Israel’s top general says Iran unlikely to make bomb


Israel’s military chief said he does not believe Iran will decide to build an atomic bomb and called its leaders “very rational” — comments that clashed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assessment.

Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz’s remarks, in an interview published on Wednesday in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, drew little attention in Israel on its annual remembrance day for fallen soldiers, when political discourse is suspended.

But they will add fuel to an internal debate on the prospects of Iran weaponizing its uranium enrichment program and the wisdom and risks of any Israeli military strike to try to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear power.

“Iran is moving step-by-step towards a point where it will be able to decide if it wants to make a nuclear bomb. It has not decided yet whether to go the extra mile,” Gantz said.

But, he said, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could opt to produce nuclear weapons should be believe that Iran would not face reprisal.

“In my opinion, he will be making a huge mistake if he does that and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile,” Gantz said.

“I think the Iranian leadership is comprised of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, who at some moments may make different calculations, is a dangerous thing.”

Israel, believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, has not ruled out military action against Iran should economic sanctions fail to curb its nuclear program, saying all options were on the table.

Only last week, in a speech during Israel’s Holocaust remembrance day, Netanyahu said: “Today, the regime in Iran openly calls and determinedly works for our destruction. And it is feverishly working to develop atomic weapons to achieve that goal.”

Tehran denies seeking the bomb, saying it is enriching uranium only for peaceful energy purposes and that its nuclear program is a threat to no one.

Speaking on CNN on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he would not want to bet “the security of the world on Iran’s rational behaviour”. A “militant Islamic regime”, he said, “can put their ideology before their survival”.

The portrayal of Iran as irrational – willing to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon even if it means the destruction of the Islamic Republic in retaliatory strikes – could bolster a case for pre-emptive bombing to take out its atomic facilities.

Netanyahu had already been stung at home by his former spymaster, Meir Dagan, who said that such an Israeli strike on Iran would be a “ridiculous” idea.

Shannon Kile, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said Gantz’s description of Iranian leaders as rational was “quite an interesting turnabout”.

“Hopefully, it is going to reduce the incentives for any sort of pre-emptive or preventive military action, at least for the time being,” Kile said.

The United States has also not ruled out military action as a last resort. But many allies of Washington, and even some senior U.S. officials, fear such an attack could ignite a broader war and only temporarily halt Iran’s nuclear advances.

Gantz’s assessment appeared to be in step with the view of the top U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey. He said in a CNN interview in February he believed Iran was a “rational actor” and it would be premature to take military action against it.

Israeli political sources said at the time that the remarks by Dempsey – who also suggested Israel’s armed forces could not deliver lasting damage to Iranian nuclear sites – had angered Netanyahu.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak raised international concern about a possible Israeli strike several months ago when he spoke about time running out for effective Israeli military action against Iranian nuclear sites buried deep underground.

And Netanyahu, while noting that Iran has made no apparent decision to begin constructing a bomb, has voiced impatience with the pace of nuclear talks that began this month between Tehran and six world powers, the first such negotiations in more than a year.

“Either Iran takes its nuclear program to a civilian footing only, or the world, perhaps us too, will have to do something. We’re closer to the end of the discussions than the middle,” Gantz said.

However, he also said international pressure on Iran “is beginning to bear fruit, both on the diplomatic level and on the economic sanctions level”.

Netanyahu said on CNN the sanctions were “certainly taking a bite out of the Iranian economy but so far they haven’t rolled back the Iranian program or even stopped it by one iota.

“Unfortunately, that’s not achieved by talks in which Iran has one goal, to stall, delay, run out the clock; that’s basically what they’re doing.”

Gantz, a lanky former paratrooper who has served as Israel’s military attache in Washington, was asked in the Haaretz interview what impact his view would have on government decision-making on Iran.

“Whatever weight the government decides to ascribe it,” he said.

“I say my opinion according to my own professional truth and my strategic analysis. I will say it sharply: I do not forget my professional ethics. The government will decide after it hears the professional echelon and the army will carry out, in a faithful and determined manner, any decision that is made.”

Kile said he was surprised Gantz had spoken out, “because normally the Israeli military leadership on the nuclear issue has been quite subdued”, with former intelligence officials “coming out and trying to cool … the possible Israeli impetus towards military action”.

Gantz took over as chief of staff a year ago but has been less outspoken on strategic issues than his predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi. He was not the first choice for the job; the preferred candidate, Yoav Gallant, had to bow out because of a property scandal.

In at least one turning point in Israeli history, the government chose to ignore a strong warning from the military’s top general about the intentions of a long-time adversary.

In 1977, then-chief of staff Mordechai Gur famously cautioned the cabinet that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s offer to visit Jerusalem could be a smokescreen for war preparations. Sadat’s trip led to a peace treaty in 1979.

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israeli navy intercepts Gaza-bound boats


The Israeli navy Friday boarded two boats carrying pro-Palestinian activists toward the Gaza Strip in a fresh challenge to Israel’s blockade of the Islamist-controlled territory.

The military said in a statement that the Canadian “Tahrir” and Irish “Saoirse” vessels, which had 27 people on board, would be taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

“The Israel Navy soldiers operated as planned, and took every precaution necessary to ensure the safety of the activists onboard the vessels as well as themselves,” the statement said. A military source said nobody was injured in the operation.

In May 2010, Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish Mavi Marmara aid vessel to enforce the naval blockade of the Palestinian enclave, and killed nine Turks in clashes with activists, some of them armed with clubs and knives.

Israel spurned Ankara’s demand for an apology over the incident. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador two months ago.

Carrying a small amount of medical supplies, the “Tahrir and “Saoirse” had sailed from Turkey Wednesday. The Israeli military said the boats were in international waters when they were stopped, between 40 and 60 miles from the coast.

The activists on board came from Australia, Canada, Ireland and the United States, and included Palestinians and at least one Arab citizen of Israel, organizers said.

The two boats had continued sailing toward Gaza, ignoring instructions to turn around or unload their supplies in Israel or neighboring Egypt, Israeli military officials said.

Citing the need to prevent weapons smuggling, Israel has blockaded Gaza since the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007.

A U.N. report on Israel’s interception of the 2010 Turkish ship said the blockade was a “legitimate security measure,” adding that “its implementation complied with the requirements of international law.” Turkey has rejected that ruling.

Pro-Palestinian groups behind the latest attempt to reach Gaza by sea condemn the blockade as illegal and inhumane.

Paul Murphy, a socialist member of the European Parliament on board one of the ships, wrote in a blog posted earlier on the Internet that the mission was in “response to the call from people within Gaza to try to break the siege they suffer under.”

Israeli authorities said that once the two boats had reached Ashdod, they would undergo security checks. Those on board would be questioned, then taken to prison service holding facilities where they will wait until booked on flights back home.

They have the right to a court hearing before being deported.

Israel allows humanitarian aid, food and some other supplies into Gaza for its 1.7 million people, many of them impoverished refugees, via land crossings it closely monitors. Gaza also has a border with Egypt over which goods are imported.

Gaza’s Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh praised the attempt to break the blockade in a sermon at a mosque on Friday: “We appreciate highly those activists who came in solidarity and we stress that their goal is being achieved whether or not they arrived by exposing (Israeli) occupation (measures).”

Turkey had threatened to give naval protection to future aid flotillas following the 2010 violence, but Ankara has kept largely quiet about this latest operation.

Some of the activists, who dubbed their mission “Freedom Waves,” had participated in a thwarted seaborne attempt in June to reach Gaza, which was blocked from setting sail from Greece.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Egypt moves to limit presidential terms as protests reach 16th day


A judiciary committee formed to review Egypt’s constitution has agreed to amend six articles, state media reported on Wednesday, as anti-government protests continued for the 16th straight day.

Articles 76 and 77 are among those to be changed, to put term limits on the presidency and expand who can run for the highest seat in the country – two of the protesters’ key demands.

The 2005 revision of the Egyptian Constitution, first drafted in 1971, had made the selection of presidential candidates more challenging.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

A Portion of Parshat Vayechi


Joseph has two children: Menasheh, the older, and Ephraim, the younger. Jacob blesses them both before he dies. He tells Joseph that, although the descendants of Menasheh will become a great people, the descendants of Ephraim will be even greater. In fact, King David was from the tribe of Ephraim.

Jacob says to Joseph: Israel will use your sons’ names to bless their own children. They will say: “God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.” Do your parents place their hands on your head and bless you on Friday night? If they do, that is what they say. (If you are a girl, they say: “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.)

Why did Jacob instruct our parents to use Menasheh’s and Ephraim’s names? The answer is simple: Menasheh and Ephraim did not fight. Cain killed his younger brother Abel; Esau wanted to kill Jacob; Joseph’s 11 brothers wanted to kill him. But, even though Ephraim got the blessing Menasheh should have received, they remained peaceful and loving brothers. And that is what all parents wish for their children.

Jewish Days of Wine and Roses


In Berlin, it is fashionable for young Germans to wear yarmulkes and yellow stars.

In Prague some years ago, the leading rock band called itself Shalom and throughout central Europe there is a fascination with Jewish icons.

In the United States, Ivy League colleges that wouldn’t hire Jewish professors in the 1940s are now headed by Jewish presidents. A recent study shows that Jews suffer less discrimination in the workplace than any other religious group — even Christians.

Do these phenomena mean that the Western world is experiencing a wave of philo-Semitism and loves all Jews?

Not exactly, says professor David N. Myers, a young historian and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

The kippah-wearing Germans, he believes, are looking in part for a relatively painless way to acknowledge their grandparents’ guilt and to undergo a fairly easy national catharsis.

Young Czechs are in search of an authentic national culture preceding Communism, in which Jews in general, and writer Franz Kafka in particular, represented the kind of cosmopolitanism eagerly sought by Prague intellectuals.

In the United States, the story is different and of greater historical interest, says Myers.

In the short run, the country’s sustained economic well-being makes for greater general tolerance and social harmony, he says, noting that “the state of peaceful co-existence is greased by the current economic juggernaut.”

The downside is that many of those Americans left behind feel even more marginalized than before and are often attracted to the radical extremism of burgeoning hate groups.

But from a historical perspective, Myers believes that the present status of American Jewry represents the culmination of a long process of Jewish emancipation, the likes of which the world has not seen before.

“At no other time, not in Alexandria during the Second Temple period, not in 11th century Spain, not during the Weimar Republic in Germany, has Jewish emancipation and social integration reached the present stage in America,” Myers asserts.

What we are seeing, he adds, is not a unique period of philo-Semitism, but part of a long historical process in Jewish life in the Diaspora.

In this process, Jews have become part of the cultural mainstream of America and have infused it with their own humor and sensibility, from Seinfeld on TV to bagels at McDonald’s.

The price for the integration has been the dilution of Jewish particularism and distinctiveness. And, warns Myers, if America is ever wracked by economic turmoil in the future, hostility toward Jews will rise again.