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Latest News in Israel – 19th December

IDF soldiers attempt to abandon posts, refusing to evacuate Amona settlement

A number of Givati Brigade soldiers reportedly attempted to abandon their posts on Saturday evening in attempt to refuse taking part in evacuating the Amona outpost.

According to the Jerusalem Post’s sister paper Maariv on Saturday night, soldiers told their commanders that evacuations were not among their duties. However, they eventually agreed to return to their posts in order to assist indirectly in protecting roadways while the evacuation would take place.

On a roadway near the Ofra settlement, dozens of protestors blocked roadways around 1:00 AM on Sunday. Israel Police and Border Police forces eventually dispersed them. One minor was arrested for attacking a Border Police officer.

Around a thousand people gathered over the weekend in Amona to show their support for residents there facing an impending eviction. (Amona resident on importance of settlements ‘we’re not occupying’)

Yet, the hundreds of mostly-teenaged supporters descended upon the hilltop outpost Saturday night did not appear worried. The outpost actually took on a party-like atmosphere, as teenagers danced in the mud to techno-rave melodies interlaced with religious proverbs.

“Right now, I am just living my life as normal,” Amona resident Yehuda, 42, who declined to state his last name, told The Jerusalem Post, “I’m doing what I do every day, and tomorrow I’ll go to work.”

The outpost, built in 1995 on private Palestinian land, faces a looming evacuation after the community voted 58 to 20 on Wednesday night against a proposal to peacefully resettle the families on a nearby plot of land.

“There are so many politicians that are trying to sell the residents of Amona. It is forbidden to have a deal that goes against the wishes of God,” Itamar Ben Gvir, an attorney associated with the settler movement said. “I am against hurting police and soldiers and I hope that nobody will be injured from the residents here. Until today, we are still waiting on Bibi’s promises of building 300 homes in Beit El.”

“It was a bad deal. It hurts our heart that the police would come to clear Jews from this place,” Michael, 21, from Jerusalem said while taking a break from dancing.

The proposal pushed by Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to move the outpost to an adjacent hilltop that is considered “absentee,” that is, the Palestinian owners are unknown. Amona residents said the proposal relocates only 12 of the approximately 40 families on the hill. The current outpost was built illegally in 1995 on the rocky hilltop overlooking the settlement of Ofra.

Now hundreds of people have gathered in the cold on the hill to protest any evacuation effort.

Amona leaders called for “passive resistance” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Amona activists on Friday to “not harm IDF soldiers and members of the security forces in any way.” Nevertheless, violent clashes occurred at the outpost in 2006 when security forces carried out a High Court of Justice ruling to demolish nine homes.

In a dilapidated Amona trailer, a group of teenagers who came from Eilat, Tel Aviv and Ra’anana sat on broken couches amid cigarette butts and empty takeaway food trays. Speaking to the Post, the teenagers cursed the police and Army and said they “would not leave for the world.”

When asked if they would resist violently, the group said jokingly, “no we’ll give them flowers.”  (Jerusalem Post)

Ex-president Katsav wins early release after 5 years in prison

Former president and convicted rapist Moshe Katsav will be freed from prison early after serving five years of a seven-year jail sentence, Israel Prisons Service Parole Board ruled Sunday.

“We have come to the conclusion that the time has come to order the prisoner’s release,” the ruling, which accepted Katsav’s request for early release, read.

The ruling came after Katsav, convicted of rape and other sexual offenses in 2010, was rejected twice for failing to acknowledge his acts or express any regret. The parole board said he has now taken several steps that indicate remorse for his actions.

Appearing before the parole board last week, Katsav admitted that he acted “inappropriately” towards women who have made claims against him, according Israel Radio. He reportedly broke down in tears saying that he needed to change his behavior.

Having served more than two-thirds of his prison term at Ma’asiyahu, Katsav was eligible for immediate parole, but a statement from the courts said his release would be delayed for seven days in order for the state to “consider the position.”

The delayed release, a spokesperson said could suggest the state is looking into ways to overturn the ruling.

Upon his release, Katsav will be subject to some restrictions, such as checking in with a parole officer, continuing to attend a rehabilitation program and therapy session, and a ban on speaking to the media.

The state prosecution has said that despite the first glimmers of regret after years of denying any wrongdoing, Katsav’s statements do not amount to an admission of guilt for the two counts of rape for which he was convicted and they will therefore oppose the early release.

Late Sunday, Channel 2 quoted from a letter Katsav is said to have sent to close friends, acknowledging pain caused to his victims. “I’m sure the women who filed complaints against me were hurt, and did go through what they said they went through,” Katsav reportedly wrote. “I have made mistakes and I must learn the lessons. I now recognize that I hurt them, and that I did not see the signs that they were hurt. I erred.

The former president, 71, was convicted in 2010, of two counts of rape, among other related charges. He began serving his sentence in Ma’asiyahu Prison in December 2011 and was slated for release in December 2018.

Katsav has consistently denied committing any offenses and has portrayed himself as a victim. When his previous attempts to secure his release were shot down, it was reported at the time that Katsav had then been placed on a suicide watch and given psychological counseling.

Early parole is very common in the Israeli prison system, with a majority of prisoners managing to obtain the standard one-third reduction to their sentence for good behavior.

The Israel Prisons Service has said Katsav’s behavior as a prisoner has been above reproach.                (the Times of Israel)

Trump’s envoy: The new administration ‘won’t tell Israel what policies to adopt’

by Eric Cortellessa      The Times of Israel


Sitting in a conference room together 13 years ago, David Friedman told his friend Donald Trump that he just purchased an apartment in Jerusalem.

Trump, the real estate tycoon, was immediately curious to know the particulars. “How big was it? How much did it cost?” Friedman recalled him asking, describing the conversation during an interview last month with The Times of Israel. When Friedman cited the price, Trump was surprised.

“That’s really a lot of money,” he responded, according to Friedman’s recollection. “For that kind of money, why wouldn’t you buy a place in East Hampton? Why do you have to go all the way to Israel for a second home?”

The Long Island native’s answer was probably one that the man soon to be president was not expecting. “The world has been fighting over every inch of Jerusalem for the past 3,000 years,” Friedman told Trump. “There’s nobody fighting over East Hampton.”

Trump’s eyes then “opened up,” Friedman said, “and that initiated a decade-plus conversation about Israel.”

Now, in 2016, that exchange seems to have been more fateful than it initially seemed to Friedman, who was announced on Thursday as President-elect Trump’s nominee to be the next US ambassador to Israel.

And the first move Friedman made in that official capacity was to indicate that Trump plans to follow through on his campaign pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, breaking decades of precedent under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and underlining an apparent inclination to do what other presidential candidates have promised but declined to deliver once they took office: recognize the holy city as Israel’s capital.

Official US policy has long been to insist that the status of Jerusalem can only be determined through a negotiated settlement between the parties, as both Israelis and Palestinians claim it as their capital.

In a statement Thursday, Friedman, a Hebrew-speaker, declared he was “deeply honored and humbled” that his friend of 15 years selected him to represent America to the Jewish state, and he also left the world with a zinger when he said he looked forward to doing his new job “from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

But Friedman’s declared appetite to move the embassy is not the only reason liberal Jewish organizations have responded to his nomination with something close to horror. The 57-year-old bankruptcy lawyer has also been an outspoken and active supporter of the settlement movement, and has argued that Israel doesn’t face a “demographic threat” to its Jewish character if it fails to separate from the Palestinians.

Friedman serves as president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, an organization that supports the large West Bank settlement near Ramallah, and over the last year, he has excoriated groups who express criticism of Israel’s settlement policy.

In June, Friedman accused J Street supporters of being “far worse than kapos” in a column for the right-wing, pro-settlement Israel National News website, using the term for Jews who aided Nazis during the Holocaust. Speaking before the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum earlier this month, he refused to walk back his comparison.

Now that he is slated to become the United States’ top diplomat in Israel — so long as the US Senate confirms his appointment — he will assume one of the most delicate positions in American foreign policy, mediating the US relationship with a close ally in an increasingly unstable region, and after eight tumultuous years of ties between the administration of President Barack Obama and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last month, Friedman spoke with The Times of Israel about what Trump’s policies and priorities would be toward the Jewish state if he won. Here is what he said.

‘No daylight’ between the US and Israel

When it comes to the US-Israel relationship, Friedman insisted that Trump would represent a sharp break from his predecessor — including in that there would be “no daylight between Israel and America,” a phrase also used in the transition team’s announcement of his selection on Thursday, which indicates a policy of keeping differences out of the public sphere.

“Donald Trump wants to be as supportive of Israel as possible,” Friedman told The Times of Israel. “He doesn’t view Israel as a client state that you just kind of issue directives to. He views Israel as a partner, one of America’s key partners in a global war against Islamic terrorism, so he wants Israel … to be as strong and secure as possible.”

Unlike Obama, who made Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank a fundamental issue of criticism throughout his presidency, Trump will not “put his finger on the scale or tell Israel what policies they should adopt,” Friedman said, adding that his new boss “doesn’t see Israel as in need of any particular correction at this point.”

That principle, he indicated, covers both how Trump will treat the settlement issue and the manner in which Israel seeks to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. The Trump administration will not “dictate to Israel where it can and cannot build” in the West Bank, according to Friedman.

Trump, for his part, has not publicly stated a position on settlements or detailed what kind of a stance he would take. The most common view among Washington’s foreign policy community, and emphatically within the Obama administration, is that, to keep the two-state option alive and ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, the US should try to limit settlement activity to the principal blocs that Israel is expected to retain under any permanent accord.

For his part, Friedman said that a Trump administration “doesn’t see much opportunity for progress until the Palestinians renounce violence and accept Israel as a Jewish state. That’s really a prerequisite.”

One criticism Friedman had of the current president was that Obama saw Israel as “strong” and the Palestinians as “weak,” and thus he believed it was up to the Israelis to take the risks necessary for peace. “Strong vs. weak is less relevant to Trump than the ‘relative conduct of the parties’,” Friedman said.

According to Friedman, Trump was influenced by seeing a video last spring of a stage production put on at a Hamas-affiliated school in Gaza. “Half the kids were dressed up as Israeli soldiers or traditional garb and the other half were dressed up as shahids, and the kids playing terrorists took their fake knives and stabbed all the Jews,” Friedman said of the film. “Fake blood poured on the stage, and the parents all applauded this. In a first grade class.”

In February 2016, then-Republican presidential hopeful Trump called Israeli-Palestinian peace “probably the toughest agreement of any kind to make,” but vowed to give it “one hell of a shot.”

He also pledged he would do that by being “sort of a neutral guy,” when pressed by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough over whether he ascribed fault to either side for failing to reach an accord. “A lot of people have gone down in flames trying to make that deal. So I don’t want to say whose fault is it,” he said. “I don’t think it helps.”

Trump took immediate heat for this promise on the campaign trail, and seemed to indicate a walk-back during his speech at the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference and elsewhere, but he has not explicitly rescinded this posture.

Friedman argued, however, that his language has been misunderstood. “What he was really referring to was trying to sponsor negotiations that would take place without preconditions,” he said. “That was what he viewed as neutrality, and that’s frankly been the view of the Israeli government for some time.”

Friedman cited Obama’s demand in his first term that Netanyahu place a moratorium on all West Bank settlement construction, as a trust-building measure, to be “an example of the absence of neutrality, but it’s in favor of the Palestinians against the Israelis.”

As one of Trump’s top two Israel advisers at the time, along with Jason Dov Greenblatt, Friedman said the candidate had not yet decided exactly how he’d go about handling Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, but that he would be open to new ideas, including embracing avenues outside the two-state framework.

Friedman stated that, in his discussions with Trump, “a two-state solution is not a priority. I don’t think he is wed to any particular outcome. A two-state solution is a way, but it’s not the only way.”

Unlike the last three presidents, who have tried to push both parties into negotiating a compromise, Trump will let the Israel make its determinations without pressure from the US, said Friedman.

“A Trump administration will try to be helpful with the Israelis bringing stability to the region, to make it as quiet as possible, as peaceful as possible, and ultimately to come up with a long-term solution,” he said. “As far as what that solution is, Trump will be guided by the Israelis’ view, very much so, and will not be seeking to impose any particular path upon the Israeli government.”

Hamas-linked weapons expert assassinated

The Mossad has assassinated a Hamas terrorist operating out of Tunisia known to Israeli security forces as “the engineer,” according to Tunisian media and Hamas.

Reports indicate a professional hit in the Thursday killing of Muhammad Zawari, 49. Eight suspects have been arrested and various vehicles, weapons and mobile devices have been seized.

Zawari, an aviation engineer, was found shot to death inside his car in the city of Sfax near his home, Tunisian media reported.

Israeli officials have yet to react or comment on the report.

“The only entity that would benefit from the hit is the Zionist enemy,” Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, told a Tunisian radio station on Friday.

“The Mossad has a history of political assassinations.”

He continued: “The assassination hurts Tunisia along with the Arab people. The Palestinians could have benefited from Zawari’s knowledge

The Mossad did not want an Arab expert with knowledge in this field to exist.”

Although the motive behind the killing remains unclear, Tunisian media and Hamas say Israeli skill and the benefit of eliminating a key Hamas weapons and drone expert point to Israel. Zawari also may have had other enemies, however, especially in volatile Tunisia.

According to Channel 10, the nationalities of potential suspects who have been detained include one from the Netherlands, one from Morocco and the rest from varying European countries.

A report from Hungary claimed that a Hungarian citizen posing as a journalist conducted an interview with the senior Hamas operative shortly before his murder. The Hungarian left Tunisia immediately after their meeting.

Zawari, who lived in Syria before the outbreak of the country’s civil war in 2011, is known for his contacts with Hamas and is credited with a number of innovations in drone technology.  (Jerusalem Post)

Kites and GoPros: Hamas prepares for war with Israel

Hamas’s military wing has created a new way to gather intelligence on Israeli communities on the border with Gaza: kites.

The terrorist organization that rules the Gaza Strip is using kites with GoPros attached to them to surveil Israeli border communities and track IDF movements. The Israeli military has noticed that this trend is increasing.

Army forces are deployed every time one of these surveillance kites is spotted. The Hamas surveillance missions are typically carried out during the day, with the terrorists arriving to the border with thei kites in pickup trucks.

The surveillance kites are usually brought down quickly when the IDF arrives, as Israel either shoots them down or fires warning shots at the trucks holding Hamas militants. The IDF sees these kites as yet another way that Hamas is preparing for the next round of fighting against Israel.

During the next round of fighting, the IDF estimates that Hamas will try to damage Israeli morale by rapidly striking civilians in the Gaza border area before Israel has a chance to mobilize its forces to stem the Hamas attacks.

This “opening shot” is expected to be carried out in a multi-pronged Hamas attack that will see dozens of Hamas Special Forces operatives from the Nukaba force enter and attack the border communities. They are expecting Hamas operatives to emerge from tunnels in Israel with motorcycles and believe that the terrorists will then drive to a nearby Israeli town to kill and capture civilians.

Hamas will also most likely infiltrate Israel from the sea, the IDF has decided with a combined force of frogmen and swift boats at the same time.

The IDF Gaza Division practiced defending against these threats last week.

Hamas is also using low-cost drones to surveil IDF forces and Israeli towns on the border with Gaza. They are doing this In conjunction with intensely training their marine Special Forces units, digging tunnels with greater frequency, and improving their rocket arsenal. They are also carrying out more long-range rocket tests into the sea.

Hamas has been surveiling Israeli movements from the ground as well, and has continued to build lookout points all along the Gaza border with Israel. They are sometimes building their outposts just a few hundred feet from IDF outposts.

Hamas has equipped these outposts with advanced optics. They are able to be easily moved as Hamas fears that these expensive, hi-tech optical systems will be attacked and destroyed by the IDF should a rocket or mortar round from Gaza hit Israel.

However, the IDF sees two positives regarding these Hamas drills and surveillance methods; the first is that it shows that the Hamas military wing is becoming institutionalized, and helps the IDF understand how the military wing operates – all of which can be used to the IDF’s advantage during wartime.

The second positive is that with so many Hamas military wing members in the area, it is becoming harder for Palestinians to illegally cross the fence into Israel.

A recent tour of the Gaza border area also revealed several positive signs – the IDF Combat Engineering Corps is working around the clock to strengthen the underground barrier between Gaza and Israel, a barrier which is designed to detect and deter tunnel digging.

The IDF has also noted an uptick in military drills at Hamas training camps along the border with Israel. These drills include basic exercises, shooting drills, and practicing urban warfare both during the day and at night.

The IDF has also noticed that the buildings damaged in the Shujaiyeh neighborhood are being demolished by Hamas. The IDF has evidence to suggest that the cement from these destroyed buildings is being recycled by the terrorist group for the purpose of building tunnels. They believe this is the case as there has been very little rebuilding or refurbishment of structures destroyed in the neighborhood during Operation Protective Edge.     (Ynet News)

Dershowitz blasts Netanyahu witch-hunts, BDS, and wants a Kotel ‘for all Jews’

The numerous legal or quasi-legal scandals raised against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are witchhunts which harm democracy, the counterattack against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is having mixed success, and the Kotel must be “for all Jews,” Prof. Alan Dershowitz told The Jerusalem Post in a wide-ranging interview on Thursday.

“For 25 years I have been writing, talking and raging against attempts… to undermine democracy” by using quasi-legal scandals against top public officials, the renowned legal scholar said.

He listed a line of political figures including former US president Bill Clinton, former speaker of the US House of Representatives Tom DeLay, former Texas governor Rick Perry and former New York governor Elliot Spitzer, saying “many… public figures are prosecuted and the vast majority are acquitted.”

The emeritus Harvard law school professor was careful to note his list included both Republicans and Democrats, arguing that it is a bipartisan issue.

“There is an enormous disparity between indictments and convictions. With such a disparity… in a democracy, something is wrong… I see this happening in Israel today,” he said.

Looking at the treatment of Netanyahu, he said that the prime minister won a legitimate election and yet so much of the media are “determined to chase him from office by raising the most outrageous claims against him, his wife, child, dog, his wife’s dying father – this is dangerous to democracy.

“I started making this complaint when my dear friend then-attorney-genera l ] Aharon Barak basically threw [then-prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin out of office [in 1977] for his wife holding a foreign bank account. The impact on peace was possibly very great. Think about the impact these things have had on Israel’s security.”

Railing against some of the would-be Netanyahu scandals, Dershowitz said exasperatedly, “Did the chairs belong in the Caesarea or the Prime Minister’s Residence? Should his wife be allowed to take care of her dying father in Caesarea versus the Prime Minister’s Residence? In the White House, everything the president does is paid for by the public. The president’s mother-in-law lives there and it is all paid for.”

While saying he understands the importance of the principle that “no one is above the law and [that] Israel is proud its president was convicted by a court which included an Arab judge,” he said that was only one side of the issue.

“Equally important is the principle that when you elect someone, you let them govern,” unless “there are major issues, massive corruption or the rule of law” is threatened.

Moving on to the anti-Israel boycott movement, he said that “we are winning and we are losing the BDS battle. BDS is failing largely because Israel produces products that the world can’t do without. BDS is failing because hundreds of American professors are saying: If you boycott Israel, you boycott us.”

At the same time, Dershowitz is concerned that we are “losing on college campuses around the world, where BDS is used as a vehicle to mis-educate the world… that Israel is the worst human rights offender.”

In contrast, “When I debated at the Oxford Union, I said I challenge all of you to name one country in the world facing threats comparable to those faced by Israel.

Name one country with a better record complying with human rights, the rule of law and a record of reducing civilian casualties. Not a single student could come up with a name of a single country,” he said. “This is not just about stopping BDS… we need to use this moment to teach students about the case for Israel.”

One area where he said that Israel is making the case harder is regarding the Western Wall “not being open” to all kinds of Jews and Jewish prayer.

Asked if he had raised the issue in a meeting he had last week with Netanyahu, Dershowitz declined to comment on specifics, but added, “Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve raised this issue, including to three prime ministers and to presidents of Israel and other leaders, and I am not shy. I always express my views as strongly in private as in public.”

Next, he was pressed about whether Netanyahu would fight for non-Orthodox Jews’ rights at the Western Wall in the face of strong political opposition by the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

He responded, “My own hope is that he stands up for all Jews. All Jews means anybody who wants to pray at the Kotel. I certainly agree the major part of the Kotel appropriately remains an Orthodox synagogue, but other areas of the retaining wall, which still have historical significance,” should be open to non-Orthodox prayer.

“Israel would benefit tremendously by decentralizing religion, putting it into the private sphere” and not in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate, Dershowitz said.   (Jerusalem Post)

Bill Shorten heads for Jerusalem

Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten has left for Israel where he will participate in the 5th Australia-Israel-UK Leadership Dialogue in Jerusalem.

In a prepared visit Bill Shorten said: “The annual Dialogue brings together political leaders from both sides of politics – as well as business, media and community leaders – to discuss the challenges specific to the region, and the challenges we share in our own parts of the world.

Israel is a longstanding and close friend of Australia. Through decades of conflict and peace, economic challenges and prosperity, Australia and Israel have stood together.

Our friendship is made stronger by Australia’s remarkable Jewish community – amongst the most significant and influential contributors to our national success.

The Dialogue includes discussions with Israeli parliamentarians and officials, Palestinian leaders, meetings with local technology start-ups, and symposiums on the future of the Middle East.

This year we meet in the shadow of Shimon Peres’ recent passing – a giant of Israeli and global politics, and a tireless advocate for an enduring peace.

A secure and lasting peace in the Middle East eluded Peres. Let us all do what we can to support the right of all who call this region home to live in peace with one another.

I will be accompanied on this trip by Shadow Minister for Defence, Richard Marles, and my wife Chloe.”              (J Wire)

Ban Ki-moon admits UN’s Israel bias

While addressing the UN Security Council, the outgoing secretary general admits that the political agenda of certain member states have created a disproportionate number of anti-Israel resolutions; ‘In many cases, instead of helping the Palestinian issue, this reality has foiled the ability of the UN to fulfill its role effectively.’

During remarks yesterday before the UN Security Council on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon admitted that the UN is biased against Israel.

“Over the last decade I have argued that we cannot have a bias against Israel at the UN,” said Ban. “Decades of political maneuvering have created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports and committees against Israel. In many cases, instead of helping the Palestinian issue, this reality has foiled the ability of the UN to fulfill its role effectively.”

Despite the admission however, Ban said, “Israel needs to understand the reality that a democratic state which is run by the rule of the law, which continues to militarily occupy the Palestinian people, will still generate criticism and calls to hold her accountable.”

This candid admission by the outgoing secretary general comes amid calls he made for Knesset members to reconsider the Regulation Bill. “This law will have negative consequences for Israel and it decreases the chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” Ban also added that the fact that there is no Palestinian unity in the two Palestinian territories is an obstacle to the two-state solution.                (Ynet News)

Sharansky and the united Jewish journey

by Yaacov Katz     The Jerusalem Post



Natan Sharansky at his Jewish Agency office in Jerusalem. A picture of the Kotel hangs on the wall behind him

Natan Sharansky is upset.

Very upset.

After nearly eight years as head of the Jewish Agency, the man asked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate a compromise on the Kotel warns that the State of Israel is on a dangerous course when it comes to its relationship with Diaspora Jewry.

It is not a collision course, since that would mean the two sides would eventually meet. This government’s current course is creating a divide, he says, one that might be too damaged to repair.

I went to see Sharansky this week after he put out a harshly worded statement on Monday slamming legislation – proposed by Shas and supported by some members of the Likud and Bayit Yehudi – that would allow the state to imprison and fine women who participate in progressive prayers at the Kotel. A woman blows a shofar? Six months in jail. A woman shows up at the Kotel wearing tefillin? Off to the slammer.

The bill got Sharansky worked up. The usually moderate and soft-spoken Sharansky – the most famous Soviet refusenik – said in his statement that the bill “makes a mockery of efforts made by recent governments to ensure that the Western Wall is a place that unites, rather than divides, the Jewish people.”

This statement didn’t come from nowhere. It was born out of frustration. Sharansky championed the historic compromise that led to the cabinet’s decision in January – nearly a year ago – to establish a pluralistic prayer plaza at the Kotel. But then, even though the haredi parties knew about the compromise, they suddenly got cold feet and threatened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they would topple his government if the plan went ahead.

Sharansky is cautious when speaking directly about Netanyahu, whom he says is one of the only politicians in Israel who actually gets the importance of having a strong and vibrant Diaspora.

“I am very concerned and very upset but still want to give him the benefit of the doubt, since I know he wants to do this,” Sharansky told me.

Surprisingly, he is also not upset at the haredim (ultra-Orthodox).

A former politician himself, Sharansky understands that Shas and United Torah Judaism are just doing their jobs. “They are doing exactly what they promised their electorate… they are consistent,” he says.

So who is Sharansky upset with? The Likud and Labor parties which over the years forfeited control over matters of religion to the haredim to buy votes. The rabbinate, he says, was basically handed over to Shas ahead of the vote on the Oslo Accords in 1993. A similar monopoly over city rabbis was later handed over as well.

The bill that Shas has proposed, Sharansky warns, would basically put Israel on a similar level to Iran: “If it passes, it means that Israel will become the first Western country where a woman who wears a tallit will be punished and sent to six months in jail.”

As head of the Jewish Agency, it is Sharansky’s job to facilitate aliya, to encourage Jews to move here, and to oversee the numerous education and welfare initiatives the agency runs throughout the country and across the globe. There is Masa, which brings young adults to Israel for long-term internships, and the community emissaries the agency sends to communities around the world.

Due to the government’s refusal to interact directly with the Reform and Conservative movements though, Netanyahu asked Sharansky to be their main interlocutor as well as to serve as the main conduit when the government is forced to give them money. When the Knesset allocated NIS 10 million recently for the construction of four mikvaot ritual baths for Reform and Conservative conversions, for example, it transferred the money first to the Prime Minister’s Office, which then transferred it to the Jewish Agency to give to the movements. The government avoids direct funding of the movements and the haredi parties don’t get upset.

Sharansky had hoped that the dialogue he facilitated for four years between the different Jewish movements would have penetrated into government and Israeli society.

“Many people speak about Reform Jews the way antisemites speak about the Elders of Zion,” he said. “I found that there are unbelievable prejudices against Reform Jews. If Israeli leaders from the prime minister on down will not start trying to de-demonize our own people, then we will have a big problem.”

The prejudice, he says, is the result of a lack of real dialogue between government offices and Reform or Conservative Jewry.

He saw this up close just a few weeks ago, when after visiting Haifa to distribute money collected in the US for victims of the recent forest fires, he stopped off in Ra’anana to visit a Reform synagogue that had been vandalized.

The synagogue, he said, conducts 280 bar and bat mitzvahs a year, but doesn’t get a single penny from the government – 10% comes from the Jewish Agency, and 90% from synagogue members.

“The Religious Services Ministry does not give them anything, but why don’t the Education or Interior ministries give them something?” Sharansky asked. “They are kept out of the normal system. And when you are not part of the debate – you are demonized.”

And here is the catch: 90% of the money that the Jewish Agency distributed in Haifa came from Reform and Conservative Jews.

“Sixty percent of American Jews affiliate themselves with the Reform and Conservative movements, and about 85% of AIPAC members are Reform and Conservative Jews,” Sharansky said.

“You cannot ignore that they are a big part of the Jewish people, a big part of Zionist support for Israel. We cannot accept their support and then say they should not be recognized as equals.”

I asked Sharansky if he fears that the Shas bill, combined with the failure to implement the Kotel plan, will pose an existential threat to the State of Israel.

He dismissed the possibility out of hand. Existential threats, he said, are challenges like an Iranian nuclear bomb. Whatever happens with the Kotel plan, he said, Israel will continue to exist.

But, he warned, what will happen is that Israel will no longer share a “joint Jewish journey” with the Jews of the Diaspora.

When Jews are not made to feel equal, he said, they will not stand together for long.

He added a short story: In 1975, while visiting the apartment of another refusenik in Moscow, there was a knock at the door.

They opened it and found an American couple who had come to visit the refuseniks. The husband said that he was a rabbi, so Sharansky and his friends asked why he wasn’t wearing a kippa.

The man said that he was a Reconstructionist rabbi. Sharansky, a mathematician and chess prodigy, was intrigued by the idea of reconstructing religion. He asked what it meant.

The wife responded that while they didn’t believe in God, Judaism was about culture, history and ritual. God didn’t really have much to do with it.

Sharansky and his friends laughed. Only in America, they said to themselves, could there be a rabbi who doesn’t believe in God.

But years later, that story reminds Sharansky of the importance of peoplehood and of a shared destiny for Jews no matter what they believe or where they might live – in Israel or the Diaspora.

“The threat from what is happening now is whether Diaspora Jewry and Israel will continue their journey as one people,” he concluded. “We have a huge challenge before us – whether we will continue to be one people or not. This is a challenging moment.”


My interview with Sharansky reminded me of the conversation I moderated Tuesday night with renowned American law professor Alan Dershowitz at a public event in Ra’anana.

During our hour-long talk, Dershowitz – one of Israel’s strongest and greatest defenders and advocates – mentioned how when he comes to Israel he meets regularly with the prime minister, an old and close friend. Last week, he said, he and his wife had a five-hour dinner with the Netanyahus at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.

When I asked whether he thought Netanyahu was sincere about making peace, his answer was unequivocal. “Absolutely,” Dershowitz said. “Not only do I think it. I think I know it.”

Netanyahu, he said, wants to be “Nixon in China” and bring peace to Israel. But the problem, he went on, is that the “Israeli political system is broken.” While the president of the United States is the “chief executive,” in Israel, the prime minister puts together a cabinet where half of the ministers want to stab him in the back and the other half want to run against him.

The same explanation that Dershowitz gave for the difficulty in making peace is what Netanyahu has been giving to American Jewish leaders urging that he implement the Kotel plan, voted on and approved by the cabinet in January. Netanyahu, who is one of the few politicians in Israel who really does get the importance of the Diaspora, is simply not willing to risk his government for it.

I appreciate Netanyahu’s political predicament, but it cannot be used as an excuse forever. At some point, leaders need to lead and make decisions. They cannot stay bogged down by political challenges.

After eight years as prime minister, we know that Netanyahu is a brilliant politician. Now is the time to see him as a great implementer.

As Sharansky said – our united Jewish journey depends on it.

Left’s hatred of Israel is racism in disguise

by Michael Gove                    The Australian/The Times


How do you know if someone’s an antisemite? They don’t all perform stiff-arm salutes for the camera and offer interesting 140-character thoughts about race theory on Twitter. Although those are helpful clues, as the American alt-right, Hezbollah and Iran’s leadership prove.

But antisemitism isn’t a prejudice restricted to the likes of Richard Spencer, Hassan Nasrallah and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As befits the world’s oldest and most durable hatred, it has many more adherents and has taken many different forms.

In medieval times, when individuals made sense of their world through the prism of faith, antisemitism was a religious prejudice. In the 19th and early 20th centuries — the age of Darwinism — antisemitism clothed itself in the white coat of the scientist. Biological metaphors were deployed to modernise hate. The Jews were carriers of “racial contamination” who had to be eliminated as a pathological threat to humanity’s future.

That belief led to history’s greatest crime. The extermination of six million powered by hatred of one thing — Jewish identity. It should have been the case that antisemitism died in the furnaces of the Holocaust. But the hatred survived. And, like a virus, mutated.

Antisemitism has moved from hatred of Jews on religious or racial grounds to hostility towards the proudest expression of Jewish identity we now have — the Jewish state.

No other democracy is on the receiving end of a campaign calling for its people to be shunned and their labour to be blacklisted. The Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement is a growing force on our streets and campuses. Its campaigners argue that we should ignore ideas from Jewish thinkers if those thinkers come from Israel and treat Jewish commerce as a criminal enterprise if that business is carried on in Israel.

This is antisemitism, impure and simple. It is the latest recrudescence of the age-old demand that the Jew can only live on terms set by others. Once Jews had to live in the ghetto, now they cannot live in their historic home.

It is to Britain’s eternal credit that we rejected centuries of prejudice one hundred years ago and pledged to extend to the Jewish people the rights enjoyed by Germans and Italians, Japanese and Mexicans — the right to a land they could call their own. The Balfour Declaration in 1917 was followed in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel. Since then, that state’s success has been near-miraculous.

Surrounded by enemies who sought to strangle it at birth, continually threatened by war and constantly under terrorist attack, a nation scarcely the size of Wales with no natural resources, half of whose territory is desert, has become a flourishing democracy, a centre of scientific innovation, one of the world’s major providers of international humanitarian relief and the only state from Casablanca to Kabul with a free press, free judiciary, a flourishing free enterprise economy and freedom for people of every sexual orientation to live and love as they wish.

And that is the reason it attracts such hostility. Not because of what Israel does. But because of what it is.

For those on the left addicted to guilt-tripping and grievance-mongering, who believe that poverty is a consequence of western exploitation and that bourgeois ethics lead to oppression, the existence of a political entity that is a runaway success precisely because it is a bourgeois-minded, capitalist-fuelled, western-oriented nation state is just too much to bear. Their ideological prejudices have collided with a stubborn, undeniable, fact.

So what do they do? Keep the prejudices, of course, and try to get rid of the fact. Try to undermine, delegitimise and reduce support for Israel. Make it the only country in the world whose right to exist is called continually into question. Make the belief in that state’s survival, Zionism, a dirty word. Denounce, as the NUS president has, a British university for being a “Zionist outpost”. And instead call organisations pledged to eliminate Israel such as Hezbollah and Hamas “friends”, as Jeremy Corbyn has.

Antizionism is not a brave anti-colonial and anti-racist stance, it is simply antisemitism minding its manners so it can sit in a seminar room. And as such it deserves to be called out, confronted and opposed.

Because the fate of the Jewish people, and the survival of the Jewish state, are critical tests for all of us. The darkest forces of our time — Islamic State, the Iranian leaders masterminding mass murder in Aleppo — are united by one thing above all: their hatred of the Jewish people and their home. Faced with such implacable hatred, and knowing where it has always led, we should not allow antisemitism any space to advance, or incubate.

Instead we should show we’re not going to be intimidated by those who want to treat Israel as a second-class state, we’re not going to indulge the antisemitic impulse to apply the double standard. Israel is the only state where we don’t locate our embassy in the nation’s capital and the only ally the Foreign Office has refused to let the Queen visit. So let’s celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration by moving our embassy to Jerusalem next year and inviting Her Majesty to open it. What are we afraid of? Earning the enmity of those who hate Israel? To my mind, there could be no greater compliment.