March 20, 2019

Israel’s Election Handbook: Kahol Lavan weakens

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Public Domain)

We call this format a Timesaver Guide to Israel’s Coming Elections. This will be a usual feature on Rosner’s Domain until April 9. We hope to make it short, factual, devoid of election hype, and of he-said-she-said no news, unimportant inside baseball gossip.

 

Bottom Line

For now, it seems like a draw.

 

Main News

In the polls, Kahol Lavan declines.

The Supreme Court will convene to discuss which parties are eligible to run for the Knesset.

The central elections committee disqualified Arab Party Balad.

The committee rejected the Attorney General’s position and did not disqualify Michael Ben Ari from the far-right party Otzma Yehudit.

In recent polls, the Zehut party of religious-rightist-libertarian Moshe Feiglin crosses the electoral threshold.

 

Developments to Watch

Material: The tension around Gaza is growing. An eruption of violence could impact the last weeks of the campaign.

Political: The loyalty of Kahol Lavan voters is weak. It remains to be seen if more of them abandon the party. If the party does not get significantly more votes than Likud, it might not get a chance to form a coalition.

Political: At least two parties on the right – Kulanu and Zehut – are not committed to support Netanyahu as the next Prime Minister.

Personal: Among the veteran leaders that Israel lost in this election cycle, Avigdor Lieberman could be next. In most recent polls his party does not cross the electoral threshold.

 

The Blocs and Their Meaning

Here is a graph that includes all the parties who (on average) cross the electoral threshold in recent polls. In this graph we compare the averages of these parties for two periods. One – from March 1st. Two – last 3 polls. What do we see in these polls? That Kahol Lavan is losing seats. Some of their voters move back to supporting Labor. We also see that Likud lost some voters following the decision to indict PM Netanyahu. Zehut might be the beneficiary of that. In two of the last three polls Zehut got 4 seats (in the third polls it was pretty close to getting 4). Zehut, along with Kulanu, Meretz and Shas are close to the electoral threshold, and hence their fate is still in doubt.

 

 

What about the next coalition? It is complicated. In the second graph you can see the average of the Netanyahu base coalition. That is, all the parties that were part of the 2015 Netanyahu coalition. It is close to having a majority, but not quite there yet.

 

 

Now consider the last graph. What you see here (based on the last three polls) is what happens if we count Kulanu and Zehut in or out. Kulanu was part of the Netanyahu coalition but is not committed to continue with it. Zehut was not part of the coalition, but is considered by many to be a natural member of a right-religious coalition. What is clear from this graph is simple: in a base coalition, every member is king because without him there is no coalition. This means that the price Netanyahu will have to pay as he forms his coalition is going to be high. That is, unless there is another option – the option of unity with Kahol Lavan.

 

 

 

 

Counting to Election Day: The Cruelest Battle

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett attending the annual Bible Quiz in Jerusalem, on May 12, 2016. Photo by Shlomi Cohen/Flash90

Is Israel going to New Elections?

Yesterday two events made early elections – possibly in May – much more likely. Event one: the police recommended to indict PM Netanyahu on bribery charges. Event two: The Supreme Court gave the government until mid-January to pass a military draft law (for which there is not majority support among current coalition members).

To make this possibility easier to asses we’re republishing the table of recent polls –with the most recent updates – and explaining the chances for success and failure of the parties. Follow the comments, look at the table.

 

 

1.

It’s early. We don’t yet know who is running and how. The most important decision will be made by former IDF Chief of Staff Benni Gantz. This table shows that he can get from 15 to 20 seats as a head of a standalone party, or close to 25 as the head of the Zionist Camp. With more seats he can dream about becoming the PM – with an independent party he can join all coalitions and get a significant portfolio (most likely, Defense). Looking at the current table, going alone makes more sense, as Netanyahu seems likely to have a majority for a coalition similar to the one he had until a few weeks ago.

2.

If Gantz runs alone, the Zionist Camp is in huge trouble. It will become insignificant even as an opposition party.

3.

Netanyahu can have a small yet coherent coalition without Gantz or Lapid. Or he can take one of them and have a very large coalition. Or he can take both and have a gigantic coalition (our table’s “centrist coalition” option includes Lapid but not Gantz). Such a coalition could get more than 80 seats in the Knesset. The question of course is whether it can also be functional.

Remember that Netanyahu did well this term with a small and coherent coalition.

4.

It’s important to remember that parties with 4-5 projected seats might not pass the electoral threshold. If, for example, Shas fails to get 4 seats (as some polls might predict, despite their average being close to 6 seats), coalition calculations become more complicated.

5.

Note that about 20 seats are going to new, unknown, barely established, never tried before parties (Levy Abekasis and Gantz). Clearly, Israelis are looking for something that doesn’t currently exist in their political universe (maybe: a way to beat Netanyahu).

6.

These polls were all taken before the police recommendation. Don’t be so sure that the recommendation will hurt Netanyahu. In fact, it could strengthen him. Especially so if rightwing voters feel that he needs their votes to win.

7.

Going to new elections over the draft bill can also be tricky. All in all, Haredis are not well liked by most Israelis, nor is IDF draft deferment. If the opposition gets a chance to convince the public that this is the most important issue on the agenda, the public might give it more votes. Surely, Netanyahu is going to argue that security is the important item, and that no one else has the needed experience to keep Israel safe.

8.

This isn’t necessarily a race for PM. Unless something dramatic changes, Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister. I’d think about it as the race to be Defense Minister. Lieberman wants the position back – and will get it back only if he has enough seats. Bennet wants it badly, and with enough seats for the Jewish Home he can make it a condition. But there is also Gantz. If he gets many votes, Netanyahu can use him either to tame Lieberman’s/Bennet’s ambitions – or as Defense Minister in a coalition that begins with 45-50 seats (Likud + Gantz).

In other words: there is good chance that the race for Defense Minister will be much fiercer, crueler, bloodier and more interesting than the race for PM.

Defense Minister Out: Israel on Road to New Election Over Gaza

Updated: If you already read this, jump to the last comment – more information following the first post-resignation polls.

Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned from his post. His reason, or excuse: “we buy short term quiet but in the long term we hurt Israel’s security.” The ceasefire in Gaza is his reason. His marginalization as Defense Minister – Netanyahu calling the shots – is his reason. Is Israel going to new election? That’s almost a certainty. Without Lieberman, the coalition is becoming smaller – too small to pass legislation or have a coherent policy. Without Lieberman, all other partners have to play tough so as not to be seen as weaker than Lieberman on security and terrorism.

Here are a few comments on the resignation and the coming election.

 

1.

 

Going to a new election over Gaza is not necessarily a bad idea. Political calculations aside – the positioning of parties, the amalgamation of camps – there is a debate worth having on the policy towards Gaza. By choosing to accept a cease fire and let Israel suffer an image setback Netanyahu made his position clear. By resigning from his coveted position Lieberman made his opposite position clear. Now the people will have a choice. Which of our leaders do they trust? Which of the two positions (restrain, attack) do they favor? In a few months, not many, we will get the answer.

 

2.

 

Lieberman made a solid political calculation. As Defense Minister, he is criticized for any inaction, and does not get the credit for restraint (this goes to Netanyahu). His resignation turns him into a hero of those wanting to see a bolder, tougher, less compromising Israel. Israelis who believe that accepting a ceasefire was a show of indecisive weakness might give him their votes. His main rival will be Naftali Bennet of The Jewish Home – another contender for a tougher Israel.

 

3.

 

This makes Netanyahu the centrist, adult candidate. Yes – the centrist.

 

4.

 

All polls still predict a right-religious victory in the next election, that is, the same coalition or a similar coalition for yet another term. But there are complications:

 

The ultra-Orthodox camp is in disarray, as Jerusalem’s elections demonstrated yesterday (there was a divide in the Haredi vote in Jerusalem).

 

We do not yet know if the investigation against Netanyahu will produce more headlines before Election Day.

 

New candidates are going to enter the fray and might change the political landscape.

 

Netanyahu just hurt his own image by his decision not to expand the IDF operation in Gaza.

 

5.

 

Beware of conspiracy theories, although some of them are quite appealing. Such as: This is a Netanyahu-Lieberman coordinated move. Netanyahu wanted an election and needed an excuse to get one. Lieberman needed a cause around which to rally his voters (and to steal some from Bennet).

 

A likely scenario: These two will have to reunite following the next election. A likely scenario: Lieberman will once again become Defense Minister.

 

6.

 

Was he a good Defense Minister? Lieberman was right to argue in his press conference that his term was quiet, that he handled the job with dignity. And yet, with Gaza in the background he has a problem.

 

7.

 

Netanyahu, speaking an hour or so before Lieberman announced his resignation, defended his decision to keep the calm in Gaza. He will get a lot of credit for this position – but not from rightwing voters. Left-wingers will give him credit for Gaza, and vote for someone else. Netanyahu needs to solidify his base amid this decision. If Hamas makes noise again, political calculations will force the PM’s hands.

 

8. Update

 

New elections can always provide surprises, but don’t hold your breath. The polls from the last 24 hours show a somewhat weakened Likud Party and yet a clear advantage for the current coalition over all other possible coalitions. In fact, some of these polls even show the potential for a larger right-of-center coalition that could get as many as 73 seats (the numbers from a Ch. 2 News poll).

 

 

Not Every Illegal Migrant is Anne Frank, and other comments

African migrants protest outside Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

The best way to read my daily comments on the news, is sign up to the Jewish Journal’s new and exciting Daily Roundtable, the best source for fresh takes on the world, the news and the Jews. You can easily subscribe here.

Here are some of my latest takes.

Israel’s deportation debate

In the news:

Israel’s plan to deport African illegal immigrants to a third country ignited a fierce debate among Israelis, including protests, petitions, and the use of harsh language.

My take:

There is an explanation as to how this battle turned into a right and left issue. It is a simple explanation: missing information. Without information, an important argument becomes a routine battle for and against the government.

On the one hand, there are those who claim that the deportation is a death sentence. If this is the case, it is clearly forbidden to deport. On the other hand, there are those who claim that the expulsion is regulated and there is no danger to the lives of the deportees. If this is the case, it is clear that it is possible, and even necessary, to expel.

What would a decent person do? What if this Israeli is willing to pay a price so as not to send people to face a harsh fate do? What can he do if on the other hand he knows that an orderly immigration policy can be cruel, and that Israel cannot absorb anyone who wants to live in it, and that Israel ought not signal that those who enter the country will not be deported. What should he do amid the astonishing habit of fellow citizens, whose hands do not tremble as they compare their own country, as a matter of routine, to Nazi Germany. Every illegal migrant worker – Anne Frank, every administrative step – a holocaust, every bureaucrat – oppressor.

Another Anne Frank comparison

In the news:

An Israeli writer, artist and icon Yonatan Geffen compared a Palestinian attacker to Anne Frank and Hannah Senesh. Defense Minister Lieberman demanded that the army radio stop playing Geffen’s songs. The Attorney General clarified that Lieberman has no authority to make such demand (on the weekend, Geffen apologized for his remarks).

My Take:

Artist Yonatan Geffen is at his best when he steers clear of politics. When he insists on sharing his juvenile political outbursts, it is best to ignore him – not every artist is also a great political thinker. Minister Avigdor Lieberman is at his best when he steers clear of politics. But as a politician, he cannot always avoid his craft, and hence, occasionally does what politicians do: cynically getting into an ugly fight he cannot win, just for pretense.

Juvenile provocateurs should indeed be condemned by the public. Whether they are artists or ministers.=

The meaning of pro-Israel

In the news:

VP Pence in Israel, and polls reveal the growing political divide in supporting Israel among Americans.

My Take:

In the Bush and Obama years it became a habit of smartass pundits to debate the meaning of “pro-Israel”. But this was truly a trick – a way for people to support pushing Israel around while still wearing the pro-Israel mantle (you know the drill: we are only pushing you around to save Israel from itself).

I think it is time to declare this debate dead. The days of I-am-against-Israel-and-therefore-I-am-for-it are over. You want a straight-forward, no complication, no sophistry definition of a pro-Israel position? Read VP Pence’s speech to the Knesset.

Raging Shabbat battles

In the news:

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s attendance of a weekly protest in Ashdod against the Shabbat Bill riled ultra-Orthodox MKs, but his visit was also criticized by Ashdod’s mayor, who defended the protests but decried attempts by politicians to make use of them as part of a political game.

My take:

The sudden eruption of cultural battle, in the city of Ashdod and beyond, is no mystery. A simple examination of the political calendar reveals the source, the motivation, and the expected time of expiration: October 2018, municipal elections.

Parties and candidates are positioning themselves for this battle. The mayor who must get the solid Haredi vote, the opponent hoping for a Russian secular vote, all of them pit Jew against Jew, sector against sector. You must vote for me – or all hell breaks loose, and Shabbat is canceled. You must vote for me – or all rights will be taken away from you, and religious coercion will turn your life into a nightmare.

No and no. Vote for him, or for her, and the battle in all likelihood will be over. Until the next municipal election.

The importance of Pence’s Visit, and other comments

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of his address to the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ariel Schalit/Pool

Pence is Sending an Important Message

In the news: Shortly after arriving in Israel, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the U.S. Embassy would open in Jerusalem before the close of 2019, adding to the general fanfare of his visit.

A comment: Is this an important visit? Many Israelis say no – because they do not expect any diplomatic breakthrough to follow it, and because Pence is in Israel without even having the benefit of meeting with the leaders of the Palestinians.

An opposite view can be proposed: the importance of Pence’s visit stems from the fact that he does not meet with Palestinians. Pence is sending an important message by having this visit: US-Israel relations will no longer be held hostage to a peace process or lack thereof.

Eliminate Slowly, Eliminate with Care

In the news: President Trump followed through with plans to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). The decision has enraged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who denounced Israel and the United States in a speech to the PLO Central Council, and some analysts fear that cutting aid to UNRWA will destabilize the region.

A comment: The choice with UNRWA, as with many Middle East problems, is not one between ideal (elimination) and terrible (keeping the status quo). It is between a known bad situation and the fear of what might happen in case we attempt to change it. UNRWA should be eliminated, but the process must be well managed, to avoid humanitarian crisis, or radicalization of the population.

Thus, Trump is doing the right thing by cutting half the budget. On the one hand, this means that he is serious about the need for radical reform of the current situation. On the other hand, it gives UNRWA and all those concerned with the fate of Palestinian refugees a time to prepare for the ultimate elimination of the unnecessary, harmful, organization.

A Mutually Beneficial Shabbat Fight

In the news: Knesset infighting has reached a boiling point in the wake of Avigdor Lieberman’s show of support for protests in Ashdod against the Shabbat Bill.  Leaders of Ultra-Orthodox Knesset parties, Shas and UTJ, are fed up with Lieberman, and Lieberman is equally fed up with Shas and UTJ in return.

A comment: Who needs another Shabbat war? That’s easy: count the politicians who wage the fight. These are the people who need it. Especially so the two new rivals in chief, formerly best buddies, Shas leader Aryeh Deri and Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman.

Both look at the polls and worry about their futures. Both need to convince a dwindling constituency that they still have something to offer. Of course, one has to be a cynic to suspect that the newly found rivalry was prearranged for mutual benefit. Then again, these are two of the most cynical politicians we have.

Israeli voters force Netanyahu to seek centrist partner

Israel's next government must heed voters and devote itself to bread-and-butter issues, not thorny foreign policy problems such as Iran's nuclear plans and the Palestinian conflict, senior politicians said on Thursday.

Israelis worried about housing, prices and taxes have reshaped parliament, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to woo their centrist champion as his main coalition partner.

Final results from the Jan. 22 national election were due later on Thursday, but were not expected to differ significantly from published projections.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said voters had imposed new constraints on the next government.

“It will be much more balanced, probably limited, cannot do whatever it wants and will have to take into account the growing pressure from within to focus on many internal issues,” he told CNN.

Yair Lapid, the surprise success of Tuesday's ballot, stormed to second place with 19 seats in the 120-member assembly against 31 for Netanyahu's alliance of his Likud party ultra-nationalists led by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Formal coalition talks have yet to begin, but Netanyahu and Lapid held a long meeting on Thursday, a Likud statement said.

“The meeting, which lasted two and a half hours, was conducted in a very good atmosphere. Netanyahu and Lapid discussed the challenges facing the country and ways to grapple with them. They agreed to meet again soon,” the statement said.

Netanyahu has swiftly adopted chunks of Lapid's election platform as his own, keen to seal a deal that would create a solid base of 50 seats before drawing in other partners from the right or centre needed for a stable ruling majority.

Lapid said “colour had returned to the cheeks” of Israelis following the vote, adding that he was happy Netanyahu had now embraced his party's themes of “equal sharing of the burden” and helping the middle class, especially with housing and education.

“Equal sharing” is political code for meeting the complaints of secular tax-payers about the concessions given to the ultra-Orthodox, whose menfolk study in Jewish seminaries, often on state stipends, and who are not drafted into the army.

“EQUAL BURDEN”

Lulled by pre-election opinion polls, Netanyahu may have assumed he could coast back to power at the head of a right-wing coalition enthused by his mission to halt Iran's nuclear drive and eager to settle more Jews in the occupied West Bank.

But his Likud party and Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu lost 11 of the seats they had won at the last election in 2009, punished by voters more preoccupied with problems of daily life.

Lieberman said he and Netanyahu shared with Lapid and Naftali Bennett, leader of a new far-right party, the goals of “equal burden, living costs and affordable housing”.

But Lieberman told Army Radio reaching a similar consensus on foreign policy might prove elusive. “We can start with diplomacy, but that will impair the government's functioning,” he said. “This government must focus on domestic issues.”

In its first reaction to the election, the United States, Israel's chief ally, renewed a call for resuming stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, but huge obstacles remain, even if the next Israeli government gains a more moderate flavour.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO executive committee, said Palestinian leaders were watching for change after a vote that had given Israel a “new and different opportunity”.

He told reporters any renewed talks must be based on creating a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 war lines.

“We are not ready to be part of the process of more political theatre or to give cover for government policy which represents the same policies as the last one, while settlements continue and we experience daily killing and repression.”

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

RAZOR-THIN

Complicating Netanyahu's quest for a workable coalition is the difficulty of reconciling the demands of a dozen factions in parliament, where those on the right hold a razor-thin edge.

Lapid, a former TV anchorman who only founded his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party a year ago, seeks to end exemptions from military service for Israel's 10 percent minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews who also receive generous state benefits.

Those privileges were extracted from successive governments by religious parties such as Shas and the United Torah Party in exchange for their backing. The two parties have a combined total of 18 seats in parliament, and Netanyahu is likely to want to include at least one of them for a broad-based coalition.

He may also turn to the hardline Jewish Home group led by his former protege Bennett, a millionaire software entrepreneur, which won a projected 12 seats. A Likud spokeswoman said Netanyahu called Bennett to congratulate him but did not reveal details of their conversation.

“Jewish Home can certainly be one of the desired partners in the new coalition,” Likud lawmaker Zeev Elkin told Israel Radio.

However, Bennett has denounced the idea of Palestinian statehood and advocates annexing swathes of the West Bank, putting him at odds with Lapid, who wants “divorce” talks with the Palestinians to end the decades-old Middle East conflict.

The Labour party, which came third with 15 seats after putting economic and social issues at the forefront of its campaign, not the Middle East peacemaking it once championed, has vowed not to join any Netanyahu-led coalition.

Once official results are announced on Jan. 30, President Shimon Peres will ask someone, almost certainly Netanyahu, to try to form a government, a process that may take several weeks.

Reporting by Jerusalem bureau; Editing by Peter Graff and Giles Elgood

Israel’s Lieberman says he will resign from politics if convicted

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he would resign from politics if he is convicted of fraud and breach of trust in the current indictment against him.

Lieberman, who remains head of theYisrael Beiteinu Party, and is number two on the combined Knesset list of his party and the Likud Party behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Monday in an Army Radio interview that he would resign even if not required to by law.

Lieberman would be required to step down if a conviction carries moral turpitude.

Lieberman resigned at the end of December as foreign minister, shortly before his indictment on charges of fraud and breach of trust for allegedly advancing the position of Zeev Ben Aryeh, Israel's former ambassador to Belarus, in exchange for information on an investigation against him. The charges came after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein on Dec. 13 closed a 12-year investigation of Lieberman in other cases.

Lieberman 's statement that he would resign if convicted, follow statements last week by his party's number two, Yair Shamir, son of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, that Lieberman should resign if found guilty.

“A public official who faltered while in public service must make way for those who have not. Whether the offense carries the designation of moral turpitude or not is irrelevant,” said Shamir, formerly an executive with El Al.

“I agree with him,” Lieberman said on Army Radio. “I think that there have to be clear norms. Even if there is no moral turpitude, I will not continue in politics. There must be clear norms.”

He added that Shamir will not be penalized for his comments “I have no problems with what Shamir said and Shamir will without any doubt have a senior role in the Likud Beiteinu government,” he said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is reportedly the state's key witness in the Ben Aryeh case, and reportedly will testify against Lieberman during the trial. Shortly before the indictment was formally issued, Lieberman announced that Ayalon would not be included on the Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset list for the January elections. Ayalon stayed on at the Foreign Ministry despite Lieberman stepping down.

Avigdor Lieberman formally charged in Jerusalem court

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was formally charged with fraud and breach of trust.

The indictment, which reportedly includes new and stronger evidence against Lieberman, was filed with the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on Sunday morning. Lieberman is charged with advancing the position of Zeev Ben Aryeh, Israel's former ambassador to Belarus, in exchange for information on an investigation against him.

An abuse of authority accusation could mean the court will add moral turpitude to any conviction. Those convicted of moral turpitude cannot seek public office for at least seven years.

Lieberman had waived his parliamentary immunity, seeking a speedy trial that he hoped would be over before the Jan. 22 elections. That no longer appears possible.

The indictment followed questioning of members of a Foreign Ministry appointments panel who previously had not been questioned, as well as further questioning of Lieberman.

Lieberman resigned last week as foreign minister, although he remains a member of the Knesset and the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

His resignation came days after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein on Dec. 13 closed a 12-year investigation of Lieberman, dismissing most of the charges but saying he would file the indictment for fraud and breach of trust. Last spring, Ben Aryeh confessed that he had received and passed documents to Lieberman in 2008.

The filing of the indictment had been postponed in order to question the additional members of the appointments panel.

New evidence includes a conversation between Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon that reportedly shows Lieberman actively lobbying for Ben Aryeh's appointment as ambassador to Belarus. Ayalon reportedly will testify against Lieberman during the trial.

Lieberman announced recently that Ayalon would not be included on the Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset list for the January elections. The party is running on a joint candidates' list with the ruling Likud Party. Ayalon has stayed on at the Foreign Ministry despite Lieberman stepping down.

Israel hits Hamas government buildings, reservists mobilized

Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas government buildings in Gaza on Saturday, including the prime minister's office, after Israel's cabinet authorized the mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Palestinian militants in Gaza kept up cross-border salvoes, firing a rocket at Israel's biggest city Tel Aviv for the third straight day. Police said it was destroyed in mid-air by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed hours earlier, and no one was injured.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said Israeli missiles wrecked the office building of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – where he had met on Friday with the Egyptian prime minister – and struck a police headquarters.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.

With Israeli tanks and artillery positioned along the Gaza border and no end in sight to hostilities now in their fourth day, Tunisia's foreign minister travelled to the enclave in a show of Arab solidarity.

Officials in Gaza said 41 Palestinians, nearly half of them civilians including eight children and a pregnant woman, had been killed since Israel began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

In Cairo, a presidential source said Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir, the prime minister of Turkey and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in the Egyptian capital on Saturday to discuss the Gaza crisis.

Egypt has been working to reinstate calm between Israel and Hamas after an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo unraveled over the past few weeks. Meshaal, who lives in exile, has already held a round of talks with Egyptian security officials.

Israel uncorked its massive air campaign on Wednesday with the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years. The salvoes recently intensified, and are now displaying greater range.

The operation has drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defense, along with appeals to both sides to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognize Israel, says its cross-border attacks have come in response to Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

“We have not limited ourselves in means or in time,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel's Channel One television. “We hope that it will end as soon as possible, but that will be only after all the objectives have been achieved.”

Hamas says it is committed to continued confrontation with Israel and is eager not to seem any less resolute than smaller, more radical groups that have emerged in Gaza in recent years.

The Islamist movement has ruled Gaza since 2007. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but maintains a blockade of the tiny, densely populated coastal territory.

RESERVE TROOP QUOTA DOUBLED

At a late night session on Friday, Israel's cabinet decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000, political sources said.

The move did not necessarily mean all would be called up or that an invasion would follow. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the sandy border zone on Saturday, and around 16,000 reservists have already been summoned to active duty.

The Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Israel and Egypt next week to push for an end to the fighting in Gaza, U.N. diplomats said on Friday.

Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for Saturday's rocket attack on Tel Aviv, saying it had fired a longer-range, Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of the Gaza Strip.

After air raid sirens sounded, witnesses saw two white plumes rise into the sky over the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv and heard an explosion when the incoming rocket was hit.

The anti-missile battery had been due to take delivery of its fifth Iron Dome battery early next year but it was rushed into service near Tel Aviv after rockets were launched toward the city on Thursday and Friday. Those attacks caused no damage or casualties.

In Jerusalem, targeted by a Palestinian rocket on Friday for the first time in 42 years, there was little outward sign on the Jewish Sabbath that the attack had any impact on the usually placid pace of life in the holy city.

In Gaza, some families abandoned their homes – some of them damaged and others situated near potential Israeli targets – and packed into the houses of friends and relatives.

ISRAEL'S GAZA TARGETS

The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh's office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.

Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a news conference near the rubble of the prime minister's office and pledged: “We will declare victory from here.”

A three-storey house belonging to Hamas official Abu Hassan Salah was also hit and totally destroyed early on Saturday. Rescuers said at least 30 people were pulled from the rubble.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama commended Egypt's efforts to help defuse the Gaza violence in a call to Morsi on Friday, the White House said in a statement, and underscored his hope of restoring stability there.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a high-profile visit to Gaza, denouncing what he called Israeli aggression and saying Cairo was prepared to mediate a truce.

Egypt's Islamist government, freely elected after U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak fell to a popular uprising last year, is allied with Hamas but Cairo is also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

In a call to Netanyahu, Obama discussed options for “de-escalating” the situation, the White House said, adding that the president “reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

But few believe Israeli military action can snuff out militant rocket fire entirely without a reoccupation of Gaza, an option all but ruled out because it would risk major casualties and an international outcry.

While Hamas rejects the Jewish state's existence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in areas of the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Egypt’s President Morsi to decline Israel visit invitation

A day after Israel’s foreign minister called on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to visit Israel, a Muslim Brotherhood official called such a visit impossible.

“There is no possibility for Morsi to visit the Zionist entity,” Gamal Heshmat of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party told an Egyptian online news magazine, Ynet reported.

“President Morsi’s patriotism will not allow him to do so,” Heshmat said, saying that the presidential palace will turn down the invitation,

Avigdor Lieberman issued the invitation Tuesday during a speech at a legal conference. He called for the visit after Morsi said in an interview Monday with Reuters that he would not attempt to overturn the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s military said Wednesday that it would expand its counterattack against terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula that have launched attacks on both the Egyptian military and Israel. The offensive could involve bringing more military hardware into the area in contravention of the peace treaty. Egypt and Israel reportedly have been in regular contact over the redeployments.

Senators chide Clinton on Israel’s exclusion from counterterrorism forum

U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Mark Kirk have written a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing their disappointment with Israel’s exclusion from the inaugural meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum.

In the letter, Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) told Clinton that “there are few countries in the world that have suffered more from terrorism than Israel, and few governments that have more experience combating this threat than that of Israel.”

“One of the stated missions of the GCTF is to ‘provide a needed venue for national [counterterrorism] officials and practitioners to meet with their counterparts from key countries in different regions to share [counterterrorism] experiences, expertise, strategies, capacity needs and capability-building programs.’ We strongly believe that Israel would both benefit from, and contribute enormously to, this kind of exchange,” Lieberman and Kirk wrote. 

Israel had not been invited to the forum allegedly due to objections by Turkey, which also blocked Israel’s participation in the recent NATO summit in Chicago.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the Times of Israel that the Israeli government will participate in working groups formed by the forum, and said that Israel had not been planning on attending the meeting.

The rift between Israel and Turkey has been ongoing since the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010. Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens during a hostile exchange after the ship tried to run Israel’s Gaza maritime blockade.

Kirk, who suffered a stroke in January, is still recovering in Chicago, while Lieberman is completing his final term as a U.S. senator.

Lieberman: Israel might withdraw from U.N. Human Rights Council

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly said he might recall Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council after the council voted 36-1 to investigate the effects of Jewish settlements on Palestinians.

Lieberman also said Israel would not cooperate with the fact-finding mission established by the council to probe settlements, the Jerusalem Post reported.

On Thursday, the council passed a resolution, with 10 abstentions, to investigate how Israeli settlement construction affects Palestinian human rights. The United States was the only country to vote against the resolution.

“This is a hypocritical council with an automatic majority against Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday. “This council ought to be ashamed of itself.”

The Israeli leader noted that the council has made 91 decisions, 39 of which dealt with Israel, three with Syria and one with Iran.

“One only had to hear the Syrian representative speak today about human rights in order to understand how detached from reality the council is,” he said.

The decision requires the council to “dispatch an independent international fact-finding mission, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council, to investigate the implications of the Israeli settlements on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the Palestinian people throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.” The mission will generate a report for the council.

The council on Thursday approved five resolutions critical of Israel, including implementing the Goldstone report on the Gaza war and criticizing Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.

The resolution on the settlements, which calls on Israel to cooperate in the investigation, also called on Israel to prevent settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.

A U.S. representative to the council said the U.S. is “deeply troubled by this council’s bias against Israel.”

Abbas says no talks without Israeli settlement freeze

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas repeated on Sunday his refusal to talk with Israel without a settlement freeze after international mediators, responding to his United Nations bid for statehood, urged negotiations within a month.

“We have confirmed to all that we want to achieve our rights through peaceful means, through negotiations—but not just any negotiations,” Abbas told a cheering crowd of thousands on his return to the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“We will not accept (negotiations) until legitimacy is the foundation and they cease settlement completely,” he said, two days after presenting the application for Palestinian statehood and addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed a year ago after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month limited moratorium on construction in settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians say the settlements, built on land Israel captured in a 1967 war, would deny them a viable state. Israel cites historic and Biblical links to the West Bank, which it calls by its Hebrew names, Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu, who has termed a settlement freeze an unacceptable precondition, gave no indication in his own speech at the U.N. of any change in his position. He urged Abbas to return to peace talks.

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has said it will block the statehood move in the Security Council, which is expected to convene on Monday to discuss the application Abbas made after 20 years of failed Israeli-Palestinian talks.

NEW AGENDA

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians have responded formally to a plan from the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators—the United States, Russia, the European Union and the U.N.—for a return to direct negotiations.

The forum urged Israel and the Palestinians to meet within a month and set a new agenda for talks, with the aim of achieving a peace deal by the end of 2012 that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Netanyahu welcomed the Quartet’s call but reserved an official reply until he meets with senior cabinet ministers after his return on Monday from New York.

Abbas has said he would discuss the ideas with Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leaders and other senior Palestinian officials.

Hours before Abbas returned to the West Bank, Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said there would be “tough repercussions” if the U.N. approved the statehood application {nS1E78L2CV].

Lieberman, who heads a far-right party in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, did not spell out what action Israel might take. He said Israel had reservations about the Quartet’s proposal but was “ready to open immediate negotiations” with the Palestinians.

In the past, Lieberman has suggested severing ties with Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, if it wins recognition without a peace deal with Israel.

Israel is concerned that even if the United States vetoes a statehood resolution in the Security Council, the Palestinians could still win approval in the General Assembly for a more limited U.N. membership.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Sophie Hares

Netanyahu, Lieberman praise Obama’s U.N. speech, but Palestinians pan it

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked President Obama for his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, but the Palestinians criticized the address.

Netanyahu met with Obama at the United Nations on Wednesday afternoon after the president’s speech and reportedly expressed his appreciation for the address. The speech was praised as well by Israel’s hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

“I congratulate President Obama, and I am ready to sign on this speech with both hands,” Lieberman said at a news conference.

Some officials with the Palestine Liberation Organization criticized the president’s speech, which was seen as a rebuke of its effort to seek U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood.

“Listening to him, you would think it was the Palestinians who occupy Israel,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the PLO delegation in Washington, told Israel’s daily Haaretz. “He presented a double standard when he disassociated the Arabs’ fight for their freedom in the region from the Palestinian freedom fighters, who deal with the occupation for 63 years.

“What we heard is precisely why we are going to the U.N.,” she added, apparently referring to the speech’s expressions of support for the Arab Spring.

The speech was also criticized by the secretary-general of the PLO’s executive committee, Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said at a news conference that the Palestinians would give the U.N. Security Council time to consider their request for full U.N. membership before taking the matter to the General Assembly. They are expected to submit their request to the Security Council on Friday.

“The U.N. is the only alternative to violence,” Shaath said at the news conference, according to reports. “It will be very costly to us and the Israelis. Our new heroes are Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King.”

In his U.N. speech, Obama said the differences between Israelis and Palestinians must be bridged through negotiations between the two parties.

“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations,” he said.

Obama also noted Israeli suffering from terrorism and said that the “Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland.” He said that Israel deserves normal relations with its neighbors and called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Obama administration has indicated that it would veto any Security Council resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood. The Palestinians, however, would be likely to win a vote in the General Assembly, which would not by itself grant them U.N. membership but could upgrade their status at the world body to a non-member observer state.

Clock ticks on Palestinian U.N. plan

Diplomats scrambled on Thursday to head off a clash over Palestinian plans to seek full U.N. recognition with little visible sign of progress and a deadline some 24 hours away.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad briefly seized the spotlight at the United Nations General Assembly, accusing the United States of using the September 11, 2001, attacks as a pretext for attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan and condemning western support for Zionism.

But attention focused on the crisis looming over this year’s U.N. meeting—Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is ready to submit his application to the U.N. Security Council on Friday despite pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama to forgo the U.N. option and resume direct talks with Israel.

Obama’s meetings with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday ended with no breakthrough, illustrating stark new limits of U.S. influence over a process that is spinning in unpredictable directions.

Obama, whose personal efforts to restart the Middle East peace process have proved fruitless, on Wednesday declared that direct talks were the only path to Palestinian statehood, underscoring unbending U.S. opposition to the U.N. plan.

Obama said the United States will veto any Palestinian move in the Security Council—a step which would isolate Washington with its ally Israel at a moment of unprecedented political turmoil across the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met both Abbas and Netanyahu on Wednesday, said the United States would continue to push for a durable, negotiated peace.

“Regardless of what happens tomorrow in the United Nations, we remain focused on the day after,” Clinton told reporters.

Diplomats are focused on several scenarios which they hope may contain the damage.

The Security Council could delay action on Abbas’ request, giving the mediating “Quartet”—the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations—more time to craft a declaration that could coax the two sides back to the table.

But the Quartet may be unable to agree on a statement that could satisfy both Israel and the Palestinians, which remain divided on core issues including borders, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jewish settlements.

Another option, advanced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, would see the Palestinians skip the Security Council in favor of the General Assembly, which could vote to upgrade the Palestinians from an “entity” to a “non-member state” while reviving direct peace talks.

Sarkozy’s plan calls for talks to begin within one month, an agreement on borders and security within six months and a final peace agreement within a year.

The General Assembly route would require only a simple majority of the 193-nation body, not a two-thirds majority necessary for full statehood.

What remains unclear, however, is whether the Palestinians will insist on the right to haul the Israeli government or its officials before war-crimes tribunals or sue them in other global venues—something Israel strongly opposes.

The Palestinians have pledged to press ahead with the Security Council bid while keeping the General Assembly option open.

In what has become a regular piece of political theater, U.S. and other Western delegations walked out of the cavernous General Assembly hall during the speech by the Iranian leader.

Ahmadinejad—who arrived in New York this year weakened by factional infighting at home—accused Western powers of a variety of misdeeds and again questioned the September 11, 2001, attacks as “mysterious”.

He made no mention of Tehran’s disputed nuclear program, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes but which Israel and Western governments say is a covert drive to produce atomic weapons and shift the regional balance of power.

Ahmadinejad, who in the past has called Israel a “tumor” that must be wiped from the map, made only a passing reference to the Palestinian issue and had no comment on the Palestinians’ bid for U.N. recognition.

Whatever happens at the United Nations, the disputed territory will remain Israeli and any nominal state would lack recognized borders or real independence and sovereignty.

The cash-strapped Palestinians face their own political divisions, and may also incur financial retribution from Israel and the United States which could hobble their efforts to build the framework of government for their homeland.

In the West Bank, Palestinians have rallied this week to support the U.N. plan, with many expressing anger and disappointment over U.S. policy.

“Our alliance with America has not brought us anything,” said Amina al-Akhras, a public sector employee, blaming reliance on international donor funds for what she described as lethargy among Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

“We are ready to sacrifice their support and instead have a stronger national position,” she said.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, John Irish, Louis Charbonneau, Patrick Worsnip, Alistair Lyon and Tom Perry; editing by Mohammad Zargham

Abbas: PA Won’t Recognize Jewish State

The Palestinian Authority will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state, President Mahmoud Abbas said.

“Don’t order us to recognize a Jewish state. We won’t accept it,” Abbas warned the international community on Saturday.

Abbas also said Saturday in a speech to Muslim leaders in Ramallah that the PA’s statehood bid at the United Nations is not an attempt to isolate Israel or to ignite conflict with the United States. He said that the Palestinians would abandon the plan to go to the U.N. if Israel stops settlement construction and accepts the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations on a two-state solution.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Abbas’ refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state “reveals the true nature of the September motion: A Palestinian state to come in place of a Jewish state.” He charged that the Palestinians want “a state free of Jews in Judea and Samaria, and a hostile takeover of Israel from within.”

Abbas met over the weekend with the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton. It was Ashton’s last-ditch attempt to bring the Palestinians and Israel together for peace negotiations before the September United Nations meeting. Abbas reportedly told Ashton that the U.N. bid will not stop the progress of peace negotiations. Ashton said that the E.U.’s final decision on supporting the statehood bid would depend on the content of the resolution.

Ashton was also scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Olmert: Netanyahu leading Israel to political isolation

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday harshly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

Speaking at an Industry, Trade and Labor ministry conference, Olmert said that the government’s refusal to accept the United States request that Israel extend a freeze on West Bank settlement construction for two months could lead to Israel’s political isolation in the world and damage Israel’s economy.

“There are people who think it is possible to separate the political situation from the economic situation and they use the phrase ‘economic peace’,” Olmert said, alluding to Netanyahu. “This is a lovely phrase but it reality doesn’t exist.”

Read more at HAARETZ.com.

Lieberman offers population exchange plan at U.N.

Israel’s foreign minister presented a plan to the United Nations that would transfer Israeli Arab towns to a future Palestinian state in exchange for annexing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Avigdor Lieberman offered a draft of his proposal Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly in New York. It would redraw the borders of Israel to include several large Jewish settlements in the West Bank and exclude large Israeli Arab towns, which would become part of a newly created Palestinian state.

“A final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has to be based on a program of exchange of territory and populations,” Lieberman told the General Assembly, Haaretz reported.

Lieberman stressed that his proposals did not represent a scheme for “populations transfer,” a phrase that evokes historical proposals by Israel’s extreme right to evict Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. “We are not talking about population transfer but about defining borders so as best to reflect the demographic reality,” he said.

His proposal has been criticized by many in Israel as racist and has been ill received by Israeli Arabs, who comprise approximately 20 percent of Israel’s population.

The decision by Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party is the second-largest in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, to present his plan to the U.N. General Assembly raises the question of whether it’s his personal idea or an official policy proposal of the Israeli government.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched earlier this month in Washington have hit a snag over the expiration of Israel’s moratorium on West Bank settlement building.

Lieberman: Spats won’t send party packing from coalition

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said his Yisrael Beiteinu party will not leave the government, despite several disagreements.

During a news conference Monday, Lieberman criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not having more consideration for his largest coalition partner. With 15 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu is the second largest party in Netanyahu’s coalition.

Netanyahu and Lieberman were scheduled to meet later Monday to hash out their disagreements in private.

The downward spiral in relations between the two leaders began with Netanyahu’s decision to send Minister of Trade, Industry and Labor Benjamin Ben-Eliezer to Turkey for a meeting with its foreign minister, and continued in recent days with the state budget, the appointment of an interim United Nations envoy and a prospective conversion measure proposed by Lieberman’s party to fulfill an election promise to its supporters.

“We won’t quit the government, but we also have no intention of surrendering,” Lieberman told reporters.

“The party that most supports the government should not be the last considered in regards to the budget,” he said, referring to cuts in the departments headed by Yisrael Beiteinu ministers.

Israeli police recommend Lieberman indictment

Israeli police have recommended that the state prosecutor indict Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on charges of breach of trust.

The recommendation to indict Lieberman for allegedly receiving classified information from an ongoing investigation against him for fraud and embezzlement was sent with the case file to the prosecutor on Monday. Police also recommended indicting a former ambassador to Ukraine, Ze’ev Ben Aryeh, on suspicion of providing the information to Lieberman. The recommendations carry no legal weight.

Lieberman was questioned in the case three months ago after Ben Aryeh confessed that he received and passed documents onto Lieberman.

The foreign minister is suspected of laundering millions of shekels through straw companies, including while serving as a public official, and of obstructing the investigation into money laundering. Police had asked Ben Aryeh, when he served as envoy to Belarus, to help in the Lieberman corruption probe by questioning Belarus banks and government officials. Ben Aryeh is accused of turning a copy of the request over to Lieberman in October 2008.

Lieberman is also under suspicion of advancing Ben Aryeh’s position in the Foreign Ministry in exchange for the information. Ben Aryeh served as the legal adviser in Lieberman’s office until the affair came to light.

Lieberman denies any wrongdoing.

Holyland suspect asked about bribes to Shas leader, Lieberman

Police asked the main suspect in Israel’s largest-ever real estate scandal if Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef received bribes.

The lawyer for Meir Rabin said Monday that police asked Rabin whether he had given Yosef about $270,000 in donations, as well as bribes to two other lawmakers who served as ministers at the time, Israeli media are reporting.

“This is nonsense that should not be dignified with a response,” Lieberman’s office said.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and his successor as Jerusalem mayor, Uri Lupolianski, have been named in the bribery scandal involving a large residential development on the site of the former Holyland Hotel in Jerusalem.

Rabin is accused of advancing the building project by offering bribes to senior public figures.

Also Monday, Olmert’s former bureau chief Shula Zaken was taken into custody to be questioned about the Holyland corruption affair when she landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport following a long trip abroad. Police are hoping to gain evidence on Olmert’s involvement in the scandal by questioning Zaken.

Nation World Briefs: Peace Process, Interfaith Campus

American Jews Want U.S. to Engage in Peace Process, Poll Reports

American Jews favor an active U.S. role in the Middle East peace process even if it means exerting pressure on Israel, according to a poll.

The survey by J Street, which backs assertive U.S. engagement in the peace process and markets itself as an alternative to the more hard-line views that it claims dominate many other pro-Israel organizations, also found that Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman is not popular among American Jews and that President Obama and his policies on the Middle East garner more than 70 percent approval in the American Jewish community.

The survey of 800 self-identified American Jews by Gerstein Agne Strategic Communications was conducted Feb. 28 to March 8 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

One issue on which the community was evenly split was how to deal with Iran. Forty-one percent did not favor a military attack on Iran “if they are on the verge of developing nuclear weapons,” while 40 percent supported such a strike. And 39 percent favored “direct negotiations” with the Iranians while 37 percent supported international sanctions.

According to the poll, 88 percent of respondents favored the United States playing “an active role” in helping the parties resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, with 64 percent of those favoring an “active role” saying they would continue to back it even if it meant “exerting pressure on Israel.” Overall, 57 percent of those surveyed would support such pressure.

In addition, 69 percent said that if Hamas and the Palestinian Authority form a unified government, it would support the United States working with such a government to achieve a peace agreement with Israel.

The poll also found high name recognition for Lieberman, with 62 percent of American Jews saying they know who he is. After being told that he has “called for the execution of Arab members of Israel’s parliament who met with Hamas and whose main campaign message called for Arab citizens of Israel to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state in order to prevent their citizenship from being revoked,” 32 percent said that their “personal connection” to Israel would be weakened because Lieberman’s positions “go against my core values.”

During the election campaign, Lieberman called on all Israelis to sign the loyalty oath, but it was not part of the coalition agreement he signed with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, 75 percent of respondents backed Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza, although just 41 percent said it made Israel more secure. And 60 percent did not support the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Coalition Plans Interfaith Campus in Omaha

An interfaith coalition in Nebraska is testing the viability of what is believed to be an American first: a joint campus to house a Jewish, Muslim and Christian house of worship.

The plan, under development by a local nonprofit called the Tri-Faith Initiative, would join a mosque, a Reform synagogue and an Episcopal church in a suburban Omaha location. No site has yet been found, but organizers are hopeful the project will come to fruition.

“The first week we thought about it, we put the odds at a million to one,” Bob Freeman, the chairman of the Tri-Faith board, said. “I think now there is a real possibility — and I don’t quote odds anymore per se — but I think there’s a real possibility it could work.”

The plan, which has been under discussion for years, will receive a significant boost Friday, when national leaders of all three faiths join together for an event being billed as “Dinner in Abraham’s Tent.”

The evening will begin with worship services for each of the three faiths followed by a panel discussion, “Conversations on Peace,” featuring Rabbi Peter Knobel, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; and the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Mark Pelavin of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center will moderate.

Hundreds are expected to attend the event, which will be held at a convention center in Omaha and broadcast live on the Internet.

“The question that you need to ask me is why not to do it,” said Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, whose synagogue, Temple Israel, is the Jewish partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Azriel said, “and I really believe that there is no time to wait to establish a peaceful relationship among the three groups.”

Founded four years ago, the Tri-Faith Initiative is a joint project of Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, an organization founded in 2006 principally to be the Muslim counterpart in the initiative.

Though the viability of the campus is still being determined, some members of the Omaha Jewish community have not waited to voice their concerns about the plan.

In a recent letter printed in the Omaha Jewish Press, Phil Schrager, a Temple Israel member and major donor to local Jewish charities, expressed “strong reservations about the efficacy” of the plan because a Palestinian-born member of the Tri-Faith board had signed on to a cultural and academic boycott of Israel.

“I think that Rabbi Azriel ought to be applauded for the time and effort that he’s putting forth to try to promote peace among the religions and promote dialogue and conversations,” Schrager said. “But I separate that from the Tri-Faith campus, which I have concerns about.”

Both Freeman and Azriel said they were pained to learn about the boycott, but nevertheless they vowed to continue the dialogue.

“I’d never met a Muslim until three years ago,” Freeman said, “so I had the same prejudices and stereotypes and assumed there were bad things about their faith and region and they all believed them. And I don’t think that’s the case anymore, based on my personal experiences.”

Convention Notes: Hadassah Lieberman — ‘I’m not a Republican’

ST. PAUL (JTA) — Like her husband, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Hadassah Lieberman is backing John McCain for president. On Monday afternoon, she was the featured speaker at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) National Women’s Committee fundraiser and fashion show in Minneapolis.

But, Lieberman insisted that doesn’t mean she’s become a Republican.

A global ambassador for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Lieberman said she attended Monday’s event at the Neiman Marcus store because the RJC women’s committee was raising money for the organization. Because of Hurricane Gustav, proceeds from the fundraiser will go to the American Red Cross Hurricane Relief Fund, but Linda Law, women’s committee chair, said she would match the total raised Monday and donate it to the breast cancer organization.

Lieberman told reporters after the event that she had been a registered independent until she married her husband, and she was advised to become a Democrat. When Sen. Lieberman was defeated in the Democratic primary in 2006 and then won as an independent, she returned to political independence — and has no plans to change.

As for the presidential race, she said, “I love John … I hope he wins,” but she said she wasn’t officially endorsing anyone. When asked about the presumptive Republican nominee’s opposition to reproductive rights, she acknowledged that there were differences between some of her views and McCain’s.

In her speech to the 200 at the RJC event, which was pegged to the Republican convention, Lieberman alluded to the support her husband received from Republican Jews in his 2006 Senate win.

“When [Joe] decided to run as an independent, a lot of you were out there, and we did not forget that,” she said.

Lieberman lost in the Democratic primary to challenger Ned Lamont but then beat Lamont in the general election.

Among the other luminaries in attendance Monday afternoon were Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Florida state Rep. Adam Hasner, former Massachusetts Lt. Gov Kerry Healey, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Texas state Sen. Florence Shapiro, radio talk show host Dennis Prager and NBC newswoman Norah O’Donnell.

Paula Waterfield wears three items around her neck: a Star of David for her religion, a flag for her country and a silver star for her son James, who is on his sixth tour of duty in Iraq.

Waterfield is a member of Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, which was in Minneapolis for a Support Our Troops rally on Monday to coincide with the Republican National Convention. On Sunday afternoon, the Nebraska City, Neb., resident and other members of the organization were invited guests to the film premiere of “An American Carol.” The movie was directed by “Airplane!” director David Zucker, who just happened to be a Sunday school classmate of Waterfield’s when they both were growing up in a suburb of Milwaukee.

Waterfield said she doesn’t often talk to her son, 41, about being Jewish in the military — although she said he does wonder if wearing a Star of David around his neck is a good idea — but did say that he does get to attend religious services on holidays “once in a while.”

The chair of Families United, Merrilee Carlson, was in Denver last week outside the Democratic National Convention. Carlson said she had been “underwhelmed by the strength of the anti-war protesters,” feeling that the “wind has been pulled out of their sails” by the success of the surge in Iraq.

When film director Zucker was first told there was a RJC, he replied, “That’s like Indians for Custer!” But it turned out that the RJC was how Zucker, co-creator of “Airplane!” met Myrna Sokoloff, co-writer for his latest film, “An American Carol.”

Both Sokoloff and Zucker were “9/11 Republicans.” Larry Greenfield of the RJC’s Los Angeles chapter introduced Zucker to Sokoloff because the filmmaker wanted to write a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), whom he had previously supported, telling her he now supported President Bush.

“We never wrote the letter,” recalled Sokoloff, who had been a campaign operative for Democrats, including Boxer, in the 1980s and 1990s, has a master’s degree in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and was an aspiring screenwriter.

They teamed up to make an anti-Kerry ad for the 2004 presidential race and partnered to make “An American Carol,” a spin on the classic “A Christmas Carol,” in which a documentary filmmaker with a remarkable resemblance to Michael Moore is taught to love America. Kevin Farley, brother of the late comedian Chris Farley, plays “Michael Malone,” and Leslie Nielsen, Kelsey Grammer and Jon Voight are among the stars who appear in the film.

The movie was previewed in Minneapolis Sunday before the Republican National Convention. After the film received a standing ovation, Zucker pointed out to the crowd that the producer of his movie, Stephen McEveety, also produced Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

Zucker joked that since McEveety had been so successful with a film that consisted mostly of “Jews beating up God,” he had urged Zucker to insert scenes of “Jews beating up the pope or Gandhi.”

As for the film, there is some of the slapstick and classic sight gags that Zucker’s films are known for — at an anti-war protest, the back of one protester’s sign reads, “See Other Side.” And there are a few uproarious scenes, particularly a training film early in the movie showing the right and wrong ways to carry out a suicide bombing: Ahmad finds his target, while Ahman doesn’t have the proper directions and blows up before he gets there.

However, as the film goes along, the humor seems to give way to the political message, which gets very heavy-handed at times. The filmmakers seem to really dislike Moore — the character is even called unprintable names by his niece. It will open nationally on Oct. 8.

Lieberman War View Triggers Backlash

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) has earned the appreciation of a Republican administration he has resolutely defended on the issue of the Iraq War. One prominent Jewish activist described Lieberman’s “powerful sense of mission” in supporting the war.

But that steadfastness also has triggered a political backlash for Lieberman. He got a dose of it in Los Angeles last month and could have a fight on his hands this year to win a third term, a race that was initially expected to be a cakewalk.

At a fundraiser last month in Bel Air that included some top Jewish givers, Lieberman faced a decidedly mixed reception. Some participants applauded his staunch defense of the war as public opposition continues to grow — but many others expressed concern.

At the Bel Air meeting, “some were overwhelmingly supportive of his stance, and some deeply unconvinced and skeptical,” said one participant. “Most interestingly, he was so consumed by his sense of mission that he could not distinguish between the two.”

Lieberman’s defense of the war stands in sharp contrast to the Jewish majority. A recent American Jewish Committee poll indicated that 70 percent of Jews now oppose the administration’s Iraq policies, although that number was considerably lower in Lieberman’s Orthodox community.

Lieberman’s defend-the-war mission has also sent up some storm clouds at home.

Former Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.), the man Lieberman unseated in 1988, has told Connecticut newspapers he may run against Lieberman on an anti-war platform if no other strong candidates emerge. Weicker — who later served as Connecticut governor — said he could run as an independent.

Lieberman could also face a Democratic Party challenger running on an anti-war platform.

Some Democrats have been further angered by persistent rumors that Lieberman may be tapped to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said, “It’s hard to believe Lieberman has to worry about holding his seat,” but added that Weicker could be “a perfect protest vehicle” if anti-war sentiment continues to rise.

“And a truly contentious (Democratic) primary could open the way for a GOP challenge in the fall, especially since GOP Gov. Jodi Rell will sweep to victory,” he said.

Sabato said while he would “put solid money on Lieberman’s reelection, whatever the obstacles,” Lieberman’s national ambitions are a thing of the past.

“He crashed and burned in 2004, and now he’s on the ‘wrong’ side of Iraq in the Democratic Party,” he said. “It’s over for him. Ironic, isn’t it? He was almost elected vice president in 2000, which would have made him the logical presidential nominee for the Dems in 2008. But close only counts in horseshoes.”

 

A Homeland Paves the Way for Lieberman

I was pulling on my socks in a San Francisco hotel room when
Sen. Joe Lieberman, in his hometown of Stamford, Conn., announced he was
running for president, live on CNN.

I don’t know about you, but I found this mighty moving.
Whether or not you identify with his political positions or his Orthodox
religiosity, it’s hard not to feel a rush of satisfaction. Yes, there are Jews
who fret that he’s too conservative, or that his crusade against Hollywood sex
and violence will hurt Democratic fundraising, or that he might divert Jewish
donors whose dollars would be better spent ensuring an Israel-friendly
Congress. There are those who cringe every time he utters the word “God,” which
sometimes seems like every third sentence, and those who worry that if he’s
elected, and the economy really tanks, that the Jews will get blamed. But
c’mon, how can you not kvell over a man with a wife named Hadassah? And that
sharp Jewish sense of humor, and a mother who serves rugelach to reporters?
Lieberman is the real thing, and he’s got a real shot. Heck, the man was
elected vice president in 2000 by half a million votes, but then, of course,
some (ahem) technical difficulties got in the way.

It struck me as significant that a day earlier, flying out
to the West Coast, I had read the New York Times obituary of another Jew in
American politics, or more correctly an ex-Jew, twice removed. Readers my age
or older may also have taken special notice of the passing, at age 93, of C.
Douglas Dillon, the distinguished Wall Street financier who served as John F.
Kennedy’s treasury secretary.

When I saw his name in the headline, I recalled at once —
Jews (and I suppose anti-Semites, too) automatically remember such things —
that C. Douglas Dillon’s father, Clarence Dillon, founder of the investment
bank now known as Warburg Dillon Read, was the son of a Polish Jew. The Times
confirmed my recollection: The immigrant grandfather was named Samuel Lapowski,
who, according to the obit, settled in Texas, changed his name, and “began …
propelling his children to higher social strata through education.”

The Harvard University Gazette also marked Dillon’s demise —
he was Class of ’31, his father ’05 — citing his service as president of
Harvard’s Board of Overseers and president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York, but omitting to mention the long-irrelevant Lapowski connection.

Is America a great country, or what? By the time Joe
Lieberman (Yale ’64, Yale Law ’67) had propelled himself upward by means of
first-class education, the country had changed dramatically. Kennedy had succeeded
where his Roman Catholic predecessor, Al Smith, had failed.

In contradistinction to Edward G. Robinson and Lauren
Bacall, Barbra Streisand had retained her Jewish name and became a superstar,
nevertheless. And now — drumroll please — we have the serious possibility of a
man in the Oval Office who is not only called Lieberman but is shomer Shabbat.
What has made the difference?

Call me a Zionist, but I think it has everything to do with
the existence of the State of Israel. Back in 1936 — another era in Jewish
history — the editors of Fortune published a short book called “Jews in
America,” a reprint of a long essay that had appeared in that highly respected
magazine.

Hitler had come to power, and the winds of anti-Semitism
blew disturbingly in the United States, as well. Henry Ford and the Rev.
Charles Coughlin after him saw the tentacles of Jewish control everywhere, and
Fortune undertook to prove such bigots wrong. Still, the editors’
well-intentioned words betrayed the scent of patrician condescension: “The
outstanding fact about the Jewish people,” according to Fortune, “is the fact
that they have preserved, though scattered among the nations of the earth,
their national identity. They are unique among the peoples of the world not
because they have bold noses — only a small percentage of Jews have the Jewish
nose — but because they alone, of all peoples known to history, have retained
in exile and dispersion and over periods of thousands of years their
distinction from the peoples among whom they live.”

“The Jew is everywhere, and everywhere the Jew is strange,”
the magazine said. “Japanese are strangers in California but not in Japan.
Scotsmen are outlanders in Paris but not in Edinburgh. The Jews are outlanders
everywhere. The country of the Jew, as Schopenhauer puts it, is other Jews.”

With the founding of the Jewish State, Fortune’s claim went
out the window. The strange and omnipresent “Jew” now had a country, where,
like Frenchmen in France, he was the balebos, the landlord, the host — a country
of Hebrew-speaking cops, cab drivers and cardiovascular surgeons.

And this meant that Jews the world over could stand taller
than ever, rising to new social and professional heights, proudly asserting
their identity as never before. In other words, David Ben-Gurion enabled Joe
Lieberman.

Here in Israel, we, too, will be electing a new government —
much sooner, of course, than back in the Old Country. By the time you read
these words, the results may be in, and the pundits will be pumping out gallons
of explanatory ink.

Will the new government be inclined to enhance this
country’s democratic credentials — our most valuable strategic asset? How long
will the prestige of the Jewish state continue to reflect beneficially on Jews
in Texas and Connecticut and Illinois? Will the rising global tide of renewed
anti-Semitism abate anytime soon?

These are weighty questions for another day. In the
meantime, with Iraq on our fevered brain, we in Israel thank our stars for our
close ties to the United States — a recognition that came home to me yet again
as my taxi, climbing back from the airport to Jerusalem, passed a convoy of
American military trucks bearing Patriot missile launchers into the Jewish
heartland.


Stuart Schoffman is an associate editor of the Jerusalem Report and a columnist for the JUF News of Chicago. His e-mail address is stuart@netvision.net.il.

World Briefs

Lieberman to Announce CandidacyMonday

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) will announce on Monday his intention to run for president. Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, will announce his candidacy for president at his high school alma mater in Stamford, Conn. Lieberman received international attention three years ago when he became the first Jewish candidate on a major party ticket for the White House.

Israeli Tally 2002

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed the lives of 447 Israelis in 2002. In addition, some 2,344 Israelis were injured in the conflict, according to the Israel Defense Force. Of those killed, 292 were civilians and 155 were security personnel. Of the dead, 299 were male and 148 female; 57 were children.

Some 50,000 businesses closed in Israel during 2002, according to Israel’s Association of Independent Businesses. The association predicted that 60,000 businesses will close in 2003, Israel’s Army Radio reported.

Britain Postpones PalestinianConference

Britain reportedly postponed plans for a conference on Palestinian governmental reforms that had been scheduled for next week. Although British officials are saying that preparations are continuing as usual, they have stopped sending out invitations, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Sources told the paper Britain is planning to reschedule the conference as soon as possible.

The foreign ministers of Britain, Greece, Jordan and Saudi Arabia also were to have attended the conference, but Israel was not invited. On Tuesday, the office of British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that Blair is pressing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to allow the Palestinian delegation to attend the conference. Earlier this week, Israel announced it would bar Palestinian officials from attending as part of its response to a deadly terror attack Sunday in Tel Aviv.

New Accord on War Criminals

A planned agreement between the U.S. government’s Nazi-hunting unit and an unnamed European government could lead to more prosecutions of suspected Nazi-era war criminals living in the United States. The agreement, scheduled to be announced later this month, could help the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) “identify previously unknown suspects,” said Eli Rosenbaum, OSI’s director. The OSI recently announced that during 2002 it initiated a record 10 prosecutions against suspected war criminals in the United States.

French Rabbi’s Car Set Ablaze

The car of a French rabbi who was stabbed last week was set on fire. According to news reports, Rabbi Gabriel Farhi’s car was set ablaze Monday outside his Paris apartment. Just hours before Farhi was stabbed last Friday, the synagogue received an anonymous letter threatening both him and the building.

Meanwhile, The University of Paris backed down from a campaign to cut ties with Israeli universities. The school issued a statement Monday saying school officials hoped the European Union would expand its educational accord to include Palestinian universities, according to The Associated Press.

Danish Police Crackdown

Danish police seized money belonging to a Palestinian charity that allegedly aided Palestinian terrorists. Danish officials would not comment on the case, but a spokesman for the Al Aqsa charity said Jan. 2 that the police were acting on new anti-terror laws making it a felony to give financial support to terrorist groups.

The charity denied that it backs terrorism, saying it gives money to groups in the West Bank that help orphans.

Monster.com for Jews

A new Web site is aiming to find jobs for Jews in theUnited States. The site, www.hatzlacha.com , was created recently by the Rabbinical Board of Greater New York as a resource for job seekers — and for employers as well.

Hatzlachah (Hebrew for good luck) was created “in a time when more pink slips are likely to find their way to the hearts of an even larger number of Jewish households around the country, thousands of which have their children studying in private yeshivot,” the company said in a news release.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency