People walk near houses in the Israeli settlements of Ofra, in the occupied West Bank Feb. 6. Photo by Baz Ratner/REUTERS

U.S. has no official reaction to passage of controversial Israeli settlement law


The United States refused to comment on Israel’s passage of a bill that retroactively legalizes settler homes built on private Palestinian land, saying the Trump administration was suspending judgment.

The White House’s immediate response to the controversial “regulation law” passed on Feb. 6 was to refer to its statement from the previous week that said the expansion of West Bank settlements “may not be helpful” to achieving Israel-Palestinian peace.

The Knesset passed the bill by a vote of 60-52 in a raucous late-night session, applying Israeli law to West Bank land for the first time. All but one of the lawmakers present from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing ruling coalition supported the bill, while most of the opposition voted against. The law may still be overturned by the High Court of Justice.

The U.S. State Department said, “At this point, indications are that this legislation is likely to be reviewed by the relevant Israeli courts, and the Trump administration will withhold comment on the legislation until the relevant court ruling.”

A State Department official also told the French news agency AFP on condition of anonymity that the Trump administration needed “to have the chance to fully consult with all parties on the way forward.” The official added that Washington still hopes for a peace deal but understands the law will face judicial challenges.

The United Nations envoy for the Middle East peace process said the regulation law crossed a “thick red line” toward Israeli annexation of the West Bank, France called on Israel to “take back” the law, and Jordan and Turkey condemned it. Great Britain condemned the legislation hours after Netanyahu visited Prime Minister Theresa May, the European Union postponed a planned summit with Israel and the Palestinians called on the world to take punitive action.

The Palestinian delegation to the U.N. also denounced the measure, saying it was a clear violation of international law, including the recently adopted Security Council Resolution 2334.

“Adoption of this law is a clear sign that Israel is not interested in committing to the two-state solution nor in bringing about peace and stability to the region,” the statement said.

The pro-settlement Jewish Home party first put forward the legislation in an effort to save the West Bank outpost of Amona, built without government authorization on private Palestinian land, from a high court-ordered demolition. But the clause that would have circumvented the court ruling was nixed following coalition infighting, and Amona was evacuated and demolished.

Even without the Amona clause, Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has said he would not defend the law before the high court. It was the first time that an Israeli attorney general has made such a refusal, legal experts said.

Speaking after the vote, Bezalel Smotrich, a Jewish Home lawmaker known for his fervent support of the settlements and inflammatory statements, thanked Americans for electing Donald Trump president, “without whom the law would have probably not passed.”

Smotrich added that it was a “historic day for the settlement [movement] and for the State of Israel.”

Tourism Minister Yariv Lavin of the ruling Likud party said on Israeli radio that judges should not have the authority to overturn laws.

“The situation in which everyone waits until a handful of judges who are self-selected behind closed doors decide whether they like the law or not is not democratic and not correct,” he said, calling for “soul searching” by the bench. 

Cures for age-old problems


When it comes to the health of boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 —  there’s both bad news and good. The bad news is that, try as we might, this generation cannot stop the march of time and will increasingly face chronic medical issues that tend to develop with age, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. 

The good news is twofold: Research demonstrates that boomers can significantly lower the risk of developing many of these health conditions by eating healthfully, staying physically active and avoiding tobacco. 

It also helps that scientists are pursuing a vast array of efforts to combat or treat these conditions. Here is a sampling of encouraging developments locally and in Israel that should give hope to boomers.

Heart disease

Heart disease risk increases significantly for those 45 and older, and it’s the leading cause of death for adults older than 60. The heart cannot regrow tissue damaged by a heart attack, but researchers are exploring how to help damaged hearts regenerate tissue, as well as creating materials to enhance heart function. 

At the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, Professor Eldad Tzahor and his colleagues were able to regenerate heart cells in mice by temporarily activating a protein involved in embryonic heart development. “Much more research will be required to see if this principle could be applied to the human heart,” Tzahor said in an Institute bulletin, “but our findings are proof that it may be possible.” 

Dr. Ronen Beeri, director of Hadassah Medical Center’s Cardiovascular Research Center, is collaborating with colleagues at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York to use gene therapy to replace failing heart cells. They are using viruses to transport specific genetic material into the heart cell.

A “cyborg heart patch” combining living tissue with integrated electronics has been created by Tel Aviv University professor Tal Dvir and doctoral student Ron Feiner. The material can expand and contract like human heart tissue, while regulating itself like a machine. “We expect this to move cardiac research forward in a big way,” Dvir said in a news release. He believes the patch, along with sensors, could be used to send data about the heart to a physician or even eventually to administer treatment, for example, by releasing anti-inflammatory drugs if it senses inflammation.

Here in Los Angeles, researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute have identified a possible way to address a common but difficult-to-treat type of heart failure that occurs when the heart muscle is so stiff that the heart cannot fill with blood. Laboratory rats with hypertension and this specific type of heart failure regained heart-pumping function after receiving infusions of cardiac stem cells.

Cancer

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, and 86 percent of cases in this country are diagnosed among those 50 years and older. A developing approach in cancer treatment called immunotherapy harnesses the body’s own immune system to fight the disease. 

At UCLA, investigators are testing an immunotherapy drug for advanced melanoma, the most aggressive and deadliest type of skin cancer. The drug “releases the brakes” on the body’s immune system, enabling it to recognize and attack cancer cells. UCLA is one of six national cancer centers comprising the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, a collaboration launched this year to maximize the potential of cancer immunotherapy research. 

Weizmann Institute professors Yoram Salomon and Avigdor Scherz have helped to pioneer a new therapy for treating early-stage prostate cancer that involves using a laser in combination with a new drug, called TOOKAD Soluble. Patients receive the drug intravenously, then immediately undergo infrared radiation administered via thin optic fibers inserted into the cancerous tissue. The 90-minute procedure allows for treating large, deeply embedded cancerous tissues, and the minimally invasive approach appears to decrease side effects. 

At the Keck School of Medicine of USC, Dr. Gabriel Zada was among California’s earliest adopters and teachers of a new approach enabling the removal of deeply embedded (sub-cortical) brain tumors. The NICO BrainPath is a tool combining imaging and navigation technology with an instrument that’s about the width of a highlighter with a tip the diameter of a pencil tip. The instrument can gently spread brain tissue without damaging the cortex (gray matter) and brain fibers. “It’s a highly accurate way of finding and accessing deeper brain lesions while protecting all the important superficial layers,” Zada told the Journal. “Now we can get to tumors or blood clots in a safer way than we could before.” 

Type 2 diabetes

Boomers will be happy to learn that researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba report that having a daily glass of red wine helps people with Type 2 diabetes moderately reduce cholesterol and improve cardiac health. Individuals with diabetes are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and have lower levels of “good cholesterol.” Professor Iris Shai was principal investigator of the two-year trial, which also involved Harvard University and two European institutions.

Students in Hebrew University’s BioDesign program paired pressure-sensing socks with smartphones to reduce foot ulcers in diabetic patients.

Another challenge facing many people with diabetes is foot ulcers attributed to nerve damage that diminishes sensation in the feet. Members of the BioDesign: Medical Innovation program, created by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hadassah Medical Center, developed an innovative way to address this problem. Hebrew University’s Danny Bavli and doctoral student Sagi Frishman, along with Hadassah’s Dr. David Morgenstern created SenseGO pressure-sensing socks. The machine-washable socks register pressure and send signals to a smartphone app that can alert patients to problems, helping them to avoid developing foot wounds.

Depression

In the past year, an estimated 6.7 percent of the U.S. adult population — or about 1 in 15 — had at least one major depressive episode, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Depression affects around 6 million Americans ages 65 or older.

At UCLA, researchers are looking to the brain’s electrical system to develop and fine-tune treatment for depression. They are using an approach called neuromodulation, applying magnetic or electrical energy to modify the brain’s signaling processes. 

“Traditionally, we think of treating depression with chemicals that affect how individual nerve cells function,” Dr. Andrew Leuchter told the Journal. “The latest treatments … use a source of energy … to reset the mood regulating networks of the brain … and frequently restore normal moods in patients with depression.” 

One form of this treatment, called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), involves placing an electromagnet on the scalp to pulse the brain’s mood-regulating area with electromagnetic energy. Leuchter says that about 60 percent of patients who failed to respond to antidepressant medication received “substantial benefit” when combining medication with this noninvasive treatment.

Researchers at Hebrew University found that targeting a certain type of brain cell, called microglia, may provide a new avenue for treating depression. Comprising roughly 10 percent of brain cells, microglia carry out immune system functions in the brain. Professor Raz Yirmiya and his team, along with researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, found that microglia also cause symptoms of depression in response to stress. Blocking the stress-response activation of these cells in mice halted their symptoms of depression. The findings, Yirmiya said in a media release, “suggest new avenues for drug research, in which microglia stimulators could serve as fast-acting anti-depressants in some … conditions.”

Alzheimer’s disease

Of the estimated 5.4 million Americans who have Alzheimer’s disease, all but about 200,000 of them are age 65 and older. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of seniors with Alzheimer’s is projected to reach 7.1 million by 2025, a 40 percent increase over this year’s figure. 

By the time symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear, the patient may have been developing the disease for as long as two decades. At Cedars-Sinai, researchers are focusing on preventing the disease and detecting it early. The Cedars-Sinai Alzheimer’s Prevention Program includes an 18-month study looking at whether lifestyle changes can slow the buildup of amyloid plaque, the destructive brain plaque typical of Alzheimer’s, in patients with mild cognitive impairment or a family history of dementia. The program recommends lifestyle changes including eating a Mediterranean diet, exercising regularly, reducing stress and getting adequate sleep.

In addition, Cedars-Sinai researchers have developed optical imaging technology used in a device with potential to detect Alzheimer’s years before symptoms develop. The retinal imaging device detects amyloid plaques in the retina, which may precede the development of plaque in the brain.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Rambam Medical Center) and Harvard University are investigating the possibility of detecting Alzheimer’s via a blood test. They identified a specific protein found in high levels in individuals with cognitive decline. The next step will be to take these findings into clinical trials with the hope of eventually creating a “pre-Alzheimer’s test” to identify individuals who would benefit from early intervention measures.

Eye problems

The risk of severe eye problems increases significantly with age, especially in those older than 65. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, experts predict that rates of vision loss to double by 2030 because of the country’s aging population. 

Hebrew University Professor Uri Banin and graduate student Nir Waiskopf have developed an artificial retina that absorbs light and stimulates neurons. It is hoped that the wireless implant might be used in the future to create a prosthetic device to replace damaged retinal cells in those who are blind.

Bar-Ilan University researchers also are working on a way to help the blind to “see.” Professor Zeev Zalevsky, along with Sheba Medical Center professor Michael Belkin, have developed a prototype contact lens that processes digital images and translates them into tactile sensations. The cornea can feel these sensations, helping wearers form a picture of their physical surroundings. 

Also at Bar-Ilan, Dr. Yossi Mandel and researchers at Stanford University have developed a device that enables patients with glaucoma to monitor the fluid pressure inside their eyes using an implanted lens and a smartphone. The hope is that this technology will relieve the burden of visiting the ophthalmologist for frequent pressure tests, as well as provide a source of more frequent and reliable data.

Senor: Trump would extend Obama’s approach to Israel


Donald Trump’s presidency would be an extension of President Obama’s two terms as it relates to the U.S.-Israel relationship, Rubio’s foreign policy advisor Dan Senor suggested on Friday.

Against the backdrop of global threats and the BDS movement, “the question is does America want a president — do Republicans want to nominate a president who’s effectively going to extend the last seven and a half years in its approach to Israel,” Senor said during a press conference headed by Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio at Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Friday.

“If you have historically locked arms with Israel, there has been no evenhandedness,” he explained. “If you want to end this, that means you are moving away from Israel. You cannot say in this day and age, and the pressure Israel is under, that you are both pro-Israel, you are Israel’s best friend, and that you are going to be neutral. Being neutral means you are moving away from your friends.”

Senor remarked that he would never have thought that he would see the day that the leading Republican candidate for president that is effectively arguing for “the extension of the last seven and a half years of the Obama’s agenda of neutrality on Israel.”

The event comes a few days before the winner-take-all Florida primary which could either help Trump solidify his lead or enable Rubio and the remaining candidates to catch up or, at least, deny Trump the 1,237-threshold of delegates needed to cling to the nomination. Rubio is counting on Jewish voters in his home state to help him win the make or break Republican primary. “A vote for John Kasich or Ted Cruz in Florida is a vote for Donald Trump,” the Florida Senator said.

During the press conference, Rubio called Trump’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict an anti-Israeli position. “When a leading candidate for president says that if he’s elected president, he will not take sides, the implications are real,” Rubio said. “This is a candidate. Imagine if he were president. Presidents do not get a honeymoon period when it comes to foreign policy.”

“Donald Trump is not ready for the test,” he declared.

Rubio also said that the conditions don’t exist for the U.S. to pursue peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians based on the two-state solution. “I just don’t see the conditions right now for that,” he said. “Two-state solutions involves the idea that there are two parties that are willing to agree to that, and there are not. I think Israel is willing to be incredibly accommodating and have proven their willingness to do so. The Palestinian Authority has never shown any willingness, in fact, they have turned down some very generous offers in the past.”

The Republican presidential hopeful also promised not to criticize Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, rather leave it up to Israel’s democratic process. “What I am not going to do is criticize Israel’s positions,” he emphasized.”If I have a disagreement with Israeli officials, it will be shared with them in private, not in a press conference that undermines their ability to defend themselves.”

Hagel reassures Jewish leaders on Iran, Israel’s edge


Chuck Hagel in a meeting with Jewish organizational leaders affirmed his commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge.

“Sen. Hagel met with the leadership of several major American Jewish organizations at the White House as a part of his ongoing outreach,” said a Jan. 22 statement from Hagel's office at Georgetown University, where President Obama's defense secretary nominee is a professor.

“He discussed his commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship, including his determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, to maintaining Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, and to sustaining the Obama Administration’s unprecedented security cooperation with Israel. He appreciated the opportunity to have a constructive, informed and wide-ranging discussion.”

A four-sentence statement on Jan. 21 issued by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations described the Jan. 18 meeting as “an important opportunity for a serious and thorough discussion of key issues of importance to all of us.”

The statement, which also noted the presence at the meeting of Vice President Joe Biden as well as the leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, did not further elaborate.

The meeting came days after Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, conferred with top Jewish Democrats and apologized for a 2006 comment in which he described the “Jewish lobby” as “intimidating.” He also reassured the lawmakers that despite his past skepticism of some sanctions on Iran and wariness of a military strike to keep the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon, he now was on board with Obama's stances on those issues.

Hagel in his conversation with the Jewish Democrats also said he was a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship and elaborated on the context of his past criticisms of Israel.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Drama in Israel, High Stakes in the U.S.


Israeli politics is always a mix of high drama and low comedy, but the current fight within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s divided government is anything but entertaining for Jewish leaders here.

Israeli commentators have noted that it is a struggle for the soul of the Likud party. How that turns out will have consequences for the U.S.-Israel relationship and on Israel’s already-low standing around the world.

It will also have a major impact on an American Jewish community that has come together to support a beleaguered Israel, but which is unlikely to stay together to support settlers who want to remain in their Gaza and West Bank enclaves.

According to sources here, the pro-Israel lobby has sent an unambiguous message to Sharon and his warring government ministers: expect problems in U.S.-Israel relations if you can’t approve a comprehensive Gaza withdrawal plan.

The reasons aren’t hard to grasp.

President George W. Bush, initially cool to the plan, latched on to it last month as an alternative to the stalled Mideast “road map.” To help Sharon win the promised Likud referendum on the pullout, the president offered some dramatic concessions, including rejection of the Palestinian right of return and an acknowledgment that Israel can retain some West Bank land after a settlement with the Palestinians.

Bush paid a big diplomatic price for those concessions; European and Arab allies were incensed at just the moment when the administration was seeking their help in the Iraq tangle. Their anger intensified when Sharon lost the Likud referendum and began talking about a watered-down or phased plan, making President Bush look like the sucker of the decade.

The administration can’t afford a second loss. Now, officials here clearly expect Sharon to find a way to sell the plan to his government and start implementing it — pronto.

Bush’s need for a diplomatic victory will only increase as he holds a series of meetings here and abroad this month trying to enlist international cooperation in the effort to bring a semblance of stability to Iraq.

Officials here expect a full withdrawal, not a piecemeal or partial one, and they expect Israel to coordinate with the hated Palestinian Authority to prevent a Hamas takeover when Israeli troops and settlers evacuate Gaza.

Sharon has gotten that message; this week he is sending his foreign minister to Cairo to discuss the handover with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

With an election only five months away and both parties scrambling for Jewish support, the Bush administration has no intention of publicly squeezing Israel.

But the message is going out through diplomatic channels: after Nov. 2, there could be hell to pay if Sharon does not make good on his deal with Bush.

If Sharon loses the withdrawal fight to the well-organized settler minority, the role of the settlers in setting national policy will dramatically increase, with huge diplomatic consequences.

President Bush’s unusually strong affinity for Sharon has everything to do with the Israeli leader’s tough and uncompromising response to terrorism, nothing to do with his longtime advocacy of settlements, which this administration, like its predecessors, continues to regard as an impediment to any peace process.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader, may identify with Israeli settlers, but the core of Israel’s political support on Capitol Hill has little sympathy for Israel’s not-one-inch crowd.

Since Sept. 11, the American public has gained a better understanding of the problems Israel faces. But that new sympathy could evaporate if Sharon is defeated by a small band of settlers regarded here as ideological and religious zealots.

There are also potential communal consequences.

The Jewish community has long been divided over the best route to peace in the region, but it has mostly put those divisions on hold since the resumption of widespread Palestinian terrorism in 2000.

Sharon has been a divisive figure over his long career, but by and large American Jews have stood behind his government as it confronts terrorists and a Yasser Arafat that even avid doves concede is not a fit partner for peace.

But beneath today’s veneer of unity, the Jewish community is more divided than ever. An increasingly vocal minority, backed by powerful friends in the Christian community, reject any new territorial concessions. But a majority still support the concept of land for peace negotiations, although many remain skeptical about the current Palestinian leadership.

A failure by Sharon to put over the plan will bring those divisions back into the open and intensify them as American Jews choose up sides in the fight between settlers and mainstream Israel.

The groups that call the Gaza plan a “surrender” or “retreat” plan may be among the loudest in Jewish life today, but it’s the Jewish mainstream that Israel relies on as the foundation of its political support in this country.

That foundation, as well as relations with a sympathetic administration, is at risk as Sharon fights the most difficult battle in a life of difficult battles.

Mixed Messages


With U.S.-Israel relations facing an explosive new crisis, a number of Israel representatives were in Washington this week, offering mixed messages about the intentions of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government.

Some Jewish leaders here said the conradictions could increase the likelihood of serious misunderstandings between the two allies as the U.S.-led war against terrorism intensifies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsens.

But the messages from the Bush administration were just as contradictory, touching off ripples of anger and concern across the Jewish world.

In private conversations with Jewish leaders and several public appearances, administration officials sought to counter fears that relentless diplomatic pressure by Arab and Muslim nations enlisted in the anti-terror fight was undercutting U.S.-Israel relations.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, speaking to the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) national convention Sunday, said that despite the coalition-building effort, America would not abandon Israel.

“We cannot have a victory if we make a coalition that sacrifices the interests of some for the interests of others,” he said.

But administration actions seemed to tell a different story.

On Monday, the administration used its harshest language yet when it condemned Israel’s incursion into six Palestinian towns in response to last week’s assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi.

State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker said, “Israeli Defense Forces should be withdrawn immediately from all Palestinian-controlled areas, and no further such incursions should be made. We deeply regret and deplore Israeli Defense Force actions that have killed numerous Palestinian civilians over the weekend.”

That infuriated leading pro-Israel lawmakers.

“It’s obvious they are caving in to Arab pressure,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the Jewish delegation in the House. “It’s so transparent, it’s obscene.”

Engel accused the administration of “rank hypocrisy” in criticizing Israel for doing the same thing U.S. forces are trying to do in Afghanistan: root out terrorists.

Jewish organizations were no happier with the new U.S. squeeze.

The State Department comments were “inappropriate, intemperate; and [they] defy logic in the face of current U.S. efforts in the war against terrorism,” said leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Sharon, citing Israel’s defense needs, rejected the U.S. demand for an immediate pullout; the administration then cranked up the pressure.

On Tuesday, Bush “dropped by” on a meeting between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Even before the supposedly spontaneous meeting, the White House made it clear Bush would repeat his demand that Israeli troops be withdrawn immediately.

Bush reportedly told Peres that escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence is impeding U.S. coalition efforts in the war against terrorism.

The administration is also sending out conflicting messages about the ultimate scope of the U.S. war.

Wolfowitz, in his AJCongress speech, promised that Washington would expand the anti-terror effort, once Osama bin Laden and his network are destroyed. “We are not going just to pluck off individual snakes; we intend to drain the entire swamp,” he said.

That could mean an eventual focus on Iraq, he told the group. But the State Department continues to emphasize the bin Laden fight and downplay concern about Saddam Hussein.

“They want to have it both ways,” said an official with a major Jewish group here. “The result is a message that is very garbled.” – J.D. Besser