Turkey confirms ‘secret’ talks with Israel

Turkey confirmed it is negotiating with Israel on a deal to improve relations between the two countries, which have been tense since 2010, when Israel raided the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish boat seeking to break the Gaza blockade.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters Wednesday that the two countries are meeting to normalize ties, the Times of Israel reported.

Cavusoglu’s comments came a day after Haaretz reported that Israeli and Turkish officials had held secret talks in Rome earlier in the week.

“These meetings are not new,” Cavusoglu said. “Expert-level talks have been held between the two countries for a while.”

After the Mavi Marmara raid, in which nine activists were killed and seven Israeli soldiers wounded, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador. It demanded Israel formally apologize, provide compensation and end the blockade of Gaza.

In 2013, Israel extended a formal apology. According to the Times of Israel, the Jewish state also has made a proposal to compensate the families of the victims, but no agreement has been made yet.

The talks come two weeks after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), lost its majority in the Turkish parliament.

Cuban official: Cuba is ready to negotiate status of Alan Gross

Authorities in Cuba are ready to negotiate the status of jailed American Alan Gross, a senior Cuban official said.

“We have made clear to the U.S. government that we are ready to have a negotiation in order to try and find a solution, a humanitarian solution to Mr. Gross’ case on a reciprocal basis,” Josefina Vidal, the top official in the Cuban Foreign Ministry handling North America, said in an interview on CNN on May 10.

Vidal would not offer specifics, but prompted by interviewer Wolf Blitzer, she said the “Cuban Five”—five agents jailed or on probation in the United States for espionage charges—were a concern.

“Cuba has legitimate concerns, humanitarian concerns related to the situation of the Cuban Five,” she said.

Vidal said the Cuban system does not allow for a humanitarian release for Gross, who was sentenced last year to 15 years on espionage charges related to his U.S. State Department-backed project to hook Cuba’s Jews into the Internet.

“It is not conceived in the Cuban system that persons in this situation can be allowed to travel abroad,” she said.

Gross, who is Jewish, has asked to be allowed to visit his 90-year-old mother, who is dying of cancer.

Noam Shalit: Contacts over kidnapped son are continuing

Noam Shalit, the father of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, confirmed to Haaretz yesterday that contacts to secure his son’s release are continuing and that the German negotiator and Israeli negotiator Hagai Hadas are still “working.”

He did not elaborate.

He also said he could not guarantee the reliability of a report in the London-based Arabic-language daily Al Hayat yesterday, which stated the German mediator visited the region two weeks ago and met with officials from Israel, Egypt and Hamas.

Over the weekend, Noam Shalit sent a letter to the head of the Hamas politburo, Khaled Meshal, on the occasion of Palestinian prisoners’ day, which was Saturday. In the letter, Shalit disclosed the latest proposal that the ministerial forum of seven had approved.

Read the full article at Haaretz.com.

Israeli study: As negotiators, man smart, woman smarter

Forget the men when it comes to business negotiations. Women may be more skilled than their masculine counterparts, according to a new study by an Israeli researcher.

The doctoral study, by Yael Itzhaki of Tel Aviv University (TAU), indicated that in certain groupings, women offered better terms than men to reach an agreement and were good at facilitating interaction between the parties.

“Women are more generous negotiators, better cooperators and are motivated to create win-win situations,” Itzhaki said.

Itzhaki, an adjunct lecturer at TAU’s Faculty of Management at the Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration, carried out simulations of business negotiations among 554 Israeli and American management students at Ohio State University, in New York City and in Israel.

The simulations, which were designed to examine how women behave in business situations requiring cooperation and competition, involved negotiating the terms of a joint venture, including the division of shares.

During the course of her research, Itzhaki discovered that while women in mid-management positions are often held back from promotion for being too “cooperative” and “compassionate,” men have begun to recognize the skills of their female colleagues and are now incorporating feminine strategies into their negotiating styles. “The men come in and use the same tactics women are criticized for,” she said.

Although both men and women can be good negotiators, Itzhaki emphasizes that there should be more women in top management jobs. Women have unique skills to offer, she said: They’re great listeners, they care about the concerns of the other side, and they’re generally more interested in finding a win-win situation to the benefit of both parties than male negotiators.

woman smarter william shatnerThese are especially desirable traits in today’s business world, which is calling for service improvements for customers and clients. Women today are earning more top positions in banking because of this trend, Itzhaki says.

In part, she says, women don’t reach CEO positions because they lack the right professional experience for the job and never enter the pool from which top positions are drawn. Managers commonly choose successors and colleagues who are most similar to themselves, Itzhaki explains. As a result, men are more likely to promote men.

Itzhaki, who is the founder of Netta, a nonprofit organization that promotes the advancement of women in the workplace, is currently advising Israeli companies on how to take affirmative action. Enforcing equal opportunity laws is one concern, but her advice also responds to concerns beyond the law. Are women being heard in corporate boardrooms? Does the company have policies that measure the amount of work accomplished and not merely hours on the job?

A lot of women don’t want to “fight” to be recognized, she said, preferring cooperation over competition. But more women in management can translate to a healthier bottom line, Itzhaki said.

“Businesses need to develop an organizational culture where everyone is heard, because women’s opinions and skills can give businesses a competitive edge,” she said.


Israel is still fighting for independence

On May 14, Israel will celebrate 60 years of independence. It’s never been an easy independence. Israel is surrounded by regional instability and Israelis have needed to regularly fight their neighbors to maintain their independence — if not their very existence.

Despite those challenges, Israel has managed to retain a vibrant democracy for six decades.

That dichotomous existence was clear on my latest trip to Israel last month, when I toured Sderot on the Gaza border and met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other Israeli officials to discuss ongoing U.S.-Israeli relations and Israel’s security.

If there were an easy fix to Israel’s security situation, it would already have come about. But the situation is even more complicated now because of the split in the Palestinian government. If Israel should reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority, it would still have to fend off the terrorist-controlled government of Gaza. Hamas must be dealt with before any agreement with the Palestinian Authority would have teeth.

Responding to Hamas’ rocket attacks on Sderot, other border towns, and increasingly into deeper Israeli territory is difficult, at best, for Israel. Hamas uses mosques, schools, hospitals and other civilian facilities as cover for rocket launch sites. Should Israel respond by attacking those sites, there would undoubtedly be civilian casualties. The international outcry — particularly if the casualties included women and children — would be against Israel, not against the terrorists firing rockets at homes and schools in Israel.

There are calls in some sectors of the international community for the United States to enter into discussions with Hamas and, indeed, some recent news reports suggest some third-party talks may be in the works, possibly involving Egypt.

While I won’t dismiss out of hand sending U.S. demands through a friendly country, experience dictates that negotiating with terrorists is counterproductive.

With that in mind, Egypt could help the peace process by closing down the smuggling corridor between Gaza and Egypt. Tunnels built by Hamas and other criminal elements are used to smuggle supplies and arms from inside Egypt. While it may not be feasible to find and bury all the tunnels, Egypt could set up inspection stations on the surface roads leading to Gaza, which would severely curtail, if not shut down, the smuggling operation.

The United States is committed to Israel’s security and survival. In the past couple of weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney have traveled to the region in an attempt to reinvigorate the peace process. The House of Representatives reconfirmed that commitment earlier this month when I and 403 of my colleagues voted to condemn Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israeli towns. Likewise, we are committed to the two-state solution as outlined at the Annapolis conference that was hosted by President Bush last November.

But those can only be achieved when terrorism is defeated.

Sixty years is long enough for a nation to fight to retain its independence. Our Arab partners, including Egypt and Jordon, need to join with the United States to pressure Hamas and other terrorist groups to cease and desist.

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Thousand Oaks) is a member of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Arab League could back off ‘two-state’ solution

Irked by the slow rate of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, major Arab players are threatening to withdraw their offer to normalize ties with Israel once a Palestinian state is established.

Underlying the Arab reassessment is a deeper problem: Arab belief in the viability of “the two-state solution” is diminishing. And the worry in Jerusalem is that this growing lack of confidence could undermine the fragile negotiating process so carefully put in place at the regional peace conference in Annapolis, Md., last November.

The Arab offer to normalize ties with Israel was part of the 2002 Arab League peace plan initiated by Saudi Arabia. The idea was to give Israel an added incentive to make peace with the Palestinians.

Now, however, in the run-up to a new Arab League summit slated for Damascus in late March, the Saudis seem to be having second thoughts. Pointing to the slow advance in the peace talks, for which he blamed Israel, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a gathering of Arab and South American foreign ministers in Argentina on Feb. 21 that “despair will force us to review these options.”

Faisal accused Israel of sabotaging the Arab League peace plan, which he said was now “facing great danger.”

Arab League officials were quick to take their cue. They complained that Israel had not responded positively to the Arab peace initiative, so there was little point in leaving it on the table.

Moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan had hoped that a two-state solution, followed by a general Arab accommodation with Israel, would weaken the radicals and pave the way for regional stability.

But concern is growing that with the Gaza Strip controlled by the terrorist Hamas and the West Bank dotted with Jewish settlements, any future Palestinian state would be truncated and unviable — and as such a source of friction rather than a guarantor of stability. Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza, and Jordan, which borders on the West Bank, are particularly worried. Both still see the two-state solution as a major strategic interest, but are growing more skeptical over the chances of achieving it. The Egyptians, in particular, were jolted by the sight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians streaming over the Gaza border into Egyptian territory with the collapse of the Rafah border fence last month.

They were distressed as well to hear some Israelis suggest that Egypt take responsibility for Gaza, as it had until Israel controlled it in 1967. In Jordan, the fear is that if a moderate Palestinian state is not established soon, Hamas radicals will gain control of the West Bank and pose a direct threat to the Hashemite Kingdom. So when Egypt and Jordan warn that the chances for a two-state solution are eroding, it is at least partly to press Israel to move more quickly toward one.

The Saudi and Arab League warnings could be seen in this light, too: The growing skepticism about the two-state option is very real.

For a full-fledged Palestinian state, including the West Bank and Gaza, to emerge, first there would have to be an accommodation between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ moderate Fatah movement and the Iranian-backed Hamas.

This is the thrust of much behind-the-scenes Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian diplomacy. Indeed, they reportedly are pressing Hamas to agree to cede its control of Gaza at the upcoming Arab League summit. But they are well aware that the chances of that happening are extremely low given Iran’s unyielding opposition to anything that might help the moderate camp. Worse for the two-state option: Many Palestinian intellectuals, including some close to Abbas, are questioning its merits. In a seminal op-ed in the British Guardian newspaper, Oxford-based scholar Ahmad Samih Khalidi — sometimes referred to as “Abbas’ brain” — argued, “Today, the Palestinian state is largely a punitive construct devised by the Palestinians’ worst historical enemies, Israel and its implacable ally, the U.S. The intention behind the state today is to constrain Palestinian aspirations territorially, to force them to give up on their moral rights, renege on their history and submit to Israel’s dictates on fundamental issues of sovereignty.

“The temptation,” Khalidi added later, “is to say thanks but no thanks.” Instead, Khalidi warned that the Palestinians could “evoke [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert’s worst nightmare,” and go for a single state.

Other Palestinians are suggesting that barring major progress toward viable statehood by December, the Palestinian Authority should dissolve itself and hand the keys back to the Israeli military government.

The struggle then would not be for statehood but for equal rights in a single binational state. This scenario is indeed one of Olmert’s worst nightmares. On the last day of the Annapolis summit he declared that if the two-state solution collapses, “Israel is finished.” What he meant was that in a one-man, one-vote unitary state the eventual Palestinian majority would spell the end of the Zionist notion of independent Jewish statehood.

Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni claim they are making every effort to reach a deal that would preempt the one-state drive. Livni meets former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia on an almost daily basis to discuss the core issues. Olmert and Abbas meet from time to time to assess and facilitate movement.

What makes gauging progress almost impossible is the fact that Livni and Qureia have imposed an effective news blackout. The lack of any record of progress has led some observers to conclude there is none, and this is what the Saudis and other Arab players are finding so frustrating. Then again, Olmert in private reportedly claims that he and Abbas already have wrapped up everything.

If this is indeed the case, the two-state solution may still be saved. If not, the prospects for Israel, the Palestinians and the region as a whole look bleak.

We have the right to an indivisible Jerusalem

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky invites a forthright open dialogue, a conversation about Jerusalem. Contemplating Israeli talks with those governing the autonomous Arab enclaves of Judea and Samaria — Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestine Authority — Rabbi Kanefsky writes that it is time for us to be honest about the story of Jerusalem. Employing the pages of The Jewish Journal, he particularly challenges those in the Orthodox Zionist community to converse, to be honest about Jerusalem.

I accept his invitation in these pages for this dialogue, for this discussion, for this honest telling of our claim to an eternally undivided capital city of Jerusalem.

Ever since I learned to pray, I learned about Jerusalem. In time as a boy, I learned to pray three times every day in my “Sh’moneh Esrai” prayer for the return to and the rebuilding of united Jerusalem. Since childhood, every time I have eaten a meal with bread, I have recited prayers of thanks for the food — and for the rebuilding of united Jerusalem. If I eat a cookie, I follow with a prayer of thanks — and for the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

I am not unique. For 2,000 years and more, my people have cried for Jerusalem and laughed for her. As much as I have come to love America in my lifetime — because this country has been so good to me and my people — I have no clue what day on the calendar the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. But I know that it was on the ninth of Av that the Babylonians burned the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And it was the same day that Rome burned the rebuilt Temple.

This is where honesty begins in my dialogue with Rabbi Kanefsky. It may sound militaristic to him or strangely uncompromising. But my claim to Jerusalem is eternal and unyielding to a Jerusalem indivisible and united, because no one in my family line, going back to the beginning of the exile, ever yielded our claim to Jerusalem.

We were driven out by Babylonians, and we outlasted them and returned. We were exiled by Romans, and we outlasted them and returned. They built an Arch of Titus in Italy to glorify in taking down our Jerusalem, and we have outlived them and their empire, and we have returned.

We got married, and we broke a glass under the chuppah to remember a Jerusalem that had fallen, even as we recited the blessing moments earlier under that same canopy that the day will come when, once again, the sounds of joy and gladness, the celebrations of the groom and bride, will be heard in Jerusalem and her outskirts.

No one compromises on capital cities. America moved her capital around — from Philadelphia to New York to Washington, D.C. — but she never offered to split it with the British or Jefferson Davis. No one offers to split Damascus or Beirut or Cairo or Baghdad for peace. No one offers to split Paris or London or Madrid or Prague.

Even the experience with Berlin is instructive. The world forced onto the Germans — veritably shoved it right down their throats — the division of Berlin. It barely lasted half a century before the wall came down and the city was reunited.

We owe no apologies, no explanations. From 1948 to 1967, King Hussein of Jordan wrongfully was regnant over East Jerusalem. He made no effort to treat it as New Amman. Nor did any Arab ruler in all of history before him ever act to make Jerusalem a capital.

Jerusalem simply was not and never has been all that central to Arabia or Islam. Muslim prayers are directed toward Mecca and Medina. By contrast, praying from my locus in Southern California, I face east toward Jerusalem.

There is a corruption in the dialogue when I am challenged to speak “honestly” in defense of my right to see Jerusalem remain the eternally indivisible capital of Israel and the Jewish People. The Jews came back to Jerusalem with no less right than did America march to Washington, D.C.

If there is something wrong with entering a city by liberating it in battle, then it was equally wrong for any Arab conqueror before Israel to have entered the same city. But if a military victory places Arab negotiators at the table and drives out the British, who drove out the Ottomans, then a Jewish army’s successful victory in a war of self-defense trumps all other secular-based claims to “right over might.”

Because, despite any revisionist attempt to rewrite what happened in 1967, the fact remains that Israel was not looking to expand her borders but to live. And in 1948, she compromised so much more than any other nation has compromised, just to gain the ratification of a U.N. body that never has been in Israel’s pocket.

Rabbi Kanefsky’s call for honest conversation, for honesty from Orthodox Zionists, is an invitation to recall how the dialogue even came to begin. It began because Jews and our institutions and landmarks were driven out by marauders. And the Arab world, primarily the Jordanians, aimed to eradicate what was left.

There were synagogues in Jerusalem — the Ramban Synagogue, the Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, shuls all over East Jerusalem — that Jordan razed to the ground. They converted one venerable shul to a cheese factory, another to a stall for goats. They uprooted tombstones from the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives and used them for pavement, for construction, even for latrines. They banned us from the Western Wall.

Jerusalem belonged to my ancestors. It belonged to my grandparents in Poland and Russia. It belongs to me. That’s the honest story.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and former national vice president of the Zionist Organization of America, is adjunct professor of Law at Loyola Law School. He is author of “General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine.” A former chief articles editor of UCLA Law Review, he now is the rabbi at an Orthodox Union congregation in Orange County.

An Orthodox rabbi’s plea: consider a divided Jerusalem

The question of whether we could bear a redivision of Jerusalem is a searing and painful one. The Orthodox Union, National Council of Young Israel and a variety of other organizations, including Christian Evangelical ones, are calling upon their constituencies to join them in urging the Israeli government to refrain from any negotiation concerning the status of Jerusalem at all, when and if the Annapolis conference occurs. And last week, as I read one e-mail dispatch after another from these organizations, I became more and more convinced that I could not join their call.

It’s not that I would want to see Jerusalem divided. It’s rather that the time has come for honesty. Their call to handcuff the government of Israel in this way, their call to deprive it of this negotiating option, reveals that these organizations are not being honest about the situation that we are in, and how it came about. And I cannot support them in this.

These are extremely difficult thoughts for me to share, both because they concern an issue that is emotionally charged, and because people whose friendship I treasure will disagree strongly with me. And also because I am breaking a taboo within my community, the Orthodox Zionist community. “Jerusalem: Israel’s Eternally Undivided Capital” is a 40-year old slogan that my community treats with biblical reverence. It is an article of faith, a corollary of the belief in the coming of the Messiah. It is not questioned. But this final reason why it is difficult for me to share these thoughts is also the very reason that I have decided to do so. This is a conversation that desperately needs to begin.

No peace conference between Israel and the Palestinians will ever produce anything positive until both sides have decided to read the story of the last 40 years honestly. On our side, this means being honest about the story of how Israel came to settle civilians in the territories it conquered in 1967, and about the outcomes that this story has generated.

An honest reading of this story reveals that there were voices in the inner circle of the Israeli government in 1967-1968 who warned that settling civilians in conquered territories was probably illegal under international law. But for very understandable reasons — among them security needs, Zionist ideologies of both the both secular and religious varieties, memories that were 20 years old, and memories that were 3,000 years old — these voices were overruled. We can identify with many of the ideas that carried the settlement project forward. But the fact remains that it is simply not honest on our part to pretend that the government of Israel didn’t know that there was likely a legal problem, or that the government was confident that international conventions did not apply to this situation. That just wouldn’t be an honest telling.

An honest reading of the story reveals that the heroes of Israel’s wars who became the ministers in its government, who were most responsible for the initial decision to settle, were quite aware that by doing so they were risking conflict with the Arab population that was living there. They were aware that these Arabs would never be invited to become citizens of Israel, and would never have the rights of citizens. Nonetheless, they decided to go forward. Some believed that the economic benefit that would accrue to these Arabs as a result of their interactions with Israelis and Israel would be so great that they wouldn’t mind our military and civilian presence among them. Others projected that some sort of diplomatic arrangement would soon be reached with Jordan that would soften the face of what would otherwise be full-blown military occupation. These may have been reasonable projections at the time. But as it turned out, both of them were wrong. And it’s not honest to tell the story without acknowledging that we made these mistakes.

The Religious Zionist leadership (similar to today’s Evangelical supporters of Israel) made a different judgment, namely that settling the Biblical heartland would further hasten the unfolding of the messianic age. Thus, the Arab population already there was not our problem. God would deal with it. This belief too — reasonable though it may have seemed at the time — has also turned out to be wrong. To tell the story honestly, this mistake too must be acknowledged.

And the difference that honest storytelling makes is enormous. When we tell our story honestly, our position at the negotiating table is one that is informed not only by our own needs and desires, but also by our obligations and responsibilities. The latter include the responsibility to — in some way, in some measure — fix that which we have done. Also included is the need to recognize that we have some kind of obligation toward the people who have been harmed by our decisions. Honesty in our telling of the story reveals the stark and candid reality that we also need to speak the language of compromise and conciliation. Not only the language of entitlement and demands.

To be sure, I would be horrified and sick if the worst-case division-of-Jerusalem scenario were to materialize. The possibility that the Kotel, the Jewish Quarter or the Temple Mount would return to their former states of Arab sovereignty is unfathomable to me, and I suspect to nearly everyone inside the Israeli government. At the same time though, to insist that the government not talk about Jerusalem at all (including the possibility, for example, of Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods) is to insist that Israel come to the negotiating table telling a dishonest story — a story in which our side has made no mistakes and no miscalculations, a story in which there is no moral ambiguity in the way we have chosen to rule the people we conquered, a story in which we don’t owe anything to anyone. Cries of protest, in particular from organizations that oppose Israel’s relinquishing anything at all between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, and which have never offered any alternative solutions to the ones they are protesting against, are rooted in the refusal to read history honestly. And I — for one — cannot lend my support to that.

Without a doubt, the Palestinians aren’t telling an honest story either. They are not being honest about their record of violence against Jews in the pre-State era, or about the obscene immorality with which they attacked Israeli civilians during the second intifada. They are not being honest about the ways in which their fellow Arabs are responsible for so much of the misery that they — the Palestinians — have endured, and they certainly are not being honest about the deep and real historical connection that the Jewish people has to this land and to this holy city. And there will not be peace (and perhaps there should be no peace conference) until they tell an honest story as well. But for us to take the approach that in order to defend and protect ourselves from their dishonest story, we must continue telling our own dishonest story, is to travel a road of unending and unendable conflict. Peace will come only when and if everyone at the table has the courage, the strength, and enough fear of God to tell the story as it really is.

For many decades we have sighed and asked, “When will peace come?” The answer is starkly simple. There will be peace the day after there is truth.

Yosef Kanfesky is rabbi of B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.

Israel’s Arab neighbors may hold key to summit’s success

As the Annapolis peace parley rapidly approaches, some of the Arab and Muslim players expected to play a key role in creating conditions for a favorable outcome are proving to be more of an obstacle than an asset.

Egypt, Syria and Turkey have been complicating efforts to hold what the United States envisions to be a tipping point in the long-dormant peace process.

On Tuesday, one of those nations seemed to reverse course: Egypt threw its support behind the peace conference after Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Syria, however, has proven more of a problem. If Annapolis is supposed to trigger a process of reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world, it is imperative that Syria attend. But Syrian leader Bashar Assad said he has no intention of coming to Maryland unless a much clearer offer of a deal with Israel is put on the table.

Complicating matters further are strains between Israel and Turkey, which reportedly is trying to mediate between Jerusalem and Damascus.

The difficulties on the Palestinian track could be helped by a Syrian presence in Annapolis. Although Assad says he has yet to receive a serious offer, he went to Turkey on Tuesday for regional talks that were to include discussion of Israel. Assad told the Tunisian daily al-Shuruq that the Turks have been mediating between Israel and Syria for the past six months.

Just two weeks ago, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan came to Jerusalem after visiting Damascus. Before that the Turks initiated a failed back channel involving former Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Liel and Syrian-American Abe Suleiman.

Ironically, some Israelis believe the chances of accommodation with Syria are greater in the wake of the reported Israeli air strike last month against an alleged Syrian nuclear facility. Top Israel Defense Forces generals believe there now is a real chance for a dialogue with Syria, and Israel should explore it.

In farewell interviews, the outgoing deputy chief of staff, Maj.-Gen Moshe Kaplinsky, argued that detaching Syria from the Iranian-led “axis of evil” was a vital Israeli and American interest.

At one point, the Turkish mediation effort seemed hampered by strains in ties between the country and Israel. The Turks were angered by Israeli planes flying over their airspace during the reported operation against the Syrian nuclear facility, as well by what they saw as Israeli influence on U.S. Jewish groups lobbying for congressional legislation to recognize the Armenian genocide.

Although the visit to Israel this week of the Turkish chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, seems to indicate business as usual, there are major concerns in Israel about Turkey’s geopolitical alignment. The fact that Ankara is now ruled by an Islamist government and president, and seems to be gearing up for military action against the Kurds in northern Iraq, raises questions about its position within the moderate pro-Western camp.

Just as the Western camp would like to pluck Syria from the axis of evil, Iran is making renewed efforts to draw Turkey away from its Western orientation.

As important, Israel and the United States had hoped that Egypt, the key moderate Sunni nation in the region, would encourage the Palestinians and other regional protagonists to make peace with Israel the way it did in 1979.

Instead, Israeli officials have been complaining that Egypt has been playing a negative role, turning a blind eye to the unimpeded smuggling of weapons across the Egyptian border to Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis said this was creating a major military threat that could scuttle the November gathering even before it began.

For months, tons of explosives and weapons have been flooding across the porous Egyptian border with Gaza, Israeli officials say. Dozens of Palestinian terrorists also have been slipping back into Gaza through Egypt after training in Iran, Syria or Lebanon.

Before the Hamas takeover in Gaza in June, there was a semblance of border control. Now, Israel says, the Egypt-Gaza border has become a “smugglers’ highway.” So great is the increase in smuggling that Israel says it constitutes a “strategic threat” both militarily and politically.

In mid-October, Israeli officials fired off an urgent message to Washington: “The smuggling of weapons and terrorist experts,” they said, poses “a real threat to the holding of the Annapolis conference.”

The nightmare scenario is this: The smuggling encourages Hamas to launch rocket attacks on Israeli urban centers, drawing Israel into a large-scale military operation in Gaza and pushing Annapolis off the agenda.

This week, however, the Egyptians announced they had uncovered new tunnels to Gaza. Three Palestinians found inside one of them were arrested, and bombs, bullets and drugs found inside another were confiscated.

Israel foresees two major military problems if the smuggling remains unchecked: The introduction of longer-range rockets and the industrial wherewithal for Hamas to produce its own missiles on a grand scale. This would give the terrorists in Gaza the capacity to threaten Israel in the southern and central regions of the country in very much the same way the Lebanese-based Hezbollah does in the North.

Israeli officials also are concerned by Egyptian attempts behind the scenes to effect reconciliation between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ moderate Fatah movement and Hamas.

“Egypt is working against everything we are all trying to achieve,” senior Israeli officials complained recently to the Americans. “We are organizing a summit, trying to strengthen Abbas, and they are strengthening Hamas.”

The Egyptians see things differently. They claim Israel is to blame for the difficulties in the run-up to Annapolis.

“There are people in Israel who are trying to prevent prior agreement on the core issues, without which the conference will fail,” the Egyptian Foreign Minister Gheit charged.

Gheit softened his tone somewhat after meeting Tuesday with Rice, who had come to the region to get the agenda back on track.

Rice has three main goals: To bring Israelis and Palestinians closer to agreement on a statement of principles, to impress Israeli government hard-liners of the need to go forward and to get Israel and Egypt back on the same page.

One thing is clear: In the run-up to Annapolis, the geopolitical stakes are rising.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Report.

Jerusalem status takes center stage in advance of talks

With just more than a month to go before the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference is scheduled to take place, Jerusalem is shaping up to become the key issue.

Talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams opened Monday with major differences on the table, but with both sides committed to making a concerted effort to produce a significant framework agreement for the parley in Annapolis, Md.

In the run-up to the talks, both sides had spoken of a “good, constructive atmosphere.” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat declared that the Israeli side “seemed serious,” and that both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had “the wisdom to make the right decisions for peace.”

Outside the formal talks, the focus was on Jerusalem.

In a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Olmert’s close confidant Haim Ramon caused a political storm when he repeated his view that Israel should be ready to hand over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority. Government hawks and right-wing opposition legislators branded it a sellout.

Pundits suggested that Olmert is using Ramon as a front man to prepare Israeli public opinion for concessions on Jerusalem. They say Olmert may adopt the same tactic as Ehud Barak did at Camp David in July 2000 and offer concessions on Jerusalem in a trade-off for Palestinian compromises on the refugee issue.

The Palestinians want the Annapolis conference and the ensuing peace talks to be based on the Arab League peace plan; President Bush’s vision of two states, Israel and Palestine; and the internationally approved “road map.”

Israel wants to include a reference to Bush’s April 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon indicating that it can retain large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.

What all this boils down to is a border based on the 1967 Green Line between Israel and the West Bank, with land swaps enabling Israel to keep West Bank settlements, and with the proviso that nothing will be implemented on the ground until the Palestinians put a stop to terror against Israel.

At the opening of the Knesset’s winter session Monday, Olmert underlined his resolve to give the new peace process every chance of success.

“I am determined to make brave but inevitable decisions that will mean foregoing the full achievement of dreams that fueled our national ethos for years,” he declared.

However, under pressure from the hawks in the coalition and his Kadima Party, Olmert was careful not to spell out details of the far-reaching concessions he was prepared to make. Over the past few weeks the prime minister has been mostly keeping mum.

Ramon has been making all the real noises — presumably with the prime minister’s approval.

In Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Ramon put the Jerusalem issue squarely on the national agenda when he proposed that the Palestinians get the Arab neighborhoods and Israel the Jewish ones. This would enable both countries to have Jerusalem as their capital city and pave the way for international recognition of Jewish Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

As for the holy basin, which includes the Old City of Jerusalem as well as Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy places outside its walls, Ramon said it should have a “special regime,” to be defined at a later stage in the negotiations.

The political furor sparked by Ramon’s remarks was exacerbated Monday by an article in the London-based Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi claiming that Olmert and Abbas had already reached an agreement to place the holy basin under Jordanian administration.

Palestinians in the Old City would get Jordanian identification cards, and the two sides reportedly also were considering a supreme advisory council for Jerusalem comprised of representatives from the United Nations, Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians.

Olmert’s office adamantly denied any such agreement. Ramon said it was far too early to discuss the nature of the regime in the holy basin.

Nevertheless, the right pulled no punches.

“For Israel to give up its right to Jerusalem is to commit suicide,” declared Arye Eldad, a right-wing National Union legislator.

“In Annapolis, they will discuss the division of Jerusalem,” opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu snapped sarcastically.

One major coalition partner seemed to agree.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party announced that it was against any concessions in Jerusalem. And inside Olmert’s own Kadima Party, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz argued that proposals to divide Jerusalem would never receive majority approval by the Cabinet or Knesset and, given the shaky nature of the Palestinian regime, should not have been made.

“You go to sleep with Abbas not knowing who you’ll wake up with,” Mofaz said, “so don’t make hard and fast commitments.”

In Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, however, Ramon received some unexpected support.

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu, declared that he, too, was ready to give the Palestinians parts of Jerusalem — like the Shoafat refugee camp — on condition that the handover be part of a wider territorial and population exchange.

“We don’t want a situation in which there will be 600,000 Arabs in Jerusalem in 30 years time,” Yisrael Beiteinu legislator Yisrael Hasson said.

Lieberman’s support is key. Indeed, the Ma’ariv newspaper claims that there is now a majority in the Cabinet for dividing Jerusalem.

The Palestinians, according to senior Israeli officials, see themselves in a win-win position: Either Israel makes far-reaching concessions or risks being blamed by the United States for failure at Annapolis.

Indeed, the officials claim, if the Palestinians don’t get what they want in the run-up to Annapolis, they will engineer a crisis in the talks in an attempt to get the Americans to lean on Israel in order to save the U.S.-initiated parley.

Olmert is also playing a shrewd game. In making his super-dovish remarks, he is preparing public opinion for the concessions he thinks Israel will have to make. But at the same time, Olmert is building a strong alibi to escape American blame if the process breaks down.

As the process unfolds, both sides are showing enormous good will, but both also face enormous domestic opposition — Olmert from the hawks, Abbas from the terrorist Hamas.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Report.

Should Israel leave Hamas out of negotiations?

In the run-up to the regional peace parley in November, Israeli decision makers are facing an increasingly acute dilemma: How to deal with the Hamas terrorists who control Gaza.

If Hamas is kept out of the peace process, analysts say, they will do all they can to scuttle it before it begins. But if they are allowed in, they will probably block any chance of success.

Similarly, if they are kept out, it is difficult to see how the moderates will be able to deliver. But if they are allowed in, there probably won’t be anything to deliver, the analysts say.

So far the government is determined to keep Hamas out, which is having a significant effect on the ground. Shut out by Israel, the ostracized Hamas leaders are growing increasingly desperate, Ben Caspit, political analyst for the Ma’ariv daily, said.

“Hamas leaders know that if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas comes back from the summit with a major achievement, it will create an existential problem for them,” Caspit wrote. “As time goes by, efforts to carry out a major terror attack to torpedo the process will intensify. One Qassam in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time could prevent us from going to Washington in November, and push us with much sound and fury into Gaza in October.”

The official Israeli policy is to keep Hamas isolated on the assumption that the split in Palestinian ranks serves the peace process — the thinking is it frees the moderates to cut a deal. Once that happens, the Israelis hope the radicals’ power will wane.

This explains the government’s tough line on Gaza.

Three weeks ago it declared Gaza an “enemy entity,” with all that implies in regard to civil sanctions, such as withholding electricity and fuel. Moreover, the Israeli army has since stepped up its pressure on militant groups in a concerted effort to prevent a major terrorist strike that could jeopardize the planned November summit.

In an address to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ratcheted up the political pressure, calling for heightened international isolation of Hamas and the adoption of a treaty that would bar terrorist organizations like Hamas from taking part in elections.

Critics of the government line argue that Hamas won an election, is supported by nearly half the Palestinian people and cannot be ignored. They suggest taking seriously the latest Hamas calls for a cease-fire.

But the government seems bent on breaking Hamas’ power. Over the past several days, the Israel Defense Forces has carried out undercover operations and pinpoint strikes to prevent attacks. Last week, an undercover unit pre-empted a suicide bombing by capturing a number of known Hamas terrorists in the West Bank. The fingered terrorists led them to a hideout in south Tel Aviv where a suicide belt was found ready for a would-be bomber.

Rocket attacks from Gaza were also forestalled. Israeli air, tank and infantry units killed approximately 20 Palestinian terrorists in targeted assassinations and military operations against launch teams.

All this is just a prelude for a major ground operation in Gaza, according to Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The idea would be to deliver a crippling blow to Hamas and significantly reduce Qassam rocket fire from Gaza aimed at nearby Israeli towns and villages.

One idea is to hold on to security zones inside Gaza to push the rockets out of range. The military operation would be launched after the November summit, but a “successful” terrorist attack could change the timing.

Under pressure, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has been calling for a cease-fire. Barak argues that Hamas would exploit any respite to build up its forces. He believes the IDF has the terorists on the defensive — and he wants to keep it that way.

Some experts maintain that the government is making a huge blunder and that it should accept a cease-fire as a first step toward bringing Hamas into the peacemaking orbit. Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy argues that Israel could get a long-term cease-fire — 10 to 20 years — which could pave the way for accommodation with all the Palestinian factions.

Yohanan Tzoreff, an expert on Palestinian society and government at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, says that without bringing in Hamas, Israel will not be able to reach any significant deal with the Palestinians. He proposes that when Israel releases Palestinian prisoners, as it did this week, it should include Hamas, too.

“This might even help Abbas convince Hamas to join in agreements which so far they have not been prepared to accept,” Tzoreff said in an interview.

The government also has its critics on long-term solutions for Gaza. Its plan is for a Gaza-West Bank union joined by an overland highway and governed by a moderate leadership. But Yair Naveh, a former head of Central Command, says that a Gaza already impoverished and overcrowded is heading for a population explosion and even greater poverty.

In that situation, he says, the last thing West Bankers want is a land connection allowing young Gazans to come into the West Bank in great numbers, taking jobs and women, and foisting religious values on a largely secular population.

Therefore, Naveh proposes separating Gaza and the West Bank, and Israel handing over to Gaza relatively large tracts of land from the Negev to give it the land reserves it needs to handle its growing population. According to the Naveh plan, Israel would take an equal amount of land from the West Bank by annexing large Jewish population centers.

So where does Hamas stand? It is saying many different things. Some spokesmen reject the political process, others defy the Israeli military and threaten to send suicide bombers back onto Israeli streets.

But Haniyeh has adopted a relatively conciliatory tone, urging Hamas and rival terror groups to stop firing Qassam rockets at Israel as part of a bid to achieve a cease-fire. Moreover, his chief political adviser Ahmed Yousef has been trying to portray Hamas as part of the moderate camp.

Mideast Conflict Displays Parallels to N. Ireland

The Middle East peace process, frozen to the point of lifelessness, may be starting to thaw.

After the swearing in of a new Palestinian unity government, cracks
quickly began to appear in the Western diplomatic boycott to which the Palestinians have been subjected since Hamas’ victory in last year’s elections.

Norway’s deputy foreign minister met with Palestinian Prime Minister and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh last month. Britain, Germany and Italy have suggested that their doors are at least ajar to discussions with the Palestinians.

The United States, for its part, has said that its ban on aid to the Palestinian government will remain intact, but it has also noted that it will not shy away from talks with non-Hamas members of the new coalition.

It is much too early to be celebrating the dawning of a new era, of course. On March 19, an Israeli civilian was shot at a fuel depot about 300 yards from the Gaza Strip border. The shooting was claimed by Hamas’ armed wing, which stated that the action was “a response to continued Zionist aggression.”

It is little wonder, given such actions, that Israel is reluctant to engage with the new Palestinian body.

To Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his allies, the changes heralded by the formation of the new government are illusory.

But does the maintenance of a hard-line attitude actually help or hinder Israel’s own interests and the broader cause of peace in the region? One example from thousands of miles away — the Irish peace process — suggests that such an approach may be both shortsighted and counterproductive.

There are obvious parallels between the current situation in the Middle East and the earliest days of Ireland’s slow and agonizing march toward peace. The formation of the Palestinian unity government, for example, has been greeted with much the same blend of opprobrium and suspicion that met the so-called Hume-Adams talks of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That dialogue, between John Hume, then-leader of the moderate Irish nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party, and Gerry Adams, president of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, is now almost universally acknowledged to have laid the groundwork for a historic peace agreement in 1998.

At the time, however, Hume was accused, as the moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is now, of legitimizing unreconstructed terrorists. Suspicion of Adams — and calls for his exclusion from political negotiations — were even more vituperative, with one British newspaper, for example, referring to him as “one of … the most formidable enemies to peace in Ireland’s bloodstained history.”

Fortunately for the Irish, the U.S. administration of the time didn’t take the naysayers’ view. President Bill Clinton’s decision to grant Adams a visa to visit the United States in 1994 — a move made against the advice of the State Department, the Department of Justice and the FBI — is now seen as crucial in persuading Irish militants to join the political process.

There are many other parallels. Hamas’ election triumph last year was widely seen as a disaster for Israel and for U.S. policy in the region. But those pronouncements of doom echo those that followed the election of imprisoned IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands to the British Parliament in 1981.

At the time, the Sands result was seen purely as strengthening the IRA’s hand. Later, it came to look a lot more like the pivot upon which the conflict turned: It opened Irish militants’ eyes to the potential of participating in the electoral process, while simultaneously helping bring the British to an acknowledgment that the conflict could not be ended purely by military or “security” means.

At present, Israeli politicians are demanding the continued isolation of the Palestinian government, in part because of Hamas’ refusal to explicitly recognize Israel and because the government’s platform includes an assertion of the right to “resistance in all its forms.”

The Israeli concerns are valid — but they are also eerily reminiscent of the attempts of pro-British politicians to exclude Sinn Féin from political negotiations, because the IRA had not declared its cease-fire to be permanent.

Adams and his comrades have never to this day explicitly stated that the state of Northern Ireland is legitimate, nor have they disavowed the IRA’s campaign. Rather, their actions — at present, Martin McGuinness, a onetime IRA commander, is on the verge of becoming the deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s devolved government — have rendered such semantic points moot.

There are, of course, fundamental differences between Hamas and the Irish Republican movement. Perhaps the most significant is that Hamas triumphed in last year’s elections, while unambiguously wedded to its military campaign, whereas the IRA’s armed struggle came to be seen as retarding Sinn Féin’s political ambitions.

Nonetheless, the moment is ripe to encourage Palestinians to head down a similar path. Britain’s Sunday Telegraph recently reported the release of Hamas commander Salah Arouri from an Israeli jail and quoted him as follows: “We are harmed if we target civilians. At the end of the day, the fruit of military actions is political action. All wars end with truces and negotiations.”

It could have been Adams talking 15 years ago.

Likewise, even before the announcement of a unity government, Hamas’ decision to take part in elections and to take its seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council was more momentous than perhaps even the group’s members fully appreciated.

Almost every armed struggle is underpinned by grandiose claims of ideological purity. Any engagement with the electoral process erodes those justifications, because it brings the would-be revolutionaries into the messy business of realpolitik, however reluctantly, and makes it more difficult for them to ignore the will of the broad mass of people, who are almost never as radical as the guerrillas themselves.

Making peace with erstwhile violent groups is a delicate business: It requires not merely pressure or concessions but a nerve-wracking combination of both. But now is the time to engage with the Palestinians.

Yasser Arafat used to talk about a “peace of the brave.” He never showed that bravery himself. Neither Israel nor its friends in the West should be found wanting now.

Niall Stanage, a journalist from Belfast, Northern Ireland, is a columnist for the Irish national newspaper, The Sunday Business Post. He is based in the United States.

Holy Doubt

This week’s Torah portion contains a story that most of us skipped in Hebrew school — the story of Dina.

Dina goes out to “see the daughters of the land.”

the eponymous local prince, sees her, sleeps with her and vaye’aneha — sexually forces or humiliates her.

His soul clings to her, he loves her, and he speaks tenderly to her.

This begins a protracted negotiation, in which Jacob remains silent and his sons, Dina’s brothers, maintain their outrage.

Shechem invites Jacob and the brothers to name any amount for a bride price.

The brothers answer with guile, seeming to accept Shechem’s proposal with the proviso that he and all his male subjects undergo circumcision to become “one people” with the Israelites.

Three days after all the males of Shechem are circumcised, while they are still in pain, Simon and Levi, two of Dina’s full brothers, enter the city, confident. They kill all the men and remove Dina from the house.

Jacob’s sons appropriate the property of the slain and take the women captive. Jacob objects: “You have stirred up trouble …[with my neighbors] while I am few in number, so if they band together against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”

The sons answer: “Shall our sister be dealt with like a whore?”

The story raises many questions, particularly from Dina’s perspective.

Did she learn of her impending marriage? If so, from whom? What was it like for her in the three or four days after the rape and before the “rescue”?

How did she feel when her brothers stormed in, killing the men and taking the women who were to be her new family? Was this similar to the way she had been taken captive? What was she looking for when she “went out to see the daughters of the land”? Had she and the local women already forged the kind of friendship and alliance that the men were negotiating for?

Or could Dina have been a spy against the women? (“To see” and “to spy on” are the same verb in Hebrew.) Can we imagine her as a Mata Hari figure, conspiring with her brothers to conquer Shechem? Or did Dina’s soul cleave to Shechem’s as improbably and enduringly as his cleaved to hers?

The Torah focuses on the men’s motivations, yet these, too, are far from clear. Jacob’s political objection to his sons’ actions ignores the harm to Dina, the sons’ deception and violence, and the murder of innocents. Is Jacob cautiously protecting the clan after a traumatic loss, or has he ceded control and leadership? Is he indifferent to his daughter’s suffering, or so distraught that he becomes passive?

Are the brothers overzealous defenders of their sister’s honor (perhaps in response to Jacob’s passivity) and/or do they see an opportunity for a land grab?

On his deathbed, Jacob will condemn Simon and Levi’s excesses and bar the two tribes from owning land (Genesis 49:5-7). Is the crime that most troubles the brothers rape — or theft? The males of Dina’s family should have commanded a bride price for her in advance, and the brothers seem more interested in orchestrating revenge than in facilitating Dina’s release.

Is Shechem a rapist? It is certainly not typical of a rapist to love his victim, want to marry her, offer to pay any amount of money and undergo genital surgery to be with her. Shechem more than fulfills all the requirements later imposed on Israelites (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) who bed an unbetrothed girl without gaining permission first.

Perhaps Shechem, prince of the land, thought that Dina, visiting among the daughters of the land, was one of his subjects, and therefore legal and eligible to him.

Long before Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent,” the ancient rabbis wondered if Dina chose — before or after the fact — to be with Shechem.

One midrash suggests that Dina was enticed by his uncircumcised body, and had to be removed from his house because she would not leave voluntarily.

Other midrashim don’t attribute sexual volition to Dina, but posit instead her extraordinary spiritual power: she would have caused Esau to repent had she been paired with him; she was Job’s second wife and healed him. Dina was indeed raped, but she inspired a rapist to repent immediately and completely.

The verb vaye’aneha — usually translated as “he raped her” — comes from the root ayin-nun-hey, which has two meanings: to answer or respond; or to force, afflict or humiliate, especially sexually.

Translating according to the first definition, it is possible to read vaye’aneha as parallel to vayidaber al lev hane’ara, he spoke to the girl tenderly (Genesis 34:2-3). This supports the interpretation that Shechem seduced Dina, rather than raped her. Similarly, it is possible to reverse the usual translation in 34:13: the brothers didn’t just answer Shechem with guile, they afflicted him with it.

It surprises me how confident people sometimes are about exactly what the Bible intends. What is meant, literally and in context, by “frontlets between your eyes” or “a man lying with a man as with a woman” or even “your neighbor?”

The Bible is laconic, allusive, ambiguous, layered.

It is not always clear to me, after years of study, which stories are cautionary tales and which are examples to be emulated.

Torah urges us: read again, review again, and don’t be so sure.

Approach with holy doubt, and humility.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at makom.org.

Will He or Won’t He?

As the Palestinians move forward with the confirmation of a
new prime minister, many are looking to the White House to see when President
Bush will unveil the “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

They may be waiting a while.

Administration officials and analysts say that Mahmoud
Abbas, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s choice for prime
minister, will need to show that he has significant authority before Bush takes
the next step.

“He needs to appoint his cabinet, get them approved by the
legislative council and then he can say ‘dayenu’ [it would have been
sufficient] and take the road map,” said Stephen Cohen, national scholar for
the Israel Policy Forum.

One State Department official said Abbas will need to show
“he has real authority and is truly independent from forces who practice
violence and terror.”

And the question remains as to whether the road map
presented to the parties will be up for negotiations or will be considered a
final draft. Bush caught many off guard earlier this month when, just days
before the war against Iraq began, he announced that the road map would be
submitted to the parties after a prime minister with “real authority” was

While Jewish leaders were concerned with the timing of the
announcement, and the perceived motive of aiding embattled British Prime
Minister Tony Blair, they were pleased that the controversial road map would
still be open to negotiation, according to Bush.

The Israelis have been concerned that the road map requires
Israel to make concessions without a full cessation of violence, and places too
much emphasis on the role of the diplomatic “Quartet” — the United States,
United Nations, European Union and Russia — that drafted the road map. For that
reason, they had requested — and received — several delays of the release of
the road map, first until after Israel’s January elections and then until Prime
Minster Ariel Sharon had formed a new government.

Even now that Bush has expressed his interest in expediting
the road map, many continue to believe it will not be placed at the top of the
administration’s agenda. Officially, the State Department says release of the
document will not need to wait for the war’s end.

“He wants to release it soon,” one State Department official
said of the president, “once the new Palestinian prime minister is confirmed
and it appears we have moved on the path to creating a new dynamic in the
Palestinian leadership.”

To that end, the CIA is creating a mechanism to monitor
progress on the conditions of the road map. CIA Director George Tenet created a
cease-fire plan in 2001 that was not implemented, and it is believed that the
CIA will play a role in the road map. However, it’s unclear how deep that role
will be, given the CIA’s expanded portfolio of work in combating terrorism. But
many believe Bush’s won’t present the road map until after significant progress
has been made on his main objective in the Middle East, regime change in Iraq.

Edward Abington, a former consul general to Jerusalem who
now serves as a political consultant to the Palestinian Authority, said there
is much skepticism in the Arab world about Bush’s commitment to the road map.

“They’re not stupid,” Abington said. “They see that the road
map announcement was made to help Tony Blair.”

The Palestinians believe that when it is released, the road
map should be a final text, with discussion focused only on implementation.

“They think the Israeli objective is to so condition the
road map that it never goes anywhere,” Abington said.

Some in the State Department agree, if spokesman Richard
Boucher’s comments last week are any indication.

“The document will be released as the road map, that is the
road map and that will be the road map,” Boucher said last week. “We’ll expect
comments, we’ll expect discussion of how to implement it.”

But others have said there will be more time for
consultation. That also was suggested to Jewish leaders who met with National
Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice after Bush made his road map speech.

“We’ve always looked upon the road map as a living document
and not ironclad,” the State Department official said. “We hope they will not
be renegotiating it in its entirety.”

Cohen said the road map text has become “much refried

“It’s a text that has been around for a long time, digested,
chewed up and spit out,” he said. “They are not going to refry it again before
it is put on the plate.”

Cohen said it’s not necessary for the sides to agree to all
of the plan’s parameters before moving forward with it. Unlike the tight
timetables of the Oslo accords — which few people in the Bush administration
want to replicate — the vagueness of the road map would mean that the two sides
would have to agree before moving from one stage to the next.

The advantage of the road map is that it gets Israelis and
Palestinians back on a path of negotiations toward a defined goal, even if
every step of the way isn’t clear, Cohen said.  

Agreement Reached for Slave Laborers

Jews who worked as slave laborers during the Nazi era are one step closer to receiving some measure of compensation for their ordeal.

After months of torturous negotiations, an agreement has been reached to establish a $5.2 billion fund for these victims of the Holocaust, according to several lawyers and Jewish officials involved in the talks.

The money will come from Germany, a group of German companies, and U.S. companies whose German subsidiaries used slave labor during the war, said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which was among the groups negotiating on behalf of the laborers.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is slated to be in Berlin on Friday for the announcement of the agreement.

An issue still to be decided — which may prove as contentious as the negotiations themselves — is the process of distributing the funds to survivors.

The allocation “is still being discussed,” Taylor said.

The German offer would affect some 250,000 concentration camp survivors — 135,000 of them Jewish — who were enslaved by German companies during the war.

It would also compensate between 475,000 and 1.2 million non-Jewish forced laborers from Central and Eastern Europe who were deported and sent to work in Germany.

Payments would also go to other victims who never received reparations.

In addition to the $5.2 billion, claims against German insurers being handled by the International Commission on Holocaust Era Claims also are expected to be included in the fund, though this part of the agreement remained unclear.

The commission, which is headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, was scheduled to meet Wednesday in London.

“We hope that this will be a much delayed measure of justice for Holocaust survivors,” Taylor said.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, who is representing the United States in the negotiations, declined Tuesday to give any details about the agreement before making a formal announcement Friday, according to his office.

The agreement came after months of difficult negotiations.

During the past several days, there was a flurry of activity. On Monday, lawyers for survivors reduced their demand to $5.7 billion. Earlier in the talks, the lawyers had demanded $28 billion. Germany and the group of German companies recently offered $4.2 billion to create the fund.

With the latest — and much reduced — demand from the victims’ representatives, the German side increased its offer and a compromise was achieved.

Michael Witti, an attorney for survivors based in Munich, said Tuesday that even with an agreement, there would be “no feeling of victory on the side of the victims.”

“You can never repay people for what they suffered,” he said.

A similar sentiment was expressed by survivor Hans Frankenthal, 73, who for 22 months during the war worked as a slave laborer at an armaments factory in the Mauthausen concentration camp and at I.G. Farben’s chemical factory near Auschwitz.

An agreement would mean a “guarantee that there would be no more suits,” said Frankenthal. “But you can’t take away” the history of the war.

Frankenthal, who recently published his memoirs, never received any compensation for his years of slave labor.

So far, 17 German firms have signed on to the industry initiative, and about 60 are considering doing so, according to industry spokesman Wolfgang Gibowski.

Among the U.S. firms with German subsidiaries that employed slave labor, a spokesman for Opel AG, the German branch of General Motors, said on Monday that Opel would join the industry fund.

Though the amount of the contribution has not been decided, “we are confessing our responsibility,” Opel spokesman Bruno Seifert said on Monday.

A Ford spokesman told reporters Monday that the company is one of some 200 companies with German operations that are considering taking part in the industry fund.

Publicity over the slave labor issue has achieved mixed results in Germany.

On one hand, a recent opinion poll suggested that the wrangling over money had caused latent German anti-Semitism to resurface.

On the other hand, some Germans have reacted with disgust to the news that many existing German companies whose predecessors used slave laborers are not joining the compensation fund.

A German newspaper this week published a letter from one reader, who hoped that “many, many people will boycott the products” of those German firms unwilling to participate in the fund.

“I for one don’t need any Bahlsen cookies or AGFA film or WFM tableware, nor Miele washing machines.”

JTA correspondent Toby Axelrod in Berlin contributed to this report.

The Settlers of Golan

Emotions ranging from hope to uncertainty to anger fill the 16,000 Golan Heights residents as their fate is again the topic of Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

Negotiations resumed Wednesday in Washington, and residents here know that the price for peace with Syria is likely to be the return of all or most of the Golan, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

“We are praying for peace — a peace with the Golan,” says Sammy Bar-Lev, head of the regional council of Katzrin, the Golan’s largest town, with 6,500 residents.

Bar-Lev, a 30-year resident of the Golan, talks of years of uncertainty as successive governments debated the territory’s fate. He is sure that the Israeli public will reject any agreement with Hafez Assad, Syria’s president, that involves the return of the Golan.

In part, the moderation reflects the differences between Golan settlers and their counterparts in the West Bank, which include those who are vehemently opposed to any Israeli withdrawal from those areas.

For West Bank settlers, life has been a constant struggle against the indigenous Palestinian population who accuse Israel of stealing their land, yet the Golan’s land was virtually uninhabited when Israel entered, aside from a few Druze villages.

In addition, while most West Bank settlers are driven by a religious-nationalist ideology, many Golan settlers are left-leaning. They moved to the Golan either to bolster Israel’s security or to improve their quality of life in 32 small towns peppered throughout the eerie but breathtaking landscape of brown, scorched earth and volcanic rock formations.

“This is like a small city, but we still have the mountain air,” says Leah Ravid, 37. In this year’s elections, Ravid voted for Barak, as did more than 57 percent of Golan electorate. She also voted for the Third Way Party, which campaigned on a single issue — keeping the Golan — and failed to win enough votes to return to the Knesset.

In 1978, Ravid became one of the founding members of Katzrin, and her first marriage was also the first Jewish marriage in the Golan Heights. She later lived in the United States between 1982 and 1994, returning to Katzrin with her second husband, Avishai, to open a small gift shop at the local shopping center.

“I am worried because I do not want to live in Tel Aviv and I do not want to move back to New York,” Leah Ravid says. If the government decides to evacuate the Golan, Ravid may petition or protest, but in the end, will leave peacefully.

Her husband, Avishai, is even more willing to leave for peace with Syria. He also challenges the traditional Israeli security doctrine that deems the Golan — overlooking the kibbutzim along the Sea of Galilee to the west and the Syrian lowlands to the east — to be essential for Israel’s security.

“Israel is no longer a country of heroes and Syria does not need to send soldiers to make war — they can send missiles — so a mile here or there does not matter,” he says. “The secret for security is peace.”

He is also convinced that many Golan residents quietly agree with this position. “Under the table, all everyone is waiting for is compensation,” he says.

Compensation will not help the Golan Heights Winery, the most well-known industry on the Golan. Established in 1983 on the outskirts of Katzrin, the winery now produces 3.6 million bottles a year, and generated revenues of $15 million in 1998, including $3 million in exports. Its labels have won dozens of medals at international wine competitions. The secret to success, says Adam Montefiore, the company’s international marketing manager, is Golan grapes.

“The high altitude and the soil makes this a unique vineyard area,” says Montefiore. “To leave the Golan would be a disaster for the Israeli wine industry.”

Although the winery steers clear of political campaigning, it does have a message for the policymakers.

“It is up to the politicians to be creative enough to come up with a solution that will allow us to continue,” he says. “You do not need a flag to grow grapes.”

Back in Katzrin, workers at the Golan Residents Committee have just finished toasting the New Year over a couple of bottles of local white wine. In recent years, the organization has led a sporadically vociferous campaign against returning the Golan, and they are gearing up for another battle.

“We have to work on Israeli public opinion to show that returning the Golan would be a total disaster,” says Avi Zeira, outgoing chairman of the group, presenting the traditional Israeli position against trading the Golan for peace with Syria.

It would, he says, endanger Israel’s security to relinquish its strategic foothold overlooking the Syrian frontier while at the same time, Syria remains a sponsor of terrorist groups and does not really seek normalization with Israel.

Zeira also cites monthly polls by Peace Watch, conducted at the Tel Aviv University, which consistently show that less than 30 percent of Israelis currently back a withdrawal for peace.

Instead, the cash-strapped group is focusing on lobbying policymakers. It is also reviving a fund-raising drive this month in the Diaspora from offices in New York and Los Angeles. Between 1992 and 1996, the committee raised about $1 million a year in the United States, which made up the lion’s share of its budget.

Yigal Kipnis has no budget to get his message out. From his leafy home in Ma’aleh Gamla, a moshav on the western slopes of the Golan overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Kipnis, a farmer by day, has been coordinating a small peace movement of Golan settlers to counter the Residents Board since late 1995.

“Peace with Syria is a vital interest of the State of Israel,” Kipnis says. “I would be very happy if we could make peace without leaving the Golan, but we will accept with understanding an agreement that includes returning the Heights.”

His group does not actively demonstrate, but Kipnis —who first came to the Golan in 1978 — says that in small meetings he finds more and more residents signing on to his message.

Israel, he says, conquered the Golan for two reasons: to provide a security buffer to the northern settlements from Syrian aggression and to ensure Israel’s water interests. The Golan’s streams are the source of about 30 percent of Israel’s water.

If Israel can achieve these same two goals with a peace treaty, argues Kipnis, then why should the settlements remain?

“This is a Garden of Eden that we have never had, but a treaty with Syria will not be decided by our personal interests,” he says. “The only reason the settlements are here is because Israel believed that peace with Syria was an impossibility. All of Israel’s leaders realize this is no longer true.”

Meanwhile, like other Golan residents, Kipnis is continuing with his daily routine despite the uncertainty. As if hoping against all odds for a future unlikely to arrive, Kipnis has just planted 52 acres of mango trees that will yield fruit in only four years.

Unlikely Bedfellows

As the deadline draws ever closer for Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak to present his government for Knesset approval, his coalition negotiations are taking some surprising turns.

In the latest twist, Barak has resumed talks with a potential partner that, for several weeks now, has appeared destined to be left out in the political cold — the Likud Party. Barak held a series of private discussions this week with Likud’s acting chairman, outgoing Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who was Barak’s army mentor years ago.

The talks with Sharon came after Barak — who has until July 8 to present his government to the Knesset — encountered trouble wooing the fervently Orthodox Shas Party into the government he is forming.

Sharon sounded a determinedly hopeful note Tuesday, telling reporters that he believed there could be “real partnership” in policy-making between Barak and himself.

But other Likud figures were more circumspect, and outside observers cautioned against any premature conclusion that a deal was in the offing.

Officials with the leftist Meretz Party, previously signaling that they were ready to sign a coalition agreement with Barak, are now pulling back, not wishing to be a “fifth wheel” — as party leader Yossi Sarid put it — in a Barak government that includes Sharon.

The other four wheels would “all be pulling in different directions,” Sarid said sourly.

What was Barak’s sudden sea change all about? Why, after close to a month of silence between them, are Barak’s One Israel bloc and the Likud talking again? It had seemed, after all, that both sides were reconciled to the imminent formation of a Barak-led government without Likud.

If Barak were more of a wheeler-dealer, and less of a straight-shooting military type, the answer would be self-apparent. He was bringing Likud back into the loop, one would naturally assume, in order to bring pressure to bear on his other, likelier coalition partners — chief among them Shas. But this is unlikely. During the past several weeks of slow, frustrating and largely empty negotiations, even Barak’s critics have had to admit that he is not a run-of-the-mill, jaded political operator, not one to make high-profile overtures just for the psychological or tactical impact they may have on a third party.

If Barak is talking with Sharon, say those who know him, he means what he says. He intends to make Likud a serious offer, they say, whether or not he eventually can bring Shas around and create around the One Israel-Shas-Meretz axis a numerically impressive coalition that would include some 77 of the Knesset’s 120 legislators.

Why, specifically, is Barak wooing Sharon? Barak’s pledge after the May 17 election to be “everyone’s prime minister” still resounds, at least in his own ears. He genuinely wants the broadest-based government possible, believing that, given the dimensions of his own victory in the race for prime minister, his voice in all matters of high policy will not effectively be challenged.

And on the issues of peace policy, Barak believes that a broad-based government will make the best deals with Syria and the Palestinians and will carry any agreements easily through the national referendums he has promised to hold before each of those treaties is ratified.

But what of Sharon? What does he hope to gain? In Sarid’s mind, at any rate, Sharon’s intentions can only spell mischief.

For One Israel peaceniks, too, Sharon’s participation in the government spells ongoing attempts to undermine, derail or at least slow the peace process.

But there may be another reading, and, if the One Israel-Likud talks move forward positively, Barak will be trying to persuade his key supporters that it is tenable — despite Sharon’s long record as a hard-liner and an opponent of the Oslo peace process.

Sharon, by this theory, has come to terms with Barak’s victory. The course of the coalition negotiations, though slow and stuttering, is leading inexorably to the creation of a government committed to bringing Oslo to full fruition and to signing a land-for-peace deal with the Syrians that would include an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Barak’s red-carpet reception earlier this month for Syrian President Hafez Assad’s biographer, British journalist Patrick Seale, was a transparent signal — and intended as such — that the new government is ready to resume serious negotiations with Damascus.

All this being the case, Sharon’s position now is that it is better for Likud to be in the government — where it can affect policy-making as much as it can — rather than watch, impotent and frustrated, from the sidelines.

The third alternative — toppling Barak — simply does not exist and will not be available during the next crucial year or two.

Cynics within and outside Likud will link this pragmatic attitude on the part of Sharon to his candidacy in the Likud leadership primaries, due to be held in the fall. As a senior minister in the new government, Sharon would undoubtedly have the advantage over his main rival, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.

This is especially the case in view of Olmert’s central campaign theme: that he is the party’s moderate candidate for the future, while Sharon is the unreconstructed hard-liner.

But such internal party considerations aside, Sharon may well want to make a contribution during the process of shaping the final borders of the state.

At 71, and with a long trail of controversy behind him, Sharon, similar to Moshe Dayan a generation ago, may want to end his career as a peacemaker. A seat in the Barak Cabinet, he may feel, is the only practical way to achieve that.

Meanwhile, the talks between Barak’s One Israel negotiators and Shas seemed to hit a major snag Monday evening, when Shas officials dug their in heels over a demand that their party retain the Interior Ministry — a stance opposed with equal firmness by One Israel.

Some Shas insiders are charging that Aryeh Deri, forced to resign last week as Shas’ political leader, is still active behind the scenes, jacking up the party’s negotiating demands in order to foil an evolving coalition agreement with One Israel.

Dealing With the ‘Enemy’

If Barak is to succeed, he needs to choose between two unlikely allies, Shas or Likud

By Eric Silver, Mideast Correspondent

Aryeh Deri, the corrupt but charismatic head of Shas, blinked first. On Tuesday, one month after Ehud Barak’s landslide victory, Deri resigned all leadership positions in the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party — opening the way for Barak to form the broad, peacemaking coalition that has been his aim from the start.

Labor’s prime minister-elect had insisted that Shas, Israel’s third-largest party, with 17 Knesset seats, could come on board only if Deri, sentenced to four years in prison for bribe-taking, stepped down. Shas’ inclusion would make it easier for two other religious groups, the National Religious Party and United Torah Judaism, to come on board.

This would give Barak a shield against right-wing smears that suggest he does not have a “Jewish majority” for concessions to the Palestinians and the Syrians. But the new prime minister is still stuck with squaring the circle. Israelis, who worry about a vacuum of power, will have to live with the lame-duck Netanyahu regime awhile longer.

Barak was elected by a liberal, largely secular, majority that believed him when he promised a “change” in the way Israel is governed, a chance for peace and a break with the extortion of the religious parties.

He knows he will pay a heavy price next time round if he disappoints his constituency. Yet he has said repeatedly that he wants to be “everybody’s prime minister.” He wants to bring the boys home from Lebanon; he wants to complete the circle of peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors.

If he is to succeed without enduring the barrage of Jewish incitement that culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, he needs partners from the “enemy camp.” They, for their part, want in. They have become accustomed to the spoils of office. The question is how much they will get in return.

Israel’s two-tier electoral system, which left Labor with only 26 seats and Likud with a demoralizing 19, means that the religious parties still have leverage. Barak, a celebrated puzzle addict, will have to give them just enough — without betraying his own voters. In particular, he has to convince the left-liberal Meretz, his most loyal ally, that he remains committed to a rational, outward-looking, pluralistic society.

The Meretz leader, Yossi Sarid, was adamant that they would not serve alongside Shas, but under pressure from Barak and President Ezer Weizman, he softened his stand. Meretz would bite the Shas bullet, once Deri resigned and demonstrated over an unspecified probationary period that he was no longer pulling the strings.

Deri finally went because Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recognized that Barak was not Bibi Netanyahu. The Labor champion had his own imperatives, and the patience to sit it out, if necessary to the end of the 45 days allowed by law to present his government.

Rabbi Yosef, conservative on social issues but flexible on peace, may also have been swayed by the stench of scandal still swirling around his protégé. The police this week launched an inquiry into a missing $9 million donation to Jerusalem’s Itri yeshiva, whose American-born head, Rabbi Mordechai Elifant, submitted an affidavit that alleged the money had been stolen. Deri offered his services as a mediator, if Rabbi Elifant withdrew the complaint.

According to Israeli media reports, it is suspected that the donation was really an illegal contribution, either to Shas’ election campaign or to pay Deri’s lawyers’ bills. Police are checking whether it was being laundered without Elifant’s knowledge by the yeshiva’s chief fund-raiser, Rabbi Haim Weiss, who just happens to be Deri’s next-door neighbor.

To add to Deri’s woes, New York City’s police chief, Howard Safir, announced during a visit to Israel this week that he was reopening an investigation into a 1991 road accident which killed a key prosecution witness in the Deri corruption case.

The victim was Esther Werderber, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor, who with her late husband had unofficially adopted Deri’s orphaned wife, Yaffa, and given her a dowry. The Deris claimed that the purchase money for their luxurious Jerusalem penthouse came from Mrs. Werderber. The New York widow denied any such gift. The Jerusalem district court concluded that the $155,000 was stolen from the Israeli taxpayer.

Before she could testify, Mrs. Werderber was hit while crossing the road. The driver was an ex-Israeli, who, according to Israeli police investigators, worked out of a New York garage owned by Moshe Reich, a friend of Deri’s. Chief Safir said this week that he could not rule out murder. With potential allies like this, it may not seem surprising that Barak has begun to negotiate again with Arik Sharon and the Likud Party.

Labor’s Leaders Lobby for U.S. Support, Funds

Two leaders of Israel’s opposition Labor Party were in Los Angeles last week on separate visits and voiced sharp criticism of the current government’s peace policy, and support for a strong role by the United States in the stalled negotiations.

First came Yossi Beilin, a Knesset member and one of the chief architects of the Oslo accords. He lashed out at AIPAC and some institutional Jewish leaders for lobbying Congress and the Clinton administration to downgrade the United States’ role in the peace process.

“I would ask the American-Jewish community to encourage the United States to help us solve our peace problems,” Beilin said. “Without Washington’s involvement, the peace process will not go forward — there is now too much mistrust on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.”

Ehud Barak, head of the Labor Party, addressing a meeting of the World Affairs Council and in a private interview, struck a similar note.

“If and when, and I emphasize if and when, current negotiations on a further Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank fail, I expect America not to pretend that the process was still continuing,” said Barak. “I expect the Americans to issue a report which will lay out the truth of what was on the table and how both sides reacted.”

Barak also charged the Netanyahu administration with “two years of foot-dragging [on the peace process], which has left Israel more and more isolated on the international scene.”

The former army chief of staff laid out Labor’s basic terms for a final settlement with the Palestinians. These would include a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, no return to the 1967 borders, no advanced weaponry in the Palestinian area, and the concentration of most West Bank settlers in “a few large blocks” under Israeli control.

Both men, not surprisingly, predicted a comeback for the Labor Party in the 2000 election.

Beilin said that Netanyahu had alienated much of the electorate center, which had hoped that he would play the same role vis-à-vis the Palestinians as President Nixon had in his China policy, while the far right had looked for an outright end to the Oslo process and was now disenchanted.

Barak predicted that 30 percent to 40 percent of Russian immigrants, a majority of whom had voted for their own party under Natan Sharansky in 1996, would vote for Labor in the next election.

In the time-honored tradition of all Israeli politicians visiting Los Angeles, both Beilin and Barak held extensive private meetings with affluent members of the Jewish community to raise funds for their party coffers.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that one of Barak’s major goals in visiting Los Angeles and other cities was to re-establish an effective support and fund-raising organization for the Labor Party in the United States, to parallel the existing Likud USA organization.