Updates from Israel and the Jewish World
Compiled by Dr Ron Wiseman
Hamas denies reports of prisoner swap discussions with Israel
The Hamas terror group on Tuesday denied a Palestinian report that indirect talks with Israel include negotiations over a prisoner swap deal that would see Palestinian terror convicts released by Israel in exchange for two Israeli citizens and the bodies of two IDF soldiers believed to be held in the Gaza Strip.
Senior Hamas member Ismail Radwan told Gaza’s Dunya al-Watan news site that the talks also are not focusing on a long-term ceasefire deal, but rather on stabilizing the truce agreed to after Operation Protective Edge in 2014, as well as the conditions of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails and the status of the Temple Mount compound, including the Al Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem.
“What is being discussed is understandings to reinforce the ceasefire in accordance with the 2014 agreement,” Radwan said.
According to the Hamas-linked al-Resala daily, leader Ismail Haniyeh said the group has conveyed to Israel — through Egyptian mediators — three demands regarding security prisoners in Israeli jails who have recently rioted and attacked guards and are threatening to start a hunger strike.
Hamas demands that Israel stops blocking cellphone reception in the jails, stops the Israel Prisons Service’s “punishing” of security prisoners, and renews family visits, Haniyeh said.
Haniyeh added that an Egyptian security delegation visited the Gaza Strip Monday evening and gave Hamas a schedule for implementing a number of understandings said to have been agreed to between the terror group and Israel to calm the situation.
Hamas official Isam al-Daalees told Falastin, a local Gaza newspaper, that the schedule will be presented to other Palestinian factions active in the Strip for approval.
“Some of the understandings will be implemented before the Israeli elections, while other parts will be delayed until after the elections, including projects that require long periods of time for implementation,” he said.
According to al-Daales, the understandings include agreements on crossings, electricity supply, fishing zones, temporary employment projects and construction projects. An electrical power line and a gas line for a power plant are reportedly among those that will be delayed until after the April 9 elections.
Al-Daales also warned that if Israel backtracks from these understandings, the “resistance factions” will respond.
“The people and its factions and resistance are able to achieve their rights. The marches are ongoing until they achieve our people’s goal of breaking the siege on Gaza,” he said.
The statements came after the Hamas-affiliated Al-Quds TV station reported earlier in the day that talks for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas amid a recent spike in violence had addressed the possibility of a prisoner swap between the two sides, citing sources in the terror group.
Hamas is demanding the release of dozens of its members who were set free from Israeli prisons in a previous exchange but then rearrested years later, according to the report. Israel is demanding the return of two Israeli civilians believed to be held in the Gaza Strip, and the remains of two Israeli soldiers believed held by Hamas.
Left to right: Oron Shaul, Hadar Goldin and Avraham Mengistu.
Israeli civilians Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed both crossed into Gaza of their own accord in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul were snatched by Hamas in the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge. The families of those held in Gaza and the soldiers have in the past accused the government of not doing enough to secure the release of their loved ones, or bring their remains home.
Hisham al-Sayed, who wandered into Gaza in April 2015 and has been missing and believed held by Hamas ever since. (Army Radio)
The Goldin family responded to the initial reports Tuesday morning, calling it “election spin that plays with the families’ feelings.”
“Under the current government, we have learned on our own that when there are media reports, it means that there is no agreement to bring the boys home, and that once again the government has missed an opportunity,” the family said in a statement.
The talks, brokered by Egyptian mediators, have reportedly stalled, with neither side willing to budge on their demands. A Hamas source said Tuesday will be critical for reaching an understanding to reduce the violence.
Hamas, a Islamist terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, has been the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip after it seized the territory from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Last week there was a sharp increase in violence between Israel and the Gaza Strip after rockets were fired into central Israel, drawing retaliatory airstrikes.
Egyptian mediators, shuttling between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, have been engaged in exhaustive efforts to broker a long-term ceasefire deal. Preliminary understandings between the sides reportedly included Hamas making arrangements for preventing violence during mass protests along the border it organized on Saturday.
An infant’s swing outside the home of the Wolf family in the central Israeli village of Mishmeret, which was destroyed in the early morning hours of March 25, 2019 by a rocket fired from Gaza. (Jack Guez/AFP)
After Hamas reined in the protests, Israel reopened two border crossings into Gaza and also extended a fishing zone off the coast of the Palestinian enclave this week.
However, a hunger strike threat by Palestinian prisoners held in Israel to protest an intensifying crackdown on illicit cellphone usage among inmates could further complicate the delicate negotiations.
The prisoners have said they will begin their strike on Sunday, two days before Israel’s national elections. The strike will be observed by inmates affiliated with Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions. (the Times of Israel) Staff
A message from Israelis living near the border with Gaza
The Faces of the Gaza Border
The faces of the Gaza border on the Israeli side are the mothers and fathers. Sisters and brothers. Children. Friends. Innocent people. The media will never tell you about them, but they just want to live their lives normally.
They have dreams and hopes. These people – men, women, and children alike – do not want to fear the siren anymore. The noise of the rockets. The smell of fire. The smell of fear. They have had enough. Can you really look in their eyes and side with the terrorists on the other side of the fence? Have you seen these innocent people try to infiltrate Gaza armed with knives? Have they sent over rockets and fire kites? No. But Hamas has.
They have even sent children into Israel with knives. Is it so hard to see the truth here?
The Media has it ALL Wrong
The media has everything twisted. They criticize Israel for responding with any amount of force as Hamas sends rockets and instigates violence. One side is a terrorist entity, one side is not. It is as simple as that. The world condemns the Israel Defense Forces for defending its country and people. They condemn innocent Israelis for living in their own homes. And the terrorists? They sympathize with them. The media cries out and feels sorry when a terrorist is killed. That is the sad truth. (Israel Unwired)
Watch the video:
Joined by Netanyahu, Brazilian president makes trailblazing trip to Western Wall
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was joined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall on Monday, becoming the first foreign head of state to visit the site together with a senior Israeli official.
His unprecedented step could be seen as a tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty over that location in Jerusalem’s Old City, which the international community generally considers occupied Palestinian territory. The Western Wall, part of the retaining walls of the Second Temple, is the holiest place where Jews can pray.
After Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch read a chapter from the Book of Psalms, Netanyahu and Bolsonaro approached the wall, braving the rainy Jerusalem weather.
After the Brazilian president placed a note in one of the cracks, the two leaders leaned against the ancient stones for several seconds in quiet contemplation.
After the short ceremony, they toured the Western Wall tunnels, which are located underneath the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touch the Western
Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in the Old City of Jerusalem
At a visitors center, the two men viewed a virtual reality recreation of the Jewish temple that once stood on the Temple Mount.
During his election campaign, and even in the weeks that followed his victory, Bolsonaro promised to follow US President Donald Trump’s lead in transferring his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. But before he arrived in Israel on Sunday morning, he appeared to backtrack, indicating that he would open a trade mission in the city instead.
Meeting Netanyahu on Sunday, Bolsonaro announced the opening of a “trade, technology and innovation office” that would be “an official office of the Government of Brazil, in Jerusalem,” the prime minister said.
“I hope that this is a first step toward the opening in time of the Brazilian embassy in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said on Sunday evening during a joint press appearance at the Prime Minister’s Residence on the capital’s Balfour Street.
“Recognizing the historic ties of Jerusalem with the Jewish identity and that the city is the political heart of the State of Israel, I announced today that Brazil will open there a Brazilian office to promote trade, investment and exchange in innovation and technology,” Bolsonaro tweeted later that night.
Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă on March 24 announced that her country would move its embassy to Jerusalem, but an actual relocation seems unlikely because President Klaus Iohannis — who is staunchly opposed to the move — has the last word on the matter.
On the same day, Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández announced his intention to “immediately” open a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem that would “extend our embassy to the capital of Israel, Jerusalem.”
In recent weeks, several countries have opened or announced plans to open trade or cultural centers in the capital, including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.
The international community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, and so visiting foreign dignitaries generally refrain from going there in the company of Israeli officials.
Those who do want to tour the holy site usually do so in a private capacity, though in recent months an increasing number of foreign leaders have defied standard protocol and allowed Israeli diplomats to join them at the wall.
On March 20, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first American top diplomat to visit the site together with an Israeli prime minister, underlining the recent trend. (The Times of Israel) Raphael Ahren
Netanyahu to meet Putin in Moscow on Thursday
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fly to Moscow on Thursday to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Israeli leader’s office said on Tuesday.
The statement did not elaborate on the intended topics of discussion. The two leaders will meet five days before Israel’s April 9 election in which the right-wing Netanyahu faces a strong challenge from a centrist candidate.
On Monday, Netanyahu told reporters he and Putin spoke by telephone about Syria, whose Russian-backed president, Bashar Assad, has been gaining ground in an eight-year civil war.
Israel worries Assad’s Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah reinforcements could set up bases to attack it from Syria, and has carried out scores of air strikes against them.
Russian defense officials have on several occasions demanded that Israel ends its “arbitrary” airstrikes on targets in Syria, calling them “provocative.”
Thursday’s meeting could also help Netanyahu in the closely contested election, in which he has played up his statecraft and security credentials in the face of the politically untested challenger Benny Gantz, a former military chief.
In February the two leaders met – at the Kremlin in Moscow – for the first time since the incident in September when Syria accidentally downed a Russian plane during an Israeli aerial assault in the war-battered country, which sparked an international crisis. Following the meeting a senior Israeli official said both sides are willing to put the incident behind them. (Ynet News)
Lake Kinneret Levels Rise
Weather that is seemingly more conducive for Israeli winters has spilled into April.
The good news is that this means rising water levels for Lake Kinneret, which is another name for the Bible’s Sea of Galilee and the country’s only freshwater source, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry.
Lake Kinneret has risen 15 centimeters since Thursday and is now 316 centimeters below its maximum level, says the Globes business news outlet, citing the Israel Water Authority. According to this report, the lake is likely to fill up completely as the heavy snows melt on the peak of Mount Hermon through the spring.
The lake had in recent years reached dangerously low levels.
Weather forecasters say that this has been an especially wet winter after several years of much smaller amounts of rainfall and even drought. Most of all, it helps the Israel’s water supplies and the livelihood of farmers. However, hikers have also benefited from the tremendous amount of colorful vegetation throughout the country.
The many previous dry winters prompted Israel to construct desalination plants.
Israel currently has eight plants, with the plant in Hadera, a city in the Haifa area in the north of Israel, being the largest seawater desalination plant in the world, according to Interesting Engineering. In 2015, 50% of Israel’s water for households, agriculture, and industry was from desalination, it says.
Still, experts say that desalination does not solve all of the problems caused by a lack of rainfall and even with conservation, so that Israeli authorities are relieved by the plentiful supply of precipitation this year.
With Passover and then summer vacation approaching, the rains will stop, but the benefits will remain amid hopes that the trend will continue in future winters. (United with Israel)
Perspectives on the forthcoming Israeli elections
by Ron Weiser ZFA
These elections are perhaps the most interesting in recent times, even though there are really only two candidates running.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Bibi.
Which side of Netanyahu will figure more prominently in the eyes of the Israeli electorate – the statesman also known as ‘Mr Security’, or the person under a corruption cloud with all of the attendant fallout?
This election is centered on who is fit to lead?
The Prime Minister wants to emphasise that he and only he is Israel’s real security cover.
His next main opponent after himself, is the Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz. Their leadership includes no less than three ex IDF Chiefs of Staff. In this manner they wish to counter the ‘Mr Security’ argument.
However they are all untried in the political/diplomatic arena and have so far not been able to demonstrate that they can come anywhere close to Netanyahu’s statesmanship.
And of course the two qualities are intertwined, and together enhance Israel’s security.
President Trump has in this case, ridden into the Israeli elections responding to a request from Netanyahu for the Golan Heights to remain part of Israel.
It is important to note that Gantz and his Blue and White party have made it a central plank of their own election bid to never cede the Golan.
Along comes ‘Mr Statesman’ Netanyahu who is able to make a request of the US President and receive the desired response.
President Trump tweeted that: “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!”
And then President Trump together with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the White House itself, formally gave United States recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan.
This again emphasises that there is little daylight on security and neighborhood issues between Netanyahu and Gantz, who too, enthusiastically welcomed the US announcement.
Hamas itself, also entered the Israeli election arena with the launching of one rocket on central Israel. And they were very clever to launch just that one rocket – poking Israel, but leaving a quandary for Israel in terms of appropriate response.
That rocket, aside from the injury and damage it caused, managed to also disrupt Israel politically.
Netanyahu cut short his visit to the US to return to Israel, he had to cancel his second meeting with President Trump and as well as his live appearance at AIPAC.
Aside from Meretz and in part Labor, no Jewish/Zionist party in the forthcoming elections is running on a so called ‘leftist platform’ when it comes to the Palestinians and foreign policy.
The general public will not be voting for either of these parties in big numbers, and they are non-reflective of Israeli public opinion at large.
A consistent feature of this election campaign is the fact that those to the right of Netanyahu like Naphtali Bennett and his New Right party, worry that after the election when the ‘deal of the century’ is announced, Trump will yet extract a price for recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, for tearing up the Iran deal and for the Golan decision.
The ‘right’ whilst believing in Netanyahu as the only viable candidate for Prime Minister, run on the platform that they are needed to ‘keep Netanyahu honest’ when it comes to policy.
In regards to the Israeli response to the initial rocket and then further barrages of rockets from Gaza, what is widely recognised across the political spectrum in Israel, is that Prime Minister Netanyahu shows the most restraint when it comes to the use of the IDF.
He is more likely to exhaust all other alternatives before utilising the full power of the IDF, than just about any previous Prime Minister.
So Bennett et al to Netanyahu’s ‘right’ have been highly critical of his restrained response and are demanding greater military action.
Not to be outdone, Gantz and his Blue and White party, supposedly to the ‘left’ of Netanyahu on security issues, also attacked Netanyahu for being “too weak” and threatened the Hamas leadership with assassinations. He also criticised Netanyahu for allowing the millions of dollars from Qatar to enter Gaza against the backdrop of terror.
So both Bennett and Ganz are actually trying to paint Netanyahu as the ‘leftist’, if that is supposed to mean weak on security…………….
In a somewhat similar vein, the official figures for settlement building in 2018 have been released. Netanyahu is showing restraint here too.
In total 2,066 settler dwellings were commenced in 2018.
By comparison with say Tel Aviv, whose population is only slightly larger than the Jewish population of Area C in the West Bank/Judea Samaria, where there were 10,101 building starts – almost five times as many.
Counterintuitively, Netanyahu’s largest settlement starts occurred in 2016 during Obama’s US presidency, when there were 3,143 building starts – but even so, less than under Prime Minister Barak for example.
At the end of the day and in a practical sense, the elections will not come down so much as to who will win the most seats (as neither party will even come close to passing the 61 seats required for a majority in the Knesset), but to who will be best able to form a coalition.
On current polling, Gantz cannot form a government without the overt or tacit support of the Israeli Arab parties – and he has repeatedly stressed that he would not formally bring them into his coalition.
Gantz’s party has also said that they will seek to bring Likud into the next government, but only if Netanyahu is no longer its leader.
On paper, only Netanyahu can form a government post-election.
But what makes this election so hard to predict is that many smaller parties are polling borderline as to whether they will or will not pass the 3.25% voter threshold – approximately 4 seats – and be in the Knesset at all. So calculations about coalition building are tentative.
Another factor is that after the actual election, it falls to Israel’s president Ruby Rivlin to ‘invite’ the person he feels can best form government, to do so. Although he comes from Likud, he is an arch rival of Netanyahu’s and quite a maverick.
Whilst the ultra-orthodox Haredim and the parties to the right of Likud have stated that they will support Netanyahu for Prime Minister, one party – Zehut, led by Moshe Feiglin – is unpredictable.
Feiglin was effectively thrown out of the Likud by Netanyahu in the past.
Whilst maintaining their far right polices, Zehut has run a front line libertarian campaign and the promise to legalise cannabis. Although pundits automatically put Zehut in Netanyahu’s camp if it passes the threshold, this is not necessarily so, Feiglin being the only party leader counted in the ‘right wing camp’ to not say who he will go with.
This potentially makes him a kingmaker – if his party passes the threshold.
We are indeed in for some interesting times and unless there is a very clear lead established by either Gantz or Netanyahu during the actual election, even once the results are known, it may take some time till we understand who will form a coalition – and how.
Diplomacy remains Netanyahu’s strong suit
by Jonathan Tobin JNS
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never hesitated to get into the trenches and fight dirty with his political life on the line. But foreign policy, not retail politics, remains his strong suit.
In an announcement that had to shock his opponents, especially the Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz, whose chances of being able to form a governing coalition appear to be shrinking along with the once-healthy lead he had over the Likud, the government announced that Netanyahu would be traveling to Moscow for a brief working visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin only five days before Israelis go to the polls.
The initial reaction to the news from some on the left was to claim that Putin was intervening in the election. But while those trying to argue that the prime minister is a puppet of the Russian autocrat are peddling conspiracy theories, those who think Putin would prefer Netanyahu remain in office are not wrong.
As much as there is a lot for Netanyahu and Putin to talk about, the timing of the meeting is politically motivated. The Russians are providing the prime minister with an opportunity to showcase his command of the world stage at a moment when that can only help him with the voters. The only plausible explanation for this is that Putin wants to do Netanyahu a favor.
But the reason for this preference doesn’t have anything to do with crackpot theories that assert that Netanyahu is part of an international league of authoritarians in which he and U.S. President Donald Trump, operating under the supervision of Putin, are plotting against democracy. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that the situation in Syria is so dangerous that the Russians are afraid about Israeli policy being directed by an inexperienced leader.
In Netanyahu, they have an adversary who advocates for policies with which they don’t agree—such as trying to force Putin’s Iranian allies out of Syria, and a commitment to Israel carrying out strikes on Syrian territory aimed at stopping both Tehran and its Hezbollah auxiliaries from accumulating too much power—but whom they trust won’t go too far. They worry that Gantz might overreact in a crisis because of the need to answer criticisms from right-wing parties that would be in opposition rather than junior partners in the government as they might be with Netanyahu.
In contrast to the close relations that Netanyahu has with Trump, whose actions have also made it abundantly clear that he favors the prime minister’s re-election, Putin doesn’t have common goals or interests with Israel except one: avoiding an escalation of the war in Syria. With so much invested there in terms of troop deployments and prestige, the stakes are so high that they think they are better off dealing with the tough customer they already know than having to worry about what a diplomatic novice would do, even one as thoroughly versed in security issues like former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gantz. Above all, Putin has come to trust in Netanyahu’s innate caution when it comes to deploying Israel’s considerable military strength.
Rather than being an example of collusion with Russia—a specious charge that some of those who resent the American efforts to bolster Netanyahu have also raised with respect to current U.S. foreign policy—the fact that both Washington and Moscow agree about their desired outcome in the April 9 elections says a lot more about Netanyahu’s deft handling of Israel’s foreign policy than anything else.
Although he is routinely blasted in liberal American circles as a hard-liner bent only avoiding peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu should be acknowledged as the most skillful diplomat ever to lead his country.
One of the most underreported stories in the past 10 years has been the progress made on Netanyahu’s watch with respect to foiling efforts to isolate Israel. The prime minister has helped his country achieve breakthroughs with Third World nations in Africa, as well as in Eastern Europe and South America. His achievements also include creating close working relations with Arab nations who were virulent enemies, but now look to the Jewish state as an ally against Iran and Islamist terror groups—something that cannot be underestimated.
A number of these developments are the result of actions that were beyond Israel’s power to control, such as President Barack Obama’s appeasement of Iran or the Arab Spring protests in 2011 that led to chaos and war in Syria. But there is no doubt that Netanyahu took advantage of the opportunities offered to Israel by events that otherwise presented a clear threat to the country’s security.
Many still focus on Netanyahu’s terrible relationship with Obama and point to his decision to address U.S. Congress about the dangers of the nuclear deal with Iran at the invitation of the Republicans. But while that speech did more harm than good in terms of persuading Congress to reject the agreement, the breakdown of relations with America during the last administration was the fault of Obama, not Netanyahu’s efforts to push back against a president who wanted more daylight between the two allies and thought he had to “save Israel from itself.”
It remains to be seen what either Trump or Putin will ask in return for these favors if Netanyahu is re-elected. But the prime minister trusts in his ability to talk his way out of those dilemmas once he gets there.
After so many foreign efforts in past elections aimed at defeating him, Netanyahu welcomes international support. He has done his best to cultivate the myth that he is his country’s indispensable man, and his ability to get Trump to recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights and Putin to acquiesce to military strikes in Syria reinforces that somewhat fanciful claim. It won’t decide Israel’s election, but both Washington and Moscow prefer Netanyahu’s experience to Gantz’s learning curve.
Netanyahu might not be the only person who can cope with dangerous foes on Israel’s borders and a not-so-friendly power like Russia firmly ensconced in Syria. Still, there’s no denying the value of having someone that both Washington and Moscow trust leading the Jewish state.