FILE PHOTO - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks on issues related to visas and travel after U.S. President Donald Trump signed a new travel ban order in Washington, U.S. on March 6, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

Sunday Reads: Tillerson’s slow start, Sisi’s ‘Egypt First’ foreign policy, Did American racism inspire the Nazis?


US

David Ignatius takes a look at Rex Tillerson’s slow start at the State Department:

The dilemma for Tillerson, the methodical engineer, is how to connect with the mercurial tweeter in chief. A fascinating example was Tillerson’s conversation with the president just before Trump placed a telephone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tillerson tried to explain the tricky Kurdish problem in detail, but that wasn’t what engaged Trump, according to one well-informed source.

The president interjected with an explanation of why Erdogan had survived an attempted military coup last summer: “You know what saved him? Facebook and social media.” It was a revealing, and probably accurate, presidential insight.

David Graham writes about the unbelievable appointment of a foreign agent as National Security Adviser:

In fact, it would be laughable if Trump officials had not known, since a simple Google search could have tipped them off. On Election Day, Flynn published an op-ed in The Hill floridly praising Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a crucial ally against ISIS and calling for the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious leader and former Erdogan ally who lives in the U.S., and whom Erdogan blamed for instigating a failed 2016 coup. Flynn complained that Barack Obama had kept Erdogan at arm’s length.

Israel

Avi Issacharoff writes about Trump’s surprising interest in Israel-Palestine peace making attempts:

All of this adds up to more than the faint indication that the Trump administration may be about to plunge into the quicksand of attempted Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. On the campaign trail, Trump acknowledged that this would be hardest of all deals, and maybe its purported impossibility is what he relishes.

The bar right now is so low that even bringing Abbas and Netanyahu together for a photo opportunity on the White House lawn would constitute quite an achievement. Both men would pay a price back home for such an appearance, but if Donald Trump were to invite them, it might be an offer they could not refuse.

Aviad Kleinberg discusses the Haredi backlash against a court decision that forbids racial discrimination against schoolchildren:

First of all, we must admit that the Haredi argument is essentially justified. Indeed, traditional Judaism does not believe in equality—not between Jews and non-Jews, men and women or scholars and the uneducated. The former in each of these three pairs deserve favored treatment. An Arab, even a good Arab, is not a real human being; a woman, even a good woman, is not really a man; and a secular person, even a good secular person, will never be equal to a religious scholar (who is better than the greatest secular scholar, even if he is a complete fool)… The discrimination against Sephardim may not be according to the law of the Bible, but it is definitely prescribed by the rabbis (the greatest sages of Israel, may they live long and happily). And in the new Israel, the secular court’s rulings are always conditional, until we find out what the Torah sages have to say.

Middle East

Eric Trager writes about General Sisi’s “Egypt First” foreign policy:

Sisi, in other words, will follow an “Egypt first” playbook, and Cairo expects everyone else to do the same. Still, if oil-rich Gulf states believe that they can’t face the region’s challenges alone, then it’s unclear why a resource-poor country with severe structural and security challenges believes that it can.

Busra Erkara describes President Erdogan’s massive propaganda machine in Istanbul:

President Erdogan had turned Istanbul into a giant site for propaganda calling upon the citizens to support his plans to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential system that would give him sweeping powers. The plan has already been approved by the Parliament, where the A.K.P. holds the majority of the seats, and its fate will be decided by a referendum on April 16.

Jewish World

Michael Eisenberg believes that American Orthodoxy’s leaders are moving to Israel:

If the leading minds of American Orthodoxy are moving to Israel and if the leading Torah and Jewish institutions are in Israel, and the innovation-centric wealth will grow in Tel Aviv and San Francisco, what will be left of the intellectual vision for American Jewry, particularly Orthodox Jewry whose epicenter is New York and the East Coast. Who, in the academic, rabbinic, and lay leadership will articulate a vision beyond Torah U’Madda at Yeshiva University and the broader community? If the future leadership continues to make Aliyah, who will paint a path forward for a communal and community ethos? Who will confront growing assimilation? Birthright long ago outsourced its Jewish identity needs to Israel by sending kids there for 10 days. A one-year gap program in Israel is now de rigeur for most Orthodox Jewish kids and many Jewish youth of other denominations wishing to grow in Torah studies and Jewish identity. To this day, the U.S. Jewish community has been unable to provide this deep identity need. That search and crystallization of identity for most Jewish kids has moved to Israel.

Joshua Muravchik reviews a book that raises the curious claim that American Racism inspired the Nazis:

Yet just as Whitman has told us nothing about the “genesis of Nazism,” so he tells us nothing about the “world history of racism.” The discrimination and persecution visited on American blacks was terrible and shameful, but how do we measure it against the European subjugation of much of Africa and Asia, against the mass murder of Armenians by the Turks, against Japan’s rape of Nanjing and murder of millions of Chinese, against fascist Italy’s treatment of the Abyssinians, against the Soviet regime’s ruthless subjugation of small ethnic groups and later its deportation of entire nationalities, against bloody conflicts among tribes, ethnicities, religions in various remote corners of the globe? Much of the abuse of one group by another around the world was and is often carried out without recourse to law; insofar as Nazi lawyers looked to American law, wasn’t it simply because they were, after all, lawyers looking for laws?

U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ over plans for settlement expansion


The U.S. State Department criticized an Israeli announcement approving the construction of hundreds of housing units in four West Bank settlements.

We’re deeply concerned by the government’s announcement to advance plans for these settlement units in the West Bank,” State Department Spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday, in answer to a reporter’s question during a briefing, hours after reports of the approval. “Since the Quartet report came out, we have seen a very significant acceleration of Israeli settlement activity that runs directly counter to the conclusions of the report. So far this year, Israel has promoted plans for over 2,500 units, including over 700 units retroactively approved in the West Bank.”

The Mideast Quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the U.N., called on Israel in June to stop building in the settlements and on the Palestinians to halt incitement.

Kirby said that the State Department is “particularly troubled by the policy of retroactively approving unauthorized settlement units and outposts that are themselves illegal under Israeli law. These policies have effectively given the Israeli Government a green light for the pervasive advancement of settlement activity in a new and potentially unlimited way. This significant expansion of the settlement enterprise poses a very serious and growing threat to the viability of the two-state solution.”

“Potentially unlimited” is a recent term used by the State Department, and seems to indicate U.S. concerns that Israel wants to annex the West Bank.

The Civil Administration’s High Planning Committee on Wednesday approved construction of 234 living units in Elkana in the northern West Bank, designated to be a nursing home; 30 homes in Beit Arye in the northern West Bank; and 20 homes in the Jerusalem ring neighborhood of Givat Zeev.

The committee also retroactively legalized 179 housing units built in the 1980s in Ofarim, part of the Beit Arye municipality.

The approval comes less than a week after Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, criticized Israel for continuing to build in West Bank settlements and neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem, going against the recommendations issued in June by the Mideast Quartet.

Indiana House unanimously passes anti-BDS bill


The Indiana House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill banning state dealings with entities that boycott Israel.

The bill sent to the state’s Senate on Jan. 26 defines “the promotion of activities to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel” as meeting the standard of “extraordinary circumstances” necessary under state law to mandate divestment from a company.

The Indiana bill states that the effort to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel is “antithetical and deeply damaging to the cause of peace, justice, equality, democracy and human rights for all people in the Middle East.”

The bill is one of about a dozen now under consideration in state legislatures that would counter the BDS movement

The businesses defined in the bill include commercial enterprises and non-profit organizations, which would mean that the law, once passed, would apply to universities. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement has focused its efforts on campuses and scholarly associations.

Funds that would be mandated to divest from businesses that boycott Israel include the teachers’ retirement fund and the public employees retirement fund.

Elliot Bartky, the president of the Jewish Affairs Committee of Indiana, which lobbied for the bill, thanked the state House for its passage, and noted in a statement that its sponsor, House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican, had led passage last year of a non-binding resolution in the House condemning BDS; a similar resolution was approved in the Senate

“Speaker Bosma’s leadership role in support of Israel places Indiana at the forefront of states taking a strong position in favor of the United States’ closest ally,” Bartky’s statement said.

Should the state Senate approve the bill, Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican known for his pro-Israel leadership while he was in the U.S. Congress, is expected to sign it.

Carson: Hillary Knew of the U.S. Spying on Israel


Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson on Wednesday blasted the Obama administration for spying on Israel and its allies in Congress.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration ordered the NSA to spy on Israel’s government and collect their communications with members of Congress since 2012.

“It is truly disgraceful that the Obama administration has spied on Prime Minister Netanyahu, his colleagues and pro-Israel lawmakers in Congress,” Carson said in a statement.

The GOP presidential hopeful accused the administration of treating Israel like an enemy. “Instead of focusing on deterring the Iran nuclear threat and fighting against the mullahs who chant, ‘death to America,’ President Obama has treated Israel, our staunch, democratic ally in the Middle East, as his real enemy,” Carson said. “Not only did he not curtail surveillance of our close friend, he has once again proven himself to be a president that our enemies need not fear and our friends cannot trust.”

Carson also took a step further and accused Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton of turning a blind eye on the NSA’s surveillance of Israel, suggesting she knew about it after quitting her job at the State Department.

“No doubt President Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knew of the administration’s spying efforts on Israel,” he said. “It is shameful that she participated in undermining the U.S.-Israel relationship. Once again, she has shown that her experience in government is merely an indication that she is unfit to lead.”

“When I am president, I will stand firmly with Israel, and one of my first acts in office will be to revoke Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran,” Carson pledged.

Huckabee tweets that Obama is marching Israelis ‘to the door of the oven’


Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee cited threats from Israel’s enemies in his continued assault on the Iran nuclear deal.

A series of Twitter posts on Sunday night followed a day after Huckabee said that President Barack Obama will march Israelis “to the door of the oven.”

Bolstering his argument of the potential harm the agreement signed by Iran and world powers earlier this month would do to Israel, Huckabee tweeted quotes from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, among others.“It is the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to erase Israel from the map of the region,” read one of the posts attributed to Khamenei.

A quote attributed to Nasrallah read: “If they [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”

Huckabee also said in a tweet, “Tell Congress to do their constitutional duty & reject the Obama-Kerry #IranDeal.”

In an interview Saturday with Breitbart News, Huckabee evoked Holocaust images of the ovens used to dispose of the bodies of Jews gassed in Nazi concentration camps.

“This president’s foreign policy is the most feckless in American history,” the former Arkansas governor said. “It is so naive that he would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”

Obama criticized Huckabee’s comments on Monday while on a visit to Ethiopia, saying they are “part of just a general pattern that we’ve seen would be considered ridiculous if it weren’t so sad.” The president added that Huckabee was making an “effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines,” referring to another Republican candidate, Donald Trump.

The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, called Huckabee’s comments “completely out of line and unacceptable.”

“To hear Mr. Huckabee invoke the Holocaust when America is Israel’s greatest ally and when Israel is a strong nation capable of defending itself is disheartening,” Greenblatt said. “The great tragedy of the Holocaust saw the Jews of Europe without allies and without power at the worst possible moment.”

The Democratic National Committee took issue with what it called Huckabee’s “cavalier” analogy to the Holocaust, saying such rhetoric “has no place in American politics.” Its chair, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, in a statement issued Sunday called on Huckabee to apologize to the Jewish community and the American people.

U.S. sells munitions to Israel from its surplus stockpile


The U.S. Defense Department sold to Israel munitions from its Israel-based surplus stockpile.

“The United States is committed to the security of Israel, and it is vital to U.S. national interests to assist Israel to develop and maintain a strong and ready self-defense capability,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in an email Thursday to JTA. “This defense sale is consistent with those objectives.”

The weapons released were 120mm tank rounds and 40mm illumination rounds. Israel made the request July 20, which was 12 days after the launch of the current Israel-Hamas conflict in the Gaza Strip. The items were released on July 23.

Kirby in his email noted that White House approval is not required for the sale of munitions in the Israel-based stockpile.

U.S. defense assistance to Israel has for years included the existence of a stockpile in the country of surplus U.S. weapons available for expedited sale to Israel.

Separately, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a phone call with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon repeated U.S. calls for a humanitarian cease-fire.

“Hagel called for the cease-fire and expressed concern about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths as well as the loss of Israeli lives,” said a statement by Kirby describing the phone call on Wednesday. “Hagel also reiterated U.S. support for Israel’s security and its right to self defense and said that any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups.”

U.S. commits $47 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza


The United States has committed $47 million to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The money will be for “direct humanitarian assistance,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stressed Monday night in Cairo at a news conference with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The assistance, according to the State Department, includes $15 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for its $60 million Gaza Flash Appeal; $3.5 million in emergency relief assistance from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance; $10 million in existing USAID bilateral funding, redirected to meet immediate humanitarian needs in Gaza; and $18.5 million in new USAID bilateral funding for humanitarian and emergency relief assistance.

Some 600 Gaza Palestinians, mostly civilians, reportedly have been killed since Israel launched its Operation Protective Edge 15 days ago in a bid to stop rocket fire into the country from Gaza. At least 26 Israeli soldiers and two civilians have been killed.

“We are deeply concerned about the consequences of Israel’s appropriate and legitimate effort to defend itself,” Kerry said. “No country can stand by while rockets are attacking it and tunnels are dug in order to come into your country and assault your people. But always, in any kind of conflict, there is a concern about civilians, about children, women, communities that are caught in it. And we are particularly trying to focus on a way to respond to their very significant needs.”

He added that the United States “will work to see if there is some way to not only arrive at a cease-fire of some kind, but to get to a discussion about the underlying issues. Nothing will be resolved by any cease-fire, temporary or long, without really getting to those issues at some point. And that’s what we need to do.”

Ban called on Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel and said he understands why Israel has to respond militarily, “but there is a proportionality. And most of the Palestinian people have been — most of the death toll are Palestinian people.”

“I fully understand, fully sympathize the sufferings of the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza,” the U.N. leader said. “These restrictions should be lifted as soon as possible so that people should not resort to this kind of violence as a way of expressing their grievances.

“At the same time, I fully appreciate the legitimate right to defend their country and citizens of Israel. Israel should also be able to live in peace and security without being endangered of their citizens.”

 

With jabs at Obama, CUFI lobbies for Iran sanctions, end to P.A. aid


With sharp jabs at the Obama administration, Christians United for Israel launched its annual Washington rally with appeals to Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran and cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority.

David Brog, the group’s executive director, said CUFI regarded the Iran nuclear talks as a failure and would back legislation proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would impose new sanctions immediately. The Cruz measure is tougher than legislation already under consideration that would trigger sanctions only if the talks fail.

Brog acknowledged that Cruz’s bill has little chance of success but said it was time to declare the talks a failure.

“Enough was enough,” he said.

The six months of talks between Iran and the major powers, led by the United States, were extended Friday for another four months until Nov. 24, with all sides saying there had been progress toward a sanctions-for-nuclear-rollback deal.

Brog said the activists, numbering nearly 5,000, also would advocate Tuesday, the conference’s lobbying day, for a cutoff in funding to the Palestinian Authority as long as unity talks with Hamas continue. Israel’s government opposes a cutoff in part because of its security cooperation with the P.A.

“We’re very strict about not dictating policy to the Israeli government, but when it comes to money from our government, we do feel a little more entitled,” Brog told JTA.

The unity talks were launched in April, precipitating the collapse of the peace talks with Israel. With Israel and Hamas locked in conflict in the Gaza Strip, the status of the unity talks is unclear.

The CUFI activists who gathered Monday in the cavernous Washington Convention Center heard from pro-Israel leaders and lawmakers, including Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.); and the organization’s founder, Pastor John Hagee.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a recorded video message. The organization conferred an award on casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who have been major backers of pro-Israel and conservative causes.

The tone of the conference veered between joyful praise of Israel, with Christian choirs singing Israeli classics in Hebrew, and harsh criticism of the Obama administration, with Hagee attacking the president and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Referring to the collapsed peace process, Hagee said, “John Kerry, you can park your State Department jet in the hangar, your efforts to win the Nobel Prize at the expense of Israel has failed.”

Dermer focused on the Gaza conflict in his speech, saying that the Israeli army deserved “a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting with unimaginable restraint.”

The ambassador parried anti-Israel hecklers who had infiltrated the hall – “There is a section for moral idiots at the back of the room,” he said — and thanked the Obama administration for its support during the recent conflict.

A number of lawmakers, including Cruz, addressed the group on Tuesday.

Egypt welcomes U.S. remarks on Morsi; food stocks dwindle


Egypt's interim rulers welcomed on Thursday remarks from the U.S. State Department describing the rule of toppled leader Mohamed Morsi as undemocratic, read in Cairo as a signal that Washington will not cut off its $1.5 billion in annual aid.

In a stark illustration of the desperate state of Egypt's economy, a former minister from Morsi's ousted government said Egypt has less than two months' supply left of imported wheat, revealing a far worse shortage than previously disclosed.

The army's removal of Egypt's first freely elected leader last week, after millions took to the streets to protest against him, has left the Arab world's most populous country polarized by divisions unseen in its modern history.

Violence between supporters of Morsi and soldiers at a military compound this week has deepened the fissures.

Washington has been treading a careful line. U.S. law bars aid to countries where a democratic government is removed in a coup. So far Washington has said it is too early to say whether the Egyptian events meet that description.

Nevertheless, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday Morsi's government “wasn't a democratic rule”.

“What I mean is what we've been referencing about the 22 million people who have been out there voicing their views and making clear that democracy is not just about simply winning the vote at the ballot box.”

The new U.S. remarks were warmly received by the interim government and swiftly denounced by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

The comments “reflect understanding and realization about the political developments that Egypt is witnessing in recent days, as embodying the will of the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets,” said Egypt's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Badr Abdelatty.

Brotherhood spokesman Gehad Haddad said the remarks showed American hypocrisy: “There is no way the Egyptian army would have gone through with this coup if it would not have been sanctioned by the U.S.”

VIOLENCE

Two and a half years of political turmoil has left Egypt on the brink of economic collapse, scaring away tourists and investors, shriveling hard currency reserves and threatening its ability to import food and fuel for its 84 million people.

Speaking to Reuters near midnight in a tent at a vigil by thousands of Morsi supporters, the ousted president's supply minister, Bassem Ouda, revealed that government stocks held just 500,000 metric tons of imported wheat.

Egypt, the world's biggest buyer, usually imports about 10 million metric tons of wheat a year, half of which is given out by the state in the form of subsidized bread sold for less than one U.S. cent a loaf.

The imported wheat stock figure, previously a closely-guarded secret, means Egypt will need to urgently start spending a $12 billion financial aid lifeline it has been given in the past two days by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, rich Gulf states that welcomed Morsi's downfall.

Egypt had not bought any imported wheat since February, its longest absence from the market in years, until the eve of Morsi's downfall when it bought 180,000 metric tons.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report that Egypt risked serious food security problems if insecurity and a shortage of foreign currency hinder imports.

“I think the aim of the Arab countries is to make sure Egypt doesn't fail with respect to food security and financial commitments with the international banking system, so I would think they will push to get the aid through quickly,” said Kisan Gunjal, economist and food emergency Officer at the FAO.

ROAD MAP

Adli Mansour, the interim president named by the general who removed Morsi, has moved briskly to implement an army “road map” to restore civilian rule. This week he announced a temporary constitution, plans to amend it and a faster-than-expected schedule for parliamentary elections in about six months.

He also named 76-year-old liberal economist Hazem el-Beblawi as interim prime minister. Beblawi held his first meetings with political leaders on Wednesday and told Reuters that he expects the transitional cabinet to be in place early next week.

Negotiations are difficult, with the authorities trying to attract support from groups that range from secularists to ultra-orthodox Muslims, nearly all of whom expressed deep dissatisfaction with elements of the interim constitution.

Those political moves have been accompanied by a crackdown on the Brotherhood, the Islamist movement which worked in the shadows for 85 years before emerging as Egypt's best-organized political force when autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011.

On Wednesday, Egypt's public prosecutor ordered the arrest of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and several other senior Islamists, accusing them of inciting violence on Monday when 53 Morsi supporters and four members of the security forces were killed in a dawn clash near a barracks.

Morsi's supporters say those killed were peacefully praying when fired upon. The army says terrorists provoked the violence by attacking its troops.

Morsi's whereabouts have not been revealed. The government says he is safe at an undisclosed location.

Thousands of Brotherhood supporters have maintained an around-the-clock vigil near a mosque in northeast Cairo demanding he be reinstated, an aim that now seems in vain.

The start of the Ramadan Muslim fasting month has done little to dampen the Brotherhood protest. Supporters are sheltering in tents from the summer heat during daylight hours when they are forbidden to eat or drink, and coming out in greater numbers in the evening.

They have called for protest marches on Friday, the Muslim prayer day, as has the anti-Morsi Tamarud group, raising the risk of more violence. Fighting between Morsi's supporters and foes killed 35 people last Friday, although the situation in Cairo and other cities has been calmer since Monday's clash.

Both sides in Egypt have become more anti-American in recent weeks. Morsi's opponents say President Barack Obama's administration supported the Muslim Brotherhood in power, while Morsi's supporters believe Washington was behind the plot to unseat him.

“Obama supports democracy, but only if it goes to those who aren't Islamists,” heavily bearded Morsi supporter El-Sayyed Abdel Rabennabi said at the Brotherhood vigil.

On Tahrir Square, where Morsi's opponents gather, the animosity is no less fierce. In the days before Morsi's downfall, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo attracted criticism from Morsi's opponents for a speech that stressed Morsi was democratically elected and discouraged street protests.

“America made an alliance with the Brotherhood against the Egyptian people,” said aircraft mechanic Tawfiq Munir at a recent rally there. “Now the Brotherhood are fighting us in the streets, fighting to take back power, and America is sitting on the fence.”

Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Maggie Fick, Mike Collett-White, Tom Perry, Peter Graff, Ali Saed, Seham el-Oraby and Shadia Nasralla; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Philippa Fletcher

Waxman faces Bloomfield in redrawn 33rd


Sitting in his recently rented campaign office on West Third Street in Los Angeles one afternoon in late August, Rep. Henry Waxman listed — one by one, from memory — some of the coastal and South Bay neighborhoods and cities that are included in the newly redrawn 33rd Congressional District where he’s running for reelection in November. 

“El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, part of Hawthorne — and then there’s the whole Palos Verdes Peninsula,” Waxman said.  

Waxman is on unfamiliar ground this year, literally and figuratively. The district where he’s running stretches from Malibu all the way down the coast, incorporating a few inland neighborhoods along the way, including the chunk of the Westside where his campaign office sits. It’s a big change for Waxman, who used to represent a lot more of the Westside, including West Hollywood, Beverlywood and Pico-Robertson. By his count, 45 percent of the voters in the newly drawn 33rd District are people he’s never represented. 

And this year, Waxman, the fifth-most senior Democrat in Congress and dean of the chamber’s Jewish members, who has won his last five elections with at least 65 percent of the vote, faces a challenger unlike any he’s faced before. 

Bill Bloomfield, an independent, is a retired businessman who has never held public office and was, until relatively recently, a lifelong Republican. 

At a time when Congress has an all-time-low 10 percent approval rating, Bloomfield’s reform-minded campaign slogan — “He’ll fix Congress” — should have at least some impact. Bloomfield spent more than $1 million in the run-up to the June primary, coming in second in a field of eight candidates, with about 24.6 percent of the vote. He said he’s willing “to spend what is necessary … and not a dollar more” in order to get out his message of reform — a pledge that anyone with a mailbox in the district probably believes. 

Waxman, meanwhile, spent about $200,000 leading up to the primary and took 45.3 percent of the vote in June. But even though he expects to be outspent in the race — as of June 30, he had just over $1 million in cash on hand — Waxman is confident that he can beat Bloomfield, especially since registered Democrats, who make up 44 percent of the district’s voters, outnumber both Republicans (29 percent) and independents (22 percent). 

“I just have to make sure that he doesn’t outspend me so much that I don’t get my message out,” Waxman said. 

Waxman’s message focuses on a legislative record that stretches back nearly four decades. Since he first began serving in Congress in 1975, Waxman, now the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has passed legislation addressing the problems of air pollution, preserving safe drinking water and cracking down on the marketing of cigarettes aimed directly at minors, among other matters. He’s also been a staunch Israel supporter throughout that time. 

Waxman is determined to continue serving in Congress, in part to pursue new legislation — he’d like to address climate change, perhaps by instituting a tax on carbon emissions — but also because House Republicans lately have made efforts to roll back existing laws protecting the environment. 

“This past year, the Republicans in the House voted to repeal most of what’s in the Clean Air Act by trying to stop regulation of pollution in a number of different areas,” said Waxman, who was one of the primary authors of the reauthorized Clean Air Act in 1990, which for the first time addressed air toxins, acid rain and ozone depletion.

With Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House, Waxman said he knew such efforts would not succeed. “I worry a great deal what will happen in the next couple of years if we don’t have President Obama and have Republicans in control of the Congress,” he said.

Bloomfield, for his part, professed having great respect for Waxman and said he would never let his opponent’s signature piece of legislation be overturned. 

“I like clean air,” Bloomfield said. “I like the fact that the Santa Monica Bay is cleaner than it was.” 

Instead, Bloomfield is running a campaign that focuses less on replacing Waxman in particular and more on reforming Congress in general. 

“I am not running because of how liberal he [Waxman] is, although he’s a lot more liberal than I am,” said Bloomfield, who is a co-founder of No Labels, a two-year-old nonpartisan organization that aims to reform Congress. “I’m running because of how partisan he is, because the institution is not working.” 

Partisanship, for Bloomfield, is the problem in Washington — yet until recently, his own record of campaign donations appeared to be that of a devoted and generous adherent to the Republican Party. 

Bloomfield spent a year working as an unpaid volunteer with Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid and has been a major contributor to Republican candidates. 

In the two years leading up to the 2010 election, Bloomfield donated $140,000 to the California Republican Party, more than $50,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidates and another $39,000 to other Republicans seeking statewide office, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. 

He also donated at least $24,000 to individual Republican House and Senate candidates outside California and $30,400 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

But in March 2011, Bloomfield switched his registration, becoming an independent. He said he didn’t know that he’d be running for Congress when he dropped out of the GOP (which he now calls “my former party”), and Bloomfield explained his decision to reregister as a reaction to the frustration with Congress’ “hyper-partisanship.”

“You’ve got people in congress who basically think that their job is to politick 24/7,” Bloomfield said. “The hyper-partisanship is causing the gridlock.”

In a video posted on his Web site, Bloomfield calls Waxman “10 times more partisan than the average Democrat.” But Waxman contends that he has worked across the aisle many times over his long career. 

“I believe in compromise,” Waxman said. “Unfortunately, we have the extreme right wing in the Republican Party right now in control and everybody else in the Republican Party is so co-opted that they think compromise is a bad word and something that should be avoided at all costs.”

If Waxman blames Republicans for Congress’ dysfunction, Bloomfield assigns roughly equal measures of responsibility to both parties. 

“It takes two to fight,” the former Republican said. 

There’s a double irony to Bloomfield’s running as a reformer. Not only did Waxman himself get elected as part of a crop of reform-minded “Watergate babies” in the wake of Nixon’s resignation in 1974, but Bloomfield’s current bid is a direct result of two recent reforms to California elections he has backed financially. 

He gave a combined $150,000 to support two ballot measures in 2010: One took control over drawing California’s congressional districts away from elected officials and handed it to an independent commission; the other established the “top-two” system of primary elections, in which all voters are given a ballot with every candidate on it, regardless of party. 

Both passed, and as a result, the 33rd Congressional District, as drawn by the independent redistricting panel, is more competitive than Waxman’s former district, and the new so-called “jungle primary” system is far friendlier to independent candidates, especially those with deep pockets. 

But if Bloomfield makes clear his aim is to reform Congress, it’s unclear how he’d vote on specific issues, should he manage to unseat Waxman. 

During an hour-long interview with the Journal, Bloomfield avoided picking sides on a number of issues that have divided Congress over the last two years. On the fiscal front, Bloomfield praised the Bowles-Simpson debt-reduction commission, whose conclusions were rejected by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and were not fully embraced by the Obama administration. He bemoaned the Democrats’ passing the Affordable Care Act without any Republican votes, but also assailed Republicans for wasting time passing legislation repealing Obamacare, knowing that such efforts wouldn’t move in the Democratic-controlled Senate. 

Asked what he would have done had he been a member when the health-care reform bill came up before the House, Bloomfield declined to say how he’d have voted, saying only that he wanted “to improve it.” 

Bloomfield also declined to say who he’d be voting for in the presidential race this fall. 

“The problem with answering that question is I get labeled,” said Bloomfield, who in early 2011 donated a combined $7,500 to Republican nominee Mitt Romney and a pro-Romney PAC. “I will support whoever the president is when I think he’s right, and I will be totally against him when I think he’s wrong.”

The growth in the numbers of “decline-to-state” voters and the shrinking number of Californians who are registered Republicans, coupled with the top-two primary, gives moderate Republicans like Bloomfield an incentive to run as independents. 

“The party label ‘Republican’ in California — and especially in a district like Henry Waxman’s — is absolutely toxic,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles and a Jewish Journal columnist. 

Bloomfield qualifies as a moderate Republican — he drives a Prius, believes that climate change is caused by human activity and voted against the ballot measure that outlawed same-sex marriage in California — and as such, he’s “much more threatening to a Democrat than conservative Republicans are,” Sonenshein said. 

Still, Sonenshein added, “I’d be beyond shocked if Waxman lost.” 

Waxman isn’t resting on his laurels. Waxman’s campaign manager recently held a conference call with leaders of about half a dozen synagogues around the South Bay, looking to plan ways for the congressman to reach out to the community. The South Bay could take on an outsized importance in this campaign, particularly as two candidate debates already scheduled will both take place in Palos Verdes. 

In the parts of the 33rd District that are new to him, Waxman might have some ground to make up. Rabbi Yossi Mintz, the director of Chabad of the Beach Cities in Redondo Beach, said he’d received many Bloomfield campaign mailers in the recent months but hadn’t gotten anything or seen any signs pushing voters to choose Waxman. 

Mintz said he’d met Bloomfield once, and that although he hadn’t yet met Waxman, Mintz said he knew the congressman’s reputation. 

“I know about his support for Israel, which is very important to me,” Mintz said. “He’s a person that other people look up to on how to vote. That’s a very powerful thing.”

In August, with the election less than three months away, the Waxman campaign office didn’t yet have the lived-in feeling of Bloomfield’s larger, more well-worn headquarters in Manhattan Beach. A neat stack of “Waxman for Congress” signs sat in the entryway.

Waxman said he was working the phones that day, soliciting donations from supporters in a way he hadn’t done in years past. 

“I’m calling people, telling them that I’ve never asked for their help in the past,” he said, “and this is a time when I really need it.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conference examines future of U.S.-Israel relations


I’ve just finished moderating two panels at the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem. I’ve just finished talking to dozens of the people attending and finished listening to other people’s panels. I’m tired and have a headache, and I am still trying to figure out a theme coming out of the conference.

In the meantime, I’d like to share with you a couple of notes from a roundtable on the ‎future of U.S.-Israel relations that was moderated by Mike Herzog. It was closed to the press (namely, to other press), and attended by luminaries such as Stu Eizenstat, Richard ‎Haass, Uzi Arad, Dore Gold, Malcolm Hoenlein, Abe Foxman, Dan Mariaschin, ‎David Makovsky and Alon Pinkas – I can’t name them all, but you get the picture (if ‎you’re not familiar with the names, Google them). Here’s an outline of some of what was said about some of the topics discussed. It does not do justice to the‎two-hour discussion but it will give you some idea of what was going on.‎

Read the rest of the story on Shmuel Rosner’s blog Rosner’s Domain.

U.S. to help Israel buy more Iron Dome systems


The United States will help Israel buy four more Iron Dome short-range anti-missile systems, a Pentagon official said.

Lt.-Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, told the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee Wednesday that the agency has included in its budget a proposal to pay for four more of the protection systems, which each cost about $50 million.

The system, which has been deployed near Beersheba and Ashkelon, has intercepted rockets fired from Gaza on southern Israeli communities.

Israel’s state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. developed the Iron Dome on its own, but the United States reportedly believes its troops could benefit from a similar system.

Obama to host Netanyahu at White House


President Obama will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House for talks.

The meeting will be held on May 20 in the Oval Office, and the effort to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process reportedly will be the main item on the agenda.

“The leaders look forward to discussing the full range of issues of mutual interest to the United States and Israel,” the White House said in a statement issued Wednesday evening.

Netanyahu will be in Washington to speak at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference on May 21. He is also scheduled to address both houses of Congress in a joint meeting, at the invitation of Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on May 23 is expected to outline his plans for peace with the Palestinians.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrives in Israel in blast’s wake


U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived in Israel, where he is expected to press Israel and the Palestinians to restart peace talks in the wake of increased unrest.

Gates, who landed in Israel on Thursday morning, less than a day after a bomb attack in central Jerusalem and following days of attacks between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, is in the Middle East assessing the U.S. posture after a wave of uprisings has shaken some regimes and supplanted others.

He is scheduled to meet his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, in Tel Aviv on Thursday, followed by a meeting with President Shimon Peres. Gates is scheduled to meet the next day with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Friday.

Israeli media said Barak intends to raise Israeli concerns arising out of the unrest.

Gates, who has said this is his last year in a post he has held since 2006, is arriving from Cairo, where he met with the interim military leadership in Egypt that assumed power following the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

Israel has sought reassurances that the new Egyptian regime will maintain the 1978 Camp David peace accords.

U.S.: Egypt of ‘deep concern’ [UPDATE]


[UPDATE: 11:15 AM] Events in Egypt are of “deep concern,” the Obama administration said, and its government should show restraint.

“Events unfolding in Egypt are of deep concern,” P.J. Crowley, the state department spokesman, said Friday through the Twitter social network. “Fundamental rights must be respected, violence avoided and open communications allowed.”

Video posted on the Internet has depicted indiscriminate Egyptian police violence against protesters, and authorities have shut down much Internet access.

Late Friday, Egypt called its military in to quell riots—a rare occurrence in a country with a vast police force. Reports said two people were killed Friday.

In a statement she read live on Friday, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, urged Egypt’s government to “engage immediately” with its people on political, economic and social reforms, and called on it to restrain its security forces.

“We support the universal human rights of the Egyptian people, including the right to freedom of speech, of association, and of assembly,” she said. “We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications.”

Politico reported that the Obama administration called for a rare Saturday meeting of its “principles,” high-ranking officials of the relevant agencies, to discuss Egypt.

It was the fourth day of clashes in Egypt, and riots have erupted in Jordan and Yemen as well. There have been protests in Lebanon and the Palestinian areas, and Syria has reportedly limited Internet access.

The clashes erupted after similar protests led to the downfall of the Tunisian dictatorship.

A half-century later, rabbis recall marching with Martin Luther King


Rabbi Israel Dresner, 81, says he’s the most arrested rabbi in America.

At least that was the case in the 1960s, he says, when Dresner was one of dozens of rabbis who answered the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for clergy from the North to join the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow South.

From the Freedom Rides of 1961 to the famous march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked in the front row with King, Jews were prominent participants in the battle for civil rights that dominated the first half of the ‘60s.

Of the thousands of white activists who headed South, nearly half were Jewish, according to “Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice,” a 1998 publication of the Reform movement.

“This was living out what Judaism itself has been teaching all along, that you have to help the oppressed, the underprivileged, not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” said Rabbi David Teitelbaum, 84, of Redwood City, Calif.

As the United States gets set to mark Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 17, some rabbis who traveled South to join the man who would go on to win a Nobel Peace Prize talked to JTA about the civil rights struggle.

Teitelbaum went to Alabama with four other rabbis from northern California in March 1965 for the voter registration drive of African Americans and the Selma march.

The rabbis who joined these efforts were arrested, jailed and sometimes beaten, protected by the color of their skin from the worst physical dangers, but nonetheless threatened on a daily basis.

Dresner’s first arrest was in June 1961, when he and the late Rabbi Martin Freedman of Paterson, N.J., along with eight Protestant ministers, formed the first interfaith clergy Freedom Ride. Their bus was part of a summerlong campaign of white and black activists, many of them clergy, who traveled together throughout the South to draw attention to the evils of segregation.

The young Dresner went to jail each summer for the next three years as he brought ever larger groups of rabbis and ministers to join the struggle in the South.

“I was a Reform rabbi, but I always wore a yarmulke,” said Dresner, now rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Wayne, N.J. “I wanted people to know I was Jewish.”

The president of the NAACP at the time was Kivie Kaplan, a prominent member of the Reform movement’s social action commission. Kaplan bought the Washington building that became the headquarters for the movement’s new Religious Action Center and also housed the fledgling Leadership Council on Civil Rights.

Black and Jewish lawyers on a table in that office drafted what became the major civil rights laws of the mid-‘60s, recounted Al Vorspan, who directed the Reform commission for 50 years.

It was a time when Jews and blacks often found common cause in the struggle for justice in a country where both had been oppressed.

Rabbi Matthew Simon, 79, now the emeritus rabbi of B’nai Israel in Rockville, Md., was working at a Conservative congregation in Los Angeles when he joined the 1965 Selma march.

“I had very good relationships with the black clergy in the San Fernando Valley,” he recalled. “We worked together on social action issues, on voting rights and housing rights, not just in Los Angeles but all over the country.”

Jews who took part in these efforts took considerable push-back from fellow Jews who felt that Jewish activism was better directed at issues of Jewish, not general, concern.

Most of the rabbis who marched with King, or joined the Freedom Riders, were Reform, said Vorspan, now senior vice president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, formerly known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

UAHC came out “strongly and unequivocally” in favor of civil rights activism, he said, but the rabbis who went South risked more than physical danger.

“Many of their congregations were on the verge of firing them for it,” Vorspan said. “I personally went to several congregations threatening to fire their rabbis and told them it would be a ‘chilul Hashem,’ ” a desecration of God’s name.

Three of the largest Reform temples in the country, including Temple Emanuel in New York, temporarily withdrew from the Reform movement, he recalled, because of the movement’s support for the civil rights struggle and later opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, leading black activists were borrowing heavily from Jewish sources, particularly the Bible, in their sermons and speeches. King himself often used biblical motifs, especially the Exodus, to dramatize the African-American journey from slavery to freedom.

One night in Georgia in the summer of 1962, Dresner and King were trapped with other activists in a house surrounded by hundreds of members of the local White Citizens Council.

While they were waiting for help, King told Dresner about the Passover seder he’d attended that spring at a Reform synagogue in Atlanta. He particularly recalled reading the Haggadah and hearing the phrase “We were slaves in Egypt.”

“Dr. King said to me, ‘I was enormously impressed that 3,000 years later, these people remember their ancestors were slaves, and they’re not ashamed,” Dresner said. “He told me, ‘We Negroes have to learn that, not to be ashamed of our slave heritage.’”

Negro was the accepted term for African American in the 1960s, Dresner noted.

In March 1965, Rabbi Saul Berman, then the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, Calif., traveled to Alabama with the rabbinic delegation from northern California.

Black leaders in Selma called, asking the rabbis to bring a box of kipot, or yarmulkes, with them.

“At that time, black people in the South were wearing kipot as a freedom cap,” explained Berman, now a prominent Orthodox scholar who teaches at Stern College and Columbia University School of Law in New York. “It was an extraordinary indication of the extreme penetration of the Jewish community.”

At the same time, Berman said, a “disturbing undercurrent” began to surface in the movement. As his group of 150 activists was arrested for the second time on its way to Selma, debate broke out as to whether they should disband, with a promise not to return, as local police were urging.

“They didn’t want to book us—half the group was clergy,” Berman said.

As the white ministers pondered the best move, the black participants became angry.

“The question arose, whose movement is this?” Berman said. “It was a precursor of much more intense feelings of that sort that emerged in the late ‘60s as black leaders began to resent white leaders who felt the civil rights movement was ‘theirs.’ I didn’t recognize the significance of that scene until much later.”

Many of the rabbis who were active in the civil rights struggle went on to support freedom for Soviet Jewry, motivated by the same sense of prophetic justice that drew them to the South, and by the desire to protect their fellow Jews in trouble, a more particularist concern that grew as the decades passed.

Today, relations between the black and Jewish communities are rarely as strong as they were in the heyday of the civil rights struggle.

“The issues of concern today are those of American society as a whole, not of blacks being able to enter American society,” said Simon, who notes that even after 30 years in suburban Washington, he still does not know his local black clergy. “I interact with them from time to time, but they’ve never come to us for a common action.”

Still, vestiges of commonality remain.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, is the only non-African American on the board of the NAACP. Many synagogues and Jewish community centers run Freedom Seders at Passover with local African-American and Latino leaders, or interfaith Shabbat services to honor Martin Luther King Day.

And rabbis who marched with King say they’d do it again.

“Because I’m Jewish,” Dresner said. “I didn’t see any alternative.”

(Amanda Pazornik of the j weekly contributed to this report from San Francisco.)

Rakitt taking over at Washington federation


Steven Rakitt, the president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, has been named to head the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

Rakitt was approved unanimously as the new executive vice president and CEO of the Washington federation, it was announced in a statement issued Tuesday. He will begin in his new position in February.

He replaces Misha Galperin, who left the Washington federation in late spring to head the North American operations of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Before serving in Atlanta, Rakitt spent 17 years as a senior professional at The Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, including seven years as executive vice president. He came to Rhode Island after serving as an associate and then as director of planning and young leadership at the Jewish Community Federation of Rochester, N.Y.

Rakitt has served as chair of The Jewish Federations of North America’s Large City Executives Forum and as a member of the Executive Committees of the Jewish Agency for Israel and The Jewish Federations of North America.

He launched his Jewish communal career in 1978 as an intern at the Associated Jewish Charities in Baltimore.

Rubashkin appeal seeks new trial


Lawyers for convicted former Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin have appealed a judge’s decision denying their bid for a new trial.

In a brief filed Monday with the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis, Mo., lawyers for Rubashkin made four arguments on his behalf, chief among them that the presiding judge in his case, Linda Reade, should have recused herself. Reade had rejected that argument in October.

Rubashkin was convicted in 2009 on 86 counts of fraud related to his management of the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, and later was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison.

According to the brief, government documents that surfaced after Rubashkin’s conviction and not made available to the defense showed that Reade was involved in the planning for a major federal immigration raid of the Postville plant in May 2008. Reade’s “excessive coziness” with prosecutors planning the raid raised doubts about her impartiality in the case, the brief claims, and as a result Rubashkin is entitled to a new trial or, at a minimum, an evidentiary hearing.

The 2008 raid at the time was the largest immigration enforcement action in American history and led to a string of accusations against Rubashkin, among them charges of identity theft and child labor violations. The bulk of those charges subsequently were dismissed.

Still, the trial was widely criticized, particularly in the Orthodox community, for the alleged zealousness with which federal prosecutors pursued the case.

Netanyahu: Israel was ready to extend freeze


Israel was prepared to extend a West Bank construction freeze, but the United States withdrew the idea, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

“The United States asked us to consider extending the freeze by three months, and the truth is that we were prepared to do so,” Netanyahu reportedly told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday.

“At the end of the day, the United States decided not to go in that direction, rightly so in my opinion, and moved on to outlining talks on closing gaps, so that the core issues can be discussed,” he added.

The Obama administration pressed Israel to implement a three-month extension of a 10-month freeze on construction on West Bank Jewish settlements in order to keep the Palestinians at the peace negotiating table. The freeze ended in late September, one month after the Palestinians agreed to restart negotiations. In early December the Obama administration announced that it would stop pressing for the freeze, after offering Israel several inducements, including 20 F-35 stealth fighter planes and security guarantees, as a reward for a freeze continuation.

“I told Obama that I am prepared to go with this to the Cabinet and that I will be able to enforce the move, but then I received the surprising phone call from the Americans who said they no longer demand that Israel extends the freeze,” Netanyahu reportedly said.

Netanyahu said that U.S. officials are scheduled to arrive in mid-January in an effort to restart peace negotiations.

On Sunday Netanyahu told his Cabinet that he was willing to hold continuous negotiations with Abbas until an agreement is reached.

U.S. opposes anti-settlement resolution


The United States opposes efforts to pass an anti-settlement resolution in the United Nations Security Council, a State Department spokesman said.

At the same time, the administration does “not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity,” Mark Toner said Wednesday during a meeting with reporters.

The Palestinian Authority is currently working on a draft of a resolution which would ask the Security Council to condemn Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem, as illegal and an obstacle to peace, according to reports. The resolution could be presented to the Security Council early next year.

“We don’t accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity, and in fact, we believe continued expansion is corrosive to peace efforts, as well as to Israel’s future. We believe, fundamentally, that direct negotiations are the only path through which the parties will ultimately reach the framework agreement that is our goal, our mutual
goal. And final status issues can only be resolved through negotiations between the parties and not by recourse to the U.N. Security Council, so we’ve consistently opposed any attempt to take these kinds of issues to the Council, because we believe that these kinds of efforts don’t move us any closer to our goal, which is of two states living side
by side in peace and security,” Toner said.

He declined to say specifically whether the United States would veto such a resolution. A resolution that does not call for sanctions could cause the United States not to use its veto, according to reports.

The Associated Press reported that it had obtained a draft copy of the resolution.  The AP said that the resolution will ask the Security Council to reaffirm that “the Israeli settlements established in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace…”

The resolution also reiterates the Palestinian’s demand that Israel, “the occupying Power, immediately and completely ceases all settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard…”

It also urges “the intensification of international and regional diplomatic efforts to support and invigorate the peace process towards the achievement of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East,” according to the AP.

U.S. military aid to Israel delayed


United States military aid to Israel for fiscal year 2011 has been delayed for three months.

The more than $3 billion in military aid, one of the largest amounts ever earmarked for Israel, includes grants to upgrade the Iron Dome and Arrow anti-ballistic missile systems.

The delay is a result of the Obama’s administration’s difficulty in passing the 2011 U.S. budget, which forced the president to sign a presidential order extending the current budget through March. Until then, funding for the budget will be disbursed on a month-to-month basis.

Israel usually receives its aid in a lump sum, 30 days after the U.S. annual budget is signed by the president.  Because of this year’s delay, the Israeli business daily Globes reported, Israel stands to lose millions of dollars in interest payments.

Israel received $2.4 billion in the 2010 U.S. fiscal budget. The 2011 budget is set to include, among other things, an additional $415 million to build and operate anti-missile systems, $25 million for immigrant absorption and $2 million for the U.S. Department of Energy’s energy research cooperation program, according to Globes.

The new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives includes many opponents of foreign aid.

Erekat: EU countries to upgrade Palestinian missions


Some 10 European Union countries have plans to upgrade the status of their Palestinian diplomatic missions, lead negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

The upgrades would bring the missions one step closer to becoming embassies whose officials enjoy full diplomatic immunity, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Norway decided last week to upgrade the status of its Palestinian mission, which encouraged the Palestinians to approach several European countries about following suit, Erekat told the Palestinian Ma’an news service.

Erekat did not say which countries he was referring to in Sunday’s announcement.

The European Union will not recognize Palestinian statehood until an “appropriate” time, its Foreign Affairs Council said last week in a statement.

The 27 EU foreign ministers meeting Monday in Brussels issued the statement in response to a letter from Erekat to EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton asking the body to join those countries that already have recognized a unilaterally declared Palestinian state.

New survey: U.S. has more Jews than believed


The American Jewish population is larger than suspected, according to new estimates compiled by Brandeis University.

The suburban Boston university’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute is estimating that there are some 6.5 million people in the United States who are either Jewish by religion or who self-identify as Jewish. The figure represents a 20 percent increase in the number of Jews since 1990.

The numbers were drawn from a synthesis of data from more than 150 nationwide surveys conducted by the U.S. government and other agencies, as well as from national polling organizations.

They refute information gathered in the last National Jewish Population Survey, a census-like study that had been conducted every decade by the Jewish federation system before being discontinued this year. The final survey showed that between 1990 and 2000-01, the population dropped from 5.5 million to 5.2 million.

A parallel polling by Brandeis of 1,400 Jews revealed that more than 80 percent of respondents who indicated that they are Jewish identify as such by religion, while the rest identify as Jewish by some other criteria.

According to the study, 1.27 million Jews who identify by religion are younger than 18. The Steinhardt center has not yet broken down other demographic data from the survey, but will roll out more information about demographics, socioeconomic status and other areas over the course of the next year, the center’s director, Len Saxe, told JTA.

Ehud Barak: Final status talks within months


After meeting with U.S. leaders, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted that comprehensive talks with the Palestinians on all final status issues would begin within months.

“We will have a serious discussion in coming months on security, borders, Jerusalem and refugees,” Barak told reporters Monday, ending a visit in which he met with Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, among others.

Clinton, in an address Dec. 10 at the Saban Forum, urged the sides to address those core issues, just days after the United States abandoned its efforts to renew direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians walked out of the talks in October after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial settlement freeze.

Barak did not say how the talks would proceed, if not directly.

“The mechanics will be resolved in the coming weeks,” he said. Netanyahu has insisted on direct talks, and has preferred to focus only on borders and security for now.

Barak also dismissed the controversy subsequent to his remarks at the Saban Forum following Clinton’s address in which he said a final status plan would include a Jerusalem shared with the Palestinians.

Israeli officials within hours said that Barak’s position was not that of the government’s.

Speaking to reporters, Barak acknowledged as such, saying it was his personal view that Jerusalem is necessarily a topic to be considered in talks.

U.S. recruited more ex-Nazis than thought, new report claims


The United States recruited ex-Nazis and collaborators and helped them avoid prosecution in larger numbers than previously known, according to newly declassified documents.

The documents were released Dec. 10 in a 110-page government report published by the National Archives, according to The New York Times.

The report discusses the close cooperation between the Nazis and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem. It says that Husseini, who drew a large monthly salary from the Third Reich, actively recruited Muslims for the SS and was promised that he would be named the leader of Palestine after the British and the Jews living there were driven out of the region.

Husseini was allowed by the French, who wished to maintain good relations with Arab countries, to escape to Syria after the war, according to the report, which adds that high-ranking Nazis who left Germany became advisers to Arab leaders.

The report also found that more important to Army counterintelligence than locating and punishing Nazi war criminals was spying on suspect groups, including politically active Jewish refugees in displaced persons camps.

The report is based on 1,100 CIA files and 1.2 million U.S. Army counterintelligence files declassified in 2007, The New York Times reported.

It follows the discovery of a yet unreleased Justice Department paper, which the government has kept under wraps, tracing the history of American Nazi-hunting operations reportedly stating that American counterintelligence officials provided a “safe haven” for some former Nazis.

House approves funding bill including Iron Dome missile system


The U.S. House of Representatives included missile defense assistance for Israel in a massive funding bill.

Included in the $1.1 trillion bill passed Wednesday was $205 million for Iron Dome, a new Israeli short-range missile defense system aimed at containing rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, as well as $200 million for existing joint U.S.-Israel missile defense programs like the Arrow.

“This was a priority of Congress and President Obama, and it is the first funding of its kind for this important short-range rocket and artillery shell defense system,” said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who as a defense appropriator helped craft the bill. “This is only the latest example that when it comes to defense, military and intelligence cooperation, the relationship between the U.S. and Israel has never been stronger.”

The Democratic-led House passed the “continuing resolution” 212-206 along partisan lines, mostly as a means of funding the federal government at 2010 levels because the U.S. Senate has failed to pass any appropriations bill.

Senate Republicans, using minority prerogatives, have blocked passage of spending bills as they seek a greater say in the wake of midterm elections in which Democrats will lose control of the House as of January.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are now working to pass an omnibus spending bill for 2011 that would incorporate moneys in the “continuing resolution” as well as other funds in President Obama’s budget, including the $3 billion Israel otherwise receives annually in defense assistance.

Jewish leader Nan Rich is Florida Senate minority leader


Democratic state senators in Florida elected national Jewish leader Nan Rich as their minority leader.

Rich was elected to lead the 12 Democrats in the state Senate, down two from the previous session following an election in which Florida Democrats also suffered losses in the state House and in the congressional delegation.

Rich, 62, has served as the national president of the National Council of Jewish Women, and as a board member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

She also has been active in the American Jewish Congress and the Florida Association of Jewish Federations.

In a profile this week, the Sun-Sentinel noted Rich’s “decades as a national leader in the Jewish community” and quoted praise from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a congressional leader on Jewish issues.

Altschuler concedes to Bishop in suburban N.Y. race


Randy Altschuler conceded the congressional election in a suburban New York district to incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop.

Altschuler, a Republican, is trailing the Democrat Bishop by 263 votes, unofficial counts show in the eastern Long Island district.

In his concession Wednesday, Altschuler said he concluded that a hand recount of 200,000 ballots was unlikely to change the result and would be overly burdensome on district taxpayers. Altschuler would have joined Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the incoming majority leader, as the second Republican Jewish lawmaker in Congress.

“I plan to stay active in politics and continue to speak out on the issues that affect the residents of Suffolk County, our state and our nation,” Altschuler said in a statement Wednesday. “Those issues include high taxes, runaway spending and an ever-growing deficit.”

Altschuler had spent $2.8 million of his own money on the race.

It was the last contested result in an election in which Democrats lost the U.S. House of Representatives to Republicans, who hold a 63-seat margin over Democrats in the 435-member House.

U.S. trying to help Israel fight fire


The Obama administration is seeking ways to assist Israel in combating its forest fires, while New York sent Israel a shipment of fire retardant.

A 747 loaded with Fire Troll 931, a fire retardant chemical, left New York Thursday night bound for Israel. The shipment was arranged by the Fire Dept. of New York and the office of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“I want to begin by offering our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of all of those who’ve died as a result of the terrible forest fire in northern Israel,” President Obama said Thursday evening, launching the annual White House Chanukah party. “As rescuers and firefighters continue in their work, the United States is acting to help our Israeli friends respond to the disaster.”

A number of countries, including Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Jordan are assisting in attempts to squelch the blaze in the Carmel Mountains near Haifa, which has led to the deaths of 40 people and the evacuation of 15,000. The Palestinian Authority also has offered assistance.

“A short while ago, our ambassador in Tel Aviv, Jim Cunningham, issued a disaster declaration, which has launched an effort across the U.S. government to identify the firefighting assistance we have available and provide it to Israel as quickly as possible,” Obama said. “Of course, that’s what friends do for each other.”

Separately, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: “We are moving as quickly as we can to provide this assistance, and are heartened by similar efforts to contribute resources from Israel’s other friends around the world.”