Mofaz tells Obama that window for peace is opening

Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s new deputy prime minister, told President Obama that the new national unity government presents a window of opportunity to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.

Mofaz, the Kadima leader who is in Washington this week for his first round of meetings since joining his party to the government, had a surprise meeting Thursday with the U.S. president when Obama interrupted a scheduled meeting with Tom Donilon, the national security adviser.

At a news conference for Hebrew-speaking reporters, Mofaz said he briefed Obama on Israel’s new coalition and that with support from Kadima, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in a stronger position to make compromises for peace. He told the president that the Israeli and Palestinian sides should reconvene soon, and without preconditions.

“We could have a year of negotiations before we get into the Israeli elections,” Mofaz said at the news conference in Hebrew. The elections are scheduled for late 2013.

Since 2010 the Palestinian Authority has resisted restarting talks unless Israel freezes settlement building.

Mofaz said he told Obama that his sense was that talks by the major powers with Iran on ending its suspected nuclear weapons program have failed and that it was time to advance to sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial sectors.

The European Union is scheduled to kick in such sanctions next month.

Mofaz said he told Obama that the United States and the western powers also should prepare for other options to deal with Iran, including military options.

In his 35-minute chat, Mofaz said he and Obama also discussed his hopes for bettering relations with Turkey as well as the intensifying crisis in Syria, where the Assad regime is reported to have slaughtered thousands of its citizens.

Nuclear talks aim to ease fears of Iran war

Major powers will hold their first talks with Iran this week in more than a year, hoping Tehran will give enough ground on its nuclear program to extend negotiations and avert the threat of a Middle East war.

Israel has hinted at military action against Iran, arguing time is running out to stop it developing atomic arms; Iran says it could retaliate by closing a major oil shipping thoroughfare, aware that would push up crude prices and hit the world economy.

The six powers – the United States, France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain – will not lay out demands when the talks open in Istanbul on Saturday, a Western diplomat said, but will be looking for signs Iran is ready to make concessions.

“The onus is on them in this first meeting to demonstrate that they are serious about a negotiation over their nuclear program. If they are, we will get into detail on what that would look like,” the diplomat added.

Iran – which will be represented by its chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili – says it will put forward “new initiatives” in Istanbul but has given no details. Tehran says its nuclear program is purely peaceful.

The West hopes that tough sanctions on Iran’s oil exports will persuade Tehran to take meaningful steps – possibly on ending higher levels of uranium enrichment.

But they will be wary of any Iranian attempt to buy time with “talks about talks” on resolving the decade-long dispute.

The discussions will be “a gauge as to whether Iran is indeed serious about dealing” with international concerns, a Western envoy said, adding that Tehran’s track record did not “augur well”.

The last time Iran and the powers – led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton – sat down together in early 2011, they could not even agree an agenda.

“The clock is definitely ticking. This may be the last best chance for diplomacy,” senior researcher Shannon Kile at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said.

If diplomacy fails, “you could be looking at the possibility of conflict in the region,” said Daniel Keohane of FRIDE, a European think-tank.


Iran has consistently ruled out suspending all enrichment, a process which can have both energy and weapons purposes. But it has hinted it may stop refining uranium to higher levels and diplomats and analysts expect this to be a focus of discussions.

Two years ago, Iran spurned U.N. demands to halt enrichment and ramped up processing to 20 percent fissile purity, a major step on any path to the 90 percent level required for nuclear explosions. The West responded with broad sanctions on Iranian banks and oil exports.

The country’s 20 percent enrichment at an installation deep inside a mountain is “very high on our list of things where Iran would need to stop to begin convincing us about the peaceful nature of their program”, a third Western diplomat said.

Iranian nuclear energy chief Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani said on Sunday Tehran might scale back this production – which compares with the up to 5 percent level suitable for fuelling nuclear power plants – once it has what it needs for medical isotopes.

“The ‘enrich what we need’ principle provides the Iranians with a face-saving solution for halting enrichment at 20 percent,” said analyst Ali Vaez at the International Crisis Group think-tank.

But a U.S.-based think-tank, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), noted that Abbasi-Davani had also talked about the need for 20 percent enriched uranium for a planned second research reactor it had not yet declared to the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

“Abbasi-Davani’s offer to halt 20 percent enrichment at some point in the future should not be accepted and the (six powers) should reject anything less than an immediate freeze,” ISIS said.


Russia and China last month joined the four Western powers in expressing “regret” at Iran’s expansion of this higher-grade enrichment, most of which is now taking place at the underground site to protect it from possible Israeli or U.S. attack.

But Moscow and Beijing have made clear their opposition to any new U.N. measures and have criticized unilateral punitive steps by the United States and EU.

Israel says it fears Iran will soon have moved enough of its nuclear program underground to make it virtually impervious to a pre-emptive Israeli attack, creating what Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently referred to as a “zone of immunity”.

If Iran limits its nuclear activity, which it says is to generate electricity and produce isotopes for cancer treatments, it would probably expect to be rewarded with an easing of sanctions.

“There is a need for both sides to meet each other half way, to show some flexibility,” a senior diplomat from a non-Western country said, calling for “creative and innovative ideas”.

Western punitive steps over Iran’s refusal to back down have piled pressure on the economy, said Mohammed Shakeel, an independent analyst based in Dubai across the Gulf from Iran.

“The country’s economy is showing strong signs of strain: real Gross Domestic Product is likely to contract over the next year or two as the mainstay of the economy – oil production – is expected to fall and export revenue declines,” Shakeel said.

But there is no indication tougher sanctions have prompted a change of heart by Iran’s top authority, clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, one of the Western diplomats said.

“We see no sign of it changing the strategic calculus of the supreme leader,” he said.

On Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struck a defiant tone, saying the Islamic state would not surrender its nuclear rights “even under the most difficult pressure”.

While the substance of Ahmadinejad’s comments was not new – he has made similar statements many times before – the timing may be interpreted as a sign of Iranian unwillingness to negotiate transparent curbs on enrichment.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Adrian Croft in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich

World powers to meet Iran in Istanbul this week

Nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers will be held this week in Istanbul, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced.

The talks announced Sunday are scheduled to be held April 14 in Istanbul and will include six world powers: the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

Also on Sunday, Iran said it will not close its Fordo nuclear power facility, which is built deep into a mountain near the holy city of Oom, and it will not give up higher-level uranium enrichment, which are reported to be key demands that the world powers will present at the meeting.

Those demands are “irrational,” the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, told ISNA news agency in an interview published Sunday.

“If they do not threaten us and guarantee that no aggression will occur, then there would be no need for countries to build facilities underground. They should change their behavior and language,” he told the official news agency.

The demands were revealed Saturday in a front-page New York Times article, which quoted anonymous United States and European Union diplomats.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Iran is using the upcoming talks to “delay and deceive.”

He called for Iran to dismantle Oom, completely halt uranium enrichment and remove higher level enriched uranium from the country.

Annan says Syria agrees to April 10 peace deadline

Syria has pledged to withdraw all military units from towns by April 10 to pave the way for a full ceasefire with rebels two days later, the spokesman for international mediator Kofi Annan said on Monday.

The U.N.-Arab League peace envoy briefed the U.N. Security Council on the deadline behind closed doors, telling them there had been no reduction in violence so far, but urging them to consider an observer mission nevertheless, diplomats said.

Some Western diplomats expressed skepticism about the latest pledge from Syria, which has repeatedly promised to end a year-long assault on anti-government activists that has brought the country to the brink of civil war.

“The Syrians have told us they have put a plan in place for withdrawing their army units from populated zones and surrounding areas. This plan … will be completed by April 10,” Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in Geneva.

“If we are able to verify this has happened on the 10th, then the clock starts ticking on the cessation of hostilities, by the opposition as well. We expect both sides to cease hostilities within 48 hours,” he told Reuters.

Annan met Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on March 10 and presented him with a six-point plan calling for the military pullout. His spokesman said a week ago that Assad had accepted the terms, adding that the “the deadline is now”.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said several council members had “expressed concern that the government of Syria not use the next days to intensify the violence”.

One diplomat said Annan confirmed to council members that there had been “no progress on the ground” towards halting the violence, which continues with daily reports of army shelling and shooting, and clashes with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).

“Today doesn’t feel much different from yesterday or the day before, or the day before that,” opposition activist Waleed Fares said from inside Homs. “Shelling and killing.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist operation that collates reports from around Syria, reported 35 people killed on Monday, including eight soldiers and nine rebels, after 70 deaths on Sunday. Ten civilians were killed on Monday in the central province of Homs. In Syria’s second city of Aleppo, a bomb blast at a kiosk killed the owner, an Assad supporter, it said. At least five people were killed and eight wounded in army bombardments of villages in northern Idlib province, which borders Turkey.

Turkish officials said refugees were crossing the border at a rate of around 400 a day. Over 40,000 Syrians have taken refuge in neighboring countries since the unrest broke out a year ago, according to U.N. figures.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived in the Syrian capital Damascus on Monday to press for a daily two-hour ceasefire to evacuate wounded and deliver vital supplies to civilians, a proposal first made in February.

Despite the lack of progress, Annan urged council members to “begin consideration of deployment of an observer mission with a broad and flexible mandate”, a diplomat said.

The U.N. peacekeeping department is already planning for a ceasefire monitoring mission that would have 200 to 250 unarmed observers. It would require a Security Council resolution.

It was not clear how Russia or China would respond to Annan’s report. The two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council have vetoed two council resolutions condemning Assad for turning the army on civilians demanding change.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen repeated that the Western allies have “no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria”. He said he did not believe providing weapons would help.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar favor providing arms to the FSA. But most Arab states and Western backers of the rebels oppose that.

FSA rebels have said they will stop shooting if the army pulls heavy weaponry out of cities. But the Assad government has said it must maintain security in urban areas and there has been no sign of tanks, armor or artillery moving out.

The United Nations says Syrian soldiers and security forces have killed more than 9,000 people over the past 12 months. Damascus says rebels have killed 3,000 troops and police.

Assad blames the unrest on foreign-backed “terrorists” and has put forward his own reform program, which his domestic foes and international opponents have dismissed.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at an international Friends of Syria conference with Assad’s opponents in Istanbul on Sunday, said Assad had a long list of broken promises behind him and would face serious consequences if he did not halt actions targeting civilians.

Although Western powers have been wary of military intervention, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu compared the situation to Bosnia in the 1990s.

“In the case of Bosnia, the international community was too slow therefore we lost many people,” he said. “In the case of Syria we have to act without delay.”

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Douglas Hamilton and Philippa Fletcher; editing by Angus MacSwan and Editing by Kevin Liffey

UN chief to Syria’s Assad: World is waiting for you to implement peace plan

Arab leaders dropped a demand that Bashar Assad give up the presidency of Syria but urged him to act quickly on a U.N.-backed peace plan he has accepted as fighting between Syrian troops and rebels killed at least 22 people on Thursday.

“The solution for the crisis is still in the hands of the Syrians as a government and opposition,” Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told Arab heads of state at a summit meeting in Baghdad.

Syria’s opposition groups continue to demand that Assad must go and have not agreed to peace talks.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon kept up pressure on Assad, saying he must turn his acceptance of the six-point peace plan into action, to shift his country off a “dangerous trajectory” with risks for the entire region.

“It is essential that President Assad put those commitments into immediate effect. The world is waiting for commitments to be translated into action. The key here is implementation, there is no time to waste,” Ban told the Arab League Summit.

In Istanbul, Syrian opposition representatives met to try to settle deep internal disputes before the arrival of Western foreign ministers for a “Friends of Syria” conference on Sunday to map out where the year-old uprising is heading.

The chances of Western powers deciding to arm the insurgents at this point appeared to be very remote.


Reports from the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence, said at least 16 people and six government soldiers were killed across the country – in army raids on villages, in a rebel ambush and in clashes.

The state news agency SANA said two colonels were assassinated in a morning attack in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, while on their way to work. It said gunmen kidnapped Air Force General Mohammad Amr al Darbas in Damascus province.

The United Nations says Assad’s forces have killed 9,000 people. Damascus blames foreign-backed “terrorists” for the violence and says 3,000 soldiers and police have been killed.

Western powers have expressed skepticism about Assad’s acceptance of the peace plan. Russia has urged Western-backed opposition groups to match Damascus and endorse the proposals of Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general who is now special Syria envoy for the U.N. and the Arab League.

Syria’s big-power backers, Russia and China, have turned up the heat on Assad by endorsing the Annan plan, with the unspoken implication that if he fails to act on it, they may be prepared to back action by the U.N. Security Council.


Sunni Muslim powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar have led the campaign to isolate Syria, suggesting arming Syria’s mainly Sunni opposition.

Arab states outside the Gulf, such as Algeria and Shi’ite Muslim-led Iraq, urge more caution, fearing that toppling Assad – a member of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, a branch of Shi’ite Islam – could spark sectarian violence.

Annan’s six-point plan calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centers, humanitarian assistance, the release of prisoners and free movement and access for journalists.

Diplomats say one of his ideas is for a U.N. observer mission to monitor any eventual ceasefire, a mechanism likely to require a U.N. Security Council mandate. An Arab League monitoring mission late last year failed to make any difference to the crisis.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed for Saudi Arabia and later Turkey to consult Gulf states and promote unity in Syrian opposition ranks, but there was no sign that President Barack Obama was about to drop his hands-off approach.

Unless opposition splits are healed, there is little chance that Assad’s opponents can oust him without a military intervention the West clearly does not want, and some analysts are saying it is time to force the opposition to talk to Assad.

The Obama administration’s approach to the crisis will continue to be “wary and slow-moving”, said Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution.

“If Assad has reached a turning point and really made headway against insurgents, I believe there is a good chance he will ‘win’ without too much American pushback,” O’Hanlon said.

J Street pushing peace process letter, Iran envoy bill

J Street is backing a congressional letter urging President Obama to actively pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace and a bill that would direct him to appoint a special Iran envoy.

The two initiatives will be on the agenda of some 2,500 J Street activists attending this week’s conference when they visit Capitol Hill on Tuesday for meetings with lawmakers.

The letter circulating among members of the U.S. House of Representatives says that Israel “cannot afford the absence of diminution of U.S. leadership in the urgent quest for peace.” It implicitly attacks Republicans who have accused Obama of having involved himself too deeply in the process, which they claim undermines the U.S.-Israel alliance.

“Some on the national political stage have argued that the United States should not play a lead role in the peace process, even denying the existence of the Palestinian people,” the letter says, a reference to comments by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich that stirred controversy. “Far from undermining Israel’s enemies, such rhetoric empowers them, and threatens Israel’s long-term security and survival.”

Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) initiated the letter.

Also on the J Street legislative agenda is a bill initiated last week by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) that would direct the president to appoint a special envoy “for the purpose of ensuring that the United States pursues all diplomatic avenues to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, to avoid a war with Iran, and for other purposes.”

Rice: ‘No shortcut’ to Mideast peace

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, told a Jewish group that there is “no shortcut” to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Achieving a Palestinian state “can only come through direct negotiations and a negotiated two-state solution,”  Rice emphasized during a conversation with American Jewish Committee President David Harris Monday before a crowd of AJC members in New York.

Rice also noted the uncertainty with the Palestinians’ intentions and that “nobody knows for sure what the Palestinians will choose to do, if anything, in the coming weeks or months.”

The Palestinians are adhering to the Middle East Quartet deadline of Jan. 26 for direct negotiations to resume between the parties, but Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday that there could be a possibility of a resumption of contacts between the parties after he consults with Arab League officials on Feb. 4.

In addition, Rice argued that the U.S. spends “an enormous amount of time defending Israel’s right to defend itself” and that it reflected poorly on member nations that continue to use the United Nations “as a venue in which they can attack and harass Israel.”

UN’S Ban sees peace process boost from Shalit deal

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday that he expected the Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange to boost prospects for the wider peace process.

“With this release, it will have a far-reaching positive impact to the stalled Middle East peace process,” Ban told Reuters at the end of a three-day trip to Switzerland.

“I am very encouraged by the prisoner exchange today after many many years of negotiation. The United Nations has been calling for (an end to) the unacceptable detention of Gilad Shalit and also the release of all Palestinians whose human rights have been abused all the time.”

Reporting by Amena Bakr and Vincent Fribault, writing by Tom Miles, editing by Stephanie Nebehay

Palestinians in West Bank consider UN statehood bid

A throng of young Palestinians charge the stage with what could easily be seen as malicious intent – if their vigorous stampede hadn’t been in sync with a performance of Dabke, the traditional Arabic folk dance that literally translates as “the stamping of the feet.”

Former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants, who once viewed one another down the barrel of a gun, are now turning their combined crosshairs to the fight for coexistence. Combatants for Peace, together with the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, gathered together in the West Bank Arab town of Beit Jala on Thursday, Sept. 22 – the eve of what was expected to be an historic day for the Palestinians, with their president, Mahmoud Abbas, set to make a formal request for full membership of the U.N, a move that would make the Palestinian people the world’s 194th nation state.

Abbas has vowed that he will not be satisfied with observer status likely to be granted through the General Assembly, and would take his case to the Security Council on Friday, despite increasing efforts by Israel, the U.S. and European allies to find a way out of an impasse that will inevitably end in a U.S. veto.

As the sun sets over the Arab Orthodox Sports Club in Beit Jala, a dozen kids retreat to the playground, the dancing youngsters, drunk on happiness and hope, leave the stage to the night’s speakers, all simultaneously translated from Arabic to Hebrew and vice versa. The orators mostly comprise politicians from both sides, including a Fatah member, the governor of Bethlehem and former Israeli government minister Yossi Sarid, who begins his comments with a declaration that an independent Palestinian state depends on when, not if.

“Do not let Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Barack Hussein Obama discourage you,” Sarid urges the audience. “The path is long, and the rhythm is slow, but we are progressing, and the end of occupation is near.”

Even though this statement is met with standing ovations and people are smiling, a cloud of uncertainty hovers in the open space; it’s a loud but ultimately worried celebration.

“Tomorrow will be a failure, and result in an American veto, but we see it as a very important psychological act for the Palestinians. They will simply try again. The act itself is symbolic. Tonight we’re celebrating the willingness, the courage to go before the UN and demand a country, even in the face of failure,” says Erez Krispin, the Israeli special project coordinator for Combatants for Peace, a group of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters who have laid down their arms and now work together to end the decades-long conflict.

Abed Khamil, the governor of the West Bank town of Bethlehem, takes to stage with praise for Mahmoud Abbas’ courage and honesty, and wishes him luck at the UN. In Bethlehem, a massive sign in front of the Church of the Nativity reads:

“Yes we can
Yes we will
Palestine State 194”

Elsewhere, not everyone has even that gritty optimism. In the Old City of Jerusalem, Palestinian Muhammad Abdallah, 70, is arguing whether any praise is due.

“It’s nothing but morphine for the region, and just a carrot for Mahmoud Abbas. Nothing’s going to change on the ground. There is no solution.”

And inside the Western Wall compound, the holiest Jewish site, Israeli tour guide Yosi Ya’ari, 61, also commends Abbas, but he too sees this as an act of desperation that will yield few concrete results. Peace in this region, he says, will be achieved by leaders who can talk to one another, and who don’t resent one other.

“We’re waiting for the leaders. Netanyahu is not courageous enough to do it, and it’s too late for Mahmoud Abbas. He’s exhausted, he’s tired himself out.”

He instead draws a comparison with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s respective peace efforts in the 1990s with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Jordan’s King Hussein.

“It wasn’t Rabin and Yasser Arafat who came to terms, but Rabin and King Hussein,” he says of the three late leaders. “You didn’t even need to listen to them, all you had to do was watch their body language. Rabin was nearly choking trying to shake hands with Arafat. He couldn’t stand the guy, and they never reached an agreement. The peace with Jordan took less than a year to write.”

The same is true of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israeli PM Menachem Begin, he maintains. The two, although never meeting in an embrace, shared a common language and in 1979 signed a peace agreement.

Youthful pessimism

Palestinian high school student, Yazan Ghnaim, outside his father’s shop in the Old City, conveys a newfound respect for Mahmoud Abbas as a patriot and not the underdog of the U.S., but ultimately expresses disillusion. He, too, is not holding his breath for a positive UN vote.

“But for Abbas to go in front of the U.N. is better than wasting time on negotiations. Negotiations don’t change my daily life.”

The Palestinian people have had enough, he says. Listing the checkpoints, attacks by settlers, no freedom of movement or freedom to choose a place to live. He fears that if the international community does not allow the Palestinians their freedom, it could ignite a new violent uprising.

“If I could choose, I’d live in Ramallah, but without seeing settlements right outside my window, fearing attacks. I just want safety.”

But even if the Security Council does grant Palestinians statehood, he says, it won’t tear down the separation wall or the checkpoints. And an entirely different issue would arise, because what will happen with the blue identity cards that grant East Jerusalem Palestinians entry to Israel if East Jerusalem becomes the capital of the new state?

“Will I be able to go to Tel Aviv?” he asks.

Spectre of violence

But at the gathering in Beit Jala, Yael Kenan, one of the Israeli organizers of the event, reiterates the speakers’ vow of non-violent resistance. This new tactic seems to be working in the international arena, with Israelis increasingly viewed as aggressors and oppressors, and the Palestinians as the victims.

“Non-violence is an immensely powerful weapon. And if Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians are smart enough to keep this momentum, then there’s no greater threat to the occupation.

“They [Israeli soldiers] know what to do when they’re faced with children throwing rocks, or even terrorist attacks, but non-violence will be much more of an embarrassment to the Israeli government, and will garner much more support from the Israeli public.”

But the Israeli army is girding for clashes in the coming days, and heading for the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, army trucks can be seen ferrying Merkava battle tanks to the nearest military base. In the settlement’s main shopping mall, mother of three Ofra Shimoni shows both fear and hostility.

“If we don’t give them all the things they want, so Intifada 3,” she says, using the Arabic word for uprising, long part of the Hebrew lexicon. “Things will get worse, they won’t change for the better. I don´t believe they [the Palestinians] should be here, nor that they have a right for a state.”

Back in Beit Jala, tired from the dancing and the adrenaline rush, the Palestinian crowd heads out into the night and the Israelis file onto buses to go back through the army checkpoints to Jerusalem.

Muhammad Farid and Muhammad Musa, a medical student in Cairo and a student of engineering in Hebron respectively, reiterate that even though Friday’s UN gathering will most likely result in a veto, the Palestinians will try again, and again, until they win their independence.

And on the chances of a satisfactory outcome on Friday, which will ultimately be determined by the international community, not least the U.S., they both are still sanguine. Together they chorus: “Inshallah!”

In U.S. speech, Abbas commits to two states, but amps up fiery rhetoric

Mahmoud Abbas outlined a vision for an independent Palestine that hewed to the two-state formula but also revived rhetoric that hearkened back to an era of Palestinian belligerence.

“We agree to establish the state of Palestine on only 22 percent of historical Palestine on all of the territories of Palestine occupied by Israel in 1967,” the Palestinian Authority president told the United Nations General Assembly shortly after handing his application for statehood recognition to the U.N. secretary-general. “Our efforts are not aimed at isolating Israel or delegitimizing it, we only aim to delegitimize the settlement activity.”

Abbas’ emphatic endorsement of two states for two people, and his repeated calls for peaceful support from Palestinians who were watching him were signals that he was still committed to the two-state solution. “I do not believe anyone of conscience can reject our application for full membership in the United Nations and our admission as a member state,” he said.

But Abbas also reserved harsh rhetoric for the Israelis, accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” targeting Palestinian civilians for assassination, strengthening its “racist annexation wall,” and carrying out excavations that threaten Islamic holy places.

Abbas repeatedly invoked 63 years of “Nakba,” or catastrophe, and repeated his commitment to unity with Hamas, a terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction. He made reference to Muslim and Christian ties to the holy land—the site of Mohammed’s ascension to the heavens and Jesus’ birth—but omitted any reference to Jewish claims.

While Abbas called for a timeline for peace negotiations culminating in statehood—but did not set one out himself. That, and his commitment to prior agreements with Israel, seemed to be aimed at assuaging Israeli and U.S. concerns that he would follow up the application with unilateral actions. Israel and the United States have emphatically opposed the statehood recognition bid.

But if Abbas’ bottom line was aimed at pushing back against charges that he was acting unilaterally, his rhetoric was bound to raise hackles—and seemingly did, given the walkouts by at least two members of the Israeli delegations, Cabinet ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Yuli Edelstein, and the refusal to applaud by Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy.

Abbas also invoked, to vigorous applause, his predecessor Yasser Arafat’s 1974 appearance before the same body. He cited Arafat’s raising of an olive branch on that occasion, saying it was still held out—but did not mention the gun Arafat wore, against U.N. regulations and at his insistence. That pistol disgusted the United States and Israel at the time, and for years helped define Arafat in the West not as a man of peace, but as a bloody-minded posturer.

The dangerous alternate Middle East reality

This essay was first posted Wed., Sept. 21 on Huffington Post

In the lead-up to the Palestinian application for full membership in the United Nations later this week, we can expect nation after nation to vilify the Jewish state and to walk out when Prime Minister Netanyahu takes the microphone.

Demonization and isolation of Israel are familiar recurring nightmares for Jews, who are long accustomed to being reviled. For being “of their father the Devil,” confined to ghettos and mehlas, mercilessly assaulted and expelled from country after country, and systematically exterminated as subhuman untermenchen. Burgeoning anti-Zionism is the same anti-Semitic nightmare in contemporary garb.

The major U.N. blocks are among its most vocal exponents, confident of the backing of radicals and the anti-Israel media. Its initial salvo came not too long after the attenuation of collective guilt for failing to stop the Holocaust. At that time it took the form of the infamous “Zionism is racism” canard.

Beginning with Durban I, Israel has again been consistently demonized, delegitimized and subjected to economic and intellectual boycott. Israel is an open, functioning parliamentary democracy, guaranteeing freedom of religion and assembly, and protecting the right of minorities. Nevertheless, it has been portrayed as a racist, apartheid society. In the 1970s I was Chief Rabbi of the Provence of Natal and Head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Natal. I was a very visible, vocal and high profile critic of apartheid when opposition to that evil regime was deemed treasonable. I was personally involved in the treason trial of the leadership of the National Union of South Africa Students. I bitterly resent the false and odious comparison.

But the delegitimization of the Jewish state has gone way beyond rhetoric and invective. Its very existence has come under threat. Located in the midst of Muslim states—the Dar al Islam (The Realm of Islam)—Israel is defined as the Dar al Harb (the Realm of the Sword, the not-yet-Muslim).

The Islamic Republic of Iran has threatened it with annihilation, and is developing the means to carry out its genocidal threat. It arms its Hezbollah agents in Lebanon and its Hamas allies in Gaza.

The Hamas leadership refuses to acknowledge and accept the right of Israel to exist. It has hurled many hundreds of rockets on civilian population centers, and has dispatched terror squads and suicide bombers into Israel. In a recent poll of Palestinian opinion—conducted by Stanley Greenberg, leading pollster for the Democratic Party, in conjunction with the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, and sponsored by the Israel Project, 73 percent agreed with a quote from the Hamas charter on the need to kill all Jews.

Ominously, two of Israel’s most reliable partners for peace have done an about face. To bolster its standing in the Muslim world, the Islamist Turkish government has all but completely severed diplomatic, economic and military relations with the Jewish State. It has threatened to send its warships into Israeli waters to prevent the exploitation of natural gas reserves within those waters, and has thrown its full support behind the rejectionist Hamas leadership.

Equally ominous was the initial inaction of the Egyptian interim government when the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked and occupied, and the subsequent comment of the acting Prime Minister that the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel is neither necessarily sacred nor permanent. This raises the specter of a possible Egyptian front in the event of another war—and of 1948 and 1967 redux.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has claimed many victims. History itself has been its least noticed victim. Jerusalem was the capital of two previous Jewish commonwealths and the site of Judaism’s holiest shrine. It has never been the capital of an Arab state, and yet it has not been recognized as the capital of the State of Israel. No other sovereign nation has been denied the right to name its own capital—not even such rogue states as North Korea and Myanmar.

The fact that the Arabs attacked Israel and were vanquished in 1948, 1967 and 1973, losing land in the process, is irrelevant in the a-historical parallel universe constructed by supporters of the Palestinians and the rejectors of Israel. In contrast, land lost by Jews in those same wars, particularly in East Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, is deemed permanently Palestinian. In the alternate Middle Eastern reality, this incongruence has been validated by international forums, and even by the United States. Tony Blair often speaks for the Quartet charged with propelling negotiations leading to the establishment of the State of Palestine. His favorite mantra is: “Justice for the Palestinians and security for Israel.” What about the injustice of the solutions urged on Israel, and the insecurity inherent in the 1948 Armistice Line?

Israel accepted the United Nations’ two-state solution in 1947, but its rejection by the invading Arab nations has long been conveniently forgotten. A number of Israeli Prime Ministers have reiterated their acceptance of the existence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, but their efforts to achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians have largely been discounted. Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from Gaza and Northern Samaria, and the wrenching dislocation of its citizens from their homes, have not been validated. The risks it has taken for peace have been costly, bringing rockets to its cities and terror to its citizens. The Oslo Accords, premised upon the establishment of a Palestinian State alongside the State of Israel in peaceful coexistence, were surely an Israeli validation of Palestinian aspirations. All of this has been of little avail, and has all but been erased from the historical record.

The Palestinian National Authority has been an elusive partner for peace. During the extensive settlement freeze, it rejected every reasonable compromise. It refused to recognize the Jewish character of the State of Israel, insisted on inundating Israel with millions of Palestinians, on making Israel’s holiest Jewish shrines judenrein, and on Israel’s acceptance of indefensible borders, no more than eight miles wide at a point closest to the greatest concentration of its citizens. Most recently, it has achieved rapprochement with rejectionist Hamas. It should come as no surprise that the same poll of Palestinian opinion conducted by Stanley Greenberg, revealed that only 34 percent of Palestinians questioned would accept the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as a permanent solution to the conflict. And it is still Israel that is blamed for the breakdown of the peace process!

President Abbas is seeking United Nations recognition of Palestine. He has shamelessly declared that international recognition of the Palestinian State will empower him to take Israel to the International Criminal Court for sixty-three years of occupation. Obviously, his end game is the elimination of the sixty-three year old State of Israel. This too should come as no surprise. After all, his people annually observe Israel’s repulsion of their invading armies as Nakba, the Catastrophe.

This is a grave threat to the Jewish state, but Jews have survived every attempt at obliteration in the past and will surely do so again—whatever may happen in the United Nations.

Netanyahu to U.N.: Palestinians want state without peace [VIDEO]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of wanting statehood without peace.

“The truth is so far the Palestinians have refused to negotiate,” he said. “The truth is the Palestinians want a state without peace.”

He said he and Israel genuinely want peace but that peace must be “anchored in security.”

Netanyahu quoted the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, calling the U.N. a “house of lies”—though he prefaced it by saying he hoped those assembled wouldn’t be offended.

He warned of the dangers of militant Islam, invoking the 9/11 attacks and admonishing those U.N. delegates who failed to walk out of the General Assembly when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad on Thursday suggested that 9/11 wasn’t actually a terrorist attack.

Netanyahu recalled Israel’s experience ceding territory to the Palestinians in Gaza and to the Lebanese in 2000.

“When Israel left Lebanon and Gaza, the moderates didn’t defeat the radicals, the moderates were devoured by the radicals,” he said.

“We left Gaza hoping for peace,” he said. But Israel didn’t get peace. We got war.”

He cited the flow of weapons into Gaza and Hamas’ use of the strip as a base for rocket and terrorist attacks against Israel. “Given all this, Israelis rightly ask: What’s to prevent this all from happening again in the West Bank?”

Video courtesy of Fox News

In U.N. speeches, Abbas, Netanyahu trade charges of ‘ethnic cleansing’

Mahmoud Abbas outlined a vision for an independent Palestine that hewed to the two-state formula but also revived rhetoric that hearkened back to an era of Palestinian belligerence.

Shortly after concluding his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Friday, the Palestinian Authority president was followed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who laid out a very different vision of the two-state solution that underscored the depth of the gulf between the two leaders.

While Netanyahu spoke of the need for Israel to maintain a “long-term Israeli military presence in the West Bank,” Abbas argued that the Palestinians had already made their compromises.

“We agree to establish the state of Palestine on only 22 percent of historical Palestine on all of the territories of Palestine occupied by Israel in 1967,” Abbas said. He added, “Our efforts are not aimed at isolating Israel or delegitimizing it, we only aim to delegitimize the settlement activity.”

Abbas’ emphatic endorsement of two states, and his repeated calls for peaceful support from Palestinians who were watching him were signals that he was still committed to the two-state solution. “I do not believe anyone of conscience can reject our application for full membership in the United Nations and our admission as a member state,” he said.

But Abbas also had harsh rhetoric for the Israelis, accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” targeting Palestinians for assassination, strengthening its “racist annexation wall” and carrying out excavations that, he alleged, threaten Islamic holy places.

Abbas repeatedly invoked 63 years of “Nakba,” or catastrophe, and repeated his commitment to unity with Hamas, a terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction. He made reference to Muslim and Christian ties to the holy land—the site of Jesus’ birth and where Muslims believed Muhammed ascended to the heavens—but omitted any reference to Jewish claims.

For his part, Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of racism and ethnic cleansing in their call for a state with no Jewish settlers—“Judenrein,” in Netanyahu’s words, using the Nazi-era term.

“That’s ethnic cleansing,” he said.

He accused the Palestinians of wanting statehood but not peace. “The truth is, so far the Palestinians have refused to negotiate,” he said. “The truth is the Palestinians want a state without peace.”

While Abbas called for a timeline for peace negotiations culminating in an agreement—but did not set one out himself. That, and his commitment to prior agreements with Israel, seemed to be aimed at assuaging Israeli and U.S. concerns that he would follow up the application with unilateral actions. Israel and the United States have emphatically opposed the Palestinians’ statehood recognition bid at the U.N.

But if Abbas’ bottom line was aimed at pushing back against charges that he was acting unilaterally, his rhetoric was bound to raise hackles—and seemingly did, given the walkouts by at least two members of the Israeli delegations, Cabinet ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Yuli Edelstein, and the refusal to applaud by Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy.

After the speech, Rice Tweeted: “When the speeches end today, we must all recognize that the only way to create a state is through direct negotiations. No shortcuts.”

Abbas also invoked, to vigorous applause, his predecessor Yasser Arafat’s 1974 appearance before the same body. He cited Arafat’s raising of an olive branch on that occasion, saying it was still held out—but did not mention the gun Arafat wore, against U.N. regulations and at his insistence. That pistol disgusted the United States and Israel at the time, and for years helped define Arafat in the West not as a man of peace, but as a bloody-minded posturer.

Netanyahu called on Mahmoud Abbas to launch talks immediately in New York and said he was ready to “move ahead” with U.S.-backed parameters.

“I extend my hand, the hand of Israel in peace—I hope you will grasp that,” Netanyahu said. “If we genuinely want peace, let us meet in this building.”

Abbas had reiterated in his speech his precondition that Israel freeze all settlement building.

It was the first time Netanyahu publicly suggested that he was ready to negotiate on the basis of parameters President Obama laid out in a speech in May; at the time, Netanyahu had objected vigorously to Obama’s call for negotiations based in 1967 lines, with mutually agreed land swaps.

“There were things in the ideas” Obama proposed “about borders that I didn’t like, there were things about the Jewish state that I’m sure the Palestinians didn’t like,” Netanyahu said. “For all my reservations, I was willing to move ahead.”

Netanyahu reportedly has in recent weeks privately told American interlocutors he is willing to work with Obama’s parameters.

In Ramallah, West Bank Palestinians divided between celebratory and cynical

A larger-than-life sky-blue chair with the word “Palestine” dominates the center of Manara Square in downtown Ramallah.

The Palestinian flag, a national symbol once banned by Israel, flies everywhere. Long banners of flags crisscross the square, huge flags decorate the sides of buildings and even police cars sport flags. Nationalist music blares from loudspeakers.

The chair, symbolizing Palestinians’ hoped-for acceptance as a state by the United Nations, is empty for now. Public opinion in Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian financial and political capital, is divided over whether the Palestinians’ U.N. bid for statehood will make any difference on the ground.

Some, like Walid Nasser, a manager of 17 radio stations in the West Bank, says that Palestinians are now on the road to an independent state.

“It’s a legal step and it’s very important for our own real state,” Nasser told JTA in Manara Square on Friday, the day Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas submitted the Palestinians’ bid for statehood to the United Nations. “There has never been a U.N. document that registers Palestine as a state. It’s a huge step forward for the Palestinian people.”

Nasser did not seem bothered by the promised American veto of a Security Council resolution calling for the recognition of Palestine.

“We don’t care – let the U.S. be the only one of 130 nations opposing a Palestinian state,” he said. “We deserve a state just like Israel deserves a state. They suffered a lot in the past, but so did we. We want a state that will live in peace with all of its neighbors, including Israel.”

Others say that a Palestinian state would be a chance to right historic wrongs. Qais Adel, 44, a soft-spoken waiter at a downtown Ramallah restaurant, stood outside a grocery store with his wife.

“I was born in Nablus in 1967, and all of my life has been under Israeli occupation,” he said, putting his grocery bags on the ground to rest for a moment. “For years now, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad has been laying the groundwork for a state and now we are ready. Israel already has a state. Now we want a state within the 1967 borders.”

The 1967 borders would mean an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem; Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Those are the same borders that President Obama mentioned cited this year as the basis for negotiations, with mutually agreed swaps of territory. But in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, there was neither mention of the 1967 lines nor a call to Israel to freeze settlement expansion.

In New York, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said a future Palestinian state cannot have Jewish settlers in it. Some 310,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, not including eastern Jerusalem. Even assuming mutually agreed upon land swaps that would keep settlement blocs under Israeli control, at least 120,000 Israelis would have to leave their homes under any peace deal.

In Ramallah, many Palestinians are doubtful that the United Nations gambit will change anything in their daily lives.

Yahya Eid, 23, sat on a plastic chair next to a small stand selling tea and coffee. He said he works 18 hours a day, either at the stand or at a small restaurant he owns. He graduated from university last year with a degree in computer science but couldn’t find work in his field.

He smiled cynically as he surveyed the decorated square, which was mostly quiet on Friday while some flashpoints, like the Kalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, saw clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters. One Palestinian was killed in a flareup between Israeli settlers and Palestinians near the Palestinian village of Qusra.

“If Israel and the U.S. don’t want us to have a state, it’s not going to happen,” Eid said. “And what about President Obama’s speech to the UN? All he said was, “Get back to negotiating.’ ”

Asked whether the armed Palestinian police in the streets of Ramallah and the flags don’t already provide a feeling of statehood, Eid said, “Sure, it feels like a state during the day. But at 10 p.m. our police have to get off the streets and Israeli soldiers can come in if they want to arrest anyone. What kind of state is that?”

Despite his perspective, Eid said he believes there eventually will be an independent Palestinian state – he’s just not sure how long it will take.

For a Palestinian named Nick, 60, the celebrations in Ramallah on Friday marking Abbas’s statehood petition, were a chance to connect with the homeland he had left many years ago.

Nick, who wouldn’t give his last name, said he has lived in Rocky Point, N.C. for 43 years. But he felt he needed to be in Ramallah on Friday.

“Abbas will get support for a Palestinian state in the General Assembly,” he said. “It will remind the world that we still live under occupation.”

Nick’s family left the West Bank in 1968 because there were few economic opportunities, he said, yet despite 40 years abroad, the West Bank still feels like home. He owns a home here and returns frequently to visit. He hopes his children, now young adults, will move back to the West Bank.

Nick says he’s not sure if the United Nations petition will lead to an independent state.

“It’s hard to tell, but we had to do something,” he said. “We negotiated for 20 years and achieved nothing but more settlements. Maybe this will make a difference.”

Mullen: Egyptian leaders committed to peace

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Jewish audience that Egypt’s leaders are committed to maintaining the peace with Israel.

“In every conversation with my Egyptian counterparts, they always reassert—without my asking—that they want to retain the peace with Israel,” Mullen said Tuesday at an event organized in support of the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital in Washington.

Israeli leaders have been unnerved by the intensity of anti-Israel protests in Cairo in recent weeks and the failure of Egyptian authorities to contain them. Egypt is being run by an interim military government as it heads toward elections following the overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship earlier this year.

Mullen, who is due to retire in two weeks, appeared at the event with New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Is rift looming in U.S.-Israel ties?

In recent months, the tensions that have characterized relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government have largely receded into the background.

The Obama administration is preparing to stand virtually alone with Israel at the United Nations in opposing the Palestinians’ statehood push. A consensus is emerging within the administration that Turkey is more to blame than Israel for the crisis in their relations. And officials in the United States and Israel are basking in the afterglow of Obama’s intervention with Egypt to facilitate the rescue of six Israelis during the storming of their Cairo embassy earlier this month.

Yet amid this flowering of good feelings, some observers are pointing to what they see as deeper undercurrents of disquiet in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a respected Washington think tank that has been consulted in the past by officials of both countries, published a paper last week suggesting that their ties may be changing — and not for the better.

“The United States and Israel have changed and continue to change, but the two countries’ relationship has not kept pace,” said the report by Haim Malka, deputy director of the CSIS’s Middle East program. “For years the growing differences have been papered over, but continuing to do so is both unsustainable and counterproductive.”

The strains transcend any single administration, Malka says, and have resulted in deep-seated disagreements, particularly over the necessity of arriving at an agreement with the Palestinians, with Israelis skeptical of the likelihood of an accord and Americans seeing such a settlement as vital to the interests of both countries.

Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official in Republican administrations who also is deeply involved in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities, also expressed concern about the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“The biggest problem Israelis have: Israelis think they know the United States — they really do, especially the ones with American accents,” he said at the Sept. 16 release event for Malka’s report, in an apparent reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was educated in the United States.

“This peace process is a major priority for the United States across the board,” Zakheim said. “It is not just realist Republicans, not just liberals, but the national security community. Israelis are having difficulty coming to terms with that.”

Indeed, discontent with the current state of the Israel-U.S. relationship has been in evidence increasingly in the last couple of years in Washington’s defense establishment — usually a redoubt of pro-Israelism.

David Makovsky, a top analyst at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he does not believe there is a major rift on the horizon, but added that the Middle East’s current volatility introduces an element of uncertainty into the alliance.

“The Arab spring is the new X factor,” he said, referring to the unrest sweeping the region.

A top European diplomat who is charged with monitoring the U.S. Middle East posture dismissed talk of a U.S.-Israel rift as “very theoretical.” The diplomat, who asked not to be further identified, said the United States was “covering” for Israel at the United Nations, which is its “traditional role.”

Mark Quarterman, who spent 12 years as part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and now directs the CSIS’s Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation, said “there has been very little change between the Bush administration, the Obama administration and generally across administrations” in voting against resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and trying to keep it off the Security Council’s agenda.

The Obama administration has said it will veto the Palestinian statehood bid if it comes to a vote in the Security Council, and the United States will likely stand alone with Israel and a handful of other countries should the Palestinians seek enhanced status through the General Assembly. As the General Assembly began its session Wednesday, Obama was slated to meet with Netanyahu but not Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The United States also has tried to help Israel in its increasingly acrimonious diplomatic fight with Turkey. Sources in frequent contact with the Obama administration say that while officials express frustration with Netanyahu’s refusal to apologize for the deadly May 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish-flagged ship aiming to break Israel’s Gaza blockade, they are quick to acknowledge that such an apology would not have changed the Islamist Turkish government’s determination to ratchet up confrontation with Israel.

Netanyahu and his team, for their part, have been sounding positive notes about the administration lately. The prime minister lavished praise on Obama for his Cairo intervention, saying that Israel owed Obama “a special measure of gratitude.”

“We’ve enjoyed a period over the last four months of very close coordination with the administration, probably the best coordination that we’ve had over the last two-and-a-half years over the range of issues,” Netanyahu aide Ron Dermer told Politico. “I think that we’re definitely in a good place, with the U.S. administration and us seeing a lot of things eye to eye.”

Obama and the quest for Mideast peace

So, why was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steaming when he came out of his tête-á-tête with President Barack Obama on May 20? The president’s inherently pro-Palestinian, con-Israeli stance may have been another rude awakening for the prime minister, but the handwriting’s been on the wall for some time now.

Take, for example, candidate Obama’s statement in March 2007 that “nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people.”  How about the Israeli people, who have had to live with the daily threat of terrorist attacks and bombings and hostile Arab armies on their borders since the inception of the Jewish state in 1948?   

Netanyahu was clearly disconcerted when he heard the president refer to Hamas as “an organization that has resorted to terror” during his press conference with the prime minister.  The imagery conveyed is of desperate Palestinian freedom fighters committing the occasional act of terror as a last resort to drive their Israeli oppressors from their rightful home, not of the coldblooded killers who routinely murder innocent civilians, as they did when they used a laser-guided anti-tank missile last April to specifically target an Israeli school bus, killing 16-year-old Daniel Viflic.

The president’s characterization of Hamas was particularly surprising as the organization has been responsible for the murder of more than 40 U.S. citizens since its formation in 1988 and was declared a terrorist group by the Clinton administration in 1995.  Netanyahu believed the United States and Israel stood shoulder to shoulder on the longstanding policy for both countrie — which, in the case of America, dates back to 1981 and the Reagan administration — that forbids negotiating with terrorists.  Yet Obama, in his Mideast policy address on May 19, soft pedaled the recent political accord between Fatah and Hamas, saying it raised “profound and legitimate questions for Israel” that Palestinian leaders will have to credibly address “… in the weeks and months to come.” 

But that’s far from the only reason Netanyahu was upset with the president.  Why is it that this administration feels compelled to set preconditions for Middle East peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and that those preconditions always require Israel to make the first concessions before negotiations begin?  In 2009, negotiations ran aground because Obama insisted on a moratorium on all new settlement activity in the West Bank that Israel rebuffed. Now, the principle he has set forth as a “foundation for negotiations” is that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that … the Palestinian people [can] govern themselves in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

In his speech to AIPAC on May 22, the president misled the 11,000 American Jews in the audience — 78 percent of whom had voted for him — when he stated that his framework for peace talks has “… been the template for discussions between the United States, Israel and the Palestinians since at least the Clinton administration.”  The truth is that the president’s so-called “even-handed” policy strongly favors the Palestinian position and represents a major change in American policy, with dire implications for Israel and the prospects for Middle East peace.

No U.S. president, from Lyndon Johnson (who was in office during the Six-Day War) through George W. Bush, has ever asserted, implicitly or explicitly, that the Palestinians have a right to 100 percent of the West Bank and the territory governed by the pre-1967 borders. Johnson said a return to pre-1967 borders “is not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities.” Reagan stated that “in the pre-1967 borders, Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point.  The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile armies.  I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.”  And Bush:  “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” None of the prior eight American presidents since 1967 have said anything about returning to the 1967 borders or land swaps.  By stating that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” Obama is asserting that (i) Palestinians are entitled to the territory governed by the pre-1967 borders and that (ii) should those borders differ, Israel must compensate the Palestinians with other land from the 4,000-year-old ancestral Jewish homeland.  This is a concession Israel is to make before negotiations begin?  What bargaining power would Israel have left?  And, since “mutually” entails the agreement of both parties, what if one party — the Palestinians — doesn’t agree?  Then you’re back to the indefensible 1967 borders.   

Why does this president consistently set Israel up to take the fall?  Netanyahu journeys to Washington to meet with the president at Obama’s request in March 2010 only to be presented with a list of ultimatums for restarting peace talks, including freezing settlement activity in East Jerusalem, and then, when Netanyahu hesitates, the president walks out of the meeting, snubbing him for dinner and the customary photo session for heads of state.  On the eve of last month’s summit with the prime minister, he again ambushes Netanyahu by unveiling a major change in U.S. policy that favors the Palestinians. During the first six months of his presidency, Obama journeyed to Saudi Arabia and Egypt; halfway through the third year of his term, he has yet to visit Israel, America’s staunchest, most democratic and most stable and reliable ally in the region.  Does anyone see a pattern here? 

If Obama wants to set preconditions for peace talks, then why not adopt the most logical, most fundamental and most simplistic one set forth by Netanyahu in his address before Congress on May 24?  Just as Netanyahu, and the Israeli prime ministers before him dating back to Menachem Begin in 1978, have stated that they will accept a Palestinian state, why doesn’t the president join him in calling for the Palestinian leadership to declare that they will accept a Jewish state?  How can there ever be peace if there is no meeting of the minds on this basic premise?  Why wasn’t that the framework for peace negotiations put forth by the president instead of dancing around the issue of having Hamas at the bargaining table? 

The last time Israel swapped land for peace —the Gaza Strip in 2005 — the direct consequence was to have less land and less peace.  With Hamas governing Gaza, suicide bombings, rocket attacks and terrorist strikes against Israeli civilian targets increased markedly, Hamas’ charter (Article 7) advocates the killing of all Jews (not just Israelis, mind you) by Muslims and it has never accepted Israel’s right to exist, stressing its commitment to “obliterating” Israel (preamble to Hamas charter).  Hamas is no friend of America, either.  FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose tenure Obama wishes to extend another two years, cited in testimony before the U.S. Senate that “there is a … threat of a coordinated terrorist attack in the U.S. from Palestinian terrorist organizations, such as Hamas.” According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Hamas and another terrorist organization, Hezbollah, have joined with Iran in fomenting “subversive activity” in Latin America. 

So, if the president is bound and determined to set preconditions for negotiations between Israel and the newly united Fatah-Hamas Palestinian Authority, why did he not insist — in firm, clear language — that Hamas first renounce terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and affirm the previous agreements between the PA and Israel?  Why does the first olive branch always have to come from Israel, and how can it when the party across the table is aiming a gun at its heart?  Although the president took a tougher stance on Hamas in his speech to AIPAC — clearly appealing for the Jewish vote — why didn’t he do so during his national address, when the entire Arab world was listening?  Modified messages for different audiences brings to mind imagery of Yasser Arafat’s pro-peace remarks in English for Western audiences and his pro-violence oratory in Arabic for Muslims.

In his Mideast policy address, Obama also referenced two “wrenching and emotional issues” that remain: “the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.”  But his avowed two-state solution with “Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people” is illusory if you give any credence whatsoever to a so-called Palestinian “right of return.” The Jewish state ceases to exist if Palestinian refugees are allowed to return to their former homes in Israel. Hamas knows this, Fatah knows this, and the president knows this. Hamas has never agreed to the permanent (as opposed to “transitional”), peaceful, side-by-side coexistence of a Palestinian state with a Jewish state — not when Hamas chieftain Khaled Meshaal met with ex-President Jimmy Carter in 2008 and not now.  In the words of another Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan, “Israel is an impossibility.  It is an offense against God.”

If he was going to mention refugees, why didn’t the president raise the issue of the 3,000-year-old Jewish communities in Arab lands that were ethnically cleansed between 1948 and the early 1970s?  Commencing with Arab League retaliation for the declaration of the State of Israel by the United Nations, 1 million Jews were forcibly removed from their homes and personal property, forfeiting 62,000 square miles of land (nearly five times Israel’s 12,600 square miles) and assets worth approximately $300 billion.  What of their “right of return”?  No one believes Jews will ever be allowed to once again peacefully coexist in Muslim lands where they lived for centuries, so why should Israelis think they can survive in a Muslim-majority Israel?

Instead of bringing the parties closer to the bargaining table, Obama has pushed them farther apart.  President Bush gave voice to what has been understood by every American president since Johnson when he observed in 2004 that “an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.” By reintroducing the Palestinian refugee issue, Obama has further emboldened Fatah and Hamas, leading them to take yet another negotiating position that is a nonstarter for Israel.  After all, you can’t expect Palestinians to take a less pro-Palestinian stance than the president of the United States …

Hamas is no more America’s friend than is al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. Israel may be Hamas’ immediate target, but Jews everywhere and all of Western culture — those who “have closed [their] ears to the Messenger of Allah” (Rayyan) — is in their crosshairs. The president had a golden opportunity to send a strong, unequivocal message that there is no place for a defiant Hamas to be a part of the Middle East peace process, and he didn’t take it, a fact that is troubling for any number of reasons, not the least of which is why the president used a speech that was billed to be a major policy pronouncement on the Arab spring to instead put Israel once again on the chopping block.

The Arab spring movement is not about Arabs rebelling against Israelis; it’s about the Arab street rebelling against repressive Arab rulers in Iran (June 2009), Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria.  So why divert attention away to once again scapegoat the Jews?  Osama bin Laden did it when, post-9/11, he adopted the mantle and “justification” of Palestinian freedom fighter. Bashar al-Assad did it when he orchestrated having Palestinian refugees storm the Syrian border with Israel on May 15, the day after the anniversary of Israel’s independence.

When Obama remarked in April 2010 that the Middle East conflict ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure,” he drew an explicit link between Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.  This is not the first time the president has expressed this distorted view that blames Israel for the threat of Islamic terrorism facing Western countries.  In October 2007, he asserted that “our neglect of the Middle East peace process has spurred despair and fueled terrorism.” This outrageous blood libel accepts the narrative of al-Qaeda and speaks volumes about this president’s beliefs and thought processes. Perhaps the virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Israel preachings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who was Obama’s pastor for nearly 20 years, officiated at his wedding, baptized his children, gave him the title of his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and served as his “sounding board” and spiritual mentor, have had more of an influence on Obama’s world view than people realize.

If the president is endeavoring to curry favor in the Muslim world by pressuring Israel back to the bargaining table with (i) a seemingly irreconcilable partner, (ii) a new, “zero-sum” game tied to 1967 borders with “swaps” that means Israel has to give up some of its own pre-1967 territory to get West Bank settlements, (iii) a contiguous Palestinian state that borders Israel, Jordan and Egypt that could connect Palestine while dividing Israel and does nothing to ensure Israel’s security, (iv) a potential “right to return” for Palestinian refugees — despite their now getting their own sovereign country, and (v) a divided Jerusalem, then the Obama administration has for the second time in three years doomed peace talks before they can even start.  Is it any wonder Netanyahu is steaming and this president has the lowest approval rating among Israelis of any sitting American president?  Now, if only American Jews would wake up … 

Lloyd Greif, the son of Holocaust survivors, is president and CEO of Greif & Co., a member of the board of directors of the California Chamber of Commerce and benefactor of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Southern California.

Netanyahu to Knesset: Israel is ready for ‘true peace’

Israel is willing to have “true peace” with the Palestinians, but the current Palestinian government is not a true partner for peace, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset.

Israel also would be willing to make compromises including ceding land to the Palestinians for peace, Netanyahu told the Knesset Monday at the opening of its summer session and a day after Palestinian demonstrations marking Nakba Day, the anniversary of the day that Israel achieved statehood, turned violent and deadly.

“This is not a conflict about 1967 but about 1948, when the State of Israel was established,” Netanyahu said, suggesting that it is not just the occupied territories that are at the root of the problem with the Palestinians.

“We cannot bury our heads in the sand,” he said. “We must look at this reality with open eyes. We must call this child by its name—the reason there is no peace is because the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as the national state of the Jewish people.”

Netanyahu, who will meet next week with President Obama and address both houses of Congress, laid out a basic policy statement that will likely follow him to Washington.

In addition to requiring the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu made a commitment to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; called for Palestinian refugees to be absorbed outside of the Jewish state; agreed to a demilitarized Palestinian state that does not threaten Israel’s security; called for keeping large West Bank settlements as part of Israel and for Jerusalem to be the “undivided capital” of Israel.

Netanyahu called on the Israeli opposition to join in a unity government “while our very existence is being challenged.”

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni rejected the unity call, telling Netanyahu that “unity to keep you in your seat after the damage you have inflicted on the State of Israel is not worthy of unity.”

Livni said that Netanyahu would go down in history as the prime minister who allowed the formation of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state.

The session, which also marked the anniversary of the birth of Theodor Herzl, was interrupted several times by heckling from lawmakers.

US: Assad no longer potential peace partner for Israel

Syrian President Bashar Assad is not a partner for a peace deal with Israel, a U.S. State Department official said.

Jake Sullivan, director of Policy Planning for the department, said during a special State Department briefing Tuesday in answer to a reporter’s question that it is difficult to consider pursuing diplomatic initiatives with Assad when he is attacking anti-government demonstrators in his own country.

Since the early days of the Obama administration, the United States had been urging Israel to seek a comprehensive peace with its neighbors, including Syria and Lebanon.

“On the peace process side, it is, of course, the case that over the course of the past two years, there have been a number of challenges that have arisen and obstacles that have arisen with respect to Israeli-Palestinian peace and with respect to peace on other tracks as well,” Sullivan said. “And the current situation in Syria is one that – certainly, it is hard for us to see – it’s hard for us to stand by and see Assad and his government engaged in this kind of campaign against their own people and to then think easily about how to pursue the other diplomatic initiatives with him.”

Sullivan said the administration still had not decided whether or not and in what way to impose targeted sanctions on Syria.

At least 120 anti-government protesters were reported killed over the weekend, and 400 since the start of grassroots protests against the Syrian regime in mid-March. Hundreds have also been arrested, according to reports.

News outlets reported Wednesday that the Syrian army deployed dozens of tanks around the coastal city of Banias and Douma, a suburb of Damascus, where demonstrations have been large and vocal.

Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the Syrian army’s violence against the protestors and called for an independent investigation into the violence.

The U.N. Security Council was scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the violence and draft a statement condemning the crackdown on anti-government protestors.

UN urges bold steps to relaunch Mideast peace talks

The United Nations called on Thursday for “bold and decisive steps” to relaunch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as the region awaits a possible new initiative by U.S. President Barack Obama.

UN political chief Lynn Pascoe and ambassadors of key Security Council countries said it was important to break the deadlock soon as a proclaimed September deadline for reaching an agreement draws closer.

Peace talks opened last September with the aim of an accord in one year but quickly broke down after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a partial freeze on Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.


Prominent Israelis to unveil peace initiative

A group of leading Israelis, including former heads of the country’s secret services and the military, will put forth a peace initiative, The New York Times reported.

The authors of the two-page Israeli Peace Initiative hope the document, which they are calling a direct response to the Arab Peace Initiative offered by the Arab League in 2002 and revived in 2007, will generate popular support in Israel and influence the Israeli government, according to the Times.

The group includes scholars, businesspeople, and the son and daughter of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The initiative is set to be unveiled Wednesday, though a copy reportedly was sent Sunday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It reportedly calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in most of eastern Jerusalem, an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and a set of regional security mechanisms and economic cooperation projects, according to the Times.

Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem would be in Israel and Arab neighborhoods in the Palestinian state. The Western Wall and Jewish Quarter would go to Israel and the Temple Mount would be under no sovereignty. The plan suggests that Palestinian refugees be returned to the Palestinian state with financial compensation, with a symbolic number repatriated to Israel.

The statement recognizes “the suffering of the Palestinian refugees since the 1948 war, as well as of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries” and says, as does the Arab Peace Initiative, “that a military solution to the conflict will not achieve peace or provide security for the parties.”

Egypt’s foreign minister talks tough on Israel

Egypt’s new foreign minister said the days of Israel getting cheap gas and strategic benefits are over.

In an interview Sunday on Egyptian television, Nabil al-Arabi said Egypt will demand that Israel pay the difference between the reduced prices it received and market value on the natural gas it purchased under deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. 

It was the first time an Egyptian official has spoken of a retroactive payment. The new oil minister has called for the price to be renegotiated on future purchases, according to Ynet.

Reports have circulated that the Egyptian government exports natural gas to Israel at prices lower than the cost of production.

Arabi also threatened to review and amend security arrangements agreed to in the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, but he stressed that the two countries would have to agree on any changes.

”We will stick to all of the treaties we signed, and we will demand that they keep their side of the deal,” he said, before adding that “We will not be a ‘strategic treasure’ for Israel as they used to say during the time of Mubarak. We will only abide by the treaties.”

Arabi also said that although the Sinai Peninsula is required to be demilitarized according to the treaty, Egypt keeps a military presence there.

The foreign minister stressed that the Egyptian government continues to play an important role in the Middle East peace process and said that “the Palestinians want peace, but Israel has not yet met their demands.”

”There must be some decisiveness in the issues Israel has not abided by, such as the clause that states that Israel must maintain peace with countries that want peace, which has not happened with Palestine, which has agreed to peace with Israel,” he said. ”The conflict between Palestine and Israel should be ended and not managed … for the benefit of Israel, Palestine and the entire world.”

Egyptian media reported over the weekend that Arabi also said that he would work to renew diplomatic ties with Iran since he did not consider it an enemy state.

Palestinians to renew unity talks

Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah will renew unity talks.

The talks will be held in Cairo next month, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, said he was planning to visit Gaza to talk with Hamas leaders. But the trip, which Hamas had asked Abbas to postpone, will not take place until after next month’s talks, according to the report. The talks will also focus on elections for a new Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza.

The announcement of the Cairo talks comes after Abbas aide Azzam Ahmed told the Associated Press that Fatah would give up U.S. aid in order to reconcile with Hamas.

“Of course we need the American money. But if they use it as a way of pressuring us, we are ready to relinquish that aid,” said Ahmed.

The U.S., which gives the Palestinians more than $470 million a year in direct financial assistance, withheld that aid when Hamas was part of a Palestinian government.

Hamas left the government in 2007 and seized power in Gaza.

Netanyahu to Abbas: You can’t have peace with both Israel and Hamas

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Monday that reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas could spell the end of the peace process, after an aide to Mahmoud Abbas said that the Palestinian president was would be willing to give up U.S. aid if needed to secure unity with the rival faction.

“You can’t have peace with both Israel and Hamas,” Netanyahu said. “Choose peace with Israel.”

Abbas is making a heavy push for reconciliation with Hamas, and a senior adviser said Monday that he was prepared to give up hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid if that was what it takes to forge a Palestinian unity deal.


Clinton: Egypt will keep the peace with Israel

Egypt’s foreign policy will change, but it has an interest in sustaining its peace accords with Israel, Hillary Rodham Clinton said. 

“I think there will be different decisions” on foreign policy, the U.S. secretary of state told NPR on Wednesday after she toured Egypt. It was Clinton’s first visit there since the revolution that ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, who had maintained the Camp David accords with Israel.

“But I think that there is such an interest in keeping the peace in the region,” she continued. “Egypt has got a lot on its plate. It’s going to have to politically reform, economically reform. It’s got a big agenda ahead of it. I think the last thing it wants is to see any kind of problem between itself and its neighbors.”

Clinton said she expected Egypt to maintain controls keeping terrorists and guns from entering the Gaza Strip.

“I think there’s also an argument that Egypt’s got security interests in not permitting the import and export of arms and possible ingress and egress of terrorists,” she said. “So it’s not only what Egypt will or won’t do with respect to Israel, it’s what Egypt will decide is in its interest to do. And that will be up to the Egyptian government to determine.”

Ross: More time needed for bridging peace proposals

More time is needed to bridge gaps between Israelis and Palestinians before direct peace talks can resume, Dennis Ross said.

In a speech Monday to the J Street conference in Washington, the senior White House adviser on Middle East peace issues said the current process of the United States working with both sides on bridging proposals needs more time.

“That process hasn’t played out yet,” Ross said. “We’ll make a judgment on where the process is, where the two sides are and what we think the most appropriate steps are on where we’ll have the most impact.

Though he called the status quo “unsustainable,” Ross also rejected unilateral moves, including the current Palestinian effort to gain international recognition for statehood.

“Unilateral moves aren’t going to produce agreements unless unilateral moves are basically negotiated behind the scenes,” he said. “For peace to succeed, the parties have to own it and defend it. They’re not going to defend it unless they own it.”

Referring to the unrest in the Arab world, Ross said the Obama administration had been talking to Arab leaders about the need for reform from its earliest days in office.

“That is not a conversation that began on Jan. 25,” he said, referring to the date of the first major demonstration in Egypt. “We stressed repeatedly that Egyptians needed to open their political system.

“We support principles, processes and institution building, and not personalities. We have been looking at these issues of reform and how to carry them out in the region for some period of time.”

Ross praised the Egyptian military for its handling of the protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and said now is not the time to cut aid to Egypt, but to use aid to help Egypt in its time of political transition.

Some 2,000 people came to this week’s J Street conference, which will culminate in a lobbying day Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

How Israel can help Egypt

After Egypt’s wondrous revolution the Middle East will never be the same again. Egypt is so large and so consequential that such profound political change there is bound to impact everything, including the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.  Is it a threat to peacemaking or an opportunity?

The idea that Israel and the Palestinians have, at long last, been given an ideal opportunity to come to a peaceful resolution of their long-standing differences might sound outlandish to some and heretical to those who think that Israel should now hunker down and prepare itself for armed conflict or use the Egyptian crisis, to gain more time to do nothing!

Despite the fact that the peaceful revolution has succeeded, Egypt will have many problems on the way to democracy.  The first is its economy, which was already struggling before the protests brought it to a temporary halt.  The interim government and its freely elected successor will have to provide major incentives to business to invest in equipment and create the job opportunities that the people are demanding.  Those who massed in Tahrir Square and elsewhere throughout the country no doubt will lack patience. Those who have graduated from college and promised jobs by the former government must have access to them. Not menial jobs, but the serious jobs that the educated youth expect in a sophisticated society.

As Egypt’s neighbor, Israel can help.  Israel’s technological brilliance, her breakthroughs in so many fields, from irrigation to nano technology, can be of huge advantage to a new democratic Egypt that is in search of 21st century jobs for its young people. The Palestinians are benefitting from an important increase in their standard of living, at least on the West Bank. That could be a helpful signal for both Jordanians and Egyptians that with the proper infrastructure economic advances certainly are possible.

But first, Israelis and Palestinians must end their conflict by establishing clear and recognized borders between two states living in peace. So long as they prey on each other, their ability to relate positively to the events around them will be hampered. In fact, from Israel’s standpoint, the status quo will have a profound negative influence. Israel is no longer considered the David, surrounded by the Arab Goliath, nor has it been since 1982. Israel is now viewed in the Arab world and beyond as Goliath, protected by the United States. It is seen as an occupier denying freedom to the Palestinians as surely as Hosni Mubarak denied freedom to the Egyptian people.  As long as it fails to end the occupation, Israel will be seen to be on the wrong side of history. 

That is a shame, for Israel as the first democracy in the Middle East could do so much to help Arab democracy emerge from the ice age imposed by its autocratic leaders.  Imagine a reformed, democratic Egypt; a peaceful, democratic Palestine; a Jordanian constitutional monarchy; and a democratic Israel, no longer considered a pariah by its neighbours, no longer an occupying nation, no longer the “imperialist” country of the Middle East. Imagine how cooperation between these democracies could lead and benefit the rest of the region, politically and economically.

When Shimon Peres dreamed of a “new Middle East” two decades ago, the region was not yet ready for his vision.  But today the Internet and new Social Media have made the 21st century revolution possible in Egypt. These cheap and efficient means of connecting people defy physical borders as much as they defy governmental controls.  Imagine if Israel’s tech-savvy youth connected with their Egyptian, Palestinian, and Jordanian counterparts and rose up in unison to demand that their elders put an end to their 20th Century conflicts.  Would Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas then respond by creating their own peaceful revolution?

Let the Egyptian people’s example guide them in breaking the bonds of fear and mistrust.  Let them now garner the courage to go forward and let peace no longer elude them.

Charles Bronfman is former co-chairman of the Seagram Company and the founder of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. A version of this column originally appeared in the Hebrew edition of Yediot Aharanot, Israel’s largest paper.  Reprinted with permission.

Netanyahu: Israel must prepare for any Egypt outcome

Israel must be prepared for any outcome in Egypt, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset, “by reinforcing the might of the State of Israel.”

While an Egypt that fully embraces democracy and democratic reform would be a welcome neighbor, Netanyahu said Wednesday, it is also possible that Egypt could come under the rule of parties that are answerable to Iran.

“They want Egypt to become another Gaza, run by radical forces that oppose everything that the democratic world stands for,” Netanyahu warned. “Our stand is clear.  We support the forces that promote freedom, progress and peace. We oppose the forces that seek to enforce a dark despotism, terrorism and war.”

Netanyahu said he believed that if forces of democracy and reform prevail in Egypt then it could buttress a wider Arab-Israeli peace, and maintain the 30-year peace Israel has had with Egypt.

“We expect any government of Egypt to honor the peace.  Moreover, we expect the international community to expect any government of Egypt to honor the peace.  This must be clear, along with the discussions about reform and democracy,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu announced that he would “take additional steps to further encourage development and prosperity among the Palestinians” in the coming days, and called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “to sit down with us and discuss peace without preconditions, negotiations that take into account changes that will affect Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

Meanwhile, a Hezbollah terrorist, Sami Chehab, jailed for smuggling weapons through Egypt to Gaza and who planned terror attacks against Israelis in Sinai, reportedly escaped from an Egyptian prison during the unrest and left the country, it was reported Thursday.

Also on Thursday, opposition activist Mohamaed Elbaradei and the opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood said they would not enter into talks with the current government, saying that President Hosni Mubarak must step down first, Reuters reported.

A Belgian Jewish journalist based in Israel, who covers the Middle East for the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, the Swiss Le Temps and the French regional paper La Voix du Nord, was arrested Wednesday by Egyptian police after he was attacked while covering the anti-government protests. He was accused by pro-Mubarak supporters of supporting Elbaradei.

At least five people were killed and more than 800 wounded overnight in clashes between pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak supporters in Tahrir Square in central Cairo.

On Wednesday night, automatic weapons fire was heard in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo after anti- and pro-Egyptian government protesters were ordered to leave the area. Tanks were seen moving into the area.

Violence had escalated during the day with Molotov cocktails burning surrounding buildings and pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators attacking each other with metal rods. Egyptian police used water cannons to disperse the crowds and put out fires.

Earlier in the day, the demonstrators in the square threw rocks at each other and tore down protest banners. The army used tear gas to control the crowds, according to reports.

Transcript of David Grossman’s speech at the Rabin memorial

… I am speaking here tonight as a person whose love for the land is overwhelming and complex, and yet it is unequivocal, and as one whose continuous covenant with the land has turned his personal calamity into a covenant of blood.

I am totally secular, and yet in my eyes the establishment and the very existence of the State of Israel is a miracle of sorts that happened to us as a nation — a political, national, human miracle.I do not forget this for a single moment. Even when many things in the reality of our lives enrage and depress me, even when the miracle is broken down to routine and wretchedness, to corruption and cynicism, even when reality seems like nothing but a poor parody of this miracle, I always remember. And with these feelings, I address you tonight.

‘ Behold land, for we hath squandered,’ wrote the poet Saul Tchernikovsky in Tel Aviv in 1938. He lamented the burial of our young again and again in the soil of the Land of Israel. The death of young people is a horrible, ghastly waste.

But no less dreadful is the sense that for many years, the State of Israel has been squandering not only the lives of its sons but also its miracle: That grand and rare opportunity that history bestowed upon it, the opportunity to establish here a state that is efficient, democratic, which abides by Jewish and universal values; a state that would be a national home and haven, but not only a haven, also a place that would offer a new meaning to Jewish existence; a state that holds as an integral and essential part of its Jewish identity and its Jewish ethos, the observance of full equality and respect for its non-Jewish citizens.

… And I ask you: How could it be that a people with such powers of creativity, renewal and vivacity as ours, a people that knew how to rise from the ashes time and again, finds itself today, despite its great military might, at such a state of laxity and inanity, a state where it is the victim once more, but this time its own victim, of its anxieties, its shortsightedness.

… Mr. Prime Minister, I am not saying these words out of feelings of rage or revenge. I have waited long enough to avoid responding on impulse. You will not be able to dismiss my words tonight by saying a grieving man cannot be judged. Certainly I am grieving, but I am more pained than angry. This country and what you and your friends are doing to it pains me.

… The calamity that struck my family and myself with the falling of our son, Uri, does not grant me any additional rights in the public discourse, but I believe that the experience of facing death and the loss brings with it a sobriety and lucidity, at least regarding the distinction between the important and the unimportant, between the attainable and the unattainable.

Any reasonable person in Israel, and I will say in Palestine, too, knows exactly the outline of a possible solution to the conflict between the two peoples. Any reasonable person here and over there knows deep in their heart the difference between dreams and the heart’s desire, between what is possible and what is not possible by the conclusion of negotiations. Anyone who does not know, who refuses to acknowledge this, is already not a partner, be he Jew or Arab, is entrapped in his hermetic fanaticism, and is therefore not a partner.

Let us take a look at those who are meant to be our partners. The Palestinians have elected Hamas to lead them, Hamas who refuses to negotiate with us, refuses even to recognize us. What can be done in such a position? Keep strangling them more and more, keep mowing down hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza, most of whom are innocent civilians like us? Kill them and get killed for all eternity?

Turn to the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert, address them over the heads of Hamas, appeal to their moderates, those who like you and I oppose Hamas and its ways, turn to the Palestinian people, speak to their deep grief and wounds, acknowledge their ongoing suffering.

Nothing would be taken away from you or Israel’s standing in future negotiations. Our hearts will only open up to one another slightly, and this has a tremendous power, the power of a force majeur. The power of simple human compassion, particularly in this a state of deadlock and dread. Just once, look at them not through the sights of a gun, and not behind a closed roadblock. You will see there a people that is tortured no less than us. An oppressed, occupied people bereft of hope.

Certainly, the Palestinians are also to blame for the impasse, certainly they played their role in the failure of the peace process. But take a look at them from a different perspective, not only at the radicals in their midst, not only at those who share interests with our own radicals. Take a look at the overwhelming majority of this miserable people, whose fate is entangled with our own, whether we like it or not.

Go to the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert, do not search all the time for reasons for not to talk to them. You backed down on the unilateral convergence, and that’s a good thing, but do not leave a vacuum. It will be occupied instantly with violence, destruction. Talk to them, make them an offer their moderates can accept. They argue far more than we are shown in the media. Make them an offer so that they are forced to choose whether they accept it, or whether they prefer to remain hostage to fanatical Islam.

Approach them with the bravest and most serious plan Israel can offer. With the offer than any reasonable Palestinian and Israeli knows is the boundary of their refusal and our concession. There is no time. Should you delay, in a short while we will look back with longing at the amateur Palestinian terror. We will hit our heads and yell at our failure to exercise all of our mental flexibility, all of the Israeli ingenuity to uproot our enemies from their self-entrapment. We have no choice and they have no choice. And a peace of no choice should be approached with the same determination and creativity as one approaches a war of no choice. And those who believe we do have a choice, or that time is on our side do not comprehend the deeply dangerous processes already in motion.

Israeli author Grossman exhorts Olmert to follow Rabin’s example

He has long been known abroad as an Israeli novelist. But this weekend, David Grossman put fiction aside to become the voice of an Israel that is bruised, confused and yearning to see the horizon beyond the perennial war clouds.

Grossman delivered the central address at Saturday night’s rally in memory of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking for a half-hour to a rapt crowd estimated at 100,000 people.

He brought with him not just an intellectual’s gravitas but the sorrow of a bereaved parent: Grossman lost a son, Uri, in the final offensive of the summer war against Hezbollah, a war Grossman had urged the Olmert government to cut short.

But Grossman eschewed self-pity and called on Israelis to be mindful of a national dream of a Zionism bringing peace and progress and that seems, to many, to be slipping away.

“One of the most disturbing feelings exacerbated by the recent war was the feeling that in these days, there is no king in Israel, that our leadership — our political and military leadership — is vapid,” he said.

“When was the last time that the prime minister advocated or implemented measures with the capacity for opening up a new horizon for Israelis, or a better future? When did he initiate a social, cultural project, inspired by a value, instead of just reacting frenetically to moves imposed on him by others?”

Speaking at the site of Rabin’s assassination in 1995 by a far-right zealot opposed to his intended rapprochement with the Palestinians, Grossman painted a portrait of the late prime minister as a man who reluctantly engaged a historical enemy of Israel because he felt there was no alternative. Others, however, believe Rabin made a catastrophic mistake by empowering and even arming a Palestinian national movement that never took its peace commitments seriously and remained committed to Israel’s destruction.

Like Rabin, Grossman said, current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should make a peace offer to the Palestinians, bypassing their hard-line Hamas government. Israel also should not be deaf to diplomatic overtures from Syria, Grossman argued.

The remarks came as Israel waged a major military operation in the northern Gaza Strip aimed at stopping cross-border rocket fire by Palestinian terrorists. At least 40 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have died.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar warned that the offensive could put the life of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza, at risk. But Olmert was unfazed.

“We have informed the world that we do not intend to countenance continued Qassam rocket barrages against Sderot and other surrounding Israeli communities,” Olmert said at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting. “We will take the necessary measures to significantly diminish them and prevent terrorist operations. Thus we have said, thus we are doing and thus we will continue to do.”

Critics have accused Olmert of trying to look tough in Gaza to make up for the failings of the 34-day war in Lebanon, which was launched after Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross- border raid. The war ended without achieving the soldiers’ return.

“Israel flexed an enormous military muscle, but what was revealed behind it was its fragility and the limitations of its capability,” Grossman said. “Simple human compassion has the power of a natural element, particularly in a situation of deadlock and hostility.”

Grossman’s rebuke hit its mark with at least one member of the Olmert government — Labor Minister without-Portfolio Eitan Cabel, who was attending the rally alongside Vice Premier Shimon Peres and other political notables.

“I haven’t heard a speech like that in years, and it is important to listen to it because it expresses the feelings of large sectors of our nation. Even though he spoke harshly, we mustn’t dismiss him and we mustn’t ignore him,” Cabel told Ma’ariv.

With his popularity waning, Olmert has surprised friend and foe alike by bringing Avigdor Lieberman into his government. Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party advocates annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank while ceding Israeli Arab communities to the jurisdiction of a future Palestinian state in what Lieberman describes as partition along ethnic lines.

His appointment prompted the resignation of a Labor Party minister, Ofir Pines-Paz. At the Rabin rally, Grossman described it as “the appointment of that recidivist pyromaniac to manage the fire-fighting service of the state.”

Lieberman was quick to rebuff the remarks. In an interview with Israel’s Army Radio on Sunday, he wrote off the rally.

“Instead of seeing an event of national reconciliation, we received obvious left-wing political fulmination,” he said.

Olmert had no immediate comment on Grossman’s critique. But a Rabin memorial speech given separately by the prime minister suggests he should not be discounted as a potential peacemaker. Speaking at the Knesset, Olmert urged Palestinians to abandon their hostility toward Israel before it’s too late.

“We want to find a solution to the ongoing conflict between us,” Olmert said. “For 44 years you have been trying to ignore reality. Look how bad your situation is. Think for a moment where you find yourselves. If you continue with terror and hate, and if you continue to press the trigger, it will be a pity, a pity. Bad and bitter will be your fate. Consider your moves very carefully.”