Middle East poised for impact of UK withdrawal from EU vote



In the run up to Thursday's vote in Britain on whether to exit the European Union, Israeli policymakers have studiously avoided comment, desiring not to be seen as interfering in the UK's internal affairs.

Israeli analysts nevertheless stress that Israel has a definite stake in the outcome, though they differ on whether a British exit (Brexit) would be good or bad for its interests.

Polls show that the race is too close to call, with the latest surveys pointing to a resurgence in support for remaining in the EU. An opinion poll for the Mail on Sunday taken June 17-18 showed 45 percent in favor of remaining and 42 percent in favor of leaving.

The stakes for Israel became greater on Monday when all 28 EU foreign ministers decided to endorse the French peace initiative, which began with a meeting in Paris earlier this month and which, according to French President Francois Hollande’s plan, will culminate in an international peace conference dedicated to relaunching Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to be held before the end of the year.

Israel adamantly opposes the French initiative, seeing it as a bid to impose a solution on it against its security and interests. ''International conferences like those that the EU's foreign ministers welcomed push peace further away because they enable the Palestinians to continue to avoid direct talks and compromise,'' the Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement Monday.

Israel's hopes of staving off the initiative and its standing vis-à-vis the EU could be set back if Britain exits the body, according to Oded Eran, former Israeli ambassador to the EU and now a senior analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. ''It is preferable for Israel that Britain remain in the EU, where it is a voice of moderation'' in favor of Israel, Eran told The Media Line.

Because of Britain's close relationship with the United States, London tends to be more sympathetic to Israel than many other EU countries, Eran says. Economically, the EU is Israel's largest trading partner ''and it is important that it remain robust'' he says. In the security sphere, Britain is one of the most active members of the EU and NATO, he notes. ''We prefer to see a stronger Europe in its battle against terror and other threats,'' he says.

But it is in the coming diplomacy over the French initiative that Eran believes Britain's presence in the EU is acutely needed by Israel. In the run up to the planned conference, ''Britain's role is still very important for Israel,'' he said.

In Eran's view, the United States is not very enthusiastic about the French initiative and is likely to seek to foil it, possibly in favor of an American initiative, provided Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu facilitates this by showing some flexibility on peace issues. In this case, he believes, Britain would assist the US in trying to convince the French and other Europeans to make way for American moves. ''Britain would play the role of facilitator of the American efforts to enable Netanyahu to take a different track than the French initiative.'' However, if London exits the EU, ''Israel will lose a moderating factor, a voice that could help it avoid the French initiative if necessary.''

British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose political future depends on a vote to remain, is seen in Israel as a reliable friend. Defense and intelligence ties have reportedly been quietly but considerably strengthened under Cameron. During the Gaza conflict in 2014, his Conservative party for weeks withstood pressure from its Liberal Democrat coalition partners to condemn Israel's military campaign.

The international conference push is far from the first time that Israel finds itself at loggerheads with the European Union. The EU considers Israeli communities built on the territories captured by Israel during the 1967 war – commonly referred to as “settlements” — to be illegal while Israel disputes this. The EU says the settlements are an obstacle to peace, something Israel denies. Last November, the differences came to a head as the EU required goods emanating from the post-1967 areas to be labelled to that effect, rather than being marked ''product of Israel.'' The Israeli foreign ministry blasted the decision, terming it in a statement ''an exceptional and discriminatory step inspired by the boycott movement.''

Israel and the EU are also at odds over Israeli demolition of Palestinian structures, some of them EU-funded, in the Oslo Accords-designated “Area C” part of the West Bank, meaning under full – administrative and security – control by the Israelis. Israel maintains it is merely acting against illegal construction while the EU views the same building as vital to the Palestinian presence in an area it sees as crucial to Palestinian statehood.

In the view of Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the EU stances on these issues reflect an ''anti-Israel'' orientation emanating from Brussels.

''If Britain leaves and the EU becomes weaker, it will impact positively on Israel,'' he told The Media Line. ''The EU as a whole is much more anti-Israel than its individual countries so if it is weakened that will be good.'' Inbar adds that a British exit, in so much as it can be seen to reflect heightened nationalism of individual European nations, could help boost sympathy for Israel. ''The EU is basically a post nationalist phenomenon while Israel is a nationalist phenomenon, so with each country being nationalist there will be a greater understanding of Israeli behavior,'' he says.

In contrast to Inbar, Alon Liel, the dovish former director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry, says that Britain exiting the EU would be a negative development. ''The EU as an aggregate is much more pro-peace than its individual members. To have such a major country depart is weakening the Brussels machine,'' Liel told The Media Line.

The Palestinians for their part do not expect the British decision to have a significant impact on them, according to Ghassan Khatib, Vice President of Birzeit University in the West Bank. Regardless of what happens with the vote, there is a trend in European and within British public opinion of greater sympathy with the Palestinian cause, he says. The French initiative’s acceptance reflects this, he adds.

''These trends will continue in the EU and Britain whether Britain is in or out because there are objective reasons for them,'' Khatib tells The Media Line, citing Israeli behavior as being  foremost among them. ''Israel is doing the kind of thing that even friendly countries like Germany and Britain don't want Israel to do such as expanding the settlements and this is effecting negatively their support for Israel.''

In Amman, Sabri Rbeihat, the former minister for political development, says that supporters of the Jordanian monarchy want Britain to stay in the EU.

''There is a long historic relationship and a feeling that the British have an understanding of the area and its geography and history. Many feel the Jordanian regime was created and maintained by Britain,'' he told The Media Line. The EU without Britain ''would be an unknown, a question mark, there is a sense of uncertainty over what would happen and who would steer the EU.''

Shutdown may affect Jewish social services


Congress’ failure to authorize discretionary spending for the new fiscal year won’t only impact about 800,000 federal workers or the Americans looking to visit national parks. It may also affect local Jewish social service organizations that rely in part on federal funding. 

That, too, though, is uncertain.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Paul Castro, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), said just hours after the shutdown began. “We spent the morning trying to communicate with our funders to find out what they know.”

The funders Castro spoke with are the state and local government entities that JFS relies upon to provide some services such as meals and transportation programs for seniors. Castro said that if these entities requested funds from the federal government before Oct. 1 — the day the shutdown took effect — some of JFS’ at-risk programs could run for a few more weeks without interruption. Ultimately, though, JFS won’t know for at least a few days exactly how this will play out if Congress doesn’t reach an agreement quickly.

JFS’ annual budget is $30 million, and $5.55 million of that comes — directly and indirectly — from the federal government.

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, echoed Castro’s concerns. 

“With the shutdown, the cash flows of our most important social service agencies are at risk,” he said. “If this goes on for an extended period of time, it will definitely impact our social service agencies.”

As for Jewish Vocational Services, whose goal is to help people overcome barriers to employment, it issued a public statement that “programs and services remain fully operational with regularly scheduled hours.”

The last time Democrats and Republicans could not agree on a spending resolution to fund parts of the federal government was over the budget for the 1996 fiscal year, when President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress clashed over spending levels, largely over Medicare, shutting down parts of the government for 26 days.

This time around, the issue preventing an agreement is again a major health care initiative, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation that was passed in 2010.

Republicans in the House of Representatives are attempting to tie any new spending bill to a one-year delay for parts of the bill and a requirement that Congressional members and their staffers must purchase insurance on the ACA’s new health insurance exchanges, which opened on Oct. 1

Despite the shutdown, much of the federal government will continue to operate as normal, including programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the military.

Even if Congress reaches an agreement in the coming days or weeks, Castro is concerned about a future potential conflict that could again pose funding problems for local Jewish agencies. Before Oct. 17, when the federal government is predicted to eclipse the “debt ceiling” (the level of debt Congress has authorized the government to accumulate), Democrats and Republicans will either have to raise the debt ceiling or risk many spending promises not being fulfilled.

“Even in resolution we know that is only going to be for a few weeks,” Castro said. 

Most G20 leaders agree Assad was behind chemical attack, Obama says


President Barack Obama said on Friday that most leaders of the G20 countries agree that Syrian President Bashar Assad is responsible for using poison gas against civilians as the U.S. leader tried to rally support at home and abroad for a military strike.

Obama said he planned to speak to the American public about Syria on Tuesday as Congress considers his request for limited military action in Syria.

Speaking to reporters at an international diplomatic summit, Obama said the leaders of the world's largest economies agreed that chemical weapons were used in Syria and that the international ban chemical weapons needs to be maintained.

However, he said there was disagreement about whether force could be used in Syria without going through the United Nations. The United States has been unable to win U.N. Security Council approval for military action against Syriabecause of the opposition of veto-wielding Russia.

“The majority of the room is comfortable with our conclusion that Assad, the Assad government, was responsible for their use,” he said at a news conference, adding that this is disputed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A number of countries believed that any military force needed to be decided at U.N. Security Council, a view he said he does not share.

“Given Security Council paralysis on this issue, if we are serious about upholding a ban on chemical weapons use then an international response is required, and that will not come through Security Council action,” he said.

Obama has been trying to rally support internationally and domestically for a limited military response to the chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians Aug. 21. (Reporting By Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

Disappointing Chief Rabbinate vote has activists eyeing alternatives


In a city with a seemingly infinite number of kosher restaurants, Jerusalem restaurateurs have a tough time obtaining certification from the country’s Chief Rabbinate.

Proprietors of the city’s eateries have long complained of exorbitant fines, strict limits on what food they may buy and lax certification supervisors. But they had no choice: the rabbinate’s certification and an even stricter version are the only ones allowed by Israeli law.

So last year, a coalition of 20 Jerusalem restaurants began defying the law, declaring themselves kosher by virtue of public trust rather than a certificate from the rabbinate.

“Kosher certification was always communal, and then it became something institutional,” said Rabbi Uri Ayalon, CEO of the Jerusalemite Movement, which advocates for religious pluralism and helped bring the restaurants together. “It’s absurd that you can open a kosher restaurant and aren’t allowed to use the word kosher.”

The restaurant initiative is one of several that have sought to push back against the rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish life in Israel. Faced with an institution they see as forcing an extreme reading of Jewish tradition on an unwilling populace, the groups have chosen to sidestep it altogether, providing alternative services to those of Israel’s entrenched religious establishment.

The imperative to circumvent the rabbinic bureaucracy has grown especially strong in the wake of last week’s Chief Rabbinate election, which saw the defeat of a popular reformist candidate and the victory of two sons of former chief rabbis, both haredi Orthodox.

The reformist, David Stav of the liberal Orthodox rabbinic group Tzohar, lost in the race for Ashkenazi chief rabbi to David Lau, the son of Yisrael Meir Lau, who held the post from 1993 to 2003. Yitzhak Yosef followed in the footsteps of his father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in winning the Sephardic chief rabbi post.

“Tzohar tried to fix the rabbinate from inside, to take control of it and fix it,” said Shmuel Shetach, the CEO of Ne’emanei Torah V’avoda, a Modern Orthodox group that supports rabbinate reform. “Even if Rabbi Stav was chosen, the system is too problematic. It’s not appropriate for modern times.”

Until now, there have been two major approaches to addressing the rabbinate’s problems: reform and abolition. Orthodox groups generally have opted for the former, arguing that the rabbinate must be maintained as an anchor of Jewish unity. Liberal Jewish groups tend to see the rabbinate as a bastion of haredi Orthodox domination that must be eliminated.

Both approaches have failed.

Stav lost despite an aggressive campaign with backing from key political figures. Calls for the rabbinate’s elimination have gotten even less traction due to the political clout of the haredi political parties and Israel’s reluctance to change the status quo.

Sidestepping measures offer a third way. Some activists are hoping to break the rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification. Others want to widen options for Jewish marriage and conversion. Still others hope to help Jewish women seeing a ritual divorce.

“The Israeli public wanted a connection to Judaism, and it got a slap in the face from the dealmakers who said ‘you don’t interest us,’ ” Stav said of his defeat. “But Judaism is stronger than the dealmakers.”

A precedent for the workaround strategies exists in the unlikeliest of places — the haredi community. Despite dominating the rabbinate, the community has its own privately administered kosher certification standard and runs its own network of private religious courts.

Liberal activists believe that if the haredi community can do it, so can they.

The Israeli Conservative movement has launched a modest kosher supervision program for wineries that adheres to Conservative Jewish law, which allows non-Jews to work without restrictions during the winemaking process. The program currently supervises two wineries and is in talks with another three.

It “offers an alternative where people know there is not discrimination against those who aren’t Jewish,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, the director of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

Activists also have started to look outside the rabbinate to help women who cannot remarry because their husbands are missing or refuse to give them a religious writ of divorce, or get.

Batya Kehana-Dror, the head of a group that advocates for these women, hopes the new chief rabbis will find Jewish legal solutions for these so-called chained women, or agunot. But if they don’t, Kehana-Dror plans to convene a private religious court of three rabbis who have proven themselves willing to be more creative with Jewish law.

“If the [chief rabbis] make a move toward finding a solution for agunot, it could be great news,” Kehana-Dror said. “When they don’t give us a solution, we’ll go to a private organization.”

Critics of the Chief Rabbinate achieved a groundbreaking victory last year when Israel’s Supreme Court mandated for the first time that non-Orthodox rabbis in rural communities receive state salaries should they meet certain criteria.

This year, the ruling was extended to Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israeli cities. The rabbis should begin receiving state paychecks later this year.

Shetach of the Modern Orthodox group Ne’emanei Torah V’avoda hopes to extend the precedent of those court decisions to all of Israel’s religious services, which in his vision would operate like the country’s medical system: The government would fund several overarching religious communities, and citizens could choose the one that best suits them, just as they choose among several publicly funded health care networks.

The plan would gradually limit the rabbinate’s powers rather than abolish the body — a goal Shetach sees as more realistic than fighting it head-on.

“Even among the Orthodox there’s an understanding emerging that the struggle against reform is superfluous,” Shetach told JTA. “There’s reform of budgeting for rabbis anyway, so we say to the Orthodox, ‘What will [fighting] bring you?’ ”

Palestinian Islamist group Hamas re-elects Meshaal as its leader


Hamas re-elected Khaled Meshaal on Tuesday as the Islamist group's leader, at a marathon overnight closed-door meeting held in Cairo, an official with the organization said.

Once reviled as a hardliner but now seen increasingly in the Arab world and by some Westerners as a moderate, Meshaal, 56, has headed the movement that rejects Israel's existence and controls the Palestinian territory of Gaza, since 2004.

Born near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, Meshaal steered Hamas through the upheaval unleashed by the Arab Spring uprisings. He spent decades in exile and visited Gaza for the first time ever in December.

Meshaal left Syria about a year ago after ties ruptured with President Bashar al-Assad over the bloody civil war there.

Building on relations with Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, said to be an old friend, Meshaal moved on to win a delicate truce with arch-enemy Israel in November and has also sought to heal a rift with rival Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian officials and analysts said Meshaal, dogged by Gaza critics of his ceasefire with Israel and efforts to reconcile with Abbas, had to be persuaded to continue as Hamas's leader for another term.

“Meshaal was re-elected,” a Hamas official said, reporting in a terse statement on Tuesday on the results of a meeting that began in the Egyptian capital on Monday. The official gave no other details of the vote by which about 60 top officials of the group had reaffirmed Meshaal anew as Hamas's political leader.

Both Egypt and powerful Gulf emirate Qatar also lobbied strongly on Meshaal's behalf, a diplomat in the region told Reuters.

“They saw Meshaal as a moderate and an example of a leader who saw the world more comprehensively than other hardliners in the group,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

European nations that boycott Hamas and list it as a terrorist group for its violence against Israel – including suicide bombings in an uprising a decade ago and rocket strikes on Israeli towns – were also seen as supportive of Meshaal retaining in his post.

'REAL ENGAGEMENT' WITH WEST?

“I do not say Europe is going to open to Hamas tomorrow,” said the diplomat, who saw an opening for a “real engagement with the West” if Meshaal persuaded Islamist colleagues to change their policies.

Meshaal burnished his credentials as leader of the Palestinian militant group after surviving a 1997 Israeli assassination attempt. Hamas was founded in 1988 shortly after the launch of an uprising against Israel.

In 2004, Meshaal succeeded Hamas's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, after the cleric was assassinated by Israel during a second Palestinian revolt against the Jewish state.

On his watch, Hamas has emerged as an ever more important player in the Middle East conflict, weakening the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority by seizing control of coastal Gaza in 2007, and challenging Abbas's peacemaking with Israel.

Despite his falling out with Syria over Assad's bloody attempts to quell a revolt, Meshaal has gone out of his way to maintain relations with Islamist Iran, which has supplied Hamas with weaponry including rockets it has fired at Israel.

More lately though Meshaal has sought to overcome his differences with Abbas, leader of the Fatah movement founded by the late Yasser Arafat and head of a Palestinian self-rule authority in the West Bank.

Two years ago he faced down angry Gazans by voicing support for Abbas's peace moves with Israel, though he remained skeptical whether the negotiations frozen since 2010 would ever secure the Palestinian goal of independent statehood.

More recently Meshaal was involved in indirect talks with Israel mediated by Egypt, striking a truce that has largely silenced fighting along the Israel-Gaza frontier since a deadly eight-day conflict four months ago.

Reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Beech

March 5: Election Day


I belong to a small, elite club that I would like to invite you to join.

It’s called, People Who Give a S— About Los Angeles.

If you detect a note of anger and impatience in that name, you got it.

Los Angeles, John D. MacDonald wrote in “A Deadly Shade of Gold,” is “the world’s biggest third-class city …”

And the fault, primarily, is yours. Not you, if you’re one of the relatively few Angelenos who vote in municipal elections, track city and county politics, get involved at the grass roots and in the corridors of power to  make the city better.

But if you’re like the majority of Angelenos, then, yes, you’re the problem. A city only moves forward when everyone in the galley is pulling on the oars, and for too long, L.A. has been dead in the water.

On March 5, you’ll have another chance to get involved, just by the simple act of voting. This election is for mayor, city attorney and controller, eight City Council districts, three seats each on the boards of the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Los Angeles Community College District, and Measure B, a controversial sales tax increase. 

If you do that, and get your friends and family to do so, too, you will be part of a small club. As of Feb. 21, 11 days before the election, only about 10 percent of voters who requested mail-in ballots had sent them back, according to Rick Orlov of the Los Angeles Daily News.

“The lack of public interest in the race — or perhaps it’s because there are so many candidates — has been evident in the early absentee ballots,” Orlov wrote.

We whine about traffic, about subpar schools, about the lack of public transportation, and neighborhood violence and the homeless and the airport, but only a minority of us gets involved.

Meanwhile, do a little traveling and you get city-envy: the well-tended open spaces of Berlin, the bike lanes and bike shares of New York, the water-wise programs in Boston, the street life of Tel Aviv, the job growth of Houston, the sustainable food economies of Portland and Oakland. Meanwhile, it was big news here last week when the mayor announced a timeline for filling the potholes on Wilshire Boulevard. Really? Potholes?   

It’s not hard to figure out why Los Angeles appeared nowhere on a recent list of the world’s most innovative cities. The three finalists: New York City; Medellin, Colombia; and Tel Aviv.

I was stuck in traffic — thick, tarlike, time-sucking traffic on the 10 West — thinking: Why is that?

In practice, it’s a tough city to run, tangled as it is with the region’s many municipalities. Our columnist Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, created a pictorial guide for the excellent CityThink section of the Los Angeles magazine Web site, and, if nothing else, it’s a sober reminder of how complex it is to pull the levers of change in L.A.

But most of us don’t bother to try in the first place. People come to Los Angeles to realize their individual dreams. In their mad drive to turn their fantasies into reality, they ignore the realities around them. L.A. is a backdrop in the life story of its residents. For New Yorkers, their city is a lead character.

Whatever the reasons, the cost is clear: This election is about whether the city can continue to function, much less thrive. Municipalities, unlike the federal government, can’t print money. L.A. is facing a structural deficit that, if left unaddressed, will mean worse city services, less safety, fewer after-school programs, just a general slide backward. 

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa improved the city on many fronts, but the looming fiscal crisis is still unresolved. The next mayor must be a man or woman who has to be able to break tough news to entrenched interests about the city’s current mess but also be able to present a positive and inspiring vision for the future. 

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, former City Council member and onetime mayoral candidate Mike Woo laid that part out well: “Do any of the candidates have a big idea that could inspire the city? Bringing a World’s Fair to L.A.? Creating a citywide network of urban farms? Engaging the city’s vast creative community to reshape the urban landscape and solve city problems? Launching a community service corps energized by mandatory participation of the city’s teenagers? The mayor leading daily two-mile exercise hikes through urban or pastoral landscapes in the city? The mayor commuting daily to City Hall on public transit?”

Woo’s question touches on the real challenge of our political leadership: how to use the unparalleled creative talent and wealth of L.A.’s residents for L.A. 

So, who can do that? Who’s the One?

The Jewish Journal, as a nonprofit, doesn’t endorse. But our reporter Jonah Lowenfeld has profiled the candidates for mayor and city attorney, and the other municipal issues, and you can get a crash course on them at jewishjournal.com/la_mayors_race.

Read up, vote and tell your friends: Join the club. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can
follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Senate clears way for vote on Pentagon nominee Chuck Hagel


The Senate cleared the way on Tuesday for the likely confirmation of Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense.

The Senate voted 71-27 to end debate and move forward, almost two weeks after Republicans launched a filibuster to block Hagel's nomination. It was the first time such a procedural tactic had been used to delay consideration of a nominee for secretary of defense.

More than 15 Republicans joined with Democrats to open the way for a vote by the full Senate, now scheduled for 4:30 p.m. EST.

The vote virtually guarantees Hagel's approval: The entire Democratic caucus — 55 out of 100 senators — is committed to his confirmation, and only a simple majority is required to confirm the nomination.

A number of centrist Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, had expressed concerns about past Hagel comments, particularly his claim in 2006 that a “Jewish lobby” “intimidates” Congress, as well as his skepticism of sanctions and military moves that would keep Iran from advancing its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after the vote to end debate that a vote to confirm Hagel could come as soon as Tuesday afternoon.

Some have also raised questions about whether Hagel is sufficiently supportive of Israel or tough enough on Iran.

CALL TO PANETTA

Some of Hagel's most vehement opponents made a last-ditch appeal on the Senate floor for his nomination to be stopped before the vote on Tuesday. They argued that Hagel would be weakened in running the defense department because he will not be confirmed with strong bipartisan support.

James Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had even called Leon Panetta, the retiring secretary of defense, and asked him to remain at the Pentagon.

Panetta, 74, who has made no secret of his desire to retire to his home in California, declined.

Faulting a range of Hagel's past statements on Iran, Israel and other matters, Inhofe also pledged to work for the quick confirmation of another potential nominee if Hagel were withdrawn.

“We have a lot of them out there who would be confirmed in a matter of minutes,” he added, naming Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy defense secretary, as more acceptable alternatives.

But Democrats blasted Republicans for the delay, when the country is at war and facing a budget crisis, and pushed for the vote to go ahead.

“Politically motivated delays send a terrible signal to our allies and to the world. And they send a terrible signal to tens of thousands of Americans serving in Afghanistan. For the sake of national security, it's time to set aside this partisanship,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing By David Storey, David Brunnstrom and Cynthia Osterman

Senate confirms Hagel as secretary of defense


The Senate confirmed Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense on Tuesday, after an unusually acrimonious confirmation fight that threatened to complicate his work as civilian leader at the Pentagon.

The Senate voted 58-41 to confirm the former Republican senator, the closest vote ever to approve a defense secretary.

Just four Republicans – Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who holds Hagel's old Senate seat, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Rand Paul of Kentucky – joined the Democrats and independents in support of Hagel's nomination.

After the hard-fought victory, the Democratic president said he was pleased there had been bipartisan support for Hagel, a decorated veteran who served during the Vietnam War as an enlisted man before becoming a Republican U.S. senator.

“I am grateful to Chuck for reminding us that when it comes to our national defense, we are not Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans, and our greatest responsibility is the security of the American people,” Obama said.

The bruising battle over Hagel was one of many bitter partisan struggles between Democrats and Republicans at a time when Congress is widely criticized for its inability to agree on even the most basic measures to run the country.

The Senate had voted earlier on Tuesday to end debate on Hagel and move forward, almost two weeks after Republicans launched a filibuster to block the nomination. It was the first ever used to delay consideration of a defense nominee, prompting Democrats to accuse Republicans of jeopardizing national security.

Republicans have also challenged Obama's choice to be CIA director, John Brennan, although that nomination appears to be on track, with a vote by the Senate Intelligence Committee expected on Thursday.

In a sign that opposition to Obama's nominations could be easing, the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday backed his nominee to lead the U.S. Treasury, Jack Lew, with the support of about half the panel's Republicans.

BUDGET, IRAN, ISRAEL AMONG CONCERNS

Hagel had angered party leaders as a senator when he criticized former President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war.

Many Republicans opposed to Hagel's nomination raised questions about whether he is sufficiently supportive of Israel, tough enough on Iran or truly committed to maintaining a robust nuclear deterrent.

After Hagel's shaky performance during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, opponents questioned whether he was capable of running the vast Pentagon bureaucracy. Some feared he would be too complicit in efforts by Obama to cut Pentagon spending as a way to deal with yawning U.S. budget deficits.

Some defense industry executives worried that Hagel would be hamstrung from the start, saying his difficult confirmation could severely limit his ability to negotiate with Congress.

“They've neutered him already,” said one industry executive, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Although the Senate rejected John Tower as President George Bush's Pentagon pick in 1989 by a 53-47 vote, defense nominees are typically confirmed by large margins. Leon Panetta, whom Hagel replaces as defense secretary, was approved by a unanimous vote of 100 to nothing in June 2011.

But political experts said such concerns were overblown, given the vast partisan divide that already exists between the Democratic White House and Republicans in Congress on most issues.

“The confirmation process probably leaves a few light scars on Hagel because Republican critics have raised doubts about his judgment,” said Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

“But I think Hagel would have faced tough scrutiny and criticism from Republicans once in office, even had he originally sailed to confirmation,” she said.

Hagel said he was honored to return to public service. “I will work closely with Congress to ensure that we maintain the strongest military in the world and continue to protect this great nation,” he said in a statement.

Hagel will be sworn in on Wednesday morning.

SEQUESTRATION CUTS LOOM OVER PENTAGON

Hagel's confirmation comes as the Pentagon faces the prospect of cutting $46 billion in spending over the next seven months of the fiscal year. The cut, scheduled to go into effect on Friday, comes as the department is already implementing $487 billion in spending reductions over the next decade.

Some of Hagel's most vehement opponents made a last-ditch appeal to stop the nomination before the vote.

James Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had even called Panetta and asked him not to retire. Panetta, 74, who has made no secret of his desire to be home in California, declined.

After the vote, Inhofe said he still had “serious concerns” about Hagel's ability to lead the Department of Defense but was “ready and willing” to work with him. He urged Hagel to make his first order of business averting the looming defense cuts.

Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, David Alexander, Andrea Shalal-Esa, Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick; Editing By Doina Chiacu

Final Israeli vote: Jewish Home gains a seat to give right wing a majority


The Jewish Home party gained one seat in the final results of Israeli voting, pushing the right-wing bloc to a majority in the 19th Knesset.

Israel's Central Elections Committee released the final tally on Thursday for the elections held two days earlier after counting 217,000 ballots collected at remote polling stations. Among others, the votes were cast by soldiers, hospital patients and government employees working overseas.

With the additional votes, Jewish Home finished with 12 seats, giving the right wing 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

Also, the United Arab List-Ta'al party lost a seat and now has four, and Kadima crossed the required 2 percent threshold to gain two seats.

There were no other changes to the number of seats garnered by other parties. The Likud-Beiteinu list, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had 31 seats to finish first, as expected. The new center-left party Yesh Atid was a surprising second at 19.

Other parties entering the parliament are Labor with 15 seats; Shas with 11 seats; United Torah Judaism with seven seats; Hatnua and Meretz, each with 6 seats; Hadash with four seats; and Balad with three seats.

Two-thirds, or 3.77 million, of Israel's 5,656,705 eligible voters turned out, according to the elections committee. The number of voters was the highest since 1999, though turnout was down significantly among Arab voters.

The elections committee must submit the results to President Shimon Peres by Jan. 30. Peres then will ask party leaders who they would recommend to form the next government before choosing the one most likely to be able to form a successful coalition government — it is expected to be Netanyahu. The chosen party leader has up to 42 days to present his government for a vote of confidence.

Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu take 31 seats; Yesh Atid comes in second


Initial Israeli exit polls show the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket won the highest vote total while the new center-left Yesh Atid unexpectedly came in second.

Polls released just after polls closed at 10 p.m. on Jan. 22 reported that the Likud-Beiteinu won 31 seats, down from the 42 the two parties currently hold.

Yesh Atid, led by former television personality Yair Lapid, is projected in exit polls to receive 19 seats.

Channel 1 projected that right-wing parties collectively garnered 62 seats in total, compared to 58 for the left-wing parties.

The channel also projected 17 seats for the Labor party led by Shelly Yachimovich, 12 seats for the Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett, and 11 for the Sephardi Orthodox party Shas.

Hatnuah, led by Tzipi Livni, and Meretz, led by Zahava Gal-On, both received 7 seats.

The Arab-Israeli Balad party and the controversial Strong Israel party are each projected to receive two seats in the Channel 1 poll, though other polls projected they would not reach the two percent threshold.

Some 85 percent of the ballots are expected to be counted in the coming hours, with the remaining tallied and announced on the morning of Jan. 23.

Netanyahu claims election win despite party losses


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged the bruised winner of Israel's election on Tuesday, claiming victory despite unexpected losses to resurgent center-left challengers.

Exit polls showed the Israeli leader's Likud party, yoked with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, would still be the biggest bloc in the 120-member assembly with 31 seats, 11 fewer than the 42 they held in the previous parliament.

If the exit polls compiled by three local broadcasters prove correct – and they normally do in Israel – Netanyahu would be on course for a third term in office, perhaps leading a hardline coalition that would promote Jewish settlement on occupied land.

But his weakened showing in an election he himself called earlier than necessary could complicate the struggle to forge an alliance with a stable majority in parliament.

The 63-year-old Israeli leader promised during his election campaign to focus on tackling Iran's nuclear ambitions if he won, shunting Palestinian peacemaking well down the agenda despite Western concern to keep the quest for a solution alive.

The projections showed right-wing parties with a combined strength of 61-62 seats against 58-59 for the center-left.

“According to the exit poll results, it is clear that Israel's citizens have decided that they want me to continue in the job of prime minister of Israel and to form as broad a government as possible,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.

The centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, led by former television talk show host Yair Lapid, came second with 18 or 19 seats, exit polls showed – a stunning result for a newcomer to politics in a field of 32 contending parties.

Lapid won support amongst middle-class, secular voters by promising to resolve a growing housing shortage, abolish military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students and seek an overhaul of the failing education system.

The once dominant Labour party led by Shelly Yachimovich was projected to take third place with 17 seats.

“YESH ATID SWEEP”

The mood was subdued at Netanyahu's Likud party election headquarters after the polls closed, with only a few hundred supporters in a venue that could house thousands.

“We anticipated we would lose some votes to Lapid, but not to this extent. This was a Yesh Atid sweep,” Likud campaign adviser Ronen Moshe told Reuters.

A prominent Likud lawmaker, Danny Danon, told CNN: “We will reach out to everybody who is willing to join our government, mainly the center party of Yair Lapid.”

If the prime minister can tempt Lapid to join a coalition, the ultra-Orthodox religious parties who often hold the balance of power in parliament might lose some of their leverage.

After a lackluster campaign, Israelis voted in droves on a sunny winter day, registering a turnout of 66.6 percent, the highest since 1999 when Netanyahu, serving his first term as premier, was defeated by then-Labour Party leader Ehud Barak.

The strong turnout buoyed center-left parties which had pinned their hopes on energizing an army of undecided voters against Netanyahu and his nationalist-religious allies.

Opinion polls before the election had predicted an easy win for Netanyahu, although the last ones suggested he would lose some votes to the Jewish Home party, which opposes a Palestinian state and advocates annexing chunks of the occupied West Bank.

The exit polls projected 12 seats for Jewish Home.

Full election results are due by Wednesday morning and official ones will be announced on January 30. After that, President Shimon Peres is likely to ask Netanyahu, as leader of the biggest bloc in parliament, to try to form a government.

The former commando has traditionally looked to religious, conservative parties for backing and is widely expected to seek out self-made millionaire Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party and stole much of the limelight during the campaign.

But Netanyahu might, as Danon suggested, try to include more moderate parties to assuage Western concerns about Israel's increasingly hardline approach to the Palestinians.

WESTERN ANXIETY

British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Israel on Tuesday it was losing international support, saying prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were almost dead because of expanding Jewish settlements.

U.S.-brokered peace talks broke down in 2010 amid mutual acrimony. Since then Israel has accelerated construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – land the Palestinians want for their future state – much to the anger of Western partners.

Netanyahu's relations with U.S. President Barack Obama have been notably tense and Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told the BBC the election was unlikely to change that.

“President Obama doesn't have high expectations that there's going to be a government in Israel committed to making peace and is capable of the kind of very difficult and painful concessions that would be needed to achieve a two-state solution,” he said.

Tuesday's vote is the first in Israel since Arab uprisings swept the region two years ago, reshaping the Middle East.

Netanyahu has said the turbulence, which has brought Islamist governments to power in several countries long ruled by secularist autocrats, including neighboring Egypt, shows the importance of strengthening national security.

He views Iran's nuclear program as a mortal threat to the Jewish state and has vowed not to let Tehran enrich enough uranium to make a single nuclear bomb – a threshold Israeli experts say could arrive as early as mid-2013.

Iran denies it is planning to build the bomb, and says Israel, widely believed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, is the biggest threat to the region.

The issue barely registered during the election campaign, with a poll in Haaretz newspaper on Friday saying 47 percent of Israelis thought social and economic issues were the most pressing concern, against just 10 percent who cited Iran.

One of the first problems to face the next government, which is unlikely to take power before the middle of next month at the earliest, is the stuttering economy.

Data last week showed the budget deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, double the original estimate, meaning spending cuts and tax hikes look certain.

Reporting by Jerusalem bureau; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Analysis: The consequences of Israel’s vote


A few observations about the Israeli election results:

Right-left split changes, but not much: From an outsider’s perspective, Israel would seem to a very politically unstable place. The biggest party in the previous Knesset, Kadima, crashed from 28 seats to a grand total of zero. The No. 3 party, Yisrael Beiteinu, hitched its wagon to the ruling party, Likud, but their combined list lost about a quarter of its seats, down to 31 from 42. Meanwhile, a party that didn’t exist until a few months ago, Yesh Atid, emerged as the 120-seat Knesset’s second-biggest party, with 18 or 19 seats, according to exit polls.

Yet despite the swapping of party labels, not too much changed in the right-left split. The right wing appears to have lost a little ground — from 65 seats in the last Knesset to 62 seats in the new one. The center and left gained some adherents, but remains a minority with fewer than 50 seats (the balance goes to the Arab parties).

New priorities: With Israelis deeply pessimistic about the chances for imminent peace, a significant number of voters went for parties that made socioeconomic issues, not security, the centerpiece of their campaigns. Yesh Atid ran a campaign about social and economic issues, and Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, who led the party to 17 seats, up from eight in the last Knesset, virtually ignored security issues in her campaign. This is a sea change from the old days, when campaigns were all about security. Tzipi Livni's Hatnua bucked that trend, emphasizing peace with the Palestinians. The result: 6 seats.

New faces: The 19th Knesset will see a plethora of new members, with more than a quarter of the Knesset occupied by first-timers, most of them from Jewish Home and Yesh Atid. Jewish Home is led by a son of American immigrants to Israel, businessman-turned-politician Naftali Bennett, and Yesh Atid is headed by former TV personality Yair Lapid (also son of the late politician Tommy Lapid).

Women: The new Knesset will see the number of women rise, with the biggest representation from Yesh Atid, eight of whose new representatives are women. The Likud-Beiteinu list has seven, Labor has four, and Jewish Home and Meretz each have three. Hatnua and Hadash each have one. Among the new women in the Knesset will be the body’s first Ethiopian-Israeli woman, Penina Tamnu-Shata of Yesh Atid, an attorney who immigrated to Israel at age 3 during Operation Moses.

The end of Kadima: Twice in its short history, the Kadima party leader occupied the prime minister’s office. But in just one election cycle, the party went from Israel’s largest faction all the way down to zero: Kadima failed to win a single seat in the 19th Knesset. The party was doomed by a variety of factors: The rise of Yesh Atid, whose socioeconomic-focused platform and charismatic leader peeled away centrist voters; Livni’s failure to gain adherents for Kadima and subsequent defection to her new party, Hatnua; and Shaul Mofaz’s decision to join, albeit briefly, the Likud-led ruling coalition. It’s not the end of centrist politics in Israel, but it is the end of the road for the party started by Ariel Sharon as a breakaway from Likud.

Bibi’s reign: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters used to herald him as Bibi, King of Israel. So did Time magazine just a few months ago. But with the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list falling by a quarter after what was widely panned as a lackluster campaign, it’s difficult to make the case that Netanyahu’s star is burning brighter. He’s almost sure to capture the premiership again (now comes the horse trading that is Israeli coalition building), but it seems it will be more for lack of an alternative than enthusiasm for Netanyahu.

Hello, Naftali Bennett: If there was any enthusiasm on the right wing this time around, it appeared to be for Naftali Bennett, leader of the newly constituted Jewish Home party (itself a successor to the National Religious Party). The party captured 12 seats, up from just three (as the NRP) in the last Knesset. Bennett, who supports annexation of parts of the West Bank, is likely to apply pressure on Netanyahu to shift farther right on security issues.

Voters to Netanyahu: Get new friends


These were the most interesting-boring elections one could ever hope for. Boring – as the top job was secured early on by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Fascinating – as the parties, unburdened of having to compete for the top job, were free to combat one another for votes. And, obviously, Israelis paid attention: an intensive, almost hysterical campaign to convince them to go to the polls – preceeded by recent declines in voting turnout and a growing worry that Israelis no longer care as much as they once did – clearly succeeded. Or maybe the hysteria was unnecessary to begin with; maybe the worry was unfounded. Israelis turned out in large numbers to vote in this election; we don’t know why, but we know that they did.

They sent Netanyahu a message, one that he must understand: We – the voters – know that you are the only possible PM for the time being. No other candidate of the needed stature was available for us. We are not sure if you’re really the best candidate to be found, but right now you are the only game in town. However the rules of the game need to be changed. Netanyahu can be Prime Minister, but he can’t be the PM of the right-religious coalition. He can’t be the PM of harsh rhetoric; he can’t be the PM of wild legislation; he can’t be the PM of Haredi power; he can’t be the PM based on a coalition of which he is the most leftist member.

[For more on the Israeli elections, visit Rosner's Domain]

As this article is being written on election night, final results are not yet available. But even if the right-religious bloc can retain a majority large enough to form a coalition of 61, or 62, or even 63 mandates – even if Netanyahu can barely survive based on the traditional “base” of supporters – that isn’t the outcome he was hoping for. It isn’t a vote of affirmation. Netanyahu is lucky to have been the only PM-caliber candidate in the race, and he is lucky to have Yesh Atid – Yair Lapid’s party – as the big surprise of this election. Yesh Atid, unlike other parties on the center and the left, is a partner Netanyahu can live with.

It is a partner that is even comfortable for him. Netanyahu wanted a moderate coalition and now he has an excuse with which to convince his partners to his right that there really is no other choice. He can tell the leaders of Shas that a compromise on the Haredi draft is what the majority of voters forced upon him. He can tell Habait Hayehudi – the right-Zionist-religious party – that with all due respect to the settlements and to building in E1, the voters didn’t give him a mandate to rule from the right. So while the outcome of the elections is hardly an achievement for Netanyahu – it is hardly a compliment for the ruling coalition – the PM can make it work for him.

Most voters should consider this good news, because most voters want Israel to have a centrist policy. Centrist – not leftist. Those supporting the left voted for Meretz — and to the left of Meretz. The left benefited in this cycle from Netanyahu’s inevitable projected victory. When there’s no one to challenge Netanyahu, left-wing voters are not left with the quandary of comprising for a Livni, or an Olmert, in the hope that Netanyahu can be toppled. They can vote their conscience – and they did. The growth of Meretz, a party with dedicated clean-handed and energetic parliamentarians, is good news. Don’t take it from me: Uri Ariel, the settler-supporting right-wing number-two of the Jewish Home Party offered gentlemanly congratulations to Meretz on election night when he was interviewed live on his party’s achievements.

Other voters who didn’t want Netanyahu to remain in office voted for the Labor Party, and for Shelly Yacimovitz. Supporters of Lapid – which appears to have gained close to 20 mandates (not final) – want Netanyahu, but a different version of him. A Haredi-less Netanyahu; a Settler-less Netanyahu.

So the Prime Minister has a choice: If he wants to regain his footing and stay in power — and maybe convince more Israelis that he is the right man for the job and not just the no-alternative default man until someone better comes along –  he’ll have to reconsider his “base.” This isn’t going to be easy for him – Netanyahu has relied on his current base for many years and was planning to hold it together for years to come. The result is that this current cycle may present Netanyahu with a short-term vs. long-term dilemma: If he holds onto his longtime base, he won’t quite be able to form a stable coalition in 2013. But if he dumps the base, he could pay a high price for it in 2014, 2015, 2016. 

In the short term, coalition talks are going to be fascinating and tough. Netanyahu is going to pay a price, and his old partners are going to pay a price if they want to have a viable coalition. Some of them might decide to sit this one out – Shas is a candidate for such a possibility. And the new coalition will be made up of many, many fresh faces – possibly 50 new Knesset members.

This is a parliamentary tsunami — and a headache for the managers of the coming coalition. It is a recipe for instability. It is a recipe for contention and rough relations. The 2013 coalition is going to be fun to watch and easy to dismantle. And it will not last as long as the more coherent – but unacceptable – outgoing coalition.

Economy more than anything drove Jewish vote, poll data shows


The economy was the strongest determinant for Jews who voted for Barack Obama, according to an analysis of polling data.

“Not only do Jews hold fairly liberal to progressive positions on economic justice issues, their views on such matters emerge as the principal decision-making fulcrum in their choice for president, as well as for senators and congressional representatives,” said a report by Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring published Wednesday.

The survey showed that 68 percent of respondents voted for President Obama and 32 percent for Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, and that there were similar liberal-conservative splits on a range of issues, including the economy, abortion, gay rights, climate change and immigration.

However, a statistical analysis of the results showed that the predictive power of economic issues was the largest, according to Steven Cohen, a professor at New York University's Berman Jewish Policy Archive who analyzed the data with Samuel Abrams, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College.

“All of your predictions” about voting “could be done just by knowing economic justice alone,” Cohen told JTA.

Among other findings, by a 43 percent to 31 percent margin, respondents agreed that “Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently,” and by a 50 percent to 28 percent  margin, respondents wanted to preserve benefits under Medicare, the medical insurance program for those over 65 now facing Republican demands for cost reductions.

Cohen and Abrams ran a regression analysis on the data to determine the relationship between variables; the only other variable that came as close to views on the economy in predicting a voting outcome was views on climate change, Cohen said.

The analysis was drawn from research by YouGov, a company that targets respondents through market research.

Respondents self-identifying as Jewish numbered 2,067 and responded through email. The margin of error was 2 percentage points.

Workmen's Circle was established in 1900 as a Jewish labor rights group.

Peres using Facebook to urge young people to vote


Israeli President Shimon Peres released a Facebook application to encourage young Israelis to vote.

Peres on Sunday unveiled a video and Facebook application called “Bocher Mavi Chaver,” or “Voter Brings a Friend.”

He collaborated with the popular actor Eyal Kitzis in calling for every Israeli to invite four friends to go to the polls. The invitation can be sent from Peres' Facebook page.

Yaron Shilon, director of the popular Israeli satire show “Eretz Nehederet” (“Wonderful Country”), and Sari Alfi, scriptwriter for the comedy show “Mazav HaUma” (“State of the Nation”) produced the video.

“I call upon every young person with the right to vote for the first time, don't miss the opportunity,” Peres said when unveiling the project at his official residence in Jerusalem. “When you vote, you respect not only your country but also yourselves as citizens. Voting is a civic duty of the utmost importance; the result will personally impact each and every one of us personally and form our collective future.”

Internet users will be able to ensure that their friends have voted by seeing who has “Checked In” on Facebook when they arrive at the ballot box.

Egypt’s contentious Islamist constitution becomes law


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi signed into law a new constitution shaped by his Islamist allies, a bitterly contested document which he insists will help end political turmoil and allow him to focus on fixing the economy.

Anxiety about a deepening political and economic crisis has gripped Egypt in past weeks, with many people rushing to buy dollars and withdraw their savings from banks. The Egyptian pound tumbled on Wednesday to its weakest level against the U.S. currency in almost eight years.

The new constitution, which the liberal opposition says betrays Egypt's 2011 revolution by dangerously mixing religion and politics, has polarized the Arab world's most populous nation and prompted occasionally violent protest on the streets.

The presidency said on Wednesday that Morsi had formally approved the constitution the previous evening, shortly after results showed that Egyptians had backed it in a referendum.

The text won about 64 percent of the vote, paving the way for a new parliamentary election in about two months.

The charter states that the principles of sharia, Islamic law, are the main source of legislation and that Islamic authorities will be consulted on sharia – a source of concern to the Christian minority and others.

The referendum result marked yet another electoral victory for the Islamists since veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, following parliamentary elections last year and the presidential vote that brought Morsi to power this year.

Morsi's government, which has accused opponents of damaging the economy by prolonging political upheaval, now faces the tough task of building a broad consensus as it prepares to impose austerity measures.

CRISIS ATMOSPHERE

The atmosphere of crisis deepened this week after the Standard & Poor's agency downgraded Egypt's long-term credit rating and warned of a possible further cut. The government has imposed currency restrictions to reduce capital flight.

The pound traded as low as 6.1775 against the dollar on Wednesday, close to its all-time low of 6.26 hit on October 14, 2004, on concerns that the government might devalue or tighten restrictions on currency movements.

“All customers are rushing to buy dollars after the downgrading,” said a dealer at a Cairo-based bank. “We'll have to wait to see how the market will operate with the U.S. dollar, because as you know there is a rush at the moment.”

Keen to be seen as decisive, the government is now in talks with business figures, trade unions and other groups to highlight the need for tax increases to resolve the crisis.

Morsi has committed to such austerity measures to receive a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

However, Al-Mal newspaper quoted Planning Minister Ashraf al-Araby as saying the government would not implement the tax increases until it had completed the dialogue with different parts of society.

In Cairo's bustling centre, people openly expressed their frustration with economic instability as they went about their daily business.

“The country's going to the pits. Everything is a mess,” Hamdy Hussein, a 61-year-old building janitor, said angrily. “It's worse than ever. Mubarak was better than now. People were living and there was security.”

Ashraf Mohamed Kamal, 30, added: “The economic situation will be a mess in the next few years. It already is. People will get hungrier. People are now begging more.”

TURMOIL CONTINUES

Morsi, catapulted into power by his Islamist allies this year, believes adopting the constitution quickly and holding the vote for a permanent new parliament will help to end the long period of turmoil and uncertainty that has wrecked the economy.

Morsi's government argues the constitution offers enough protection to all groups, and that many Egyptians are fed up with street protests that have prevented a return to normality and distracted the government from tackling the economy.

The charter gives Egypt's upper house of parliament, which is dominated by Islamists, full legislative powers until the vote for a new lower house is held.

While stressing the importance of political stability to heal the economy, Morsi's government has tried to play down the economic problems and appealed for unity despite the hardship.

“The government calls on the people not to worry about the country's economy,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mohamed Mahsoub told the upper house in a speech. “We are not facing an economic problem but a political one and it is affecting the economic situation. We therefore urge all groups, opponents and brothers, to achieve wide reconciliation and consensus.”

Morsi is due to address the upper house on Saturday in a speech likely to be dominated by economic policy.

Sharpening people's concerns, the authorities imposed currency controls on Tuesday to prevent capital flight. Leaving or entering Egypt with more than $10,000 in cash is now banned.

Adding to the government's long list of worries, Communications Minister Hany Mahmoud has resigned citing his “inability to adapt to the government's working culture”.

The opposition has condemned the new basic law as too Islamist, saying it could allow clerics to intervene in the lawmaking process and leave minority groups without proper legal protection. It said this month's vote was marred by major violations.

Nevertheless, major opposition groups have not called for new protests, suggesting that weeks of civil unrest over the constitution may be subsiding now that it has passed.

The United States, which provides $1.3 billion a year in military aid plus other support to Egypt and sees it as a pillar of security in the Middle East, called on Egyptian politicians to bridge divisions and on all sides to reject violence.

Additional reporting by Patrick Werr; Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by David Stamp

Israel’s U.N. blunder


It’s never a good thing to look like a loser. That applies to countries as well as people. Consider Israel, a winning country on so many fronts: It’s on the cutting edge of high tech, turns deserts into farmlands, wins awards at film festivals and boasts one of the liveliest, most open societies in the world.

And yet, on the international stage, it’s very much a loser.

Just look at what happened last week at the United Nations. Israel got creamed by the Palestinians 138 to 9, when more than two-thirds of the world body’s 193 member states approved the resolution upgrading the Palestinians to a nonmember observer state.

It’s tempting to dismiss the vote as yet another show of anti-Israel bias at the U.N., or to diminish the Palestinian victory by saying that “it hurts the peace process,” “it’s counterproductive,” and so on.

But those are lame responses. The Palestinian goal was never to help the peace process. It was to isolate Israel on the international stage and continue undermining it. And on that, they won big.

The Palestinians don’t negotiate. They attack.

Extremists like Hamas attack Israeli homes with missiles, hoping Israel will retaliate and cause civilian casualties that will result in diplomatic disasters like the Goldstone Report.

“Moderates” in the Palestinian Authority attack Israel with verbal missiles, demonizing and libeling Jews as foreign intruders with no connection to Jerusalem. Their repeated rejection of peace offers (including one offer of a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of Gaza) and continued promotion of Jew-hatred in their society have exposed their bad faith and made Israelis wary of making further concessions — a wariness that is then used to paint Israelis as intransigent.

Instead of sitting down to negotiate, these so-called Palestinian “moderates” go behind Israel’s back to international bodies already hostile to Israel in the hope of further isolating the Jewish state.

And guess what? They’re winning.

Israel may shoot down many missiles with the Iron Dome, but on the international stage, it has allowed diplomatic missiles to wreak havoc on Israel’s reputation and legitimacy.

Could Israel have done anything differently to mitigate last week’s humiliating defeat?

Yes, but first, it would have had to think differently.

The problem with Israeli diplomacy, as I see it, is that it’s too rational and predictable. In the treacherous snake pit of Middle East and U.N. politics, there are moments when you must be sly and nimble.

Last week was one of those moments.

Listen to Israel’s U.N. address against the resolution, given by the esteemed Ambassador Ron Prosor. The speech was powerful yet totally predictable, which is why the media and everyone else ignored it.

Now imagine if Israel, knowing it would lose big in the vote, had turned the tables on the Palestinians and said something like this:

“This Palestinian resolution, even though we don’t support it, includes a great victory for Israel. For years, we have been saying that the so-called Palestinian ‘right of return’ is a deal breaker. There is simply no way that Israel will ever allow 5 million Palestinians to return to Israel proper. Today, by reaffirming that a future Palestinian state will follow the general contours of the West Bank and Gaza, the world community is making it absolutely clear that millions of refugees will not return to Israel. We welcome this clarification, which is long overdue and is an important step forward.”

Like I said, sly and nimble.

This diplomatic ambush would have changed the subject from a Palestinian victory to a Palestinian defeat. Instead of talking about international recognition of a Palestinian state, we would have talked about international repudiation of a Palestinian demand—their “sacred” right of return.

The Palestinians would have been thrown for a loop. They know they’re vulnerable with this idea of five million refugees returning to Israel—which hardly anyone supports outside of Palestinians. The striking maneuver would have grabbed worldwide headlines and put the Palestinians squarely on the defensive.

That would have made them feel right at home, because they do it all the time: Attack Israel and put it on the defensive. In response, Israel typically treats them like harmless children while spewing out empty statements like “we want peace.”

Palestinian “moderates” like Mahmoud Abbas are not harmless children who want peace. They’re clever grown-ups who want to undermine and isolate the Jewish state any way they can. Their verbal missiles are no less dangerous than Hamas’s real missiles.

Until Israel learns how to fight on the diplomatic front as well as it does on the military one, we can expect more humiliating defeats, more international isolation, and zero incentive for the Palestinians to ever want to talk peace.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Does the Jewish vote still matter?


Does the Jewish vote still matter and if so, how? Exit polls indicate that 70 percent of Jews voted for President Obama, compared to roughly 39 percent of white voters overall. However, with California and New York, which have large Jewish populations, guaranteed to go Democratic, the Jewish vote may have mattered only in Florida. 

As usual, most attention on the Jewish community has been focused on whether Obama’s 70 percent Jewish support represents a serious decline from the either 78 percent or 74 percent (depending on the source) that he received from Jews in 2008. We spend so much effort on the beaten-to-death question of whether Jews will ever vote Republican that we miss something more important — the potential role Jewish voters can play in a society that is in profound demographic and political transformation.

The 2012 election may well turn out to be more historic than Barack Obama’s 2008 election. It revealed the flowering of the transformation of the American electorate, a trend that was obscured in 2008 by the hope and change that surrounded Obama’s first campaign, and that brought about a momentary appearance of consensus.  The rough, tough re-election campaign of 2012 clarified the lines of conflict in the electorate.

This is especially true in California, but also nationwide, where the Democratic surge was powered by a new electorate that includes growing cadres of both younger and minority voters. Sleeping giants awoke. Latinos increased their share of the overall vote to 10 percent and broke in huge numbers for Obama, giving him between 70 and 75 percent support. Young voters comprised a larger share of the vote than they did in 2008. Single women, who represented 20 percent of the vote in 2008, comprised 23 percent in 2012 and cast 67 percent of their votes for Obama, according to a study by the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund. In California, these constituencies carried Proposition 30 to an historic upset victory and may have helped to give Democrats two-thirds dominance of the Legislature. Nationally, one swing state after another fell into the Democratic column.

At the same time, Mitt Romney increased — to 59 percent — the Republican share of the white vote over John McCain in 2008. A majority of whites were on one end, especially those who are older and those who live in the South, while communities of color, especially if younger, were on the other.

And then there are the Jews. The overall demographic transformation is so startling that there has been less attention on the Jewish vote this year than in 2008. Republicans have much bigger problems than not winning over Jews, starting with their staggering defeat among mobilized African-Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans as well as among single women. 

Yet Jews voted for Obama in numbers comparable to Latinos, echoing conservative legendary plaint that “Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” (Well, also like single women and also like Asian Americans — 73 percent.) Only the gigantic support of African-Americans surpassed all of these groups.

It’s less important that Jews frustrated Republicans than that Jews, an older, largely white demographic, represent a refusal to be predictably polarized along lines of race, age and class. This block of voters adds a more realistic perspective to the simple assumption that there are two Americas, one ascendant and the other on the decline, one nonwhite and the other white. 

The Jewish vote, whether or not it determines who wins states, offers an important reminder that whites are not a monolithic block of voters. After all, more whites voted for Obama than any single minority community. The 39 percent Obama support among whites, among the more than 70 percent of votes cast, represents roughly 27 percent of all votes. In his 2007 book, “Boomers and Immigrants: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America,” Dowell Myers argued that in order to maintain support for such programs as Social Security and Medicare, the aging boomers, who are disproportionately white, need to be in alliance with immigrants. Bridge building will be essential. Jewish voters never joined the parade of immigrant bashing, and opposed such anti-immigrant measures as California’s 1994 Proposition 187. Nor did Jews turn away, even in political hard times, from the social liberalism on abortion and gay rights that this year became politically popular for the first time.

One underappreciated role of the Jewish vote in American politics is in bridge building. Even in Los Angeles in the mid-1800s, when it was a rough-and-tumble frontier city filled with diverse groups, the small Jewish population was civically active and a positive contributor to local governance.

When American cities were torn apart by racial polarization in the 1960s, a small block of white voters, principally Jews, supported embattled black mayoral candidates in Gary, Ind., Cleveland, Newark, N.J., and Chicago. In Los Angeles, the relationship between African-Americans and Jews flowered into a full-fledged, coalition of equals, with Mayor Tom Bradley drawing from African-American and Jewish supporters. For many African-Americans and for many whites, the black-Jewish coalition became a path across which new friends and allies could be encountered and cooperation nurtured, and also a framework for working out intergroup conflict.

Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have been working for decades with those in minority communities who fight for equality and justice. As communities of color push further into the center of state and national power, the bridge role played by the Jewish community will continue to matter.

The Jewish political role will not disappear in local, state and national politics. There has indeed been a noticeable decline of Jews in office in Sacramento, but Jews continue to hold many national offices, especially in the House and Senate, as well as in the states. In Los Angeles, high voter turnout among Jews means that city candidates will continue to consider the Jewish voice in local elections. It will still be important to have candidates and elected officials who are sympathetic to the interests and values of the Jewish community.

There is no question that the Jewish vote still matters. But the future for Jewish involvement may extend even beyond electoral strength to reconnecting with the bridge role that a state and nation of isolated communities may value.


Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Fighting over every percentile: Arguing about the Jewish vote and exit polls


President Obama’s Jewish numbers are down, but by how much and why?

Get ready for four more years of tussling between the Jewish community’s Republicans and Democrats about the meaning of Obama’s dip from 78 percent Jewish support cited in 2008 exit polls to 69 percent this year in the national exit polls run by a media consortium.

Is it a result of Obama’s fractious relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Or is it a natural fall-off in an election that was closer across the board than it was four years ago? Does it reflect a significant shift in Jewish voting patterns toward the Republicans?

A separate national exit poll released Wednesday by Jim Gerstein, a pollster affiliated with the dovish Israel policy group J Street, had similar numbers: 70 percent of respondents said they voted for Obama, while 30 percent — the same figure as in the media consortium's Jewish sample — said they voted for Mitt Romney.

Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the $6.5 million his group spent and the $1.5 million an affiliated political action committee spent wooing Jewish voters was “well worth it.”

“We’ve increased our share of the Jewish vote by almost 50 percent,” he said, noting that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 Republican nominee, got 22 percent in that year’s exit polls to Romney’s 30 percent this year.

Brooks said that his group’s hard-hitting ads, which attacked Obam on his handling of both Israel and the economy, helped move the needle. “There’s no question we got significant return on our investment,” he said.

Democrats insisted that the needle didn’t wiggle so much, saying the more reliable 2008 number for Obama's shae of the Jewish vote was 74 percent, a figure that is based on a subsequent review of data by The Solomon Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“Right now 69 or 70 is the best number we have for this cycle, and 74 percent is the best number we have for four years ago,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a consultant to Jewish and Democratic groups, including the NJDC. “You can intentionally use a number you know has been corrected just for the purposes of comparison, or you can use the data.”

The 2008 numbers, like this year’s, are based on the 2 percent of respondents identifying as Jewish in the major exit poll run by a consortium of news agencies — altogether, between 400-500 Jews, out of a total of over 25,000 respondents. The Solomon Project review, by examining a range of exit polls taken in different states as well as the national consortium, used data garnered from close to a thousand Jewish voters, a number that reduces the margin of error from about 6 points to 3 points.

Whether the 2008 percentage was 74 or 78 — or some other number entirely given the margins of errror — both Republicans and Democrats agreed that Obama’s share of the Jewish vote had declined. Rabinowitz conceded that the Republican expenditure, which dwarfed spending on the Democratic side, might have had an impact.

“What yichus is there in the possibility of having picked up a handful of Jewish votes having spent so many millions of dollars?” Rabinowitz asked, using the Yiddish word connoting status.

Gerstein said his findings suggested that the Republican blitz of Jewish communities in swing states like Ohio and Florida had little effect; separate polls he ran in those states showed virtually the same results as his national poll of Jewish voters. Gerstein’s national poll of 800 Jewish voters has a margin of error of 3.5 percent; his separate polls of Jewish voters in Ohio and Florida canvassed 600 in each state, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

He also noted that there were similar drop-offs in Obama’s overall take — from 53 percent of the popular vote in 2008 to 49 percent this year — as well as among an array of sub groups, including whites, independents, Catholics, those with no religion, those under 30. The only uptick for the president in the media consortium’s exit polls was seen among Hispanic voters, likely turned off by Romney’s tough line on illegal immigration.

“You see a lot of things that are tracking between the Jewish constituency and other constituencies when you look at the shift in Obama’s vote between 2008 and now, “ he said.

The NJDC president, David Harris, attributed what shift there was to the economy.

“American Jews are first and foremost Americans, and like all Americans it’s a difficult time for them,” he said. “The Democratic vote performance has decreased somewhat.”

Gerstein said that the mistake Republicans continued to make was to presume that Israel was an issue that could move the Jewish vote.

“They’ve got to do something very different if they’re going to appeal to Jews,” he said. “The hard-line hawkish appeal to Israel isn’t working.”

He cited an ad run in September in Florida by an anti-Obama group called Secure America Now that featured footage from a press conference in which Netanyahu excoriated those who he said had failed to set red lines for Iran, which was seen as a jab at Obama. Gerstein said that of the 45 percent of his Florida respondents who saw the ad, 56 percent said they were not moved by it, 27 percent said it made them more determined to vote for Obama and only 16 percent said i made them more determined to vote for Romney.

Israel did not feature high among priorities in Gerstein’s polling, a finding that conformed with polling done over the years by the American Jewish Committee. Asked their top issue in voting, 53 percent of Gerstein’s respondents in his national poll cited the economy and 32 percent health care. Israel tied for third with abortion and terrorism at 10 percent.

Gerstein’s national poll showed Obama getting strong overall approval ratings of 67 percent of his respondents, with strong showings on domestic issues like entitlements — where he scored 65 percent — and majority approval of his handling of relations with Israel (53 percent) and the Iranian nuclear issue (58 percent.).

But the RJC's Brooks said he was confident Republicans would continue to accrue gains, saying that with the exception of Obama’s strong showing in 2008, his party has steadily increased its proportion of the Jewish vote since George H. W. Bush got 11 percent in 1992.

“Our investment is not in the outcome of a single election,” he said. “It’s ultimately about broadening the base of the Republican Party in the Jewish community.”

Palestinians show lukewarm reaction to Obama’s re-election


Palestinians reacted lukewarmly to the news of President Barack Obama’s re-election for a second term, saying they are not hopeful this will improve their situation.

On the political level, Palestinian officials called upon Obama to help in peace efforts.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas congratulated Obama on his reelection.  In a statement published by WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency, Abbas said he hoped that Obama “continues his efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East.”

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told The Media Line that this is a new phase. “Hamas calls upon Obama to re-evaluate his external policies that are biased toward the Israeli occupation,” he said, adding that any change in the Palestinian and Arabic mood is contingent upon the reshuffling of American foreign policies toward the Middle East.

Direct peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel have been frozen since September 2010, after Palestinians demanded a freeze in the construction of West Bank Jewish communities as a basis for negotiations.

The Palestinian president’s diplomatic advisor, Majdi Al-Khaldi, told The Media Line that he hopes the new administration will support the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ return to negotiations after the United Nations General Assembly votes on a Palestinian proposal to recognize Palestine as a non-member UN state.

<div style=”float:right;padding-left:15px;padding-top:10px;padding-bottom:10px;”><div style=”border: 1px solid black;padding:7px;” ><a href=”http://www.themedialine.org” target=”_blank”><img src=”http://www.jewishjournal.com/images/themedialine-160-7-11.jpg” /></a></div></div>“Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership was forced to take other diplomatic and political measures to maintain the two-state solution and prove our rights in any future negations,” he added.

Khaldi said that two things have not changed: “The Israeli government is still the same, and the American Congress still has a Republican majority.”

The only difference, according to Khaldi, is that this administration might have better experience in dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

Al-Quds University Media and Politics professor Ahmed Rafiq Awad told The Media Line that he does not expect any dramatic changes in the United States’ foreign policy, “When Obama tried to get involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he had to pay a high price because of the Jewish and Zionist lobby in America. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also offended him a couple of times,” he added.

In the main streets of Ramallah, where Palestinian Authority employees still haven’t received their salaries as the financial crisis facing the PA deepens, most of those interviewed by The Media Line on Wednesday believed Obama is better than the Republican candidate Mitt Romney, but will not bring a change to their lives.  

 “He will not offer anything new to us because of the Congress pressure on him, but at least for us as Palestinians, Obama is better for us than Romney,” PA employee Mervat Daraghmeh said.

Muna Ali, a housewife, also agreed: “We have a saying in Arabic that goes: Those who you know are better than the ones you don’t.”

“Romney is a Zionist, he wanted to suffocate us like George [W.] Bush did”, Kamel Nayaf, a retired artist said as he strolled with his wife. She agreed with him: “Maybe he will be more active in the second term. We are not optimistic, but we are hopeful that he will improve the situation here,” she said.

In a shop close to Al-Manara Square, Sufyan Adawi, a moneychanger, told The Media Line that Palestinians understood that American foreign policies are linked to the United States’ interests in the region and are not based on moral and humane grounds, “but we hope the nonexistence of a third term will make him [Obama] less afraid of the Zionist lobby.”

Some Palestinians hope a second term for Obama could lead to a change in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as the president will not be concerned with reelection.

However, political analyst Awad ruled out this possibility: “The American president knows he might be less free from the influence of the Zionist lobby, but America is run by institutions such as the army, intelligence and Congress, which limits the ability of Obama as an individual.”  

Abd El Kader Hassan, a public transportation driver, believes the American election results will not change the Palestinians’ conditions: “One is black, and the other is white. This is the only difference,” he said.

“I don’t follow the news,” said Mohammed Rasem, taking a pause from calling out to customers to buy from his cart full of socks and underwear. Two other young women in their early 20s told The Media Line they didn’t know the election had taken place.

Nidal Arar, a cab driver from Ramallah, said he was pro-Obama: “He didn’t get involved in wars like Bush did in Iraq, and he’s a good man,” he said.

Awad told The Media Line he believes Obama will focus on internal American polices and expects Obama to reach out for China and Russia instead of the Middle East.

“The only way for American involvement in the region is through regional pressure exerted by the Arab and Islamic states by threatening America’s interests in the Middle East ,” Awad added.

RJC urges unity after Obama win, notes GOP’s Jewish gains


The Republican Jewish Coalition called on all Americans to “come together to craft real solutions to the very serious problems our country faces today” after President Obama won re-election.

In a statement released by Executive Director Matt Brooks, the RJC noted what it called a significant erosion of support for Obama among Jewish voters, with exit polls saying that Obama garnered about 69 percent of the Jewish vote, down from an estimated 74 percent to 78 percent in 2008.

“In five of the last six national elections, Republicans have increased their support among Jewish voters and they continue to make inroads in the Jewish community,” Brooks said. “One clear take-away from the outcome of this election is that the Jewish community spoke loudly and clearly regarding their concerns about the policies of the Obama administration.”

The chairman and president of the National Jewish Democratic Council released a statement saying they were “thrilled” with Obama's reelection.

“In his first term, President Obama signed historic legislation into law, appointed outstanding Supreme Court justices and reflected Jewish values at every turn — all while being Israel’s most important friend and most persistent advocate in the world,” the statement by Marc Stanley and David A. Harris said. “We know that he will continue to build on his outstanding foreign and domestic record in his second term, and that he will continue moving our country forward.”

A host of other Jewish groups also offered their congratulations to the president.

“President Obama has made it clear during the past four years that he and his administration are strongly committed to solidarity with Israel in confronting the many security challenges that she and our own nation face,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement.

The statement noted that both candidates for president were “firmly supportive of the U.S.-Israel relationship” and that the commitment is reflected in the newly elected Congress.

“The election once again demonstrated that the solidarity between the U.S. and Israel transcends partisan politics,” AIPAC said.

Americans vote after long and bitter presidential campaign


President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney battled down to the wire on Tuesday, mounting a last-minute Election Day drive to get their supporters to the polls in a handful of states that will decide the winner in a neck-and-neck race for the White House.

Capping a long and bitter campaign, Americans began casting their votes at polling stations across the country. At least 120 million people were expected to render judgment on whether to give Obama a second term or replace him with Romney.

Their decision will set the country's course for the next four years on spending, taxes, healthcare and foreign policy challenges like the rise of China and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

National opinion polls show Obama and Romney in a virtual dead heat, although the Democratic incumbent has a slight advantage in several vital swing states – most notably Ohio – that could give him the 270 electoral votes needed to win the state-by-state contest.

Romney, the multimillionaire former head of a private equity firm, would be the first Mormon president and one of the wealthiest Americans to occupy the White House. Obama, the first black president, is vying to be the first Democrat to win a second term since Bill Clinton in 1996.

Whichever candidate wins, a razor-thin margin would not bode well for the clear mandate needed to break the partisan gridlock in Washington.

Romney voted at a community center near his home in a Boston suburb, before dashing off for a pair of last-minute stops, including in Ohio. “I feel great about Ohio,” he said when asked about a state that is considered a must-win for him.

Obama, settling into his hometown of Chicago, made a final pitch to morning commuters in battleground states that have been an almost obsessive focus of both campaigns seeking to map out their paths to victory. He also made a surprise visit to a Chicago campaign office.

“Four years ago, we had incredible turnout,” Obama told a Miami radio station in a pre-recorded interview. “I know people were excited and energized about the prospect of making history, but we have to preserve the gains we've made and keep moving forward.”

He called into a hip-hop music station in Tampa, Florida, in a final outreach to African-American supporters, saying that voting was “central to moving our community forward.”

Fueled by record spending on negative ads, the battle between the two men was focused primarily on the lagging economic recovery and persistently high unemployment, but at times it also turned personal.

BOOSTING TURNOUT

As Americans headed to voting booths, campaign teams for both candidates worked the phones feverishly to mobilize supporters to cast their ballots.

Polls will begin to close in Indiana and Kentucky at 6 p.m. EST (2300 GMT) on Tuesday, with voting ending across the country over the next six hours.

The first results, by tradition, were tallied in Dixville Notch and Hart's Location, both in New Hampshire, shortly after midnight (0500 GMT). Obama and Romney each received five votes in Dixville Notch. In Hart's Location, Obama had 23 votes to nine for Romney and two for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

The close presidential race raises the prospect of a disputed outcome similar to the 2000 election, which ended with a U . S. Supreme Court decision favoring George W. Bush over Al Gore after legal challenges to the close vote in Florida. Both the Romney and Obama campaigns have assembled legal teams to deal with possible voting problems, challenges or recounts.

The balance of power in the U.S. Congress also will be at stake in Senate and House of Representatives races that could impact the outcome of “fiscal cliff” negotiations on spending cuts and tax increases, which kick in at the end of the year unless a deal is reached.

Obama's Democrats are now expected to narrowly hold their Senate majority, while Romney's Republicans are favored to retain House control.

Amid uncertainty over the U.S. election outcome, no major moves were expected in global financial markets while investors waited for the result. World stock markets edged slightly higher, and U.S. exchanges opened up modestly.

Despite the weak economy, Obama appeared in September to be cruising to a relatively easy win after a strong party convention and a series of stumbles by Romney, including a secretly recorded video showing the Republican writing off 47 percent of the electorate as government-dependent victims.

But Romney rebounded in the first debate on Oct. 3 in Denver, where his sure-footed criticism of the president and Obama's listless response started a slow rise for Romney in polls. Obama seemed to regain his footing in recent days at the head of federal relief efforts for victims of superstorm Sandy in the New York-New Jersey area.

The presidential contest is now likely to be determined by voter turnout – specifically, what combination of Republicans, Democrats and independent voters shows up at polling stations.

Weather could be a factor. Much of the nation was dry and mild, though rain was forecast later on Tuesday in the Southeast, including Florida, an important swing state.

Obama and Romney raced through seven battleground states on Monday to hammer home their final themes, urge supporters to get to the polls and woo the last remaining undecided voters.

'WE KNOW WHAT CHANGE LOOKS LIKE'

Obama focused on Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa, the three Midwestern swing states that, barring surprises elsewhere, would ensure that he reaches the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Romney visited the must-win states of Florida, Virginia and Ohio before finishing in New Hampshire.

After two days of nearly around-the-clock travel, Obama wrapped up his final campaign tour in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday with a speech that hearkened back to his 2008 campaign.

“I came back to ask you to help us finish what we've started because this is where our movement for change began,” he told a crowd of some 20,000 people. Obama wiped away tears as he reflected on those who had helped his campaign.

Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, ended Monday in Manchester, New Hampshire, the city where he started his campaign last year. “We're one day away from a fresh start,” the hoarse-sounding candidate told a crowd of 12,000.

Obama ridiculed Romney's claims to be the candidate of change and said the challenger would be a rubber stamp for a conservative Tea Party agenda. “We know what change looks like, and what he's selling ain't it,” he said in Columbus, Ohio.

Romney argued he was the candidate who could break the partisan gridlock in Washington and said four more years of Obama could mean another economic recession.

The common denominator for both candidates was Ohio. Without the state's 18 electoral votes, the path to victory becomes very narrow for Romney.

Polls have shown Obama with a small but steady lead in the state for months, sparked in part by his support for a federal bailout of the auto industry, which accounts for one of every eight jobs in Ohio, and by a strong state economy with an unemployment rate lower than the 7.9 percent national rate.

That undercut the central argument of Romney's campaign – that his business experience made him uniquely qualified to create jobs and lead an economic recovery.

Romney's aides hoped an 11th-hour visit on Tuesday could also boost his cause in Pennsylvania, a Democratic-leaning state that he has tried to put in play in recent weeks.

Obama fought back through the summer with ads criticizing Romney's experience at the private equity firm Bain Capital and portraying him as out of touch with ordinary Americans.

That was part of a barrage of advertising in the most heavily contested battleground states from both candidates and their party allies, who raised a combined $2 billion.

The rise of “Super PACs,” unaffiliated outside groups that can spend unlimited sums on behalf of candidates, also helped fuel the record spending on political ads.

Obama voted in October by taking advantage of early voting procedures. Vice President Joe Biden stood patiently in a long line Tuesday to cast his ballot in his home state of Delaware.

“Oh, I'm feeling pretty good,” Biden said when asked if he had any prediction, according to a pool report.

Asked whether this would be the last time he would vote for himself, he said with a grin: “No, I don't think so.” The 69-year-old former U.S. senator, who twice ran unsuccessfully for the White House before becoming Obama's running mate, has not ruled out another run in 2016.

Security could intimidate, so Sinai Temple moves polling places outdoors


Polling places often move around from year to year, but normally not on Election Day itself, as happened to the polls at Sinai Temple this year.

On Nov. 6, when the day began, 14 booths were positioned inside the West Coast’s largest and oldest Conservative synagogue. But after two trained volunteers, working with Election Protection, a nonpartisan election-monitoring organization, reported that the synagogue’s security guards were, as they do every day, using metal detector wands to screen each person entering the building, poll workers relocated the booths to a fenced-in courtyard outside the Temple, just off Wilshire Boulevard.

“It can be intimidating,” said Brian Link, one of the volunteers, said, explaining why the polling places had to be moved to comply with election law.

A second volunteer, Melody Chen, in 2008 had volunteered with Election Protection in Charlotte, N.C. She staffed a hotline that year, similar to one she and Link called Tuesday morning to report security procedures at Sinai Temple.

In North Carolina four years ago, Chen said, “there was one polling place where every African-American voter was told that their registration was not valid.

“It just blows your mind, in this day and age,” she added.

Nobody appears to have been turned away from the polls at Sinai Temple, Link said, but there was a bit of commotion when one voter set off the metal detector.

The offending item: a pocketknife.

“It got a little weird,” Link said, noting that it took some consultation with multiple members of the security personnel before the voter was allowed to enter. “But it all turned out OK.”

Moving the polls out of doors required some flexibility on the part of voters. Voters in wheelchairs had to be dropped off on a side street and then transported along the sidewalk into the polling place; once inside the fenced-in area, they had limited room to maneuver, leading one older man to consider casting a provisional ballot at one station because the pathway to the other was a bit cramped. He eventually cast his ballot at his designated polling place.

A few synagogue security guards were positioned outside the polling place; others were seen carrying walkers for handicapped voters, and they appeared to be cooperating with election workers.

Around 11 a.m., Tommy Brown, a 14-year veteran staff member with the Los Angeles County Registrar Recorder, was affixing additional signs directing voters away from the synagogue’s main entrance on Beverly Glen and toward the relocated polling station around the corner. He said he would position lights and portable heaters near the tables to insure the six volunteers monitoring polls wouldn’t get too cold after nightfall.

Sinai

Tommy Brown, who works for the Los Angeles County registrar, was assigned to redirect voters to the relocated polling place at Sinai Temple on Nov. 6.

“If anybody’s not comfortable, we’ll probably bring out some County workers to man the polls,” Brown said.

But on this unseasonably warm Election Day morning, shaded from the sun by the large synagogue building, voters didn’t seem to notice – or care about — the change in location.

Walter Dishell, a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple who came with his wife and daughter to the polls, remembered that the polling places had been inside the Sinai Temple building the year before.

A Republican, Dishell downplayed any intimidation a security measure might cause.

“That wouldn’t have bothered me, and I’m more than willing to show my license,” said Dishell, referring to new laws being passed in some states requiring voters to show a valid photo ID in order to vote. Republicans advocate such laws as a way to combat voter fraud; Democrats see such measures as potentially disenfranchising low-income and elderly voters who may be less likely to have photo ID.

“I just heard my daughter say that they still had the woman who lived in the apartment before her on the voter rolls,” Dishell added. “She hasn’t lived there for seven years. That concerns me.”

But the voters out at the polls – Dishell included – seemed rather cheerful, even if they didn’t know how the election would turn out.

“I’m standing here, and I’m just as uncertain as I’ve been for the last few days,” Ronald Leibow said shortly after casting his ballot. “If I had to put a penny on one side of the line or the other, I’m assuming Obama will win, but if it goes the other way, I won’t be surprised.”

Moments after Leibow left the courtyard, a class of 19 four-year-olds from Sinai Akiba walked in. Their three teachers had escorted them out the door of the building and around the corner in order to view the polling place.

The kids had conducted a mock election in their classroom earlier in the day, one of the teachers said.

“Oreos or Chips Ahoy,” she said. “I don’t know who won. We haven’t counted the votes yet.” 

From Boca to Delray, Florida’s much-discussed Jewish voters finally have their say


At approximately 10 a.m. on Election Day, a black sedan pulled up to the polling station at the J.C. Mitchell Elementary School.

“He threw Israel under the bus,” said the car's driver, a chatty silver-haired man, as he helped an elderly woman from the back seat.

“You vote your way and I'll vote mine,” she replied, her eyes rolling as he set up her walker and oxygen tank and steered her toward the entrance. “I'm voting for the president.”

Little could better encapsulate the drama unfolding among Jewish voters here in South Florida as the final day dawned on what has been a bitter presidential campaign pitting the Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama, against Republican Mitt Romney.

As in past elections, the bulk of the Sunshine State's more than 600,000 Jews are expected to support the Democrat. But Republicans have shelled out millions to peel off some of that support — mainly by impugning the president's record on Israel — and on the eve of Election Day they were brimming with confidence.

“We're gonna win,” said Sid Dinnerstein, the Republican Party chairman in Palm Beach County, where as of late October, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than 100,000. “My Christian friends say to me, 'How could even 1 percent of Jewish people vote for this guy?' ”

For Obama and Romney, Florida is a big prize. According to a New York Times analysis, if Obama wins here, Romney has to sweep all the other battleground states to pass the 270-vote threshold necessary to win the Electoral College and the presidency.

In 2008, Obama won here by less than 3 percentage points, but he won support from approximately three-quarters of Florida Jewish voters, the bulk of whom reside in the state's three most populous counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. An American Jewish Committee survey in September found 69 percent of Jewish registered voters in Florida backing the president, with 25 percent for Romney and the rest undecided.

At the Bagel Tree cafe in Delray Beach, there was little evidence to suggest that the president had lost his strong support among the state's Jews.

“If Romney gets in, he will not be president, he will be king,” said Sandy Richter, who was sipping coffee with four friends, all of whom were supporting Obama. “He's a tyrant.”

Across the restaurant, a parallel group of five men finishing their lunch said that they, too, were supporting the president.

“I just don't like to lose any more of our freedoms,” Alvin Wolff said. “My family should be able to do with their body what they want to do with it. I should be able to marry anybody I want to marry. I should be able to pray or not pray when I want to.”

The Bagel Tree is located next to the large and overwhelmingly Jewish King's Point retirement community, the residents of which Dinnerstein called “the most hardcore liberal Jews, maybe in America.” Only one patron on Tuesday admitted to supporting Romney.

“I have eight great-grandchildren in Israel,” said the Romney backer, a woman who declined to give her name but identified herself as pro-choice on abortion and as a Medicare beneficiary. “Obama sat for 20 years in his church with that Rev. Wright. And I feel — I mean I know — he's an Arab lover.”

Such sentiments, however, were rare — or at least rarely voiced — among the Jewish Floridians who were interviewed. Still, for all the solid Jewish backing of the president, there was a palpable lack of enthusiasm for the candidate who electrified the country four years ago with his talk of hope and change.

Even many of the Obama backers agreed with Dinnerstein's prediction that the president would fall short of the level of Jewish support he enjoyed in 2008. In interviews Tuesday with more than a dozen Jewish voters, Obama was not infrequently described as the lesser of two evils.

“I voted against Romney,” Victor Barth said. “I don't think we had too much of a choice. I took the better of the two evils.”

Barth and his wife, Rhoda, cast their votes for Obama on Tuesday afternoon at Temple Emeth, a Conservative congregation in Delray Beach located barely a mile from a mammoth billboard showing an Iranian missile aimed squarely at Israel. The caption: “Friends don't let friends get nuked. Stop Obama.”

“Terrible,” Rhoda Barth said. “It is shameful. It should not be up there.”

“My biggest problem with both parties is the money they spent on this campaign could have floated a Third World country,” Victor Barth said. “It's a crime.”

Jewish Obama supporters tended to emphasize Obama's stands on social issues — notably abortion rights and gay rights — as well as his policies toward the poor while dismissing charges that the president has been insufficiently committed to the security of Israel. Romney's Jewish supporters talked mainly about the Republican's commitment to Israel and, secondarily, his ability to steer the economy out of the doldrums.

Debbi Klarberg, a Boca Raton resident who described herself as “very pro-Israel,” said she had some reservations about the president on that front — but not enough to change her vote.

“Basically his values represent who I am as a person,” she said. “I guess my beliefs are more in line with Democratic values.”

Orthodox Jews, however, appear more inclined to back Romney over the president, polling suggests. Orthodox voters are believed to have given a majority of their votes to the Republican nominees in the previous two presidential elections.

At a kosher restaurant Monday night in Boca Raton, three Orthodox patrons said they were supporting Romney, largely because of Israel.

“I'm voting for Romney, I'm not hiding it,” said a woman who declined to give her name. “The main thing is Romney is better for Israel than Obama is.”

Eytan Marcus, an Orthodox critical care physician who spent part of his childhood in Israel, said there was little difference substantively between Obama and his predecessors on support for the Jewish state. Rather it was Obama's subtle favoring of the Arab states that he feared had emboldened them politically.

“He's enabled the Arab nations,” Marcus said. “He didn't do anything for Israel, but he strengthened the Arabs. It tips the balance.”

Republicans have hammered the president on the issue of Israel in billboards, print advertisements, mailings and robocalls that seem to have disgusted and fatigued Jewish voters of all persuasions. Even cellphone numbers haven't been immune this year. And perhaps more pertinent, many voters claim to be ignoring the persuasion efforts.

“I had to take the phone off the hook, I had to turn off the answering machine weeks ago,” said one Jewish voter in Boca, who nevertheless expressed regret that it had cost her the thrill of having Barbra Streisand's voice on her machine. Streisand is one of several celebrities who recorded calls on behalf of Obama.

As the final day of voting rolled around — Floridians had more than a week to cast their ballots this year — there was a palpable sense of relief that the end was finally in sight. At the Bagel Tree, nearly everyone had cast their votes prior to the actual Election Day. There was one exception, though.

“I'm voting after cards,” Fran Reisfield said. “We're playing canasta first.”

Election day snapshots


Beverlywood

Nettie Price voted for Obama in 2008, and in the past the registered independent has voted mostly a straight Democratic ticket. But not this year.

Standing outside her polling place at Castle Heights Elementary School in Beverlywood, Price said this time she voted a straight Republican ticket, based on one issue: economics.

“Obama had four years to fix things. I voted for him four years ago, but no way in hell would I vote for him again,” said Price, who runs an adult basketball league.

She voted no on Proposition 30 and on most propositions that would raise taxes, but voted to change the “three-strikes” law.

Her husband, a retired high school football coach, is a longtime Republican, and he voted that way this election. “I’m sick of big government — it doesn’t work,” he said.

Price said all her friends and neighbors are Democrats, so she doesn’t usually talk politics.

But with her vote cast and the late-morning crowd light outside the school auditorium, Price wasn’t shy about her views.

“I think Obama did a horrible job — just horrible,” she said.


Pico Boulevard

To Sol Berger, which candidate or measure he voted for isn’t as important as the fact that he gets to vote.

The 93-year-old Holocaust survivor grew up in Poland, and he has seen what nondemocratic regimes can do.

“I know the difference,” Berger said, as he waited for his ride outside of Congregation Mogen David on Pico Boulevard near Roxbury Drive, where he had just cast his ballot.

Berger said he’s voted in every election since he and his wife, Gertrude, moved to the United States in 1950. Sol survived the war by disguising himself as a Polish laborer and escaping with a partisan unit to the forest. Most of his family did not survive.

He was a Zionist from the age of 15, he said, and tried to get to Palestine before the war but wasn’t able to get out.

“I vote for anybody who wants to defend Israel,” Berger said. “And I always like to vote for Jewish representatives.”

Berger is a speaker at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and at the Museum of Tolerance, and he lectures at colleges and high schools as well as at churches and synagogues. A few years ago, he was invited to speak at the University of Krakow, and the day after the election, he was scheduled to speak to the Los Angeles Police Department.

But today, he’s voting.

“I love this country. This country gave me opportunities I could never have anyplace else in the whole world,” Berger said.


Beverly-Fairfax

Smack in the middle Beverly-Fairfax area, with its mix of Orthodox Jews and young hipsters, the Pan Pacific Park Senior Center was buzzing even in the late-afternoon lull of  Election Day. While early-morning hours had seen long lines, as the sun blazed down at around 2 p.m., elderly couples shuffled in, and men in black hats and long coats rushed by.

Adam, a 34-year-old development officer on paternity leave, put on his sunglasses and pushed a stroller as he came out of the gym onto the blindingly white concrete. His month-old daughter stayed asleep while he voted.

Adam, who declined to give his last name, is an Obama supporter, but is frustrated, once again, about this election.

“I never feel that the choices in presidential elections are as good as they should be,” he said.

 “I felt Obama was the best candidate for this election. I don’t think Romney represents the people as much as Obama does,” he said.

Carl Miller, a 29-year-old small-business owner, also voted for Obama. He’s relieved the grueling election season is over.

“I’m just glad we were spared some of it since we’re not in the swing-state crossfire,” he said.

He said he could go down a list of why he voted for Obama, but it comes down to direction.

“He is pretty diametrically opposed to Romney, and I’m much more comfortable with the direction Obama is taking this country,” Miller said.

Miller said he had initially been vociferously advocating for Proposition 37, which would require labeling for genetically modified foods. But after he did more research, he wasn’t satisfied with the way the law was written. “So I swung the other way,” he said.

A 63-year-old CPA with a long gray beard and wearing a black hat declined to give his name but said he voted for Romney.

“I believe we’ll be in deep trouble if Obama stays in,” he said. “He’s weak on foreign policy, he is not a supporter of Israel, and he’s a spendthrift who overpays but doesn’t produce results.”

And for Adam, the 34-year-old, the birth of his first child has affected how he thinks about politics.

“I think now more than ever about how important it is to create the world you would like to see your child grow up in,” he said.


San Fernando Valley

What convinces Jewish voters to back a particular candidate? Some brandish endorsements from prominent Jewish leaders, others recruit Jewish surrogates to trot out pro-Israel talking points, still others create specific campaign materials aimed at Jewish voters.

But for many Jews, the deciding factor can often be the advice or urging of someone close to them.

Margie Feld, who cast her ballot late Tuesday afternoon at Shaarey Zedek, an Orthodox synagogue in Valley Village that is her usual polling place, acknowledged that Howard Berman got her vote in large part because she had heard her friends and neighbors talking about him.

“It’s just who we hear about all the time – Berman this, Berman that,” she said.

Those pro-Berman friends didn’t just win over Margie Feld; they also got her husband’s vote. Jeff Feld said he had, until recently, been planning to vote for Berman’s opponent, Brad Sherman, but like many men and women across the country, he eventually voted the same way his wife did – and not just in the that heated Berman-Sherman congressional race.

“When she forces you to match up her ballot with yours, you know it’s gone too far,” Jeff Feld said with a smile.

It was the first time casting a ballot in a presidential election for Ben Bernshtein, and on his way out of Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, the 19-year-old college student wouldn’t say whether he voted for Romney or Obama. But he did know where he’d be watching the results come in: the Alpha Epsilon Pi house at California State University, Northridge, where he’s studying film, hoping to become an actor.

“You know the saying, ‘Two Jews, three opinions’? Well,” Bernshtein said, “this is going to be like 20 Jews, 50 opinions.”


Westwood

Polling places often move around from year to year, but normally not on Election Day itself, as happened to the polls at Sinai Temple this year.

On Nov. 6, when the day began, 14 booths were positioned inside the West Coast’s largest and oldest Conservative synagogue. But after two trained volunteers, working with Election Protection, a nonpartisan election-monitoring organization, reported that the synagogue’s security guards were, as they do every day, using metal detector wands to screen each person entering the building, poll workers relocated the booths to a fenced-in courtyard outside the synagogue, just off Wilshire Boulevard.

“It can be intimidating,” said Brian Link, one of the volunteers, explaining why the polling places had to be moved to comply with election law.

Nobody appears to have been turned away from the polls at Sinai Temple while they were indoors, and the polls were even more visible and accessible after being moved.

In the mid-morning, a class of 19 4-year-olds from Sinai Akiba walked in with their three teachers. The kids had conducted a mock election in their classroom earlier in the day, one of the teachers said.

“Oreos or Chips Ahoy,” she said. “I don’t know who won. We haven’t counted the votes yet.”

A response to stiff-necked playwright David Mamet


This piece is a response to “A note to stiff-necked people” by David Mamet which first appeared on JewishJournal.com on Nov. 1.

David Mamet recently asked the following questions of “Jews planning to vote for Obama.”  Herewith, my responses.

Are you prepared to explain to your children not the principles upon which your vote is cast, but its probable effects upon them? 

Yes.   My children will be struggling with climate change for their entire lives, which is one major reason I am voting for Obama.  I live in New York, and I do not want to see a Hurricane Sandy every year.

Irrespective of your endorsement of liberal sentiments, of fairness and “more equal distribution,” will you explain to your children that top-down economic policies will increasingly limit their ability to find challenging and well-paid work, and that the diminution in employment and income will decrease their opportunity to marry and raise children?

I would explain that, if there were any evidence of it.  I’m not sure what “top-down economic policies” you are referring to.  The “trickle down economics” of the last Republican administrations have widened the wealth gap, caused middle-class wages and savings to fall, and led to the financial crisis by aggregating risk at the top.  Moreover, the Republican refusal to invest seriously in education means that China is going to kick my children’s collective butts in the coming century.  For these reasons, the best vote for my children is a vote for Obama.

Will you explain (as you have observed) that a large part of their incomes will be used to fund programs that they may find immoral, wasteful and/or indeed absurd? And that the bulk of their taxes go to no programs at all, but merely service the debt you entailed on them? 

I will.  The largest shares of the federal budget are the military (spending which Romney wants to increase), Medicare, and Social Security.  All the rest is window-dressing.  As for the debt, Romney’s absurd additional tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% — including you, Mr. Mamet – cannot be paid for and will increase the burden on my children.

Will you tell your children that a liberal government will increasingly marginalize, dismiss and weaken the support for and the safety of the Jewish state?

If I told them that, why would they believe me instead of the Israeli generals who said that the Obama administration is the most pro-Israel in American history?   Really, what’s causing the marginalization of the Jewish state is the right/far-right alliance in the Israeli government which is undermining Israeli democratic ideals.  I will tell my children how I lived in Israel for three years, and how I continue to care about the state now – which is why I support the majority of Israelis who want peace, not more confrontation.

Will you tell them that, in a state-run economy, hard work may still be applauded, but that it will no longer be rewarded?

Yes.  Fortunately, only conspiracy loons on the far-right believe that the U.S. economy is state-run. 

Will you explain that whatever their personal beliefs, tax-funded institutions will require them to imbibe and repeat the slogans of the left, and that, should they differ, they cannot have a career in education, medicine or television unless they keep their mouths shut?

No, since this is demonstrably untrue.  Please provide a single example.

Will you explain to them that it is impossible to make a budget, and that the basic arithmetic we all use at the kitchen table is not practiced at the federal and state level, and to suggest that it should be is “selfishness?”

No, since this also is untrue.  First, as economists (rather than playwrights) understand, the  federal government is not a household.  Household debt is very bad; government debt is sometimes bad, sometimes good.  What is “selfishness” is to increase that debt so that the wealthiest 1% of Americans can enjoy a tax cut, can pay no taxes whatsoever on overseas income, and pay no taxes upon inheriting millions of dollars.

Most importantly, will you teach them never to question the pronouncements of those in power, for to do so is to risk ostracism?

Of course I will not teach that.  I personally have been ostracized from parts of the Jewish community for my support of a moderate Zionist organization, J Street.  However, I would rather be ostracized than abandon my love of Israel and the Jewish values on which I grew up.

Are you prepared to sit your children down and talk them through your vote on the future you are choosing for them?

Of course.  As a gay man married to my partner, I will explain how Mitt Romney wants to destroy their family and make it impossible for them to be the legal children of their two fathers.  I will explain how a small handful of neo-conservatives are making a ‘deal with the devil’ with fundamentalist religious know-nothings who believe that rape is sometimes a good thing and that evolution is a “lie straight from hell.”

Please remember that we have the secret ballot and, should you, on reflection, vote in secret for a candidate you would not endorse in public, you will not be alone.

Fortunately, I am not a hypocrite.  I do not do one thing in private and another in public.  For the sake of my children, my country, my Jewish people, and the world in which I live, I am proud to be voting Obama.

Prop. 34: Repeal the death penalty


Jewish tradition has always championed the idea that justice is a fundamental necessity. When the Torah commands us, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” the repetition is to teach that not only we must have just ends, our means to those ends must be equally just.

Our commitment to that core Jewish teaching will be tested on Nov. 6 by our community’s response to Proposition 34, which would replace California’s death penalty with life in prison without parole, save $130 million each year, devote $30 million per year for three years to help solve unsolved murders and rapes, and require those convicted of murder to devote prison earnings to pay restitution to the families of their victims.

During Yom Kippur, congregants at Kehillat Israel had the profound privilege of hearing Franky Carrillo, a remarkable young man who was released from prison after serving 20 years for a murder he didn’t commit. The stark reality of how unjust his fate could have been while we still have the death penalty couldn’t help but send shivers down the spines of the congregation.

Knowing that more than 140 innocent and wrongfully convicted people have been released from prisons in recent years should alone be enough to convince us of the necessity to protect the sanctity of justice and eliminate the death penalty.

Religious leaders, civil-rights advocates, human-rights organizations and others for years have been calling for an end to the death penalty, which has been banned in most democratic nations. But now, death-penalty opponents have been joined by a chorus of unlikely allies, including victims’ rights advocates, prison wardens and law-enforcement officials. Jeanne Woodford, who oversaw executions as warden at San Quentin State Prison, now runs the state’s largest anti-death penalty organization. Former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti is a leader on the Proposition 34 campaign. Even Don Heller, who wrote the ballot initiative reinstating the death penalty in 1978, now says doing so “was a terrible mistake.”

These leaders cite the risk of executing the innocent, the fact that the death penalty is used predominantly against the poor and people of color, and that the high cost of the death penalty (including trials, special prison housing, constitutionally required appeals, extra security and administrative costs) is far more expensive than permanent incarceration. As proposed by Proposition 34, the funds saved by eliminating the death penalty could instead go to law enforcement, crime prevention and other public safety priorities.

Proposition 34 would convert death sentences into sentences of permanent incarceration, effectively replacing death in the execution chamber with death in prison. It enables the state to still mete out the punishment deserved to the most heinous criminals but in a way that does not run the risk of killing the innocent, wasting money, distorting our criminal-justice system and needlessly bloodying our hands any further.

As responsible citizens, and as Jews responsive to the ethical insights that have shaped our tradition, there are compelling reasons to support Proposition 34. Some may object, however, that the Bible endorses capital punishment. Indeed, capital punishment is prescribed in a number of cases, including for offenses ranging from murder to gathering sticks on Shabbat. But from the earliest times, our rabbis understood that the ultimate judgment — who shall live and who shall die — should not be left in the hands of flawed people capable of error, bias or passion. And unlike other mistakes, no amount of teshuvah can ever undo a wrongful execution.

Therefore, the rabbis enacted numerous obstacles to implementing the death penalty, including the requirement that multiple eyewitnesses must have been present at the time of a murder, warned the offender of the punishment of death and heard him acknowledge the consequences before the murder was committed. So opposed to the death penalty were the rabbis that the Talmud records the following conversation: A Sanhedrin (High Court) that executes a person once in seven years is a murderous one (hovlanit). Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: “Once in seventy years.” Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva said: “If we were members of the Sanhedrin, nobody would ever be put to death.” (Mishnah: Makkot 1:10) Support for the death penalty remained a minority and rejected opinion in Jewish life. This is still the case today — every major Jewish denomination has come out in favor of ending the death penalty or imposing a moratorium on state-run executions.

The rabbis could not have envisioned the cruel and tragic system of state execution that we have today. It is a patchwork system that struggles to find attorneys competent to defend death cases. It costs more than $130 million more per year than life in prison. And, as the Sacramento Bee pointed out in reversing its 155-year-old editorial policy by endorsing Proposition 34, one’s chances of getting the death penalty arbitrarily vary according to what county you live in. And yet even without such a system corrupted by such overwhelming injustice, the rabbis had the wisdom to reject the death penalty. So, although the death penalty remained in Jewish texts, it did not gain acceptance in Jewish communities.

The instincts of those early Jewish leaders seem even wiser now. On Election Day, we would be wise to follow their lead.


Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades. Steve Rohde is a constitutional lawyer and vice chair of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

The choice: Obama or Romney?


Either way, you’re going to have to suck it up.

Whether you pick Obama or Romney, you are voting as much for imperfection as for promise.

This is not an election of love and enthusiasm — that was so 2008. But 2012 is not about desire — it’s about duty.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, after four years of Obama and two of Romney, there are very few unknown unknowns.

If you choose Obama, you are going to have to swallow a recovery far more tepid than promised. You are going to hope he will focus on jobs, jobs, jobs — and not find another 800-pound distraction like health care to vacuum up his time, energy and political capital. You are going to have to ignore his previous inability to get major legislation through Congress, his “unwillingness,” as The New York Times editorial endorsement of Obama chided, “to throw himself into the political fight.” You have to find reason to believe him when he says that this time, he will not let Simpson-Bowles, or a strong version of it, wither and die.

If you choose Romney, you are going to have to ignore the fact that nonpartisan analyses have said his deficit and jobs plans don’t add up.

“Romney’s tax cut plan doesn’t work,” wrote The Daily Beast’s David Frum, a George W. Bush speechwriter. “I’m a Republican, I support Romney, etc. But you can’t cut that much in such a stagnant economy and expect to break even. Even with a deductions cap, it just won’t happen.”

You are going to have to overlook the fact that they don’t really qualify as “plans” by your own definition of the word. You are going to have to believe he will stand up to the Grover Norquists and the Ralph Reeds and the Todd Akins — and even the Paul Ryans — when it comes to issues such as new revenues, women’s rights, civil rights.

To choose Obama is to trust that the 2012 model will reconnect with the 2008 vision. To choose Romney is to trust that Massachusetts Romney, the Romney of the general election and Denver debate, will slam the White House door on Primary Romney.

To vote for Obama is to acknowledge that, no, he probably doesn’t have Israel in his kishkas — but you have evidence that he has guided Mideast policy through difficult times and come to Israel’s defense where it matters, according to people like Ehud Barak and former Mossad director Efraim Levy, most.

To vote for Romney is to acknowledge that he has a true sense of devotion to Israel, but that he may very well bring back some of the same misguided foreign-policy crew that crippled the United States in the Iraq war and wants to write blank checks to a bloated military.

You can appreciate Romney’s intelligence when it comes to business, but you have to ignore the stunning ignorance — or disingenuousness — of the man who discounted “the 47 percent.”

You can value Obama’s commitment to extending student loans, health care and the social safety net, but you have to believe that, after the economy is stabilized, he won’t kick the issue of entitlement reform down the road.

You can appreciate Romney’s commitment to deficit reduction, but you have to believe he won’t really double down on disproven trickle-down theories.

To vote for Obama is to hope that he is more like Bill Clinton than Jimmy Carter. To vote for Romney is to hope that he is less like George W. Bush and more like George H.W. Bush — or like Bill Clinton.

“Republicans want you to think that, rhetoric aside, Romney is a pragmatic manager of the economy, while Democrats claim that he is an ideologue tilting against your most sacred beliefs,” Jewish Journal Senior Political Editor Shmuel Rosner writes in his book “The Jewish Vote.” “Democrats want you to think that, rhetoric aside, Obama is a pragmatic defender of Israel, while Republicans claim that he is an ideologue tilting against your most sacred beliefs.”

A cautious Obama voter is hoping the president will do what he says. A cautious Romney voter is hoping the governor will do, in many cases, the opposite of what he says. Either way, hope for the best.

And, above all, vote.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Five challenges facing the American pro-Israel community in the next four years


The American pro-Israel community has a lot of work to do. While many pro-Israel organizations in the United States, including AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, Stand with US and Hasbara have been extremely effective in defending the Jewish State, there is always more we can do. Here is a list of the five greatest challenges facing the American pro-Israel community in the next four years.

The University

Unfortunately, the place where we send our children to grow up and obtain wisdom, the university, is the hotbed of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in America. Who can forget the exchange between David Horowitz and an anti-Israel student at UC San Diego a couple years ago? Mr. Horowitz asked her, “I’m a Jew. The head of Hezbollah has said that he hopes that we will gather in Israel so he doesn’t have to hunt us down globally. [Are you] for it or against it?” The student answered “For it.”

Incitement against Jews and Israel at the university is not unusual at the hate-fest known as “Israel Apartheid Week,” where anti-Semites are invited to rail against the Jewish State. At one event at UC Irvine, Imam Amir -Abdel Malik-Ali—who has called Jews “the new Nazis”— blamed the financial crisis on “Alan Greenspan, Zionist Jew, Geithner, Zionist Jew, Larry Summers, Zionist Jew.” A few years ago, after visiting several universities in the U.S., Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh described what he observed: “I discovered that there is more sympathy for Hamas there than there is in Ramallah…What is happening on the U.S. campuses is not about supporting the Palestinians as much as it is about promoting hatred for the Jewish state. It is not really about ending the ‘occupation’ as much as it is about ending the existence of Israel.”

Up against such hate and propaganda, the pro-Israel community must fight back. The Horowitz Freedom Center has been very effective, launching important counterattacks like Islamic Apartheid Week and the Wall of Truth, which expose the hateful lies and hypocrisy of Israel’s enemies. The Jewish community must continue to give money to on-campus Israel advocacy organizations, and we must all redouble our efforts to make sure that Israel is adequately defended and promoted at American universities.

The Fringe of American politics

Thank God a majority of elected representatives in both parties strongly support the State of Israel. These members must make sure that the views at the fringe of their parties do not become mainstream. The Republican Party must guard against the likes of Ron and Rand Paul, who would like to see America pull back from the world stage and cease its support for Israel. Fortunately, this movement does not seem to be gaining steam, as every poll shows that the Republican Party overwhelmingly supports Israel.

Unfortunately, however, any serious reflection by pro-Israel Democrats must conclude that there is a problem within their leftwing ranks. Though most pieces of pro-Israel legislation overwhelmingly pass both Houses of Congress, those who abstain or vote in the negative are disproportionately Democrats. In 2009, the House passed a resolution condemning the Goldstone report–which had accused Israel of war crimes—by a vote of 344 to 36. 33 of the 36 who voted against the resolution were Democrats. In 2010, 333 members of the House signed onto a letter re-pledging their support for the American-Israel relationship. 7 Republicans and 91 Democrats withheld their signatures. Furthermore, according to a recent Gallup Poll question–“Are your sympathies more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians?”—78% of Republicans and 53% of Democrats answered Israel. This poll was reaffirmed when at least half the Democratic delegates to their convention in August expressed their disapproval of Jerusalem being recognized as the capital of Israel.

I am not writing this to score political points for Republicans, but to reveal a real problem within the Democratic ranks. This is so disappointing, because the liberal case for Israel is such a compelling one. Israel treats its minorities better than any other country in the Middle East—out of the 120 member Israeli Knesset, 16 are not Jewish. During its short existence, Israel has welcomed millions of immigrants from all over the world, including Africa and Russia. Israel has a very liberal supreme court, which routinely places restrictions on its military in times of war. Israel is also leading the way with game changing green innovations that will reduce CO2 emissions. In addition, Tel Aviv annually hosts a gay pride parade! What other country in the Middle East would be so inclusive?

American Jewish liberals must do a better job of making this case forcefully and passionately to their Democratic allies.

Apathy

Jews shouldn’t be ashamed to say that support for Israel ranks among their most important political priorities. If it doesn’t, then there is a problem.

According to an American Jewish Committee survey, when asked what political issue was most important to them, 4.5% of American Jews said U.S- Israeli relations, and a paltry 1.3% said Iran’s nuclear program. This is very troubling. If American Jews don’t care enough about Israel’s survival, and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, then who will?

Jews in America clearly underestimate how important a strong and prosperous Israel is to the collective Jewish psyche. After all, the welfare of Israel is not disconnected from that of American Jews. If something terrible were to happen to Israel, or should there be a mass migration of Jews out of Israel, the status of the Diaspora would be negatively impacted forever, including in the United States.

A strong Israel with a strong military also serves as a deterrent against terrorist attacks against Jews all over the world. Furthermore, a strong Israel is in America’s national self-interest, as Israel is on the front line in the war against radical Islam.

Using these arguments, the pro-Israel community must do a better job of encouraging our friends and family to become more politically active, in order to promote a strong American- Israel relationship.

Iran and the Economy

America has been mired in an economic crisis since 2008. As such, American citizens and its elected representatives have been almost single mindedly focused on improving the economy. The race for the Presidency has largely been defined by whom could best promote a strong economy, even though the most important Constitutional powers of the President reside in the realm of foreign policy. This is understandable. However, it is up to those in the pro-Israel community to ensure that preventing Iran—which is led by a fanatic who denies the holocaust and wishes to wipe Israel from the earth–from obtaining a nuclear capability is not overlooked.

Unfortunately, this issue has not been addressed adequately to date. Though tough sanctions have been passed against Iran, it continues to spin its centrifuges. We in the pro-Israel community must insist that a credible American military threat be understood by Iran as a reality. This is the only way they will peacefully give up their nuclear weapons program.

To this end, we must write letters to our Congressmen, join pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC, give money to pro-Israel causes, and encourage our friends and family to do the same.

Israeli Delegitimization

The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign—which encourages people to refrain from doing business with Israeli companies and universities –was launched against Israel several years ago. The campaign is meant to portray Israel in the same light as apartheid South Africa, a country that institutionalized segregation. Of course, this is complete nonsense, as more than one million non-Jews in Israel enjoy the same rights as Jews.  Furthermore, as cited above, there are 16 non-Jews serving in the Israeli Knesset.

Many college professors and pop music figures in America have embraced this campaign. Roger Waters, the former lead singer of Pink Floyd, is spearheading it. He refuses to perform in Israel and is encouraging his musical cohorts to join him. The Pixies, Elvis Costello, The Gorillaz and Carlos Santana have followed his lead, and have all canceled their scheduled performances in Israel. Famed American actress, Meg Ryan, refused to attend an Israeli film festival, because of what she viewed as Israel’s indefensible actions in response to the Gaza flotilla.

This is deplorable. The pro-Israel community must make it known that boycotting the only Jewish State will not go unnoticed. It is one thing to criticize Israel, which, in proportion and without demonizing, is acceptable. However, it is totally unacceptable to try to destroy Israel economically, which is the BDS campaign’s primary goal.

The pro-Israel community should not support those who engage in the BDS campaign; don’t buy their CDs, don’t go to their shows, and encourage your friends and family to do the same.

Down to the wire, Romney resurrects moderate posture that attracted Jewish support


Mitt Romney’s record as a moderate Republican governor would seem to have made him ideally suited to peel off Jewish votes from President Obama. The problem is that he spent much of the past half decade running from that past.

Now, however, as the campaign draws to a close, Romney is ditching his “severely conservative” primary persona, as he famously described himself, and trying to remind voters about the centrist Republican who once governed Massachusetts. Given his recent rise in the polls, the strategy appears to be paying off.

In addition to enhancing the Republican nominee’s appeal to undecided and swing voters, the shift also could help Romney with a subset of Jewish voters disillusioned with Obama over the economy and the Middle East but who do not necessarily subscribe to conservative positions on domestic and social issues.

While Democrats continue to portray Romney as beholden to the right, his Jewish surrogates have embraced his move to the middle and argue that, if elected, Romney will govern more from the center than his critics suggest.

“It's no different for any politician of any stripe or ilk,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman and former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council who is a leading Romney fundraiser. “You look at anybody running, you look at President Obama, he tacks left when he’s campaigning.”

On social issues, Romney's emphasis during the primaries was on the narrative that led him, as governor, to evolve from a supporter of abortion rights to an opponent. But since getting the nomination, he has looked to highlight his differences with more ardent abortion foes, saying in an October interview that abortion legislation is not part of his agenda. On health policy, Romney’s pledge to repeal “Obamacare” now includes a promise to work to preserve aspects of the health care reform that are popular, such as requiring insurance companies to cover people with preexisting conditions.

On Middle East policy — an area seen by his supporters as one of his major selling points to Jewish voters — Romney has also softened some of his tough talk of late. In the candidates’ foreign policy debate, Romney accompanied his longstanding criticism of Obama’s policies on Iran with a reassurace that he would exhaust all options before considering a direct military confrontation.

Romney’s expression of pessimism at a May fundraiser about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace — an appearance that was secretly recorded and included his now infamous remark about foregoing trying to win over the 47 percent of Americans dependent on government — has been followed by promises to pursue a two-state solution. Speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney vowed to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.”

Romney’s nods toward the middle have not stopped Democrats from trying to paint him and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), as bearers of a ultra-conservative agenda, with critics lashing the Republican ticket’s positions on Medicare, tax policy and social issues.

“‘Severely conservative’ Romney has pledged to be a ‘pro-life president,’ and when he's tried to give some semblance of moderation, his staunchest anti-choice supporters jump in to knock down any notion that he is anything but solidly in their camp,” David Harris, the National Jewish Democratic Council’s president, wrote recently in the Washington Jewish Week.

Some Jewish supporters, however, counter that Romney’s stance on abortion is not the paramount issue that his critics make it out to be.

“They continue to miss opportunities by harping on the issue of abortion,” Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director, said in an interview during the Republican convention. “This is something they have been trying to scare people with for decades, and yet access to abortion in this country continues despite having incredibly conservative presidents and a conservative court.”

The RJC has focused much of its effort to woo Jewish voters on Middle East policy, although it also has emphasized the struggling economy. On Israel, Romney has tried to distinguish himself from the president by arguing that he would have a closer and more harmonious relationship with Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election contest Jan. 22.

“I will make clear that America’s commitment to Israel’s security and survival as a Jewish state is absolute, and will demonstrate that commitment to the world by making Jerusalem the destination of my first foreign trip,” Romney wrote in reply to an American Jewish Committee questionnaire. “Unlike President Obama, I understand that distancing the U.S. from Israel doesn't earn us credibility in the Arab world or bring peace closer.”

Romney’s Israel stance was prominently displayed at the Republican convention with a video highlighting the nominee’s July trip to Israel. He has also promised that as president he would not allow disagreements with Israel to be aired in public.

Many of Romney's advisers on both foreign and domestic policy are Jewish. They include Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and co-author of “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle,” who has risen to prominence as one of the campaign’s most visible foreign policy voices; Eliot Cohen, an international relations scholar and former State Department counselor; Michael Chertoff, President George W. Bush’s second Homeland Security secretary; Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller who has a reputation as a foreign policy realist; and Tevi Troy, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who also served as Jewish liaison for the George W. Bush’s White House.

By the time he made his second run for president, Romney already had built good relationships with Jewish Republicans from his first term as governor and his first presidential run. Romney’s record of moderation made him a natural fit with the party’s Jews, Zeidman said.

“A lot of people in Boston and on Wall Street knew him and respected him,” Zeidman said of the period in 2005-2006 when Romney started exploring his first presidential run. “But he had yet to be in a position where he addressed the Jewish community at large. Now we know what kind of problem solver he is, we know his integrity, his ability to get things done and that as Jews we never have to be concerned about his commitment to the security of the State of Israel.”

Ann Romney has said that she and her husband, as Mormons, feel a kinship with Jews. “Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage,” she told the RJC last year. When he was starting his business career in consulting, Romney reportedly would joke with Jewish colleagues about being fellow outsiders.

For his first job after graduating from Harvard Business School, Romney joined Boston Consulting Group, where he first met a young Benjamin Netanyahu who was employed there at the time. Today, Romney speaks of his strong bond with the Israeli prime minister.

Romney often repeats to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences his favorite Netanyahu story, in which the Israeli leader describes an Israeli soldier in basic training who is told to run a course with an overweight soldier on his shoulder. The punch line: “Government is the guy on your shoulders.”