Israel says clock ticking after Iran talks fail


Israel has responded to the failure of the latest nuclear talks between world powers and Iran with a familiar refrain: sanctions must be ramped up while the clock ticks down toward possible military action.

With diplomacy at an impasse, there is satisfaction among Israeli leaders at what they see as a tough line taken by the West in the negotiations on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Israeli political sources said on Thursday.

A member of the British negotiating team quietly visited Israel on Wednesday to brief officials on this week’s Moscow talks, the sources said, and new U.S. and European sanctions against Iran are due to come into effect in the next two weeks.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak stuck closely to his stated line, without offering any new sense of urgency, when asked by the Washington Post how much more time Israel can allow for diplomacy to work.

“I don’t want to pretend to set timelines for the world,” he said, “but we have said loud and clear that it cannot be a matter of weeks but it (also) cannot be a matter of years”.

Preparations for any strike against Iran, which Israel and Western powers suspect is trying to develop the capacity to build a nuclear bomb, are closely guarded in Israel.

But Barak said that even in the United States, which has counseled against jumping the gun while a diplomatic drive with Iran is under way, “at least on a technical level, there are a lot of preparations”.

Iran and six world powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – failed to secure a breakthrough in Moscow at what was the third round of the latest diplomatic initiative, and set no date for more political talks.

DEMANDS

Last month, and again in Moscow, the powers asked Iran to close the Fordow underground facility where uranium is being enriched to 20-percent fissile purity, and to ship any stockpile out of the country, demands that come close to Israel’s.

Israeli Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Wednesday.

“I explained that after the failure of the … talks in Moscow, the West must impose a full oil embargo on Iran and tough financial sanctions,” Mofaz said on his Facebook page, adding: “In parallel, preparations for other options must continue.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not commented publicly on the Moscow talks. He had complained that the months of talking had given Iran a “freebie” to continue enrichment.

The right-wing leader has been cautioned by former Israeli security chiefs against ordering attacks on Iran, amid skepticism about how effective Israeli air strikes would be.

Iran, which has called for Israel’s demise, says its nuclear program is designed for energy production alone. Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, says a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to its existence.

Barak, in the newspaper interview, held out little hope that diplomacy would persuade Iran to bend.

“By the third meeting in a negotiation, you know whether the other party intends to reach an agreement or, alternatively, whether he is trying to play for time to avoid a decision,” he said.

“It seems to me that the Iranians keep defying and deceiving the whole world. But it’s up to the participants in the negotiations to reach this conclusion. We cannot afford to spend another three rounds of this nature just to allow the Iranians to keep maneuvering.”

Weighing into the debate, Israeli President Shimon Peres told an audience in Jerusalem: “There’s not much time. If the Iranians … don’t heed the warnings, the calls and the economic sanctions, the world will look to other options.”

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Editorial Cartoon: Sidecar


Israelis protest new government


Hundreds of Israelis demonstrated against the new coalition government.

More than 1,000 protested in Tel Aviv, and hundreds in Jerusalem, against the deal struck between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the opposition Kadima Party. A protest also was held in Beersheba.

Former Kadima chairman Tzipi Livni, who resigned from the Knesset earlier this month, said at the Tel Aviv rally that the young demonstrators deserved a politics “of principles and not of survival.”

The demonstration was planned on Facebook by some of last summer’s social protest leaders, according to Haaretz.

At least seven people, including journalists, were arrested during the Tel Aviv demonstration after police declared it illegal and prevented protesters from marching in the streets to the Likud Party headquarters.

No change in White House approach to Israel following new coalition


The Obama administration will not change its policy approach toward Israel in light of the new government coalition, a White House spokesman said.

“[A] new coalition government in Israel certainly will not affect our policy approach, and we continue to have very good relations with leaders in Israel and we have significant support for—we provide significant support for and coordination with Israel’s military on security interests, and share a lot of information when it comes to intelligence,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday morning on Air Force One. The reporters were accompanying President Obama to Albany, N.Y., where he was delivering a speech.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had forged a 94-seat unity government with the entrance of the left-of-center Kadima party into the coalition.

In answer to a reporter’s question, Carney also said that the White House is working “very closely with the Israelis on the Iran issue.”

“On Iran, our position is as it was, which is we absolutely share Israel’s concern about the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” he said. “We have pursued a policy approach that has effectively isolated Iran and united the world in identifying Iran’s behavior as the problem. And we have, through sanctions and other means, made clear to the Iranians that there is a high price to pay for their refusal to abide by their international obligations.”

Carney also said the White House believes that the Israelis and the Palestinians “need to take steps towards peace. They need to refrain from actions that make it harder to reach the kind of—well, to reach the negotiating table, where they can work on a solution that still needs to be found.”

For new Israeli coalition, haredi army exemptions issue is front and center


Israel’s new unity government may not alter Jerusalem’s strategy for curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons program or do much to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But it could dramatically change something at home about which a huge number of Israelis care deeply: haredi Orthodox exemptions from military service.

For years, haredi issues have been something of a third rail in Israeli politics. Nearly every government in recent years has needed the haredi parties to cobble together a governing coalition, rendering haredi entitlement programs like the military exemption politically untouchable.

This long has irritated Israelis who serve in the army and resent that the haredim, by and large, do not serve yet draw all sorts of entitlement payments from the state.

But with Shaul Mofaz’s decision to bring Kadima and its 28 seats into the ruling coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer needs the haredi parties to keep his government in power. They could pull out, and it would make no real difference—at least, until the next elections, scheduled for October 2013.

The question now is how far Netanyahu will go in taking advantage of a historic opportunity to end this special treatment afforded to haredi Israelis.

The question is likely to hinge on political considerations.

There already is movement on putting together an alternative to the Tal Law, which granted haredi Israeli men military exemptions but was struck down several months ago by Israel’s Supreme Court. The court ordered that an alternative to the law be put into place by Aug. 1.

Crafting an alternative to the Tal Law is one of the top four priorities set forth by the new government coalition. The other three are passing a comprehensive budget, reforming the structure of government and making progress toward peace. The budget issue is expected to be resolved one way or the other, as budgets generally are, but there is something pie-in-the-sky about the other two priorities.

That leaves the Tal Law alternative as the potential historical legacy of this 18-month alliance between Netanyahu and Mofaz.

On Tuesday, that alternative began to take shape.

The Jerusalem Post reported that, under the Mofaz-Netanyahu deal, haredi exemptions from the army would be replaced by a Basic Law—the Israeli equivalent to a constitutional amendment—requiring all citizens to perform military or civilian service.

Last month, Kadima proposed instituting a universal military draft within five years. Under the Kadima plan, all Israelis either would serve in the military or do national service in one of a variety of fields, among them education, health and domestic security. Those who fail to comply would be barred from receiving any state funding.

The question is whether such a plan—which would radically alter the relationship between the state and its rapidly growing haredi Orthodox population—could survive opposition from Israel’s haredi Orthodox parties.

On the one hand, Netanyahu doesn’t need them to survive in office until the next elections. Indeed, if he were to push through such legislation, it could earn his Likud party much broader support, including from secular and more centrist voters, the next time Israel goes to the polls.

On the other hand, it could cost Netanyahu in October 2013 if his Likud party wins the election, Kadima fares poorly and Netanyahu needs the haredi parties to form a coalition.

Those considerations, say political analysts, will mitigate whatever changes are made to haredi exemptions.

There are some other factors at play.

For one thing, while in principle most Israelis would like haredim to be subject to the same requirements of service demanded of all other Israelis, in practice the army does not want a sudden flood of tens of thousands of new haredi recruits. The Israel Defense Forces lacks the infrastructure to absorb them, both in numbers and operationally. What would the army do with 10,000 new recruits who are religiously opposed to significant interaction with female instructors?

For another thing, a sudden, dramatic transformation of the relationship between haredim and the state would run up against opposition not only from haredi parties in the Knesset, but from haredi citizens. They would see the sudden change as a broadside against their way of life, and mass demonstrations and even riots likely would ensue. It would make the haredi riots against parking lots opening on the Sabbath and a Modern Orthodox girls’ school in Beit Shemesh seem like child’s play.

The reality is that Israel doesn’t want all these haredim in the army; what Israel wants is more haredi men working, paying taxes and integrated into Israeli society.

Under the current system, haredi men must stay in yeshiva until their 30s to keep their military exemption (religious women are currently granted exemptions from army service upon request). That has helped bankrupt the haredi community and nurture a black market economy in which many haredi men work surreptitiously and do not pay taxes.

Changing the rule would help drive haredim into the workforce and into better-paying jobs. That would help Israel’s tax rolls, reduce haredi dependency on welfare and help integrate haredim into Israeli society.

There is great debate within the haredi community about whether or not to welcome these changes. Some haredim see it as key to the economic and social survival of their community. But other haredi leaders see it as opening up a slipperly slope away from the yeshiva and Jewish observance and toward the dangerous temptations of modern, secular Israel.

Ultimately, whatever change comes to the haredi community is likely to come gradually.

Kadima has proposed exempting 1,000 haredi yeshiva students from the military draft and allowing others to defer military service on a year-by-year basis while they are studying in yeshiva. According to a report in The Jerusalem Post, Likud is likely to propose an alternative that instead would establish a minimum number of haredi participants in national service programs that would increase every year, without a cap on those claiming yeshiva-related exemptions from service.

For now, the haredi parties appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

“There can’t be a situation in Israel in 2012 where someone who wants to study Torah will not be able to do so,” Yakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party told the Post. “But as long as the principle of ‘torato Omunato’ [Torah is one’s work] is preserved, UTJ will remain in the coalition.”

Mofaz approved as minister, Yachimovich named opposition leader


Kadima party chairman Shaul Mofaz was approved as a government minister and Labor party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich was appointed head of the opposition.

Mofaz was approved as a minister without portfolio and as a deputy prime minister by the Knesset plenum on Wednesday by a vote of 71 to 23. He was sworn in after the vote.

The vote was held up after some opposition lawmakers claimed that Mofaz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made secret oral coalition agreements in addition to the agreements being voted on, including that other Kadima lawmakers would be appointed as government ministers. Netanyahu denied the accusations, saying that there had been discussions of other issues but that they had not reached the level of agreement.

Following the approval of the new coalition agreement, Yachimovich was appointed Mofaz’s successor as head of the opposition.

Team of Rivals


Stability and order, those are the pillars that enable a democratically elected politician to successfully pursue their agenda. And stability and order are exactly what Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, has guaranteed for himself and for his party by creating a new national unity government with his rivals.

This new national unity government should have come as no surprise.

The new coalition now controls 94 of 120 Knesset seats. Never before in the history of Israeli politics has the governing coalition been so broad, so strong and so stable. Kadima, Netanyahu’s rival party, under its recently ousted leader Tzippi Livni would not have entered into a coalition with Likud. Shaul Mofaz, the newly elected leader of Kadima, has done what Livni could not. He has, in his own words, ‘corrected a historic wrong.’

Mofaz knows that Kadima belonged in the coalition from the very beginning. In 2009, Israel’s last election, Kadima garnered twenty eight seats, the largest number of seats of any party – but they could not form a government. Likud, with twenty seven seats and Netanyahu at the helm, formed a government along with the Labor party which is ostensibly to the left of Kadima, the central party.

The newly elected head of Kadima is a perfect partner for the Likud leader. Shaul Mofaz is a hawk on issues of security. He served as defense minister under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and was a successful chief of staff of the IDF, Israel’s army. He is Iranian by birth, born in Teheran, to parents who came, originally, from Isfahan. His given name was Shahram Mofazzez Zadeh, a very ethnic sounding name Shaul Mofaz has the ring of a true Israeli name. Mofaz deeply understands Iranians, not just their language but also their mind set. He has a more liberal point of view than does Netanyahu on economics and social welfare. They are the perfect counter balance to each other.

Kadima is really a center- center/left party. And Likud is center center/right. The coalition they have formed is now strongly center based. It is so strongly center that even if a party or two on either side of the spectrum should decide to leave the coalition it will have no impact on the stability of the government.

This is not an insider baseball issue. The ramifications of this newly formed coalition in Israel will not affect only Israeli society. This broad unity government under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz has carte blanch on issues connected to security, Iran, and the Palestinians peace process issues of vital import to the greater region and to the West.

How and why? I’ll explain.

One of the most important messages this newly created coalition sends out is a message to Iran. Israel’s electorate and their ruling parties are now totally aligned on the issue of the dangers of Iran. Despite the recent and very public debate and critique about if, when or how to deal with Iran the only issue to be dealt with now is timing. The Israeli message to Iran is clear: your nuclear technology and capability threatens us, we will deal with it, we just have to decide when.

The Israeli government is now almost totally united on issues of security. That means that when the government decides to strike there will be no need to break ranks. Iran has to realize that now, more than ever before, Israel is poised to strike. And that is a frightening reality for the United States and by extension the greater Western world on the eve of a US presidential election.

Will this throw a wrench into the Obama presidential campaign and destroy his plan to use Iran as a lever to help win the election? People might ask what is the Obama plan on Iran and do they have one worked out and the answer is that they are still planning the plan. Now the Obama plan, whatever it may turn out to be, will have little impact. The Israelis have the plan, the means and the unity to proceed on their own.

The newly formed coalition government of Israel is also united on the peace process. That ball is now in the Palestinians’ court. It is the Palestinians who must decide to pursue peace or not to pursue peace.

Unlike the Americans, the Israelis have concluded that the Palestinians are not ready to move ahead. They have concluded that the Palestinians want far too much and do not want to compromise. So Israel is simply waiting. Of course, Israel realizes that the next generation of Palestinian leadership may be even less accommodating neighbors, but the Israelis have had enough of giving with no Palestinian follow through. Now, with no pressure from rival parties and with no need to capitulate to external pressure, Israel can comfortably adopt a wait and see policy vis a vis the Palestinians.

Internal domestic issues will still be confronted, debated and fought over in Israel—that will not change. And some parties may bolt from the Netanyahu/Mofaz coalition. But the coalition will remain strong. One thing is certain: Israel’s coalition and governing party is more stable now than it has been in years.

Hundreds of Israelis take to the streets to protest unity deal between Netanyahu and Mofaz


Over 1,000 people demonstrated on Tuesday night near the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv against the deal struck between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz.

The protest, which took place near where the 2011 summer protest began on Rothschild Boulevard, included waved flags, and chanted slogans such as “Bibi, go home.”

Several politicians spoke to the crowd, among them former Kadima head Tzipi Livni, Isaac Herzog (Labor) Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), and Dov Khenin (Hadash).
Livni, who spoke briefly, said that she was asked to speak by “young people who want to fight for the country.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

In surprise move, Netanyahu, Mofaz agree to form unity government, cancel early elections


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition chairman MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) reached a surprise agreement early Tuesday morning to form a national unity government.

Under the agreement, Kadima will join Netanyahu’s government and support its policies in exchange for a commitment that the government will support its proposal for an alternative to the Tal Law, which allows full-time yeshiva students to defer national service.

Sources in Kadima told Haaretz that Mofaz is expected to be appointed as a minister in the government. Likud sources confirmed this, adding that they expected that Mofaz would become a minister without portfolio.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

In a surprise move, Likud and Kadima form Israel’s broadest government coalition


Israelis went to sleep Monday night expecting early elections in September for the 19th Knesset. They woke up to the news that elections would take place as planned in October 2013.

A behind-the-scenes deal clinched overnight between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Shaul Mofaz created Israel’s broadest coalition government ever.

According to the surprise agreement finalized early Tuesday morning, right before a plenum vote to disperse the Knesset ahead of early elections, Mofaz’s Kadima Party will join Netanyahu’s government coalition, boosting its numbers from 66 of the 120 Knesset members to an unprecedented 94.

Mofaz agreed not to attempt to topple the government until the official end of its term. In exchange he will be appointed vice premier. Mofaz also will participate in the meetings of the select ministerial security Cabinet.

The Kadima chief, who had vowed on his Facebook page that he would never join Netanyahu’s “bad” government and publicly called Netanyahu a “liar,” may have had a change of heart in part after seeing polls that predicted his party was headed for a major crash in early elections.

Kadima, which managed to garner a plurality of votes in the last elections with 28 Knesset seats, had fallen to fewer than half that number, according to recent polls.

Netanyahu, who in recent months has said repeatedly in public statements that he preferred not to initiate early elections, may have been tempted by the chance to bring back former Likud politicians such as Ronnie Bar-On, Tzahi Hanegbi and Meir Sheetrit, who defected with Ariel Sharon in 2005 to form Kadima.

” ‘Repatriating’ these MKs so to speak would serve two purposes,” said Amotz Asa-El, a Hartman Institute fellow. “It would strengthen the Likud. But it would also dilute the influence of more right-wing elements in the Likud aligned with Moshe Feiglin.”

The formation of a national unity government may also have positive diplomatic ramifications with regard to Iran’s nuclear program.

“A stable government strengthens Israel’s deterrence capabilities vis-a-vis Iran and improves its ability to put pressure on the U.N. Security Council and on Germany not to compromise too much with Tehran,” wrote Ron Ben Yisai, Ynet’s military affairs commentator. “The deal also improves the government’s ability to carry out surprise moves, which also strengthens deterrence.” 

Netanyahu and Mofaz said during a news conference Tuesday before the signing of the coalition agreement that there were four central issues that would be advanced by the national unity government: legislation that will obligate haredi Orthodox yeshiva students to perform military or national service; amendments to the electoral process; passage of a two-year fiscal budget; and advancing “responsible” peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Kadima’s Knesset members will lead a committee tasked with drafting legislation aimed at replacing the Tal Law, which permits haredi yeshiva students to defer military service indefinitely in order to pursue religious studies unhindered.

The Supreme Court ruled in February that the Tal Law contradicted the principle of equality by giving the haredim preferential treatment and therefore was illegal. The court set Aug. 1 as the deadline to replace the Tal Law with alternative legislation.

Netanyahu noted during the news conference that disputes among key members of his coalition—the haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism parties and the stridently secular Yisrael Beiteinu—were a main factor in his original decision to call early elections. But with Kadima as a coalition partner, Shas and United Torah Judaism will be unable to topple the government over the Tal Law.

Incorporating Kadima also will enable the government to enact electoral system reform aimed at fostering political stability. Attempts to pass such reforms have failed due to the fervent opposition of smaller parties that represent specific populations such as the religious and haredim. These parties stand to lose from measures such as raising the election threshold from the present level of 2 percent or instituting regional elections for some of the Knesset seats.

Governments comprised of many diverse factions often are plagued with chronic divisions and instability. In many cases, a single party can threaten to bring down a narrow coalition government, giving it inordinate leveraging power.

Kadima’s support also may make it easier for the government to fend off demands by smaller parties that could hurt fiscal discipline during the passage of a two-year fiscal budget for 2013-14.

But the timing of parliamentary discussions on the budget will coincide with the expected rerun of last summer’s socioeconomic protests.

“With the world economy going into a slowdown, our government will have to make painful fiscal cuts and it will have to accomplish this at a time when the Israeli version of Occupy Wall Street is going on,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a former spokesman and chief of staff under Netanyahu. “Kadima might even be compelled to join the populists in calling for more spending.”

Settlement policy might be another point of disagreement between Kadima and Likud. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled Monday that the government had to go ahead with the demolition of 30 homes that were built on Palestinian-owned land in the Beit El settlement’s Ulpana neighborhood.

Although Netanyahu has been noncommittal, right-wing politicians in his coalition, including several Likud MKs, want to legalize retroactively neighborhoods and outposts like Ulpana.

Netanyahu could be torn between his obligation to Kadima MKs who oppose such legislative initiatives and his more right-wing coalition partners.

The peace process may lead to some points of contention, but opponents have refrained from placing the blame on Netanyahu’s government for the lack of progress in negotiations.

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

Tzipi Livni wins Kadima contest — now the real work begins


JERUSALEM (JTA) – With her decisive win in the Kadima party primary on Wednesday, Tzipi Livni’s next major task will be assembling a coalition government so she can become prime minister.

Then all she’ll have on her plate is figuring out how to arrest the threat to Israel from Iran, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a historic peace deal, neutralize the threat on Israel’s northern border from Hezbollah and run the country.

If she ever gets to it.

The immediate challenge faced by Livni, until now the foreign minister, is piecing together a coalition that will hold without pulling her government in too many different directions. If she fails, Israel will be headed for new general elections.

In Wednesday’s vote at 114 polling stations around the country, about 50 percent of Kadima’s 74,000 members voted for party leader – relatively low turnout by Israeli standards. Even so, Livni complained of “congestion” at polling stations and argued for an extension of voting time by an hour. In a compromise, Kadima decided to extend voting by 30 minutes.

Exit polls showed Livni won about 48 percent of the vote, beating out her primary rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, by at least 10 points and avoiding a runoff by surpassing the 40 percent threshold. The two other contenders in the primary, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, garnered an estimated 7 percent each.

Livni’s victory is historic in several respects. She won the first-ever primary held by Kadima, the three-year old political party founded by Ariel Sharon. Her election also brings an end to the Olmert era, though Ehud Olmert will stay on as caretaker prime minister until a coalition is assembled.

And once she puts together a coalition, Livni will become Israel’s second female prime minister, following Golda Meir.

Livni will have 42 days to form a government. She has made it clear that she wants to base her new government on the existing coalition – Kadima, Labor, Shas and the Pensioners party — with the possible addition of other parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu on the right, Meretz from the left and the fervently Orthodox Torah Judaism party.

Livni wants to limit the current transition period, which she sees as a potentially unhealthy period of two-headed government. Olmert will continue as acting prime minister until Livni forms a new government.

Kadima leaders argue that there already is a functioning government and there is no reason it shouldn’t continue its work. They maintain that all the Labor party asked Kadima to do was change its leader, and, now that Kadima has done that, continuing with the present coalition shouldn’t be a problem.

But Livni’s main coalition partners have no intention of giving her an easy ride. Labor argues that a prime minister effectively elected by only 18,000-20,000 Israelis has no legitimacy and that the Israeli people as a whole should be allowed to have their say in new elections.

Shas is also threatening new elections unless Livni meets its demands for more generous child allowances and a pledge to keep Jerusalem off the negotiating agenda with the Palestinians.

If Livni fails to form a coalition, there could be an election as early as next spring. If she succeeds, she could govern for a year or two before going into a new election with the incumbency advantage.

During the campaign, Livni gave a slew of interviews in which she spelled out her priorities:

  • Moving ahead on the Palestinian track: Over the past few months, she and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia have been drafting a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Both sides say that although they have made progress, closing the wide gaps that still exist will take time.

    Once Livni is installed as prime minister, one key issue will become more difficult to resolve: refugees. Livni has repeatedly said that she will not agree to any resettlement in Israel proper of Palestinian refugees, because allowing just one Palestinian refugee in would chip away at Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

    Livni might ease conditions on the ground by dismantling illegal settler outposts in the West Bank, which successive Israeli prime ministers have failed to do. She argues that any government she heads will assert the rule of law.

    As for Gaza, Livni warns that she will consider a large-scale ground offensive if Hamas uses the current truce to smuggle in huge quantities of arms.

  • Ascertaining the seriousness of the Syrian track: Ever since Israel and Syria started conducting new peace feelers through Turkish auspices in January 2007, Livni has not been in the loop. She has argued that by going public with the talks, Israel has given Syria a degree of international legitimacy without getting very much in return.

    Livni will want to see for herself whether Syrian President Bashar Asad is ready for a peace with Israel that entails a significant downgrading of his relations with Iran.

  • Dealing quietly with the Iranian nuclear threat: Livni says as far as Israel is concerned “all options are on the table” and that to say any more would be irresponsible. But she has intimated in the past that Israel could live with a nuclear Iran by establishing a very clear deterrent balance.
  • Introducing a new style of cleaner government: Livni, who won the leadership race at least partly because of her squeaky clean image, will want to signal early on that she intends to introduce a new style of governing. Livni will want to clean up party politics by breaking the power of the Kadima vote contractors who drafted people en masse to vote for a particular candidate. One idea is to set a minimum membership period — say, 18 months — before party members get voting rights.

By electing Livni, Kadima voters seemed to be saying enough of the generals at the top, and enough of wheeler-dealer politics. Livni, dubbed Mrs. Clean, is seen as a straight-thinking, scandal-free civilian clearly out to promote Israel’s best interests.

She has a full agenda, a chance to change the tenor of Israel politics and to make historic moves vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Syria.

But first she will have to put together a viable coalition.

Candidate Profile: Tzipi Livni — a clean record but some say untested


JERUSALEM (JTA) – Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni smoothes her tailored black jacket, tosses back her head and takes in the King David Hotel hall packed cheek to jowl with foreign journalists.

Every chair is taken, photographers line the walls and the lights of dozens of TV cameras bathe the room in a yellow glow

The woman who would be prime minister can draw quite a crowd.

Polls show that Livni, 50, is the leading contender to win Kadima Party primaries Sept. 17 to succeed Ehud Olmert.

Like her main party rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Livni has been on Israel’s national stage for about a decade. Since her election to the Knesset on the Likud list in 1999, Livni, under the tutelage of mentor Ariel Sharon, enjoyed what often is referred to here as a “meteoric” rise.

With her reputation for straight talk, intelligence and political moderation, Livni has managed to capture something of the popular imagination in an Israel weary of corruption and grandstanding among its politicians.

But Mrs. Clean, as she is sometimes called, lacks the military credentials of her main rivals — among them Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, should Kadima’s new leader fail to assemble a coalition government and general elections soon follow.

Livni’s rivals have pointed to her relative dearth of leadership experience to cast her as insufficiently prepared for the job of prime minister. Barak even borrowed from a theme in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad, asking who Israelis would want to answer the phone at 3 a.m.

The foreign minister has been firing back.

“Security is not only a question of whether or not there is specific kind of military operation,” Livni said last month at the King David Hotel news conference. “The prime minister needs to put on the table what is the goal of Israel as a state and means to achieve this goal, and whether the means are through military force or diplomatic options.”

Livni, a former lawyer who started her professional career as a Mossad agent, also spoke of her experience in Israel’s three-person security Cabinet with Barak and Olmert.

Her tenure in that group has not been free of criticism, however. Early on during the 2006 Lebanon war, Livni lobbied for a diplomatic solution and openly criticized Olmert’s management of the crisis.

While her criticism reflected widespread public sentiment especially after the war, Livni was skewered in the media for staying in the government despite calling on the prime minister to resign in May 2007. The call followed a state inquiry investigating the war that found fault with Olmert’s management of the conflict.

Some commentators said she wasn’t “man” enough to resign.
One of them, Israeli commentator Ben Caspit, wrote in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv that Livni was better suited to be the leader of a women’s organization like Na’amat, the women’s arm of the Labor Party, than the country.

“Tzipi Livni removed the last doubts as to her compatibility for the post of Na’amat secretary general. Or at the most, president of the Women’s International Zionist Organization. She could have established herself yesterday. Instead, she sold out. Big time,” Caspit wrote in May 2007.

But among those who have worked alongside Livni in the various political offices she has held — she has served as the minister of regional cooperation, of immigrant absorption, of justice and of housing and infrastructure — there is abiding respect for her capabilities and intellect.

“Being steady is about knowing how to make difficult decisions not just on impulse and emotion,” said Mirla Gal, who grew up with Livni in Tel Aviv and worked alongside her at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption as director general.

“She is not all about politics and games,” said Ari Shavit, a columnist for Ha’aretz.

Perhaps one of Livni’s best-known admirers is the U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, with whom Livni has forged a close relationship. Rice even wrote a tribute to Livni for Time magazine’s list of the world’s top 100 influential personalities.

But Livni is also criticized by some of those who have worked most closely with her as cold and aloof.

One former Livni staffer who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity described Livni as a lonely figure who lacked a human touch in her relations with others. This made teamwork difficult with Livni, he said. Often, she prefers to confer more with her husband, an advertising executive, than with her own staff, he said.

Eran Cohen, who worked under Livni from 1999 until 2005, first as an assistant and eventually as a political adviser, said Livni is a demanding but fair manager.

“She is very focused as a boss,” he said. “She has expectations of her staff to have high standards.”

Gal said Livni’s warmth, or lack thereof, is unimportant.

“As an Israeli citizen, when I consider who I want to be as my prime minister, there are more important things to me than who is going to be the one out there hugging everyone,” she said. “I want someone who is focused and dedicated like her, who knows how to go into a room with a goal and make decisions.”

Shai Ben-Mor, who worked as Livni’s communications director, said Livni often “fled from the headlines” where other politicians would seek coverage.

As an example, he cites the time that Livni visited Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip shortly before Israel evacuated from the territory in the summer of 2005. She wanted to meet the local residents and explain to them that she felt their pain but was standing behind the government policy to evacuate Gaza, Ben-Mor said.

“She had the courage to go there to a place where she is deeply unpopular, and to look at the eyes and not to hide in her bureau in Jerusalem,” Ben-Mor said.

Her support for the Gaza withdrawal reflected how much Livni, who was raised by fiercely ideological parents, represented a shift from her political beginnings.

Her father, Eitan, was a commander of the prestate Irgun militia and later a Likud Knesset member. Her mother, Sara, also was a well-known Irgun fighter who inspired one of the militia’s fight songs, “Up to the Barricades.”

Livni herself once opposed any notion of trading land for peace. But not unlike other prominent sons and daughters of the founding Likud elite, including Olmert, Livni changed her position to support the idea of territorial compromise.

As foreign minister, Livni has led Israel’s talks with the Palestinians, which have been conducted largely out of public view.

Whether or not those talks achieve diplomatic fruit will depend in large part on how Livni fares in Kadima’s primary, and whether the winner of that vote can assemble a coalition government and stave off new general elections.

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


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

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

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

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

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

That is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran files complaint over Mofaz threat, Hamas claims 2002 bombings


Iran Files Complaint Over Mofaz Threat

Iran filed a U.N. Security Council complaint after an Israeli official threatened to attack its nuclear facilities. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense chief, told the daily Yediot Achronot last week that Israel would have no choice but to attack Iran given the failure of U.N. Security Council sanctions in curbing its nuclear program. The comments contributed to a record 9-percent hike in the price of oil, though they were disavowed by Jerusalem. Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, wrote to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanding a Security Council condemnation of Israel.

“Such a dangerous threat against a sovereign state and a member of the United Nations constitutes a manifest violation of international law and contravenes the most fundamental principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and, thus, requires a resolute and clear response on the part of the United Nations, particularly the Security Council,” Khazaee wrote.

Ban’s office had no immediate response.

Egyptian Jews Seek U.N. help

An Egyptian Jewish group asked the United Nations to help it recover the community’s historic archives. The Historical Society of Jews from Egypt says the government has refused to release the documents due to fear of restitution claims, the Jerusalem Post reported. The society has written to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization asking it to intervene in the matter.

“It’s our history, everything we own going back hundreds and hundreds of years,” said Desire Sakkal, the society’s president.

The Egyptian Embassy would not comment on the matter. The society’s letter was prompted by comments from Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, who said last month that he “would burn Israeli books myself if found in Egyptian libraries.”

Hosni, who hopes to become the next head of UNESCO, subsequently claimed the statement was hyperbole and that he did not condone the burning of books. A UNESCO spokesperson said the organization had not yet received the society’s letter and could not comment.

Hamas Claims 2002 Bombings

Hamas claimed responsibility for two Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel in 2002. The Islamist group’s armed wing issued a statement over the weekend saying it was behind two suicide bombings that killed 26 Israelis in 2002. The first, in May of that year, took place in a Rishon Lezion pool hall. The second, four months later, was on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street. Israel blamed Hamas for the attacks, but the group declined to confirm its involvement. Both suicide bombers had Jordanian citizenship, suggesting that Hamas wanted to avoid drawing censure from Amman. In its statement, Hamas also claimed responsibility for Hebron-area shootings that killed six Israelis, as well as attempts to bomb a fuel depot and rail line inside the Jewish state.

Diplomat Documents Shanghai Jewish Community

An Israeli diplomat in China is compiling a database of Shanghai’s historic Jewish community. The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, a former synagogue in the Hangkou District of the city, has begun documenting the influx of tens of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe. Many of the refugees were Austrians who received emergency travel visas from Ho Fengshen, the Chinese consul general in Vienna in the late 1930s who ignored orders from Beijing to desist. The database project is being led by Uri Gutman, Israel’s consul general in Shanghai, with help from survivors and descendants of the city’s Jewish community, most of whom immigrated to Australia, Israel or the United States after World War II.

“This is a vanishing generation,” Gutman said.

Playwright Roisman Dead at 70

American poet and playwright Lois Roisman, who wrote frequently on Jewish themes, has died. Roisman, who was active in progressive Jewish causes, died June 2 at her home in Lyme, N.H. She was 70. Roisman’s plays included “Nobody’s Gilgul,” which won the Outstanding New Play award at the 1993 Source Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., and was anthologized in the book “Making A Scene: The Contemporary Drama of Jewish Women.” Born in Texas, Roisman lived for many years in Washington before moving to New Hampshire in 1995. She was the founding executive director of Jewish Funds for Justice, a group that sought to expand Jewish philanthropy beyond its traditional concerns. One of its first grants was to a young Chicago activist named Barack Obama.

At the time of her death, Roisman was a research associate at the Brandeis Women’s Institute at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and was completing a series of poems she described as a personal dialogue with the tales of the Chasidim.

British Jewry Increasingly Haredi

One-third of British Jews under age 18 are ultra-Orthodox, according to a new study. A study published Friday by the umbrella group of British Jewry, the Board of Deputies, found that the British haredi community has grown at an annual rate of about 4 percent over the last two decades. The study, by demographers David Graham and Daniel Vulkan, estimates the current size of Britain’s “strictly Orthodox” population at between 22,800 and 36,400 people. There are an estimated 300,000 Jews in Britain. Although the ultra-Orthodox represent just 10 percent of the overall Jewish population in the country, one-third of British Jews under age 18 are ultra-Orthodox, the study noted.

“This is an exceptional statistic given the oft-heard assertion that British Jewry, like many Diaspora communities, is in a permanent state of decline,” Graham said.

Al-Qaeda Terrorists Arraigned

Five al-Qaeda terrorists accused of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks refused lawyers at their arraignment. The 10-hour session held Thursday before a military tribunal at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay was the first time the five defendants have been together in the five years since their capture. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, told the tribunal’s chief judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, that he wanted to die as a martyr.

The defendants, in refusing their right to counsel, said they only recognized Islamic law. The five, who had been held in secret CIA custody, were transferred to the Cuban military prison in September 2006. Charges include murder and various counts of terrorism. The men were indicted in May. Prosecutors have requested a September start for a trial, though it is likely many more months away.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telgraphic Agency.