Sanders: Netanyahu is ‘wrong on occasion’


Bernie Sanders is not backing down on his claim that Israel used ‘disproportionate’ force against Hamas in the 2014 Gaza war.

“You cannot ignore the needs of the Palestinian people,” Sanders said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday. “I think in the Gaza, it was a disproportionate response. You had some 1,500 civilians killed. I think you had 10,000 or so wounded. That was a disproportionate response.”

Sanders took the role of Israel’s opposition leader in suggesting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wrong “on occasion.”

“You can’t just always nod your head to Netanyahu,” he told George Stephanopoulos. “He is wrong on occasion.”

The Democratic presidential hopeful also responded to ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt accusing him of playing into the hands of those who claim that Israel is the main problem in this conflict.

“Well, they can say what they want,” said Sanders. “I didn’t say Israel’s the main problem. All I am saying is you cannot ignore the needs of the Palestinian people. And right now, as you know, in Gaza, there is mass destruction that has not been addressed right now. Poverty rate is off the charts; 40 percent people are unemployed. We are United States of America. If we want to bring people together, we have got to address those issues.”

Asked to rate President Barack Obama’s approach to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sanders said, “I think he’s done much better than his predecessors. But I think we still have a way to go. And I was not criticizing President Obama; I was criticizing Secretary Clinton.”

 

Netanyahu: Israel will settle accounts with murderers


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to implement new measures to bring quiet to Israeli cities amid a wave of terror attacks.

“Israel will come to settle accounts with the murderers and those who want to kill, and anyone who helps them. Not only won’t they have any rights, but we will extract the full price from them,” Netanyahu said Tuesday afternoon during an address in Knesset marking the 14th anniversary of the assassination of government minister Rehavam Zeevi. He briefly left an emergency Security Cabinet meeting at which the measures were being discussed to speak to the Knesset.

Israeli media reported Tuesday evening that the government will send Israeli soldiers to support police forces in cities that have been hit with terror attacks.

During the day, three Israelis were killed and more than 20 injured in terror attacks in Jerusalem and the central Israeli city of Raanana. Two Palestinian assailants also were killed.

Netanyahu in his Knesset address called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “Stop lying, stop inciting. A true leader must demonstrate responsibility.”

“Do not turn murderers into heroes,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu also addressed Arab citizens of Israel.

“Do not be misled by agitators who want to ignite the fire in the country. We live together. We believe in coexistence. It is very easy to unravel the threads that bind us to one another. Do not be tempted to do so,” he said.

He also called on Israeli citizens not to carry out revenge attacks.

“Israeli citizens must not raise a hand against innocent civilians on either side. Israel is a state of law,” Netanyahu said. “Those who take the law into his hands will pay the price.”

Meanwhile, some 20,000 demonstrators gathered Tuesday in the Arab-Israeli city of Sakhnin in northern Israel to show support for the Palestinians. Arab-Israeli lawmakers, including Ahmed Tibi and Jamal Zahalka, addressed the crowds.

On Tuesday evening, a Palestinian man from  Bethlehem was killed during clashes in the West Bank city with Israeli troops. The Palestinian Maan news agency reported that the man, whom it identified as Mutaz Ibrahim Zawahreh, 27, was hit with a live bullet in the chest.

Palestinian Gazans earlier in the day rioted at the border with Israel, with dozens breaking through the border fence in southern Gaza. They were turned back with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Hamas political chief confirms negotiations with Israel


Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal confirmed that his organization is negotiating with Israel over a long-term truce and described the talks as “very positive.”

In an interview with a London-based Qatari newspaper published Friday, Meshaal said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is one of the mediators and that talks have not yet produced an agreement.

In the interview, according to the Times of Israel, Meshaal listed five obstacles standing in the way of a long-term cease-fire with Israel: reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, which was badly damaged in last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas; removal of the blockade and opening of the border crossings; addressing Gaza’s high rate of unemployment; allowing the construction of a seaport and airport, and building water and electricity infrastructures in the territory.

Meshaal said, “We do not want wars, but the legitimate resistance against the occupation will continue so long as the occupation and settlements continue, but we do not seek wars.”

Earlier this week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied reports that his government was negotiating with Hamas, the Islamist terrorist organization that governs Gaza. “Israel officially clarifies that there have been no meetings with Hamas. Not directly, not through another country and not through intermediaries,” he said in a statement issued Monday.

Netanyahu slams world’s silence following rocket attacks


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the international community’s failure to speak out against renewed rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel.

Rockets were fired from Gaza at southern Israel on Saturday evening — the third attack in two weeks. In response the Israel Defense Forces struck what it called in a statement “terror infrastructure” in the northern Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu said Sunday at the beginning of the weekly Cabinet meeting, less than a day after the attack from Gaza, that Israel holds Hamas responsible for all the firing from the coastal strip at Israel.

“I have not heard anyone in the international community condemn this firing; neither has the U.N. said a word,” he said. “It will be interesting if this silence continues when we use our full strength to uphold our right to defend ourselves.

“Let it be clear: The spreading of hypocrisy in the world will not tie our hands and prevent us from protecting Israel’s citizens. Thus we have acted; thus we will act.”

In the latest attack, at least one rocket landed in an unpopulated area of Ashkelon. No damage or injuries were reported. Local residents reported hearing the explosion.

The IDF also closed the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings between Israel and Gaza, with an exception for medical emergencies and humanitarian aid. The crossings were closed on Saturday night following an Israeli government directive, according to the IDF, and will require a government directive to reopen.

On Friday, the IDF reportedly deployed at least two Iron Dome Iron Dome anti-missile defense system batteries in southern Israel in response to a rocket attack from Gaza on June 3. A radical Islamist Salafist group called the Omar Brigades took responsibility for that attack, saying it was in retaliation for Hamas’ killing of an Islamic State supporter in Gaza the previous day.

UCLA Jewish Studies head stands behind keynote invitation to Cornel West for Heschel conference


Amidst objections from some leading Jewish voices at UCLA to an invitation to Cornel West—an author, academic and an outspoken critic of Israel—to serve as the keynote speaker at an upcoming UCLA conference to honor the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Todd Presner, director of UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, said Tuesday he does not plan to rescind the invitation.

West is set to speak at UCLA at the May 3 conference titled “Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity” organized by the Jewish Studies department. He’s then scheduled to be on a panel—moderated by Presner—with Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. and Heschel’s daughter, Susannah. West is an admirer and reader of Heschel and, according to an article in The Jewish Week in 2013, has described the rabbi as “a soul mate, part of my heart, mind, soul and witness.”

West has also in recent months spoken out in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and is a fierce critic of Israel, drawing the ire of pro-Israel supporters. In July, during the middle of Israel’s war with Hamas, he posted on Facebook, “The Israeli massacre of innocent Palestinians, especially the precious children, is a crime against humanity!”

In a February interview at Stanford University, published in Salon, West characterized the Gaza Strip as “not just a ‘kind of’ concentration camp—it is the hood on steroids.”

Judea Pearl, president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation and a UCLA professor, wrote an ” target=”_blank”>wrote on their blog, The Wide Angle, “It is insulting to memorialize Rabbi Heschel, a Jewish leader who extolled the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, with the likes of West.”

On Tuesday, the leadership of Hillel at UCLA released a statement extolling the conference but condemning West:

“It is with dismay that we have been confronted by the outrageous pronouncements of Cornel West, a keynote speaker at the Heschel Conference,” the statement read in part. “We firmly reject and condemn West’s recent statements concerning Israel at Princeton and Stanford as libelous incitement. They are an affront to Rabbi Heschel’s pursuit of truth.”

In an interview Tuesday with the Journal, Presner said that while he doesn’t “excuse, justify, or apologize” for West’s positions on Israel, his invitation to West remains in place.

“We may have pressure to rescind the invitation but that’s not the plan,” Presner said. “We didn’t ask him to come to UCLA to espouse a particular political position or platform—we asked him to talk about Heschel and the relationship to the civil rights movement.”

“West is one of 26 people that we asked to come to UCLA to speak about Heschel,” Presner said. “I think it’s important to realize we have 25 other [speakers].”

Presner was also in the news in late March, when he informed officials at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that he was canceling his planned speech there on the Holocaust on April 27, saying he would not speak at the school until its chancellor, Phyllis Wise, is no longer in charge. 

Presner’s decision came in response to the school's

The virtues of isolation


By accepting a ceasefire with Hamas, Israel's leaders have revoked Israeli citizens' inalienable right to live free within secure borders. Choosing shame over victory, the government in Jerusalem has allowed the terrorist group ruling Gaza to dictate the timing and terms of the twelfth cease-fire agreement in less than two months. 

This sad state of affairs is the result of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's acceptance of the inevitability of Hamas rule over Gaza. In response, the Israeli electorate is rapidly abandoning their elected leader: from a high of 82 percent, Netanyahu's approval rating has plummeted to 38 percent in less than a month.

What happened?

Israelis of every political persuasion, age, gender, religious stream and socio-economic strata have come to realize an essential truth: Israel can defeat Hamas and Islamic Jihad by temporarily occupying the Gaza Strip and demilitarizing these and other terrorist groups.

Similar to the US handling of a defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, quiet borders tomorrow are predicated on a focused, aggressive and comprehensive Israeli military campaign inside Gaza today. 

Much like other terrorist outfits, including Peru's 'Shining Path' and Sri Lanka's 'Tamille Tigers', the government in Jerusalem can end Hamas's genocidal reign within a relatively brief period.

First, Israel's leaders need to redefine the benchmark for victory.

The destruction of 31 terror tunnels is not a victory. Neither is the bombing of approximately 5,000 terrorist sites across the Gaza Strip. Killing a few Hamas head honchos has done little more than provide laudatory headlines for pro-government Israeli news outlets to print.

All these much-touted successes are little more than the means to what has not yet been defined as the end:

Safeguarding Israel's historic and human right to live as a sovereign country among the family of nations.

Israeli leadership has first procrastinated and then reluctantly approved measured, restrained operations against an enemy committed to a total war of extermination.

This latest ceasefire will do little more than preserve Hamas's self-proclaimed right to threaten every Israeli man, woman and child with rocket fire as it sees fit.

Interestingly, Israel's most eloquent defenders and harshest critics share one fundamental belief about the country: the Jewish nation is unlike any other.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is acting out of fear that if Hamas is eliminated, the world will turn against Israel, turning the Jewish State into an international pariah.

Yet Netanyahu and his supporters seem to have forgotten the most basic lesson of contemporary Jewish history: Israel's national aspiration has never been to be merely tolerated by the international community, but to plant the tree of liberty in the heart of the most despotic region on earth.

Let an impotent United States, certain European governments and of course the United Nations obsess over maintaining geopolitical stability.

Israel is the first and possibly last great hope for democracy in the Middle East. As such, the Jewish State must aspire to more than just exist. Israeli leaders are charged with a sacred duty: to provide for the well-being, individuality and happiness of every citizen. 

How does a ceasefire with 15,000 well-financed fanatics do that?
 

Netanyahu: ‘No immunity’ for those who fire at Israel


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that any building from which Hamas carries out terrorist activities is a target for Israel.

Netanyahu, speaking at the beginning of the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, said the Gaza operation will continue “until its goals are achieved.” As he did earlier this month, the Israeli leader again equated Hamas to the jihadist group ISIS.

He called on the residents of Gaza “to immediately evacuate any building from which Hamas is carrying out terrorist activity. Any such place is a target for us.

“In recent days we have proven there is no immunity for those who fire at Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said. “This is true in all sectors and regarding all borders.”

Several hours earlier, Israel had leveled a 12-story apartment building with an airstrike that its military said housed Hamas operations.

Addressing directly the Israeli citizens living in areas on the border with Gaza, Netanyahu said, “I appreciate your resilience. I appreciate your suffering and I share your pain.” He promised that the government would approve a package of assistance for southern Israeli communities for during and after the operation.

Netanyahu also said, “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas. They act in the same way. They are branches of the same poisonous tree. They are two extremist Islamic terrorist movements that abduct and murder innocents, that execute their own people, that shrink at nothing including the willful murder of children.”

The Gaza operation could extend into the start of the school year, the prime minister said.

More rockets fired on Israel as communities open bomb shelters


A barrage of rockets was fired from Gaza at southern Israel after a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian groups was broken.

The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted two of the rockets fired Tuesday evening. Earlier in the day, rockets were fired at Beersheba in violation of the 24-hour extension of a five-day cease-fire. The Israeli military retaliated with strikes on Gaza.

Southern Israeli communities returned to emergency procedures adopted prior to the cease-fire, and communities in southern and central Israel reopened public bomb shelters.

Israel recalled its delegation to the Cairo indirect truce negotiations following the new rocket fire.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum suggested earlier on Tuesday that more rocket fire on Israel was imminent, telling The Associated Press, “If Netanyahu doesn’t understand … the language of politics in Cairo, we know how to make him understand,” referring to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Another Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, asserted that the organization was interested in an agreement but said that “Israeli attacks are meant to pressure the Palestinian envoy.” Zuhri said that Hamas was not aware of any rockets being fired from Gaza.

Israel’s economy minister, Naftali Bennett, said about the resumption of rocket attacks, “When you want to beat a terror organization, you defeat it. When you hold negotiations with a terror organization, you get more terror.

Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party, called for a “harsh response” to Hamas.

“Sooner or later Israel will have to defeat Hamas, there’s no way to avoid it,” he said.

 

 

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.”

On packed flight to Israel, hundreds of American Jews, emboldened by Gaza crisis, start lives anew


Daniel Knafo was wide awake aboard the Boeing 747 as sunlight began peaking over the northern horizon of the Mediterranean Sea early on the morning of Aug. 12.

Less than 10 hours earlier, he was at the departure terminal of John F. Kennedy International Airport with more than 300 American Jews, all of them embarking on a journey to start new lives in Israel.

And shortly before that, the teenager was at Los Angeles International Airport, bidding farewell to the city he called home for the first 17 years of his life.

At about 5 a.m., Knafo was standing in the aisle of El Al chartered flight 3004, which was cruising above the Mediterranean and less than two hours west of Ben Gurion International Airport, where the Woodland Hills native  would step on to the tarmac with the other 338 other Jews onboard—young, old, married and single.

Guy Zohar and Daniel Knafo, both from the San Fernando Valley, at Ben Gurion Airport.

Of those, Knafo was also one of 108 young Jews planning to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces within the first few months of making Israel home. This flight was chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that promotes aliyah to Israel from North America and the United Kingdom. The group assists families and individuals in making the move, with financial support, assistance with the job hunt and other myriad obstacles that immigrants have to navigate.

It was the organization’s 52nd chartered aliyah flight since its founding in 2002, during which time, according to its website, Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped more than 30,000 diaspora Jews move to Israel.

The timing of this particular flight full of immigrants, or olim, may strike some as particularly poignant, given the on-and-off war that has enveloped Israel for the past several weeks—Hamas has fired 3,500 rockets into Israel since July 8, according to the IDF. And in response to the rockets and the discovery of more than 30 underground cross-border attack tunnels, Israel’s military launched a ground and air assault on Hamas’s strongholds in Gaza, most of which are densely populated within civilian neighborhoods. The war has left a reported 64 Israeli soldiers, three Israeli civilians, and 1,881 Palestinians dead.

But for Knafo and numerous other American olim interviewed by the Journal at JFK airport and aboard the flight, the Gaza war is not a deterrent to making aliyah—it is, at least in part, a catalyst to move to the Jewish state.

“I want to be there more than ever,” Knafo said, as dozens of fellow soon-to-be soldiers socialized around him. “Nothing will stop me from joining.”

Knafo, who attended El Camino Real High School and graduated from New Community Jewish High School, hopes to serve either in the IDF’s paratrooper unit (Tzanchanim) or in the elite Golani Brigade. He is honest with himself about the risks he will face. “If they tell you they are not scared, they’re lying,” he said of all the  young immigrants preparing for military service.

Not long before leaving, on July 20, Knafo attended an evening candlelight vigil in Los Angeles for Max Steinberg, another former student at El Camino Real High School who left Los Angeles to volunteer in the IDF. Steinberg and six other soldiers were killed in Gaza when their Golani unit’s vehicle was struck by Hamas anti-tank missiles in the first days of the IDF’s ground incursion.

Knafo said that he felt guilty leading a normal life while Israel was embroiled in war.
“It kills me that while they are fighting I’m in L.A. living the life, driving my car, going to the beach,” he said. “I don’t think its right. That’s why I want to be there more than ever.”

Knafo is one of 49 Jews from California who landed at Ben Gurion Airport early on the morning of Aug. 12 on the chartered flight—25 of whom will be joining the IDF. And while a large swath of the plane’s other passengers were also from New York and New Jersey (117 and 45, respectively), the group of olim hailed from places as far north as Alaska and Canada’s British Columbia, and as far south as Georgia and Florida.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, also from Los Angeles, decided that this would be their last chance to make the move with their three children. Their oldest, Yishai, 8, was approaching the age when, Matt said, he and Ariella wouldn’t feel as comfortable starting a new life for the entire family.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, moving to Israel from Los Angeles, with their three children at JFK after a ceremony led by Nefesh B'Nefesh

The Rosenblatts plan to stay with relatives this week until they receive the key to their apartment in Efrat; Matt, who had a job as an actuary in Los Angeles, will follow up on some work leads in Israel. Shortly before a joyful and celebratory departure ceremony at JFK—where the olim were greeted by Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor and American-born Knesset member Dov Lipman — Matt said he and Ariella discussed the distinctive timing of their move, but decided against delaying or cancelling .

“Had we been there already two months and then this started up while we were already there, we wouldn’t have come back, so, really, what’s the difference?” Matt said.

The Rosenblatts a few moments after landing in Israel. They will soon move into an apartment in Efrat.

Onboard, as the flight neared Israel, Ariella was keeping an eye on 1-year-old Yair, her youngest, and recalling the couples’ conversations about the fact that their children would eventually have to serve in the Israeli military.

“We’ve talked about it. We were like, ‘Wow, that’s two sons in the army,” she said. “It’s scary.”
Feeling “excited” and “a little nervous,” Ariella added, seeing your children serve in the military is a price of living in Israel, and that, “We need to be home when our country is in this situation.”

Throughout the group, not one person interviewed expressed regret or fear, either at the decision to start anew in Israel, or at the choice to go now and not wait until the advent of cease-fires that would endure in longer than 72-hour intervals.

In fact, the spirited mood on board the airplane echoed, on the one hand, the feel of a Jewish summer camp field trip (with teenagers and young adults mingling, sitting on laps and barely sleeping), and on another hand, the patriotic Zionist mission that it was. Many passengers wore shirts that read, “Aliyah is my protective edge,” a reference to Operation Protective Edge, the IDF’s official moniker for its Gaza campaign.

Whenever a Nefesh B’Nefesh staff member referenced over loudspeaker those on the flight who would be enlisting with the IDF, much of the plane erupted in applause.

And, upon arrival at Ben Gurion, the new arrivals were greeted by Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s recently appointed president, and Natan Sharansky, the renowned Soviet refusenik and chairman of the Jewish Agency—as well as hundreds of cheering Israelis and dozens of reporters and cameramen covering the arrival of the newcomers from North America.President Reuven Rivlin and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky greet the olim as they descend to the tarmac.

Lena Elkins, who flew Friday from her hometown of San Francisco to New York, was one of a small number of young olim aboard the flight who will jump straight into her professional life without first joining the military. A recent graduate of the University of Oregon, Elkins’ younger sister moved to Israel last year and is in the IDF.

Living in Israel, Elkins said a few hours into the flight, has been on her mind since a visit six years ago with the Jewish Federation’s Diller Teen Fellows Program. And while she wishes she had served in the military, she said finding work is her priority now. Doing so in Israel, she said, particularly now, is also a major part of the Zionist project.

“I think it [Gaza] honestly has strengthened it [aliyah],” Elkins said. “It’s what Israel needs right now. This is what Zionism is. It’s people being there for Israel.”

Shortly after stepping foot on the tarmac and getting a feel for the love Israelis heap on diaspora Jews who move here, Channah Barkhordarie, a recent doctoral graduate of UCLA, said aliyah entered her mind last September, when her PhD advisor moved to Israel.

Barkhordarie, like Elkins, has no plans to enlist in the military and views her decision to live here as a way to “support this state.”

“Coming here and studying here and living my life here—that’s my show of support,” she said.

Everyone, it seemed, had made their aliyah decision long before this summer’s turmoil but that decision was only rendered more meaningful by the recent war, as well as the deaths of three Israeli teens by terrorists that provoked the fighting.

Toby and Chaby Karan, from Riverdale, at JFK airport.

“We just couldn’t cope with just being here,” Toby Karan, who moved from Riverdale, N.Y. with his wife, Chava, and four children, said at JFK airport before departure. “There were days through the past two months, the hardest days, that we said we’d never more wanted to live in Israel.”

On the flight, Liat Aharon, 18, sat calmly in her seat as many of her friends around her bounced around the cabin. “It seems like a dream,” said the Encino native of the approach to Israel, but she added, “It keeps getting scarier and scarier; I can’t believe it’s already happening.”

When asked, though, whether she felt as if she was leaving home or going home, she responded immediately:

“I’m going home.”

Netanyahu: Israel will not end Gaza war until tunnels destroyed


Israel will not end its operation in Gaza before destroying all the Hamas-built tunnels, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an address to the nation.

Neutralizing the tunnels is the first step toward demilitarization of Gaza, Netanyahu said Monday night in a nationally televised speech from the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv.  He said the international community must demand the demilitarization of Gaza and monitor the building materials that enter Gaza in the future.

“We need to be prepared for a continued operation,” Netanyahu said. “We will fight to defend our citizens, our children.”

Netanyahu’s call to continue the operation until the tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border are destroyed appeared to be a rejection of President Obama’s insistence on an immediate and unconditional cease-fire, a message he conveyed to Netanyahu in a phone call Sunday afternoon.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said the “complex” operation in Gaza could continue for several more days, adding, “The price is painful, but we remain determined.”

He praised what he called the “unprecedented cooperation” of Israel’s air, sea, land and intelligence military sectors.

Gazan civilians warned by the IDF through leaflets or phone calls to leave their homes should listen, Gantz said, because “When we reach Hamas positions, it’s going to hurt.”

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said that Israel “will not hesitate to expand IDF action in a way that will harm Hamas,” saying the operation “could last long days until security and quiet is returned to Israel.”

Immunity and Impunity: Fear and Loathing in Gaza


“The terrorists are firing rockets from schools, from mosques, from hospitals, from heavily civilian populations. We have to try and are doing our best to minimize civilian casualties. But we cannot give our attackers immunity or impunity.”– Benyamin Netanyahu, on July 24, 2014

Instead of using a Torah passage to begin a teaching, I want to start with these words of Netanyahu. On the same day that Bibi spoke them, Israel may have bombed a UN school, which had become a place of refuge for Palestinians who left their homes to escape the shelling – at least fifteen died, and a hundred were wounded. We don’t know for sure if it was Israeli fire that hit this school, but Israel has shelled schools two other times during this war. As Bibi said, “we cannot give our attackers immunity or impunity.” I want to drash these words – explain them – using Torah and rabbinic tradition.

The Talmud (Beitzah 32b) says that the Jews are a compassionate people (rachmanim), and that someone who claims to be Jewish but doesn’t show the quality of compassion is not really a Jew. Sefer Chinukh (Yitro 42) says that Jews are “compassionate people, sons and daughters of compassionate people”. The Zohar (1:174a) even says that when Jacob received the name Israel after wrestling the angel, that this was in order to allow Jacob to become attached to this quality of compassion.

According to rabbinic tradition (both midrash and Kabbalah), the most important name of God, YHVH (often translated as Lord), is also tied to compassion, whereas the name Elohim is tied to God’s judgment. The Zohar explains that Jacob was renamed Israel in order to bring down into the world that quality of YHVH’s compassion.

At the same time, there still is a need for God’s judgment. When is that? Says the Zohar (ibid.), “When the wicked abound in the world, God’s name becomes Elohim” – because God must bring judgment upon the wicked in order to save the world.

Now listen again to what Netanyahu is saying. He is not just prosecuting a war, he is carrying out a judgment, deciding between those who should have immunity, and those who should not. It is as if Bibi were casting the IDF in the role of instrument of God’s judgment. Bibi sounds a note of compassion (“we have to try to minimize civilian casualties”), but he does so in order to validate that what is raining down upon Hamas is truly justice, not just vengeance.

But what is justice, and what is vengeance?

Take a step back, to before this war. One of Hamas’s demands is an end to the blockade of Gaza. Israel’s blockade of Gaza has been going on since Hamas came to power. The blockade has always had several purposes. One was to stop arms from being smuggled in. But, many say, another goal was to make sure the Gazan Palestinians knew that they had chosen wrongly by electing Hamas, by electing a government that rejects the existence of Israel. To put it bluntly, the people were made to suffer because they had sinned.

When Bibi says that there can be no “immunity or impunity”, it doesn’t just mean impunity for Hamas. It means that there is no place in Gaza safe from Israel’s arm of justice, the arm that brings down God’s judgment. In reality, because of the way Gaza is set up and fenced in, this means no impunity for anyone. There is no place in Gaza where non-combatants, families, children, can be immune from attack – not the beach, not a school, not a hospital.

It is possible to claim that it is right for Israel to enact God’s judgment. After all, the same Zohar passage teaches that even though Jacob became attached to compassion when he was renamed Israel, sometimes Israel must turn back into Jacob: “When Jacob was not in the
midst of enemies or in a foreign land, he was called Israel; when he was among enemies or in a foreign land, he was called Jacob.” From the Zohar’s perspective, when Israel is in the midst of enemies, it is both necessary and right for Israel to turn back into Jacob, to embody and become the instrument of God’s judgment.

And yet: “One who shows no compassion, it is known for sure that he is not of the seed of Abraham.” (Talmud, ibid.) I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Hamas members, being Muslim, are also of the seed of Abraham. That Hamas has been hiding rockets in schools, daring Israel to fire on places that should be safe (see Haaretz.) That Hamas used concrete to build miles of tunnels and no public bomb shelters. And that Hamas’s lack of compassion, to their own people and to Israeli civilians, shows that they are neither true Muslims, nor of the spiritual seed of Abraham.

Yet Netanyahu’s nod to compassion also seems like the nod of one who has lost compassion’s compass, not like one “from the seed of Abraham”. Why must there be no place of “immunity or impunity”? What if Israel decided to never shell schools and hospitals where people were taking refuge?

Surely I will never be called on to make such decisions, and I also know that people in Israel – Jews and Arabs – are traumatized by Gaza’s rocket fire, and that it needs to stop. I know Israel needs to defend itself. And yet…

This shabbat, we read about the city of refuge or “ir miklat”, where someone who has accidentally killed another can flee in order to be safe from punishment. (Numbers 35) Just as happens in war, outside the city of refuge (by analogy, in the chaos of a combat zone), a “blood-redeemer” has the right to avenge the victim’s death. However, if this blood-redeemer attempts to kill a person who has reached a refuge, he or she is counted as a murderer.

But what if there is no refuge? What if the fighting leaves no site of refuge in Gaza to which people can flee? As Netanyahu has clearly said, there will be no place off-limits to Israel’s artillery. If Hamas makes any building a target, the IDF will shoot at it.

The idea of a city of refuge isn’t just an analogy; the idea at its heart threads its way throughout Jewish law, which requires that if one besieges a city, one side of the city must be left open for people who wish to flee. “A place should be left open for fleeing, and for all those who desire to escape with their lives.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 6:7)

If one prosecutes a war, in a place where innocents have no place safe to flee to, and no way to leave, then that becomes murder. If the attacking army drops leaflets and calls civilians, telling them to evacuate an area that will be bombed, but there is no place to evacuate to, what compassion is this? How does it affect the “purity of arms” that has always been the hallmark of the IDF?

And yet – such liberal interpretations are good, but this week’s Torah reading is also a bonanza for the most right-wing policies. It defines the borders of the land of Israel in a way that includes all of Gaza and the West Bank (Numbers 34), and in Numbers 33:55, it commands the Israelites to “drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you” because otherwise “they will be thorns in your sides and they will harass you”. The rabbinic response was that these strictures applied only to the original Canaanite nations, and not to anyone else, certainly not to the Palestinians. But that won’t stop those right-wing people who believe that God is on their side, who may wish to believe that they are the arm of God’s judgment.

One thing is true, however. If we ever were “compassionate people, the sons and daughters of compassionate people”, we can no longer count on this. Along with hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis who have died, so has our claim as Jews to be the unwavering seed of Abraham. Perhaps if we realized this, we would be ready to make peace, one broken people to another.

Netanyahu: Hamas leaves Israel no choice but to intensify Gaza op


Israel will “expand and intensify” its military operation against Hamas in the wake of a failed cease-fire attempt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

In an address to the nation Tuesday night, which came less than an hour after the announcement of the first Israeli death in the latest Gaza conflict, a civilian, Netanyahu said, “If there is to be no cease-fire, our answer is fire.”

“It would have been preferable to have solved this diplomatically, and this is what we tried to do when we accepted the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire, but Hamas leaves us no choice but to expand and intensify the campaign against it,” he said.

Netanyahu said the campaign will continue until the military has eliminated the threats to Israel.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said in the same address that the country is “determined to continue the operation” in Gaza and “will not compromise the security of the state.”

The person killed was a 37-year-old civilian who brought food and treats to Israeli soldiers operating near the Erez border crossing with Gaza. He was hit with a mortar fired from Gaza.

Nearly 200 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed since the start of the operation.

Also Tuesday, 25 mobile bomb shelters donated by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews were placed in southern Israeli communities hard hit by rockets from Gaza, including Ashdod, Ashkelon and Lachish.

The group raised more than $2 million in the early days of Operation Protective Edge, now in its eighth day. Part of the funding was used to open an emergency support center for the elderly in areas affected by the rockets, providing assistance including delivering food and medicines, as well as staying in contact with them.

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.

Palestinian prisoner list released prior to renewed talks


A committee of Israeli government ministers released a list of Palestinian prisoners to be freed by Israel in advance of the first round of peace negotiations.

The list released at 1 a.m. Monday includes 14 prisoners who will be transferred this week to Gaza, several of whom are members of Hamas. Eight prisoners on the list were due to be released in the next three years and two in the next six months.

Following the publication of the list, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the release violated agreements with Israel, saying the prisoners were not supposed to be deported to Gaza or abroad.

Abbas and Erekat reportedly told senior U.S. officials that they would not agree to the deportation of any prisoner released, according to Haaretz.

Twenty-one of the prisoners on the list were convicted of killing Israelis or Palestinians accused of being collaborators, and most had served at least 20 years.

Some families of the prisoners’ victims at their request were notified of the release decision before the list was made public.

Under Israeli law, the names of the prisoners must be made public 48 hours before their release in order to allow Supreme Court challenges.

Eventually 104 prisoners jailed before the 1993 Oslo Accords will be released in phases over the next eight months, pending progress in the talks.

Sunday’s committee meeting took place without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who underwent hernia surgery late Saturday night.

Abbas and Erekat also decried Sunday’s announcement by Israel of new construction approvals for hundreds of apartments in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.

The peace talks are scheduled to resume Wednesday in Jerusalem following a three-year freeze, but the Palestinians have threatened to skip the meeting, according to reports.

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.

Obama asks Netanyahu to start negotiating as Kerry ends 6th round of meetings


U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urge him to resume negotiations with the Palestinians.

Obama called Netanyahu on Thursday, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting with Palestinian negotiator in Amman, Jordan, on Kerry’s sixth visit to the region in recent months to jumpstart peace talks. Kerry is scheduled to leave on Friday.

“The President encouraged Prime Minister Netanyahu to continue to work with Secretary Kerry to resume negotiations with the Palestinians as soon as possible,” the White House said in a statement. The statement also said the leaders also talked about security issues in Egypt, Iran and Syria.

Israel Army radio quoted an unnamed senior Israeli source as saying that Obama “urged Netanyahu to start negotiating with the Palestinians as soon as possible.”

Reports say that the Palestinians are ready to resume talks if Israel agrees to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines.

Kerry met Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in Jordan on Friday to discuss resuming peace talks with Israel, Reuters reported. The Palestinian leadership on Thursday did not accept Kerry’s latest proposal to restart the talks that have been stalled since 2010, but signaled they were leaving the door open for him to continue his peace push, according to Reuters.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Mary Harp said on Thursday that “the situation is fluid and they are following it closely.” She added that the State Department will not respond to rumors circulating in the media.

Bill Clinton to Israelis: Share future with a Palestinian state


There is no alternative to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Bill Clinton said at an event to honor Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Clinton was speaking Monday night at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot in honor of Peres’ 90th birthday.

“Your neighbors are still your neighbors,” the former U.S. president said of the Palestinians. “One way or the other, you’re going to share your future with them.

Saying he is like President Peres, Clinton said, ” I don’t see any alternative to a Palestinian state.” He added, “Paint a picture in your mind of the future you want to have and take the logical steps to achieve it.”

Clinton said he would give his $500,000 speakers’ fee to his charitable foundation. Earlier this month, the Israeli Jewish National Fund pulled out of the event following a public outcry and media scrutiny over the speakers’ fee; center donors covered the fee.

Clinton also said that “the saddest day of my presidency was the day Prime Minister (Yitzhak) Rabin lost his life” and that “never a week goes by, even now, that I don’t think of him and that I don’t think of the burdens Shimon took on in the wake of that day.”

Kerry, Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem to discuss restarting peace talks


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Jerusalem to discuss restarting negotiations with the Palestinians.

In their three-hour meeting Tuesday, the last day of Kerry's three-day visit to Israel, the two leaders also discussed the Iranian nuclear threat and the dangers of the civil war in Syria.

Netanyahu said in remarks before the meeting that Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state and security are “foremost in our minds.”

“I am determined to not only to resume the peace process with the Palestinians, but to make a serious effort to end this conflict once and for all,” Netanyahu said. “This is a real effort, and we look forward to advance in this effort with you.”

Kerry addressed the Iranian issue.

“President Obama could not be more clear: Iran cannot have and will not have a nuclear weapon,” he said. “And the United States of America has made clear that we stand not just with Israel but with the entire international community in making it clear that we are serious, we are open to negotiation, but it is not an open-ended, endless negotiation; it cannot be used as an excuse for other efforts to try to break out with respect to a nuclear weapon.”

Kerry on Monday participated in Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies and met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, a day after meeting with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

It has been reported that Kerry is pushing for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offered Israel a comprehensive peace with the Arab countries in the region in exchange for all land captured in 1967.

Jewish leaders urge Netanyahu to work with Obama on peace


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

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

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

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

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

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

Path to peace: J Street


Opponents of J Street consistently argue that our positions are somehow radical, strange and way out of the Israeli or American-Jewish mainstream.

The opposite is true: When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the two-state solution and the inexorable demographic threat to Israel’s future as a democratic state that remains the homeland for the Jewish people, our position is the same as that of the Israeli government, the Obama administration and the vast bulk of the American Jewish community.

It is right-wing critics like StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein who are out of step.

[Read a counterargument to this column here: Path to peace: StandWithUs]

Take for example the two-state solution. Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, in a March 15 NPR interview, said he agreed with our view that the current situation is unsustainable. 

“I think it’s preferable to replace it with a two-state solution based on recognition of the Palestinian people and their unassailable right to self-determination to live in their own state and their own homeland and the recognition of the Jewish people and its unassailable right to self-determination and our right to live in an independent state in our ancestral homeland. That is the only way to end the conflict and bring about a permanent and legitimate peace,” Oren said.

Rothstein argues that Israel has no Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate. Ambassador Oren, citing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, disagreed: “He says we have someone to negotiate with. It’s President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.”

On the demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish character, this is how Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak framed it in his speech to AIPAC: “We need a daring peace initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians. A two-state solution is the only viable long-term solution. It is a compelling imperative for us, in order to secure our identity and our future as a Jewish and democratic state; it’s not a favor for the Palestinians.”

Rothstein contends that if we take the Palestinian population of Gaza out of the equation, there is no demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish majority. But Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University, who is the foremost expert on the subject, disagrees.

Right now, the total number of Jews and Arabs living under Israeli rule in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is just under 12 million people. Already, under 50 percent of the population is Jewish. Those figures will continue to worsen over time because Palestinian birthrates outstrip Jewish birthrates.

Contrary to Rothstein’s view, DellaPergola’s figures show that taking Gaza out of the equation does not buy Israel much time. If Israel continues to occupy the West Bank alone (without Gaza), Jews will constitute only 54 percent of the population by 2030 and 45 percent by 2048 when it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Rothstein makes much out of my contention that for negotiations to succeed, an active and leading U.S. role will be required. My view is based on common sense and informed by the views of experts in conflict resolution like Allen S. Weiner of Stanford University.

In a Feb. 28 op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, Weiner argues that, “direct talks between implacable foes, without active mediation, may be the worst possible way to try to settle the conflict. Facing one’s adversary directly across the table heightens psychological barriers even to a mutually beneficial deal.”

Weiner continues: “The parties to the conflict are prisoners to beliefs based on their history, which color the way they see both themselves and their adversaries. As a result, it is hard for them to interpret information, evaluate risk and set priorities in a purely rational way. Even when an advantageous deal is on the table, they are psychologically disposed to reject it.”

At the end of the day, J Street exists to help Israel reach the deal it needs and wants so much and which is so central to its future as a Jewish state and as a democracy. It’s also a crucial U.S. national strategic interest. As citizens of this democracy, we have an obligation to state our views and the right to be active in the political arena.

We work for a strong America and all that it represents in the world. And we work for a safe, secure, democratic Israel living at peace with its neighbors. 

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the executive director of J Street.

Obama brokers Israel-Turkey rapprochement


Israel apologized to Turkey on Friday for killing nine Turkish citizens in a 2010 naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla and both feuding U.S. allies agreed to normalize relations in a surprise breakthrough announced by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The rapprochement could help regional coordination to contain spillover from the Syrian civil war and ease Israel's diplomatic isolation in the Middle East as it faces challenges posed by Iran's nuclear program.

In a statement released by the White House only minutes before Obama ended a visit to Israel, the president said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erodgan had spoken by telephone.

“The United States deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security,” Obama said.

The first conversation between the two leaders since 2011, when Netanyahu phoned to offer help after an earthquake struck Turkey, gave Obama a diplomatic triumph in a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in which he offered no new plan to revive peace talks frozen for nearly three years.

The 30-minute call was made in a runway trailer at Tel Aviv airport, where Obama and Netanyahu huddled before the president boarded Air Force One for a flight to Jordan, U.S. officials said.

Israel bowed to a long-standing demand by Ankara, once a close strategic partner, to apologize formally for the deaths aboard the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara, which was boarded by Israeli marines who intercepted a flotilla challenging Israel's naval blockade of the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed an apology to the Turkish people for any error that may have led to the loss of life, and agreed to complete the agreement for compensation,” an official Israeli statement said.

Netanyahu and Erdogan “agreed to restore normalization between the two countries, including returning their ambassadors (to their posts),” the statement added.

A U.S. official said “Erdogan accepted the apology on behalf of Turkey.”

FRAYED TIES

Ankara expelled Israel's ambassador and froze military cooperation after a U.N. report into the Mavi Marmara incident, released in September 2011, largely exonerated the Jewish state.

Israel had previously balked at apologizing to the Turks, saying this would be tantamount to admitting moral culpability and would invite lawsuits against its troops.

Voicing until now only “regret” over the Mavi Marmara incident, Israel has offered to pay into what it called a “humanitarian fund” through which casualties and their relatives could be compensated.

A source in Netanyahu's office said opening a new chapter with Turkey “can be very, very important for the future, regarding what happens with Syria but not just what happens with Syria”.

Before the diplomatic break, Israeli pilots trained in Turkish skies, exercises widely seen as improving their capability to carry out long-range missions such as possible strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Crispian Balmer and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Turkey says Israel has relaxed restrictions on imports to Palestinian areas


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Turkish counterpart on Friday that Israel had “substantially” lifted restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian territories, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's office said.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu … noted that Israel had substantially lifted the restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and that this would continue as long as calm prevailed,” a statement said.

Reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Pravin Char

Israel, Turkey to normalize ties after Israeli apology for 2010 flotilla raid


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to normalize relations after Netanyahu apologized and agreed to compensation for the 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish-flagged ship that left nine Turks dead.

The two men talked on Friday by phone, according to statements by Netanyahu's office and the White House.

“The two men agreed to restore normalization between Israel and Turkey, including the dispatch of ambassadors and the cancellation of legal steps against IDF soldiers,” said the Israeli statement.

The White House was first to report the conversation, with a statement by President Obama on the subject just after the completion of his three-day tour of Israel.

“I welcome the call today between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Prime Minister Erdogan,” Obama said in the statement. “The United States deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security. I am hopeful that today's exchange between the two leaders will enable them to engage in deeper cooperation on this and a range of other challenges and opportunities.”

Netanyahu apologized for “operational errors” during the raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla.

“The Prime Minister made it clear that the tragic results regarding the Mavi Marmara were unintentional and that Israel expresses regret over injuries and loss of life,” said the statement from Netanyahu's office. “In light of the Israeli investigation into the incident, which pointed out several operational errors, Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized to the Turkish people for any errors that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete the agreement on compensation.”

Among the dead was a dual Turkish-American citizen. A senior Obama administration official described the call as a first step toward Israeli-Turkish reconciliation.

Israel Radio reported that Obama initiated the phone call in Netanyahu's presence, spoke with Erdogan, and then handed the receiver to Netanyahu.

Reuters, reporting from Ankara, said Erdogan expressed the “strong importance” of Jewish-Turkish ties.

The Obama administration has been endeavoring to repair ties between the one-time allies since May 2010, when Israeli commandos boarded the ship, which was attempting to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Passengers on the boat attacked the commandos during the raid, and nine people were killed in the ensuing melee. The raid sent already damaged Turkish-Israeli ties into a tailspin.

Netanyahu until now had resisted calls, including from some of his closest advisers, to apologize for the incident. Other factions in his last government strongly opposed an apology. Recent reports, however, had said that Netanyahu would reconsider once he had a new government in place — something he accomplished last weekend.

This week, Erdogan attempted to backtrack from his most recent anti-Israel outburst, telling a Danish newspaper that his equation last month of Zionism with anti-Semitism and crimes against humanity referred only to certain Israeli acts and not the Zionist movement per se. Netanyahu, in his statement, said he “expressed appreciation” to Erdogan for the clarification.

Relations between Israel and Turkey had turned sout after the 2009 Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip. In the statement Friday, Netanyahu said he told Erdogan “that Israel has already lifted several restrictions on the movement of civilians and goods to all of the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and added that this will continue as long as the quiet is maintained.”

The statement concluded by saying that “The two leaders agreed to continue to work on improving the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories.”

With Islamic groups replacing traditional foes, Israel faces long-term instability on its borders


Three weeks ago, militants in Gaza landed a rocket near the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

Two weeks ago, Egypt raised its state of emergency in the Sinai Peninsula, warning of an increase in jihadist activity there.

Last week, a rock thrown by a West Bank Palestinian critically wounded a 3-year-old Israeli girl.

And this week, Israel plans to ask the United States for support should it strike Syrian weapons convoys en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Along both its northern and southern frontiers, Israel faces more political instability than it has in decades — conditions that some security experts fear could open a door to greater terrorism.

The upheavals of the Arab Spring may have reduced the threat of a conventional war with a neighboring state, but the prospects for peaceful borders — let alone full normalization with the Arab world — have dimmed, forcing Israeli military planners to prepare for long-term uncertainty.

“For the first time in decades, we have four active borders that have terror activities: Lebanon, Syria, Sinai and Gaza,” said Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the director of military intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces. “The change that’s happening is deep and foundational. The central characteristic of this change, even if it seems banal, is instability and uncertainty.”

Kochavi was speaking last week at the Herzliya Conference, an elite policy and security gathering dominated this year by concerns about terrorist activity on Israel’s frontiers. Kochavi said terrorists are “filling the vacuum” of unstable states. While the consequences have been minimal, officials say the danger of an attack is growing.

“Not a week goes by, not to say hardly a day, when I don’t have to deal with an issue that you didn’t even hear about, that could have resulted in a strategic threat,” IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told the conference.

Of particular concern to defense officials is the Syrian border, beyond which a civil war has been raging for two years — one that is threatening to spill over. Israel has begun building a fence on the perimeter of the Golan Heights and in January bombed a weapons convoy it feared was being shipped from Syria to Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon.

The possibility that Syrian arms, including stockpiles of chemical weapons, could wind up in the hands of terrorist groups is among the primary security concerns facing Israel. But the threats go deeper.

As secular strongmen have vanished from the stage — first in Egypt, and potentially in Syria — Islamists are rising in their place. It's a development that could recast the Arab-Israeli conflict in religious rather than geopolitical terms.

“We’re seeing a decline in national identity and a rise in religious identity” in the Arab world, said Dan Meridor, Israel’s outgoing minister of intelligence. “The old paradigm of war is changing its face.”

On the whole, religiously inspired terrorist groups can be difficult to deter. Generally they are less susceptible to diplomatic pressure than nation states. And unlike the dictators they appear to be replacing, the groups enjoy more popular support.

“We used to have three or four enemies,” Meridor said. “Now we have 10,000 or 20,000. Our enemies are greater and are not necessarily states. How do you deter a group that’s not a state?”

Beyond the problem of deterrence is the question of victory. Israel's recent skirmishes with terrorist groups — notably its 2006 war against Hezbollah and its 2009 and 2012 campaigns against Hamas in Gaza — have led to something closer to stalemate than the decisive victories achieved in past conventional wars.

Lurking behind a few of the non-state actors, though, is a state with which Israelis have become all too familiar: Iran. The Islamic Republic is Hezbollah’s primary funder and one of the few remaining allies of the teetering Assad regime in Syria.

Kochavi said that Iran and Hezbollah have organized an army of 50,000 in Syria and are trying to increase their influence there.

“Iran and Hezbollah are both doing all in their power to assist Assad’s regime,” Kochavi said. “Iran and Hezbollah are also preparing for the day after Assad’s fall, when they will use this army to protect their assets and interests in Syria.”

Experts said that in the face of four insecure borders, Israel’s best bet is to stay alert and hang tough. But Danny Rothschild, director of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya’s Institute of Policy and Strategy, told the conference that Israel needs to be proactive in directing the Middle East toward peace and prosperity.

“Israel needs to be more involved in shaping the future of the region, even in a quiet way,” he said. “I have a feeling events will make it deal with issues, even if it hasn’t intended to.”

Netanyahu, with team of rivals, puts together a government


He’s had to bite a few bullets to get there, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lead Israel’s next government.

Barring a last-minute surprise, Israel’s new governing coalition will be sworn in this week: a center-right grouping of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud-Beiteinu faction, the centrist Yesh Atid party, the religious nationalist Jewish Home party, the center-left Hatnua led by Tzipi Livni and the tiny, centrist Kadima.

In total, the coalition will include 70 of the Knesset’s 120 members.

The government’s priorities will be to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, enact budget reform, expand Israel’s mandatory military conscription and lower the cost of living, according to Netanyahu.

“Above all,” Netanyahu said at his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, the next government must address “the major security challenges that are piling up around us.”

The coalition deal is a bittersweet victory for the prime minister. He won a disappointing 31 seats at the ballot box in January. Now that divided vote has turned into a divided government that he’ll have to lead with ambitious rivals by his side.

Those divisions have grown more intense since the election, as Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett formed an alliance after the vote.

“He’s a much weaker prime minister,” said Hebrew University political science professor Shlomo Avineri. “We see the emergence of two popular leaders who are not constrained by internal party institutions and can dictate to their own parties whatever policies they wish.”

By forming the coalition days before his final deadline of March 16, Netanyahu gets another term as prime minister. And because his party will control the Foreign and Defense ministries — Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon slated to be the next defense minister – Netanyahu will be able to preserve the status quo regarding security issues and Iran.

And Israelis shouldn’t expect a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. Hatnua supports a two-state solution, while Jewish Home resolutely opposes a Palestinian state, as do many in Likud.

“I don’t think there is any chance of a final-status agreement with the Palestinians,” Avineri said, but “partial agreements” could be possible.

Netanyahu will serve as foreign minister while former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu’s No. 2, fights corruption charges. Should he be acquitted, he will return to the post. Lapid, who has said he wants to be prime minister, had fought hard in negotiations for the foreign minister post.

In managing his coalition, Netanyahu’s biggest challenge will be including haredi Orthodox men in Israel’s mandatory draft – one of Israel’s burning political issues. Yesh Atid campaigned on a platform of drafting almost all haredi men, who currently receive exemptions if they stay in yeshiva. Along with Bennett, a pro-settler Zionist who strongly favors haredi conscription, Lapid has been pushing for a strict draft law.

Not wanting to alienate the haredim – a traditional support base for Netanyahu – the prime minister has pushed for a more lenient version. The compromise, according to the latest Israeli reports, will be that haredim will be subject to the draft at age 22, not 18, like the rest of Israelis. And up to 2,000 haredim will continue to receive exemptions, far higher than the limit of 400 that Lapid had sought.

“The new political leaders are capable of reaching an agreement that will gradually change the rules of the game,” Bar-Ilan University political science professor Eytan Gilboa said.
Avineri says he’s skeptical the haredim will obey any draft law reached without the imprimatur of the haredi parties.

“The only way of seriously extending the haredi draft is to do it with negotiations with at least one of the haredi parties, and getting a wishy-washy compromise,” Avineri said. “You’re not going get it by drafting thousands of haredim against their will.”

Draft reform is one of Lapid’s signature issues, but his harder task may be succeeding as finance minister. For this a media personality who decided to enter politics a little more than a year ago with a campaign that promised commonsense policies and “new politics,” it will be a challenge to maintain his appeal while actually being a politician.

Lapid’s campaign slogan was “Where’s the money?” and he promised not to raise taxes on the middle class. Facing a budget deficit of $10 billion, Lapid may become the face of some unpopular spending cuts or tax hikes.

That could condemn the fate of Lapid’s Yesh Atid to that of other Israeli centrist parties that flared and then burned out. Kadima, for example, dominated Israeli politics after Ariel Sharon founded it in 2005, and it won 28 seats in the previous elections, in 2009. But this year it squeaked into the Knesset with just two.

“Lapid is in danger,” said Hebrew University professor Gideon Rahat. “What happened to the rest of the centrist parties is they disappeared in two or three years. But if he does things differently, he may be able to hold on.”

For his part, the ambitious Bennett, formerly Netanyahu’s chief of staff, reportedly does not get along with the prime minister. Personal rivalries could cause rifts in the government should Bennett, Lapid and Netanyahu disagree on sensitive issues.

“There are too many internal coalitions inside this coalition,” Gilboa said. “The prime minister is not good at resolving coalition disagreements.”

Netanyahu’s main threat, however, may come from outside of the coalition. Usually part of the government, the Knesset’s haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – have been excluded this term because they oppose drafting haredim. They have vowed to fight the coalition tooth and nail. The opposition leader will be Labor, with whom the haredi parties share support for progressive economic policies.

Gilboa said that Israeli public support of draft reform will drown out haredi protest.

“I think the haredim will fight the government on economic issues, but I think the Israeli public in general will support reforms,” he said. “But I would advise the new politicians to go slowly and cautiously.”

Netanyahu responds to Obama: Israelis will determine country’s best interests


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to comments attributed to President Obama, saying that Israelis will determine the country's best interests.

“Only the Israeli people will determine who best represents the State of Israel's vital interests,” Netanyahu reportedly said Wednesday during a visit to the Gaza Division of the Israel Defense Forces.

“Over the past four years Israel has withstood tremendous diplomatic pressures. They insisted that we curb our demand for action on Iran; that we withdraw back to the 1967 lines; that we divide Jerusalem – that we stop building in Jerusalem. We fought against those pressures. I will continue to safeguard Israel's vital interests, for its security,” the prime minister, whose party stands poised to take the most Knesset seats in next week's election, said.

The comments came a day after a column by Jeffrey Goldberg for Bloomberg stated that when Obama was told that the Israeli government had approved plans to advance the development of housing in the controversial E-1 corridor between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem, “Obama said privately and repeatedly, ‘Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.’ With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation.”

Netanyahu: Hamas could take over Palestinian Authority


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed concern that Hamas would take over the Palestinian Authority before or after a peace agreement.

“In Egypt, the regime has been replaced, in Syria the regime is being shaken and this could also happen in the Palestinian Authority areas in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said Tuesday. “Everyone knows that Hamas could take over the Palestinian Authority. It could happen after an agreement, it could happen before an agreement, like it happened in Gaza.”

His comments appeared to be directed at Israeli President Shimon Peres, who told a group of Israeli diplomats that Israel must press hard and fast for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and that P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas is the person with whom Israel can make peace.

Netanyahu spoke during a Bible study at his official residence in Jerusalem in which the participants discussed the coming week's Torah portion, which states that “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

Israel's security must be achieved before he makes concessions to the Palestinians, the prime minister said.

“As opposed to the voices that I have heard recently urging me to run forward, make concessions [and] withdraw, I think that the diplomatic process must be managed responsibly and sagaciously and not in undue haste,” Netanyahu said. “Otherwise a third base for Iranian terrorism will arise here, in the heart of the country. Peace can be achieved only when security is assured.”

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