Holiday films that provoke, (and Some Just for Fun)


In addition to the traditional family and feel-good holiday films, this season offers a small selection of unexpectedly provocative productions.

Among the latter is the documentary “West of Memphis,” which follows an attempt to exonerate three men convicted as teenagers of the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in the rural town of West Memphis, Ark. The three convicts — known as the WM3 — served 18 years in prison, with one of them, Damien Echols, on death row. Two years after his conviction, Echols met Lorri Davis, who began a campaign to prove that he and the other two convicted young men were innocent. A few years later, Echols and Davis married.

Producers Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson got involved in the case in 2005 and began helping the defense team with funds and with the investigation of new evidence, including DNA discoveries, alleged juror misconduct and various other anomalies. When the new exculpatory evidence, which was supported by many noted experts, was presented to the original judge, he dismissed it all.

About five years ago, Walsh and Jackson contacted filmmaker Amy Berg, hoping to spark her interest in making a documentary probing the case, the original police investigation and the new findings, in order to argue for the innocence of the WM3.

Berg recalled that her interest was aroused, but she did not commit to the project until she was sure the three were innocent.

“It took about six months of research,” she said, “reading the case files, watching the trial in its entirety, looking at new evidence and speaking to Damien directly. At that point, I knew I had to make this film, as it would likely change the fate of his life.” 

Berg pondered the reasons for the whole community’s rush to judgment.

“It happens everywhere, unfortunately. We are a capitalistic society with the goal of winning. The justice system is set up for this by allowing judges and prosecutors to get elected, instead of selected. They have to appease their voters, and there is often a debt to pay in this regard. 

“I think there is also the fact that Arkansas and, more specifically, West Memphis, Ark., is set up as a police state in many ways. The town is full of informants, and people often don’t trust their neighbors.” 

At a certain point in the defense investigation, suspicion fell on Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murder victims, who had abused the child and had reportedly confessed his guilt to his own brother. Berg interviewed Hobbs and said that he trivialized everything and was given to laughing inappropriately.

“He seemed to have come from a very broken home, and his morals seemed out of check. 

He never mentions his stepson, Stevie, by name. He was forthcoming initially and then asked if I knew anyone who could help him get a book deal.”

The story has a hopeful outcome, and Berg feels her film shows that people often have to go outside the system to find justice. She said she has always fought for the underdog, that she grew up questioning things, and that these inclinations help guide her work.

“I feel that being a Jew and a woman helps me to ask the right questions. Like many, I grew up with the belief that the justice system actually works. But it’s fallible, just like humans. We have to come to a place where we can admit when we make an error and take responsibility for our mistakes. The officials in this story have acted as if they are above error, when so much human life has suffered at great consequence.”

“West of Memphis” opens Dec. 25. 



Bill Murray in “Hyde Park on Hudson.”

A crucial event influencing American involvement in World War II is the subject of “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which depicts the weekend visit by the king and queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) to the Hyde Park home of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) in June 1939.  It was the first time a British monarch had ever visited the United States. England was on the brink of war with Germany, and the royal family felt it was vital to have American support.

FDR was inclined to do all he could, short of declaring war, to oppose Hitler, against the wishes of most members of his party. 

In the press notes, screenwriter Richard Nelson states, “Much of America needed convincing; the mood of the country was to stay out of another European war. Add to this an historical (and understandable) American reticence toward British royalty and all things royal, exacerbated by the recent royal abdication of Edward VIII, forced by his wish to marry not only a divorced woman (Wallis Simpson) but also, ‘Heaven forbid,’ as it was perceived by us, ‘an American, of all things.’ The inexperienced and accidental King George VI, or Bertie, needed to show America that he admired our country and its people, and respected us as equals. That was his mission. And Franklin Roosevelt gave him just such an opportunity — by serving him a hot dog!”

According to Nelson, the action is presented from the viewpoint of Roosevelt’s neighbor, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, a distant cousin and close companion to the president. The screenwriter indicates that his script assumes Suckley and Roosevelt had an intimate relationship, an assumption he bases on letters to and from Roosevelt found under Suckley’s bed after her death at nearly 100 years old.  

Nelson writes, “The two stories — the affair with Daisy and the weekend with the King and Queen — are at the center of our tale. As I worked on the script, the two stories became intertwined, each commenting upon the other; a woman painfully learns the truth behind the world-famous image of her lover, while a king learns to hide his insecurity and project courage.

“Finally,” Nelson adds, “ ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ is also a personal story. I have lived in Rhinebeck, Daisy’s hometown, for over 30 years and raised a family here. Although this is a story with ramifications across the globe, dealing with great historical figures, it is also about a woman from my village, a woman I once saw on her sofa, who, for a time, had a chance to see the world — the public and the private — through her own innocent eyes.”

“Hyde Park on Hudson” opens Dec. 7.



Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand in “The Guilt Trip.”Photo by Sam Emerson

We now turn to some amusing family fare. “The Guilt Trip,” starring Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen as a mother and son on a road trip, is based on a real trip screenwriter Dan Fogelman took with his own now-deceased mother some years ago. “The movie’s theme is, basically, when you discover that your parent isn’t just a parent, but actually is a human being who had a life before you — and the point that a parent realizes her child is actually a grown-up, and you have to let them go a little bit,” Fogelman said in a Journal interview last year. 

“The Guilt Trip” opens Dec. 19.



Billy Crystal and Bette Midler in “Parental Guidance.” 

In the comedy “Parental Guidance,” baseball sportscaster Artie Decker (Billy Crystal) is fired from his job for not being up-to-speed with the lifestyle of the younger generation. When their daughter, Alice (Marisa Tomei), asks them to take care of her three children while she joins her husband, Phil (Tom Everett Scott), on a business trip, Artie’s wife, Diane (Bette Midler), persuades him to agree. Once Artie and Diane arrive at their daughter’s home, they experience a form of culture shock, as the latter’s ultramodern method of raising her children is completely foreign to them.  

Director Andy Fickman said he got involved in the project after having lunch with Crystal, who had developed the film based on an incident that had actually happened to him. The director added that he also relates to the story.  

“I’m a father of a 15-year-old, and, certainly, having my mom in our lives, you can see what generational experiences are like between how our parents raised us and how we raise our children. So I felt it was also just a very universal theme. Everybody to whom I spoke, at some point had some story to tell me about what it was like when the grandparents came to visit.”

Fickman has been highly successful as a producer and director of comedies and family films. He believes his ethnic heritage has contributed to his facility for comedy.

“I was raised as a Conservative Jew,” he said, “and we were a very observant family.  Judaism certainly has been a fertile breeding ground for comedy.  I think my comedic sense of humor from an early age definitely was established in my Jewish household.” 

“Parental Guidance” opens Dec. 25.



From left: Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in “This Is 40.”

Judd Apatow, another Jewish director of comedies, offers up a sequel to his 2007 hit movie, “Knocked Up,” this one titled “This Is 40.” It focuses on the ups and downs in the marriage of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (played by Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann), who were supporting characters in the original story and are now having financial problems and depending on income from Debbie’s clothing store. Apatow’s daughters, Maude and Iris, who also appear, are repeating their “Knocked Up” roles.  

“This Is 40” opens Dec. 21.



From left: Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins in “Quartet.”

Finally, the award-winning actor Dustin Hoffman makes his screen directorial debut with the British film “Quartet,” based on the play by Ronald Harwood.

The action is set in Beecham House, a retirement home for musicians. A gala is being planned to celebrate the birthday of 19th century composer Giuseppe Verdi, with the hope of raising enough money from ticket sales to keep the residence going. The tenants are also awaiting the arrival of a new guest, who is rumored to be a star. Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) are stunned when they learn that the new arrival is Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), who sang the quartet “Bella Figlia Dell’Amore” from the opera “Rigoletto” with them in their heyday. It seems Jean and Reginald were briefly married, but she cheated one night and was more concerned with success than with her husband or her friends. Jean’s arrival is particularly upsetting to Reginald, who is secretly still in love with her. When the four are asked to reprise their quartet for the gala, Jean resists at first, insecure about her ability to carry it off at this stage of her life.  

In addition to helping make opera accessible to mainstream audiences, the film touches on such themes as the life of an artist, the demands of a musical career and the vicissitudes of aging.

Hoffman is quoted in the press material as saying that the film is “about people in their ‘third act’ who still have so much to give.”

Writer Harwood is quoted as adding, “It’s about surviving, and surviving with dignity. Old age can demean people, and I hope in this film it doesn’t.”

“Quartet” opens Dec. 28.

In letter to Quartet, Lieberman calls for Abbas’ ouster


Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman asked countries working for Israeli-Palestinian peace to call for new elections to remove Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from office.

The letter, sent to the Mideast Quartet—the grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that guides the Middle East peace process—also called Abbas “an obstacle to peace.”

Palestinian elections were scheduled for 2010 but have continued to be postponed. Talks between Israel and the PA have been stalled for nearly two years.

Lieberman outlined the positive, confidence-building steps that Israel has taken toward the Palestinians in recent weeks in order to bring the PA back to the negotiating table, but said that these gestures – including reducing roadblocks in the West Bank down to 10, advancing tax collection money and returning the remains of Palestinian terrorists – have been met with “a rise in the Palestinian activity against Israel in the diplomatic and legal arenas.”

“We do not see any willingness or positive attitude on the part of the PA,” Lieberman wrote.

Lieberman said that “general elections in the PA should be held, and a new, legitimate hopefully realistic Palestinian leadership should be elected.”

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement to several Israeli media outlets after publicity on the letter, saying that it does not represent the position of the prime minister or the government and that it is not Israel’s policy to involve itself in the elections of other places.

Israeli, Palestinian peace negotiators to meet on Monday, U.S. says


Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators will hold their second round of face-to-face talks within a week on Monday in Amman, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said on Thursday.

“We are encouraged that they are both coming to the table, they are talking directly,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in her daily briefing.

The two sides held their first high-level talks in more than a year in Amman on Tuesday, a gathering sponsored by the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators—the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.

The Quartet on September 23 called for the two sides to resume talks with the aim of reaching a peace deal by the end of 2012.

Tuesday’s talks did not produce any breakthroughs. They were aimed at agreeing to terms under which the two sides’ leaders – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – could resume talks.

Nuland said the next round was to be held in Amman and was expected to follow the format of Tuesday’s meeting, which was attended by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israel’s Yitzhak Molcho.

The major issues dividing the two sides include the borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Bill Trott

Quartet to meet Sunday


The Quartet of entities guiding the Middle East peace process will meet over the weekend.

Representatives of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations will meet Sunday in Brussels.

The meeting comes as the Obama administration is endeavoring to head of a crisis set off by the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations.

The bid is still under consideration by the U.N. Security Council, and the United States has pledged to veto it should it obtain a majority, but such a veto could further inflame diplomatic tensions.

The Quartet is urging the sides to resume talks without preconditions and has set a timeline for the end of 2012.

The Palestinians insist on Israel freezing settlements before resuming talks; Israel is ready to talk, but has reservations about the deadline.

Meanhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president appealed Thursday to the 47-member Council of Europe to recognize Palestinian statehood.

Israel accepts Quartet’s peace process proposal


Israel has accepted the Mideast Quartet’s proposal to renew peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The plan accepted Sunday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his eight senior Cabinet members would restart negotiations within a month, without preconditions.

“Israel welcomes the Quartet’s call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions, as called for by both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu,” read a statement issued Sunday by the Prime Minister’s Office.

“While Israel has some concerns, it will raise them at the appropriate time.  Israel calls on the Palestinian Authority to do the same and to enter into direct negotiations without delay,” the short statement concluded.

The concerns included the short timetable for negotiations on border and security issues, and the issues of Palestinian refugees and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Haaretz reported.

The inner Cabinet met last week for five hours and failed to agree to support the plan at that time. 

The Quartet, saying it aimed for a peace agreement by the end of 2012, has urged both sides to refrain from “provocative actions.”

At the United Nations on Friday, a Security Council panel on admitting new members to the U.N. met for the first time on the Palestinian membership bid.

It was the beginning of an assessment process that will pit the aid-dependent Palestinians against the United States, which has said it would veto the bid in the Security Council if necessary, and Israel.

Some diplomats have suggested the issue could stay with the membership committee for weeks or months before it is passed back to the Security Council for a vote, giving mediators more time to try to restart peace talks.

Moral dimension of Palestinian statehood


I felt terribly guilty when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the U.N. General Assembly: “Enough! It is time for the Palestinian people to gain their freedom and independence.” How can we deny to others what we claim for ourselves?

Let there be no misunderstanding; I am a daily listener to what Abbas’ television is telling his children about the fate of Israel. I, therefore, know what everyone else knows, that when Abbas speaks of “freedom and independence,” he is not talking about a two-state solution; he means freedom to demand the return of Tel Aviv to Palestinian hands and independence to pursue that demand from a position of power and legitimacy. Still, the words “freedom and independence,” evoked the age-old question of equity and justice: “Can we deny to others what we demand for ourselves?”

I was not the only one to have this reaction to the Palestinian bid for statehood. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that more than 40 percent of Americans favor the United States recognizing Palestine as a state. True, only 10 percent of the respondents said that they are following the news closely on this issue, but this is exactly what we mean by the “moral dimension” — the level of consciousness that has no patience for sorting out facts, figures, intentions and consequences, but instead draws meaning from the force of certain words and their deep roots at the heart of human experience.

At that level, we must admit, Israel’s campaign has been a failure. Say what you will about Israel’s need for security, or the wisdom of entering direct negotiations before seeking statehood, it simply does not sound “right” to deny a people the right of self-determination. David Ben-Gurion expressed it quite clearly in 1931, at a time when he saw the Arabs as partners for coexistence:

“There is in the world a principle called ‘the right for self-determination.’ We have always and everywhere been its champions. … We ought not to diminish the Arabs’ right for self-determination for fear that it would present difficulties to our own mission” (Ben-Gurion, “Anachnu U’Shcheneinu,” Tel Aviv, 1931, p. 257).

The public debate preceding the U.N. session revealed a glaring asymmetry between the two sides. The Palestinian side spoke of human rights, historical justice, personal dignity and moral obligation, while the Israeli side, including its U.S. supporters, debated and agonized over pragmatic considerations: Will statehood truly advance the peace process? Will it change things on the ground? Will it lead to renewed negotiations? Will Hamas overrun or shun the new state, if created? Will the United States use its veto power? What will Abbas’ next move be?

This placed the Israeli side at a severe disadvantage. Impartial observers, even if convinced that the Palestinian bid is aimed to intensify, not resolve, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, preferred to keep silent and let the parties fight it out in the United Nations. No one wishes to appear insensitive to moral arguments or be on the wrong side of justice.

For some obscure reason, even the staunchest advocates of the Israeli position were not prepared to address the moral dimension head on and to frame their arguments in a context of universally compelling principles of ethics and justice.

The only one who did so was President Barack Obama in his speech at the General Assembly on Sept. 21.

The president said: “The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors.”

Note how the president speaks in the pre-1948 language of “deservedness” and “historical homeland-ness,” not in the post-1967 language of security needs, borders, settlements and other expediencies. In effect, what the president was doing amounts to a bold repudiation of Palestinian claims for sole ownership of justice and morality.

Here is my translation of Obama’s speech into the discourse over Palestinian statehood:

Obama: “A successful state in their historic homeland.” Translation: No society, no matter how oppressed, is entitled to what it denies to others. In particular, the Arab denial of a people’s homeland for 63 years is morally unacceptable.

Obama: “Israel deserves recognition.” Translation: Never in the history of nations has a society defined itself on the ruins of its neighbor, and never has such society sought recognition while admitting its intent.

Obama: “It [Israel] deserves normal relations with its neighbors.” Translation: Never in the history of human conflict did anyone ask for statehood while teaching its children of the inevitable demise of its neighbor and making no investment in education for peace.

In short, Obama is telling Abbas in no uncertain terms: “You simply do not deserve a state without first doing some elementary homework.”

It is not surprising that Obama’s speech angered Palestinians and their supporters; they are not accustomed to being challenged in the moral dimension, certainly not in public. “The humiliation of Barack Obama” Robert Grenier called the moment, in Al Jazeera (English). “No U.S. embassy will be safe,” warned a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman in Cairo.

It is also not surprising that Obama angered Jewish radicals on the left. Fringe organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace will not forgive him for defining so clearly the immoral character of their anti-Israel activities.

What is surprising to me is that mainstream Jewish organizations did not seize on Obama’s speech as the moral manifesto of their objection to Palestinian statehood. Instead, we are hearing the all-too-expected praises of the speech, mixed with arguments on its impact on renewed negotiations, and questioning Obama’s political motivations.

It is all too easy to dismiss Obama’s words as part of an election campaign. But, as often happens in our history, it is not what the world means to say that counts, but what one makes of it. The Balfour Declaration, too, could have been dismissed as a campaign speech, or worse; instead, it was taken seriously by world Jewry and ushered Israel into being.

Let us not forget, most of those who question U.S. support of Israel see Obama as a beacon of moral courage for the 21st century. Excerpts from Obama’s speech should therefore be quoted and requoted by Israel advocates on television and radio shows. Copies of Obama’s words should decorate students’ walks on U.S. campuses, including the offices of my academic colleagues at UCLA. In short, Obama’s words should become Israel’s trust deed of moral justice in the court of world’s opinion.

I will end with an answer I gave to a friend who asked what I thought about the moral justification for a Palestinian state. “In the supreme court of world justice,” I answered, “the Palestinians will earn their right to statehood as soon as they can join Israelis in chanting: Two states for two peoples, equally legitimate and equally indigenous.”

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (

Israeli senior ministers disagree on Quartet proposal


Israel’s senior Cabinet ministers failed to reach an agreement on accepting a Mideast Quartet proposal to renew peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The ministers met until the wee hours Wednesday but could not agree on accepting an initiative that is believed to have the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The proposal calls for a renewal of direct talks within a month, without preconditions, and to reach a final agreement by the end of 2012. It does not specifically mention settlement building, but calls on Israel and the Palestinians to “refrain from provocative actions.”

The Palestinians have not responded, but have expressed disappointment with the proposal because it does not call for a settlement construction freeze or for starting negotiations with the 1967 borders as a guide.

The proposal is an attempt to get the sides back to peace negotiations before the United Nations Security Council votes on a Palestinian statehood bid submitted to the Security Council last week.

U.S., EU condemn Israeli plan to expand settlement


Israel approved on Tuesday the construction of 1,100 settlement homes on annexed land in the West Bank, complicating global efforts to renew peace talks and defuse a crisis over a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.

The plan was met with a chorus of Western criticism. Britain and the European Union called on Israel to reverse the decision, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said new settlement building would be “counter-productive” to the efforts to revive peace talks.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied at the U.N. on Friday for full Palestinian membership, a move opposed by Israel and the United States, which urged him to resume negotiations.

Abbas has made a cessation of Israeli settlement building a condition for returning to talks which collapsed a year ago after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on construction.

The so-called Quartet of international mediators—the United States, the European Union, Russia and the U.N.—has called for talks to begin within a month and urged both sides not to take unilateral actions that could block peacemaking.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the new housing units Israel wants to build represented “1,100 ‘noes’ to the Quartet statement” urging a resumption of negotiations.

“Israel is challenging the will of the international community with the continued settlement policy,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, an Abbas spokesman, said.

The new homes are to be built in Gilo, an urban settlement in the West Bank.

Palestinians want to create a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and say settlements could deny them a viable country. Israel cites historical and Biblical links to the West Bank, which it calls Judea and Samaria.

Some 500,000 settlers live in the territory home to 2.5 million Palestinians.

Israel’s Interior Ministry said a district planning committee approved the Gilo project and public objections to the proposal could be lodged within a 60-day review period, after which construction could begin.

Despite the new crisis over settlements, Netanyahu held consultations on Tuesday with a forum of senior cabinet ministers about Quartet efforts to try and renew peace talks in the coming weeks, an Israeli political source said.

Palestinian leaders were expected to debate the Quartet’s plan on Wednesday.

In New York on Monday, a divided U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors for its first discussion of last week’s Palestinian application for full U.N. membership as a state.

The move seems certain to fail due to Israeli and U.S. opposition, despite substantial support by other governments.

Abu Rdainah said it was up to the Security Council to put a stop to Israel’s settlement policy “which is destroying the two-state solution and putting more obstacles in front of any effort to bring about a resumption of negotiations.”

In London, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said settlement expansion was illegal and “corrodes trust and undermines the basic principle of land for peace. We call on the Government of Israel to revoke this decision.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she deplored the decision, adding: “I call on the Israeli authorities to reverse this plan.”

Richard Miron, spokesman for U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry, called Israel’s decision “very concerning.”

Clinton said the Israeli decision was “counter-productive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.

“As you know, we have long urged both sides to avoid any kind of action which could undermine trust, including, and perhaps most particularly, in Jerusalem, any action that could be viewed as provocative by either side,” she told reporters at a news conference.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Ramallah and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Rosalind Russell

U.S. blocks Quartet peace outline


The United States reportedly blocked an initiative by other major powers to outline an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

The three other members of the Quartet guiding Middle East peace talks—the United Nations, the European Union and Russia—had pressed for publication of such an initiative as early as this Friday, The Associated Press reported.

The United States, which usually leads the Quartet initiatives, nixed the idea, saying it was not the right time.

Such an outline would include borders and solutions for the Palestinian refugees and for sharing Jerusalem.

Talks have been stalled since September, when the Palestinian Authority walked out because Israel would not extend a partial freeze on settlement building.

Israel and the United States say the burden is on the Palestinians to return to direct talks, but the other members of the Quartet also blame Israel for not stemming settlement building.

Israeli President Shimon Peres made keeping such an initiative from coming forward at this time a key message of his Washington and U.N. visits last week.

‘Quartet’ to meet on Israeli-Palestinian talks


The “Quartet” guiding the Middle East process will meet next month and the top U.S. envoy is in the region attempting to re-start Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The Quartet of the United States the European Union, the United Nations and Russia will meet in Munich Feb. 4-6, the German government announced.

The meeting will take place at its highest level, among foreign ministers, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Meanwhile, George Mitchell, the top U.S. envoy to the region, was meeting Friday with Israeli and Palestinian officials, the State Department said.

“This is all trying to build a foundation, improve trust, and try to move the parties back to direct negotiations,” spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday.

Mitchell’s tour follows one by Dennis Ross, a senior White House official handling the Middle East.

Under U.S. guidance, the sides engaged in three weeks of direct talks in September, but these came to an impasse when the Palestinians walked out because Israel would not extend a partial freeze on West Bank settlement building.

Palestinians will leave peace talks over freeze


The Palestinians will withdraw from peace talks with Israel if construction in the settlements resumes, Mahmoud Abbas told the Mideast Quartet.

In a letter delivered Sunday to representatives of the Quartet grouping of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union, which guides the Middle East peace process, the Palestinian Authority president said that if the settlement building freeze ends as scheduled on Sept. 26 then the Palestinian Authority will withdraw from the direct peace talks scheduled to be launched Sept. 2 in Washington.

Abbas called on the Quartet to follow previous resolutions dealing with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, including the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, the 2002 road map to peace and the Arab Peace Initiative, all of which call for an end to settlement construction. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Likud Party ministers on Sunday that the freeze would end as scheduled.

Meanwhile, Hamas canceled reconciliation talks with Abbas’ Fatah party over the weekend due to the announcement of direct negotiations with Israel. The groups have remained split since Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

Hecklers mar Jerusalem Quartet London concert


Pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted a performance in London by the acclaimed Jerusalem Quartet.

The March 29 lunchtime concert, which was being broadcast live on BBC Radio, was taken off the air in the middle due to the disruption, the Jewish Chronicle reported. The quartet completed its program.

About five protesters took turns disrupting the concert with anti-Israel epithets at 10-minute intervals throughout the performance at Wigmore Hall, according to reports. They were removed from the audience.

Protesters in other countries also have disrupted the quartet’s performances.

In a statement, the quartet noted that all four musicians served in the Israeli army as musicians and not in combat, and also perform as regular members of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings Israeli and Arab musicians together.

“We no more represent the Government of Israel than the audience at the Wigmore Hall represented the Government of the United Kingdom,” read the statement.

Only one of the four musicians is a native Israeli; one lives in Portugal and another in Berlin.

Quartet condemns east Jerusalem building


The “Quartet” guiding the Middle East peace process condemned Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem but called for a resumption of talks without preconditions.

The statement issued Friday morning by the grouping, which comprises the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, suggested frustration with both Israel and the Palestinians.

“Recalling that the annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognized by the international community, the Quartet underscores that the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties and condemns the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem,” the statement said.

Israel’s government angered the Obama administration last week when it announced a massive building start in eastern Jerusalem during what was to have been a friendly visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

The Palestinian Authority cited Israel’s announcement to renege on its agreement to re-start “proximity” or indirect talks—and the Quartet statement implied frustration with such tactics.

“The proximity talks are an important step toward the resumption, without pre-conditions, of direct bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues as previously agreed by the parties,” the statement said. Israel has repeatedly said it is ready to start the talks without pre-conditions.

The Quartet praised the Palestinian Authority for its “significant progress” on establishing a security force but called on it to “fight violent extremism and end incitement.” It also praised Israel for easing movement in the West Bank.

The statement recommitted to P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan to establish a state within two years. “The Quartet believes these negotiations should lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties within 24 months, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors,” it said.

Briefs: Quartet says Palestinian-Israeli Agreement ‘Irreversible’


Quartet: Palestinian-Israeli Agreement ‘Irreversible’

Palestinian-Israeli peace gains are “irreversible,” the international grouping guiding the peace process said.

“The Quartet expressed its considered view that the bilateral negotiations process launched at Annapolis is irreversible and that these negotiations should be intensified in order to put an end to the conflict and to establish as soon as possible the state of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security with Israel,” said the statement that emerged Monday after the foreign minister-level meeting in New York of the members of the Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

“Annapolis” refers to the renewed talks spurred by the Bush administration a year ago in Maryland.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli opposition leader leading in the polls ahead of Feb. 10 elections, has rejected some of the Annapolis tenets, particularly its prescription for Palestinian statehood as soon as possible. It’s not clear where the talks now stand, but Ehud Olmert, the scandal-tainted prime minister whose resignation led to new elections, has said that Israelis will have to settle for two states more or less on 1967 lines and sharing Jerusalem.

President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who attended Monday’s meeting, have said they want talks as advanced as possible when they hand over the administration next month to President-elect Barack Obama.

The statement also:

  • Encouraged the renewal of an Egypt-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip. The three-month cease-fire is due to lapse on Friday, and Israel, Egypt and some elements in Hamas want to renew it, while other Hamas figures are opposed.”In this regard, the Quartet expressed concern that the Egyptian-brokered calm had been challenged, condemned indiscriminate attacks on Israel and called for an immediate cessation of violence,” it said, referring to the recent intensification of rocket fire from Gaza aimed at Israel’s southern towns.It also expressed its “acute concern regarding the recent increase in the closures of crossing points in response to violence in Gaza, which have limited the range and quantity of basic commodities.” Israel has sequestered Gaza in a bid to stop the rocket fire.
  • Praised the Palestinian Authority for introducing security forces in the West Bank towns of Jenin and Hebron after a training program designed and led by U.S. officials. Israeli defense officials have said the program is promising but does not yet adequately confront terrorism.
  • Pressed donor nations to fulfill pledges made in Paris earlier this year, when the Palestinian Authority was promised more than $7 billion in funding; Western nations have made good on the pledges while Arab nations are lagging.
  • Called on the Palestinians “to continue their efforts to reform the security services and dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism” and “called on Israel to freeze all settlement activities, which have a negative impact on the negotiating environment and on Palestinian economic recovery, and to address the growing threat of settler extremism,” a reference to settler riots earlier this month in the Hebron area.

Finally, the statement “looked forward to an intensification of Israeli-Syrian negotiations” and “supported, in consultation with the parties, an international meeting in Moscow in 2009.” Both calls appeared to be last-gasp reversals by the Bush administration, which until now refrained from encouraging Israel’s talks with Syria and resisted an increased Russian role in the process.

High Court Rejects New Fence Route

Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a new route for part of the security fence, saying it juts too far into the West Bank.

Israel had proposed a route near the Arab village of Bilin following a High Court of Justice ruling last year that the fence should be moved closer to Israel.

The court rejected the revised plans Monday, saying the route still placed too much Palestinian land on the Israeli side of the fence. Bilin’s Palestinian residents say the security fence hampers access to their farmlands.

Bilin attorney Michael Sfard told the Jerusalem Post that the ruling would affect other court challenges against the security fence.

There are weekly left-wing protests of the Bilin fence.

Israel Releases Palestinian Prisoners

Israel released more than 200 Palestinian prisoners. The release began Monday at noon, with most of the prisoners transferred from Ofer Prison, near Jerusalem, to a West Bank checkpoint. The others were scheduled to be sent from Shikma Prison in the Negev to the Erez checkpoint in Gaza.

Some 227 Palestinian prisoners were set to be freed, but the release of three was still under review.

Israel’s High Court of Justice canceled a temporary injunction against the release, following several petitions claiming it would cause more terrorism and that some of the prisoners had “blood on their hands.”

The release was a confidence-building measure for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in honor of a Muslim holiday. All of the prisoners belong to factions that support the Palestinian Authority and its leadership. None are associated with Hamas, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Our joy will be complete only when all 11,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel will be released,” Abbas said during celebrations to welcome the prisoners home.

There were no celebrations in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, according to Ynet, since none of the released prisoners were members of Hamas.

— Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.


Texas Quartet Bucks Tradition


"I love shattering musical stereotypes," Galeet Dardashti said. Her energetic quartet, Divahn, plays Sephardi and Mizrahi music with an American twist.

The group’s adaptation of a 16th-century Iraqi zmira (tune) blends banjo and tabla drums. Bluegrass-influenced violin infuses a Ladino wedding song.

Dubbed "best new band of 2001" by the Austin Chronicle, its members sing in Farsi, Aramaic, Arabic, Ladino and Hebrew.

No wonder Divahn stands out among American groups, such as The Klezmatics, who emphasize Ashkenazi fare.

"We’re proving Jewish music doesn’t just mean klezmer," Dardashti said.

Divahn, performing at the University of Judaism on Aug. 17 — reflects Dardashti’s diverse musical heritage. Her late grandfather, a renown Tehran chazan, was also a famous singer of Persian classical music before relocating to Israel. Her father, Farid, served as a cantor at Valley Beth Shalom and other synagogues while Dardashti was growing up in Encino and other U.S. cities. Since childhood, she performed Jewish music with her family in a traveling troupe.

Yet she was reluctant when percussionist Lauren De Albert approached her about forming Divahn while she was at the University of Texas in 2000. Immersed in doctoral studies in cultural anthropology, the 30-year-old singer-guitarist figured she wouldn’t have time.

Researching her dissertation changed her mind: "I was studying the emerging popularity of Middle Eastern music in Israel, where it was previously marginalized in favor of Ashkenazi music," said Dardashti, now continuing her studies on a Fulbright/Hays fellowship. "I was also learning about how this marginalization affected my grandfather."

She agreed to form the band, in part, to reclaim his musical roots.

The Austin-based ensemble went on to receive rave reviews for its eponymous CD, released on its own label, Miz Rocky. While the label’s title is tongue-in-cheek, the political message is not.

"Just as we’re shattering stereotypes about Jewish music, we’re also shattering stereotypes about the historical, cultural relationship between Arabs and Jews," Dardashti said.

Divahn will perform Aug. 17 in the UJ’s Mulholland Nights concert series with Elan. $25. 6 p.m. (reception), 7 p.m. (concert). For tickets, call (310) 440-1246.