Michael Bassin. Photo courtesy of Michael Bassin

Author’s Goal: Show ‘Human Side of Jews’

Brimming with intrigue and suspense, Michael Bassin’s outlandish stories make him seem like the lovechild of Dan Brown (“The Da Vinci Code”) and Frank Abagnale (“Catch Me If You Can”).

During a year as a student in the Middle East, he was accused of being a secret agent and threatened by a former Hezbollah fighter in Beirut, who told him: “You’re an Israeli. I can see it in your eyes. I’ve already killed two, and I said once I kill my third, I can die peacefully.”

But for all his capers, Bassin, 32, is really just a nice Jewish boy from Cincinnati with an aw-shucks attitude.

His newly released book, “I Am Not a Spy: An American Jew Goes Deep in the Arab World & Israeli Army,” recounts his exploits during a year in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — peppered with jaunts to Lebanon, Syria, Oman, Kashmir and Jordan — while he was a junior studying International Relations at George Washington University.

While his Jewish day school and Conservative youth group upbringing gave Bassin a solid pro-Israel foundation, it was the relationships he forged with Muslims at his public high school that made him itch to see the other side.

“I wanted to make peace in the Middle East,” Bassin said with the earnestness of a beauty pageant contestant. His role models were people like former American diplomat and Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross.

“I also wanted to be the dorky Jew in the room — but without the glasses. I don’t wear glasses,” he said.

So in the summer of 2006, Bassin spent a few months intensively studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo. From there, he went on to spend seven months at the American University of Sharjah, UAE.

After word got out about his Jewish identity in Sharjah, Bassin quickly became something of a cause célèbre. A particularly hostile group of students from the Palestinian diaspora led a crusade against him, he said, spreading the rumor that he was a Mossad agent.

“Yet the more they demonized me, the more popular I became,” Bassin said.

“I showed them the human side of Jews,” he continued. “Propaganda aside, it’s very hard to hate the person sitting in front of you.”

Ironically, Palestinian students from East Jerusalem ended up becoming Bassin’s closest allies on campus. They, too, were viewed with suspicion by other students — especially by those second-generation diaspora Palestinians who had never set foot in either Israel or the Palestinian territories — since they were far more moderate in their attitude toward Israel.

“The fact that they were so utterly shunned by other Palestinian students because they didn’t say Israel and Jews were bad in every way, the fact that they had some nuance to it, made them go in the opposite direction,” he said.

“I wanted to make peace in the Middle East.” — Michael Bassin

He told the Journal of his repeated efforts to strike up a conversation with a beautiful girl in a hijab who always found a way to abscond. “I realized I was having a public relations problem in that people were too afraid to talk to me,” he said.

In an effort to combat his ostracism, Bassin joined the biggest student group on campus, the Palestinian Cultural Club. Although at first he was treated like “the plague,” eventually people became used to his presence, he said. Even Samira, the beautiful girl in the hijab, apologized for being hostile.

“She told me, ‘If I’m going to hate you, I want to do so for my own reasons,’ ” he said. “We ended up becoming extremely good friends.”

Bassin credits his experiences in the Arab world for his decision to make aliyah. Although his time spent in the Middle East made him internalize the fact that human beings are malleable creatures that can learn and grow and affect geopolitical climates, he doesn’t believe this is something that will happen anytime soon.

For Bassin, the next step in his quest to support the Jewish state was to move there and join the military. He was recruited as a combat translator for the Kfir Infantry Brigade. These days, Bassin works as the chief revenue officer in an ad-tech startup in Tel Aviv.

When asked if he ever could see himself embarking on similar adventures again, Bassin smiles.

“I was a kid then,” he said. “I didn’t know my head from my tuchis. But you never know.”

In Washington, Netanyahu brings sunny peace vision, dark Iran warning

Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington determined to hold the line on Iran, but he also brought something new: an expansive vision of Middle East peace.

The Israeli prime minister remained firm, after meeting with President Obama on Monday, in insisting that any nuclear deal must remove Iran’s uranium enrichment program — an outcome U.S. officials say is unlikely — and vowed that Israel would defend its interests.

On Israeli-Palestinian peace, though, Netanyahu aimed to please his American hosts: He joined Secretary of State John Kerry for the first time in expressing hope that there would be a breakthrough soon and articulating an optimistic vision of the benefits peace will bring, one that not so long ago he might have ridiculed.

“I’m prepared to make a historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors, a peace that would end a century of conflict and bloodshed,” Netanyahu said in his speech Tuesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference. “Peace would be good for us. Peace would be good for the Palestinians. But peace would also open up the possibility of establishing formal ties between Israel and leading countries in the Arab world.”

Netanyahu’s rhetorical flourishes on peace came after he landed in a political environment marked in recent weeks by tensions between the Obama administration and Israel and its American defenders over how to deal with Iran.

Netanyahu’s remarks also came on the heels of an interview published Sunday in which President Obama bluntly warned that Israel could face international isolation if an agreement with the Palestinians is not reached and urged Netanyahu to show leadership in advancing peace.

The particulars of the peace vision that Netanyahu articulated in his AIPAC address included cooperating with Israel’s Arab neighbors on sharing water, developing medical cures and launching business startups. It’s a vision similar to the “New Middle East” Shimon Peres predicted in the 1990s and that Netanyahu mercilessly mocked in the 1996 election in which he defeated Peres.

Netanyahu added his usual caveats: The Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and Israel must maintain a military presence along the West Bank-Jordan border. But for the first time since talks were renewed last July at Kerry’s behest, Netanyahu suggested that a breakthrough was possible.

“So as we work in the coming days, in the coming weeks, to forge a durable peace, I hope that the Palestinian leadership will stand with Israel and the United States on the right side of the moral divide, the side of peace, reconciliation and hope,” he said.

Netanyahu had to remind the AIPAC crowd to applaud: “You can clap — you want to encourage them to do that!”

The optimistic tone stood in contrast to Netanyahu’s posture in the Oval Office with President Obama before their meeting. After Obama’s opening remarks, Netanyahu shifted in his seat, leaned forward and let out an audible sigh.

He thanked and praised Obama, ran through his Iran demands and then got to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“We’ve learned from our history — Jewish history, but I think from general history — that the best way to guarantee peace is to be strong,” Netanyahu said. “And that’s what the people of Israel expect me to do –- to stand strong against criticism, against pressure, stand strong to secure the future of the one and only Jewish state.”

That clearly was a reference to an interview Obama had given Bloomberg News that was published the day before the leaders met. Obama insisted that Israel urgently needed to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and suggested that Netanyahu needed to rise to the occasion.

“I believe that Bibi is strong enough that if he decided this was the right thing to do for Israel, that he could do it,” Obama said. “If he does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach. And as I said before, it’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”

Netanyahu may have felt the need to defend himself in the Oval Office, but in fact, according to sources in the pro-Israel community, it was his intention to embrace aspects of the framework peace agreement Kerry hopes to unveil in coming weeks.

Indeed, Netanyahu and AIPAC officials consistently praised Kerry throughout the conference for his thorough approach to developing a framework proposal. In his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu called Kerry “indomitable.”

Israel especially has appreciated Kerry for his sequencing: He has first thoroughly vetted his proposals, including on Jerusalem and on securing the West Bank, with Israel and is only now in close consultations with Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is due to meet Obama on March 17.

Embracing Kerry’s initiative gives Netanyahu some room to hold fast to his positions on the Iran talks. The Obama administration has beaten back for now demands spearheaded by Netanyahu and AIPAC that the United States upgrade existing sanctions on Iran.

But Netanyahu’s bottom line did not change in the wake of his meeting with Obama: He continued to reserve Israel’s right to act as it sees fit unless the talks eliminate entirely Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium. Obama and other U.S. officials have suggested that Iran will likely emerge from a final agreement with a limited enrichment capacity.

“Unfortunately, the leading powers of the world are talking about leaving Iran with the capability to enrich uranium,” he told AIPAC. “I hope they don’t do that because that would be a grave error. It would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power.”

He explained the danger, as he has in the past, by invoking the Holocaust.

“Letting the worst terrorist regime on the planet get atomic bombs would endanger everyone, and it certainly would endanger Israel since Iran openly calls for our destruction,” he said. “Seventy years ago, our people, the Jewish people, were left for dead. We came back to life. We will never be brought to the brink of extinction again. As prime minister of Israel, I will do whatever I must do to defend the Jewish state of Israel.”

Israel frees Palestinian prisoners, pushes settlement plan

Israel set free 26 Palestinian prisoners on Tuesday as part of U.S.-brokered peace efforts, after pledging to press ahead with plans to build more homes in Jewish settlements.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, whose shuttle diplomacy led to a resumption of the negotiations in July after a three-year break, was due to return on Thursday to seek a framework agreement in talks that have shown few signs of progress.

Israel agreed to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners – the latest group is the third of four to go free – as part of the U.S.-led efforts that coaxed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiations after a three-year break.

In tandem with the prisoner releases in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel has announced new construction in settlements in the West Bank.

Most of the 26 inmates going free were convicted of killing Israelis and almost all were jailed before the first Israeli-Palestinian interim peace deals were signed 20 years ago.

Palestinians have jubilantly welcomed the return home of brethren they regard as national heroes. The families of Israelis they killed or injured have voiced anger and mounted unsuccessful court challenges against their release.

Last week, an Israeli official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government – which includes pro-settlement parties – would announce plans after the latest release to build 1,400 more homes for settlers in the West Bank.

Palestinians see the settlements, which most countries regard as illegal, as an obstacle to achieving a viable state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Middle East war and pulled out of the Gaza Strip, now ruled by Hamas Islamists opposed to the U.S. peace efforts, in 2005.

Palestinian officials have cautioned the settlement push could kill chances for a peace deal. Israel says the housing projects are in areas it intends to keep in any future agreement.

In another move that drew Palestinian anger, an Israeli ministerial committee on Sunday endorsed proposed legislation to annex an area of the West Bank likely to be the eastern border of a future Palestinian state.

The step, promoted by far-right members of Netanyahu's Likud party, could weigh on the peace negotiations. But centrist Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief negotiator, said she would use her powers to block the legislation from being voted on in Parliament.

Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer

Will Santa bring Obama peace for Christmas?

It is too early to tell what will emerge from talks among the new diplomatic triumvirate composed of the United States, Russia and Iran. But one thing is for certain: Even the worst of all agreements is far superior to the current situation. 

Certainly, I understand the problems with Iran. I also know that the benefits, even if only the remote possibility of benefits, are better than the current conflict. Rapprochement, even just a little, between the United States and Iran, just enough to lift the U.S.-imposed sanctions against Iran, is a lot. It would be a positive move, a move in the right direction. It would break the stalemate that has handcuffed the world and dominated foreign policy for too long.

The world will be able to let out a collective breath of relief. The Iranians, the people, the citizens, will realize real relief in the form of an improved lifestyle and improved living conditions. If the only result is a happier Iranian population, it is worth it all. 

The aggressive behavior, both diplomatically and politically, that has emanated from Iran, and which has resulted in their indignant and ferocious race to attain nuclear weapons, has been a response to the isolation that Iran has been feeling these past few years. Once Iran begins talking to the United States and Russia together, the signal will go out that it is all right to deal with them, that it is OK to publicly interact with them in the international community. And once Iran is received by the international community, the immediate nuclear threat will diminish. Iran will no longer fight the conditions that have already been set down for them — they will allow spot inspections and they will limit their uranium enrichment.

None of this means that Iran has already become or is on the road to becoming a peaceful nation, but rather, that their nuclear program and their weapons issues are no longer on their own front burner.

Not everyone will be happy, not every country will be satisfied by the agreement that will be forged by the United States, Russia and Iran no matter what that agreement is. The main bone of contention, for example, between Israel and the United States on the Iranian issue is that Israel wants sanctions to remain in place until the Iranians follow through and stop their enrichment. Israel asserts that if sanctions are lifted now, reinstituting them at a later time and Israel believes that that time will come can take years. Rescinding sanctions takes only a few seconds. 

There have been whispers and there is speculation. We are being led to believe that the United States wants a plan in place by the end of December. That’s soon. A name has even been already assigned to the plan. They are calling it a “Christmas plan.”

The essence of the plan, as far as we who are not actually at the negotiating table drafting the plan can determine, would allow Iran to preserve their civilian nuclear development facilities. It permits the Iranians to enrich uranium up to 5 percent. It halts all 20 percent enrichment. It will halt all activity at the plutonium reactor in Arak. And it will transform the Fordo plant into a scientific and medical experimental facility.

That plan seems to have been agreed upon by all parties involved — the United States, which devised it; Russia, which agrees with it; and, most crucially, the Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. 

Israel wants one more condition attached to the plan. Israel wants all underground plants brought above ground. As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, there is no reason for a peaceful plant to be underground. Only a secret military arms plant needs to be hidden. Netanyahu is correct.

Personally, I am more troubled by another issue. Iran is suddenly becoming a different kind of world player.

Suddenly, post agreement, the Iranians will hold much more power than they did before talks began. Then, they held us all in fear, but their actual power was limited. Of course it is still possible that the entire project may fall apart. Iran has its own agenda and objectives that have not changed one iota. Iran wants sanctions lifted at all costs. Iran wants to hold the reins over the entire Muslim world. But since meeting with the United States and Russia, Iran sees the possibility of having it all.

To turn a phrase, now that Iran has been sanctioned by both Russia and the United States, now that it has been given credibility by the great powers of the Western world, it is well on the road to achieving all its goals. If those goals are more important to Iran than the threat of sanctions and its own nuclear desires, the region will be a safer place to live. 

Whatever emerges, it will be for the good. 

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World Through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).

Obama at U.N.: America’s Mideast focus is on Iran, peace talks

President Obama in an address to the United Nations said U.S. focus in the Middle East will be keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The two issues “have been a major source of instability for far too long,” Obama said Monday at the world body’s General Assembly in New York.

He expressed openness to engaging with Iran in the wake of such calls by its newly elected president, Hassan Rohani, but also emphasized in unusually explicit terms that the United States was ready to use military force to defend its interests and allies in the Middle East.

“The United States of America is willing to use all elements of our power, including the use of military force, to ensure our foreign interests in the region,” he said.

“When it is necessary to defend the United States against terrorist attacks, we will take direct action,” Obama said. “We will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction. ”

Obama said Israelis had a right to live peacefully in the region and with the recognition of member U.N. states, including Arab nations, but cautioned that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was corrosive.

“There’s growing recognition within Israel that the occupation of the West Bank is tearing at the democratic fabric of the Jewish state,” he said.

Israel should not release prisoners for peace

Releasing Palestinian prisoners as a political gesture erodes Israel’s democratic fabric and challenges the country’s core sense of justice. Ironically, it is the dissemination of justice and the people of Israel’s faith in that justice that has kept their society together. 

The citizens of a democratic country expect and believe that evil will be punished and that good will prevail. They believe that the government they elected protects them and ensures that those who murder do not go free. The exception to that expectation occurs only when the murderer is exonerated or pardoned. And when pardons do come, society takes notice and asks if the person really did the heinous act. The pardon is the safety valve that corrects the mistakes of justice.

Israel, like all democracies, relies on a series of check and balances. 

The prime minister of Israel and his cabinet are legally responsible for foreign affairs and for the safety and security of the state. About that there is no question. That ruling, just issued by the Israeli Supreme Court, paved the way for convicted Palestinian terrorists to be transferred to Gaza and to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The court ruled against the challenge of releasing the prisoners. They said that the prime minister had absolute authority in the matter. 

[PRO: Israel should release prisoners for peace]

Here is the problem: These were neither military prisoners nor security prisoners. The released prisoners and their fellow cell and soul mates awaiting imminent release were tried and convicted in civilian courts. And even if terror and nationalistic agendas were part of their collective diabolical mindset, all of these prisoners, each and every one, was tried for and convicted of murder and/or attempted murder.

Not one of these prisoners was pardoned. Not one was granted amnesty. They were all simply released in a political deal.

[Related: Who Israel released]

Justice, judgment and punishment were shoved aside. Checks and balances were thrown out. The political side trampled on the judicial branch. Had these prisoners been under military jurisdiction, I would not have liked the decision, but I would understand it. The military convicts and frees according to different standards. If these were high-security prisoners, I could understand that, too. But they are not.

Look at crimes perpetrated by some of these 26 released murderers, 14 of whom are now at home in Gaza, the others released to roam the West Bank: 

• Abu Moussa Salam Ali Atiya had been jailed since 1994 for the murder of Holocaust survivor Isaac Rotenberg. His victim was born in Poland in 1927, and most of his family was deported to and murdered in Sobibor. Rotenberg and his brother were sent to a labor camp. He survived the Nazis. And then, on March 29, 1994, as Rothberg knelt down to lay a floor he was axed to death by two Arab laborers. One of them was Ali Atiya. 

• Kor Mattawa Hamad Faiz had been in jail since 1985 for the murder of Menahem Dadon and attempted murder of Salomon Abukasis. 

• Sha’at Azat Shaban Ata was convicted of helping murder a 51-year-old woman named Simcha Levi. Levi made her living transporting Palestinian day laborers from the Gaza Strip to work in Jewish settlements. In March 1993, she picked up three men disguised as women. They were her murderers; they beat and stabbed Levi to death.

• Salah Ibrahim Ahmad Mughdad was jailed since 1993 for the murder of Israel Tenenbaum. Tenenbaum was born in Poland in 1921, survived the Holocaust, and came to Israel in 1957 and bought a farm. After a life of work in agriculture, he retired and became a night watchman at a small hotel in the seaside city Netanya. Tenenbaum was murdered on the job.

Many of the victims were older and Holocaust survivors. Their murderers are now free. Twelve of the victims were Arab. Their murderers, too, are now free. In the coming days and weeks, more murderers will be set free. The sides have just begun talking. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA, has already achieved victory. 

Now we wait to see what emerges at the negotiating table. We wait to see if anything emerges at the negotiating table. It might; it might not. Whatever the outcome, these released murderers will not be returning to an Israeli prison.

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson, 2007).

Livni sees peace talks aiding Arab world alliance shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Vigilance, not optimism, in engagement with Iran

Hassan Rohani was sworn in as Iran’s president on Sunday. In his inauguration speech, he alleged that his government would walk the path of “detente” with the world, but that the international community should engage with Iran through “dialogue” and “respect” instead of sanctions. “Mutual transparency is key for opening doors of confidence,” he added.

Rohani promised Iran would pursue “peace and stability in the region” and be “a haven of stability”.

He presented the Majles, the Iranian parliament, with his cabinet choices. The Majles is expected to vote on the list next week.

The US said it was ready to work with Mr Rohani’s government if it were serious about engagement. “The inauguration of President Rohani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Unlike Mr. Carney, the Iranian people seemed not to see much opportunity in the event. Apart Hassan Rohani’s past record marking continuous presence and action in security agencies of the clerical regime for three decades; apart his strong and flawless loyalty to the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, permitting him to take part in a presidential election where only eight people among more than 800 were allowed to attend; his choice of ministers is tell-tale of his internal intentions: his proposed candidate for the sensitive post of Justice Ministry is Mostapha Pour-Mohammadi, for years a strongman in the feared Ministry of Intelligence and a member of the three-judge panel that condemned thousands of political prisoners to death in 1988.

At that time, just after the Iran-Iraq war, Iran put thousands of political prisoners to death during a few months. During those months, the three-judge panel retried thousands of inmates already serving sentences. The hearing lasted a few minutes for each prisoner. Those inmates who stood by their opposition to the regime were ordered immediately hanged. As many as 30,000 prisoners were thus massacred according to the opposition.

As for “peace and stability in the region,” Mr. Rohani is a fervent supporter of the Iranian military engagement in Syria. He stressed in a recent interview with an Arab leading newspaper: “Syria is the only country in the region which has resisted the expansionist policies and conducts of Israel.”

Yesterday a leading  French weekly revealed how Iran trained Iraqi Chiites in a base close to Tehran before sending them to suppress popular uprising in Syria.

But even more than his freak record back home his own conduct during the period he was in charge of the nuclear negotiations with the West should ring bells. During the two year period of 2003 – 2005, as head of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team, he assured the European Troika formed by Great Britain, France and Germany as his negotiating counterparts that uranium enrichment in Iran’s nuclear facilities had stopped while they were talking. The Sunday Telegraph however wrote later in 2006: “In a speech to a closed meeting of leading Islamic clerics and academics, Hassan Rohani, who headed talks with the so-called EU3 until last year, revealed how Tehran played for time and tried to dupe the West after its secret nuclear program was uncovered by the Iranian opposition in 2002.” In fact cascades of centrifuges were completed during all the time Rohani was negotiating with the Europeans with not a single machine coming to a halt.

As for mutual transparency, the Iranian opposition revealed only two weeks ago a hidden nuclear site located in tunnels beneath a mountain near the town of Damavand, 44 miles northeast of Tehran.

According to the opposition, the site has existed since 2006 with the first series of subterranean tunnels and four external depots recently completed.

They claimed Hassan Rohani had a “key role” in the program.

It seems that optimism towards Rohani is unfounded. With the absolute power in the hands of the supreme leader Khamenei, and with Rohani’s obedience towards Khamenei in spite of existing relations with other factions in the regime, it is obvious that he would try to buy time before anything else, if there would be anything else.

So vigilance, and not optimism, has to remain the motto in any engagement with Iran.

Lessons for Brotherhood and why Turkey is still the model for Egypt

Let me start by saying that Turkey needs to believe that the right thing to do is to act together with Israel, and that it must embrace the language of friendship. If Turkey is allied with Israel, the scourges raining down on the region would be resolved in a short period of time. The bloodshed in Syria, the turmoil in Egpt and the general downward spiral would not be continuing in this way for long. The region is devoid of an alliance of democratic, secular and reasonable power houses. So I urge Turkey to resolve the Mavi Marmara crisis rather than prolonging the issue at such a tense time and establish a solid friendship and alliance with Israel right away. While Israel is surrounded by countries demanding its annihilation and promoting the most ruthless anti-Jewish propaganda, it is an absolute necessity for Turkey to show the true spirit of Islam with regards to Jews and Christians, and be a true role model for the Islamic-majority countries in the region.

Just like Egypt, the military was a powerful political player in Turkey and had been the most trustworthy institution, and their engagement had always found support among many, so the July 3rd coup in Egypt is a familiar scene for the Turks. Seeing how similar the rhetoric is, it felt as if Chief of Staff Kenan Evren’s long-ago speech was echoing in Egypt: “We want to prevent a civil war, and we are only interfering to stop clashes between the left and the right.”

Turkey suffered for a long time by having two heads, civilian and military, in the legal system but it has since opened the way in firmly establishing civilian jurisdiction over crimes committed by military personnel since 2009. And now Turkey is about to make another step towards democratization: The Turkish government only a few weeks ago proposed a set of changes to the constitution to eliminate the possibility of the military getting involved in domestic affairs; in other words, this will remove the threat of a future junta. Since 1934 the Turkish military was responsible for “protecting” the Turkish Republic from threats within and abroad. If the change in Article 35 is approved, the military’s responsibility will be limited strictly to threats from abroad.

Considering four coups since 1950 and what the last bloody 1980 coup had brought (650,000 arrests, 50 executions, 171 deaths by torture, tens of thousands of citizens forced to flee abroad,) Turks have had enough. However, democratisation has neither been an easy nor a quick process but it definitely needed uncompromising resoluteness.

Since divisive language has become dominant, the demonizing of the “other” side has become commonplace and since trust has been lost between the political camps in Egypt, a third party — like Turkey — can indeed play a role to facilitate reconciliation. It is not just about Turkey’s experience with coups and democratization efforts but it is about how an Islamic-based party can have a place as a three-time elected government within the democratic arena. Yes, there are serious demands from the Turkish government for a more inclusive style where everyone feels free to express their demands, and they certainly have their critics and so on; and all of this will hopefully progress. Yet despite the recent protests against the AKP government, the model in Turkey can still be a stepping stone for Muslim majority countries like Egypt.

However, since Egypt is going through a historic reform from a dictatorship to democracy, this should be done with a broad-based consultative system made up of all parties, including and reflecting all points of view. Obviously there has to be compromise from all sides for the sake of harmony and unity of Egypt.

The Brotherhood and its political branch, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), however, have many lessons to learn and they indeed have to change themselves a lot. The failure of President Mohamed Morsi was in neglecting very crucial values that have been ignored by almost the whole Muslim world as well. What we have seen in general was a dead, corrupt, bigoted system being espoused and imposed; however, their new goal should be to emphasize the importance of modern, extroverted, loving people and embracing a style that advocates art and science. People are invariably happier with cleanliness, with art, with green spaces, and they seek out music, sculpture, painting, aesthetic architecture and beauty.

Now that this unwanted scenario has happened, the leaders of the Brotherhood should be pioneers for a reform towards a modern understanding of Islam and take a stance against bigotry. They should embrace Jews and Christians in front of cameras; in their speeches they should embrace all people from all walks of life including communists, atheists, etc. They should express the beauties of freedoms, and provide a comfortable atmosphere even for the most vocal critics.

Another crucial emphasis should be for the rights and freedoms of women. They should show their love and respect for women, and bring them to the front, regardless of their style of dress. They should embrace a secular model, as in Turkey, accepting all as equal and first class citizens, and providing religious freedom for all. The Brotherhood being in close coordination with Turkey would be an advantageous way for them to make fast progress.

Finally, the Brotherhood should embrace a policy that will comfort the Israelis and the ones who hold it dear to themselves and they should scrupulously avoid things that could raise tensions. They have to end the anti-Israel rhetoric and show their compassion for Jews and Christians, as a requirement of their belief as well. In point of simple fact, they should not be enemies with anyone, not even with their opponents: This is essential to silence the guns, and to end the division even if it is a one-sided effort. From now on, they should focus on solutions.

I am aware that this is far from what the Brotherhood stands for at the moment, but there could be significant developments through intense educational programs via television and social programs designed to change the fanatical mindset in its administration and social structure, and replace it with a far more inclusive approach. 

Sinem Tezyapar is an Executive Producer at a Turkish TV. She is a political and religious commentator, peace activist and is the spokesperson of a prominent international interfaith organization, as well as its coordinator for international relations with political and religious leaders. She is working with interparlimentary and non governmental organizations for the establishment of the United Nations Permanent Forum for a Culture of Peace and Global Ethics. She can be reached via @SinemTezyapar

The path to Israeli-Palestinian peace runs through sewage

Palestinians and Israelis are poisoning each other — no, not just through the normal streams of invective and incitement that characterize the local blame game. The toxic exchanges are much more literal — through noxious reciprocal flows of excrement that provide a definitive — and odorous — answer to the question of what ever happened to the peace process.

According to a recent survey by the Israel Parks and Nature Authority, over 90 percent of sewage from Palestinian towns flows untreated into 162 kilometers of rivers and streams, polluting groundwater aquifers shared by two nations in this fractious land. This means that over 50 million cubic meters of untreated sewage flows into rivers and streams from Palestinian towns (with only 5 million cubic meters treated by largely substandard plants). Israeli settlements in the West Bank compound the problem by releasing about 13 percent of their sewage untreated.

Nowhere is this problem refracted more than in one of the greatest and most beautiful centers of global spiritual and cultural heritage — Jerusalem. Here, the Kidron Valley/Wadi-El-Nar River basin begins in the West Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Talbieh, skirts the ridges of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, passes through East Jerusalem's Silwan and continues through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea. Many of the Middle East’s most famous cultural, religious and historic sites dwell in harmony in the valley, along with underground watercourses, monasteries and breathtaking desert landscapes. From the Kidron Valley, Abraham made his journey to Mt. Moriah, Jesus made his way from his Judean Wilderness baptism to the Via Dolorosa, and the Second Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab, disciple of Mohammed, sited the Al Aqsa Mosque and the declared the Prophet’s Ascent.

As Reuven Laster, environmental law professor at Hebrew University and chairman of the Kidron River Valley Steering Committee that has authored a master plan for the basin’s development, notes, “Jerusalem, as one of the great centers of civilization, currently serves as a conduit for raw sewage and a depository of solid waste.”

The amount of raw sewage from Jerusalem and the riparian towns in the Palestinian Authority exceeds 15 million cubic meters a year and is projected to increase 5 percent annually. Beyond, or perhaps before, the “final status” of borders and sovereignty agreements, this much more fundamental issue of environmental sustainability is a precondition for precarious political agreements, if they are ever to be achieved. By converting rubbish into resources for development, shared economic interests can emerge that create conditions for political resolutions rather than barriers that continue to undermine them.

The good news is that technology and economic development can solve this problem and increase the opportunities for growth that make co-existence much more likely than endless conflict. By restoring the Kidron Valley, a unique, internationally significant heritage district will increase the number of Christian, Muslim and Jewish pilgrims, eco- and archaeological tourism, and spur agricultural development throughout the Kidron to Jericho and throughout the Jordan River Valley in both Israeli and Palestinian territories.

The first step is the removal of sewage and solid waste from the Valley by joining the five cities and towns comprising nearly 250,000 residents to share a single waste water treatment plant.

Most of the sewage can be converted to useable agricultural water. The facility will not only purify the sewage, it will return purified effluent back to the farms of the valley for agricultural and tourism development. Using proven wastewater recycling technology will solve this problem; Israel already recycles 85 percent of its wastewater. Technology transfer to the Palestinians will mean they can stop pumping scarce groundwater for agriculture needs and have greater resources for economic growth, food exports, and new jobs from tourism. Cooperative work by Israeli and Palestinian experts and local officials have already documented how this could work by setting up a sub-sovereign integrated water basic management district that would benefit all enhanced economic activity in the region without compromising eventual border issues. More than 14 major Transboundary Rivers like the Rio Grande, Danube, Elbe, the Mekong and many others are all managed in this way that minimizes conflicts through integrated water basin management.

No one compromises sovereignty rights by cleaning up the bio solids or solid waste that both nations produce daily. Cleaning up the contaminated river basin, creating water resources, and turning the Kidron into a regional economic and community development asset instead of the deteriorating liability it has become, will spur economic growth and job creation. The project will become self-financing and a model for cross-boundary environmental and infrastructure projects that are desperately needed. If this can be done in Jerusalem, the financial and economic development model upon which it is based can be replicated to the Besor/Hebron, Yarqon, Jenin/Kishon, Zomer/Alexander and other rivers throughout the region.

This story originally ran on Haaretz.com.

Prof. Glenn Yago is Senior Director/Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute, and visiting professor and Dean’s Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Graduate School of Business Administration.

The Institute’s Israel Center recently published its report, “Financing Kidron/Wadi-El-Nar River Revitalization: A Bridge to Development”, available in Hebrew and English here.

Kerry, peace and the EU

Three leaders were eligible for a Nobel Peace Prize 20 years ago for not bringing about a lasting peace. Today one wonders: Has the bar been lowered enough since then so that achieving negotiations alone — just the talking — is now an accomplishment worthy of the trophy? If Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat got it for their noble yet unsuccessful efforts at achieving peace, is John Kerry already a candidate?

He should definitely get credit for his tenacity. Stubborn, dogged, insistent, the U.S. secretary of state achieved his goal after the oh-so-familiar last-minute stumble. The Palestinian leadership was, as always, at its best the minute before negotiations resume or a document needs to be signed. But as expected, Peres knew what he was talking about when he said that “real progress” was made. And the credit for this “real progress” goes to Kerry.

There’s a famous sketch by HaGashash HaChiver — ask your Israeli friends about this fantastic Israeli comedy trio — called “the Churba” (the ruin). Two friends are nearing the end of a long, exhausting walk — tired, breathless and sweaty. They are talking about the person who brought them to this destination.

“Without him,” the first guy reminds the second, “we would never have gotten to where we are.”

“Well, where did we get to?” the second guy asks.

“To the ruin!” 

Of course, negotiations are no ruin — they are a blessing. One is right to wonder about Kerry’s priorities, and to doubt his chances of success, and to be mystified by his game plan — while still congratulating him for a job well done. And one can still hope something will come out of it.

Being skeptical about the process is both easy and reasonable: Even assuming both sides come to the table with the best of intentions, the minimum that the Palestinians are demanding seems quite far from the maximum Israel will be willing to agree to. And the support of the Arab League doesn’t mean as much as it used to. And then there’s the fact that the most crucial Arab country — Egypt — is busy (the region, generally speaking, is busy). And the Obama administration is also busy. And Israel is busy with a fairly ambitious domestic agenda — and quite skeptical regarding the prospects for peace. And Gaza is still held by Hamas.

Yet negotiations are still better than what we have now. Or are they? Previous ambitious attempts at reaching a solution for the “conflict” ended badly. In other words: Talks might be better than stalemate, but a stalemate is better than failure. That’s one reason to enter this phase of talks hopefully, but warily. 

Thoughts on the Palestinian Strategy

Why did the Palestinians decide to play last-minute games instead of seizing the opportunity to get back to the negotiating table? Ask the European Union. If the Palestinians can pocket achievements without having to sit at the table and face the tough choices they need to face, why negotiate? If they can look around and reach the conclusion that even more ambitious targets are within reach with the assistance of the international community, why waste time on small prizes, such as getting to talk to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

As Palestinians were mulling their strategy for the future, “Senior Palestinian officials had come to view the United States as a significant obstacle and started looking for a way to circumvent it,” Shlomi Eldar writes in Al-Monitor. So now the United States is facing a dilemma: It can signal to the Palestinians that they can circumvent the United States — and to the Europeans that cooperating with such a maneuver will have a cost — or it can try to compete with the European Union for Palestinian attention by making concessions. Naturally, the price for such concessions can only come from one wallet: Israel’s.

That’s why the events of recent days, and the U.S. response to the Palestinians’ last-minute stalling and demands, were important to watch. If the Palestinians were able to significantly gain from this little last-minute exercise — if Kerry used his newfound European leverage to put more pressure on Israel — then Israel has reason to worry about the future course of negotiations.

Is this what happened? We really don’t know, not yet. The conflicting reports haven’t yet revealed all the details about the last round of last-minute talks, and they have made it hard for the public to assess whether Kerry was playing hard ball (by threatening to pull American support away from the Palestinian Authority) or whether he was making concessions (and giving a letter of intent he didn’t intend to give, promising Palestinians to talk about the 1967 lines).

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.

The truth about settlements

Whenever the Middle East peace process is a topic in the news or in discussions, its factual stagnation is almost automatically blamed on the Israeli settlement development. It is one of the most controversial issues in the Middle East conflict. Even friends of Israel dissociate themselves when it comes to questions of the settlement policies. Without any intention to define in any form what steps should be undertaken in this regard, it is extremely important that some central points concerning the settlements question are explained factually:

1. “The West Bank is illegally occupied territory, and all Israeli settlements there are unlawful.”

The reasoning that the settlements in Judea and Samaria are illegal is based on the 49th Article of the Geneva Convention IV, implemented after World War II and the Nazi occupation of European states. Accordingly, the oppressive relocation of a civil population to other states is prohibited. Such a kind of relocation, however, never took place in the West Bank.

Moreover, Israel did not — and this must be specifically stressed — occupy any territories of a recognized, sovereign state. Jordan, from which Israel took over these areas in the Six-Day War (that was provoked by the Arab states), never had been able to enforce there its sovereignty because its occupation of the territories had been illegal and not been recognized by any state except by England and Pakistan.

But most of all we must in all explicitness be reminded that the League of Nations — the decisions of which were taken over by the United Nations (Article 80 of the U.N. Charter) — at the time had clearly determined in San Remo that Jews are allowed settle down in all areas of Palestine.

These areas thus are not a matter of “occupied territories,” and the construction of settlements there does not contradict international right. The term “occupation” is linked to many dismal associations, according to which the West Bank is “stolen” territory, and consequently has to be eliminated in political discussions.

This of course does not mean that under a peace agreement this land should not be redivided — but the moral and legal grounds for the peace negotiations have to be clearly defined: It certainly is not about illegally occupied, but about disputed territories to which people make a claim and the future of which must be determined in the context of a peace treaty.

2. “Jerusalem is an Arab town, and Jews cannot legitimately build there.”

This is a totally untenable assertion. For thousands of years (see 1. Book of Kings, 8,48), Jews all over the world have prayed toward Jerusalem — not least for the good of their Holy City, and in the hope of soon being able to return in this “City of Peace” (uru-salem). 

In the 2,000 years since the Roman rule, Jews practically uninterruptedly have lived in the Holy City, and for 150 years they again have represented the majority in Jerusalem.

Until 1967, Jews were absolutely prohibited to access the Western Wall. In total contrast, the State of Israel thereafter left the administration of the Temple Mount and its mosques to the Arab side, in order to create the grounds for a peaceful atmosphere in Jerusalem. This tolerance-minded act however has been badly rewarded: Until today, it has been strictly forbidden to Jews to pray on the Temple Mount.

And now, in defiance of all these facts, it should be forbidden that Jews build up their homes in large parts of Jerusalem — what an irony! As the Arabs expelled the Jews by force from Jerusalem in 1948, and now, as a “result” of this illegal attack, a return to the city of their dreams should be prohibited to them? What a peculiar idea.

3. “The settlement construction inhibits the continuation of the peace talks.”

This is a strange statement. The absolute hostility toward Israel’s existence has accompanied the Jewish state ever since its founding in 1948. The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), the forerunner of the Palestinian Authority, was founded in 1964, i.e. at a time when there were no “occupied” territories yet — unless one considers the whole of Israel (also Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beer Sheva) as illegally occupied areas. But most important is that in the Oslo Accords, on which the Palestinian-Israeli efforts for peace are based, there is no talk of a settlement stop as a precondition for peace negotiations. The Accords explicitly state that the settlements in question shall be discussed only in the last phase of the peace negotiations.

4. How did the expansion of the settlements come about?

Right after the Six-Day War (1967), in which Israel was able to successfully ward off the Arab states’ attack, the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank were liberated from Jordan’s illegal occupation, and Israel was hoping for peace negotiations. But eight Arab states unanimously decided on a triple “no” in Khartoum: no peace negotiations, no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel. At that time, the Israelis started, for historical and security-related reasons, to populate primarily those territories that have been a direct part of the Jewish history, such as the regions around Jerusalem and Hebron. Because of the Arabs’ rejection to negotiate with Israel, these construction activities then broadened, but it has always been clearly determined that no privately owned land may be used for settling, and to this date, Israeli courts give assistance to Arabs who can evidence their rights to private property.

At the same time, it has always been obvious that in the course of true peace negotiations certain settlements would be evacuated. So it happened for the peace agreement with Egypt (Sinai settlements). And later, Israel retreated from the 25 (!) prosperous settlements in the Gaza Strip (thus causing 10,000 people to lose their homes), in order to promote a peace process. This, however, was badly rewarded: Instead of settling Palestinian refugees in this area, these settlements were turned into bases of terror from which towns in southern Israel and their civil populations are permanently shelled. This is no confidence-inspiring development in view of future negotiations regarding the settlements!

Three years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decreed a 10-month settlement stop in order to facilitate the peace negotiations — this, too, without any success.

5. How can the question of settlements be resolved within the scope of a peace treaty?

By means of a true will from all sides concerned to peacefully coexist in the Middle East. To achieve this, it is indispensable to accept each other, to recognize the other’s rights and to believe in an acceptable modus vivendi.

Israel has done much already in this regard. It recognizes the rights of the Palestinian Arabs and their cause to have their own state, and it prohibits (also by its courts) any attacks against the latter’s population. Also, Israel has proved that within the Jewish state, a large Arab minority (far more than 1 million people) can live freely and with full civil rights.

The Palestinian Arabs, however, still have to undertake a lot in this regard. For the time being, they deny, also in official documents, any rights of the Jews to Israel and the Holy Land (“no rights, even in Jerusalem”); they reject the formula “two states for two people” and are not willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; they use their official media against Israel and Judaism and to highly praise the worst of terrorists. And as far as the settlements: They time and again declare that the West Bank must become totally “judenrein” (free of Jews)!

In spite of all the internal difficulties, the Palestinian Arabs now have to change their basic attitude toward Israel and the Jews — then the question of settlements certainly can be resolved, be it by the elimination of settlements in areas densely populated by Palestinian Arabs, be it by the exchange of territories or be it by the peaceful coexistence also in a Palestinian state, as it has been the case within Israel since 65 years. Moreover, it would probably also be a natural solution to link the West Bank with Jordan. Jordan rules over more than 77 percent of the classical Palestine Mandate, and the majority of its citizens are Palestinian Arabs.

With a candid will of all sides, it will certainly be possible to find ways to a true peaceful coexistence in the Holy Land.

Arthur Cohn is an international film producer whose films include “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” “Central Station” and “One Day in September.”

Jewish leaders urge Netanyahu to work with Obama on peace

More than one hundred U.S. Jewish leaders urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make clear “Israel’s readiness to make painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace.”

“We believe that this is a compelling moment for you and your new government to respond to President Obama’s call for peace by taking concrete confidence-building steps designed to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a ‘two-states for two peoples’ solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” said the letter sent Wednesday and organized by the Israel Policy Forum. “We urge you, in particular, to work closely with Secretary of State John Kerry to devise pragmatic initiatives, consistent with Israel’s security needs, which would represent Israel’s readiness to make painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace.”

The letter said such leadership “would challenge Palestinian leaders to take similarly constructive steps, including, most importantly, a prompt return to the negotiating table.”

The letter comes ahead of Kerry's planned visit to Israel and the Palestinian areas on April 8 and April 9, just two weeks after Kerry accompanied Obama to Israel.

The leaders left out affiliations, speaking only for themselves, but some of those represented were significant for their leadership — including Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism — and for not usually being associated with pressure on an Israeli prime minister to advance peace talks.

These leaders include Richard Pearlstone, a former chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency; Susie Gelman, the immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, who is chairing this year's Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Jerusalem; and Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon official who was a top adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

Lots of listening, no grand initiatives expected on Obama’s Mideast trip

When President Obama visits Israel next week, Gavriel Yaakov wants him to jump-start the peace process.

“I’m excited,” said Yaakov, 67, sitting in a Tel Aviv mall. “I want negotiations to get to an agreement on a long-term peace with the Palestinians.”

Yaakov said he trusts Obama, but his friend, Yossi Cohen, is more skeptical.

“I’m not excited,” said Cohen, 64, who charged that the president supports Islamists and “hasn't done anything” to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

“No one has helped,” Cohen said. “Whoever thinks there will be peace, [it will take] another 200 years.”

Their views reflect two of the president's overriding concerns as he prepares to embark on a three-day trip to Israel next week.

Obama remains deeply unpopular in Israel, with approval ratings of about 33 percent last year, and Jewish leaders and local analysts are urging him to try to improve his relationship with the Israeli public. But the president also is seen as wanting to promote a renewed effort at Middle East peace, though administration officials, wary of a top-down push for peace, have emphasized that the president is leaving such initiatives up to the parties there.

In a meeting with American Jewish leaders last week, Obama conceded that the short-term outlook for a peace agreement is “bleak,” but that prospects could improve in the coming months. Instead, the president was focused on how best to reach out to Israelis, participants said, asking for input about what he should say and whom he should try to reach.

Obama held a similar meeting with Arab-Americans, soliciting their input about his trip and expressing his “commitment to the Palestinian people” and to partnering with the Palestinian Authority in an effort to establish “a truly independent Palestinian state.”

“It creates an opportunity not only for a new beginning between the president's second term and the prime minister of Israel, who is beginning a new term — assuming he puts together a government, which I think he will,” Dennis Ross, Obama's top Iran policy adviser in his first term, said at last week's American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, before Netanyahu had established his coalition.

“But I think it also is a chance to create a connection with the Israeli public and to demonstrate unmistakably when the president says that he's determined to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, he isn't saying that from a distance. It's not an abstraction. He can go and he can address the Israeli public directly.”

Obama will land at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on March 20. He is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Peres will present Obama with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel's highest civilian honor.

His itinerary includes a visit to an Iron Dome missile defense battery, the Israel Museum, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the graves of Theodor Herzl and slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After departing Israel on March 22, Obama will travel to Jordan for consultations with King Abdullah.

The night before his departure, he will address thousands of Israeli students at Jerusalem's convention center. The speech is consistent with Obama's history of directly addressing the public during his trips abroad, and specifically young people.

“I think this is consistent with his town squares,” said Alan Solow, a top Obama fundraiser and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He recognizes that in the future, the world will be flatter than today and it's essential that future leaders understand the good intentions of the United States to promote a better and more peaceful world.”

Obama's engagement with Mideast peacemaking was turbulent in his first term. His relationship with Netanyahu has been rocky at best, and his previous attempt to restart the peace process, in 2010, failed after three weeks.

The president's low approval rating in Israel is likely only to complicate matters. The 33 percent rating is actually a significant improvement over his first term, when pressure on Israel to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank helped push his approval numbers below 10 percent.

“Obama needs to reestablish a relationship of trust with the Israeli public,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “Whether Obama likes it or not, Netanyahu is the elected leader of the State of Israel, and whether Netanyahu likes it or not, Obama is the elected leader of the U.S. It’s time for the two leaders to accept the inevitable and learn to work together.”

U.S. administration officials have aimed to lower expectations for any concrete outcome to the Obama trip, denying recent reports in the Israeli media that the president is preparing a major peace initiative and emphasizing that he intends to do a lot of listening. Analysts say in order to make progress on the peace front or the Iranian nuclear threat, another issue much on the minds of Israelis, Obama needs to be more candid about past failures.

“For a game-changing speech, you need to speak realistically,” said Gil Troy, a McGill University history professor who is also a Hartman fellow. “You can’t pretend it’s the start of the Oslo peace process. You need to move forward based on the failures. I think Israelis are primed for it.”

Klein Halevi said a similar honesty should be evident in Obama's treatment of the Iran issue. Israelis are doubtful of the president's repeated assertion that all options are on the table in addressing the nuclear threat, he said, and urged the president to speak directly to the Iranian leadership in his convention center address.

“When Obama speaks on Iran, he shouldn’t be speaking only to the Israeli public,” Klein Halevi said. “He should be directly addressing the leadership of Iran from Jerusalem.”

Despite the caution coming from the White House, Israelis are anything but unified in their skepticism of a new peace push. On Facebook, 23,000 people have “liked” a push to have Obama address the masses at Rabin Square, the emotionally charged plaza where the prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords was assassinated in 1995.

“We want to send the message that there’s a public desire to turn the page and strive for peace,” said Amit Youlzari, 31, the lead organizer.

With Obama set to speak in Jerusalem, Youlzari has helped arrange for the speech to be shown on large projection screens in the square.

“We want to tell the U.S. that we support Obama and the messages we hear from him,” Youlzari said. “And we want to send the world a picture of a full plaza of people who want peace.”

Ben Sales reported from Tel Aviv and Ron Kampeas from Washington.

New Secretary Of State John Kerry speaks to Netanyahu, Abbas about peace

Secretary of State John Kerry stressed his commitment to promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace on Sunday in telephone calls to the leaders of both sides, the State Department said.

In separate conversations, Kerry, who took over as the top U.S. diplomat from Hillary Clinton on Friday, spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Turning to Middle East peace, the secretary underscored his personal commitment and that of President (Barack) Obama to support Israel's security and to pursue a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said of Kerry's conversation with Netanyahu.

A spokesman for the Israeli prime minister confirmed that the call took place but provided no details.

Netanyahu assumed the responsibility on Saturday of forming a new Israeli government following the January 22 election in which his rightist Likud-Beitenu lost ground but still emerged as the biggest party, with 31 seats in the 120-seat Israeli parliament.

His new government is expected to include a new centrist party headed by former TV personality Yair Lapid, which with 19 seats is the second-largest party in parliament, and the 12-seat far-right pro-settler Bayit Yehudi.

The success of the centrists in the election is expected to improve the outlook for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Formal talks broke down in 2010 over Israel's continued building of Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for a state.

Since then each side has taken steps that have antagonized the other.

The U.N. General assembly on November 29 overwhelmingly upgraded the Palestinians status to that of “non-member state,” prompting Israel to retaliate by withholding tax revenues owed to them as well as by announcing fresh plans for settlement construction.

However, Israeli officials said last week that they would release about $100 million in withheld tax revenues, a move that Kerry “commended … as an important step” in his conversation with Netanyahu, the State Department said, adding that their discussion also covered Iran and Syria.

In his call to Abbas, Kerry, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reiterated his commitment to peace and promised to keep working with Congress to release budget support funds for the Palestinian Authority.

An Abbas aide told Reuters that Kerry told Abbas he was determined to facilitate the restart of stalled peace between the parties and that he hoped to be able to meet him soon, although no time or venue was set.

Nuland said Kerry spoke on Saturday to Israeli President Shimon Peres, who holds a largely ceremonial position. She declined all comment on when Kerry might travel to the region.

“The two men held a lengthy conversation on Saturday night and Peres said that the results of the recent general election could open a window for renewed peace talks,” a Peres spokeswoman said in a statement.

Netanyahu, who has been asked by Peres to form a new coalition, said on Saturday that renewing talks with Abbas would be a top priority for his new government.

“The next government that I will form will be committed to peace. I call on Abut Mazen (Abbas) to return to the negotiating table. Every day that passes without us talking to jointly find a way to create peace for our peoples is a day wasted,” he said.

Separately, the State Department spokeswoman said Kerry spoke on Sunday to Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan. Kerry spoke on Saturday to the foreign ministers of Turkey, Canada and Mexico.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Christopher Wilson

Frisbee — the ultimate peace negotiator

Who would have thought that a Frisbee could be used to build bridges between bitter enemies?

Ultimate Peace, an organization founded in 2008 by American Ultimate Frisbee players, tries to do just that. By running a weeklong overnight summer camp in Israel and other activities throughout the year that are open to Jewish-Israeli, Arab-Israeli and Palestinian youth, it aims to improve relations between the groups, one flying disc at a time.

“Summer camp has been our kind of big immersion program over the course of the last couple years,” said David Barkan, CEO and co-founder of Ultimate Peace. “We’ve done it three years in a row now, and it’s been a huge success.”

Now, organizers of Ultimate Peace are trying to strengthen the year-round programs so that the youth will remain engaged with bridge-building initiatives. That means raising funds for ongoing practices and cross-cultural tournaments as well as league games between communities. 

“During the year we have tended to lose the kids because it’s been hard to run programs and actually fund programs. … There’s nothing easy about running a coexistence program in the Middle East right now,” Barkan said. 

In an attempt to remedy that, the organization launched a campaign on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.com in November to raise $150,000. Money raised will finance the administration of year-round programs as well as equipment, transportation for coaches and youths, site and field rentals, and insurance and permits.

Some funds also go toward hiring staff to lead these programs. Until now, the year-round programs have relied on volunteer coaches who often must drive several hours to the villages where games take place.  

Ultimate Peace would also like to hire staff to lead the organizations’ coaches-in-training program, which engages Middle Eastern youths who have participated in Camp Ultimate Peace in a year-round training that focuses on leadership on and off the field. 

As of Dec. 31, Ultimate Peace’s campaign at indiegogo.com/ultimatepeace had raised more than $31,000, with 12 days left for members of the public to donate. Even if the campaign does not reach its goal, Ultimate Peace will get to keep all but 6 percent of the funds raised. 

It turns out that the noncontact sport — officially called Ultimate because Frisbee is a trademarked line of discs — is an appropriate, if unlikely, vehicle for bringing together Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. A central tenet of Ultimate is “spirit of the game,” which requires that players compete without an official referee. As a result, Ultimate demands that players self-officiate. 

Organizers of Ultimate Peace hope that the participants will take what they learn on the field — to resolve on-field disagreements peacefully and without outside help — and continue practicing those skills off the field.

[ RELATED: The ultimate bridge ]

The summer camp, which was held in Akko, a town in northern Israel, the past two years, was conceived after players from the Matzah Balls — an all-Jewish recreational Ultimate team that includes Barkan as a member and competes in Santa Cruz — visited Israel in 2005 to lead an Ultimate clinic. There, they taught throwing techniques and ran scrimmages and friendly tournaments with Israeli children and adults, who were familiar with the game but wanted to learn more from the U.S. players.

But something was missing from these clinics: Arabs and Palestinians.

So the players began planning a camp with that goal in mind. With the help of Israel’s Culture and Sport Ministry, Ultimate Peace became a reality. The organization held its inaugural summer camp in 2009. To date, Camp Ultimate Peace has reached 14 Arab, Jewish and Palestinian communities. Three hundred Middle Eastern youths — boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 14 — currently are involved.

“I can’t tell you how pleased I am and proud of the progress we made,” said Barkan, a consultant for foundations and nonprofits who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At the first event in 2009, Israeli and Palestinian kids who had never met before were randomly put on mixed teams for a tournament. Nobody was sure what their reactions would be, but later, when the kids selected their own teams for scrimmages, many opted to play with kids they’d been teamed with earlier; Palestinians and Israelis chose to play together.

On the first day of camp each year, the kids might be nervous and choose to remain close to kids from their own villages. But coaches fix that quickly, asking the campers to create nametags that spell out their names in Hebrew, Arabic and English. For a camper who only speaks Hebrew but not Arabic, he has no choice but to ask an Arabic-speaking camper for help writing his name, and vice versa, said Jeff Landesman, a Matzah Balls team member and Ultimate Peace coach from Altadena.

Campers, who sleep in integrated dorm rooms, spend hours each day working on technique, such as throwing mechanics, but they also enjoy various cultural events such as a talent show, art projects and dancing. The camp brings in staff who speak all three languages — English, Hebrew and Arabic – to help run activities. 

The biggest challenges that Ultimate Peace organizers face are less about ensuring campers get along and more about Israel’s precarious relationship with its neighbors. 

In November, Ultimate Peace campers-in-training — including 30 Arab Israelis, Jewish Israelis and Palestinians — were scheduled to come together for a monthly meeting, in Kfar Saba, in central Israel. But at the same time, Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were engaged in a mini-war. Consequently, the meeting was canceled. 

Internal struggles between campers are infrequent, but they have happened. One or two times, campers were sent home for bad behavior, according to Landesman, who works as a special-education teacher at Madison Elementary School in Pomona. 

For the most part, however, the camp has successfully formed bonds between participants that offer hope for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Contrary to what one might think, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a frequent topic of discussion among campers or staff, Landesman said.

“Sports in general are always a good way to help people from different cultures get along,” he said. “In fact, in Ultimate, there is conflict resolution … so it’s just so natural to help people learn how.”

Peres calls peace a top priority at reception for Christian leaders

Israeli President Shimon Peres at a reception for Christian leaders called peace a top priority.

“Peace is not just a desire, it is not just a call from heaven, I think it can be attained and achieved,” Peres said Monday in a greeting to his guests in Jerusalem. “We have to act determinedly, honestly and courageously to achieve it. That was from the very beginning, from the Old Testament to the New Testament and throughout the scriptures.”

Peres at the reception honoring the new year stressed that he opposes negotiations with Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, while it rejects the three principles of the Quartet on Middle East peace: renouncing terrorism, recognizing Israel and accepting previous peace agreements.

“There is a Palestinian Authority with which we signed an agreement and there is a separate organization in Gaza, Hamas. They must decide whether they want peace or war, what sort of relationship they want; shooting or building,” he said. “We have no interest in seeing anybody in Gaza suffering, we would be happy to see Gaza be successful.”

His message came a day after he told more than 150 members of the diplomatic corps in Israel that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a man of peace and that Israel can reach a peace agreement with him, angering the ruling government.

Peres on Monday also praised the relations between the Christian community and the Jewish community, saying they are “at their best in the past 2,000 years.”

“I have the greatest respect for the pope and agree with him that peace is not just an earthly demand but a heavenly order, if there is one thing that clearly unites all of us it is the prayer for peace, the hope for peace,” the Israeli president said. “You can have your own prayers, your own way of worshiping, but peace remains the uniting factor. All of us would like to see an end to bloodshed, an end to suffering.”

U.S. says Russia ‘waking up to reality’ on Syria

The United States welcomed on Thursday a Russian admission that Syria's rebels may succeed in their drive to topple President Bashar Assad and called on Moscow to join efforts to manage a peaceful political transition.

“We want to commend the Russian government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime's days are numbered,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.

“The question now is, will the Russian government join those of us in the international community who are working with the opposition to try to have a smooth democratic transition?”

Another U.S. official said the rebels appeared to be making gains against Assad and his forces.

“The rebels are pressuring Assad harder than ever before and his reach is contracting,” the U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

“Assad probably still believes that Syria is his and illusions can die hard. But Assad and those closest to him have got to be feeling the psychological strain of fighting a long war that is not going their way,” the official said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, the Kremlin's envoy for the Middle East, said on Thursday that rebel gains on the ground mean that their ultimate victory over Assad “cannot be ruled out.

Bogdanov's comments were among the most pessimistic yet from Russia, which has shielded Assad's government from U.N. Security Council censure and sanctions, resisting Western pressure to join efforts to push him from power.

Nuland said Bogdanov's comments demonstrated that Moscow now “sees the writing on the wall” on Syria and said Russia should now get behind efforts to prevent a wider bloodbath.

“They can withdraw any residual support for the Assad regime, whether it is material support (or) financial support,” Nuland said.

“They can also help us to identify people who might be willing inside of Syria to work on a transitional structure.”

International envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has met Russian and U.S. officials twice in the past week, is seeking a solution based on an agreement reached in Geneva in June that called for the creation of a transitional government in Syria.

But Russia has repeated warnings that international recognition of a new opposition coalition, notably by the United States, is undermining diplomacy, and rejected U.S. contentions that the Geneva agreement sent a clear message that Assad should must step down.

Nuland said the Brahimi meetings could lay the framework for the political structure that follows Assad.

“We've said all along to the Russians that we are concerned that the longer that this goes on, and the longer it takes us to get to an alternative political path for Syria, the only path is going to be the military one and that is just going to bring more violence, more destruction, more disruption and death inside Syria,” Nuland said. “We all ought to be working together.”

Reporting By Andrew Quinn, additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Warren Strobel and David Brunnstrom

EU condemns Israeli settlements, seizure of PA funds

The European Union (EU) called on Israel to cancel planned construction in West Bank settlements and “avoid any step undermining the financial situation of the Palestinian Authority” (PA).

The EU made the appeal in a document published Dec. 11 titled “Council Conclusions on the Middle East Peace Process,” which came out of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels the previous day.

Last week, Israel said it would withhold approximately $100 million in tax revenues that it had collected for the PA.

“Such action by Israel would undermine existing cooperation mechanisms” and “negatively affect the prospects of negotiations,” the document read.

The money freeze came after the United Nations General Assembly voted on Nov. 29 to upgrade the Palestinian U.N. status to nonmember state observer, against Israel’s wishes and those of the United States. In the EU, only the Czech Republic voted against the upgrade. The EU document called on the PA to “use constructively” the new status. 

“Israel regrets the one-sided wording of the EU Foreign Affairs Council conclusions,” a statement on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Web site read. “The root cause of the absence of a peace accord is the Palestinian refusal to engage in direct negotiations.”

The statement went on to say, “This one-sided position taken by the E.U. rewards rejectionism and does not contribute to promoting a permanent peace agreement.”

The EU text also said the EU was “deeply dismayed by and strongly opposes” recently announced plans by the Israeli government to construct 3,000 housing units in the West Bank. Some of the homes are to be built in the E1 corridor between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim.

“The E1 plan, if implemented, would seriously undermine the prospects of a negotiated resolution of the conflict by jeopardizing the possibility of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states,” the document said.

The document also called on both parties to start direct talks with no preconditions on a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders. 

The document came a day after the EU was named the recipient of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for “what the European Union means for peace in Europe,” said Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

Israel MUST rely on itself

Once again, during the year that is drawing to a close, there was no country that was more harshly criticized, no state that was more frequently condemned than Israel.  

“The demonization of Israel increased during the past year,” Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told me.  

As a direct result of continuously one-sided and often false media reports from Israel, a great deal of uncertainty has been created for many of Israel’s friends. Here is the situation on the ground as I see it:

Illusion and reality

For decades, Israel has attempted to integrate itself into the Middle East. Politicians have long dreamed of the “new Middle East” as a zone of freedom and democracy. The facts that have been established in the meantime are sobering: The sweeping failure of the Islamic world to offer a better form of politics is alarming.

The belief that the challenge in Middle Eastern countries would end positively as a result of the mechanisms of democracy was an illusion. The developments did not have any positive consequences for Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s words in his explanation to me were, “The Arab rebellion has developed into an anti-Israeli, anti-liberal and, above all, completely undemocratic wave.”

Peace with Egypt — quo vadis?

What has changed concretely is the situation in the Sinai. While just 10 or even five years ago, an average Israeli family could take a vacation on one of the peninsula’s beaches, a series of terror attacks has shattered this possibility. Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, explained, “Egypt has gone from being a military dictatorship to a dictatorship of Islamists.”

The peace treaty with Egypt that was concluded by Menachem Begin 32 years ago withstood the change of regime after the murder of [Anwar] Sadat. It is extremely probable that it will also withstand the revolution of Tahrir Square because Egypt needs this peace no less than Israel does. Umpteen millions of Egyptians are unemployed, millions of university graduates cannot find work in their area of specialty, and the country is dependent upon the United States, which provides $2 billion a year in foreign aid. For this reason, the new regime in Cairo can’t afford to clash with Israel, especially at this point in time, but the dangers for the future are great.

Putting the brakes on peace 

Mahmoud Abbas has turned out to be a chief obstacle for any progress in the peace process. In comparison to Hamas, Fatah is regarded as the moderate wing of the Palestinian Authority. And not rightfully so. 

As I know very precisely from research before the production of the film “One Day in September,” Abbas had a central role in the terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics in 1972.  He does indeed act in a more charming and cultivated way than his predecessor, Arafat, but his political goals are exactly the same.  

“Our goal has never been peace,” said Kifah Radaideh, a confidante of Abbas in Fatah. “Peace is a means; the goal is Palestine.” A new diplomatic tug-of-war at the U.N. with regard to the efforts by Abbas to receive nonmember status appears to be imminent.

Iran’s most important ally

The civil war in Syria makes it clear how full of hatred the Alawites, Sunnis and Shiites are toward each other. Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad is Iran’s most important ally. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have their headquarters there, and the Damascus airport was the trans-shipment point for tens of thousands of rockets for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, emphasized, “The most valuable weapons come from Syria — not just in Lebanon, also in Gaza.” It seems to be in Israel’s interest to massively reduce Iranian influence on Syria. Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. for many years, Dore Gold, stressed to me, “The old order will be replaced by chaos. Chaos never represents a positive opportunity.” King Abdullah of Jordan formulated it this way: “Syria’s chemical weapons could fall into enemy hands.” This danger is concretely present, because according to Israeli estimates, Hezbollah possesses an arsenal of 70,000 rockets with which weapons of mass destruction can be used.

What about Jordan?

Jordan consists of a vague but totally real possibility for a new arrangement. There are voices in the Middle East that prophesy that King Abdullah’s time will come after the end of Assad because the chances of a revolt by the Palestinians, who make up 70 percent of the population of Jordan, exist in concrete terms.

In Israel, the greatest supporters of the Hashemite monarchy and all those who consider Jordan to be a strategic asset for Israel also know that a change of regime could bring an anti-Israel government to power. Israel’s friendship with the Hashemites has historically been based upon the mutual knowledge of the Palestinians as an adversary of both sides. If the circumstances change, then Israel’s strategy would also have to change. Jordan could become another “Hamastan” and resort to weapons in the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict.

Aryeh Eldad, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset, views this differently, and he explains in that regard: “That would be a way out of the impasse in which the Palestinians find themselves. They understand that in view of the internal problems of the Palestinian Authority and the endless postponing of elections, it is improbable that they will be able to found a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital, but a viable Palestinian state could exist in Jordan.” Parts of the West Bank could be incorporated into it.

Iran’s nuclear arms 

An Iran with nuclear weapons is one of the worst things that could happen to Israel. If the arming of Iran with atomic weapons is not stopped now, then we will find ourselves in a Middle East that is completely armed with nuclear weapons. Atomic capacities could fall into the hands of terrorists. The effects of such a development would be extremely serious.

“One single atomic bomb will be the final stroke on Zionist history,” Akbar Rafsanjani, Iran’s fourth president, has said. “In contrast to that, the Islamic world numbers 1.5 billion people and dozens of countries.”

With full acknowledgement of the massive military assistance from the United States, Netanyahu emphasized that Washington’s strategy of sanctions and diplomacy has come dangerously close to failure.

“Without the credible threat of a military intervention, diplomacy and other strategies with which the nuclearization of Iran is to be stopped or delayed would in any case be ineffective,” explained Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin.  

Only if the mullahs really believe that the U.S. will never allow Iran to develop atomic weapons would they be able to decide that the problems that are caused by sanctions are not offset by continued rabble-rousing propaganda against Israel.

Upon pressure from Israel, Obama finally ensured that if Israel refrains from an attack on Iran and if Iran crosses a certain red line, then the U.S. will actively react. In order for this policy to be effective, both Iran and Israel have to take this declaration seriously. No one disputes that an attack is to be considered only as the least of all means and even then, it would still be problematic. Israel would bear the brunt of an Iranian reprisal.

A stain on humanity

The most recent Tehran summit of 120 nations will go down in history as “a stain on humanity,” as Netanyahu said.  

Five kings, 27 presidents, eight prime ministers and 50 foreign ministers took part in the summit in Tehran. India, the world’s most populous democracy, was present with 250 delegates, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  

Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon traveled to Tehran. In his speech there, he did in fact condemn “threats by any member state to destroy another or outrageous attempts to deny historical facts, such as the Holocaust.” But through his presence, he lent Iran legitimacy, instead of supporting the efforts at its isolation as an ostracized state whose regime serves as the starting point for global terrorism.

On the occasion of the inauguration of the conference, the top leader Ayatollah Khamenei once again delivered an anti-Semitic harangue in which he asked the world without restraint to “eliminate the cancerous tumor of Israel.”  

Pressure on Israel

These events during the year that is drawing to a close have emphatically underscored the futility of Israel’s trust in the international community to be able to resolve potential conflicts.  Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the prominent role that Syria, Iran, Libya, Cuba and comparable dictatorships have taken on in the formulation of the policy of the U.N.’s so-called Human Rights Council.

We must resolve this New Year that Israel does not have to submit to pressure from those who have attempted to prevent it from taking the necessary steps to counter the threat to its survival. “We have learned from bitter experience that we have to rely upon ourselves,” explained Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon. “We have to prepare ourselves as if no one else will stand up for us.”

Egypt denies Morsi letter sent to Israel

Israel said on Tuesday it had received a letter from Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi indicating he wanted to work for peace in the Middle East, but Morsi’s office later denied sending it.

An Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the denial was to be expected, due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Israeli President Shimon Peres’s office said earlier on Tuesday he had received a letter from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi, in the first such missive to Israel since Morsi took office at the end of last month.

The letter, distributed by Peres’s office, said: “I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including (the) Israeli people.”

Hours later, Morsi’s spokesman branded the letter a fake.

“The letter that the media reported to have been sent from President Morsi to Israel was fake. President Morsi has not sent anything to Israel,” spokesman Yasser Ali told Reuters.

An official from Peres’s office said the letter was authentic.

“It was received by the Egyptian ambassador and handed over (to Peres’s office). The denial was to be expected, given the letter’s high publicity in Israeli and Egyptian media,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Peres’s office had distributed a copy of the letter to media, as well as a copy of an Egyptian embassy message sent along with it. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The Egyptian embassy in Israel could not be reached for comment.

Last June, an Iranian news agency reported it spoke to Morsi a few hours before the announcement of the election results, but his spokesman then also denied that the interview took place.

A second Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity, described Morsi’s letter as being one that gave “a general message with a positive spirit, but did not indicate any new direction” in bilateral relations.


Politicians in Israel had expressed alarm in private over the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi in June’s presidential vote and fear that over time their country’s peace treaty with Egypt could be eroded.

Egypt’s ousted President Hosni Mubarak had guaranteed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel for decades.

The Muslim Brotherhood is ideologically hostile to the Jewish state and linked to Hamas Islamists who run the Gaza Strip. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

The presidency in Israel is a largely ceremonial post. Nobel peace-prize-winner Peres had sent Morsi two letters, his office said, one congratulating him for winning the vote and a second letter of greetings to mark the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also sent Morsi a letter congratulating him on his electoral victory. He has not yet received a reply.

The Middle East peace process has stalled, with U.S.-brokered negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians breaking down in 2010, with no prospects of any swift resumption of talks.

Reporting and writing by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, editing by Michael Roddy

Putin: Russia already recognizes Palestine

Russian President Vladimir Putin told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Moscow already has recognized a Palestinian state.

“We [recognized Palestine] 25 years ago, and our position has not changed,” Putin told Abbas on Tuesday during a visit to Ramallah, the Times of Israel reported.

“Palestinian leadership, and the president personally, have been behaving responsibly to achieve peace based on the two-state solution,” Putin reportedly said.

U.S. government officials have urged Abbas repeatedly to return to talks with Israel without preconditions. Abbas has said he will not have high-level dialogue until Israel freezes all building in the West Bank and in eastern Jerusalem.

Putin also said that he agreed with Abbas’ efforts to create a national unity government between his Fatah faction and Hamas, the Times of Israel reported. Hamas embraces terrorism as a legitimate tool in its stated goal of destroying Israel.

Earlier this week, Putin had met in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling the visit “a solid basis for building dialogue and partnership.”

Israeli concerns include Russian support for Syria’s embattled Assad regime and the sale of sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. Putin repeatedly has rejected calls for a possible Israeli or Western nation military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, which Tehran will not fully open to international inspections.

Russia appears to be trying to reassert its role in Israeli-Arab peacemaking. Putin said he was open to hosting a peace summit in Moscow, the Times of Israel reported. Russia and its predecessor state, the Soviet Union, has traditionally favored Arab positions in such talks.

Peres calls for renewed peace talks in medal ceremony

Receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, Israeli President Shimon Peres called for a renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians.

“Israel and the Palestinians are ripe today to restart” peace talks, Peres said at the White House ceremony on Wednesday. “A firm basis already exists. A solution of two national states: A Jewish state – Israel. An Arab state – Palestine. The Palestinians are our closest neighbors. I believe they may become our closest friends.”

Peace talks have been stalled since 2010, with the Palestinians demanding a freeze of settlement building in the West Bank, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisting on no preconditions.

Peres, addressing about 140 dignitaries in the White House East Room, also thanked Obama for pressuring Iran to end its suspected nuclear weapons program.

“Mr. President, you worked hard to build a world coalition to meet this immediate threat.,” Peres said. “You started, rightly, with economic sanctions. You made it clear, rightly again, that all options are on the table.”

Obama also emphasized peacemaking in his remarks.

“Shimon knows that a nation’s security depends, not just on the strength of its arms, but upon the righteousness of its deeds — its moral compass,” he said. “He knows, as Scripture teaches, that we must not only seek peace, we must pursue it.  And so it has been the cause of his life — peace, security and dignity, for Israelis and Palestinians and all Israel’s Arab neighbors.”

The Arabpreneurs

Last week, I wrote about innovative ideas for addressing poverty and the class divide in America.

This week I will solve the Middle East crisis.

OK, maybe I’m over-promising.

But on stage in a large ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel earlier this month, two Israelis, a Jordanian and an Egyptian sat together and discussed investment strategies with an investor from Dubai and a Palestinian moderator.

This took place at the Milken Institute Global Conference in front of an audience of some 300 people at a breakout session titled “The Changing Face of the Middle East.”

It should have been called “How to Change the Face of the Middle East.”

The fact is, the Arab Spring that destroyed the stagnant and oppressive status quo unleashed many forces, both positive and negative.  We are well aware of the negative: the rise of Islamic parties in Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere; the chaos and anarchy unleashed when dictators fall; the anti-Israel rhetoric, sown by decades of propaganda, flowering in uncensored media.  Being Jews, that’s what we focus on.

What we neglect are the positive forces: the voices of democracy and women’s rights. The unleashing of creativity and the drive for free enterprise.

It’s that last one that the men and women in the room at the Hilton believe will make all the difference.

“Many of you have heard of the book called ‘Start-Up Nation,’ ” said Chemi Peres, managing general partner and co-founder of Pitango Venture Capital, Israel’s leading venture capital firm. “But,” he added, “there is a more important book to be written, which is ‘Start-Up Region.’  I think we are on the verge of a very important era. The Middle East is the last region in the world that has not experienced dramatic growth. Those who will not participate in the game will be left behind.”

Yes, Peres is the son of Shimon Peres, the eternally optimistic Israeli president who, 20 years ago, was talking about high-speed trains from Beirut to Beersheba.  But while the father dreamt, the son invested.

Recently, Pitango started a $50 million fund to invest in the Israeli Arab sector, whose GDP has grown by 7 percent through the recession.   He said that’s just a small example of what opportunities await investors in the region as a whole.

The numbers are mind-boggling. There are 400 million people in the Middle East. Arabic is the fastest-growing language on the Internet. Some 65 percent of the world’s Arab population is under 30 years old, and they want work and opportunities.

“The Arab Spring is two springs,” Peres said. “There’s the political one, which I’m not so positive about in the short term, but very positive about in the long term. There is more power shifting toward the people. The second Arab Spring is what the young generation is doing.”

The Internet has enabled Arab youth to go from being job seekers to become job creators, said Abdul Malek Al Jaber, the Palestinian entrepreneur who founded and is chairman of MENA Apps.  In Jordan, his company invested $100,000 in an e-commerce site that is now worth $30 million.

Al Jaber’s company has created office spaces in cafes across the region, where entrepreneurs can develop their ideas for free.

“We call them Arabpreneurs,” the Palestinian said. “We want to re-create the high-tech ecosystem of Israel.”

In Egypt, Mohamed Seif-Elnasr, chief investment officer and managing partner of Safanad SA, said, the tech sector is up 18 percent during a time of great turmoil.

That turmoil is the “froth at the top,” Seif-Elnasr said. “Don’t look at the country,” he said, “look at youth.”

Abdulla Mohammed Al Awar, the CEO of the Dubai International Financial Centre Authority, said that in his country oil now accounts for only 2 percent of the GDP. They are making massive investments in high-tech. Focusing only on the turmoil misses the big picture.

“Look at young people,” Al Awar said.  “Look at entrepreneurial spirit. Invest in innovation.”

An hour into this panel, I realized no one had mentioned “peace process” or “settlements” or any of the other sinkholes of Middle East hope. Yet the subtext seemed clear: Rising wealth and opportunity will increase regional cooperation and decrease conflict. The Internet, Al Jaber said, is a land of no passports and no borders.

And even where those exist, investment and innovation can triumph.

Zika Abzuk, senior manager of Cisco in Israel, told of sponsoring a Palestinian-Israeli tech conference with 40 entrepreneurs.  The Palestinians were stopped at a border crossing, so everyone met in a Bedouin tent in a no-man’s land pointed out by a helpful Israel Defense Forces soldier.

“Both Israel and Palestine have educated people as their only resource,” Abzuk said.

These panelists certainly didn’t sound like wild-eyed optimists. They weren’t just describing digital opportunity in a flat world, they were placing multimillion-dollar bets on it. 

Crazy? Peres pointed out that if you had invested in China in 1989, during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, your friends would have thought you were nuts, but you would have made 25 times your investment by now. If you had invested in Turkey when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took power in 2003, your friends would have warned you that the man is a radical who declared, “The mosques are our barracks.” But by now you would have quintupled your money.

And if you had invested in Israel during the crippling turmoil of the First Intifada, in 1987, now, three wars and another Intifada later, you’d be — well, you’d be rich enough to follow this panel’s advice.

Abbas says he’s ready to engage with Israel

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday he was ready to engage with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a Middle East peace agreement if he proposes “anything promising or positive.”

Abbas, speaking to Reuters after Netanyahu announced a grand coalition that will strengthen the Israeli leader’s hand, said Netanyahu had to realize that Jewish settlements in the West Bank were destroying hopes of peace and must cease.

Abbas said it was still too early to comment directly on the new Israeli coalition, which saw Israel’s centrist opposition Kadima party join Netanyahu’s government.

While in opposition, Kadima had blamed Netanyahu for the failure of Palestinian peace talks. Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz said resuming negotiations that have been stalled for 18 months was an “iron condition” of his decision to join the government.

Abbas sent a letter last month to Netanyahu that was widely viewed as an ultimatum, setting out parameters for the stalled talks to resume. Netanyahu is expected to reply this week.

Abbas said he had no intention of letting his people take up arms against the Israelis, but he would be ready to renew his unilateral push for international recognition of statehood at the United Nations if there was no breakthrough.

“If there is anything promising or positive of course we will engage,” he said, speaking in his headquarters in Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

He predicted the United States might also try to bring fresh ideas to the table. U.S.-brokered talks broke down in 2010 in a dispute over continued Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank.

“If nothing happens, at that time we will go to the United Nations to get non-member status,” he said, referring to a possible vote in the U.N. General Assembly.

Palestinian efforts to get full recognition via the U.N. Security Council failed in 2011 in the face of U.S. opposition. The General Assembly cannot grant full U.N. membership, but a Palestinian initiative there cannot be vetoed by Washington and a successful vote would offer a symbolic victory.

Speaking in nearby Jerusalem earlier on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he wanted to use his enlarged coalition to “advance a responsible peace process”.

However, there was no indication he was ready to accept Palestinian calls for all settlement building to halt before negotiations could re-start. Netanyahu says halting settlement building would be a pre-condition and there should be no preconditions to talks.

Abbas reiterated the demand on Tuesday. “I will not return to the negotiations without freezing settlement activities,” he said, enunciating each word to give with added emphasis.

About 500,000 Israeli settlers and 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in the 1967 war. Palestinians want the territory for an independent state along with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The settlements are considered illegal by the International Court of Justice, the highest U.N. legal body for disputes.

“Settlements are destroying hope,” said Abbas, who has been involved in Palestinian politics since the 1950s and who replaced the late Yasser Arafat as president in 2005.

It is a gloomy time for Palestinian peace makers. In a separate interview earlier on Tuesday, Abbas’s Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told Reuters Israel was succeeding in persuading the international community to ignore the Palestinian plight.

“I think we are losing the argument, if we have not already lost the argument. but that doesn’t make our position wrong,” said Fayyad. “The Israelis have managed to successfully trivialize our argument.”

Whereas Arafat was flamboyant and mercurial, striding the world stage in army fatigues, Abbas cuts a low-key figure, opting for suits and ties, and presenting a much more moderate face of Palestinian nationalism.

Calling in an aide to light his slender cigarettes, Abbas saw his main success as leader was in reining in violence.

“My legacy? I have one thing, security,” he said, adding that after two failed uprisings, known in Arabic as Intifadas, no one wanted to see further bloody confrontations with Israel.

“Ask anyone if we are going to the third Intifada. They will say no, they want peace. That has never happened before. People realized that through peaceful means we can achieve our goals.”

He rejected calls from some Palestinians that he should dissolve the PA, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, and oblige the Israelis to take control of all the territory, which would be costly and tie up huge manpower.

But he indicated that he had other options up his sleeve, without going into details. Some leading figures have suggested that he should end all security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank and Abbas said a future leader might be less amenable.

“Suppose I leave and suppose someone else comes and says ‘no, this policy is rubbish’,” he said, sitting beneath a large color photograph of the golden Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine within the walled old city of Jerusalem.

The 77-year-old recognized that the peace process was “jammed” and acknowledged that the situation was depressing. He added that although the Israelis appeared in no hurry to reach a peace deal, they could not afford to tarry.

“Now they are wasting time. Now is a good situation for them, but no one knows what will happen in the future. Peace is essential for the Israeli future,” he said.

Writing by Crispian Balmer

Palestinians to deliver Netanyahu ultimatum on talks

The Palestinian Authority prime minister plans to use a rare meeting set for Tuesday with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver a letter detailing Palestinian grievances on stalled peace talks.

Although there was no official announcement of the encounter between Netanyahu and Salam Fayyad, Palestinian officials confirmed that the two would see each other during the day.

An Israeli official said Netanyahu will reiterate his call for talks to resume without any preconditions and for a meeting with the top Palestinian Authority leader, President Mahmoud Abbas.

But the letter Fayyad is due to deliver from Abbas could serve as a prelude to a renewed unilateral Palestinian move for statehood recognition in the United Nations, an effort suspended last fall amid stiff opposition from Washington and Israel.

“It’s a last ditch effort indicating that we’re doing everything possible in order to realize a two-state solution,” Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said about the missive.

“We hope that there’s a positive response, but we’re sending a message that, without one, we have a strategy for what follows,” she said.

Palestinians said the letter would accuse Israel of failing to carry out its obligations under a 2003 “road map” agreed by both sides, which include a halt to settlement activity.

Foreign governments have viewed the letter with apprehension, welcoming a rare high-level Israeli-Palestinian meeting, but warning against any threatening language.

In a phone call last month, U.S. President Barack Obama cautioned Abbas against provocative actions. Abbas has insisted his letter, which has taken weeks to prepare, would simply remind Israel of its commitments under interim peace deals.

“All options are all on the table for Palestinians, with the exception of dissolving the national authority or withdrawing recognition of Israel. We are not seeking the isolation of Israel, but rather to isolate its settlement policy,” Abbas told the official WAFA news agency last week.

Netanyahu says the future of settlements should be decided in peace negotiations.

U.S.-sponsored peace talks froze in late 2010 after Netanyahu rejected Palestinian demands that he extend a partial construction freeze he had imposed at Washington’s behest to coax them into talks.

Palestinian officials said the letter Fayyad will hand over is a watered-down version of previous drafts which suggested the Palestinian Authority, run by Abbas, would dissolve itself or sever ties with Israel if there was no progress.

A growing number of voices in the Palestinian establishment, including Marwan Bargouthi, a popular leader serving five life terms in Israel after being convicted of murder charges during a Palestinian uprising, have argued for economic and political divorce from Israel.

“Our security people are maintaining law and order in the Palestinian territories, and consequently Israel is benefiting from the effort,” said Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the central committee of Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank.

“We are paying in security terms and are not being paid in political terms,” he told Reuters.

In spite of internal disagreements and a geopolitical climate that has seen the world preoccupied with other issues, the Palestinians hope the document will articulate their position ahead of any renewed push for U.N. statehood.

“We know that 2012 is a year of political vacuum. The U.S. is busy with elections, the EU with the euro, the Arab world with the (Arab) spring,” Shtayyeh said.

Nonetheless, the Palestinians were considering taking their case to the U.N. General Assembly after failing to secure backing at the Security Council in 2011.

“Going to the General Assembly this year will be an important step. We have a majority there, and no one has a veto,” he said.

However, only the Security Council, where the United States has veto power, has the authority to grant full U.N. membership.

Additional reporting By Ali Sawafta Editing by Maria Golovnina

World powers to meet Iran in Istanbul this week

Nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers will be held this week in Istanbul, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced.

The talks announced Sunday are scheduled to be held April 14 in Istanbul and will include six world powers: the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

Also on Sunday, Iran said it will not close its Fordo nuclear power facility, which is built deep into a mountain near the holy city of Oom, and it will not give up higher-level uranium enrichment, which are reported to be key demands that the world powers will present at the meeting.

Those demands are “irrational,” the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, told ISNA news agency in an interview published Sunday.

“If they do not threaten us and guarantee that no aggression will occur, then there would be no need for countries to build facilities underground. They should change their behavior and language,” he told the official news agency.

The demands were revealed Saturday in a front-page New York Times article, which quoted anonymous United States and European Union diplomats.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Iran is using the upcoming talks to “delay and deceive.”

He called for Iran to dismantle Oom, completely halt uranium enrichment and remove higher level enriched uranium from the country.

At UCLA, peacemaker Sen. George Mitchell gives insight Into Middle East

“We must be patient and realistic in our expectation regarding the Middle East,” Sen. George Mitchell told an audience at UCLA on March 1.

Mitchell delivered this year’s Bernard Brodie Distinguished Lecture on the Conditions of Peace, and he struck a tone that was, perhaps appropriately, but not overwhelmingly, pessimistic about the dim prospects for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The architect of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that paved the way for an end to the violence in Northern Ireland, Mitchell spent two and a half years as President Obama’s Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. Beginning in 2009, Mitchell tried but ultimately failed to help the Israelis and Palestinians break the impasse that has all but halted peace negotiations.

While he acknowledged last week that there are many reasons to be skeptical about the possibility of peace between the Palestinians and Israelis — first and foremost the uncertainty that has been brewing in the Arab world since the revolutions that deposed the dictatorial regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 — Mitchell said he still believes a peaceful resolution to the conflict remains possible.

To illustrate what Israeli-Palestinian peace might look like, Mitchell cited a January 2009 speech by then President George W. Bush. Just before leaving office, Bush described the Palestinians’ goal as “a viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent state,” based on the 1949 armistice lines, with agreed swaps. The Israeli goal, Bush said, was to have a Jewish state “with secure, recognized, and defensible borders.”

These two goals could be achieved peacefully through difficult compromise, Mitchell told the 500 people in the audience, but only if both Israeli and Palestinian leaders can find a way to present it as a win-win solution.

Although Mitchell never ignored the difficulties of reaching such an agreement, his faith in the solvability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stood in stark contrast to the protests and counter-protests going on on campus during UCLA’s Palestine Awareness Week, sponsored by a pro-Palestinian student group.

Starting in February, campuses across the country have been marking the eighth annual Israel Apartheid Week.

As in previous years, campus pro-Israel organizations mounted public awareness campaigns to counter that narrative. One such campaign is Israel Peace Week, created by Hasbara Fellowships, a project of the Orthodox nonprofit organization Aish Hatorah. Now in its third year, the program is aimed at showing that “Israel wants peace and has demonstrated its willingness to make painful sacrifices for peace.”

Other pro-Israel campus organizations staged their own, differently themed, events to mark the week. The UCLA chapter of J Street U, the college division of the “pro-Israel, pro-Peace” lobbying group, sponsored a speech titled “Supporting Israel, Opposing Occupation,” where Uri Zaki, the United States director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, spoke to the student group at UCLA on Feb. 29, one of almost a dozen appearances on campuses across America this spring.

In his presentations, Zaki said he talks about the human rights abuses perpetrated against Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied territories, but also makes clear that at the same time, the existence of Israel as a democratic Jewish state is a remarkable achievement.

“An organization with a strong record on human rights advocacy can say, ‘Yes, but,’ ” Zaki said.

For his part, Mitchell, after concluding his remarks, took questions from National Public Radio’s Renee Montagne, as well as from the audience. Asked about what the United States should do about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Mitchell expressed support for the Obama administration’s policy of imposing sanctions without taking the military option off the table.

He added that a nuclear Iran would not only threaten Israel, but could also put at risk the success the nonproliferation treaty that has, for more than forty years, limited the spread of nuclear weapons to just nine countries.

A nuclear Iran, Mitchell said, “could lead to a rapid disintegration of that agreement.”

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

‘Decapitating’ Palestine, killing peace

Here’s a “sign of the times” factoid: In recent commentary on Israel’s settlement policy, the number of Jewish settlers beyond the Green Line has ballooned from 350,000 or so to 600,000.  It is as if there had suddenly been a mass immigration to the West Bank.  But there has been no such immigration.  What there has been, more ominously, is the inclusion in “beyond the Green Line” of two venerable major neighborhoods that had long since come to be regarded as part of Jerusalem proper – Ramot and French Hill, as well as other neighborhoods such as Gilo, Pisgat Ze’ev, Givat Shlomo, Har Homa and more.

Ramot and French Hill are, indeed, beyond the Green Line, Israel’s 1967 de facto border.  But they were also beyond controversy.  No one who thought about them — and hardly anyone did — regarded their fate as part of a future negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  Their provenance may have been problematic, but their destiny was not.

And now, simply by absorbing their inhabitants into the estimate of Jews beyond the Green Line, the period after their names has been replaced with a question mark.

That is one sign, a small one, of the impact of Israel’s settlement policy and, in particular, of its policy with respect to East Jerusalem.

This needs to be said as urgently and as clearly as possible: Israel’s settlement policy in and around Jerusalem is not merely controversial; it is calamitous.  Unless it changes, it will within a year render a two-state solution to the conflict impossible. 

There are people, here in America and in Israel, who will celebrate that.  They are comfortable with the prospect of de facto or de jure Israeli rule over, even annexation of, the entire West Bank.  They are prepared to live with an apartheid state, in which a large Palestinian minority is deprived of equal rights, or with a mass emigration of Palestinians, “encouraged” by Israeli actions.  And some few endorse a pure bi-national state, equal rights for all, an end to Israel as a distinctively Jewish state.

But most Jews, according to survey results, here and in Israel, prefer a two-state solution, even if they think it unlikely in current or readily foreseeable circumstances. 

Because my concern here is specifically with Jerusalem and its relevance to a two-state solution, I set to the side all the controversial and all the illegal (according to Israeli law) Jewish outposts and settlements that dot the West Bank, all the violence that emanates from more than a few of them, all the land theft they have practiced and all the current governmental efforts retroactively to legalize them.

(The ongoing work of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch program, headed by the formidable Hagit Ofran and readily available at peacenow.org, and frequent analysis by the apparently indefatigable Lara Friedman, American for Peace Now’s director of policy and government relations, provide comprehensive — and disheartening — details on settlement actions and issues in general.)

In East Jerusalem the pace of Jewish construction now borders on the frenetic.  The goal is so thickly to expand the Jewish presence in what was traditionally the heart of the national Palestinian community and so to encircle the remaining Palestinian neighborhoods as to separate Jerusalem completely from the rest of Palestine.  It amounts, from a Palestinian perspective, to a policy of decapitation. 

Thus, if building projects now under way or already approved are completed, it will not be possible for Palestinians from Bethlehem to Jerusalem’s south or from Ramallah to its north, to access Jerusalem.  And if, as seems likely, Israel finally begins active development of the area known as E1, East Jerusalem will be hemmed in on all sides.  It will not be available as the capital city of a new Palestine, nor as Palestine’s commercial and intellectual center. The northern half of the West Bank and its southern half will have been bisected, Palestine will successfully have been cantonized, transformed into a set of disconnected towns and villages. Palestine will not be a viable state. 

The acknowledged leading expert on what is happening in and to Jerusalem is Daniel Seidemann, founder of Ir Amim (A City of Nations). In his own writings and in the work of Ir Amim, it is made clear that the grim prospect of a de facto separation between all of Jerusalem and the Palestinian hinterland is no longer a distant hypothetical; it is around the corner. Seidmann himself is convinced that by 2013, currently unfolding facts on the ground will have destroyed the prospect of a two-state solution.

Those who understand that only a two-state solution can offer Israel genuine security, can protect the ever more fragile prospect of a democratic and Jewish Israel living at peace with its neighbors, should be alarmed and make their distress known — to the Obama administration, to their representatives in Congress, and to their friends in and government of Israel. Now.

Leonard Fein has written and advocated for progressive Jewish causes since the 1960s. In 1974 he founded Moment magazine, the journal of Jewish ideas, and in 1985 he founded MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.