Abbas reportedly rejects meeting with Netanyahu


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly turned down an American request that he meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in a bid to jump-start peace talks.

Secretary of State John Kerry made the request of Abbas at their July meeting in Paris, the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds reported  Thursday.

Abbas refused the meeting, the newspaper said, telling Kerry that he would only acquiesce after Netanyahu froze all settlement construction and released the last group of Palestinian prisoners that were slated to be freed as a goodwill gesture in the 2014 peace talks.

It’s unclear after false starts what might be next. In May, Netanyahu said he was willing “to meet President Abbas today in Jerusalem.”

But Gershon Baskin, founder and co-chairman of IPCRI-Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, who in the past has acted as a conduit between the Netanyahu government and Palestinian officials, told JTA in May that Abbas offered three times to begin secret, direct negotiations with Netanyahu. Each time, Baskin said, Netanyahu refused.

The Prime Minister’s Office subsequently denied the report, saying “Netanyahu continues to call on President Abbas to meet anytime, anywhere, without pre-conditions. Unfortunately, President Abbas has refused.”

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process collapsed two years ago, and progress now appears unlikely before President Barack Obama’s final term ends in January.

In rare call, Netanyahu offer Abbas’ his condolences over brother’s death


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to offer condolences on the death of Abbas’ brother.

Omar Abbas died in Qatar Thursday, with the funeral taking place on Friday. He had been suffering from cancer and had been undergoing treatment in Tel Aviv’s Assuta Medical Center, the AFP news agency reported.

Netanyahu called Abbas on Friday, according to an official from Netanyahu’s office, who said the conversation was “only to offer condolences.” No other topics were discussed, he said.

Palestinian state media confirmed the call.

Relations between the two men are frosty, with Netanyahu accusing Abbas of libeling the Jewish people last month after he suggested some rabbis had called for Palestinian wells to be poisoned. The Israeli leadership has often accused the Palestinian leader of promoting incitement against Israel in Palestinian media, thereby encouraging violent attacks against Israelis.

Abbas and Netanyahu shook hands at a climate summit in Paris in November, but held no significant talks.

The last substantial public meeting between them is thought to date back to 2010, though there have been unconfirmed reports of secret meetings since then.

For Israel and the Palestinians, the peace plans just keep coming


Here a plan, there a plan, everywhere a peace plan.

Conditions in Israel and the Palestinian Authority may not exactly seem conducive to peace — Israel just formed what may be its most right-wing government ever, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is aging and becoming less popular.

Yet peace plans have been coming at the region from all sides. No less than three Israeli-Palestinian peace proposals have been put forward in recent weeks, spanning a range of countries, leaders and organizations.

  • conference of some two dozen countries in Paris on Friday reiterated the need for a two-state solution.
  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi reportedly has been pushing Netanyahu and Abbas to meet in Cairo.
  • This week, the U.S.-based Israel Policy Forum, a center-left pro-Israel group, presented two plans in tandem that are designed to lay the security groundwork for a peace treaty.
  • And despite their limitations, Netanyahu and Abbas have also said they’re game for talks. On Sunday, Netanyahu declared his commitment to a two-state solution and praised the Arab Peace Initiative. Last month, JTA reported that Abbas allegedly sent Netanyahu three separate negotiation proposals in recent years.

So is peace in the offing, or is it all talk? Here are the plans on the table, what Israel and the P.A. are saying and why these efforts are coming together now.

Three paths to peace: International intervention, a trusted ally or confidence-building steps

The Paris summit that took place Friday was more than a year in the making. It was based on the idea that after more than two decades of inconclusive direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, it was time for the international community to take a more active role. Nearly 30 countries attended the summit; neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were invited.

It ended after five hours with a statement asking the Israelis and Palestinians to demonstrate “a genuine commitment to the two-state solution in order to rebuild trust.”

France, which organized the meeting, plans to convene another conference including Israel and the Palestinians by year’s end. But while the P.A. has praised the initiative, Israel has demurred, saying the only way to peace is through direct talks. Israel objects in particular to a French pledge to recognize a Palestinian state should talks fail.

Sissi’s initiative, reported last week in the Israeli publication Ynet, may be more promising. Sissi hopes to organize a tripartite meeting of Egypt, Israel and the P.A. to restart talks. Israel views Sissi as a trusted security partner, and he’s an ally of Abbas — so he could be better able to coax both sides back to the table.

On May 17, Sissi gave a speech urging relaunched negotiations. Egypt didn’t want to lead the initiative, he said, but would “make every effort” to reach peace.

third push, meanwhile, has come from a coalition of American and Israeli military officials hoping to reassure Israelis that a Palestinian state would not degrade their security. They see Israeli security fears as one of the primary obstacles to peace.

The plan by Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of pro-peace former generals, calls for Israel to complete its security barrier around the West Bank, freeze settlement construction outside the barrier and provide incentives for settlers outside it to relocate within Israel. The plan calls on Israel to forfeit sovereignty over the West Bank and acknowledge that sections of eastern Jerusalem will be part of a future Palestinian state.

A parallel plan from the Center for a New American Security focuses on the details of security arrangements in a future Palestinian state. It calls for a phased Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank based on a timetable and benchmarks. It would also place an American security force in the Jordan Valley, the border between the West Bank and Jordan.

Both the CIS plan and the CNAS plans were promoted by the Israel Policy Forum, a group of Jewish community leaders aiming to build support for a two-state solution.

Netanyahu and Abbas both say they’re ready — but won’t meet.

Netanyahu and Abbas have not met formally since 2010. Each insists he is not the obstacle to another round of talks. Netanyahu has called several times recently for direct talks and welcomed Sissi’s speech. He offered qualified praise for the Arab Peace Initiative, a 2002 Arab League proposal that calls for full relations with Israel in return for a Palestinian state, Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Golan Heights, and a negotiated solution for Palestinian refugees.

“The Arab Peace Initiative includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians,” he said Sunday at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. “We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002, but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples.”

Abbas also says he is committed to peace. Gershon Baskin, an Israeli who has acted as an unofficial conduit between Israel and Palestinian leaders, told JTA last month that he personally delivered three Abbas offers for direct talks to Netanyahu’s office over the past three years. Netanyahu’s spokesman denied the claim. And in a March interview on Israel’s Channel 2, Abbas said he was “prepared to meet Netanyahu anywhere, any time.”

But the leaders’ declarations haven’t led to action. Abbas refuses to meet with Netanyahu absent prior Israeli commitments or concessions. He also lacks the support of his constituents. According to a September 2015 poll, two-thirds of Palestinians demanded Abbas’ resignation.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, refuses to participate in international peace conferences, demanding only direct talks. In addition, the pro-settler Jewish Home faction, as well as many in Netanyahu’s own Likud party, oppose Palestinian statehood.

Observers worry the window for peace is closing.

Despite adverse conditions, advocates for peace say there is an urgent need for another round of negotiations. They say continued settlement growth, as well as growing disenchantment among Israelis and Palestinians, mean a two-state solution may soon be impossible to reach.

Israeli and Palestinian actions are “dangerously imperiling the prospects for a two-state solution,” said a statement released by the foreign ministers attending the Paris conference, which “underscored that the status quo is not sustainable.”

Even if talks are unlikely, detailed proposals are still important, said Ilan Goldenberg, lead author of the Center for a New American Security study. By showing Israelis and Palestinians that an agreement is still possible, he said, the study keeps the opportunity for peace alive until Netanyahu and Abbas are ready.

“Abbas and Bibi have a complicated personal relationship, and that makes this more difficult in the short term,” he said Thursday at a briefing for reporters, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “But that doesn’t mean this isn’t the solution in the long term.”

Palestinians reject Netanyahu’s call for direct talks, support French plan


The Palestinian Authority’s prime minister rebuffed the latest call by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for direct talks, opting instead to join a French-led multilateral peace initiative.

“Time is short,” Rami Hamdallah said Tuesday, according to Agence France-Presse. “Netanyahu is trying to buy time … but this time he will not escape the international community.”

Hamdallah made the remarks during a meeting in Ramallah with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who is in the region this week to promote the French peace initiative. The initiative calls for a multilateral international conference later this year to jump-start peace talks. If the initiative fails, France has said it will recognize a Palestinian state, though adding the conference would not “automatically” spur any action.

“Peace just does not get achieved through international conferences, U.N.-style,” Netanyahu said. “It doesn’t get to fruition through international diktats or committees from countries around the world who are sitting and seeking to decide our fate and our security when they have no direct stake in it.”

Netanyahu’s office denies Abbas offered direct talks


A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied a claim that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas offered to begin secret, direct talks with Netanyahu three times but was rejected.

In a statement to JTA Tuesday, Netanyahu spokesman David Keyes flatly denied the assertion made a day earlier by Gershon Baskin, who has acted as an unofficial conduit between the Netanyahu government and Palestinian leadership.

“There is no truth whatsoever to the claim that President Abbas offered to begin secret direct talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Keyes said. “Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to call on President Abbas to meet anytime, anywhere, without pre-conditions. Unfortunately, President Abbas has refused.”

Baskin told JTA that he personally delivered the requests from Abbas over the past three years.

“Netanyahu is paying lip service to the public and the world because Abbas has offered Netanyahu on three opportunities a request to enter into secret, direct negotiations,” Baskin told JTA.

On Tuesday, Baskin told JTA, “There are at least three times I know of because I sent the messages for Abbas.”

Israeli government, military disagree over unrest


Two months into a wave of stabbings, shootings and vehicle attacks by Palestinians targeting Israelis, gaps are emerging between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the military and intelligence chiefs over what is driving the violence.

The rifts raise questions about whether the right tactics are being used to quell the unrest, the most sustained that Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank have experienced since the last Palestinian uprising, or intifada, ended in 2005.

While there is agreement between Netanyahu, the military and the Shin Bet security agency about broad aspects of the violence – that it is being carried out by “lone-wolves” active on social media and that tensions over the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem have contributed – the deeper causes are disputed.

Netanyahu has repeatedly accused 80-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of directly inciting the unrest. He also describes it as a manifestation of Palestinians' hatred of Jews and unwillingness to accept Israel's right to exist.

“What is driving this terrorism is opposition to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, within any borders,” he said as he left for the climate talks in Paris on Sunday.

In contrast, the military and Shin Bet have tended to point to a variety of economic and socio-political factors that they see fuelling Palestinian anger and frustration, particularly among young men and women in the West Bank.

While they have criticized Abbas and his Fatah party for tacitly condoning the violence, including praising “martyrs” who have carried out stabbings, they have avoided accusing the Palestinian leader of inciting it directly.

“The motivation for action is based on feelings of national, economic and personal discrimination,” the Shin Bet wrote in an analysis last month. “For some of the assailants an attack provides an escape from a desperate reality they believe cannot be changed.”

At a cabinet meeting in November, the head of the army's intelligence division gave a similar description, leading to a row with at least one minister who was angry that the general's briefing was not in line with the government's position.

The details were leaked to Israeli media and confirmed to Reuters by a government source who attended the meeting.

Since Oct. 1, when the violence began, 19 Israelis and an American have been killed. Over the same period, Israeli forces have shot dead 97 Palestinians, 58 of whom were identified by Israel as assailants.

“PINPOINT ACTION”

As well as differences in identifying the causes, there are gaps in the approach being advocated to quell the situation.

The military, which has been in the West Bank for 48 years and is minutely involved in maintaining stability, in coordination with Palestinian security forces, is pushing for pinpoint operations that target specific perpetrators.

Senior ministers who sit on Netanyahu's security cabinet want a heavier toll to be exacted on the Palestinian population, arguing that it is the only effective deterrent.

So far, Netanyahu has shown no inclination to launch a large-scale military operation, despite ramping up deployments in the West Bank by 40 percent and calling up reserve units.

He has also rejected suggestions by Israeli and U.S. officials that he offer concessions to the Palestinians to diffuse tension. Violence has to end first, he says.

Instead, there is a strong presence of Israeli troops and checkpoints across the West Bank, without the sort of iron-fisted tactics that marked the last intifada, although the homes of several attackers have been destroyed.

“This is about taking pinpoint action to tackle specific challenges,” a senior army officer told Reuters, saying operations focused on three particularly unruly areas.

Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, said the military was trying to ensure that the bulk of the population, which is not involved in violence, is as unaffected as possible.

One example of the balance the military is trying to strike is in Beit Ummar, near Hebron, the most volatile West Bank city. On Friday a 19-year-old from the village, Omar Zaakiek, got into his car and drove into six Israeli soldiers, who shot him dead.

Within hours Netanyahu's security cabinet announced Beit Ummar would be put under “closure”, with cars barred from entering or exiting, except via a winding back road, and pedestrians having to pass through an Israeli checkpoint.

Locals accused Israel of collective punishment. The mayor said Zaakiek's family was told their home faced demolition, a tactic the army and Shin Bet have called counterproductive.

Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz acknowledged the rift between some ministers and the military and said the latter's policy of trying to isolate the attackers was flawed.

“It is legitimate to have an argument about distinguishing terrorists from the Palestinian population,” he told Channel 10 TV. “It is completely clear that the more you differentiate, the more your ability to deter is limited.”

So far Netanyahu has headed off the pressure. But the situation remains precarious. Given the complex roots of the violence, Michael said there was no military solution.

“This reality cannot last long,” he said. “Ultimately one side will make a mistake and the situation will spin out of control.”

Netanyahu, Abbas shake hands at Paris climate summit


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shook hands at the United Nations climate change conference near Paris.

The two leaders met and spoke after the group photo of the some 150 world leaders in attendance at the conference, which is being held at Le Bourget Airport just outside the French capital. Abbas and Netanyahu had been standing in the same row, with only one person between them.

It was the first time the leaders have come face to face with each other since September 2010.

Netanyahu also met on the sidelines of the summit with President Barack Obama for about 10 minutes. They were joined at the end by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to reports.

Netanyahu is scheduled to have official meetings with French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, Poland, Japan, Australia, India and the Netherlands, according to The Jerusalem Post.

He reportedly also spoke on the sidelines of the conference with Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Britain’s Prince Charles, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and, according to some reports, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

Netanyahu, Kerry at Berlin meeting call for end to incitement


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting in Berlin called for an end to incitement to violence against Israelis.

Netanyahu singled out Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for blame.

“I think it’s time for the international community to say clearly to President Abbas: Stop spreading lies about Israel. Lies that Israel wants to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, lies that Israel wants to tear down the Al-Aqsa mosque, and lies that Israel is executing Palestinians. All that is false,” Netanyahu said Thursday in Germany.

Kerry did not assign any blame for the violence but said it and incitement had to stop. He also said that the leaders need to “settle on the steps that will be taken that take us beyond the condemnation and beyond the rhetoric” and move toward a larger peace process.

Deadly Palestinian attacks on Israelis have sharply increased in recent weeks amid tensions over the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif, a Jerusalem site holy to Jews and Muslims. Driving the tensions in part have been reports among the Palestinians that Israel is planning to alter the site, which houses a mosque compound. Abbas himself has made the charge, which Netanyahu vehemently denies.

Netanyahu also said that “Israel is acting to protect its citizens as any democracy would in the face of such wanton and relentless attacks.”

He is scheduled to meet in Berlin with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.

Kerry is scheduled to meet over the weekend in Amman with Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan.

Kerry says no joint Abbas-Netanyahu meeting for now


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said a joint meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is unlikely.

“I’ve talked to President Abbas and I’ve talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu in the last few days, and we could meet if we chose to,” Kerry said Tuesday, answering reporters’ questions at a climate change conference. “But I think it’s not – that meeting together in the same country is not – this is not the moment, obviously.”

A sharp increase in Palestinian attacks on Israelis in recent weeks has killed eight Israelis, an Eritrean refugee and nearly 50 Palestinians, as tensions swirl around claims to the Temple Mount, the Jerusalem site holy to Muslims and Jews and known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.

There had been reported discussions of setting up a possible meeting between Abbas, Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah, who is responsible for the Muslim supervision of the site, as a means of tamping down tensions.

Kerry said he would meet separately with the leaders during his forthcoming tour of Europe and the Middle East.

“I’ll be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu either in Germany or in the region, and I will be meeting with President Abbas and meeting with King Abdullah and others,” he said Tuesday. “And we will go back to some very basics here with respect to what the expectations are for the administration and the Haram al-Sharif and the Temple Mount, and hopefully begin to open up enough political space to begin to move on some other areas.”

Netanyahu and Abbas speak for first time in 13 months


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the phone, marking the first time the two have spoken in over a year.

Netanyahu phoned Abbas on Friday to wish him a happy Eid al-Fitr, Haaretz reported. Eid al-Fitr is the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the month of Ramadan.

During the call Netanyahu said Israel’s citizens want peace and Israel will continue to act to ensure stability in the region, according to a news release issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Abbas said it was important to reach a peace deal in the coming year, Haaretz reported, citing a Palestinian news agency. The two leaders have not spoken directly since June 2014, when Abbas called Netanyahu to say he condemned the kidnapping of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank.

French, foreign leaders walk arm-in-arm as millions protest Paris attacks


World leaders including Muslim and Jewish statesmen linked arms to lead more than a million French citizens through Paris in an unprecedented march to pay tribute to victims of Islamist militant attacks.

Commentators said the last time crowds of this size filled the streets of the capital was at the Liberation of Paris from Nazi Germany in 1944.

President Francois Hollande and leaders from Germany, Italy, Turkey, Britain as well as Israel and the Palestinian territories moved off from the central Place de la Republique ahead of a sea of French and other flags.

Seventeen people, including journalists and police, were killed in three days of violence that began on Wednesday with a shooting attack on the political weekly Charlie Hebdo, known for its satirical attacks on Islam and other religions.

Giant letters attached to a statue in the square spelt out the word Pourquoi?” (Why?) and small groups sang the “La Marseillaise” national anthem.

“Paris is today the capital of the world. Our entire country will rise up and show its best side,” Hollande said.

At least 3.7 million people took part in silent marches throughout the country, the biggest public demonstration ever registered inFrance. A total of 1.2 million to 1.6 million marched in Paris and a further 2.5 million in other cities, the Interior Ministry said.

The marches mostly proceeded in a respectful silence, reflecting shock over the worst militant Islamist assault on a European city since 57 people were killed in an attack on London's transport system in 2005.

The attackers, two French-born brothers of Algerian origin, singled out the weekly for its publication of cartoons depicting and ridiculing the Prophet Mohammad. The bloodshed ended on Friday with a hostage-taking at a Jewish deli in which four hostages and the gunman were killed.

Some 2,200 police and soldiers patrolled Paris streets to protect marchers from would-be attackers, with police snipers on rooftops and plain-clothes detectives mingling with the crowd.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi were among 44 foreign leaders marching with Hollande.

Merkel walked to Hollande's left and at his right was President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali, a country where Franceintervened to fight Islamist rebels two years ago to the day.

In a rare public display of emotion by the leaders of two powers, Hollande embraced Merkel, her eyes shut and forehead resting on his cheek, on the steps of the Elysee before they headed off to march.

Renzi said the fight against terrorism will be won by a Europe that is political, not just economic.

“The most important is the Europe of values, of culture, of ideals and that is the reason we are here,” Renzi said.

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu – who earlier in the day encouraged French Jews to emigrate to Israel – and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were also present and walked just a few steps from one another.

“In the same way that the civilized world stood today with Franceagainst terror, so it must stand with Israel against terror,” Netanyahu said at a ceremony in a Paris synagogue.

After world leaders left the march, Hollande stayed to greet survivors of the Charlie Hebdo attack and their families, while hundreds of thousands of people marched slowly and in near-total silence through Paris streets.

“We're not going to let a little gang of hoodlums run our lives,” said Fanny Appelbaum, 75, who said she lost two sisters and a brother in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz‎. “Today, we are all one.”

Zakaria Moumni, a 34-year-old Franco-Moroccan draped in the French flag, agreed: “I am here to show the terrorists they have not won – it is bringing people together of all religions.”

The attacks have raised difficult questions of free speech, religion and security, and exposed the vulnerability of states to urban attacks.

The head of France's 550,000-strong Jewish community, Roger Cukierman, said Hollande had promised that Jewish schools and synagogues would have extra protection, by the army if necessary, after the killings. He also called for limits on hate speech and more control on suspected jihadists.

Hours before the march, a video emerged featuring a man resembling the gunman killed in the kosher deli. He pledged allegiance to the Islamic State insurgent group and urged French Muslims to follow his example.

Two of the gunmen had declared allegiance to al Qaeda in Yemen and a third to the militant Islamic State. All three were killed during the police operations in what local commentators have called “France's 9/11”, a reference to the September 2001 attacks on U.S. targets by al Qaeda.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that at a meeting in Paris on Sunday European interior ministers had agreed to boost cooperation to thwart further militant attacks.

He called for the creation of a European database of airplane passenger names and said Europe should fight against abusive use of the Internet to spread hate speech.

While there has been widespread solidarity with the victims, there have been dissenting voices.

French social media have carried comments from those uneasy with the “Je suis Charlie” slogan interpreted as freedom of expression at all cost. Others suggest there was hypocrisy in world leaders whose countries have repressive media laws attending the march.

Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, whom analysts see receiving a boost in the polls due to the attacks, said her anti-immigrant party had been excluded from the Paris demonstration and would instead take part in regional marches.

Less than 1,000 people gathered in the National Front-ruled southern town of Beaucaire.

Is Mahmoud Abbas to blame for Jerusalem synagogue attack?


After a gruesome attack by two Palestinian cousins left four dead at a Jerusalem synagogue, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singled out one person for blame: Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

In a statement issued by his office, Abbas denounced the Nov. 18 morning attack (a police office also was wounded and later died), saying he “condemns the killing of civilians no matter who is doing it.” But over the past few weeks, as a string of violent attacks have unsettled Jerusalemites, Abbas has issued statements some see as encouraging violence against Israelis.

In late October, he called for a “day of rage” over the temporary closure of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, saying the move amounted to a “declaration of war.” Days later, he called the shooter of Jewish Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick a “martyr” in a letter to the attacker’s family.

“This is the direct result of the incitement being led by Hamas and Abu Mazen, incitement which the international community is irresponsibly ignoring,” Netanyahu said following the synagogue attack, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. “We will respond with a heavy hand to the brutal murder of Jews who came to pray and were met by reprehensible murderers.”

In the attack, the two Palestinians entered a synagogue in a Charedi Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem and attacked worshipers with a gun and butcher knives.

Four Israeli rabbis were killed in the attack: Moshe Twersky, 59, head of the Yeshiva Toras Moshe Yeshiva in Jerusalem and a grandson of Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy; Kalman Levine, 55; Aryeh Kupinsky, 43; and Avraham Goldberg, 68.

Twersky, Levine and Kupinsky were dual Israeli and American citizens; Goldberg was an Israeli and a British citizen. Eight others were wounded, including one Israeli police officer.

An Israeli Druze police officer — Zidan Saif, 30, of the Druze village of Kfar Yanouch in the Galilee — died Tuesday night of wounds suffered during the shootout with the assailants.

The assailants, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were killed by Israeli police at the scene.

Despite Abbas’ condemnation, Israeli politicians and American Jewish groups admonished him for inciting the violence.

“There’s hypocrisy at work here,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid said in an interview with i24 News. “You cannot incite in the evening and condemn in the morning.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who called the attack “an act of pure terror” while traveling in London, also called for an end to Palestinian incitement, though he didn’t mention Abbas by name.

“To have this kind of act, which is a pure result of incitement, of calls for days of rage, of just an irresponsibility, is unacceptable,” Kerry said at a news conference Tuesday. “So the Palestinian leadership must condemn this, and they must begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement that comes from their language.”

In the West Bank, a senior official from Hamas’ political echelon told a visiting journalist that he found Tuesday’s attack encouraging. The attack appeared to be a spontaneous response to Israeli actions, the Hamas official said, not a coordinated assault organized by the military wing of Hamas.

“Hamas has been trying for a long time, but particularly since the summer, to foment and incite unrest in Jerusalem and the West Bank,” the journalist, Neri Zilber, now a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of his meeting with the Hamas official, whom he declined to identify by name. “It’s obviously a high Hamas interest to foment this type of instability to keep the Palestinians in the West Bank rising up against both Israeli authorities and Palestinian authorities, which they see as going hand in hand.”

Some analysts say placing the blame on Abbas is a mistake. They point to the Palestinian president’s longtime opposition to violence as well as the PA’s ongoing security cooperation with Israel, which some credit with preventing the recent unrest from spiraling into a full-blown uprising.

“From the perspective of the Palestinians, every Palestinian who is killed in the conflict with Israel, no matter the circumstances, is thought of as a martyr,” said Itamar Radai, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center. “Abu Mazen lives in his society. There are codes he can’t completely break.”

Radai said that recent statements by Abbas should be understood as a reflection of his frustration with Israel and his efforts to curry favor with his constituents.

On Tuesday, Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “Abu Mazen isn’t interested in terror and isn’t causing terror,” according to Israeli reports.

“Mr. Abbas is a true partner of Israel who wants peace,” said Munib al-Masri, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Legislative Council. “We are fed up with occupation. We don’t want harassment in our holy sites. We want to sit down and talk about this.”

But Mordechai Kedar, an analyst at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said Abbas only opposes violence when speaking to an international audience and that his inflammatory Arabic pronouncements show his true position.

“Within the Palestinian Authority, he calls for violence,” Kedar said. “In English, they speak with one mouth and in Arabic they speak with a different mouth. He can’t clearly say, ‘Go kill Jews,’ but he says it in an unclear way.” 

Netanyahu accuses Abbas of incitement in Jerusalem


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of incitement as the P.A.’s official media called for a day of rage in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu pointed out the call at the beginning of the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday.

On Thursday, Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordan’s King Abdullah II agreed after meeting in Amman to de-escalate the situation on the Temple Mount and make it clear that the status quo will be upheld.

“Abu Mazen must halt the incitement that leads to acts of violence,” Netanyahu said Sunday, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. “This is one of the roots of the inflamed moods that are fueled by Islamist extremist propaganda and propaganda by the Palestinian Authority.”

Netanyahu also called rumors that Israel intends to change the status quo on the Temple Mount  “a gross lie.”

Since capturing the holy site during the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel has severely restricted access for Jewish worshippers, in part not to inflame tensions. The status quo continues to restrict Jewish worship on the mount.

The day after the Jordan meeting, Israel removed its age limitation on entrance to the Temple Mount, for the first time in two weeks allowing Muslim men under the age of 50 to enter the compound that contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Army Radio reported.

The Palestinian Maan news agency reported Sunday that Netanyahu will meet again with Abdullah in the coming days to continue discussions over tensions surrounding the Temple Mount, citing  Jordanian parliament member Mohammed al-Katatshe.

 

Netanyahu slams Abbas over deadly rail attack in Jerusalem


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the light rail attack in Jerusalem that killed a 3-month-old girl.

The Prime Minister’s Office spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, on his official Twitter feed identified the driver of the car that crashed Wednesday into the Ammunition Hill station in northern Jerusalem as a Hamas member. Eight people also were injured in the suspected terror act as passengers were disembarking from the train.

Netanyahu in a statement referred to the fact that Abbas’ Fatah party recently formed a unity government with Hamas.

“This is how Abu Mazen’s partners in government act, the same Abu Mazen who — only a few days ago — incited toward a terrorist attack in Jerusalem,” the prime minister said, using Abbas’ nom de guerre.

The driver of the car attempted to flee the scene on foot and was shot by police, who confirmed that he was from the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan and had previously served time in an Israeli prison.

After the attack, which was captured on security camera video, Palestinians and Israeli forces clashed in Silwan, which has been a recent source of Arab-Jewish tension. Israeli security forces also reportedly raided the home of the suspect in the attack, Abdelrahman al-Shaludi, who is the nephew of Mohiyedine Sharif, the former head of Hamas’ armed wing who was killed in 1988.

Netanyahu ordered tightened security in Jerusalem. The city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, called for the reinforcement of police forces in order to “restore peace and security.”

“As I have said for months, the situation in Jerusalem is intolerable and we must act unequivocally against all violence taking place in the city,” he said in a statement. “Today, more than ever, it is clear that we must send police forces into neighborhoods where there are disturbances, placing them strategically and widely in significant numbers.”

Netanyahu: No chance for peace deal if Israel sued for war crimes


A Palestinian push to try Israeli officials for war crimes at a United Nations tribunal would end any chance of reaching a peace deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu spoke to Army Radio on Friday, a day after the Palestinian Authority’s envoy to the United Nations said his government would join the International Criminal Court if the U.N. Security Council refuses to set a deadline for Israel to withdraw from all Palestinian territories.

“We may end up there,” Netanyahu said of the prospect of war crimes charges being brought against Israel at the Hague-based U.N. tribunal. “If Abu Mazen attempts it, this will have dire consequences,” he added, using another name for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “He could bring the Hague to do it, bringing us to the destruction of any chance of a sane peace deal.”

On Thursday, Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian Authority’s U.N. envoy, told the Associated Press that his government has turned to the Security Council “to force Israel to negotiate in good faith the end of the occupation within a time frame.”

The Palestinian Authority hopes the council will adopt a draft resolution setting November 2016 as the deadline for an Israeli pullout from the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza.

“But if this additional door of peace is closed before us, then we will not only join the ICC to seek accountability,” Mansour said. “We will join other treaties and agencies” to build evidence “that we exist as a nation, we exist as a state, although the land of our state is under occupation.”

 

Israel’s land seizure: political favor or West Bank game-changer?


In the days after the war in Gaza concluded, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to bear left.

He spoke of a “possible diplomatic horizon” for Israel on Aug. 27 and suggested a return to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Reports emerged that Netanyahu had met secretly in Amman with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But on Sunday he took a sharp right turn, seizing nearly 1,000 acres in the West Bank as state land near the Etzion settlement bloc. The move is a prerequisite for settlement expansion and prohibits Palestinians from using the land for building or agriculture.

According to Israeli reports, the government seized the land in response to the nearby kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in June.

The land seizure — Israel’s largest in decades — drew condemnation from the Israeli left and from the international community. The U.S. State Department said it was “counterproductive” for the peace process. In a statement, the left-wing NGO Peace Now called the move “proof that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not aspire for a new ‘Diplomatic Horizon.’ “

“Israel is trying to be territorially maximalist in the area and to deny territorial contiguity to the Palestinians,” Hagit Ofran, the head of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch, told JTA. “The message of this act is clear: The inclination of Israel is not to peace and compromise but to continuation of settlement.”

But some experts said that though the move hurts Israel diplomatically, critics overstate its importance on the ground. The area is a strip of land adjacent to the West Bank that Israel intends to keep under any peace deal. Declaring it state land was, they said, a way for Netanyahu to placate his allies on the right after opposing their suggestion to depose Hamas during the Gaza war.

“I think it falls in a certain pattern,” Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, told JTA. “The government does something that is unpalatable to the right wing, whether it be making concessions in the peace process or, in this case, agreeing to a cease-fire in Gaza, and then it attempts to palliate the right by building in Judea and Samaria or, in this case, reclassifying land.”

According to Maj. Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces’ Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the seizure is only the first step toward a potential settlement expansion.

Palestinians who claim the land have 45 days to challenge the decision in Israel’s courts. If the appeals fail, the government still has to make an additional decision to legalize building there before any construction can begin. An illegal Israeli settlement outpost, Gvaot, already sits on a portion of the land. Several surrounding Palestinian villages, according to Ofran, have laid claim to the land. But Inbar said an Israeli investigation found the land has not been used for decades.

Netanyahu has backtracked before on settlement expansion plans following international criticism. In 2012, Netanyahu announced Israel’s intention to build in an area known as E1, which sits between the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, as well as between Jerusalem and the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim. The United States opposed the plan, and nearly two years later the land sits empty.

But Sunday’s seizure does prohibit Palestinian use of the land. And Israeli politicians and commentators have criticized Netanyahu for alienating Abbas and Israel’s allies just as the sides could have restarted peace talks following the Gaza cease-fire agreement.

“[The] announcement, which wasn’t brought to the Cabinet, regarding 900 acres of land for building in the Etzion bloc harms the State of Israel,” Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party said Tuesday in a speech. “Maintaining the support of the world was already challenging, so why was it so urgent to create another crisis with the United States and the world?”

Meanwhile, the future of peace talks remains unclear. Negotiations ended in April after nine months as Israel reneged on a scheduled release of Palestinian prisoners. Abbas responded by applying for Palestinian accession to a range of international treaties, and talks collapsed as Abbas formed a unity government with Hamas.

According to reports, Abbas said he won’t return to talks unless Israel proposes a border in their initial stage. Should Israel refuse, Abbas reportedly plans to turn to the United Nations Security Council to call for an Israeli West Bank pullout.

Palestinian officials also threatened recently to apply for membership to the International Criminal Court, which could allow the Palestinian Authority to sue Israel for settlement building and allegedly violating Palestinian rights. But Abbas has yet to submit the application.

“Given that there’s no negotiations, trust with the P.A. and Abbas is not at a premium,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “If [Netanyahu] offers a fairly generous territorial offer, this will be irrelevant.”

 

For Israelis in the western Negev, each day is ‘Russian Roulette’


When the tzeva adom, red alert, screams its siren as Yasmine Parda eats out in Ashkelon at her favorite restaurant, she waits and hopes for the best—no rocket shelters are reachable by foot within the siren’s reported 15-second warning interval.

“We sit in the restaurant and wait,” said the 27-year-old secretary as she stopped for a few moments along Yig’al Alon Street in Sderot on Aug. 14, the morning after a five-day ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was announced.

Paya Amirov, Parda’s friend, described her life as a game of “Russian Roulette”—she can’t know whether the next minute, hour, or day will be quiet or chaotic, with the ever-present possibility of needing to drop everything and run from scorching metal and shrapnel that falls from the sky shortly after being fired from the neighboring Gaza Strip.

Michal Tweeto, who lives on Moshav Tkuma, a community next to Gaza, with her husband and three children, brought two of her kids—Tova, 5, and Avraham, 3—to a massive indoor playground and community center in Sderot so they could enjoy some respite for the day. In recent weeks, the kids have barely been able to leave the house. And even during this ceasefire, there’s no guarantee of safety.

“My kids are afraid. That’s the biggest problem for me,” Tweeto said. “I’m more afraid from the trauma than from the rockets.”

At the $5 million, 21,000-square-foot facility, which was built by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in 2009, recreation rooms and play areas double as bomb shelters, giving parents like Tweeto the peace of mind that they enjoyed before 2001, when rocket fire from neighboring Gaza became a regular occurrence.

Located in an old warehouse on the eastern edge of Sderot, the facility has basketball courts, a café, computers and a small movie theater. On a recent visit, the happy screams of children playing rang through the air as parents sat at tables and socialized with each other.

This $5 million, 21,000 square foot indoor rec center in Sderot was built by the Jewish National Fund in 2009 as a response to rocket fire.

Just one mile away from the indoor playground, another stark reminder of life here, particularly for children, is made apparent by a large structure on an outdoor playground on Ha-Rakefet Street. Artfully built into the playground, the structure looks like a large friendly snake with a hollowed out interior play area.

This snake-like structure on an outdoor playground doubles as a bomb shelter.

Approaching it, though, a sign on it reads in Hebrew: “When the tzeva adom sounds, you have to enter under my protection beyond the orange line.”

This sign at an outdoor Sderot playground tells children to enter the inside of what is a playful looking snake if they hear the “red alert” siren.

Moshe and Linor Barsheshet, Netivot residents who came for the day to the indoor JNF playground with their two children, Haddas and Yonatan, left home for Beit Shemesh during the war and returned during the first cease fire two weeks ago.

Government officials asked residents in the south to return home, expecting that the cease-fire would hold—Hamas broke it on the morning of Aug. 8, firing a volley of rockets over the border and further shattering the confidence of many locals.

“It’s impossible to leave the house,” Moshe said.

Arnold Rosenblum, who came to Israel five years ago from Russia, recently moved to Sderot to enroll at Sapir College. Walking in the downtown shopping area, Rosenblum, 23, sat down for a few minutes to speak with a reporter.

“What can I say?” Rosenblum said, asked how the rockets and sirens have impacted his life. “We are getting used to this. First time is very hard and you really think maybe you should leave Sderot.”

After that initial shock, though, he said, the regular interruptions just become normal. “I say like this: if I made a choice to live here, no Hamas, no someone else can make me change my choice.”

During parts July and August, when classes at Sapir were cancelled due to the war in Gaza, Rosenblum worked at a plastics factory in town. He said that, during work, if the siren rang, people would have 13 seconds to find the nearest bomb shelter—he said that by the time the red alert goes off, two seconds have already been shaved off from the 15.

When he is home during the siren, he said his two and three-year-old nephews and nieces panic amidst the rush to get to a shelter.

“Everyone is screaming. Everyone is crying,” Rosenblum said, adding glumly when asked about the current lull in fighting: “It’s very sad.”

Hesitant to offer his opinion on the war and on the government’s decision, for now, to halt its operation, Rosenblum instead offered some dark humor:

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin asks God, ‘What do you think? When is it going to be the end of terrorism in Chechnya?”

“Not in your [presidential] term,” God said.

“[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu asks God,” said Rosenblum. “‘What do you think? When is it going to be quiet in Gaza?’”

“God said, ‘Not in my term.’”

What a dying business in Sderot looks like, even during cease-fire


In a narrow alleyway just next to Begin Square in the center of this Israeli city, shops, cafes and bakeries are so tightly packed together that with every few steps brings a new business.

These merchants have, for years, been accustomed to the inhospitable reality of life in Sderot. By virtue of its proximity to Gaza (Begin Square is two miles from the border), normal daily activities are routinely interrupted by a screeching siren that gives residents a 10 to 15 second warning to shelter themselves from a rocket that was fired seconds earlier from within the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Those interruptions, which have made life here grim, have made doing business here nearly impossible for many shopkeepers. On Thursday, even as the city was enjoying its fourth day of calm—with a new cease fire possibly ensuring an additional five—the sight of gray metal shutters in front of nearly every shop in this alleyway was a stark reminder that this city’s store owners know better than to think that temporary quiet will soon bring customers back.

“I can’t continue like this. It’s hard,” said Moshe Yifrach, 21, who helps manage his family’s image and photography store, “Agfa Image Center.” He was one of the few shopkeepers who decided to remain open into the mid-afternoon and was the only person in the store. But, with little or no business up to that point on Thursday, his decision to keep the lights on may not have particularly mattered.

The Yifrachs produce photographs, create albums and assist with images for passports, weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Behind the counter on shelves sat rows of albums and frames in varying colors

Moshe Yifrach helps his father run the family's Sderot store. He said sales have dropped 70 percent this summer.

When life in Sderot is relatively normal, Yifrach said that his family serves between 50 to 70 customers and earns about 3,000 to 4,000 thousand Shekels per day. This summer, though, during Israel’s most recent battle with Hamas, in which nearly 3,000 rockets have fallen in and around Israeli cities, he said sales have dropped by about 70 percent and customers have come in at a trickling pace.

Some residents here left amidst the chaos for some respite in towns further north and many simply no longer feel confident in venturing into the city. Tourism, meanwhile, has plummeted, with most visitors coming from abroad on solidarity missions, not nearly enough to compensate for the many Israelis who no longer travel south for a few pleasurable days in the country’s southern desert region.

The family has two other stores, in Jerusalem and Kiryat Gat, so Yifrach said he, his parents and 11 siblings could get by without their Sderot store.

“We have other places, so we have it easier than others,” Yifrach said. “But the ones that have only here and nowhere else, it’s very hard.”

Even during the height of the war in July and early August, Yifrach’s father kept the store open. When a red alert siren blared, whoever was in the shop would shelter in the doorway or underneath the awning that encloses the alley outside—the nearest shelter is more than 15 seconds from the store, not enough time for him or any customers to safely reach before the Qassam makes impact.

While a cease-fire that produces calm for an extended period would likely improve business for the Yifrachs if residents and tourists begin to return, he sees no long-term relief for his family’s business.

Agfa Image Center

Yifrach, like so many Israelis, particularly in the south, wants the government to order the military to destroy Hamas and end the rocket attacks. That step appears increasingly unlikely, though, following the complete removal of ground troops on Aug. 5 and the moderate progress of truce negotiations in Cairo.

“There’s no solution,” Yifrach said. “If you want to have a cease fire, so for a year it will be fine and everything will be good. [But] slowly, slowly [Hamas] will advance.” He predicts that the terrorist group will use the calm to improve its rocket arsenal to create Sderot-like situations as far north as Tel Aviv and Haifa.

That, Yifrach said, is one reason he sees no point in moving further north. “I don’t think that in the north it’s much better because there too you have Hezbollah,” he said. The quasi-governmental Lebanese terrorist organization has tens of thousands of missiles and rockets and has the capability to reach Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. In Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, approximately 15 Haifa residents were killed in missile and rocket attacks.

“I will stay in the south. This is my house and here I’m going to stay,” Yifrach said briskly.

Asked, though, how much longer his family’s store can survive in Sderot under current conditions, he responded, “Half a year, no more.”

Fired by Netanyahu in midst of Gaza campaign, rival aims to give voice to Likud’s hawks


Former Israeli deputy defense minister Danny Danon did not seem bothered by the fallout from his rift in mid-July with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—a spat that ended with Netanyahu removing Danon as this country’s Deputy Minister of Defense.

In fact, he seemed more relaxed than he did during previous in-person and telephone interviews as he sat down at a Tel Aviv café Wednesday morning.

The ambitious young Knesset member and chairman of Likud’s powerful Central Committee has always seemed more than willing to promote his ideology to English-language media, whether to The Times of Israel, Al-Monitor or Glenn Beck.

And on Wednesday, Danon, 43, cited his public opposition to Netanyahu’s acceptance of a failed July cease-fire with Hamas as the most recent example of his willingness to call out Likud leaders when he believes their actions stray uncomfortably to the left.

But for someone who aims to represent Likud’s right-wing bloc in the future, perhaps as a cabinet member or even tPrime Minister, whether Danon can successfully balance his commitment to what he says are the party’s core values with the need for political gamesmanship and acuity is yet to be seen.

Asked whether he now regrets publicly opposing Netanyahu given the political fallout, Danon said he “absolutely” does not, adding that his opposition to the Prime Minister’s acceptance of a July 15 cease-fire with Hamas (which the group rejected) was validated when an Israeli ground invasion that began July 17 revealed over 30 underground cross-border tunnels that Hamas planned to use in terror attacks and kidnappings.

“I did the right thing by criticizing it, otherwise we would have woken up Rosh Hashanah with hundreds of Hams terrorists [inside Israel],” he said, alluding to reports that alleged Hamas was planning a massive September assault on Israeli towns and communities near the border. “Today, people say the highlight of the operation is that we dealt with the tunnels.”

A public opponent of the two-state solution and a proponent of annexing large portions of the West Bank and returning much of the Palestinian population to Jordanian rule, Danon had already butted heads with Netanyahu in March when he announced that he would resign his deputy minister post if 26 Palestinian prisoners were let go as part of a final stage of releases that were agreed upon as a prerequisite to embarking on the most recently failed peace negotiations.  

Netanyahu shelved the release in March, effectively allowing Danon to (temporarily) hold his minister post while at the same time holding firm in his opposition. In a Spring interview with Al-Monitor, asked whether he was worried about being fired by Netanyahu for his repeated antagonistic public remarks, Danon responded that no, he was not worried and that receiving the boot from Netanyahu “will only strengthen me.”

“I am fighting to bring the faction back to life,” Danon told Al-Monitor. Wednesday, too, Danon portrayed himself as the bearer of Likud’s flag and someone who “will make sure the Likud party stays in the right direction” amidst a Prime Minister who, he said, “is shifting” too far left.

“If for example Netanyahu will become a subcontractor of [Justice Minister] Tzipi Livni or who like [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon will decide to adopt a different ideology,” Danon said, “I will be there to block it.”

Unsurprisingly, Danon, like many Israelis and most Likud members, wishes Israel increased the intensity of its Gaza campaign and removed Hamas from Gaza. Somewhat surprisingly, though, given his opposition to negotiating with Hamas, he suggested that if Israel refused to provide economic relief to Hamas and Gaza until the group demilitarized, it may decide that doing so is in its best interest.

Asked why Hamas, given its historically violent resistance to Israel, would voluntarily disarm itself, Danon likened the situation to America’s threat to use force in Syria in Aug. 2013 amidst that government’s use of chemical weapons on its own civilians. The Assad regime eventually capitulated and agreed to part with a significant portion of its stockpile.

“People thought Syria would never give away their chemical weapons,” Danon said. “And it happened.”

On West Bank security concerns, Danon advocated for the construction of a settlement on the land where three murdered Jewish teens were discovered in June and called for the deportation of the murderers’ families to the Gaza Strip and for the destruction of their West Bank homes. As for the Palestinian Authority, Danon is skeptical that it will be the “heroes of the Palestinian people.”

While the outspoken Knesset member’s consistent and vocal opposition to the head of state is nothing new for Israeli politics, his rapid rise within Likud and his recurrent coverage in the media at such an early stage in his career—without having the benefit of either cabinet experience or a place in Israeli military lore—indicates that Danon has thought through how he intends to climb the political ladder. He cited his close relationship with Sharon (who was his oldest son's godfather) before the Gaza disengagement and said that the former Prime Minister told him that there's nothing wrong with seeking positions of greater political influence.

In Likud’s 2012 primary elections, Danon finished fifth, ahead of current President Reuven Rivlin and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. And today, he says much of Likud is alarmed at Netanyahu’s tilt away from the base on security issues.

Wednesday, though, Danon rejected any comparison of his role within Likud as similar to the Tea Party’s role within the Republican Party—a conservative faction seeking to keep the party in line.

“The Tea Party is mostly new people who joined the Republican Party,” Danon said. “The people that I represent are the people who grew up in the party.”

While Danon said he has “no fear” of running for higher office if Likud’s leaders stray “in terms of ideology and policy,” for the foreseeable future the price he paid for criticizing Netanyahu may result in lost political influence.

Asked whether he still has the Prime Minister’s ear after the flap one month ago, Danon responded:

“As of today, not—but things can change.”

Obama’s sit down with Thomas Friedman


Last Friday, President Obama sat down for an interview with NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman about foreign affairs.  Although the topics were broader than the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the topic was broached.  When asked about whether he should be more vigorous in pressuring Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abu Mazen to strike a land for peace deal, the President answered that it has to start with Abbas and Netanyahu.  Pointing out that Bibi’s poll numbers are better than Obama’s, the President does not believe that Bibi will make peace without internal pressure forcing him to make necessary compromises.  Abu Mazen according to the President has a different problem; he is too weak to make peace.  In other words, while Bibi is too popular, Abbas is not popular enough.

In Obama’s world, Bibi needs societal pressure to take on the settler movement and make the necessary hard compromises that are against his natural inclinations.  Obama continues to focus on settlements in the territories as the key issue.  It is as if he has completely ignored Operation Protective Edge and most of the last six years he has been President.

According to Obama, Abbas is just too weak to make peace.  But what does that mean?  Just for a moment, consider the assumption that Abbas is prepared to accept the legitimacy of Israel being the homeland of the Jewish people and is willing to live in peace in a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel and that refugees will be repatriated only in a Palestinian state.  I am totally aware of the lack of realism regarding these assumptions but let this argument play out.  Abbas is weak because his positions are not reflective of the society that he represents.  His solution has not been accepted by the Palestinian street; he is out ahead of Palestinian public opinion. 

How does one establish one’s bona fides in Palestinian society as a leader?  The best way to do so seems to be to murder Israelis.  Recent polling data indicates that less than 30% of the Palestinians support a two-state solution.  Mainstream Palestinian society is still not prepared to accept the permanence of the State of Israel and live in peace alongside of it. So in the world according to Obama, Bibi is to push his society place their trust in a 79 year-old leader in the 9th year of his 4-year term whose views do not reflect those of his society when the significant likelihood is that Abbas’ successor will have dramatically different views about a Palestinian state.  And all of this is ignoring the possibility of rocket fire from the Judean hills down into the coastal plain and shutting off Ben Gurion Airport and Israel’s connection to the outside world. 

Then we move on to Bibi.  I wish our constitutional law scholar President had bothered read or re-read James Madison and Federalist 10 about the nature of democracies and representative governments.  It might have given him a better understanding of Israeli politics.  Madison’s problem with pure democracy was the combination of people with similar economic or social interests into a tyranny of the majority, which he described as the violence and damage caused by factions.  Madison posed two possible solutions to the problem of factions, eliminate its causes or control its effects.  In a free society, the elimination of factions is impossible because interest groups are inherent to liberty.  Only a totalitarian society can eliminate the cause of factions, such as the one in Gaza. 

Madison’s solution was a representative government, a government in which the many elect the few who govern. A pure democracy is incapable of controlling conflicts between factions because the views of the largest faction control, and there is no way to protect weak factions against the actions of an obnoxious individual or a strong majority.  Madison’s belief was that the elected representatives would represent the best of society and be able to govern with wisdom and discernment.  I cannot say that that portion of Madison’s analysis is applicable to the Knesset, but Madison’s solution still works.

With broad coalitions necessary to achieve power, compromises must be made to establish a majority coalition and in the process take into account all the disparate views of the factions forming the coalition.  That’s where Federalist 10 speaks directly to Israeli politics.  In order to form a government, Bibi has put together a disparate coalition that includes Tzipi Livni, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, which in the aggregate is reflective of the views of the a broad spectrum of Israeli society, constituting the vast majority.  There is ambivalence in Israeli society, which sees both the necessity of a Palestinian state combined with the utter impracticality of having one, given the impact of such a state on the ability of Israelis to live in peace and without fear of rocket fire or terrorist attacks.  Even though Operation Protective Edge has increased Bibi’s popularity, Bibi is nevertheless reflective of that societal ambivalence.  The left has not convinced the Israeli public that its policies are a viable alternative.  On the other hand, neither has the hard right convinced the public of the benefits of their policies either.  That sort of gets you to Bibi by default.

Netanyahu’s views are reflective of those of his society; Abu Mazen’s are not.  So why is it that Netanyahu has to be pressured when Palestinian society, according to President Obama is not prepared to make peace?  The rational move would be to influence the views of the Palestinians so that Abbas’ views are not dismissed on the Palestinian street and isn’t that where the President should be directing his energies?

Douglasworkman@sbcglobal.net

Rallies at LA Israel consulate show strong feelings about renewed Israel-Gaza violence


Dueling rallies on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 7, outside the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles showed strong feelings about renewed Israel-Gaza violence.

On the south side of the street at  11766 Wilshire Blvd., protestors held Palestinian flags, which flapped in a reporter’s face as the people waving them chanted slogans, infusing strong emotion into a demonstration critical of Israel held outside the Israeli consulate’s office in West Los Angeles. 

Chants alternated between being anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian.

“Netanyahu you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” went one chant. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” went another during the rally, which, according to a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) official estimate, drew approximately 300 people.

The rally began at 4 p.m. and ended around 7 p.m.

The event turned the sidewalk on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard, near Barrington Avenue, into a scene of controlled chaos. The sound of car horns filled the air. Pro-Palestinians sang their chants into microphones. Many of them students, the crowd pushed up against the curb, their bodies pressed up against large pro-Palestinian banners, as buses and other cars drove by.

Across the street, a somewhat more subdued gathering of supporters of Israel drew about 100 people, according to an LAPD estimate.

The rallies took place even as rockets flew between Israel and the Gaza Strip, an escalation of violence in the wake of the recent abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers – and the subsequent revenge killing by Israelis of a Palestinian teenager.

Indyk: Settlements pushed Palestinians to end talks


Martin Indyk, the former chief U.S. envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, said Israeli settlement activity caused the Palestinians to walk away from negotiations.

Indyk, who quit his post as peace envoy last week after the breakdown of talks, blamed settlement activity for the failure in an interview published Thursday by The Atlantic.

“The Israeli attitude is that’s just planning,” Indyk said in reference to announcements of construction plans in settlements and in east Jerusalem that Israel made during talks. “But for the Palestinians, everything that gets planned gets built.”

Indyk said the construction plan announcements, which coincided with Israel’s agreed-upon release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners in several installments, undermined Abaas’ standing.

“The fact that the announcements were made when the prisoners were released created the impression that Abu Mazen had paid for the prisoners by accepting these settlement announcements,” Indyk said. As a result, Abbas suddenly “shut down,” Indyk said.

By the time Abbas visited Washington in March, he “had checked out of the negotiations,” repeatedly telling U.S. officials that he would “study” their proposals, Indyk added.

Indyk also said Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deeply disliked one another.

“There is a deep loathing of each leader for the other that has built up over the years,” Indyk said.

He later clarified, using Abbas’ nickname: “‘Loathing’ may be too strong for how Netanyahu feels about Abu Mazen. But it’s certainly the way Abu Mazen feels about Netanyahu. He refers to him as ‘that man.’”

After two weeks of hope, a community mourns slain Israeli teens


Only 18 days after joining together in a hopeful prayer vigil for three Israeli teenage boys abducted at a bus stop outside their school, 1,500 members of the Los Angeles Jewish community grieved together in a memorial service for the teens—Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Frenkel—whose bodies were found on June 30 in a field north of Hebron.

Teary-eyed audience members embraced one another in the dimly lit sanctuary at Beth Jacob Congregation, as Leehy Shaar, the aunt of Gilad, eulogized her nephew and denounced his kidnappers, garnering multiple rounds of applause over the course of her ten-minute speech.

Standing on the bimah beside three yahrtzeit candles and in front of photographs of the three slain teens, Shaar said that she had been hoping to plan a major celebration for the day that her nephew would be rescued alive.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Shaar said about the death of her brother’s son. “For the last 18 days, never for a moment did I ever think that Gilad, my dear nephew, was anything but alive.”

Shaar, who recently moved to Los Angeles to receive medical treatment, shared with those in attendance the meaning behind the Hebrew name “Gilad,” or “happy forever.”

“I always thought he’d be ‘Gilad,’ happy forever, but the terrorists brought a sudden end to ‘forever,’” she said. “He was my wonderful, talented, bright and cool nephew.”

The audience applauded when Shaar said that Israelis should be able to live securely in the West Bank and towns like Alon Shvut, where the teenagers were kidnapped just down the road from the high school that two of them attended.

Leehy Shaar, the aunt of Gilad Shaar.

“We, as proud Jews, have a right to stand in our land,” she said. “It’s not a crime.”

Holding back tears, she expressed gratitude for the Israeli military’s restless search for the boys and to the local Jewish community, which, since news broke of her nephew’s kidnapping, has embraced and supported her.

Throughout the hour-long service, the messages from six speakers conveyed a mixture of sadness and grief, with Israel’s local consul general, David Siegel, reflecting on the unity of Jews around the world since the kidnapping.

“We are one nation, from Beverly Hills to Jerusalem,” Siegel said. “We pray together, we hope together and tonight, unfortunately, we cry together.”

He added that Israel, in its hunt for the two Hamas suspects, “Will leave no stone unturned, literally, until justice is done.”

Rabbi Adir Posy, who led the service, read a communal blessing in Hebrew for the Israeli military, also asking those in attendance to stand respectfully for the “Mourners Kaddish,” a traditional synagogue prayer recited by Jewish mourners.

The evening concluded with a rendition of the Israeli national anthem, led by Cantor Arik Wollheim and local teenage members of the international religious Zionist youth group, B’nai Akiva, of which Gilad Shaar was also a member.

At 8 p.m., as the synagogue slowly emptied, a few community members lingered behind. Charles Hale, a member of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, related how “chilling” it was for him to hear, earlier in the day, the just-released audio of an emergency call placed by Gilad Shaar just after the kidnapping.

Multiple media outlets have reported that Israeli investigators believe the abductors shot the boys to death upon realizing an emergency call had been placed.

Shanee Michaelson, a Beth Jacob congregant, told the Journal it was difficult for her to focus at her office when it was announced Monday that the teens’ bodies were discovered.

“I really thought they were going to survive,” a somber Michaelson said.

With peace talks stalled, Israelis and Palestinians resort to old moves


Nine months of negotiations were supposed to propel Israelis and Palestinians into a future of peace. Instead, the collapse of talks is threatening to make the future look much like the past.

Israel’s decision last week to suspend negotiations — a day after the signing of a reconciliation between the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas — has prompted both sides to resort to their old ways.

For the Palestinians, that means focusing on internal unity and a redoubled effort to win international recognition for statehood, particularly at the United Nations. For Israel, it’s a return to shunning the Palestinian political leadership.

“If the Palestinian Authority persists with efforts to reunite with Hamas, that is not only a game changer,” Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, told JTA. “It is a game stopper.”

After weeks in which they teetered on the brink of failure, peace negotiations finally stalled April 23 when Fatah agreed to form a unified Palestinian government with Hamas, the ruling power in Gaza considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and the European Union.

The two groups split after violent clashes in 2007. Three previous reconciliation deals — in 2007, 2011 and 2012 — have gone unimplemented.

Israel responded to the reconciliation agreement as it had to earlier ones, declaring that it would not negotiate with Hamas and announcing economic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. On April 24, Israel suspended the peace negotiations, five days before their initial nine-month term was set to expire.

“Instead of choosing peace, Abu Mazen formed an alliance with a murderous terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre. “Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace.”

Israel and the United States have called on Hamas to recognize Israel, commit to nonviolence and abide by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements — three conditions that have guided negotiations for a decade. But on Sunday, Hamas officials vowed never to recognize Israel.

Palestinian officials nevertheless moved to downplay the significance of the unity accord on the peace process, noting that an interim government set to be formed in the coming weeks would be made up of technocrats, not political figures aligned with Fatah or Hamas. Munib al-Masri, a Palestinian industrialist who served as a Fatah delegate to the reconciliation talks, told JTA that Abbas would continue to manage negotiations should they go on.

“All parties will abide by President Abbas regarding the political agenda,” al-Masri said. “The most important thing is to have one voice for the Palestinians.”

Despite such hopes, Israel remains deeply wary of Hamas’ intentions. Naftali Bennett, chairman of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said in a Facebook post that the P.A. has now become “the biggest terror group in the world” and vowed not to negotiate with murderers. Prior to the unity deal, Bennett had compared peace talks with Abbas to buying a car from someone who owns only half of it.

With prospects for a peace accord receding, several Israeli politicians urged the government to respond by unilaterally settings its own borders. Bennett has encouraged Netanyahu to annex all areas of the West Bank that contain Jewish settlements. Oren argued that Israel should withdraw to a frontier it sets, creating a de facto Palestinian state.

“What are the borders that give us the maximum amount of security and embrace the maximum number of Israelis?” Oren told JTA. “There are people on all sides of the Israeli political spectrum that have considered the necessity of taking our destiny into our own hands.”

Al-Masri said that absent direct negotiations, Abbas will turn again to various U.N. bodies for recognition, as he did in 2012 when the General Assembly accepted Palestine as a non-member observer state. Israeli analysts said such diplomatic pressure will have little impact on the ground.

“Their position in the U.N. doesn’t mean anything,” said Avraham Diskin, an emeritus professor of political science at Hebrew University. “Life is one thing and declarations are another.”

Given the failure of previous attempts at Palestinian unity, experts are doubtful that the latest pact will succeed, not least because Hamas likely will not agree to hand over its weaponry and soldiers to Fatah control. 

“They’re talking about a technocracy so they won’t have to split the pie between them,” Mordechai Kedar, an expert on Islamist groups at Bar-Ilan University. “They can’t agree on anything.”

Netanyahu thus far has not responded to calls for unilateral action, but the collapse of negotiations means his governing coalition will hold for the moment. Jewish Home had threatened to leave had Netanyahu agreed to withdraw from much of the West Bank.

Meanwhile, analysts were not expecting another wave of violence. Palestinian security cooperation with Israel has helped curb Hamas’ influence in the West Bank, but it’s unclear whether such coordination will continue if Palestinian reconciliation becomes a reality.

Oren told JTA it was difficult to see how the Israel Defense Forces could continue to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority once the P.A. unites with Hamas.

“The cooperation is about fighting Hamas,” he said. “How can the IDF fight Hamas with Palestinian security forces who serve under a government that includes Hamas?”

Kerry: U.S. to reconsider peacemaking role


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States planned to re-evaluate its approach to Middle East peacemaking in light of recent setbacks.

In response to a question while visiting Morocco, Kerry said that he would return to Washington to confer with President Obama before deciding on the next steps. He said it was “reality-check time.”

“There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward,” he said Friday.

“We intend to evaluate,” he added. “Both sides say they want to continue. Neither party has said they have called it off. But we are not going to sit there indefinitely. It is not an open-ended effort,” he added, according to the New York Times.

But he acknowledged that the United States faced an array of foreign policy challenges, including in Ukraine, Iran and Syria. “We have an enormous amount on the plate,” he said.

On Friday, Kerry phoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bid to save the peace talks amid breakdowns that prevented progress.

On Tuesday, Abbas led the Palestinian Authority to apply to join 15 international conventions in defiance of its commitment not to seek such recognition until an agreement is in place.

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said wrote on Facebook that this “looks more like a deliberate provocation aimed at blowing up the talks.”

Abbas went ahead with the application after Israel failed to release 26 Palestinian prisoners it said it would release in a framework agreement for jump-starting talks. Israeli officials said they did not agree to the release of Israeli Arabs, a move which the Palestinian Authority demanded.

Palestinian negotiators are currently demanding that Netanyahu give a written commitment to recognize east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital and lift the naval blockade from Gaza as a condition to going ahead with peace talks, Army Radio on Friday reported. They are also demanding the release 1,200 prisoners, including Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, the report said.

Peres and Netanyahu, Israeli diplomacy’s good cop and bad cop


Israeli President Shimon Peres doubled up on positive statements about Arab leaders this afternoon, praising Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at noon and lauding Jordanian King Abdullah II at 3:30 p.m.

Today’s fare is nothing new  for Peres, who entered the largely ceremonial presidency in 2007. As president, Peres has found his niche channeling a friendly image of Israel.

That role has stood out especially under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ascended to power in 2009. Netanyahu has cultivated a tough-guy image in Israel when it comes to speaking on the world stage. Netanyahu is not afraid to lambast a world leader at the U.N. or to defy the Obama administration. When Netanyahu appeared on an Israeli sketch-comedy show last year, he said he wanted to be remembered as the “guardian of Israel’s security.”

So Peres the Peacemaker has at times been a stark counterpoint to Bibi-the-Cartoon-Bomb-Brandisher these past five years. While Netanyahu has talked Iran and Hamas, Peres has talked innovation and regional cooperation. Politically, he has also gone where Netanyahu wouldn’t, in particular when he posed in a “Middle East money shot” with Abbas and John Kerry two months before the latest round of peace talks even started.

Today’s statements were no exception. Peres called Abdullah to apologize for the death of a Jordanian judge, Raed Zeiter, who was shot by an Israeli soldier in an incident at the Allenby crossing last week. Netanyahu’s office expressed regret but stopped short of apologizing outright.

After the call, Peres issued a statement in which he said that the Jordanian king was ”a leader of vision, and under his leadership Jordan plays a key role in the search for peace and stability in the Middle East.”

Peres’ statement calling Abbas “a man of principle” and “a good partner” comes a day after Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said that Abbas was “not a partner for a final agreement.”

Peres will leave a complex legacy when he finishes his long political career this June. For his final chapter, though, Peres will likely be remembered as the diplomatic complement/foil to Netanyahu, the man who in 1996 unseated him as prime minister.

U.S. State Department denies Israeli-Palestinian peace talks canceled


The U.S. State Department on Monday denied reports that U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians had been canceled following clashes in the West Bank.

“I can assure you that no meetings have been canceled,” State Department spokeswoman Mari Harf told Reuters. “The parties are engaged in serious and sustained negotiations,” she said.

Earlier on Monday, Israel's Haaretz newspaper quoted a senior Palestinian official as saying that the Palestinians had canceled talks with the Israelis after Israeli troops shot dead three Palestinians during an early morning raid to arrest a suspected militant in the West Bank.

Peace talks resumed last month after a three-year stalemate over Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by David Brunnstrom

Livni sees peace talks aiding Arab world alliance shift


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BAN 'DEEPLY TROUBLED'

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palestinian prisoner release on track after High Court ruling


Israel was set to free 26 Palestinian prisoners within hours to help underpin renewed peace talks, after its High Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal against their release by relatives of some of the Israelis they killed.

Authorities planned to transport the group from jail in the dead of night in the early hours of Wednesday. The men, arrested between 1985 and 2001, were to return to homes in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

An Israeli official said they would be taken in vehicles with sealed windows to prevent a repetition of scenes in which released Palestinian prisoners have stretched out their hands in V-for-Victory signs.

Disdain for the prisoners is strong in Israel, whose media have featured detailed accounts of their attacks on Israelis since a release roster was published two days ago. Palestinians regard the men as heroes in a struggle for statehood.

The three-justice High Court panel ruled the government had been within its purview to free them, although Chief Justice Asher Grunis wrote in the decision that “our hearts are with the families, who are victims of terror”.

Yet Ada Kuenstler, whose 84-year-old father, Avraham Kuenstler, was killed in 1992 by a prisoner due to be released, said she understood Israel's political considerations in freeing Abdallah Salah from his 99-year sentence.

“I want peace and do not ask for revenge, and I am not objecting to this move because I want to hope that this will bring peace a little closer,” she told Reuters.

Hours after the release, U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians, which opened in Washington on July 30, were due to resume in Jerusalem, with further negotiations expected later in the West Bank.

The talks broke down three years ago in a dispute over settlement building in territory Palestinians seek for a state.

Israel's announcement on Sunday of plans to expand settlements drew Palestinian anger but no formal threat to withdraw from negotiations, whose resumption was driven by intensive shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The United States is seeking to broker a “two-state solution” in which Israel would exist peacefully alongside a Palestinian state created in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

The United States, European Union and United Nations on Monday condemned Israel's announcement of construction plans for about 2,000 new settler homes.

Most world powers regard all the settlements as illegal. During a visit to Colombia, Kerry called on the Palestinians “not to react adversely” to Israel's latest plans.

HAMAS REACTION

Israel dismissed such criticism, saying the settlement plans were intended for West Bank areas it wanted to keep under any peace deal with the Palestinians.

The 26 prisoners due to be released were among a total of 104 that Israel has agreed to free in four stages.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has vowed to seek freedom for all Palestinian prisoners, is set to gain by the prisoner releases, a highly charged issue in a society where thousands are held in Israeli custody.

“I think this is an important accomplishment, one that gives hope to the Palestinian people,” Palestinian Minister of Prisoners Issa Qaraqe told Reuters.

Abbas's Islamist rival, Hamas, had limited praise for the prisoner release, although it also reiterated its objections to negotiating with Israel, whose existence it rejects.

Some 500,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem amid 2.5 million Palestinians. Israelwithdrew in 2005 from the Gaza Strip, now governed by Hamas Islamists.

Few expect the latest negotiations to resolve issues that have defied solution for decades, such as borders, settlements, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The United States has said it seeks a peace deal within nine months.

Netanyahu appears to have decided he can ill afford to alienate the United States at the moment given the turmoil in the region, and led his pro-settlement government into talks.

Neighboring Egypt and Syria are in upheaval and Israel remains deeply concerned Iran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb, something Tehran denies. Israel is widely believed to be the only power in the Middle East with nuclear weapons.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Warren Strobel in Bogota; editing by Mike Collett-White

Give the peace process a chance


The questions come fast and furious: 

Why, of all times, now, when the Middle East is in upheaval and its future course is anyone's guess? 

What's the American obsession with this issue, when Iran, Russia, Syria, Egypt, North Korea, and China all cry out for greater U.S. attention? 

Who's ready to believe the Palestinian Authority is any more willing today than yesterday to engage in serious, purposeful talks? 

How can anyone discuss a two-state deal when Gaza is in the hands of Hamas? 

Is Prime Minister Netanyahu, rhetoric apart, really serious about an agreement? 

And are the Israeli people likely to overcome doubts about Palestinian intentions to support a deal that would entail major sacrifices and risks – indeed, already has in the form of the upcoming, and highly contentious, release of convicted Palestinian murderers (and which, by the way, should be sufficient to answer the previous question)? 

These concerns mustn't be dismissed out-of-hand, but there's more to the story – and it leads to the conclusion that the talks are worth pursuing. 

No, I don't say this, as some have suggested, to curry favor with the Obama Administration, nor to receive more invitations to the White House Chanukah party, nor to get a pat on the shoulder from Secretary of State John Kerry. And no, I haven't succumbed to the fantasy of those on the left who believe a Middle East Woodstock is just around the corner. Not at all! 

Rather, I do so for three reasons. 

First, for friends of Israel, the status quo may seem sustainable. In reality, it's not. 

True, the Israeli economy continues to perform wonders. The IDF is at peak strength. Acts of terrorism against Israelis have been far fewer in recent months. And Israeli life is humming in a way that few on the outside, reliant on the media for their images, could ever fully appreciate. 

But where does this lead? Will the Palestinians disappear? Will their demands evaporate or end up on a back burner? Will the world, led in this case by the European Union and the automatic majority in the UN, one day stop their relentless preoccupation with the Palestinians? Will the U.S. always be there to stand up for Israeli policy, even if Washington considers it short-sighted and self-defeating? 

In other words, would Israel, assuming it wanted to, be able to retain control of the West Bank well into the distant future without taking account of some serious consequences? 

For Israel to remain a democratic and Jewish state, it is in Israel's national interest to seek a way to disentangle itself from rule over as many Palestinians as possible. 

Yes, Israel came into possession of the West Bank in a defensive war in 1967 and, had it not been the victor, the country could well have faced annihilation. And yes, the West Bank is the cradle of Jewish civilization. 

But that doesn't end the argument. Rather, it underscores the need for extraordinarily careful attention to security arrangements in any two-state deal and solid guarantees for Israeli access to Jewish holy sites. 

Second, I've long believed – and, as a result, locked horns with some on the left – that if a two-state deal is to be achieved, it's best done by a hard-nosed, right-of-center Israeli leader with impeccable security credentials. 

That's precisely the case in Israel today. 

The shrill critics of a revitalized peace process seem to have forgotten that the talks are led on the Israeli side by Benjamin Netanyahu, and supported by such top officials as Moshe Ya'alon, the defense minister and former IDF chief of staff, and Tzipi Livni, the justice minister with the Likud Party and Mossad in her résumé. 

The critics may not now trust them, but then again they wouldn't trust anyone who dared to negotiate. There will always be the rash accusations that the leaders “sold out,” or “yielded to inordinate U.S. pressure,” or “are seeking the Nobel Peace Prize.” 

Netanyahu, Ya'alon, Livni and others have had one overarching, life-long goal – ensuring the security and viability of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people. 

They know no less well than their critics on the right the immense difficulties confronting them in pursuing this aim – from ongoing Palestinian incitement and glorification of terrorists, to profound questions about the regional environment, to concerns about the viability of a future “democratic” and “demilitarized” Palestinian state. 

Have they suddenly turned fuzzy-headed, weak-kneed, or naïve about the challenge before them? No. Rather, they have reached the stark conclusion that the status quo is not in Israel's long-term interest – and that choices in life are not always between “good” and “bad,” but, as often as not, between “bad” and “worse.” 

And third, the chorus of right-wing critics ascribes to the United States malign motives, suggesting this process is sparked by an “unfriendly” President Obama who wants to “damage” Israel in his effort to “reorient” U.S. foreign policy. 

I don't buy the argument. And I don't say so as a partisan, since I'm most assuredly not. 

What does it take to convince the doubters that there's good will on the American side? 

Probably nothing will work, but, despite some early missteps by the Obama administration, there's some pretty compelling evidence here – the bilateral military, strategic, and intelligence relationship has never been stronger, as knowledgeable Israelis will attest; the U.S. has stood up for Israel time and again, often alone, at the UN; and Secretary Kerry's voting record over his long Senate career is a matter of public record. 

Finally, let me frame the issue another way. 

Israel must never hesitate to show up at any serious negotiating table. It does so today from a position of remarkable strength. It cannot be bullied into making a deal potentially injurious to the country's security. It has a powerful friend in the United States. And, yes, it is driven by the age-old Jewish yearning for enduring peace. 

If the Palestinians once again prove they are unwilling partners, as they did in 2000-1 and again in 2008, let the world see who torpedoed a potential deal. 

Sure, there's that enabling pro-Palestinian community – diplomats, journalists, “human rights” activists, entertainers – who are willfully blind, for whom the problem always has been and will be Israel, but others will figure it out. 

And if, miracle of miracles, the Palestinian leadership actually turns out to be a credible partner this time, then, of course, all the more reason to try. 

So, let's give the peace process a chance.