just 33 feet from the water; Israel insisted on a line at least 1,300 feet from the lake.

The Israelis wanted to make clear that they had full sovereignty over the Kinneret, Israel’s main source of water. Ultimately the talks collapsed over these differences, as Syria’s then-president, Hafez Assad, insisted in Geneva that the Kinneret was at least half-Syrian.

The late Assad raised this claim out of the blue to scuttle a process in which he was no longer interested. It is unlikely that his son Bashar, the current Syrian leader, will repeat that tactic.

More likely, the parties will set up a joint border demarcation team, as they had planned to do at Shepherdstown. Indeed, the parties in West Virginia seemed very close to a deal on all the core issues.

On security, the outstanding difference was over an Israeli presence in a monitoring station on Mount Hermon. On normalization, the Israelis wanted ambassadors exchanged in the middle of the process, whereas the Syrians wanted it only at the end. On timetables, the Israelis wanted three years for implementation; the Syrians no more than 18 months.

It all seemed doable until Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister at the time, got cold feet. After a poll showing strong public opposition to returning the Golan, Barak slowed things down to give the impression that he was not giving away major assets easily. The Syrians felt he was backtracking and the talks collapsed.

Although Olmert and Bashar Assad seem ready to pick up the pieces, they find themselves facing very different regional realities.

Whereas Barak merely wanted Syrian help in establishing parallel peace talks with Lebanon, Olmert is insisting that Syria sever its ties with Iran. The Syrians reject this condition, even if the United States steps in to make good on any material and diplomatic losses Damascus might incur.

“Our ties with Iran are strategic and historic and can’t be sold in a bazaar,” Syria Information Minister Mohsen Bilal declared Sunday.

Israeli experts are divided over whether Syria is ready for a major reorientation — dropping ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — and in the context of a peace deal with Israel, coming over to the moderate pro-Western camp.

“Syria is ready to pay a huge price for its radical ideology and will never detach itself from Iran — certainly not now that the radicals seem to be getting stronger,” said Dan Shueftan, the head of Haifa University’s National Security Studies Center.

Shueftan says the Syrians simply are using Israel to ease international pressure on Damascus.

But Syria expert Moshe Maoz of Hebrew University argues that Assad sees two clear policy options, American and Iranian. He says Assad can be won over if the Americans offer a package that’s attractive enough.

The Americans, however, are not enthusiastic.

President Bush does not trust Assad nor, according to Israeli officials, does he believe there is much chance of the Syrian leader breaking with Iran.

Chipping Away at Israel Support Endangers U.S.

I spent a fair amount of time in Israel in the late 1990s, traveling throughout the country. One of my many impressions of that nation was that there was a pervasive
desire by Israelis for a lasting, mutually beneficial peace with hostile neighbors.

At the time of my visit, I was a recovering ultraleftist who was open and generally sympathetic to the issues of Palestinians. But what is seared in my mind is the experience of sitting with a young woman during a lunchtime visit to a kibbutz near the Syrian border. On her lap sat her 3-year-old son and an automatic rifle was casually slung over her shoulder.

After a bit of polite chitchat, I asked her, “How are you going to be able to guarantee your son’s future with that weapon?”

She said guns could never do that. “Only a true and lasting peace with our neighbors can insure my child’s future” the woman told me.

I was thinking about that young Israeli as I watched rockets slam into Israel’s cities over the past few weeks.

Israel is getting lots of bad press these days. Easily influenced reporters from the BBC to CNN have made the argument — in one way or another — that this tiny Jewish state responded “disproportionately” to attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah — raids that killed Israeli soldiers and kidnapped others.

Parroting Hezbollah spokesmen, Israel’s Western opponents tell us that Israel has targeted civilians and United Nations personnel intentionally. This charge mimics the age-old anti-Semitic slur of Jewish blood lust, since those making this charge are hard pressed to explain how indiscriminately killing Arab civilians would serve Israel’s interests.

War is always a nasty affair — in this case complicated by terrorist operations that intentionally launch missiles from crowded urban neighborhoods, where innocent Lebanese civilians live. In other words, Iran-sponsored Hezbollah fighters cynically know that their actions will draw an immediate and deadly response, a reply that may mean death for innocent Lebanese civilians near the launch site. The resultant photos of death and destruction provide an all-important public relations advantage among willing Western media sources, as well as for the Al Jazeera network.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz points out that in various wars with enemy forces, Israel has killed far fewer civilians in proportion to the number of its own civilians than any country engaged in a comparable war. Yet, Israel is cited by the merlot-sipping set as the prime example of human rights violations.

Arguments of this kind are made with vigor and conviction in places like France and in the capitals of other European Union countries, where anti-Semitism is rampant, but are made, as well, by many here at home. It is part of a larger and disturbing pattern.

In a recent open letter, Noam Chomsky, the high priest of America’s crypto-Marxists, argues that Israel is at fault for the current warfare and that the kidnapping of Israeli military personnel should not have been the cause of a war of this intensity (the overreaction argument) since Israel supposedly holds “approximately 10,000 [Palestinians] in Israeli jails.” According to this view, all Palestinians held in Israeli jails, whatever the number, are innocent victims of the Jewish state — therefore judged by Chomsky and his ilk to be “political prisoners.”

On the heels of this, top human rights officials at the United Nations have said that Israel’s bombing in Lebanon “might constitute war crimes,” while generally avoiding comment on the indiscriminate shelling of cities in northern Israel by Hezbollah rocket fire — intended only to kill and maim Jewish civilians.

Some argue that the views of America’s hard left are marginal, and others see the United Nations as the emperor with no clothes. However, there is an undeniable influence here that cannot be disregarded. Chomsky — along with Marx, Shakespeare and the Bible — is one of the 10 most-quoted sources in the humanities, and despite ongoing scandals, the United Nations remains to be considered by many Americans to be a voice for peace.

The United Nation’s unsavory role in places like the Congo, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Iraq remains unknown by many, although evidence from these places tells us that the United Nations may well be the world’s prime example of corruption, conciliation of dictatorships and moral timidity.

Giving new meaning to the word chutzpah, the United Nations has singled out the State of Israel for human rights condemnations more than any other nation in the world. This is more than a bit odd — since the world includes nations such as North Korea, Sudan and Cuba, among a host of others that ignore the concept of human rights.

Since 2000 in the United States, there has been an active and organized campaign by the radical left to promote divestment of city government, university, church and other investment portfolios from Israel and the companies that do business with that nation. The idea is to punish Israel for its policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — claimed to be oppressive and racist. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been embroiled in its own internally controversial plan since 2004 to “divest from Israel” — all the while declaring uncritical “solidarity with Palestinian liberation.”

And if all of this were not enough to test one’s patience, the Southern California chapter of the ACLU has decided to honor Salam Al-Marayati with its Religious Freedom Award at the group’s upcoming garden party.

Just this past week, Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, condemned the president for referring to “Islamo-fascism”; previously he had admonished journalists to “cease the use of Islamic terminology to explain this very clear political narrative” (referring to terrorist acts). He recently opined in the Los Angeles times that Hezbollah “is not just an army” and should be understood as a “massive political party and social welfare network.”

Terrorism with a smile? For this brand of “tolerant” thinking he gets a religious freedom award.

Obviously, it is not just leftists and Muslim or Arab American advocacy groups that blame Jews for almost everything. Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, Iraq’s parliament speaker, recently accused Jews of financing acts of violence in Iraq.
He said, “These acts [random killing and kidnappings] are not the work of Iraqis. I am sure that he who does this is a Jew and the son of a Jew.”

This kind of high-level bigotry raises questions about the future of Iraqi democracy and should — if Sept. 11 didn’t adequately do that — raise our antenna to the deadly serious nature of the international struggle against radical Islamism. The warfare in the Mideast reverberates close to home.

Is this simply Israel’s war to win or lose?

As William Kristol has pointed out, “Better to say that what’s under attack is liberal democratic civilization, whose leading representative right now happens to be the United States.” Israel can’t afford to lose this conflict, nor can we. Here at home, those who chip away at American’s resolve to support Israel are chipping away at our own freedoms.

Joe R. Hicks is a social critic, the vice president of Community Advocate. Inc. and a talk radio host in Los Angeles.