Pro-Israel News

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

BY HAVIV RETTIG GUR January 6, 2014, 1:08 pm 

Benjamin Netanyahu will complete his eighth (nonconsecutive) year as prime minister in March 2014, more than any Israeli premier except the state’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.And as the years go by, unsurprisingly, Netanyahu is leaving a deepening imprint on the way in which the country is governed.

Turnover is relatively high among his innermost circle of advisers and aides, who frequently last as little as two years at his side and all too often, especially in recent years, leave amid a cloud of scandal and negative press. At the same time, the role of some of those advisers has become increasingly central, as the Prime Minister’s Office seems to be filling an ever-more influential role in national policy.

“There is an international phenomenon of concentration of foreign policy power in the hands of presidents and prime ministers,” noted Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser who has written a book about Israel’s decision-making process. And this consolidation has happened quickly in Israel, where the PMO now handles all major issues of diplomatic and security policy, including the peace talks with the Palestinians, the Iranian nuclear crisis and the most important of Israel’s diplomatic relationships, such as those with the United States, Britain, France and Germany.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at an October 9, 2012 press conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, announces he’s calling elections. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

In the PMO under Netanyahu, that sees a great deal of close consultation with key advisers, a notably expanded role for the National Security Council, and a changing structure of the inner “security cabinet” of top ministers.

It also means less influence for the individual ministries and ministers in some areas that used to be their exclusive purview.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and outgoing Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer at a press conference in the Knesset, June 24, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster / Flash90)

When Netanyahu was finance minister under prime minister Ariel Sharon, for instance, it was he who recruited Stanley Fischer as governor of the Bank of Israel. When Karnit Flug was appointed Fischer’s successor in October, in a chaotic and protracted process, by contrast, Finance Minister Yair Lapid most emphatically did not exclusively oversee the selection.

Likewise, the question of Bedouin resettlement would in previous years have been a matter overwhelmingly for the Interior Ministry. Under Netanyahu, the Prime Minister’s Office has been centrally involved.

‘A dialogical personality’

Amid the process of consolidation, Netanyahu is said to be more open than some of his predecessors were to the views of trusted staff around him.

“Bibi has a dialogical personality,” said one confidant who asked not to be named. “He makes decisions in the course of discussion. He needs a conversation partner to make those decisions.”

Netanyahu takes a close interest in the views of those around him, confirmed another source familiar with the prime minister’s deliberative process. “He’s always asking questions, interrogating you for your opinion, and writing down what you’re saying.”

That aspect of Netanyahu’s personality is both an advantage and a crutch, the confidant added.

The advantage: Netanyahu is “flexible and thorough” when making decisions. “Every decision requires 10 discussions. He’s not hasty like some previous prime ministers.”

The disadvantage: “He can seem indecisive, fickle. No decision is final until it’s actually being implemented. Decisions often change in the course of discussion, both because his reasoning continues to develop and because those who know him well know how to focus their arguments to reach certain conclusions.”

Whether or not this personality trait is beneficial to forming national policy, there is no doubt it gives an outsize role to those who surround and engage the prime minister in those policy discussions.

As power concentrates around a premier who gives added weight to his advisers’ views, those advisers are becoming increasingly important for any understanding of how the machinery of power is managed and critical decisions are made in the State of Israel.

Enlarged role for the NSC

The shift of diplomatic and security policymaking into the hands of the prime minister is a global phenomenon. In part, this is due to inevitable changes in technology, Freilich explained.

“Foreign ministries face a real question. Why are they needed? Today, if a prime minister wants to know what the Americans are thinking, he calls up [Secretary] Kerry or [President] Obama. Foreign ministries don’t have the roles they used to have, where ambassadors on the ground were absolutely essential, especially [in light of modern] media and communications.”

The issues now handled in the PMO “don’t leave the Foreign Ministry with much of anything of consequence,” noted Freilich. “I think that’s understood by most people today. The Foreign Ministry deals with day-to-day caretaking and maintenance of relations.”

In order to effectively manage this workload in the PMO, Netanyahu has slowly constructed over several years Israel’s first policy planning staff directly answerable to the prime minister.

Founded in March 1999 by the first Netanyahu government, just three months before that coalition’s demise, the National Security Council struggled for a long time to find its place in the decision-making structures under other premiers. It received a significant boost when its responsibilities were anchored in law in July 2008, just in time for Netanyahu’s return to the Prime Minister’s Office in March 2009.

All former officials and confidants who spoke with The Times of Israel for this story emphasized the enlarged role Netanyahu has carved out for the National Security Council. Its head, the national security adviser, has his office just meters away from the prime minister in the Aquarium, the glass-fronted inner sanctum in the PMO reserved for the premier himself and his closest aides.

The NSC is now responsible for the highest-level contacts between Israel, the US, major European powers and even, more recently, Russia. It regularly communicates, officially and unofficially, publicly and secretly, with the highest levels of these governments. It even handles the high-level policy workload on broader issues of geopolitical import, such as Israel’s gas exports.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Barack Obama at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem in March. (photo credit: Pete Souza/Official White House)

One recent example is telling. After the public spat between Netanyahu and Obama over the interim nuclear deal with Iran in November, the two leaders agreed in a December phone call that Israel would send a senior official to Washington to handle US-Israeli talks on the permanent agreement with Tehran. For perhaps the most critical and sensitive discussions on the issue Netanyahu himself has called his government’s number one priority, the prime minister chose to send his newly installed national security adviser, Yossi Cohen.

When he appointed Cohen’s predecessor, former IDF major-general Yaakov Amidror, to the top NSC post in 2011, Netanyahu’s public statement left little doubt as to how he viewed the position. Amidror, he said, “will lead the National Security Council as a body central to determining Israel’s national and security policies.”

Yossi Cohen, who’s been appointed to chair Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Council (photo credit: courtesy)

The two national security advisers who preceded Cohen were former Mossad head of intelligence Uzi Arad, a noted expert on the Iranian nuclear question, and Amidror, who has written extensively on the security challenges posed by neighboring Arab states and Palestinian terror groups. Both are known as wide-ranging strategic thinkers.

But the choice of his newest adviser, a former Mossad number two, has raised eyebrows. Cohen is generally thought of as a keen operations man, say insiders, not a strategic and policy planning expert.

Prime minister Ehud Olmert at his last cabinet meeting, March 29, 2009. (Photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski / Pool / Flash 90)

“Cohen’s predecessors all had extensive strategic and diplomatic experience,” said Freilich. “Ilan Mizrahi [who served for a year and a half under Ehud Olmert from 2006 to 2007] was, like Cohen, a Mossad operations man. But even he had some diplomatic experience by the time he became the national security adviser. Cohen doesn’t seem to have that background.” Even so, Freilich concluded, Cohen “is a very smart man and can learn.”

“Yossi Cohen is an operational guy,” agreed a source close to the PMO. “He’s very much about implementation. But that’s also part of the NSC’s work. It prepares briefing papers for meeting foreign officials, writes briefings, handles a lot of day-to-day diplomacy. A lot of foreign governments speak to the NSC.”

Cohen is one of a triumvirate of key national security advisers on whom Netanyahu relies on a daily basis, according to several sources familiar with the inner workings of the PMO. The other two are the prime minister’s military secretary, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, and the cabinet secretary, former chief military advocate general Maj. Gen. (res.) Avichai Mandelblit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his former National Security Adviser Ya’akov Amidror and (background) cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the PMO in Jerusalem on November 3, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Not all cabinet secretaries have been influential figures in recent years, with some chosen by the prime minister for their past loyalty or effective management skills.

But Mandelblit is in the room a lot with the prime minister, several sources said. “He has a quiet and low-key personality, but quiet waters run deep,” said one. “He is an expert in international law, so he’s in a lot of diplomatic meetings where you didn’t necessarily see his predecessor.”

With Mandelblit’s appointment in April, “the status of the post has possibly been enhanced.”

But the rise of the NSC has not occurred without causing friction with the other major national security advisory post, that of the military secretary.

Unlike the national security adviser, “the military secretary doesn’t have a support staff. He has one or two people working for him,” notes Freilich.

Freilich believes “there has to be a serious change in the role of the military secretary. He shouldn’t be in charge of preparing meetings. He has to be a serious strategic planner. Maybe the military secretary should become deputy head of the NSC.”

Israeli Ambassador to the US presents his credentials to President Barack Obama at the White House, December 4, 2013 (photo credit: Twitter/ Amb. Ron Dermer)

The NSC’s centrality is also highlighted by the fact that it took on most of the duties held by Netanyahu’s former adviser and new ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer.

The US-born Dermer, who cut his teeth in political consulting as a Republican pollster in the United States in the 1990s, held a unique position at Netanyahu’s side as a political adviser, foreign policy analyst, and a key source of insight into Netanyahu’s main foreign policy target: the United States. He left the PMO in March and was appointed ambassador to Washington in July.

Tellingly, Dermer is not being replaced.

“Dermer was personally close to the prime minister. His job was to be the close adviser,” said one former official. “Now the head of the NSC is filling that role.”

“There’s no doubt Dermer had a unique role with the prime minister,” said another source familiar with the pair. “They had a relationship that predates him taking office. [Dermer advised Netanyahu from 2008, a year before he became prime minister.] Now that Dermer has moved on to Washington, different parts of his responsibilities were divided up. A lot of it went to the NSC.”

The growing centralization of policymaking around the prime minister is also highlighted by Netanyahu’s preference, like other recent premiers, for “external” advisers, individuals who are given senior policy roles but are not government employees. The two key external advisers are attorney Yitzhak Molcho and former ambassador to the UN Dore Gold.

While Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is the top political face of the peace talks with the Palestinians, Molcho is the personal representative of the prime minister. It is significant that as per Netanyahu’s instructions, the negotiators cannot meet without Molcho being present. A close personal confidante of the prime minister, who also serves as Netanyahu’s family attorney, Molcho has served as Netanyahu’s chief peace negotiator for many years, managing his contacts with Yasser Arafat during his first government in the 1990s, and again with Abbas since 2010.

Gold has a similarly long relationship with the prime minister, having served as a peace negotiator alongside Molcho in 1996-7, and then spending much of Netanyahu’s first term, from 1997 to 1999, as Israel’s ambassador to the UN. An outspoken activist — Gold has published three books in recent years about the radical ideology of the Saudi state, Iran’s nuclear drive and the future of Jerusalem — Gold has served as president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a conservative policy think tank in Jerusalem, since his retirement from public service.

Last month, it was announced that Gold would return to Netanyahu’s side as an external adviser. While Netanyahu has emphatically placed the peace talks in the hands of Molcho, US-born Gold’s experience at the UN and other international forums, his expertise in Middle East politics (he holds a PhD on the subject from Columbia University) and his knowledge of the United States suggest he will likely fill part of the role left vacant by the departed Dermer.

Sara Netanyahu

No survey of Netanyahu’s inner circle is complete without noting the looming presence, or at least the allegations of the looming presence, of Netanyahu’s wife.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sarah on September 27, 2012 at the UN in New York after Netanyahu’s speech to the General Assembly (photo credit: Avi Ohayun, GPO)

Sara Netanyahu, a child psychologist, has been the target of scorn and criticism from many Israeli journalists and news outlets, and indeed won a major libel suit against an Israeli paper for its critical portrayal of her, a remarkable feat given Israel’s comparatively strict legal definitions of libel.

It is not always easy to sift through the over-the-top criticism, much of it generated by her husband’s opponents, to understand her precise role at the prime minister’s side.

There is no doubt she plays a central role in the prime minister’s inner circle. Netanyahu “listens to her on almost everything,” said a former official. “Not on Iran, of course, but on almost everything.”

Nor does he consult with her on peace talks with the Palestinians, said another source.

In fact, she does not advise the prime minister on policy, most former officials and observers agree, but rather on political questions. She is his self-appointed but much-trusted political handler and occasional media adviser.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen with his wife Sara and their son Yair, celebrates his 64th birthday, at the PMO in Jerusalem, October 20, 2013. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon GPO/FLASH90)

“She’s very concerned with what happens to him,” said one source close to the prime minister. “She admires [Netanyahu], thinks he is practically a gift from God to the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and is very sensitive to attacks on him. She also follows the media carefully.”

Netanyahu’s outgoing chief of staff, Gil Shefer, made a point of involving Sara in all goings-on in the Prime Minister’s Office and in his political activities, sources said. Shefer’s replacement, the US-born Ari Harow, who is returning to Netanyahu’s side after having served as an adviser and chief of staff from 2007 to 2010, is also expected to make coordination with Sara Netanyahu a key function of his job.

The chief of staff role is larger than mere coordination with Israel’s First Lady, of course. But with Sara taking a keen interest in the prime minister’s domestic political position, and with the effective merger of a PM’s personal and professional lives once he or she moves into the Prime Minister’s Residence, it is not a minor part of the role, either.

What about the cabinet

Finally, Netanyahu’s decision-making process cannot be understood without examining the changing structure of his cabinet. In the last government, Netanyahu appointed a security cabinet — the committee of ministers charged by law with national security decisions — that hovered around 15 members. But he was frustrated repeatedly by leaks and indecisive debate in the large group, and decided to form an ad hoc “Group of Seven” cabinet that eventually expanded to become a Group of Nine. It was in this smaller, unofficial committee where real decisions and high-level policy discussions actually took place.

Netanyahu has applied that lesson to his current government. He restructured the security cabinet down almost to the minimum size required by law. It now comprises just eight members: Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Justice Minister Livni, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Home Front Security Minister Gilad Erdan. It is advised on an ongoing, permanent basis by two senior officials, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and — who else? — the prime minister’s national security adviser Yossi Cohen.

According to those familiar with its workings, the cabinet meets “very regularly” and is now the main forum where “the serious discussions are held.”

The Israeli White House

Many of these changes in the structure of national security decision-making at the highest levels of the Israeli government will likely outlive Netanyahu’s premiership. Indeed, the impulse to concentrate policy around the prime minister extends beyond security questions.

The Prime Minister’s Office (photo credit: Flash90)

Netanyahu more or less openly acts as the nation’s top economic planner, taking a decisive role in appointing the new Bank of Israel governor and setting macroeconomic targets. Under him, key questions of domestic policy, including extending free public schooling down to the age of three, Bedouin resettlement plans and Arab sector economic development, have been brought under the umbrella of the PMO’s Planning Directorate headed by Udi Prawer.

Netanyahu, who speaks native English and was an early adopter of American political campaign methods into Israeli elections, has often been called Israel’s most “American” prime minister.

Whatever truth there may be in these claims of cultural affinity, there is little doubt the PMO under Netanyahu, with its advisers and policy planners and growing control over ever-expanding policy arenas, is looking more and more like Israel’s White House.

Read more: Inside Israel's White House: How Netanyahu runs the country | The Times of Israel 


Monday, January 6, 2014

New Netanyahu Recruitment Strategy Draws Split Reaction

December 31, 2013|4:54 pm
IDF soldiers at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Jenin.

Despite just composing a tiny minority of the country's 1.7 million Arab population, Israel has begun to more intentionally recruit Christians to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF.)

Arab Christians only make up 128,000, or less than 10 percent, of the entire country's population and traditionally have not served in the IDF, where service is mandatory for all Jewish Israeli men and women.

Arab Muslim and Christians are not required to serve (although Druze are) and according to an Associated Press report, the Israeli Christians, the vast majority of whom consider themselves Palestinian despite living in Israel, have long "considered service in the army as taboo." Only 1,500 non-Druze Arabs currently serve in the military, the majority of them from Israel's desperate, poverty-stricken Beduoin community.

Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Christian priest who sides with the government's decision to recruit among his population, said he believes his people have practical reasons -- economic and social integration -- to join the military.

"I believe in the shared fate of the Christian minority and the Jewish state," he said, according to AP.

Nadaf's spokesperson, Shadi Khalloul, an aide, pointed to the persecution of Christians across the Middle East in Egypt, Syria and Iraq and compared it with the status of Christians in Israel.

"They are burning churches, they are slaughtering them (Christians), they are raping the girls," said Khalloul.

But Oudeh Basharat, a Palestinian columnist for the Israeli newspaper "Haaretz," claimed instead that it seemed the Israeli prime minister was only attempting the recruiting campaign as a way to further splinter relationships among Palestinians.

Netanyahu told Christians at a forum recently that joining the IDF would "grant protection to supporters of enlistment and to the conscripts themselves from threats and violence directed at them," which Basharat suggested hinted that the Christian Palestinians' Muslim counterparts would one day turn and target them.

"If you listen carefully to the words of his blessing, it's impossible to shake off the feeling that this recruitment is aimed at achieving internal objectives within Arab society. Netanyahu seems to be playing, with much pomp, the role of the classic colonialist who adopts a policy of 'divide and conquer,'" Basharat wrote in a recent op-ed.

Basharat pointed to the decades that the populations had co-existed with one another and argued that the prime minister was trying to create division for his own benefit.

"Palestinian Arabs, Muslims and Christians, have been living here together for generations in harmony and sharing the same destiny, and now Netanyahu comes to divide them," he continued. "A country that sparks dispute between its sons is not a normal country. The time has come for the prime minister to absorb the fact that before him stands a nation, and not a collection of ethnic groups."

He also said Israel's recruitment efforts had yet to offer Christians "housing," "jobs" or "let the uprooted return."

"Really, how stingy can the Jewish state be: to serve and to bear the burden in return for 'Israeli society is proud of you?'" he wrote.

While numbers have been slow -- only about 50 Christians have joined annually -- those who have chosen have often faced pushback from their communities. Arin Shaabi, who works as a prosecutor in a West Bank military court, said that although she "stands by what [she does]," she has been harassed by others in her home town of Nazareth.

Shaabi has had a rock thrown at her car and she changes into civilian clothes before leaving the military base. Her mother has reported that her family's reputation has suffered.


Thursday, January 2, 2014
ByAdi Schwartz
Dec. 27, 2013 7:34 p.m. ET

As Christmas neared, an 85-foot-high tree presided over the little square in front of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Kindergarten children with Santa Claus hats entered the church and listened to their teacher explain in Arabic the Greek inscriptions on the walls, while a group of Russian pilgrims knelt on their knees and whispered in prayer. In Nazareth's old city, merchants sold the usual array of Christmas wares.

This year, however, the familiar rhythms of Christmas season in the Holy Land have been disturbed by a new development: the rise of an independent voice for Israel's Christian community, which is increasingly trying to assert its separate identity. For decades, Arab Christians were considered part of Israel's sizable Palestinian minority, which comprises both Muslims and Christians and makes up about a fifth of the country's citizens, according to the Israeli government.

But now, an informal grass-roots movement, prompted in part by the persecution of Christians elsewhere in the region since the Arab Spring, wants to cooperate more closely with Israeli Jewish society—which could mean a historic change in attitude toward the Jewish state. "Israel is my country, and I want to defend it," says Henry Zaher, an 18-year-old Christian from the village of Reineh who was visiting Nazareth. "The Jewish state is good for us."

LOOKING UP: Celebrating Christmas in Nazareth, December 2012 Reuters

The Christian share of Israel's population has decreased over the years—from 2.5% in 1950 to 1.6% today, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics—because of migration and a low birthrate. Of Israel's 8 million citizens, about 130,000 are Arabic-speaking Christians (mostly Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox), and 1.3 million are Arab Muslims.

In some ways, Christians in Israel more closely resemble their Jewish neighbors than their Muslim ones, says Amnon Ramon, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a specialist on Christians in Israel at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. In a recent book, he reports that Israeli Christians' median age is 30, compared with 31 for Israeli Jews and only 19 for Israeli Muslims. Israeli Christian women marry later than Israeli Muslims, have significantly fewer children and participate more in the workforce. Unemployment is lower among Israeli Christians than among Muslims, and life expectancy is higher. Perhaps most strikingly, Israeli Christians actually surpass Israeli Jews in educational achievement.

As a minority within a minority, Christians in Israel have historically been in a bind. Fear of being considered traitors often drove them to proclaim their full support for the Palestinian cause. Muslim Israeli leaders say that all Palestinians are siblings and deny any Christian-Muslim rift. But in mixed Muslim-Christian cities such as Nazareth, many Christians say they feel outnumbered and insecure.

"There is a lot of fear among Christians from Muslim reprisals," says Dr. Ramon. "In the presence of a Muslim student in one of my classes, a Christian student will never say the same things he would say were the Muslim student not there."

"Many Christians think like me, but they keep silent," says the Rev. Gabriel Naddaf, who backs greater Christian integration into the Jewish state. "They are simply too afraid." In his home in Nazareth, overlooking the fertile hills of the Galilee, the 40-year-old former spokesman of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem is tall and charismatic, dressed in a spotless black cassock. "Israel is my country," he says. "We enjoy the Israeli democracy and have to respect it and fight for it."

That is the idea behind the new Forum for Drafting the Christian Community, which aims to increase the number of Christians joining the Israel Defense Forces. It is an extremely delicate issue: Israeli Arabs are generally exempt from military duty, because the state doesn't expect them to fight their brethren among the Palestinians or in neighboring Arab countries. Israeli Palestinians, who usually don't want to enlist, say they often face discrimination in employment and other areas because they don't serve.

"We were dragged into a conflict that wasn't ours," says Father Naddaf. "Israel takes care of us, and if not Israel, who will defend us? We love this country, and we see the army as a first step in becoming more integrated with the state."

According to Shadi Khaloul, a forum spokesperson, the total number of Christians serving in the Israeli military has more than quadrupled since 2012, from 35 to nearly 150. This may seem a drop in the ocean, but it was enough to enrage many Palestinian Israelis. Father Naddaf says that his car's tires were punctured and that he received death threats, worrying him enough that he got bodyguards. Hanin Zoabi, an Arab-Muslim member of the Israeli parliament, wrote Father Naddaf a public letter calling him a collaborator and accusing him of putting young Christians "in danger." "Arab Palestinians, regardless of their religion, should not join the Israeli army," Ms. Zoabi told me. "We are a national group, not a religious one. Any attempt to enlist Christians is part of a strategy of divide-and-rule."

Many Arab Christians don't see it that way. "We are not mercenaries," says Mr. Khaloul, who served as a captain in an IDF paratrooper brigade. "We want to defend this country together with the Jews. We see what is happening these days to Christians around us—in Iraq, Syria and Egypt."

Since the Arab revolutions began in Tunisia in 2011, many Christians in the region have felt isolated and jittery. Coptic churches have been attacked in Egypt, and at least 26 Iraqis leaving a Catholic church in Baghdad on Christmas Day were killed by a car bomb. Islamists continue to threaten to enforce Shariah law wherever they gain control.

The Christian awakening in Israel goes beyond joining the IDF. Some Israeli Christian leaders now demand that their history and heritage be taught in state schools. "Children in Arab schools in Israel learn only Arab-Muslim history," says a report prepared by Mr. Khaloul and submitted to Israel's Ministry of Education, "and this causes the obliteration of Christian identity."

Some Israeli Christians even recently established a new political party, headed by Bishara Shlayan, a stocky, blue-eyed former captain in the Israeli navy who told me that he once beat up an Irish sailor in Londonderry who called him an "[expletive] Jew." The new party is puckishly called B'nai Brith ("Children of the Covenant"), and Shlayan says it will have Jewish as well as Christian members. Nazareth's mayor, Ramez Jaraisy, recently told the Times of Israel that Shlayan was a "collaborator" with the Israeli authorities.

"The current Arab political establishment only brought us hate and rifts," says Mr. Shlayan. "The Arab-Muslim parties didn't take care of us. We are not brothers with the Muslims; brothers take care of each other." Mr. Shlayan, who advocates better education, housing and employment for Israeli Christians, says he also dreams of turning Nazareth into an even busier tourist spot by erecting the world's biggest statue of Jesus.

Should this Christian awakening succeed, it would be yet another notable shift in the balance of power among religious groups in the Middle East.

—Mr. Schwartz is a former staff writer and senior editor for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.


Monday, December 30, 2013
December 30, 2013|12:14 pm

LOS ANGELES – The consul general of Israel in Los Angeles believes that Christianity is experiencing a rapidly growing renaissance in Israel. With that, he emphasized the biblical mandate that evangelical Christians and Jews have – to be in a favorable relationship with one another.

"We really are a community of believers and we are both mandated with relationship with one another, with relationships to our great religions, and the Promised Land, [and] the Holy Land," Consul General David Siegel recently told The Christian Post. "It's mandated in the Old Testament, it's mandated even stronger in the New Testament. So we are biblically mandated to this relationship."

Pointing to the fact that both faiths have shared foundational values, Siegel noted that in many cases these values are "identical."

"We live in a world that we all understand is a world that needs to be repaired."

Siegel said he believes that Israel has been experiencing a growing Christian population as a result of persecution throughout the Middle East.

"Today, Israel is also a safe haven for the Christians of the Middle East who are being systematically persecuted in all sorts of countries under this guise of this 'Arab Spring,'" he explained.

He pointed out that Christians are setting up bases of operation to continue empowering their communities throughout the Middle East through charitable organizations and use of radio.

"So Christianity is experiencing a huge renaissance in Israel today, both in terms of the numbers of believers, prayer houses and sessions that take place throughout the country in a multitude of languages, but also the people on the ground that are working to save lives in the Middle East," he said. "Much of the blood, unfortunately, is that of Christians. This is the plight of Christians in the Middle East and unfortunately we don't see that much attention put to it."

Siegel told CP that "the evangelical community is probably Israel's closest friend in the world, not a fair weather friend, but a constant friend whether times are good or bad."

He gave an example of this in talking about the 9/11 tragedy.

"I was in this country during 9/11, in Washington [D.C.] with my family," he said. "We moved with my family back to Israel that fall right after the attacks; my term was over and we came right into the very problematic period of Israel's history of suicide bombings. I remember being at a hotel before we were able to move into our house, just in transit from the United States, and the hotel was packed with Christian supporters – there was no one else. So it's that story that is a message that we feel that even when times are bad our Christian friends are with us."

In another example of the existing relationship between Christian and Jewish groups, he pointed to them working side-by-side in the Philippines.

"We have teams on the ground that are protected by U.S. Marines and working hand-in-hand with other NGOs, including Christian NGOs, to repair souls and repair infrastructure," Siegel said. "Now we are in phase two, after the recovery, and the emergency aid that is working on reconstruction, post-trauma treatment, medical treatment, and social care. It shows that it's not just biblical, not that that's not important, but in our everyday lives of modern states Israel has a lot of things on the table in terms of the Christian-Jewish relationship, and that's a wonderful thing to celebrate."

He added that the challenge for both communities of believers is that both are under attack verbally. Siegel explained that Israel had the first field hospital in Haiti on the ground after the massive earthquake and workers were overwhelmed. "Surgeons were actually going into old metal factories to create more medical devices and surgical devices because they were running out of supplies so quickly because of the amount of surgery that had to be done on the ground – amazing stories of human commitment and innovation," he said.

"I remember also that we were partnering with the evangelical groups on the ground, and Al Jazeera television and other voices of extremism were attacking both of us – both Jews and Christians for harvesting organs in Haiti. I remember that as such a defining moment of, here we are, both America and Israel, both Christian and Jewish communities, coming in to help and [at the same time] hear the voices of religious intolerance and hate, not only not being there to help, but coming out and attacking what we were doing and turning it into some sort of work of the devil, rather than being God's work.

"I think that on the informational level it's so important to fight that propaganda and we feel it every day. Our relationship also has risk in that if we don't educate the next generation that (propaganda) is consuming the news and it concerns a lot of misinformation about both of our communities," Siegel explained. "We need to fight that."

Monday, December 30, 2013
December 26, 2013|4:54 pm

The Muslim Brotherhood was officially declared a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government on Wednesday, over a year after winning the country's first democratic presidential elections with former leader Mohamed Morsi.

"All of Egypt ... was terrified by the ugly crime that the Muslim Brotherhood group committed by blowing up the building of the Dakahlyia security directorate," the Egyptian government said in an official statement.

The decision came after the latest crackdown on the Islamic party, which is being accused of carrying out a suicide bomb attack that killed 16 people at a police station on Wednesday, Reuters reported.

"This is a turning point in the confrontation. This is an important tool for the government to close any door in the face of the Brotherhood's return to political life," noted Khalil al-Anani, a Washington-based expert on the movement.

The Islamic movement, which rose to political power 18 months ago and helped Morsi become president, suffered a significant blow after protests led to Morsi's ousting in July. It has been accused of inciting violence on several occasions, including urging radicals to attack Christian churches and property in retaliation for Morsi's ousting, but has mostly been driven underground by Egypt's interim government.

In September, Egyptian judges recommended that the Brotherhood be dissolved, accusing it of operating outside the law. The latest move, however, allows authorities the power to charge members or those supporting the Brotherhood with belonging to a terrorist organization.

The Muslim Brotherhood has spoken out against the bombings at the police station, something which was recognized by the White House.

"We condemn in the strongest terms the horrific, terrorist bombing yesterday. There can be no place for such violence. The Egyptian people deserve peace and calm. We also note that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt condemned the bombing shortly after it occurred yesterday," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

"We are concerned about the current atmosphere and its potential effects on a democratic transition in Egypt," she added.

The Islamic party has also been accused of using fraudulent means to help Morsi win the election in 2012, with accounts that it turned away Christians from the polls.

"I know this firsthand because I know folks on the ground. In thousands of villages, during the election, they stood with guns outside the polling booths. And if a Christian wanted to go in to vote, they would say 'You go in, and we'll kill you.' And so hundreds of thousands of Christians couldn't vote," Dr. Michael Youssef, founding pastor of the 3,000 member Church of the Apostles in Atlanta, shared in an interview with The Christian Post in July.


Friday, December 20, 2013

Day after US senators propose new sanctions legislation, negotiators set to discuss implementation of Geneva interim deal

BY TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF December 20, 2013, 9:19 am 

The Iranian Air Force was set to launch large-scale drills Friday, as part of “annual exercises aimed at testing indigenous air defense systems, improving the units’ combat readiness and displaying the country’s military might and achievement,” according to a report in Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.

The drills involve “different types of interceptor fighters, bomber fighters, transport aircraft and reconnaissance planes,” the air force’s deputy commander, Brig.-Gen. Alireza Barkhor, told Fars.

The exercises “seek to send a message of peace, friendship and security to the regional countries,” he added.

The drills came just as expert-level representatives from Iran and the P5+1 world powers were expected to resume nuclear talks in Geneva on Friday, for a second day of negotiations.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced new sanctions legislation that the Iranians had warned could “kill” its interim nuclear agreement with the six world powers reached last month in the Swiss capital.

The bill, which came as talks over the implementation of the interim agreement resumed after a nearly week-long hiatus, would impose sanctions that will come into effect should Iran violate the interim deal or fail to reach a final agreement.

The Obama administration has campaigned heavily against such legislation, arguing that it would make a comprehensive deal with Tehran more difficult to achieve.

The White House on Thursday vowed to veto the legislation if it passes. Speaking an hour after the senators announced the bipartisan Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, White House spokesman Jay Carney slammed the legislation, describing it as potentially “damaging and destructive to the diplomatic effort.”

Carney implied that lawmakers were out of step with American voters in proposing legislation that, he claimed, “will undermine our efforts to reach a diplomatic solution and greatly increase the chances for military action.

“I think that there is overwhelming support in the country and in this congress for a diplomatic resolution to this conflict,” added Carney.

Characterizing the legislation as “unnecessary,” he said that “if it passed, the president would veto it.”

Earlier Thursday, days after the Iranian government withdrew from the expert-level talks over the recent nuclear deal in protest at continued US punitive measures, the sides returned to the table in a bid to get the negotiations back on track.

The talks, brokered by representatives of the United States, China, Britain, France, Russia and Germany, revolve around the on-the-ground implementation of the guidelines established in the November 24 interim agreement.

While the talks were scheduled for December 19-20, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi told Fars that the meetings will continue through Saturday and Sunday if necessary.

The Iranian officials last met with representatives from the six world powers on December 12 in Vienna. However, following a decision by the US government to blacklist 19 companies for evading Iranian sanctions, the Iranian delegation cut the meetings short and flew back to Iran a day before negotiations were set to end, stating that the US move violated the interim agreement.

Days later, top Iranian officials reiterated their commitment to the diplomatic process.

“The process has been derailed, the process has not died,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CBS News on Sunday. “We are trying to put it back and to correct the path, and continue the negotiations, because I believe there is a lot at stake for everybody.”

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was also quoted Tuesday saying that Iran was ready for a final agreement.

Under the interim agreement signed in Geneva last month, the world powers must ease sanctions against Iran while Iran is required to scale back its nuclear program over the course of six months. While the deal was heavily criticized by Israeli officials, the US and the additional world powers remain optimistic the interim deal will pave the way for a permanent agreement with the Iranian regime.


Monday, December 16, 2013

BY TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF December 16, 2013

President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice hosted a series of meetings with Israeli officials over the weekend to discuss the Iranian nuclear deal signed in Geneva last month, Reuters reported Monday.

The talks were aimed at gaining Israeli support for the six-month interim deal which aims to scale back Tehran’s controversial nuclear program in exchange for an easing of international sanctions. The P5+1 world powers and Iran are currently in the midst of negotiations over a more comprehensive, long-term solution.

On Sunday, Iran’s foreign minister said his country would continue nuclear negotiations with world powers, even after pulling out of expert-level talks last week on technical details of last month’s interim deal to protest the US targeting companies it says evaded current sanctions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama administration officials have publicly spared over the interim deal, which the prime minister has labeled a “historic mistake.”

“During the meetings, the US team reaffirmed President Obama’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” the White House said in a statement.

Rice, along with other officials from the State Department and the Treasury, met with Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen and other Israeli officials in Washington on Thursday and Friday.

Reuters reported that the series of meetings were “an initial step toward fulfilling a promise Obama made to Netanyahu in their November 24 phone call that the United States would consult regarding the effort to forge a comprehensive solution with Iran.”

Some in the US Senate have lobbied for increased sanctions on Iran as negotiations for a comprehensive deal continue, a move Obama administration officials have warned would sabotage talks.

Last week, the Republican and Democratic leadership in the US House of Representatives failed to agree on a resolution that would have recommended parameters for the Iran talks.

Speaking at the Brookings Institute’s annual Saban Forum in Washington earlier this month, Obama said it was important for the US and the world to test Iranian intentions in the next six months.

“And if at the end of six months it turns out that we can’t make a deal, we’re no worse off, and in fact we have greater leverage with the international community to continue to apply sanctions and even strengthen them,” he said.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013
By  | Dec. 11, 2013 | 3:27 AM 
Senior officials in the administration of President Barack Obama have conceded over the past few days in conversations with colleagues in Israel that the value of the economic sanctions relief to Iran could be much higher than originally thought in Washington, security sources in Israel told Haaretz.

In official statements by the United States immediately after the agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program was signed in Geneva betweenIran and theF six powers at the end of November it was said that the economic relief Iran would receive in exchange for signing the agreement would be relatively low – $6 billion or $7 billion. Israeli assessments were much higher – about $20 billion at least.

The United States had originally intended to make do with unfreezing Iranian assets in the amount of $3 billion to $4 billion. But during negotiations in Geneva, the P5+1 countries backtracked from their opening position and approved much more significant relief in a wide variety of areas: commerce in gold, the Iranian petrochemical industry, the car industry and replacement parts for civilian aircraft. But the Americans said at the time that this would at most double the original amount.

However according to the Israeli version, the Americans now concede in their talks with Israel that the sanctions relief are worth much more. According to the security sources: “Economics is a matter of expectations. The Iranian stock exchange is already rising significantly and many countries are standing in line to renew economic ties with Iran based on what was already agreed in Geneva.” The sources mentioned China’s desire to renew contracts worth some $9 billion to develop the Iranian oil industry and the interest some German companies are showing for deals with Tehran. “In any case, it’s about 20 or 25 billion dollars. Even the Americans understand this,” the sources said.

The interim agreement is to come into force on January 15. Until then, Iran is not restricted in terms of moving ahead on its nuclear program. Israel was surprised by the public statement by Obama at theSaban Forum in Washington late last week, that the agreements allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium. This is seen as an unnecessary concession considering that negotiations with Iran are still underway. However, the Israeli leadership seems to be seeking to somewhat lower its contentious tones toward Washington after two weeks of public scuffling and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most recent speech with regard to Iran, also to the Saban Forum, was relatively moderate.

But along with efforts to renew intelligence and diplomatic coordination between the two countries on the nuclear issue, tussles are expected to continue between Obama and Netanyahu in another important arena – the U.S. Congress. The administration is very concerned about the objections to the agreement in Geneva by senators and congress members on both sides of the aisle. A few prominent opponents of the agreement who are experts in foreign affairs and frequently express themselves on the Middle East have articulated doubts about the deal and have called for additional heavy sanctions on Iran if the accord falls through.

Although Israel has not said so publicly, it is clear that Netanyahu’s representatives have also been in touch with these lawmakers in recent weeks. Among them are Republican senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Mark Kirk and Congressman Eric Cantor and Democratic senators Chuck Schumer, Robert Menendez and Congressman Steny Hoyer.

The extent of the administrations’ concern can be seen in an editorial in Tuesday's New York Times. The paper reads as if it is quoting Obama’s messages on the Middle East. The article warned against the initiative of senators Kirk and Menendez to prepare new legislation that would complete the very effective sanctions moves they led against Iran a few years ago. According to the proposal, which has the behind-the-scenes support of senior Israeli officials, new sanctions would be instituted if at the end of the six months set out in the interim agreement a satisfactory arrangement is not reached with the Iranians.

The Times warns that the breakthrough attained in Geneva, which it calls the most positive development in relations between the United States and Iran in 30 years, will be put at risk by the initiatives in Congress. The interim agreement is “unquestionably a good deal,” which is preferable to military action and the paper joins the warnings issued both by the White House and the Iranian government against legislation that would sabotage the agreements implementation. According to the Times, moves by Kirk, Menendez and other senior officials are unnecessary and will “enrage the Iranians.” It seems that the U.S. lawmakers are not impressed by this prospect and Netanyahu even less so. In the American-Israeli dispute, the tones may be more muted, but the scene of the next clash is clear – Congress in Washington.


Monday, December 9, 2013

(Reuters) - Iran is moving ahead with testing more efficient uranium enrichment technology, a spokesman for its atomic energy agency said on Saturday, in news that may concern world powers who last month agreed a deal to curb Tehran's atomic activities.

Spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi was quoted by state news agency IRNA as saying that initial testing on a new generation of more sophisticated centrifuges had been completed, underlining Iran's determination to keep refining uranium in what it says is work to make fuel for a planned network of nuclear power plants.

Although the development does not appear to contravene the interim agreement struck between world powers and Iran last month, it may concern the West nonetheless, as the material can also provide the fissile core of a nuclear bomb if enriched to a high degree.

"The new generation of centrifuges was produced with a higher capacity compared with the first generation machines and we have completed initial tests," Kamalvandi was quoted as saying.

"The production of a new generation of centrifuges is in line with the (Iranian atomic energy) agency's approach of upgrading the quality of enrichment machines and increasing the rate of production by using the maximum infrastructure facilities".

Kamalvandi said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had been informed of the development.

Iran's development of a new generation of centrifuges - machines that spin at supersonic speed to increase the ratio of the fissile isotope - could enable it to refine uranium much faster.

Under the November 24 interim accord with the six world powers, Iran promised not to start operating them or install any more for a period of six months. But the agreement seems to allow it to continue with research and development activity at a nearby Natanz pilot plant.

Iran earlier this year stoked the West's worries by starting to install a new centrifuge - the IR-2m - at its Natanz enrichment plant. Iran is testing the IR-2m and other models at its research and development facility at Natanz.

Kamalvandi did not specify whether the new centrifuge model he was referring to was the IR-2m.

It is currently using a 1970s model, the IR1, to refine uranium at the main Natanz plant and its efforts to replace this breakdown-prone centrifuge are being closely watched.

Some experts believe the IR-2m can enrich uranium 2-3 times faster than the IR-1.

U.N. inspectors arrived in Tehran on Saturday and are due for the first time in more than two years to visit a plant linked to a planned heavy-water reactor that could yield nuclear bomb fuel, taking up an initial gesture by Iran to open its disputed nuclear programme up to greater scrutiny.

(Reporting by Isabel Coles in Dubai and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Friday, December 6, 2013


(Reuters) - The Palestinians rejected ideas raised by visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday for security arrangements under a possible future peace accord with Israel, a Palestinian official said.

There was no immediate response from the United States or Israel, which has long insisted on keeping swathes of its West Bank settlements, as well as a military presence on the territory's eastern boundary with Jordan, under any peace deal.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and declined to elaborate on the proposals, said Kerry presented them to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after discussing them separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The Palestinian side rejected them because they would only lead to prolonging and maintaining the occupation," the official told Reuters, referring to Israel's hold on the West Bank, where, along with Gaza and East Jerusalem, Palestinians seek an independent state.

In remarks to reporters after his three-hour meeting with Abbas in the West Bank hub city of Ramallah, Kerry commended "his steadfast commitment to stay at the peace negotiations, despite the difficulties that he and the Palestinians have perceived in the process".

Kerry said they had discussed "at great length issues of security in the region, security for the state of Israel, security for a future Palestine".


"I think the interests are very similar, but there are questions of sovereignty, questions of respect and dignity which are obviously significant to the Palestinians, and for the Israelis very serious questions of security and also of longer-term issues of how we end this conflict once and for all," he added.

Abbas did not join Kerry at the Ramallah media appearance.

Disputes over proposed Israeli land handovers have bedevilled peace efforts for two decades, along with other issues like the status of Jerusalem and fate of Palestinian refugees. Kerry revived the talks in July and set a nine-month target for an accord, but both sides have signalled pessimism.

Palestinians worry that Israel's settlements - deemed illegal by most world powers - will not leave room for a viable state. Israelis question whether Abbas could commit the rival, armed Palestinian Hamas Islamists who govern Gaza to coexistence with the Jewish state.

Kerry, who met Netanyahu earlier on Thursday and returned to Jerusalem in the evening to confer again with the Israeli leader, said "some progress" had been made in the peace talks.

Acknowledging Israel's fear that ceding the West Bank could make it vulnerable to attack, Kerry said he offered Netanyahu "some thoughts about that particular security challenge".

Neither he nor Netanyahu gave further details, citing the need to keep the diplomacy discreet. Both described Israeli security as paramount, something Netanyahu said would require that his country "be able to defend itself by itself".

Israel quit Gaza unilaterally in 2005, after which Hamas came to power. The sides have repeatedly exchanged fire since.

Israeli media have reported that Kerry's proposals included security arrangements for the Jordan Valley, between the West Bank and Jordan. An Israeli official said that in recent weeks U.S. officials had visited Jordan Valley crossing points.

Kerry was due to depart on Friday after a helicopter tour of the West Bank and other areas with Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon. In Ramallah, Kerry said he may return to the region for more talks next week "depending on where we are".

"So the discussions will go on, the effort will continue, and our hopes with them for the possibilities of peace for the region," he said.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)