Ex-Israeli PM Olmert sentenced to more jail time for corruption

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced on Monday to eight months in jail for accepting illegal payments from a U.S. businessman, having previously been given a six-year term in a separate corruption case.

Olmert's lawyers said they would appeal to the Supreme Court against the new conviction and prison term.

Monday's sentence stemmed from a verdict in March that found that Olmert, while serving as industry and trade minister from 2003 to 2005, accepted cash-filled envelopes from an American businessman who hoped to further his interests in Israel.

The court convicted him of fraud and breach of trust on the basis of new testimony from a former aide who had accepted a plea bargain.

Last May, Olmert was sentenced to six years in jail for accepting $160,000 in bribes linked to a real estate deal in Jerusalem while serving as the city's mayor.

Olmert, 69, is currently appealing that conviction in the Supreme Court, having denied wrongdoing in both cases.

He remains at liberty while the appeals process runs its course. A Supreme Court decision on the first appeal is expected in the next couple of months, his lawyers said.

Olmert became prime minister in 2006 but announced his resignation in 2008 after the corruption allegations surfaced, cutting short his pursuit of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

He stayed on until a new government took office following national elections in 2009.

Oren says ‘Gatekeepers’ makes his job harder

Israel's U.S. ambassador,  Michael Oren, said the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers” complicates his mission.

The movie compiles interviews with six former leaders of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, and records their perceptions of how successive Israeli governments missed opportunities for peace.

“This is a good movie that presents a narrative of 45 years of occupation but is completely devoid of information on Israel's peace plan offers — (Ehud) Barak's Camp David attempts, then [Ehud] Olmert, from the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the rocket fire on us,” Oren told Ynet in a story posted Sunday. “Whoever views the movie without knowing the background can leave feeling that Israel is to blame and didn't do a thing.”

Oren said he hesitated to criticize the movie for fear of being attacked as limiting speech freedoms, but added that he felt that Israel was “on the defensive” in its effort to explain its right to exist.

Netanyahu: No Palestinian state until negotiations, despite U.N. vote

The Palestinians will not achieve a state without first recognizing Israel as a Jewish State and sitting down to direct negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu said.

The prime minister of Israel made his remarks on Thursday morning, the 65th anniversary of the United Nations approval of the Partition Plan for Palestine and the day of an expected vote on granting the Palestinians enhanced status at the international body.

“Israel is prepared to live in peace with a Palestinian state, but for peace to endure, Israel’s security must be protected.  The Palestinians must recognize the Jewish State and they must be prepared to end the conflict with Israel once and for all.  None of these vital interests, these vital interests of peace, none of them appear in the resolution that will be put forward before the General Assembly today and that is why Israel cannot accept it,” Netanyahu said Thursday morning during a visit to the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. “The only way to achieve peace is through agreements that are reached by the parties directly; through valid negotiations between themselves, and not through U.N. resolutions that completely ignore Israel’s vital security and national interests.  And because this resolution is so one-sided, it doesn’t advance peace, it pushes it backwards.”

Netanyahu also directed a message to the delegates to the U.N. General Assembly, gathering in New York for Thursday's vote: “No decision by the UN can break the 4000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and the land of Israel.”

Meanwhile, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in letter published on the Daily Beast's Open Zion Blog that he does not oppose the Palestinian's U.N. bid, which is counter to official Israeli policy. The letter was printed in a post by Hebrew University professor Bernard Avishai.

Olmert wrote that: “I believe that the Palestinian request from the United Nations is congruent with the basic concept of the two-state solution. Therefore, I see no reason to oppose it. Once the United Nations will lay the foundation for this idea, we in Israel will have to engage in a serious process of negotiations, in order to agree on specific borders based on the 1967 lines, and resolve the other issues. It is time to give a hand to, and encourage, the moderate forces amongst the Palestinians. Abu-Mazen and Salam Fayyad need our help. It's time to give it.”

Abu-Mazen is another name for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; Fayyad is the P.A. prime minister.

On Wednesday, Arab-Israeli lawmaker Ahmad Tibi arrived in New York to support the Palestinians during the vote in the U.N. General Assembly. His trip elicited anger from right-wing Knesset members.

Olmert says he has no plans to re-enter politics

Former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, following his acquittal on the most serious corruption charges, said he does not intend to return to politics.

Olmert, speaking Thursday at a conference in Tel Aviv two days after he was acquitted on corruption charges that prompted his resignation from office four years ago, also said that he would remain a member of the Kadima party.

“I want to calm down anyone who is worried—I have no intention of re-entering politics,” Olmert reportedly said a conference of the Institute for National Security Studies. “I am not involved in politics. I deal with other issues and nothing else. I don’t have a shelf party—I am a member of Kadima.”

The Jerusalem District Court acquitted Olmert on charges of fraud, breach of trust, tax evasion and falsifying corporate records in what became known as the Talansky and Rishon Tours affairs. He was found guilty on a lesser charge of breach of trust in the Investment Center case, in which Olmert was accused of granting personal favors while he was Israel’s trade minister.

Olmert is expected to appeal the breach of trust conviction, which would carry a prison sentence and make him the first Israeli prime minister to go behind bars. He had pleaded not guilty on all charges.

In a statement made after the executive summary of the decision was read, Olmert said, “After over four years this case has finally come to its end. Four years ago the media was riddled with reports of ‘cash envelopes’ and illicit money. Well, today the court found that there was no such thing. This was not corruption, there were no cash-filled envelopes, there was no bribery, there was no illicit use of funds.”

Olmert indicted in Holyland scandal

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been indicted on bribery charges in one of Israel’s largest corruption scandals.

The indictment filed Thursday accuses Olmert of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes during the construction of the Holyland apartment project in Jerusalem when he was mayor of Jerusalem and then trade minister.

Seventeen other people were also indicted in the case, including Olmert’s former bureau chief Shula Zaken and former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski.

Olmert is currently on trial in three other cases: for allegedly paying for family vacations by double billing Jewish organizations through the Rishon Tours travel agency; for allegedly accepting envelopes full of cash from American businessman Morris Talansky; and for allegedly granting personal favors to attorney Uri Messer when he served as trade minister in the Investment Center case.

The ex-Israeli leader is charged with fraud, breach of trust, falsifying corporate records and tax evasion. He has pleaded not guilty on all charges.

Olmert is the first former Israeli prime minister to stand trial. He resigned as prime minister in September 2008 after police investigators recommended that he be indicted.

South Sudan president makes lightening visit to Israel

The president of the new country of South Sudan arrived in Israel for a short working visit during which the possibility of repatriating Sudanese infiltrators to the country set to be discussed.

Salva Kiir met Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who offered to send a government delegation to South Sudan to assess how Israel can help the new country, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Kiir also met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, and visited Yad Vashem.His visit lasted less than 24 hours.

“I am very moved to be in Israel and to walk on the soil of the Promised Land, and with me are all South Sudanese people,” Kiir told Peres, according to a statement from the president’s office. “Israel has always supported the South Sudanese people. Without you, we would not have arisen. You struggled alongside us in order to allow the establishment of South Sudan and we are interested in learning from your experience. As a nation that rose from dust, and as the few who fought the many, you have established a flourishing country that offers a future and economic prosperity to its children. I have come to see your success. Both Israel and South Sudan champion coexistence and peace. We have shared values. We have waged similar struggles and we will go hand-in-hand with Israel in order to strengthen and enhance bilateral strategic relations.”

“Israel has supported, and will continue to support, your country in all areas in order to strengthen and develop it. We know that you courageously and wisely struggled against all odds to establish your country and for us, the birth of South Sudan is a milestone in the history of the Middle East and in advancing the values of equality, freedom and striving for peace and good neighborly relations,” Peres told Kiir. He also presented Kiir with an antique menorah, in honor of the start of Chanukah.

Olmert, Abbas outline 2008 differences and agreements

Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas made advances in peace talks but could not overcome differences over settlements and refugees in time.

The sides agreed on sharing Jerusalem’s Old City and on the security conditions for a Palestinian state, Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, and Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, both told the New York Times in interviews, and were close on borders and refugees.

The talks fell apart in late 2008 after it became clear that Olmert’s leadership could not survive scandals.

The sides agreed to keeping the “Holy Basin” in Jerusalem in a multinational trust, and that the Palestinian state should be demilitarized.

There was agreement on allowing a limited number of refugees to return—but broad gaps on the actual number.

The Palestinians also were steadfast in their objection to Israel retaining two major settlements, Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel.

Both leaders said U.S. bridging proposals might have overcome the differences. The Bush administration was reluctant to play such a proactive role in the process.

Olmert: Netanyahu leading Israel to political isolation

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday harshly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

Speaking at an Industry, Trade and Labor ministry conference, Olmert said that the government’s refusal to accept the United States request that Israel extend a freeze on West Bank settlement construction for two months could lead to Israel’s political isolation in the world and damage Israel’s economy.

“There are people who think it is possible to separate the political situation from the economic situation and they use the phrase ‘economic peace’,” Olmert said, alluding to Netanyahu. “This is a lovely phrase but it reality doesn’t exist.”

Read more at HAARETZ.com.

Police recommend indicting Olmert over Holyland

Israeli police have recommended that prosecutors indict Ehud Olmert in a real estate scandal.

The police investigations unit turned over its file on the Holyland apartment project scandal to State Prosecutor Moshe Lador on Monday along. The police recommendation has no formal bearing.

Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, is suspected of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes during the construction of the Holyland apartment project in Jerusalem when he was mayor of Jerusalem and then trade minister. Olmert is currently on trial in other corruption scandals.

The police also recommended charging several other former officials on charges ranging from bribery and fraud to tax offenses, including Olmert’s former bureau chief Shula Zaken, former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, and former Israel Land Administration head Yaakov Efrati.

The Holyland project started while Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003, and continued under his successor, Lupolianski, who served until 2008.

Olmert questioned in Holyland real estate scandal

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was questioned in connection with a massive real estate scandal.

Police from the National Unit for Aggravated and International Crime in Lod questioned Olmert for about eight hours on Tuesday as part of the investigation into the Holyland project, which is being described as one of the worst corruption scandals in Israeli history.

Olmert was identified last month by police as the chief suspect in the Holyland scandal, and he voluntarily cut short a planned visit abroad in order to be available for questioning, which did not occur until Tuesday.

He is suspected of accepting nearly hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes during the construction of the Holyland apartment project in Jerusalem, built on the site of the former Holyland Hotel, when he served as Jerusalem mayor. Olmert is currently on trial in other corruption scandals.

At least five other officials have been arrested in connection with the case. They include former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, who followed Olmert in the office, and Uri Messer, a former aide to Olmert when he served as Jerusalem mayor.

The officials are accused of paying or accepting bribes in order to rezone the land from commercial for the originally planned hotels to residential for the luxury apartments that were built, as well as receiving or giving other benefits, such as tax breaks, for the project.

Police believe that Olmert received his money through Messer and his former bureau chief Shula Zaken, who also is on trial in another corruption scandal involving Olmert.

The Holyland project started while Olmert served as mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003, and continued with his successor, Lupolianski, who served until 2008.

Olmert could be indicted again

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could be indicted in another political corruption affair.

Prosecutors informed Olmert Monday that they are considering indicting him for making political appointments while serving as minister of industry and trade. The indictment is pending a pretrial hearing, where Olmert will have an opportunity to defend himself.

Olmert rejected pretrial hearings before being indicted in three other corruption cases, for which he is currently standing trial.

The political appointments investigation came about as a result of a state comptroller’s report published in 2006.

Olmert also is a main suspect in the probe of the Holyland real estate scandal.

New corruption scandal dooms chances of Olmert comeback

Whether or not he is found guilty of taking bribes in the Jerusalem Holyland corruption scandal, Ehud Olmert’s political career is almost certainly over.

At best, the former prime minister and ex-mayor of Jerusalem can expect many months, if not years, of litigation that will further tarnish his already tainted reputation and leave him unelectable. At worst, he faces a long prison term.

Olmert had hoped to make a dramatic return to political life as soon as three other pending corruption cases against him were resolved: the Rishon Tours affair, in which he is accused of double billing on fund-raising trips overseas, the Talansky affair, in which he is alleged to have accepted cash from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky in exchange for granting favors, and the Small Business Authority affair, for allegedly granting personal favors to attorney and ex-aide Uri Messer when Olmert was trade minister.

For months Olmert had been insisting that the charges in the cases would disintegrate the way a long list of allegations against him had in the past, including improper conduct in his handling of a privatization tender for Bank Leumi while he was finance minister, and his buying and selling of two luxury homes in Jerusalem.

The implication was that as soon as his name was cleared, Olmert would make a triumphant comeback to politics and possibly even challenge Tzipi Livni for the leadership of the Kadima Party.

But the new scandal, in which Olmert, as mayor of Jerusalem, is suspected of having taken nearly $1 million in bribes for extending building permits to the Holyland construction project, is likely to put to rest any lingering thoughts of a comeback. Not only do the dimensions of this new corruption affair dwarf the others, but the preponderance of allegations against Olmert reinforces a perceived pattern of criminal conduct that Olmert would be hard-pressed to shake off in the political arena.

The Holyland scandal also involves Olmert’s successor as Jerusalem mayor, Uri Lupolianski, and Messer, among others.

The extent of the alleged corruption raises two central questions: Was the Holyland affair an isolated case or, as seems more likely, part of a system? And to what extent was the municipal corruption in Jerusalem a reflection of a wider phenomenon in municipalities and local councils across Israel?

The Holyland saga goes back to the mid-1990s, when Hillel Charney, whose family owned the original Holyland Hotel, received a permit to build three new hotels on the 30-acre site. With the Oslo process in full swing, Israel’s 50th anniversary coming up and millennium celebrations around the corner, Jerusalem was in dire need of more hotel rooms. On paper, the initial blueprint seemed reasonable.

To help shepherd through the project, Charney brought in experienced real estate people who apparently convinced him he could do much better with a mega-sized housing development. The plans were changed several times before the current building complex was approved.

What started out as a plan to build about 300,000 square feet burgeoned to more than 3 million, translating into hundreds of millions of dollars more in revenues for the owners and developers.

It also resulted in a plan for 10 12-story buildings and two 30-story buildings. About half of those already have been built on the Holyland site, breaking the Jerusalem skyline with what experts and Jerusalem residents long have described as the city’s worst architectural eyesore.

Before the first stones were laid, two questions already were being asked: How did the developers get such excessive building allowances, and how was such an architectural monstrosity approved at both the city and regional planning levels?

The anomalies were so blatant that the police launched an investigation, but it was soon closed for lack of evidence.

The evidence of major wrongdoing only came to light several months ago when one of the real estate experts, or “fixers,” Charney brought in went to the police with a notebook and other documentation detailing a long list of bribes Charney allegedly had made to city officials, police and at least one member of the regional planning committee.

Apparently in trouble with creditors and claiming Charney hadn’t paid him all he was owed, the fixer offered to become a state witness in return for immunity and the settlement of some of his debts. Although the man with the notebook has been named as Shmuel Dachner, there is a gag order against naming him or anyone else as the state witness. Police apparently are looking for another suspect to turn state witness to bolster their case.

The case could boil down to a battle between the two ex-mayors, both of whom maintain they are innocent. Olmert claims he approved only the hotels, and that the upgrade to extensive residential building rights was approved by his successor, Lupolianski, who was mayor from 2003 to 2008. Lupolianski claims it happened on Olmert’s watch, when Lupolianski was a deputy mayor.

Both accounts are problematic. The approval for a residential building came in 2002, when Olmert was still in charge. But the Charney family also made huge donations to Yad Sarah, a well-known charity for the sick and aged founded by Lupolianski, and to a yeshiva run by Lupolianski’s son.

Police believe both mayors were deeply involved. Lupolianski already has been arrested; Olmert is expected to be questioned soon. Messer, who also was arrested, allegedly served as the conduit for the cash bribes to Olmert.

The Holyland case points to a City Hall riddled with corruption. Dozens of officials, from low-level clerks to the top elected officials, including the city engineer and two mayors, are suspected of taking bribes.

Over the past few years, dozens of Israeli mayors have been prosecuted for similar offenses.

Under the Israeli system, all building projects and rezoning of land must be approved by municipal and district planning committees, and are subject to a process of objections and reservations from the general public. The process is cumbersome and the laws complex, and ultimately leave considerable power in the hands of the mayors.

With land scarce and expensive, this apparently has created strong incentives for bribery by would-be developers who stand to make a fortune if they can get mayoral backing for their projects.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning a major land reform that on its surface will give the mayors even more power. Netanyahu wants to cut the red tape by canceling the regional committee stage, leaving decisions in the hands of a small municipal body. He argues that this will lead to far more building starts and reduce the cost of housing. Critics say it could lead to even more bribery and corruption because the regulatory process will be weakened.

The quandary Israel faces is how to reduce the red tape without increasing corruption.

Olmert chief suspect in Holyland scandal

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was identified as the chief suspect in a massive real estate scandal.

Police on Thursday identified Olmert as the senior figure in the Holyland project scandal.

Olmert voluntarily cut short a planned visit abroad Wednesday to return to Israel in order to be questioned in the corruption investigation. He is suspected of accepting nearly $1 million in bribes during the construction of the Holyland apartment project in Jerusalem, built on the site of the former Holyland Hotel. Olmert is currently on trial in other corruption scandals.

Also on Wednesday, former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski was arrested in connection with the Holyland scandal. Five other officials, including Uri Messer,a former aide to Ehud Olmert when he was mayor of Jerusalem, were arrested last week in connection with the corruption scandal.

Lupolianski is suspected of accepting about $750,000 in bribes during the construction of the Holyland apartment project in Jerusalem, built on the site of the former Holyland Hotel.

Police believe that Olmert received his money through Messer and through his former bureau chief Shula Zaken, who is also on trial in another corruption scandal involving Olmert.

The Holyland project started while Olmert served as mayor of Jerusalem from 1993-2003, and ended with his successor, Lupolianski, who served until 2008.

The scandal, which became public last week, is being described as one of the worst corruption scandals in Israeli history.

Olmert trial postponed over new scandal

The corruption trial of Ehud Olmert has been postponed for a month after the arrest of the ex-prime minister’s former aide.

During a hearing on Thursday, the Jerusalem District Court rejected a motion filed by Olmert’s defense attorney to stop the trial completely until the completion of an investigation into Olmert’s former aide, which came to light Wednesday when a media ban on the investigation was partially lifted.

Attorney Uri Messer, who worked for Olmert when he was prime minister, was arrested Tuesday for alleged corruption in dealings with various real estate projects in Jerusalem. Several others, including Jerusalem’s former municipal engineer, were also arrested. The charges involve accepting bribes to advance various construction projects around the city.

Last year, prosecutors announced that Messer would not be indicted in the corruption scandals for which Olmert himself was indicted.

The Olmert trial was postponed until May 6 due to “special circumstances,” at which time the trial hearings will begin.

Olmert is currently traveling abroad, according to reports; he has not been ordered to return to Israel despite rumors that he also will be charged in the scandal involving Messer. Olmert will return at the end of next week as scheduled, his spokesman told reporters.

Olmert indicted in corruption case

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted in three corruption cases.

Israel’s State Prosecutor’s Office filed the charges on Sunday in three cases alleging that Olmert double-billed for overseas trips, made improper appointments when he was minister of trade and labor and accepted cash from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky. The charges include fraud, breach of trust, tax evasion and falsifying corporate records. The indictment does not include charges of bribery, for which police investigators reportedly had been pressing.

It is the first time that the former Israeli prime minister has been criminally indicted.

Olmert’s former bureau chief, Shula Zaken, also was indicted for her alleged involvement in two of the cases.

Three other corruption investigations against Olmert were closed this summer.

As Olmert Exits, Creeping Doubts About His Ouster

After finally leaving office this week, Ehud Olmert will have his hands full fighting the corruption charges against him.

There is little sympathy in Israel for the outgoing prime minister, who is widely viewed as a corrupt politician who failed to achieve the lofty goals he set for himself when he took office.

But there are some nagging doubts about the system that brought down Olmert: An elected prime minister has been forced out of office even though he has yet to be found guilty of any crime.

Three major investigations against Olmert—for allegedly tampering with terms for the sale of Bank Leumi to help a friend, and receiving substantial discounts in the rental and purchase of two Jerusalem apartments in return for favors—have been closed for lack of evidence.

It’s possible that Olmert was forced out of office by muckraking political opponents without his having committed any crime, Olmert confidants say.

In a mid-February interview in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot, Olmert’s wife, Aliza, implied as much, saying politically motivated people had been out to get her husband. She declined to go into detail.

Amnon Dankner, a former chief editor of the daily Ma’ariv and a close friend of Olmert, was more forthcoming.

“From the moment he placed himself as the predominant leader of the peacemaking left,” Dankner wrote of Olmert in Ma’ariv last August, “right-wing elements started digging through his affairs going back down the years to produce suspicious material for the authorities.”

On the face of it, Dankner’s allegations seem to have merit.

Yoav Yitzhak, the investigative journalist who produced the allegations on the two Jerusalem apartments, was instrumental in bringing down another peace-leaning politician, the late President Ezer Weizman. The official who came up with the Bank Leumi allegations was then-accountant general Yaron Zelekha, who is close to Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime Olmert rival. And Moshe Talansky, the American Jewish businessman who allegedly gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash, and who then testified against the prime minister, has spoken of his disappointment in the once hawkish Olmert’s transformation to a political dove.

The trouble with the picture of Olmert as victim, however, is that some of the allegations against him seem to carry merit: Police have recommended that Olmert be indicted in three separate cases. If Olmert’s political enemies found serious instances of fraud and breach of trust, what difference does it make if their initial muckraking motivation was political, Olmert’s critics ask.

In two of the cases, Israel’s attorney general has decided to indict Olmert pending a hearing: the Talansky affair, in which Olmert is alleged to have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash over a 13-year period, and the Rishon Tours affair, in which Olmert allegedly double-billed for trips and lectures he made abroad, using the excess money to finance travel by family members.

The fact that the attorney general has decided to indict is no small matter. It means that after going through all the material, he is convinced the state has enough evidence to convict.

Indictment by the attorney general is generally considered the signal in Israel for ministers under investigation to resign. In Olmert’s case, the pressure on him to step down was so great that he tendered his formal resignation last September, even before the attorney general announced his intention to indict.

Two other Olmert investigations are ongoing: awarding contracts to his former law partner Uri Messer and appointing cronies when Olmert was minister of trade and industry from 2003 to 2006.

The sheer weight of police probes and corruption scandals with Olmert’s name on them may be about to catch up with a man who long has operated under a cloud of investigations.

In 1981, Olmert received a $50,000 loan via Yehoshua Halperin, CEO of the Bank of North America, which he was never pressed to pay back. Although the circumstances suggested a possible attempt to bribe a sitting Knesset member, Olmert was not prosecuted.

In 1997, Olmert was acquitted in court of responsibility for an election scam in which Likud officials provided fictitious receipts to donors in 1988, when Olmert was the party’s co-treasurer. Olmert successfully pleaded ignorance, but three other Likud officials were convicted.

In 1999, as mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert was investigated for arranging a reception for the mayor of Athens as an alleged favor to an Israeli developer seeking to build an ambitious tourist facility on a Greek island. The developer had just promised to support Olmert in an upcoming race for Likud leader. The case was dropped.

The problem facing the Israeli legal system is finding a balance between fighting corruption in high places and not allowing political opponents of incumbent politicians to abuse the system to subvert the democratic process.

Hebrew University’s Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel’s top political scientists, says the main problem is the slow pace of investigation. In the case of public figures, drawn-out investigations are not only unfair to the politicians, but they hamper government functioning and can pervert democracy, Avineri says. Investigations should be expedited, he says.

Some have suggested adopting the French system, under which the country’s leader cannot be investigated while in office. Another possibility would be something akin to the U.S. system of impeachment: no indictment unless and until a politician is impeached by a two-thirds majority in the Knesset.

As for Olmert, he’s still hoping his name will cleared—and once it is, he will find a way back to the top sooner than most people think.

Analysis: Israel seeks to change rules of the game with Gaza assault

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s retaliation against persistent Hamas mortar and rocket attacks on civilians in southern Israel was far more ferocious than anyone, including Hamas, expected.

The first three days of intensive Israel Air Force bombing in Gaza reduced hundreds of Hamas government buildings, military compounds, laboratories, metal workshops and supply tunnels to rubble and left more than 350 Palestinians, most of them militants, dead. But, as the airstrikes continued and Israeli tanks massed on the Israel-Gaza border, it was not clear how much longer the operation would last or how its goals would be achieved.

The security situation in southern Israel deteriorated quickly after Dec. 19, when Hamas declared that a six-month truce with Israel would not be renewed, and it stepped up its Kassam rocket and Iranian-supplied 120 mm mortar attacks on Sderot and other nearby Israeli towns.

Public pressure on the Israeli government to retaliate intensified, and it was clear the countdown to war had begun. On Dec. 24, after some 70 Kassams and mortars slammed into southern Israel in a single day, the government approved a detailed war plan, leaving the timing and precise scope of each phase to Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the IDF.

” alt=’Complete Gaza Coverage’ title=’Complete Gaza Coverage’ vspace = 8 hspace = 8 border = 0 align = left>The initial airstrike on Saturday caught Hamas completely by surprise.

In the first wave, which lasted three minutes and 40 seconds, 64 Israeli jets reduced nearly all of Hamas’ military compounds, command-and-control centers and symbols of government to rubble. In the first two attacks, more than 200 people were killed, most of them Hamas militiamen.

The military problem facing Barak and the country’s military planners is twofold: how to stop the Kassam rockets and how to restore Israeli deterrence in the region after eight years of relative inactivity in the face of rocket attacks.

The devastating opening salvo Israel chose was based on what many military analysts see as Israel’s most effective operation in the 2006 Lebanon War: the bombing of the Hezbollah command-and-control center in Beirut’s Dahya district in the first few days of the fighting. Reducing the Dahya to rubble had a profound shock effect on Hezbollah and other leaders across the Middle East, and is seen as one of the main reasons for the current quiet on the Israel-Lebanon border. Now Israeli military planners hope what they call the “Dahya effect” will take effect in Gaza too and eventually deter Hamas from rocketing Israeli civilians.

In a news conference on the first night of the fighting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spelled out the war’s aims: to create a new security reality in the south in which Israeli civilians can live without fear of rocket or terror attacks. According to Israeli government spokesmen, this will be achieved by drastically changing “the rules of the game.” Through the devastating air force attack and an anticipated follow-up ground incursion, Israel’s leaders hope to:

  • send a clear message to Hamas that the price tag for any future rocket attacks on Israel will be intolerably high;
  • severely weaken Hamas’s current military capacity;
  • limit any future Hamas military build-up; and
  • achieve a new cease-fire regime under which Hamas would have to commit to no more rocket fire, no terrorist attacks, no explosive charges near the border and no more weapons’ smuggling.

The understandings would be reached through a third party, probably Egyptian mediation, and kept in place through Israel’s waving of a big deterrent stick. In other words, the aim of the large-scale Israeli operation is to achieve peace and quiet in southern Israel by establishing a new and very different deterrent model.

Many Israelis, however, are skeptical about the efficacy of the proposed deterrent policy. Some argue that the only way the rockets can be stopped would be to reoccupy Gaza. The Likud’s Yuval Steinitz, former chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, urges creating an Israel buffer between Gaza and Egypt to prevent future arms smuggling. Otherwise, Steinitz warns, Hamas will bring rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv, anti-aircraft batteries that could threaten IAF flights in the Negev, and equipment to monitor all Israeli military movements there. “Maybe we would get peace for a year or two, but the price would be a devastating blow to Israel’s national security,” Steinitz told JTA.

Others reject the idea of any reoccupation of Gaza as counterproductive and hope the government will be able to parlay its success on the battlefield into a long-term political agreement with Hamas.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has spoken of a more ambitious aim: toppling the Hamas government. Olmert and Barak, however, consider this unrealistic, and it is not part of the stated war aims. Nor is the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped and taken to Gaza 900 days ago. Clearly the current operation could put Shalit’s life at risk, but it also could create conditions for a prisoner exchange to secure his release. Indeed, some Israeli leaders, including Livni, say Shalit’s release should be an Israeli condition for any future cease-fire.

The devastating Israeli attacks sparked fierce protests and demonstrations across the Arab and Muslim world, in European capitals and among Israeli Arabs.

But, while Israel was widely criticized in the international media, governments across the world did little to stop the fighting. And despite their public posture criticizing Israel’s “barbarity,” some moderate Arab leaders were not sorry to see Hamas taking a beating — much as, two years ago, they were not sorry to see Hezbollah take a beating in the early days of the 2006 Lebanon War.

The Israel-Hamas clash reflected in microcosm the regional struggle between the pro-Western moderates led by Egypt and the radicals led by Iran. Both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, while strongly condemning the Israeli operation, highlighted the fact that they had urged Hamas leaders to renew the cease-fire and warned them what would happen if they didn’t.

In the first three days of fighting, Hamas fired more than 100 rockets and mortars into Israel, killing at least four civilians. Still, the mood in the country remains strongly supportive of the war, especially in the south, where people see in it the best hope of a more peaceful tomorrow. With elections just over a month away, political support for the war has been wall-to-wall in the Knesset, with the exception of the Israeli Arab parties, who are vehemently opposed. There also has been a degree of reservation on the left wing at the extent of the devastation in Gaza, with calls on the government to start working immediately on an exit strategy to the end the fighting.

Indeed, after three days of fighting, Olmert, Barak and Livni, the three leaders running the war, were moving in two contrary directions, preparing both a ground invasion and an early exit strategy that would translate the IDF’s overwhelming military success into a stable political solution on the ground.

Gaza operation begins with bombings, Olmert calls for unity, U.S. blames Hamas

Olmert to Israelis: Unite around Gaza operation

JERUSALEM (JTA) — No country should have to live under constant threat of missile barrages, Ehud Olmert told the Israeli people.

In an address Saturday night, Israel’s prime minister, flanked by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, asked the Israeli public to unite around the Israel Defense Forces operation that began in Gaza earlier in the day.

“The lives of our citizens are not forfeit,” Olmert said. “In recent days, it became clear that Hamas is bent on conflict. Whoever heard Hamas’ statements understood that they decided to increase attacks on the residents of Israel by firing rockets and mortars indiscriminately. In such a situation we had no alternative but to respond. We do not rejoice in battle but neither will we be deterred from it.”

Olmert warned the public that the number of missiles may increase in the near future and could reach to more distant communities than ever before.

Olmert also said that he heart went out to the family of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, who reportedly has been held in Gaza since his capture in 2006.

The prime minister warned neighboring countries not to use the Gaza operation as an excuse to launch their own attacks.

“Israel is currently focusing on striking at the terrorist organizations that are operating to undermine stability in the entire region. I hope that no other element in the region will think that while Israel is fighting in the south, that it is inattentive to what is happening in other areas,” Olmert warned. “We will not hesitate to respond to any aggression against us.”

Israel launches major Gaza operation

(JTA) – Israel began moving tanks to the Gaza area in advance of a possible ground attack.

The movement of tanks and ground troops on Saturday night followed a massive retaliatory Israeli bombing campaign that has killed close to 200 people in the Gaza Strip, most of them Hamas militants.

The wave of air-launched bombs Saturday was in retaliation for the recent intensification of rocket-launches from Gaza, which is controlled by the Hamas terrorist group. On some days, more than 50 rockets have been aimed at towns and farms in southern Israel.

Militants in Gaza responded by firing at least 30 rockets; one killed an Israeli resident of the town of Netivot. Hamas reported that almost all of its security installations were hit and threatened suicide attacks in retaliation.

Israel dropped at least 100 tons of bombs in the raids. “There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting,” Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, said in a news conference.

Reports from Gaza said most of the dead were affiliated with the security forces, including Gaza City’s police chief, although a number of the casualties were civilians. Hamas officials said at least 140 of the dead belonged to the terrorist group’s militias.

U.S. blames Hamas for violence

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Bush administration blamed Hamas for the escalation of violence on the Israel-Gaza Strip border and noted the humanitarian needs of Gazans.

Israel launched massive air raids Saturday in retaliation for an intensification of rocket attacks from Gaza, which is controlled by the Hamas terrorist group.”The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza. The ceasefire should be restored immediately,” a U.S. State Department statement said. “The United States calls on all concerned to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the innocent people of Gaza.”

News accounts said between 150 and 200 people were killed in the Israeli raids, most of them members of Hamas militias. At least one Israeli was killed when a rocket from Gaza struck his house Saturday.

Israel steps up Gaza pressure, Abbas tells Hamas ‘I told you so’

Israel steps up Gaza operation

(JTA) – Israel bombed smugglers’ tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border as part of its wide-ranging operation against Hamas in Gaza.

The airstrike Sunday, which reportedly destroyed some 40 arms-smuggling tunnels, prompted hundreds of Gazans to breach the border with Egypt. Egyptian forces reportedly opened fire on the Palestinians to keep them from entering Egyptian territory.

Also Sunday, Israel’s Cabinet agreed call up some 6,700 army reservists, as tanks and troops began moving to the Gaza area in advance of a possible ground attack. The decision came as Defense Minister Ehud Barak allowed humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip from Israel even as Israel continued to bomb Hamas targets in the strip.

More than 280 people have been reported killed in Israel’s operation in Gaza, which was launched in response to intense Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israel in the days since an informal six-month truce between Israel and Hamas expired. Some civilians were among the casualties, but most of those killed were reported to be Hamas security forces.

Hamas forces kept up their rocket fire on Israeli communities on Sunday, launching several long-range missiles at the Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod. Hundreds of thousands of residents of southern Israel were urged to take shelter in their homes or in nearby bomb shelters.

Protests against Israel’s operation broke out in Palestinian cities in the West Bank and in Israeli Arab towns inside Israel. In the West Bank village of Na’alin, where there are weekly protests against Israel’s West Bank security fence, one protester was reported killed by live fire. The army said it is investigating why soldiers used live ammunition instead of rubber bullets for crowd control. In Israel proper, police clashed with violent protesters in Israeli Arab towns in the Galilee.

“There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting,” Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, said after the operation was launched.

Abbas: Hamas could have prevented attack

(JTA) — Hamas could have prevented Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Abbas said Sunday.

The Palestinian Authority president also called on Hamas to renew its cease-fire with Israel.

“We spoke to them and told them, ‘Please, we ask you not to end the cease-fire. Let it continue,'” Abbas said during a news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. “We want to protect the Gaza Strip. We don’t want it to be destroyed.”

Abbas also called the continuing rocket attacks on Israel “acts of foolishness.”

Israel’s assault on Hamas targets began Saturday afternoon. More than 280 Palestinians have been killed in the operation so far.

Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah said Saturday that Abbas’ Fatah Party, which rules the West Bank, was prepared to assume control of Gaza if Israel topples the Hamas regime there.

Protesters condemn Israel’s Gaza operation

(JTA) — Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Arab and European countries to protest Israel’s operation in Gaza.

Rallies condeming Israel’s operation in Gaza were held Sunday in countries including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, as well as in London.  In Mosul, Iraq, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of more than 1,000 demonstrators.

More than 50,000 protested in cities throughout Egypt, according to the BBC. Demonstrators in Dubai protested in front of the Palestinian consulate.

Police in London arrested three protesters at a demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy after riot police were called in to restore order, according to reports.



Analysis: New Hamas Gaza rocket attacks pose dilemma for Israel

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The renewal of intense Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilian areas has put Israelis in a somber mood during the usually festive week of Chanukah.

The new fighting erupted Friday — the day a six-month truce between Hamas and Israel expired and the Islamist group declared it would not renew.

Since then, Hamas has allowed Islamic Jihad militants to bombard Israelis in the towns near the Gaza Strip, including Sderot. The barrages slowed down only on Monday, when Hamas announced that Palestinian factions in the strip were observing a 24-hour lull requested by Egyptian mediators.

Israeli officials are calling for sharp retaliation. The Israeli Cabinet already has voted to hit back, leaving the timing and scope of the nation’s response to Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The rocket attacks are a reminder of the Israeli government’s inability to resolve the Gaza problem. Coming in the midst of an election campaign, the deterioration of the situation around Gaza has prompted many Israelis to ask why the government has not yet struck back in a serious way.

Cabinet ministers and leading members of the coalition have jumped into the fray, questioning Barak’s apparent restraint.

Barak, however, refuses to be hurried. He dismisses calls for immediate action as political grandstanding, saying that for the sake of its standing in the region, Israel must retaliate the right way. Barak insists he does not want to repeat the mistakes of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

Complicating matters, Hamas’ rockets have increased their range from six months ago, before the cease-fire.

Yuval Diskin, chief of the Shin Bet security agency, told the Cabinet on Sunday that Hamas now could target Israeli population centers within a radius of 25 miles from the Gaza Strip. That includes Beersheba, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat and a host of smaller cities and towns.

As the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot put it in a screaming headline, “One of every eight Israelis is in range of the rockets.”

Hamas used the truce to smuggle in tons of new weaponry, including upgraded Katyusha rocket launchers with a 25-mile range. Israeli military planners estimate that in the event of a showdown in Gaza, Hamas would be able to fire hundreds of rockets a day at Israeli civilian centers — much the same way Hezbollah did in 2006.

Hamas also has built Hezbollah-style fortifications and brought anti-tank weapons into the strip.

“For Israel, invading Gaza will not be a walk in the park,” warned Moussa Abu Marzuk, deputy head of Hamas’ Damascus-based leadership.

Israel has several military options in Gaza, all of them problematic. The Jewish state could strike at rocket-launching crews and military installations from the air, but that alone would not be enough to stop the rocket fire.

Israel’s army could target Hamas leaders, but most them already have gone underground. The army also could fire artillery shells at the sources of rocket fire, but since the Palestinian militiamen operate mainly from built-up civilian areas, this likely would cause many civilian casualties and invite international condemnation.

Israel could undertake limited ground operations against rocket launchers and capture the territory from where the rockets are being fired, but this would put Israeli troops at risk in the heart of Palestinian territory.

A large-scale ground operation likely would be more effective, but it would require an exit strategy Israel does not have — or leave Israel responsible for Gaza and the needs of its estimated 1.5 million Palestinians.

For its part, Hamas has much to lose from an all-out war. Its goal in the current crisis is to get Israel to ease its siege on Gaza and lessen the pressure on Hamas militants in the West Bank. But if Israel invades and overruns Gaza, it could lose everything — including its hold on power in Gaza.

On Monday, Hamas showed signs of stepping back from the brink. It ordered a 24-hour suspension of rocket fire to give Egyptian mediators another chance to negotiate a new cease-fire on terms more favorable to Hamas.

Israel, however, shows no sign of backing down.

The standoff with Hamas goes far beyond Gaza, and the outcome will reverberate across the region. It is part of the regional power struggle between Iran and its proxies and between fundamentalists and the moderate pro-Western camp, including countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

While Arab moderates in public have expressed alarm at the escalation, in private some reportedly have hinted to Israel that they would not be sorry to see Hamas and its leaders hit hard. The Egyptians even have hinted publicly that Iran has been fanning the flames from behind the scenes.

Indeed, the Gaza standoff is part of the showdown between Israel and Iran. A powerful Israeli response will send a strong message to Tehran and its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon. A failed action or a perceived retreat could encourage the Iran to step up its challenges of Israel.

Barak is keenly aware of what’s at stake and is insisting on detailed planning and thinking through all the strategic implications. This way, if Israel does launch a major operation, it will achieve an overwhelming victory and have a clear strategy for the political aftermath.

But there is still no agreement among Israel’s three major prime ministerial candidates on what to do about Hamas in the long term. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu say the Hamas government should be toppled. Barak advocates the more modest goal of restoring quiet after dealing a heavy blow to the organization’s military wing.

The way the goal is defined will determine the nature of the military operation and set the tone for the political aftermath.

The dark side of Chanukah

Almost anyone who celebrates Chanukah today knows at least the rudimentary outline of its story. A righteous Judean clan in the 2nd century B.C.E. led an uprising against Greek-influenced Seleucid rulers who had desecrated the Temple and outlawed the traditional practices of Judaism. The revolt led to the recapture of Jerusalem, the purification of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish state.

But there are a number of darker events related to Chanukah and its aftermath that have been swept away in the aroma of frying latkes and the whiz of spinning dreidels. The first is that the war Chanukah commemorates was in fact a civil war, fought between Hellenizing Jewish reformers and Jewish traditionalists whose Temple-centric life had been severely compromised by Greek influence and rule. The fratricidal conflict consumed 34 years in the life of the nation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

With the conquest of Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E. and the complete defeat (although annihilation would be a better description) of the Hellenizers 22 years later, the lone surviving brother, Simon the Maccabee, stood widely recognized as ethnarch and high priest of the first independent Jewish state in 440 years. It would, then, be his progeny and descendants who would dominate Judean life over the next century.

Simon was succeeded by his able and fervent son John Hyrcanus, who expanded the realm and remained faithful to the example laid down by his father and uncles. It was during the reign of his grandson, Alexander Jannaeus (104 B.C.E.-76 B.C.E.), however, that the Hasmonean legend began to disintegrate. Alexander had no interest in the religious fervor of his ancestors and exhibited a particular hatred for religious rigorist sects, such as the Pharisees and Essenes. He carefully aligned himself with the upper-class Sadducees and in one incident massacred 6,000 Pharisee worshippers in the Temple courtyard after receiving a personal insult from them during the Festival of Sukkot. The incident spurred the renewal of a civil war that resulted in 50,000 more Jewish deaths. In one further event, after returning to Jerusalem following a victorious campaign in the north, Alexander had 800 of his Jewish male prisoners crucified, but not before murdering their wives and children before their very eyes.

After the death of Alexander Jannaeus, the Hasmoneans continued as rulers of Judea for another 40 years — in and out of civil war — until finally being all but eliminated by Herod the Great (37 B.C.E.-4 B.C.E.), an Idumean usurper who feared the family as a threat to his rule.

The point of recalling this gruesome tale is to illustrate a historical truism. History often comes full circle, rendering meaningless the achievements of previous generations because memory has lapsed and the commitment to former ideals is absent. The Hasmoneans began as liberators and ended as oppressors. They started as fervent adherents to Judaism and concluded as its deniers. In the end, they far more resembled the Greek-inspired Hellenizers they had fought to eliminate than the vaunted redeemers portrayed in legend.

Ancient Judea’s contemporary political incarnation, the State of Israel, also has much to learn from the historical lessons of the Hasmoneans. As a country that formed 60 years ago with high ideals and the promise of Jewish renewal, the current state is transforming into a bitter parody of itself. Rampant political corruption, an incompetent and self-serving echelon of leaders, an oligarchical economic structure that places 60 percent of the country’s assets in the hands of less than 1 percent of its population and a poverty level that hovers around 33 percent, are all signs of the imminent collapse of idealism and foundational principles. The abandonment of the Jews of Gaza, evicted from their homes in 2005, is yet another sad example of how deeply bruised is the Israeli notion of respect for and protection of Jewish life, property and dignity.

It is important to remember that men can never predict how their descendants will act or how their legacy of achievement will be treated. But the burning question the full Hasmonean story presents to us is how can nations protect the memory of past struggles and make them meaningful and relevant for the current generation? Ironically, the institution of the Festival of Chanukah was such an attempt. And in large part it succeeded. But the nagging question remains — why did things go so terribly wrong in ancient Judea within such a relatively short period of time? Given our current national challenges, this Chanukah our thoughts should be firmly on that question, as much as on the great Hasmonean triumphs of 2,000 years ago.

Avi Davis is the Executive Director and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance.

Analysis: Unchecked settler violence sparks fears of new intifada

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Concerned by settler violence against Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ordered Israeli security forces to apply a zero-tolerance policy toward extremist settlers.

Olmert and the country’s top security officials fear that unchecked settler violence could spark a new Palestinian intifada, enrage the Muslim world and compromise Israel’s international standing.

They are also worried about a potential spillover into Israel proper, where extremist settlers could target prominent left-wingers or even national leaders. A little more than two months ago, a prominent left-wing professor and Israel Prize winner, professor Zeev Sternhell, was wounded by a pipe bomb planted outside his home.

The latest settler rampage came last week after Israeli police evacuated settlers from a building in Hebron. Jewish settlers had moved into the building in March 2007 after an American Jewish businessman claimed to have bought it for them, but the Palestinian owner denied selling it.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled last month that the building should be evacuated until the ownership issue was decided. On Dec. 4, in a well-planned operation, special police forces surprised the estimated 200 inhabitants, dragging them out in less than an hour.

The eviction triggered a paroxysm of settler violence against Palestinians in nearby neighborhoods. Settlers set fire to courtyards and olive trees, stoned vehicles and passers-by and terrorized Palestinian residents. In one case, a settler was filmed firing live ammunition from close range and wounding at least two Palestinian men. Settlers also destroyed headstones in a Muslim cemetery and spray-painted slurs on mosque walls.

Meanwhile, in front of the disputed Hebron building, they recited prayers against the government, the army and the police.

In a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Olmert did not mince words.

“The sight of Jews firing at innocent Palestinians has no other name than a ‘pogrom,'” he declared. “I am ashamed that Jews could do such a thing. I have asked the defense minister and other relevant individuals to do all it takes and to use whatever force they need in any place under Israeli control to stop these outrages.”

The violent settler response to the evacuation of the building, dubbed the House of Contention by Israeli media and called the Peace House by settlers, was symptomatic of a relatively new phenomenon: growing numbers of radical settlers who feel alienated from the state, don’t accept its authority and are ready to use violence to prevent it from taking action against settler interests.

The eruption of violence in Hebron was not a case of spontaneous anger but part of a calculated strategy radical settlers call “price tag.” The policy is intended to demonstrate to Israel that it will have to pay a very high price for any action the government takes against them in the hope that Israel eventually will get the message and desist.

This way, the settlers believe, they will prevent the Jewish settlements in the West Bank from suffering the same fate as those in the Gaza Strip, which were evacuated, destroyed and handed over to the Palestinians in the summer of 2005.

Two seminal events inform this radical thinking: the 2005 “disengagement” and the destruction of illegal settler homes at the West Bank outpost of Amona in February 2006.

Radical elements among the settlers attribute these setbacks to insufficient settler resistance to the government, hence the new price tag policy.

Radical settlers also are telling their followers that in working against the settler movement, successive Israeli governments have acted against Jewish principles, tikkun olam (repairing the world) and the messianic era, and therefore are illegitimate. Some settlers consequently have disavowed their allegiance to the State of Israel, refusing to serve in the army and backing the establishment of a rival breakaway Kingdom of Judea based on Torah and Jewish law.

The extremist fringe is estimated at between several hundred to a few thousand out of the West Bank’s 300,000 settlers. Most of the settlers’ leadership, including the Judea and Samaria Council, disavow the radicals. Dani Dayan, the council chairman, said they are doing the settler enterprise more harm than good. Others, however, have spoken out in defense of the radical settler youth.

This year has seen approximately 700 cases of settler violence against Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. More than 500 criminal complaints have been filed, and more than 200 people have been arrested.

The Shin Bet internal security service, which monitors radical Jewish activities on the West Bank, warns that extremists are ready to use live fire to stop peacemaking with the Palestinians.

There is deep concern that this sort of settler action could spark a new Palestinian intifada. Palestinian leaders have warned that if settler violence continues, acts of revenge are almost a certainty. This could spiral out of control quickly.

Some fear that if the Israeli army becomes involved against Palestinian lawbreakers, Palestinian police — who have won kudos from Israel recently for the way they are keeping the peace — might turn their weapons on the Israeli forces, sinking the peacekeeping framework their U.S. sponsors have so assiduously helped to build.

There is fear, too, that footage of Jewish graffiti on mosques and desecration of Muslim cemeteries will ignite the Muslim world the way the Mohammed caricatures in the Danish press did in 2005.

Already the settler violence has sparked severe European criticism of the radicals and of Israel’s inability to contain them. If not addressed, it could severely undermine Israel’s international standing.

As for the spillover of violence into Israel proper, the September attack outside Sternhell’s home in Jerusalem almost certainly was perpetrated by radical right-wingers. Pamphlets at the site of the bombing referred to the Kingdom of Judea and offered a $275,000 reward to anyone who kills a dovish leader.

After the evacuation of the house in Hebron, radical settlers blocked roads into Israel proper. On Monday, small groups of settlers demonstrated outside the homes of the commander of the Israeli army’s Judea and Samaria Division, the deputy state attorney and the head of the Shin Bet’s Jewish desk, broadcasting a threatening message.

“In the same way as we were surprised in Hebron, we can surprise the law enforcers and get to their homes,” they warned.

Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are taking the threat posed by the radicals very seriously.

The army has been given instructions to clamp down strongly on any hint of violence, and the Shin Bet’s Jewish desk is stepping up its already intensive monitoring of radical groups.

Although the radicals have nothing like the wide base of tacit support they had when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing extremist in 1995, the lesson of the past few months is that without concerted action by Israel’s forces of law and order, these radical settlers will be very difficult to stop.

Yes, we cantankerous

Anger greets Olmert’s concessions on Golan, West Bank, Iran

JERUSALEM (JTA)—A Rosh Hashanah-eve interview in which outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel should give up the Golan Heights for peace with Syria and nearly all of the West Bank for peace with the Palestinians has sparked a political storm in Israel.

Prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, who is set to succeed Olmert as soon as she forms a coalition government, quickly distanced herself from most of Olmert’s key pronouncements, which included an assertion that it would be megalomaniacal for Israel to attack Iran unilaterally.

Politicians on the right lambasted Olmert for his dovish message, and left-wingers slammed him for not going public with his vision before he was a lame duck.

Some Israeli analysts saw evidence in Olmert’s transformation from one-time super-hawk to unmitigated dove of a final collapse of the ideology of Greater Israel, which advocates holding on to as much conquered territory as possible.

Olmert, who is stepping down amid a corruption investigation, in the interview published last week by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot made the following points:

* It is presumptuous to think Israel can stop Iran’s nuclear drive when powers such as the United States, Russia, China, Britain and Germany seem unable to do so.

* Israel has a very short window of time in which it can take “historic steps” in its relations with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

* For peace with the Palestinians, Israel will have to withdraw from most of the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem, and grant compensation on a one-to-one basis for whatever land it keeps. “Without this, there won’t be peace,” he insisted.

* For peace with Syria, Israel will have to return the Golan Heights.

* Israel is very close to agreement both with the Palestinians and Syria, and if Olmert had stayed on he would have had a good chance of closing the deals.

* The main security problem Israel faces today is missiles, and having the border a few hundred yards one way or the other won’t make any difference.

* Years of conservative thinking by the Israeli establishment have undermined peace prospects.

“When I listen to you, I know why we didn’t make peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians for 40 years and why we won’t make peace with them for another 40 years,” he recalled saying at a recent forum with the country’s top policymakers.

If the interview was meant to constitute Olmert’s political legacy, his presumptive successor was quick to reject it.

Livni, the foreign minister, said Olmert was wrong to go public with Israel’s final negotiating positions while she is in the midst of intensive negotiations with the Palestinians.

“We agreed negotiations should take place in the negotiating room, not on the pages of a newspaper,” she said at a Foreign Ministry conference in Jerusalem after Rosh Hashanah.

Olmert also was roundly criticized on the right for saying too much and on the left for doing too little.

Yuval Steinitz of the Likud Party took issue with Olmert’s contention that in an age of missiles, Israel could afford to give up hundreds of yards on its borders.

“Ignoring the difference between rockets fired from long distances and an enemy perched on hills above Jerusalem shows just how little he understands basic security issues,” Steinitz said.

Yossi Beilin of the Meretz Party castigated Olmert for “revealing his true position on the national interest only when he has nothing to lose.”

Those sentiments were echoed overseas, where Olmert’s conciliatory positions were welcomed but with wonderment at why he hadn’t said as much earlier.

An editorial in The New York Times summed up the sentiment in an editorial Saturday titled “Mr. Olmert’s Belated Truths.”

“It is tragic that he did not do more to act on those beliefs when he had real power,” the editorial said.

Olmert is the fourth Israeli prime minister to start his political life as a hawk in the vein of the Likud or its predecessor, Herut, and then to surprise observers later with the extent of his willingness to make far-reaching concessions.

Herut founder Menachem Begin returned the Sinai to Egypt; Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew Israeli forces from Hebron, concluded the Wye River agreement with the Palestinians and negotiated with Syria over withdrawing from the Golan; and Ariel Sharon pulled back unilaterally from the Gaza Strip.

Olmert, it seems, has now set the stage for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Olmert confidants argue that the frank expression of his views has positive elements for future peacemaking and diplomacy. They say it has created a strong incentive for the various Arab parties to negotiate peace and shown the international community how far Israel would be willing to go—a possible public relations advantage if peace efforts fail.

Moreover, they say, Olmert has put peacemaking and its time constraints squarely on the public agenda.

Critics, however, reject these claims. They point out that Olmert’s stated readiness for full withdrawal on all fronts encourages Arab parties to cling to maximalist positions, not compromise. It also puts the next Israeli prime minister on the spot: If peace moves break down, they say, the next prime minister will be blamed for not going as far as Olmert would have.

Livni bristled at the implication that peace would be achievable under Olmert if he could have stayed on, and if she failed to achieve peace during her tenure as prime minister, she would be to blame.

Most importantly, Livni, Olmert’s likely successor, also came out against the substance of Olmert’s key positions.

In a meeting Sunday in Jerusalem with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Livni said she opposed the framework of Olmert’s offer to the Palestinians. She said she was against making far-reaching proposals for a quick fix and that negotiations should be allowed all the time they needed to ripen into a well-constructed and lasting deal.

Livni was critical as well of Olmert’s position on Iran. In the Yediot interview, Olmert dismissed as “megalomania” the notion that Israel would or should unilaterally attack Iran. Olmert said the international community, not just Israel, should take the steps necessary to arrest Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Livni said Olmert’s remarks sent the wrong message to Tehran and that Israel should be sending the message to the Iranians that all options are on the table.

Despite her sharp criticism, Foreign Ministry officials said Livni does not think Olmert’s comments will have a serious impact on the peace process.

“Olmert is not relevant anymore,” a senior ministry official told JTA. “What he says doesn’t matter.”

Can Livni form a coalition or are elections next?

With her primary victory in hand, prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni now has six weeks to form a government and stave off new elections. Theoretically, if she cannot form a government, President Shimon Peres could give someone else a chance before calling an election.

But there is no other viable candidate.

The Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn’t consider such an offer because he prefers new elections. Polls show elections would deliver Netanyahu more than twice the number of seats Likud commands in the present Knesset.

Labor’s Ehud Barak is not eligible because he is not a member of the Knesset.

Whether the country is headed for an early election should become clear fairly soon.

Livni says she does not intend to be dragged into a long coalition-building process. If in about 10 days she believes the chances of forming a government are not high, she says she will lead a move for new elections herself.

Despite all the obstacles and the recalcitrance of some of her prospective coalition partners, however, Livni is far more likely to succeed in forming a government than to fail.

Much will depend on the enigmatic Barak.

On the day Livni replaced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as Kadima Party leader, Barak shocked the political establishment by meeting with Netanyahu and declaring that he would only join a national emergency government if it included the Likud leader.

It was a double-edged ploy by Barak: Put the onus of blame for not joining a national unity effort on Netanyahu, whom Barak knew would refuse, and create the impression in Livni’s mind that he has an option of continuing to serve as defense minister in a Netanyahu government after elections and thereby upping the price for joining her coalition.

Barak’s maneuvering stems from the dilemma he faces: If he joins a coalition, he helps the untried Livni establish herself as a credible national leader; if he stays out, he risks taking a hammering in early elections.

His biggest fear is that Livni will use him to form a government and in three months or so, on a wave of popular acclaim, precipitate a national election.

Barak’s solution seems to be a readiness to join the coalition on two conditions: One, redefining the balance of power between him and Livni to create what he calls a “true partnership.” Two, a guarantee from Livni that as far as she is concerned, the government will hold together for the full two years until the next scheduled election in 2010.

Barak hopes to create the perception of a two-headed Livni-Barak government from which he, too, will emerge two years down the road as a serious candidate for prime minister. Indeed, all of Barak’s current coalition jockeying is about the 2010 elections.

Livni was quick to address Barak’s concerns. In her speech accepting her nomination as prime minister-designate, she appealed to Netanyahu to join a national unity government, spoke of a “true partnership” with Labor and promised that her government would be for the long term.

Barak phoned Livni to congratulate her on her speech, and senior Labor politicians now estimate the chances of a Kadima-Labor agreement are high.

On paper, Livni has three broad coalition options:

Ehud Olmert era comes to ignominious end

(JTA) – A day after Ehud Olmert formally submitted his resignation as prime minister, Israeli President Shimon Peres officially tapped his Kadima Party successor, Tzipi Livni, to form a new government.

Livni now has 42 days to put together a coalition government. Though Olmert still heads the interim government until Livni is sworn in, Sunday’s resignation effectively spelled the end of the Olmert era.

Before meeting with Peres on Sunday evening, Olmert informed his Cabinet of his intention to resign.

“I must say that this was not an easy or simple decision,” Olmert said. “I think that I have acted properly and responsibly, as I promised the Israeli public from the beginning.”

Olmert congratulated Livni and said he would help her form a coalition government, and the two shook hands.

It was an ignominious end to a premiership marked by multiple corruption scandals, a failed war in Lebanon and unfinished business on the Palestinian, Syrian and Iranian fronts.

At first an accidental prime minister following Ariel Sharon’s crippling stroke in early 2006, Olmert won his first election as Kadima leader a couple of months later under the banner of maintaining the path of unilateral disengagement Sharon had begun. Olmert would do in the West Bank what Sharon had done in Gaza: unilaterally extricate Israel from its adversaries, even if those adversaries were unready or unwilling to make peace.

But the shortcomings of Israel’s unilateral approach became evident early on in his premiership. The 2006 summer war with Hezbollah exposed the deficiencies of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 under Ehud Barak, and the increasing rockets attacks from Gaza and Hamas’ takeover of the strip in June 2007 exposed the limitations of Sharon’s pullout.

The violence shattered Olmert’s plans for unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank.

Olmert adjusted his approach, but his responses to Israel’s challenges were seen as inadequate. The prime minister’s approval ratings plummeted as each crisis seemed to be shadowed by one corruption scandal or another.

After Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid in July 2006, the Olmert government launched a war to recover the two soldiers taken captive in the raid and neutralize the threat to Israel from Hezbollah. But the war failed to recover the soldiers or deliver a mortal blow to the Shi’ite terrorist group in Lebanon.

Rather, Hezbollah rallied as a political force in Lebanon after the war and became a veto-wielding presence in the Lebanon Cabinet. Hezbollah also rebuilt its forces and missile arsenal to three times its prewar size, according to Israeli estimates.

In Gaza, Olmert watched as Hamas routed the more moderate Fatah faction from power and took over the strip in June 2006. Hamas kept up daily barrages of Kassam rockets into southern Israel, and the Israeli army was unable to impose quiet.

Unwilling to risk the same approach in Gaza that had failed in 2006 in Lebanon, Olmert held off on ordering a major invasion of the strip.

The need to isolate Hezbollah, Hamas and especially their backer, Iran, drove Olmert to push harder for peace. It led to the re-launching last year of peace talks with the Palestinians at Annapolis, Md., and to this year’s renewed talks with Syria under Turkish auspices, but Olmert ended his abbreviated term with those major policy initiatives unfinished.

Now it will be up to Livni, who led the Olmert administration’s talks with the Palestinians, to see the process through—assuming she succeeds in assembling a governing coalition.

Israel’s next prime minister also will inherit an unsolved Iranian problem. Iran’s suspected march toward nuclear weapons has been Israel’s central foreign preoccupation during Olmert’s term, but Olmert did not manage to rally sufficient international pressure on the Islamic Republic to bring its uranium enrichment activities to a halt.

Throughout his 2 1/2-year term, Olmert was dogged by corruption allegations that cast a shadow over nearly everything he did.

Even his decision to re-launch the indirect peace talks with Syria and sign a cease-fire deal with Hamas in Gaza in June—finally bringing quiet to southern Israel, with the exception of the occasional violation—were viewed with suspicion by some who derided the moves as ploys to ensure his political survival.

The major corruption scandal that erupted in May, in which American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky said he gave Olmert $150,000 in cash over the course of the decade and a half before Olmert became prime minister, crippled Olmert’s ability to govern.

Calls for his resignation accelerated several weeks later with the revelation by police that Olmert was suspected of double-billing overseas trips to various Jewish charities.

Though he always denied any wrongdoing, Olmert acknowledged at the end of July that it had become impossible for him to continue as prime minister, and he announced that he would resign as soon as his party, Kadima, chose a new leader in September.

After Olmert handed his resignation letter to Peres on Sunday, the president offered a few solemn words.

“This is not an easy decision, and I am convinced that this is a difficult evening for him,” Peres said. “I wish to take this opportunity to thank the prime minister for his service to the people and the state over the course of many years of public activities—as the mayor of Jerusalem, as a minister in the government and as the prime minister of Israel.”

Ron Kampeas in Washington and Marcy Oster in Israel contributed to this report.

A Rosh Hashanah message from Ehud Olmert

Olmert submits resignation, promises to help Livni

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has submitted his letter of resignation to President Shimon Peres

Olmert visited the president’s official residence in Jerusalem Sunday evening to deliver the letter.

“This is not an easy decision, and I am convinced that this is a difficult evening for him,” Peres said following the meeting. “I wish to take this opportunity to thank the prime minister for his service to the people and the state over the course of many years of public activities: as the mayor of Jerusalem, as a minister in the government and as the prime minister of Israel.”

Peres will meet with the heads of the party factions and give one of them, most likely Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, up to 42 days to form a new coalition government. He was scheduled to meet Sunday night with the Kadima Party, which is led by Livni after her narrow primary victory last week.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday morning, Olmert told his Cabinet that he would resign.

“I must say that this was not an easy or simple decision,” he told the Cabinet. “I think that I have acted properly and responsibly, as I promised the Israeli public from the beginning.”

Olmert congratulated Livni and said he would help her to form a coalition government. Livni has said she plans to form a new government by the start of the winter session on Oct. 27.

Olmert will remain the head of a caretaker government until a new coalition is formed or until after new general elections if agreement on a coalition government cannot be reached.


Livni and Olmert at Cabinet meeting Sunday (screen grab from Israel Channel 2 News)

Exit polls say Tzipi Livni wins big in Kadima primary

Exit polls show Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni winning the Kadima Party primary by a double-digit margin.

Livni received between 47 and 49 percent of the vote, while her closest challenger, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, won 37 percent, according to exit polls conducted by three Israeli TV stations.

By winning more than 40 percent of Wednesday’s vote, Livni will avoid a runoff and immediately can begin trying to assemble a governing coalition. Once that process is complete, Livni will formally replace Ehud Olmert as prime minister.

If Livni fails to assemble a coalition, Israel will hold new general elections for Knesset and prime minister.

The voting was not without controversy. Livni asked that the polls stay open an extra hour due to “congestion” at polling stations, but Mofaz opposed the request. In the end, Kadima officials extended the voting by 30 minutes.

More than 74,000 registered party members were eligible to vote at 114 polling stations throughout the country.

Tzipi Livni wins Kadima contest — now the real work begins

JERUSALEM (JTA) – With her decisive win in the Kadima party primary on Wednesday, Tzipi Livni’s next major task will be assembling a coalition government so she can become prime minister.

Then all she’ll have on her plate is figuring out how to arrest the threat to Israel from Iran, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a historic peace deal, neutralize the threat on Israel’s northern border from Hezbollah and run the country.

If she ever gets to it.

The immediate challenge faced by Livni, until now the foreign minister, is piecing together a coalition that will hold without pulling her government in too many different directions. If she fails, Israel will be headed for new general elections.

In Wednesday’s vote at 114 polling stations around the country, about 50 percent of Kadima’s 74,000 members voted for party leader – relatively low turnout by Israeli standards. Even so, Livni complained of “congestion” at polling stations and argued for an extension of voting time by an hour. In a compromise, Kadima decided to extend voting by 30 minutes.

Exit polls showed Livni won about 48 percent of the vote, beating out her primary rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, by at least 10 points and avoiding a runoff by surpassing the 40 percent threshold. The two other contenders in the primary, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, garnered an estimated 7 percent each.

Livni’s victory is historic in several respects. She won the first-ever primary held by Kadima, the three-year old political party founded by Ariel Sharon. Her election also brings an end to the Olmert era, though Ehud Olmert will stay on as caretaker prime minister until a coalition is assembled.

And once she puts together a coalition, Livni will become Israel’s second female prime minister, following Golda Meir.

Livni will have 42 days to form a government. She has made it clear that she wants to base her new government on the existing coalition – Kadima, Labor, Shas and the Pensioners party — with the possible addition of other parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu on the right, Meretz from the left and the fervently Orthodox Torah Judaism party.

Livni wants to limit the current transition period, which she sees as a potentially unhealthy period of two-headed government. Olmert will continue as acting prime minister until Livni forms a new government.

Kadima leaders argue that there already is a functioning government and there is no reason it shouldn’t continue its work. They maintain that all the Labor party asked Kadima to do was change its leader, and, now that Kadima has done that, continuing with the present coalition shouldn’t be a problem.

But Livni’s main coalition partners have no intention of giving her an easy ride. Labor argues that a prime minister effectively elected by only 18,000-20,000 Israelis has no legitimacy and that the Israeli people as a whole should be allowed to have their say in new elections.

Shas is also threatening new elections unless Livni meets its demands for more generous child allowances and a pledge to keep Jerusalem off the negotiating agenda with the Palestinians.

If Livni fails to form a coalition, there could be an election as early as next spring. If she succeeds, she could govern for a year or two before going into a new election with the incumbency advantage.

During the campaign, Livni gave a slew of interviews in which she spelled out her priorities:

  • Moving ahead on the Palestinian track: Over the past few months, she and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia have been drafting a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Both sides say that although they have made progress, closing the wide gaps that still exist will take time.

    Once Livni is installed as prime minister, one key issue will become more difficult to resolve: refugees. Livni has repeatedly said that she will not agree to any resettlement in Israel proper of Palestinian refugees, because allowing just one Palestinian refugee in would chip away at Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

    Livni might ease conditions on the ground by dismantling illegal settler outposts in the West Bank, which successive Israeli prime ministers have failed to do. She argues that any government she heads will assert the rule of law.

    As for Gaza, Livni warns that she will consider a large-scale ground offensive if Hamas uses the current truce to smuggle in huge quantities of arms.

  • Ascertaining the seriousness of the Syrian track: Ever since Israel and Syria started conducting new peace feelers through Turkish auspices in January 2007, Livni has not been in the loop. She has argued that by going public with the talks, Israel has given Syria a degree of international legitimacy without getting very much in return.

    Livni will want to see for herself whether Syrian President Bashar Asad is ready for a peace with Israel that entails a significant downgrading of his relations with Iran.

  • Dealing quietly with the Iranian nuclear threat: Livni says as far as Israel is concerned “all options are on the table” and that to say any more would be irresponsible. But she has intimated in the past that Israel could live with a nuclear Iran by establishing a very clear deterrent balance.
  • Introducing a new style of cleaner government: Livni, who won the leadership race at least partly because of her squeaky clean image, will want to signal early on that she intends to introduce a new style of governing. Livni will want to clean up party politics by breaking the power of the Kadima vote contractors who drafted people en masse to vote for a particular candidate. One idea is to set a minimum membership period — say, 18 months — before party members get voting rights.

By electing Livni, Kadima voters seemed to be saying enough of the generals at the top, and enough of wheeler-dealer politics. Livni, dubbed Mrs. Clean, is seen as a straight-thinking, scandal-free civilian clearly out to promote Israel’s best interests.

She has a full agenda, a chance to change the tenor of Israel politics and to make historic moves vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Syria.

But first she will have to put together a viable coalition.