Biking adventure takes Israeli around the world

Even during the darkest moments of his four-year cycling odyssey, traversing 42 countries on six continents, Roei “Jinji” Sadan knew he’d never stop.

After all, Sadan had a bike he called Emunah — Hebrew for “faith.”

In Melbourne recently on the eve of the last leg of his 39,000-mile trek, the 29-year-old Israeli recalled cycling through the Mexican desert on New Year’s Day 2008. Suddenly a car pulled up.

“I didn’t know Spanish; I thought they wanted to help me,” Sadan recalls. “Then one of them showed me a gun and I started to understand what’s going on.”

The bandits stole clothes, money, credit cards and supplies, as well as a tent and sleeping bag — but not his 27-gear, custom-built, blue-and-white Thorn Nomad bicycle.

“From then on, I called it Emunah,” he said.

Within an hour, his faith was rewarded. Two American surfers passed by and drove Sadan to San Diego, where he restocked with supplies. Another American, having heard a TV interview, drove him back to Mexico so he could continue his adventure.

The incident served as a microcosm for his arduous journey of self-discovery: nightmarish episodes and seeing humanity at its glorious best.

Now that he’s within striking distance of the finish — Sydney’s Opera House — Sadan said he intends to use his experience by becoming a motivational speaker and transforming his diaries into a book that he hopes will inspire people to follow their dreams. And there is perhaps his biggest challenge — settling down.

His journey started with a simple question. “I thought, what’s the biggest adventure?” said Sadan, who lives in Oranit, a West Bank settlement of 6,000 near Kfar Saba.

He aimed to cycle around the world — not for any records but to discover himself. Sadan would prepare a year and a half for the trek, including walking the length of Israel and training several months in India in the Himalayas.

On the adventure, Sadan could have quit during any number of nightmares. In Alaska, he lost more than 30 pounds traveling on a dirt track in subarctic conditions while passing just one roadhouse in 10 days. In Peru, he was bitten by a wild dog. In Mozambique, he contracted malaria.

The journey has cost about $60,000 — part of it covered by his sponsor, the Israeli water company Eden Water — but it almost cost him his life in Bolivia.

“I was hit by a car in La Paz,” he recalls. “It was a hit and run. Nobody helped me. It was a dark moment.

“I told myself these nightmares are necessary for me to fulfill my dream. If a nightmare is part of a dream, it’s OK.”

And then there was the isolation.

“In the middle of the desert in China, it’s minus 20, you can’t sleep, there’s no one to say goodnight to,” said Sadan, dubbed Jinji (Hebrew for redhead) because of his ginger beard. “But I never thought of quitting, not once, never.”

And the good?

“People who have nothing want to give you everything,” he said.

Sadan recalls a tribal leader in Lesotho who invited him to share food — a meal of cat. With the language barrier a problem, Sadan pointed to the pot.

“Moo, moo?” he asked.

His host shook his head and responded, “Meow, meow.”

In Outback Western Australia, a Palestinian offered him refuge — a poignant encounter, as Sadan spent some of his army service in the Gaza Strip, where his host was born.

“He’s my first Palestinian friend,” Sadan said. “It was an emotional moment.”

The Gaza Strip is also where Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has been held captive for five years.

“For four years, I’ve enjoyed my choices and my freedom, and on the other scale, you have Gilad, so sometimes you need to think about the lowest value when you are at the top of Everest,” Sadan said.

Upon arriving in Melbourne, Sadan joined an event marking the fifth anniversary of Shalit’s capture and spoke to the Parliament of Victoria Friends of Israel group.

Sadan never expected to become an ambassador for Israel, but he quickly realized that his presence — especially in countries where there are neither Jews nor Israelis — was debunking the myth that all Israelis wield M-16 rifles.

“I’m coming with a bicycle and a smile,” he said. “Most people really welcome [Israelis]. I didn’t feel hatred.”

During a brief stop home to Oranit in 2009, Minister for Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein gave him the government’s blessing to spread his goodwill message. Since then, he has visited numerous Israeli embassies and given lectures to more than 1,500 children, as well as interviews to scores of media outlets about the “real” Israel.

Of all his challenges, the last may have been the most difficult: cycling the Great Ocean Road from Adelaide to Melbourne. Sadan rode tandem with Orly Tal, a blind Israeli who had contacted him via his Web site to ask if she could join him for part of his Australian adventure.

“She saw more than many people I know who have two working eyes,” Sadan said. “But it was more challenging than any desert I crossed.”

As the finish line beckons, Sadan said he is “excited,” adding that “it’s also a weird feeling because this is the end.”

He has no plans to fly into Ben-Gurion International Airport — too conventional.

“I will fly to Jordan and cycle to Jerusalem, to the Kotel,” he said. Sadan expects many dignitaries, perhaps even Israeli President Shimon Peres, to attend the “big event.”

So, in a journey of self-discovery, what has he learned about himself?

“That my heart is the best compass. That I have a different lens,” Sadan said. “And I learned I’m soft but unbreakable, like most Israelis.”

Now, however, having sacrificed two relationships on the road, Sadan said he is ready for a different challenge: “I’m ready to see if I’m capable of the biggest journey of life — family life.”

GOP senators urge suspending aid to P.A.

Republican senators urged President Obama to suspend U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority unless Hamas recognizes Israel and renounces terrorism.

Republican Sens. John Boozman (Ark.) and Jerry Moran (Kan.), in association with the Zionist Organization of America, organized a letter to the president signed by 16 U.S. senators.

“It is clear Hamas is not committed to peace,” the letter said. “As long as Hamas remains involved in the PA, we cannot imagine how such a coalition can meet the most basic requirements of U.S. law or the Quartet conditions. We therefore urge you to immediately suspend U.S. taxpayer assistance to the PA unless and until it can be certified that a new government and all its ministers recognize the Jewish State of Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, accept and adhere to all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and renounce all forms of terrorism and anti-Israel violence.”

The Palestinian Authority receives more than $500 million a year in U.S. aid.

ZOA National President Morton Klein commended the senators’ “forthright repudiation of the outrageous notion that a Fatah/Hamas PA government is one that the U.S. could fund.”

Twenty-nine Democratic senators sent a similar ZOA-associated letter to Obama in May.
In addition to Boozman and Moran, senators who signed the letter included Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss).

Top U.S. official: No Syria role while crackdown continues

Syria has no peace process role as long as its repression continues, a top Obama administration official said.

“Our objective remains comprehensive peace, without question, and an Israeli-Syrian agreement is a component of that,” the senior administration official said Tuesday in a background conversation with journalists. “But we can’t really contemplate a peace negotiation with someone who is actively killing their own people, 1,300, as I understand it, up to date. So that’s essentially going to be the situation there for now.”

The official also said that Obama’s top Middle East envoys, Dennis Ross and David Hale, are in the region on Wednesday and Thursday for the second time in a week to press Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations.

The Palestinians have expressed interest in Obama’s parameters, announced May 19, as a basis for negotiation. These include basing talks on 1967 lines, with mutually agreed land swaps, and a non-militarized Palestinian state, with security guarantees for Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far resisted accepting the 1967 lines formulation.

Congressional initiatives target P.A.

A number of initiatives are circulating in Congress targeting the Palestinians in the wake of their diplomatic tensions with Israel.

Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) this week circulated through the Republican Study Committee, the GOP’s influential conservative caucus, a proposal to introduce a Palestinian Accountability Act, legislation that would condition support for the Palestinian Authority on its willingness to negotiate, its efforts to combat terrorism and incitement, and its recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. It cites as bad faith the P.A.‘s recent efforts to obtain recognition of statehood through the United Nations.

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) this week sought signatories for a letter to Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, appealing to him to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority in the wake of its intention to establish a unity government with Hamas, the terrorist groups controlling the Gaza Strip.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) published a report following his visit to Israel earlier this month with Chicago’s Jewish federation that made many similar calls, including cutting off aid to any P.A.-Hamas unity government and in case the Palestinians seek U.N. recognition.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in a rare public release, accused the P.A. of engaging in “diplomatic warfare” against Israel through its U.N. efforts and its setting of preconditions for a return to talks.

These latest efforts join a number of congressional initiatives that would reject any pressure on Israel to return to the 1967 borders.

President Obama in a May 19 policy speech said Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should be renewed on the basis of the 1967 borders, but with mutually agreed land swaps and extensive security guarantees for Israel.

Jewish Dems blast GOP for singling out Muslims

The National Jewish Democratic Council blasted what it said was a Republican “obsession” with Muslims.

An NJDC statement termed as “utterly unnecessary” a second hearing convened Wednesday by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Commitee, on Muslim radicalization.

“Taken together with examples such as Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s and Herman Cain’s deeply disturbing comments in Monday night’s debate, these hearings are a manifestation of an upsetting GOP obsession with American Muslims,” the statement said.

In the GOP presidential debate Monday, Gingrich defended proposed loyalty tests for Muslims by likening them to past loyalty tests aimed at ferreting out communists and Nazis. Cain attempted to explain past comments in which he said he would not be comfortable with including a Muslim in his Cabinet.

“Once again, King has singled out the adherents of the Muslim faith, calling into question the loyalty of an entire community,” NJDC said. “All Americans who treasure the freedom of religion should be concerned with the growing suspicion of Muslim Americans by the Republican Party, which seems to be a requirement among its 2012 contenders.”

Republicans pointed out that King’s hearing Wednesday focused specifically on Muslim radicalization among prisoners, a topic that congressional Democrats have addressed in the past.

Poll: Americans’ views on Mideast largely unchanged

Americans’ views on Middle East issues have not changed in recent months, despite major headlines from the region, according to a new poll.

The Pew Research Center poll, conducted during the end of May, found that Americans still sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians in their ongoing conflict by 48 percent to 11 percent. Those numbers are on par with an April survey that found Americans supporting Israel over the Palestinians 49 percent to 16 percent.

The unchanged support for Israel also comes after escalating tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship, including President Obama’s declaration that a two-state solution should be based on the 1967 border lines with mutually agreed land swaps.

As a group, self-identified conservative Republicans had the most sympathy for Israel at 75 percent, compared to 32 percent who identified as liberal Democrats.

According to the May poll, 50 percent of Americans said they believe Obama is striking the right balance in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, 21 percent said he is favoring the Palestinians too much and 6 percent said he is favoring Israel, with the rest unsure. Those numbers are nearly identical to the Pew poll in April.

Regarding the Arab Springs events, 23 percent said they thought the changes will be good for the United States and 26 percent said they will be bad. Thirty-six percent said the Arab Spring will have no effect on the U.S., and the rest were undecided.

Views about whether the events would lead to lasting improvements in the region dipped slightly: 37 percent said they believed they would, down from 42 percent who thought so two months earlier.

The poll had a sample size of 1,509 adults and a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

A separate poll commissioned by the Israel Project found that a majority of U.S. voters would oppose a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated he will seek from the United Nations in September.

Fifty-seven percent polled June 5-7 said they would oppose such a move, up from 51 percent in April. One-quarter of voters said they would support the declaration, down from 31 percent in April.

The Israel Project survey polled 800 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.

Obama, Merkel discuss new Iran sanctions

President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed imposing new sanctions on Iran. 

“We agreed that if the International Atomic Energy Agency this week determines again that Iran is continuing to ignore its international obligations, then we will have no choice but to consider additional steps, including potentially additional sanctions, to intensify the pressure on the Iranian regime,” Obama said in a joint news conference after his meeting Tuesday with Merkel.

The Obama administration joined European nations a year ago in pushing through the U.N. Security Council enhanced sanctions targeting Iran’s financial institutions.

Merkel suggested that she would join the United States in pushing back against a Palestinian attempt to secure U.N. recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

“Unilateral measures are not helping at all to bring about this cause, and we agree that we wish to cooperate very closely on this because as we both say, time is of the essence,” the German leader said. “And looking at the changes in the Arab area and the Arab region, it would be a very good signal indeed if it came out that talks between the parties are again possible.”

Santorum, prior to announcing bid, calls Obama a ‘paper tiger’ on Iranian nuke threat

Hours before announcing his presidential run, Rick Santorum called President Obama a “paper tiger” with regard to Iran and threats to Israel.

Santorum, a former U.S. senator representing Pennsylvania, appeared on “Good Morning America” early Monday, hours before his official announcement, and said the Iranians are moving forward with a nuclear program while knowing “the president is not going to do anything to stop them.

“He has been a paper tiger and [the Iranians] are an existential threat to the State of Israel, and the Israelis know it and the Americans know it. And this president has not stepped forward and done anything to stop that threat,” Santorum said.

Santorum, a social conservative who lost re-election in 2006, spoke about his support for Israel at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference Saturday, the Hill reported.

“There is no greater friend to Israel than the social conservatives in America,” Santorum said Saturday.

There are seven declared candidates for the Republican nomination, and many of them have made criticizing Obama’s Middle East policy a centerpiece of their campaigns.

U.S. tells Turkey of flotilla concerns

The Obama administration expressed to the Turkish government its concerns about the next Gaza aid flotilla.

“We’ve been in consultation with the Turkish Government about this,” Mark Toner, the State Department spokesman, said on Wednesday. “We’ve shared our concerns.”

Activists are planning to send a flotilla of 15 ships—including one from the United States—later this month, to be launched from Turkey. Novelist Alice Walker is listed among the passengers of the American s

“What I think our concern is, we don’t want to see another situation arise where people are put at risk,” Toner said.

Turkish authorities say they will not stop the ships, which are run by independent non-governmental groups.

Relations between Turkey and Israel deteriorated sharply a year ago after Israeli commandos raided a nine-ship flotilla, killing nine Turks, including one Turkish American.

Obama and the quest for Mideast peace

So, why was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steaming when he came out of his tête-á-tête with President Barack Obama on May 20? The president’s inherently pro-Palestinian, con-Israeli stance may have been another rude awakening for the prime minister, but the handwriting’s been on the wall for some time now.

Take, for example, candidate Obama’s statement in March 2007 that “nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people.”  How about the Israeli people, who have had to live with the daily threat of terrorist attacks and bombings and hostile Arab armies on their borders since the inception of the Jewish state in 1948?   

Netanyahu was clearly disconcerted when he heard the president refer to Hamas as “an organization that has resorted to terror” during his press conference with the prime minister.  The imagery conveyed is of desperate Palestinian freedom fighters committing the occasional act of terror as a last resort to drive their Israeli oppressors from their rightful home, not of the coldblooded killers who routinely murder innocent civilians, as they did when they used a laser-guided anti-tank missile last April to specifically target an Israeli school bus, killing 16-year-old Daniel Viflic.

The president’s characterization of Hamas was particularly surprising as the organization has been responsible for the murder of more than 40 U.S. citizens since its formation in 1988 and was declared a terrorist group by the Clinton administration in 1995.  Netanyahu believed the United States and Israel stood shoulder to shoulder on the longstanding policy for both countrie — which, in the case of America, dates back to 1981 and the Reagan administration — that forbids negotiating with terrorists.  Yet Obama, in his Mideast policy address on May 19, soft pedaled the recent political accord between Fatah and Hamas, saying it raised “profound and legitimate questions for Israel” that Palestinian leaders will have to credibly address “… in the weeks and months to come.” 

But that’s far from the only reason Netanyahu was upset with the president.  Why is it that this administration feels compelled to set preconditions for Middle East peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and that those preconditions always require Israel to make the first concessions before negotiations begin?  In 2009, negotiations ran aground because Obama insisted on a moratorium on all new settlement activity in the West Bank that Israel rebuffed. Now, the principle he has set forth as a “foundation for negotiations” is that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that … the Palestinian people [can] govern themselves in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

In his speech to AIPAC on May 22, the president misled the 11,000 American Jews in the audience — 78 percent of whom had voted for him — when he stated that his framework for peace talks has “… been the template for discussions between the United States, Israel and the Palestinians since at least the Clinton administration.”  The truth is that the president’s so-called “even-handed” policy strongly favors the Palestinian position and represents a major change in American policy, with dire implications for Israel and the prospects for Middle East peace.

No U.S. president, from Lyndon Johnson (who was in office during the Six-Day War) through George W. Bush, has ever asserted, implicitly or explicitly, that the Palestinians have a right to 100 percent of the West Bank and the territory governed by the pre-1967 borders. Johnson said a return to pre-1967 borders “is not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities.” Reagan stated that “in the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point.  The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile armies.  I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.”  And Bush:  “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” None of the prior eight American presidents since 1967 have said anything about returning to the 1967 borders or land swaps.  By stating that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” Obama is asserting that (i) Palestinians are entitled to the territory governed by the pre-1967 borders and that (ii) should those borders differ, Israel must compensate the Palestinians with other land from the 4,000-year-old ancestral Jewish homeland.  This is a concession Israel is to make before negotiations begin?  What bargaining power would Israel have left?  And, since “mutually” entails the agreement of both parties, what if one party — the Palestinians — doesn’t agree?  Then you’re back to the indefensible 1967 borders.   

Why does this president consistently set Israel up to take the fall?  Netanyahu journeys to Washington to meet with the president at Obama’s request in March 2010 only to be presented with a list of ultimatums for restarting peace talks, including freezing settlement activity in East Jerusalem, and then, when Netanyahu hesitates, the president walks out of the meeting, snubbing him for dinner and the customary photo session for heads of state.  On the eve of last month’s summit with the prime minister, he again ambushes Netanyahu by unveiling a major change in U.S. policy that favors the Palestinians. During the first six months of his presidency, Obama journeyed to Saudi Arabia and Egypt; halfway through the third year of his term, he has yet to visit Israel, America’s staunchest, most democratic and most stable and reliable ally in the region.  Does anyone see a pattern here? 

If Obama wants to set preconditions for peace talks, then why not adopt the most logical, most fundamental and most simplistic one set forth by Netanyahu in his address before Congress on May 24?  Just as Netanyahu, and the Israeli prime ministers before him dating back to Menachem Begin in 1978, have stated that they will accept a Palestinian state, why doesn’t the president join him in calling for the Palestinian leadership to declare that they will accept a Jewish state?  How can there ever be peace if there is no meeting of the minds on this basic premise?  Why wasn’t that the framework for peace negotiations put forth by the president instead of dancing around the issue of having Hamas at the bargaining table? 

The last time Israel swapped land for peace —the Gaza Strip in 2005 — the direct consequence was to have less land and less peace.  With Hamas governing Gaza, suicide bombings, rocket attacks and terrorist strikes against Israeli civilian targets increased markedly, Hamas’ charter (Article 7) advocates the killing of all Jews (not just Israelis, mind you) by Muslims and it has never accepted Israel’s right to exist, stressing its commitment to “obliterating” Israel (preamble to Hamas charter).  Hamas is no friend of America, either.  FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose tenure Obama wishes to extend another two years, cited in testimony before the U.S. Senate that “there is a … threat of a coordinated terrorist attack in the U.S. from Palestinian terrorist organizations, such as Hamas.” According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Hamas and another terrorist organization, Hezbollah, have joined with Iran in fomenting “subversive activity” in Latin America. 

So, if the president is bound and determined to set preconditions for negotiations between Israel and the newly united Fatah-Hamas Palestinian Authority, why did he not insist — in firm, clear language — that Hamas first renounce terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and affirm the previous agreements between the PA and Israel?  Why does the first olive branch always have to come from Israel, and how can it when the party across the table is aiming a gun at its heart?  Although the president took a tougher stance on Hamas in his speech to AIPAC — clearly appealing for the Jewish vote — why didn’t he do so during his national address, when the entire Arab world was listening?  Modified messages for different audiences brings to mind imagery of Yasser Arafat’s pro-peace remarks in English for Western audiences and his pro-violence oratory in Arabic for Muslims.

In his Mideast policy address, Obama also referenced two “wrenching and emotional issues” that remain: “the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.”  But his avowed two-state solution with “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people” is illusory if you give any credence whatsoever to a so-called Palestinian “right of return.” The Jewish state ceases to exist if Palestinian refugees are allowed to return to their former homes in Israel. Hamas knows this, Fatah knows this, and the president knows this. Hamas has never agreed to the permanent (as opposed to “transitional”), peaceful, side-by-side coexistence of a Palestinian state with a Jewish state — not when Hamas chieftain Khaled Meshaal met with ex-President Jimmy Carter in 2008 and not now.  In the words of another Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan, “Israel is an impossibility.  It is an offense against God.”

If he was going to mention refugees, why didn’t the president raise the issue of the 3,000-year-old Jewish communities in Arab lands that were ethnically cleansed between 1948 and the early 1970s?  Commencing with Arab League retaliation for the declaration of the State of Israel by the United Nations, 1 million Jews were forcibly removed from their homes and personal property, forfeiting 62,000 square miles of land (nearly five times Israel’s 12,600 square miles) and assets worth approximately $300 billion.  What of their “right of return”?  No one believes Jews will ever be allowed to once again peacefully coexist in Muslim lands where they lived for centuries, so why should Israelis think they can survive in a Muslim-majority Israel?

Instead of bringing the parties closer to the bargaining table, Obama has pushed them farther apart.  President Bush gave voice to what has been understood by every American president since Johnson when he observed in 2004 that “an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.” By reintroducing the Palestinian refugee issue, Obama has further emboldened Fatah and Hamas, leading them to take yet another negotiating position that is a nonstarter for Israel.  After all, you can’t expect Palestinians to take a less pro-Palestinian stance than the president of the United States …

Hamas is no more America’s friend than is al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. Israel may be Hamas’ immediate target, but Jews everywhere and all of Western culture — those who “have closed [their] ears to the Messenger of Allah” (Rayyan) — is in their crosshairs. The president had a golden opportunity to send a strong, unequivocal message that there is no place for a defiant Hamas to be a part of the Middle East peace process, and he didn’t take it, a fact that is troubling for any number of reasons, not the least of which is why the president used a speech that was billed to be a major policy pronouncement on the Arab spring to instead put Israel once again on the chopping block.

The Arab spring movement is not about Arabs rebelling against Israelis; it’s about the Arab street rebelling against repressive Arab rulers in Iran (June 2009), Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria.  So why divert attention away to once again scapegoat the Jews?  Osama bin Laden did it when, post-9/11, he adopted the mantle and “justification” of Palestinian freedom fighter. Bashar al-Assad did it when he orchestrated having Palestinian refugees storm the Syrian border with Israel on May 15, the day after the anniversary of Israel’s independence.

When Obama remarked in April 2010 that the Middle East conflict ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure,” he drew an explicit link between Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.  This is not the first time the president has expressed this distorted view that blames Israel for the threat of Islamic terrorism facing Western countries.  In October 2007, he asserted that “our neglect of the Middle East peace process has spurred despair and fueled terrorism.” This outrageous blood libel accepts the narrative of al-Qaeda and speaks volumes about this president’s beliefs and thought processes. Perhaps the virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Israel preachings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who was Obama’s pastor for nearly 20 years, officiated at his wedding, baptized his children, gave him the title of his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and served as his “sounding board” and spiritual mentor, have had more of an influence on Obama’s world view than people realize.

If the president is endeavoring to curry favor in the Muslim world by pressuring Israel back to the bargaining table with (i) a seemingly irreconcilable partner, (ii) a new, “zero-sum” game tied to 1967 borders with “swaps” that means Israel has to give up some of its own pre-1967 territory to get West Bank settlements, (iii) a contiguous Palestinian state that borders Israel, Jordan and Egypt that could connect Palestine while dividing Israel and does nothing to ensure Israel’s security, (iv) a potential “right to return” for Palestinian refugees — despite their now getting their own sovereign country, and (v) a divided Jerusalem, then the Obama administration has for the second time in three years doomed peace talks before they can even start.  Is it any wonder Netanyahu is steaming and this president has the lowest approval rating among Israelis of any sitting American president?  Now, if only American Jews would wake up … 

Lloyd Greif, the son of Holocaust survivors, is president and CEO of Greif & Co., a member of the board of directors of the California Chamber of Commerce and benefactor of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Southern California.

Senators introduce enhanced Iran sanctions bill

U.S. Senators introduced an enhanced Iran sanctions bill matching one recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The crux of both bills is a ban on business with any entity that does $1 million in a single trade with Iran’s energy sector, or $5 million over one year. The current threshold is $20 million in business per year.

Like the House bill introduced earlier this month, the bill introduced May 24 by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) includes sanctions on materials used by Iran to crush its democracy movement and expands funding for democracy groups.

It also requires the Obama administration seek further sanctions through the U.N. Security Council.

Members of both parties say the Obama administration has not sufficiently exploited enhanced sanctions passed and enacted a year ago. Authors of the bills in the House and Senate have said that the legislation is in part a bid to force the president’s hand.

Obama extends Syrian cutoff to leadership, government

President Obama extended a freeze on Syrian assets to the country’s government and its entire leadership.

The order issued Wednesday is the most expansive yet targeting Syria, naming President Bashar Assad and including any “senior official of the Government of Syria” or “any agency or instrumentality of the Government of Syria, or owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by the Government of Syria or by an official or officials of the Government of Syria.”

The order cites “Syria’s continuing escalation of violence against the people of Syria—including through attacks on protestors, arrests and harassment of protestors and political activists, and repression of democratic change, overseen and executed by numerous elements of the Syrian government.”

Previous freezes, launched by President Bush in 2004, targeted only individuals believed to be involved in weapons of mass destruction development and in subterfuge in Lebanon and elsewhere.

The order issued Wednesday has the effect of essentially cutting off Syria from the United States and banning any U.S. business from trading with Syria’s government or its leaders.

Israeli and U.S. officials have said there has been a sea change in attitudes toward Syria since its brutal crackdown launched earlier this month against democracy protestors, and since it helped facilitate a breach by Palestinian protesters of its border with Israeli forces on the Golan Heights.

While both governments reviled the Assad regime in the past, officials have said, it was seen as preferable to the chaos that might ensue should it be overthrown.

Insiders have said that the Israeli and U.S. governments are now shifting gears and will not stand in the way of regime change.

U.S. airs concerns on Chabad-Russia feud over texts

American officials have weighed in for the first time on a Chabad court victory over the ownership of Chasidic texts, reportedly saying it could jeopardize Russia-U.S. cultural ties.

The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Justice Department’s response Monday to the Chabad-Lubavitch victory about the dangers to cultural relations between the two countries underlines the importance attached to the case by the government.

In 2010, a U.S. District Court had compelled Russia to return two major collections of Judaica seized by early Soviet governments after a lawsuit filed by the Chabad movement. The Russian Federation ignored the judgment, having pulled out of the case in 2009 on the grounds of sovereign immunity.

Russia responded to Chabad’s court victory by putting all art loans to the United States on hold.

In January, it canceled loans to major American institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, saying it feared the artifacts would be similarly “seized.”

The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass., was forced to shutter its only major show of the year after the Russian government in March called back 37 lent objects. Museum curator Kent Russell told AP that the museum had spent about $300,000 promoting the show when it had to be closed.

“It’s all such a nightmare,” said Russell. “We had a lot riding on this. We had a lot of tours that had to be canceled. The catalog is of absolutely no value to us whatsoever.”

Chabad attorneys submitted a statement and letter to the State Department declaring that it will not try to enforce last year’s judgment by seizing cultural objects lent by Russia to American museums.

Russia’s Ministry of Culture did not respond to AP inquiries.

Legal experts in the United States said Russian fears of their art being seized while on loan in this country were “far-fetched.”

In 1991, Soviet officials agreed to return the “Schneerson Collection” to Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. The collection, now being held in Russian state repositories, includes thousands of handwritten texts dating back to 1772 and the movement’s founder, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

The Russian Federation has refused to honor the 1991 agreement, and has resisted Chabad claims since that time, stating that the documents are part of Russia’s cultural heritage. The U.S. State Department has worked the case on behalf of Chabad since the 1990s.

Congress members urge Turkey to prevent flotilla

A bipartisan slate of U.S. House of Representatives lawmakers urged Turkey to do what it could to prevent another flotilla from reaching the Gaza Strip.

The letter sent Wednesday to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and spearheaded by Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Tom Cole (R-Ok.)  and signed by 36 members noted reports that the same Turkey-based organization that organized the May 2010 flotilla was planning another.

“We ask you to help discourage these efforts and work with the Israeli government in a productive way as it continues to allow legitimate aid, but not weapons, to enter Gaza,” said the letter.

The letter said Israel had made efforts recently to increase the flow of aid into Gaza while ensuring that weapons did not reach its Hamas rulers.

“We are seeking your active participation in finding a resolution that prevents violence,” it said.

Israeli commandoes raided the flotilla on May 31 of last year, killing nine Turks, including one Turkish American.

The flotilla, the raid and the fallout precipitated a crisis in Israel-Turkish relations.

Half the signatories, including Cole, are members of the Caucus on U.S. Turkish Relations and Turkish Americans.

Report: Bin Laden’s journal urged al-Qaida to hit Los Angeles, not just New York [VIDEO]

Files taken from Osama bin Laden’s compound reveal intent to plan another 9/11-scale attack on cities like Los Angeles, the Associated Press reports.

He was well aware of U.S. counterterrorist defenses and schooled his followers how to work around them, the messages to his followers show. Don’t limit attacks to New York City, he said in his writings. Consider other areas such as Los Angeles or smaller cities. Spread out the targets.

In one particularly macabre bit of mathematics, bin Laden’s writings show him musing over just how many Americans he must kill to force the U.S. to withdraw from the Arab world. He concludes that the smaller, scattered attacks since the 9/11 attacks had not been enough. He tells his disciples that only a body count of thousands, something on the scale of 9/11, would shift U.S. policy.

He also schemed about ways to sow political dissent in Washington and play political figures against one another, officials said.

The communications were in missives sent via plug-in computer storage devices called flash drives. The devices were ferried to bin Laden’s compound by couriers, a process that is slow but exceptionally difficult to track.


Video courtesy of AP.

Obama to deliver new Muslim world speech

President Obama reportedly is planning a new speech to the Muslim world that would call for a rejection of Islamic militancy.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the White House is planning for such a speech within the next two weeks, just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to roll out proposals for reviving peace talks with the Palestinians in a meeting with Obama and in a speech to the U.S. Congress.

The United States and Israel share concerns that the pro-democracy movements now roiling the Arab world could be overtaken in some cases by Islamist forces.

According to the Journal, Obama wants to exploit the recent U.S. killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden to deliver a message that the United States embraces democracy but rejects militancy.

“It’s an interesting coincidence of timing,” the newspaper quoted deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes as saying. “That he is killed at the same time that you have a model emerging in the region of change that is completely the opposite of bin Laden’s model.”

Obama delivered a speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009 proposing a new era of engagement.

Conservatives criticized the speech for not emphasizing democratization.

Obama in the speech said U.S. support for Israel was steadfast and rebuked Arab nations for allowing Holocaust denial to fester, but pro-Israel groups said he did not go far enough in emphasizing Jewish claims to Israel and complained that he did not visit Israel on the same trip.

U.S.: Bin Laden was not armed during assault on compound

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was not armed when U.S. special forces stormed his compound in Pakistan but he did resist before he was shot, White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday.

Carney said also that the White House is evaluating the possibility of releasing photos of the al-Qaida leader’s body. He said there are concerns that publication of the photos could be inflammatory in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

“It could be inflammatory, we take this into account”, Carney said about the pictures, which he described as “gruesome.”


Co-author of Palestinian statehood plan set to take key role on Middle East

The White House reportedly is set to name Steve Simon, the co-author of a comprehensive outline for a Palestinian state, as a top Middle East official.

The Obama administration will tap Simon, a former top National Security Council official in the Clinton administration, to head the NSC’s Middle East desk, according to Laura Rozen of The Envoy foreign policy blog on Simon would succeed Daniel Shapiro, who by default has become the top administration point man for pro-Israel groups and Israeli officials.

Simon, currently a Middle Eastern studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, co-wrote “Building a Palestinian State” in 2005 when he was a senior analyst at the Rand Corp., a policy institute close to the U.S. defense establishment.

The paper at the time was the most comprehensive outline for Palestinian statehood and foresaw substantive Israeli concessions in the West Bank, although it also preserved some major settlements, including Ma’aleh Adumim.

Simon’s appointment comes as the Palestinian Authority is pushing forward with plans to obtain international recognition of a state.

It is unclear who would assume Shapiro’s capacity as point man. The most influential Middle East policy official remains Dennis Ross, who is seen as a hard-liner on Iran and on preserving the relationship with Israel.

White House: Egyptian government should keep peace with Israel

The next Egyptian government should recognize its peace with Israel, the White House said.

“It’s important that the next government of Egypt recognize the accords that have been signed with Israel,” spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a news conference after President Obama congratulated Egyptians after Hosni Mubarak left the presidency.

Obama in his statement said the United States would provide assistance toward transitioning Egypt to democracy, “if asked” and said “nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.”

He also said all parties should have a say in the transition to democracy, suggesting that the United States will not object to Muslim Brotherhood participation in the process.

“This transition must bring all of Egypt’s voices to the table,” he said.

Gibbs suggested the recent fretting over the prospects of an Islamist Egypt were overstated. “I don’t think we have to fear democracy,” he said.

The democracy wave in the Middle East might sweep Iran, Gibbs said, noting recent reports of an intensification Iranian government repression.

“What you’ve seen in the region is the government of Iran quite frankly scared of the will of its people,” he said.

Iran biggest world threat, Barbour says

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, during a speech in Israel called Iran the biggest threat to world stability.

“We must recognize and focus on Iran as the crucial strategic issue in the region,” Barbour said Wednesday at the prestigious Herzliya Conference, an annual policy and strategic gathering.

Barbour, who is visiting Israel as a guest of the Republican Jewish Coalition, also told reporters following his speech that he supports U.S. military aid to Israel.

“I always have,” he told the Weekly Standard, referring to support of the $3 billion in aid that the United States provides annually to Israel.

The RJC had hosted Barber in Israel in 1994, when he chaired the Republican National Committee.

He is the third potential Republican 2012 presidential candidate to visit Israel in recent weeks. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee were in the Jewish state last month.

Barbour, like Romney and Huckabee, was scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli government officials.

Battle over Mideast transit ads heating up across U.S.

With public bickering over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict already having spilled over into university student senates, corporate pension boards and even local farmers markets, the latest battlefield in the debate over the conflict is municipal transit systems.

In several major U.S. cities, advertisements on public buses and municipal rail stations are designed to galvanize public opinion to end U.S. military aid to Israel or to pressure Palestinians to end anti-Jewish incitement. In some cases, the ads have been deemed so inflammatory that local authorities have tried to restrict or ban them outright, leading to frustration on both sides and, in one case, a federal lawsuit.

A group calling itself the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, with the help of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, filed a lawsuit in Seattle last month charging that the group’s First Amendment rights were violated when the local transit system reneged on an agreement to carry its ad opposing aid to Israel.

The ad, which featured a group of children looking at a demolished building under the heading “Israeli war crimes: Your tax dollars at work,” was slated to start running on Seattle buses in late December. But after local officials were besieged with complaints and at least two counter groups proposed ads of their own, the officials suspended all non-commercial bus advertisements.

One of those ads, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, featured a digitally altered image of Hitler and a man in Arab headdress under the headline, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.”

A judge is due to rule on a temporary injunction that would restore the initial ad next week.

“Israel’s accountability for the ongoing conflict is a part of the story that gets silenced more in this country,” Ed Mast, a member of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, told JTA. “So our purpose is education.”

Across the country, public advertising is emerging as a new front in the public debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine launched a campaign on trains and platforms in Chicago in October in which Israeli and Palestinian faces were depicted under the banner, “Be on our side. We are on the side of peace and justice.”

Below the smiling faces, the tagline urged an end to U.S. military aid to Israel. The campaign already has run in San Francisco and is slated for expansion to other U.S. cities.

Caren Levy-Van Slyke, a member of the steering committee of the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, said the campaign was “inclusive” of both Israelis and Palestinians and was intended to draw taxpayer attention to the 2007 deal providing $30 billion in U.S. aid to Israel over 10 years.

“We are the side of peace and justice,” Levy-Van Slyke said, echoing the Chicago ads.

Pro-Israel activists contest that assertion. In San Francisco, the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine ad triggered a response from the Los Angeles-based pro-Israel group Stand With Us, which is sponsoring ads beginning this week urging the Palestinian leadership to stop teaching hatred and to “Say Yes to Peace.”

An earlier version of the ad, which Stand With Us attempted to place in Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations, showed a masked terrorist under the headline, “Stop Palestinian Terrorism.” Transit officials reportedly rejected the ad after people complained. The new ad features only text.

“Right now, we’re watching and we’re asking our members to let us know when these kinds of things come up, and we will directly respond,” said Roz Rothstein, national director of Stand With Us.

Pamela Geller, who writes the conservative blog Atlas Shrugged and who is the executive director of the group that tried to run counter ads in Seattle, said she submitted a similar ad in San Francisco that BART officials rejected. She has vowed to pursue a lawsuit if the officials fail to approve her revision. On her website, Geller describes the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine spots as “Jew hating” and “annihilationist ads supporting jihad.”

“If the ACLU prevails in their lawsuit, I expect my ads to run as well,” Geller wrote in an email to JTA. “If they refuse my ads, I will pursue legal recourse.”

Much of the inspiration for the ads appears to have originated with a billboard erected in early 2009 in Albuquerque, N.M. That ad, which called for an end to military aid to Israel, was sponsored by a group calling itself the Coalition to Stop $30 Billion to Israel.

In 2007, Rothstein’s group responded to a similar campaign in the Washington, D.C., Metro criticizing the Israeli occupation. The Stand With Us ad featured an armed man holding a child, with the tagline, “This Child Could Grow Up To Be A Terrorist.”

Rothstein said her group had no desire to be dragged into the ad wars, but would not allow material critical of Israel to go unanswered.

“This is not something that we’re interested in,” she said. “We are really only doing it as a reaction.”

Middle East unrest triggers concern, even on Alhambra’s quiet Main Street

This story originally appeared in the Alhambra Source.

The Arab-language television blared with protesters filling Cairo’s streets and the conversation flew — in the front of the patio in Arabic, in the back in Hebrew. Alhambra’s quiet Main Street may be a long way from the Middle Eastern unrest, but the issues were close at hand for Jordanians and Israelis who came to Wahib’s Restaurant for a lunchtime spread.

For 30 years, the Lebanese restaurant has been a gathering place for Middle Eastern residents of the San Gabriel Valley, as well as Alhambra’s multicultural mix. On Tuesday, three Jordanian professionals sipping tea with mint leaves sat at the prime spot below the television discussing how Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could stay in power despite millions taking to the street demanding his departure — and what the consequences would be for their own country, where the king dismissed his cabinet on Tuesday. In the back sat two Israeli contractors, wraparound sunglasses pulled back over cropped hair, having a post-lunch espresso and cigarette. The unrest in the Middle East was also a deep concern for them, but their greatest fear was that Israel’s neighbors could soon be subject to Islamic fundamentalists.

Wahib’s catering manager, Essam Arrowod, was one of the Jordanian men at the front table who had stopped to watch Mubarak address his nation. He said that ever since protesters took to the streets in Tunisia the back porch has been crowded, particularly at night. “Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians, they come and watch this,” he said. Some, like Arrowod, are among the 100 or so Arabs he estimates live in Alhambra; others come from all over the Southland. Even though they now have satellite Arab-language television and could watch from home, they come to commune with others who share a common bond to the Middle East.

Arrowod, right, with two Jordanian friends

Those talking politics on the back patio are generally Arabs, but on Tuesday the two Israeli contractors stopped by after evaluating installing solar panels at a home in Alhambra. They came because it’s the “best food, and it’s very close to our food,” said Gil, an Israeli who refused to give his last name. But while he and his colleague kept to themselves and spoke in a different language, they shared the deep concerns about the ripple effects of the unrest in Egypt and the consequences for peace in their corner of the Middle East.

Nearly two decades ago, Gil was witness to a rare tangible step toward peace, when he watched as peace agreements were signed that opened the border separating Israel from Jordan. “I felt great, wonderful,” he said. Despite knowing that Israel would have to make sacrifices, then in the form of precious water, it was no problem “as long as people can still live and not [be] killed by war.” For a time after that, Gil, who speaks basic Arabic, was even working in the Jordanian city of Aqaba, over the border from Eilat, the Red Sea port city where he lived.

Since that hopeful moment, peace talks have collapsed and Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors, including Jordan, are increasingly strained. Gil moved to the United States in 2003, but still keeps a very close tab on developments in Israel, checking national news a couple of times a day on his Iphone. With the fall of Mubarak, he said, “we don’t know what direction Egypt is going. We have to be aware.” His colleague stated the concern for Israelis was that it had just lost its strongest ally in the Middle East. The unrest in Jordan only added to his worries.

Gil, an Israeli contractor, once worked in Jordan.

Arrowod said he also feels he is planted in both the United States and the Middle East. He moved 24 years ago with the intention of studying political science and returning home one day. But now his children go to Granada School in Alhambra and consider themselves Americans, and he can’t see himself returning. Still, even as he considers Alhambra his home, he will always feel Jordanian. “The Arab world is part of us,” he said. “It’s our culture, our country. Our heart and our loyalty is divided between Jordan and the US.”

At times like this, he said, Middle Easterners living in Alhambra want to find others who share their concerns — and that’s why they end up at Wahib’s. “The danger is coming to Jordan,” he said. While he did not believe the government would collapse, he worried about its position as a relatively weak country in the Middle East. And while he thought Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and Mubarak’s relationship with the Jewish homeland was a trigger to the unrest, he also worried about Jordan being alone speaking for maintaining relationships with Israel. “We have to get together and build a strong economy,” Arrowod said. “King Hussein used to say we are all the children of Abraham. Arab and Israeli are brothers. Enough. Enough.”

Sundance Festival recognizes 2 Israeli filmmakers

Israeli filmmakers Erez Kav-El and Talya Lavie received awards at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Kav-El won the world cinema dramatic screenwriting award for his film “Restoration,” about a man coming to terms with his estranged son as his antique furniture-restoration shop suffers financial problems.

Lavie received an Inaugural Sundance Institute Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award, which supports emerging independent filmmakers from around the world, for her film “Zero Motivation.” The film looks at three women working in an administrative office at a remote Israeli army base and their power struggles.

The festival for independent films ended Jan. 30.

Obama Vows to Combat Anti-Semitism ‘Scourge’

President Obama, marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, pledged to combat the “scourge of anti-Semitism” and other bigotries.

“I join people here at home, in Israel, and around the world in commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as we mark one of the darkest, most destructive periods in human history,” Obama said in a statement Jan. 27.  “To remember is a choice, and today we remember the innocent victims of the Nazis’ murderous hate — six million Jews and millions of other people.

“We are reminded to remain ever-vigilant against the possibility of genocide, and to ensure that ‘Never Again’ is not just a phrase but a principled cause. And we resolve to stand up against prejudice, stereotyping and violence — including the scourge of anti-Semitism — around the globe.”

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum observed the day hosting staff from 25 embassies at an event addressed by survivors.

American rabbi sues Australian synagogue

An American-born Orthodox rabbi is suing the board of an Australian synagogue for wrongful dismissal.

Rabbi Yossi Engel, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who served at the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation for seven years until his contract ended in 2006, is claiming more than $600,000 in compensation. Engel believes his termination was a breach of halachah, or Jewish law, which he says guarantees life tenure for rabbis.

But in 2007 a judge found that Engel’s contract had indeed legally terminated, and the judgment was upheld on appeal by the Australian Supreme Court.

The Adelaide Hebrew Congregation, the only Orthodox synagogue in South Australia, will “vigorously defend” the legal action, according to a report in the Australian Jewish News.

Engel could not pursue the suit earlier because in 2009 he and his wife, Chana, were charged with 39 counts of dealing dishonestly with documents to obtain a $50,000 grant for Hebrew classes. The charges were dropped last year.

“The criminal prosecution had placed this matter in a holding pattern, but now we’re here and our claim is proceeding,” said Engel’s lawyer, Ron Bellman.

The case has been adjourned until April. Adelaide has a dwindling Jewish population of fewer than 1,000, and the city’s only Jewish school, Massada College, was placed in administration this week.

Senate Dems press GOP on Paul’s call to cut aid

Senate Democrats urged Republicans to reject a colleague’s call for an end to foreign aid, including aid to Israel.

“Both Republicans and Democrats are committed to reining in the federal deficit, but assistance to Israel is not a matter of ‘pork barrel spending,’ ” said the letter sent Tuesday to the GOP chairmen of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations and Budget committees, respectively Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. “Rather U.S. foreign aid to Israel demonstrates America’s rock-solid commitment to ensuring Israel’s right to exist.”

The letter, signed by seven Senate Democrats, comes in the wake of a call last week by newly elected Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to slash foreign spending, including all assistance to Israel.

“At a time when U.S. foreign aid is being utilized to strengthen our partnerships around the world, particularly in the Middle East where our relationships are more important than ever, we urge you to commit to maintain full foreign aid funding to Israel,” the letter said.

In the wake of Paul’s remarks, the Republican Jewish Coalition said Paul was “misguided” for saying Israel funding should be cut, adding that he was likely alone among his colleagues in his proposal.

Signatories to Tuesday’s letter include Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)., Robert Casey (D-Pa.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Holocaust Day programs snowed out in N.Y.

Heavy snow in New York caused the postponement of a special U.N. General Assembly meeting commemorating International Holocaust Day.

The United Nations building was shut down due to the bad weather. Other Holocaust commemoration events planned for Thursday in New York also were postponed, according to reports.

The General Assembly in 2005 designated Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an annual day to honor the victims of the Nazi era.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington was scheduled to hold a candle-lighting ceremony in its Hall of Remembrance. The Washington diplomatic community and Holocaust survivors were among those expected to attend, according to the museum.

On Wednesday, in an address to Israel’s Knesset marking International Holocaust Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it is “obvious” that global anti-Semitism is “renewing and expanding.”

“If anyone thought that anti-Semitism stopped after World War II and the Holocaust, it is now evident that it was only a hiatus,” he said, calling on the world to fight the scourge globally.

“It is not only a threat against us because it always begins with the Jews but never ends with the Jews,” Netanyahu said. “The hatred of Jews kindles an overall fire, and I expect that on this day, when I applaud the world for marking the most heinous crime in world history and the history of our people which was perpetrated against our people—I hope others will also learn the lesson. We already have.”

Events commemorating International Holocaust Day took place in countries around the world.

Rand Paul: End foreign aid, including Israel

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul wants to end all foreign assistance, including aid to Israel.

Paul, a Republican newly elected in Kentucky, was on CNN Wednesday outlining where he would cut the $500 billion in government spending he says is critical to sustaining the U.S. economy. His focus was on the departments of energy, education and housing.

Interviewer Wolf Blitzer then asked about foreign assistance, asking if he wanted to end “all foreign aid.” Paul said yes, and Blitzer asked him about aid to Israel.

“Well, I think what you have to do is you have to look,” Paul said. “When you send foreign aid, you actually [send] quite a bit to Israel’s enemies. Islamic nations around Israel get quite a bit of foreign aid, too.

“You have to ask yourself, are we funding an arms race on both sides? I have a lot of sympathy and respect for Israel as a democratic nation, as a, you know, a fountain of peace and a fountain of democracy within the Middle East.”

Blitzer pressed, “End all foreign aid including the foreign aid to Israel as well. Is that right?” he asked.

Paul answered, “Yes.”

Paul is a favorite of the Tea Party insurgency that propelled the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in the most recent election.

His father is Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), considered among the least Israel-friendly members of Congress.

During the campaign, Paul distanced himself from some of his father’s views, particularly on whether Iran poses a threat to U.S. interests, but nonetheless elicited concerns from pro-Israel groups because of his insistence on slashing foreign aid.

Palestinian terror cell indicted for American woman’s murder

Members of a Palestinian terror cell were indicted for the murder of an American tourist in a forest near Jerusalem.

Four Palestinians from villages near Hebron were indicted Wednesday in Jerusalem District Court for the murder of Christine Logan, 40, also identified by some media outlets as Christine Luken, and for the attempted murder of her hiking partner Susan Kaye Wilson. The two women were attacked Dec. 18, 2010, while hiking at Khirbet Hanut, an archaeological site near Beit Shemesh. Wilson pretended to be dead and survived the ordeal and provided descriptions of the attackers. The suspects reportedly have confessed to the attack.

They are also accused in the murder of Netta Blatt-Sorek, 53, of Zichron Ya’akov, whose body was found last February near the Jerusalem-area monastery of Beit Jamal. At least one of the indicted men reportedly has confessed to that murder.

In all, 13 members of the terror cell were arrested following a joint investigation conducted by the Shin Bet, border police, special army units, and police, Jerusalem District Police chief Aharon Franco said Wednesday. Indictments against the other cell members are being prepared, according to reports.

The suspects are also accused of two cases of attempted murder, one count of rape, another of attempted rape, seven incidents of robbery, seven cases of breaking-and-entering, and for shooting at an Israeli military jeep.

The cell’s motivation was at first criminal, according to police, but became terrorist after the January 2010 assassination of senior Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, which is widely believed to have been executed by Israel’s Mossad.

Ros-Lehtinen cites anti-Israel bias in calling for U.N. funding reform

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) cited anti-Israel rhetoric in proposing legislation conditioning U.N. funding on reform.

“I am going to reintroduce legislation that conditions our contributions—our strongest leverage—on real, sweeping reform, including moving the U.N. regular budget to a voluntary funding basis,” Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday. “That way, U.S. taxpayers can pay for the U.N. programs and activities that advance our interests and values, and if other countries want different things to be funded, they can pay for it themselves.”

Ros-Lehtinen outlined three areas she said demonstrated the need for reform: deference to the North Korean regime by the local office of the U.N. Development Program; the international body’s anti-Israel bent, particularly at the U.N. Human Rights Council; and procurement corruption.

She called the council “a rogues’ gallery dominated by human rights violators who use it to ignore real abuses and instead attack democratic Israel relentlessly.”

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member, defended the Obama administration’s emphasis on dues-paying and engagement.

He listed the Human Rights Council’s anti-Israel bias as first in a long list of flaws, but said paying dues accrued credibility.

“Had we been in such deep arrears last year, does anyone honestly think we could have gotten an additional round of Iran sanctions through the Security Council?” he said.

Among those testifying was Hillel Neuer, who directs U.N. Watch, a body that monitors the United Nations for anti-Israel bias.