Many of the United States’ most influential pro-Israel and Jewish groups on Tuesday backed the Obama administration’s call for military action in Syria, putting strong momentum behind the effort to persuade reluctant lawmakers to authorize a strike against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The stances mark a new phase in the debate over how to respond to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, setting in motion a robust lobbying effort on Capitol Hill — powered in part by the memory of the Holocaust and how the Nazis gassed Jews.
After a period of conspicuous silence on the issue, major groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called for bipartisan consensus Tuesday around the use of force.
“Those who perpetuate such acts of wanton murder must know that they cannot do so with impunity,” the conference, which represents 52 national Jewish agencies, said in a statement. “Those who possess or seek weapons of mass destruction, particularly Iran and Hezbollah, must see that there is accountability.”
In its own strongly worded statement, AIPAC said that not taking action would weaken the United States and its ability to prevent the use of unconventional weapons.
“Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass,” the group said.
The statements came after days of intense discussions among activists about whether to play a role in the Syria debate. Some remain worried that a military strike is being cast as a move to protect Israel’s interests rather than an action to defend U.S. credibility.
“There is a desire to not make this about Israel,” said one pro-Israel advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the politics of the situation. “When the administration argues to members of Congress that we should do this for Israel’s sake, that has caused deep discomfort in the Jewish community, regardless of where they stand. Israel didn’t ask the U.S. to do this.”
But some prominent Jewish leaders said a moral imperative, rooted in the experience of the Holocaust, demanded a strong response.
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, participated in a call organized by the Conference of Presidents on Tuesday and said there was a clear consensus to step forward.
“To see innocent people being gassed invokes that special historical memory and sensitivity,” he said. “And when the president says it is in the national security interests of our country to stand up against such heinous violations of international norms, I think both things play very strongly in the psyche of the Jewish community.”
“This isn’t a Jewish issue; this is a humanitarian issue,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s founder and dean.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, an international association of conservative rabbis, said she expects that many rabbis will address the Syrian massacre in their sermons on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins Wednesday evening.
“For the Jewish community to see people being gassed by their own leaders is something that is a horror to us, and to which we are pledged should never happen again,” she said.
The U.S. response carries significant implications for Israel. Many Israel supporters worry that a reluctance to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons could weaken the U.S. ability to contain Iran’s nuclear program. The expansion of Syria’s civil war also has heightened Israeli concerns about the direct impact of the conflict, analysts said.
“As the Syrian crisis has grown in scale, it’s become more important to Israel — with the Assad regime moving closer to Iran, the archenemy of Israel, and the rise of jihadi groups also bent on Syria’s destruction, which have been popping up in areas adjacent to Israel,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
AIPAC is one of the strongest levers of influence on Capitol Hill, with ties to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. In August, the American Israel Educational Foundation, AIPAC’s charitable affiliate, sponsored two trips of House members to Israel — one for 37 Democrats and the other for 26 Republicans.
On Tuesday, the group organized a conference call with top rabbinical allies to provide information about how to discuss the issue with their congregants, and sent a letter to its members asking for their help in persuading lawmakers to back Obama’s request to use force.
“We believe that Congress’ failure to grant the President this authority would be interpreted as a sign of American weakness, and cast doubt about whether America will act to carry out its commitments in the Middle East — including the President’s and Congress’ pledge to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” AIPAC President Michael Kassen wrote.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said he remains in the “deeply skeptical category.” Himes, who represents New York suburbs such as Stamford and Greenwich, said calls and e-mails from his district are running overwhelmingly against a military strike.
“There’s no question that the majority of my colleagues are very, very concerned about the impact of our decision on Israel, and that’s not a simple black-and-white issue,” he said. “What if we attack and Hezbollah launches an attack against Israel? I think there’s some complexity here. But it’s also true that plenty of pro-Israel groups have built deep relationships on the Hill, so I’m sure their points of view will be considered.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Published September 03, 2013
Israel has acknowledged conducting a joint missile test with the United States in the Mediterranean Sea on Tuesday, responding to reports that Russian radar had detected a missile launch in the area.
The Israeli Defense Ministry confirmed to Reuters that the test was conducted at approximately 9:15 a.m. local time (2:15 a.m. ET) Tuesday, about the same time that Russia's Interfax news agency reported that the launch was detected by a radar station at Armavir, near the Black Sea.
Russia's state-owned news agency RIA said radar detected two ballistic 'objects' that were fired from the central Mediterranean Sea. Originally, a spokeswoman for the Israeli military told Reuters that Israel was "not aware of such an event having occurred." However, approximately an hour later, Israel acknowledged that it fired an upgraded Sparrow missile from an Israeli warplane in a launch meant to test the country's Arrow anti-missile system.
“This is the first flight out test of this new version of the Sparrow, and was conducted at Israeli test range over the Mediterranean sea,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement, according to The Times of Israel. “All the elements of the system performed according to their operational configuration."
The Sparrow is a medium-range guided missile that can be launched either from the surface or the air to hit aerial targets, according to the manufacturer.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said the test was performed together with the U.S. Defense Department. The missile was launched and followed its planned trajectory, while the U.S.-funded Arrow missile defense system successfully detected and tracked the target, the ministry said.
U.S. officials told Fox News that the missile launch was a preplanned test and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency may have played a role, but senior Pentagon leadership was unaware of plans to test part of the missile defense system on Tuesday.
The officials added that only one missile was fired into the Mediterranean.
Arrow designer Uzi Rabin told Reuters that tests of the system are usually planned "long in advance" and go unnoticed.
"What apparently made the difference today is the high state of tension over Syria and Russia's unusual vigilance," he said.
Initial speculation that Syria was the target of the missiles proved premature after the Russian embassy in Damascus reported no explosions or sign of a missile attack in the Syrian capital, according to the Itar-Tass news agency. An RIA source in Damascus had reported that objects fell into the sea.
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his country's missile defense systems a "wall of iron," according to Reuters.
"These things give us the power to protect ourselves, and anyone who considers harming us would do best not to," he said during a speech.
The report of the missile test is likely to further increase tensions in the region as President Barack Obama is due to arrive in Russia Tuesday for the G20 summit. The U.S. and Russia have clashed over the proper course of action in the wake of a reported chemical attack by forces loyal to Syria President Bashar Assad last month. On Monday, Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the evidence of the attack presented by the U.S. and its allies was "utterly unconvincing."
A defense ministry official has also criticized the United States for deploying warships so close to the Syria coast. At least three U.S. ships are already in the eastern Mediterranean, while the USS Nimitz carrier group, which includes four destroyers, has been moved from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. In response, Interfax reported on Monday that Russia would be sending a reconnaissance ship to the eastern Mediterranean.
Chance of Syrian strike "low," but draft approved as precaution; IDF deployed air defenses around the country.
Israeli soldiers evacuate a mock victim during a drill simulating a chemical attack May, 2013. Photo: REUTERS
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called on Israelis to carry on with their daily routines Wednesday in light of a possible US strike on Syria, even as the security cabinet approved a limited call-up of reservists in vital military capacities.
The dual message of “stay calm but be prepared,” one government official said, reflected the continued assessments in Jerusalem that there was a “low probability” that Syria would actually strike Israel, but also reflected the government’s responsibility to prepare for all sorts of scenarios, “no matter how unlikely.”
The IDF deployed air defenses around the country on Wednesday and called up a few hundred reserve soldiers ahead of the expected American strike, but these measures are basic precautionary ones, and the chances of a Syrian retributive attack on Israel remain low, a senior military source stressed.
“We have a clear responsibility to prepare the army for all possibilities.
We took a number of decisions to prepare ourselves for a scenario we hope will not materialize,” he added.
As part of the preparations, the IAF deployed Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries in Haifa, Ashkelon and Eilat, and is set to place additional batteries in the northern regions of Amakim and Safed.
“We’ll take additional decisions down the line about placing Iron Dome batteries in northern areas, and possibly further south,” the military source said.
Patriot and Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile batteries, which are deployed at all times, have also been moved around the country.
As of Wednesday evening, a few hundred reservists had been ordered to report for IAF duty – including Iron Dome operators – as well as for Military Intelligence and Home Front Command roles.
“We can expand the call-up if necessary. But this is not a widespread call-up,” the army source emphasized.
The IDF’s overall state of readiness is at normal, he said.
“We’ll only change this when the US begins operating in Syria. There are no special orders from the IDF’s Operations Branch, other than orders for front-line units to be prepared for the possibility of a cancellation of weekend leave,” the source stated.
He added that “naturally forces that are on the northern front lines, particularly on the Golan Heights, will be on high alert over the weekend.”
The Home Front Command, too, has urged members of the public to continue their lives as usual. It reported receiving 20,000 calls to its hot lines in the past day, causing the lines to crash.
“We’ve had far higher call numbers in the past. We will upgrade the phone lines,” the source said.
Similarly distribution centers for gas masks have been experiencing a surge of visits from concerned citizens, and extra staff will be sent to handle the increase in activities.
The army source speculated that the timing of the US strike would depend on a few variables, such as the exit of UN chemical weapons inspectors from Syria. According to his assessment, the strike will occur sometime around this weekend.
“The public should know that the chances of Syrian retribution against Israel are low,” he repeated, calling for calm.
Asked about IDF assessments regarding the chances of rocket fire from smaller terrorist organizations like Islamic Jihad in Gaza, which reportedly threatened to respond to a Syria strike by firing on Israel, he said there was “no indication they decided to [carry out their threats]. But the possibility of attacks by terror groups in Gaza and Sinai is also being factored in.”
The “low probability” estimation is due in part to Israeli assessments that Syrian President Bashar Assad is cognizant of messages Jerusalem has delivered, which make clear that an attack on Israel would ignite a counter-attack that would bring his regime down.
Following the security cabinet meeting in which ministers approved the limited callup of reservists, Netanyahu issued his statement that Israelis need not alter their daily routine.
The ministers made the decision after hearing briefings from IDF Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz and senior Defense Ministry officials.
“The IDF is ready to defend against any threat and prepared to respond severely against any attempt to harm Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu said in his post-meeting statement.
Security officials said Jerusalem and Washington were in close contact, and that the US would likely give Israel a few hours’ notice before launching any type of attack.
After the meeting, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said at an economics conference that the deliberations in the cabinet had taken place in a “reasoned and responsible” manner.
The “bottom line,” he said, was that Israel was preparing and taking the appropriate measures, but doing so in a responsible way that would neither sow panic nor lead to unwanted escalation.
“We need to prepare,” he said, “but we also need to maintain the daily routine.”
Ya’alon repeated a message he and Netanyahu have expressed numerous times since the start of the week: that Israel was not “trigger happy,” but that anyone in the region who might think this was the time to “challenge” Israel would be met with its full force.
He said what was taking place in Syria was part of a once-in-a-century historical development.
“We are not involved or interfering,” he made clear.
“The Syrians crossed the red line the US set out, of not using chemical weapons against civilians. The pictures are horrible. Humanity cannot tolerate this reality, but we are not the ones dealing with this. Rather, it is being done by the West, led by the US.”
Over the last two days, and in an effort to keep tight control of the messages coming out of Jerusalem, Netanyahu and Ya’alon were the only ministers speaking publicly about the situation in Syria.
In addition, both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry are doing their utmost to broadcast a “business as usual” atmosphere, denying that they are on any kind of emergency footing.
At the same time, the Foreign Ministry canceled a conference scheduled to take place in Jerusalem early next week for ambassadors in some 20 key capitals around the world. One ministry official explained that the move to postpone the conference stemmed from a decision that at this time the ambassadors were needed in their embassies.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Delegation headed by National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror in Washington as US plans its response to Damascus attack
By TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF August 27, 2013, 6:37 am 4
US National Security Advisor Susan Rice (photo credit: AP/Craig Ruttle/File)
A delegation of Israeli officials met with US National Security Adviser Susan Rice in Washington on Monday afternoon to discuss the latest developments in Syria and Egypt, as the Obama administration planned its response to a chemical attack near Damascus.
The Israeli team was headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outgoing National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror.
A statement issued by the White House noted that the officials also discussed Iran and other regional issues, and that the meeting was part of a series of regular discussions within the framework of the good relations between the two countries. But the meeting comes at a time when Israel finds itself facing an increased threat.
A senior Syrian official on Monday issued a first direct warning that if attacked, his country would retaliate against Israel. Khalaf Muftah, a senior Baath Party official who used to serve as Syria’s assistant information minister, said in a radio interview that Damascus would consider Israel “behind the [Western] aggression and [it] will therefore come under fire.”
“We have strategic weapons and we’re capable of responding,” he said. “Normally the strategic weapons are aimed at Israel.”
Muftah concluded with a warning that “If the US or Israel make the mistake of taking advantage of the chemical issue… the region will go up in flames… that will affect security not only in the region but across the world.”
His words were echoed by Iranian officials, who on Monday shrugged off the threat of a US attack on its close ally Syria, but said that if such a strike were to take place, Israel would suffer.
“[The Americans] are incapable of starting a new war in the region, because of their lacking economic capabilities and their lack of morale,” said Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Republican Guards’ elite Basij force.
“No military attack will be waged against Syria,” said Hossein Sheikholeslam, a member of Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly. “Yet, if such an incident takes place, which is impossible, the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”
Israeli military officials have indicated they believe it unlikely that Syria would target Israel if the US or others intervened, but Israel has reportedly been taking security precautions just in case.
The Obama administration on Monday toughened its criticism of Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use, with Secretary of State John Kerry cutting short his vacation to deliver a scathing indictment of the Assad regime. It was the first time the US said unequivocally that the Syrian government was behind a devastating attack that killed hundreds last week.
In an address at the State Department (read the full speech here), Kerry said that chemical attacks were “inexcusable” and “undeniable,” that they defied “the code of morality” and should “shock the conscience of the world.” He called the killing of innocent women and children a “moral obscenity” and reiterated — in what appeared to be a direct threat to the Assad regime — that there must be accountability for the use of such weapons.
In an apparent jab at Russia, which has been insisting that the West does not have sufficient evidence of chemical weapons use to justify an attack on Syria, Kerry said that anyone who thought the evidence of a chemical attack was “contrived” or fabricated “must check their moral conscience.”
Also on Monday, the US State Department canceled a meeting with Russian officials about setting up an international conference to find a political resolution to the Syrian crisis, scheduled for this week. A senior State Department official said Monday the meeting between Undersecretary Wendy Sherman and US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford with their Russian counterparts was postponed.
Friday, August 23, 2013
One of the projectiles downed by Iron Dome; northerners told to remain near bomb shelters; IDF denies reports it retaliated, doesn’t expect attack to lead to wider conflagration; Netanyahu: ‘Anyone who harms us… should know we’ll harm them’
A fragment of one of four rockets fired from Lebanon into northern Israel, Thursday, August 22, 2013 (photo credit: Kobi Snir/Flash90)
Lebanese media reported that the IDF promptly retaliated, attacking targets in south Lebanon, but the army denied those reports.
An Israeli Iron Dome battery intercepted one of the rockets. Israeli TV aired footage of minor damage caused by a fragment from the rocket that fell on the outskirts of a town outside Nahariya. Another rocket fell in a town near Acre, causing damage to several houses.
Three residents were treated for shock.
Lebanese media reported that two volleys of rockets had been fired from a Palestinian refugee camp near the Lebanese town of Tyre. There was an attempt to fire a third volley, but the missiles fell short of the border.The IDF said four makeshift rocket launchers had been located east of Tyre.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al-Qaeda-inspired group based in Lebanon, claimed responsibility for the attack in a post on the Twitter account of Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a prominent Islamic militant leader. Zurayqat said the rockets were capable of flying 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, putting the Israeli city of Haifa in its range. The group, designated a terrorist organization by the US, has claimed responsibility for past rocket attacks on Israel.
The official Lebanese news agency reported Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles circling in the area, while a Hezbollah-affiliated station said IAF jets were executing sorties throughout the south of the country.
IDF sources said they regarded the incident — a little after 4 p.m. — as a one-off attack by a jihadist group rather than the beginning of a wider campaign. Northern residents were initially told to go to bomb shelters; the army later called on them to remain close to the shelters but otherwise go back to their normal routines.
The specific location of the rocket falls was not publicized, by order of the military censor, in order to avoid assisting cells firing rockets at Israel in hitting targets in future attacks.
A resident of Kibbutz Evron, near Nahariya, told Ynet that the alarm sounded after “two booms” were heard, and that the residents quickly moved into bomb shelters.
“I heard booms,” Yan, a resident of Nahariya, told Channel 2. “Everyone is in the bomb shelters.”
He said that residents hadn’t heard alarms for seven years — since the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
“I was on the phone to my grandma” when the alarms rang out. “I put down the phone and went down to the shelter,” Yan said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the army was “employing diverse means, both defensive and preemptive measures,” in order to ensure Israelis’ security. “Anyone who harms us, who tries to harm us, should know that we will harm them,” Netanyahu said in a videotaped statement.
There were reports Wednesday in Lebanon that Israeli helicopters had circled in the south of the country.
There were several reports in the past year of attempts to fire rocketsinto Israel from southern Lebanon. In November, during Israel’s brief round of fighting with Hamas in Gaza, Lebanese army forces operating in the town of Marjayoun, about 10 kilometers north of the border, found and disarmed several rockets aimed at Israel.
Damage from a rocket that fell near Nahariya, Thursday, August 22, 2013 (photo credit: Channel 2)
Rockets are a key tactic of the Lebanese Hezbollah and other terror groups on Israel’s northern and southern borders.
Thousands of projectiles fell on Israel during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, and Hezbollah has since stockpiled tens of thousands of rockets it has said will be launched at Israeli cities in future fighting.
Israel last week deployed a sixth Iron Dome battery north of Tel Aviv, with an eye to the missile threat from the north.
The anti-missile system is a keystone of Israel’s air defense array and successfully intercepted hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles shot at Israeli cities during the conflagration in Gaza in November.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
By YASSER OKBI, REUTERS
An adviser to interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour said Monday that it is natural that Israel, like Cairo, wants a stable security situation maintained in Egypt because Jerusalem understands that any deterioration of stability in the country "is liable to influence the entire region."
Speaking in an interview with Russia al-Youm, an Arabic-language Russian media outlet, Mustafa Hijazi said that "Israel is naturally following the events, as a regional neighbor, and wants to be assured, because what's happening right now in Egypt is important to all in the region."
Hijazi stated that many countries want to harm Egypt, but "fascism will not defeat us. He contended that Egypt was facing "violence in the name of religion."
Hijazi attacked the Muslim Brotherhood, stating that the group bears the responsibility "for every drop of blood being shed in the country."
He referred to the Brotherhood as "an extremist enemy of the Egyptian people" that is engaging in terrorist activity in order to get its way.
Hijazi vowed that "victory" over the Muslim Brotherhood would come soon.
Meanwhile, Egypt's public prosecutor ordered on Monday the detention of deposed President Mohamed Morsi for 15 days pending an investigation into allegations he participated in "violent acts", state news agency MENA said.
On Thursday, Egyptian judicial authorities extended Morsi's detention period for 30 days in a separate case.
Morsi, who was overthrown by the army on July 3, is being held at an undisclosed location on allegations of murder and spying. The new case centers on protests that took place in front of the presidential palace last December, MENA said.
Official says army is only actor that can assert authority, if it is dismissed, Egypt to go "way of Syria, Tunisia, Libya."
A rally in protest against the recent violence in Egypt, in Istanbul.Photo: REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Israel’s message to Washington and key European capitals regarding Egypt is that the key issue is simply keeping the country from falling apart.
“The name of the game right now is not democracy,” one official said Sunday, relaying Israel’s position on the Egyptian turmoil. “The name of the game is that there needs to be a functioning state. After you put Egypt back on track, then talk about restarting the democratic process there.”
The official said that in the present reality the only actor that can assert authority in Egypt and keep it from descending into chaos is the military.
“If you dismiss that actor, Egypt goes the way of Syria, Tunisia and Libya,” he said. “Like it or not, no one else can run the country right now.”
The official said that Jerusalem was conveying this message to governments interested in hearing the evaluation of Israel – which, unlike the US or the European countries, neighbors Egypt and will be impacted directly by the developments there.
The official said it was one thing to sit in Washington and Brussels and do “dry” evaluations, and quite another to sit on Egypt’s border and face the prospect of a critically important neighboring country descending into anarchy.
Acknowledging that the situation in Egypt was “really bad,” and one that Israel “does not like,” the official said that “you can scold [Gen.
Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi all you wish, but at the end of the day, you want a functional government to rule the country.”
Otherwise, he said, the country would risk falling into an anarchy that would be exploited by local and global jihad forces.
The official said Israel’s message was that the world had to look squarely at the situation in Egypt as it is, and not think of what might have been done differently.
“This is where we are now,” he said. “We are not somewhere in the world of dreams or illusions. And we are in a bad spot. You can argue that two months ago we could have done this or that, but we have to think about how to get out of this bad spot. And if you don’t, it will only get worse.”
The official said Israel’s position was that the military should be supported to help get the country back on track.
Asked what supporting the military meant exactly, he said “not taking things away from them, not harming or threatening them.”
At the same time, he added, the expectation of a reduction in violence should be made known. He pointed out, however, that “dozens” of Egyptian soldiers and policemen have been killed over the past week.
The official denied a New York Times report on Saturday that – citing Western diplomats – claimed Israel was in “heavy communication” with Sisi and was “reassuring the Egyptians not to worry about American threats to cut off aid.”
“That is nonsense,” the official.
“Do we control Congress? We have no ability to give reassurances about American aid.”
As evidence of that, the official noted that two staunch supporters of Israel in the Senate, John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), were calling for US President Barack Obama to suspend the aid to Egypt.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
By HERB KEINON AND MICHAEL WILNER IN WASHINGTON
The talks will be held under a complete media blackout, with neither the location nor time of the negotiations made public, let alone any mention of what topics are on the initial agenda. The talks will take place following the release late Tuesday night of 26 Palestinian terrorists.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon expressed deep skepticism when asked during a tour of the North whether he thought the talks would lead to a breakthrough.
“We set ourselves the goal of nine months in which we will try to reach something with the Palestinians,” he said. “We’ve been trying for 20 years since Oslo, and for over 120 years of the conflict.
The skepticism in the tone of my remarks is apparent, but we’ve decided to give it a chance.”
Israeli officials dismissed as “overstated” speculation that fears of Israel’s being delegitimized in the world is what motivated Netanyahu to return to the table. At a speech in June to the American Jewish Committee, Kerry warned that the “insidious campaign to delegitimize Israel will only gain steam” if the talks fail.
One government official said that Netanyahu believes that a Palestinian state is in Israel’s interest because of demographic reasons, in order to keep Israel a Jewish democracy, and to fend off attempts to delegitimize it.
But, the official said, “he also believes that a Palestinian state that looks like Gaza does today – hostile, in the Iranian orbit, and one that fosters terrorism against Israel – is something that we cannot afford.”
On the Palestinian side, senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo warned that advancing settlement construction plans could lead to the breakdown of the talks.
“Settlement expansion goes against the US administration’s pledges and threatens to cause the negotiations’ collapse,” he told AFP.
His comments came after the Construction and Housing Ministry announced Sunday that it intends to publish tenders for 1,187 new Jewish homes over the pre-1967 lines, and the Interior Ministry advanced plans on Monday for 900 new Jewish home units next to the Gilo neighborhood.
It will be years before any of these plans come to fruition.
“This settlement expansion is unprecedented,” AFP quoted Abed Rabbo as saying. “It threatens to make talks fail even before they’ve started.”
However, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that Israel’s announcement of plans for the new units was “to some degree expected.”
He urged Israelis and Palestinians to move forward with peace talks.
“What this underscores is the importance of getting to the table, getting to the table quickly,” said Kerry during a trip to Colombia, calling on the Palestinians “not to react adversely” on the eve of the second round of negotiations.
“The United States of America views all of the settlements as illegitimate,” he added.
He said he spoke with both Netanyahu and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni about the matter, and characterized the conversation with Netanyahu as “frank and open.”
Officials in Washington said Kerry’s response was carefully crafted to reinforce Washington’s existing position against further settlement construction but also prevent destabilization of the peace talks.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf reiterated the US position on Tuesday, calling the settlements announcement of “serious concern” and stating that the US position on such construction remains “unchanged.”
“[Kerry] made clear what our position is,” Harf said. “There’s a reason we want both sides to the table.”
Harf said that the State Department had “no reaction to the specific announcement” on east Jerusalem housing, but broadly called settlements one of the many “sticky issues” that will create bumps in the road to peace.
“In no way are we throwing up our hands on settlements,” she said, acknowledging that there are “incredibly serious consequences” for such actions.
“We still believe” both sides are at the table “operating in good faith,” she added, confirming that the talks will continue as scheduled.
Asked whether the US considered the Palestinian security prisoners to be released by Israel as political prisoners or terrorists, Harf said she was unaware of the government’s position.
The Israeli team to Wednesday’s talks will be represented by Livni and Netanyahu’s personal envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, with the Palestinians represented by chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat and senior negotiator Muhammad Shtayyeh.
US special envoy Martin Indyk is expected to participate.
Indyk, who met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday, is scheduled to meet Netanyahu on Wednesday.
Indyk is accompanied by Frank Lowenstein, a former top aide to Kerry who worked with him in the Senate and also on his unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign. He worked closely with Kerry since March in his efforts to restart the talks.
Yaakov Lapin and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
As Israel prepares to release Palestinian prisoners as part of its deal with the PA to resume peace talks, housing minister announces tenders for some 1,200 new housing units in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria
As Israel was set to release the first wave of Palestinian prisoners as part of its deal to start peace talks, Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel announced on Sunday tenders for hundreds of new housing units in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria.
"The decision is timely from both a Zionist and economic perspective," said Ariel. "The government is working to lower the cost of living in every part of Israel. No other nation on the planet accepts diktats from other countries on where it can build and where it can't. We're going to continue issuing tenders for apartments and we're going to build all over Israel, according to our citizens' needs."
According to the new tenders, 400 housing units were up for sale in Gilo, 210 housing units in Har Homa and 183 units in Pisgat Zeev. And in Judea and Samaria, 117 units were for sale in Ariel, 149 in Efrat, 92 in Ma'aleh Adumim and 36 in Beitar Illit.
Activists on the Left and Knesset members protested the housing minister's announcement. Finance Minister and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid called it an "error."
"Announcing these tenders at the current time is an error twice over. The use of resources for housing meant for the middle class in order to show unnecessary defiance against the Americans, and impede peace talks, is neither right nor helpful to the process," said Lapid.
Yesh Atid faction chairman MK Ofer Shelah said the government was teetering between its commitment to the peace process and its desire to continue developing settlements beyond the pre-1967 borders.
"Instead of courageously admitting what's already clear to every Israeli citizen -- there won't be a permanent accord [with the Palestinians] without a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders, with minor border adjustments and land swaps -- the government prefers to zigzag between morally questionable measures and the expansion of settlements, which the major obstacle to any agreement," said Shelah.
Opposition member Shelly Yachimovich said the announcement of new tenders in West Bank settlements was an international affront.
"Netanyahu has to decide in advance what kind of government he wants to lead -- one that is aiming for a diplomatic agreement or one that wants to shoot down any possibility of reaching such an agreement. Ariel's announcement is a finger in the eye of the U.S., Europe, the Arabs and the vast majority of Israelis who long for peace."
Deputy Knesset Speaker Ofer Akunis (Likud) claimed the new tenders were unrelated to the current round of peace negotiations, which were set to continue this week in Jerusalem.
"Building is not an act of defiance, and is unrelated to negotiations being conducted with the Palestinians. It is our natural right to build in every inch of the land of Israel," he said.
Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett -- whose Habayit Hayehudi party garners much of its base among West Bank Jewish settlers -- said the tenders Ariel announced should be sold and developed "unapologetically."
"[Palestinian chief negotiator Dr. Saeb] Erekat said it was forbidden for us to build in our capital, Jerusalem. The question now isn't why we are building in Jerusalem at the current time. Rather, the question is why we haven't been building until now. We are going to keep fighting to build in our country, unapologetically," Bennett said.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Sunday welcomed the government's decision to extend government tenders for 800 new housing units throughout the capital.
"New construction in Jerusalem is necessary for the development and strengthening of the city, and gives young people the chance to live and buy homes here," he said.
Jerusalem city councilwoman Laura Wharton, who attended a cornerstone laying ceremony in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood in the city along with Barkat and Ariel, said she was opposed to "selling new apartments on Palestinian territory."
Still, the housing minister said building new homes for Israelis in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria would continue.
"Let it be clear, this project is just the beginning, and this song can't be stopped. No country would allow someone else to dictate where, when and how to build [housing]," he said.
The Palestinian Authority responded aversely to the news. Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian negotiator, condemned the announcement, saying the timing was not coincidental.
"It's a slap in the face to the U.S. and their efforts. The move proves how little Israel is interested in peace," he said.
Monday, August 12, 2013
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has complained to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about statements by the Palestinians which it said undermined nascent peace talks, an Israeli official said on Saturday.
"Incitement and peace cannot coexist," the official quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as telling Kerry, the negotiations' sponsor, in a letter sent over the weekend.
The complaint underscored the recrimination and distrust on both sides that threaten the talks, even as Israel prepares to free scores of Palestinian prisoners ahead of a second round of discussions next week.
According to the official, Netanyahu's letter referred to an assertion Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made on July 29 that a future Palestinian state "would not see the presence of a single Israeli - civilian or soldier".
Netanyahu also cited an official Palestinian television broadcast of a goodwill visit by the Barcelona football club to the occupied West Bank last week, during which a sportscaster, speaking in voiceover, described Israeli towns and cities as Palestinian - as did a singer who performed on the pitch.
"Rather than educate the next generation of Palestinians to live in peace with Israel, this hate education lays the ground for continued violence, terror and conflict," the letter said.
The U.S. embassy in Israel did not immediately return a call for comment on Netanyahu's letter to Kerry.
The Palestinians have themselves long accused Israel of poor faith in peacemaking, given its expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank which most world powers deem illegal. Netanyahu's rightist coalition government includes pro-settler factions, one of which openly opposes Palestinian statehood.
Asked about Netanyahu's letter, Hanan Ashrawi of Abbas's Palestine Liberation Organisation, dismissed it as "a desperate attempt to distract the world's attention away from their egregious violations of international law".
(Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Ramallah; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)