Kerry announces visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Kerry will visit Brussels, Chisinau, Jerusalem and Ramallah from Dec. 3 to Dec. 6, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

In Jerusalem, Kerry will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and they will discuss several issues, including the interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, according to the State Department.

Kerry will meet with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, where they will discuss the peace negotiations, and other issues, the State Department said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Kerry postponed a scheduled trip to Israel which would have occurred before last weekend’s Geneva talks.  The postponement raised speculation that there was a rift between Washington and Jerusalem.

Israel releases tentative Obama schedule


Israel released a tentative itinerary for President Obama's visit to Israel and the West Bank.

The March 20-22 visit, according to the schedule released Monday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, will include visits to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, as well as visits to the graves in Jerusalem of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist.

Also on the itinerary are a review of Israeli innovations in technology and a tour of the Dead Sea Scrolls, both at the Israel Museum; meetings with Israeli leaders, including a state dinner at the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres; and a review of a battery of the Iron Dome anti-missile system funded by the United States that Israel said repelled most of the rockets launched from the Gaza Strip during last November's war with Hamas.

Obama also will spend time in Ramallah with the Palestinian Authority leadership.

Not listed but reported in the Israeli media are a speech that Obama plans to deliver to Israeli university students and a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Obama to speak directly to Israelis on visit to Jewish state


President Obama is scheduled to deliver an address directly to the Israeli people during his two-day visit to Israel.

The Obama administration has requested that Obama deliver his speech directly to at least 1,000 Israelis, Ynet reported Tuesday. The address will either be at the Israel Museum or the International Convention Center in Jerusalem.

Ynet reported that Obama will land at Ben Gurion International Airport at noon on March 20, according to the itinerary set by Jerusalem and Washington. He will be welcomed with a state reception, including speeches by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, and then will speak himself. Obama will move on to Jerusalem and the president's residence, where there will be another official welcoming ceremony.

At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Obama is scheduled to lay a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance accompanied by Netanyahu and Peres. At Mount Herzl he will lay wreaths at the tomb of Zionism visionary Theodor Herzl and at the grave of the slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Later that day, Netanyahu and Obama will meet for official discussions and have a joint news conference and dinner.

The following day, Obama is scheduled to travel to Ramallah in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Following the meeting, Obama will view the Dead Sea Scrolls and visit an exhibit in the Israel Museum highlighting Israeli developments in technological fields and agriculture, according to Ynet. Following his speech, he will have dinner with Peres.

On March 22, Obama will have breakfast with Netanyahu before visiting an Iron Dome battery and the soldiers who work on it. He then will travel to Jordan.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai is working to have Obama speak in Rabin Square in his city.

An Israeli Facebook initiative called Speak for Peace, asking that Obama present an address in the square where Rabin was assassinated during a peace rally, has garnered more than 8,000 likes.

Obama’s planned visit to Israel


As you’ve probably heard, President Obama will visit Israel next month, his first time as president. And for those people still upset with him for not visiting during his first term, here’s the good news: Obama’s visit is still much earlier in his second term than when George W. Bush visited. So there’s no reason to be upset — not about the timing of the visit. As for the reasons and the implications of this impending visit — this is no big surprise — here’s one list of things to be considered:


Political Editor Shmuel Rosner, in Tel Aviv, discusses President Obama's Israel visit timing with Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, in Los Angeles. Story continues after the video.


Iran

Remember Benjamin Netanyahu’s U.N. speech last September? Remember his “red line”? Summer is coming fast, and a presidential visit in early spring is one good way of attempting to give the United States and its allies more legroom to  maneuver. Obama wants to do more talking with Iran and needs Israel not to be too fidgety with its timetables. His presence is a way of reassuring Israelis that the United States is on their side and that they should not rush to action. Since the public isn’t eager to see action — Obama has a chance of succeeding with it. As for the prime minister, that’s another story. Netanyahu truly believes that he was planted in his office to do this one, big thing of saving Israel from the peril of a nuclear Iran. If there’s one issue on which Netanyahu might decide to spite public opinion — Iran would be it.

Peace

One hopes that Obama got some assurances from both Israelis and Palestinians that his visit will not go to waste. The time for renewal of the peace process — that is, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — is long overdue. If Obama can’t make it happen, his visit could be in danger of being labeled a failure. (On the other hand, expecting him to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to get the two sides much closer to resolving it would also be a huge mistake — he can’t do it).

Coalition Talks

Don’t underestimate the timing of the announcement. Potential coalition members now have a clearer choice: If they want to see Obama, they’d better hurry. If they want to keep claiming that Netanyahu is ruining Israel’s relations with the United States — their case just became less convincing.

Israeli Compromises

Obama’s visit would make Netanyahu seem stronger, at least for a while (until the visit, and possibly after it if the visit is successful). Obama is experienced enough to understand this and surely made Netanyahu pay some price for it. Where can Israel compromise? Iran is tough, but with his new coalition Netanyahu has more flexibility on the Palestinian front (he doesn’t yet have a coalition — but his potential coalitions give him this flexibility).

Syrian Tensions

As I argued last week, the situation in Syria is bringing the Israeli and the U.S. governments closer together. It will give Obama and Netanyahu one safer issue on which to agree.

Scheduling Complications

If Obama is going to Israel in late March, this means that the hope for him to come here for Shimon Peres’ Presidential Conference is pretty much dead. It also makes the annual AIPAC conference in early March a little less consequential. Netanyahu will not travel to Washington if Obama is coming to Jerusalem (or so I’d assume); Obama might not want to go to AIPAC and upstage his own visit just two weeks before it happens. For the past week I’ve been thinking that the smartest move for the administration would be to send Chuck Hagel to the AIPAC conference — if he is confirmed as secretary of defense. This would make an interesting speech, and would present AIPAC attendees with an interesting test of restraint.

Israeli Opinion

Can Obama move the needle of suspicion downward with this visit? The American president is perceived by many Israelis as pro-Palestinian or neutral. I’m not sure whether Obama cares much about being popular among Israelis, but I’m sure that some advisers have told him that being more popular would also make him more effective as he battles with Netanyahu over policy. The question for me is this: Can Obama still charm Israelis — or maybe it’s too late for him to change an already firm Israeli suspicion of him? (My answer: He can probably change Israeli minds, but not by making speeches — they’d have to see action to be convinced).

Agenda

One would hope Obama is well aware that Israelis are too busy with conscripting the ultra-Orthodox at the moment to be concerned with issues such as regional peace and the occupation. Seriously: Much like the United States, Israel is preoccupied with domestic concerns. Assuming coalition talks are completed by the time Obama comes, the new government will be busy with drafting a budget and planning for cuts in government spending and raising taxes. Obama’s visit will be a distraction — not an event that’s going to top the agenda for very long.

It’s Time

Four years ago, I wrote an article for The New Republic in which, somewhat nastily, I advised Obama not to come to Israel:

“[W]ords alone will not make Israelis trust Obama. Israelis do not suffer from lack of understanding of the issues; they suffer from peace-fatigue. They look at “peace processes” with suspicion, based on experience and events. They are scarred enough to know what has [worked] and what has not, and they are tired of the good intentions of enthusiastic novices, believing that with their youth and their smarts they’ll be able to come up with some magic trick that can somehow round a square. What Obama needs is a convincing plan that makes sense. It does not look like he has one.”

Now I think it’s good time for him to come. Why?

• Because it is clearly not about domestic politics — elections are over in both countries.

• Because expectations have been lowered enough for all parties involved to understand that peace isn’t coming “within a year or two.” No one expects a “magic trick” anymore.

• Because Obama is no longer an “enthusiastic novice” — he is a second-term president.

• Because Netanyahu needs an opportunity to be a gracious host to Obama. And it will save Obama at least one Netanyahu visit to Washington, where he keeps getting on the president’s nerves.

• Because the Middle East is in turmoil and this really isn’t the right time for these two leaders to keep bickering about one another.

• Because Obama has to be here at least once, so why not get it over with.

One question though: Does he stay for the Seder?

Will Obama’s planned Israel visit revive Israel-Palestinian peacemaking?


Is President Obama's plan to visit Israel a sign that he’s ready to take another shot at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking?

The White House announced Tuesday that Obama would visit Israel in the spring, his first trip there as president. He did visit in 2008, when he was a candidate for the Oval Office. This trip also will include meetings with Palestinian Authority leaders and a trip to Jordan, the White House said.

Obama spoke of the visit in a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 28. The White House did not announce dates.

The announcement appears to be a signal that the president is serious about peacemaking, said David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which has close ties with the Obama and Netanyahu governments.

“Part of the problem is that on all sides, there's disbelief that peace is possible,” Makovsky said. “He wants to engage both societies about why you can't give up. He wants to engage on the gut level with Arabs and Israelis in a way he hasn’t until now.”

In a region where optics are important, Obama’s failure to visit during his first term as president was cast by his opponents as a sign that Israel was not a high priority for him. It did not help Obama’s popularity in Israel when he omitted the Jewish state from a June 2009 visit to the Middle East that included a major speech in Cairo and a stop in Saudi Arabia.

As much as anything else, the spring trip may be about reaching out to Israelis.

“I’m excited that President Obama is coming this spring to reaffirm the deep ties between Israel and the United States,” Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said in a message in Hebrew on Twitter.

Netanyahu may have his own reasons for welcoming such a visit now. For one, a U.S. president on Israeli soil sends an unmistakable message to Israel’s enemies that America stands with Israel.

It also helps Netanyahu politically. Netanyahu emerged weakened from Israel’s Jan. 22 elections, and aides have told the Israeli media that they believe voters stayed away from the prime minister over concerns about his rapport with Obama.

The two leaders have had something of a fraught relationship. There have been philosophical differences about Israel’s settlement enterprise and the Palestinians, disagreements about the red line for Iran’s nuclear program and perceived snubs on both sides.

During a March 2010 White House meeting, Netanyahu was denied a photo opportunity with the president and Obama interrupted their meeting to eat dinner. Last year, Netanyahu gave an enthusiastic reception to Obama rival Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign.

But the recent elections in both the United States and Israel could mark a turning point.

In recent days, Netanyahu has indicated that he wants to establish a coalition government that tends more to the center than his last government. He also has identified diplomacy with the Palestinians as one of his top priorities.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Obama’s choice for secretary of state, John Kerry, said in his Senate confirmation hearing that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace would be his twin priorities in the job. Kerry has since announced his own plans to visit Israel next month, and among his first calls in his new job were conversations with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“It's a new beginning: Obama can have a serious discussion with the Israeli prime minister at a time he's heading a new government,” said Dennis Ross, a counsel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was Obama's top Middle East adviser until a year ago.

“The president is interested in connecting with the Israeli public. It allows him to show he cares about the peace issues, but allows him to do so while discussing all the issues, including Iran, Syria and Egypt.”

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator who now is vice president of the Wilson International Center for Scholars, says both Obama and Netanyahu are being driven to a rapprochement by exigency: Netanyahu by his weakened political position and Obama by preserving his legacy.

“One guy is caught in circumstances which require improvement, and the other guy knows if he wants to get anywhere he's going to have to figure out if he can work with Bibi,” Miller said, using Netanyahu's nickname.

Debra DeLee, the president of Americans for Peace Now, said in a statement that Obama’s visit will give him an “opportunity to directly address the people of Israel and lay out a compassionate, pragmatic vision for a future Israel that enjoys security and peace, and that it is a respected member of the community of nations.”

But Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, said if Obama is going simply to advance a peace process that many Israelis and U.S. lawmakers believe is stuck because of Arab intransigence, he’s running a fool’s errand. It would be more useful, she said, for him to use his Israel trip to discuss strategies at a time of Middle Eastern turmoil.

“If he's president of the United States, he’s going to talk about Iran and Hezbollah and Syria,” Pletka said. “If he's the president of Barack Obama's dream house, he'll talk about the peace process.”

U.S. military official’s secret visit to Israel is revealed


The vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld, is in Israel to discuss security and defense issues.

Winnefeld's visit, which was revealed Thursday by Israeli's Army Radio on the last day of the meetings, reportedly was kept secret due to tension between Israel and the United States over the issue of an attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

The visit came days after the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he did not want to be “complicit” in such an Israeli strike.

Winnefeld reportedly is in Israel at the invitation of his counterpart, Brig.-Gen. Yair Naveh. The Israeli Defense Forces did not confirm the visit.

The commander of the 3rd Air Force, U.S. Air Forces Europe, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, is expected to visit Israel next week in order to prepare for next month's Austere Challenge 12, the joint ballistic missiles exercise between the IDF and the U.S. Army.

Obama campaign: Visit to Israel will take place in second term


President Obama would visit Israel in a second term, a top campaign surrogate said.

“We can expect him to visit Israel in a second term, should he be reelected,” Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, who is now a campaign spokesman on the region, said Monday in a conference call with reporters.

The call was timed ahead of a trip later this month to London, Poland and Israel by Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate.

The Obama campaign officials on the call said Romney needed to outline substantive foreign policy differences with Obama on the trip, describing Romney’s statements until now as little more than criticism of Obama.

Reporters pressed the Obama officials on perceived differences with Israel, noting for instance that Obama failed to visit Israel in his first term, although he visited Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Kahl and others noted Obama’s visit to Israel as a candidate in 2008 and that a number of other presidents did not visit Israel in their first terms.

“Being a friend of Israel shouldn’t be judged by a travel itinerary,” Kahl said. “I don’t think this is a serious policy difference; it’s basically a distraction.”

State Dept. reviewing how member of terror group visited White House


The U.S. State Department is reviewing how it granted a visa to an Egyptian lawmaker who met with top Obama administration officials and is known to be a member of a terrorist group.

Hani Nour el-Din, during a visit here last week by lawmakers elected since the Egyptian revolution, met with deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough and deputy secretary of state William Burns.

The story was first broken by the Daily Beast/Newsweek.

El-Din also is a member of Gamaa Islamiya, now a registered party, but during the regime of Hosni Mubarak was an armed Islamist group that clashed with authorities.

CNN on Saturday quoted Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, as saying how El-Din was given the visa is under review.

El-Din told the Daily Beast that he was not a terrorist and he was targeted for political reasons.

Omar Abdel Rahman, the “blind sheik” serving a life sentence in the United States for his role in plotting the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and for other conspiracies, is Gamaa Islamiya’s spiritual leader.

El-Din, according to the Daily Beast, asked McDonough to transfer Rahman to Egypt to serve out his sentence there. McDonough declined.

Aboriginal leaders from Canada to visit Israel


Thirty young aboriginal leaders from Canada will travel to Israel to study culture and society in the Jewish state.

The Youth Leadership Development Mission to Israel will take place April 29 to May 6.

Under the auspices of Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, the First Nations leaders will visit Christian and Jewish holy sites, study the Israeli immigrant absorption experience, and skate at Israel’s only full-sized hockey rink, located at the Canada Centre in Metulla.

The group also will meet with the Galilee branch of Kav Hazinuk (“The Starting Line”), an Israeli youth leadership development program funded by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg.

“The objective of this trip is to help develop leaders among First Nations youth,” said Ron Evans, chief of the Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba, who will lead the mission. “I visited Israel for the first time last year and I was overwhelmingly inspired. The Jewish people are the historic, indigenous people of Israel. For Canada’s First Nations, Israel’s story demonstrates how an ancient people can maintain their heritage while embracing the modern world, and in so doing achieve self-determination.”

By studying the Israeli experience, “these highly motivated youth will return to their communities empowered with additional knowledge and leadership tools,” said Shelley Faintuch, community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and an associate director of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

“The future of Canada’s First Nations depends on building the next generation of ambitious, dynamic and innovative First Nations leaders. Our goal is to support this important project,” Faintuch said.

Russia’s Putin will visit Israel, officials say


Vladimir Putin, the president-elect of Russia, intends to visit Israel this summer.

The date has yet to be formally announced, the Israeli media reported, but will come after Putin’s May 7 inauguration.

Putin reportedly is interested in unveiling a monument in Netanyahu to Jewish Red Army soldiers who fought in World War II, Haaretz reported, citing a senior Israeli official.

A Putin visit last year was canceled due to a strike by Israeli Foreign Ministry employees.

Putin is scheduled to travel to the United States on May 20 for the G8 summit, where he is expected to meet with President Obama.

In a call earlier this month to congratulate Putin on winning the presidency, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited Putin to visit Israel, Haaretz reported.

Israel confirms visit by Mohammed Merah


Toulouse killer Mohammed Merah visited Israel in late 2010, Israeli officials said.

Confirming French media reports, the officials said Monday that Merah, who claimed responsibility for the murders in southern France of four Jews and three soldiers, crossed into the West Bank from Jordan in September 2010 before leaving the same way three days later.

Merah passed an Israeli security screening at the Allenby Bridge border crossing, the officials said, but it remained unclear whether his visit included Israel as well as Palestinian areas.

Merah, who jumped to his death from a window amid a hail of gunfire by French police on March 22, claimed to have belonged to al-Qaida. He visited Afghanistan in November 2010.

During a 30-hour standoff with police, Merah admitted to the killings of the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse and the three soldiers in nearby Montauban.

Toulouse killer visited Israel, other countries in the region


The passport of Toulouse killer Mohammed Merah showed that he visited Israel, Syria, Iraq and Jordan, a French newspaper reported.

Police found Merah’s passport in his apartment following the raid Thursday that led to his death, LeMonde reported. It is believed that he tried to visit the West Bank.

Merah jumped to his death from his apartment window during a police raid on his Toulouse home. He was also shot in his head by police as he jumped firing at the officers.

A man riding a motorbike opened fire Monday outside the Ozar Hatorah school where students were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day. During the more than 30-hour standoff in his apartment with police, Merah said he was the attacker, according to French officials.

Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, and his two young sons, as well as the 7-year-old daughter of the school’s principal, were killed in the attack. They were buried Wednesday in Jerusalem.

Merah told French police he killed the Jewish students at the Ozar Hatorah school Monday in revenge for Palestinian children killed in Gaza, and had killed three French soldiers for serving in Afghanistan. Police found videos he took of the killings with a camera hung around his neck, according to reports.

Merah, a French national of Algerian origin, had claimed ties to al-Qaida in France and reportedly had been known to French intelligence for many years.

Also Thursday, an extremist group known as the Soldiers of Caliphate claimed responsibility for the shootings in France, calling it a response to Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians, according to Haaretz.

“The jihadists everywhere are keen to avenge every drop of blood unfairly shed in Palestine, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Muslim countries,” said the group in a statement posted on an extremist website, according to the newspaper.

Peres the prophet


This story has been updated with a correction.

When Shimon Peres appeared at the Beverly Hilton on March 8 before an audience of more than 1,000 Israel supporters, the Israeli president received two standing ovations — before he even uttered a single word.

Peres had just established his own Facebook page at the social networking company’s Bay Area headquarters the day before, and he had a solid schedule of events ahead of him in the Southland. Over the next four days, Peres would meet with some of Los Angeles’ most influential leaders, with a special focus on members of the entertainment industry and the burgeoning Latino community.

Coming at the tail end of a nationwide tour, the 88-year-old Nobel laureate delivered his message of peace and unity to Los Angeles and won fans among every audience he encountered — including some who hadn’t always seen eye to eye with Peres.

“Personally, when he was a political leader, I didn’t agree with many of his political positions,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said. “But today, as president of Israel, he has fulfilled that role in an amazing manner.”

Because Israel’s government is a parliamentary democracy, its leader is the prime minister. Peres has twice filled that role, but today, as president, he is a head of state and represents the Israeli people in a largely ceremonial role, not unlike the queen of England.

In his remarks that Thursday evening to a ballroom packed with members and leaders of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, Peres gave diplomatic and thoughtful responses to questions that would have been difficult for a less-accomplished statesman to answer.

And while his onstage interview with former CNN anchor Campbell Brown ranged across a variety of topics, it seemed that when the conversation veered toward something overtly political, Peres often demurred, proffering points of general agreement and less controversial observations instead.

“Like all processes, it has problems,” Peres said in response to one question about the seemingly distant prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “But that’s not a reason to give up the hope.”

Even so, a number of Peres’ statements that evening appeared to be, in tone at least, different from the party line of the current Israeli government — most notably when he expressed a preference for Israel and the United States to allow time for the sanctions against Iran to work before taking any military action against the country’s nuclear facilities.

“I think the president [Obama] made it clear that he will not compromise on the issue of Iran,” Peres said in his characteristic patient cadence, sounding more in line with the American president’s preference for a non-violent resolution to the conflict than with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertions that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself.

“It’s a danger to all of the world, not just to Israel,” Peres continued, “and I think that while everyone is looking for differences, the basis is common and agreed.”

The Angelenos Peres met over his four days in the city were thrilled to have him in town, particularly the Israeli-Americans. “He’s one of the biggest leaders Israel had in its history, and it was very important to be part of his historic visit in L.A.,” Sagi Balasha, CEO of the Israeli Leadership Council, said.

The audience may have been content to allow Peres to suggest that there was general agreement between the United States and Israel on the Iranian nuclear threat. In fact, the elements made public of the meetings Peres and Netanyahu each had with Obama earlier in the week, as well as the three leaders’ speeches at the annual American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, revealed significant differences in the situations that could trigger either an American or an Israeli strike on Iran.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who attended the March 8 event, took note of Peres’ comparatively generous approach to the current American administration.

Peres “can come in and speak eloquently of Barack Obama, which no Israeli governmental leader is doing, frankly, because he doesn’t have to be as political as when he was in politics,” said Yaroslavsky, who first met Peres in 1991.

From left: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Consul General David Siegel attend a March 8 event hosted by the Jewish community, the Consulate General of Israel and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Historically, there have been Israeli presidents who have served while the Knesset was controlled by a prime minister from the opposing party. But according to David Myers, a UCLA professor of Jewish history, none of those presidents had Peres’ political heft.

Peres “has played the role [of president] pretty well, doing as best he possibly can to avoid trampling the toes of his prime minister,” Myers said.

But although Peres might be nudging the customary boundaries of his position, Myers said that in the face of a possible Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, an action whose consequences are largely unpredictable, the Israeli president might consider taking even more drastic action.

“Whether or not it would be better for Peres to step out of the role and assert his opinion on this important issue is a reasonable question to ask,” he added. Myers said he had been invited to Peres’ Thursday evening appearance, but hadn’t been able to attend.

The event was organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Israeli Consulate and was co-sponsored by six other community groups, including the Israeli Leadership Conference (ILC) and StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy and education group.

In its work advocating on behalf of Israel, StandWithUs often stakes out positions that lie closer to the hawkish side of the political spectrum. CEO Roz Rothstein, who praised Peres’ speech as “extremely profound” and approvingly Tweeted a few of Peres’ remarks as he was delivering them, said she saw the message he was delivering as consistent with her organization’s.

She pointed to the video released on March 4, “Be My Friend for Peace,” which remixes remarks by Peres with a techno beat.

“Be my friend for peace, I want to hear your voice,” Peres says in the video, which was viewed 188,000 times in its first eight days on YouTube. “Be my friend, share peace. Speak up and change the world.”

“He’s saying that peace is possible, but you have to have a partner on the other side,” Rothstein said. “Between the lines, he’s asking for a partnership. That’s the way I read it.”

Nearly all who heard Peres welcomed his focus on the future — even those whose left-leaning politics led them to fondly recall the days when Peres was still involved in governing Israel. “I only wish that he had more influence in the halls of power,” said Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center and a member of J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet. “Israel certainly needs his wisdom, honesty and calm presence in these most difficult and trying times,” Grater added.

Not all who came in contact with Peres were looking for the Israeli president to venture beyond his traditional, strictly ceremonial role.

“When President Peres wanders into the territory of war, peace and politics, it is painfully apparent he has not learned from his mistakes,” Orit Arfa, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America’s western region, wrote in a statement e-mailed after his March 8 speech. “He continues to promote his failed vision of a ‘two-state solution’ and ‘land for peace.’ The President refuses to admit the truth that Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah Party are no better than Hamas.”

Most of those who encountered Peres in Los Angeles welcomed his optimistic message and were inclined to believe that his statements were aligned with their own political positions.

At Peres’ final event of the Los Angeles visit, a breakfast on March 11 for about 120 political, religious and business leaders, most of the attendees were from the region’s Latino community.

Among the Jewish leaders present, in addition to staff from the Israeli consulate, were representatives from The Federation, American Jewish Committee (AJC) and AIPAC, as well as many people who participated in a summit for Latino and Jewish leaders last September.

Israeli Deputy Consul General Gil Artzyeli, who will return to Israel this summer after four years in Los Angeles, dedicated a great deal of his time and energy to building bridges between the Jewish and Latino communities here.

The developing alliance between Latinos and Jews in Los Angeles was the subject of a Jewish Journal cover story last March, and looking around the well-secured room on an upper floor of the Beverly Hilton, Rabbi Randy Brown, assistant director of interreligious and intergroup relations with AJC, noted just how broad-based the coalition building effort has become. “It’s theological; it’s commerce; it’s political; it’s human relations — all in the same room,” he said.

During the question-and-answer session, Pastor Carlos Ortiz, the national Hispanic coordinator for Christians United for Israel (CUFI), asked Peres what members of his community could do for the Jewish people, “today and in the future.”

CUFI, which counts more than 950,000 members across the country, was founded by Pastor John Hagee of San Antonio, Tex., who also founded John Hagee Ministries, which has contributed over $60 million to charitable causes across Israel. Those donations primarily support organizations operating in Israel, but a small number—in 2006, a JTA report estimated about five percent – of the organization’s funding goes to support Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A sports complex in Ariel, a city-sized settlement in the West Bank, is named in Hagee’s honor.

“We used to live on the land,” the Nobel laureate said, beginning a lengthy, somewhat circuitous answer to Ortiz’s question. “The land was something tangible, measurable. We divided pieces of land; most of the wars in history were because of land.

“Now,” Peres continued, “we make our living not out of the land, but out of science.”

Peres concluded his response by asking Ortiz to “build your contribution, your togetherness and your relationship.”

“He really wrapped it up at the end,” Ortiz said after the event. “He said the best thing you can do is unite.” And while uniting might not be possible in some other countries, Ortiz said, it is a freedom available to him as an American.

“Right here, we can unite,” he said, “that’s why we are Christians United for Israel.”

If what Ortiz heard was Peres calling for more unity, the single most common observation made about Peres during his visit had to do with his preternatural optimism.

“Peres is a wise man,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said after the March 8 event. “He’s lived a great deal of our history, and he’s reflected deeply on what history has taught us. His refusal to succumb to pessimism and cynicism is remarkable. That’s the prophet in him — the ability to continue to hope, to envision peace, to demand better of us.”

Peres to visit the U.S.


Israeli President Shimon Peres will visit the United States in March.

Peres will leave for the United States on March 1 to attend the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, where the organization will pay tribute to him “in recognition of his life achievements in establishing and strengthening of the State of Israel and in building the strategic relationship with the United States,” according to a statement released by Peres’ office.

Peres, who is scheduled to deliver an address at the opening of the conference, will hold “policy-related meetings” with members of the U.S. administration.

He also is scheduled to pay a working visit to Silicon Valley and hold “marathon meetings” with the heads of leading global high-tech companies, where he will ask them to establish and expand the activities of their research and development centers, and other branches in Israel, according to the president’s office.

Peres also will meet with Jewish community leaders to “present to them the new vision he is formulating regarding relations between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry,” and with “leading opinion shapers, including media representatives and heads of the American film industry,” in order to “advance Israel’s international public diplomacy,” the statement said.

Cuban Jewish leaders meet with Alan Gross


Two Cuban Jewish leaders met with jailed American Jewish contractor Alan Gross.

Adela Dworin, president of the Beth Shalom Synagogue in Havana, and David Prinstein, the synagogue’s vice president, met Monday with Gross, 62, at a military hospital where he is being held. The visit, in honor of Chanukah, came at the request of the Jewish leaders, according to reports. Dworin reportedly brought latkes and chocolate gelt and lit a Chanukah menorah with Gross, a U.S. subcontractor jailed in Cuba for the last two years for “crimes against the state.”

Dworin said in a statement released to the media that Gross had told her that he gained some weight and that he was in “good physical shape” and walks five miles a day in the facility. Dworin, who has met with Gross on previous occasions, told CBS that he appeared to be in better spirits than in the past. She also released two photos taken of Gross during the meeting.

Gross’s wife, Judy, disputed Dworin’s characterization of her husband’s health.

“It was upsetting to see the photos of Alan from his visit with Adela Dworin,” she said in a statement. “To those of us who knew him before his incarceration began more than two years ago, he is now frail, weak, and appears decades older than the 60-year old man that we last saw on American soil.”

Gross reportedly is in ill health and has lost 100 pounds since being imprisoned.

Dworin said that Gross hoped for a normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, and expressed the desire that he would be able to visit Cuba once his prison term is over.

Gross was not included on a list released earlier this week of nearly 3,000 prisoners whom Cuban leader Raoul Castro said he will release on humanitarian grounds.

Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba. He was arrested in 2009 as he was leaving Cuba.

Gross’ family and U.S. State Department officials say that Gross was in the country on a U.S. Agency for International Development contract to help the country’s 1,500 Jews communicate with other Jewish communities using the Internet. The main Jewish groups in Cuba have denied any contact with or knowledge of Gross or the program.

Le Pen’s deputy visits Israel


Louis Aliot, vice president of France’s National Front party, is visiting Israel to try to drum up spoort for Marine Le Pen in elections this spring.

Le Pen is the leader of the controversial political party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. She has been trying to distance herself and the party from the anti-Semitic and xenophobic opinions expressed by her father, who once called the Nazi gas chambers a “detail of World War II.” He was convicted in Germany for inciting racial hatred for the statement.

Aliot arrived in Israel on Monday for a 48-hour visit. He and Le Pen have been a couple for the last two years, according to the French daily Le Parisien.

Aliot met with about 40 French Jews in order to present them with Le Pen’s platform. He also met with some Israeli political officials, none Knesset members, according to Haaretz, and visited the Western Wall. He was scheduled to visit churches in Bethlehem on Tuesday.

“This is the first time a National Front leader has visited Israel. It’s true that relations were tense for a time, but it’s time to warm up the atmosphere,” Aliot told Haaretz.

Chinese military chief to visit Israel


The head of China’s military will visit Israel for the first time.

Chen Bingde, chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, will be hosted next week by his Israeli counterpart, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the Israeli military said Monday.

The visit follows Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s trip to China two months ago.

Although China and Israel have had an occasionally frayed relationship, most recently over China’s ties to Iran, bilateral trade reached $6.7 billion in 2010.

Avrum Ehrlich, director of the Israel-China Institute, told The Associated Press that China’s Middle East policy is changing in the wake of unrest in the Arab world.

“The most important driving factors of Chinese foreign policy are its oil and securing its transport routes,” Ehrlich said, adding that the upcoming visit reflects China’s desire to use Israel as a gateway to the Mediterranean and Europe instead of Syria.

Hoenlein reveals secret Syria visit


Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he met for several hours with Syrian President Bashar Assad during a secret visit to Damascus.

In an interview published Monday by The Associated Press, Hoenlein said his recent one-day visit came at the invitation of Assad. The visit reportedly was several weeks before the popular uprising in Egypt, which resulted in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

Hoenlein called the mission “humanitarian,” according to the AP, and said he was not acting as an envoy for Israel.

Hoenlein did not give details of the meeting, which he said involved just him and the Syrian president without an interpreter.

NBA’s Dwight Howard to visit Israel


NBA All-Star Dwight Howard will visit Israel to hold a basketball clinic for teens.

Howard, of the Orlando Magic, and several former NBA All-Stars will also scrimmage against the Maccabi Haifa professional basketball team of the Israeli Basketball Super League.

The group of current and former professional basketball players from the United States will visit Israel from Aug. 28 to Sept. 5, “to demonstrate their solidarity with the people and State of Israel,” according to a news release from SportsPower International, a nonprofit organization that uses current and former NBA players as inspiring role models to make a positive impact on international youth.

Howard will conduct a basketball workshop and training session for teens on Sept. 4. Later that day, Maccabi Haifa will scrimmage against a team of former NBA All-Stars, including Jerome Williams, Anthony Bonner, Paul Grant, David Wood and Laron Profit. The All-Star team will be coached by Dwight Howard’s father, Dwight Howard Sr.

“With the arrival of superstars the likes of Dwight Howard to host a clinic for teens for such a worthy cause and for our Maccabi Haifa team to scrimmage against former-NBA stars, we are more than happy to rearrange our preseason schedule,” said Maccabi Haifa’s vice chairman, Arnon Shiran.

Maccabi Haifa will travel to the United States to play the New Jersey Nets in its first preseason game at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 3.

Israeli allowed to visit Beirut


Israel’s Supreme Court has given an Israeli-Arab writer permission to visit Beirut to attend an Arab writers’ conference.

Ala Halihal from the northern Israeli city of Akko appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court after Interior Minister Eli Yishai refused to allow the trip. Asked by the court to respond to the petition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he also opposed the visit, Haaretz reported.

It is illegal for Israeli citizens to visit Lebanon, which is considered an enemy country.

Affordable ways to visit Israel


The price of a standard 10-day Israel trip can be expensive, averaging about $3,000 per person, according to Israel’s Tourism Ministry. But there are a number of programs that can get you to Israel at a reduced price or free, as long as you meet certain criteria.

Aish JerusalemFellowships (goisrael.org) features single-sex study trips with scholarships available to reduce program costs from $2,000 to about $500. Women-only trips include JEWEL (19-30) and GEM (30 and older); men-only trips aimed at current college students and those under 30 include the Alpha Epsilon Pi Jerusalem Road Trip (jerusalemroadtrip.com) and Essentials, a beginner study program for ages 18-29.

American PhysiciansFellowship (apfmed.org) works with Taglit-Birthright Israel to send medical and nursing students — or college seniors with a letter of acceptance to a medical or nursing school — to train at Israel Defense Forces and civilian medical facilities. Students must be under age 26 as of May 31.

BBYO Passport (passport.bbyo.org) offers the 10-day Israel Family Journey, a Jewish heritage tour designed for adults and families of all backgrounds. All meals are kosher, and there are no bus-based tours on Shabbat. The base price is $1,750 per person, airfare and one meal not included. Group rates are available. Membership or prior affiliation with BBYO is not necessary.

GoSephardic (gosephardic.com), an Aish HaTorah program, offers three-week educational trips for 18- to 26-year-old Sephardim. Trips cost $2,000, including airfare, with departures from Los Angeles or New York.

Hasbara Fellowships (israelactivism.com) brings college students with at least two semesters remaining to Israel to study information relevant to becoming a campus activist. Fellows work with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and are required to run at least one campus campaign.

Livnot (livnot.com) trips provide a glimpse into Judaism through community service, lectures and hikes. The three-week program, aimed at adults 18 to 30, costs $1,000, not including airfare.

MASA (masaisrael.org) offers various semester- or year-long trips for college students (18-30) who want to study in Israel. The programs — more than 150 — vary in duration and cost. Depending on the program, grants and scholarships may be available to help defray the expense; a few cover the entire trip.

Taglit-BirthrightIsrael (birthrightisrael.com) offers free 10-day trips to Israel for Jewish adults 18 to 26 (those turning 27 prior to May 1 are ineligible) who have neither traveled to Israel before on a peer educational trip or study program nor have lived in Israel beyond the age of 12. Birthright enforces strict security measures; participants are not allowed to go off on their own at any time. The program places an emphasis on peer experiences, and many participants develop long-term friendships and continue on with other Birthright initiatives after their trip. Oranim (israelfree.com) offers a similar 10-day trip for Jews 18 to 30, as well as a five-month work-experience program in the hotel industry or a five-month volunteer program.

Volunteers for Israel(vfi-usa.org) works with Sar-El to place American volunteers on Israel Defense Forces bases for two or three weeks to relieve reservists. Volunteers work on the base Sundays through Thursdays. VFI pays for meals, uniforms and housing during the workweek, but participants pay their own way Fridays and Saturdays.

Politics abound on Pope’s mission of peace to Israel


Coming as a self-described “pilgrim of peace,” Pope Benedict XVI vowed to fight anti-Semitism and called for a Palestinian state in the moments after his arrival in Israel for a five-day visit.

But controversy has marked the visit this week from the start, as the pope’s supposedly non-political trip abounds with politics and his hosts in Israel and the Palestinian Authority parse his words with nearly Talmudic precision eyeing support for their positions.

On Monday, his first day in Israel, the pope was criticized for not being contrite enough about the Holocaust on behalf of the Catholic Church. Later he cut short an interfaith meeting of clergy after a Palestinian Muslim cleric launched a surprise attack on Israel during an impromptu address.

“I come, like so many others before me, to pray at the holy places, to pray especially for peace—peace here in the Holy Land, and peace throughout the world,” Benedict said Monday morning during a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport, where he was met by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Benedict would repeat that desire for peace and interfaith dialogue in every appearance in the early days of his trip, which the Vatican insisted is non-political.

But his visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, sparked criticism by former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who greeted the pontiff at the museum.

“I am deeply grateful to God and to you for the opportunity to stand here in silence: a silence to remember, a silence to pray, a silence to hope,” the pope said.

The cry of those killed “echoes in our hearts. It is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood.”

Following the visit, in which the pope did not enter the actual museum due to an exhibit that offers an unflattering portrayal of Pope Pius XII, who has been accused of being silent in the face of Nazi atrocities against the Jews during World War II, Lau criticized the pope’s speech in an interview on Israel’s Channel 1.

Lau, a survivor of Buchenwald who serves as the chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, lamented that while Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in his address at the museum nine years ago offered a moving personal expression of grief, the current pope did not go that far, instead offering the Church’s “deep compassion” for those killed in the Holocaust.

“I personally missed hearing a tone of sharing the grief,” Lau said. “I missed hearing ‘I’m sorry, I apologize.’ ”

Lau also pointed out that the pontiff, who is German by birth and was a member of the Hitler Youth, did not mention the Germans, or Nazis, as those who carried out the genocide, and used the word “killed” instead of “murdered” to describe how the Jews died. And, he added, the pope never said that 6 million were killed, saying only “millions.”

Rivlin also criticized the Pope.

“With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the burden he bears, as a young German who joined the Hitler Youth and as a person who joined Hitler’s army, which was an instrument in the extermination,” he said Tuesday on Israel Radio. “He came and told us as if he were a historian, someone looking in from the sidelines, about things that should not have happened. And what can you do? He was a part of them.”

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi fired back Tuesday, noting that the pope has denounced the Nazis and spoken of his German heritage in previous speeches, including during a visit to the Auschwitz death camp, and used the 6 million figure during his remarks upon arriving in Israel.

Lombardi also said four times that the pope never served in the Hitler Youth, whose members were volunteers, but that he was forced to join anti-aircraft troops against Allied aerial raids near his hometown.

The pope stopped an interfaith conference in Jerusalem after the head of the Palestinian sharia court accused Israel of killing women and children and urged the pope “in the name of the one God to condemn these crimes and press the Israeli government to halt its aggression against the Palestinian people.”

Criticizing the incident, a papal spokesman said, “We hope that such an incident will not damage the mission of the pope aiming at promoting peace and also interreligious dialogue, as he has clearly affirmed in many occasions during this pilgrimage. We hope also that interreligious dialogue in the Holy Land will not be compromised by this incident.”

During a brief visit Tuesday to the Western Wall, the pope placed a handwritten personal prayer between the stones of the wall asking God to “send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family,” according to a text released by the Office of the Holy See.

Following his quiet reflection at the wall, punctuated by the whirring of camera lens shutters, the pope made a courtesy visit at the compound to the chief rabbis of Israel.  He had made a similar visit to the grand mufti of Jerusalem before his wall appearance.

The pope, who traveled with a 40-person staff and 70 reporters, and stayed at the Papal Nuncio’s residence in Jerusalem during his visit, was scheduled to visit a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem on Wednesday and Nazareth on Thursday, where he will celebrate an open-air Mass. He was to fly back to Rome Friday afternoon on a special El Al flight.

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

The pope arrived in Israel after spending two days in Jordan, where he celebrated Mass before an estimated audience of 25,000 in a soccer stadium in Amman.

On Saturday he visited Mount Nebo, from where the Bible says Moses saw the Land of Israel. The pope said the site was a reminder of “the inseparable bond between the Church and the Jewish people.”

Benedict also visited the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque in Amman. He did not remove his shoes while visiting the mosque and engaged in silent reflection rather than prayer, according to reports. In a meeting there with Muslim leaders, the pope called for a “trilateral dialogue,” including the Church, to help bring Jews and Muslims together to discuss peace.

The pope and Peres together planted an olive tree at the president’s residence Monday afternoon, followed by a performance by a choir made up of Jewish and Arab girls joined by Israeli tenor Dudu Fisher, who sang “Bring Him Home” from the musical “Les Miserables” only minutes after the pope met with the family of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

“Old divisions have aged and diminished,” Peres told the pope. “So more than the need for another armored vehicle, we need a strong, inspiring spirit to instill both the conviction that peace is attainable, and the burning desire to pursue it.”

“Ties of reconciliation and understanding are now being woven between the Holy See and the Jewish people,” he added. “We cherish this process and your leadership. Our door is open to similar efforts with the Muslim world.”

Pope, in Israel, vows to fight anti-Semitism


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

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

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

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

Benedict lamented the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pope’s visit to Israel fraught with potential minefields


ROME (JTA)—The official Israeli government Web site  for Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming trip to Israel and the West Bank promotes the May 11-15 visit as a “Bridge for Peace.”

Others, however, describe it as a potential minefield where various factions may try to exploit the pope’s presence for political gain.

“Both Jewish and Muslim ideologues are determined to stop the pope crossing that bridge,” wrote Catholic religion journalist Damian Thompson in his blog for the U.K. Telegraph, “either by smearing him as an anti-Semite or by making his visit to a Palestinian refugee camp look like a politically motivated reproach to Israel.”

The German-born pontiff leaves for the Middle East on May 8; he will spend three days in Jordan before flying to Israel.

The trip is the first by a pope to Israel since the 2000 pilgrimage by Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II. John Paul was a historic trailblazer who made promoting Vatican-Jewish relations a central policy goal.

Inevitably, Benedict’s words and actions are sure to be compared—and contrasted—with John Paul’s.

“It’s unfair, but John Paul’s warmth will be compared to the theological coldness of Benedict,” Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri told JTA. “The fact that he was in the Hitler Youth, though involuntarily, will make everyone look at every move and turn of phrase.”

Several issues have strained Vatican-Jewish ties in recent months. There is ongoing controversy over wartime Pope Pius XII’s role in the Holocaust, and Jewish groups erupted in January when Benedict lifted a 20-year-old excommunication order against a traditional bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier.

In Rome, Lisa Palmieri-Billig, the American Jewish Committee’s liaison with the Vatican, told JTA that both sides were striving to minimize lingering problems ahead of the papal trip.

“All the problems that might have loomed on the horizon before the pontiff announced his trip are being muted within the perspective of the importance of the visit for bilateral relations,” she said. “Both the Israelis and world Jewry are aware of this and want to nourish good relations.”

On April 12, Benedict, 82, said he would “emphatically” bring a message of “justice and truth, mercy, forgiveness and love” on his trip.

“Reconciliation—difficult but indispensable—is a precondition for a future of overall security and peaceful coexistence, and it can only be achieved through renewed, persevering and sincere efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.

The pope’s itinerary mixes prayer, politics and pastoral teaching to local Christians with an attempt to improve interfaith relations with both Muslims and Jews.

It includes stops in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. There will be open-air Masses and meetings with Muslim and Jewish religious leaders.

The pope will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the al-Aida Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem. He will hold meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Official Vatican policy is to maintain an equilibrium of sorts in its relations with Israel and the Arab world.

“Its diplomacy is different from that of other states because it is always aware of the Christian populations,” Palmieri-Billig said.

In Jerusalem, Oded Ben-Hur, a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, said the pope would be welcomed as a friend of Israel.

The visit, he told reporters, is proof that “relations between Israel and the Holy See are strong and solid.” Ben-Hur said Benedict “has never missed an opportunity to reiterate his commitment to dialogue and to relations with Israel.”

The two states formalized full diplomatic relations in 1994. But years of fitful negotiations have failed to resolve several lingering issues, including fiscal status and tax issues regarding Church property in Israel and visa restrictions on Arab Christian priests.

Meanwhile, Arab and Muslim sentiment ahead of the visit appears to be mixed. One possible problem could be the pope’s last day in the region, May 15, which coincides with the day Palestinians commemorate as the Nakba—the “catastrophe” of Israel’s birth in May 1948.

“The pope’s Palestinian hosts will certainly ‘instrumentalize’ this,” Avineri said.

Already the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, said Benedict’s visit to the al-Aida refugee camp would symbolize the Palestinians’ “right of return” to the holy land, according to a report on Israel’s Ynet news.

Israeli media reports also said that officials were concerned that security and other infrastructure for the visit were not yet in place in the West Bank.

Pamphlets in some Arab towns have called for protests against the pope because of remarks he made in 2006 that were construed as insulting Islam. At the time, the remarks sparked protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as elsewhere in the Arab world.

In Nazareth near the Church of the Annunciation, which the pope is to visit, radical Muslims have hung a banner apparently aimed at Benedict that quotes a passage from the Koran: “Those who harm God and His Messenger—God has cursed them in this world and in the hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating punishment.”

“Everyone is crossing their fingers” that things go well, Avineri said.

Report from Beijing: Israeli Olympians visit Beijing school


BEIGING (JTA)—Four Israeli Olympic swimmers (Itai Chammah, Guy Barnea, Tom Beera and Gal Nevo), the Israeli Ambassador to China, the President of Israel’s National Swimming Association and a slew of Chinese and Israeli reporters visited the Shi Jia Primary School on Monday, Aug. 18. This school was assigned Israel as part of a Beijing-wide program of partnerships between schools and Olympic countries. The Shi Jia school put on events over the last two years to teach the students about Israel, how to say “Shalom,” even had its students Skype with a school in Jerusalem. Of course, the school was following the progress of Israeli athletes along with China’s.

Hidden inside a neighborhood maze of alleyways, this 2000-student school is anything but small. The school was founded in 1939, but this site (which used to be a single-story temple style house) was newly constructed in 2004 and only serves the third through sixth grade.

And what service indeed. There was a room filled with rows of electric pianos, next to the hallway of individual music practice rooms that were nicer than the ones at my university. Of course, these were all on the bottom floor right next to the underground parking lot entrance, which reminded me of a United States mall. We also saw a beautiful theater with a superior tech booth, a whole science area that looked more like a kid’s playtime museum exhibit, plus a row of small table-saws that looked rusty and dangerous in comparison, for over 20 students at a time to make wood carvings.

The highlight of the tour for the Israeli Olympians was clearly the visit to the school’s unbelievable sports facilities. An outdoor track was surrounded by green landscaping, windmills and a dormitory with solar panels on the roof. Descending into the gymnasium, which had more equipment than a Bally’s Fitness Club, the fencing lesson seemed to be teaching the well-outfitted youngsters as much about shouting as technique.

Finally, the Israeli men were in their element at the pool, which was pumping various Beijing Olympic theme songs over the loudspeaker. An assorted crowd of boys and girls shivered outside the pool for the athletes’ millionth photo-op of the day, underneath towering photos with the Speedo logo printed on them of swimmers like Michael Phelps.

The kids looked a little lackluster as they posed in their swimsuits, but two of them perked up when someone told them the Chinese names of the Israeli athletes that were standing by their side. The kids’ faces lit up- “We heard of them!” they cried.

VIDEO: Israel tries to sex up its image


Britains’ Sky News reports from Tel Aviv on an Israeli advertising campaign to sex up its image.

First Person – A Mother of Wisdom


Calcutta’s kaleidoscope of teeming streets, sprawling markets and chaotic taxis has always mesmerized me.

At times, it seems as though all 10 million denizens of this eastern Indian metropolis are roaming the city at once, surging in tidal waves, an urban sea of humanity. It was here that Mother Teresa pursued her humanitarian mission for almost 70 years.

My wife, Simone, and I have visited Calcutta (now called Kolkata) often, setting aside time to plod our way through the cacophonous traffic along Chandra Bose Road to the calm oasis of Mother Teresa’s shelter for children, Shishu Bhavan. We would spend a day or two volunteering, as do so many others from around the world, to care for the youngsters. The volunteers always included Jews, who were welcomed as all others in this basically Catholic institution.

The children, salvaged from the streets or often left at the main gate, found refuge here from a harsh world. We fed and washed them, and played games with them. From one year to the next we got to know the familiar faces of those orphans and abandoned waifs not fortunate enough to have been adopted by families from India and abroad.

On one memorable visit to the shelter my wife sat on the floor telling picture-book stories to two wide-eyed toddlers tucked under her arms. In another room, I lingered at the crib bed of Priti, a disabled teenager whose congenital spinal condition left her helplessly prone and silent. Priti could not speak coherently; could scarcely move her limbs. I stroked her sleek back hair and hummed songs to her, as she studied me intently with her coal-black eyes. The nuns had told me she had little chance of long-term survival, and she has since died. Her contorted face remains deeply etched in my memory.

On earlier visits to the shelter we had never met Mother Teresa, who died eight years ago on Sept. 5. World traveler that she was, she had always been abroad when we were there.

This time we got lucky. We climbed the several flights of stairs and waited in the passage outside Mother Teresa’s room, curious and excited. A young nun who was to introduce us said that Mother Teresa’s small room was very Spartan. Emulating the poor, the nun said, Mother Teresa slept on a narrow cot, and used no electric fan to cope with Calcutta’s sweltering climate.

The door opened and a tiny figure in the familiar white and sapphire-blue bordered sari strode toward us in her bronzed bare feet. A graceful smile lit up her furrowed features, as she brought her palms together welcoming us with the traditional Bengali, “Namaskar.”

“Last Sunday I passed 80 years,” she said, with a cheerful lilt.

“In my religion,” I replied, “we wish you 120 years!”

Her quizzical look told me she might never have heard that Jewish birthday greeting before. I was convinced it hadn’t registered when, after telling her we were from New York, she spiritedly advised Simone, “You must go to our mission in the South Bronx … you can help out there.”

We chatted for a few minutes about the needs of the Calcutta shelter. As this scarcely 5-foot-tall dynamic woman spoke, I searched her eyes. They had an endless depth emanating a calm assurance and an artless candor. These hazel eyes seemed to project intense compassion.

Was I ascribing this aura out of awe inspired by her? Or was it a kind of celebrity worship?

I wasn’t sure.

She held up her right hand and bent each extended finger, one at a time, as she recited five words: “He did this for me.” Simone and I smiled at this simple prayer of gratitude. From somewhere on her person she produced two little yellow cards on which were printed a poem she had written. She offered them to us, touching our hands gently:

“The fruit of Silence is Prayer

The fruit of Prayer is Faith

The fruit of Faith is Love

The fruit of Love is Service

The fruit of Service is Peace”

I still have that yellow card. But I choose to remember first another poem, far more personal, said to be in her handwriting, found on the wall above her bed after she died:

“The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow.

Be good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be good enough.

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God.

It was never between you and them anyway.”

For more information on Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, call (718) 292-0019 or write 335 E. 145th Street, Bronx, N.Y.

Jack Goldfarb has been traveling worldwide and writing about his journeys for more than 30 years. Formerly a resident of London and Tel Aviv, he now lives in New York City.

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Putin Visit Stirs Conflicting Opinions


Do Not Abandon the Jews of France


As the old song goes: "I love Paris in the springtime. I love Paris in the fall." But for many Jews, Paris, and all of France, is not at the top of their visitor’s hit parade, because of the anti-Semitic activities that have plagued that country in recent times.

Currently, there are 60 million residents of France, of which 600,000 are Jewish, while the Muslin population is now at 6 million or 10 percent of the country. Suffice it to say, this last statistic has been offered as one of the main factors in the increase of anti-Semitic activities in the past few years, this, plus the fact that there is an inordinately high unemployment rate among the Muslim population (18 percent).

Also, the reality of anti-Israel sentiments of nearly all believers in Allah combine to make this a very difficult period for our French Jewish brothers and sisters.

When Carol and I decided to go to Paris on vacation this summer, many congregants and colleagues reacted quite negatively. "Why to a place where Jews are treated so badly?" some asked. Others cited the newspaper articles declaring that many French Jews were contemplating aliyah, a permanent move to Israel.

Now, after having spent a week in Paris and returning home, I can declare to you that the worst thing we can do to show our loyalty to the Jews of France is to not go and visit them.

Carol and I attended and I spoke at Sabbath services at one of Paris’ four Reform synagogues. The 40 or so members present were grateful for our attendance and wanted me to know without hesitation that the French government is not anti-Semitic, and that most of the anti-Jewish problems are being caused by the Muslim population, specifically.

"Do not abandon us," is what I heard over and over from the folks I spoke with on that Sabbath eve in Paris. And frankly, it doesn’t make sense to shun or disconnect from our fellow Jews at a time when they truly need us.

We arrived in Paris at the moment when news of a terrible anti-Semitic incident became known. A 23-year-old woman and her baby were attacked with knives and injured at a train station on the outskirts of Paris. The media covered the story extensively. The government spoke out against the attack. The official Jewish community decried it as one in a series of atrocities.

This event happened on a Thursday. By the following Wednesday, it was announced in the press that the woman, not a Jew, had fabricated the entire beating and had a long history of bringing attention to herself through such fantasies. But the damage was already done, and the situation of the Jews in France was further degraded.

The bottom line: The Jews of France are undergoing an upsurge of anti-Semitism. The causes are complex: unemployed Muslim immigrants, the anti-Israel attitude of so many that is transferred to the Jew on the street and the traditional dislike of Jews that has gone on for thousands of years.

However, the French government is not the main culprit. I met with the emissary of the French government to the Jews of France. He has the rank of "ambassador" and is very sophisticated and sympathetic vis-a-vis the problems of the Jews in France.

I was impressed with him, and he plans to visit Southern California in the fall. I think we should return the favor and not paint all the French with the same brush.

Lawrence Goldmark is the rabbi at Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada.

World Briefs


Bush Suspends Embassy Move

President Bush again suspended moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Invoking a waiver that cites national security reasons, Bush again resisted complying with the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which mandated that the U.S. Embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city. Presidents have invoked waivers every six months since the law was passed. In a memorandum Tuesday to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush said his administration “remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem,” something he pledged to Jews during his presidential campaign in 2000.

Moscow Bomb Kills Jewish Student

A Jewish student was among the five people killed in Tuesday’s suicide bombing in Moscow. Igor Akimov, 18, was a freshman at Moscow State University’s Center for Jewish Studies and Jewish Civilization. The campus is located near the site of Tuesday’s attack, which injured 14. Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Akimov graduated from a Jewish day school in his native city and moved to Moscow this fall. He was majoring in Jewish history and wanted to become a professor in the subject, friends said.

UNfair?

Israel slammed a U.N. decision to have the International Court of Justice rule on the West Bank security barrier.

“What kind of morality is it that the U.N. does not lift a finger against a wave of offensive operations against Israel but condemns defensive measures? That is moral bankruptcy,” Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former ambassador to the United Nations, said Tuesday.

Monday’s resolution brought new pressure to bear on Israel, though the sort of advisory opinion sought from the International Court of Justice is not binding. One of Sharon’s Cabinet members, Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, already has requested that the fence be rerouted to minimize seizure of Palestinian lands.

Gere’d Up for Peace

Actor Richard Gere visited the West Bank on the second day of a private peacemaking visit. A longtime campaigner against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Gere met with Palestinian intellectuals in Ramallah on Tuesday before touring Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. The actor, on his second round of grass-roots meetings in the Middle East during the Palestinian intifada, also is believed to have held private talks in Israel on Monday.

Report: Israel hyped Iraq threat

Israeli intelligence exaggerated the threat to Israel posed by Iraq, according to a new report written by reserve Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brum for Israel’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. Reacting to the report Dec. 4, Israeli Knesset member Yossi Sarid called for an inquiry into Israeli intelligence leading up to the Iraq war.

Dating Sites Get Hitched

Two of the top Jewish dating Web sites are tying the knot. MatchNet of Los Angeles, which owns JDate.com and other specialized dating sites, is buying JCupid.com, owned by PointMatch of Tel Aviv, in a deal that unites two of the top competing Jewish singles sites, the Jerusalem Post reported. PointMatch’s vice president, Eldad Ben Tora, said the deal was aimed at connecting Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Computer dating is among the few growth areas online and is expected to generate $400 million in revenue overall this year.

UNESCO Condemns ‘Protocols’

A U.N. body condemned the display of a notorious anti-Semitic forgery at an Egyptian library. UNESCO said Dec. 4 that the presence of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” at a display at the Alexandria library would leave the institution “open to accusations of racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular.” The book, described by library director Yousef Ziedan as “as one of the sacred tenets of the Jews” and “more important than the Torah,” had been placed next to an exhibit of Torah scrolls. The UNESCO condemnation comes as the organization is preparing an event called “The Centennial of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: a Paradigm for Contemporary Hate Literature,” to be held in Venice this weekend.

Report: Fewer French Muslims

The number of Muslims in France has been widely exaggerated, according to a new report. According to figures extrapolated from government statistics on the numbers of French citizens with at least one parent born outside France, there probably are less than 3.7 million Muslims in France, the L’Express weekly reported Friday. The figures are considerably lower than various estimates by politicians that have placed the Muslim population as high as 6 million. Slightly more than 1 million Muslims in France are of voting age, the report adds. It is illegal in France to compile government statistics based on religion and ethnic group, but the question asking about parents’ birthplace was added to a recent government-sponsored questionnaire.

Concert to Feature Camp Poems

A concert in Prague will feature music based on poems written by Jewish children held at Terezin. The concert is to be held at the State Opera in Prague on Jan. 27. The event, which will coincide with the 58th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, has been organized by the Prague Jewish community in cooperation with the Mauthausen Committee, based in Austria.

Now, Don’t Get Frothy …

A Canadian researcher is investigating how stressed Montreal Jews get when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kimberly Matheson, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, is checking how much of the hormone cortizol is secreted when Jews read articles about the Middle East, Canada’s National Post newspaper reported. The idea came to her when she saw how red Jewish colleagues’ faces became when they read articles they considered anti-Israel. Matheson conducted a similar study among those born in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s Balkans War.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.