Obama will tell Israelis: take Arab opinion into account


President Obama plans to talk in Jerusalem about how Israel needs to do a better job of taking Arab public opinion into account, an Obama adviser said.

“Israel as it makes peace is going to have recognize the broader role of public opinion in peacemaking,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said Thursday in a briefing ahead of Obama's trip next week to israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Rhodes was answering a question about how the turmoil in the Arab world would play into Obama's message.

In the briefing, Rhodes confirmed that in addition to meeting with leaders and visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Obama will tour exhibits of the Dead Sea scrolls and Israeli technological innovations at the Israel Museum. Rhodes called the scrolls “a testament to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel.”

He said Obama would address Israeli youth in his single major address in Jerusalem because that traditionally has been his preference; he noted that Obama addressed a university audience when he spoke in Cairo in 2009.

Obama also will visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Rhodes said.

Obama will be in Israel March 20-22 and in Jordan on March 22-23.

Israeli police, Palestinians clash at Jerusalem mosque


Israeli police fired stun grenades to disperse Palestinian worshippers who had thrown rocks and firebombs at them after Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, police said.

Dozens of officers entered the politically sensitive area, one of Islam's holiest sites to break up several hundred protesters.

A number of policemen were lightly hurt, a police spokesman said, and Palestinian media said at least 15 protesters were injured.

A surge in violence in the West Bank over the past several weeks has raised concern in Israel that a new Palestinian uprising could erupt.

Tension is rising before a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Jerusalem and Ramallah at the end of the month and the possible resumption of peace talks that have been stalled since 2010.

Clashes were also expected in the West Bank at the funeral of a Palestinian who died of his wounds on Thursday after being shot by Israeli soldiers during a confrontation with stone-throwers two weeks ago.

The violence has focused around the plight of Palestinians held in Israeli jails but it largely subsided last week after Israel agreed to release two hunger-striking inmates in May and they ended their protest. Palestinians seek statehood in territories Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Peace talks broke down over Palestinian objections to Israel expanding settlements on disputed land. 

Israel has called for resuming the talks without preconditions.

Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Israel hits Hamas government buildings, reservists mobilized


Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas government buildings in Gaza on Saturday, including the prime minister's office, after Israel's cabinet authorized the mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Palestinian militants in Gaza kept up cross-border salvoes, firing a rocket at Israel's biggest city Tel Aviv for the third straight day. Police said it was destroyed in mid-air by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed hours earlier, and no one was injured.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said Israeli missiles wrecked the office building of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – where he had met on Friday with the Egyptian prime minister – and struck a police headquarters.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.

With Israeli tanks and artillery positioned along the Gaza border and no end in sight to hostilities now in their fourth day, Tunisia's foreign minister travelled to the enclave in a show of Arab solidarity.

Officials in Gaza said 41 Palestinians, nearly half of them civilians including eight children and a pregnant woman, had been killed since Israel began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

In Cairo, a presidential source said Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir, the prime minister of Turkey and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in the Egyptian capital on Saturday to discuss the Gaza crisis.

Egypt has been working to reinstate calm between Israel and Hamas after an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo unraveled over the past few weeks. Meshaal, who lives in exile, has already held a round of talks with Egyptian security officials.

Israel uncorked its massive air campaign on Wednesday with the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years. The salvoes recently intensified, and are now displaying greater range.

The operation has drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defense, along with appeals to both sides to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognize Israel, says its cross-border attacks have come in response to Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

“We have not limited ourselves in means or in time,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel's Channel One television. “We hope that it will end as soon as possible, but that will be only after all the objectives have been achieved.”

Hamas says it is committed to continued confrontation with Israel and is eager not to seem any less resolute than smaller, more radical groups that have emerged in Gaza in recent years.

The Islamist movement has ruled Gaza since 2007. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but maintains a blockade of the tiny, densely populated coastal territory.

RESERVE TROOP QUOTA DOUBLED

At a late night session on Friday, Israel's cabinet decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000, political sources said.

The move did not necessarily mean all would be called up or that an invasion would follow. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the sandy border zone on Saturday, and around 16,000 reservists have already been summoned to active duty.

The Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Israel and Egypt next week to push for an end to the fighting in Gaza, U.N. diplomats said on Friday.

Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for Saturday's rocket attack on Tel Aviv, saying it had fired a longer-range, Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of the Gaza Strip.

After air raid sirens sounded, witnesses saw two white plumes rise into the sky over the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv and heard an explosion when the incoming rocket was hit.

The anti-missile battery had been due to take delivery of its fifth Iron Dome battery early next year but it was rushed into service near Tel Aviv after rockets were launched toward the city on Thursday and Friday. Those attacks caused no damage or casualties.

In Jerusalem, targeted by a Palestinian rocket on Friday for the first time in 42 years, there was little outward sign on the Jewish Sabbath that the attack had any impact on the usually placid pace of life in the holy city.

In Gaza, some families abandoned their homes – some of them damaged and others situated near potential Israeli targets – and packed into the houses of friends and relatives.

ISRAEL'S GAZA TARGETS

The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh's office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.

Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a news conference near the rubble of the prime minister's office and pledged: “We will declare victory from here.”

A three-storey house belonging to Hamas official Abu Hassan Salah was also hit and totally destroyed early on Saturday. Rescuers said at least 30 people were pulled from the rubble.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama commended Egypt's efforts to help defuse the Gaza violence in a call to Morsi on Friday, the White House said in a statement, and underscored his hope of restoring stability there.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a high-profile visit to Gaza, denouncing what he called Israeli aggression and saying Cairo was prepared to mediate a truce.

Egypt's Islamist government, freely elected after U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak fell to a popular uprising last year, is allied with Hamas but Cairo is also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

In a call to Netanyahu, Obama discussed options for “de-escalating” the situation, the White House said, adding that the president “reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

But few believe Israeli military action can snuff out militant rocket fire entirely without a reoccupation of Gaza, an option all but ruled out because it would risk major casualties and an international outcry.

While Hamas rejects the Jewish state's existence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in areas of the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Democrats return to the economy after Jerusalem detour


It was the nuts-and-bolts convention that nearly broke down over the most ethereal of issues: Jerusalem and God.

But by its third and final night, the Democratic National Convention had gotten back on message: jobs, jobs, staying on course with getting the economy back on track, and — oh, yes — jobs.

It was a course correction after two days in which convention organizers — and, in particular, the campaign’s Jewish surrogates — scrambled first to explain how recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and mentioning God got left out of the party platform, and then hustled to get them back in over the objections of some noisy and unhappy delegates.

The convention in Charlotte, N.C. — like its Republican counterpart, which last week nominated Mitt Romney in Tampa, Fla. — was mostly about the economy.

Foreign policy barely surfaced at either convention, and social issues — while prevalent on the streets outside the Charlotte convention, where protesters on both sides of the abortion debate competed for sidewalk space — were addressed, but not paramount.

Vice President Joe Biden, whose foreign policy experience over decades in the U.S. Senate was made a centerpiece of President Obama’s choice of VP four years ago, barely mentioned foreign policy in his speech Thursday night.

America’s posture overseas was left to two of Thursday’s convention speakers: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 nominee who is now a widely touted possibility as secretary of state if Obama wins a second term, and Obama himself.

“Our commitment to Israel’s security must not waver, and neither must our pursuit of peace,” Obama said to applause during a short foreign policy aside in a speech that was otherwise dedicated to staying the course on his plans for economic recovery. “The Iranian government must face a world that stays united against its nuclear ambitions.

Democrats had scrambled to contain an embarrassing breakout after Republicans had seized on the removal of Jerusalem and God from the platform, grabbing headline space Democrats had hoped would contrast the enthusiasm in Charlotte with the relatively subdued Tampa convention.

The language was returned in a quickie session on Wednesday, but that also was not without its awkwardness: the convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, had to call for three voice votes before declaring a two-thirds majority. But those on the floor said the vote actually was much closer – and there were boos.

Those who objected ranged from Arab Americans who had praised the removal of the Jerusalem language as an acknowledgment of the claims both Palestinians and Israelis have on the city, to religion-state separatists who objected to the God language, to delegates who were outraged at what they saw as a rushed amendment process.

Jewish Democrats, who helped drive the return of the language, depicted the change as Obama’s initiative and a sign of his control over the party.

“The difference between our platform and the Republican platform is that President Obama knows that this is his platform and he wants it to reflect his personal view,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, told CNN after Robert Wexler, a member of the platform draft committee and a chief Jewish surrogate for the Obama campaign, told JTA that Obama directly intervened to make sure the platform was changed.

“President Obama personally believes that Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel,” Wasserman Schultz said.

But that claim was at odds with repeated statements by Obama administration figures in recent months that Jerusalem remains an issue for final-status negotiations — itself the position of a succession of Republican and Democratic presidencies for decades.

Jewish Democrats acknowledged at the outset of the convention that they needed to address perceptions that Obama was distant from Israel before pivoting to the area where they feel Obama far outpaces Romney among Jewish voters — domestic policy.

Kerry, in his speech, cited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in making the case for Obama’s Israel bona fides.

“Barack Obama promised always to stand with Israel to tighten sanctions on Iran — and take nothing off the table,” Kerry said. “Again and again, the other side has lied about where this president stands and what this president has done. But Prime Minister Netanyahu set the record straight: He said our two countries have 'exactly the same policy … Our security cooperation is unprecedented …' When it comes to Israel, I'll take the word of Israel's prime minister over Mitt Romney any day.”

Yet while the convention was under way, a story broke that underscored the ongoing tensions between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations over how best to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu, a top U.S. lawmaker said, erupted in anger at the U.S. ambassador to Israel over what Israel's government regards as unclear signals from the United States on Iran.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, described for a Michigan radio station, WJR, an encounter he witnessed last month when he was visiting Israel. The interview was picked up Thursday by the Atlantic magazine.

“It was very, very clear the Israelis had lost their patience with the [Obama] administration,” Rogers said.

Rogers described Israeli frustration at what he depicted as the administration's failure to make clear to Israel or Iran whether and when it will use military force to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

By Thursday, the convention’s message about the economy and the role of government in guaranteeing a social safety net was once again front and center — and among Jewish delegates, who crowded the floor sporting Hebrew Barack Obama buttons.

Cheers erupted when Carol Berman, a retiree from Ohio now living in West Palm Beach, Fla., lauded the president’s health care initiative.

“I'm one of the seniors who retired to this piece of heaven on Earth and I'm as happy as a clam,” Berman said. “It's not just the sunshine; it's Obamacare. I'm getting preventive care for free and my prescription drugs for less.”

Berman’s was the kind of “personal story” that Democrats had urged Jewish advocates to use when they made the case for Obama to the 5-10 percent of Jewish voters they estimate voted for Obama in 2008 and might be reconsidering this year. Wasserman Schultz also shared her personal experience with breast cancer in making the pitch for Obama's health care legislation.

The convention’s most sustained standing ovation was for Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman recovering from being shot in the head in January 2011. Giffords came to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, walking on her own with a cane and accompanied by a watchful Wasserman Schultz. The two women are close, having bonded as being the first Jewish women elected to Congress from their respective states.

The theme of collective responsibility informed the one rabbinical benediction of the convention, which closed Wednesday night’s events, by Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Wolpe ad-libbed a Jerusalem reference in his speech, slightly tweaking the prepared remarks delivered to reporters before he spoke.

“You have taught us that we must count on one another, that our country is strong through community, and that the children of Israel — on the way to that sanctified and cherished land, and ultimately to that golden and capital city of Jerusalem — that those children of Israel did not walk through the wilderness alone,” Wolpe said.

Democratic platform omits language on Jerusalem, notes Iran military option


The 2012 Democratic Party platform omits language recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and suggests that military force is “on the table” as an option for addressing the Iranian nuclear issue.

The platform released late Monday night makes no mention of Jerusalem or of the issue of Israel's capital. By contrast, the 2008 platform stated that “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel.” The 2008 platform also stated that the parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations.”

The new platform touts President Obama's work on implementing tougher international sanctions against Iran. It says that Obama “is committed to using all instruments of national power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

“President Obama believes that a diplomatic outcome remains the best and most enduring solution,” the platform states. “At the same time, he has also made clear that the window for diplomacy will not remain open indefinitely and that all options — including military force — remain on the table.”

The 2008 platform referred to “keeping all options on the table.”

On Israel, the new platform emphasizes the Obama administration's support for Israeli security measures such as Iron Dome and refers to Obama's “consistent support for Israel’s right to defend itself and his steadfast opposition to any attempt to delegitimize Israel.”

It also states that the president and his party are committed to seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

“A just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord, producing two states for two peoples, would contribute to regional stability and help sustain Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state,” the platform states. “At the same time, the President has made clear that there will be no lasting peace unless Israel’s security concerns are met.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition, on Twitter, criticized the omission in the new platform of language describing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The current Republican platform refers to Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The RJC also highlighted the absence from the new Democratic platform of language in the Democrats' 2008 platform calling for Hamas to be isolated, Palestinian refugees to return to a future Palestinian state rather than to Israel, and stating that “it is unrealistic to expect the outcome of final status negotiations to be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” The Republican platform also does not articulate these positions.

Obama rejects Palestinian U.N. statehood bid


U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday rejected Palestinian plans to seek U.N. blessing for statehood and urged a return to peace talks with Israel as he tried to head off a looming diplomatic disaster.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Obama—whose earlier peace efforts accomplished little—insisted Middle East peace “will not come through statements and resolutions” at the world body and put the onus on the two sides to break a yearlong impasse.

“There is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work,” Obama told an annual gathering of world leaders.

Grappling with economic woes and low poll numbers at home and growing doubts about his leadership abroad, Obama is wading into Middle East diplomacy at a critical juncture for his presidency and America’s credibility around the globe.

He faced the daunting test of Washington’s eroding influence in the region in his last-ditch bid to dissuade the Palestinians from going ahead with a push for statehood in the U.N. Security Council this week in defiance of Israeli objections and a U.S. veto threat.

Obama attempted to strike a delicate balance as he took the U.N. podium. He sought to reassure Palestinians he was not abandoning his pledge to help them achieve eventual statehood while also placating any Israeli concerns about Washington’s commitment to their security.

Members of the General Assembly, where pro-Palestinian sentiment is high, listened politely but had only a muted response to Obama’s 36-minute speech.

There was widespread skepticism about Obama’s chances for success—not least because of deeply entrenched differences between the two sides—and he may not be able to do much more than contain the damage.

The Obama administration says that only direct peace talks can lead to peace with the Palestinians, who in turn say almost two decades of fruitless negotiation has left them no choice but to turn to the world body.

Obama followed his speech with a round of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who echoed the president’s assertion that renewed negotiations were the only path to a peace deal but offered no new ideas how to get back to the table. He said, however, that the Palestinians’ U.N. statehood effort “will not succeed.”

Signalling European patience was also wearing thin after years of halting U.S.-led diplomacy, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed an ambitious timetable to resume peace talks within a month and achieve a definitive deal in a year.

STATEHOOD DRAMA

The drama over the Palestinian U.N. bid is playing out as U.S., Israeli and Palestinian leaders all struggle with the fallout from Arab uprisings that are raising new political tensions across the Middle East.

It also comes as Israel finds itself more isolated than it has been in decades and confronts Washington with the risk that, by again shielding its close ally, the United States will inflame Arab distrust when Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world is already faltering.

Taking note of deep frustrations over lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, he said: “Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state.”

He was due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later on the U.N. sidelines.

With the looming showdown overshadowing the rest of Obama’s U.N. agenda, failure to defuse the situation will not only mark a diplomatic debacle for Obama but also serve as a stark sign of the new limits of American clout in the Middle East.

Obama also used his wide-ranging speech to tout his support for democratic change sweeping the Arab world, urge further U.N. sanctions against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and call on Iran and North Korea to meet their nuclear obligations—twin standoffs that have eluded his efforts at resolution.

Senior diplomats from the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations—the “Quartet” of Middle East mediators—were scrambling for a compromise but with little sign of a breakthrough.

The speech offered no new prescriptions for Israeli-Palestinian peace from Obama, who laid out his clearest markers for a final deal in May and angered Israel by declaring its pre-war 1967 borders as the starting point for any future negotiations.

Obama will urge Abbas face-to-face against going through with his plan to present U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with a membership application on Friday, setting the stage for a Security Council vote that the United States says it will block.

In separate talks, Obama had been expected to ask Netanyahu—who has had strained relations with the U.S. president—to help coax Abbas back to negotiations and also curb dangerous new tensions with Egypt and Turkey, two of Washington’s top regional partners.

But Obama was considered unlikely to lean too hard on the hawkish Israeli leader for concessions to the Palestinians, mindful he cannot afford to alienate Israel’s broad base of support among American voters as he seeks re-election in 2012.

Most analysts remain skeptical that the latest diplomacy by Obama and others will be enough to spur serious negotiations after earlier efforts hit a dead end.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Andrew Quinn, Lou Charbonneau, Alistair Lyon; Editing by Doina Chiacu

Obama extends Jerusalem embassy waiver


President Obama has extended a waiver for an additional six months delaying moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Obama’s waiver, issued Wednesday, follows in the footsteps of predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who also extended the waiver every six months since the law was adopted in 1995 calling for the move of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Presidents are permitted to delay the move on national security grounds.

Some Jewish groups have pushed for the United States to move the embassy as a way to bolster Israeli claims to the city. Those favoring the use of the waiver say that such a step would anger the Arab world and put the United States in the position of taking sides on an issue that should be settled in peace talks.

Obama sounds both hawkish and dovish themes in Israel, Jordan


SDEROT, Israel (JTA)—During his stops in Jordan and Israel, presidential contender Barack Obama stressed both his backing for tough Israeli security measures and his commitment to advancing the peace process.

In meetings with several Israeli leaders Wednesday, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to Israel’s struggle against terrorism and other violent threats, including Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“I don’t think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on its citizens,” Obama said during a stop Wednesday at the police station in Sderot, the Israeli city that has been deluged by rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

“If someone was sending rockets on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I encourage Israel to do same,” addded the U.S. senator from Illinois, speaking in front of shelves filled with mangled Kassam rockets fired by Palestinian militants.

Obama’s trip comes as his presidential campaign has stepped up its outreach efforts to Jewish voters, and as it tries to shore up the presumptive Democratic candidate’s image with the general public as a potential commander in chief.

Over the past few weeks the Obama campaign has set up Jewish outreach committees in various cities, many with the help of Jewish lawmakers who either backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for president or stayed neutral in the Democratic primary campaign.

This week’s trip also presented Palestinian officials and several Israeli politicians who aspire to succeed Ehud Olmert as prime minister with an opportunity to forge a relationship with a possible future U.S. president—not a small thing in a country where voters place a high premium on strong ties with the United States.

In addition to discussing security issues in his meetings with Israeli leaders, Obama also talked about negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. On Tuesday in Jordan, Obama said that as president he would begin working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal from his first day in office.

“There’s a tendency for each side to focus on the faults of the other rather than look in the mirror,” Obama told reporters in Amman before heading to Israel and the West Bank. “The Israeli government is unsettled, the Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas, and so it’s difficult for either side to make the bold move that would bring about peace.

“My goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I’m sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs,” he said.

In Jerusalem the next day, Obama met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he donned a white kipah and penned an entry in the visitors’ book.

“At a time of great peril and torment, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man’s potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world,” Obama wrote.

The Democratic candidate then went to Ramallah to meet with Palestinain Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. P.A. officials said Abbas briefed Obama on progress in the peace process. Obama was slated to meet later in the day with Olmert.

Israeli sources said Obama’s discussions with Barak turned to the recent launch of Turkish-mediated negotiations between Israel and Syria.

Obama, according to one source, described the efforts to achieve peace as important, but said that as president “he would never put pressure on Israel to take steps that could put its security at risk.”

The senator apparently was referring to Syria’s demand for a full return of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed.

As for Iran, Obama described the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as “the most important challenge facing the international community right now,” Israeli sources said, adding that it would top the agenda of Obama’s meetings later this week with the leaders of Germany, France and Britain.

Obama drew criticism from the Republican Jewish Coalition and some conservative bloggers over some of the comments he made in Jordan.

Terrorism, Obama said, is “counterproductive, as well as being immoral, because it makes, I believe, the Israelis want to dig in and simply think about their own security regardless of what’s going on beyond their borders.”

Obama immediately added that “the same would be true of any people when these kinds of things happen and innocent people are injured.”

“On the other hand, I think that the Palestinians have to feel some sense of progress in terms of their economic situation, you know, whether it’s on the West Bank or Gaza, if people continually feel pressed, where they can’t get to their job or they can’t make a living, they get frustrated,” Obama said. “It’s hard for them if they see no glimmer of hope to then want to take a leap in order to make impressions.”

In response to the comments, the RJC issued a statement criticizing Obama for what the organization described as “asking Israelis and the American Jewish community to put terrorism in context.”

Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, responded with his own criticism of the RJC.

“I can only imagine that the head of the RJC put on one of those hats with horns on it that Shamans might wear,” Forman said. “Then they must have proceeded to whip themselves into a fury dancing around a fire pit stoked with acacia wood. Then by pouring the blood of a red newt over the Obama statement and reading the statement by the light of the acacia fire, they could somehow divine an anti-Israel message out of what appears, to everybody else, to be a pro-Israel statement.”

Obama press conference in Sderot

 

Now that Obama is in Israel, what should we expect?


Latest:

Barack Obama arrived in Israel and stressed the historic ties between the United States and the Jewish state.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is on a Middle East and European tour aimed at shoring up his foreign policy credentials.

“I want input and insight from Israeli leaders about how they see the current situation,” Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, said Tuesday night at Ben Gurion International Airport. “I’ll share some of my ideas. The most important idea for me to reaffirm is the historic and special relationship between the United States and Israel, one that cannot be broken and one that I have reaffirmed throughout my career.”

Obama will meet Wednesday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Earlier Tuesday in Jordan, Obama said as president he would begin working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal from his first day in office.

“There’s a tendency for each side to focus on the faults of the other rather than look in the mirror,” Obama told reporters in Amman before heading to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“The Israeli government is unsettled, the Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas, and so it’s difficult for either side to make the bold move that would bring about peace,” Obama said.

“My goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I’m sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs.”

Obama was careful to point out that peace would not come about overnight and that a U.S. president could not “suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace.”



NEW YORK (JTA)—It’s not quite as big a stage as the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, but plenty of pundits and Jewish observers will be paying attention Wednesday as Barack Obama visits Israel (the first half of the sentence was a joke … I think).

Obama spoke at the AIPAC parley back in early June, the morning after the final Democratic primaries came to a close and most everyone in the country (except Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton and a few loyalists) had recognized him as the party’s presumptive nominee.

That speech was supposed to be the final word—it was going to put to rest any doubts among Jewish voters about Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides. And not a moment too soon, with hawkish Jewish Democrats starting to think about their options in the fall and a Gallup poll showing Obama winning a bit more than 60 percent of the Jewish vote in a hypothetical matchup in the general election against John McCain—five points worse than Clinton and about 15 points below John Kerry’s numbers in 2004.

To be sure, judging from the applause, the AIPAC speech was well received by the 5,000-plus in attendance, but the subsequent flap over Obama’s call for a “united Jerusalem”—culminating with one aide saying Obama had misused the term and the candidate himself blaming “poor phrasing”—took some wind out of Team Obama’s sails. It also raised some legitimate questions about whether the campaign was ready to handle the prime-time balancing act required in navigating the domestic and international politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So here we go again: Now the Obama campaign is facing yet another key moment with Jewish voters. And again it comes on the heels of a poll—this one commissioned by J Street, the fledgling left-wing Middle East advocacy group—showing Obama stuck at about 60 percent.

With that in mind, here are a few things to watch during Obama’s day in Israel and the West Bank, which is scheduled to include visits with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad.

MESSAGE: The challenge is for Obama to reassure AIPAC types about his commitment to Israel’s security, without angering his base, which sees the Democratic nominee as someone willing to break from President Bush’s neocon foreign policy. Already feeling testy following Obama’s vote in favor of the FISA bill, many of his most enthusiastic supporters will not take well to an AIPAC-sounding Obama in Israel.

So does Obama focus on the need for an end to Palestinian violence? Israeli settlements and restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank? The goal of achieving a Palestinian state? Will Obama and his advisers be sure to avoid additional poor phrasings?

JERUSALEM: Representatives of Orthodox and right-wing organizations are holding a press conference and a rally in Jerusalem Tuesday night, during which organizers say they will ask for clarification on Obama’s views on Jerusalem. Organizers say they were spooked by Obama’s comment to Fareed Zakaria that the Clinton parameters from 2000—which included the idea of assigning the Israelis and the Palestinians control over different parts of Jerusalem—“provides a starting point for discussions between the parties.” Obama did go on to stress that the “parties are going to have to negotiate these issues on their own, with the strong engagement of the United States.” The “let the parties decide” position puts him in the same boat as McCain, but if Obama sticks to the idea that Clinton’s proposal is a good starting point, then he can expect some pushback from some Jewish and Israeli corners.

DENNIS ROSS: The Republican Jewish Coalition took aim at Obama when it mistakenly thought that he was bringing Chuck Hagel with him to Israel, noting that Joe Lieberman was McCain’s wing man during his trip in May to the Jewish state.

Well, as Time noted, Obama is bringing Dennis Ross with him to Israel. In Ross, Obama has a tour guide with more hands-on experience in dealing with Israeli and Palestinian leaders than Lieberman, and possibly commands more respect across a wider range of the political spectrum. Ross is a longtime proponent of an active U.S. peacemaking role with ties to the think tank most associated with AIPAC and has logged time as a commentator for FOX News (and unlike the liberals who get brought on to serve as a punching bag, Ross is often on by himself, and the hosts seem to listen to him).

The Jewish Agency for Israel tapped Ross to chair its think tank about the future of the Jewish people. In short, it’s hard to imagine a better person for Obama to hang out with in Israel if the goal is to say, “Yeah, I’m for a two-state solution—but relax, I come to it from the pro-Israel perspective, not the Mearsheimer-Walt worldview.”

MAHMOUD ABBAS and SALAAM FAYYAD: The meetings with Palestinian leaders could prove to be the most challenging part of the trip, at least politically. Never mind that Bush has repeatedly made clear that Abbas and Fayyad are his guys, or that McCain says he shares the president’s positive view of them—conservatives will be waiting to pounce on any word or image suggesting that Obama is at home with Palestinians.

At the same time Obama, like Bush and McCain, believes the U.S. should be doing whatever it can to help Fatah in its struggle with Hamas. So how does he manage to signal strong support for Abbas and Fayyad without providing too much ammo to Republican Jewish Coalition and the right-wing blogosphere. Another wrinkle: The Abbas meeting comes amid reports that the P.A. leader reportedly congratulated Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar on his release from an Israeli prison. (It doesn’t help Obama in some circles that McCain passed on meetings with Palestinian leaders during his May trip, though he made a point of praising Abbas.)

EHUD OLMERT: Last year, the Israeli prime minister ruffled some Democratic feathers at the AIPAC conference by overtly siding with Bush on the Iraq war. During his speech at this year’s gathering, he made several on-the-fly departures from his prepared text, all seemingly aimed at striking a more bipartisan tone than he did the year before.

With Obama ahead in the polls, and Israel in need of U.S. leadership on Iran, will Olmert continue to do a better job of hedging his (and by extension his country’s) bets? The Democratic candidate doesn’t need Olmert to undercut Bush and McCain, as the Iraqi prime minister did Tuesday by essentially endorsing Obama’s idea of a timetable for a withdrawal of American troops. Just a decent photo op without any grumblings about Obama from unnamed sources in the Prime Minister’s Office could provide a boost.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Bibi, the Likud opposition leader, has never been shy about making common cause with neocons and Christian conservatives (ask Bill Clinton). And Obama has objected to the “strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.”

Netanyahu and Obama are a sharp contrast in styles and worldviews. Polls suggest that come next year they will be leading their respective countries, so now would be a good time to start playing nice—or to start positioning for the upper hand in what could prove to be a bumpy relationship.

Copycat bulldozer rampage in Jerusalem injures 28


JERUSALEM (JTA)—In an imitation of an attack nearly three weeks ago, an Arab construction worker rampaged through the streets of Jerusalem on a bulldozer, crushing cars and hitting a bus before being shot dead by Israeli border police.

At least 16 people were injured in the attack early Tuesday afternoon, including a 9-month-old baby and his mother. One of the injured remains in serious condition at Shaare Tzedek Hospital, reports say.

The driver was identified in news reports as Ghasan Abu-Tir, 22, of eastern Jerusalem. He held an Israeli identification card.

His relative, Palestinian Authority Parliament member Muhammad Abu-Tir, is jailed in Israel, Ynet reported.

The attack in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood was similar to a July 2 attack when a bulldozer driver from eastern Jerusalem killed three Israelis before being shot dead by an off-duty soldier.

While that assailant was assumed to have had political motives, Israeli authorities never established clear links to Palestinian terrorist groups.

Israeli police sealed off routes leaving Jerusalem following Tuesday’s attack in an attempt to catch two suspected accomplices who were seen leaving the scene.

The attack, at the corner of Keren Hayesod and King David streets in the heart of Jerusalem, took place within sight of the luxury King David Hotel, which will host U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) during the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority set to begin Tuesday evening.

The bulldozer driver, who according to witnesses wore a large white skullcap common to religious Muslims, chased the No. 13 bus while raising the shovel of his front-end loader, the driver of the bus told the Ha’aretz newspaper.

“I was driving on the main road when the [bulldozer] hit me in the rear, on the right-hand side,” driver Avi Levi told Ha’aretz. “After I passed him he turned round, made a U-turn and rammed the windows twice with the shovel. The third time he aimed for my head, he came up to my window and I swerved to the right, otherwise I would have gone to meet my maker.”

Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski told Israel’s Channel 10 that the two bulldozer attacks could affect the future hiring of Arabs from eastern Jerusalem.

“We should reconsider the employment of these people,” he said.

Lupolianski, who was near the area of the attack and rushed to the scene, added that “tools of construction become opportunities for attacks.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, which took place while he was meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres in the president’s residence located a few miles from the scene. It was the first meeting in the residence with a P.A. president.

Obama at a news conference in Jordan condemned the attack.

“Today’s bulldozer attack is a reminder of what Israelis have courageously lived with on a daily basis for far too long,” Obama said in Amman. “I strongly condemn this attack and will always support Israel in confronting terrorism and pursuing lasting peace and security.”

Will ‘President Obama’ be good for Israel?


JERUSALEM (JTA)—Although Israeli officialdom is not commenting on the possibility of a Barack Obama presidency, in private some officials in Jerusalem are expressing mixed feelings about the prospect.

There are concerns in some government quarters that Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, might be soft on Iran, pressure Israel to make concessions on the Palestinian track and even change the tenor of the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States.

Yet Foreign Ministry experts on U.S. foreign policy say no American president, Obama included, would adopt an overtly anti-Israeli posture.

There are hopes on Israel’s left wing that an Obama administration will be more hands-on in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, perhaps even pressing the parties into a mutually beneficial deal. By the same token, there are fears on the right wing that an Obama administration and the Israeli government could be on a collision course, especially if the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu wins the next Israeli election.

Obama’s powerfully expressed commitment to Israel at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington on last week went a long way toward assuaging Israeli fears.

Israeli officials noted Obama’s readiness to use force against Iran if necessary, his promise to maintain the IDF’s qualitative edge, his support for isolating Hamas and his commitment to Israel’s Jewish character, with Jerusalem as its undivided capital.


” title=”Bloggish:”>Bloggish, February 1, 2008

Just before the big simcha at American University where Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) anointed Sen. Baruch Obama as JFK’s successor, Obama was on a 23-minute conference call with members of the Jewish press.

The phone call was yet another attempt to stop the lashon hara about Obama’s religion, honesty and pro-Israel record—lies and slander circulating in some Jewish communities on and off line.

The news of this call was eclipsed by the Kennedy blessing.  On any other news day, Obama’s outreach to Jews would have been a headline story.

I grabbed the MP3 of the conference call from our friends at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency so we could serve the audio locally, and save the JTA some bandwidth, and here it is:

Obama to AIPAC: War in Iraq has hurt Israel


WASHINGTON [JTA] — Barack Obama told an AIPAC conference that the Iraq war had endangered Israel.

“Because of war in Iraq, Iran, which always posed a greater threat than Iraq, is emboldened,” the Illinois senator and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said Wednesday at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy forum.

In a wide-ranging speech, Obama said he would be steadfast in his support for Israel and praised the Jewish state for destroying a nuclear reactor in Syria last September.

“I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said to a standing ovation while defending his policy of using direct diplomacy to persuade Iran to end its suspected nuclear weapons program.

In a response organized by the campaign of U.S. Sen. John McCain {R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. Joseph lieberman (I-Conn.) said Obama was wrong to blame Iran’s resurgent power on the Iraq war.

“If Israel is in danger today, it is not because of American foreign policy,” Lieberman said in a conference call. “It’s because Iran is a terrorist, expansionist state.”


Excerpt of Obama speech to AIPAC courtesy MSNBC


Here’s the prepared text of Barack Obama’s speech to AIPAC today:

Obama remarks at AIPAC (AS PREPARED for delivery)

It’s great to see so many friends from across the country. I want to congratulate Howard Friedman, David Victor and Howard Kohr on a successful conference, and on the completion of a new headquarters just a few blocks away.

Before I begin, I want to say that I know some provocative emails have been circulating throughout Jewish communities across the country. A few of you may have gotten them. They’re filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for President. And all I want to say is — let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening.

But if anyone has been confused by these emails, I want you to know that today I’ll be speaking from my heart, and as a true friend of Israel. And I know that when I visit with AIPAC, I am among friends. Good friends. Friends who share my strong commitment to make sure that the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable today, tomorrow, and forever.

One of the many things that I admire about AIPAC is that you fight for this common cause from the bottom up. The lifeblood of AIPAC is here in this room — grassroots activists of all ages, from all parts of the country, who come to Washington year after year to make your voices heard. Nothing reflects the face of AIPAC more than the 1,200 students who have travelled here to make it clear to the world that the bond between Israel and the United States is rooted in more than our shared national interests — it’s rooted in the shared values and shared stories of our people. And as President, I will work with you to ensure that it this bond strengthened.

I first became familiar with the story of Israel when I was eleven years old. I learned of the long journey and steady determination of the Jewish people to preserve their identity through faith, family and culture. Year after year, century after century, Jews carried on their traditions, and their dream of a homeland, in the face of impossible odds.

The story made a powerful impression on me. I had grown up without a sense of roots. My father was black, he was from Kenya, and he left us when I was two. My mother was white, she was from Kansas, and I’d moved with her to Indonesia and then back to Hawaii. In many ways, I didn’t know where I came from. So I was drawn to the belief that you could sustain a spiritual, emotional and cultural identity. And I deeply understood the Zionist idea — that there is always a homeland at the center of our story.

I also learned about the horror of the Holocaust, and the terrible urgency it brought to the journey home to Israel. For much of my childhood, I lived with my grandparents. My grandfather had served in World War II, and so had my great uncle. He was a Kansas boy, who probably never expected to see Europe — let alone the horrors that awaited him there. And for months after he came home from Germany, he remained in a state of shock, alone with the painful memories that wouldn’t leave his head.

You see, my great uncle had been a part of the 89th Infantry Division — the first Americans to reach a Nazi concentration camp. They liberated Ohrdruf, part of Buchenwald, on an April day in 1945. The horrors of that camp go beyond our capacity to imagine. Tens of thousands died of hunger, torture, disease, or plain murder — part of the Nazi killing machine that killed 6 million people.

When the Americans marched in, they discovered huge piles of dead bodies and starving survivors. General Eisenhower ordered Germans from the nearby town to tour the camp, so they could see what was being done in their name. He ordered American troops to tour the camp, so they could see the evil they were fighting against. He invited Congressmen and journalists to bear witness. And he ordered that photographs and films be made. Explaining his actions, Eisenhower said that he wanted to produce, “first-hand evidence of these things, if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda.”

I saw some of those very images at Yad Vashem, and they never leave you. And those images just hint at the stories that survivors of the Shoah carried with them. Like Eisenhower, each of us bears witness to anyone and everyone who would deny these unspeakable crimes, or ever speak of repeating them. We must mean what we say when we speak the words: “never again.”

It was just a few years after the liberation of the camps that David Ben-Gurion declared the founding of the Jewish State of Israel. We know that the establishment of Israel was just and necessary, rooted in centuries of struggle, and decades of patient work. But 60 years later, we know that we cannot relent, we cannot yield, and as President I will never compromise when it comes to Israel’s security.

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