Israel’s Arab parties unite, could help Netanyahu rivals


Four political parties that mostly represent Israel's Arab minority have decided to run together in elections on March 17, creating a potential counter-weight to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies.

Opinion polls suggest the united Arab list could secure 11 seats in the 120-seat parliament, around the same level as they hold individually but with their political influence increased.

The joint slate, finalised on Thursday, was in part a bid for electoral survival since the government has backed legislation raising the threshold for getting into parliament, leaving two of the four parties on the brink of extinction.

The four – Raam (United Arab List), Taal (Arab Movement for Renewal), Balad (National Democratic Assembly) and Arab-Jewish party Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) – cover a range of ideology from Islamist to secular to ex-Communist.

Despite that, Raam lawmaker Masud Ganaim said the list was united in its support for Palestinian statehood and concern about Netanyahu's efforts to enshrine Jewish statehood in law.

“The Arab community in Israel wants us all to join forces, so we can have more influence and challenge the Netanyahu government's racist and Judaizing policies,” he told Reuters.

Pre-election polls put Netanyahu's Likud party neck-and-neck with the centre-left alliance of Labour leader Isaac Herzog and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Who gets to form the next government could come down to who garners more partners.

Ganaim said his four-party list may back Herzog and Livni.

“It is being considered,” he said. “We think the political map will shift toward the centre-left, and in such a situation we will have an important role. We would tilt the balance.”

Arabs, mostly Muslim, make up 20 percent of Israel's population. Ganaim said some 55 percent of them take part in national elections, with more than 80 percent of votes going to Arab parties while a minority back mainstream “Zionist” parties.

Balad leader Jamal Zahalka deemed the four-party list a rebuke to ultra-nationalist Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has sought to sideline Arab politicians he deems disloyal to the state.

“Those who didn't want Arab parties to have 10 seats in parliament will see them get 15,” Zahalka told Israel radio.

Lieberman's Israel Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party, hit by corruption probes and high-profile resignations, is seen taking around 6 parliamentary seats – down from its current 12.

Netanyahu could still find a potent future ally in Economy Minister Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party, which is predicted to win some 15 seats.

Livni sees peace talks aiding Arab world alliance shift


Israel's top peace negotiator said on Friday newly resumed talks with the Palestinians also held a wider opportunity for Israel to seek alliances with Arab world moderates against militants in the Middle East.

The U.S.-brokered talks were renewed last month after a three-year standoff, the latest session on Wednesday coming amid a row over new plans by Israel to expand its enclaves in territory Palestinians want for a state.

The sides have provided little detail about the talks, hoping a lower profile may help them reach Washington's ambitious goal of reaching a deal for Palestinian statehood in nine months, despite wide gaps over key issues.

Livni, speaking after meeting about the negotiations with visiting U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon on Friday, declined to say whether any progress had been made.

She said the talks have provided an opening “not only to relaunch negotiations but also to change the allies and alliances in the region.”

“I believe there are parts in the Arab world that for them relaunching the negotiations can be an opportunity to support this and to work together against the extremists,” she added, alluding to the turmoil in Egypt and Syria's civil war.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at a meeting with Ban on Thursday, the negotiations with Israelhad thus far dealt with “all the final status issues” but that it was “too early to say whether we've accomplished anything or not.”

The Arab League, Jordan and Egypt's military-led government that deposed Muslim Brotherhood rulers last month have welcomed the resumption of peace talks, also with backing from the Arab League whose 2002 peace initiative remains on the table for possible recognition of Israel after the dispute is resolved.

Israel has peace treaties with two Arab countries, Egypt, signed in 1979 and Jordan, in 1994 but remains technically at war with much of the Arab world since the conflict over Israel's founding in 1948.

BAN 'DEEPLY TROUBLED'

Ban said in his Ramallah talks with Abbas he was “deeply troubled by Israel's continuing settlement activity in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.”

The U.N. chief was referring to plans for some 1,200 new housing units in the territory Israel captured in a 1967 war that Israel published ahead of this week's talks.

Ban praised Israel's release of 26 of the 104 prisoners promised under a deal that led to resuming peace talks, but expressed concern for 5,000 other Palestinians in Israeli jails, some of whom have been on intermittent hunger strikes.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said he told Ban that Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon of violating a 2006 ceasefire with activity close to Israel's border, such as weapons depots in south Lebanese villages.

Israel was worried about conflict in neighboring countries, he said in a statement released by his office: “The Middle East is in the throes of a strategic earthquake and there will be instability in the region for a long time to come.”

Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Ramallah; Editing by Jon Boyle

Livni: Next round of peace talks in Israel


The next round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will be held in Israel next week, according to Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator.

Livni, the country’s justice minister, told Israel’s Channel 10 over the weekend that the negotiations, scheduled to last about nine months, would alternate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The next round will be held in Israel during the second week in August, by which time the first group of Palestinian prisoners will be freed, Livni said. Some 104 Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs who have been held in Israeli jails for involvement in terror attacks before the Oslo Accords are set to be freed during the talks, dependent on the progress of the negotiations.

The sides resumed talks late last month following an intensive diplomatic effort led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Israel, Palestinians deeply divided despite renewed peace talks


Israel and the Palestinians remain far apart over terms of any peace deal, officials from both sides made clear on Wednesday, a day after talks resumed in Washington for the first time in nearly three years.

Israel's lead negotiator, Tzipi Livni, said the parties “need to build confidence” after what she called an encouraging start in Washington, and disputed a Palestinian demand to focus first on agreeing the frontiers of an independent state.

“The goal is to end the conflict,” Livni said on Israel Radio. “It cannot be ended merely by setting a border.”

Yasser Abed Rabbo, who is close to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, forecast “huge difficulties” for the talks begun after intense diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Abed Rabbo, speaking on Voice of Palestine radio, cited Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and said any further building there would scupper the negotiations.

He was alluding to Israeli media reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had cajoled far-right allies to back the talks by pledging to permit more settlement expansion.

Kerry has said the negotiators will reconvene in August, aiming to achieve a “final status” deal within nine months.

Previous peace talks collapsed in 2010 over settlement building in the West Bank, which Palestinians see as grabbing land they want for a state that would include the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, all territories captured by Israel in 1967.

Abed Rabbo said borders, which the Palestinians say must be based on pre-1967 war lines, were “the first issue that must be resolved”, countering Israel's demand that all issues, including refugees and Jerusalem, should be tackled simultaneously.

“Putting all the dishes on the table at once may be an attempt to undermine the process,” Abed Rabbo said.

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid defined the ultimate goal of negotiations as the creation of a Palestinian state in “the majority” of the West Bank, but said Israel would keep three large settlement blocs there, as well as East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians might eventually accept this “because they will have no choice”, the centrist minister said. “What we are looking for is a fair divorce from the Palestinians, so that we can stand on one side of the border and they on the other.”

Decades of peace negotiations sponsored by the United States, Israel's main ally, have failed to resolve the conflict.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Netanyahu says he would put peace deal to referendum


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he would put any peace deal with the Palestinians to a referendum, raising expectations that direct negotiations might soon resume following a two-year stalemate.

It was the second time in just three days that Netanyahu has publicly mentioned the possibility of holding a nationwide vote on an eventual accord and came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Israeli politicians in Washington to discuss talks.

“If we get to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, I'd like to bring it to a referendum, and I'd like to talk to you about your experiences with that,” Netanyahu said as he met Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter.

Switzerland regularly holds referendum on a broad range of issues. Israel, by contrast, has never held a referendum in its 65-year history, and previous peace treaties with Arab neighbors Egypt and Jordan were approved by parliament.

Netanyahu leads a center-right coalition that includes supporters of the settlement movement, many of whom are fiercely opposed to the idea of allowing the Palestinians an independent state on land seized by Israel in the 1967 war.

By pledging to put any deal to a referendum, Netanyahu could be hoping to avert any immediate far-right backlash to a decision to talk land-for-peace with the Palestinians, promising that the Israeli people would have the final word.

“There is a very serious effort under way to get talks to resume,” said a senior Israeli official who declined to be named. “People are devoting a lot of time and effort to this. It is possible and it is doable.”

OBSTACLES

U.S. President Barack Obama came to Jerusalem in March and his secretary of state has visited the region three times in little over six weeks. Kerry was due to see Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni later on Thursday in Washington.

Livni has been designated by Netanyahu to be his chief peace negotiator. She was traveling with one of the prime minister's top officials and confidants, Yitzhak Molcho.

Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2010 over the issue of continued Jewish settlement building on 1967 land. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he will not return to the table until there is a construction freeze. Israel says there should be no pre-conditions.

Unexpectedly highlighting the issue of referendum has fueled hopes that the impasse might soon be overcome. However, there was little sign that the core questions dividing the two sides, including the status of Jerusalem, were any nearer resolution.

“No one thinks we are near a historic agreement. But any historic agreement will need national legitimacy,” the Israeli official said.

The Palestinians have also said that they would hold a referendum on an eventual accord, with no guarantees that their diverse electorate, including the far-flung refugee population, would accept the likely compromises needed to seal a deal.

Israel passed a law in 2010 for a referendum to approve any handover of East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, territory captured in the 1967 war and which it has annexed.

Moves are under way in parliament to expand that law to include the West Bank, which has not been annexed.

Editing by Crispian Balmer

Livni slams Shalit prisoner exchange


Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni criticized the prisoner swap that freed Gilad Shalit, saying it weakened Israel and strengthened Hamas.

In an interview Sunday on Israel Radio, Livni asserted that the next phase of the deal, in which 550 Palestinian prisoners are to be released, should be coordinated with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose authority extends over the West Bank.

Livni, who heads the Kadima Party, also called for the peace process to be restarted, saying the prisoner swap creates a unique opportunity to launch new talks.

Some 477 Palestinian prisoners from Gaza and the West Bank were released last week in exchange for Shalit in a deal reached between Israel and the terrorist organization Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip and held the Israeli soldier there for more than five years.

Livni was Israel’s foreign affairs minister when Shalit was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006. A Kadima-led government reportedly negotiated a similar deal that did not come to fruition.

Over the weekend, Shalit visited the beach with his father.

Livni visits Britain after prosecution law amended


Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni has visited Britain for the first time since a law that allows for the prosecution of foreign officials for alleged war crimes was amended.

Livni arrived in London Thursday for the first time since a warrant for her arrest was issued in 2009 for her role in the Gaza war. Livni was Israel’s foreign minister during the month-long war in 2008-2009. She was forced to cancel the 2009 visit due to fears that she would be detained.

The law had caused strained relations between Israel and Britain after several Israeli officials either canceled or shortened visits to the country over fears of being arrested for their roles in the Second Lebanon and Gaza wars.

Under the new law, Britain’s director of public prosecutions must agree to issue an arrest warrant in universal jurisdiction cases in which the alleged crimes were committed outside of Britain. This means political considerations also will be taken into account. Previously, anyone in Britain could apply to a judge for an arrest warrant. The new law took effect Sept. 15.

Livni met with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, reportedly at his invitation, and praised Britain for amending the law. “This is not a personal issue, but something which has darkened relations between the two countries for years, and Britain has done a good thing by putting an end to the matter,” Livni said, according to Haaretz.

S. Africa denies arrest warrant request for Livni


A request to issue an arrest warrant for Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni was turned down by a South African investigation board.

The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, also known as the Hawks, found late last week that “there are insufficient grounds for us to obtain a warrant of arrest.”

The Hawks also found that Livni must be in South Africa for the country to begin an investigation into the allegations of war crimes against her.

Livni last week said she canceled her trip to South Africa due to the Israeli Foreign Ministry workers’ strike, which ended Monday. She was scheduled to give several speeches and hold meetings in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The Jewish Board of Deputies, which was sponsoring Livni’s trip, told the South African Press Association that it will be rescheduled.

Earlier this month the Media Review Network, a South African organization dedicated to dispelling stereotypes about Muslims, said it had instructed its attorneys to secure the arrest warrant in accordance with the Rome statutes, to which South Africa is a signatory, “which obligates all member states to honor their responsibility in the prosecution of war criminals.”

A 3,000-page report on the war compiled by the Media Review Network and the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance calls Livni one of the “key architects” of the Gaza war, known as Operation Cast Lead, which lasted for a month beginning in late December 2008. Livni was serving as Israel’s foreign minister at the time. The report was provided to the Hawks as evidence of Livni’s war crimes.

Last week, the Anti-Defamation League wrote to South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool, expressing concern about the request for an arrest warrant and asked that the South African government “clearly state that it is opposed to unwarranted legal activism of this type.”

“This decision clearly shows South Africa’s commitment to the rule of law and willingness to act responsibly to prevent an obvious injustice,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, in a statement released Monday. “Such efforts to arrest and demonize Israeli officials are counterproductive and preclude constructive relationships between countries,”

It is not the first time that foreign organizations have tried to secure warrants for Livni’s arrest for her actions during the Gaza war. A British court issued an arrest warrant for Livni in December 2009, forcing the Israeli lawmaker to cancel her visit.

S. African group seeking Livni’s arrest on ‘war crimes’


A South African organization dedicated to dispelling stereotypes about Muslims is seeking an arrest warrant for Israeli lawmaker Tzipi Livni for her role in the Gaza war.

Livni, Israel’s opposition leader and head of the Kadima Party, is set to visit South Africa at the end of the month as a guest of the Jewish Board of Deputies, according to the South African Press Association. She is scheduled to give several speeches and hold meetings in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Igbal Jassat, chairman of the the Media Review Network, told the South African Press Association that his organization has instructed its attorneys to secure the arrest warrant in accordance with the Rome statutes, to which South Africa is a signatory, “which obligates all member states to honor their responsibility in the prosecution of war criminals.”

A 3,000-page report on the war compiled by the Media Review Network and the Palestinian Solidarity Alliance calls Livni one of the “key architects” of the Gaza war, known as Operation Cast Lead, which lasted for one month beginning in late December 2008. Livni was serving as Israel’s foreign minister at the time.

It is not the first time that foreign organizations have tried to secure warrants for Livni’s arrest for her actions during the Gaza war. A British court issued an arrest warrant for Livni in December 2009, forcing Livni to cancel her visit.

Jewish Board of Deputies spokesman Zev Krengel said that Livni’s visit will go forward as scheduled.

Livni says Israel should freeze settlement building


Israel should have instituted a second settlement building freeze in exchange for U.S. guarantees, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni said on ABC News.

“In choosing between building more buildings or making peace, I prefer to make peace,” Livni said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with Christiane Amanpour” in a joint interview with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. “I believe that a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians is in Israel’s interest. It’s not a favor to President Obama. Israel needs to make these kinds of decisions in order to live in peace.”

Livni, who heads the left-of-center Kadima Party, met privately with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton over the weekend and attended the Saban Forum in Washington.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not extend a 10-month moratorium on building in the settlements despite guarantees from the Obama administration.

The current state of the Middle East peace process was due to the makeup of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, said Livni, who indicated that she had offered to form a national unity government with his Likud Party.

Fayyad did not answer directly when asked if the Palestinian leadership would unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.

“What we are committed to is statehood. Not a declaration of statehood, we’re looking for a state,” he said. “We did make a declaration of statehood [in] 1988. This time we’re looking for a real state on the ground.”

Fayyad said he was waiting to hear from Netanyahu on what the Israeli leader means when he says he is committed to a Palestinian state.

Yes, we cantankerous


Briefs: Secular candidate new Jerusalem mayor, Netanyahu would nix talks


Poll Shows Barkat Winning Jerusalem Mayoralty

Secular businessman Nir Barkat appeared to be the new mayor of Jerusalem, according to exit polls.

Channel 1 TV showed Barkat with 50 percent of the vote Tuesday to 42 percent for Rabbi Meir Porush, an ultra-Orthodox Knesset member. The third contender, former Russian oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak, was well behind.

Early exit polling, however, has proved to be unreliable in the past.

Many Jerusalemites view this year’s municipal elections to replace the current mayor, Uri Lupolianski, as a turning point for a city that is Israel’s poorest, still vulnerable to terrorist attacks and wracked by economic, political and religious divisions. Still, turnout was low, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Lupolianski was the city’s first Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, mayor.

Netanyahu Would Halt Annapolis-Launched Talks

Benjamin Netanyahu would end Israel’s current negotiations with the Palestinians if elected prime minister, his office said.

A spokeswoman for Netanyahu, the Likud Party candidate for prime minister in elections scheduled for Feb. 10, said Netanyahu believes the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched a year ago at a peace summit at Annapolis, Md., have failed, The Associated Press reported.

“It’s premature to talk about a final peace deal, and sharing control of Jerusalem is out of the question,” Netanyahu spokeswoman Dina Libster said, adding that the Likud leader believes talks with the Palestinians should focus on economic issues.

On Monday, the AP reported that Netanyahu said he would continue Israeli-Palestinian peace talks but that negotiating over Jerusalem was out of the question.

Biden, Livni Discuss Iran, Peace

Joe Biden discussed Middle East peace and Iran in a phone call with Tzipi Livni.

The U.S. vice president-elect spoke to the Israeli foreign minister after last week’s elections, said a statement released Tuesday by Livni’s office.

Biden, a senator from Delaware for 35 years, is expected to take a lead foreign policy role in the Barack Obama administration. He is well known to Israeli leaders, having made his first visit to the region just before the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

“Livni thanked Vice President-elect Biden for his long-standing friendship and support of Israel and said that she looks forward to continuing to work with him,” the statement said. “They agreed to work together to advance the shared interests and values of Israel and the United States in the Middle East.”

The statement emphasized concerns about Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and control of the Gaza Strip by Hamas terrorists.

“It is very important that we continue our cooperation and work together against the Iranian threat,” it quoted Livni as saying. “Time is not working in favor of the moderates in Iran. Hamas and the extremist elements are studying our moves and they must understand that the world will not tolerate extremism and terror.”

Livni is leading the centrist Kadima Party in Feb. 10 elections.

Enriched Uranium Reportedly Found in Syria

Investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reportedly found traces of enriched uranium in Syria.

The finding by the agency, which works under the auspices of the United Nations, is a potential sign that Syria had been attempting to develop a nuclear program, Reuters quoted diplomats familiar with the IAEA probe as saying.

According to Monday’s report, the uranium was discovered at the same site that was allegedly bombed by the Israeli Air Force in September 2007.

The leaked information came shortly after the IAEA Director Mohammed El Baradei announced he would release a formal, written report on the subject, Reuters reported. The IAEA had no immediate comment.

“It isn’t enough to conclude or prove what the Syrians were doing, but the IAEA has concluded this requires further investigation,” a diplomat with ties to the organization said.

Birthright Cuts Budget by $35 Million

Birthright Israel is cutting its budget by $35 million for 2009.

Birthright, which sends Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 on free 10-day trips to Israel, had a budget of $110 million in the fiscal year that just ended, enabling the organization to send some 42,000 people to Israel. In the coming year, Birthright will only be able to send 25,000 because the program’s budget is dropping to $75 million, the president and CEO of the Birthright Foundation, Jay Golan, told JTA.

Golan, however, said that Birthright will most likely not be affected by the financial troubles of the company of its largest private benefactor, Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands company. The casino company is on the verge of bankruptcy, according to Bloomberg News.

Adelson gave some $60 million to Birthright Israel in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, he pledged $30 million to the organization to be paid out over the next two years. The money will pay for 6,000 trips, Golan said.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Tzipi Livni to seek new elections as coalition effort fails


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Briefs: Kadima sends coalition plan to Labor, budget woes close colleges


Kadima Sends Draft Coalition Pact to Labor

Labor would be the senior partner in a new government, according to a draft coalition agreement reportedly sent on by Kadima. Associates of Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni reportedly passed the draft agreement Sunday to the Labor Party.

Israeli media are reporting that the agreement will serve as the basis for continuing talks between the ruling Kadima and Labor.

A deal between the two parties is expected soon.

According to Ynet, the agreement would make Labor the senior partner in the new government, with its chairman, Ehud Barak, serving as a senior deputy prime minister and playing a significant role in negotiations with Syria. Barak reportedly is concerned that the Shas party will not join a Livni-led government, and that Labor will be stuck in a government with a narrow ruling coalition, thereby hamstringing the party.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the chairman of the Likud Party, met Monday with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, to encourage him not to join a Livni government. Livni has until Oct. 20 to form a new coalition government, although she can ask President Shimon Peres for a two-week extension.

West Bank Closed for Sukkot

The West Bank is under a general closure for the Sukkot holiday. The Israel Defense Forces sealed off the area at midnight Sunday. It will remain closed until Oct. 21, according to a statement from the IDF spokesman’s office. Palestinians will be allowed to move in and out of the area for humanitarian and medical reasons only with authorization of the army’s district coordinator.

“The IDF regards the Festival of Tabernacles as a highly sensitive time,” according to the statement. “Accordingly, the IDF will be on higher alert in order to ensure the safety of the citizens of Israel, while preserving, to the best of its ability, the daily routine of the Palestinian population.”

Meanwhile, on Sunday night, the IDF arrested three Palestinians carrying nine pipe bombs at an army checkpoint near Nablus, preventing a planned terror attack on Israel.

Synagogue Near Temple Mount Reopened

The Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter was abandoned in 1938 by a group of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews called the Shomrei Hachomot, or Guardians of the Walls, in the face of Arab violence.

It is also known as the Ungarin Shul since it was founded by Hungarian Jews in 1904, according to the Jerusalem Post. American philanthropists Irving and Cherna Moskowitz bought the property rights to the synagogue, which is located about 100 yards from the Temple Mount, and funded the refurbishing. The Temple Mount, home also to the Dome of the Rock mosque, has been at the center of tension between Jews and Arabs, particularly in the past two decades.

Israeli Universities Say They Can’t Reopen

Cutbacks will prevent Israeli universities from opening for the new academic year, according to the university heads. With more money slashed from the Finance Ministry’s budget for higher education, the universities will not open Nov. 2 as scheduled, representatives of the country’s universities told an emergency session of the Knesset Education Committee on Sunday.

“After seven years of continual cutbacks we have reduced the number of courses, we have raised the number of students in classes and we have banished an entire generation of lecturers overseas,” Rivka Carmi, the president of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, told the committee. “We’re not issuing a threat not to open the academic year; we simply can’t open the year.”

The threat was made just a week after The Hebrew University of Jerusalem was ranked 93rd in the world by the Times Higher Education survey, jumping 35 places since last year.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Briefs: Peace process proceeeds, says Livni; Bush waives Palestinian aid rules


Livni Says Peace Process Will Move Forward

Tzipi Livni said the peace process will move forward and that Israel will be able to face challenges better with a stable government.

The Israeli prime minister-designate, who is working to form a new government coalition, made her first national policy address Sunday at the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s conference on policy and strategy.

“Israel wishes to arrive at peace with all of her neighbors — the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon and the Arab nations,” Livni said. “We have proven our willingness not only by embarking on diplomatic processes but by evacuating Gaza.”

She added: “The process should continue, and we should press ahead and conduct ourselves correctly. Don’t let incidental dates or political changes get in the way of a responsible process.”

Livni said the government must achieve both financial and political stability. She took a swipe at other political parties that are making budgetary demands in order to agree to join the coalition.

“We must maintain financial stability, and in order to safeguard [the economy], we must also preserve the political balance; we must achieve political stability quickly,” Livni stressed. “Therefore, we are in need of a government that will maintain the equilibrium, a government that can transcend partisan demands.”

Earlier at the same conference, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said that Israel had failed to live up to the commitments it made at the Annapolis peace summit in 2007.

“We believed in what was promised — that this year would be different,” he said. “But we are already in October, and we are losing hope that by the end of the year we will see the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and the end of the occupation.”

Al-Maliki warned that the failure to come to a peace agreement would lead to the domination of Hamas and a return to violence.

Bush Waives Palestinian Aid Restrictions

President Bush waived restrictions on direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

“I hereby certify that it is important to the national security interests of the United States to waive” restrictions on direct funding for the Palestinian Authority, Bush wrote in a message Monday to the State Department.

The waiver allows Bush to transfer as much as $75 million to the Palestinian Authority. Such direct funding is otherwise subject to conditions, including proof that the Palestinian Authority has disarmed terrorists and ended incitement.

Bush is making an end-of-presidency push for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Most funding for the Palestinians in recent years has been directed through nongovernmental organizations, partly to avoid the taint of corruption and terrorism that had attached itself to the Palestinian Authority.

The Bush administration has praised the new P.A. leadership for reforms and said it needs the money in part to meet challenges from Islamist extremists.

Obama Campaign Returns Gazans’ Cash

The Obama campaign returned $33,000 to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who purchased a large quantity of campaign T-shirts.

The revelation arises out of a Republican request to the Federal Election Commission to investigate thousands of small donations to the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Republicans claim that some of the donors are from overseas, which is illegal.

Reporting the request Monday, the Washington Post noted that Newsweek, its sister publication, reported that two Palestinian brothers had paid $33,000 for a bulk order of T-shirts. Such purchases from online stores are counted as donations.

The campaign returned the money and said its staff had mistaken the brothers’ address abbreviation for Gaza, “Ga.,” as the U.S. state of Georgia.

Papers Reveal Israel’s Confusion in ’73 War

Top Israeli army officials did not know what was happening in the field during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, according to newly declassified documents. Israel’s Defense Ministry declassified documents Tuesday relating to the investigation of failures of the war.

The deliberations of the Agranat Committee, which was established to investigate the conduct of the military and the government during the war, including testimony of senior officers such as Ariel Sharon and Moshe Dayan, were made public nearly 35 years to the day after the outbreak of the war.

Former Prime Minister Sharon, who commanded the 53rd Division during the war, told the committee at the time that the higher command “had no idea of what was happening on the ground,” according to a report in the newspaper, Ha’aretz. Sharon also discussed his plan to cross the Suez Canal, which led to Israel’s victory.

Dayan’s testimony was reminiscent of issues that arose following the 2006 Second Lebanon War, including not calling up reservists right away and not anticipating a full-scale war.

U.S. Could Waive Israeli Visa Requirement

The United States could soon waive the need for an entry visa by Israelis. In a meeting in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Israel Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit discussed waiving the need for a visa for Israelis to visit the United States, the newspaper, Yediot Achronot, reported Oct. 3.

The change in policy would begin to be formulated later this month. To qualify, Israel would have to switch from a paper to a biometric passport system.

Approximately 313,000 Israelis have traveled to the United States so far this year. The current process for obtaining an entry visa requires a fee, embassy interview and a long wait.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Anger greets Olmert’s concessions on Golan, West Bank, Iran


JERUSALEM (JTA)—A Rosh Hashanah-eve interview in which outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel should give up the Golan Heights for peace with Syria and nearly all of the West Bank for peace with the Palestinians has sparked a political storm in Israel.

Prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, who is set to succeed Olmert as soon as she forms a coalition government, quickly distanced herself from most of Olmert’s key pronouncements, which included an assertion that it would be megalomaniacal for Israel to attack Iran unilaterally.

Politicians on the right lambasted Olmert for his dovish message, and left-wingers slammed him for not going public with his vision before he was a lame duck.

Some Israeli analysts saw evidence in Olmert’s transformation from one-time super-hawk to unmitigated dove of a final collapse of the ideology of Greater Israel, which advocates holding on to as much conquered territory as possible.

Olmert, who is stepping down amid a corruption investigation, in the interview published last week by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot made the following points:

* It is presumptuous to think Israel can stop Iran’s nuclear drive when powers such as the United States, Russia, China, Britain and Germany seem unable to do so.

* Israel has a very short window of time in which it can take “historic steps” in its relations with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

* For peace with the Palestinians, Israel will have to withdraw from most of the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem, and grant compensation on a one-to-one basis for whatever land it keeps. “Without this, there won’t be peace,” he insisted.

* For peace with Syria, Israel will have to return the Golan Heights.

* Israel is very close to agreement both with the Palestinians and Syria, and if Olmert had stayed on he would have had a good chance of closing the deals.

* The main security problem Israel faces today is missiles, and having the border a few hundred yards one way or the other won’t make any difference.

* Years of conservative thinking by the Israeli establishment have undermined peace prospects.

“When I listen to you, I know why we didn’t make peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians for 40 years and why we won’t make peace with them for another 40 years,” he recalled saying at a recent forum with the country’s top policymakers.

If the interview was meant to constitute Olmert’s political legacy, his presumptive successor was quick to reject it.

Livni, the foreign minister, said Olmert was wrong to go public with Israel’s final negotiating positions while she is in the midst of intensive negotiations with the Palestinians.

“We agreed negotiations should take place in the negotiating room, not on the pages of a newspaper,” she said at a Foreign Ministry conference in Jerusalem after Rosh Hashanah.

Olmert also was roundly criticized on the right for saying too much and on the left for doing too little.

Yuval Steinitz of the Likud Party took issue with Olmert’s contention that in an age of missiles, Israel could afford to give up hundreds of yards on its borders.

“Ignoring the difference between rockets fired from long distances and an enemy perched on hills above Jerusalem shows just how little he understands basic security issues,” Steinitz said.

Yossi Beilin of the Meretz Party castigated Olmert for “revealing his true position on the national interest only when he has nothing to lose.”

Those sentiments were echoed overseas, where Olmert’s conciliatory positions were welcomed but with wonderment at why he hadn’t said as much earlier.

An editorial in The New York Times summed up the sentiment in an editorial Saturday titled “Mr. Olmert’s Belated Truths.”

“It is tragic that he did not do more to act on those beliefs when he had real power,” the editorial said.

Olmert is the fourth Israeli prime minister to start his political life as a hawk in the vein of the Likud or its predecessor, Herut, and then to surprise observers later with the extent of his willingness to make far-reaching concessions.

Herut founder Menachem Begin returned the Sinai to Egypt; Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew Israeli forces from Hebron, concluded the Wye River agreement with the Palestinians and negotiated with Syria over withdrawing from the Golan; and Ariel Sharon pulled back unilaterally from the Gaza Strip.

Olmert, it seems, has now set the stage for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Olmert confidants argue that the frank expression of his views has positive elements for future peacemaking and diplomacy. They say it has created a strong incentive for the various Arab parties to negotiate peace and shown the international community how far Israel would be willing to go—a possible public relations advantage if peace efforts fail.

Moreover, they say, Olmert has put peacemaking and its time constraints squarely on the public agenda.

Critics, however, reject these claims. They point out that Olmert’s stated readiness for full withdrawal on all fronts encourages Arab parties to cling to maximalist positions, not compromise. It also puts the next Israeli prime minister on the spot: If peace moves break down, they say, the next prime minister will be blamed for not going as far as Olmert would have.

Livni bristled at the implication that peace would be achievable under Olmert if he could have stayed on, and if she failed to achieve peace during her tenure as prime minister, she would be to blame.

Most importantly, Livni, Olmert’s likely successor, also came out against the substance of Olmert’s key positions.

In a meeting Sunday in Jerusalem with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Livni said she opposed the framework of Olmert’s offer to the Palestinians. She said she was against making far-reaching proposals for a quick fix and that negotiations should be allowed all the time they needed to ripen into a well-constructed and lasting deal.

Livni was critical as well of Olmert’s position on Iran. In the Yediot interview, Olmert dismissed as “megalomania” the notion that Israel would or should unilaterally attack Iran. Olmert said the international community, not just Israel, should take the steps necessary to arrest Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Livni said Olmert’s remarks sent the wrong message to Tehran and that Israel should be sending the message to the Iranians that all options are on the table.

Despite her sharp criticism, Foreign Ministry officials said Livni does not think Olmert’s comments will have a serious impact on the peace process.

“Olmert is not relevant anymore,” a senior ministry official told JTA. “What he says doesn’t matter.”

Olmert submits resignation, promises to help Livni


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALTTEXT

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

Exit polls say Tzipi Livni wins big in Kadima primary


Exit polls show Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni winning the Kadima Party primary by a double-digit margin.

Livni received between 47 and 49 percent of the vote, while her closest challenger, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, won 37 percent, according to exit polls conducted by three Israeli TV stations.

By winning more than 40 percent of Wednesday’s vote, Livni will avoid a runoff and immediately can begin trying to assemble a governing coalition. Once that process is complete, Livni will formally replace Ehud Olmert as prime minister.

If Livni fails to assemble a coalition, Israel will hold new general elections for Knesset and prime minister.

The voting was not without controversy. Livni asked that the polls stay open an extra hour due to “congestion” at polling stations, but Mofaz opposed the request. In the end, Kadima officials extended the voting by 30 minutes.

More than 74,000 registered party members were eligible to vote at 114 polling stations throughout the country.

ANALYSIS: Livni leads in polls, but Israel’s political map is unclear


JERUSALEM (JTA)—With the Kadima leadership primary just days away, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni looks like a sure winner.

The latest opinion poll shows her 20 percentage points ahead of her closest rival in the contest that could produce Israel’s next prime minister.

The Sept. 17 Kadima Party vote comes after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he would resign following a string of corruption scandals. Assuming the primary winner can put together a coalition government, she—or he—will automatically assume the premiership.

Livni’s closest competition, according to the polls, is Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, with the two other candidates, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, stuck in the single digits.

For Mofaz to have even an outside chance at winning the primary, the pollsters would have to be significantly off.

That is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

In the run-up to the 2005 Labor leadership primary, polls showed Shimon Peres beating his main rival, Amir Peretz, by 20 points. But Peretz pulled off a major upset, edging out his octogenarian rival by 2 percent. What pollsters hadn’t considered was Peretz’s brilliant election-day machine for getting supporters to the polls.

Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff who has a strong body of activist Kadima supporters, will be hoping for something similar.

Kadima’s party leader is to be elected by the party’s membership – about 72,000 people.

Recruitment of new members with full voting rights was allowed until registration closed on July 31.

That opened up a recruitment race among the candidates, with each trying to bring in as many potential supporters as possible. That, in turn, spawned a system of so-called mega-recruiters and vote contractors: people with grassroots connections and influence who undertook wholesale recruitment for the various candidates, promising to deliver blocs of support.

Support for Mofaz is high among these party strongmen as well as with party mayors, who could influence voters.

But it doesn’t look like enough to turn the tide.

The key factor in the Kadima primary – the party’s first since its founding by Ariel Sharon as a centrist alternative to Likud—has been the widespread perception that Livni is the only candidate capable of winning a national election for Kadima.

The latest poll, conducted by the respected Dialog organization, shows Livni winning with 40 percent of the Kadima vote, followed by Mofaz with 20 percent, Dichter with 6 percent and Sheetrit with 5 percent; 28 percent are undecided.

If no candidate wins at least 40 percent in the Sept. 17 vote, there will be a runoff between the top two a week later. In such a scenario with Mofaz and Livni the winners, the poll shows Livni defeating Mofaz by 51 percent to 31 percent.

The first task for the Kadima victor will be to try to form a governing coalition.

Success will depend first and foremost on whether he or she can count on all 29 Kadima Knesset votes. If Mofaz wins, Livni has made it plain that she might well leave Kadima and form a breakaway faction; he might do the same if she wins.

On the assumption that she wins and Kadima does not split, Livni has been receiving two contradictory sets of advice.

Some of her confidants are urging her to do all she can to form a government and then run in new elections in a year or two from the position of prime minister. They argue that if Livni establishes herself as a bona fide national leader, she will have a much better chance of winning.

Others say that instead of trying to form a government, Livni should exploit her current wave of popularity and go for immediate general elections.

The Labor Party, which is currently down in the polls, also faces an acute dilemma:

If Livni wins, should Labor join the coalition and try to rebuild its electoral strength from inside the government, or clip Livni’s wings by bolting the coalition and thereby preventing her having enough seats to form a government?

If Labor goes in with Livni, it will help boost her standing as prime minister; if it stays out, it risks early elections in which polls show Labor would take an unprecedented beating.

The new political situation in Israel highlights the Labor-Kadima paradox. On the one hand, the two parties share a similar centrist ideology and are natural allies against the Israeli right. On the other hand, precisely because they are ideologically close, they must fight for the same political space.

Likud, which still leads in most polls, will want to press for early elections before Livni gains stature as a recognized national leader.

There is talk of a possible Labor-Likud coalition without Kadima, leaving Livni to wither in the opposition.

But, as appealing as this may appear at first glance to Labor’s Ehud Barak and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, it is highly unlikely. Netanyahu would not want to help Barak, who is currently trailing in the polls, by crowning him prime minister. And the Labor left would not countenance a coalition with Likud and the far right at the expense of a would-be peacemaking partnership with Kadima.

The key to whether Livni is able to form a coalition could lie with the fervently Orthodox Sephardic Shas Party.

Shas will make heavy demands—for example, restoration of hefty allowances for families with many children. Livni so far has not made any promises to Shas or anyone else. That has been one of the reasons for her popularity.

How she deals with the pressures of coalition-building could be a first real test of her leadership potential.

As for the outgoing Olmert, even though he will formally resign after the Kadima primaries next week, he will stay on as acting prime minister until a new government is formed.

Even the threat of a potential indictment against the prime minister – Israeli police this week recommended to Israel’s attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, that Olmert be indicted on two corruption-related charges – is not expected to change the political picture. If Mazuz ultimately decides to indict Olmert, he is unlikely to do so imminently.

Once the Kadima primary is over, the new Kadima leader will have six weeks to form a government.

If she or he succeeds, the winner could choose to govern or use the majority to call for early general elections. If she or he fails, President Shimon Peres could give another Knesset member a chance to form a government or call early elections if there is no likely candidate.

One way or another, the scandal-ridden Olmert era is fast coming to a close.

Israeli policy headed for radical changes in post-Olmert era


JERUSALEM (JTA)—Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to resign after a new Kadima Party leader is elected in September has opened up the possibility of radical new directions in Israeli policy.

As of now Olmert has four potential successors, since Kadima’s new leader may not be able to stave off new general elections.

Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party and Shaul Mofaz of Kadima are inveterate hawks who see peace, if it is at all possible, being achieved only in drawn-out, painstaking stages. Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of the Labor Party are pragmatic doves ready to cut to the chase but wary of illusory quick fixes.

Important differences exist within the two camps.

Netanyahu views the current attempt by the Olmert government to reach final peace deals with the Palestinians and the Syrians as foolhardy. He is against what he calls “endism”—trying to end the complex Israeli-Arab conflict with a single stroke—and instead advocates a measured, step-by-step approach.

For example, on the Syrian track, Damascus would have to break with Tehran and demonstrate over time that the breach is final before Israel returns any part of the Golan Heights. Other powers interested in moving Syria away from Iran, including the United States and the European Union, would be called on to provide much of the quid pro quo to Syria, making it possible for Israel to retain at least part of the strategic Golan.

On the Palestinian track, Netanyahu regards the “shelf agreement” Olmert is negotiating with the relatively moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank as meaningless. Under present conditions, with Hamas controlling Gaza, Netanyahu sees no way to implement an agreement now or in the foreseeable future.

Instead, he again advocates a step-by-step framework in which each side progresses only after the other has fulfilled a commitment. Under Ariel Sharon, this performance-based, reciprocal approach led to a stalemate.

Netanyahu hopes that the creation of new economic realities in the West Bank will provide the infrastructure for political progress. The former prime minister strongly backs efforts to that effect by Tony Blair, the special envoy of the Quartet grouping of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Like Blair, Netanyahu sees economic progress driving a peace process, not the other way round.

Netanyahu’s top priority, however, would be stopping Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. He has been urging world leaders to impose stronger economic sanctions on Tehran to alleviate the need for force. But if Netanyahu becomes prime minister, a pre-emptive Israeli military strike cannot be ruled out.

Mofaz, although he abandoned the Likud for Kadima, is as hawkish as Netanyahu. In fact, were the current transportation minister to win the Kadima leadership, the split between Likud and Kadima could become a thing of the past. Mofaz left Likud reluctantly when pressed by Sharon, Kadima’s founder, and after Sharon promised to make him defense minister.

The Iranian-born Mofaz takes a long view of historic processes in the Middle East who sees change evolving slowly over decades. Peace, in his view, will come only when conditions are ripe and cannot be accelerated artificially.

On the Syrian track, Mofaz says he is ready to offer “peace for peace”—an old Likud counter to the Arab land-for-peace formula. He also would be unlikely to make territorial concessions on the Palestinian front.

Indeed Mofaz, a former army chief of staff and defense minister, would likely be less industrious than Netanyahu in creating conditions for peace, but more proactive in trying to stop Iran from going nuclear.

Mofaz, who heads the Israeli team in strategic dialogue with the United States, has warned that Iran will cross the nuclear weapons threshold in 2009 or 2010 and said that if the international community fails to interdict the process, Israel will.

Like his colleagues on the right, Barak sees the Middle East as a tough, unforgiving neighborhood in which the weak are devoured—he once famously described Israel as a “villa in the jungle.”

The difference between Barak and the hard-line Netanyahu and Mofaz is his conviction that Israel to survive must be strong and divest itself of the West Bank to ensure a Jewish majority in a democratic state.

After the failure of the Camp David negotiations with Yasser Arafat in 2000, the then-prime minister Barak was quick to claim there was no genuine Palestinian peace partner. That led him to back the notion of unilateral withdrawal as the only way to establish a border between Israel and the Palestinians.

Barak modified his thinking, however, when Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by ceaseless Kassam rocket attacks. He still seems to envisage an eventual unilateral pullout from the West Bank, but only after Israel has an effective anti-missile defense system.

As defense minister, Barak has made the development of a multilayered anti-missile system—one that provides protection against long-, medium- and short-range missiles—a top priority.

Livni, whose parents both fought for the prestate Irgun underground, entered politics in 1996 holding fiercely hawkish positions. But as minister for regional cooperation in the first Sharon government in 2001, she underwent a profound ideological metamorphosis, turning from hawk to relative dove.

A lawyer by training, Livni places supreme importance on Israel retaining international legitimacy by withdrawing to a line close to the 1967 borders and allowing the Palestinians to establish a state of their own.

Livni, now the foreign minister, sees one of the main tasks of government as securing the best post-withdrawal conditions for Israel. For example, she insists that no Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel proper, arguing that the Palestinians cannot simultaneously demand a state and insist that their refugees be settled somewhere else.

Livni was one of the chief backers of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but also after the Kassams from Gaza, she says Israel cannot simply leave the West Bank and “throw the keys over the fence.”

Thus, unlike her three main rivals, Livni advocates intensive negotiations with the Palestinians on a final peace deal and bringing in an international force to help implement it. But Livni is in no hurry and would be less likely than Olmert to make concessions on key principles—like the refugee issue—for a deal.

The first stage in the battle to succeed Olmert is scheduled for Sept. 17, when Kadima holds its primary. Livni and Mofaz are the runaway front-runners: A recent poll in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv gave Livni 51 percent of the party vote to Mofaz’s 43 percent.

The second stage in the leadership stakes could come as soon as early 2009. If Kadima’s winner fails to assemble a coalition government, the Knesset will be dissolved and early general elections would be held, bringing Netanyahu and Barak into the picture.

Whoever finally emerges as the new prime minister, a break with Olmert’s policies seems certain.

Who will succeed Olmert?


Though the political jockeying to succeed Ehud Olmert began long before his announcement Wednesday that he would not seek re-election, the prime minister’s would-be successors face a tenuous political landscape.

In the short term, Olmert’s announcement means he will stay in office as a lame duck until his Kadima Party elects a new leader—either Sept. 17, when the primary is held, or a week later, when a runoff, if necessary, takes place.

Olmert then will tender his resignation to Israel’s president; however, by law Olmert will remain prime minister until Kadima’s new leader assembles a coalition government. Failure to muster a majority of at least 61 Knesset members in the coalition would trigger new general elections—for the Knesset and for prime minister. Otherwise, the next general elections are scheduled for 2010.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz are the leading contenders to win the Kadima primary, but it’s not clear how long either of them—or anyone else in Kadima—would last as prime minister.

Livni, the Olmert administration’s lead negotiator with the Palestinian Authority, is widely perceived as free of the corruption problems that have plagued other members of Olmert’s Cabinet. But her limited national security experience at a time when Israel faces the crucial question of whether or not to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is seen as a significant weakness.

Mofaz, conversely, as a former defense minister and former army chief of staff, has substantial security experience. He is the Olmert administration’s point man on strategic negotiations with the United States, which have been focused on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

But Mofaz is seen as an uncharismatic politician, and he hasn’t been able to close the gap in polls against his rivals in Kadima nor other parties. Were he to win, the Iranian-born Mofaz would be Israel’s first non-Ashkenazi prime minister.

Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter is also likely to run for the leadership of Kadima, but trails both Mofaz and Livni in party polls.

Regardless of who emerges as the winner to succeed Olmert, new general elections for prime minister—and, by extension, the entire Knesset—may not be far away.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who leads the Labor Party, could trigger new general elections by pulling Labor out of the governing coalition. He has threatened to make that move before and repeatedly has called on Olmert to resign, but low popularity ratings have kept him from bolting the government. Barak, a former prime minister, has attributed his staying to Israel’s security needs.

Were Barak to pull out and the coalition to fall apart, Labor likely would lose Knesset seats in the general election to Likud, whose leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is favored to win the next general election.

That likelihood may be enough to keep Labor in the government, extending the term of Olmert’s successor.

Notably, Olmert chose to announce his resignation when Barak, Livni and Mofaz all were out of the country. Livni was in Washington meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Barak was on a plane from the United States on his way back to Israel, and Mofaz was in New York on his way to Washington.

Olmert said Wednesday that he would not mettle in the Kadima primary and that he wants to engender a respectful and fair political transition.

In any case, by leaving the political stage in this way, Olmert is able to give his Kadima successor the incumbency advantage in the next general election whether it comes in the next few months or in 2010, as scheduled.

It also means that only Kadima members, and not the general electorate, will have a say in who becomes Israel’s next prime minister.

This will be the first primary for Kadima, which was founded in late 2005 by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. Olmert became Kadima’s leader by default after Sharon’s debilitating stroke in January 2006 left the one-time Jerusalem mayor in charge of the party and the country.

Politics aside, another scenario that may extend the term of Olmert’s successor would be the approach of a make-it-or-break-it juncture for Iran’s nuclear program.

If Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program is seen as on the cusp of bomb-making capability, Israel’s political parties might coalesce around a national unity government and respond with force to the threat.

Netanyahu already has said he would try to form such a government, and Mofaz has warned several times in recent weeks that an eventual Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is inevitable.

Sderot welcomes Obama


SDEROT, Israel (JTA) – At the New Age Beauty Salon in a run-down strip mall here, the manicurist and hairdresser swap opinions of Barack Obama, the latest in a series of high-profile visitors to come through this southern Israeli town.

“Is there a chance I’ll be able to give him a hug?” jokes Yaffa Malka, 44, the salon’s hairdresser and owner. “He’s cute, and besides that I trust him. I’m not sure why, but something about him seems genuine to me. He seems like one of us, someone who knows about difficult times.”

Her friend and co-worker Gila Vazana, the manicurist, says Sderot, the rocket-weary town adjacent to the Gaza Strip, can use all the friends it can get — especially if that friend might be the next U.S. president.

“We need America to be with us and for us all of the time,” says Vazana, her long blond ponytail falling down her back.

Soon after their conversation, Obama’s helicopter touches down in the Negev town.

The U.S. senator from Illinois’ first stop is the Amar family home, which was largely destroyed when a Kassam rocket crashed through its roof, injuring the mother with flying pieces of shrapnel. The family members, like many of their neighbors in Sderot, suffer from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

A crowd of some 100 people gathers outside the family’s new home during Obama’s visit, and the presumptive Democratic nominee for U.S. president briefly walks among them to say hello and shake hands.

Tours of Sderot have become part of the unofficial protocol of visits to Israel by both visiting dignitaries and tour groups wishing to show solidarity. Like any site of pilgrimage, rituals have developed.

The usual stops include a visit to a home damaged by Kassam fire, where a meeting is set up with the resident family. The tour then moves to the police station, where a makeshift Kassam museum has been set up with hundreds of the rockets on display, the dates they landed on or near Sderot painted on their sides.

Visitors also often are taken to a hill on the edge of town where they can see into Gaza. It’s nicknamed Kobi Hill after the town’s chief security officer, who rushes there after Kassams land to see from where they were fired.

It’s mostly quiet these days in Sderot following an Egypt-brokered truce deal between Hamas and Israel that is more than a month old. But most of those who live here assume the lull is temporary and that terrible surprises await from Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group that rules Gaza.

Reporter Nissim Kanan, who covers Sderot and southern Israel for Israel Radio, says part of the excitement here surrounding Obama’s visit is the sense that he can bring change not just to America but also to Sderot.

Sderot is a working-class town of old-timer immigrant families from Morocco and more recent arrivals from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, and many of them see Obama as a man of the people, he says.

“People see Obama as the underdog and McCain as an elitist,” he says, comparing Obama to his presumed Republican rival, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.). “People here like to see people in power that they identify with.”

“Obama? He’s a man of the people,” says Avner Chen, 38, a taxi driver taking his lunch at a falafel restaurant. “I hope he will see Sderot and remember us, what we are living with, and help us.”

During his news conference in the city, Obama seems to answer Chen’s call.

“I will work from the moment I return to America to tell the story of Sderot and to make sure that the good people who live here are enjoying a future of peace, security and hope,” he says.

Next door to the New Age Beauty Salon is the new office of The Israel Project, an organization that works to promote Israel’s security by providing resources to foreign journalists here. Its heavy glass doors and shiny new office equipment stand in stark contrast to the nearby stores, which have broken signs.

“This is a community in crisis, and that people should want to come and show their solidarity here is perfectly understandable and laudable,” says Marcus Sheff, the executive director of the Israel office of The Israel Project.

As Obama finishes his news conference at the Sderot police station, Mayor Eli Moyal brings him a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I Love Sderot.”

The word “love” is represented by a red heart, its Cupid’s bow replaced with a Kassam rocket.

Briefs: Olmert vows to solve conversion crisis, Israel names first female U.N. envoy


Ehud Olmert pledged to solve an Israeli conversion crisis prompted by a rabbinical dispute. The prime minister on Monday gave the government four months to address a recent decision by Israel’s Rabbinical High Court to fire Rabbi Haim Druckman as head of a state-sponsored conversion committee.

In dismissing Druckman, who was considered relatively lenient by Orthodox conversion standards, the court said it would annul thousands of conversions of immigrants from the former Soviet Union that he had approved. Israel Radio quoted Olmert as saying in a statement that such immigrants “include the best of our soldiers, the cream of our academia, and so the issue of conversion in Israel tops the national agenda.”

Egyptians Kill Sudanese Man Trying to Enter Israel

Egyptian police killed a Sudanese migrant who tried to cross illegally into Israel. The would-be border jumper was fatally shot Sunday near Egypt’s Sinai’s frontier with Israel. He was the 17th African known to have been killed by Egyptian forces en route to hoped-for jobs or sanctuary in the Jewish state.

Facing a deluge of undocumented refugees from Darfur or other illegal African immigrants, Israel last year asked Egypt to crack down on the foot traffic in the Sinai. Thousands of Africans attempt the dangerous trip each year, according to Amnesty International.

Israel Names First Female U.N. Envoy

Israel appointed its first female ambassador to the United Nations. Gabriela Shalev, rector of the Ono Academic College in Tel Aviv, was approved Sunday by the Cabinet. She was chosen by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to succeed Dan Gillerman.

“It was important to me to appoint a woman to represent Israel in such an important place,” Livni told the Cabinet. “In addition, her extraordinary talents will enable her to deal with the challenges facing Israel. Professor Shalev is internationally respected; she has fulfilled many public positions in Israel, and the appointment committee determined that her impressive reputation and background, as well as her personality, make her a fitting candidate for the position of ambassador to the U.N.”

Shalev has served as chairman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, a member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Trustees and a member of the committee for formulating ethics of Cabinet members.

Israel’s Military Chief Visiting U.S.

The chief of Israel’s armed forces is visiting the United States. This is Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi’s first working visit to Washington, D.C. During his weeklong stay, Ashkenazi will meet his U.S. counterpart, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and visit the headquarters of the various U.S. armed forces branches. Ashkenazi will also hold talks with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Ashkenazi’s visit comes at a time of heightened international speculation that Israel and the United States are closing ranks ahead of a possible military attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. However, Israeli military officials said the visit had long been in the works and was previously postponed.

Olmert Lawyer Accuses Witness of Lying

A lawyer for Ehud Olmert said the testimony of a key witness in the corruption probe of the Israeli prime minister is a lie. The attorney, Eli Zohar, made the remarks last week during a cross-examination of the witness, U.S. businessman Morris Talansky, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Talansky, who is undergoing several days of questioning by the prime minister’s lawyers, has testified that Olmert took approximately $150,000 in cash donations from him over the course of nearly a decade and a half. Olmert has denied wrongdoing and promised to resign if indicted.

JNF Building Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Bike Trail

The Jewish National Fund is building a bicycle trail that will connect Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. The 75-mile trail, running from south of the capital to Tel Aviv’s northern port and taking in several forests and historical sites en route, is expected to be completed within six months. It is part of a JNF project in celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary. The estimated construction cost is $400,000.

“This trail will be an international tourist attraction for cyclists,” Effi Stenzler, JNF chairman, told Yediot Achronot Tuesday. According to the newspaper, the ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv will take approximately five hours and will be mostly downhill. Ascending in the other direction will take much longer, but cyclists will be able to avail themselves of rest stops along the way.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.