NATO weighs four battalions in Eastern states to deter Russia

The NATO alliance is weighing rotating four battalions of troops through Eastern member states, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Monday, in the latest proposal by allies to guard against aggressive behavior by Russia.

The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – which joined NATO in 2004, have requested greater presence of the alliance, fearing a threat from Russia after it annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Carter acknowledged NATO deliberations included the deployment of the four battalions to the Baltic states and Poland. The Wall Street Journal said this would likely total about 4,000 troops split between the United States and its allies.

“That's one of the options that's being discussed,” Carter told reporters traveling with him at the start of a three-day trip to Germany, declining to enter into details about the deliberations by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“We're obviously involved in those discussions. I just don’t want to get out in front of where that goes.”

U.S. officials say the goal in Europe is to move increasingly from efforts to reassure allies to broader activity to deter any aggressive moves by Russia.

The United States has already budgeted to sharply boost military training and exercises and last month announced it would deploy continuous rotations of U.S.-based armored brigade combat teams to Europe.

Carter's trip to Germany will include meetings with Army General Curtis Scaparrotti as he takes over as the next NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, succeeding U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove.

Scaparrotti told a Senate hearing last month that a resurgent Russia was displaying “increasingly aggressive behavior that challenges the international norms, often in violation of international law.”

Iran calls $10 billion ruling over 9/11 ‘ridiculous’

Iran said a U.S. court ruling last week ordering it to pay more than $10 billion for its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks is “ridiculous.”

“This judgement is so ridiculous … more than ever before it damages the credibility of the U.S. judicial system,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said, according to Agence France Press.

U.S. District Judge George Daniels in New York issued a default judgment Wednesday against Iran for $7.5 billion to the estates and families of people who died at the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It includes $2 million to each estate for the victims’ pain and suffering, plus $6.88 million in punitive damages.

Daniels also awarded $3 billion to insurers including Chubb Ltd. that paid property damage, business interruption and other claims.

In his ruling, Daniels said Iran had failed to defend itself against claims that it had aided the 9/11 hijackers.

Iran, which is Shia Muslim, has consistently denied any involvement in the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, which are widely believed to have been the work not of Iran but of the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group al-Qaida, which took credit for them.

Mohammad Javad Larijani, secretary general of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, said, “If they [the United States] want to prosecute anyone over the September 11 incident, it should be their allies in the region who created al-Qaida and funded it,” presumably referring to Iran’s Sunni enemy Saudi Arabia.

Kerry on MOU agreement: ‘The sooner the better’

The sooner the post-Iran deal security package and the “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) between the U.S. and Israel on strategic cooperation is signed, the better it would be for both countries, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday.

“We are working on it now; we are in negotiations. We have never, ever put any of Israel’s needs or challenges on the table with respect to other issues between us,” Kerry said Thursday morning during a hearing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”I am confident we will get an MOU at some point and time. The sooner the better because it allows everybody to plan appropriately.”

Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told cabinet members that it’s unclear whether the two countries will come to an agreement during Obama’s term. “[We] need to see if [we] can achieve a result that will address Israel’s security needs or perhaps we will not manage to come to an agreement with this administration and will need to come to an agreement with the next administration,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying by Haaretz.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Monday that the security package will likely be complete “in the coming weeks.” Netanyahu is expected to travel to the U.S. next month to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference. It remains unclear whether he will meet with President Obama to finalize the details and sign the decade-long agreement.

“Israel’s security comes first and foremost. President Obama has, I think, unprecedentedly addressed those concerns with the Iron Dome, with assistance, with our efforts on global institutions to not see Israel singled out, and we will continue to do what is necessary to provide Israel with all the assistance necessary so it can provide for its own security,” Kerry said.

During the hearing, Kerry reiterated the administration’s opposition to BDS activities against Israel.

US and UK have spied on Israeli army for 18 years

U.S. and British intelligence services have reportedly spied on Israel for 18 years after cracking its army’s encryption for communication between fighter jets, drones and army bases.

The information was reported Friday by The Intercept and the German newspaper Der Spiegel based on documents that came into the possession of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who worked for U.S. intelligence before publishing classified material and fleeing to Russia.

Britain and the United States have reportedly used this access to monitor Israel Defense Forces operations in the Gaza Strip, watch for a potential strike on Iran and keep tabs on the drone technology that Israel exports.

Israel said later Friday it was disappointed but not surprised by the revelations.

“This is an earthquake,” an anonymous senior security source told Ynet. “It means that they have forcibly stripped us, and, no less important, that probably none of our encrypted systems are safe from them. This is the worst leak in the history of Israeli intelligence.”

According to the reports, the breaking of the drone encryption allowed Britain and the United States to view images and videos broadcast to Israel Defense Forces commands during drone operations in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and near the Jewish state’s northern border.

The tracking has been done from a Royal Air Force installation in the Troodos Mountains, near Mount Olympus, the highest point on the island of Cyprus.

The IDF encryption code was cracked as part of a major intelligence operation conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency, or NSA, and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, since 1998, according to Ynet.

In the photos leaked by Snowden, shots from video recordings taken by Israeli aircraft can been seen in detail, as well as slides prepared by members of the U.S. and British intelligence organizations explaining the significance of the findings.

“This access is indispensable for maintaining an understanding of Israeli military training and operations and thus an insight to possible future developments in the region,” The Intercept quoted a GCHQ report from 2008 as stating. “In times of crisis this access is critical and one of the only avenues to provide up to the minute information and support to U.S. and Allied operations in the area.”

That year, NSA analysts had “collected video for the first time from the cockpit of an Israeli Air Force F-16 fighter jet,” which “showed a target on the ground being tracked,” The Intercept reported.

Although Israeli drone strikes have been widely reported, officially the government refuses to confirm the use of armed drones.

Can the U.S. trust Europe to punish Iran should it violate nuclear deal?

Among his rationales for opposing the nuclear deal with Iran, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said that he did not trust the three European Union partners to punish Iran should it violate the terms of the accord that offers the Islamic Republic sanctions relief in exchange for scaling back its nuclear activities.

The New York Democrat’s assertion served as a reminder that while Washington has been the driving force behind the deal, which was reached July 14 between Iran and six world powers, the agreement is an international one. Its implementation, therefore, will be determined in part by the foreign policies and interests of Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia.

“It is reasonable to fear that once the Europeans become entangled in lucrative economic relations with Iran, they may well be inclined not to rock the boat by voting to allow inspections” that would bring about renewed sanctions, Schumer wrote in an Aug. 6 statement.

(Russia and China are unlikely to introduce new obstacles to trade with Iran, judging by their apparent eagerness to sell arms to Tehran. Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian defense official who is still the subject of a United Nations travel ban over his country’s nuclear activities, reportedly traveled to Moscow to discuss, among other matters, the sale of air defense missiles. China, meanwhile, has agreed to provide Iran with 24 fighter jets in exchange for access to Iranian oil fields for the next 20 years, Taiwanese media reports have said.)

Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish Democrat in the Senate, has said that he would vote against the deal in Congress, where it is expected to fail. President Barack Obama has vowed to veto any bill of disapproval, for which both houses of Congress would need a two-thirds vote to override.

Schumer’s stated concern about the European Union partners echoes warnings by critics of the deal who say that Europe’s fragile economies lack the discipline to cut trade with Iran should it violate the terms of the deal. But European supporters of the agreement argue that Europe has already proven its willingness to cut trade, and that Iran’s economic dealings will work to increase compliance, not diminish it.

“The resumption of an economic cooperation with the West will boost the gradual liberalization of the Iranian regime and allow it to respond to demands for democracy from civil society,” JCall, Europe’s liberal pro-Israel lobby, similar to J Street in the United States, wrote in a statement.

Europe’s recent track record suggests it has the discipline to walk away from Iranian money. When the European Commission first imposed sanctions against Iran in 2007, it cut a booming trade of 25 billion euros (then worth some $42 billion) between Iran and EU member states to around $7 billion last year.

Promoting stricter sanctions against Iran was easier for the United States, whose trade with Tehran — just $318 million in 2007 — is in any case limited by legislation set in place in the 1980s. (U.S. trade with Iran has gradually decreased since then to less than $1 million in imports and $186.5 in exports last year.)

But the economic situation in the European Union has worsened since 2007, with the union having been badly hurt by the global financial crisis the following year and struggling to maintain the integrity of its financial bloc and currency.

European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, vowed to renew sanctions if Iran fails to comply. But with two of the three EU partners suffering from stagnant economies and rising unemployment, many share Schumer’s skepticism on whether this will actually happen.

“The sanctions are toast,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right-leaning think tank. Britain, France and Germany, he said, “are in no condition, economically speaking, to agree to implement sanctions once they are lifted.”

Even if they agree to lift such sanctions, the deal’s terms mean that such punitive steps would not apply to contracts signed before the sanctions’ re-introduction, Ottolenghi said, noting: “The result is a rush in Europe to sign contracts now, even if they are not immediately applied, just to make them sanctions-proof.

In 2007, Germany’s gross domestic product grew at a rate of 3.3 percent. It now stands at 0.1 percent. France went from a GDP growth rate of 2.4 percent in 2007 to 0.2 percent in 2014. Of the three EU partners, Britain alone has managed to restore its 2007 growth rate of 2.6 percent after the 2008 crash.

The deal does allow for the reimplementation of sanctions through the U.N. Security Council, even over the objections of other veto players. But doing so, analysts warned, could alienate allies and complicate the creation of a new coalition to impose sanctions — making the snapback option anything but snappy.

But in defense of the deal, J Street has maintained in statements that “the EU and US can snap back their own sanctions at any time if Iran does not meet its commitments.” The left-leaning pro-Israel lobby insisted that the terms of the deal mean sanctions will be snapped back “automatically” at the Security Council if Iran violates any part of the agreement and provided the United States and EU partners demand it.

Is Oren’s call for ‘no surprises’ in U.S.-Israel ties possible?

Israel’s former ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, caused a stir this week by publicly accusing President Barack Obama of abandoning the two core principles that undergird the U.S.-Israel relationship: no public disagreements and no surprises.

But should there be no public disagreements – “no daylight,” in diplomatic parlance – between the United States and Israel, and is that kind of shoulder-to-shoulder closeness even possible between allies?

Oren, the American-born diplomat who served as Israel’s ambassador in Washington from 2009 to 2013 and is now a Knesset member in Israel’s center-right Kulanu party, outlined his argument in an Op-Edpiece in The Wall Street Journal. The piece appeared the same week as the launch of Oren’s new book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.”

“Immediately after his first inauguration, Mr. Obama put daylight between Israel and America,” Oren wrote in the Op-Ed.

“With the Middle East unraveling and dependable allies a rarity, the U.S. and Israel must restore the ‘no daylight’ and ‘no surprises’ principles,” Oren wrote. “Israel has no alternative to America as a source of security aid, diplomatic backing and overwhelming popular support. The U.S. has no substitute for the state that, though small, remains democratic, militarily and technologically robust, strategically located and unreservedly pro-American.”

David Makovsky, a member of the U.S. State Department team that last year attempted to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, said open disagreements and mutual surprises have characterized the relationship for decades.

He mentioned events starting from President Dwight Eisenhower’s threats to isolate Israel during the Suez war in 1956 through President George W. Bush’s endorsement in 2002 of Palestinian statehood, which caught Israelis by surprise. Makovsky also noted Israeli decisions that caught Americans off guard, such as the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and Israel’s entry into Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War.

“Aspirationally, there should be no surprises,” said Makovsky, who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, a think tank regarded to have close ties to the U.S. and Israeli governments. “In all candor, this is not always the case on either side.”

While it’s true that disagreements long have characterized U.S.-Israel ties, Obama was the first president to make a policy of “daylight,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies whose expertise includes the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

“This is the first time that this has been a systematic approach to Israel,” Schanzer said, noting the report cited by Oren that Obama in July 2009 told Jewish leaders he believed the policy of no daylight was contrary to American and Israeli interests and to advancing the peace process.

“When tensions came up in the past, the approach was to try to downplay it,” said Schanzer, who monitored terrorist financing at the U.S. Treasury during the George W. Bush administration. “Over the last six years, when there has been a disagreement, this administration has doubled down on the conflict that existed and used those disagreements for political gain.”

Ilan Goldenberg, the chief of staff for the U.S. Middle East peace team until last year, said Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have made their grievances public.

He noted Netanyahu’s strategy of public lobbying against the emerging nuclear deal between Iran and the major powers. Obama favors the deal, and his administration officials have urged Netanyahu to make his disagreements known in a private setting.

“Obama has been willing to express disagreement more than previous presidents,” said Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for a New American Security. “But the big violator of no daylight now is Netanyahu, much more than Obama, even as Obama tries to reach out.”

Goldenberg also took issue with some of Oren’s examples. Oren wrote that Obama abrogated the “no surprises” principle “in his first meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, in May 2009, by abruptly demanding a settlement freeze and Israeli acceptance of the two-state solution.”

Those positions should not have taken Netanyahu by surprise, Goldenberg said: Two states had been a principle since the Clinton presidency, and freezes on settlement growth were the policies of U.S. administrations since almost immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured disputed territories.

“Saying ‘two states and 1967 lines with land swaps’ was unprecedented was dubious given 242 and the Clinton parameters,” Goldenberg said, referring to the 1967 U.N. Security Council resolution that called for Israel’s withdrawal from territories captured during the war.

Heather Hurlburt, a director at the liberal New America think tank, said she was taken aback by Oren’s insistence in the Op-Ed that Netanyahu’s offenses, including announcements of settlement building, were missteps, while Obama’s offenses were deliberate.

“Everything the Israeli side did that was damaging was accidental, but everything the Obama side did was a personal decision of Obama?” she asked incredulously.

The penning of such an Op-Ed by a recent ambassador suggests deeper problems in the U.S.-relationship, Hurlburt said.

“If that’s how he perceived it” when Oren was an ambassador, “it’s an enormous problem,” Hurlburt said. “This is recriminating over who hurt the other person more in the relationship. It’s embarrassing. When you get to that point in a relationship, you’re usually done.”

U.S. officials: Iran needn’t reveal past nuclear activity

 Iran will not have to come clean about its past efforts to obtain nuclear weapons in order to sign a final deal with world powers on its atomic program, U.S. and Western officials said.

The Associated Press on Thursday quoted unnamed officials as saying that questions about Iran’s past activity toward achieving those capabilities will not be answered by the June 30 deadline for a final deal.

In 2013 by the Obama administration said that a comprehensive solution “would include resolution of questions concerning the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program.”

The deal would lift some sanctions on Iran in exchange for what U.S. officials have described as verifiable compliance with limitations set to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms.

The officials said that instead of coming clean before the deal is signed, the lifting of sanctions would be linked to Iranian compliance with the deal, including coming clean about its nuclear past.

The officials’ expectation that the questions about Iran’s past nuclear weapons activity would not be answered by the deadline echoed an assessment by the U.N. nuclear agency’s top official earlier this week.

Nevertheless, the officials said an accord remains possible. One senior Western official on Thursday described diplomats as “more likely to get a deal than not” over the next three weeks.

Iran has denied ever working to obtain nuclear offensive capabilities, though Israel and Western intelligence agencies dispute this.

Israel and some Arab countries are opposed to the deal with Iran, saying that it will allow Iran to reach a threshold that would make it impossible for the international community to stop Iran from going nuclear.

Obama administration officials say the deal is the best way to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

Separately, Michael Flynn, until last year the chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress this week that there are “severe deficiencies” in the emerging deal with Iran.

Speaking to a joint session of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees, Flynn said Iran “has every intention to build a nuclear weapon” and that its “stated desire to destroy Israel is very real.”

Among the deal’s deficiencies outlined by Flynn, in testimony posted by the Daily Mail, are limits Iran’s leaders say they will impose on nuclear inspectors; the notion that sanctions could be reimposed once Iran violates the deal; and the notion that Iran will moderate its positions during the 10-15 years some of the restrictions are in place, which Flynn called “wishful thinking.”

Flynn also faulted the administration with not consulting with allies in the region, including Israel.

Talks between the major powers and Iran are underway this week in Vienna. Israeli National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen will meet Monday with Cohen’s U.S. counterpart, Susan Rice, in Washington, Rice’s spokesman said.

“This meeting is part of robust and regular consultations between the United States and Israel at all levels,” Alistair Baskey said.

Obama administration: Israel must quit distorting details of Iran talks

Israel is distorting the U.S. negotiating position in nuclear talks with Iran and must stop, Obama administration officials said.

“The United States is mindful of the need to not negotiate in public and to ensure that information that is discussed at the negotiating table is not taken out of context and publicized in a way that does not distort the negotiating position of the United States and our allies,” Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Wednesday when asked to comment on reports that the Obama administration was withholding details of the talks from Israel.

“There’s no question that some of the things the Israelis have said in characterizing our negotiating position have not been accurate, there’s no question about that.”

Neither Earnest, who was addressing the daily media briefing, nor Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, would give details of which details they think the Israelis are distorting. But a New York Times report on Wednesday said U.S. officials are angered that the Israelis seem to be leaking the number of centrifuges that the Iranians would be permitted to operate under an agreement while omitting details of other means of keeping at a minimum Iran’s uranium enrichment.

“Its safe to say that not everything you’re hearing from the Israeli government is an accurate reflection of the details of the talks,” Psaki said at her own daily briefing. “There’s a selective sharing of information.”

Psaki and Earnest each emphasized that U.S. negotiators continue to brief their Israeli counterparts.

“There is no country that is not participating in the negotiations that has greater insight into what’s going on at that negotiating table,” Earnest said.

Netanyahu, meeting Wednesday in Jerusalem with Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), said he was aware of the details of the proposal.

“The Iranians of course know the details of that proposal and Israel does too,” the Times of Israel quoted him as saying. “So when we say that the current proposal would lead to a bad deal, a dangerous deal, we know what we’re talking about, senator.”

Cleveland State University signs agreement with University of Haifa

Cleveland State University and the University of Haifa signed an agreement to develop joint programming.

David Faraggi, rector of Israel’s University of Haifa, signed the memorandum of understanding to formalize their collaborative relationship with CSU President Ronald Berkman on Wednesday in Cleveland.

Faraggi was in Cleveland for a two-day visit to meet with college deans and community leaders.

The two universities plan to develop joint programs in natural sciences, Middle Eastern studies and educational leadership, according to Cleveland State.

During a trip to Israel with a group of students in CSU’s executive MBA program in April, Berkman met with the leaders of several of the universities in Israel, the Cleveland Jewish News reported. The University of Haifa was found to be the most similar to Cleveland State.

Although Cleveland State has numerous international agreements, this is the first time the university has entered into an agreement with a school in Israel, according to the Cleveland Jewish News.

“CSU and the University of Haifa share many similarities as urban universities with diverse students and a commitment to providing a global experience,” Berkman said in a statement. “Cleveland also includes a large and engaged Jewish community. Our students and faculty will gain access to a university deeply rooted in Israel’s innovation-driven economy, and we offer access to exceptional resources in business, urban affairs, natural sciences, health care and biotechnology.”

L.A.’s Iranian-American community unhappy with U.S., Iran relations

Reactions have been strong and angry from the local Iranian community to outreach initiated by the Obama administration to the Islamic Republic of Iran for assistance in quashing Sunni militants in Iraq. The United States reportedly met with Iranian officials on June 15 in Vienna, on the sidelines of talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Iranian-Americans voicing the strongest objections to the overtures are mostly immigrants to the United States who experienced anti-Semitism and discrimination in their homeland in the wake of the Iranian revolution. Many were forced to quickly abandon their homes and businesses there more than three decades ago and since have been outspoken critics of the Muslim leaders in their homeland. The local Iranian-Jewish community, in particular, which was especially hard hit by the revolution, is expressing shock that the Obama administration would consider warming relations with the regime, even in the face of the advancing extremists in Iraq.

“I think the best word to describe the community’s reaction would be disbelief,” said Sam Kermanian, a senior adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federation, based in West Hollywood. “Generally speaking, for some time now, our community has considered the administration’s foreign policy to be naïve, particularly when it comes to the Middle East,” Kermanian said. “So, to some extent, we had resigned ourselves to seeing the sorts of outcomes that we are seeing in Syria and Iraq or the continued nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran — but I doubt anyone in our community was quite ready for the possibility of a military cooperation with the Islamic Republic.”

Many Iranian-Jewish community activists pointed to the fact that the Iranian regime is believed to have backed terrorist groups responsible for killing U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“To me, asking Iran for military help in stabilizing Iraq is like asking the Italian Mafia for help in protecting the casinos in Las Vegas,” Simon Etehad, a local Iranian-Jewish attorney and community activist, said. “You really do not need to be that sharp with your history to know that the Iranian regime’s dream is to get a foothold in Iraq — and what would be better than having the president of the United States open the door for you?”

Etehad and many other Los Angeles-area Iranian-Jewish activists said they are upset as well because of the Iranian regime’s poor human-rights record and repression of religious minorities, including toward the few remaining Jews in Iran.

“Once the president of the United States of America, as the leader of the free world, normalizes a relationship with the Iranian regime that still persecutes its minorities, hangs hundreds of innocent people on false accusations, supports terrorist organizations and continues the development of its nuclear weapons, then what would you expect the other countries who were to follow us to do?” Etehad said.

Within the Iranian-American community, not only Jews are upset over this issue; many local Iranian Muslims also expressed outrage.

“I simply do not understand how the U.S. government is trying to negotiate with a terrorist-sponsoring regime like Iran, period!” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, the Iranian-Muslim head of the Iranian opposition party Marze Por Gohar, based in Westwood. “And now the U.S. wants to cooperate with Iran’s terrorist regime and its revolutionary guard that are listed on the State Department’s terrorist list. This does not make any sense!”

The prospect of warming of ties with Iran’s current regime also undermines the efforts of some key opposition groups within Iran who are fighting for a true democracy in the Islamic Republic, Farahanipour said.

“The Iranian regime’s strategists have gotten excited that America is showing weakness and asking for their help in Iraq,” Farahanipour said. “This is because [the] regime’s leaders know that average people will lose their hope of fighting to overthrow this regime, and they will not have any choice except to unite behind the ayatollahs.”

Iranian-American activists said this new trust in Iran’s leaders comes in response to an extensive public relations campaign that has been waged by Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.

“Rouhani can put a spin on it by putting on a nice smile or make a few jokes in English, but he is still a wolf in sheep’s clothing who wants the destruction of the United States,” Etehad said.

 Yet, many Iranian-Jewish activists said they are also concerned about the freedom and well-being of the non-Jewish Iranians in Iran who have been suffering inhumane repression for nearly four decades at the hands of the current regime.

“Our small community in the United States is composed of those very lucky individuals who were able to free themselves from the bondage of the present regime in Iran, but we are a tiny portion of the tens of millions of Iranians who are being usurped and are suffocating under this regime,” Kermanian said. “Any pain we may feel is for the people of Iran who, for the most part, love the United States and are gasping for a bit of air of freedom — but are witnessing U.S. policies that are moving toward legitimizing the Iranian regime instead of recognizing and supporting the aspirations of the Iranian people.”

Los Angeles’ Iranian Jews said they are also concerned that any change in relations with the current Iranian regime sends mixed signals to the Iranian regime’s leaders regarding relations between the United States and Israel.

“If the Islamic Republic of Iran perceives the American foreign policy as one which is abandoning Israel or distancing from it, and accepting the Iranian regime as a regional power — preferably the No. 1 power, like … the shah in the 1970s — then they may happily accept the United States as a long-term ally,” said Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran.

Representatives at the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

To read more about Iranian-Americans’ opposition to the warmer ties between Iran and the United States, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at

Jewish support for U.S. Iran strike drops, AJC survey shows

The annual American Jewish Committee poll of American Jews shows a decrease in support for a U.S. strike on Iran should diplomacy not end its suspected nuclear weapons program.

According to the 2013 poll released Monday, 52 percent of American Jews favor such a strike — 24 percent strongly and 28 percent somewhat.

In last year’s poll, 64.1 percent of respondents said they would support such a strike — 36.1 percent somewhat and 28 percent strongly.

There was a smaller drop in support for an Israeli strike in such a case: 67 percent this year as opposed to 72.5 percent last year, almost within the poll’s margin of error of 5 percentage points.

The poll also showed a drop in support in confidence in how President Obama is handling national security, although he still commanded strong majority support.

His score of 67 percent this year fell from 76.8 percent a year ago.

Among politicians who might seek the presidency in 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state, U.S. senator from New York and first lady, scored highest on a scale of how warmly respondents felt about a likely candidate.

Clinton earned an average of 60 on a scale of 0 to 100, followed by 45 for Vice President Joe Biden, 40 for Secretary of State John Kerry and 37 for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — the highest-scoring Republican on the list.

Scoring lowest was Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a leader of the Tea Party movement, at 20.

The online poll of 1,034 American Jews was conducted between Sept. 30 and Oct. 15 by KnowledgePanel, owned by the GfK group.

Report: Syria hiding chemical weapons to avoid disarmament

Syria has scattered its stockpile of chemical weapons in a bid to complicate U.S. efforts to track them, the Wall Street Journal reported.

A secretive Syrian military unit had been given responsibility to move the arsenal of poison gas and munitions, the Journal reported Thursday, raising questions about the viability of a Russian plan to secure the weapons.

Unnamed American and Middle Eastern officials told the paper moving the stockpiles could complicate a possible U.S. military strike on Syria in retaliation for President Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons last month. Washington believes that about 1,400 people died in an Aug. 21 attack involving poison gas.

President Barack Obama has agreed to hold off on plans to strike Assad’s forces pending the implementation of the Russian plan, which calls for placing Assad’s suspected chemical weapons arsenal under international control and inspection.

The weapons, which used to be concentrated in the country’s west, have been deposited by Syria’s unit 450 in over 50 sites in Syria’s north, west and south, according to officials cited by the Journal. Despite the redistribution, both U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies still believe they know where most of the weapons are situated, according to the Journal.

Obama has said that his military chiefs have assured him that any U.S. strike would not be degraded by delays.

Assad said Thursday Israel should be required to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, before Syria does. Also Thursday, Syria moved to join the United Nation’s Chemical Weapons Convention, a move seen as showing compliance with demands the country relinquish its arsenal.

Obama on Tuesday warned the Syrian government that Israel can defend itself with “overwhelming force” if attacked by Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, warned in a New York Times op-ed published Thursday that the Syrian rebels fighting to topple the Assad regime are preparing to strike Israel.

“Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored,” he wrote.

Boston bomb suspect spotted on video, no arrest made

Investigators believe they have spotted a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing from security video, a U.S. law enforcement source said on Wednesday, but no arrest had yet been made.

Police may make an appeal to the public for more information at a news conference scheduled for later on Wednesday, a U.S. government source said.

Earlier, cable news network CNN reported a suspect was in custody, citing Boston and U.S. law enforcement sources, but it later retracted its report.

Three Reuters sources also disputed there had been an arrest. Officials later confirmed the arrest report was inaccurate.

The suspect in the video had not yet been identified by name, two U.S. government officials said.

“Despite reports to the contrary there has not been an arrest in the marathon attack,” Boston police said in a statement.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a statement asking the media to “exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”

Shortly after the false arrest report, security officials at Boston's federal courthouse ordered staff, media and attorneys to evacuate and move at least 100 yards (91.4 meters) away, according to a Reuters reporter on the scene.

Bomb-sniffing dogs and fire engines arrived at the courthouse.

The identification of a possible suspect marked the most significant, publicly-disclosed break since Monday's blasts at the Boston Marathon's finish line killed three people and injured 176 others in the worst attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

The bombs killed an 8-year old boy, Martin Richard; a 29-year-old woman, Krystle Campbell, and a Boston University graduate student who was a Chinese citizen. Boston University has identified the student as Lu Lingzi.

The crowded scene in central Boston was recorded by surveillance cameras and media outlets, providing investigators with significant video of the area before and after the two blasts.

Investigators were also searching through thousands of pieces of evidence from cellphone pictures to shrapnel pulled from victims' legs.

Based on the shards of metal, fabric, wires and a battery recovered at the scene, the focus turned to whoever may have placed homemade bombs in pressure cooker pots and taken them in heavy black nylon bags to the finish line of the world-famous race watched by thousands of spectators.

Streets around the bombing site remained closed to traffic and pedestrians on Wednesday, with police continuing their work.


Rich Havens, the finish area coordinator at the Boston Marathon who also witnessed Monday's blasts, said he was relieved officials had identified a suspect.

“When the police said we are turning every rock, they really meant it,” Havens said. “There is a sense of relief that the amazing work they are doing – breaking through bits and pieces – is actually turning things up. And that they've gotten to this point in a matter of two days.”

Bomb scene pictures produced by the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force and released on Tuesday show the remains of an explosive device including twisted pieces of a metal container, wires, a battery and what appears to be a small circuit board.

One picture shows a few inches of charred wire attached to a small box, and another depicts a half-inch (1.3 cm) nail and a zipper head stained with blood. Another shows a Tenergy-brand battery attached to black and red wires through a broken plastic cap. Several photos show a twisted metal lid with bolts.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

“Whether it's homegrown or foreign, we just don't know yet. And so I'm not going to contribute to any speculation on that,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who until January was Massachusetts' senior senator. “It's just hard to believe that a Patriots' Day holiday, which is normally such time of festivities, turned into bloody mayhem.”

The head of trauma surgery at Boston Medical Center, which was still treating 19 victims on Wednesday, said his hospital was collecting the shards of metal, plastic, wood and concrete they had pulled from the injured to save for law enforcement inspectors. Other hospitals were doing the same.

“We've taken on large quantities of pieces,” Dr. Peter Burke of Boston Medical Center told reporters “We send them to the pathologists and they are available to the police.”

Security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said instructions for building pressure-cooker bombs similar to the ones used in Boston can be found on the Internet and are relatively primitive.

Pressure cookers had also been discovered in numerous foiled attack plots in both the United States and overseas in recent years, including the failed bombing attempt in New York's Times Square on May 1, 2010, the officials said.

Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Scott Malone in Boston; editing by Daniel Trotta and Gary Crosse

Suicide bomber kills guard at U.S. embassy in Turkey

A far-leftist suicide bomber killed a Turkish security guard at the U.S. embassy in Ankara on Friday, officials said, blowing open an entrance and sending debris flying through the air.

The attacker detonated explosives strapped to his body after entering an embassy gatehouse. The blast could be heard a mile away. A lower leg and other human remains lay on the street.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the bomber was a member of the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a far-left group which is virulently anti-U.S. and anti-NATO and is listed as a terrorist organization by Washington.

The White House said the suicide attack was an “act of terror” but that the motivation was unclear. U.S. officials said the DHKP-C were the main suspects but did not exclude other possibilities.

Islamist radicals, extreme left-wing groups, ultra-nationalists and Kurdish militants have all carried out attacks in Turkey in the past. There was no claim of responsibility.

“The suicide bomber was ripped apart and one or two citizens from the special security team passed away,” said Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

“This event shows that we need to fight together everywhere in the world against these terrorist elements,” he said.

Turkish media reports identified the bomber as DHKP-C member Ecevit Sanli, who was involved in attacks on a police station and a military staff college in Istanbul in 1997.


Turkey is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East with common interests ranging from energy security to counter-terrorism and has been one of the leading advocates of foreign intervention to end the conflict in neighboring Syria.

Around 400 U.S. soldiers have arrived in Turkey over the past few weeks to operate Patriot anti-missile batteries meant to defend against any spillover of Syria's civil war, part of a NATO deployment due to be fully operational in the coming days.

The DHKP-C was responsible for the assassination of two U.S. military contractors in the early 1990s in protest against the first Gulf War and launched rockets at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul in 1992, according to the U.S. State Department.

Deemed a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey, the DHKP-C has been blamed for suicide attacks in the past, including one in 2001 that killed two police officers and a tourist in Istanbul's central Taksim Square.

The group, formed in 1978, has carried out a series of deadly attacks on police stations in the last six months.

The attack may have come in retaliation for an operation against the DHKP-C last month in which Turkish police detained 85 people. A court subsequently remanded 38 of them in custody over links to the group.


U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone emerged through the main gate of the embassy shortly after the explosion to address reporters, flanked by a security detail as a Turkish police helicopter hovered overhead.

“We're very sad of course that we lost one of our Turkish guards at the gate,” Ricciardone said, describing the victim as a “hero” and thanking Turkish authorities for a prompt response.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the attack on the checkpoint on the perimeter of the embassy and said several U.S. and Turkish staff were injured by debris.

“The level of security protection at our facility in Ankara ensured that there were not significantly more deaths and injuries than there could have been,” she told reporters.

It was the second attack on a U.S. mission in four months. On September 11, 2012, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American personnel were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The attack in Benghazi, blamed on al Qaeda-affiliated militants, sparked a political furor in Washington over accusations that U.S. missions were not adequately safeguarded.

A well-known Turkish journalist, Didem Tuncay, who was on her way in to the embassy to meet Ricciardone when the attack took place, was in a critical condition in hospital.

“It was a huge explosion. I was sitting in my shop when it happened. I saw what looked like a body part on the ground,” said travel agent Kamiyar Barnos, whose shop window was shattered around 100 meters away from the blast.


The U.S. consulate in Istanbul warned its citizens to be vigilant and to avoid large gatherings, while the British mission in Istanbul called on British businesses to tighten security after what it called a “suspected terrorist attack”.

In 2008, Turkish gunmen with suspected links to al Qaeda, opened fire on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, killing three Turkish policemen. The gunmen died in the subsequent firefight.

The most serious bombings in Turkey occurred in November 2003, when car bombs shattered two synagogues, killing 30 people and wounding 146. Part of the HSBC Bank headquarters was destroyed and the British consulate was damaged in two more explosions that killed 32 people less than a week later. Authorities said those attacks bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda.

Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul, Mohammed Arshad and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Stephen Powell

ADL, Jewish federations regret failure to ratify disabilities treaty

Two national Jewish groups expressed regret at the U.S. Senate's failure to ratify a disability rights treaty.

The Senate on Tuesday voted 61-38 in favor of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; but it needed a two thirds vote, or 67 votes, for ratification.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a United Nations international human rights treaty designed “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” Some 126 countries have ratified the treaty, and 154 countries have signed but not ratified the treaty, like the United States.

The Anti-Defamation League in a statement noted that the treaty had as its basis existing American law,  the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. 

“The adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) set an important standard against discrimination that is too rare in countries around the globe where people with disabilities are marginalized and denied basic protections,” ADL said in a statement. “This treaty simply aims to take our own model standard to countries around the world to empower and protect people where they live. We are profoundly disappointed that 38 Senators did not see fit to affirm America’s commitment to be a global leader promoting the promise of equality and human dignity for all.”

Also expressing regret was the Jewish Federations of North America.

“Despite this move by the U.S. Senate  today, Jewish Federations will continue to stay committed to ensuring individuals with disabilities are able to live healthy, independent lives,” said William Daroff, vice president of public policy and director of the JFNA's Washington office. “We hope that the next Congress will take this up so we as a nation are able to ensure individuals with disabilities are supported on an international scale.”

U.S. Army to build large security complex near Tel Aviv

The U.S. Army is preparing to supervise the construction of an underground military complex near Tel Aviv.

The five-storey complex, dubbed “Site 911,” is expected to take more than two years to build and will cost up to $100 million, according to a report in the Washington Post Thursday by national security journalist Walter Pincus. It will be situated inside an Israeli Air Force base.

The construction of the facility, to be supervised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will have classrooms on Level 1, an auditorium on Level 3, a laboratory, shock-resistant doors, protection from nonionizing radiation and very tight security.

Only U.S. construction firms are  allowed to bid on the contract and proposals are due Dec. 3, according to the paper, which quoted the latest Corps of Engineers notice.

Within the past two years the Corps, which has three offices in Israel, completed a $30 million set of hangars at the IAF Nevatim base, the paper reported.

Site 911, which will be built at another base, appears to be one of the largest projects undertaken by the Corps in Israel. Each of the first three underground floors is to be roughly 41,000 square feet, according to the Corps notice.

The lower two floors are much smaller and hold equipment.

Egypt security forces, protesters clash outside U.S. Embassy

Security forces fired teargas to disperse stone-throwing demonstrators near the U.S. embassy in Cairo late on Wednesday, some 24 hours after protesters scaled the walls and tore down the flag over a film insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

State news agency MENA said some of those present had been injured, but gave no further details.

Live television showed hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the embassy, where late on Tuesday around 2,000 protested outside after some illegally entered the compound, ripped down the flag and burned it.

Washington has a big mission in Egypt, partly because of a huge aid programme that followed Egypt's signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The United States gives $1.3 billion to Egypt's military each year and offers the nation other aid.

Clashes between security forces and protesters continued in side streets near the building into the early hours of Thursday. Reuters witnesses saw protesters carrying petrol bombs and saw smoke billowing from one of the streets leading to the embassy.

MENA said earlier Egypt had arrested four people after Tuesday's demonstration in which protesters blamed the film on the United States.

It said the four people were transferred to the prosecutor's office, adding that security forces were still searching for others who scaled the walls of the U.S. mission.

<i>Writing by Edmund Blair and Shaimaa Fayed; Editing by Alison Williams</i>

BIRD Foundation awards $8 million for U.S.-Israel research

A foundation that works to support industrial research and development to benefit the United States and Israel will invest more than $8 million in nine new projects.

The projects approved at last week’s board of directors meeting of the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development, or BIRD, Foundation, include advanced developments in life sciences, information technology for medical applications, electronics, software and energy.  Among the companies participating include Pioneer (a subsidiary of Dupont), Access USA and MedStar Health.

The BIRD Foundation promotes cooperation between Israeli and American companies in various fields of technology and helps locate strategic partners in both countries for joint product development. The newly approved projects add to the more than 820 projects in which the foundation has invested some $290 million in the past 34 years. The projects have produced direct and indirect sales of more than $8 billion.

“American companies are investing considerable resources in innovation, including identifying unique solutions worldwide,” Dr. Eitan Yudilevich, CEO of the BIRD Foundation, said in a news release. “In Israel they find an inexhaustible pool of creative ideas and innovation. Synergetic connections are created between American and Israeli companies, with the assistance of the BIRD Foundation, creating a great advantage to both parties, which eventually leads to manufacturing jobs, sales and profits.”

U.S. delegation visits jailed contractor Alan Gross

A delegation of Americans visiting Cuba met with jailed American contractor Alan Gross.

The group met for two hours with Gross, 62, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for “crimes against the state” for distributing laptop computers and connecting Cuban Jews to the Internet, on June 10 in Havana. They delivered a letter to him from his Washington-area synagogue, according to Reuters.

Gross was convicted and sentenced last month. Cuban authorities detained Gross in late 2009 on his way out of the country, saying he was a spy. He has appealed his conviction and prison sentence.

The group came to Cuba under the auspices of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, which advocates for better U.S.-Cuba relations.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Gross in March.

Gross is in ill health. His daughter has breast cancer and his mother was diagnosed with cancer as well.

Cuba and the United States have not had diplomatic relations since the 1960s. The U.S. has economic and financial sanctions in place against the island nation.

Iran: Israel and U.S. are trying to provoke a regional war

Iran blames Israel and the U.S. for trying to provoke a military conflict in the region, Israel Army radio reported on Wednesday. According to the report, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said that the two countries are conspiring against Iran.

“The Americans believe that the immediate result of a military conflict in the area will be saving the Zionist regime,” he said, adding that the U.S. and Israel are trying to “weaken the popular uprisings in the area, in order to stop the spread of Islam to their regional allies.”

“Obama wants to continue the Western hegemony in the Middle East and destroy the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said.

On Monday, Iran announced it had sent submarines to the Red Sea. “Iranian military submarines entered the Red Sea waters with the goal of collecting information and identifying other countries’ combat vessels,” reported the semi-official news agency Fars.


Most U.S. Jews see Israel as serious in peace bid, poll finds

American Jews strongly believe in Israel’s commitment to peace, and largely think the Palestinian leadership and people are opposed to it, according to a new poll.

Eighty-four percent of respondents in the survey released last week said the Israeli government is committed to a lasting peace, compared to just 20 percent who said the same about the Palestinian Authority. More than half think the Palestinian people are opposed to peace with Israel.

Sponsored by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, the poll sampled more than 1,000 American Jews several days before President Obama called for the 1967 borders to be used as the basis for negotiations for a future Palestinian state.

More than 75 percent of those polled said the biggest obstacle to peace in the region is the Palestinians’ “culture of hatred” and promotion of anti-Israel sentiment.

Seventy-eight percent said it was essential for the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and 62 percent did not believe that Israelis would be free from Palestinian terror attacks even if a Palestinian state were created in the West Bank and Gaza.

Nearly one in four said they would consider it “the biggest tragedy of my lifetime” if Israel were to no longer exist, and 58 percent said they would call it “a major tragedy that personally concerned me.”

Andrea Levin, executive director of CAMERA, said in a release that the results get to what most Jews in the United States believe.

“Some news media accounts have tended to amplify a vocal fringe in the American Jewish community that espouses extreme views and policies far out of the mainstream,” Levin said. “This poll clarifies what American Jews actually feel and believe.”

U.S. Holocaust museum presenting roll call of victims

Holocaust survivors and members of the public are reading the names of Holocaust victims at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The reading at the museum’s Hall of Remembrance began Sunday and will last through May 8.

During the Days of Remembrance, May 1-8, the museum is commemorating the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, as well as the millions of other victims of Nazi persecution, with observances in Washington and throughout the United States.

In recognition of the 65th anniversary of the verdicts at the first Nuremberg trial and the 50th anniversary of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the museum chose “Justice and Accountability in the Face of Genocide: What Have We Learned?” as its theme for 2011.

On Monday, Holocaust Memorial Day, some 7,000 Auschwitz survivors, Jewish youth from around the world and 2,000 Polish youth marched between the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in the 20th annual March of the Living.

In unusual U.S. visit, Israeli Knesset members try listening

Hardly a week goes by that the Israeli Knesset doesn’t receive a delegation of visiting American Jewish VIPs. They come from Jewish organizations, federations and communities, sometimes with U.S. politicians, business leaders or big donors in tow.

There’s a lot less traffic in the other direction.

When Knesset members do come to the United States, it’s usually for meetings in Washington or to deliver a speech at some event or another. Often, they do a lot of talking without having to do much listening.

But a visit last week to Boston and New York by six Israeli Knesset members from the Likud, Kadima and Labor parties was all about listening—part of a new effort by an American Jewish foundation to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship by educating Israeli political leaders about the American Jewish community.

One by one, each of the Knesset members present on the trip’s final day described being startled at one point or another by what they encountered over the course of their week in the United States.

“I came knowing very little about American Jewry,” said Carmel Shama of Likud. “In the short run, Israel and American Jewry can exist and get along without each other, but not in the long run.”

Labor’s Daniel Ben Simon was shocked by the grace and tolerance of a rabbi in Boston who helped him find some non-kosher ice cream even though Ben Simon had just eaten kosher meat. “He helped us sin with grace and with a smile,” Ben Simon said.

Kadima’s Ronit Tirosh was surprised to learn that the protesters who disrupted one of the trip’s events—a speech at Brandeis University by participant Avi Dichter, a Knesset member from Kadima and former Shin Bet chief – were Jews and Israelis. “I thought: American Jews—they are born as Jews so they favor Israel,” Tirosh remarked.

Shama said that, after listening to American Jews, he now has a completely different view of the debate surrounding the controversial Rotem bill – proposed Knesset legislation that has upset a wide array of American Jewish groups for the way it would change how Israel handles converts from abroad and conversions at home. “Now, I look at the Rotem issue in a wider and deeper way,” Shama said.

That, said Jay Ruderman, whose family foundation sponsored the inaugural trip for Knesset members in conjunction with Brandeis’ Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, was precisely the point.

“Israel is the center of the Jewish world, and the Knesset makes decisions that affect the whole Jewish world,” said Ruderman, who immigrated to Israel from the Boston area five years ago. After making aliyah, he said, he discovered that Israelis didn’t know about the world from which he came. The new Ruderman Fellows program, which he plans to replicate with other Knesset members, aims to change that.

The Knesset members met with religious leaders from the major Jewish denominations, talked with college students, toured Boston, saw a Broadway show, went to a $200-a-plate dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, visited the Boston Jewish federation, had lunch at the Harvard Club, stopped by a Jewish day school, and took in lectures about American Jewish history, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and anti-Semitism in America. They were accompanied throughout the week by Ruderman and Jonathan Sarna, who teaches American Jewish history at Brandeis and helped design the itinerary.

Sarna said that during a sabbatical in Israel last year he was struck by Israeli ignorance of American Jewry. “Even the leading figures in Israel do not feel they understand American Jewry appropriately,” he said.

Some of the Knesset members who participated are regular visitors to the United States. Dichter says he comes about twice a year. Ben Simon was here only a few weeks ago, when he spoke at the J Street conference in Washington. But others, like Labor’s Eitan Cabel, who has been in the Knesset since 1996, had never been to America before.

“Even here there are Jews with the same problems we face in Israel,” Cabel said, sharing some of what he said he learned on the weeklong trip. “We can’t forget that after Israel, this is the biggest Jewish community.”

Perhaps more than anything else, the Knesset members said the trip showed them that Israel has much to learn from the liberalism, pluralism, diversity and tolerance that exists in the American Jewish community. Shama noted that it would be nice to have haredi Orthodox Knesset members go on such a trip.

While many Israeli politicians bristle at the notion of American Jews tinkering in Israeli politics – last month the Knesset held hearings investigating J Street, which seeks to pressure Israel into reaching a settlement with the Palestinians—Ben Simon said American Jews need to play a bigger role in Israeli political and social debates.

“You should take a position because it will affect American Jews here,” Ben Simon said. “You’re not courageous enough to tell Israeli leaders: What you’re doing has an impact on us.”

In his halting English, Cabel said, “We must AIPAC and we must J Street.”

Since the Labor Party split several weeks ago, both Cabel and Ben Simon are in the Knesset opposition. Ben Simon criticized the current government, calling it “not friendly to American Jews” and citing the investigation of J Street as one example.

“We have to be more in contact with American Jewry,” Tirosh. To that end, she said, she’d like to create a caucus in the Knesset focused on North American Jewry.

EU policy chief joins U.S., U.N. in rapping Gilo housing approval

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton joined the United States and the United Nations in condemning a Jerusalem committee’s approval of new housing in Gilo.

Ashton said Wednesday that she was “deeply disappointed” in the initial approval Monday by the Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee of the construction of 942 housing units in Gilo, a residential district in mostly Arab eastern Jerusalem. Other committees already had approved the plan. The units would be built on privately owned land as well as land owned by the Jewish National Fund, Haaretz reported.

“These plans may further damage an already fragile political environment,” Ashton said. “I reiterate that the EU considers that settlement activities in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, are illegal under international law, undermine trust between the parties and constitute an obstacle to peace.”

The planning and building committee’s backing came the day before Israeli President Shimon Peres met with President Obama in Washington to discuss, among other issues, ways to restart stalled peace talks. The Obama administration has objected to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.

The White House on Tuesday also criticized the construction approval.

“The United States is deeply concerned by continuing Israeli actions with respect to settlement construction,” White House National Security Staff spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

“Not only are continued Israeli settlements illegitimate, Israel’s actions run counter to efforts to resume direct negotiations,” he said. “As we have said, we believe that through good-faith negotiations, the parties should mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both sides for Jerusalem and safeguards its status for people around the world.

The United Nations also condemned the approval.

“We reiterate that Israeli settlement activity anywhere in occupied territory, including in east Jerusalem, is illegal and contrary to the road map,” Richard Miron, spokesman for the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, said in a statement Tuesday. “We call on the Israeli government to halt further planning for new settlement units, which undermines efforts to bring about resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and prejudices final status discussions.”

Jewish groups condemn U.S. House’s 2012 budget proposal

Jewish groups and a key Jewish lawmaker condemned the U.S. House of Representative’s budget proposal for 2012, saying it will hurt the Americans most in need.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs said in a statement released Wednesday that the Republican-backed budget proposal unveiled the previous day, which slashes nearly $6 trillion from federal spending over the next 10 years, “relies on cuts which will be harmful to many of those in America who are most in need.”

“We are concerned that a singular focus on deficit reduction means our families, those looking for work and others who are held up by our national social safety net will be neglected,” said JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow.

B’nai B’rith International said in a statement Wednesday that the organization is “deeply troubled” by the budget proposal, saying it would damage Medicaid and Medicare.

“The proposed budget does not control health costs or encourage efficiencies in the broader health care system; it simply relies on dramatic cuts, with a staggering impact on the elderly,” the group said. “By making Medicaid a block grant while creating a decreasingly valuable Medicare voucher, this bill would deal a devastating double-blow to older adults as well as the disabled.”

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the proposal, which would slash the international affairs budget by 40 percent, sets “a new standard for recklessness and irresponsibility.”

“This shortsighted plan is a slap in the face to our senior military leadership, which has argued time and again that diplomacy and development are key pillars of U.S. national security,” Berman said in a statement. The cuts “would also severely curtail U.S. efforts to promote human rights, democracy and free markets—which will lead to more instability, and ultimately, greater costs for U.S. taxpayers.”

A budget for fiscal year 2011 was never passed. The government is facing a shutdown Friday when the latest resolution to keep it running expires Friday.

U.S.: Violence isn’t the answer to grievances of Syrian people

The White House on Friday condemned Syria’s violent crackdown on anti-government protesters and urged Syrian President Bashar Assad to promptly take concrete steps toward meaningful reform.

“The Syrian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” Jay Carney, spokesman for U.S. President Barack Obama, said in a statement. “Violence is not the answer to the grievances of the Syrian people.”

Assad announced limited steps toward reform this week, saying he was forming committees to look into civilian deaths and the possibility of replacing Syria’s despised emergency laws. At least 75 people have been killed in two weeks of demonstrations, including three on Friday.


Gingrich: U.S. run by “anti-Jewish” elite

The United States under President Obama is “dominated by a secular, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish elite,” Newt Gingrich said.

Gingrich, the onetime speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a likely presidential candidate for 2012, spoke on March 25 at a meeting in Iowa of the American Family Association, Politico reported.

“Until you replace this president and until you have the Congress and the new president replace large parts of our bureaucracies, we’re going to continue to be dominated by a secular, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish elite, which is seeking to impose on us rules that make zero sense,” Gingrich said, referring to a number of disparate cases in which federal, state and local governments and courts have addressed Muslim sensibilities.

Separately, Louis Farrakhan, who backed Obama’s candidacy in 2008, called him the “first Jewish president” and said powerful Jews were behind his election.

“He was selected before he was elected,” the Nation of Islam leader, addressing a conference March 25 at Jackson State University in Mississippi, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. “And the people that selected him were rich, powerful members of the Jewish community.”

Obama in 2008 rejected Farrakhan’s endorsement.

Radio host threatens to oust Minn. lawmaker over invocation objections

A conservative radio host suggested that he would work to unseat a Minnesota state senator who opposed a pastor’s invocation in the statehouse for being nonsectarian.

An invocation earlier this month by the Rev. Dennis Campbell, a conservative Baptist, mentioned Jesus Christ three times. Campbell’s invocation had prompted state Sen. Terri Bonoff, a Democrat who is Jewish, to ask the body’s leadership to change the standard letter given to clergy to say that it requires prayer to be “interfaith and nonsectarian” rather than the current “request.” Bonoff told The Associated Press that the invocation made her “highly uncomfortable.”

Campbell told Conservative radio host Bradlee Dean over the weekend that Jewish members of the Senate should not be offended by the prayer since Jesus was a Jew. He also said he thought that America’s Founding Fathers would have supported the prayer.

Dean is the founder of You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International, a Christian youth ministry that holds assemblies in public schools. He suggested that Campbell’s ministry work against Bonoff’s re-election in 2012.

“Maybe what we need to do is get her name eradicated,” Dean said, according to the Minnesota Independent. “She’s looking to get rid of who we are as a people. Well, then, why don’t we help her possibly leave?”

Campbell described what happened after the invocation.

“After the prayer we were ushered out to the back room there and I had one or two people that opposed the prayer—and they were both Jewish folks—to one of them I said, ‘I want you to know that as Christians that we really love the Jews,’ ” Campbell told Dean and his radio sidekick, Jake McMillian. “He made a comment that they weren’t interested in our love so much as respect.”

U.S. praises PA security progress

The Obama administration lauded the progress of Palestinian security services.

“The program has witnessed increased coordination of activities amongst international donors, and is achieving notable progress on security, justice, corrections, and other new fronts,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement issued Sunday.

The statement marked last weekend’s visit to the region by William Brownfield, the assistant secretary of state who is responsible for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, which runs the training program for Palestinian Authority police.

The Obama administration has been pressing Israel to cede more authority to the Palestinian security services as a means of building Palestinian confidence and advancing the peace process.

Israel, U.S. woo Latin America after neglect leads to tilt away

It’s time for the West to woo Latin America—some will say it’s about time.

The United States and Israel appear to be heading toward increasing their focus on the area following years of neglect that has resulted in closer ties between Latin America and Iran—and gains for the Palestinians. The shift comes amid Iran’s deepening influence in the region, as well as the successes of a Palestinian diplomatic offensive that has seen eight Latin American nations agree to recognize a Palestinian “state” in recent months.

President Obama’s visits this week to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador follow on the heels of a visit to Israel last month by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials and American Jewish groups that focus on Latin America say the West’s attention to the area should have come sooner.

“Latin America has suffered benign neglect both from the United States and Israel,” said Dina Siegel Vann, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Latin American Institute.

“When you have a vacuum it will be filled,” she said, referring to Iran’s courting of Latin American countries that chafe under U.S. domination of the hemisphere—chief among them Venezuela. “This is the point of view of many Latin American Jewish communities who feel that they have not been treated as a priority.”

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity acknowledged the neglect, saying it was primarily a function of resources diverted to peacemaking in the region since the launch of the Oslo process in 1993.

That has been redressed in recent months with several high-profile visits to the continent, including Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Brazil visit in July 2009, and then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s return visit a year ago.

The outreach is coordinated with the local Jewish communities, and Vann noted a number of successes, including the visit to Israel this month of Chile’s president and last year of Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli.

Jewish lobbying helped moderate Chile’s recognition of Palestine with enough qualifications that the recognition was almost a moot point, Vann said.

“They spoke about Israel’s right to exist within secure borders, they said negotiations have to continue and that an agreement has to be part of bilateral negotiations,” she said. “In the end, the Israelis were happier with it than the Palestinians.”

Vann and her boss, AJC director David Harris, just returned from a high-profile tour of Argentina, Brazil and Chile to address issues of concern to Jewish communities.

The highest-profile effort is Obama’s tour of Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. Obama did not publicly address the Middle East when he met over the weekend with Dilma Roussef, his Brazilian counterpart. The visit focused on free trade with Latin American nations as the continent is showing an economic turnaround at a period when much of the West is otherwise struggling with recession.

Nonetheless, the joint Obama-Roussef statement pointed to an effort to bridge differences that erupted last year over the refusal by Brazil and Turkey to join the international effort to isolate Iran over its nuclear weapons program.

The statement underscored closer defense cooperation in recent months.

“They reaffirmed both countries’ commitments on disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, with a view to achieving the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” it said.

Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, said it was his understanding from his administration contacts that Obama in private meetings is sounding out Roussef to see if she plans on continuing the tilt of her predecessor, Lula, toward setting Brazil apart from the U.S. policy on the Middle East.

“From what I understand, he’s going to ask where will Brazil be going from this particular point,” said Mariaschin, who spoke to JTA a day before the summit, and who was slated to head to Latin America this week. “He will be raising the issue to try and discover if there is daylight in the policies between Lula and Roussef.”

Lula, who was Roussef’s mentor, was behind both Brazil’s decision to recognize Palestine and to attempt, with Turkey, to strike a separate nuclear inspections deal with Iran. Brazil predominates in South America, and its decisions had a domino effect, particularly on recognizing Palestine.

Vann said Lula had his eye on history as he left office.

“He wanted to go out with a bang,” she said.

That’s typical of a region that often has sought to distinguish itself from its powerful northern neighbor, Mariaschin said.

“There’s an interest in showing bona fides to the Islamic world, the Arab world, the non-aligned, that these countries in Latin America are of an independent mind,” he said.

Other factors have played into the pro-Arab tilt of an area that once was perceived as a redoubt of pro-Israeli sentiment; Latin America votes tilted the U.N. 1947 vote toward creating a Jewish state.

Among them are the substantive Arab diasporas in the region, including what is believed to be the largest Palestinian diaspora in the world in Chile and a Lebanese community in Brazil that is said to outnumber the Lebanese in Lebanon.

Another factor is the tendency of Latin America nations to follow each other’s leads. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez courted Iran as a means of needling the United States, which had sought his ouster in the early 2000s because of his nationalization of the oil industry.

“More often than note, there’s a tendency among Latin Americans to vote as a bloc” in international bodies, Mariaschin said. “I don’t think that’s helpful or healthy.”

The Iranian influence on Latin America was especially troublesome, he said, not just as it related to how it hindered efforts to set up a united front against the prospect of a nuclear Iran, but also in the reports of the infiltration of Iranian terrorists into the region.

U.S. lawmakers, led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, have pressed the Obama administration to make a priority of driving Iran influence away from Latin America.

The threat is real, Vann said, particularly in the little-policed “triangle” where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet.

“Iran’s presence in the region is very detrimental, and it’s not theoretical,” she said, pointing to the certainty in Western intelligence circles that Iran was behind deadly attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and its AMIA Jewish community center in 1994.

Vann cautioned against overstating Iran’s danger, however, noting an incipient skepticism in the region of such claims stemming from how the evidence the Bush administration used to make the case for the Iraq War turned out to be unfounded.

“They truly don’t believe Iran is a threat, and they draw parallels with Iraq and WMD,” she said, using the acronym for weapons of mass destruction.  “We have to be careful not to magnify the problem.”

Currently, she said, the only solid evidence of illicit Iranian activity in the region points to money laundering. Accusing the Iranians of planning imminent terrorist attacks, for instance, could undermine the case for tracking Iranian activity.