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.

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.

Obama’s tightrope walk


Palestinians vent frustration at brief Obama visit


Palestinian protesters raised their hands and tried to wave away the helicopter that brought U.S. President Barack Obama to the West Bank on Thursday, accusing him of siding with Israel.

Around 150 demonstrators chanted anti-American slogans, saying they wanted weapons not presidential visits.

“We want RPGs, not collaboration with the CIA,” they shouted, referring to rocket-propelled grenades.

Obama landed in the government compound of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, saying beforehand that he was coming to listen and was not bringing any new initiatives to re-launch U.S.-sponsored peace talks that broke down in 2010.

Much of the Palestinian de facto capital Ramallah was shut down for Obama's trip, which is set to last less than five hours, with hundreds of armed security men, police officers and plainclothes enforcers patrolling the streets.

While the U.S. president received a warm welcome when he arrived in Israel on Wednesday, Palestinians were much colder, clearly angered by his promise of unstinting support for Israel and repeated pledges to guarantee its security needs.

“He surprised us with his speech last night with just how much he flattered Israel, going on and on about its security,” said Hussein Shujayia, 26. “What about us? There's no place for us in their arrogant pro-Israel policies.”

Other Palestinians expressed indifference.

“The visit by this president is no different than all the other presidents' visits. They come, they go and no change is made,” said Mohammed Mohammed, 23, watching the protesters from outside his shoe shop in Ramallah's bustling downtown.

Obama is spending three days in Israel and the West Bank, with the vast majority of his appointments taking place in the Jewish state, including plans to lay a wreath on the grave of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl.

Palestinian requests for Obama to meet the family of a Palestinian in an Israeli jail and to visit the tomb of former President Yasser Arafat were turned down, local officials said.

“This is a negative decision by the American president. Yasser Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian people, and some day, the American president should visit the grave,” said Batta Araar, a resident of a village near Ramallah.

Palestinians complain that Obama has not put enough pressure on Israel to halt settlement building in the West Bank and say any prospect of creating a viable, independent state is fading fast.

In the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Islamist group Hamas, a fierce rival of the Western-backed Abbas, Palestinian opposition to Obama's visit was more militant.

Guerrillas fired two rockets at southern Israel in the early morning, causing only slight damage, in a signal that the world should not ignore them in any discussions on regional diplomacy.

Dozens of protesters in Gaza city smacked pictures of Obama with the soles of their shoes, burned U.S. flags and chanted that the president should “get out of Palestine”.

Additional reporting By Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Alistair Lyon

New Israel housing minister pledges more settlement building


Israel's new housing minister said on Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's incoming cabinet would keep expanding Jewish settlements to the same extent as his previous government.

The remarks came two days ahead of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama who has urged Israel to halt settlement on land that Palestinians seek for a state. They suggested that Netanyahu's new cabinet could prove to be as hawkish as his outgoing coalition.

Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a Jewish settler and member of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said in a television interview that in the territory “building will continue in accordance with what the government's policy has been thus far.”

Using the biblical names for the territory Israel captured in a 1967 war, Ariel told Israel's Channel 10 television the government “will build in Judea and Samaria more or less as it has done previously. I see no reason to change it.”

Ariel added that Israel planned the bulk of housing construction for more sparsely populated areas within its sovereign borders in the Negev desert to the south and Galilee region in its north.

He said construction in the West Bank was “not the main story” for his housing plans.

Most world powers see settlements as illegal under international law. Some Israelis claim historical and biblical ties to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, home to some 500,000 settlers, and dispute that building in these areas is illegal.

Peace talks for a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been frozen since 2010, in a dispute over settlement building.

Netanyahu has accelerated settlement plans anew after Palestinians won recognition for statehood in the United Nations General Assembly in November, a move Israel opposed as a unilateral step that undermines peace efforts.

In December and January, Israel announced plans to build more than 11,000 new houses in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, almost double the 6,800 built under Netanyahu's previous administration since March 2009, figures by the settlement watch group Peace Now showed.

Netanyahu has built a new government since a January 22 election, based on centrists elected on the strength of popular protests against steep cost of living rises, and right-wing parties championing the concerns of Jewish settlers.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Stephen Powell

Obama, Netanyahu talk ‘de-escalation’


President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed “de-escalation” of the Gaza conflict.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu called the President today to provide an update on the situation in Israel and Gaza,” said a White House statement released late Frdiay.  “The Prime Minister expressed his deep appreciation to the president and the American people for the United States’ investment in the Iron Dome rocket and mortar defense system, which has effectively defeated hundreds of incoming rockets from Gaza and saved countless Israeli lives.”

The statement continued: “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. The two leaders discussed options for de-escalating the situation.”

The reference to de-escalation came the same day that Netanyahu appeared ready to expand the operation into a ground war, as Palestinian rockets for the first time reached the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“With respect to the ongoing operation the prime minister said that the IDF is continuing to hit Hamas hard and is ready to expand the operation into Gaza,” said a statement from Netanyahu's office Friday, recounting his meeting with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres.

In a separate statement, the White House said Obama had spoken to the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, and also discussed de-escalation.

“The president commended Egypt’s efforts to de-escalate the situation and expressed his hope that these efforts would be successful,” the statement said.  “The president expressed regret for the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives, and underscored the importance of resolving the situation as quickly as possible to restore stability and prevent further loss of life.”

Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood movement is close to Hamas, has condemned the Israeli strikes and has called for a cease-fire.

Israel's Cabinet on Friday approved a call-up of 75,000 reservists, Haaretz reported.

The operation, launched Wednesday by Israel after an intensification of rocket fire from Gaza, has claimed some 30 Palestinian lives, including a number of children; a top commander of the Hamas terrorist group, killed in the first minutes of attacks; and an alleged informant killed by Hamas.

A rocket killed three Israeli civilians in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi.

Rockets hit near Tel Aviv as war looms over Gaza


[UPDATE 11:13 am] Two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip targeted Tel Aviv on Thursday in the first attack on Israel's commercial capital in 20 years, raising the stakes in a showdown between Israel and the Palestinians that is moving towards all-out war.

Earlier Hamas rocket killed three Israelis north of the Gaza Strip on Thursday, drawing the first blood from Israel as the Palestinian death toll rose to 16 in a military showdown lurching closer to all-out war and a threatened invasion of the enclave. 

Israeli warplanes bombed targets in and around Gaza city for a second day, shaking tall buildings. In a sign of possible escalation, the armed forces spokesman said the military had received the green light to call in up to 30,000 reserve troops.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Palestinian militants would pay a price for firing the missiles.

Plumes of smoke and dust furled into a sky laced with the vapor trails of outgoing rockets over the crowded city, where four young children killed on Wednesday were buried.

After enduring months of incoming rocket fire from Gaza,   Israel retaliated with the killing of Hamas's military chief, and targeting longer-range rocket caches in Gaza.

[Related: Rocket strikes southern outskirts of Tel Aviv]

Egypt's new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, viewed by Hamas as a protector, led a chorus of denunciation of the Israeli strikes by Palestinian allies.

Mosi's prime minister, Hisham Kandil, will visit Gaza on Friday with other Egyptian officials in a show of support for the enclave, an Egyptian cabinet official said. Israel promised that the delegation would come to no harm.

Israel says its attack is in response to escalating missile strikes from Gaza. Israel's bombing has not yet reached the saturation level seen before it last invaded Gaza in 2008, but Israeli officials have said a ground assault is still an option.

Israeli police said three Israelis died when a rocket hit a four-story building in the town of Kiryat Malachi, some 25 km (15 miles) north of Gaza, the first Israeli fatalities of the latest conflict to hit the coastal region.

Air raid sirens sent residents running for shelter in Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial centre which has not been hit by a rocket since the 1991 Gulf War. A security source said it landed in the sea. Tel Aviv residents said an explosion could be heard.

The Tel Aviv metropolitan area holds more than 3 million people, more than 40 percent of Israel's population.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas was committing a double war crime, by firing at Israeli civilians and hiding behind Palestinians civilians.

“I hope that Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza got the message,” he said. “If not, Israel is prepared to take whatever action is necessary to defend our people.”

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Israel would pay a heavy price “for this open war which they initiated”.

After watching powerlessly from the sidelines of the Arab Spring, Israel has been thrust to the centre of a volatile new world in which Islamist Hamas hopes that Mursi and his newly dominant Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will be its protectors.

“The Israelis must realize that this aggression is unacceptable and would only lead to instability in the region and would negatively and greatly impact the security of the region,” Mursi said.

The new conflict will be the biggest test yet of Mursi's commitment to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which the West views as the bedrock of Middle East peace.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which brought Mursi to power in an election after the downfall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, has called for a “Day of Rage” in Arab capitals on Friday. The Brotherhood is seen as the spiritual mentors of Hamas.

ASSASSINATION

The offensive began on Wednesday when a precision Israeli airstrike killed Hamas military mastermind Ahmed Al-Jaabari. Israel then began shelling the enclave from land, air and sea.

At Jaabari's funeral on Thursday, supporters fired guns in the air celebrating news of the Israeli deaths, to chants for Jaabari of “You have won.”

His corpse was borne through the streets wrapped in a bloodied white sheet. But senior Hamas figures were not in evidence, wary of Israel's warning they are in its crosshairs.

The Israeli army said 250 targets were hit in Gaza, including more than 130 rocket launchers. It said more than 270 rockets had struck Israel since the start of the operation, with its Iron Dome interceptor system shooting down more than 105 rockets headed for residential areas.

Expecting days or more of fighting and almost inevitable civilian casualties, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets in Gaza telling residents to stay away from Hamas and other militants.

The United States condemned Hamas, shunned by the West as an obstacle to peace for its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

“There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel,” said Mark Toner, deputy State Department spokesman.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting late on Wednesday, but took no action.

In France, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabious said: “It would be a catastrophe if there is an escalation in the region.Israel has the right to security but it won't achieve it through violence. The Palestinians also have the right to a state.”

“GATES OF HELL”

Israel's sworn enemy Iran, which supports and arms Hamas, condemned the Israeli offensive as “organized terrorism”. Lebanon's Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, which has its own rockets aimed at the Jewish state, denounced strikes on Gaza as “criminal aggression”, but held its fire.

Oil prices rose more than $1 as the crisis grew. Israeli shares and bonds fell, while Israel's currency rose off Wednesday's lows, when the shekel slid more than 1 percent to a two-month low against the dollar.

A second Gaza war has loomed on the horizon for months as waves of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes grew increasingly intense and frequent. Netanyahu, favored in polls to win a January 22 general election, said on Wednesday the Gaza operation could be stepped up.

His cabinet has granted authorization for the mobilization of military reserves if required to press the offensive, dubbed “Pillar of Defence” in English and “Pillar of Cloud” in Hebrew after the Israelites' divine sign of deliverance in Exodus.

Hamas has said the killing of its top commander in a precise, death-from-above airstrike, would “open the gates of hell” for Israel. It appealed to Egypt to halt the assault.

Israel has been anxious since Mubarak was toppled last year in the Arab Spring revolts that replaced secularist strongmen with elected Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and brought civil war to Israel's other big neighbor Syria.

Cairo recalled its ambassador from Israel on Wednesday. Israel's ambassador left Cairo on what was called a routine home visit and Israel said its embassy would stay open.

Gaza has an estimated 35,000 Palestinian fighters, no match for Israel's F-16 fighter-bombers, Apache helicopter gunships, Merkava tanks and other modern weapons systems in the hands of a conscript force of 175,000, with 450,000 in reserve.

This story was edited by JewishJournal.com.  

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Erika Solomon in Beirut, John Irish in Paris. Marwa Awad in Cairo.; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Peter Graff

Palestinians take step towards full UNESCO membership


Palestinians moved a step closer to full membership in the U.N. cultural agency on Wednesday after its board decided to let 193 member states vote on the issue later this month, the latest stage in a Palestinian campaign for statehood recognition.

In September Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formally applied to the U.N. Security Council for full membership in the United Nations, ignoring a U.S. threat to veto the measure, as well as threats from members of the U.S. Congress to restrict American aid to the Palestinians.

Forty representatives of the 58-member board voted in favour of a draft resolution, with four voting against and 14 abstaining, a source at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation told Reuters.

It will now be submitted for a vote at UNESCO’s General Conference, which runs from Oct. 25 to Nov. 10 and involves all 193 members of the Paris-based organisation.

“At present the resolution being discussed concerns submitting membership of Palestine to UNESCO’s General Conference, which will then be the organ that decides whether Palestine is admitted or not,” the source said.

To ramp up pressure on the United Nations, Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA) has been looking at alternative institutions that may recognise their sought-after statehood status—a campaign triggered by a breakdown of peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel last year.

On Tuesday, it won partnership status from the Council of Europe, European Union’s main human rights body.

The Palestinians have had observer status at UNESCO since 1974. In order to gain full membership, so-called “states” that are not members of the United Nations may be admitted to UNESCO with a two-thirds majority of the General Conference.

It was not clear whether Palestine would need to be a recognized state for its UNESCO bid to succeed.

An official at the Palestinian mission declined to comment.

The PA’s move at UNESCO has sparked anger in the United States with the chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the U.S. House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, calling for a cut-off of U.S. funding to UNESCO if the Palestinian request is approved.

“Feeling that their efforts at the U.N. Security Council will fail, the Palestinian leadership is shopping around the U.N. system for recognition,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

“This attempt to rig the process needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. Our contributions are our strongest leverage at the U.N., and should be used to stand up for our interests and allies and stop this dangerous Palestinian scheme.”

The U.S. government has said the Palestinians can gain an independent state only via negotiations with the Jewish state, Washington’s main ally in the Middle East.

France, which has urged the United Nations to grant the Palestinians the status of observer state—like the Vatican—while outlining a one-year roadmap to peace with Israel, said UNESCO was not the right forum to seek recognition.

“The priority is to revive negotiations,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said. “We consider that UNESCO is not the appropriate place and the General Conference is not the right moment.”

Envoys from the Middle East “Quartet”—the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States—will meet in Brussels on Sunday to try to reinvigorate Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington and Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Hamas response to Obama speech: Still won’t recognize Israel


Hamas condemned President Obama’s AIPAC speech, saying it will not recognize Israel despite the United States president’s demand.

The Obama administration is “not a friend to the people of the region,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told the Ma’an Palestinian news service.

Abu Zuhri said Obama’s continued support of Israel showed that the U.S. is biased, and will “support the occupation at the expense of the freedom of the Palestinian people.”

“The US administration will fail, just as all others have in the past, in forcing Hamas to recognize the occupation,” Abu Zuhri said.

In his response to Obama’s speech, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told journalists in Jordan, where he is currently on a diplomatic visit, that “Hamas is part of Palestinian society, and will take part in the democratic game as opposition.”

He said the new Palestinian unity government, whose composition still has not been announced, will conduct future peace negotiations with Israel.

Poll: Most Palestinians support direct negotiations with Israel


A poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza conducted last month by a research firm for the Israel Project, a nonprofit education organization, found that a majority of Palestinians support direct peace negotiations with Israel and a two-state solution to the conflict.

Only 30 percent of those surveyed believe that the two-state solution should be permanent. Sixty percent said that establishing Jewish and Palestinian states side by side should be temporary, with the ultimate goal being the establishment of a single Palestinian state. Only one-fifth accepted that Israel has “a permanent right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people.”

The survey, conducted in early October by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a firm based in Washington, D.C., interviewed 854 people face-to-face in the West Bank and Gaza. Questions were asked in Arabic, and different formulations of similar questions often led to seemingly contradictory results. Sixty-one percent of respondents said they favored direct negotiations between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet 58 percent agreed with the statement “this is a time for armed struggle,” with only 36 percent choosing the other alternative, “this is the time for engagement with Israel.”

The mixed results present a nuanced picture of Palestinian public opinion. “It offers a special window into Palestinian thinking at this critical juncture.  There are some things to applaud, some to note and some things that are concerning,” Stan Greenberg, the research firm’s chairman and CEO, said in a press release.

When pollsters described what a peaceful resolution might entail—including land swaps and the division of Jerusalem as laid out by President Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000—respondents were less enthusiastic about the prospects of an agreement, with only 29 percent supporting such a solution.

But Palestinian support for “recognizing Israel as Jewish state” went up significantly—to 50 percent—when pollsters added in two preconditions: building up Palestinian institutions and moving toward an agreement on borders.

“The hostility and misconception towards Israel and Jews among our neighbors shows the urgent need of direct communication between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Marcus Sheff, Israel director of The Israel Project, the non-profit educational organization that sponsored the survey. “In order to change the perceptions we must work with the Palestinian and Arabic media.”

Netanyahu updates Cabinet on U.S. settlement freeze proposal


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will present to his Cabinet an American proposal to convince Israel to again freeze settlement construction in an effort to resume peace talks with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu updated the Cabinet on the American offer Sunday during its regular meeting. Netanyahu met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday in New York for seven hours.

“This proposal was raised during my talks with Secretary of State Clinton.  It is still not final; it is still being formulated by Israeli and the American teams.  If and when it is complete, I will bring this proposal to the appropriate Government forum, which in this case is the Cabinet.  In any case, I insist that any proposal meet the State of Israel’s security needs, both in the immediate term and vis-à-vis the threats that we will face in the coming decade,” Netanyahu told the Cabinet at the beginning of Sunday’s meeting.

The U.S. reportedly has offered to supply 20 F-35 stealth fighter jets in a deal worth $3 billion; to veto all United Nations Security Council and international resolutions that criticize or delegitimize Israel; and to provide Israel with additional security guarantees once a peace deal is reached. The U.S. deal requires Israel to halt all construction in the West Bank for 90 days, including on building work in process, and says that the U.S. will not ask for an extension of the new freeze.

A 10-month Israeli freeze on construction in the West Bank ended on Sept. 26. President Obama has said he believes that he can help Israel and the Palestinians to agree on final borders for Israel and a Palestinian state during a three-month settlement construction freeze.

At a meeting of Netanyahu’s Likud Party ministers before the Cabinet meeting, at least four ministers, including two vice premieres, reportedly expressed vehement opposition to a second West Bank construction freeze.

Palestinians leaders also reportedly are against the deal, because it does not include a freeze on construction in eastern Jerusalem. The United States reportedly has not consulted with the Palestinians on the deal it offered to Netanyahu.

“Jerusalem is not a settlement. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” said a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office last week.

+