Disappointing Chief Rabbinate vote has activists eyeing alternatives


In a city with a seemingly infinite number of kosher restaurants, Jerusalem restaurateurs have a tough time obtaining certification from the country’s Chief Rabbinate.

Proprietors of the city’s eateries have long complained of exorbitant fines, strict limits on what food they may buy and lax certification supervisors. But they had no choice: the rabbinate’s certification and an even stricter version are the only ones allowed by Israeli law.

So last year, a coalition of 20 Jerusalem restaurants began defying the law, declaring themselves kosher by virtue of public trust rather than a certificate from the rabbinate.

“Kosher certification was always communal, and then it became something institutional,” said Rabbi Uri Ayalon, CEO of the Jerusalemite Movement, which advocates for religious pluralism and helped bring the restaurants together. “It’s absurd that you can open a kosher restaurant and aren’t allowed to use the word kosher.”

The restaurant initiative is one of several that have sought to push back against the rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish life in Israel. Faced with an institution they see as forcing an extreme reading of Jewish tradition on an unwilling populace, the groups have chosen to sidestep it altogether, providing alternative services to those of Israel’s entrenched religious establishment.

The imperative to circumvent the rabbinic bureaucracy has grown especially strong in the wake of last week’s Chief Rabbinate election, which saw the defeat of a popular reformist candidate and the victory of two sons of former chief rabbis, both haredi Orthodox.

The reformist, David Stav of the liberal Orthodox rabbinic group Tzohar, lost in the race for Ashkenazi chief rabbi to David Lau, the son of Yisrael Meir Lau, who held the post from 1993 to 2003. Yitzhak Yosef followed in the footsteps of his father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in winning the Sephardic chief rabbi post.

“Tzohar tried to fix the rabbinate from inside, to take control of it and fix it,” said Shmuel Shetach, the CEO of Ne’emanei Torah V’avoda, a Modern Orthodox group that supports rabbinate reform. “Even if Rabbi Stav was chosen, the system is too problematic. It’s not appropriate for modern times.”

Until now, there have been two major approaches to addressing the rabbinate’s problems: reform and abolition. Orthodox groups generally have opted for the former, arguing that the rabbinate must be maintained as an anchor of Jewish unity. Liberal Jewish groups tend to see the rabbinate as a bastion of haredi Orthodox domination that must be eliminated.

Both approaches have failed.

Stav lost despite an aggressive campaign with backing from key political figures. Calls for the rabbinate’s elimination have gotten even less traction due to the political clout of the haredi political parties and Israel’s reluctance to change the status quo.

Sidestepping measures offer a third way. Some activists are hoping to break the rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification. Others want to widen options for Jewish marriage and conversion. Still others hope to help Jewish women seeing a ritual divorce.

“The Israeli public wanted a connection to Judaism, and it got a slap in the face from the dealmakers who said ‘you don’t interest us,’ ” Stav said of his defeat. “But Judaism is stronger than the dealmakers.”

A precedent for the workaround strategies exists in the unlikeliest of places — the haredi community. Despite dominating the rabbinate, the community has its own privately administered kosher certification standard and runs its own network of private religious courts.

Liberal activists believe that if the haredi community can do it, so can they.

The Israeli Conservative movement has launched a modest kosher supervision program for wineries that adheres to Conservative Jewish law, which allows non-Jews to work without restrictions during the winemaking process. The program currently supervises two wineries and is in talks with another three.

It “offers an alternative where people know there is not discrimination against those who aren’t Jewish,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, the director of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

Activists also have started to look outside the rabbinate to help women who cannot remarry because their husbands are missing or refuse to give them a religious writ of divorce, or get.

Batya Kehana-Dror, the head of a group that advocates for these women, hopes the new chief rabbis will find Jewish legal solutions for these so-called chained women, or agunot. But if they don’t, Kehana-Dror plans to convene a private religious court of three rabbis who have proven themselves willing to be more creative with Jewish law.

“If the [chief rabbis] make a move toward finding a solution for agunot, it could be great news,” Kehana-Dror said. “When they don’t give us a solution, we’ll go to a private organization.”

Critics of the Chief Rabbinate achieved a groundbreaking victory last year when Israel’s Supreme Court mandated for the first time that non-Orthodox rabbis in rural communities receive state salaries should they meet certain criteria.

This year, the ruling was extended to Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israeli cities. The rabbis should begin receiving state paychecks later this year.

Shetach of the Modern Orthodox group Ne’emanei Torah V’avoda hopes to extend the precedent of those court decisions to all of Israel’s religious services, which in his vision would operate like the country’s medical system: The government would fund several overarching religious communities, and citizens could choose the one that best suits them, just as they choose among several publicly funded health care networks.

The plan would gradually limit the rabbinate’s powers rather than abolish the body — a goal Shetach sees as more realistic than fighting it head-on.

“Even among the Orthodox there’s an understanding emerging that the struggle against reform is superfluous,” Shetach told JTA. “There’s reform of budgeting for rabbis anyway, so we say to the Orthodox, ‘What will [fighting] bring you?’ ”

Senate clears way for vote on Pentagon nominee Chuck Hagel


The Senate cleared the way on Tuesday for the likely confirmation of Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense.

The Senate voted 71-27 to end debate and move forward, almost two weeks after Republicans launched a filibuster to block Hagel's nomination. It was the first time such a procedural tactic had been used to delay consideration of a nominee for secretary of defense.

More than 15 Republicans joined with Democrats to open the way for a vote by the full Senate, now scheduled for 4:30 p.m. EST.

The vote virtually guarantees Hagel's approval: The entire Democratic caucus — 55 out of 100 senators — is committed to his confirmation, and only a simple majority is required to confirm the nomination.

A number of centrist Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, had expressed concerns about past Hagel comments, particularly his claim in 2006 that a “Jewish lobby” “intimidates” Congress, as well as his skepticism of sanctions and military moves that would keep Iran from advancing its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after the vote to end debate that a vote to confirm Hagel could come as soon as Tuesday afternoon.

Some have also raised questions about whether Hagel is sufficiently supportive of Israel or tough enough on Iran.

CALL TO PANETTA

Some of Hagel's most vehement opponents made a last-ditch appeal on the Senate floor for his nomination to be stopped before the vote on Tuesday. They argued that Hagel would be weakened in running the defense department because he will not be confirmed with strong bipartisan support.

James Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had even called Leon Panetta, the retiring secretary of defense, and asked him to remain at the Pentagon.

Panetta, 74, who has made no secret of his desire to retire to his home in California, declined.

Faulting a range of Hagel's past statements on Iran, Israel and other matters, Inhofe also pledged to work for the quick confirmation of another potential nominee if Hagel were withdrawn.

“We have a lot of them out there who would be confirmed in a matter of minutes,” he added, naming Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy defense secretary, as more acceptable alternatives.

But Democrats blasted Republicans for the delay, when the country is at war and facing a budget crisis, and pushed for the vote to go ahead.

“Politically motivated delays send a terrible signal to our allies and to the world. And they send a terrible signal to tens of thousands of Americans serving in Afghanistan. For the sake of national security, it's time to set aside this partisanship,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing By David Storey, David Brunnstrom and Cynthia Osterman

Final Israeli vote: Jewish Home gains a seat to give right wing a majority


The Jewish Home party gained one seat in the final results of Israeli voting, pushing the right-wing bloc to a majority in the 19th Knesset.

Israel's Central Elections Committee released the final tally on Thursday for the elections held two days earlier after counting 217,000 ballots collected at remote polling stations. Among others, the votes were cast by soldiers, hospital patients and government employees working overseas.

With the additional votes, Jewish Home finished with 12 seats, giving the right wing 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

Also, the United Arab List-Ta'al party lost a seat and now has four, and Kadima crossed the required 2 percent threshold to gain two seats.

There were no other changes to the number of seats garnered by other parties. The Likud-Beiteinu list, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had 31 seats to finish first, as expected. The new center-left party Yesh Atid was a surprising second at 19.

Other parties entering the parliament are Labor with 15 seats; Shas with 11 seats; United Torah Judaism with seven seats; Hatnua and Meretz, each with 6 seats; Hadash with four seats; and Balad with three seats.

Two-thirds, or 3.77 million, of Israel's 5,656,705 eligible voters turned out, according to the elections committee. The number of voters was the highest since 1999, though turnout was down significantly among Arab voters.

The elections committee must submit the results to President Shimon Peres by Jan. 30. Peres then will ask party leaders who they would recommend to form the next government before choosing the one most likely to be able to form a successful coalition government — it is expected to be Netanyahu. The chosen party leader has up to 42 days to present his government for a vote of confidence.

Voters to Netanyahu: Get new friends


These were the most interesting-boring elections one could ever hope for. Boring – as the top job was secured early on by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Fascinating – as the parties, unburdened of having to compete for the top job, were free to combat one another for votes. And, obviously, Israelis paid attention: an intensive, almost hysterical campaign to convince them to go to the polls – preceeded by recent declines in voting turnout and a growing worry that Israelis no longer care as much as they once did – clearly succeeded. Or maybe the hysteria was unnecessary to begin with; maybe the worry was unfounded. Israelis turned out in large numbers to vote in this election; we don’t know why, but we know that they did.

They sent Netanyahu a message, one that he must understand: We – the voters – know that you are the only possible PM for the time being. No other candidate of the needed stature was available for us. We are not sure if you’re really the best candidate to be found, but right now you are the only game in town. However the rules of the game need to be changed. Netanyahu can be Prime Minister, but he can’t be the PM of the right-religious coalition. He can’t be the PM of harsh rhetoric; he can’t be the PM of wild legislation; he can’t be the PM of Haredi power; he can’t be the PM based on a coalition of which he is the most leftist member.

[For more on the Israeli elections, visit Rosner's Domain]

As this article is being written on election night, final results are not yet available. But even if the right-religious bloc can retain a majority large enough to form a coalition of 61, or 62, or even 63 mandates – even if Netanyahu can barely survive based on the traditional “base” of supporters – that isn’t the outcome he was hoping for. It isn’t a vote of affirmation. Netanyahu is lucky to have been the only PM-caliber candidate in the race, and he is lucky to have Yesh Atid – Yair Lapid’s party – as the big surprise of this election. Yesh Atid, unlike other parties on the center and the left, is a partner Netanyahu can live with.

It is a partner that is even comfortable for him. Netanyahu wanted a moderate coalition and now he has an excuse with which to convince his partners to his right that there really is no other choice. He can tell the leaders of Shas that a compromise on the Haredi draft is what the majority of voters forced upon him. He can tell Habait Hayehudi – the right-Zionist-religious party – that with all due respect to the settlements and to building in E1, the voters didn’t give him a mandate to rule from the right. So while the outcome of the elections is hardly an achievement for Netanyahu – it is hardly a compliment for the ruling coalition – the PM can make it work for him.

Most voters should consider this good news, because most voters want Israel to have a centrist policy. Centrist – not leftist. Those supporting the left voted for Meretz — and to the left of Meretz. The left benefited in this cycle from Netanyahu’s inevitable projected victory. When there’s no one to challenge Netanyahu, left-wing voters are not left with the quandary of comprising for a Livni, or an Olmert, in the hope that Netanyahu can be toppled. They can vote their conscience – and they did. The growth of Meretz, a party with dedicated clean-handed and energetic parliamentarians, is good news. Don’t take it from me: Uri Ariel, the settler-supporting right-wing number-two of the Jewish Home Party offered gentlemanly congratulations to Meretz on election night when he was interviewed live on his party’s achievements.

Other voters who didn’t want Netanyahu to remain in office voted for the Labor Party, and for Shelly Yacimovitz. Supporters of Lapid – which appears to have gained close to 20 mandates (not final) – want Netanyahu, but a different version of him. A Haredi-less Netanyahu; a Settler-less Netanyahu.

So the Prime Minister has a choice: If he wants to regain his footing and stay in power — and maybe convince more Israelis that he is the right man for the job and not just the no-alternative default man until someone better comes along –  he’ll have to reconsider his “base.” This isn’t going to be easy for him – Netanyahu has relied on his current base for many years and was planning to hold it together for years to come. The result is that this current cycle may present Netanyahu with a short-term vs. long-term dilemma: If he holds onto his longtime base, he won’t quite be able to form a stable coalition in 2013. But if he dumps the base, he could pay a high price for it in 2014, 2015, 2016. 

In the short term, coalition talks are going to be fascinating and tough. Netanyahu is going to pay a price, and his old partners are going to pay a price if they want to have a viable coalition. Some of them might decide to sit this one out – Shas is a candidate for such a possibility. And the new coalition will be made up of many, many fresh faces – possibly 50 new Knesset members.

This is a parliamentary tsunami — and a headache for the managers of the coming coalition. It is a recipe for instability. It is a recipe for contention and rough relations. The 2013 coalition is going to be fun to watch and easy to dismantle. And it will not last as long as the more coherent – but unacceptable – outgoing coalition.

Analysis: The consequences of Israel’s vote


A few observations about the Israeli election results:

Right-left split changes, but not much: From an outsider’s perspective, Israel would seem to a very politically unstable place. The biggest party in the previous Knesset, Kadima, crashed from 28 seats to a grand total of zero. The No. 3 party, Yisrael Beiteinu, hitched its wagon to the ruling party, Likud, but their combined list lost about a quarter of its seats, down to 31 from 42. Meanwhile, a party that didn’t exist until a few months ago, Yesh Atid, emerged as the 120-seat Knesset’s second-biggest party, with 18 or 19 seats, according to exit polls.

Yet despite the swapping of party labels, not too much changed in the right-left split. The right wing appears to have lost a little ground — from 65 seats in the last Knesset to 62 seats in the new one. The center and left gained some adherents, but remains a minority with fewer than 50 seats (the balance goes to the Arab parties).

New priorities: With Israelis deeply pessimistic about the chances for imminent peace, a significant number of voters went for parties that made socioeconomic issues, not security, the centerpiece of their campaigns. Yesh Atid ran a campaign about social and economic issues, and Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, who led the party to 17 seats, up from eight in the last Knesset, virtually ignored security issues in her campaign. This is a sea change from the old days, when campaigns were all about security. Tzipi Livni's Hatnua bucked that trend, emphasizing peace with the Palestinians. The result: 6 seats.

New faces: The 19th Knesset will see a plethora of new members, with more than a quarter of the Knesset occupied by first-timers, most of them from Jewish Home and Yesh Atid. Jewish Home is led by a son of American immigrants to Israel, businessman-turned-politician Naftali Bennett, and Yesh Atid is headed by former TV personality Yair Lapid (also son of the late politician Tommy Lapid).

Women: The new Knesset will see the number of women rise, with the biggest representation from Yesh Atid, eight of whose new representatives are women. The Likud-Beiteinu list has seven, Labor has four, and Jewish Home and Meretz each have three. Hatnua and Hadash each have one. Among the new women in the Knesset will be the body’s first Ethiopian-Israeli woman, Penina Tamnu-Shata of Yesh Atid, an attorney who immigrated to Israel at age 3 during Operation Moses.

The end of Kadima: Twice in its short history, the Kadima party leader occupied the prime minister’s office. But in just one election cycle, the party went from Israel’s largest faction all the way down to zero: Kadima failed to win a single seat in the 19th Knesset. The party was doomed by a variety of factors: The rise of Yesh Atid, whose socioeconomic-focused platform and charismatic leader peeled away centrist voters; Livni’s failure to gain adherents for Kadima and subsequent defection to her new party, Hatnua; and Shaul Mofaz’s decision to join, albeit briefly, the Likud-led ruling coalition. It’s not the end of centrist politics in Israel, but it is the end of the road for the party started by Ariel Sharon as a breakaway from Likud.

Bibi’s reign: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters used to herald him as Bibi, King of Israel. So did Time magazine just a few months ago. But with the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list falling by a quarter after what was widely panned as a lackluster campaign, it’s difficult to make the case that Netanyahu’s star is burning brighter. He’s almost sure to capture the premiership again (now comes the horse trading that is Israeli coalition building), but it seems it will be more for lack of an alternative than enthusiasm for Netanyahu.

Hello, Naftali Bennett: If there was any enthusiasm on the right wing this time around, it appeared to be for Naftali Bennett, leader of the newly constituted Jewish Home party (itself a successor to the National Religious Party). The party captured 12 seats, up from just three (as the NRP) in the last Knesset. Bennett, who supports annexation of parts of the West Bank, is likely to apply pressure on Netanyahu to shift farther right on security issues.

Netanyahu claims election win despite party losses


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged the bruised winner of Israel's election on Tuesday, claiming victory despite unexpected losses to resurgent center-left challengers.

Exit polls showed the Israeli leader's Likud party, yoked with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, would still be the biggest bloc in the 120-member assembly with 31 seats, 11 fewer than the 42 they held in the previous parliament.

If the exit polls compiled by three local broadcasters prove correct – and they normally do in Israel – Netanyahu would be on course for a third term in office, perhaps leading a hardline coalition that would promote Jewish settlement on occupied land.

But his weakened showing in an election he himself called earlier than necessary could complicate the struggle to forge an alliance with a stable majority in parliament.

The 63-year-old Israeli leader promised during his election campaign to focus on tackling Iran's nuclear ambitions if he won, shunting Palestinian peacemaking well down the agenda despite Western concern to keep the quest for a solution alive.

The projections showed right-wing parties with a combined strength of 61-62 seats against 58-59 for the center-left.

“According to the exit poll results, it is clear that Israel's citizens have decided that they want me to continue in the job of prime minister of Israel and to form as broad a government as possible,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.

The centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, led by former television talk show host Yair Lapid, came second with 18 or 19 seats, exit polls showed – a stunning result for a newcomer to politics in a field of 32 contending parties.

Lapid won support amongst middle-class, secular voters by promising to resolve a growing housing shortage, abolish military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students and seek an overhaul of the failing education system.

The once dominant Labour party led by Shelly Yachimovich was projected to take third place with 17 seats.

“YESH ATID SWEEP”

The mood was subdued at Netanyahu's Likud party election headquarters after the polls closed, with only a few hundred supporters in a venue that could house thousands.

“We anticipated we would lose some votes to Lapid, but not to this extent. This was a Yesh Atid sweep,” Likud campaign adviser Ronen Moshe told Reuters.

A prominent Likud lawmaker, Danny Danon, told CNN: “We will reach out to everybody who is willing to join our government, mainly the center party of Yair Lapid.”

If the prime minister can tempt Lapid to join a coalition, the ultra-Orthodox religious parties who often hold the balance of power in parliament might lose some of their leverage.

After a lackluster campaign, Israelis voted in droves on a sunny winter day, registering a turnout of 66.6 percent, the highest since 1999 when Netanyahu, serving his first term as premier, was defeated by then-Labour Party leader Ehud Barak.

The strong turnout buoyed center-left parties which had pinned their hopes on energizing an army of undecided voters against Netanyahu and his nationalist-religious allies.

Opinion polls before the election had predicted an easy win for Netanyahu, although the last ones suggested he would lose some votes to the Jewish Home party, which opposes a Palestinian state and advocates annexing chunks of the occupied West Bank.

The exit polls projected 12 seats for Jewish Home.

Full election results are due by Wednesday morning and official ones will be announced on January 30. After that, President Shimon Peres is likely to ask Netanyahu, as leader of the biggest bloc in parliament, to try to form a government.

The former commando has traditionally looked to religious, conservative parties for backing and is widely expected to seek out self-made millionaire Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party and stole much of the limelight during the campaign.

But Netanyahu might, as Danon suggested, try to include more moderate parties to assuage Western concerns about Israel's increasingly hardline approach to the Palestinians.

WESTERN ANXIETY

British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Israel on Tuesday it was losing international support, saying prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were almost dead because of expanding Jewish settlements.

U.S.-brokered peace talks broke down in 2010 amid mutual acrimony. Since then Israel has accelerated construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – land the Palestinians want for their future state – much to the anger of Western partners.

Netanyahu's relations with U.S. President Barack Obama have been notably tense and Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told the BBC the election was unlikely to change that.

“President Obama doesn't have high expectations that there's going to be a government in Israel committed to making peace and is capable of the kind of very difficult and painful concessions that would be needed to achieve a two-state solution,” he said.

Tuesday's vote is the first in Israel since Arab uprisings swept the region two years ago, reshaping the Middle East.

Netanyahu has said the turbulence, which has brought Islamist governments to power in several countries long ruled by secularist autocrats, including neighboring Egypt, shows the importance of strengthening national security.

He views Iran's nuclear program as a mortal threat to the Jewish state and has vowed not to let Tehran enrich enough uranium to make a single nuclear bomb – a threshold Israeli experts say could arrive as early as mid-2013.

Iran denies it is planning to build the bomb, and says Israel, widely believed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, is the biggest threat to the region.

The issue barely registered during the election campaign, with a poll in Haaretz newspaper on Friday saying 47 percent of Israelis thought social and economic issues were the most pressing concern, against just 10 percent who cited Iran.

One of the first problems to face the next government, which is unlikely to take power before the middle of next month at the earliest, is the stuttering economy.

Data last week showed the budget deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, double the original estimate, meaning spending cuts and tax hikes look certain.

Reporting by Jerusalem bureau; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu take 31 seats; Yesh Atid comes in second


Initial Israeli exit polls show the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket won the highest vote total while the new center-left Yesh Atid unexpectedly came in second.

Polls released just after polls closed at 10 p.m. on Jan. 22 reported that the Likud-Beiteinu won 31 seats, down from the 42 the two parties currently hold.

Yesh Atid, led by former television personality Yair Lapid, is projected in exit polls to receive 19 seats.

Channel 1 projected that right-wing parties collectively garnered 62 seats in total, compared to 58 for the left-wing parties.

The channel also projected 17 seats for the Labor party led by Shelly Yachimovich, 12 seats for the Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett, and 11 for the Sephardi Orthodox party Shas.

Hatnuah, led by Tzipi Livni, and Meretz, led by Zahava Gal-On, both received 7 seats.

The Arab-Israeli Balad party and the controversial Strong Israel party are each projected to receive two seats in the Channel 1 poll, though other polls projected they would not reach the two percent threshold.

Some 85 percent of the ballots are expected to be counted in the coming hours, with the remaining tallied and announced on the morning of Jan. 23.

Peres using Facebook to urge young people to vote


Israeli President Shimon Peres released a Facebook application to encourage young Israelis to vote.

Peres on Sunday unveiled a video and Facebook application called “Bocher Mavi Chaver,” or “Voter Brings a Friend.”

He collaborated with the popular actor Eyal Kitzis in calling for every Israeli to invite four friends to go to the polls. The invitation can be sent from Peres' Facebook page.

Yaron Shilon, director of the popular Israeli satire show “Eretz Nehederet” (“Wonderful Country”), and Sari Alfi, scriptwriter for the comedy show “Mazav HaUma” (“State of the Nation”) produced the video.

“I call upon every young person with the right to vote for the first time, don't miss the opportunity,” Peres said when unveiling the project at his official residence in Jerusalem. “When you vote, you respect not only your country but also yourselves as citizens. Voting is a civic duty of the utmost importance; the result will personally impact each and every one of us personally and form our collective future.”

Internet users will be able to ensure that their friends have voted by seeing who has “Checked In” on Facebook when they arrive at the ballot box.

Israel’s U.N. blunder


It’s never a good thing to look like a loser. That applies to countries as well as people. Consider Israel, a winning country on so many fronts: It’s on the cutting edge of high tech, turns deserts into farmlands, wins awards at film festivals and boasts one of the liveliest, most open societies in the world.

And yet, on the international stage, it’s very much a loser.

Just look at what happened last week at the United Nations. Israel got creamed by the Palestinians 138 to 9, when more than two-thirds of the world body’s 193 member states approved the resolution upgrading the Palestinians to a nonmember observer state.

It’s tempting to dismiss the vote as yet another show of anti-Israel bias at the U.N., or to diminish the Palestinian victory by saying that “it hurts the peace process,” “it’s counterproductive,” and so on.

But those are lame responses. The Palestinian goal was never to help the peace process. It was to isolate Israel on the international stage and continue undermining it. And on that, they won big.

The Palestinians don’t negotiate. They attack.

Extremists like Hamas attack Israeli homes with missiles, hoping Israel will retaliate and cause civilian casualties that will result in diplomatic disasters like the Goldstone Report.

“Moderates” in the Palestinian Authority attack Israel with verbal missiles, demonizing and libeling Jews as foreign intruders with no connection to Jerusalem. Their repeated rejection of peace offers (including one offer of a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of Gaza) and continued promotion of Jew-hatred in their society have exposed their bad faith and made Israelis wary of making further concessions — a wariness that is then used to paint Israelis as intransigent.

Instead of sitting down to negotiate, these so-called Palestinian “moderates” go behind Israel’s back to international bodies already hostile to Israel in the hope of further isolating the Jewish state.

And guess what? They’re winning.

Israel may shoot down many missiles with the Iron Dome, but on the international stage, it has allowed diplomatic missiles to wreak havoc on Israel’s reputation and legitimacy.

Could Israel have done anything differently to mitigate last week’s humiliating defeat?

Yes, but first, it would have had to think differently.

The problem with Israeli diplomacy, as I see it, is that it’s too rational and predictable. In the treacherous snake pit of Middle East and U.N. politics, there are moments when you must be sly and nimble.

Last week was one of those moments.

Listen to Israel’s U.N. address against the resolution, given by the esteemed Ambassador Ron Prosor. The speech was powerful yet totally predictable, which is why the media and everyone else ignored it.

Now imagine if Israel, knowing it would lose big in the vote, had turned the tables on the Palestinians and said something like this:

“This Palestinian resolution, even though we don’t support it, includes a great victory for Israel. For years, we have been saying that the so-called Palestinian ‘right of return’ is a deal breaker. There is simply no way that Israel will ever allow 5 million Palestinians to return to Israel proper. Today, by reaffirming that a future Palestinian state will follow the general contours of the West Bank and Gaza, the world community is making it absolutely clear that millions of refugees will not return to Israel. We welcome this clarification, which is long overdue and is an important step forward.”

Like I said, sly and nimble.

This diplomatic ambush would have changed the subject from a Palestinian victory to a Palestinian defeat. Instead of talking about international recognition of a Palestinian state, we would have talked about international repudiation of a Palestinian demand—their “sacred” right of return.

The Palestinians would have been thrown for a loop. They know they’re vulnerable with this idea of five million refugees returning to Israel—which hardly anyone supports outside of Palestinians. The striking maneuver would have grabbed worldwide headlines and put the Palestinians squarely on the defensive.

That would have made them feel right at home, because they do it all the time: Attack Israel and put it on the defensive. In response, Israel typically treats them like harmless children while spewing out empty statements like “we want peace.”

Palestinian “moderates” like Mahmoud Abbas are not harmless children who want peace. They’re clever grown-ups who want to undermine and isolate the Jewish state any way they can. Their verbal missiles are no less dangerous than Hamas’s real missiles.

Until Israel learns how to fight on the diplomatic front as well as it does on the military one, we can expect more humiliating defeats, more international isolation, and zero incentive for the Palestinians to ever want to talk peace.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Fighting over every percentile: Arguing about the Jewish vote and exit polls


President Obama’s Jewish numbers are down, but by how much and why?

Get ready for four more years of tussling between the Jewish community’s Republicans and Democrats about the meaning of Obama’s dip from 78 percent Jewish support cited in 2008 exit polls to 69 percent this year in the national exit polls run by a media consortium.

Is it a result of Obama’s fractious relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Or is it a natural fall-off in an election that was closer across the board than it was four years ago? Does it reflect a significant shift in Jewish voting patterns toward the Republicans?

A separate national exit poll released Wednesday by Jim Gerstein, a pollster affiliated with the dovish Israel policy group J Street, had similar numbers: 70 percent of respondents said they voted for Obama, while 30 percent — the same figure as in the media consortium's Jewish sample — said they voted for Mitt Romney.

Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the $6.5 million his group spent and the $1.5 million an affiliated political action committee spent wooing Jewish voters was “well worth it.”

“We’ve increased our share of the Jewish vote by almost 50 percent,” he said, noting that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 Republican nominee, got 22 percent in that year’s exit polls to Romney’s 30 percent this year.

Brooks said that his group’s hard-hitting ads, which attacked Obam on his handling of both Israel and the economy, helped move the needle. “There’s no question we got significant return on our investment,” he said.

Democrats insisted that the needle didn’t wiggle so much, saying the more reliable 2008 number for Obama's shae of the Jewish vote was 74 percent, a figure that is based on a subsequent review of data by The Solomon Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“Right now 69 or 70 is the best number we have for this cycle, and 74 percent is the best number we have for four years ago,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a consultant to Jewish and Democratic groups, including the NJDC. “You can intentionally use a number you know has been corrected just for the purposes of comparison, or you can use the data.”

The 2008 numbers, like this year’s, are based on the 2 percent of respondents identifying as Jewish in the major exit poll run by a consortium of news agencies — altogether, between 400-500 Jews, out of a total of over 25,000 respondents. The Solomon Project review, by examining a range of exit polls taken in different states as well as the national consortium, used data garnered from close to a thousand Jewish voters, a number that reduces the margin of error from about 6 points to 3 points.

Whether the 2008 percentage was 74 or 78 — or some other number entirely given the margins of errror — both Republicans and Democrats agreed that Obama’s share of the Jewish vote had declined. Rabinowitz conceded that the Republican expenditure, which dwarfed spending on the Democratic side, might have had an impact.

“What yichus is there in the possibility of having picked up a handful of Jewish votes having spent so many millions of dollars?” Rabinowitz asked, using the Yiddish word connoting status.

Gerstein said his findings suggested that the Republican blitz of Jewish communities in swing states like Ohio and Florida had little effect; separate polls he ran in those states showed virtually the same results as his national poll of Jewish voters. Gerstein’s national poll of 800 Jewish voters has a margin of error of 3.5 percent; his separate polls of Jewish voters in Ohio and Florida canvassed 600 in each state, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

He also noted that there were similar drop-offs in Obama’s overall take — from 53 percent of the popular vote in 2008 to 49 percent this year — as well as among an array of sub groups, including whites, independents, Catholics, those with no religion, those under 30. The only uptick for the president in the media consortium’s exit polls was seen among Hispanic voters, likely turned off by Romney’s tough line on illegal immigration.

“You see a lot of things that are tracking between the Jewish constituency and other constituencies when you look at the shift in Obama’s vote between 2008 and now, “ he said.

The NJDC president, David Harris, attributed what shift there was to the economy.

“American Jews are first and foremost Americans, and like all Americans it’s a difficult time for them,” he said. “The Democratic vote performance has decreased somewhat.”

Gerstein said that the mistake Republicans continued to make was to presume that Israel was an issue that could move the Jewish vote.

“They’ve got to do something very different if they’re going to appeal to Jews,” he said. “The hard-line hawkish appeal to Israel isn’t working.”

He cited an ad run in September in Florida by an anti-Obama group called Secure America Now that featured footage from a press conference in which Netanyahu excoriated those who he said had failed to set red lines for Iran, which was seen as a jab at Obama. Gerstein said that of the 45 percent of his Florida respondents who saw the ad, 56 percent said they were not moved by it, 27 percent said it made them more determined to vote for Obama and only 16 percent said i made them more determined to vote for Romney.

Israel did not feature high among priorities in Gerstein’s polling, a finding that conformed with polling done over the years by the American Jewish Committee. Asked their top issue in voting, 53 percent of Gerstein’s respondents in his national poll cited the economy and 32 percent health care. Israel tied for third with abortion and terrorism at 10 percent.

Gerstein’s national poll showed Obama getting strong overall approval ratings of 67 percent of his respondents, with strong showings on domestic issues like entitlements — where he scored 65 percent — and majority approval of his handling of relations with Israel (53 percent) and the Iranian nuclear issue (58 percent.).

But the RJC's Brooks said he was confident Republicans would continue to accrue gains, saying that with the exception of Obama’s strong showing in 2008, his party has steadily increased its proportion of the Jewish vote since George H. W. Bush got 11 percent in 1992.

“Our investment is not in the outcome of a single election,” he said. “It’s ultimately about broadening the base of the Republican Party in the Jewish community.”

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


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

The University

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

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

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

The Fringe of American politics

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

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

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

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

Apathy

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

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

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

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

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

Iran and the Economy

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

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

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

Israeli Delegitimization

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

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

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

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

For Obama campaign, trying to put to rest persistent questions about ‘kishkes’


The moment in the final presidential debate when President Obama described his visit to Israel’s national Holocaust museum and to the rocket-battered town of Sderot seemed to be aimed right for the kishkes.

The “kishkes question” — the persistent query about how Obama really feels about Israel in his gut — drives some of the president’s Jewish supporters a little crazy.

Alan Solow, a longtime Obama fundraiser and the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said at a training session at the Democratic convention that he “hated” the kishkes question. It “reflects a double standard which our community should be ashamed of. There hasn’t been one other president who has been subject to the kishkes test,” Solow told the gathering of Jewish Democrats.

But it’s a question that has dogged the president nevertheless, fueled by tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama’s Jewish campaign has tried to put these questions to rest by emphasizing his record on Israel, with a special focus on strengthened security ties. In July, the Obama campaign released an eight-minute video that includes footage of Israeli leaders — including Netanyahu — speaking about the president’s support for the Jewish state.

The Obama campaign also has worked to highlight the domestic issues on which Jewish voters overwhelmingly agree with the president’s liberal positions: health care reform, church-state issues, gay marriage and abortion.

Republicans, meanwhile, have made Obama’s approach to Israel a relentless theme of their own Jewish campaign. Billboards on Florida highways read “Obama, Oy Vey!” and direct passersby to a website run by the Republican Jewish Coalition featuring former Obama supporters expressing disappointment with the president’s record on Israel and the economy.

Polls show large majorities of Jewish voters — ranging between 65 and 70 percent in polling before the debates — support the president’s reelection. A September survey from the American Jewish Committee found strong majorities of Jewish voters expressing approval of the president’s performance on every single issue about which they were asked. The survey also found that only very small numbers said Israel or Iran were among their top priorities.

But Republicans are not hoping to win a majority of the Jewish vote. They're looking to capture a larger slice of this historically Democratic constituency, which gave between 74 percent and 78 percent of its vote to Obama in 2008. According to the AJC survey, the president was weakest with Jews on U.S.-Israel relations and Iran policy, with sizable minorities of nearly 39 percent expressing disapproval of his handling of each of these two issues, with almost as many saying they disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy.

Critics of the president’s Middle East record have pointed to Obama’s difficult relationship with Netanyahu. Top Jewish aides to Obama say that differences between the president and Netanyahu were inevitable.

“The conversations between them, they are in the kind of frank detailed manner that close friends share,” said Jack Lew, Obama’s chief of staff. Lew spoke to JTA from Florida, where he was campaigning in a personal capacity for the president’s reelection. “It should surprise no one that there have been some political disagreements. The prime minister, even on the Israeli political spectrum, is center right; the president, on the American spectrum, is center left. But you could not have a closer working relationship.”

Indeed, the relationship between the two men was beset by mutual suspicions before either even took office. In February 2008, at a meeting with Cleveland Jewish leaders, then-candidate Obama said that being pro-Israel did not have to mean having an “unwavering pro-Likud” stance.

Dennis Ross, who had served as Obama’s top Middle East adviser, said the president was able to set aside whatever philosophical concerns he had about Netanyahu and his Likud Party. “Once it became clear who he was going to be dealing with, you work on the basis of you deal with whichever leader was there,” said Ross, who is now a senior counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Republicans have zeroed in on remarks Obama made at a July 2009 meeting with Jewish leaders. After one of the attendees encouraged Obama to avoid public disagreements with Israel and keep to a policy of “no daylight” between the two countries, the president reportedly responded that such an approach had not yielded progress toward peace in the past.

In their debates, Romney has picked up on this issue in his criticisms of Obama, accusing the president of saying “he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.”

The Republican nominees’ supporters amplified the criticism. Romney “will stand with Israel – not behind her, but beside her – with no ‘daylight’ in between,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement after the final presidential debate.

Yet Obama’s performance in that debate — in which he repeatedly cited Israel’s concerns about developments in the region, from Syria to Iran, and took what was perhaps his toughest line to date on Iran’s nuclear program — drew accolades from his Jewish supporters.

“He made me very proud last night for many reasons, but especially for his unequivocal, rock solid declarations of support for Israel,” Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who has become one of the campaign’s top Jewish surrogates, told JTA the next day, speaking from South Florida, where he was campaigning for the president.

At one point in the debate, Romney had criticized Obama for not having visited Israel as president. Obama pivoted, contrasting his own visit to Israel as a candidate in 2008 to Romney’s visit in July, which included a fundraiser with major GOP donors.

“And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the — the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” Obama said.

“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas,” he continued. “And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. So that's how I've used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.” (Romney, The Times of Israel reported, has also been to Yad Vashem and Sderot on past trips to Israel.)

The Obama camp apparently saw in the president’s answer an effective response to questions about the president’s kishkes. It was quickly excerpted for a video that was posted online by the Obama campaign.

Solow said that based on his campaigning, he doesn't see Jewish voters generally buying into the “kishkes” anxiety expressed in the past by some Jewish community leaders.

“I'd like to think our community is more sophisticated than that, and if we're not, we should be,” Solow said. The president “has a longstanding relationship with and interest in the Jewish community, and he takes pride in that.”

Down to the wire, Romney resurrects moderate posture that attracted Jewish support


Mitt Romney’s record as a moderate Republican governor would seem to have made him ideally suited to peel off Jewish votes from President Obama. The problem is that he spent much of the past half decade running from that past.

Now, however, as the campaign draws to a close, Romney is ditching his “severely conservative” primary persona, as he famously described himself, and trying to remind voters about the centrist Republican who once governed Massachusetts. Given his recent rise in the polls, the strategy appears to be paying off.

In addition to enhancing the Republican nominee’s appeal to undecided and swing voters, the shift also could help Romney with a subset of Jewish voters disillusioned with Obama over the economy and the Middle East but who do not necessarily subscribe to conservative positions on domestic and social issues.

While Democrats continue to portray Romney as beholden to the right, his Jewish surrogates have embraced his move to the middle and argue that, if elected, Romney will govern more from the center than his critics suggest.

“It's no different for any politician of any stripe or ilk,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman and former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council who is a leading Romney fundraiser. “You look at anybody running, you look at President Obama, he tacks left when he’s campaigning.”

On social issues, Romney's emphasis during the primaries was on the narrative that led him, as governor, to evolve from a supporter of abortion rights to an opponent. But since getting the nomination, he has looked to highlight his differences with more ardent abortion foes, saying in an October interview that abortion legislation is not part of his agenda. On health policy, Romney’s pledge to repeal “Obamacare” now includes a promise to work to preserve aspects of the health care reform that are popular, such as requiring insurance companies to cover people with preexisting conditions.

On Middle East policy — an area seen by his supporters as one of his major selling points to Jewish voters — Romney has also softened some of his tough talk of late. In the candidates’ foreign policy debate, Romney accompanied his longstanding criticism of Obama’s policies on Iran with a reassurace that he would exhaust all options before considering a direct military confrontation.

Romney’s expression of pessimism at a May fundraiser about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace — an appearance that was secretly recorded and included his now infamous remark about foregoing trying to win over the 47 percent of Americans dependent on government — has been followed by promises to pursue a two-state solution. Speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney vowed to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.”

Romney’s nods toward the middle have not stopped Democrats from trying to paint him and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), as bearers of a ultra-conservative agenda, with critics lashing the Republican ticket’s positions on Medicare, tax policy and social issues.

“‘Severely conservative’ Romney has pledged to be a ‘pro-life president,’ and when he's tried to give some semblance of moderation, his staunchest anti-choice supporters jump in to knock down any notion that he is anything but solidly in their camp,” David Harris, the National Jewish Democratic Council’s president, wrote recently in the Washington Jewish Week.

Some Jewish supporters, however, counter that Romney’s stance on abortion is not the paramount issue that his critics make it out to be.

“They continue to miss opportunities by harping on the issue of abortion,” Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director, said in an interview during the Republican convention. “This is something they have been trying to scare people with for decades, and yet access to abortion in this country continues despite having incredibly conservative presidents and a conservative court.”

The RJC has focused much of its effort to woo Jewish voters on Middle East policy, although it also has emphasized the struggling economy. On Israel, Romney has tried to distinguish himself from the president by arguing that he would have a closer and more harmonious relationship with Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election contest Jan. 22.

“I will make clear that America’s commitment to Israel’s security and survival as a Jewish state is absolute, and will demonstrate that commitment to the world by making Jerusalem the destination of my first foreign trip,” Romney wrote in reply to an American Jewish Committee questionnaire. “Unlike President Obama, I understand that distancing the U.S. from Israel doesn't earn us credibility in the Arab world or bring peace closer.”

Romney’s Israel stance was prominently displayed at the Republican convention with a video highlighting the nominee’s July trip to Israel. He has also promised that as president he would not allow disagreements with Israel to be aired in public.

Many of Romney's advisers on both foreign and domestic policy are Jewish. They include Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and co-author of “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle,” who has risen to prominence as one of the campaign’s most visible foreign policy voices; Eliot Cohen, an international relations scholar and former State Department counselor; Michael Chertoff, President George W. Bush’s second Homeland Security secretary; Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller who has a reputation as a foreign policy realist; and Tevi Troy, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who also served as Jewish liaison for the George W. Bush’s White House.

By the time he made his second run for president, Romney already had built good relationships with Jewish Republicans from his first term as governor and his first presidential run. Romney’s record of moderation made him a natural fit with the party’s Jews, Zeidman said.

“A lot of people in Boston and on Wall Street knew him and respected him,” Zeidman said of the period in 2005-2006 when Romney started exploring his first presidential run. “But he had yet to be in a position where he addressed the Jewish community at large. Now we know what kind of problem solver he is, we know his integrity, his ability to get things done and that as Jews we never have to be concerned about his commitment to the security of the State of Israel.”

Ann Romney has said that she and her husband, as Mormons, feel a kinship with Jews. “Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage,” she told the RJC last year. When he was starting his business career in consulting, Romney reportedly would joke with Jewish colleagues about being fellow outsiders.

For his first job after graduating from Harvard Business School, Romney joined Boston Consulting Group, where he first met a young Benjamin Netanyahu who was employed there at the time. Today, Romney speaks of his strong bond with the Israeli prime minister.

Romney often repeats to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences his favorite Netanyahu story, in which the Israeli leader describes an Israeli soldier in basic training who is told to run a course with an overweight soldier on his shoulder. The punch line: “Government is the guy on your shoulders.”

Netanyahu-Barak spat stokes early Israel vote talk


Friction between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak over relations with the United States fuelled talk on Wednesday of an early Israeli election.

Ministers said the quarrel, Barak's resistance to Defense cuts in coalition budget talks and his dovish comments on peace efforts with the Palestinians were signs of a fraying alliance with Netanyahu and a national ballot as early as February.

“It looks like the disputes herald an election,” Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Army Radio.

Allies in the governing coalition and commando comrades decades ago in the Israeli military, the two leaders have largely presented a united front when it comes to dealing with what they see as an Iranian drive to obtain a nuclear bomb.

But now that Netanyahu has hinted heavily in a U.N. speech last week that an Israeli strike against Iran is not imminent, the infighting between the right-wing Likud leader and Barak, head of the small centrist Atzmaut party, has begun in earnest.

In a report on Tuesday, Israel's Channel 2 television quoted Netanyahu as telling his finance minister: “Do you know what Barak has done on diplomatic matters? He went to the United States to stir up the argument between us and (President Barack) Obama and come across as a moderate savior.”

At the centre of the controversy is a visit Barak paid last month to the United States – he has travelled there frequently to meet Defense officials as the crisis with Iran intensified.

On that trip, Barak made a rare detour to Chicago and met privately on September 20 with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former close aide to Obama. News of the meeting was leaked to Israeli media.

Their talks raised speculation in Israel that Barak was trying to ease strains between the prime minister and the Democratic president and assure Obama that Netanyahu would not do anything that could be construed as support for his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

DOVISH POSITIONS

Likud cabinet minister Yisrael Katz accused Barak of undermining Netanyahu by espousing his own positions, which on Israeli-Palestinian peace have been more dovish than the prime minister's, in his meetings in the United States.

Katz, interviewed on Israel Radio, would not provide more details. Netanyahu's office declined to comment on the prime minister's reported criticism of Barak.

Accentuating differences with Netanyahu, Barak last month called for a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank if peace efforts with the Palestinians remained stalled.

Barak's proposal was widely seen as a bid to stake out new political ground before a possible election, which Netanyahu could opt to call in an attempt to build new alliances rather than battle with his current coalition partners over the budget.

Barak has resisted Treasury calls to rein in Defense spending and impose other austerity measures. Other parties in the coalition have also balked at cuts in spending that could affect core constituencies.

Katz predicted that if agreement on a budget was out of reach “the elections will take place in the beginning of the year”, saying mid-February would be a logical date. By law a ballot must be held no later than about year from now.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has forecast an election in January or February, citing budget disagreements.

An opinion poll in the Haaretz daily last week predicted Netanyahu's Likud party would win the most votes in a new election, capturing 27 seats in the 120-member parliament – the number it currently holds – and be well placed to put together a governing coalition.

Hitting back at Likud criticism, Barak's office said in a statement that he acted during his U.S. visit in line with government policy and had aimed to “reduce tensions and bolster American support for Israel's security and positions”.

In an apparent swipe at Netanyahu, who warmly hosted Romney during a visit to Israel in July, a source close to Barak said U.S. backing must not be jeopardized by “actions portraying Israel as involved with a particular side in American politics”.

Netanyahu has denied playing favorites in the presidential race.

Earlier this month, he dramatically ramped up pressure on Obama when he said the United States did not have a “moral right” to hold Israel back from taking action against Iran because Washington had not set its own limits on Tehran.

Obama's aides were angered that Netanyahu was trying to put pressure on the president in the midst of the U.S. election campaign, despite the risk to Obama of alienating pro-Israel voters in battleground states like Florida and Ohio.

Editing by Jon Boyle

Netanyahu: ‘It’s not about elections in America, but centrifuges in Iran’


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dedicates much of his time to thinking about how to handle the Iranian nuclear issue, considering it a rapidly approaching existential threat. Not surprisingly, it was also the main topic of a wide-ranging interview he gave with Israel Hayom before Rosh Hashanah. Here is what the Israeli leader had to say:

IH: What did you say, and what did you hear, in your recent conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama?

Benjamin Netanyahu: “It was a good conversation that revolved around significant issues and our desire to prevent Iran from progressing any further with their military nuclear program. It is natural to have disagreements. Israel is closer [to Iran] and more vulnerable. The U.S. is big, far away, and less vulnerable. Naturally we have diverging views on certain things. In the face of a threat like Iran’s nuclear armament, I believe that it is important that the international community set a clear red line. Iran has taken obvious steps in recent years and months toward developing nuclear weapons capability.”

Do you believe Obama when he says, “We will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons”?

“I’m certain that he means what he says, just as the Europeans mean it when they say it and the same way we mean it when we say it. But the question is how to achieve this in a practical fashion—that is what we discussed. This is the main issue affecting our future. Naturally, a prime minister should be looking out for Israel’s essential interests. I do so in conversations with world leaders and in public remarks.”

It appears as though you are currently in conflict with Obama. Is Israel in conflict with the U.S.?

“It is not a conflict. It is a question of emphasis on Israel’s interests, and that is the responsibility of the prime minister of Israel. I have been saying these things for 16 years.

“At first I was almost the only one warning against this danger, and then others joined me. I called for sanctions on Iran and I was nearly alone in that call, but then others joined me. I was the first one to demand red lines, and maybe I am alone at this time, but I believe that others will soon join me.

“A prime minister’s and a leader's duty is to insist on the things that are essential to Israel's security, even when it is not easy, and even when there is criticism, and even when there is no immediate agreement on everything.

“If, over the last 16 years, I had listened to the advice of all those people who told me that this or that is ‘unacceptable’ or that ‘now is not the right time’ or ‘wait until the circumstances shift in your favor,’ I don’t know if we would have made it this far. I was able to contribute to the establishment of a global coalition against Iran. We are encumbering Iran’s economy, but we have not yet reached the main objective: stopping Iran's nuclear program. And Iran is getting ever closer to achieving its own objective. That is why I am saying things in the most responsible, thought-out, measured way possible—to our American friends as well—that we have a common goal: stopping the Iranians.”

When you make remarks to the Americans in such a blunt way, doesn’t it cause damage?

“I’m not saying things in a blunt way, but in an honest way, just the facts. I can make nice and word things delicately, but our existence is at stake. This is our future. We’re talking about a historic junction that has profound meaning. These are not just words and I am not exaggerating. That is what I have done, and that is what I will continue to do.”

The U.S. is in the midst of an election year. There are allegations that you are intervening and impacting the elections.

“That is complete nonsense. The only thing guiding me is not the U.S. elections but the centrifuges in Iran. It is not my fault that the centrifuges aren’t more considerate of the Americans’ political timetable. If the Iranians were to hit the ‘pause’ button and stop enriching uranium and building a bomb until the end of the elections in the U.S.—then I could wait.

“But they are not waiting. They are progressing. The things that I am saying have to do with events in Iran, not events in the U.S. The desire to stop Iran is common to all Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike. There is no distinction in the desire to stop this thing. It is my duty as the prime minister of Israel, when I see Iran’s nuclear program barreling forward, to say the things that I think are necessary to ensure the future of the State of Israel. It has nothing to do with American politics.”

What needs to happen for Israel to shift from talk to action?

“I don’t think that there is any point in going into that.”

How long before Iran reaches the zone of immunity?

“Every day that goes by brings Iran closer to its goal.”

Is there a disagreement with the U.S. over that assessment?

“I don’t think that there are big gaps in our assessments of the point at which Iran will complete its preparations. The question is when action needs to be taken, not so much in terms of the date, but more in terms of the process: when Iran will reach a point beyond which it will be extremely difficult to stop. Obviously our answer to that question is different from that of the U.S. because there is a difference in our capabilities. But time is running out for the U.S. too.”

Is Israel facing Iran alone?

“I am doing everything in my power to turn everyone against Iran. We are safeguarding our ability to act on our own in the face of any threat to our security and our future. The entire world is besieging Iran, financially speaking, and we should encourage that.

“A large part of the world has enlisted to the cause and answered our call. There is an international framework to press Iran, but we still can't say that, despite all the real difficulties imposed on Iran’s economy, it is stopping Iranian aspirations. I see both sides of the equation, but I’m not satisfied with just one.”

Is Israel prepared for an attack on the homefront?

“We are living in the missile age, which we entered during the Gulf War. There has been a decades-long gap in preparedness. An entire generation has gone by without proper homefront preparations. I take this issue very seriously, and I hold meetings on homefront preparedness every other week. I am personally involved in the matter. In the same way that I was personally involved in building the fence in Sinai [along the Israeli-Egyptian border], which has stopped infiltrators, thus, here, we are also working methodically.

“We can’t protect every point in Israel, but we can protect most of it. One of the things that has made me very happy is the fact that the Iron Dome [missile interceptor system] has become operational. It was a decision I made during my term, and the results have been good.”

“But it is important to remember this: You can protect from missiles in one way or another, but there is one thing there is no protection from: the atom bomb. The only thing that can protect us is preventing it from becoming a reality in the hands of the enemy. And, of course, we have to clarify to anyone who ever considers attacking Israel with weapons of mass destruction that he does so at his own peril.”

It looks as though housing prices in Israel have begun climbing again, despite various government measures. Will there be additional measures to bring housing prices down?

“According to the data I have, housing prices have risen by 1.8 percent since the beginning of the year. That is far less than in previous years. Prices are too high, in my opinion, and we are working to increase the supply of apartments. The current supply stands at 80,000 units. That is why the sharp price hike has leveled out. But we want more. Opening up the main routes on the highways will help. What was once considered to be in the periphery will no longer be in the periphery. Using the freeway you can get [to central Israel] in a short time and you can afford a house with a yard. You have to leave Gush Dan [central Israel] and then you can see the revolution. Even inside Gush Dan you can see the revolution.”

You have been blamed for the collapsing communications market: for involvement, or inaction, in saving Channel 10 and the collapse of the Maariv newspaper.

“Funny that no such allegations were made when industrial plants were forced to close down. I don't think that we, as a government, can or should intervene in the communications market. If we do we will be accused of the opposite—people will say that we are controlling the media by providing assistance to this or that media outlet. There is a real problem in the market. It is simply too small to support the number of media outlets that exist. I hope that all the channels and newspapers find a way to survive, but the government can't do everything.”

When should we expect Israeli general elections?

“Sometime in 2013.”

Read the full interview with Prime Minister Netanyahu on the Israel Hayom website at http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=5813

At Democratic convention, a focus on Jewish swing voters as key to election win


Jewish swing voters could make or break President Obama’s bid for reelection.

At least that’s the case that Democratic Party leaders made in a training session that packed one of the larger halls at the convention center here on Monday, the day before the formal start of the Democratic National Convention.

It came with a message delivered to Jewish volunteers at the convention in Charlotte: Some Jewish voters matter more than others. And when it comes to issues, Israel is especially important — but don’t forget domestic policy.

At the session, Jewish public officials such as Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) shouted out the party’s new Jewish tagline: “I’m here because I’m a Jew and I support the president and I support Israel.”

Both parties are aggressively targeting Jewish voters in swing states. Next week, the Republican Jewish Coalition will conduct a voter outreach drive in South Florida, Cleveland and Philadelphia. The blitz, part of an overall $6.5 million RJC effort to sway Jewish voters, will be based on prior polling that will “micro-target” Jewish undecideds.

Despite their relatively small number in America — approximately 2 percent of the population — Jews remain a key electoral demographic.

Ira Forman, the veteran Jewish Democrat who has been running Obama’s Jewish outreach campaign, listed seven states — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Michigan — where a 10 percent swing among Jewish voters could change the election.

A drop in support for Obama from the approximate 75 percent of the Jewish vote that he received in 2008 to 65 percent this year would cost him 83,500 votes in Florida, 41,500 in Pennsylvania and 19,000 in Ohio, according to Forman. The figures were based on educated guesses about eligibility and voter turnout.

The most recent Gallup tracking polls of Jewish voters, from June and July, had Obama at 68 percent of the vote — ahead of the 61 percent level at which he was polling in July 2008, when he was facing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The speakers at Monday’s event said that swing voters tended to be exercised by concerns about Obama’s Israel policies, though their principal concerns are about the economy, health care and social issues like abortion rights.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the DNC chairwoman and the party’s highest-ranking Jewish member, said Republicans hammer on the Israel issue because the Republican Party has little common ground with Jewish voters on domestic policy.

“The natural political home for Jewish voters in this country is with the Democratic Party,” she said.

Republicans cite changing Jewish demographics and voter patterns — including the increasingly large Orthodox community, which is more politically conservative than other Jewish denominations — as evidence that is changing.

Based on Monday’s training session — similar to a number that Democrats say the party has held throughout the swing states — it’s clear that the campaign waged by Republicans to depict Obama as lacking commitment to Israel has had an impact.

For the Israel argument, Democrats unveiled an eight-minute video titled “Steadfast” that features an array of Israeli leaders, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, extolling what is depicted as an unprecedented level of cooperation on defense and intelligence sharing with the Obama administration.

Also featured in talking points handed out to attendees are the Obama administration’s efforts to isolate Iran in a bid to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program, including intensified sanctions.

Republicans acknowledge the close relationship between the Israeli and U.S. administrations on defense, but say that Obama has undercut its benefits by making public his disagreements with Israel over peacemaking with the Palestinians. They also say that he has not made it sufficiently clear that Iran could face a military strike from Israel or the United States if it does not cooperate.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has suggested that he would not stand in the way of an Israeli strike, while Obama administration officials have spent recent months in intensive talks with Israelis hoping to head off such a strike.

Indeed, Wasserman Schultz, in making the case for Obama’s Iran policy, repeated a talking point that distinguishes the Democratic position, which counsels military force as a last resort: She praised Obama for “making sure that all options are on the table, but making sure that the military option is the last, not the first, one.”

Once the Israel argument is out of the way, Forman counseled volunteers to sway undecided voters by talking about domestic policy, where Democrats believe they have a sharp advantage.

David Simas, the Obama campaign’s director of opinion research, outlined for the session how to incorporate one’s own story into campaigning. Simas, a rising star in the party, spoke of his own background as the child of penniless Portuguese immigrants who may have foundered had it not been for worker protections he suggested that Republicans would remove.

Wasserman Schultz cited her own personal story, noting her struggle with breast cancer a few years ago. Discovering a lump in her breast while showering, she said, “I realized I was one job loss away from being  uninsured and uninsurable.” Now, with the passage of Obama’s health care reforms, she said she need no longer fear the prospect of insurers turning her down because she has a preexisting condition.

Volunteers at the session agreed that the Israel component was critical to swaying the undecideds among their friends.

Cynthia Johnson, 56, a publicist from Portland, Ore., said she attended because she was finding that some of her Jewish friends were wavering, particularly over the Israel issue.

“That was the one concern I wanted to be able to address,” said Johnson, who is not Jewish.

Steve Leibowitz, 55, an information technology professional from Cape Cod, Mass., said the Israel talking points would assist him in his social media interactions with Jewish friends, where he said he was likelier to encounter questions about Obama’s Israel policy than outright hostility.

Ellen Blaine, 52, a public health professional from Charlotte, said she needed tools to counter misconceptions about Obama’s relations with Jews and Israel.

“That’s what’s on top of people’s minds,” she said.

Blaine noted one success so far: Four years ago her mother, then 80, believed a sister in New York who assured her that Obama was a secret Muslim and voted for a Republican for the first time. Blaine said her mother, now disabused of that notion, was ready to vote Obama this year — but marveled at how such rumors spread among Jewish voters.

“My aunt was a schoolteacher!” she said. “We’re supposed to be an educated and engaged people.”

Where’s the tough love for Obama?


When it comes to criticizing Israel, liberal supporters of Israel routinely quote the Jewish value of self-criticism. Try telling a pro-Israel critic the following:

“Israel is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the world community; it is being demonized and boycotted by a global movement trying to eradicate the Zionist project; it is surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction; and it already has plenty of criticism and dissent within its own country. Should we, as Diaspora Jews, pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy — or should we push back against these exaggerated attacks and make Israel’s case to the world? Why give our enemies more ammunition to hurt us?”

The typical answer you’ll get is: “Because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! It’s not just a right to criticize Israel, it’s an obligation! That’s how we improve. Israel needs our public criticism. It’s the highest and deepest expression of our love for the Jewish state.”

I understand that sentiment: We can’t grow in life without getting some tough love.

But what I don’t understand is this: Why won’t liberal critics of Israel use the same argument for President Obama? If self-criticism is such a noble value, why won’t they show the same kind of “tough love” for the president and criticize him as loudly as they do Israel?

I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen liberal supporters of Israel get all aggressive when criticizing Israel’s policies, but then, as soon as the subject turns to Obama’s policies, they suddenly get all defensive.

Apparently, not all self-criticism is created equal.

This is a shame, because the president could use a lot more criticism from liberals, especially on issues that liberals care deeply about.

In a recent post on the Atlantic Web site titled “Why do Liberals Keep Sanitizing the Obama Story?” Conor Friedersdorf pleads with liberals to “stop ignoring President Obama’s failures on civil liberties, foreign policy, and the separation of powers, treating them as if they [don’t] even merit a mention.”

Friedersdorf takes to task several prominent liberal writers, among them Jonathan Chait, whom he calls “the latest to write about the president as if his civil liberties abuses and executive power excesses never happened.”

Referring to a long assessment of Obama by Chait in New York Magazine, Friedersdorf writes:

“Apparently it isn’t even worthy of mention that Obama’s actions in Libya violated the War Powers Resolution … and the legal advice provided to him by the Office of Legal Counsel.

“Perhaps most egregiously, Chait doesn’t even allude to Obama’s practice of putting American citizens on a secret kill list without any due process.

“Nor does he grapple with warrantless spying on American citizens, Obama’s escalation of the war on whistleblowers, his serial invocation of the state secrets privilege, the Orwellian turn airport security has taken [and] the record-breaking number of deportations over which Obama presided.”

Seriously, how often do we see prominent liberal writers publicly criticize the president for some of these vexing actions, which certainly can’t be blamed on the previous president?

“Why is all this ignored?” Friedersdorf asks. “Telling the story of Obama’s first term without including any of it is a shocking failure of liberalism.

“What does ‘better than the Republicans’ get you if it means that executive privilege keeps expanding, the drones keep killing innocents and inflaming radicals … the Pentagon budget keeps growing, civil liberties keep being eroded, wars are waged without Congressional permission, and every future president knows he or she can do the same because at this point it doesn’t even provoke a significant backlash from the left?”

Friedersdorf says it just won’t cut it “for smart writers and prestigious publications to keep writing big think pieces about Obama’s tenure that read as if some of its most significant, uncomfortable moments never happened.

“Civil liberties and executive power and war-making aren’t fringe concerns. … They’re central to the Obama narrative, and the American narrative, as the president himself would’ve affirmed back when he was articulating lofty standards that he has repeatedly failed to meet.”

So, given all these liberal failures, why are Obama’s liberal supporters “sanitizing” his story? Even before this election season, why have so many of them been reluctant to publicly criticize their president and give him the kind of “tough love” he needs?

Well, here’s one possibility. It’s not that they think Obama is perfect and can do no wrong. Rather, it’s that they see how Obama is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the conservative community, and they say to themselves:

“Why should we pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy? Better to push back against these exaggerated attacks and make a strong case for our side. Our opponents are so much worse than we are — why give them more ammunition to hurt us?”

Why? For the same reason you criticize Israel — because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! Because self-criticism is not just a right, it’s an obligation!

Because if your beloved Israel deserves your tough love, then so does your beloved president.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Editorial Cartoon: Star of Mitt


Panel votes to recognize West Bank college as full university


The West Bank will have its first full university, pending the go-ahead of the Israeli military.

The Ariel University Center on Tuesday was recognized as a full university by the Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education, which handles educational concerns in the West Bank. The center, which has more than 10,000 students, Jewish and Arab, would be called Ariel University.

The 11-2 vote came despite a recommendation against approval by the planning and budget committee of Israel’s Council for Higher Education, as well as opposition from the country’s other seven universities and public figures who objected to upgrading a college located in the West Bank.

The final authorization for making the Ariel center a university will be made by the Israel Defense Forces’ central commander in the West Bank, Maj.-Gen. Nitzan Alon. According to The Jerusalem Post, Alon is expected to back up the Judea and Samaria council’s decision.

The Judea and Samaria council was established in 1997 after the Council for Higher Education refused to discuss academic issues concerning the West Bank, according to Haaretz.

On Sunday, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz announced that his ministry would earmark extra funds for the Ariel University Center, so that it would not cut into the funding of Israel’s other universities. Steinitz said he will ask the government to grant an allocation of some $5 million to $7.5 million for the next two fiscal years, with plans to increase the sum in future years.

Last month, the presidents of Israel’s universities called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prevent the establishment of an eighth research university in Israel, citing a scarcity of resources. In a letter to Netanyahu, the presidents said that an eighth university would deal a “fatal blow to the higher education system in general, and the universities in particular.”

In 2007, the Ariel academic center was granted temporary recognition as a so-called university center, and to reexamine its status within five years. Ariel, with a population of about 20,000, is located southwest of the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Vote result delay frays Egyptian nerves


Allegations of fraud delayed the result of Egypt’s presidential election on Thursday, fraying nerves as the Muslim Brotherhood, which claims victory, called for street protests against moves by the ruling generals to deny them power.

Thousands of protesters gathered for a third day in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, cauldron of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago, to demand that the officers who pushed him aside keep their word and hand over to civilians by July 1.

There is little sign that will happen after the ruling military council dissolved the Islamist-led parliament and set strict limits on the new president’s powers. But prominent Islamists dampened talk of violence, for all their promise of permanent town square vigils until their demands are met.

Among thousands who packed Tahrir after dark, Ahmed Youssef said he and his friends from a province north of Cairo would camp out overnight to join a major rally after weekly prayers on Friday: “We thought the army would stand by the revolution, and were surprised when it didn’t,” said the bearded, 24-year-old electrical engineer, who supports a hardline Salafist group.

“We will stay here until the military council hands over power,” he added, voicing a widely-shared sense of betrayal by generals who promised to rule only until elections. “If they do this, we will carry them on our shoulders. We love the army.”

The state election committee has spent four days collating counts from the two-day run-off ballot but said it would miss a target of Thursday for announcing the result as it was going through hundreds of complaints from both sides. As the weekend starts on Friday, that might mean a wait until Sunday.

“We are taking our time to review the appeals to investigate them properly but, God willing, the results will be announced by Sunday at most, if not before that,” Judge Maher el-Beheiry, a member of the election committee, told Reuters.

The candidates – former general and Mubarak aide Ahmed Shafik and the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy – have both called for national unity as the delay jangled the nerves of a nation increasingly suspicious of the military and the Mubarak-era establishment, or “deep state”, that survived the revolution.

Some see the delay as a bid to pressure the Brotherhood to accept the military decree that curbed the president’s powers before any Morsy presidency. The committee insists it is simply a procedural issue to ensure all appeals are fairly assessed.

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said the delay “generates concern, no doubt”, expressing fear that the authorities were getting ready to announce Shafik the winner.

“The doubt extends to this possibility,” he told Reuters.

ON EDGE

In an effort to buttress its claim of victory, the Brotherhood has distributed what it says are copies of official records of the vote count at the local level. It says the margin of its victory means it is impossible for Shafik to have won.

But some have identified what they describe as flaws in the paperwork, saying, for example, that some of the documents did not bear official stamps or that the numbers did not add up.

“We cannot rely on them as numbers, because they contain great problems,” Hafez Abou Saeda, a human rights activist who is coordinating a monitoring initiative, said.

Egyptian media described a nation on edge.

“Egypt on the verge of exploding,” Al-Watan daily wrote in a front-page headline, highlighting worries about how supporters of rival camps will respond if their candidate loses. “Security alert before the presidential result,” wrote Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“The interest of the nation goes before narrow interests,” said reformist politician Mohamed ElBaradei on Twitter. “What is required immediately is a mediation committee to find a political and legal exit from the crisis. Egypt is on the verge of explosion.”

Cairo’s cafes and social media were alive with chatter about troops preparing to secure major cities, but military sources played down the idea that there was any unusual activity beyond extra alertness.

Adding to unease, Mubarak is himself back in the news, being let out of the prison where he began a life sentence this month for treatment at a military hospital. Security sources have said the 84-year-old was slipping in and out of a coma but “stabilizing”. Many Egyptians suspect the generals are exaggerating to get their old comrade out of jail.

Mohamed Abdel Razek, a Mubarak defense lawyer, said the former president had a stroke on Wednesday after he had a fall during an accompanied visit to a bathroom at Tora prison.

That incident prompted doctors to order he be moved to the hospital in Maadi that was better equipped, the lawyer said.

FUELLING SUSPICIONS

The political uncertainty has taken its toll on an already battered economy. The pound has hit a seven-year low against the dollar, and Egypt’s benchmark share index has tumbled 17 percent since the first round of the vote in May.

In a nation where vote-rigging was the norm during 60 years of military rule, and which is reeling from what critics called a “soft coup” by the generals in the past week, the delay in the results fuelled suspicions of foul play.

“There is absolutely no justification for the result of the vote to be delayed,” Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian told Al-Jazeera on Wednesday, describing complaints from the Shafik camp as either invalid or too few to affect the result.

He called on Shafik to show “chivalry” and accept defeat.

Morsy said within hours of polls closing last Sunday that he had beaten Shafik by 52 percent to 48 percent. The group has stuck to those figures.

Shafik’s camp said on Wednesday it remained confident that its man, whom Mubarak appointed prime minister during the uprising, would win, although a spokesman for Shafik also described the vote as “too close to call”.

Whoever is declared winner, the next president’s powers have already been curbed in the last-minute decree issued by the army after it ordered the dissolution of the Islamist-led parliament.

The European Union on Wednesday joined the United States, both major aid donors, in expressing “concern” at what the army moves meant for a promised transition to democracy.

On Tuesday, election monitors from the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who brokered the peace between Egypt and Israel that unlocked U.S. aid, said they could not call the election free and fair as they were denied sufficient access to polling stations and results collation.

The Brotherhood has called for open-ended protests against the army’s decree to limit the president’s role and retain powers, but said it would not resort to violence.

Reporting by Marwa Awad, Shaimaa Fayed, Edmund Blair, Patrick Werr, Ahmed Tolba and Dina Zayed in Cairo; Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Edmund Blair; Editing by Philippa Fletcher

House rejects increase to U.S.-Israel energy cooperation funding


The U.S. House of Representatives voted down a Democratic procedural motion to the energy appropriations bill that would have provided additional funds for U.S.-Israel energy cooperation programs.

The motion to recommit the legislation back to the Appropriations Committee would have allocated an additional $1 million to the $2 million already in the bill for the programs.

The procedural vote was defeated 233-185 mostly on party lines with one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa, voting for the motion to recommit.

This is at least the fourth such attempt this Congress by Democrats to add pro-Israel language to a bill at the last minute. Republicans have accused Democrats of using the motions to recommit to score political points.

During floor debate, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), who offered the motion, said the additional funds were in the U.S. interest. 

“Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East, without question, and one of our strongest allies across the globe,” Boswell said. “And, as such, our ability to work together to advance the interests of both our nations is crucial.” Boswell said.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), the chairman of the Appropriations energy subcommittee, argued that the $2 million already in the bill was the figure proposed by lawmakers who back the program, and said there was no need for an additional increase.

“This is a completely unwarranted increase, considering our bill already maintains funding for this very important program at last year’s level, even while we’ve cut so many programs in our bill to stay within the budget,” Frelinghuysen said on the House floor.

In March, a bipartisan, bicameral group of 44 senators and congressman sent a letter to Appropriations Committee leaders, urging them to ensure the $2 million of funds for U.S.-Israel energy cooperation. 

That appropriations request was led by Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), along with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Following the vote on the motion to recommit, David Harris, president and CEO of the National Democratic Jewish Council, criticized House Republicans.

“It is very disheartening that so many pro-Israel Republicans who believe in American energy independence voted the way they did,” Harris said in a press statement.

Israel becomes target in Egypt’s presidential vote


Israel has become a punching bag for politicians vying for votes in Egypt’s presidential election, playing on popular antipathy in Egypt towards its neighbor, but the realities of office are likely to ensure a 33-year-old peace treaty is not jeopardized.

Officials in Israel have watched Egypt’s political turmoil with increasing wariness after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, who oversaw a cold yet stable peace.

An ex-air force commander in the race to be the new president boasts of bringing down Israeli aircraft in 1973, the last of Egypt’s four wars with Israel.

One Islamist often refers to Israel as the “Zionist entity” and the “enemy” and a leftist candidate pledges to support the Palestinian resistance against Israel.

None of the candidates want to tear up the treaty signed in 1979 but they repeatedly warn in rallies and debates it should be reviewed. Many of them grumble at provisions in the U.S.-brokered deal they say are biased in Israel’s favor.

Yet, beyond the bluster of the campaign trail, the next president’s in-tray will be full of more pressing issues such as reviving an economy on the ropes.

He will also preside over a nation where the entrenched establishment of the army and security services – who kept the peace secure – remains intact.

“Of course Israel is an enemy. It occupied land, it threatened our security. It is an entity that has 200 nuclear warheads,” Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh said in a TV debate when asked about Israel, referring to a nuclear arsenal Israel is believed to possess but neither confirms nor denies having.

Seeking to trip up his opponent in the novel TV face-off in a nation that has never had an open leadership contest, Abol Fotouh pressed former Arab League chief Amr Moussa on whether he too classed Israel an enemy. Moussa chose the term “adversary.”

Moussa, who like Abol Fotouh is a front-runner in the race, was Mubarak’s foreign minister in the 1990s before moving to the League. In both posts he was a vocal critic of Israel.

An Israeli newspaper commentator wrote last month that Moussa had intense disdain for Israel.

“I intend to review the shape of relations,” Moussa pledged, describing “big disagreements”, but he said the next president would need to lead Egypt “with wisdom and not push it along with slogans towards a confrontation we may not be ready for.”

Former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Itzhak Levanon said Israel’s main duty was “to tell the Egyptians loudly that the peace treaty is also in their interests and that they will have to do everything to keep it.”

He said comments made on the election trail did not always translate into action in office. “It is like that in all countries,” he said.

‘STRONG STATE’

Like Moussa, other candidates have also reflected a more cautious line when fielding inevitable questions about Israel.

Abol Fotouh, who often refers to Israel as the “Zionist entity”, said Egypt should review its treaties to ensure they were in the national interest but was not looking to start any war.

Ahmed Shafik, who like Mubarak was a former air force commander before joining the ex-president’s cabinet, told a rally when he was questioned about Israel: “A strong state is not just one with artillery and tanks but has a strong economy, strong science, strong culture.”

But tough talk still features on the campaign trail.

Leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahy pledged in a television interview: “I will support whoever resists Israel, not because of nationalism, Arabism or morality, although this is what it is, but because these are the laws of the United Nations.”

Safwat el-Hegazi, an independent preacher who backs the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Mursi, has used his campaign rallies to call for the establishment of a single Arab state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Mursi criticisms Israel but says he would respect the treaty, which brings $1.3 billion a year of U.S. military aid. An aide to Mursi said his candidate would not meet Israeli officials as president, though his foreign minister would.

Western diplomats say popular pressure on a newly-elected president could encourage more outspoken criticism of Israel. However, they say the top army and security officials who have for years kept close ties with their Israeli counterparts to coordinate across the border were likely to keep ties steady.

“There are red lines and I think everyone is aware of them. Egypt needs its close relationship with the United States, it needs the financial assistance, the investment and the loans to survive,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.

The peace deal has been a cornerstone of Egypt’s foreign policy and, while it may not have the prominence Mubarak gave it, the generals who have overseen Egypt’s transition are unlikely to let that change.

The army is expected to remain influential long after the formal handover to a new president by July 1.

Nevertheless, Hamid said Egypt’s politicians could “test how far they can go … before arousing the wrath of the international community.”

Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Omar Fahmy in Cairo and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Editing by Janet Lawrence

Obama vs. Romney: The Jewish debate


On May 5, President Barack Obama kicked off his re-election campaign in front of a crowd of 14,000 people at Ohio State University. Obama presented his new campaign slogan, “Forward,” and strongly criticized his presumed Republican opponent Mitt Romney.

Sixty-one percent of respondents in a recent American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey said they would vote for Obama, who garnered 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2008 presidential election. Now that a Romney-Obama matchup in November is all but inevitable, JointMedia News Service compares Obama’s record from his first term with Romney’s views and campaign statements on the most important issues to the Jewish community.

ISRAEL & THE CONFLICT

Obama:

“There should not be a shred of doubt right now: When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” the president said at the 2012 AIPAC conference in response to ongoing criticism that his policies regarding the Jewish state and the conflict with the Palestinians are shaky.

On the one hand, Obama had publically opposed last September’s unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations and approved nearly $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program. However, he also endorsed a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians based on “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said is dangerous to Israel’s security. Obama has also criticized Jewish building in the West Bank.

Under Obama’s administration, the U.S. State Department has refused to publically recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “Our policy with regard to Jerusalem is that it has to be solved through negotiations,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland recently said.

Romney:

In the wake Obama’s 1967 borders statement, Romney said that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus, indicating he agrees that such borders will pose a security risk for the Jewish state. Furthermore, “it is disrespectful of Israel for America to dictate negotiating terms to our ally,” Romney said.

Romney has also said that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel should be one of support and not criticism, since Israel is “a nation which shares our values and is our best friend in the Middle East.” He also believes it is not the duty of the U.S. to dictate to Israel where it should have its American embassy. Currently, the embassy is in Tel Aviv because Jerusalem is not internationally recognized as Israel’s capital. “My inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist,” he said.

However, Romney has not explicitly acknowledged support for Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel.

IRAN

Obama:

“I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say,” Obama has previously said regarding Iran.

The Obama administration is primarily focused on using diplomatic sanctions against Iran. Obama has said such sanctions would strike “at the heart” of Iran’s nuclear ability. “We are showing the Iranian government that its actions have consequences, and if it persists, the pressure will continue to mount, and its isolation will continue to deepen.” In fact since 2010 the president signed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, as well as other sanctions, all of which targeted Iran’s international banking and oil sale abilities.

With regard to a military solution to the conflict, Obama had warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against prematurely attacking the country. As to his own administration, “as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I only use force when the time and circumstances demand it. And I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognize their obligation to defend their country,” Obama has said.

Romney:

Romney calls for another round of tough diplomatic sanctions on the country targeting the financial resources of the Iranian regime, as well as placing more restrictions on the Central Bank of Iran and all business activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If the United Nations cannot lead these sanctions due to vetoes from major world nations like Russia or China, the U.S. must be ready to lead with the support of as many governments as it can muster.

However Romney believes that sanctions will only be effective if they are buttressed by a concrete military presence in the region. According to his campaign website, this should begin with restoring the presence of U.S. aircraft carrier task forces in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region, repairing relations with Israel, increasing military coordination with Arab allies and conducting more naval exercises to demonstrate American military strength to the region. “Only if Iran understands that the United States is utterly determined when we say that their nuclear-weapons program is unacceptable is there a possibility that they will give up their nuclear aspirations peacefully.” Romney has also promised to “take every measure necessary to check the evil regime of the ayatollahs.”

THE ARAB SPRING & SYRIA

Obama:

In this year’s State of the Union address, Obama emphasized that “a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana’a to Tripoli. A year ago, [Muammar] Gaddafi was one of the world’s longest-serving dictators—a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone.” However, Obama also said that the final outcome of the “Arab Spring” remains uncertain. Even so, he pledged more than $800 million in assistance to countries engulfed in these revolutions.

“We will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well. We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings,” Obama said, adding that Syria’s Assad regime “will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied.”

However, recent estimates put the total death toll since the Syrian conflict began at more than 11,000. The U.S. government has not yet intervened militarily, even though it had intervened in Libya just months earlier, citing UN vetoes by major countries like Russia.

Obama did recently announce his intention to extend a national state of emergency over Syria for another year, which will allow him to continue placing a variety of sanctions on the country. In March he announced that the U.S. government will provide direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition.

Romney:

Romney has said that the “Arab Spring” has spun out of control. “We’re all very happy that a very bad guy in Moammar Gadhafi was killed, but…how can we try and improve the odds so…that the developments are toward democracy, modernity and more representative forms of government? This we simply don’t know,” he said in October 2011.

Romney’s official website statement on the Middle East addresses the concern that rather than evolving into democracies, these Middle Eastern revolutions could lead to radical Islamist regimes: “The Romney administration will strive to ensure that the Arab Spring is not followed by an Arab Winter.” Romney’s campaign claims that the U.S. government will “make available technical assistance to governments and transitional bodies to promote democracy, good governance, and sound financial management” under his leadership.

As for Syria, “the United States must recognize Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for what he is: an unscrupulous dictator, a killer, and a proxy for Iran,” according to Romney. He argues for increased pressure on the UN to act and collaborate with Saudi Arabia and Turkey against the Syrian regime, and to make it clear that the U.S. and its allies will support the Syrian opposition when it will be building a post-Assad government. However, Romney said at a news conference in March that he too is “not favoring military involvement, direct military involvement by the United States” at the current stage.

JONATHAN POLLARD

Obama:

Various groups have called on the president to grant clemency Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel in 1987, arguing that Pollard’s life sentence is disproportionate to sentences given to others serving time for espionage. In April of this year, Israeli President Shimon Peres wrote a letter entreating Obama to release Pollard. The White House responded that “regarding Mr. Pollard the administration’s position has not changed.”

Romney:

When it comes to Pollard, Romney seems to be undecided on whether he deserves a presidential pardon, though he has said he is “open to examining” the issue.


Information and quotations in this report taken from Mittromney.com, Politico.com, Washington Post, Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel Hayom, BBC, Huffington Post, Fox News, Israel National News, Whitehouse.gov, CBS, New York Times, Israeltoday.co.il, jonathanpollard.org and Freebeacon.com.

Opinion: Iron Dome, an Israeli necessity, American priority, strategic imperative


For years, Sderot was a city under siege, the target of non-stop rocket attacks launched by Palestinian terrorists from Gaza. School was halted, synagogues were silenced and in a community defined by courage, the fragments of rockets and mortars – the vehicles of attempted murder aimed at innocent Israelis – were plain for all to see. Sderot became a living museum of terror.

Witnessing the horror, U.S. lawmakers pledged that the joy of Israeli living would return   vigor to Sderot and to other communities facing bombardment at any time of the day or night.

Our word was backed by a promise to help fund Iron Dome, a game changing rocket defense system fundamentally altering the strategic calculus in the region. For Israelis, this was a necessity; for Americans, a priority; for everyone, a strategic imperative.

Only four years ago, an informal Israeli-Hamas cease-fire collapsed and Palestinian extremists in Gaza began firing a relentless barrage of rockets into Israel aimed at the heart of Israeli population centers. In 2008, more than 3,000 rockets and mortar shells landed on Israeli territory, putting about 15 percent of Israel’s population at risk. Israel was left with no choice but to defend itself and went to war in Gaza in December 2008.

Unavoidably, many died in the ensuing warfare, most of them terrorists. But predictably, many in the international community condemned Israel for its necessary defensive war, including through the issuance of the notoriously biased Goldstone Report. The Obama administration did the right thing by defending Israel at the United Nations, but both Jerusalem and Washington became precariously isolated in the court of public opinion.

Fast forward to March 2012. Again a massive barrage of rockets was fired from Gaza at Israeli population centers by Islamic Jihad and its terrorist cohorts. But this time, Israel wasn’t defenseless. The development and deployment of three Iron Dome rocket and artillery interceptor batteries—funded in part by the United States—had changed the rules of the game. According to the Israel Defense Forces, Iron Dome intercepted a remarkable 90 percent of incoming rockets aimed at population centers.

This time there was no need for Israel to enter Gaza defensively. There were no Gazan civilian casualties, no international protests, and no isolation for the U.S. and Israel.

Only three Iron Dome batteries are now operational. Israel was lucky this time because it was only attacked on the Gaza front. But Israel is also vulnerable in the north of the country, where just across the border, Hezbollah has its own arsenal of Iranian-provided rockets laying in wait.

A two-front rocket war is a distinct possibility in the future. And the collapse of law and order in the Sinai, from which a rocket was recently fired at Eilat, adds an ominous new threat.

As Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., has written, “For America, as well as for Israel, an investment in the Iron Dome system is an investment in diplomacy — helping to create the conditions conducive to peace.”
In the U.S. Congress, where bitter partisanship and political brinksmanship has become all too common, funding for Iron Dome enjoys strong support among Democrats and Republicans. Legislation I’ve introduced, the Iron Dome Support Act, is the embodiment of that bipartisanship, backed by congressional members spanning the political spectrum.

This is an important week in Congress, demonstrating that the promises made to Sderot and surrounding communities will be kept. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives will vote on the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, which includes a strong statement of support for Iron Dome. It should pass overwhelmingly. The same day, the House Armed Services Committee in Congress will further approve $680 million dollars funding for additional Iron Dome batteries to protect the entire Jewish homeland.

Iron Dome is no guarantee that Palestinian extremists won’t pick a fight with Israel. But it makes it much more likely that Israel will only commit its soldiers to combat when it alone chooses.

The Iron Dome system enhances stability in Middle East. That’s why the United States is behind its further development and strongly supports Israeli efforts to build more.

U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-California) is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This oped first appeared in haaretz.com.

Iran parliament vote seen bolstering Supreme Leader


Iranians voted on Friday in a parliamentary election likely to reinforce Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s power over rival hardliners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iranian leaders were looking for a high turnout to ease an acute crisis of legitimacy caused by Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 when widespread accusations of fraud plunged the Islamic Republic into the worst unrest of its 33-year history.

Iran also faces economic turmoil compounded by Western sanctions over a nuclear program that has prompted threats of military action by Israel, whose leader meets U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on Monday.

The vote in Iran is only a limited test of political opinion since leading reformist groups stayed out what became a contest between the Khamenei and Ahmadinejad camps.

“Whenever there has been more enmity towards Iran, the importance of the elections has been greater,” Khamenei, 72, said after casting his vote before television cameras.

“The arrogant powers are bullying us to maintain their prestige. A high turnout will be better for our nation … and for preserving security.”

The vote will have scant impact on Iran’s foreign or nuclear policies, in which Khamenei already has the final say, but could strengthen the Supreme Leader’s hand before the presidential vote next year. Ahmadinejad, 56, cannot run for a third term.

Iranians may be preoccupied with sharply rising prices and jobs, but it is Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions that worry the outside world. Western sanctions over the nuclear program have hit imports, driving prices up and squeezing ordinary Iranians.

OBAMA-NETANYAHU TALKS

Just days away from the talks between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, their aides were scrambling to bridge differences over what Washington fears could be a premature Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Netanyahu will press Obama, who is facing a presidential election campaign, to stress publicly the nuclear “red lines” that Iran must not cross, Israeli officials say.

Global oil prices have spiked to 10-month highs on tensions between the West and Iran, OPEC’s second biggest crude producer.

The election took place without two main opposition leaders. Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, who both ran for president in 2009, have been under house arrest for more than a year.

No independent observers are on hand to monitor the voting or check the turnout figures that officials will announce.

Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani made a pointed reference to the outcome of the 2009 vote, which he questioned at the time. “If the election outcome turns out to be what the people cast in the ballot boxes, God willing we will have a good parliament,” the elder statesman said after voting in Tehran.

Ahmadinejad also voted, but state media did not immediately show this or report any comment he might have made. The outgoing parliament is due to grill him next week on his handling of the economy and other issues – an unprecedented humiliation for an incumbent president, but one he may use to hit back at his foes.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0430 GMT) and were due to close at 6 p.m., but might stay open longer. Ballots are counted manually and Iran may have to wait three days for full results.

Voting was slow at first in affluent northern Tehran but picked up later. Voters queued up in poorer parts of the capital and in provincial cities, Reuters witnesses said.

“I am here to support my establishment against the enemies’ plot by voting,” said Mahboubeh Esmaili, 28, holding her baby in a queue of about 50 people at a central Tehran polling centre.

SLAP IN FACE

Khamenei has told Iranians that their vote would be a “slap in the face for arrogant powers” such as the United States.

A U.S. official said Iran had clamped down on dissent since the turbulent presidential election nearly three years ago.

“Since then, the regime’s repression and persecution of all who stand up for their universal human rights has only intensified,” U.S. Under Secretary of State Mario Otero told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in her report to the council she was alarmed at a “surge in executions” reported in Iran in the past year. She gave no figures.

The two main groups competing for parliament’s 290 seats are the United Front of Principlists, which includes Khamenei loyalists, and the Resistance Front that backs Ahmadinejad.

The president, a blacksmith’s son, has long appealed to Iran’s rural poor with his humble image and cash handouts from state funds, but spiraling prices have dented his popularity.

Energy and food imports have been hit by sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to halt sensitive nuclear work that the West suspects is a cover for a drive to build atomic bombs. Tehran says it has only peaceful aims, such as generating electricity.

Prices of staple goods, many of them imported, have soared because the Iranian rial’s value has sunk as U.S. and European Union sanctions on the financial and oil sectors begin to bite.

Ahmadinejad’s critics accuse him of making things worse for low-income Iranians, saying his decision to replace food and fuel subsidies with direct monthly payments since 2010 has fuelled inflation, officially running at around 21 percent.

ALLIES FALL OUT

The president enjoyed solid support from Khamenei in the months of “Green Movement” protests that followed the 2009 election, but the two men have fallen out badly since then.

For Khamenei, the parliamentary election could reinforce his grip on power against a president seen as trying to undermine the clergy’s central role in Iran’s complex political hierarchy.

Ahmadinejad and his “deviant current” allies have alarmed Khamenei’s conservative camp by emphasizing nationalist themes of Iranian history and culture over the Islamic ruling system introduced by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Khamenei succeeded Khomeini, who died in 1989.

Some Iranian media reports said Ahmadinejad hoped to secure the election of his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, to succeed him. Khamenei will want to install one of his own loyalists to prevent further divisions within the ruling elite.

Powerful establishment groups, including senior clerics, the elite Revolutionary Guards and bazaar merchants, formed an alliance to back Khamenei loyalists in the parliamentary vote.

Not everyone can run in Iranian elections. The hard-line Guardian Council, made up of six clerics and six jurists who vet candidates, approved more than 3,400 out of 5,382 applicants.

Some politicians said the council barred many established Ahmadinejad supporters, forcing him to pick political unknowns.

The rift between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad broke into the open in April 2011 when the Supreme Leader forced the president to reinstate an intelligence minister he had insisted on firing.

Khamenei has kept up the pressure in recent months. Dozens of Ahmadinejad allies have been detained or sacked for links to the “deviant current”.

Most strikingly, the president’s media adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, has received a one-year jail term for insulting Khamenei, which an appeal court upheld on Wednesday.

The authorities suggested that malign foreign hands were trying to disrupt the election.

“So far, 10 saboteurs who came to Tehran from outside the country have been arrested and are now in detention,” Mohammad Taqi Baqeri, a Tehran election official was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency. He gave no details.

Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari in Tehran, Marcus George in Dubai and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Netanyahu wins new party mandate


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won a new mandate to head his right-wing Likud party, defeating an ultranationalist challenger opposed to any land-for-peace deal with Palestinians.

Initial results published on Wednesday after voting held a day earlier showed Netanyahu captured a resounding majority of party ballots in a poll that some political commentators said could be a harbinger to an early general election ahead of a U.S. presidential vote this year.

Israel’s next national vote is due in late 2013.

With opinion polls showing Likud on course for victory, holding the ballot earlier could put Netanyahu in a better position to deal with what many Israelis believe will be pressure from Barack Obama for peace concessions should the Democrat win a second term in November.

“I thank you all for the confidence and renewed support you have given me,” Netanyahu said in a victory speech in Tel Aviv, as initial results showed him way ahead of his sole rival, far-right settler, Moshe Feiglin.

“Together we shall continue to lead the nation,” Netanyahu said. “We have proven the Likud is a strong and united movement.”

Yigal Movermacher, a party spokesman, said a tally of some 40 percent of ballots showed Netanyahu had won 80 percent and that official results would be published later on Wednesday.

Feiglin polled about 20 percent, similar to his 24 percent showing in their last contest in 2007, initial results showed.

He had had little chance of unseating Netanyahu but had hoped to provide a voice for settlers in the party opposed to Israel giving up land they see as a biblical birthright for peace.

In an interview with Reuters, Feiglin said he advocated Israeli annexation of West Bank and the provision of financial incentives to encourage Palestinians to leave.

U.S.-sponsored peace talks stalled shortly after they began in 2010 in a dispute over settlement building in the West Bank.

Exploratory talks in Jordan between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in recent weeks ended in deadlock without any agreement to restart full negotiations.

While Netanyahu has not said he wanted an early general election, “he prefers to lead and not be dragged there”, Likud legislator Danny Danon told Reuters.

In his speech, Netanyahu said “there is time yet” before any national vote would be held, leaving the door open for further political maneuvers. Campaign aide Haim Bibas said Netanyahu would decide if to seek an early vote over the next two months.

The Likud poll will be followed by a Kadima primary election on March 27. Both Kadima and the left-of-centre Labour party have been actively recruiting popular figures, and some influential wild cards, such as former journalist Yair Lapid, have thrown their hats into the electoral ring as well.

Editing by Maria Golovnina

Egypt’s Islamists claim most seats in run-off vote


Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said on Wednesday it won most seats in a first-round parliamentary vote, with early tallies suggesting liberals had backed some of its candidates to block hardline Salafis.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which has promised to work with a broad coalition in the new assembly, secured 34 individual seats out of the 45 it contested in the run-offs on Monday and Tuesday, a party source told Reuters.

The Islamist group, which was banned under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, had already won 37 percent of the vote in an initial phase of the multi-pronged election, meaning it is well on course to have the largest bloc of seats in the new assembly.

Its success confirms a trend set by Islamist election wins in post-uprising Tunisia and in Morocco, disappointing many of the democracy activists who led protests that toppled Mubarak.

But the real surprise in the opening ballot was the success of the ultra-conservative Salafi al-Nour party, which secured 24 percent of the vote and went head-to-head with the Brotherhood in 24 of the run-offs.

Official results are not due until Thursday, but leaked tallies suggested secular moderates might have rallied behind the Brotherhood to thwart the Salafis.

Sayyeda Ibrahim, 52, a cook from Cairo, said she voted for a Salafi candidate in last week’s first round but regretted her choice later when she saw him debate with a liberal candidate.

“That bearded fellow is too radical,” she said.

Among the Salafis who lost out was Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, a prominent spokesman for the movement in its base in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria, who was defeated by a Brotherhood-backed rival, local media reported.

Shahat caused uproar among liberal Egyptians for suggesting democracy was “haram” (forbidden) and the country’s ancient Pharaonic statues which draw millions of tourists to the country should be covered up or destroyed as they are idolatrous.

The strong showing by Islamists has unnerved Israel, which called on Egypt this week to preserve their 1979 peace treaty, and also the United States which has backed the peace deal with billions of dollars in military aid for both countries.

The Brotherhood and Salafi al-Nour party share much of the same rhetoric, focused on applying Islamic sharia law as the solution to Egypt’s problems.

But the Brotherhood has emphasized the political reform agenda it shares with a broad range of groups that took part in the uprising at the start of the year and is sounding more open to compromise with liberal forces in parliament.

Some 56 individual seats were up for grabs in the first round of the election, with others assigned to party lists that will eventually account for two thirds of all seats on offer. Two more rounds follow, with the last run-off in mid-January.

Divisions between Islamist rivals has given liberals hope that they might take part in a post-election government and help shape the future constitution.

Parliament’s popular mandate will make it difficult for the military council to ignore, but the army will keep hold of the levers of power until a presidential election in June, after which it has said it would hand over power to civilians.

The army announced on Tuesday it would give more decision-making powers to its new prime minister, Kamal al-Ganzouri, in an apparent attempt to deflect criticism that it is seeking to control the political transition.

Ganzouri, tasked with forming a “government of national salvation” after violent street protests last month, announced a new cabinet with many incumbents keeping their portfolios.

A state-owned newspaper said on Wednesday that Ganzouri had nominated General Mohamed Ibrahim, a former regional security official, to the sensitive role of interior minister, tasked with reforming the police.

Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Tamim Elyan and Patrick Werr; Editing by Crispian Balmer

UN report: No consensus on Palestinian statehood bid


The United Nations Security Council could not arrive at a consensus on the Palestinians’ statehood bid, a draft report from the panel reportedly says.

The four-page report by the committee on admitting new member states sent Tuesday to all 15 Security members said, according to Reuters, that the committee cannot make a unanimous recommendation to the Security Council. Reuters said it obtained a copy of the report.

The members are divided into those that support the bid, those who are abstaining because they cannot support it at this time, and those who oppose it on the basis of the application not meeting the appropriate criteria.

It is believed that the Palestinians do not have they nine votes they need in order to have the application approved. The United States has threatened to use its veto should the Palestinians get enough votes.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied to the United Nations for full membership for the state of Palestine on Sept. 23.

The Security Council is scheduled to debate the report on Friday, when the report is formally presented.

Despite UNESCO victory, Palestinian statehood push running aground


They may have scored a victory at UNESCO, but the Palestinians are running into new obstacles on their push for statehood recognition at the United Nations.

The effort to pursue the issue at the U.N. Security Council has encountered a stumbling block in Bosnia, where the country’s Serbian co-president appears to have helped cost the Palestinians a crucial ninth vote.

Meanwhile, U.N. officials are sending a strong message regarding any further efforts to get U.N. agencies to follow UNESCO’s lead in granting the Palestinians membership: Please stop.

“I believe this is not beneficial for Palestine and not beneficial for anybody,” Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, said in a Nov. 3 interview with The Associated Press.

U.S. laws requiring an automatic cutoff in funds to U.N. agencies that grant statehood recognition to the Palestinians already have threatened massive cuts to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural and scientific agency.

“When an organization is not properly functioning because of a lack of resources, you have to think about the millions and millions of people who are being impacted and affected,” Ban said.

The Palestinians have taken heed. On Nov. 3, the day that AP published its Ban interview, Riyad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, said the Palestinians would stick to pursuing the Security Council option.

“The backlash that’s coming from UNESCO, including from the secretary-general, made it clear it might be a risky counterproductive process to go to other agencies,” said Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. “So for the time being they’re concentrating on the Security Council.”

Pro-Israel officials said this should be a “duh” moment for the Palestinians, who had been clearly warned of the dangers—not least by congressional appropriators. The appropriators had said repeatedly that cutting off U.N. agencies recognizing “Palestine“ was a matter not only of policy but law.

“Any agency that was considering the Palestinians will now not consider it,” said Tom Neumann, the executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “There was no margin for wiggling out of it. The State Department is unhappy about cutting UNESCO, but they didn’t have a choice.”

Israel and the United States say the only route to statehood for the Palestinians is through direct negotiations. The Palestinians refuse to return to talks until Israel freezes settlement building.

The Obama administration had made it clear that it would veto any Security Council bid. The Palestinians could have put the United States in the difficult position of having to use its veto in the Security Council by garnering nine votes from the council’s 15 members, the minimum required to approve a membership request. That, the Palestinians believed, would have been an important symbolic victory.

The Palestinians had secured the backing of China, Russia, Brazil, Lebanon, South Africa and India at the Security Council. Pledging to vote against or to abstain were the United States, Britain, France, Germany and close U.S. allies Colombia and Portugal. The U.S., Israel and pro-Israel groups had targeted the three countries that were seen as up for grabs: Nigeria, Gabon and Bosnia.

Nigeria and Gabon, both with close oil-based ties to the Arab world, reportedly moved into the Palestinian column, giving the Palestinians eight votes. That left Bosnia, a recipient of Western assistance that still nurtures hopes of joining the European Union.

The wild card for the Bosnians turned out to be its unique presidency, where U.N. votes must be approved. Three co-presidents represent the country’s major communities—Muslim, Croat and Serb.

The Muslim president reportedly favored statehood recognition, and the Croat’s position was not known. But the Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, was adamantly opposed, and last week the president’s office announced that lacking unanimity, Bosnia would abstain.

A request to the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington as to Palestinian strategies going forward went unanswered.

The Palestinians can still bring the case to the General Assembly, where they have the votes to achieve enhanced observer status, equivalent to the Vatican.

The setbacks to the Palestinians’ U.N. strategy do not mean that the issue of Palestinian statehood is off the table, said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Absent the diplomatic route, he warned, the Palestinians might press for statehood through violence.

“There’s a frustration that it’s not on the Israeli agenda, it’s dropped from the American agenda and they have to do something to put it back on everyone’s agenda,” Alterman said.

The alternative to progress toward statehood could be the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, under pressure from a populace that is fed up with its diplomatic failures, said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, an Israeli strategic policy think tank.

Speaking Tuesday in Denver to JACPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, at a session convened during the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly, Grinstein said that Israel and the United States should embrace the Palestinian U.N. bid as a means of avoiding what he said would be a disaster.

“Instead of fighting the Palestinian motion in the U.N., embrace it and work for it,” Grinstein said. “There’s a lot of risks on this option, but are there lesser risks with a Palestinian Authority that could implode?”

Wasserman-Schultz to JFNA: defend Obama’s record


Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the Democratic Party leader, urged Jewish leaders to push back against what she said were distortions of President Obama’s Israel record.

Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, defended Obama to the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, taking place this year in Denver, calling attacks on his Israel record “deliberate distortions.”

She urged those attending to “spread the word” about his increases in defense assistance to the Jewish state, and noted the recent coordination with Israel countering the Palestinian push for statehood recognition at the United Nations.

“Israel should never be used as a political football,” she said.

Republican and conservative critics of Obama have emphasized diplomatic tensions between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.