On packed flight to Israel, hundreds of American Jews, emboldened by Gaza crisis, start lives anew


Daniel Knafo was wide awake aboard the Boeing 747 as sunlight began peaking over the northern horizon of the Mediterranean Sea early on the morning of Aug. 12.

Less than 10 hours earlier, he was at the departure terminal of John F. Kennedy International Airport with more than 300 American Jews, all of them embarking on a journey to start new lives in Israel.

And shortly before that, the teenager was at Los Angeles International Airport, bidding farewell to the city he called home for the first 17 years of his life.

At about 5 a.m., Knafo was standing in the aisle of El Al chartered flight 3004, which was cruising above the Mediterranean and less than two hours west of Ben Gurion International Airport, where the Woodland Hills native  would step on to the tarmac with the other 338 other Jews onboard—young, old, married and single.

Guy Zohar and Daniel Knafo, both from the San Fernando Valley, at Ben Gurion Airport.

Of those, Knafo was also one of 108 young Jews planning to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces within the first few months of making Israel home. This flight was chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that promotes aliyah to Israel from North America and the United Kingdom. The group assists families and individuals in making the move, with financial support, assistance with the job hunt and other myriad obstacles that immigrants have to navigate.

It was the organization’s 52nd chartered aliyah flight since its founding in 2002, during which time, according to its website, Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped more than 30,000 diaspora Jews move to Israel.

The timing of this particular flight full of immigrants, or olim, may strike some as particularly poignant, given the on-and-off war that has enveloped Israel for the past several weeks—Hamas has fired 3,500 rockets into Israel since July 8, according to the IDF. And in response to the rockets and the discovery of more than 30 underground cross-border attack tunnels, Israel’s military launched a ground and air assault on Hamas’s strongholds in Gaza, most of which are densely populated within civilian neighborhoods. The war has left a reported 64 Israeli soldiers, three Israeli civilians, and 1,881 Palestinians dead.

But for Knafo and numerous other American olim interviewed by the Journal at JFK airport and aboard the flight, the Gaza war is not a deterrent to making aliyah—it is, at least in part, a catalyst to move to the Jewish state.

“I want to be there more than ever,” Knafo said, as dozens of fellow soon-to-be soldiers socialized around him. “Nothing will stop me from joining.”

Knafo, who attended El Camino Real High School and graduated from New Community Jewish High School, hopes to serve either in the IDF’s paratrooper unit (Tzanchanim) or in the elite Golani Brigade. He is honest with himself about the risks he will face. “If they tell you they are not scared, they’re lying,” he said of all the  young immigrants preparing for military service.

Not long before leaving, on July 20, Knafo attended an evening candlelight vigil in Los Angeles for Max Steinberg, another former student at El Camino Real High School who left Los Angeles to volunteer in the IDF. Steinberg and six other soldiers were killed in Gaza when their Golani unit’s vehicle was struck by Hamas anti-tank missiles in the first days of the IDF’s ground incursion.

Knafo said that he felt guilty leading a normal life while Israel was embroiled in war.
“It kills me that while they are fighting I’m in L.A. living the life, driving my car, going to the beach,” he said. “I don’t think its right. That’s why I want to be there more than ever.”

Knafo is one of 49 Jews from California who landed at Ben Gurion Airport early on the morning of Aug. 12 on the chartered flight—25 of whom will be joining the IDF. And while a large swath of the plane’s other passengers were also from New York and New Jersey (117 and 45, respectively), the group of olim hailed from places as far north as Alaska and Canada’s British Columbia, and as far south as Georgia and Florida.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, also from Los Angeles, decided that this would be their last chance to make the move with their three children. Their oldest, Yishai, 8, was approaching the age when, Matt said, he and Ariella wouldn’t feel as comfortable starting a new life for the entire family.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, moving to Israel from Los Angeles, with their three children at JFK after a ceremony led by Nefesh B'Nefesh

The Rosenblatts plan to stay with relatives this week until they receive the key to their apartment in Efrat; Matt, who had a job as an actuary in Los Angeles, will follow up on some work leads in Israel. Shortly before a joyful and celebratory departure ceremony at JFK—where the olim were greeted by Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor and American-born Knesset member Dov Lipman — Matt said he and Ariella discussed the distinctive timing of their move, but decided against delaying or cancelling .

“Had we been there already two months and then this started up while we were already there, we wouldn’t have come back, so, really, what’s the difference?” Matt said.

The Rosenblatts a few moments after landing in Israel. They will soon move into an apartment in Efrat.

Onboard, as the flight neared Israel, Ariella was keeping an eye on 1-year-old Yair, her youngest, and recalling the couples’ conversations about the fact that their children would eventually have to serve in the Israeli military.

“We’ve talked about it. We were like, ‘Wow, that’s two sons in the army,” she said. “It’s scary.”
Feeling “excited” and “a little nervous,” Ariella added, seeing your children serve in the military is a price of living in Israel, and that, “We need to be home when our country is in this situation.”

Throughout the group, not one person interviewed expressed regret or fear, either at the decision to start anew in Israel, or at the choice to go now and not wait until the advent of cease-fires that would endure in longer than 72-hour intervals.

In fact, the spirited mood on board the airplane echoed, on the one hand, the feel of a Jewish summer camp field trip (with teenagers and young adults mingling, sitting on laps and barely sleeping), and on another hand, the patriotic Zionist mission that it was. Many passengers wore shirts that read, “Aliyah is my protective edge,” a reference to Operation Protective Edge, the IDF’s official moniker for its Gaza campaign.

Whenever a Nefesh B’Nefesh staff member referenced over loudspeaker those on the flight who would be enlisting with the IDF, much of the plane erupted in applause.

And, upon arrival at Ben Gurion, the new arrivals were greeted by Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s recently appointed president, and Natan Sharansky, the renowned Soviet refusenik and chairman of the Jewish Agency—as well as hundreds of cheering Israelis and dozens of reporters and cameramen covering the arrival of the newcomers from North America.President Reuven Rivlin and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky greet the olim as they descend to the tarmac.

Lena Elkins, who flew Friday from her hometown of San Francisco to New York, was one of a small number of young olim aboard the flight who will jump straight into her professional life without first joining the military. A recent graduate of the University of Oregon, Elkins’ younger sister moved to Israel last year and is in the IDF.

Living in Israel, Elkins said a few hours into the flight, has been on her mind since a visit six years ago with the Jewish Federation’s Diller Teen Fellows Program. And while she wishes she had served in the military, she said finding work is her priority now. Doing so in Israel, she said, particularly now, is also a major part of the Zionist project.

“I think it [Gaza] honestly has strengthened it [aliyah],” Elkins said. “It’s what Israel needs right now. This is what Zionism is. It’s people being there for Israel.”

Shortly after stepping foot on the tarmac and getting a feel for the love Israelis heap on diaspora Jews who move here, Channah Barkhordarie, a recent doctoral graduate of UCLA, said aliyah entered her mind last September, when her PhD advisor moved to Israel.

Barkhordarie, like Elkins, has no plans to enlist in the military and views her decision to live here as a way to “support this state.”

“Coming here and studying here and living my life here—that’s my show of support,” she said.

Everyone, it seemed, had made their aliyah decision long before this summer’s turmoil but that decision was only rendered more meaningful by the recent war, as well as the deaths of three Israeli teens by terrorists that provoked the fighting.

Toby and Chaby Karan, from Riverdale, at JFK airport.

“We just couldn’t cope with just being here,” Toby Karan, who moved from Riverdale, N.Y. with his wife, Chava, and four children, said at JFK airport before departure. “There were days through the past two months, the hardest days, that we said we’d never more wanted to live in Israel.”

On the flight, Liat Aharon, 18, sat calmly in her seat as many of her friends around her bounced around the cabin. “It seems like a dream,” said the Encino native of the approach to Israel, but she added, “It keeps getting scarier and scarier; I can’t believe it’s already happening.”

When asked, though, whether she felt as if she was leaving home or going home, she responded immediately:

“I’m going home.”

Abbas invokes sovereign state in peace prayer with pope, Peres


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for “freedom in our sovereign and independent state” during a prayer for peace with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Pope Francis.

Vatican officials had called the service on Sunday at the Vatican a “pause in politics” with no political intentions.

Abbas, Peres and the pope planted an olive tree in Vatican Garden following prayers by Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders and invocations by the three leaders. They then entered the Vatican for a private meeting together.

In his invocation, Abbas spoke about the importance of Jerusalem to the Palestinian people and thanked God for blessing the Palestinians with Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

Along with speaking of a sovereign and independent state, the Palestinian leader asked Allah for “a comprehensive and just peace for our country and our region.”

Francis during his invocation said, “More than once we have been close to peace and the evil one has prevented it.  That’s why we are here today. We need to lift up our eyes toward heaven and recognize we are the children of one father.”

Peres said in his invocation, “I was young and became old. I experienced war, I tasted peace. Never will I forget the bereaved families — parents and children — who paid the cost of war. And all my life I shall never stop to act for peace, for the sake of the generations to come. Let us all join hands and make it happen.”

The Israeli delegation included rabbis, Druze leaders and imams. The Palestinian delegation included Islamic and Christian leaders. Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim professor Omar Abboud, two friends of the pope’s from Buenos Aires, also attended.

On Saturday, Francis tweeted about the service, “Prayer is all-powerful. Let us use it to bring peace to the Middle East and peace to the world.”

The pope made the invitation following the celebration of Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem during his visit last month to the Palestinian West Bank city. The offer came a month after the collapse of nine months of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Peres will leave office at the end of July.

 

Peres praises U.S. at 4th of July celebration


The United States “remains a beacon of hope for the values of freedom, peace and justice around the globe,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said at a Fourth of July celebration.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro hosted his annual Independence Day party Thursday in the backyard of the ambassador’s residence in Herzliya. The area was decorated in red, white and blue balloons and traditional bunting. Food stands represented American eats including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Subway and Domino’s Pizza.

“Your history is a history of giving. America is the greatest giver in modern history. A bastion of democracy and peace,” Peres said.

“Israel, though small in size, will remain great in its commitment of friendship to America.  Israel could not have a better friend than America,” he said.

Peres called for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and reiterated Israel’s commitment to backing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to bring both sides to the peace negotiating table.

Peres concluded: “Both our countries are on a moving journey to improve the world. Tikkun Olam. This journey goes on. Until the Promised Land becomes a Land of Promise.

God bless America. God bless Israel. And God bless peace.”

Peres, Abbas call for peace at World Economic Forum


Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for peace at the World Economic Forum in Jordan.

Peres in his address Sunday evening said, “I am here to express the hope and desire of the Israeli people to bring an end to the conflict and a beginning to a peaceful new age. I hope that this forum will voice a timely call against skepticism. I pray that it will allow for tomorrow’s horizon to shine bright — a horizon that will illuminate the fruits of freedom, science and progress.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking earlier in the day, said his people want peace, and that it only be achieved with the creation of an independent Palestinian state. He said young Palestinians had lost hope for a two-state solution.

“We want to achieve the two-state solution. Two states that will live side by side in peace,” he said, adding, “The opportunity is still there for making this peace. Come, let this make this peace a reality achieved on the ground, so that our current and future generations would reap its benefits.”

Abbas said the P.A. would not agree to a resolution that calls for temporary borders, saying it would prolong the conflict. He thanked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for his efforts to restart the peace process.

In his speech to the forum, Kerry called on Israel and the Palestinians to continue the peace process through to the end, asking: “Do we want to live with a permanent intifada?”

Kerry also announced the possible formation of a $4 billion private economic plan to help expand the Palestinian economy.

Peres and King Abdullah II of Jordan in a meeting earlier in the day on the forum sidelines discussed ways to revive peace negotiations in the region and how to overcome obstacles facing the peace process. They agreed that a two-state solution is the only viable solution to end the conflict.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called on Peres to convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make peace with the Palestinians based on the pre-1967 borders.

Ahead of Sunday’s regular Cabinet meeting, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz chided Peres for acting like the “government spokesman.”

“I think the government has its own spokespeople,” Steinitz said, according to The Jerusalem Post. “The position of president of Israel is respected, but the government makes policy decisions, and I think that every declaration of this sort, certainly on the eve of negotiations, does not help Israel’s stance.”

Israel Police chief to meet with FBI on Boston Marathon attack


Israel Police Chief Yohanan Danino in U.S. meetings with FBI and law enforcement officials is expected to discuss the Boston Marathon attack, among other topics.

Danino and other senior Israel Police officers left Israel on Tuesday for 10 days of meetings in New York and Washington, according to the Israeli daily Maariv. The visit had been scheduled several weeks ago.

The officials will look at strengthening cooperation between Israeli police and police departments throughout the United States. The meetings with the FBI were to discuss cooperation in fighting terrorism and now reportedly will discuss Monday's attack in Boston.

Meanwhile, Israeli leaders offered condolences to the United States and President Obama over the marathon bombings.

“Permit me to express our solidarity with the bereaved families in Boston,” President Shimon Peres said during his Independence Day reception for the foreign diplomatic corps. “Three people lost their lives, 140 were wounded and I want to send on behalf of all of us, our condolences to all the families and wish a speedy recovery to all the injured.

“When it comes to events like this, all of us are one family. We feel a part of the people who paid such a high price. God bless them. Today the real problem is terror and terror is not an extension of policy, their policy is terror, their policy is to threaten. Terrorists divide people, they kill innocent people.”

Also at the reception, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “A day of enjoyment in Boston was turned into a day of terror. We send our condolences to President Obama, the American people and the bereaved families. On this day and on any day, Israel stands shoulder to shoulder with the American people. We are partners in freedom and in seeking a better future for all humanity.”

Egypt and Saudi Arabia also condemned the Boston attack and sent condolence messages to Obama, the Associated Press reported. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood also condemned the bombings and offered condolences, saying that Islamic law does not condone violence against civilians.

Yom HaShoah in Israel [SLIDESHOW]


Ceremony at Yad Vashem

Israel stops to remember victims of Holocaust


Israel came to a standstill as a siren sounded for two minutes in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

Following the siren Monday morning, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry participated in a wreath-laying ceremony in the Yad Vashem Hall of Remembrance as part of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Kerry then joined Israeli President Shimon Peres for the “Unto Every Person There is a Name” ceremony held each at the Knesset, where Peres read out the names of his relatives who were victims of the Holocaust. Names of Shoah victims also were read by the chief rabbis, ministers, Knesset members, former Knesset members, members of the Yad Vashem administration, members of youth movements, soldiers, world association representatives, and delegations from abroad.

Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday night at the national Yom Hashoah ceremony at Yad Vashem that the hatred of Jews is still strong more than 70 years after the Holocaust began.

“The map of Europe still contains local stains of anti-Semitism,” Peres said at Sunday night's ceremony in Jerusalem, his voice breaking with emotion. “Racism erupted on that land in the last century and dragged it down to its lowest point. Ultimately the murder which came from her, damaged her.”

“Not all the flames have been extinguished. Crises are once again exploited to form Nazi parties, ridiculous but dangerous. Sickening anti-Semitic cartoons are published allegedly in the name of press freedom.”

Netanyahu said in his address to Holocaust survivors and their families, “Hatred of Jews has not disappeared. It has been replaced with a hatred of the Jewish state.”

He followed his assertion with quotes of anti-Semitic statements made by Iranian religious and political leaders.

Six Holocaust survivors told their stories in a prerecorded video before they lit the six torches representing the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The ceremony was broadcast on all Israeli television channels and on several radio stations. On Yom Hashoah in Israel, places of entertainment are closed and Holocaust themed-movies and documentaries are shown on television channels. Memorial ceremonies are held throughout the country.

On Monday, the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael held a joint Holocaust commemoration ceremony dedicated annually to commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust. The ceremony took place in the Martyr’s Forest “Scroll of Fire” Plaza.

The ceremony recalled the rescue activities of Otto Komoly, president of the Zionist Federation in Hungary and the chairman of the Hungarian Jewish community’s clandestine Rescue Committee, and later director of the International Red Cross' “Department A” responsible for rescuing Jewish children.

On Sunday, Israeli military chief Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz left for Poland with an Israel Defense Forces delegation to the March of the Living in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Gantz will lead the March of the Living — the first time the march was led by a current IDF chief of general staff. Some 10,000 people from all over the world are participating in the march.

Gantz also was scheduled to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, where a military service will take place.

On the weekend prior to Yom Hashoah, dozens of young Poles who recently discovered their Jewish roots came together in Oscwiecim, the site of the Auschwitz camp,  for a weekend educational seminar under the auspices of Shavei Israel.

Panetta to meet Barak, Netanyahu, Peres in quick trip to Israel


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Israel to discuss United States-Israel defense ties and the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Panetta will meet with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

“We are a friend, we are a partner, we have — as the defense minister has pointed out — probably the strongest US-Israel defense relationship that we have had in history,” Panetta told reporters before the meeting, according to the Associated Press and Times of Israel. “What we are doing, working together, is an indication not only of our friendship but of our alliance to work together to try to preserve peace in the future.”

Panetta did not go into specifics on the Iran discussions, but said that he and Israeli officials would be “discussing various contingencies and how we would respond.”

On Tuesday, President Obama announced tougher sanctions on Iran’s energy sector and banks, according to the AP.

Also on Tuesday, Netanyahu told Israeli Channel 2 News that he had not yet made a decision on whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, but urged military and security officials to keep the debate over such a strike out of the public sphere.

Grieving Son bikes from Malibu to New York in vow to end cancer


When Tom Peled’s father died of abdominal cancer in 2011, he channeled his grief into a three-month, 3,000-mile bike ride through six European countries — from Berlin, Germany, to Fisterra, Spain.

Peled, who lives in southern Israel, is now tackling another continent. On July 29, the 24-year-old Peled embarked on another extended bike ride — this time from Malibu to New York.

He also has a different purpose in mind: to eliminate cancer.

“After he passed away, I was in a state of depression,” Peled said, referring to his father, Remy. “After eight years of thinking that [my father] would survive, I didn’t know what I wanted to do next or where to go. Everyone was trying to tell me what to do, and I felt that I needed time for myself, to reconnect.”

He felt that the best way to cope with his emotions was to challenge himself on both a physical and mental level. Biking has always played a significant role in his life, from biking to school as a child to biking the entire length of Israel in 2009 with a friend when he finished his service in the Israeli army. Thus, he decided to challenge himself by spending the summer of 2011 biking across the European continent.

He embarked with no set plans, intending to “just land and let things happen.” He allotted $25 for his daily budget.

“It was amazing seeing that deep inside, people are really good. I just shared myself and my story with people all along the way and people always wanted to help. I never once paid for a place to sleep. People at cafes or in the street would see me and start talking to me. Soon enough, they’d invite me to stay with them for a few nights,” Peled said.

It was exactly this reaction and response from the people he met along the way that motivated Peled to elevate his bike ride to a larger purpose.

“I felt that I needed to take this energy and this love for biking and make something bigger out of it. And with that, I came back to Israel and pushed it forward into what eventually became Bike for the Fight,” Peled said.

This time, Peled will not be riding solo. He will be accompanied by three friends: Roey Peleg, a medic, will ride with Peled; Eran Rozen will drive with the team; and Luca Seres, a film student, will make a documentary of the trip.

Peled’s ultimate goal is to eliminate cancer. He plans on reaching this goal by donating all the money he raises along the way to the Israeli Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), an organization that is solely dedicated to funding and supporting cancer research in Israel for the benefit of Israel and all mankind. Since its inception in 1975, the fund has raised more than $40 million for cancer research in Israel.

“I want to make sure the minds stay in Israel,” Peled said. “Israel has so much potential, but we are always lacking the financing for research, and often our scientists go abroad to research. I was really committed to making sure that the money goes to research and that it goes to Israeli research.”

Peled and his team officially embarked on July 29 when they visited Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, where Peled used to be a counselor.

Both in Israel and Los Angeles, several “kickoff” events were held to send them off and to raise money. To date, Bike for the Fight has raised $40,000, almost half of Peled’s $100,000 goal.

Along the way, Peled will stop in Jewish communities, summer camps and sporting events to share his story and encourage others to join his cause. Thanks to Microsoft, an app has been created allowing people to track the team’s progress and donate. He encourages anyone to accompany him on any part of his trip. The Maccabi World Union, Hillel, the Israeli Embassy and El-Al all have been strategic in supporting, funding and coordinating events for him. Peled even met with both President Shimon Peres and Nir Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem, to gain their support.

Although he does not have any clear vision for the future, he knows that he does not want this bike trip to be his last. He wants to do it again and again. Ultimately, he hopes that Bike for the Fight can be the “Livestrong of the Jewish world.”

To learn more about Bike for the Fight, visit their page on Facebook.

Netanyahu, Peres hail U.S. friendship, leadership on Independence Day


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an Independence Day message that he “appreciate(s) deeply all that America has done for Israel.”

The taped video message was played Tuesday night at the Independence Day celebration at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Herzliya. Netanyahu did not attend the event, due to a leg injury sustained while playing soccer with Jewish and Arab children last month.

Referring to the Middle East, Netanyahu said real democracy is not just having popular elections.

“By ensuring both popular sovereignty and individual rights, the nations of the region can join America and Israel in being genuine democracies,” Netanyahu said, adding that “there is ample reason for skepticism.”

However, he continued, “In the long term I believe there is reason for hope,” because “the power of freedom is bound to prevail.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres was the main speaker at the Independence Day celebration, which featured hundreds of guests.

“There is a historic friendship between our two nations. America was, and remains, Israel’s greatest ally and its closest friend,” Peres declared.

He called President Obama’s decision to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom “a moving gesture of a great leader, a great friend, President Obama. It was an expression of the unshakeable bond between our countries, our two nations, our two peoples. I felt the commitment of President Obama to the peace and security of the State of Israel. It was an uncompromising pledge to the security and future of Israel followed by generous implementation.”

Peres also discussed the shared values between the two countries, saying “The United States and Israel were conceived as ideas, to better society, serving a greater good. Always dreaming and always looking forward. Never hating, never attacking and always seeking peace. We share similarities. We are both immigrant-based societies. We both share a pioneering culture. But even more importantly we share a moral compass; we champion freedom, cherish liberty and are committed to the pursuit of happiness. We both see science and technology as the route to a better world. We value the individual as an entrepreneur and the collective responsibility as a source of strength.”

At funeral, Israel’s leaders praise Shamir’s dedication and service


Israel’s leaders paid tribute to former Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir at his funeral at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery.

An intimate but distinguished crowd sat opposite a military honor guard at the outdoor ceremony on Monday evening. Joining Shamir’s children and grandchildren in attendance were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; President Shimon Peres; the head of the Israeli Defense Forces, Benny Gantz; the Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar; and other political, religious and military leaders.

Shamir died Saturday at the age of 96. He served as Israel’s prime minister from 1983 to 1984, and from 1986 to 1992.

Peres, who was both Shamir’s coalition partner and main political opponent in the 1980s, praised Shamir’s strong beliefs and called him “a leader who followed his path until he departed this world” and “one of the best leaders of Israeli democracy.” Peres alluded to his and Shamir’s ideological differences several times throughout his eulogy, but emphasized that “we were sons of the same nation.”

In his eulogy, Netanyahu stressed Shamir’s lifetime of service to the state, noting that Shamir fought in an underground militia before Israel’s founding, and then as a secret Mossad agent afterwards, until he reached positions of leadership.

“He was a known man, but even then it seemed that in his heart and his actions he kept looking at himself as that anonymous soldier for his people and land,” Netanyahu said.

Peres sends warning on Israeli Independence Day


Israeli President Shimon Peres offered a warning to Israel’s enemies on the occasion of Israeli Independence Day.

“To those who are now threatening Israel I say, don’t repeat the mistakes of your predecessors,” Peres said Thursday in a speech at an annual ceremony bestowing honors on 120 soldiers for Yom Ha’atzmaut. “You threaten out of a hunger for conquest. We defend out of an aspiration for peace. That wars, which Israel did not initiate, brought it unexpected gains, causing the aggressors unexpected losses.”

The ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem was part of Israel’s celebration of its 64th birthday. To mark the day, the Israel Air Force put on an air show while an estimated 1.5 million people were expected to flock to Israel’s parks and recreation areas for hikes and barbecues. Many Israel Defense Forces bases were open to the general public.

Parks and bases reportedly were so overrun that by 11 a.m. Thursday, police asked the public to stop coming.

Peres, Jordan’s King Abdullah meet in Amman


Israeli President Shimon Peres met in Amman with Jordan’s King Abdullah, the President’s Office confirmed.

Monday’s unannounced meeting comes amid tension between Jerusalem and Amman over recent developments in the region and the failing peace process.

The two leaders discussed bilateral issues, the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and new developments in the region, according to a statement from the President’s Office. The meeting was held in a “warm, friendly and open atmosphere,” the statement said.

Jordan’s official Petra news agency reported that Abdullah briefed Peres on his visit last week to Ramallah and called on Israel to halt all construction in the settlements.

Abdullah also said that Israel should not try to Judaize Christian and Muslim sites in Jerusalem, according to Petra.

Peres and Abdullah agreed to meet again in the near future, according to the President’s Office.

Peres: Military option to deal with Iran is nearer


Israeli President Shimon Peres added to a debate raging in Israel over whether to attack Iran, when he said on Friday that a military option to stop the Islamic republic from obtaining nuclear weapons was nearer.

Asked by Channel Two News if “something was bringing us closer to a military option rather than a diplomatic one,” Peres said: “I believe so, I estimate that intelligence services of all these countries are looking at the ticking clock, warning leaders that there is not much time left.

“Iran is nearing atomic weapons and in the time left we must turn to the world’s nations and demand (they) fulfill their promise … which is not merely passing sanctions. What needs to be done must be done and there is a long list of options.”

Israeli media has been rife with speculation this week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working to secure cabinet consensus for an attack on Iranian nuclear installations.

Western powers, including Israel, suspect Tehran of developing nuclear weapons—something Iran denies—and have imposed sanctions in an attempt to curb its program.

Iran, which opposes Israel’s existence, says it is enriching uranium only to power reactors for electricity generation.

Though no direct threats of military action on Iran have been made by Netanyahu, both Israel and the United States have repeatedly hinted at possible use of force, saying all options were on the table.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Louise Ireland

Peres reportedly to unveil Bibi peace plan on D.C. visit


Israeli President Shimon Peres is visiting Washington.

Peres will be in Washington next week, the Israeli embassy said in a release Thursday, and arrangements for meetings with “government leaders” are underway.

Israeli media have reported that Peres will meet with President Obama and present the outlines of a peace plan Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to unveil in May, when he addresses the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy forum.

The White House had no comment.

Peres’ only firm date so far is a dinner Tuesday night hosted by the Center for Middle East Peace, a think tank with close Obama administration ties.

Peres: Israeli-Palestinian peace urgent in light of Egypt crisis


President Shimon Peres urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to move quickly toward a solution in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in light of the crisis that has wracked Egypt over the last two weeks.

“The dramatic events of the recent period make it necessary for us to take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the regional agenda,” Peres said in his remarks to the 11th annual Israeli security conference, which opened Sunday in Herzliya. “We must do this as soon as possible because the conflict is being exploited to the detriment of all sides.”

The president added that Israel’s “deterrence must be faith as well as an intention for peace with our neighbors.”

Read more at HAARETZ.com.

Quash bill probing NGOs, Peres tells Knesset


Israeli President Shimon Peres called on the Knesset to reject proposed legislation that establishes a committee to investigate the funding of left-leaning human rights groups.

By a vote of 47-16, the Knesset earlier this month gave preliminary passage to the measure. The parliamentary panel would probe the funding and activities of left-wing and human rights organizations and NGOs.

“The investigation of organizations and foundations, whether from the left or right, must be left to law enforcement authorities,” Peres said in a statement Monday. “They possess expertise, are objective and hold the appropriate investigative tools. The establishment of such a parliamentary investigative committee harms Israeli democracy and is unnecessary.”

Peres quoted Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who said that politicians should not be judges and judges should not be politicians.

Peres in an address to the Knesset next week is expected to raise this issue, as well as the subjects of racism and incitement by fundamentalist rabbis, The Jerusalem Post reported, citing the president’s spokeswoman.

Peres in Paris raps Syria, Iran


Israeli President Shimon Peres criticized Syria and Iran during a visit to Paris.

Peres arrived Monday to discuss the Middle East peace process and the Iranian nuclear threat with French leaders. On Thursday, he and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe will inaugurate a new square near the Seine River, in the central part of the French capital, to be dubbed the Ben Gurion Esplanade.

At the start of a meeting Monday with Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Peres addressed the threats emanating from Syria and Iran.

“Syria continues its doublespeak,” the Israeli leader said. “On the one hand it speaks about peace, and on the other hand it passes sophisticated Scud missiles to Hezbollah that threaten Israel. The transfer of arms from Syria to Hezbollah and Syria’s support of terrorist organizations does not square with its declarations of seeking peace.”

On Iran, Peres said that “As Jews who experienced the Holocaust, the people of Israel cannot remain indifferent to Iran’s desire to develop nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons in the hands of a fascist government like Iran present a tangible threat to global peace. If Hitler had nuclear weapons, we would not sit here today.”

Also Monday, some 200 pro-Palestinian activists and Communist Party members protested against the creation of the new promenade, and called Israel and its first prime minister “assassins.”

Leaders of the anti-Israel activists have been unsuccessful in trying to persuade Delanoe to abandon plans for naming the new square, arguing that it is unfair not to give a similar honor to Palestinian leaders, such as the late Yasser Arafat. They have promised to continue protesting on Thursday.

Delanoe defended the City Council’s 2008 decision to honor Ben Gurion because of his “courage” in pushing for “peace rather than territories,” according to French reports.

Peres meets fiance of murdered Irani


Israeli President Shimon Peres met with the fiancé of the late Neda Soltan, whose brutal murder during the 2009 Iranian election protests became a symbol for the opposition.

“I came to Israel as an ambassador of the Iranian people, as a messenger from the camp of peace,” Caspian Makin told Peres during their meeting Monday.

Makin had requested the meeting, according to the President’s Office.

“Neda was a progressive person, a freedom fighter, and these traits flowed through her veins. She loved people with every small inch of her soul. Before her murder we spoke a lot about her goals, and we both knew the danger,” Makin told Peres.

“After she was murdered, she became a symbol of freedom across the entire world. Her brave and firm protest brought unity to the Iranian people’s struggle, and I hope that her actions will lead to change in the future.”

Soltan’s death by Iranian soldiers attempting to quell a protest was caught on video and seen on the Internet and television stations around the world.

“You can murder a person, but not a spirit,” Peres told Makin. “I am glad you gave me the opportunity to express my condolences for your great tragedy, and also mention my great hope for the future.”

Peres: Obama to Chair Bibi-Abbas meeting


President Obama will moderate a meeting next month at the United Nations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli President Shimon Peres said.

“I think they will meet at the end of September,” Peres said of the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authority president during an interview Monday with Fox News. “President Obama will chair it, and I think that at least there is a chance that they will decide they are going to reopen negotiations. But that will not include Hamas.”

The meeting will take place “at the margins” of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Ynet reported.

Peres also told Fox that there is “not yet an agreement” on a settlement freeze, but “I do believe there is a solution for it as well.”

He also said that negotiations to free kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit are continuing and “the gap has narrowed.” But asked if Shalit’s release was close, Peres said, “I think there is a chance it will happen soon, but Hamas is not an organized group of people and what they say today, they may change tomorrow.”

Pope, in Israel, vows to fight anti-Semitism


Pope Benedict XVI vowed to fight anti-Semitism and called for an independent Palestinian state upon his arrival in Israel.

The pope also invoked the memory of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust and said he would pray for peace during his five-day visit to Israel, which began Monday morning when he landed in a plane belonging to the Jordanian royal family at Ben Gurion International Airport.

“I come, like so many others before me, to pray at the holy places, to pray especially for peace—peace here in the Holy Land, and peace throughout the world,” Benedict said during a welcoming ceremony at the airport.

The pope said that at his scheduled visit later in the day to the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, he would “have the opportunity to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Shoah, and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude.”

Benedict lamented the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism.

“Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable,” he said. “Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for the members of every people, tribe, language and nation across the globe.”

The pope then switched his attention to achieving peace between Palestinians and Israel.

“In union with people of good will everywhere, I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties, so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders,” he said.

Israeli President Shimon Peres greeted the pope in Latin and Hebrew before addressing him in English.

“Your visit here brings a blessed understanding between religions and spreads peace near and far,” Peres said. “Historic Israel and the renewed Israel together welcome your arrival as paving the great road to peace from city to city.”

Following the airport ceremony, the pope flew by helicopter to Jerusalem, where he was greeted by Mayor Nir Barkat and a group of children waving Israeli flags and singing “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem.”

At Yad Vashem, the pope will meet with Holocaust survivors. Later he will attend a welcoming reception at the president’s official residence in Jerusalem.

The pope, who is traveling with a 40-person staff and 70 reporters, will stay at the Papal Nuncio’s residence in Jerusalem during his visit. He is scheduled to visit the Temple Mount and the Western Wall on Tuesday, Bethlehem on Wednesday and Nazareth on Thursday. He will fly back to Rome Friday afternoon on a special El Al flight.

Upon the pope’s arrival,  “Operation White Robe,” which will include 80,000 police officers and security guards, went into effect to protect his safety.

Analysis: New Hamas Gaza rocket attacks pose dilemma for Israel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel, however, shows no sign of backing down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olmert submits resignation, promises to help Livni


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALTTEXT

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

Copycat bulldozer rampage in Jerusalem injures 28


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama at a news conference in Jordan condemned the attack.

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

Bill Boyarsky: Calculating the value of Villaraigosa’s trip


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The mayor and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Hulda discuss river revitalization. Photo courtesy the Mayor’s Office

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.