5 Jewish lawmakers elected to Australian Parliament


Five Jewish candidates in Australia — including the first Jewish Liberal from New South Wales in the 115-year history of the Parliament — have been assured seats in the next Parliament.

Several days later, Australia was still awaiting the final results of Saturday’s tightly contested general election.

Three Jewish incumbents — Michael Danby and Mark Dreyfus (Victoria) of the Labor Party and Josh Frydenberg (Melbourne) of the Liberal Party — appear to have held their House of Representatives seats. Danby, who will be starting his fourth term, was the shadow attorney general in the last government, while Frydenberg was minister for Resources, Energy and Northern Australia.

The first Jewish Liberal from New South Wales is newcomer Julian Leeser, who was elected to the seat of former Liberal lawmaker Philip Ruddock, the second-longest serving member of the Parliament.

“I am very conscious of being the first Jewish Liberal elected to the House of Representatives from New South Wales,” Leeser told JTA. “I commenced my campaign with a mezuzah-affixing ceremony which was attended by hundreds of people and am looking forward to serving the people of Berowra and being a proud Jewish voice in the federal Parliament.”

On the outskirts of Sydney, pediatrician Dr. Michael Freelander of Labor won in his in his first foray into federal politics, defeating an incumbent Liberal member.

In the meantime, Australia was still waiting for the final results to see if the Liberals could hold on to the government.

The morning after Saturday’s election found the Liberal/National Party with 65 seats but Labor with 67. Five seats are held by others and 13 remain in doubt. One party has to win 76 seats to form a majority government.

The counting of votes, including postal votes, resumed Tuesday.

British lawmaker shot dead, EU referendum campaigns suspended


A British member of Parliament was shot dead in the street in northern England on Thursday, causing deep shock across Britain and the suspension of campaigning for next week's referendum on the country's EU membership.

Jo Cox, 41, a lawmaker for the opposition Labour Party and vocal supporter of Britain remaining in the European Union, was attacked as she prepared to hold a meeting with constituents in Birstall near Leeds.

Media reports said she had been shot and stabbed.

West Yorkshire Police said a 52-year-old man was arrested by officers nearby and weapons including a firearm recovered. The motive for the attack was not immediately known.

“The whole of the Labour Party and Labour family – and indeed the whole country – will be in shock at the horrific murder of Jo Cox today,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a statement.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the killing of Cox, who was married with two children and had worked on U.S. President Barack Obama's 2008 election campaign, was a tragedy.

“We have lost a great star,” the Conservative prime minister said in a statement. “She was a great campaigning MP with huge compassion, with a big heart. It is dreadful, dreadful news.”

British lawmakers are not in parliament ahead of the June 23 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU.

The rival referendum campaign groups said they were suspending activities for the day and Cameron said he would pull out of a planned rally in Gibraltar, the British territory on the southern coast of Spain.

It was not immediately clear what the impact would be on the referendum.

“It's fairly clear no one is quite sure what has happened,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. “Until it's clear who was responsible and what their motivation was or it might have been, all it does is stop the campaign when the 'Remain' side probably would not want it to be stopped.”

The pro-EU “Remain” campaign has fallen behind the “Leave” camp in pre-referendum polls.

The last British lawmaker to have been killed in an attack was Ian Gow, who died after a bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) exploded under his car at his home in southern England in 1990.

MAKESHIFT GUN PULLED FROM BAG

Police said a 77-year-old man was also assaulted in the incident and suffered injuries that were not life-threatening.

One witness said a man had pulled an old or makeshift gun from a bag and had fired twice.

“I saw a lady on the floor like on the beach with her arms straight and her knees up and blood all over the face,” Hichem Ben-Abdallah told reporters. “She wasn't making any noise, but clearly she was in agony.”

BBC TV and other media showed a picture of the alleged suspect, a balding white man, being apprehended by police.

Dee Collins, the Temporary Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, said a full investigation was under way into the motive for the attack.

“This is a very significant investigation with large numbers of witnesses who have been spoken to by police at this time,” she told reporters. “We are not in a position to discuss any motive at this time. We are not looking for anyone else in connection with this incident.”

Media reports citing witnesses said the attacker had shouted out “Britain First”, which is the name of a right-wing group that describes itself on its website as “a patriotic political party and street defense organization”.

Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of Britain First, said the attack was “absolutely disgusting” and suggested that Britain first was a common slogan being used in the referendum campaign by those who support taking Britain out of the EU.

“We were as shocked to hear these reports as everyone else,” Fransen told Reuters. “At the moment would point out this is hearsay, we are keen to verify the comments but we can only do that when the police provide more details.”

Britain's sterling currency rose against the dollar after news of the attack, adding around two cents as investors speculated that Cox's death might boost popular support for the referendum “Remain” campaign.

The last attack on a British legislator was in 2010, when Labour member and ex-cabinet minister Stephen Timms was stabbed in the stomach at his office in east London by a 21-year-old student who was angry over his backing for the 2003 Iraq war.

In 2000, a Liberal Democrat local councillor was murdered by a man with a samurai sword at the offices in western England of lawmaker Nigel Jones, who was also seriously hurt in the attack.

Cox, a Cambridge University graduate, spent a decade working in a variety of roles with aid agency Oxfam, including head of policy, head of humanitarian campaigning based in New York and head of its European office in Brussels.

She was known for her work on women's issues, and won election for Labour in northern England's Batley and Spen district at the 2015 general election.

Fellow lawmakers from several parties expressed their horror at the attack, praising Cox as a rising star of politics.

“She's a tiny woman, five feet nothing and a lion as well – she fights so hard for the things she believes in. I cannot believe anyone would do this to her,” fellow Labour lawmaker Sarah Champion told BBC TV.

One of Brussels bombers had worked in EU Parliament


One of the Islamic State suicide bombers who killed 32 people in Brussels on March 22 had worked as a cleaner for a short period in the European Parliament six years earlier, a spokesman for the EU assembly said on Thursday.

In 2009 and 2010, “one of the perpetrators of the Brussels terrorist attacks worked for a period of one month for a cleaning company which was contracted by the European Parliament at the time,” spokesman Jaume Duch Guillot said in a statement which did not name the individual.

An EU official said the person was Najim Laachraoui, a 25-year-old Belgian who prosecutors said blew himself up in the airport attack and is also suspected of making suicide vests for last November's Paris attacks in which 130 people died.

At the time of his temporary work in the parliament, he had no criminal record, the parliament's spokesman said.

Israeli Arab List Chairman Ayman Odeh: We want to be part of the process


It is nearly 9 pm in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament; its cafeteria abuzz and Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List – the block of four Arab parties – is preparing to enjoy a much needed bowl of hot soup. He’s surrounded by a diverse cast of fellow parliamentarians including former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, Tzippi Livni, Ethiopian Avraham Neguise, and Tzachi Hanegbi.

His youthful looks are deceiving as he sits down with The Media Line to offer his  take on the day’s dramatic events, including the suspension of three of his lawmakers for allegedly meeting to console the families of those killed while assaulting – and in some cases killing – Israeli citizens in random acts of street violence, many by stabbing. Odeh forcefully asserts that the trio went to aid in negotiations for the bodies of those killed as they carried out violent acts that at the time were being held by Israel.

Often described as “pragmatic,” Mr. Odeh, who prefers to be known as “a principled man”, is also known for what he calls his “vision” — that Arabs and Jews must work together.  He’s widely quoted for his references to Jews from Arab and Islamic lands. He was interviewed for The Media Line at the Knesset by Felice Friedson.

TML: How do you respond to the Knesset Ethics Committee’s decision to suspend three Arab lawmakers who met with the families of the terrorists who perpetrated attacks against Israeli citizens? The Israelis charge they consoled the killers of Israelis while the Palestinians explain they were participating in efforts to have the bodies of those killed by Israeli security forces returned to their families?

Ayman Odeh: What they did in east Jerusalem is very natural to release the bodies. The Greek woman, Antigone, defied the orders of the king in order to bury her brother, because it is a human right from the first degree. The Israeli decision is part of a chain of decision to prosecute the Arabs. Netanyahu personally is leading the campaign against the Arabs.

TML: Three members of the Joint List called the attackers who killed Israelis “martyrs,” and on the Facebook page of MK Basel Ghattas, there is picture of the Palestinian flag. If these people were elected to represent Israel, how do you think Israel should respond?

Ayman Odeh:  The murder of any citizen is wrong. Regarding the Palestinian flag, everyone needs to understand that out situation is complicated. On the one hand, nationally we belong to the Palestinian people. On the other hand, from a political stand point, we are citizens in Israel. We feel a sense of belonging to the Palestinian people, and its symbol, just like any other nation in the world that feels a sense of belonging to its nationality and symbols. This is not against the law.

TML: That doesn’t answer the question. No nation — like the United States, for example — is going to allow their own citizens to go out and to do things against their country. What should Israel do when it has people sitting in the Knesset calling those who assaulted and killed its citizens, “martyrs,” and representing the Palestinian state?

Ayman Odeh: The Knesset members — Jews and Arabs — don’t represent the state of Israel. The government is the one that represents the state of Israel officially. The members of Knesset have a transparent election process, and based on that are elected to the Knesset. Part of our agenda is to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state. We always said that nationally we belong to the Palestinian nation, but in the same time we are citizens of the state of Israel. 

TML: That’s not the same thing as defending people who kill in cold blood.

Ayman Odeh: I am convinced that no one should defend the murder of any person in any way. We refuse to defend these actions. Hurting a Jew because he is a Jew is not acceptable, and it has a bad influence on the moral values of the Palestinian people, as well as their political ones. We support a just Palestinian struggle to end the occupation, but not with killing of civilians in any way or form.

TML: will you go out of the box and condemn fellow members for the way they are handling it?

Ayman Odeh: That the core of their action was to return the bodies is right. Israel is in the wrong here because it is still holding the bodies. The issue at hand here is not the members of Knesset trying to mediate the return the bodies to the families, but the racist incitement against the members of Knesset and their suspension, this is the main issue that needs to be condemned. 

TML:  Israelis want to know why your colleagues from the Arab parties won’t condemn violence against innocent civilians.  First of all, is that true?  Has there been any condemnation of the recent spate of killings?

Ayman Odeh:  We have a strong, hard stance against harming innocent people.  The struggle of the Palestinian people is one of the more just struggles all over the world.  A just struggle has to have just means.  The main part of the Palestinian struggle is a just struggle with just means.  It occurs at the fringes that Palestinians harm innocent people.  This is something we are completely against and we condemn it.  We need to take all citizens — Palestinians and Israelis — out of the cycle of violence and harm.  To be honest, more Palestinian civilians are harmed by the way the occupation uses institutional terror. 

TML:  Why is the Palestinian Authority and its leaders not condemning the attacks of these young people going out with knives?

Ayman Odeh:  I don’t want to speak on the PA’s behalf. 

TML:  Would you advise them?  Could you advise them?

Ayman Odeh:  The occupation harmed Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] so greatly.  Abu Mazen is a very responsible man.  He is a very honest person.  What he says behind closed doors is also said to the media.  For about a decade now he is ruling and maintaining control over the West Bank even given the circumstances of occupation. People believed it would not be possible to rule in this manner.  However, the Israeli government is so against peace and refuses to put their hands out to it, so in the meantime, the PA has its own calculations on the matter.  I certainly support the PA leading a peaceful, non-violent struggle and to condemn attacks against civilians. 

TML:  You are saying that, but they haven’t done it.

Ayman Odeh:  I already said that I will not go into speaking about their position on the matter.

TML: What are Jewish Israelis getting wrong about their Arab neighbors?

Ayman Odeh: I think there is a founding idea in the Jewish and Zionist consciousness from before the establishment of the state of Israel. They behave as part of Europe in the Orient rather than part of the Orient. There is a sense of superiority over the people of the Orient based on prejudices. “The wise island needs to know how to live with the sea.”

F: How do you differentiate between an Arab Israeli and a Palestinian?

Ayman Odeh: The Arab in Israel is also a Palestinian; the distinction from a Palestinian is having Israeli citizenship. We, the ones who support the two-state solution, want to hang on to our Arabic-Palestinian identity, and also struggle for equality in Israel.

F: Do Arabs in Israel view themselves as Israelis?

Ayman Odeh: The Arabs in Israel want two things: the Palestinian identity, and also full rights as citizens of Israel. The constant incitement of Israel against the Arab citizens creates a disruption in the issue of citizenship. The question is, “What is Israel? The occupation of the West Bank, or the constant incitement of Netanyahu against us?” Of course we won’t feel a sense of belonging. However, during the term of Rabin, when he worked towards peace and equality, it was very clear that the citizenship matter for the Arabs became very important.

TML: Beyond violence and security, is there a dual standard for Israeli Jews and Arabs?

Ayman Odeh: Israel was established for the Jews, not for all citizens. Until today, Israel has not managed yet to go past this initial idea.

TML: What needs to change?

Ayman Odeh: Israel must understand that there is a Jewish majority and an Arab minority.  There needs to be respect for both the Jewish identity and the Arab identity. There has to be equality between all citizens and between the two nationalities. This matter is obvious in any democratic state. That’s the core of our struggle here in the parliament and also in the nation.

Five things you need to know about tomorrow’s Israeli election


1. It’s too close to call

With Israelis headed to the polls tomorrow, the race remains tight. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is trailing Isaac Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union by a few percentage points and is expected to come in second. Five of six polls released Friday gave Zionist Union a four seat lead, commanding 24 to 26 seats in the next Knesset compared to Likud’s 20 to 22 seats. A sixth poll, from the Israeli news site Walla, showed Zionist Union with a two-seat margin over Likud, 25 to 23.

Netanyahu, who sailed to a comfortable victory in the last election, in 2013, has been hit hard on Israel’s high cost of living, a festering housing crisis and his handling of relations with the United States and the Iranian nuclear threat. Herzog has built his campaign on those attacks, but a perceived dearth of charisma has kept him from widening his lead in the polls.

More importantly, neither Likud nor Zionist Union are slated to get more than a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 seats. To become prime minister, someone will have to cobble together a majority coalition. Which is why …

2. Tuesday’s winner might not be the party with the most votes

This isn’t a two-way race. It’s an 11-way race. And the winner isn’t the party with the most votes, but the one that can unite several smaller parties together into a governing coalition. In 2009, Netanyahu became prime minister even though Likud came in second on Election Day.

Eleven parties are expected to get the minimum 3.25 percent of votes needed to enter the Knesset. They range from the Arab-Israeli Joint List to the staunchly leftist Meretz to the Sephardic haredi Shas to the pro-settler Jewish Home. About half are right-wing or religious, and have historically caucused with Likud. The other half are left-wing, centrist or Arab-Israeli.

3. There’s usually a surprise on election night

Polls have been pretty stable for the past couple of months, but that doesn’t mean we know how the vote will come out tomorrow. Up to one quarter of voters, according to some surveys, are undecided. And in the past few elections, many of those voters have swung to a party that ends up doing much better than predicted.

In 2013, that party was Yesh Atid, which polled at 12 or 13 seats ahead of the election and won 19. In 2009, it was the centrist Kadima, which won 28 after polling at 23, coming in first place (but then sitting in the opposition). In 2006, it was the little-known Pensioners’ Party, which ran away with seven seats that mostly came from protest votes. If voters do deliver a surprise, it could catapult an unexpected party to newfound prominence and complicate the coalition math for both Herzog and Netanyahu.

4. Expect the Arab-Israeli party, the Joint List, to make a splash

A law raising the vote threshold last year forced the four Arab parties — from the Islamist Ta’al to the Arab-Jewish communist Hadash — to unite into the Joint List. Unification turned the Joint List into a major political force that appears poised to galvanize Arab-Israelis — who usually have comparatively lower voter turnout than Israeli Jews — to go to the polls. The Joint List is polling in third place and might receive as many as 15 seats tomorrow.

The Joint List has vowed to sit in the opposition no matter what, but it could still influence who forms the next government by preventing the right-wing from garnering a 61-seat majority. That scenario could lead Zionist Union and Likud to create a unity government, which would make the Joint List the biggest opposition party.

5. We’ll know who won the election only a few weeks from now

Unlike U.S. elections, in which a clear candidate (usually) emerges victorious, Tuesday is just one phase of a drawn-out process in Israel. After the votes come in, parties will unite behind their preferred prime minister no matter who came in first. Israel’s president will then select the party leader with the largest supporting bloc to form a government.

The chosen leader gets up to two months to form a majority coalition, an often unpredictable process in which deals are cut and ministries and other influential posts doled out. In 2013, elections in late Januaryyielded a coalition only in mid-March, even though Netanyahu won by a wide margin. Pundits are predicting a Netanyahu reelection because the right-wing bloc may again win a majority — even if Likud itself comes in second. But with a couple parties staying mum on which candidate they support, it’s impossible to know how the race is going to play out.

United Arab party a surprise new force in Israeli election


A political sideshow for much of the past six decades, Israel's Arab minority is hoping to gain much-needed muscle after next week's parliamentary election, with four Arab parties uniting under one banner for the first time.

Surveys show the Joint Arab List could even finish third in the vote and become a factor in the coalition-building that dominates Israeli politics, where no party has ever won a parliament majority.

Many in the Arab community, which makes up 20 percent of Israel's eight million population, see the newfound unity as a breakthrough in battling discrimination and gaining recognition. Though they have full and equal rights, Arab Israelis often say they are treated as second-class citizens.

“We've been waiting for this for decades,” said Mirna Baransi, 24, a student from Nazareth. “We'll have more power now to make a difference.”

Israeli Arabs are descendants of residents who stayed put during the 1948 war of Israel's founding, in which hundreds of thousands of fellow Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes, ending up in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well as in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Those who remained have long pointed to inferior services and unfair allocations for education, health and housing. More than half of the Arabs in Israel live below the poverty line.

In Umm el-Fahm, an Arab Israeli town of 48,000 that borders the northern part of the West Bank, signs urging residents to vote for the Joint Arab List are pinned along the main road that winds up into the hills.

A blue and grey party banner – “One cause, one vote” – hangs at the town's entrance. Nearby, a mosque minaret overlooks the golden arches of a McDonald's and memorials commemorate 13 local youths killed by Israeli police in 2000 while demonstrating in solidarity with a Palestinian uprising.

Khitam Mahmis, 46, said she has never before voted in an election, but this time she will. “Life is getting worse for the Arabs here. If we go to the ballot with more people, then we will get more,” she said.

STRENGTH IN UNITY

Arab parties have never been included in any Israeli government, nor have they sought membership. That is unlikely to change now – but the Joint Arab list could still have a big role to play after the votes are counted.

The Arab parties have traditionally won around 11 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. As a joint list, opinion polls predict, they could win 13, while their internal projections suggest this could even rise to 15, putting the group a clear third.

In Israel's parliamentary election system, voters choose parties rather than individual candidates, and the head of the party with the most political allies will usually win a presidential mandate to try to form a government.

Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, has hinted that the faction may back Isaac Herzog, whose center-left Zionist Union is running neck-in-neck with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud before the March 17 vote.

In such a tight race, every seat is crucial.

“We want this government which led all of us, Jews and Arabs, to a dead end, not to continue,” Odeh told Reuters. “But we are not in Herzog's pocket.”

COOL UNDER FIRE

Some of Odeh's partners are unlikely to recommend any candidate as prime minister, but if Herzog gets the job, the Joint Arab List could lend essential outside backing. That has happened in the past, with Arab lawmakers supporters of late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who struck a peace deal with the Palestinians in 1993.

“We had a successful formula in the '90s with the Rabin government,” Odeh said, indicating he was seeking a similar arrangement. “We united those marginalized and threatened, and we seek partnership with Jews too.”

Arab voter turnout in the 2013 election was 57 percent, lower than the 68 percent national average. But Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute said the number could rise.

Arab citizens make up about 15 percent of eligible voters, which means they have an electoral potential of 18 seats. Some vote for non-Arab parties.

In a possible political twist, if Herzog and Netanyahu end up equal and form a “grand coalition” together – as pollsters are starting to predict – Odeh's list would withhold its support and become the official opposition, a first for an Arab party in Israel's history.

Odeh, 40, is not well-known outside the Arab community, but he drew attention during a TV debate in which he kept his cool when far-right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused him of representing “terrorist organizations” in the Knesset.

“'Peace' has become a dirty word in this election campaign and I am worried democracy will become a dirty word in the next, because of this man,” Odeh replied.

Israel’s Knesset votes to dissolve, sets March 17 election


Israel's parliament voted on Monday to dissolve itself in preparation for an early general election on March 17, after a crisis set in motion by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's dismissal of two ministers.

The parliament's vote of 93 to 0 formalized a decision to move forward an election that had not been expected until 2017, in the aftermath of Netanyahu's Dec. 2 firing of Yair Lapid as finance minister and Tzipi Livni as justice minister.

Most opinion polls show Netanyahu being reelected as prime minister, with many Israelis backing his tough stance on the conflict with the Palestinians and other security issues.

Though his Likud party is expected to win the most seats, Netanyahu would need to align with other parties to form a government with majority support in the 120-member parliament.

Netanyahu launched his re-election campaign on Monday with a promise to cancel value added tax on basic foods, at a business conference in Tel Aviv.

He called the plan a blueprint for “social justice”, in what was seen as a critical nod to middle-class Israelis and ultra-Orthodox parties whose support he may need to head the next government.

Just before the dissolution vote, lawmakers voted 47 to 23 to pass a government-backed amendment to keep open a detention center for African migrants despite a high court order to shut it by Dec. 22.

The court found in September that holding some 2,000 migrants, under a law passed in 2013 that permitted them to be held without trial, violated rights to freedom and dignity.

The amendment passed on Tuesday set a 20-month limit to detentions at the Holot facility.

More than 40,000 Eritreans and Sudanese are in Israel, human rights groups say. Many entered illegally across the border with Egypt.

“In a democracy you cannot jail people without trial. The court will reject it, again,” lawmaker Nitzan Horowitz of the left-wing Meretz party said, in protest against the vote.

Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an advocacy group for the migrants, said it would appeal again to the court, saying parliament had voted “to waste taxpayers' money on wrong solutions.”

Israel’s Knesset approves new government


Israel's Knesset approved the country's 33rd government.

The lawmakers approved the new government by a vote of 68 to 48, with four absent.

Following the vote, the government ministers were sworn in individually, each making a declaration promising to be faithful to the state of Israel and its laws and to fulfill his or her duties as a member of Knesset,

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu introduced his new government earlier in the day during a Knesset plenum session.

In presenting Israel's 33rd government to the Knesset on Monday afternoon, Netanyahu called on the new government to work together with the same spirit of cooperation as the last government, which he also led.

“Our primary concern is to guarantee the future of the Jewish people by guaranteeing the future of the State of Israel, the root of our existence,” he told the lawmakers.

The Knesset approved Likud party lawmaker Yuli Edelstein as Knesset speaker, replacing Reuven Rivlin.

During the session, Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Liberman, the former foreign minister, said his party would seek to prevent the renewal of any construction freeze in West Bank settlements.

Prior to Netanyahu's introduction of his new government ministers, members of the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism party walked out of the Knesset chambers in an apparent protest at not being included in the new coalition.

Labor Party head Shelly Yachimovich, the opposition leader, in her speech welcomed the new government and told the lawmakers, “We are your opposition. Today we are launching the national debate with you, about what this country is and what is the Zionist vision.”

The ceremony included a moment of silence in memory of a former Knesset member Marina Solodkin, who died in Latvia following an anti-facism conference.

The new government includes 68 of the Knesset's 120 parliamentarians. It features Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu faction, the Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid, the Jewish Home party led by Naphtali Bennett, and Tzipi Livni's Hatnua Party.

Netanyahu clinches coalition deals


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clinched deals for a coalition government on Thursday reflecting a shift to the center in Israel and a domestic agenda that has shunted peacemaking with Palestinians to the sidelines.

In control of 68 of parliament's 120 seats, the right-wing leader's new administration is expected to take office next week, just days before a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, his first to Israel since entering the White House.

“There is a government,” said Noga Katz, a spokeswoman for Netanyahu's Likud party, citing agreements with the centrist Yesh Atid and far-right Jewish Home parties as well as with a smaller faction led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

Netanyahu's long-time partners, ultra-Orthodox parties effectively blackballed by Yesh Atid and Jewish Home over social benefits and military draft exemptions for religious Jews, will not be in the new coalition born of a January 22 parliamentary election.

The exclusion of the religious parties represents a dramatic political change for an increasingly inward-looking Israel after the surprisingly strong ballot box showings by Yesh Atid, led by former TV news anchor Yair Lapid, and Jewish Home, headed by high-tech millionaire Naftali Bennett.

Although Lapid, has advocated a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians stalled since 2010, his party's second-place finish was a reflection of a renewed public focus on bread-and-butter issues such as the high cost of living.

“We came into politics specifically to influence health and welfare policies…the time has come to start working,” Yesh Atid lawmaker Adi Kol said on Israel's Channel 10 television.

Public expectations are high that the new government could affect real change in what many Israelis see as state coddling of the ultra-Orthodox, whose welfare benefits and exemption from the military provide little incentive or opportunity to learn skills and contribute to the economy.

Netanyahu will turn his attention again to the Palestinian issue and Iran's nuclear drive in his talks with Obama, with whom he has had a testy relationship. But U.S. officials have said Obama is not coming with any peace plan and expectations of any swift movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track are low.

“We hope that this Israeli government will choose peace and negotiations and not settlements and dictation,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

DEADLINE

Lapid and Bennett each said they expected to sign coalition deals with Netanyahu later in the day. Livni made her pact with the prime minister several weeks ago.

The agreements on Thursday were sealed before a March 16 deadline for Netanyahu to announce a new government. Yesh Atid said Lapid would become finance minister. Israeli media reported Bennett would get the trade and industry cabinet post.

Lapid, 49, gained wide backing among young, secular voters who helped fuel massive street protests in 2011 against high food and housing prices.

He and Bennett, 40, took kingmakers' roles in the coalition bargaining by forming a negotiating alliance that frustrated Netanyahu's efforts to retain his largely loyal ultra-Orthodox partners for his third term in office.

Bennett, who Israeli media said would get the industry and trade portfolio, rejects any future Palestinian state and has strong support among Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

But he has pledged not to be an obstacle to peace talks, saying that in any case, he does not believe they will achieve anything. Neither Bennett nor Lapid have spoken out in detail on how they would deal with the Iranian issue.

Palestinians have demanded Israel suspend construction in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured in the 1967 Middle East war and which they seek, along with the Gaza Strip, for a future state.

Netanyahu has called on the Palestinians to return to the talks without preconditions. 

Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Angus MacSwan

On Election Day, Israel’s undecided voters face moment of truth


Israelis are almost never shy about offering their opinions, especially when it comes to politics.

The problem is that this year, many of them aren’t sure what their opinions are.

As Election Day approached, a large proportion of voters – 15 percent – remained undecided, according to polls. Some of them still were unsure even as they headed for the polls on Jan. 22.

But vote they did: By 4 p.m. Israel time, turnout at the polls stood at 46.6 percent – an increase of 5 percent over the last election, in February 2009.

Israel’s multiplicity of parties presented Israelis with a dizzying array of choices: 32 were in the running, and up to a dozen were expected to land seats in the Knesset. But with so many parties running on similar platforms, and after what many considered a lackluster campaign, many voters said they were disillusioned with their choices.

“No one seems good,” Stephanie Daniel, 28, told JTA. A women’s studies student in Tel Aviv, Daniel said she had vacillated between Hatnua, a party focused on negotiations with the Palestinians and led by former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, and the left-wing Meretz party. In the end, Daniel said, she chose Hatnua because it advocates for environmental issues.

Her dilemma was not uncommon among young Tel Avivis. As they entered or exited their polling locations, many said they felt torn between the three center-left parties: Hatnua, Labor and Yesh Atid.

“I did a questionnaire on the internet” about who to vote for, said Elian, 27, a political science student at Tel Aviv University. She said that because she was a “social democrat from birth,” she chose the traditionally socialist Labor. But Elian said she saw the appeal of both Livni and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, a political newcomer.

“Tzipi [Livni] can lead a state better than Shelly” Yachimovich, the Labor chairwoman, Elian said.  “Yair Lapid is new, and he talks a lot, but Shelly is more my ideology.”

Uri, 31, a Tel Aviv event planner, also found ideology guiding him as he deliberated between Labor, Hatnua, Yesh Atid and Meretz. “There was social pressure,” he said. “One friend feels this way, another that way. But everyone knows on the inside” whom they support.

He ended up voting for Meretz, he said.

Uncertainty lingered on the right, too. Gilad Konforty, 30, an MBA who recently became Orthodox and now studies in a yeshiva, was trying to decide between two Orthodox parties, the Sephardic Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism. He went with UTJ.

“They better represent Jewish values and Jewish character,” he said. While Shas has, at times, cooperated with left-wing governments, UTJ “doesn’t move around, they don’t capitulate, they don’t compromise,” he said.

With the right-wing Likud-Beiteinu list widely expected to beat its center-left competitors, some right-leaning voters chose pragmatism over ideology and voted for the party they figured would best be able to influence a Likud-led coalition.

Guy, 33, a Jerusalemite who works in the technology industry, said he chose the pro-settler Jewish Home Party and its Modern Orthodox chairman, Naftali Bennett, over Likud because he wants “to put another kippah in the Knesset.”

“They’ll work together anyway” Guy said. Bennett will “push the government a little to the right. I think he has more concern for the religious sector.”

With so many new parties, voters faced the prospect of a large number of first-timers making it into the Knesset.

“There are a lot of new parties that have talked but have not done anything,” said Yaakov, 47, a banker from Tel Aviv also vacillating between Shas and UTJ. “The old parties didn’t prove themselves.”

Dor Midler, 21, a first-time voter, said she was voting for Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and his list of political neophytes.

“I just left the army, and he’s the best for young people,” she said. “He’s something new. I’m optimistic. At some point, it has to be OK.”

Uri, the Tel Aviv event planner, said the flood of information available to voters today rendered decisions more difficult.

“You open Facebook, you can see everything that happens,” he said. “Before, it would be that my father votes Likud, so I vote Likud. Now you can see the party platform, what they’ve done, what they haven’t done.”

This year Likud failed to produce a formal party platform.

Dina, 76, a Tel Aviv resident who lost a husband and son in Israel’s wars, said she’s disappointed with Israel’s entire political system.

“Wherever there are Jews, there are never just two parties,” she said. “There are too many parties.”

Dina said she was a faithful Labor voter for decades until 2006, when she felt that the party wasn’t effective and cast a protest vote for the Pensioners’ Party. She said she’s voting cautiously for Livni after flirting with a return to Labor.

Neither party excited her, though there would have been one politician she said would raise her spirits – Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old former Labor prime minister who is Israel’s current president.

“He loves the state,” Dalia said. “There’s not one job he did where he didn’t succeed. He’s the lighthouse of the state.”

The problem with Israel’s electoral system


Israel’s electoral system is the root cause of the disheartening polarization and superficiality on display in Israel’s current election season. Many wrongly point to the egos of our politicians as the underlying reason. In reality, powerful constitutional disincentives for collaboration shape our politics.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy, whereby voters elect parties to serve in the 120-seat Knesset, based on proportional representation. Thus, a party that receives 10 percent of the votes would hold 12 seats. After elections, parties must establish a coalition of a minimum of 61 MKs, the head of which becomes the prime minister.

This system encourages divisiveness among the public. The 34 parties that will stand for election next week distinguish themselves by inciting and polarizing: religious versus secular, poor versus rich, Ashkenazim versus Sephardim, periphery against center, hawks against doves, Jews against Arabs. On the right, the joint list of the Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu is losing power to smaller sectoral parties such as Shas and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. On the left, Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich and Shaul Mofaz — of Yesh Atid, Hatnua, Labor and Kadima, respectively — failed to join forces in spite of evident similarities in their vision.

Meanwhile, after the elections, some of these parties inevitably will make up the next government, and many of them will repeatedly join forces on various legislative initiatives. Hence, while the public remains divided, the politicians collaborate.

A reversal of this pattern could be readily available through a simple amendment establishing as prime minister the head of the party that gets the highest number of votes. This would encourage politicians to join forces in inclusive political frameworks and broad sectors of the population to support two ruling Zionist parties on the right and on the left. It would also incentivize politicians to be centrist and pragmatic.

I hope that such a change will be the legacy of the coming Knesset. There will be a large parliamentary block that would support such a reform, and powerful forces are gearing up with the civil society as well. The position of the likely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party will be key, as in the current election campaign they have been the primary victim of the present electoral system.

Finally, a thought on the U.S. political system: The polarization of American politics and the deadlock in Washington may also result from a crisis in its electoral system. Decades of gerrymandering have turned most electoral districts into either red or blue, breeding ideological politicians who cater to their ideological bases and not pragmatically to the center. The United States thrived when it was purple. It is muddling through when it is red or blue. Go purple.

A final note: My personal perspective on these issues dates back to 1999: My service in the Bureau of the Prime Minister between 1999 and 2001 exposed me to the structural failure of Israeli governance. After a year at Harvard’s Kennedy School (class of 2002), I launched Re’ut to generate substantive impact, as well as an initiative named Yesodot (Foundations) to reform Israeli governance, which was active until 2004. I have served the cause of electoral reform ever since and am proud that the core logic of Yesodot is now commonly accepted by all other groups working toward this end.


Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Re’ut Institute in Tel Aviv.

Polls: Netanyahu set to win Israel election but rightists gain


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party is set to win a parliamentary election on January 22 although the popularity of a far-right party opposed to Palestinian statehood is growing, polls showed on Friday.

Two out of three surveys showed the right-wing Likud losing voters to political newcomer Naftali Bennett's religious party Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home)and to a fractured center-left bloc.

All still predicted a strong right-wing coalition emerging in the 120-seat parliament, which would assure Netanyahu another term.

The daily Yedioth Ahronoth published a poll with Likud winning 33 seats, four less than a month ago. A poll in the Jerusalem Post showed Likud fell to 34, down from 39 just two weeks ago. A survey by Maariv said Likud held ground at 37.

Without a majority in parliament, Likud would have to join forces with other parties to form a government. Netanyahu could choose Bennett and ultra-Orthodox religious parties or team up with members of the center-left bloc.

The left-leaning Labor party remained in second place in all the polls, winning 17 or 18 seats.

Bennett's party platform rejects a two-state solution with the Palestinians and is staunchly in favor of settlement building in the occupied West Bank – an issue which has stalled peace talks.

All the polls show him on an upward trend, winning between 12 and 14 seats.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Angus MacSwan

German Parliament passes law guaranteeing legality of ritual circumcision


The German Parliament passed a law protecting the right of Jewish and Muslim parents to choose a ritual circumcision for their sons, after months of heated debate over efforts to ban the practice.

In all, 434 legislators voted Wednesday for the new law proposed by the federal government; there were 100 votes against, and 46 abstentions.

The decision was applauded by Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who said in a statement that he was “pleased and relieved … The circumcision law finally brings legal security and hopefully brings this highly disastrous debate, which marked this past year, to an end.”

The new law, which introduces restrictions on the practice for the first time, requires that the procedure be carried out by a medically trained and certified practitioner such as a mohel, or ritual circumciser, or by a medical professional, and that anesthetic be used if needed. For a child over 6 months old, the procedure must be done in a hospital.

The campaign against ritual circumcision in Germany, led by a cadre of activists and boosted by some politicians on the left, picked up steam last May after a Cologne District Court ruled that the circumcision of a Muslim minor was a criminal assault. The ruling came to light in the general public in June. In response, Jewish and Muslim leaders demanded a legal response that would protect their religious freedom.

Graumann said in his statement today that the law provided a sense of security that Jews and Muslims could continue to practice their faith in Germany. “In my view, the recent debate was also a tolerance test for our society. And I am very glad that we have passed the test.”

Tzipi Livni to run in upcoming Israeli elections at head of new party


Tzipi Livni has reentered Israeli politics at the head of a new left-of-center political party.

Livni, former head of the Kadima Party, announced Monday that she would lead a new party called Hatnua, or The Movement.

“I'm here to fight for Israel, not against anything. I'm here to fight for peace, for security, for a Jewish Israel, for a democratic Israel, for a country whose citizens all have equal rights,” Livni said at a news conference Monday morning in Tel Aviv.

In forming her own party, Livni turned down offers to join the leadership of two existing political parties. Yair Lapid, head of the new Yesh Atid Party, announced Sunday that he had offered Livni to be his number two, and to be a “full partner in all major decisions.” Lapid had called on Livni not to further split the centrist bloc .

Labor Chairman Shelly Yachimovich had also called on Livni to join the Labor Party.

Livni has one week to present her Knesset candidate's list. It is believed that several Livni supporters from the Kadima Party will follow her to the new party. She is also talking to several high-profile public figures about joining her, Haaretz reported, including former top IDF officers Shlomo Yanai, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, and Amram Mitzna.

Livni's former political home issued a statement following her announcement: “Kadima wishes Tzipi Livni success in her new endeavor, but wonders what she will manage to achieve with only a few Knesset seats that she didn't manage to achieve with the 28 seats Kadima had over four years. This is not a politically wise move. Instead of uniting the center-left bloc, Livni decided to split it.”

Hungarian lawmaker proposes ‘registering’ Jewish lawmakers


A far-right Hungarian lawmaker suggested that members of the Hungarian Parliament who are Jewish or of Jewish origin be counted and registered.

Marton Gyongyosi of the ultranationalist Jobbik party made the suggestion Monday in a Parliament session during a discussion of the recent conflict in Gaza “in order to avoid the national security risk caused by the Jews,” he said. Gyongyosi also proposed taking a census of Jews in the country.

His suggestion received “gentle applause,” according to a statement issued by the European Jewish Congress. 

Opposition parties in Parliament on television interviews called for the dissolution of Jobbik in the wake of Gyongyosi's statement, though they offered no reaction during the Parliament meeting. 

Foreign State Undersecretary Zsolt Nemethsaid said during the session that he cannot support such “research,” adding  that “there is no relationship between the number of Jewish origin members of the Hungarian government and the grave conflict in the Middle East.”

European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor said the remarks present “an important challenge” for the Hungarian and European Parliament.

“Either they place boundaries on hate speech and incitement to violence within representative parties in their parliaments or it will lose its moral compass,” he said. “We demand outrage from senior Hungarian and European Union officials after these comments. Refraining from a wide-scale outrage will leave the Jewish community feeling there is acquiescence that this constitutes acceptable speech and parliamentary conduct.

“The increase in physical attacks on Jews in Hungary, we believe, is directly related to not only the rise of Jobbik, but also the lack of condemnation for their statements and actions.”

During the government's session, Gyongyosi asked the prime minister why the Hungarian Foreign Ministry sided with Israel in the Gaza conflict instead of the Palestinians.

Computer woes force Likud to extend hours in primary vote


Polls will remain open past midnight in Likud Party primary voting following computer malfunctions at several polling stations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the chairman of the ruling Likud, made the announcement Sunday of the longer voting hours following malfunctions at several stations, including the 80 computerized voting systems at Jerusalem's main polling station at the International Convention Center.

The problems led to calls by party leaders to postpone the vote after voters were turned away at some polling stations or left without casting their ballots after waiting a long time.

The party's 123,351 members are voting to select the Knesset list ahead of the Jan. 22 national elections. The polls opened at 9 a.m.

Some 97 Likud candidates are competing for 25 realistic spots on the Likud's Knesset list.

Meanwhile, Yair Lapid, head of the newly formed centrist party Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, said Sunday that he had offered former Kadima Party head Tzipi Livni the second slot on his party's list, and promised that she would be a full partner in all major decisions.

“Splitting the centrist bloc is not good for Israel, and I am calling her to join forces and change the country together,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Netanyahu announces early Israeli election


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced early national elections.

In a news conference on Oct. 9, Netanyahu announced that elections for the 19th Knesset will be held a year early. Although a date has not yet been announced, it is expected the vote will be held in early 2013, most likely in February.

A February election will be four years since the last Knesset election. The Knesset will return on Oct. 15, after which the government likely will pass a resolution to dissolve.

Netanyahu held meetings last week and on Oct. 9 with the heads of the other parties in his government coalition to decide whether to work to pass the 2013 budget or go to early elections. If the government cannot agree on a budget, it is grounds to go to elections.

Going to elections without an approved budget means that the ministries will operate on the 2012 budget allocations. A new budget would have seen deep cuts in many ministries.

“The country has actually been in election mode for over six months, which is unhealthy and should be stopped as soon as possible,” opposition Labor Party head Shelly Yachimovich said.

“The public must remember that Netanyahu is going to elections in order to immediately afterward pass a brutal and difficult budget that will harm the life of almost every citizen in the country, except for the very wealthy,” she told reporters.

Netanyahu may dissolve parliament in mid-October, official says


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will decide before parliament reconvenes on October 15 on whether to seek a snap election, a government official said on Friday.

Citing growing friction among Netanyahu's allies, including disputes with Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli media has said elections might be held in February, eight months ahead of schedule.

The official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu would make a decision before the middle of the month on whether to dissolve the reconvened parliament or get ministers to agree to austerity measures for next year's budget.

“If it's possible to agree to another responsible budget he (Netanyahu) prefers that. But if due to the political situation this proves not to be feasible, then he will choose an early election,” the official said.

Netanyahu heads the right-wing Likud party and presides over a five-party coalition government, which controls 66 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Slower-than-expected economic growth means the government will have to tighten its belt in the 2013 budget and many coalition allies appear reluctant to sign up to austerity measures just months before elections are due.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said last month that next year's budget would need 14 billion shekels ($3.6 billion) worth of cuts in order to reach a deficit target equal to three percent of gross domestic produce.

If no budget is approved for next year, spending controls immediately kick in to keep state finances steady until a new government is ready to act.

Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox religious parties have been hesitant to agree to proposed cuts and Barak has also balked at demands to rein in defence spending.

Opinion polls have suggested Likud will come out on top of a national ballot, giving Netanyahu a renewed mandate to tackle what he has described as the most important challenge facing Israel – the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

However, the same polls have indicated that Barak's own small group, the Independence Party, might struggle to regain any seats in the next Knesset.

Relations between Netanyahu and Barak, long-time allies since serving together in the Israeli military, have frayed over the prime minister's efforts to push Washington to set a limit for Iranian nuclear development.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan

Anti-Semitic Polish priest invited to speak at European parliament


Conservative Polish lawmaker Miroslaw Piotrowski’s invitation to a controversial priest to speak in Brussels has led to a split among the European Conservatives and Reformists group, or ECR.

Tadeusz Rydzyk’s anti-Semitic views voiced on his Radio Maryja and TV Trwam stations have led to condemnation over the years from Jewish groups, the Vatican and Polish Solidarity co-founder Lech Walesa.

The recent invitation was a response to the revocation of Rydzyk’s TV channel license, leading Polish members of ECR to organize a rally against state media censorship. Rydzyk also was invited to speak in parliament last year during a conference on climate change and environmental issues. Poland is under heavy scrutiny due to the Euro 2012 soccer championships and fear of potential racism among fans.

According to The Guardian, some British Tory lawmakers are indignant that one with extreme anti-Semitic opinions has been invited to speak. London’s Tory lawmaker Marina Yannakoudakis wrote to fellow Polish lawmakers in protest.

“I support free speech, but believe that we must draw the line at those like Father Rydzyk who promote anti-Semitic or xenophobic teaching,” The Guardian quoted Yannakoudakis as saying in her letter. “As such, I ask you to never invite Father Rydzyk to the European parliament again.”

The Guardian report also indicated that despite strong denial of the invitation having no connection to the ECR by the chairman of the European Conservatives, Martin Callanan, the group played a significant role in publicizing the event. ECR logos were seen in promotional material and emails, and an ECR press officer promoted the priest’s speech.

Knesset committee rejects law to annex settlements


A bill aimed at applying Israeli law on West Bank settlements was rejected by a Knesset committee.

The bill proposed to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation by Likud lawmaker Miri Regev would have removed Israeli settlements from military rule and effectively annexed them.

In Sunday’s vote, nine lawmakers opposed the bill—including most of the committee’s Likud members—and five abstained in an unexpected turnaround of several members who had originally said they would support the bill. They reportedly changed their votes after Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman asked Regev to postpone the vote, and after learning that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned to vote against the bill.

Netanyahu reportedly did not want to go head to head with the Obama administration over the settlements at this time.

The bill can be resubmitted in six months.

Likud moves to dissolve Knesset, eyes Sept. 4 election


The Likud Party, which leads the ruling coalition, has submitted a bill to dissolve the current Knesset and is pushing for new elections on Sept. 4.

The bill joins motions by the opposition Meretz and Labor parties. Kadima said in a statement that it will support any bill to move up the elections. The bills reportedly will be put to a vote on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Knesset’s legal adviser said Wednesday in a legal opinion that the expected dissolution of the Knesset next week would automatically extend the Tal Law, which exempts full-time yeshiva students from mandatory army service. In February, Israel’s Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional. It is set to expire in August.

The Knesset’s dissolution would automatically extend the Tal Law to at least three months into the new Knesset.

Tzipi Livni resigns from Knesset


Former opposition leader Tzipi Livni resigned from Israel’s Knesset.

Livni delivered a prepared statement on Tuesday afternoon announcing her departure from the legislature prior to a meeting with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin at which she submitted her letter of resignation. She did not take any questions from reporters.

“I shall continue to work for a different Israel; our children deserve no less,” she told Rivlin upon submitting her resignation.

Livni said that although she was leaving the Knesset, she was not going to absent herself from public life. In a swipe at current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she said in her speech that she was “not sorry for refusing to sell out the government to the haredi Orthodox in order to form a government.”

Livni reportedly will remain in the Kadima Party but will not run in the next elections as a candidate. It has been rumored that Livni could join the new party of former journalist Yair Lapid, who registered Yesh Atid (There is a Future) on Sunday.

Livni lost in the March primary to lead the party to Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Following his victory, Mofaz called on Livni to remain in the party, saying that “Tzipi, your place is with us.”

Both Livni and Mofaz left Likud to join the newly founded Kadima, and in 2008 she edged Mofaz to become its leader. Previous party heads were founder Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, who both went on to become prime minister.

In 1999, two years after leaving her commercial law practice to become a Knesset member in Likud, Livni was given a ministerial portfolio. By 2006 as foreign minister, she was second in command of Kadima, then Israel’s ruling party, and in the 2009 general election she led the party to garner 28 Knesset seats—one more than the second-largest party, Netanyahu’s Likud.

But Livni was unable to form a coalition after Netanyahu assembled a bloc of religious and right-wing parties.

Livni’s resignation comes after a weekend of speculation that Netanyahu will call elections for this fall, a year earlier than mandated. That decision has been put on hold while Netanyahu observes shiva for his father, who died Monday.

Iran parliament vote seen bolstering Supreme Leader


Iranians voted on Friday in a parliamentary election likely to reinforce Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s power over rival hardliners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iranian leaders were looking for a high turnout to ease an acute crisis of legitimacy caused by Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 when widespread accusations of fraud plunged the Islamic Republic into the worst unrest of its 33-year history.

Iran also faces economic turmoil compounded by Western sanctions over a nuclear program that has prompted threats of military action by Israel, whose leader meets U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on Monday.

The vote in Iran is only a limited test of political opinion since leading reformist groups stayed out what became a contest between the Khamenei and Ahmadinejad camps.

“Whenever there has been more enmity towards Iran, the importance of the elections has been greater,” Khamenei, 72, said after casting his vote before television cameras.

“The arrogant powers are bullying us to maintain their prestige. A high turnout will be better for our nation … and for preserving security.”

The vote will have scant impact on Iran’s foreign or nuclear policies, in which Khamenei already has the final say, but could strengthen the Supreme Leader’s hand before the presidential vote next year. Ahmadinejad, 56, cannot run for a third term.

Iranians may be preoccupied with sharply rising prices and jobs, but it is Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions that worry the outside world. Western sanctions over the nuclear program have hit imports, driving prices up and squeezing ordinary Iranians.

OBAMA-NETANYAHU TALKS

Just days away from the talks between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, their aides were scrambling to bridge differences over what Washington fears could be a premature Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Netanyahu will press Obama, who is facing a presidential election campaign, to stress publicly the nuclear “red lines” that Iran must not cross, Israeli officials say.

Global oil prices have spiked to 10-month highs on tensions between the West and Iran, OPEC’s second biggest crude producer.

The election took place without two main opposition leaders. Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, who both ran for president in 2009, have been under house arrest for more than a year.

No independent observers are on hand to monitor the voting or check the turnout figures that officials will announce.

Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani made a pointed reference to the outcome of the 2009 vote, which he questioned at the time. “If the election outcome turns out to be what the people cast in the ballot boxes, God willing we will have a good parliament,” the elder statesman said after voting in Tehran.

Ahmadinejad also voted, but state media did not immediately show this or report any comment he might have made. The outgoing parliament is due to grill him next week on his handling of the economy and other issues – an unprecedented humiliation for an incumbent president, but one he may use to hit back at his foes.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0430 GMT) and were due to close at 6 p.m., but might stay open longer. Ballots are counted manually and Iran may have to wait three days for full results.

Voting was slow at first in affluent northern Tehran but picked up later. Voters queued up in poorer parts of the capital and in provincial cities, Reuters witnesses said.

“I am here to support my establishment against the enemies’ plot by voting,” said Mahboubeh Esmaili, 28, holding her baby in a queue of about 50 people at a central Tehran polling centre.

SLAP IN FACE

Khamenei has told Iranians that their vote would be a “slap in the face for arrogant powers” such as the United States.

A U.S. official said Iran had clamped down on dissent since the turbulent presidential election nearly three years ago.

“Since then, the regime’s repression and persecution of all who stand up for their universal human rights has only intensified,” U.S. Under Secretary of State Mario Otero told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in her report to the council she was alarmed at a “surge in executions” reported in Iran in the past year. She gave no figures.

The two main groups competing for parliament’s 290 seats are the United Front of Principlists, which includes Khamenei loyalists, and the Resistance Front that backs Ahmadinejad.

The president, a blacksmith’s son, has long appealed to Iran’s rural poor with his humble image and cash handouts from state funds, but spiraling prices have dented his popularity.

Energy and food imports have been hit by sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to halt sensitive nuclear work that the West suspects is a cover for a drive to build atomic bombs. Tehran says it has only peaceful aims, such as generating electricity.

Prices of staple goods, many of them imported, have soared because the Iranian rial’s value has sunk as U.S. and European Union sanctions on the financial and oil sectors begin to bite.

Ahmadinejad’s critics accuse him of making things worse for low-income Iranians, saying his decision to replace food and fuel subsidies with direct monthly payments since 2010 has fuelled inflation, officially running at around 21 percent.

ALLIES FALL OUT

The president enjoyed solid support from Khamenei in the months of “Green Movement” protests that followed the 2009 election, but the two men have fallen out badly since then.

For Khamenei, the parliamentary election could reinforce his grip on power against a president seen as trying to undermine the clergy’s central role in Iran’s complex political hierarchy.

Ahmadinejad and his “deviant current” allies have alarmed Khamenei’s conservative camp by emphasizing nationalist themes of Iranian history and culture over the Islamic ruling system introduced by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Khamenei succeeded Khomeini, who died in 1989.

Some Iranian media reports said Ahmadinejad hoped to secure the election of his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, to succeed him. Khamenei will want to install one of his own loyalists to prevent further divisions within the ruling elite.

Powerful establishment groups, including senior clerics, the elite Revolutionary Guards and bazaar merchants, formed an alliance to back Khamenei loyalists in the parliamentary vote.

Not everyone can run in Iranian elections. The hard-line Guardian Council, made up of six clerics and six jurists who vet candidates, approved more than 3,400 out of 5,382 applicants.

Some politicians said the council barred many established Ahmadinejad supporters, forcing him to pick political unknowns.

The rift between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad broke into the open in April 2011 when the Supreme Leader forced the president to reinstate an intelligence minister he had insisted on firing.

Khamenei has kept up the pressure in recent months. Dozens of Ahmadinejad allies have been detained or sacked for links to the “deviant current”.

Most strikingly, the president’s media adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, has received a one-year jail term for insulting Khamenei, which an appeal court upheld on Wednesday.

The authorities suggested that malign foreign hands were trying to disrupt the election.

“So far, 10 saboteurs who came to Tehran from outside the country have been arrested and are now in detention,” Mohammad Taqi Baqeri, a Tehran election official was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency. He gave no details.

Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari in Tehran, Marcus George in Dubai and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Netanyahu wins new party mandate


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won a new mandate to head his right-wing Likud party, defeating an ultranationalist challenger opposed to any land-for-peace deal with Palestinians.

Initial results published on Wednesday after voting held a day earlier showed Netanyahu captured a resounding majority of party ballots in a poll that some political commentators said could be a harbinger to an early general election ahead of a U.S. presidential vote this year.

Israel’s next national vote is due in late 2013.

With opinion polls showing Likud on course for victory, holding the ballot earlier could put Netanyahu in a better position to deal with what many Israelis believe will be pressure from Barack Obama for peace concessions should the Democrat win a second term in November.

“I thank you all for the confidence and renewed support you have given me,” Netanyahu said in a victory speech in Tel Aviv, as initial results showed him way ahead of his sole rival, far-right settler, Moshe Feiglin.

“Together we shall continue to lead the nation,” Netanyahu said. “We have proven the Likud is a strong and united movement.”

Yigal Movermacher, a party spokesman, said a tally of some 40 percent of ballots showed Netanyahu had won 80 percent and that official results would be published later on Wednesday.

Feiglin polled about 20 percent, similar to his 24 percent showing in their last contest in 2007, initial results showed.

He had had little chance of unseating Netanyahu but had hoped to provide a voice for settlers in the party opposed to Israel giving up land they see as a biblical birthright for peace.

In an interview with Reuters, Feiglin said he advocated Israeli annexation of West Bank and the provision of financial incentives to encourage Palestinians to leave.

U.S.-sponsored peace talks stalled shortly after they began in 2010 in a dispute over settlement building in the West Bank.

Exploratory talks in Jordan between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in recent weeks ended in deadlock without any agreement to restart full negotiations.

While Netanyahu has not said he wanted an early general election, “he prefers to lead and not be dragged there”, Likud legislator Danny Danon told Reuters.

In his speech, Netanyahu said “there is time yet” before any national vote would be held, leaving the door open for further political maneuvers. Campaign aide Haim Bibas said Netanyahu would decide if to seek an early vote over the next two months.

The Likud poll will be followed by a Kadima primary election on March 27. Both Kadima and the left-of-centre Labour party have been actively recruiting popular figures, and some influential wild cards, such as former journalist Yair Lapid, have thrown their hats into the electoral ring as well.

Editing by Maria Golovnina

Likud voters electing party chairman


Members of Israel’s Likud Party went to the polls to elect a party chairman and a new Central Committee, more than a year before scheduled national elections.

Prime Minister Netanyahu on Tuesday is expected to be elected party chairman for the fifth time in 18 years.

He is being challenged by party hardliner Moshe Feiglin of the Jewish Leadership faction of the party.

Feiglin is working to garner more than 24 percent of the vote, which is what he polled in the 2007 contest.

Up to 130,000 party members are eligible to vote at 150 polling places throughout the country. Polls will close at 10 p.m.

As of 1 p.m. on Tuesday some 4,500 Likud members, or 3 percent of those eligible to vote, had cast ballots.

Party leaders worried that bad weather would hamper the turnout, which would work in Feiglin’s favor. After casting his ballot Tuesday morning, Netanyahu called on Likud members to come out and vote.

Several polling stations in the West Bank, where Feiglin, who is a resident of the West Bank, was expected to poll well, sent voters home after not receiving the necessary materials, according to complaints from the Feiglin camp.

Election results are expected to be announced early Wednesday morning.

Israelis advised to ‘be alert’ in Britain


Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a travel advisory for citizens visiting Britain.

The advisory issued Wednesday because of rioting in the London area recommends that Israelis “be alert, avoid gatherings of groups of youths and areas of unrest, and obey police and other local authorities.” The ministry did not go so far as to issue a more serious travel warning.

Britain’s Parliament was scheduled to interrupt its summer recess to hold an emergency session on the riots Thursday.

At least four people have died and 1,100 have been arrested in the riots, which began Aug. 6 following the shooting of an alleged drug dealer, Mark Duggan. The violence spread first to youth in poorer neighborhoods.

Observers believe that the riots are the result of a weak economy, widespread unemployment and deep budget cuts targeting the poorest communities.

Rabbi elected to Buenos Aires parliament


Argentine Rabbi Sergio Bergman handily won a seat on the Buenos Aires municipal legislature.

Bergman led with 45 percent of the vote, more than tripling second-place finisher Juan Cabandie of the Victory Front Party,  who had 14 percent.

Bergman, the senior rabbi of the traditional Congregacion Israelita Argentina, is the founder of Active Memory, a group that demonstrated every Monday for a decade in front of Argentina’s Supreme Court seeking justice for the victims of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center.

Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri had tapped Bergman to lead his PRO Party’s list for the municipal legislature. As the top candidate on the center-right party’s slate, the rabbi obtained nearly half the votes in a race featuring 10 candidates.

A Buenos Aires court had ruled June 16 that Bergman, a prominent spiritual leader in the capital city, could not use the title “rabbi” on the election ballot.

Bergman told JTA before the election that he became involved in politics because Argentine society is “in a deep crisis of values,” adding that “I believe that Torah can also be taught in the legislature.”

He dismissed the notion that his candidacy could put the Jewish community at risk.

“If the society knows us better, the level of anti-Semitism will become lower,” Bergman said. “I have many non-Jewish voters. The only doubt today is if Jews will vote for me.”

Macri garnered 47 percent of the vote for mayor, but did not reach the threshold of 50 percent required to avoid a runoff election July 31 with Daniel Filmus, a former education minister. Filmus, who is Jewish, was chosen by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to run as the candidate of her center-left Victory Front Party. Filmus garnered 27.8 percent of the vote.

Another Jewish mayoral candidate was the Progressive Front Party’s Jorge Telerman, who had been the city’s vice mayor before taking over as mayor for nearly two years following the 2006 impeachment and removal from office of Anibal Ibarra, as well as his Jewish vice mayoral running mate Diego Kravetz. 

Amid the proliferation of prominent Jewish candidates, the ballot also featured a neo-Nazi, Alejandro Biondini of the Social Alternative Party. Biondini, who has openly espoused anti-Semitism and whose previous party, New Triumph, was banned by Argentina’s Supreme Court in 2009, was shunned by the voters and had just 0.19 percent of the vote.

Estimates of Argentina’s Jewish population range from 180,000 to 280,000. It is Latin America’s largest Jewish community, but it has suffered the sting of anti-Semitism during its history.

Reject unilateral Palestinian statehood, European Parliament members urge EU


More than 100 members of the European Parliament signed a letter urging the European Union to reject the unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood.

The letter, sent Monday by 106 members of the pan-European governing body, to Lady Catherine Ashton, the head of foreign affairs and security policy for the EU and the 27 EU member states, asks Ashton “to discourage unilateral Palestinian efforts to attain UN recognition.”

“A unilateral move will not bring reconciliation; it will not bring stability; it will not bring peace,” the letter reads. “Rather, it will most likely fell the peace process for good.”

Only a return to negotiations can solve the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the letter says.

European Parliament members from the five largest political groups in the European Union endorsed the letter, which was co-signed by many prominent members of the parliament, including Gabriele Albertini, chairman of its Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Ashton, who is in Washington this week for a meeting of the Middle East Quartet, recently said that recent events have prompted a renewed focus on negotiations.

“I do not underestimate the challenge, but my objective for Monday’s meeting of the Quartet is to try to adopt a statement that will help the Israelis and Palestinians make progress and allow for a return to the negotiating table as soon as possible,” she said, according to the New Europe newsweekly.

Lithuanian parliament approves compensation for confiscated property


Lithuania’s parliament has agreed to pay $52 million over 10 years in compensation for properties confiscated from the country’s Jewish community by the Nazis and by Soviet authorities.

The bill was passed by the parliament on Tuesday and still must be signed into law by the president.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius praised the action in a radio interview, calling it a demonstration of goodwill and of “understanding of the tragedy the Jewish community suffered during the Holocaust,” Reuters reported.

The properties in question are currently in the hands of the Lithuanian government.

Lithuanian Jewish organizations have been pushing for compensation since 2002; they received support from Jewish organizations abroad as well.

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Lithuania’s pre-war Jewish population was about 160,000, some 7 percent of the country’s total population. Lithuanian Jewry was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust, and Lithuanian perpetrators as well as German killing squads were key to the genocide.

Today’s bill was supported by 81 of 141 legislators; 8 abstained.

Reportedly, the government would begin paying into a special compensation fund starting next year. The funds will be used in part to restore Jewish heritage sites. In addition, $1.25 million would be paid directly to Holocaust survivors next year.

Faina Kukliansky, deputy chair of Lithuania’s approximately 3,000-member Jewish community, told Reuters that the spirit of the bill was more important than the amount.

“This is what the state can afford at this stage,” she said.

The American Jewish Committee, which supported the Lithuanian Jewish community in its quest for compensation, greeted the bill as “a hard fought victory.”

Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC’s director of international Jewish affairs, said that delays were largely due to concerns over domestic politics and nervousness about a populist, anti-Semitic backlash.

Baker cited the efforts of U.S. Ambassador Anne Derse and her predecessors as instrumental in winning over Lithuania’s legislators.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization said that the law offered “a small measure of justice.”

“While the amount which will be paid over the next decade represents only a small fraction of the value of the communal and religious property which was owned by the Jewish community prior to World War II, the passage of the law is historic, reflecting the Lithuanian government’s recognition of its moral obligation to return or provide compensation for stolen Jewish property,” the WJRO said in a statement.

The parliament’s move comes days before the visit to Vilnius of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the meeting for foreign ministers of the Community of Democracies, over which Lithuania is presiding.

Warrior mom


Like any parent, Esther Kandel is crazy about her kids. For years, she has led the typical Jewish parenting life: PTA meetings, carpooling, after-school activities, nightly homework and dinner with the kids, preparing for Shabbat and holidays, and so on.

But behind this normal life, she has led another, more mysterious life that few people know about — one that includes, among other things, going undercover as a spy to expose radical Islamic elements.

Back in 2002, when the Second Intifada was raging, she would regularly put on a hijab and attend Islamic conferences all over Southern California. She was there to document the hateful venom that often permeated these events, reporting her findings to private investigators of radical Islam in America.

Her obsession with fighting the evil of terrorism, she says, started on a Tuesday morning at the Cleveland airport. The date was Sept. 11, 2001. As she headed for her gate, she remembers seeing a security guard running at full speed toward her and screaming: “Everybody evacuate, the airplane’s coming this way!”

It was a false alarm for Cleveland, of course, but not for New York or Washington, and the events of that day left a mark on Kandel that still fires her warrior instincts.

One of her first battles was in the winter of 2002, when she saw a report on honestreporting.com about a fake Palestinian funeral filmed by the IDF, which showed a “dead” Palestinian body that kept falling off the stretcher and getting back on — an obvious hoax.

Outraged, she got a copy of the videotape and spent hours on the phone with news producers trying to convince them to air it. Eventually, she got it on MSNBC, where Alan Keyes used the footage to illustrate, in his words, “the issue of Palestinian credibility in the wake of increasing indications that the claims of hundreds of dead and Nazi-style atrocities were greatly exaggerated, abused for propaganda purposes to achieve a political result.”

Kandel was just getting warmed up.

Since then, in between PTA meetings and carpooling, she has continued her Batman-like escapades into the murky world of radical Islam and made a nuisance of herself any time she saw fit, even with members of her own tribe.

At a November 2007 conference in New York titled: “Hijacking Human Rights: The Demonization of Israel at the United Nations,” sponsored by the Hudson Institute and two Jewish organizations, she stood up and publicly took to task Ambassador Daniel Carmon, Israel’s deputy permanent envoy to the United Nations, who had lauded the work of UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) in sustaining Palestinian refugees.

Kandel, who had lobbied Capitol Hill to cut off U.S. funding for UNRWA, which she accused of massive corruption and publishing anti-Semitic textbooks, was subsequently quoted in the Jewish Week: “It doesn’t help when we are trying to educate members of Congress about the fraud and evil-doing in UNRWA to have a representative of Israel say that UNRWA is a good thing. I feel undercut and undermined by the government of Israel on this issue.”

No cause, however, has grabbed Kandel’s passion like that of 55-year-old Mithal al Alusi, who has been called the “bravest man in Iraq.”

Alusi is the secular and liberal Sunni politician who has incurred the wrath of Iraqi leaders for doing things like visiting Israel, protesting too loudly about human rights abuses and warning against the corrupting influence of Iran. After he first visited Israel in 2004 — and made a star turn at a counterterrorism conference — he was stripped of his bodyguards and his position in the transition government.

Kandel quickly heard about his situation and got in touch with Alusi, who sent her an e-mail saying he feared he would be thrown in jail or killed by terrorists. She tried to help, but all the doors were closed. Shortly thereafter, Alusi’s two boys were brutally murdered. Undeterred, he told the Los Angeles Times: “They were stupid to think that by killing my sons they would make me soft.”

Fired up by the boys’ murders, Kandel spent several months flying back and forth to Israel and Washington, lobbying members of Congress to move Alusi to the safer Green Zone in Baghdad. She and Alusi, who flew to Washington, met with a motley crew of sympathizers — including people like David Frum, Christopher Hitchens, New York Sun journalist Eli Lake and Iraqi blogger Nibras Kazimi — and eventually hit pay dirt when the late Congressman Tom Lantos, himself a fervent Zionist and Holocaust survivor, took up the cause.

In May 2005, Alusi and his wife were moved into the safety of the Green Zone, along with his 70 bodyguards.

But now he is in danger again, because earlier this year he had the chutzpah to attend another conference in Israel. He was immediately stripped of his parliamentary immunity and, Kandel says, is at risk of being tried for treason.

When I spoke to Alusi a few weeks ago by phone from Baghdad, he seemed to feel he had more important things on his plate than his own survival. He desperately wants the world to know the extent to which Iran has infiltrated the Iraqi government.

“Almost everyone’s corrupt,” he told me. “Half of the Parliament is working for the Iranians or the terrorists, and the other half is distracted by money.”

So while Alusi fights to get his important message out, Kandel and her allies are fighting to get him justice and protection so he can continue his fight.

It’s not clear where this Pico-Robertson mother gets her unrelenting passion to defend a Mesopotamian man most of us have never heard of, or, for that matter, where she gets the energy to make 100 calls in one afternoon in support of one cause or another.

This, however, is clear: With two daughters in college and a son already in high school, this carpool mom will soon have a lot more time to play warrior mom — a pleasant thought for victims everywhere.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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