Analysis: Gaza crisis is opportunity for Obama


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Does the mini-war underway between Israel and Hamas in and around the Gaza Strip present President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration with a crisis or an opportunity?

Israel’s aerial bombardment, the most intensive in the Gaza Strip in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has killed at least 320 people, most of them militants belonging to the terrorist group Hamas, although tens of children were reported dead in surprise attacks on the crowded strip.

The assault, which started Saturday, came after days of intensified rocket attacks launched from Gaza on Israel’s southern towns and farms. The Palestinian rocket fire, launched even before a Hamas-Israel ceasefire formally lapsed Dec. 19, has killed at least four Israelis and is emptying the south of its residents. Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, warned of “all-out war,” possibly including a land invasion

Buried beneath the fretting over whether the renewed conflict would kill talks between Israel and the relatively moderate leadership of the Palestinian Authority were hints that it could in fact bolster the negotiations, if only by marginalizing Hamas. That, in turn, could help Obama clear the ground for a breakthrough, a prospect Obama’s team seemed to recognize by limiting its reactions to expressions of support for Israel.

“He’s going to work closely with the Israelis,” David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday when asked about the outbreak. “They’re a great ally of ours, the most important ally in the region. And that is a fundamental principle from which he’ll work.”

Washington pundits and officials in European capitals are casting the flare up as a crisis that could scuttle Obama’s stated intention of developing talks — first launched a year ago by the Bush administration — into a final status agreement.

Jackson Diehl, the deputy editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page, said the war was the final failure for Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister who is to leave office by March to face corruption charges. “His failure represents another missed opportunity for Middle East peace — and probably means that the incoming Obama administration, like the incoming Bush administration of 2001, will inherit both a new round of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and a new Israeli government indisposed to compromise,” Diehl wrote in Monday’s Post.

Meanwhile, Israel is casting the war first of all as one of necessity: The bombardment of Israel’s south, in the days before Israel launched its aerial counter attacks, at times reached 70 rockets a day. The effect has been to devastate the region’s economy and to create levels of anxiety that Israelis regard as intolerable; the retaliatory strikes earned the support of the vast majority of Israelis in weekend polling.

Sallai Meridor, the Israeli envoy to Washingtons, cautioned that the action was not undertaken with the peace process in mind. “The direct reason for these activities is to remove a threat over the head of 500,000 Israelis — not a theoretical threat, a real one,” Meridor told JTA. “Three were killed only today. No country would sacrifice its citizens to terror.”

Meridor added, however, that an Israeli success could have salutary effects on the peace process. “Indirectly, the chances for peace are dependent on the weakening of the enemies of peace. If Hamas strengthens, the chances of peace weaken; if Hamas weakens, it contributes to the chances of peace.”

In remarks Sunday to his Cabinet, Olmert said the aim was to “restore normal life and quiet to residents of the south who — for many years — have suffered from unceasing rocket and mortar fire and terrorism designed to disrupt their lives and prevent them from enjoying a normal, relaxed and quiet life, as the citizen of any country is entitled to.”

Another factor might be political calculation. Little love is lost between Olmert and his government partners: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has assumed control of his Kadima Party, and Barak, who heads the Labor Party. Yet Olmert, Livni and Barak are united in hopes of keeping Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition Likud Party who has vowed to bring talks with the Palestinian to a halt, from coming to power; the first post-assault polls show their chances of doing that substantially improving.

The effect Israel’s current leadership sought was not simply to remind the public that doves are capable of defending Israel, but that the onslaught would help reinforce the current round of talks. The aim, Director of the Shin Bet security service Yuval Diskin suggested at the weekly Cabinet meeting, is to isolate Hamas. “The mood among a not unsubstantial part of the Palestinian population understands that the operation is against Hamas, which has inflicted great suffering on the residents of Gaza,” Diskin said in remarks relayed by Oved Yehezkel, the Cabinet secretary.

That approach was echoed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, in remarks Monday on P.A. television.

“I say in all honesty, we made contact with leaders of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip,” Abbas said in a translation made available by Palestinian Media Watch. “We spoke with them in all honesty and directly, and after that we spoke with them indirectly, through more than one Arab and non-Arab side … We spoke with them on the telephone and we said to them: We ask of you, don’t stop the ceasefire, the ceasefire must continue and not stop, in order to avoid what has happened, and if only we had avoided it.”

Ziad Asali, an Abbas ally who founded the American Task Force on Palestine, said it was notable that Abbas and other Arab leaders were muted in their calls on Israel to draw back.

“There is a certain withholding of outright support” for Hamas “that usually would accrue to any party in active conflict with Israel,” he said.

Arab frustration with Hamas stemmed from its refusal until now to defer to Abbas as the lead negotiator in peace talks and its insistence on armed conflict as the only way to confront Israel, Asali said.

“There is no military solution to this conflict,” he said. “At the end of the day there has to be a negotiating process, and the people who are clearly authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians are the P.A. folks.”

He warned, however, that there was a limited window to exploit Hamas’ marginalization, and joined a number of dovish pro-Israel groups — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and the Israel Policy Forum — in calling for an immediate cease-fire.

“We don’t know how the parties on the ground will react,” Asali said. “We see ever increasing human suffering in Gaza that would add to the pressure to bring about some kind of ceasefire.”

Should the bloodshed intensify, the sufferings of ordinary Palestinians, joined with public outrage on the “Arab street” with Israel’s actions and the chaotic nature of the conflict, could turn an opportunity into a crisis — and an Obama administration faced with a crisis on Jan. 21 might not be equipped to respond.

“The issue is how urgently they would prioritize this conflict,” Asali said.

Hamas’ responsibility for re-launching hostilities, coupled with a desire to corner the terrorist group into deferring to Abbas’ negotiations with Israel, was likely behind the near unanimous backing in Washington for Israel’s actions.

Most significant was the Obama transition team’s steadfast commitment to Israel’s right to respond, albeit expressed with the requisite deference to George W. Bush as the sitting president.

“The president-elect recognizes the special relationship between the United States and Israel,” Axelord, Obama’s adviser, said on CBS. “It’s an important bond, an important relationship. He’s going to honor it. And he wants to be a constructive force in helping to bring about the peace and security that both the Israelis and the Palestinians want and deserve. And obviously, this situation has become even more complicated in the last couple of days and weeks as Hamas began its shelling and Israel responded.”

Pressed, Axelrod suggested Obama’s strategy would be shaped by his own visit over the summer to Israel’s frontlines.

“He said then that when the bombs are raining down on your citizens, there is an urge to respond and act and try and put an end to that,” Axelrod said. “You know, that’s what he said then, and I think that’s what he believes.”

The Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties also issued statements squarely blaming Hamas, followed up with pleas to Israel to curb civilian casualties.

“Peace between Israelis and Palestinians cannot result from daily barrages of rocket and mortar fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza,” U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a statement. “Hamas and its supporters must understand that Gaza cannot and will not be allowed to be a sanctuary for attacks on Israel. “

The White House sounded a similar note: “Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop. Hamas must end its terrorist activities if it wishes to play a role in the future of the Palestinian people. The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza.”

Negev + Galilee = Israel’s Future


“The Negev and the Galilee comprise 70 percent of the area of the State of Israel with 30 percent of its populace, but they guarantee 100 percent of the future of the state,” said Ron Pelmer, the director of Or National Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that helps to develop Israel’s periphery.

Pelmer spoke at November’s Sderot Conference for Social and Economic Policy, at a session devoted to developing the Negev and the Galilee. The phrase “Gedera to Hadera” — referring to the metropolitan sprawl where most of Israel’s populace lives — was oft heard in comparison with the Negev and the Galilee, considered Israel’s peripheries. Attracting people to the peripheries will take an overall strategy, he noted.

Jewish Agency Chairman Ze’ev Bielski, who chaired the session, described the agency’s role in bringing together Israeli philanthropists and their Diaspora counterparts to help the government implement its decision to develop the Negev. In June, the agency agreed to the multiyear funding of Daroma, a company comprising Israeli and Diaspora businesspeople and public officials who will devote time and resources to develop the Negev. Likewise, Tzafona will be established to help develop the Galilee.

“Real Zionism is to encourage all to move to the Negev and the Galilee,” said Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, adding that the key to developing the peripheries lies in improving transportation to the center of the country. Efficient transportation, he said, will change the periphery into suburbia.

Sheetrit would like every citizen to be able to reach a large urban center within half an hour. Train lines have expanded in recent years, and further expansion is planned. A new train line will shorten travel time from the Negev to Tel Aviv, and another line will bring the Galilee closer to Haifa. Highway 6 (the Trans-Israel Highway) already connects Gedera to Hadera. By 2007, two new sections will extend the highway north and south.

Sheetrit rejected the government policy of offering tax incentives, since only 20 percent of the periphery’s residents reach tax brackets entitling them to such incentives. “It would be better to take the money and invest in a long school day, thus providing equal opportunities for each child. Education is the real answer for social change,” he said.

“The State of Israel will not advance without the Negev and the Galilee. We will have serious problems if we don’t develop these areas,” said Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick of the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, a private family fund dedicated to assisting the underprivileged in Israel’s geographic and social periphery. Although an interministerial government committee has been established, Brick stressed the role of nongovernment organizations, some voluntary, in filling the gap until the government becomes more involved.

The Or movement hopes to market homes in the Negev to 108,000 people by developing housing, services and employment opportunities. It has already helped establish six settlements — five in the Negev and one in the Galilee — and expand 25 moshavim and kibbutzim.

Pelmer moved with his family from Petah Tikva to Sansana in the northern Negev, providing an example for others. “In the Negev there are 200 professional job offers every month, and in the Galilee, 400,” Pelmer said. He wants to prevent people from leaving these areas and attract more young and young-at-heart residents. Since army bases dot the Negev, families of military personnel will live there if services are sufficiently developed, he said. Or is also trying to attract large companies to the area.

The Strauss-Elite food concern is an example of a large firm reaping the financial benefits of operating in the periphery. “It’s a win-win situation,” Director-General Giora Bar Deah said. “There are economic advantages in these areas, like tax breaks and benefits. There’s no shame in benefiting from them.”

Ofra Strauss, chairperson of the Strauss-Elite Group and a Jewish Agency board member, provides an example of industry’s positive involvement by volunteering as a driving force behind the agency’s Babayit Beyahad program that matches veteran Israelis with new immigrants.

Representing local government, Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri placed the blame for his city’s decline since 1982 on government policy, along with lack of local leadership and a master plan. At Acre’s helm since 2003, Lankri has improved infrastructure, developed tourism and stemmed the tide of residents leaving the city. Acre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“As a mayor, I have taken upon myself to improve a city with potential. We must not be alone in this. Without the government bringing strong populations and increasing grants, we are unable to do it alone,” he said.

Young people are seen as the key to development. Discharged IDF soldiers founded the Ayalim association with the aim of keeping students in the peripheries after they complete their studies. Today there are some 26,000 students at southern venues, including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Sapir College, where the Sderot Conference took place. There are some 47,000 students in northern colleges and universities. Most will later return to the center of the country to find employment.

The main crop of Kibbutz Ashbal in the Galilee is education. Founded a few years ago, its 60 members — all graduates of the Hano’ar Ha’oved Vehalomed youth movement — are involved in educational projects, some unconventional. They work with 4,000 local children and youths from all social sectors, including Jews, Arabs and Bedouin. The kibbutz has a dormitory for Ethiopian immigrant youths who might otherwise have dropped out of school, and has established five study centers in Arab villages.

Professor Alean Al-Krenawi, head of BGU’s Department of Social Work, feels that the Israeli Arab population is ignored. A Bedouin whose brother is mayor of Rahat, Al-Krenawi believes that the programs and initiatives for the Negev serve to weaken the Bedouin population and increase the gaps between them and their Jewish neighbors.

“One cannot ignore the 1.5 million Arabs in Israel. The Arab Bedouin population of the Negev is in a dire economic situation,” he said.

Eitan Broshi, head of the Jezreel Valley regional council, bemoaned the lack of government involvement but also noted the dearth of leaders from the periphery. “Since the days of Ben-Gurion there has been no national leadership from these areas,” he said.

Broshi argued that transportation options are not the solution for outlying areas. “Young people need a purpose and the means to live in these areas. Once people moved to these areas as a national mission. Today they look for self-fulfillment.”

Although the challenge of developing Israel’s peripheries is daunting, Bielski suggests to “look at what we’ve done in the past 57 years” and gain encouragement for the future.

 

78 and 79: A Matter of Life and Death


Like many California voters this week, Rabbi Hershy Ten, president of the Bikur Cholim Jewish Healthcare Foundation, is grappling with how to vote on the Nov. 8 ballot. Either Proposition 78 or Proposition 79 could directly affect his L.A.-based foundation’s efforts to provide health-related services and referrals to needy and uninsured. Either proposition could help by lowering prescription drug prices. But even for Ten, it’s hard to peer through the electioneering and rhetoric.

One thing’s certain: Ten realizes a lot is at stake.

“I know of a man within the last three months who suffered irreversible liver disease because he could not afford his medication,” Ten said. “We were called after he went into liver failure to assist him in receiving a transplant.”

The question before voters is whether the drug companies should regulate themselves, as laid out in Proposition 78, or whether the state should be granted authority to pressure drug companies into providing discounts, as specified in Proposition 79. If both initiatives pass, whichever receives the most votes becomes law.

In the contest of marketing, at least, the outcome isn’t a close call. The pharmaceutical industry has spent more than $80 million backing Proposition 78 (compared to $1.8 million from Proposition 79’s backers, most of it from consumer, senior and health groups).

Putting the hype aside, here’s what Proposition 78 would offer: Most Californians earning up to 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level would be eligible for discounted drugs, including individuals earning up to $29,000 a year and families of four living on as much as $58,000.

But the salient feature of Proposition 78 is that it includes no state enforcement mechanism. In the case of Ten’s liver patient, it would be solely up to the pharmaceutical industry to select the relevant drug for a discount, determine the discount price (if any), and choose the length of time to maintain it.

There are no state-imposed consequences if a company chooses to keep prices high.

So if the process is voluntary, what’s to stop drug companies from lowering prices right now? Conversely, if drug companies aren’t lowering prices now, why would they under a voluntary plan?

The industry’s response is that Proposition 78 is needed if corporations are to lower prices as a group while also avoiding anti-trust violations.

“We feel we have an obligation to make our drugs affordable,” said Jan Faiks, vice president for governmental affairs and law with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the powerful industry trade group. Faiks added that voluntary (and legislatively sanctioned) drug-discount programs in 26 states demonstrate the good faith of drug manufacturers.

These voluntary programs in other states typically have stricter eligibility requirements, and critics say few meaningful discounts are being offered. California’s version, Proposition 78, is identical to the defunct Senate Bill 19, an Arnold Schwarzenegger-backed bill that was defeated by Democrats in the state Senate in early 2005. At the time, the governor estimated that SB-19 would provide prescription drug savings of up to 40 percent off retail, close to the price that HMOs pay for drugs. Proposition 78 proponents have adopted those figures as their own.

This isn’t the first time that this Republican governor’s public health policy has mirrored PhRMA’s interests. In October 2004, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed four bills that would have provided information for Californians on obtaining cheaper drugs through Canadian pharmacies. A few weeks later, PhRMA donated several-hundred-thousand dollars to Californian Republican legislative candidates.

Consumer advocates don’t like much about Proposition 78, including the anti-trust justification for why the industry argues that it is necessary. After all, there would never be a legal prohibition barring an individual drug company from lowering its prices. Nor is there any reason why drug companies would have to engage in illegal collusion to lower prices, said Doug Mirell, board member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), which is supporting Proposition 79.

Added Anthony Wright, executive director of the Pro-79 group Health Access: “No attorney general or judge would rule against them if they came together to lower prices. There’s no [anti-trust] precedent for it.”

Proposition 79 supporters contend that PhRMA’s real aim is simply to block Proposition 79 from taking effect.

Faiks of PhRMA’s doesn’t deny her group’s desire to thwart Proposition 79, but she insists that Proposition 78 is worthy in its own right.

Proposition 79, backed by consumer groups, unions and the American Association of Retired Persons, sets the discount rate for drugs lower than Proposition 78 (approaching the price Medi-Cal pays for drugs). It also includes patients earning 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level rather than 300 percent. And it forbids drug companies from charging “unconscionable” prices for medication.

“There are 8 million to 10 million more people who will be benefited by Proposition 79 than Proposition 78,” Mirell said.

Perhaps most worrisome to PhRMA, however, Proposition 79 punishes companies who refuse to cooperate.

If negotiations with the state over discounts break down, the state could curtail that company’s business with Medi-Cal, California’s $4 billion drug discount program for the poor. Medi-Cal patients would have to receive so-called “prior authorization” by the state to use any drug manufactured by that uncooperative corporation. Under this system, the state would first try to find a substitute drug from a cooperative company.

In other words, under Proposition 79 the poorest segment of the population (on whose behalf the state bargains) would be used as leverage to lower drug prices for the next-poorest segment (who today have no bargaining clout).

Even under Proposition 79, Rabbi Ten’s liver patient would not have been guaranteed a different fate. There’s no mechanism, for example, forcing the state to drive a hard bargain for any particular medication. But if it did, the drug’s manufacturer would not easily be able to say no.

Each camp has its own collection of horror stories and feel-good episodes supporting its proposition. Proposition 78 is modeled closely on a voluntary program in Ohio. Consumer advocates modeled Proposition 79 on a program in Maine, one that PhRMA claims is not working well.

Faiks provided The Journal with a report, written by an independent Maine legislative committee, detailing patient frustration with various other systems of prior authorization. PhRMA also points to legal and administrative barriers, most prominently the likely opposition from the Federal Department of Health and Human Services.

“[The Proposition 79] program will never be approved,” said Faiks, who is well positioned to understand the leanings of the Bush administration, which has regularly sided with drug companies.

PhRMA provided The Journal with several letters from federal health officials to various state Medicaid administrators who, over the past several years, have attempted to expand Medicaid coverage to new groups (such as people with specific diseases or those who earn slightly-above-poverty wages). The letters suggest that President Bush’s administration is loathe to extend Medicaid funds or leverage Medicaid patients to benefit new groups unless a state has hard evidence that the expansion prevents these new clients from entering poverty and becoming eligible for Medicaid regardless.

Mirell, of PJA, asserts that technicalities will not cripple Proposition 79, at least not permanently.

“The Bush Administration will not be in power forever,” Mirell said. “Policies do change from administration to administration.”

Mirell also pointed to the “severability” provision of Proposition 79, which allows other provisions to survive even if some can’t be enacted.

“The fact that it may take some months of litigation to implement Proposition 79 shouldn’t scare people away from voting for it, when the benefits that could accrue are so much greater than Proposition 78,” Mirell said.

And the presence and influence of the industry Goliath shouldn’t dissuade the Davids of reform. “It doesn’t mean we should give up, saying they’re too powerful,” said Wright of Heath Access.

A late August Field Poll indicated that Californians largely support both measures: 49 percent voting yes and 31 percent no on Proposition 78; 42 percent yes and 34 percent no on Proposition 79. When the participants learned, however, that the drug industry is backing Proposition 78, opposition to that measure rose sharply.

“People need to ask themselves, ‘Do you trust the drug companies to voluntarily discount their own prescription drug rates?'” Mirell said.

That’s a question that voters are less likely to hear posed exactly that way, given the imbalance in campaign spending.

When he spoke with The Journal, Rabbi Ten was still trying to sort out the pluses and minuses.

“This requires further analysis,” he said. “It requires more information than is readily available through typical media outlets.”

Jews Welcome Choice of Pope


As the regal red curtains were pulled aside, clearing the way for the still-unidentified new pope to emerge on the balcony of the Vatican Basilica and offer a blessing to church faithful, many Jews joined the world’s 1 billion Catholics in holding their collective breath.

The Christians were excitedly anticipating their Holy Father’s arrival, eager for someone to fill the gap left when John Paul II, who served as pope for more than a quarter-century, died on April 2 at 84.

Jews, too, were awaiting the new pope’s arrival — and wondering what his ascendancy would mean for them. Would he promote Jewish-Catholic relations as zealously as his predecessor? Would he turn his attention instead to mending fences between Catholics and Muslims? Would he push diplomatic relations with Israel?

In short, would he be good for the Jews?

As it turns out, Jewish observers of the Vatican say, world Jewry can breathe easy knowing that German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen as the 265th pope.

“As far as Jewish people are concerned, Cardinal Ratzinger is a friend,” said Gary Krupp, president and founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes religious understanding. “He is going to be as effective, if not more, than John Paul II [in furthering Catholic-Jewish relations]. He’s not going to backtrack. I think he’s going to be advancing these causes even further.”

Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict XVI upon his election Tuesday, has been called a hard-line conservative, a vigilant watchdog and an enforcer of strict church orthodoxy.

Ratzinger was born in Marktl am Inn, Germany, in 1927. He was ordained in 1951 and received his doctorate in theology in 1953, then taught theology and dogma at a series of German universities.

He was appointed bishop of Munich in 1977 and was promoted to cardinal by then-Pope Paul VI after just three months.

Since 1981, he has led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he was responsible for enforcing church doctrine. He became known in this role for his conservative views, upsetting some Catholics with his vocal opposition to religious pluralism and liberation theology.

Ratzinger further maintains conservative views on such issues as homosexuality and the ordination of women as priests.

But he also used his position as the Vatican’s chief theologian under John Paul II to play an instrumental part in his predecessor’s historic rapprochement with the Jews. In 2000, under Ratzinger’s editorial direction, the Vatican released “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past,” a watershed document that acknowledged church errors in its past dealings with Jews, asking “whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts.”

Ratzinger also oversaw the 2002 publication of “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures,” which asserted that “the Jewish messianic wait is not in vain” and expressed regret that certain passages in the Christian Bible condemning individual Jews have been used to justify anti-Semitism.

Israeli officials and Jewish groups issued statements welcoming the selection.

“Israel is hopeful that under this new papacy, we will continue to move forward in Vatican-Israel relations and we are sure that considering the background of this new pope, he, like his predecessor, will be a strong voice against anti-Semitism in all its forms,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said Ratzinger had been instrumental in improving relations between Catholics and Jews under John Paul.

“He is the architect of the policy that John Paul II fulfilled with regard to relations with the Jews. He is the architect of the ideological policy to recognize, to have full relations with Israel,” Singer said.

Not all Jewish leaders welcomed Ratzinger’s selection, however. Some said that it was precisely his role as ideologist under John Paul that made him ill-suited to be the next pope.

Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco, is among the new pope’s critics.

“It was with great distress that we watched as Cardinal Ratzinger led the Vatican in the past 25 years on a path that opposed providing birth control information to the poor of the world, thereby ensuring that AIDS would spread and kill millions in Africa,” Lerner said.

“And we watched with even greater distress as this cardinal supported efforts to involve the church in distancing from political candidates or leaders who did not agree with the church’s teachings on abortion and gay rights, prioritizing these issues over whether that candidate agreed with the church on issues of peace and social justice. As a result, Cardinal Ratzinger has led the church away from its natural alliance with Jews in fighting for peace and social justice and toward a stance which in effect allies the church with the most reactionary politicians whose policies are militaristic and offer a preferential option for the rich.”

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue believes that while Benedict XVI will carry on the pope’s legacy, he may not focus heavily on Jewish issues.

“I don’t think Jewish-Catholic relations is going to be that much of a priority for him because there are other burning issues that he has to confront,” such as the decreasing number of believers in Europe and the decreasing number of priests in the United States, he said. “He has to put the house in order.”

Ratzinger was the odds-on favorite to become pope going into the conclave of cardinals, which began Monday. There was some speculation that the position could go to a prelate from the developing world — Africa or Latin America — where the church is seeing rapid growth.

Others predicted that the papacy could go back to an Italian: John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

In the end, after white smoke poured from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel and bells tolled announcing to the world that a new pope had been chosen, the job went to Ratzinger. Because of his advancing age — the new pope turned 78 on Saturday — he is likely to be a transitional leader, serving for a relatively brief period.

Despite his stern religious bearing, those who know Ratzinger say, his intelligence, patience and personality make him good company.

“He’s very, very sweet, very pleasant, very cordial and friendly,” said Krupp, who met Ratzinger at his Vatican offices in early February.

As a teen, Ratzinger reportedly was a member of the Hitler Youth. At the time, boys his age — Ratzinger was 6 years old when Hitler came to power — were pressured, though not required, to join the group.

Ratzinger served in the German army during World War II, but deserted after a short period. His policeman father reportedly engaged in anti-Nazi activity.

“For the Jewish community, it is extraordinary that the pope has personally experienced the evils of Nazism and the horrors of racism and prejudice,” said David Elcott, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “There’s no cardinal whose life has been more entwined with that of the Jewish people than that of this cardinal.”

Still, German Jews expressed some concern over Ratzinger’s election.

“A few people who know him say he is not bad. He has good relations with some Jewish persons,” Nathan Kalmanowicz, head of religious affairs for the Central Council of Jews in Germany and a member of the Munich Jewish community, told JTA. “But the vast majority is afraid of what will happen. He is opposed to reform and not as familiar with Jewish issues” as the last pope, “and as far as we know he is not interested in promoting them — issues like the Holocaust.”

Jacob Neusner, a theology professor at Bard College in upstate New York, was thrilled when he learned Ratzinger was the new pope. The two men have been corresponding since 1990, when Ratzinger responded to Neusner’s fan mail.

Neusner was impressed with an article Ratzinger had written about Jesus — in particular, Ratzinger’s remark that there was no such thing as an objective biography.

“I got a lovely letter back, and since then we’ve exchanged about one letter a year,” Neusner said.

In addition, Ratzinger complimented Neusner on his book “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.”

“It was an explanation of why, if I had been there in the first century, I wouldn’t have followed Jesus],” Neusner said.

“He praised the book and said this is how interfaith dialogue should be carried on,” Neusner added. “He doesn’t believe in negotiating theological truths. He thinks disagreement is healthy and normal.”

Speaking to JTA from St. Peter’s Square, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who teaches theology and interreligious studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, said he was witnessing “pope fever.”

Though Ratzinger is “basically against religious pluralism,” Bemporad said, he believes faiths can learn from each other and come together to address social causes.

“He recognizes fully the autonomy and the integrity of each faith,” Bemporad said.

JTA Correspondents Toby Axelrod in Germany, Dan Baron in Jerusalem and Ruth Ellen Gruber in Rome contributed to this report.