U.N. Security Council to discuss violence in Israel, West Bank


The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to hold a special meeting on the spate of violence in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The meeting, which diplomats told Reuters was called at the request of council member Jordan, is to include a briefing from the U.N. secretariat about the situation on the ground, the United Nations said yesterday.

The diplomats said no resolution was planned at the moment but that there might be an attempt to get the council to issue a statement aimed at urging the two sides to curb the violence.

“All options are on the table,” one diplomat told Reuters. Some 32 Palestinians and seven Israelis have been killed during two weeks of bloodshed. The Palestinian dead include 10 knife-wielding assailants, police said, as well as protesters shot in riots.

The unrest, the most serious in years, has been triggered in part by Palestinians’ anger over what they see as increased Jewish encroachment on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, which contains sites holy to Jews and to Muslims.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “would find that the apparent excessive use of force by Israeli security forces is also troubling and demands serious review, as it only serves to exacerbate the situation, leading to a vicious cycle of needless bloodshed.”

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said this week that, while Israel has a right to protect itself, “we’ve certainly seen some reports of what many would consider excessive use of force.”

And on Tuesday U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry linked the recent surge in Palestinian violence on Israelis to the “increase in settlements,” though State Department spokesman John Kirby later said this was one of several factors fueling the violence.

Kerry aims to boost support for U.S. stance in nuclear meeting with Iran


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to bolster international support to keep pressure on Iran in nuclear talks with world powers set for Thursday even as Iran's new president pressed a diplomatic charm offensive at the United Nations.

The meeting in New York involves a very rare encounter between top officials of the United States and Iran. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet with Kerry as well as diplomats from Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany at a session aimed at jump-starting efforts to resolve a decade-long standoff over Iran's nuclear program.

Ahead of the session, Kerry said he looked forward to a “good meeting” but would not address what Iran needed to do to show a genuine desire to address its nuclear program.

The meeting with Zarif was set for 4 p.m EST.

Just hours before the start of the talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Kerry secured agreement from his Chinese counterpart calling for Iran to respond positively to existing nuclear proposals by the six world powers, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. comments suggested that President Barack Obama's administration intends to respond cautiously to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's overtures, avoiding any major concessions unless Iran takes concrete steps to show it is serious about curbing its nuclear ambitions. Rouhani is seeking an easing of crippling international sanctions.

“Both the U.S. and China believe that Iran should cooperate with the P5+1 and should respond positively to the proposals that are on the table,” a U.S. official said, referring to the six permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, often referred to as the P5+1.

The six powers said in February that they want Iran to stop enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, ship out some stockpiles and shutter a facility where such enrichment work is done. In return, they offered relief on international sanctions on Iran's petrochemicals and trade in gold and other precious metals.

Rouhani's gestures since taking office in August have raised hopes for a thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran after years of estrangement and for a resolution of the dispute on Iran's nuclear program.

A centrist cleric, Rouhani has stepped up efforts to moderate Iran's image abroad during a visit to New York. He said that Iran would never develop nuclear weapons – despite Western suspicions that it is seeking to do so – and called for a nuclear deal in three to six months. Iran has said its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes only.

NO HANDSHAKE

Obama on Tuesday cautiously embraced Rouhani's gestures as the basis for a possible nuclear deal and challenged him to demonstrate his sincerity.

The failure to orchestrate a handshake between the two leaders, apparently due to Rouhani's concerns about a backlash from hardliners at home, underscored how hard it will be to make diplomatic progress.

Addressing a U.N. meeting on nuclear disarmament on Thursday, Rouhani said: “No nation should possess nuclear weapons, since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons.”

But Rouhani also seized the opportunity to take a swipe at Iran's arch-foe Israel, which has accused him of trying to fool the world and buy time to continue its nuclear advances.

Rouhani said Israel, widely assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state, was the reason for the failure of international efforts to establish the region as a nuclear weapons-free zone.

Asked what he needed to hear from the Iranians to show they were serious about addressing those concerns, Kerry, speaking to reporters as he began a meeting with China's foreign minister, replied: “I'll let you know after they've been serious.”

Afterwards, a U.S. official said of the U.S.-China meeting: “They talked through the elements of the diplomatic track, as well as the sanctions track.” Kerry also met with diplomats from Libya and Pakistan on Thursday.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is hosting the P5+1 meeting, met Rouhani earlier on Thursday, Ashton's spokesman said.

“What is certain is that there is a new will emerging both in Iran and among the P5+1 states to successfully conclude the new round of talks with a new approach,” Abbas Araqchi, the Iranian deputy foreign minister, told Press TV, Iran's state-owned English-language broadcaster.

Thursday's meeting would be the first between a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister since a brief encounter in May 2007. The two countries have been estranged since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.

Iran has been negotiating with the P5+1 since 2006 about its nuclear program, which Western powers and their allies suspect is aimed at developing a nuclear-weapons capability.

Iranians are also hoping to see some concrete steps taken by the Western powers – namely relief from the painful U.S., European Union and U.N. sanctions for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati, Lesley Wroughton and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations and Marcus George in Dubai; Editing by Will Dunham

Russia ‘disappointed’ by Obama cancelling Putin meeting, Kremlin says


U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to cancel a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin is disappointing, but he is still welcome in Russia, a top Kremlin foreign policy aide said on Wednesday.

“We are disappointed by the U.S. administration's decision to cancel the visit of President Obama to Moscow planned in early September,” Putin's foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, told reporters.

“It is clear that the decision is due to the situation around the former U.S. special services employee Snowden, which we did not create,” he added.

Obama would still come to Russia in September for a G20 summit in St Petersburg but will not attend a separate meeting with Putin was supposed to take place in Moscow ahead of that.

Russia granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden last week, rejecting U.S. pleas to expel him and letting the former spy agency contractor slip out of a Moscow airport after more than five weeks in limbo there.

Ushakov said the rift over Snowden between the Cold War-era foes showed Washington was not treating Russia as an equal partner and reiterated Moscow's stance that it could not hand the 30-year-old over because Russia and the United States had no bilateral extradition agreement.

“Throughout the years the Americans avoided signing an extradition agreement (with Russia) and constantly refused our requests to extradite individuals who committed crimes in Russia, referring to the lack of such agreement,” he said.

He added that Russia's invitation for Obama to visit Russia was still in force. 

Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Editing by Michael Roddy

Obama to Jews: Peace is essential but prospects are bleak


President Obama believes prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace are “bleak,” but he still will urge both sides to avoid unilateral actions that might further damage a process he hopes will be back on track within a year.

That was the message Obama delivered Thursday in a meeting with about 25 Jewish community figures at the White House to discuss his planned trip to Israel later this month. Obama was especially engaged, participants said, when it came to discussing how he might best convey to the Israeli people his enthusiasm for Israel and its Jewish history.

Participants were under strict instructions to speak to news media only in the most general terms, and most of the participants contacted by JTA hewed to that stricture. Two participants, however, shared notes on the particulars and a third confirmed those accounts.

According to the partipants, Obama appeared weary and was emphatic about not bringing any “grandiose” plan for Middle East peace to the region. He said he would, however, counsel the parties against making “unilateral” moves. He did not elaborate, but U.S. references to unilateralism generally refer to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Palestinian attempts to achieve statehood recognition.

Obama reportedly rejected an entreaty from one participant to stake out a harder line on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, emphasizing that a military option was still on the table even though he preferred to first exhaust diplomatic options. Officials from the major powers, led by the United States, are meeting with Iran in Istanbul later this month to negotiate terms for making Iran’s nuclear program more transparent.

Obama said he would not engage in “chest beating” to make people feel better. He also said it's natural for the United States and Israel to have differing assessments of how advanced Iran is in its nuclear quest. Such differences are a matter of interpretation, the president said, and exist within Israel’s political and security establishments as well.

When he goes to Israel, Obama plans to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is still attempting to cobble together a government after January's election. Obama also will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and will travel to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah.

Obama told the Jewish participants that he thinks prospects for peace are “bleak,” but added: “That doesn't mean six or nine or 12 months from now we won't be in the midst of a policy initiative.”

Obama said he would tell the Israelis that “the prospects for peace continue to go through the Palestinians.”

A White House official confirmed that the president would not be seeking a specific outcome from this visit.

“The president noted that the trip is not dedicated to resolving a specific policy issue but is rather an opportunity to consult with the Israeli government about a broad range of issues — including Iran, Syria, the situation in the region and the peace process,” the official said. “He also underscored that the trip is an opportunity for him to speak directly to the Israeli people about the history, interests, and values that we share.”

Obama seemed more enthusiastically engaged, participants said, when he was seeking input from them on how best to reach out to Israelis and make them feel secure about the U.S.-Israel alliance. The exchange took up the bulk of the meeting, with Obama fielding more than a dozen questions and suggestions over 45 minutes.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, said that he counseled the president to emphasize the Jewish connection to the land.

“I underscored the need for him to go to a place where he can both symbolically and in his statements speak about the millennia of connection between the Jewish people and Israel,” said Diament, who spoke under conditions that allowed participants to relay their own words to reporters.

Israeli and U.S. officials for weeks have grappled with which venues would best convey Obama’s outreach effort. One factor is security; Israeli officials have told their American counterparts that securing Obama outside the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor is daunting, which limits his options. Aside from the official meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and dinner at the home of President Shimon Peres, who will present Obama with a medal, nothing has been confirmed. A visit to Jerusalem’s Old City is still under consideration, as is a tour of an Iron Dome missile defense battery, a system Obama funded and which successfully protected Israel from rocket attacks during the Gaza Strip war last November.

Obama wants to speak to “young people,” White House officials have said, and Israeli officials reportedly are working on a venue that could accommodate a large crowd of university students, probably in Jerusalem.

In a separate interview with JTA, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, said Israelis are looking forward to the visit because of the message it will send.

“In terms of Israel, the timing of the trip could not be better because it reassures us in a period of profound instability throughout the region, and sends an unequivocal message throughout the region about the strength and vitality of the U.S.-Israel alliance,” Oren said.

In addition to the Orthodox Union, participants at the meeting included representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, J Street, Americans for Peace Now, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, B'nai B'rith International, the Conservative and Reform movements, the Anti-Defamtion League, the American Jewish Committee, Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Women International, the National Jewish Democratic Council, the World Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Influential supporters of the president also were in attendance, including Robert Wexler, Mel Levine, Steve Rabinowitz and Alan Dershowitz.

Boxer lashes out at Netanyahu for attacking Obama on Iran


Barbara Boxer, a top Jewish U.S. senator and the sponsor of major pro-Israel legislation, blasted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for lashing out at President Obama on Iran.

“I write to you as one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress to express my deep disappointment over your remarks that call into question our country’s support for Israel and commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a letter sent Wednesday in a rare instance of a pro-Israel lawmaker making public an unhappiness with an Israeli leader. “Your remarks are utterly contrary to the extraordinary United States-Israel alliance, evidenced by President Obama’s record and the record of Congress.”

Boxer apparently was referring to Netanyahu's remarks in Jerusalem on Tuesday in which he decried a lack of clarity from the “international community” — seen in Israel as code for the Obama administration — for failing to make clear what would trigger a U.S. strike on Iran as that country reportedly nears obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“The world tells Israel, 'Wait, there's still time',” Netanyahu said in English at a ceremony in which he greeted Bulgaria’s prime minister. “And I say, 'Wait for what? Wait until when?' Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”

Boxer, rebuking Netanyahu, cited a law signed by Obama this summer that enhances security cooperation between Israel and the United States. Boxer authored the legislation. She wrote that the law addresses many of Israel’s top security priorities, including extending loan guarantees to Israel and increasing the U.S. weapons stockpile in Israel, “which is available for Israel’s use in the event of a crisis.”

The California lawmaker listed other actions by Obama, including his leading increased isolation of Iran and his recognition of Israel's right to defend itself as it sees fit against any Iranian threat.

“In light of this, I am stunned by the remarks that you made this week regarding U.S. support for Israel,” she said. “Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel? Are you saying that Israel, under President Obama, has not received more in annual security assistance from the United States than at any time in its history, including for the Iron Dome Missile Defense System?”

Boxer ends by invoking the notion of “no daylight” between the countries — a principle that Obama's Republican critics have accused the president of abrogating.

“I urge you to step back and clarify your remarks,” she wrote, “so that the world sees that there is no daylight between the United States and Israel.”

Clinton meets with Abbas


Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called her talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas productive.

Clinton, who met with Abbas Friday, said she hopes to build momentum for another peace push when she visits Israel in 10 days, the Associated Press reported.

She said the two discussed how to build on a recent letter exchange between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Clinton said the U.S. is committed to a two-state peace agreement. “We cannot lose sight of the critical importance” of Israeli-Palestinian peace despite upheaval across the Arab world, she said, according to AP.

Clinton and Abbas met in Paris, where the secretary of state was attending a conference on Syria.

Amid new Iran nuke rumors, Barak and Panetta to meet


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet with his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, in Washington amid reports that Iran may have achieved the capability to build a nuclear bomb.

Israel has said that such a capability is a “red line” that could trigger military action.

The defense chiefs are scheduled to meet Thursday.

The Associated Press reported this week that it had obtained a drawing of an explosives containment chamber said to exist on an Iranian military site. The chamber’s only known use would be to test nuclear weapons.

Iran has denied reports that it is seeking a nuclear weapon. Western experts have said the Islamic Republic appears to be moving closer to such a capability.

The Obama administration has endeavored to keep Israel from striking while it pursues sanctions and diplomatic pressure as a means of getting Iran to retreat from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

PA’s Fayyad is no-show at scheduled meeting with Netanyahu


Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad refused to attend a scheduled meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu met Tuesday in Jerusalem with two PA leaders—chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and security official Majed Faraj—according to reports.

Fayyad likely canceled his participation because he did not want to be seen meeting with Israeli officials on Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, which honors Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, Palestinian officials told the Palestinian Maan news service. At least 1,200 Palestinian prisoners launched an open-ended hunger strike to protest prison conditions and administrative detention.

Fayyad was to have delivered a letter to Netanyahu from PA President Mahmoud Abbas laying out Palestinian conditions for restarting peace negotiations. It is not clear if Erekat delivered the letter.

Netanyahu has called for the restarting of peace talks without preconditions.

At Obama-Netanyahu summit, assurances exchanged but differences remain


President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not have bridged their differences on how to deal with Iran, but each managed to give the other a measure of reassurance.

In his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama held his ground, declining to articulate new American red lines on the Iranian nuclear issue and strongly advising against “loose talk of war.” Yet he earned the praise of the prime minister and the pro-Israel lobby with his acknowledgement that Israel needs to be able to defend itself, and his vow that America has Israel’s back.

While Obama stressed diplomacy as a continued option in public and private comments, Netanyahu indicated in the two leaders’ private meeting that he believes sanctions have been exhausted. Yet even if the prime minister does not share the president’s patience, he also told Obama that there is not yet any Israeli decision to attack Iran, according to Israeli press reports.

“We do believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue, but ultimately the Iranians’ regime has to make a decision to move in that direction, a decision that they have not made thus far,” Obama said in an Oval Office photo-op Monday morning ahead of the leaders’ two-hour meeting, which was followed by what aides described as an “expansive” lunch.

He added, looking at Netanyahu, “I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically. We understand the costs of any military action.”

Netanyahu did not acknowledge the president’s plea for diplomacy to play itself out, instead emphasizing Israel’s sovereign right to act—and noting that Obama had made the same point in his speech the day before to AIPAC’s annual policy forum.

“I think that above and beyond that there are two principles, longstanding principles of American policy that you reiterated yesterday in your speech—that Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat; and that when it comes to Israel’s security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions,” Netanyahu said.

“I believe that’s why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself. And after all, that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state—to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny,” he continued.  “And that’s why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.”

That acknowledgement—that Israel has the right to strike in its own perceived self-defense—was the element that AIPAC’s leaders were seeking, and Obama earned the most extended standing ovation of the day when he told the conference: “Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

Another crowd pleaser was the president’s pledge that “the United States will always have Israel’s back when it comes to Israel’s security.”

How to deal with Iran dominated much of the meeting between the leaders. As if to underscore Netanyahu’s message of his determination to confront the Iranian regime, his gift to Obama was a copy of the Megillah, the tale of the Persian Jews’ bloody triumph over Haman.

An Israeli source said the meeting underscored agreement between the Netanyahu and Obama governments in four areas:  a determination to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon; that all options are on the table; that containment is not an option; that Israel is a sovereign state that has a right to defend itself by itself.

In his own address to the conference on Monday morning—delivered as Obama and Netanyahu were meeting—Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, made it clear that the fourth message was the one AIPAC had been seeking.

“This is the context in which Israel must decide her course of action,” he said. “If she can put her fate in the hands of anyone—even her closest ally, America—or if she must conduct a strike to postpone Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Israel was created to ensure that the Jewish people would never have to put their fate in the hands of others.”

Kohr also pushed back strongly against those who say that Obama has not done enough to confront Iran.

“President Obama and his administration are to be commended,” he said. “They have—more than any other administration, more than any other country—brought unprecedented pressure to bear on Tehran through the use of biting economic sanctions. They have built a broad coalition to isolate the Iranian regime and they have brought the necessary military assets to the gulf and to Iran’s neighbors in order to signal that America has the power to act.”

Kohr echoed Democrats in their pleas not to make Iran policy a partisan issue. Republican salvos against Obama have frustrated his supporters, who say that the criticisms fail to take into account the strides he has made in isolating Iran.

While campaigning in Georgia on Sunday, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said that Obama had “failed to communicate that military options are on the table.”

The president and administration officials have repeatedly stressed that all options are on the table, even as they call for giving sanctions time to work. In his Sunday speech to AIPAC, Obama said that there is “too much loose talk of war,” arguing that “now is not the time for bluster.”

Obama offers Netanyahu assurances over Iran


President Barack Obama, aiming to head off any premature Israeli strike on Iran, sought to assure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday that the United States would always “have Israel’s back” but said there was still time for diplomacy.

Netanyahu, in a show of unity with an American leader with whom he has had a rocky relationship, said at the White House that both Israel and the United States stood together on the need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“The bond between our two countries is unbreakable,” Obama said. “The United States will always have Israel’s back when it comes to Israel’s security.”

The two men, sitting side by side and smiling at each other in the Oval Office, sought to present a united front in the Iranian nuclear standoff after weeks of mounting concern that Israel would preemptively strike Iran on its own.

In one of the most consequential meetings of U.S. and Israeli leaders in years, they made no mention of any differences they may have over red lines that could trigger military action to curb an Iranian nuclear program that Israel sees as a threat to its existence.

“We believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution,” Obama said.

Netanyahu made clear that Israel would be the “master of its fate” in deciding how to deal with Iran, which has called for the destruction of the Jewish state.

“It must have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” Netanyahu said, echoing remarks Obama made a day earlier in a speech to the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.

Obama has been urging Israel to allow sanctions more time to work against Iran’s nuclear ambitions while balancing that with assurances of his resolve to do whatever is necessary to keep the Islamic republic from becoming a nuclear-armed state.

At the White House meeting, Obama told Netanyahu the United States reserved “all options” in dealing with Iran. The president has made clear that would include a possible military component.

“We do not want to see a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world,” Obama said.

Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Will Dunham

Israel’s Lieberman meets Clinton in Washington


Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reconfirmed his commitment to a two-state solution during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington.

Lieberman, who arrived Monday in Washington for a three-day visit, and Clinton reportedly talked on Tuesday morning about the situation in Syria, recent elections in Egypt and the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

After the meeting Lieberman “thanked [Clinton] for the determined stance of the United States on the Iran issue and said the steps taken in recent weeks send an important message to the entire region.”

Later in the day, Lieberman met with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Amid Iran concerns, top U.S. and Israeli officials meet


Top U.S. and Israeli officials have met in recent weeks as the Obama administration continues to reassure Israel about its efforts to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

Thomas Nides, the deputy secretary of state, and Neal Wolin, the deputy secretary of the Treasury, met Monday and Tuesday with Israeli and Palestinian officials ostensibly to “emphasize the confidence of the United States in the resilience of the Israeli economy and the importance of a strong, functioning Palestinian economy to the region’s security and the success of the peace process.”

Left unsaid is whether the officials will discuss intensified Iran sanctions with Israel. However, the State and Treasury departments jointly administer the sanctions, and Wolin has testified to Congress on the topic.

Additionally, William Burns, the deputy secretary of state, met Monday with Moshe Ya’alon, the deputy Israeli prime minister, in Washington.

The State Department said only that “they discussed a range of bilateral and regional issues of mutual interest and concern.”

Ya’alon recently raised eyebrows in Washington when he suggested that the Obama administration has been too soft on Iran.

U.S. officials are pressing the case to Israel and its people that the Obama administration is making advances in isolating Iran through intensified sanctions targeting its energy and financial sectors. A top State Department official last week briefed Israeli and Jewish media on the matter, a first.

This week, the Treasury Department added Iran’s third largest bank to those subject sanctions targeting third parties that deal both with the United States and the targeted institution. Reportedly there are concerns among top U.S. officials that Israel may strike Iran without advance warning.

Abbas: Israel will face ‘difficult’ measures if attempt to revive peace talks fails


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday Palestinians could take unilateral steps if Israel does not agree to halt settlement building in the occupied West Bank and recognize the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Speaking ahead of talks in Jordan between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, Abbas said Palestinians were ready to take “difficult” measures, but did not specify what they were.

Negotiators from the two sides were due to meet in Amman later on Tuesday alongside international mediators trying to revive their stalled peace talks, but neither side is raising hopes they can end more than a year of deadlock.

Negotiations foundered in late 2010 after Israel refused to renew a partial freeze on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, as demanded by Palestinians.

The Palestinians say they cannot hold talks while Israel cements its hold on land it captured in a 1967 war and on which they intend to establish an independent state. Israel says peacemaking should have no preconditions.

Abbas said that if Israel agreed to halt settlement building and recognize “the vision and borders of the two-state solution”, Palestinians would agree immediately to negotiations.

“If they don’t … there are measures that we could take. But we will not declare them now because they have not been finalized. But we will take measures that could be difficult,” Abbas told a group of judges in Ramallah.

He said the two sides had until Jan. 26 to make progress. The date marks the three-month deadline, agreed on Oct. 26, for them to make proposals on issues of territory and security, with the aim of reaching a peace deal by the end of this year.

IMPROVED PROSPECTS?

Israeli cabinet minister Dan Meridor said that although the meeting could present a chance to revive the peace talks, the onus on moving ahead should not be put squarely on Israel.

“There is an opening to renew negotiations… We must hope that things will work out but it does not depend only on us,” Meridor said.

The talks at the Jordanian Foreign Ministry bring together Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Israel’s Yitzhak Molcho and representatives of the Quartet of Middle East mediators – the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and has strongly backed Abbas, is worried the failure to address core issues at the heart of the conflict could bring a renewed cycle of violence that could endanger its own security.

The majority of Jordan’s population are Palestinians descended from those displaced during successive Arab-Israeli wars since the Jewish state’s founding in 1948.

“Our objective is to bring them together and try to push for a breakthrough in peace talks to arrive at addressing final status issues, starting with borders and security,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said.

A senior figure in Abbas’s umbrella PLO executive said Israel and the Palestinians were simply fulfilling a request by the Quartet to present their positions on security and borders.

“This is not a resumption of negotiations,” Wasl Abu Yossef told Reuters in Ramallah, the seat of Abbas’s administration.

A diplomat in Amman also said Tuesday’s meeting was not expected to lead to a breakthrough. “To be realistic, it won’t solve anything, (although) it could give new energy” to the process, the diplomat said.

Established a decade ago, the Quartet has in recent months taken a leading role in attempts to broker new negotiations, stepping in after President Barack Obama’s administration failed to revive diplomacy.

Most countries deem Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal. Israel disputes this, and says it would keep settlement blocs under any peace deal in accordance with understandings reached in 2004 with then-U.S. president George W. Bush.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government criticises Abbas for seeking a reconciliation with the Islamists of Hamas, who control Gaza and reject permanent co-existence with Israel.

Abbas has also balked at Israel’s demand that he recognise it as a Jewish state.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Jihan Abdalla in Ramallah; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israel, Palestinians to meet Tuesday


Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet this week after more than a year of deadlock in peacemaking, officials said Sunday, but both sides played down prospects of any imminent resumption of talks.

Yitzhak Molcho of Israel and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat will meet Tuesday in Jordan alongside representatives of the Quartet of Middle East mediators – the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

“This aims at reaching a common ground to resume direct talks between the two sides and to achieve a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord … by the end of 2012,” the official Jordanian news agency Petra quoted Mohammad al-Kayed, spokesman of the Foreign Ministry in Amman, as saying.

“It is essential that both sides take advantage of this opportunity,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement released in Washington.

Negotiations stalled in late 2010 after Israel refused to renew a partial freeze on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank as demanded by the Palestinians.

The Palestinians say they cannot hold talks while Israel cements its hold on land where, along with the Gaza Strip, they intend to found a state. Israel says peacemaking should have no preconditions.

The Israelis and Palestinians will meet bilaterally as well as with the Quartet in Amman, according to Kayed and Clinton.

Israel said Molcho would “take part in the Quartet meeting” yet made no mention of Erekat in its statement, or of direct contacts with the Palestinians.

Wasl Abu Yossef, a senior figure in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s umbrella PLO executive, described Tuesday’s meeting as a forum for the sides to “offer their positions on security and borders” as requested by the Quartet in October.

UNDERSTANDINGS

“This is not a resumption of negotiations,” Abu Yossef told Reuters in Ramallah, the seat of Abbas’s administration.

Erekat said the meeting would be “part of ongoing Jordanian efforts to compel Israel to comply with its international legal obligations … specifically its obligation to freeze all settlement construction.”

Most countries deem the settlements illegal. Israel disputes this, and says it would keep settlement blocs under any peace deal in accordance with understandings reached in 2004 with then-U.S. president George W. Bush.

For its part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government criticizes Abbas for seeking a reconciliation with the Islamists of Hamas, who control Gaza and reject permanent coexistence with Israel. Abbas has also balked at Israel’s demand that he recognize it as a Jewish state.

But both sides have been rattled by upheavals that have bolstered Islamists in Jordan and Egypt. Fierce pro-Palestinian sentiment in both countries, among the few Arab countries to have relations with Israel, often backs Hamas rather than Abbas.

Established a decade ago, the Quartet has in recent months taken a leading role in attempts to broker new negotiations, stepping in after U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration failed to revive diplomacy.

“As the president and I have said before, the need for a lasting peace is more urgent than ever. The status quo is not sustainable and the parties must act boldly to advance the cause of peace,” Clinton said.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Iran to boycott Middle East nuclear talks


Iran will not attend a rare meeting for Middle East countries next week to discuss efforts to free the world of nuclear weapons, an Iranian official said, signaling worsening ties between the U.N. atomic agency and Iran.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, made the announcement after the 35-nation governing board of the IAEA adopted a resolution on Friday rebuking Tehran over its nuclear program.

Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.

Soltanieh lashed out at IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, who convened the Nov 21-22 talks in Vienna for countries in the Middle East and other agency members, as “not professional” and said he did not believe the meeting would be successful.

Amano issued a report last week which angered Iran by saying the Islamic state appeared to have worked on designing a nuclear weapon and that secret research may continue.

Soltanieh said Amano had “not even talked about Israeli nuclear capabilities,” referring to the Jewish state’s assumed atomic arsenal.

“How can we positively respond to the invitation of Mr Amano?,” he told reporters.

“While we are a strong proponent of a nuclear weapons-free zone we don’t think that the meeting … will be fruitful and successful. Therefore I must say we will not participate.”

Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, and faces frequent Arab and Iranian condemnation.

Israel and the United States regard Iran as the region’s main nuclear threat, accusing Tehran of trying to develop an atomic bomb in secret. Last week’s IAEA document added weight to those allegations, but Iran dismissed it as fabricated.

FINLAND TO HOST 2012 MEETING

Israel and Arab states are expected to attend next week’s forum at IAEA headquarters, which is seen as a symbolically significant bid to bring regional foes together at the same venue, even though no concrete outcome is expected.

If conducted smoothly with relatively toned-down rhetoric on all sides, it could send a positive signal ahead of a planned international conference next year on banning nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

But Iran’s refusal to take part in the Vienna forum underlined the tough challenges that lie ahead for this vision and the deep divisions and mistrust that would need to be bridged.

The discussions on Monday and Tuesday will focus on the experiences of regions which have set up Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones (NWFZ), including Africa and Latin America.

IAEA member states decided in 2000 to hold the meeting but it has taken this long for the parties involved to agree on the agenda and other issues.

Israel, the only Middle East country outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons under a policy of ambiguity to deter numerically superior foes.

“As long as Israel is not joining the NPT … and denounce and destroy all nuclear weapons capabilities, we will not be able to realize this expectation of the international community for a nuclear weapons-free zone,” Soltanieh said.

Israel says it would only join the treaty if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace with its longtime Arab and Iranian adversaries. Israel would have to renounce nuclear weaponry if it signed the 1970 agreement.

Last month, the United Nations said Finland agreed to host the potentially divisive international meeting in 2012 to discuss ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

The idea for that conference came from Egypt, which pushed for a meeting with all states in the Middle East to negotiate a treaty that would establish a nuclear arms-free zone.

Editing by Myra MacDonald

Biden agrees to meeting on Pollard


Vice President Joe Biden has agreed to meet with Jewish communal leaders to discuss the case of Jonathan Pollard.

Biden made the commitment at the end of a Rosh Hashanah reception Wednesday at the vice president’s residence, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA. Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, confirmed the conversation.

The New York Times recently reported that during a recent meeting in Florida, Biden told a group of rabbis that “President Obama was considering clemency, but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time.’”

Hoenlein and other Jewish organizational leaders from across the political and religious spectrum have called on successive presidents to grant clemency to Pollard, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for spying for Israel. In recent months, Obama has received a flood of clemency appeals on behalf of Pollard from members of Congress, former U.S. government officials and Israeli officials.

Pollard recently underwent kidney-related surgery that was deemed successful.

Hoenlein said he asked Biden to give Jewish leaders the chance to make the case for Pollard’s release—and, in response, the vice president apparently agreed to hold a small meeting in order to have an “open and frank discussion” about the issue.

Biden also agreed that the meeting “would happen very soon,” Hoenlein said. “He takes it seriously and understands there is a concern in the community. I hope the meeting will be soon after Yom Kippur.”

Hoenlein said it was Biden’s meeting, so the vice president would decide who will attend.

The vice president’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

Obama-Netanyahu meeting looks good, but what did they talk about? [VIDEO]


The optics were perfect, but the meaning was elusive.

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat together Tuesday, joshing and smiling, trying to project a clear message: The rift was over. Israel and the United States are on the same track again.

Read the transcript of the meeting here.

“In terms of my relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I know the press, both in Israel and stateside, enjoys seeing if there’s news there,” Obama said. “But the fact of the matter is that I’ve trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected president, and have said so both publicly and privately.”

The meeting capped months of tensions sparked by Israel’s announcement in March of a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during an official visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.

The image of a friendly encounter between the two leaders was almost tainted in the lead-up to the meeting when it was leaked that Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, had warned in a private conversation of a “tectonic rift” between the two countries. Oren later explained that he had been misquoted: “Shift,” he said.

Story continues after the break.

In any case, U.S. officials said in a rare on-the-record call last Friday, there is no fissure.

“There’s absolutely no rift between the United States and Israel,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said in the conference call.

Dan Shapiro, the senior National Security Council official who runs the Israel desk, said he “can certainly underscore the incredible richness and intensity and quality of the exchange between our governments in military channels, in political channels, in intelligence channels.”

Officials were brimming with superlatives. Details, however, were lacking, and in some areas there was evident disagreement.

The leaders agreed, for instance, on the need to go to direct talks with the Palestinians; the Palestinian Authority has resisted pending a full settlement freeze.

Obama, however, set a deadline of sorts when he made clear that he wanted such talks to start before September, when Netanyahu’s self-imposed 10-month settlement freeze lapses.

“My hope is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success,” Obama said.

Israeli officials, speaking on and off the record, made it clear that they were not confident the Palestinians were ready for direct talks and would not commit to a deadline.

The sides also spoke of confidence-building measures. Pressed for specifics, Obama cited the need for the Palestinians to further inhibit incitement, and called on Israel to “widen the scope” of Palestinian security responsibilities in the West Bank, given the advances that a U.S.-led team has had in training Palestinian security forces.

In the meetings before and after lunch, however, Netanyahu and his team suggested that the Israelis were not confident enough in the Palestinians to assume greater security control in areas outside their current purview of a handful of cities.

Most tellingly, Obama administration officials said the peace process and moving to direct talks was reason No. 1 for the Obama-Netanyahu meeting.

No Netanyahu-Obama meeting on schedule


A meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama has not been scheduled.

Obama administration officials pushed back against a Fox News report on Friday that the two leaders would meet in the Oval Office on Tuesday; nothing has been scheduled yet, the officials told JTA.

The meeting would come after two weeks of tension triggered by Israel’s announcement of a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during what was supposed to have been a friendly visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

Officials at the Israeli embassy said they did not know of the meeting.

Netanyahu will be in Washington visit to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy forum; Obama was going to be on a tour of the Far East. When the White House announced Thursday that the trip was cancelled because Obama was determined to shepherd his health care package through Congress, speculation turned to whether the two men would meet. A snub would be seen as a major humiliation for Netanyahu.

On Thursday, Netanyahu phoned U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and outlined for her measures he proposed to smooth the waters and entice back to talks the Palestinian Authority, which had suspended negotiations because of the announcement.

Neither side revealed the nature of Netanyahu’s proposals, but media have suggested that Netanyahu might quietly suspend the Jerusalem project.

(This updates the earlier report on Fox News’ report that a meeting would take place.)

Peres: Obama to Chair Bibi-Abbas meeting


President Obama will moderate a meeting next month at the United Nations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli President Shimon Peres said.

“I think they will meet at the end of September,” Peres said of the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authority president during an interview Monday with Fox News. “President Obama will chair it, and I think that at least there is a chance that they will decide they are going to reopen negotiations. But that will not include Hamas.”

The meeting will take place “at the margins” of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Ynet reported.

Peres also told Fox that there is “not yet an agreement” on a settlement freeze, but “I do believe there is a solution for it as well.”

He also said that negotiations to free kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit are continuing and “the gap has narrowed.” But asked if Shalit’s release was close, Peres said, “I think there is a chance it will happen soon, but Hamas is not an organized group of people and what they say today, they may change tomorrow.”

Guest list: The Obama meeting


Sixteen leaders of 14 Jewish organizations took part in a Monday afternoon meeting at the White House with President Obama. Some of the groups not on the invite list, after having been invited to a larger meeting of Jewish leaders with Obama aides right before the inauguration, include Israel Policy Forum, the Zionist Organization of America, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and B’nai B’rith International. Below is the full list of participants:

Jeremy Ben-Ami, (executive director, J Street)
Debra DeLee (president & CEO, Americans for Peace Now)
Ira Forman, CEO, National Jewish Democratic Council
Abraham Foxman (national director, Anti-Defamation League)
Marla Gilson (Washington director, Hadassah)
Malcolm Hoenlein (executive vice chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations)
Jason Isaacson (Washington director, American Jewish Committee)
Kathy Manning, (chair, United Jewish Communities)
Nancy Ratzan (president, National Council of Jewish Women)
Lee Rosenberg (president-elect, AIPAC)
Stephen Savitsky (president, Orthodox Union)
Alan Solow (chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations)
Andrea Weinstein (chair, Jewish Council for Public Affairs)
Rabbi Steven Wernick (executive vice president, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism)
David Victor (president, AIPAC)
Rabbi Eric Yoffie (president, Union for Reform Judaism)

At White House, U.S. Jews offer little resistance to Obama policy on settlements


Top Jewish organizational leaders expressed support for President Obama’s Middle East peace strategies at a White House meeting but said the president must do a better job of showing he expects hard work from all sides, not just Israel.

Obama’s meeting Monday afternoon with 16 Jewish leaders from 14 groups comes after weeks of tense exchanges between the Obama administration and Israel’s government over freezing Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, prompting expressions of “concern” from some U.S. Jewish organizational leaders.

“The view was expressed among the organizations at a minimum there was concern about an imbalance in pressures placed on Israel as opposed to on the Palestinians and Arab states,” Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA. “The president indicated he had a sensitivity to the perception of that imbalance and had to work harder to correct that perception.”

One participant quoted the president as saying that “there’s not a lot of courage among the Arab states; not a lot of leadership among the Palestinians.”

The consensus was that on substance, Obama had the support of the room when it came to his peacemaking strategies—or, at least, he did not face opposition.

The meeting comes as Obama faces sharp criticism from Jewish conservatives in the media who claim the president is bent on scaling back U.S. support for Israel. In particular, critics have cited the Obama administration’s repeated calls for an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank.

At least two of the leaders of centrist organizations who attended the White House meeting—Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—have said they are increasingly hearing from people who are worried about Obama’s intentions, including some who voted for him.

Liberal groups are rejecting such claims, saying that the president and his approach to advancing Israeli-Palestinian talks enjoy the support of most American Jews.

The two representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, president David Victor and president-elect Lee Rosenberg, asked non-confrontational questions about Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively, and did not press the settlements issue.

Rosenberg and Solow, who are both from the Chicago area, were major fund-raisers for Obama’s presidential run.

Some of Obama’s most ardent critics—including the Zionist Organization of America and the National Council of Young Israel—were among the notable absences from the list of those invited to the White House.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, delivered a ringing endorsement of Obama’s demands for a settlement freeze, saying that settlement expansion was not in Israel’s interest.

Such pronouncements are likely to reinforce the growing perception in the Israeli government that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to garner significant support among U.S. Jews should the disagreement with Obama over a settlement freeze escalate into a full-scale confrontation.

Top officials close to Netanyahu are debating how to treat the reluctance among U.S. Jews to back what they now call “normal living” conditions in the settlements—a euphemism for natural growth. Some Netanyahu advisers suggest writing off much of the U.S. Jewish community in the short term, maintaining relations only with those groups sympathetic to Netanyahu. Others suggest intensive outreach to left-leaning Jews.

Concerns about a potential confrontation may be moot. The United States and Israel reportedly are close to agreeing to a formula that would allow Israel to finish about 2,500 “almost complete” units now under construction in the West Bank. That would allow Israel to claim settlement growth was continuing while the Obama administration would describe it as an effective freeze.

The only signs of contention—from Foxman, the ADL’s national director, and Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference—had to do with how Obama was handling his demand for a settlements freeze, not with its substance.

Hoenlein said that peace progress was likelier when there was “no daylight” between Israel and the United States. Obama agreed that it must always be clear that Israel has unalloyed U.S. support but added that for the past eight years, referring to the Bush administration, there was “no daylight and no progress.”

“There was a lot of appreciation by the broad spectrum of the Jewish community of the president’s clarity on Israel and the absolute alliance between Israel and the United States,” said Nancy Ratzan, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women.

It was Foxman who raised the concern of a perception that Obama was leaning harder on Israel than on the Palestinians and Arab states.

Obama conceded the point—to a degree—saying it was the result of “man-bites-dog” coverage of a relatively unusual circumstance: a U.S. president pressuring Israel. He said he would make it clear that he expected the Palestinians to contain violence and end incitement, and that Arab nations should make gestures toward Israel commensurate with Israel’s concessions.

“If you really read everything he’s written and said, it is clear there are multiple parties that have obligations and steps,” said Jeremy Ben Ami, director of J Street, a left-wing pro-Israel group.

“He’s going to call out the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Arab nations.”

On the issue of Iran, Obama said his strategy of outreach as a means of persuading the Islamic Republic to end its nuclear weapons program was still in place, although he recognized that the Iranian government was entrenching itself in the wake of riots triggered by June 12 elections denounced by many Iranians and westerners as rigged.

Obama said progress had been made in persuading other nations, especially Russia, to sign on to his carrots-and-sticks strategy on Iran—offering incentives and threatening a harder line.

The emphasis was on foreign policy, but Obama fielded questions on domestic issues, including his efforts to introduce universal health care and end hunger among American children.

Also present at the meeting were representatives of Americans for Peace Now, the Orthodox Union, the United Jewish Communities, Hadassah, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Jewish Committee.

Participants said the meeting, at a round table in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, was relaxed and friendly.

“The comfort level was magnificent; there were no notes,” said Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Obama teased Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, and David Axelrod, his top political adviser, both of whom attended the meeting and are Jewish.

“If Axelrod or Rahm ignore you, don’t blame me,” he said.

Ha’aretz published a story last week in which it claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu had privately referred to both Obama aides as self-hating Jews. A Netanyahu spokesman, Mark Regev, was later quoted by The Plum Line blog as denying the claim, saying “I’ve never heard the prime minister use such language.”

 

Obama-Bibi: The Preview


The pundits and papers are weighing in as Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu get set for their first White House meeting:

Ha’aretz has put together slideshow of previous meetings between U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers. Plus columnist Aluf Benn weighs in with a piece titled “How does an Israeli diplomatic visit to the U.S. work?,” outling the step-by-step standard protocol for such powwows. And Sunday the newspaper ran an editorial calling on Netanyahu to say “yes” to Obama: “Now Netanyahu must show he can set aside his ideological opposition to dividing the country and support for expanding settlements and, for the good of the state, strengthen relations with the United States and advance the peace process with the Palestinians and the Arab states. The Israeli public expects him to adjust his political stances to international reality. The Haaretz-Dialog survey published Friday showed a clear majority—57 percent—wants Netanyahu to embrace the ‘two states for two peoples’ principle when meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House tomorrow.”

Herb Keinon (Jerusalem Post): Summit meetings at this level have two components, a policy component and a personal one. In this case the personal component – since this is the first meeting of the two men since they have taken over leadership of their respective countries – is no less important, and perhaps even more important, then the policy component. Netanyahu understands this, and will strive—according to senior officials—to develop a positive relationship based on mutual trust. Netanyahu understands this particularly well, especially since he failed to develop that type of relationship during his first tenure as prime minister with then-president Bill Clinton. Netanyahu would do well to take a page out of Ariel Sharon’s playbook. Sharon, during his first meetings with then-US president George W. Bush, said that while Israel and the US would not always see eye to eye, ‘there would be no surprises,’ and that he would be frank with the US and ‘do what he said he would do and always mean what he said’ to the US president. Though there will be those pundits who will parse every phrase, and scrutinize every piece of ‘body language’ when Netanyahu and Obama come before the cameras following their meeting on Monday, it will be difficult to judge at this time whether the two ‘clicked.’ That will only be apparent to the public with time.”

Jackson Diehl (Washington Post): “Today Barack Obama will begin a diplomatic relationship that is likely to be as complex, as vexing and possibly as troubled as any he will have during the first years of his presidency. His meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu won’t produce the blow-up some expect; a smooth veneer of harmony is more likely. Yet it will quietly inaugurate a contest of wills between two very different politicians—one that could help determine whether the Middle East shifts toward an era of negotiation and detente, or of deepening conflict. … Sometime in the next few months, one of these men may give way. Obama could come to accept that frontal confrontation is the only option for Iran and that Middle East peace talks must take a back seat to it; Iranian behavior could well make such a conclusion inescapable. Or Netanyahu could abandon his campaign pledges and offer the Golan Heights to Syria. Perhaps an incipient initiative to broaden the Middle East peace process so that Israel bargains across the board with Palestinians and Arab states over a comprehensive settlement will take on momentum, with help from Jordan’s King Abdullah. An equally likely scenario, however, is that Obama and Netanyahu will simply thwart each other—to the delight of their common enemies. The resulting friction would be more dangerous for Netanyahu, who learned a decade ago that an Israeli prime minister who falls out with Washington cannot easily survive in office. If he is to succeed in the Middle East, Obama may need to use that leverage. He can start now by reaffirming U.S. support for Israel—while leaving room for distinction between the country and its prime minister.”

Jeffrey Goldberg (New York Times): “When the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visits the White House on Monday for his first stage-setting visit, he will carry with him an agenda that clashes insistently with that of President Obama. Mr. Obama wants Mr. Netanyahu to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state. Mr. Netanyahu wants something else entirely: the president’s agreement that Iran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Daniel Pipes: “Question: How deep runs Obama’s antipathy toward the Jewish state? Some predictions: (1) Iran being Netanyahu’s top priority, he will avoid a crisis by mouthing the words ‘two-state solution’ and agreeing to diplomacy with the Palestinian Authority. (2) Democrats too will be on their best behavior, checking their alienation through Netanyahu¹s visit, momentarily averting a meltdown. (3) Obama, who has plenty of problems on his hands, does not need a fight with Israel and its supporters. His move to the center, however tactical, will last through the Netanyahu visit. Short term prospects, then, hold out more continuity than change in US-Israel relations. Those concerned with Israel’s security will prematurely breathe a sigh of relief – – premature because the status quo is fragile and US relations with Israel could rapidly unravel.”

Shmuel Rosner: “It was very convenient for Israel to have 16 years in which two consecutive Presidents (Clinton, Bush) that were also great friends. Israel can not and should not delude itself into thinking that all future American Presidents will be as friendly as those two. If Obama proves to be a ‘friend,’ and not a ‘great friend,’ that’s fine.”

Reuel Marc Gerecht (Wall Street Journal): “Can the United States and its European allies peacefully prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons? And if not, would Israel try to do so militarily, even if doing so greatly angered President Barack Obama? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington today. These questions could well make or break his premiership and Mr. Obama’s presidency.”

Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now: Right wing Israeli politicians once believed that they can score popularity points domestically if they demonstrate national honor by standing up to American presidents. Israelis and their leaders know better now. With hemorrhaging popularity, Netanyahu will not want to be portrayed in Israel as jeopardizing Israel’s relationship with Washington. Netanyahu wants his visit to Washington to be a success. To portray it as a successful visit, he may be willing to demonstrate flexibility. The question is whether the Obama administration would be able to follow up on the narrow openings that Netanyahu may offer on Monday and broaden those cracks to push through them a diplomatic breakthrough.”

Roger Cohen (New York Times): So here’s what Obama should say to Netanyahu when he says Arab states have identical fears over Iran: “We’re aware of this, Mr. Prime Minister, which is why we sent Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others to reassure Arab allies. But the U.S. interest is not served by the Mideast status quo. Our interest lies in new region-wide security arrangements that promote a two-state peace, end 30 years of non-communication with Iran, and ultimately afford Israel a brighter future. You can’t build settlements and expect Iran’s influence to diminish.” When Netanyahu demurs, Obama should add: “And you know what the Arabs tell me in private? That Israeli use of force against Iran would be a disaster. And that it’s impossible to tell Iran it can’t have nukes when Israel has them. They say that’s a double standard. And you know what? They may have a point.”

Max Boot (Commentary): an Obama administration official, pressed as to why prospects for peace talks are not unreservedly bleak, told me privately that Bibi might be prepared to do a “Nixon in China”–i.e., to make concessions from the right. That is what Menachem Begin did in the Camp David talks. But the historical figure we should be invoking is not Nixon, Carter, or any other U.S. president. It is Anwar Sadat. …Where, oh where, is the Palestinian Sadat–i.e., a responsible negotiating partner who can make peace and mean it? Until such a statesman arises, there is little or nothing that either Israeli or American leaders can do to bring a final resolution of the never-ending peace process.

Mitchell Bard of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise: Netanyahu will not clash with Obama because he understands the United States and America’s interests in the region. They may disagree over Israel’s settlement policy, but this is nothing new; it is an issue that has been contentious for almost four decades. This will hardly overshadow the far more extensive areas of agreement on the desirability of continuing negotiations with the Palestinians and the threat posed by Iran.Some people are hung up on trying to get Netanyahu to say the magic words “two state solution” as if the mere utterance would bring an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The phrase is meaningless, particularly in the present context where a civil war is ongoing among the factions of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, which seeks the destruction of Israel, controls Gaza and hopes to take over the West Bank. Fatah is desperately clinging to power in the West Bank, but cannot negotiate or implement any agreement with Israel. Obama cannot change the Palestinian reality so it will do no good for him to pressure Israel to make concessions that will not be reciprocated.

Mustafa Baghouti (Los Angeles Times): Icannot recall a more important meeting between an American president and an Israeli prime minister than today’s meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Will the Obama administration have the courage to challenge Netanyahu, or will all the talk of change dissolve in the face of a concerted one-two punch from Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? I am increasingly convinced that if Obama fails to speak out now, it will doom the two-state solution forever. Further fiddling in Washington—after eight years of it—will consign Jerusalem, the West Bank and the two-state solution to an Israeli expansionism that will overwhelm the ability of cartographers to concoct a viable Palestinian state.

Finally, what’s Netanyahu bringing the president as a gift? A Mark Twain book, reports Haaretz: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with a copy of “Pleasure Excursion to the Holy Land,” from Mark Twain’s book “The Innocents Abroad,” when they meet in Washington today. Netanyahu received the book, along with a newly published version in Hebrew (translated by Oded Peled), from the Kinneret Zmora-Bitan publishing house. In his travel memoir, Twain describes a 1867 trip to the Land of Israel, which he finds a backward and desolate place devoid of culture or law. “Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village,” he states, calling it a country where prosperity had died out, a place of lost splendor and beauty where joy has turned to sorrow, and where silence and death prevail in its holy places.

Hillel for the High School Set


It’s 12:38 p.m. on a Tuesday at Santa Monica High School, and a high-pitched electronic beep wails through the wide, locker-lined halls, signaling the end of class. As students stream into the corridor, their laden backpacks drooping past their low-riding jeans, a steady trickle makes its way into room T209, where Shimon Kagan awaits with six pizzas and a side of Jewish identity.

Although school is out in just a few weeks, some new faces show up and by the time Kagan is ready to start the weekly meeting of the Jewish Student Union club (JSU), about 40 students are sitting at desks or lurking around the sides of the room. Most of them are Jewish, but a number are not.

“I’ll admit that some people come for the pizza,” said Danielle Farzam, an 11th-grader who is president of the club at Santa Monica. “But they don’t come back for the pizza. They come back for Shimon and the program and because they really like it,” she said.

JSU, an independent nonprofit, has 50 clubs in public schools nationwide, 14 of them servicing about 1,000 students a year in California. West Coast Chabad runs another six clubs with about 200 kids.

“The more Jewish interaction a teen has during high school the more likely they are to stay in the Jewish community, to have Jewish friends and to be proud about Judaism,” said Shoshana Hirsh, program director for JSU, citing demographic studies.

The tactics and the goals of the Jewish clubs are simple and straightforward: lure them in with free food, and then give the kids a good dose of Jewish identity and pride.

Out of 30,000 Jewish teens in Los Angeles, only 5,000 are on the rosters of youth groups, day schools and Hebrew schools, according to JSU. While those numbers don’t take into account family membership in synagogues or less-traditional avenues of affiliation, no one disputes that there are thousands of Jewish teenagers who have no positive connection to Judaism.

“Most of the budgets of organizations for Jewish outreach end up targeting kids who are already involved,” said Jason Ciment, a Los Angeles businessman who is national chairman of JSU.

Jewish clubs began to form in the mid-1980s with the passage of the Equal Access Act, which stated that public schools that host extra-curricular activities — a lunchtime chess club, for example — have to accommodate any student who wants to start a group. That opened things up for everyone from the gay and lesbian club to Christian Bible study circles to the campus communists.

For many years, the Jewish Community Centers’ (JCC) teen department ran Jewish Awareness Clubs in L.A. schools. Two years ago, when drastic budget cuts hit the JCC, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) stepped in to take over the clubs until a long-term sponsor could be identified. BJE began transitioning about eight clubs to Rabbi Steven Burg, director of West Coast National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), an Orthodox group.

Burg formed JSU, of which he is also the director. JSU now has a budget of about $400,000, but about $250,000 of that comes as in-kind services, since many advisers and Burg himself get paid by NCSY.

JSU gets significant funding from The Federation, as well as private and foundation donors, most notably the Jack E. and Rachel Gindi Foundation.

Despite the strong connection to NCSY (they also share office space), JSU is open to all denominations, bringing in a diverse array of speakers and advertising events from all the youth groups and organizations in town.

Today at Santa Monica, Kagan is playing a game involving M&M's and Jewish trivia. Other days he brings in speakers — Israeli soldiers, rabbis, anti-missionary speakers, Hollywood types.

While Chabad’s L’Chayim clubs share the same tactics and goals with JSU — food and a positive Jewish connection — Rabbi Michi Rav-Noy, who runs clubs at Birmingham High in Encino and at Fairfax High School, adds in some rituals as well.

“We make a point of it that they get a chance to put on tefilin, or wash [and say a blessing] for the bread,” said Rav-Noy, who has fostered ongoing connections even after students graduate.

For Emmy Yafit Shaham, a 12th-grader at Hamilton High School near Culver City, JSU is her only Jewish affiliation.

“The people I hang out with are not really Jewish, and since I’m not very active outside of school in NSCY or BBYO [B’nai Brith Youth Organization], on Thursdays I look forward to being with other Jews and just learning more and participating. And it’s really fun to go there,” she said.

Kagan, who runs four clubs a week, is himself a draw. With his surfer T-shirt, unmistakably Brooklyn bark, and life experience you wouldn’t quite guess at from the black kippah and hanging tzitzit he wears, he offers a model of an accessible, cool, committed Jew.

He invites kids over for Shabbat and tries to form personal connections with them.

Marilynn Lowenstein, chair of the foreign languages department and faculty facilitator for JSU at Hamilton, has watched Jewish clubs wax and wane at Hamilton over the last 20 years. She is deeply impressed with what Burg and JSU have done.

“The people who come in are people who know how to relate to public school kids, who treat them with respect and with excitement and who treat them as valid, equal Jews,” said Lowenstein, who hosts the club in her classroom.

Last summer JSU took 80 kids to New York, where they got to see committed Jews who are successful in various sectors of society. Next fall, JSU is running a long weekend Comedy Camp, where Hollywood writers and directors will teach kids the business, and they’ll spend Shabbat together, too.

But Burg laments that if JSU is successful in getting unaffiliated teens interested in Judaism, there are very few programs to direct them to. Most youth groups are synagogue affiliated and focus on their own membership. Few programs exist outside of that.

“My biggest concern is that now we have 1,000 unaffiliated kids who are now interested, and there is not much in the community for them to do,” Burg said. “This is everyone’s problem, and it’s a huge, huge problem that has to be addressed by the entire community.”

For more information on JSU, call (310) 229-9006 or
visit www.JSU.org. For information on L’Chayim Clubs, call (310) 653-1086 or
visit www.chabad.org .

Israel Trip Reunites


The two men walk as one — in steady step, shoulder to shoulder, their words a torrent of Yiddish.

There is much to catch up on since the former neighbors and schoolmates last met. That was more than 60 years ago, when the transports, fear and separations that characterized Jewish life during World War II reached their Polish hometown.

Allen Greenstein, 78, is from Los Angeles; Haim Fligelman, 82, lives in Tel Aviv. The two old friends found each other again last week as they took their seats on a tour bus in Israel.

In their respective cities, they both attend Cafe Europa, a club for Holocaust survivors, where members gather for concerts, lectures, conversation and coffee. A group from the Los Angeles chapter currently is in Israel, touring the country and meeting their Tel Aviv counterparts. Members have been exchanging stories and looking for people linked to their past.

"We lived on the same street but have not seen each other since the war," a beaming Greenstein exclaimed. "So it was quite a surprise to meet him on the bus."

The two grew up in Opatow, a town with a large Jewish population before the war. They went to the same school and were members of the same Jewish youth group. Once the war began, many of the town’s Jewish youth, including both of them, were sent to work in munitions factories. They both spent the final months of the war in Buchenwald.

Both lost family members. Greenstein was one of 12 children, but only he and three others survived the war.

Today, Fligelman is a retired carpenter with 17 grandchildren.

"It helps relieve one’s nerves," he said of his weekly visits to the Tel Aviv Cafe Europa.

Cafe Europa first began in Los Angeles as a project of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and later became the model for the club of the same name in Tel Aviv. Both are funded by the Los Angeles Federation.

At first, connections between members were forged through letter-writing. Then technology stepped in, and several video conferences were held.

Last week, 14 members of the Los Angles club landed in Israel. This week, the groups are meeting face to face for the first time, traveling through the Judean Desert and the Galilee together. For this week’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah, they were scheduled to attend Israel’s official ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

At a Jerusalem hotel, members from both clubs met and exchanged life stories. They described their homes, neighborhoods and lives before the war, remembering those whom they were close to during the Holocaust and recalling liberation from the camps. They each wore name tags noting their names and hometowns.

Lidia Budgor of Los Angeles — originally from Lodz, Poland — leaned toward Hinda Sobol, who came to Israel from Lithuania. Budgor told Sobol about the affluent neighborhood where she grew up and of the courtyard at the family home.

"When I came back, after the war, it looked like a garbage can," she said, shaking her head.

Nearby, Sophie Hamburger of Los Angeles and Hella Konstabler of Tel Aviv exchanged stories. Tears filled Konstabler’s eyes as they discovered a connection: Konstabler became good friends in Israel with one of Hamburger’s cousins from Poland.

"I know her whole family," bubbled Konstabler, as the two, speaking in Yiddish, tried to trace the connection further. They patted each other’s hands and laughed.

Rena Drexler surveyed the scene. She survived three and a half years in Auschwitz and then settled in Los Angeles, where she and her husband opened a kosher deli in North Hollywood. They worked there for 45 years and built Drexler’s Deli into a thriving business.

"Everybody has a life story here," she said, in recounting her own story after the war. "I’m proud we accomplished so much."

After the war, "there was no one waiting for us. We married people. We did not know what love was; there was no romance, no graduation from school," she said, her voice beginning to trail off.

Her arm bears the scar where she had her tattooed concentration camp number removed.

"I did not want to see the number any more," Drexler said. "I wanted to live a free life."

Eva David, 77, also from Los Angeles, was in Israel hoping to meet a pair of sisters who she befriended as a girl in a Hungarian ghetto before her family and their family, the Daskals, were deported to Auschwitz on the same cattle car. She remembers boarding the train crammed with about 80 people and seeing a sign attached on the outer door: "Fit for eight horses."

On the train to Auschwitz, the two families sat next to one another on the floor. One of her final memories of her father is his pulling a bag of chocolates out of his pocket and distributing them to her, her sisters and the Daskal children. Her mother gestured for him to stop — he had his own children to feed — but he looked up and said, "But these are hungry children, too."

"This is the last recollection we have of our father," said David, who worked as a seamstress in Los Angeles. She said the youngest of the Daskal children were gassed upon arrival at Auschwitz.

"At least they went to their deaths with the sweet taste of chocolate in their mouths," she said.

Esther Fruchter, 81, was the only one to survive the war from her large Warsaw family, which included four siblings, parents, many cousins and aunts and uncles. This was her first trip to Israel.

"You could give me a ticket to London, Rome or Paris, but it is nothing to compare to being here in Jerusalem," she said. "Israel is our home. Thankfully, we have a country where we can stand with our heads held high."

Picture Imperfect


Although we had never met, I knew I would have no trouble recognizing Brenda the second she walked into the Melrose Avenue bar where I sat waiting for her. After all, it was her photograph — the leonine curve of her green eyes and coquettish cap of blond curls — that compelled me to contact her on an online dating site where I happened upon her profile. We conversed via e-mail and agreed to meet in person.

But when a woman who bore little resemblance came through the door and waved in my direction, I assumed she was motioning to someone behind me. When she introduced herself as Brenda, I was dumbstruck. It wasn’t only the deep-set streaks of facial acne scars that didn’t register in my memory of her picture; I also didn’t recall her mentioning traveling to the moon — the only place a scale would have informed her of the 110 pounds she claimed to weigh in her profile.

Brenda began gabbing away the second she sat down across from me, but I’ll be damned if I heard a single word. I smiled blankly as my brain studied the differences between the online and actual Brendas. It was as if Charlize Theron miraculously agreed to date me, but without informing me she would show up in her “Monster” makeup.

So bewildered was I that after two minutes I excused myself to go to the bathroom. Near panic, I spotted a fire exit in the back and froze in front of it. I silently debated the merits of making a break for my car outside.

Maybe you haven’t been in the position of contemplating escaping from a bad date. But chances are you have been affected by this pernicious trend common to both genders online: the often glaring discrepancies between the photo or listed physical dimensions on a profile and their flesh-and-blood appearance. My encounter with Brenda got me thinking about how to manage expectations in the dating world.

The horror stories are many. Many female acquaintances have encountered so many men who lied about their height that they simply deduct two inches from whatever they see listed. And then there was my friend Abby, who agreed to a date with a gentleman whose photo depicted a curly mane she was dying to run her fingers through. The guy turned out to have more hair on his chest than on his head.

If only these inconsistencies were confined to men. Nearly every male I consulted complained that many women misidentify their body type, such as those who characterize themselves as “proportional” when they in fact measure a longer distance horizontally than they do vertically.

In all seriousness, these incongruities must be treated sensitively; I suspect we all exaggerate our attributes to varying extents mostly out of self-delusion, not deceit. But you are crossing into the latter territory if you hire a professional photographer to deliver the kind of headshot an actor might seek. If the resulting image is something your own mother wouldn’t recognize, maybe it doesn’t belong on a dating Web site.

And to those of you who willingly enhance their images through the magic of Photoshop, for shame, I say. At least doctor your photos in moderation: I recently encountered a picture of a woman whose face was so illuminated by some sort of halogen light that I thought I recognized her from the final scene of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

I’ve been tempted plenty myself to do a little post-production work on my own face. I seem to add a new chin with each passing year, and the bags under my eyes are capable of growing to Hefty Cinch-Sak proportions. But is it dishonest of me to not post the worst possible photo of myself? As long as the image bears a resemblance to my actual face, my conscience is clear.

Exaggerating would probably get my foot in the door with more women I find appealing, and maybe my sparkling personality could even distract them from the fact I’ve distorted the truth. But even if that worked, it would bother me that I had to hide who I really am just to curry favor with someone I barely know.

As for Brenda, luckily enough I had downed a Corona before she arrived. That wasn’t quite enough to give me the dreaded “beer goggles” that have transformed many beasts into beauties, but it did embolden me enough to return to the table and look her in the eye.

“I’m gonna go,” I found myself saying, to which she responded with a quizzical look. Much as I wanted to angrily explain myself, I complained of a sudden headache. She may have deceived me to seem more attractive, but the truth would have been just as ugly.


Andrew Wallenstein writes for the
Hollywood Reporter and serves as a weekly commentator on National Public Radio’s
“Day to Day.” His work was included in the recently published “Best Jewish
Writing 2003” (Jossey-Bass). He can be reached at awally@aol.com
.

Don’t Hate Me ‘Cuz I’m Happy


If you’re anything like me — and for the love of God, I hope you’re not –you’ve found dating in Los Angeles to be nonstop inferno of disappointment, frustration, anguish, horror, tedium and depression.

And those are the dates that work out fairly well. It’s not hard to understand why some battle-scarred veterans of the singles scene have completely sworn off dating, substituting other, nondating activities in life, whatever those could possibly be. I understand jogging may be one of them.

And then there are the gluttons for dating punishment, such as, say, oh … myself, who trudge on through the singles scene, doing it all, experiencing it all, meeting them all, confident that Ms. Right is just around the corner. Apparently, I’ve been turning the wrong corners. Had I applied the time, energy and effort I’ve put into dating to any other career, I’d now be CEO of a major corporation and wouldn’t have time for a relationship. I understand that Bill Gates’ wife sees him just two and a half times a year. I’m guessing his being a billionaire eases some of her loneliness.

But sometimes you can win. Sometimes it all pays off. The cherries line up across the slot machine windows. The ship comes in. The race car crosses the finish line. There is a God. Ms. Right is, in fact, just around the corner. How else do I explain Lauri, whom I met at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica, just over three months ago, via an online singles site? How do I even describe her without gushing? How do I talk about how perfect we are for each other without making you jealous, nauseated and anxious to kill me? Hey, get a hold of yourself — you really have issues.

The thing is, guys know within the first few minutes of meeting a date that there’s no future here. And then the rest of the evening is just treading water until you climb out of the pool, spitting chlorinated dating water from your mouth. But it can work the other way around, too, when you know that the person has all the right stuff. In the first half hour of meeting Lauri, I mentally checked off the categories: intelligence, looks, personality, sense of humor, energy, enthusiasm, optimism, creativity, love of intimacy and, the all-important one, interest in and attraction to me. Thumbs up on all counts. I was stunned, because this doesn’t happen often. This doesn’t happen at all. This clearly was the Halley’s Comet of coffee dates and I hope it lasts, otherwise my next good prospect isn’t due for another 76 years.

And because this kind of relationship is so rare, Lauri and I are both taking full advantage. We simply don’t care how many frustrated singles we’re nauseating with our mushy phone calls, e-mails, flowers, gifts and public displays of affection. We just can’t help it. The sun is shining brighter, foods are tasting better and the lyrics to love songs make perfect sense. Romeo and Juliet? Amateurs!

So please don’t hate me because I’m deliriously happy. After all, just because I’m walking on air each day doesn’t mean that this new relationship doesn’t bring with it another whole host of potential mine fields: How long will it last? Will I be able to not disappoint her? Will there be growth? Will our equal passion for one another remain equal? Will we stay healthy? Will we stay true to one another?

When the “honeymoon period” ends, will we still be able to give one another what the other needs and desires? Will we keep things fresh? Dear Lord, this relationship thing just never ends! I’m going jogging.

Mark Miller is a comedy writer who has written for TV, movies and many
celebrities, been a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate,
contributed to numerous national publications and produced a weekly comedic
relationships feature for America Online. He can be reached at markmiller2000@comcast.net.

A Ramah Union


David Ross and Lauren Schmidt met for the first time in Los Angeles in May 2000. Or at least, the couple is pretty sure that was the first time.

Raised in Palo Alto, David was an active member of United Synagogue Youth since his early childhood, and spent every summer at Camp Ramah in Ojai, first as a camper and then as a staff member.

Little did he know that his future wife slept only a few bunks away during those summers at Ramah.

Lauren grew up in Austin, Texas, and was involved with Young Judea and various Jewish summer camps. In the summers of 1992 and 1993, Lauren traveled west to work as a counselor at Camp Ramah.

Despite spending summers at the same camp and sharing a passion for music, Lauren and David did not remember meeting each other when their paths crossed again through a mutual friend in 2000.

"It’s almost impossible that we never even said ‘Hello’ through two entire summers at camp," David said. "But we really didn’t remember each other at all."

Although they sensed a connection, Lauren still lived in Austin, and 2,000 miles was enough to dissuade David from pursuing a relationship.

"I remember telling my friends, ‘Too bad she lives in Texas,’" David said. "I thought we really hit it off, so the distance was pretty disappointing."

David’s disappointment soon turned to excitement when he traveled to Texas with his band, Milot Ha’Nefesh, to open for musician David Broza at Young Judea’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Lauren watched, then met David and his band. Even though they barely remembered each other, sparks flew and, three weeks later, David was in Austin meeting Lauren’s family. After a 10-month long-distance relationship, Lauren packed her bags and moved to Los Angeles in February 2003.

Only two months after her move, Lauren found more than matzah in the afikomen bag on the second night of Passover: David had hidden an engagement ring among the broken crumbs.

"Then I got down on one knee, and she said yes," David said. "It worked out well. We had been joking about wedding lists after we were together for three weeks, so it didn’t really surprise either of us."

The couple currently lives in the Pico-Robertson area and is strongly involved in the Jewish community. Lauren, a graduate of the University of Kansas with a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas, is a school therapist in Santa Monica. David, who graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in music composition, still works for Ramah and travels with his band. They will be married on Nov. 2, 2003, at Camp Ramah.

"It’s a little bit like ‘When Harry Met Sally,’" David said. "Their paths had crossed several times over 10 years, but nothing happened. The same was true with us — it just proves to us that it was meant to be."

Red Flag From Cupid


Oh, sure, it started promisingly enough. Rhonda and I had each seen the other’s photo and profile on a singles Web site, granted one another profile approval and were now talking on the phone for the first time.

Things were going pleasantly until Rhonda suggested that I choose a place for us to meet. I suggested a coffeehouse with outdoor tables at The Grove. She reacted unimpressed. I then mentioned a charming little place on Melrose Avenue with a Japanese tea garden in the back. She yawned. Finally, I offered a second Melrose locale — a quaint French cafe with outdoor porch seating and fabulous homemade desserts. The silence was deafening.

“Problem?” I inquired.

“Those places just aren’t very romantic,” she informed me.

Not very romantic? I was stunned. Did I miss something here? Is it our anniversary? It’s our first meeting, for crying out loud! We don’t even know if we have any in-person chemistry. I told Rhonda that, to me, any “romance” occurs as a function of the chemistry between the two people. And that chemistry happens (or doesn’t) whether the people are meeting at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Ritz in Paris, or at Taco Bell in Pacoima. She mumbled an unconvinced, “I guess so,” told me she was on her cell phone in the car, about to park in her garage and would call me back as soon as she got in the house. I never heard back from her.

I briefly envisioned how I might have salvaged this particular relationship. A romantic gondola ride in the Venice canals, with me feeding her grapes while comparing the texture of her skin to velvet? But if it turned out there was no or very little chemistry, as is often the case, we’d merely be two people in a romantic setting, eager for the date to end. I just didn’t get it. What was she thinking?

And then it occurred to me that this whole episode with Rhonda had been a gift to me from Cupid. You see, sometimes Cupid allows weeks, months, even years to go by before your romantic partner reveals his or her dark side. The longer it takes for the reveal, the harder and more painful its effects on you when it all comes crashing down.

Other times, as with Rhonda, Cupid is kinder and allows the red flags to reveal themselves right from the start. So you’re privy to your partner’s deepest dysfunctions early on, in the harsh morning light of her true self. Her high-maintenance, humorless, judgmental, controlling, quick-tempered, dull, deceitful, insecure aspects rear their ugly heads. And at that point, you can decide if all her other wonderful qualities make up for this — or if you would be far better off heading for the hills.

What fascinates me about all this is that these red flags are revealed despite their owner’s intentions of putting a best foot forward during those first few all-important, making-a-good-impression encounters. Sometimes, thankfully, their true colors can’t help but slip through as merciful little advance relationship warnings (“The Crazies are coming! The Crazies are coming!”) thereby saving you all that time, money, effort and emotional involvement (and subsequent hurt) for however long you might have become involved with them before the bad stuff surfaced.

Therefore, I thank you, Rhonda. You did me a favor, and I wish you nothing but the best. I sincerely hope you meet that guy who will be able to suggest a first-date locale sufficiently romantic for your deepest needs and desires. All I ask is that once you’re seated with him at that charming seaside bistro on the French Riviera, with doves circling gently overhead and a strolling violinist playing “La Vie en Rose,” you’ll think of me kindly and wish me luck in my attempt to drum up a modicum of romance in some desolate Starbucks in Culver City.


Mark Miller is a comedy writer who has written for TV, movies and many celebrities, been a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, contributed to numerous national publications and produced a weekly comedic relationships feature for America Online. He can be reached at markmiller2000@attbi.com.

911 Calls Ignored After OU Shooting


City officials and the LAPD are working with Jewish
community leaders to determine why two 911 calls went unanswered when a pellet
gunshot shattered the front window of a building where a Jewish youth group was
meeting the night of March 27.

Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, director of the West Coast region of
the Orthodox Union (OU), at whose headquarters the incident occurred, said
police have since been very solicitous and cooperative in trying to figure out
how the system broke down.

“They will do whatever they can to make certain that we not
only feel safer, but are safer,” Kalinsky said.

No one was injured in the attack.

Community leaders are particularly disturbed by the
incident, because the breakdown in communication came at a time when terrorist
threats associated with the situation in Israel and the war in Iraq have put
Jewish institutions on high alert. Since the shooting at the Jewish Community
Center in Granada Hills in August 1999 and again since the Sept. 11 attacks,
Jewish leaders have worked with the LAPD and city officials to fine tune
internal security at Jewish organizations and to streamline communications
between the institutions and the Police Department.

All that groundwork seemed to fall apart at about 9:30 p.m.
on March 27, when, according to witnesses, passengers in a silver sports car
shot a pellet gun at the tempered glass front window of the West Coast OU on
Pico Boulevard. Several teenage members of the National Council of Synagogue
Youth (NCSY), the OU’s youth group, were standing just to the east of the
window at the time called 911.

When no one showed up, NCSY Director Rabbi Steven Burg, who
was there with the youths, called again and then later left a message with
senior lead officer Mario Gonzales, a community liaison at the West L.A.
station house. Gonzales didn’t get that message until the next morning, at
which point the LAPD had already been called in by 5th District Councilman Jack
Weiss.

Gonzales is currently conducting an investigation into the
communication breakdown.

Weiss said he spoke to Police Chief William Bratton on March
28, who explained that the initial call that came into 911 was received by a
trainee, who took down the correct information. But by the time the information
was kicked up two levels of supervisors, one key word had fallen out of the
report: Jewish.

The incident itself, without the information that it was at
a religious organization, became an “information only” dispatch, since no one
was injured, and there was no license plate or clear description of the
suspects, Gonzales said.

“We are conducting an investigation and hopefully this will
never occur again,” he said.

“Everyone I’ve talked to in the LAPD has been genuinely
upset that they dropped the ball on this one,” Weiss said.

Weiss called for a meeting between the LAPD and Jewish
leaders from the Pico-Robertson area; it was scheduled to take place on
Thursday at The Young Israel of Century City.

“This was very disappointing, because my office has worked
closely to put the LAPD in touch with the Jewish institutions in L.A., and all
seemed to be going well, and then this happened. Now we realized that no matter
the level of coordination, we’re all just one 911 operator away from not being
that safe at all,” Weiss said.

After Sept. 11, Jewish organizations met at the Simon
Wiesenthal Center with city officials, the LAPD and the local office of the
FBI. Individual institutions also met with Gonzales and other officers to work
out security plans.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal
Center, just across the street from the OU building, said it is important to
determine whether this was a hate crime or a random occurrence. The OU building
was tagged with gang graffiti in January, and is in a location that sees heavy
foot traffic.

Cooper expressed concern that the shooting at an El Al
counter at Los Angeles International Airport last July 4, in which Yaakov
Aminov and Victoria Hen were killed, did not set a precedent in how these
crimes are labeled.

In the El Al attacks, “everyone from the FBI to the city
fathers did the equivalent of yoga manipulations to call it everything but what
it was — a terrorist attack. We want to make sure that the initial breakdown
wasn’t because an attack on Jewish institutions would be dealt with any differently
than an attack on one of the multitude of ethnic and religious groups in our
city,” Cooper said.

Weiss advised the Jewish community to be explicit when
calling 911 and not to assume the operator can do the proper analysis.

“When reporting a crime at a Jewish institution, the
representative needs to state very clearly that this is a Jewish institution
and if appropriate, indicate whether a hate crime may have been committed,”
Weiss suggested. “Make it crystal clear to the 911 operator what the situation
is and why it is important that there be an immediate dispatch.”  

Somebody Stop Me


I’ve been spending so much time and energy dating that it
sometimes feels like an addiction. Or at least another career. If only it paid. And didn’t involve so much time at Starbucks.
And didn’t require at the end of each meeting having to come up with a polite
way to say, “It’s perfectly okay with me if we never see each other again for
the rest of our lives; in fact, I’d prefer it.”

Which usually emerges from my careful-to-be-tactful mouth in
this fashion: “Very nice meeting you.”

In the first three years following my divorce, I went on 150
coffee dates. And by “coffee dates” I’m using the standard Merriam-Webster
dictionary definition: “first-time meetings, usually ending in disappointment.”
And I’m an optimist, mind you.

Now, I realize that 150 coffee dates sounds like a lot, but
spread out over three years, it’s just one a week. Of course, depending on the
person, 15 minutes with the wrong woman for the first time can seem like a
whole week. But I learned something very important from those 150 coffee dates:
If I’d saved all the money I spent on them, I could have afforded a Hyundai.
(Granted, four of the dates resulted in relationships, but the other 146 of
them only resulted in a thorough knowledge of the differences between lattes,
frappucinos and caramel macchiatos.)

Sometimes I think this dating odyssey is God’s way of
getting back at me for never having taken chemistry in school. He’s making it
virtually impossible for me to find chemistry with my beshert. Is mutual
worship and adoration too much to ask for? Of course not. You can ask for it
all you want. Getting it is another story.

It’s the same old story: Either they’re not attracted to me
or I’m not attracted to them. Sometimes they show up without a sense of humor,
without a sense of playfulness, without even the realization that someone else
is sitting across the table from them. One woman talked to me about herself for
a full hour without asking me one question about myself. Astounding. But if I
want self-absorbed, I’ll date actresses exclusively.

I admit that I do like the variety. I’ve gone out with a
judge, a cantor, a masseuse, a teacher, a network executive, a nurse, a college
student, a speech therapist, a doctor, an actress, a psychologist, a lawyer,
even a forest ranger. I’ve had a first date in an art museum that featured
life-sized, naked, anatomically correct male and female mannequins.

At a recent brunch, a woman immediately removed a digital
scale from her pocketbook and proceeded to weigh each item of food that was
served. Another date took me to the Holocaust-themed film “The Pianist”; but my
efforts to salvage the mood (“We Jews really have to stick together — wanna
come home with me?”) came to no avail. At one Starbucks, I waited an extra half
hour for my date to arrive, missing the fact that she was already seated a few
tables away — she looked so different from the photo that went with her profile
that I could not believe she was the same person. Still to this day I am
convinced she was my date’s mother.

And even though I’ve done my share of rejecting, I’ve also
experienced my share of being rejected. At first, I took it personally. Now I
consider it part of the process. Often, women can’t bring themselves to say,
“Sorry, not interested” to my face, so they’ll lie.

Once, I asked a date, “Can we go out again?”

She cheerfully responded, “Call me!” I never heard back from
her. Now when I hear a cheerful “Call me!” I realize it’s the kiss of death,
not unlike that given by Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.”

My favorite kiss-off, though, happened recently. When I
brought up the subject of a third date, I actually heard these words come from
her lips: “I’m going to be really busy in January.” Wouldn’t a quick slap
across my face have made the point more directly?

So why do I put myself through all this pain, aggravation,
expense and time over and over and over and over again? Am I masochistic? Or am
I a serial dater so addicted to the process that I consciously or
subconsciously never intend to settle down with one of them?

I don’t think so.

I go through it all because I’ve experienced the thrill of a
relationship when it works. In fact, I’ve been lucky enough to have had more
than one relationship in which both people worship and adore one another. I
think these kinds of relationships are rare — at least for me. But when they do
happen, it’s special, exciting, stimulating, life-enhancing. It’s magic. And I
know she’s out there somewhere, perhaps even looking for me.

All I ask is that at the end of our first date, she doesn’t
look me in the eyes, smile warmly, and cheerfully say, “Call me!” Â


Mark Miller is a former stand-up comic and current marketing manager at KCET. He’s also a comedy writer, who has written and produced TV sitcoms, sold feature film comedies to Warner Bros. and been a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and other publications.