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Credit: The Time of Israel

Latest Israel News – 7th February

Israeli jets strike 3 Hamas posts in response to rocket fire

Israeli aircraft targeted three Hamas sites in the northern Gaza Strip on Monday afternoon, hours after tanks shelled one of the terrorist group’s positions in the coastal enclave in response to a rocket attack earlier that morning, the army said.

Just after 9 a.m., a rocket launched from Gaza struck an open field south of the coastal city of Ashkelon, causing neither injury nor damage, the Israel Defense Forces said.

In response, an IDF tank fired shells at a Hamas position, destroying it, near the northern Gaza city of Beit Lahiya, the army said.

A few hours later, Palestinian media in the Strip reported Israeli airstrikes against Hamas sites west of Jabaliya, in northern Gaza. The army confirmed that it had carried out the strikes.

According to the Palestinian al-Quds media outlet, one of the Hamas positions hit in the airstrikes was a naval base.

The Gaza health ministry said on Twitter there were no reports of Palestinian injuries in the retaliatory strikes.

Palestinians in the Strip took to social media, posting pictures and videos of the Israeli airstrike.

The rocket strike came two days after a top explosives expert for Hamas’s armed wing was killed in a mysterious explosion.

The rocket alert sirens that sounded at 9 a.m. in Zikim and Karmiya, in the Hof Ashkelon region south of the coastal city of Ashkelon, sent residents scurrying for shelter.

Army spokesman Peter Lerner said the sirens “disrupted the daily lives of Israelis.”

“The IDF will not tolerate rocket fire toward civilians and will continue to ensure security and stability in the region,” he said in a statement.

On two occasions since the summer, Israeli forces carried out waves of dozens of strikes against Gaza in retaliation for rocket attacks, a deterrent method seen as connected to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s hard-line stance toward Hamas.

No Palestinian terrorist group immediately took credit for the rocket fire, though since the 2014 Gaza war, such attacks have generally been carried out by radical salafist groups.

Regardless of which group actually launches the missile, Israel ultimately holds Hamas, which seized control of the Strip some 10 years ago, responsible.

Earlier in the morning, Palestinian media reported that four Israeli engineering vehicles had crossed the border fence and cleared the buffer zone surrounding the Gaza Strip of obstructions. (the Times of Israel)

Netanyahu looks to coordinate settlement bill’s passage with US

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to coordinate passage of the settlement regulation bill with the US as right-wing lawmakers prepare for a Knesset vote late on Monday night that would approve the legislation.

Bayit Yehudi leaders have threatened to topple the government if Netanyahu torpedoes the legislation.

Thousands rallied in the Ofra settlement on Sunday afternoon in support of the legislation, which would retroactively legalize almost 4,000 homes on private Palestinian property.

Before flying to the United Kingdom for his first meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Netanyahu assured reporters that his position on the bill had nothing to do with pressure from Bayit Yehudi.

“I am busy running the country, and when I run the country I think about the whole set of national interests and act only according to that,” he said.

Without mentioning his rival right-wing party’s name, Netanyahu dismissed claims that he was under political pressure or that such a threat from Bayit Yehudi even existed.

“I am constantly hearing fake ultimatums. I am not bothered by this,” he said. “There are people who are busy with empty briefings to the media and on social networks.”

Netanyahu is due back in Israel on Monday night and the vote on the bill is expected to be held after his arrival.

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu told Likud ministers that the bill would be brought to a vote Monday but that he wanted to discuss with Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer the possibility of coordinating with the US administration its timing.

Supporters of the legislation worry that Netanyahu’s desire to coordinate with the US could become an excuse to delay the vote as a first step toward eventually dropping the bill all together.

The Zionist Union, which opposes the legislation, accused Netanyahu of using Trump as an excuse to bury the bill.

“Take responsibility and remove the bill from consideration instead of hiding behind Trump’s back,” the party said.

Bayit Yehudi said the bill was “50 years late,” adding that it offers residents of Judea and Samaria a “normalized life.”

“We are certain that all coalition members will do their best to support this,” the party added.

Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) told the media Netanyahu had instructed him to bring the measure for a vote.

Senior government officials have spoken a great deal over the last few weeks about not surprising US President Donald Trump and his new administration.

Last week, Trump warned Israel against taking unilateral steps when it came to West Bank settlements, even though he also has sent Israel encouraging messages about Judea and Samaria. This includes a statement that the White House does not view the settlements as a stumbling block to peace with the Palestinians.

Left-wing lawmakers and judicial experts have warned that the bill could sway the International Criminal Court to rule on the issue of West Bank settlements, a move it is already studying.

Right-wing legal experts have argued that the law actually places Israel within compliance of international law because it compensates the Palestinians for the land loss as opposed to the current situation in which settlers are using the property without any remuneration to the Palestinians.

Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit has said the legislation is unconstitutional and would not withstand the petitions that would be filed against it before Israel’s High Court of Justice.

Retired Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch told Israel Radio on Sunday the measure was problematic because the Knesset did not have the authority to legislate issues relating to property of Area C of the West Bank, which was outside its purview.

“We [the Knesset] do not have the constitutional ability to legislate for this area,” she said, adding that it also was against international law because it violated Palestinian property rights.

Lawmakers are moving forward with the legislation based on the legal opinion of the Knesset’s attorney and with the help of a private lawyer.

Left-wing legislators have accused Netanyahu of bringing the bill to a vote just to appease his political supporters, knowing full well that the High Court will strike it down.

“Netanyahu is acting as if he is a leaf that can be blown here and there by right-wing thugs,” said MK Amir Peretz (Zionist Union). “The government is bringing this bill forward even though it knows it is illegal and that it will be overturned by the High Court of Justice.”

MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said: “Netanyahu knows the truth. And the truth is that this legislation harms Israel and its citizens.”

She added that it would be bad for Israel’s security and would harm its ability to push forward with maintaining the settlement blocs.

This has nothing to do with Trump and “there is no reason to approve” the bill, she said.

The push to authorize the bill in a second and third reading comes in the wake of last week’s demolition of the Amona outpost and the pending demolition next month of nine homes in the Ofra settlement.

Both Likud and Bayit Yehudi are under fire from settlers because of the demolitions, which were ordered by the High Court.

The bill would prevent such High Court rulings in the future.

Settlers in Ofra heckled both Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also from Bayit Yehudi, who came there late Saturday night to hold a meeting with its secretariat.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” the settlers shouted at them. “You caved in to Bibi.” (Jerusalem Post)

Intel Report: West Bank terror stays heated, Gaza rockets quietest year

Attacks emanating from the West Bank remained heated, while rocket fire from Gaza was the quietest in over a decade, according to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center’s report for 2016.

The current “knife intifada” slowed down around April 2016, but subsequently strengthened, the annual report on terrorism revealed.

The worst month of the current wave of Arab violence was October 2015, with 59 “significant terror incidents,” but there was also a high number of such incidents at an average of 23 per month for January to March 2016.

In April 2016, there were only five such incidents, and there were other low-activity months, but June, September and December 2016 each jumped back up to 11-12 such incidents.

Further, over the entire course of 2016, there were 142 significant violent incidents, compared to 30 in 2014 and 21 in 2013, making 2016 a standout year for terrorism.

According to the report, there is no expectation that the violence from the West Bank will end in 2017, and it is even possible that this front and others, including the Gaza Strip, could see a spike in attacks inspired by a “provocative” incident, such as a move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

Even so, terrorists killed fewer Israelis (17) in 2016 than in 2015, with 30 slain in the last three months of 2015.

On the positive side, even as violent incidents continued at a steady rate, general low-grade public disturbances decreased substantially, according to the researchers.

Most of the attacks in 2016 were “lone-wolf” stabbings, comprising 61% of significant violent attacks. These attacks were also the least likely to lead to civilian casualties and the most likely to lead to the death of the attackers.

Only 23% of significant violent attacks last year were shooting attacks, though these produced a high percentage of casualties, while 8% consisted of Arabs using vehicles to ram or run over people and another 8% were a mix of other kinds of attacks.

The high proportion of lone-wolf attacks showed that Hamas and other organized terrorist groups failed to take control of or escalate the wave of violence to a larger scale, according to the report.

Briefly, the report also mentions attempts by ISIS and Hezbollah to build up terrorist capabilities in the West Bank, but noted that the efforts have either been blocked by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) or remained small in impact.

Meanwhile, Hamas rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip were in 2016 at their lowest point in 11 years, and their number over the last two was less than 1% of the total in those 11 years, said the report.

The 2014 Gaza war (Operation Protective Edge) deterred Hamas from further significant adventurism in terms of firing rockets from Gaza, especially given the Islamist organization’s need for time to rebuild its military capabilities and, as a secondary goal, to rebuild the general civilian sector in the Strip, the report said.

Moreover, Hamas’s deteriorating relations with Egypt for most of 2016 (which Hamas is finally trying to improve) and the cooling of its relations with supporters such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have also decreased its appetite for another major round of hostilities, said the report.

From 2006 to 2016, there have been 10,412 rocket attacks from Gaza, at an average of 947 per year, with the highest number being fired during Israel’s three wars with Gaza: 925 during the 2008-9 war (Operation Cast Lead), 845 during the 2012 war (Operation Pillar of Defense) and 3,852 during the 2014 war.

Only 15 rockets were fired in 2016 and only 24 in 2015, for a total of 39 rockets fired in the two years following the 2014 war.

In contrast, in the two years following the 2008-9 war, there were 261 rocket attacks from Gaza, and in the two years following the 2012 war (not including the end of 2014 which included the 2014 war) there were 412 rocket attacks.

The statistics presented by the report indicate Israel’s deterrence against Hamas firing rockets is even stronger than it was after the 2008-9 and 2012 Gaza wars.

Those statistics cover only rockets that struck into Israel, not mortar shells, or misfired rockets that hit in Gaza  (Jerusalem Post)

Israel completes 10km stretch of West Bank security barrier near Hebron

The Defense Ministry has finished construction of a 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) section of the security barrier south of the West Bank city of Hebron.

The security barrier, which starts at the Tarqumiya checkpoint in western Hebron and extends southward to the Meitar checkpoint, is a total of 42 kilometers (26 miles) long and is located on the side of bypass Road 35 in the West Bank.

Lawmakers had decided to accelerate the completion of this section of the barrier following several infiltrations that led to deadly terror attacks inside Israel, including the attack at Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market last June where two Palestinian terrorists from the Palestinian village of Yatta near Hebron infiltrated into Israel and killed four civilians.

In August, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot urged lawmakers to complete the security barrier to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel illegally and to reduce terror attacks.

According to Eisenkot, an estimated 50,000-60,000 Palestinians enter Israel illegally each day through porous section of the security barrier.

The entire 42 kilometer stretch of the security barrier in the south Hebron hills is set to be completed in the next six months.            (Jerusalem Post)

Netanyahu to press Britain for ‘common stand’ against Iran

With the explosive settlement regulations bill waiting for him immediately upon his return on Monday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set off for a 24-hour trip to London on Sunday with Iran – not the settlements – foremost on his mind.

Boarding the plane to London with his wife, Sara, Netanyahu said that setting clear boundaries to Iranian aggression will be the first of many topics he will discuss with British Prime Minister Theresa May. He will also meet with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and it will be the prime minister’s first meeting with both May and Johnson since they took office last summer.

“We are in a period of diplomatic opportunities and challenges,” he said. “The opportunities stem from the fact that there is a new administration in Washington, and a new government in Britain.”

Netanyahu, who will also be meeting with US President Donald Trump for the first time next week, said he intends to talk to both May and Trump about strengthening their bilateral relationships with Israel, as well as strengthening a trilateral US-British-Israel axis.

“The challenges stem from the fact that the Iranians also understand what I just said, and are trying to test the boundaries with extraordinary aggressiveness, brazenness and defiance,” Netanyahu said. “I think the most important thing right now is that countries like the US, which will take the lead, and Israel and Britain line up together against Iran’s aggression and set clear limits.”

Although Netanyahu said Iran will top his agenda in discussions with May, her spokeswoman said last week that she intends to raise the settlement issue with the prime minister, relaying London’s position that “continued increase in settlement activity undermines trust.”

Earlier in the day, at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that Israel was on the cusp of a “very significant” diplomatic period. There, too, he stressed the Iranian issue, saying that he will emphasize in his talks with the British leaders the need for a “common stand” against the “Iranian aggression that has reared its head in recent days. This needs to be done on a regular basis, especially in light of their defiance of the world order.”

His comments come just days after Trump and his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn put the Iranians “on notice that their disruptive behavior in the region and the world will not be tolerated.

National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz praised Trump for his position on Iran, telling reporters before the cabinet meeting that “finally a US president has stood up and said, ‘We will restrain Iran’s misbehavior and its spread in the Middle East. We will not let them continue to develop ballistic missiles, we will not let them continue to transfer weapons to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.’”

Netanyahu did not mention in his brief opening remarks to the cabinet the White House statement on settlements issued on Thursday.

The statement said that the US “desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years. While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal. As the president has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region.”

The statement said that the Trump administration “has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.”

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Trump on February 15.

Steinitz did, however, relate to the White House statement, saying that it was “positive from Israel’s perspective.”

He said the statement was a “fresh, positive” change for Israel that “unequivocally states” that settlements are not an obstacle to peace, and that “building and construction inside the settlements is acceptable to the US.”

He said he did not remember the last time there was such a “reasonable and logical” US statement about settlements.

That sentiment was echoed by Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis, who characterized the statement as “dramatic” and even “revolutionary” in terms of previous US administrations for saying that settlements are not an obstacle to peace. “The obstacle is the Palestinians, who do not want to come talk peace with Israel,” he said.  (Jerusalem Post)

‘Never Again Will Our Allies Have to Question Our Support,’ New US Envoy to UN Says After First Meeting With Israeli Counterpart

“Never again will our allies have to question our support,” new US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley vowed this weekend, after meeting for the first time with her Israeli counterpart, Danny Danon.

In a statement published on her Facebook page, Haley said she and Danon had a “great meeting,” at which they discussed the “strong” US-Israel relationship.

At her Senate confirmation hearing last month, Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, said the US “must let Israel know we are an ally and will be an ally.”

Haley called the UN Security Council’s passage in December of an anti-settlement resolution — which was enabled by an Obama administration abstention — a “terrible mistake” that would make an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal “even harder to achieve.”

In a statement released on the day of Haley’s hearing, Danon said, “We thank Ambassador-designate Haley, a true friend of Israel, for her unequivocal support and her clear statement regarding the UN’s discrimination against Israel. We look forward to working together with her to undo the damage done by the shameful Security Council resolution, and to lead towards a new era at the UN which includes real reforms that will put an end to the biased obsession with Israel.”  (the Algemeiner)

Trump, the Mideast Conflict, and the Jordanian Option

By Prof. Hillel Frisch        Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies       (BESA)

https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/trump-mideast-conflict-jordanian-option/

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Instead of fixating on an independent Palestinian state, the new US administration should look east to the Hashemite Kingdom as a stabilizing influence on Palestinian politics. President Trump has an opportunity to help Jordan prosper while furthering the interests of the US and its allies.

In his first meeting with President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to stake out common ground on the issues that have most troubled American-Israeli relations over the past eight years: the problem of Iran, and Israel’s settlement policy in Judea and Samaria. Particularly in light of recent UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which labelled Israel’s settlement activity illegal, Netanyahu will need to seek American support for renewed Israeli building in Jerusalem and the blocs, and a renewal of the guarantees of the “Bush letter.”

Beyond that, the inauguration of a new American administration presents an opportunity for Israel to take the lead in advocating a far more ambitious initiative: a major investment in the economic prosperity and political stability of the Kingdom of Jordan.

The gravitational force of a prosperous Jordan would expand the functional links that have always existed between the cities of the West Bank and Amman. It would encourage Palestinians in the West Bank to look to a link with Jordan as the best guarantee of their political and economic future.

Because of this, Jordan has the potential (once again) to become a major stabilizing influence on Palestinian politics, which would serve the interests of Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian people.

The re-emergence of a Jordanian role in the disposition of the West Bank is much preferable to the current international fixation on the concept of an independent, contiguous Palestinian state whose border is based on the 1967 lines. Such a state would be no less of a long-term strategic threat today than it was before the advent of Oslo. So too is Palestinian irredentism a threat to Jordan’s security.

A Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria is likely to succumb to a Hamas takeover and Iranian influence, and to become a theocratic and autocratic state along the lines of the Hamas regime in Gaza. Moreover, it is unobtainable.

Despite Israel’s acceptance of the two-state concept and its agreement to unprecedented territorial dispositions, Israeli concessions have not met the minimal Palestinian demands required for a peace agreement. Nor are they ever likely to do so if the Palestinian Authority is seen as the only possible partner in the peace process.

The inauguration of an American administration uncommitted to the principle of an independent Palestinian state provides Israel with the opportunity to advocate a long-term strategic vision of building up a prosperous Jordan. A strong and stable Jordan could provide an alternative to the model of a two-state solution that depends on the Palestinian Authority.

Such a vision will not only attenuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Equally importantly, it will bolster Jordan, whose importance to regional stability has never been so crucial.

Even more critical is Jordan’s role in containing growing Iranian influence. This is particularly vital now that Iran, along with its terrorist arm Hezbollah, has succeeded in placing its candidate in Lebanon’s presidential palace, making Beirut the fourth capital Iran basically controls in the Arab world. The recent rout of the rebels from eastern Aleppo and the complete takeover of the city by Syrian, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed forces have major implications for the Sunni-Shiite balance of power.

The pivotal roles Jordan is playing in the fights against IS and against the Iranian-Syrian axis are interrelated. The population of Jordan is Sunni, and is extremely fearful of the growing Shiite menace. If the Jordanian state appears unable to stem the tide, the population might turn to IS, as did many of the Sunni tribes in Iraq in the past.

Jordan has traditionally been a pro-Western state ruling through cooption and consensus. Though Jordan is not quite a Jeffersonian democracy, it is far closer to that ideal than any other Arab state in the region.

Critics of a plan to involve Jordan in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be quick to point out that it would entail thrusting a role on Jordan that it does not want. This is certainly the case rhetorically.

Jordan has been committed to a two-state solution since the Oslo Accords, but there are two pieces of evidence that the Hashemite Kingdom is flexible and open to political opportunity. The first is that the Kingdom, throughout the twenty-five years since its announcement of the severance of ties with the West Bank, has refrained from amending the 1952 constitution, which enshrines a Kingdom that unites the two banks of the Jordan River – the East and West Banks.

The second are the trial balloons the Kingdom raises from time to time regarding the feasibility of renewing the Jordanian option. The last was in May 2016, when former Jordanian prime minister Abd al Salam Majali met 100 notables in Nablus at a meeting arranged by Ghassan al-Shak’a, a Nablus-based member of the Executive Committee of the PLO. Simultaneously, in the Hebron area, Jordanian MP Muhammad Al-Dawaimeh launched the “One Million Hebronites” initiative to promote a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation. The Hebron delegation was to meet with King Abdullah to discuss this issue, though it should be noted that al-Shak’a stressed that such a confederation could only come into being after a Palestinian state is created.

Several actors can play a critical role in making Jordan prosperous, and they all have a vested interest in making it happen.

The Saudis and the Gulf states should provide the finance. The US should prod them to do so for their own good, but also to reciprocate for the American security umbrella under which they have been living ever since Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait. Throughout his campaign, President Trump stressed that he wants US allies to pay for the security umbrella the US provides. This is one way the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia can comply.

Regionally, Jordan has never been a more important strategic asset for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies or more worthy of investment. It defends what remains of these states’ northern flank against Syrian-Iranian encroachment and helps balance the threat Shiite Iraq poses to Saudi Arabia’s eastern border, critically close to its major oil fields.

Internationally, the current leadership of the EU – the champion of the two-state solution, almost to the point of obsession – has been considerably weakened by events such as the takeover in Crimea and Brexit. With the vast increase in Islamic terrorism on its home ground, the EU might be inclined to join a venture that will be part of the front against terrorism rather than create a state that might well promote it.

Channeling money to the Palestinians through Jordan would also improve transparency and assure that less money is channeled to incitement and terrorism. It will be important to gradually wean international aid away from the PA and towards Jordan to enable the latter to extend its influence in the West Bank. Israeli-Jordanian security cooperation, historically extensive, can also play a vital role in securing the cooperation of the security forces currently operating under the PA.

Recent trends bolster the prospects of such a project. Locally, the possible breakup of the PA into north and south as a result of the struggle over Abbas’s succession could revitalize the links between Nablus and Amman, as well as Hebron and Amman. Should a breakup occur in the PA, its inhabitants will likely pine for the stability Jordanian influence can offer.

Above all, an incoming president who is new to politics, beholden to no political establishment, and a seasoned businessman with a history of making opportunities come true is moving into the White House. The vision of making Jordan prosperous, and the gains of such a venture in the interests of the US and its allies, might well fire his imagination.

How Israelis See the Settlements – Yossi Klein Halevi (Wall Street Journal)

Unlike critics abroad, who denounce settlements as illegal under international law, mainstream Israeli discourse takes for granted the legitimacy of Israel’s claims to the West Bank – lands where the Jewish people find their deepest historical roots, won in a war of self-defense against the Arab world’s attempt to destroy the Jewish state. The debate, instead, is over the wisdom of implementing these claims to the “territories.”

The mainstream Israeli left no longer promises “land for peace.” This shift recognizes that, after years of terrorism and Palestinian rejection of past Israeli peace offers, the Israeli public has become deeply skeptical of Palestinian intentions. According to an October 2016 poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Peace Index, nearly 65% of Israelis backed peace talks – but only 26% thought they would succeed.

Israelis worry that a Palestinian state would be overtaken by the radical Islamist Hamas movement and would threaten Israeli population centers with rocket attacks – precisely what happened in 2005 when Israel uprooted its 21 settlements in Gaza and withdrew.

Palestinian media regularly ignore any distinction between Israel’s boundaries before and after the 1967 war, labeling coastal cities such as Tel Aviv and Ashkelon as settlements too. For Israelis, the refusal of Palestinians to come to terms with Israel’s legitimacy is proof that the conflict isn’t about settlements, but about the very existence of a Jewish state.

Israelis across the political spectrum regard building in Jerusalem as a category separate from the West Bank. For Israelis, the international community’s discourse over Jerusalem seems delusional. About 300,000 Israelis live in a dozen Jerusalem neighborhoods built after the Six-Day War. For almost all Israelis, these Jewish neighborhoods are just that: neighborhoods, not settlements.

I live in a post-1967 Jerusalem neighborhood called French Hill. Not once have I heard any neighbor doubt the status of French Hill as part of the State of Israel. In recent years, growing numbers of Arab Israelis have moved into the neighborhood. But for the UN, French Hill residents – including its Arab Israeli residents – are “settlers.”

The writer is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.