Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mumbai (2) , Palestine Day at the UN, Miliband, Hebron

The scourge of terror

Israelis began Shabbat knowing that the siege at Chabad House in Mumbai had ended disastrously. On Saturday night, though, the full scope of the devastation was revealed: Nine Jews were murdered, seven of them Israelis. We still do not know if there are additional Israeli or Jewish victims among the other casualties.

The toll of this mega-terrorist attack - which began Wednesday night and did not end until Saturday morning - is estimated at about 200 killed, including some 20 foreigners. Hundreds were wounded. These figures may yet climb.

Most of the victims, it should be noted, were Indian citizens, and this newspaper reiterates its condolences to their families and government. Throughout Mumbai, hundreds of households are in mourning.

Though we are a nation of only some seven million souls, we well appreciate that even in a nation of more than 1 billion, every human life is precious.

But naturally the murders of our compatriots and coreligionists, and the bereavement of their families are, today, foremost on our minds. A two-year-old boy, Moshe Holtzberg, will grow up an orphan. The anniversary of the death of his parents, Chabad emissaries Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his rabbanit, Rivka, will in perpetuity coincide with his birthday.

This will be a week of funerals in Israel, and in Jewish communities abroad, for the Mumbai victims. Psalms will be recited - "Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow…" The kaddish prayer will be chanted. And those offering condolences will pray that the families of the deceased are "comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

There will be time to reflect on each individual life that was taken. But even now, one thing is plain: Those killed at the Chabad House were murdered because they were Jewish or Israeli.

The terrorists did not inquire whether their victims were haredi, Orthodox, traditional or secular. Nor did the killers ask about their politics. All that really mattered was that they were living representatives of Jewish civilization.

Each of them died sanctifying God's name.

Israeli officials are right to argue that the civilized world is under attack. This time the assault came in India, next time it will come somewhere else. The enemy is Islamic extremism. Its immediate goal is to vanquish - by any means necessary - Western symbols and values from those parts of the world it claims as Muslim.

IT WILL take time for all the facts associated with this attack to come out. For now, there are more questions than answers.

1. How many terrorists were involved? Authorities say at least nine were killed and one - a Pakistani national - captured.

But there is every reason to believe that the number of terrorists and facilitators who brought Mumbai to a halt is far greater. This was an operation that was meticulously planned and executed. It stretches credulity to believe that these individuals were acting alone.

2. Could the security operation at the Chabad House have been better executed? Might the hostages have been rescued?

It is possible that the terrorists murdered their victims within minutes of storming the facility. And Indian forces may have been stretched too thin and were operating without several of their top commanders who had been killed at the outset of the assault on Mumbai. Rather than second guess their efforts, we prefer to wait until more is known.

3. And finally, even though this was clearly an assault against innocent civilians and exclusively against civilian targets - hospitals, hotels and a train station - why does much of the British media, including the BBC and SkyNews, label the killers "militants" instead of terrorists? Why does the The Guardian join Al-Jazeera in calling them "gunmen"?

This may sound like a marginal concern, but nomenclature matters: The primary, often only, target of terrorists are civilians. Anti-civilian warfare is a key tool of Muslim extremists. Terrorism is a cruelty that has become the scourge of modern civilization and changed the way we live. It has debased humanity.

The international community, together with responsible elements in the media, should show zero tolerance for the kind of depravity manifested in Mumbai.

And a vital step to confronting it effectively is to recognize terrorism and call it by its name.


Mumbai Terror: In cold blood

The dreadful images coming out of Mumbai since late Wednesday night have stunned Israelis - and not just because the city's Chabad House was targeted along with a hospital, open market, the main train station, a popular restaurant and two posh landmark hotels. At least 125 people are known killed and some 327 wounded.

The bloodbath reminds us that, though Muslim extremism is often traceable to some local grievance, it's in essence part of a larger conflict between civilizations. Islamists are violently affronted when Hindus, Jews, Buddhist or Christians are sovereign over a Muslim minority.

AS WE try to make sense of the mayhem unleashed on Mumbai, a city of some 13 million souls, our thoughts naturally are with the family of Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg. We are anxious, too, for the dozen or so other Israeli hostages. And we express our condolences to the people of Mumbai who have lost loved ones in this reprehensible assault.

Mumbai has been attacked six times since 1993, most recently in 2006 when 200 people were killed in a train-bombing. The nature of the latest attacks, however, with multiple terror teams hitting some 10 targets with explosives, automatic rifle-fire and grenades - in an operation that carried on from one day into the next - suggests a far higher level of coordination and training than anything seen before. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the attacks were launched from outside India "with the single-minded determination to create havoc in the commercial capital of the country." Plainly, the terrorists are connected to elements in the failed state of Pakistan. At least some of them may have arrived by sea, landing across from the Taj Mahal hotel.

They hunted-down guests with US, British and Israeli passports to take as hostages. At the Chabad House, Indian neighbors nobly tried to fend off the attackers until they themselves were driven back by terrorists' bullets.

Israelis feel at one with the people of India, especially at times like these. Both countries are modern incarnations of ancient civilizations. We share common political values, overlapping security concerns and a growing commerce.

India was established in 1947; Israel in 1948. Both peoples rejected British rule, both faced Muslim opposition to their independence. The subcontinent was divided into the secular state of India and the Muslim state of Pakistan. In the Mideast, the Palestinian Arabs rejected the idea of two states for two peoples. Substantially, they still do.

Though much still needs to be done to draw India and Israel closer, enormous steps have been taken since New Delhi first recognized Israel in 1950 and finally established an embassy in 1992. Israel has actually maintained a consular presence in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, since 1952.

India is a genuine multicultural democracy. Among its 1.1 billion people are 150 million Muslims. Its former president, and father of New Delhi's nuclear program, is a Muslim.

NO ONE yet knows who carried out these attacks and speculation is rampant. Pakistan has in the past encouraged terrorism in Kashmir. Its doubtful India's unstable neighbor is explicitly responsible for the aggression (the government there denounced it), but Pakistan has multiple power centers and its intelligence service has previously been linked to the Taliban. Both they and al-Qaida have an interest in diverting attention away from the Pakistan-Afghan border. And coincidentally, Pakistani troops reportedly opened fire on Indian positions along their joint border on Thursday. Still, al-Qaida specializes in mega-attacks using suicide bombers, which was not the case here. Even if it turns out that this outrage was the handiwork of Lashkar-e-Toiba - or one of its front-groups - which wants to turn India into a Muslim state, that still doesn't unveil the real masterminds.

Whoever did this wanted to create panic, scare off foreigners, undermine India's economy and turn the country's people against one another.

ISRAELIS have long argued that no political grievance, no perceived injustice and no religious creed can ever justify waging war against civilians. Others have sometimes made excuses for "resistance" movements.

If any consolation can be derived out of the heartbreak in Mumbai, perhaps it will be that India will work ever more vigorously in international forums to isolate terrorists and the state's that sponsor them.



In the topsy-turvy world of the United Nations, no issue gets more consideration, monopolizes more resources or engenders more sloganeering than the "Question of Palestine."

The UN maintains a Division for Palestinian Rights, a Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, and a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. If only the world body devoted similar energies to fighting AIDS or saving Zimbabwe.

Some say that the UN is a noble experiment gone terribly wrong. But the organization isn't all bad. A range of autonomous bodies - such as the Universal Postal Union and the World Intellectual Property Organization - do their work in a professional and non-partisan manner (though even among these there are ignoble exceptions).

Moreover, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has strived to be a fair administrator and an honest broker. He has expressed concern about human rights abuses committed by Hamas and repeatedly condemned Palestinian Arab attacks against Israeli civilian targets.

Unfortunately, Ban has remarkably little sway over what is said or done in the name of the organization he heads.

THE TRUE character of the UN is exemplified by its 192 member states. And nowhere does the melding of their "values" manifest itself more than in the General Assembly. Here the tyranny of the majority, often enabled by the acquiescence of nations from whom one would have expected better, has made a bitter mockery of the 1945 UN Charter that was intended to make the institution a beacon of tolerance and enlightenment.

By habitually championing the "right of return" - not to a Palestinian state to be created alongside the Jewish one, but to Israel proper - the General Assembly has obliquely committed itself to the demographic destruction of Israel.

Given its long history of having one set of rules for the Jewish state and another for everyone else, it is all too tempting for decent men and women to block out the UN's Annual Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People which has consecrated November 29 as a day of hate against, and delegitimization of, the Jewish state.

But at this newspaper we are haunted by the words of Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

A malevolent man who knew a thing or two about Jew-hatred once taught that a Big Lie can be made credible. He argued that people would have a hard time imagining that their representatives might fabricate colossal untruths.

Neither the evil man, nor his minister of propaganda, ever said: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it...." but that was their intent.

THIS BRINGS us to Nicaraguan diplomat, Catholic priest, and General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, a self-proclaimed "lover" of the Jewish people. He declared Tuesday that nothing excuses "the failure to establish a Palestinian state."

Yet rather than blame the Arab and Muslim world which, between 1947 and 2002, explicitly rejected the two-state solution, or blame the Palestinian Arabs whose polity to this day is divided over the possibility of coexistence, d'Escoto Brockmann blames... the Jews.

Then comes the Big Lie: "Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories appear so similar to the apartheid of an earlier era, a continent away, and I believe it is very important we in the United Nations use this term," d'Escoto Brockmann said. "We must not be afraid to call something for what it is."

To state the obvious: The conflict between the Jewish people and the Palestinian Arabs has nothing to do with apartheid.

There is no system of racial segregation in the West Bank. There is a state of de-facto belligerency between West Bank Palestinians and Israeli Jews. Hamas-controlled Gaza seeks Israel's annihilation, not civil rights. Jews are not colonizers in Judea and Samaria. Nevertheless, Israel's government is ready to abandon much of the Jews' ancient heartland for peace with security.

As the padre speaks from the den of iniquity that is the General Assembly, we ask: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:3)


Miliband's 'stark choice'

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told a think-tank audience in Abu Dhabi yesterday that "the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran poses the most immediate threat to the stability" of the region.

Gulf Arabs don't have to be convinced that Persian hegemony is a peril. They understand that an Iranian bomb would be directed against them as much as against Israel and the West. They worry, too, that Iran is indoctrinating their restive Shi'ite populations with the ayatollahs' extremism.

Yet the economies of the two sides of the Gulf are interwoven. The parallels between the Gulf Arabs and the European Union are striking. Both dread the power of a nuclear-armed Iran. Both, paradoxically, keep Teheran solvent through commerce.

Unfortunately, in trying to convince the Arabs to get tougher with Iran, Miliband actually gave them every reason not to: "The pressure we are applying to Iran, the sanctions we have supported in both the EU and the UN, are not an attempt at regime change," he said. "Nor are they a precursor to military action. We are 100% committed to a diplomatic resolution of this dispute."

MILIBAND'S speech comes days after The New York Times reported that Iran may already have sufficient material for an atom bomb like the one dropped over Nagasaki. According to the Times, Iran has 630 kilograms of low-enriched uranium from its Natanz facility, enough to produce a single bomb, though the material would have to be further purified and "weaponized."

Israeli analysts reject the assertion that Iran already has enough refined material for a bomb, though they believe it will have that capacity by the end of 2009, as the Post reported on Friday.

Quibbles aside, no one suggests Iran is not moving full-speed ahead on creating weapons of mass destruction.

Back in December 2007, the US National Intelligence Estimate found with "high confidence" that Iran halted its effort to develop nuclear weapons in 2003. Teheran may simply have decided to concentrate on enrichment having gone as far as necessary, at the time, on weaponization. The intelligence estimate concluded: "We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon is late 2009," but more likely between 2010 and 2015. If the guesstimate of next year is closer to reality - as the latest indications suggest - telling Iran not to worry about regime change or military intervention sends precisely the wrong signal.

We appreciate that Miliband tailored his address in the UAE to his audience with the commendable goal of cajoling Arab leaders to more vigorously oppose Iran's ambitions. But the foreign secretary's overly nuanced and highly conservative message could easily lead the mullahs to conclude that there is no credible downside to their building a bomb: Existing sanctions are insufficiently draconian to deter; the pace by which they could conceivably be strengthened is pathetically out of whack with Iranian nuclear advances; the regime is under no threat; and the military option is off the table.

WE DO not oppose negotiations with Iran. With full US backing, EU leaders and diplomats, as well as UN officials, have discussed the nuclear issue with Iran on countless occasions. And from November 2001 through 2008, the United States itself held 28 direct and indirect contacts with Iran, many at the ambassadorial level - not just to talk about Iraq.

Miliband is right that for "diplomacy to work we need to present Teheran with a stark choice." But his idea of "stark" comes down to: "Either it cooperates with the UN Security Council, halts enrichment and engages constructively with the IAEA, or it continues on its current path towards further confrontation and isolation… It is only by making this choice more and more stark," Miliband says, "by combining increasingly tough sanctions with clear offers of reintegration… that we can hope to veer the Iranian government off its current course."

But this is precisely the "stark" choice that Iran derisively rejected in July 2008.

The mullahs must be delighted to hear that the only approach Miliband advocates falls short of an immediate punishing embargo, removes the threat of regime change, and even seems to take a last-resort military option off the table.

How the Gulf Arabs feel may be another matter.


In the name of the patriarchs

The Torah identifies the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron as the oldest piece of Jewish-owned property. There Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah are buried.

In modern times, the city has been a flashpoint. In 1929, Arabs slaughtered dozens of Jewish residents, forcing the survivors to flee. In 1979, Hebron's Jewish community was reestablished but only with the unenthusiastic acquiescence of the Israeli government.

The city is home to some of the most combative settlers in Judea and Samaria. They have been killed (think Aharon Gross and Shalhevet Pas) and they have killed (think Baruch Goldstein). They have been demonized and demonized others. They have fiercely struggled over every centimeter of their relatively small and hard to defend enclave.

Hebron's predicament is seldom far from the headlines. Late last month, a panel of three justices headed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch ruled that Jewish families living in a disputed building - Beit Hashalom - had to leave.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai says the Supreme Court's decision will be carried out.

The settlers, who have been living in the disputed dwelling for a year and eight months, argue that the ruling does not obligate security forces to take any immediate action.

A sense of looming confrontation pervades.

IT'S A legally convoluted case, and Beinisch appears to have lost patience while waiting for other judges to rule.

A Jerusalem District Court has yet to decide whether the settlers own the disputed building. A military appeals court has been dragging its feet on a settlers' appeal over the decision by the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria not to register their ownership of the site. Both courts have, in our view, acted irresponsibly in delaying their rulings.

Some say a politically motivated Beinisch acted impetuously, seeking to force a confrontation between the state and the least popular segment of the settler population. Others say she acted reluctantly, belatedly and only when the case was thrust at her by state authorities.

Beyond the disputed ownership of the building is the technical question of who had custody of it on the night of March 19, 2007, when settlers moved in. Was it Saed Rajbi, a Palestinian, or agents for the Jewish community?

The police eventually decided that Rajbi had custody - which means the settlers are obligated to vacate while the case over ownership plays itself out in the courts. The state took its case to Beinisch only when the settlers refused to honor the police demand that they vacate.

With regard to ownership, the settlers argue that they bought the building from Rajbi in 2004 (and have a video of the contract signing to prove it). Rajbi claims that he changed his mind and returned the payments he had thus far received.

At any rate, lawful ownership requires the filing of a title deed - something which can't take place while the dispute persists.

THIS CLASH is emblematic of a much larger struggle not just between Jews and Arabs but among Israeli Jews - and not just over Hebron, but over borders and the political and religious character of the Jewish state.

A splinter, but by no means trivial, group of settler extremists, and the elders who provide them with spiritual and material succor, have concluded that the apparatus of the state has "become disengaged from Zionism and Judaism." Thus they feel free to treat its symbols, soldiers and laws as no longer legitimate.

These extremists should not be coddled. They should be quarantined - politically, socially and religiously. And the greater effort to marginalize them should be led by those who are faithful to the settlement enterprise.

It may be argued that Beinisch should have allowed the other court processes to take their course. It can be argued, to the contrary, that further delay would have exacerbated matters. Either way, the decision of the Supreme Court must be honored.

We implore the Hebron settlers - most of whom are patriots - to voluntarily vacate the disputed building, even as we call upon both the District Court and the military appeals court to promptly issue their rulings.

The place where the foundations of Jewish civilization were first laid must not be where the Zionist enterprise unravels.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Arab peace initiative, Israel's underworld, NRP's demise, Tower of Babel

Writings for week of November 16 - November 21

Power & Politics: On Obama - What, me worry?
With roughly two months to go before Barack Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States, there are worrying signals that US-Israel relations may be in for a bumpy ride. Some on the Jewish Right are already saying, "I told you so."

Take the report in London's Sunday Times which implied that Obama would vigorously back the Saudi-sponsored Arab League peace plan that calls for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines - this according to anonymous sources "close to America's president-elect."

Reporters Uzi Mahnaimi in Tel Aviv and Sarah Baxter in Washington asserted that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, along with President Shimon Peres, back the Saudi initiative. I must have been off the day our foreign minister and president announced their "backing." My impression is that Peres thinks elements of the plan are positive - which they are.

Next, Mahnaimi and Baxter tell us the plan would give Israel "effective veto" power to prevent millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants from overwhelming Israel proper. This assertion is backed up by... nothing.

Finally, the paper quotes Obama as saying, privately, that it would be "crazy" for Israel to refuse the Saudi deal. The source? An anonymous "senior Obama adviser."

THEN THERE are the fears involving the relative influence of people who have offered Obama advice. Take the case of Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares. He's a nuclear disarmament advocate who thinks that "Israel has less need of nuclear weapons now than at any time in its history..."

Cirincione, as I understand it, would put both Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal and Iran's arsenal-in-the making on the negotiating table. He'd aim at disarming both states to create a nuclear-free Middle East. Cirincione really does know a lot about nuclear weapons, but clearly doesn't have a clue on how to read the mullahs.

Add to the mix a post-election report from the Institute for Science and International Security, an outfit partly funded by Cirincione's Ploughshares, and headed by David Albright. They've just issued a report calling on the incoming Obama administration to press Israel to join a still-in-the-planning-stage Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. Theoretically, if the pact was ratified and Israel was forced to accept it, the Jewish state could be prevented from producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. Albright also wants Obama to pressure Israel, Egypt and Iran to join the Nuclear Test Ban treaty.

And of course the ubiquitous Hamas "moderate" Ahmed Youseff is always available to muddy the waters. Lately, he's told anyone who will listen that he's in secret e-mail contact with people who say they are close to Obama. Ergo, Obama is "negotiating" with Hamas.

BETWEEN now and January 20 you can expect a slew of such agenda-driven "news" stories put out by journalists and think-tankers and regurgitated by pundits and bloggers. Everyone wants to influence events, catch the ear of the new president and promote themselves as someone Obama listens to. And those who opposed Obama want to say, "I told you so."

We'll know soon enough who Obama really takes advice from when it comes to foreign policy and national security. So far, what we know is that he's turned almost exclusively to former members of the Clinton administration for his transition team. His most significant appointment so far is that of Rahm Emanuel. The adviser who almost never leaves his side is David Axelrod. So don't insult my intelligence by asking me to believe that Obama is some kind of enemy of the Jews.

There were folks who said Obama is a clandestine Muslim or closeted commie. So we'll soon be seeing either prayer rugs thrown down in the Oval Office or a photo of Marx up on the wall next to George Washington's - or those who made such claims will be seen as foolhardy.

I am hoping the men and women he appoints to work on Middle East issues will not include those who would "save Israel from itself" - the kind who still have their heads in the clouds. But surely Obama is too pragmatic a politician to surround himself with people who have a long track record of proffering bad advice.

YET IF he appoints people who think Israel is partly to blame for the failure of the "peace process," that's still not the end of the world.

The reason I am keeping my powder dry is that even a cursory look back at American policy toward Israel shows that it has been consistent across administrations. Since 1967, on territory-for-peace, settlements and aid, US policy has remained unswerving.

Every single US president from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush has wanted Israel to exchange territory for peace. If Obama demands we give up all the territory captured in the 1967 Six Day War, that indeed would be a dangerous and radical departure from standing US policy. That would be embracing Mahmoud Abbas's uncompromising position. That would be very bad.

But every administration has opposed Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, though many have shown signs of understanding that the biggest obstacle to peace is that even "moderates" among the Palestinians are unrealistic and intransigent in their demands. And anyway, they would be powerless to implement a deal that centrist Israel could live with. The fanatics, meanwhile, oppose any agreement and it is they who control half the Palestinian polity.

Of course I worry that Obama may be bad for Israel. But will he be worse than Richard Nixon, who allowed Israel to slowly bleed during the 1973 War so that Henry Kissinger could start from a more advantageous bargaining position? Worse than Gerald Ford, whose "evenhanded" policy toward Israel led him to entirely "reassess" US-Israel relations?

Will Obama be worse than Jimmy Carter, who viscerally despised Menachem Begin and was instrumental in undermining early prospects for Palestinian autonomy in Judea and Samaria?

What of Ronald Reagan? Think Bitberg, the AWACS to Saudi Arabia and the US decision to open up a diplomatic dialogue with Yasser Arafat's PLO in 1988 - on the preposterous premise that the PLO chief had genuinely accepted Israel's right to exist.

Will Obama be worse than George Bush Sr., whose secretary of state, James (f-ck the Jews) Baker, gave out the White House switchboard number during 1990 Congressional testimony, telling Israel: "When you're serious about peace, call us."

Worse than old Bill Clinton, who helped engineer Oslo, which begot the second intifada and 1,000 Israeli dead?

Will Obama be worse than George W. Bush who was the first president to explicitly make the creation of a Palestinian state US policy? As if Palestinian society is now ready for the responsibilities of statehood. Who exhausted the US in Iraq on a wild-goose chase while the Taliban and the real al-Qaida re-grouped in Afghanistan? Bogged down in Iraq, America has no stomach to confront Iran.

SO PLEASE excuse me if I don't get all bent out of shape - at least not before he even takes office - at the prospect that Barack Obama will give Israel a hard time.

One other thing: no US president can reasonably be expected to be more "pro-Israel" than Israel itself. If our next government can't build an internal consensus on where our borders should be, on what Israel's red lines are, on which settlements we keep and which we would give up for real peace - that's our problem.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying Obama won't give us some tough innings. What I am saying is that we'd play a better game if we knew what we wanted and pulled together.

And Obama might then hear what we're saying - instead of a cacophony of conflicting voices.


Yes to 'salam'

The Muslim and Arab world - presumably excluding Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah - have just made an unprecedented overture to the people of Israel. By coincidence, it comes just as al-Qaida reached out to the American people with their reaction to the election of Barack Obama.

In al-Qaida's insipid stab at winning friends and influencing people, Ayman al-Zawahiri surfaces in a Web video to denounce the president-elect as a hypocrite and an abeed al-beit - or "house Negro."

Osama bin-Laden's deputy, who is seen only in a still photo and whose message is read by a narrator, says that despite the election of an African American "born to a Muslim father," the US doesn't genuinely have a "new face."

The video unfavorably contrasts Obama with black Muslim icon Malcolm X. As archival footage presents Malcolm championing black chauvinism and warning that, "The house negro is always looking out for his master," Obama is pictured wearing a white kippa at the Western Wall with Zawahiri accusing him of praying "the prayer of the Jews."

He speaks directly to Obama, betraying al-Qaida's trepidation at the prospect that the incoming president will reach out to Iran, pull out of Iraq, and focus US military efforts in Afghanistan. He implicitly addresses America's black Muslims, cautioning them against moderation. He tries to scare Americans into opposing Obama's plan to commit more US troops in Afghanistan. He also wants them to pressure their government to halt attacks on the tribal regions along the border with Pakistan.

Altogether, pathetic and unconvincing.

IN CONTRAST, the Arab world's effort to appeal directly to the Israeli people is welcome and arguably constructive.

The PA purchased space in this and other Israeli newspapers (see page 11) seeking support for the 2002 Saudi-inspired Arab League peace initiative. The ad also ran, in Arabic, in several Palestinian papers.

Let's admit that we find ourselves tantalized by an offer from 57 Muslim and Arab countries to establish full diplomatic and "normal" relations in return for an Israel pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines. It certainly beats the last offer we got - from Khartoum in August 1967 - "No peace, no negotiation and no recognition."

Whoever drafted this dull advertisement isn't going to win any copywriting awards. But even Madison Avenue couldn't sell what is, at the end of the day, a bad "product."

The initiative is being offered on a "take it or leave it" basis when it should be presented as a starting point for negotiations. Most Israelis want a land-for-peace formula based on the "1967-plus" formula enshrined in President George W. Bush's 2004 letter to prime minister Ariel Sharon.

The ad touts as its cornerstone General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948, which was drafted when there were, maybe, 700,000 Palestinian Arab refugees. Today the UN figures there are 4.6 million.

The archaic GA Res. 194 wanted "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace [to] be permitted to do so." But if implemented all these years later, 194 would be Israel's demographic death-knell.

Plainly, the only viable solution is for the Arab refugees to be resettled in the Arab world and in a Palestinian state that is created alongside Israel - not in Israel itself.

The resolution is so antiquated that it calls for the protection of holy places in Nazareth. And far from calling for east Jerusalem to be the the capital of a Palestinian state, it says Jerusalem and Bethlehem "should be accorded special and separate treatment from the rest of Palestine and should be placed under effective United Nations control."

Equally troubling, neither the ad nor the Saudi plan itself acknowledge the inalienable right of the Jewish people to a national homeland within agreed borders.

So Israelis - across the political spectrum - will find the Arab Peace Initiative deficient.

Still, most of us, though disappointed that an offer which falls so short of Israel's minimal needs comes so late, will find themselves agreeing with President Shimon Peres: This is an overture worth exploring.

After so much bloodshed and suffering on both sides, we implore the Arab and Muslim world: Let us not make propaganda. Let us not wait another 60 years. Let us make peace.


Men of no honor

It's easy to get caught up in the romance and mystique associated with organized crime. Misfits and sociopaths are somehow transformed into glamorous characters when their names are tied to the underworld.

For the past three days, the country has been mesmerized by Ya'acov Alperon, the crime boss who was blown-up in his rental car on a busy Tel Aviv boulevard. This happened 30 minutes after he left a courthouse where proceedings over his son Dror's indictment for blackmail had just concluded.

Israel's main television channels have devoted most of their nightly news broadcasts to the murder. Anchors, reporters and studio guests have combed over every detail of the killing. There were archival scenes of Alperon joking with reporters; with one of his brothers at a Likud central committee meeting; scenes from the attempted killings of another brother, and one of Ya'acov professing that he was retired from the mob. Then it was back to shots of the crime scene - a wrecked car, a bloodied Alperon slumped head-first from the passenger side into the gutter.

The morning tabloids have devoted much of their news pages to the murder. Would there be an underworld war? Why did police fail to protect Alperon? And more to the point, would ordinary citizens be jeopardized in gangland violence? At least two passers-by were wounded in the Alperon hit.

The press was there in force on Tuesday at the Kfar Nachman cemetery in Ra'anana as hundreds of family members - biological as well as criminal - came to pay their final respects. His widow cried that she had been left to raise seven orphans, one of whom declared that the killer "won't have a grave, because I'll cut off his arms, his head, his legs."

PURELY BY coincidence, that night, a local cable station screened (for the umpteenth time) the 1972 Godfather movie with its own dramatic funeral scene in which Sal Tessio betrays Michael Corleone to the Barzini family.

Unlike the pedestrian Israeli hoodlums, the fictitious mafia dons created by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola were mostly men of honor. When their soldiers killed each other, they made sure not to harm innocent "civilians."

Israeli mobsters don't walk in the footsteps of Don Corleone, Pete Clemenza or Tom Hagen. They have no honor, no decency.

In June, Yoram Hacham, the lawyer for crime figure Asi Abutbul, was blown up in his car in Tel Aviv. In August, Marguerita Lautin was murdered while she sat with her husband and children on a Bat Yam beach.

And hours after Alperon's burial, a bomb was discovered outside the police station - and next to a kindergarten - in Ramle, where investigators were trying to solve the killing.

On the bright side, many of the established families are disintegrating either because their chieftains have been wiped out in intramural killings or because of pressure from law-enforcement. Younger family members are known more for their brawn than their brains. Which explains why Israeli prisons are already holding some 500 inmates with ties to organized crime.

For the time being, the Alperons fight the Kedoshims for control of the Herzliya marina; the Ohanas over gambling in Kfar Saba; the Abergils over the recycling industry, and the Abutbuls over the seamier side of Netanya.

THE TRUTH is, organized crime has been a blight for decades. Back in 1977 a crusading young MK named Ehud Olmert made the headlines by probing the underworld. Even then the cars of criminal kingpins were being blown up, there were fears that the police had been infiltrated by the mafia, and a committee charged with looking into the "crisis" blamed disrespect for the law and a developing subculture of criminality.

Israelis have gone from debating whether there is organized crime to practically glorifying it.

Of course we in the media need to report on the killing of a mafia boss in broad daylight on a busy street. But can't we do it in a way that doesn't make heroes of thugs?

Society's message must be that those who join the underworld are to be shunned, shamed and marginalized - not vicariously celebrated.


The spirit is gone

Religious Zionists have officially admitted that they are too polarized - over politics, theology and personality - to share one home. That, more than anything else, explains the demise of the National Religious Party yesterday, age 52. Sad, really, when you consider the movement's illustrious history.

In the 1800s, religious Zionists disputed the ultra-Orthodox stance that it was blasphemous, until God sent the messiah, to promote a return to Eretz Israel and the reestablishment of a Jewish state.

With the Zionist movement dominated largely by agnostics, religious Zionists also worked against the tide to inject tradition into the cause. Rabbi Samuel Mohilever convinced Hibbat Zion, in 1893, to establish a bureau aimed at Orthodox Jews to be known by its Hebrew acronym "Mizrahi," or merkaz ruhani - the spiritual center.

In 1902, Rabbi Jacob Reines, one of Mohilever's disciples, took the name Mizrahi when he helped reconstitute the religious Zionist movement. Their mantra was coined by Rabbi Meir Berlin - later Bar-Ilan: "The Land of Israel for the people of Israel according to the Torah of Israel. (It was at Bar-Ilan University that the NRP met to dissolve.)

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine, gave religious Zionism his spiritual imprimatur, making the case that settling the land was a precursor to the Redemption.

RELIGIOUS Zionists went on to have a profound influence on the overall enterprise. The Sabbath, not Sunday, became Israel's day of rest; no state functions would be held on Shabbat or religious holidays, nor would there be public transportation. The dietary restrictions of kashrut would be adhered to in the IDF.

Most significantly, marriage, divorce, even burial, would fall under the purview of Orthodox rabbinic authorities. For decades, an NRP-dominated Rabbinate steered Israel's "established church." Today, that role is held by non-Zionist haredim.

Mizrahi created a worldwide network of educational and charitable organizations. It sponsored the Bnei Akiva youth movement (for boys and girls). It fostered moshavim and kibbutzim that settled the Beit She'an Valley, Gush Etzion and the northern Negev. National-religious schools became a vital stream in public education. These accomplishments allowed the national-religious to have influence disproportionate to their numbers.

In the 1949 Knesset elections all the Orthodox parties (Zionist and non-Zionist) ran as a united slate, garnering 12 percent of the vote. Such unity would be unimaginable today as Orthodoxy has splintered along theocratic, ethnic, personal and political lines. In 1956, Mizrahi's heyday, the NRP was born. Mizrahi/NRP was part of every government coalition from 1948 until 1992. Between 1956 and 1981 it generally captured about a dozen Knesset seats.

THE 1967 Six Day War was a turning point for the NRP. Though it had a theocratic agenda, it was otherwise a centrist party. And its leader, Yosef Burg, was a perennial fixture in a succession of Labor governments.

In the wake of Israel's stunning victory, NRP's young guard created Gush Emunim to settle liberated Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Over time, the party's paramount mission became supporting the settlement enterprise.

In 1977, the NRP brought down Yitzhak Rabin's (first) government on the pretext that the IDF had accepted delivery of several F-15s on the Sabbath. After new elections, the NRP became a pillar in the Likud governments of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.

But the party suffered a major blow in 1981, when Sephardi members broke away to form the haredi-oriented Shas Party. From then on the NRP picked up mostly four to five Knesset seats. In 2006 it merged with the National Union (soon also to be defunct) and together the largely Orthodox grouping won nine seats.

In the 2009 elections, parties to the right of Likud hope to create a new alignment intended to attract, among others, voters who formerly supported the NRP.

We would like to remember the NRP in its idealized form - as a bastion of modern Orthodoxy, a bridge between religious and secular, for its inclusion of women in leadership positions, for the bipartisan civic-minded legislation its MKs ushered into law, and for representing Israelis concerned with Jewish education.

It is dismaying that the dwindling constituency that was once animated by these issues is now left politically homeless.


Tower of Babel

Pity the Hamas leadership as it tries to fathom how Israel will respond to the organization's repeated violations of the cease-fire.

Who should they listen to? Shaul Mofaz says the IDF needs to assassinate them; Rafi Eitan refers to them as monsters who should be destroyed. Eli Yishai says that anyone who has faith in a truce with them is behaving like an ostrich. Vice Premier Haim Ramon allows that government "policy" toward Hamas is causing profound damage.

The enemy must be befuddled.

Should they listen to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who said Sunday that he's "waiting" for the IDF to brief him on his options. Or to the IDF which asked Monday, "What options does the prime minister mean? He's had a menu of choices on his desk for weeks."

Perhaps they should listen to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni when she tells visiting British Foreign Minister David Miliband that "When Israel's citizens are attacked - Israel must respond." But what sort of response? Hamas must be wondering.

Perhaps they should only pay attention to Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He's let it be known that the longer large-scale military action can be put off, the better. "Hotheadedness is not a replacement for policy," said Israel's chief strategist.

Further confounding matters, early yesterday Barak announced that the crossing points from Israel into Gaza, which routinely funnel food and fuel, would remain closed because Hamas was still shooting. In the afternoon, despite continued fire, Israel allowed in 30 trucks laden with enough supplies to keep the UN's food distribution network in business for a week.

"Those wily Jews," Hamas leaders must be saying to themselves, "never showing their true intentions - saying one thing, doing another."

TROUBLE is the bluster and contradictory pronouncements emanating from Israel's top echelon haven't been made to confuse the enemy - they are sadly indicative of our disarray.

When Israel agreed to the cease-fire, our leaders implicitly accepted - though they may have been in denial - that Hamas would continue to sneak-in weapons and material via the Philadelphi Corridor. The will of the Palestinians to smuggle is stronger than the will (and ability) of the Egyptians to stop them. What little leverage Israel had in its efforts to free Gilad Schalit was lost.

Now, nothing is more disheartening to Israel's citizenry than to witness such disunity when the country is under attack.

And it is the country that's been attacked. Sderot Mayor David Buskila reminds Israelis that Ashkelon, Sderot and the Negev are part of sovereign Israel.

The violent and destabilizing consequences of Hamas's control of Gaza continue to bedevil. This newspaper has argued that Israel cannot tolerate an Islamist state dedicated to its destruction anywhere between the Mediterranean and Jordan.

Naturally, before a large scale military operation can be embarked upon, the Cabinet must decide on its goals. For now, the IDF is pursuing a holding action; interdicting "ticking bomb" tunnels; preventing the enemy from laying explosives along the border, and taking out rocket-launching teams caught in the act.

ISRAELI DECISION makers have few palatable options in trying to stop Hamas aggression.

And yet it is they who need to choose.

Israel could try using artillery against the sources of enemy fire. But government lawyers warn this might be illegal under international law since Hamas often shoots from densely populated areas. Curiously, Hamas's legal department has not cautioned its military wing against using residential neighborhoods in Gaza to attack Israeli civilians.

Israel could systematically eliminate the enemy's political and military command. Though a new leadership cadre would eventually take their places, we might at least buy ourselves a respite.

Re-conquering Gaza and reconstituting the civil administration is not something most Israelis favor. Another idea being bandied about is for the IDF to retake Gaza, oust Hamas and turn the Strip over to a pan-Arab peace-keeping force which would reinstall the Palestinian Authority. For now, this scenario is as unrealistic as it is unappealing.

It may well be unreasonable to expect this caretaker government to solve the Gaza conundrum. It is not unreasonable to ask ministers who will not cooperate in the security cabinet to stop babbling away in public.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Jerusalem has a new mayor, The Gaza 'siege', Olmert the Oracle, Our Town,

Wrap for the week of November 9 through 15

Barkat's agenda

Fiorello LaGuardia, the legendary New York City mayor between the Great Depression and World War II, seldom disappointed reporters for a quote.

"It makes no difference if I burn my bridges behind me - I never retreat," he declared.

In truth, the big-hearted LaGuardia figuratively built more bridges than he burned. Which is probably a good example for incoming Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Not only should Barkat avoid burning his political bridges, he shouldn't tear down the concrete one that's already up.

At a post-election news conference, Barkat hinted he'd consider dismantling Santiago Calatrava's "Bridge of Strings," designed to allow the light railway to glide over traffic at the entrance of town. Whatever the result of his promised reexamination of the entire over-budget, overdue and under-planned train, he should certainly resist the temptation to demolish the bridge.

Why not, instead, hold an all-Jerusalem contest to come up with ideas on how best to put the bridge to use? Let's find a way to give purpose to "the bridge to nowhere."

BARKAT'S stunning 52-43 percent victory over Meir Porush is being acclaimed by everyone who sees Jerusalem as the epicenter of Jewish civilization and the focal point of Zionist aspirations, as well as a "normal" city where real people - Jews, Muslims and Christians of all stripes - live and work.

He comes to power just as the global economic crisis is being felt in Jerusalem - already the poorest city in Israel. So it is essential that he focus on the issues that matter most: jobs, housing and transportation.

Barkat should declare a tax moratorium on arnona payments for enterprises willing to open their doors in Jerusalem and provide employment for eight or more workers. He needs to discourage luxury development aimed at non-residents while promoting affordable housing for the middle class. Barkat should revive plans to build a new sports and convention arena near Teddy Stadium.

Most urgently, the new mayor needs to rapidly untangle the downtown traffic mess which is killing business.

CERTAINLY for his first 100 days - though we'd like it to be longer than that - Barkat should avoid the meta-issues candidates for Jerusalem mayor relish debating and which, in fact, fall far out of their purview.

While mayoral powers are limited, Barkat should use the prominence that comes with the job to be Jerusalem's voice. He needs to press the national government for more money to subsidize housing, jobs, education and transportation. He'll need to forcefully advocate for the fast train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Linking the capital to Ben-Gurion Airport and the coastal metropolis would give this newspaper's hometown economy a tremendous boost.

He will be Jerusalem's face to the Diaspora. So much of what is aesthetically and culturally appealing here is made possible by the philanthropy of people who live overseas. Support from abroad also bolsters Jerusalem's hospitals, yeshivot, non-Orthodox religious institutions and the Hebrew University.

Barkat now becomes our ambassador to the world. Let Teddy Kollek be his model.

THE NEW mayor must be a healer. He's made a good start by trying to form an all-inclusive city council bringing together parties ranging from the haredi to the devoutly secular. Let him also find an informal way, outside the limelight, of routinely consulting with Arab leaders.

This city is comprised of a complex mosaic of communities. All communal leaders owe it to their constituencies to help Barkat do his job.

Barkat, for his part, must bring greater transparency to city government. He should encourage HOT and YES to offer live broadcasts of city council sessions and most committee meetings (a la America's C-SPAN).

With hard times ahead, the new mayor needs to challenge citizens to pitch in. Let City Hall create a volunteer corps so that seniors and young people can give of their time to make this a safer, cleaner, healthier and more welcoming town. He might turn to outgoing mayor Uri Lupolianski to head such an endeavor which, perhaps, could involve elements of the haredi population.

To paraphrase LaGuardia, there's no right-wing or left-wing, religious or secular, Jewish or Arab or Christian way of picking up the garbage or reducing the wait for a bus.

Mr. Barkat, get the job done - and do it fairly, efficiently and inclusively.


The Gaza 'siege'

Here's what anyone who follows events in the Gaza Strip - cursorily - might reasonably conclude: An Israeli "siege" periodically leaves 1.5 million people hungry and in darkness. Innocents are "collectively punished" while the IDF capriciously "raids" Gaza killing Palestinians.

Yesterday, the UN agency which for the past 60 years has been charged with providing Palestinian Arabs with direct relief (though forbidden to permanently resettle them) warned that its Gaza operations could run out of wheat, meat, powdered milk and cooking oil by the weekend.

THE TRUTH is that Gaza's misfortunes are largely self-inflicted. Hamas has made battling Israel its highest priority regardless of the damage this causes Palestinian society - its founding charter calls for the obliteration of the Jewish state. Paradoxically, Hamas remains immensely popular. In fact, some Israeli policymakers argue that it would be pointless for Israel to topple Hamas because the population is Hamas.

But Hamas cares about how the West perceives it. Its spokesmen have resurrected an offer of a 10-year truce. The cost? Total Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines, release of all Palestinian prisoners, creation of a militarized Palestinian state, and flooding Israel with millions of Palestinian refugees.

Israel disengaged from Gaza in the summer of 2005 and the Palestinian Authority could have theoretically begun turning the area into a Singapore on the Mediterranean, making it a prototype of what a Palestinian state could look like. Instead, the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas squandered the opportunity.

When Hamas ousted Abbas, taking control of Gaza in June 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak pursued a strategy aimed at turning Gaza's population against Hamas, isolating the Islamists within the international community and preventing them from overthrowing Abbas in the West Bank. Only the latter goal has been unequivocally achieved and only because the IDF remains stationed in Judea and Samaria.

With Hamas in control of Gaza, Israel imposed a limited embargo on the hostile territory. Nevertheless, on any given day dozens of trucks carrying food, fuel and medicine are allowed in.

The shekel continues to be Gaza's currency. The US and EU spend millions of dollars trying to help ordinary Palestinians, and Abbas continues to pay the salaries of most government workers.

ISRAEL AND Hamas accepted an Egyptian brokered six-month truce in June giving respite to the people of Sderot.

But lately, Hamas has been setting the stage for the next round. On November 4, the IDF destroyed a tunnel that Israeli intelligence believed was going to be used - at any moment - to infiltrate into Israel for the purpose of kidnaping soldiers. Since then Hamas has fired 60 Kassams and 20 mortars at southern Israel. Wednesday's fighting is a continuation of Hamas aggression near the border.

With Hamas shooting, Israel temporarily closed the crossing points used to deliver humanitarian goods and fuel. Hamas then cynically ordered Gaza's only power plant closed, plunging Gaza City into darkness, and brought thousands of children into the streets for a candlelight protest.

The plant, in fact, provides just a quarter of the Strip's electricity. Israel provides 70% via 10 high-power lines, Egypt supplies the rest - none of it interrupted.

PLAINLY, Israel's Gaza strategy isn't working. Olmert himself thinks "a collision with Hamas is inevitable."

Hamas has used the truce to further enhance its sophisticated subterranean supply lines. Advanced weaponry is brought in; so too, is everything from tobacco and sheep to car parts - all taxed by Hamas's "tunnels administration." So much diesel fuel has been flowing through pipelines under the Philadelphi Corridor that a glut on the market has reportedly been created. Only cement and iron can't easily be smuggled.

What now? Israeli defense officials do not want the cease-fire to fall apart. At the same time, Jerusalem is not willing to allow a creeping escalation of Hamas violence. If the Islamists end the cease-fire, the cost must be a relentless pursuit of their leaders so as to diminish the capacity of Hamas to govern.

Over the long haul, Israel simply can't tolerate an Islamist regime anywhere between the Mediterranean and the Jordan that is dedicated to its destruction.

Those concerned about the well-being of the people of Gaza should put the pressure where it belongs - and tell Hamas to stop the violence.


Olmert as oracle

Ehud Olmert spoke so earnestly in favor of an Israeli withdrawal "with minor corrections" to the 1949 armistice lines, at the state memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin on Monday, that the audience could be forgiven for forgetting that he was elected to implement a significant West Bank pullback - and failed.

With Olmert at the helm, Kadima received 29 Knesset seats in March 2006 based on the now forgotten "convergence" platform. He promised to establish "permanent borders" after disengaging from most of the West Bank and consolidating the settler population into blocs on the Israeli side of the security barrier.

It was a unilateralism intended to force statehood on the Palestinians, even in the absence of a peace agreement.

Someone should tell Olmert that what distinguished Kadima as a centrist party was its opposition to the near-total pullback supported by the Left, as well as the do-nothing or dig-in policies of the Right. The speech Olmert on Monday gave was - in tone and substance - one that Yossi Beilin could have given. Kadima's new leader, Tzipi Livni, is trying to disassociate herself from Olmert's remarks. It won't be easy unless she tells Israelis explicitly where she and Olmert part company.

The centrist position opposes a pullback to the 1949 armistice lines; expects the Palestinians to abandon their claim for a "right of return" to Israel proper; wants a Palestinian state to be demilitarized; and insists on retaining strategic settlement blocs. Israelis also understand that no deal is possible while Hamas controls Gaza and may be poised to take over the West Bank.

CONVERGENCE was not to be. Within a month of Olmert's election, Hamas took Gilad Schalit prisoner, and Hizbullah launched the Second Lebanon War.

By the time Gaza fell to Hamas in June 2007, the Kassams were smashing into Sderot and the Winograd Committee was exposing Olmert's inept handling of the war.

Of course, another reason why Olmert couldn't pursue convergence was that he allowed himself to become politically impotent. For the better part of his tenure, he's been under police investigation over allegations he failed to quickly dispel - money-stuffed envelopes from a man named Morris Talansky; claims of double-dipping on travel expenses; reported conflict of interest at the Ministry of Trade and Industry; and suggestions that he bought a home for below market value in return for political favors.

With all this, Olmert went to Annapolis (in November 2007) to relaunch bilateral talks with the Palestinian Authority. And he's been negotiating with Mahmoud Abbas for the past year with little to show for it.

Yet, bizarrely, Olmert spoke as if he was the leader of the opposition, not the sitting prime minister. He - of all people - would speak truth to power about Judea, Samaria, the Golan Heights and Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem?

He would point out that "the decision [to withdraw] has to be made now, without hesitation" and that "the moment of truth has arrived"?

He would lash out against settler extremists, as if he wasn't the ultimate law enforcement authority in the land?

Then, perhaps catching himself, Olmert made a new promise: "I will not let this continue."

In truth, having failed to implement the centrist platform upon which he was elected, clinging futility to power despite the Winograd findings, and failing to stop spiraling lawlessness in the West Bank, he really should not presume to lecture Israelis on the need for a two-state solution.

YET THE most egregious aspect of Olmert's speech was how he managed to inoculate the Palestinians from their peacemaking responsibilities.

On Tuesday, the fourth anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death, PLO chairman and PA president Abbas urged the Palestinian polity to "cherish" the path of the "shahids" - Arafat, Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir), George Habash and Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin. Abbas then urged Palestinians to pursue Arafat's "peace of the brave" - whatever that means post-second intifada.

In his final weeks, as a caretaker prime minister, it is too late now for Olmert to do much more than talk. But instead of lecturing Israelis, he could more constructively spend the remainder of his administration demanding that the Palestinians meet Israel half-way and enable his successor to proceed toward an agreement that would give Palestinians independence and Israel abiding security.


Our town
From Pisgat Ze'ev and Sanhedria to Emek Refa'im and Har Nof, voters in Jerusalem - and scores of other municipalities - go to the polls today to elect a new mayor and city council.

The capital's mayoral candidates are Nir Barkat, Meir Porush, Arkadi Gaydamak and Dan Birron. If none receives 40 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off.

Thirteen parties are competing for 31 places on the council, including Barkat's Jerusalem Shall Succeed, Porush's United Torah Judaism, Gaydamak's Social Justice and Birron's Green Leaf. A coalition of modern Orthodox and secular good-government types running as Wake Up Jerusalemites say they'll back Barkat if elected.

Before casting their ballot for mayor, voters should ask themselves:

Who will best manage the department chiefs tasked with the day-to-day running of the city?

Which man best embodies Jerusalem's role as the capital of the state and heart of the Zionist enterprise?
FOR PEOPLE to whom Jerusalem is more than a symbol, but also home, the prosaic does matter: By making driving into the city center - day or night - a nightmare, incumbent Mayor Uri Lupolianski has discouraged people from patronizing shops and restaurants in the King George/Jaffa Street/Ben Yehuda vicinity. Which candidate is most likely to reverse the strangulation of downtown?

On a range of issues - the boondoggle light rail construction project, dirty streets, long waits for buses, the red tape involved in doing business in Jerusalem - who is most likely to come up with innovative solutions?

Who will really remedy the neglect in the city's Arab neighborhoods and make it easier for east Jerusalem tax-payers to obtain building permits? Most Arab residents will boycott the elections and disenfranchise themselves. Yet the city has an obligation to provide equal services to every sector of the population because Jewish sovereignty - not as a slogan, but in practice - comes with responsibility.

Who will work to make the bureaucracy more responsive? Ask the right questions? Be smart and fair in allocating the city's budgetary resources? Who will best encourage the private sector to create jobs?

Who is most likely not to see the mayoralty as an opportunity to dispense patronage?

Who will trouble himself to master the intricacies of what the city does and how it does it - from sanitation and social-welfare, to youth services and culture? For a mayor can't supervise what he doesn't understand.

BUT THE second criteria, no less important, is who can best embody the ethos of Jerusalem as the political and spiritual center of the Zionist enterprise?

Who best understands that Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people? Who embraces the centrality of the State of Israel - and Jerusalem - in the life of the nation? Who best appreciates the need for mutual respect among Jews? Who best understands the multi-faceted nature of the Jewish people in the Diaspora?

Jerusalem's current non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox mayor is an affable politician. He has tried to navigate between the demands of his insular haredi constituency, who see modernity as mostly threatening and coercion as a sometimes necessary tool, and his public role as chief executive of a city that is home to a non-haredi majority: modern Orthodox, national religious, traditional as well as secular.

In June, City Hall spent NIS 2 million for a ceremony to inaugurate the light rail Bridge of Strings (really a bridge to nowhere) at the entrance to town. In what's become known as the Taliban affair, officiating haredim insisted that a group of school girls about to perform a dance don ski caps and cloaks so as not to appear "promiscuous." And so it was.

Today voters get to decide what sort of Judaism they want people to think of when they think of Jerusalem - inviting and Zionistic, or coercive and parochial?

Voters need also to choose wisely in selecting a slate to work with the next mayor. Tens of thousands of votes in the last election were squandered on parties that failed to clear the threshold.

Today's Jerusalem election will not just determine whether city services are fairly and efficiently delivered. It will determine whether mainstream Zionism still holds sway in Zion.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama's Agenda, Mazal Tov, Obama, Rabin + 13, America Decides, Meretz

Below is a 'wrap' for the week of Nov. 2-7

Obama's agenda

The challenges facing President-elect Barack Obama are formidable. He will inherit a $1 trillion budget deficit on top of a $10.5 trillion national debt, plus responsibility for steering America through the global economic crisis.

He becomes commander-in-chief with the US at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has pledged to wind down Operation Iraqi Freedom within 16 months while intensifying Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

There will, moreover, be frayed relations with the EU to repair; a resurgent Russia to contend with, and Guantanamo Bay to shut down. He'll also need to cajole China toward being a more responsible international citizen and grapple with endemic violence and instability in Sudan, Congo and Zimbabwe.

Obama has promised as well to take a fresh look at what more America could be doing on climate change. And, neither last nor least, he will need to verify that North Korea really is shutting down its nuclear weapons program.

At home, the challenges are no less daunting. Obama will have to oversee the rescue of a sick economy which has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs; and he'll need to prevent millions of people who are defaulting on their mortgages from losing their homes, with unemployment levels hovering around 6.3% and forecast to rise.

EVEN WITH so much on his plate, there's no avoiding the Middle East - either because some flare-up will demand his attention, or because of the alluring temptation to go down in history as the president who finally - finally - brokered the deal that gave the Palestinian Arabs a state and delivered Israel from decades of terrorism.

Obama's secretary of state may feel drawn to fast-track the Israel-Syria peace negotiations, seeing a deal there as low-hanging fruit.

But we think Obama can be smarter than his predecessors by homing in on this harsh Middle East peacemaking reality: As long as the Islamic Republic of Iran remains on the ascendant, there will be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians, no way to bolster Palestinian moderates by chipping away at the rejectionists, no treaty with Syria, and no prospect of saving Lebanon.

So rather than going down the fruitless path taken by many of his predecessors, Obama might want to begin with a different set of assumptions:

Since 1979, the chief obstacle to peace in the Middle East has been Iran. Break its stranglehold, and you pave the way toward progress on all peace-making fronts.

No one need convince Israel that peace with the Palestinians is in its interest. Yet a deal that does not allow Israel to retain strategic settlement blocs will come back to haunt the friends of peace. The Obama administration thus needs to embrace President George W. Bush's 2004 letter to premier Ariel Sharon acknowledging that changes on the ground have made returning to the pre-1967 armistice lines unrealistic.
YET THIS is not an argument against talking to Iran. What matters is what America talks to Iran about and the environment in which "unconditional" talks take place.

The talks need to be aimed at persuading Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But talking is not an end itself. Absent real leverage, US negotiators will not get the regime's undivided attention. We know this because the EU - with American support - has been negotiating with Iran for years, to no avail. Bilateral talks between Washington and Teheran need to be accompanied by draconian sanctions led by the US and EU; and the threat of the military option if all else fails must be more than perfunctory.

Even without weapons of mass destruction, Iran is an intimidating and destabilizing force, sowing havoc from Beirut to Buenos Aires. It provides the financial and military wherewithal and diplomatic cover that enable Hamas's continued control over Gaza and Hizbullah's domination of Lebanon.

Clearly, Barack Obama is too smart, too pragmatic to genuinely expect that talk alone will convince a bellicose, fanatical and messianic regime with imperial ambitions beyond our region to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Whatever his game plan, if he wants to help foster the normalized relations Israel seeks with its Arab neighbors his administration will first have to sideline the region's number-one obstacle to peace.

Mazal tov, Obama

Just as the people of the United States were electing Barack Hussein Obama as their next president, Hamas was putting the finishing touches on a plot to abduct Israeli soldiers and break the relative cease-fire which has prevailed for the past five months.

Its engineers constructed a 250-meter tunnel from Gaza into Israel. IDF
intelligence assessed that the preparations posed an immediate danger and special forces were sent in to conduct a pinpoint operation to demolish the tunnel. Six Palestinian Arab gunmen were killed; six of our soldiers were wounded.

Hamas responded to Israel's preemptive strike by launching dozens of mortars and rockets into southern Israel hitting, among other targets, downtown Ashkelon.

Prior to the clash, and out of the blue, Mohammed Deif, Hamas's chief bombmaker "emeritus" had warned of a strike against the "Zionist enemy."

Even as Hamas-controlled Gaza, fueled by religious fanaticism and mired in the culture of victimization, pursued its predictable violent trajectory - 6,000 miles away, the splendor of peaceful change, representative democracy and political civility was on display for all to see.

FORTY YEARS after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, the United States of America elected a black man as president. For many of his supporters, the biracial Obama embodies an 21st century ideal: post-racial, post ideological and post-cynical.

John McCain's loss was not hard to foresee. Hampered by having to campaign as the standard-bearer of a GOP whose incumbent president remains profoundly unpopular, his campaign was just picking up steam when the global financial meltdown struck. It was also his bad luck to face an extraordinarily appealing opponent whose personal story and charisma proved insurmountable.

Israelis can learn from how Obama and McCain reacted to the election results. In a gracious concession speech, McCain remarked that, "A century ago, president Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters... America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time."

He continued: "Senator Obama and I have had, and argued, our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face."

Earlier, Obama received a friendly congratulatory phone call from President George W. Bush.

Such classy behavior stands in sharp contrast to the deportment of many an Israeli politician who, confronted by defeat, goes off and sulks. Granted, Israel's proportional system does not foster absolute winners. Still, where is it written that competing politicians should treat each other with unrelenting disdain?

OBAMA garnered roughly 52% of the popular vote (with a projected 338 electoral college votes) against McCain's tally of 47% (and 161 in the electoral college). Obama also helped propel his party to victory in the House of Representatives where, with some races still outstanding, Democrats picked up 18 seats giving them at least a 252-173 majority.

With most senate races decided, Democrats have captured five places and appear to hold a 56-seat majority.

Exit polls show that Obama garnered 43% of the Caucasian vote, plus a majority of African American (95%), Asian (62%) and Hispanic (66%) voters. He lost Protestants (45%), but carried Catholics (53%) and Jews overwhelmingly (78%).

In claiming victory before tens of thousands of supporters, some of them teary-eyed, Obama praised McCain's devotion to America and took cognizance of the challenges the country faces: Two wars, a planet in environmental peril, the global economic crisis, terrorists - whom he pledged to defeat - and frayed alliances.

Then he called for sacrifice and patriotism, concluding: "And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too."

THOSE in our part of the world dedicated to rejectionism, violence and terror will soon discover anew that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem is above partisanship. And the members of the new administration will see with their own eyes that no one wants peace more than Israel. No one.

Congratulations President-elect Obama on a historic victory. Godspeed.

13 years unhealed

Thirteen years after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, both the Left and the Right have embraced a single corrosive motto: "Never forget, never forgive." If they persist, our Zionist enterprise is at risk.

The Left appropriated Rabin's memory, distanced it from the nation as a whole, and exploited it for partisan ends. Rabin's murder was held over the heads of everyone who opposed Oslo.

The Right closed its mind to the possibility that, maybe, just maybe, even if unintentionally, its leaders said things that contributed to the atmosphere which set the stage for the killing.

Time has not healed our nations wounds. Instead, we've spent the past 13 years locked into "never forget, never forgive."

In the time leading up to the murder, Israel was riven by political strife and buffeted by Arab violence. Who remembers that just days before he was killed, Rabin declared that any final deal with the PLO would have to include settlement blocs? Who recalls that it was president Ezer Weizman who challenged the legitimacy of the Oslo II accords, telling Israel Radio: "This is not an agreement. It was passed by one-vote majority. And if that vote hadn't received a Mitsubishi there would not be an agreement."

If only we could turn back the clock. If only Yigal Amir had been apprehended on the night of November 4, 1995, before Rabin finished his address to 100,000 supporters at what was then called Kikar Malchei Yisrael.

It was not to be.

On the morning after the assassination, this newspaper carried a front-page editorial: "The shock is universal. No Israeli, no Jew, no decent human being anywhere can help being shaken to the core, shattered to the depth of his and her soul by the news...

"If the Jewish nation is again unlucky, Rabin's death ...may well be remembered as a blow from which Israel has not recovered... But if the nation is more fortunate ... and reason prevails, the assassination will serve as a reminder that internal violence in the most dangerous enemy...."

We cannot say that reason has prevailed, though it could have. On the day of Rabin's funeral, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, a guiding authority of Gush Emunim, called Amir a murderer lacking in Jewish morality.

Yigal Amir's mother disowned him. The Council of Jewish settlements in Judea Samaria and Gaza rejected him and those who embraced him. Most of Rabin's opponents were genuinely stunned, even broken-hearted.

Yet, from the start, a minority of extremists termed the killing "heavenly retribution."

Exacerbating tensions, his grieving widow blamed not only the killer, but all opponents of Oslo. "There definitely was incitement which was strongly absorbed and found itself a murderer, who did this because he felt he had the support of a broad public with an extremist approach..."

THAT THE Left lacked magnanimity in no way absolves the Right today from excommunicating those fanatics - a small minority of the pro-settler universe - who practice violence or preach perfidy.

A process of demonization is taking place before our eyes. The government - whatever its many faults - and our army are denigrated as "un-Jewish." We watched in shock as Kiryat Arba rabbi Dov Lior compared the actions of the IDF in dismantling the Federman home to the behavior of Nazi soldiers in occupied Poland.

Who on the Right will denounce the rabbi's words?

In recent weeks, masked, rock-throwing, Jewish youths have fought with our soldiers. Who on the Right will denounce this despicable behavior?

We hear that radical parents are teaching their children that IDF soldiers sent to take down illegal structures aren't "real" Jews. Extremists have launched "revenge attacks" against Arabs. Others have prayed for IDF soldiers to be captured, defeated, even killed. Mercifully, at least this has been condemned.

Let no one on the Right wince when security officials warn that an atmosphere is being created that makes another political murder possible.

No matter how passionately Israelis disagree, no matter how high the stakes, we absolutely must contend with one another exclusively within the political arena.

Those determined to wage war on a different plain - imbued by the delusion that they are the last of the Jews - must be socially, politically and religiously isolated first and foremost by supporters of the settlement enterprise.

America decides

The power of an American president, the late political historian Richard E. Neustadt wrote, is not the power to command, but the power to persuade.

As American voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect their country's 44th president, they may want to consider the temperament, character and emotional intelligence of the candidates. How well would either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain persuade average citizens, the Congress, media, as well as America's friends abroad, to follow where he leads.

The presidency, as Theodore Roosevelt noted, is a "bully pulpit" - a superb platform from which to advocate an agenda, but not for a president who loses popularity or lacks credibility. Such a president will get little done, notwithstanding his constitutional powers.

That said, there are substantive differences between the candidates. Voters will be galvanized more by the economy and a range of domestic issues than foreign policy.

For instance, Obama would appoint justices to the Supreme Court committed to upholding Roe v. Wade, which essentially decriminalized abortion. McCain promises to work to overturn the 1973 landmark decision. And Republican vice presidential candidate Governor Sarah Palin opposes abortion in all cases including rape and incest, except when a mother's life is in danger.

Obama opposes gay marriage, but also a California proposition to ban it; McCain opposes gay marriage but supports the California effort. On taxes, Obama favors tax cuts for the middle-class workers and would increases taxes for higher earners. McCain pledges to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25%.

On foreign policy, Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq and the surge. McCain championed both. Obama pledges to "end the Iraq war responsibly." McCain says US forces have dealt "devastating blows to al-Qaida in Iraq" and would pursue victory. Both would send more troops to Afghanistan.

On Iran, Obama views the regime as a threat to the US and would employ direct diplomacy to persuade Teheran to change its policies. If that didn't work, he says, all options are on the table.
McCain promises to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, has pushed for restricting Teheran's ability to import refined petroleum, and pledges not to talk to the regime without pre-conditions. He's criticized Obama for his willingness to enter into unconditional negotiations.

With regard to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Obama would take an activist approach to help reach an agreement, but would not dictate the terms of peace. He says Israel must emerge with secure borders, but has refused to explicitly support the 1967-plus formula which would have Israel retain strategic settlement blocs. Obama says Jerusalem should not be divided and urges the Palestinians to "reinterpret" the "right of return" so that "Israel's identity as Jewish state" is preserved. He supports the security fence.

McCain, like Obama, supports the creation of a Palestinian state. He says he would never force Israel into concessions with anyone that seeks its destruction. He has made no statement on the 1967-plus formula. He's promised to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

OPINION surveys show Obama leading roughly 52%-46%. Obama could win 291 electoral votes to McCain's 163. To turn the situation around, McCain will need to win every state George W. Bush won in 2004 - plus one.

To his everlasting credit, McCain steadfastly refused to play the race card (though, unauthorized, some of his supporters have).
Meanwhile, Americans will also be electing the entire 435-seat House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate. Democrats hold 235 seats and Republicans 199. (One place is vacant.) Thirty-eight races are tossups and could go to the Democrats.

Over in the Senate, both parties hold 49 seats. (Two independents, Joseph Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, caucus with the Democrats.) Democrats are anticipating an outcome that will give them a majority of 56 - or more.

AMERICANS now decide whether to vote "Country First" or "Change We Need." Those who would factor Israel into their decision understand that our preeminent strategic concern is the Iranian threat.

The "best president for Israel" is the man who can best internalize the scale of the Iranian menace, and most effectively persuade Americans - and responsible players in the international community - to stop the mullahs before it's too late.

A place for Meretz

Are we to draw any lessons about the state of Israel's Zionist Left from the back-to-back announcements by former Meretz leader Yossi Beilin and veteran party stalwart Ran Cohen that they are retiring?

Meretz is unlikely to make gains in the February elections over the five seats it currently holds. Never a large party, Meretz held 12 seats in 1992. It's been downhill since.

The party is comprised of the (Marxist Zionist) Mapam - itself an amalgamation of leftist factions - and Shulamit Aloni's Ratz, founded in 1973, to champion civil liberties and dovish policies toward the Arabs. Meretz's forebears also include remnants of a number of radical splinters such as the Communist Party, Haolam Hazeh, Moked, Tchelet Adom and Shelli. A newcomer was Beilin's own Shahar, which he set up after quitting Labor. Finally, two defectors from Yisrael Ba'aliya entered as a faction dubbed the Democratic Choice.

Meretz has been more influential than its numbers alone would suggest because its core ideas were echoed by elements in academia and the media. Its long-standing opposition to a Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria and its anti-settlement oratory have been at least partly mainstreamed. Meretz once stood alone in promoting negotiations with the PLO, a withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice lines, the dismantlement of West Bank settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Some see the distinctions nowadays between the major parties and Meretz as merely ones of rhetoric. Yet Likud and Kadima arrived at their yet-to-be-explicitly-defined land-for-peace positions as a result of changes on the ground. These were wrought by Oslo and the second intifada. Labor is moving toward the Likud and Kadima by shedding some of its illusions about the nature of a Palestinian polity, and in a common determination to nail-down details of any deal with the Palestinians rather than rely on mutual good-will.

So Meretz's inability to internalize the lessons of the second intifada sets it apart from the Zionist mainstream.

IN THE 2006 elections the party's poor showing undercut Beilin's political stock, forcing him last March to abandon plans to vie again for the leadership. Mild-mannered, stolid, but immovable, Beilin, at 60, caps 20 years as a Knesset member. In interviews over the weekend he cited his greatest accomplishments: "I was one of the first people who formed a lobby to leave Lebanon. I led Oslo and launched the Geneva Initiative."

We do not expect Beilin to agree with us that Oslo was a strategic failure; that the way the IDF pulled out for Lebanon may have set the stage for the Second Lebanon War; and that fears over the EU-funded Geneva Initiative may have impelled Ariel Sharon to move faster on Gaza disengagement then he might have wanted to.

Ran Cohen twice sought the Meretz leadership but was defeated, first by Beilin and then by current party head Haim Oron. At age 69, with 24 years in the Knesset, Cohen can claim a number of bipartisan achievements: he helped pass the law that allows residents in public housing to purchase their apartments, and led the battle for a liveable minimum wage.

Meretz is gearing up for its grueling primary to choose a slate of Knesset candidates. Given its electoral prospects, there are few safe slots up for grabs.

Moreover, the threshold it has set up for MKs who have served for eight years or more is excruciatingly high: They must win the support of at least 60% of the convention delegates.

This criteria forced then-Meretz leader Yossi Sarid to bow out in December 2005 after 32 years of political activism. Beilin and Cohen are victims of this system (which Beilin himself initiated); facing the prospect of being unable to clear the 60% hurdle, both have opted out rather than cap their careers in humiliating defeat.

WHATEVER ITS internal machinations, we believe that Israel's body-politic would be best served with fewer, and less ideologically strident, parties. Were Meretz to join forces with Labor, the smaller party could reinvigorate the latter's social-democratic credentials while Labor could rein in Meretz's more immoderate security positions.

Together, they could present a center-Left alternative favoring religious tolerance, pluralism, civil liberties and a passionate concern for the downtrodden.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Israel's Brain Drain; The plight of newspapers; Barak opposes 'piggish' capitalism; Livni says no to Shas

BELOW IS A 'WRAP' covering Sunday, Oct 26 thru Friday, Oct. Oct 31

Bold on brainpower

A threatened strike this Sunday at Israeli universities which would have delayed the start of the winter semester was averted thanks to the belated intervention of the prime minister, who largely sided with the university presidents and the education minister over the finance minister and Treasury officials.

Ehud Olmert ordered the Treasury to release NIS 465 million in supplementary funding to the universities. He even promised another NIS 50 million for "development."

Education Minister Yuli Tamir was ecstatic: Finally, there will be money to hire young faculty, invest in research, improve infrastructure and subsidize tuition.

This is all good news. Of course, had the state not cut higher education funding six years in a row and not done away with the municipal tax abatements once enjoyed by universities, they might have had a bit more cash on hand.

A new complicating factor is that university financial portfolios have lost hundreds of millions of shekels in value due to the global economic downturn. Moreover, no one yet knows how the recession will affect donations from "friends" organizations abroad. The Technion, for instance, raises some $80 million a year that way.

MUCH NOW depends on how the Treasury implements the premier's order. Will the universities be able to spend the promised monies at their discretion - on everything from salvaging their humanities departments to paying for pensions - or will their expenditures be micro-managed?

The Finance Ministry had been insisting that any additional monies be funneled to programs promoting the Shochat Committee's vision. That's the body tasked with rethinking how Israeli higher education should be funded and administered. As part of its package of recommendations, Shochat called for investing NIS 2.4 billion in the universities over five years. The aim? To reverse the country's dramatic brain-drain, which has seen too many of our best and brightest emigrating because they can't find work in their fields here.

Shochat also advocated investing in young scholars. Universities want to do that, but they're under internal pressure to support established academics. They are also saddled with huge personnel and pension costs - the annual budget bite at Hebrew University, for example, is 64 percent.

Shochat advocated a merit-based pay-scale, but how are universities to reconcile that with their obligations to the tenured? It recommended that students pay more: At Hebrew University, for instance, tuition fees comprise only 11 percent of income. The government provides another 43%. Yet how much more can students realistically afford? Many are in their early 20s when they reach campus, having done army or national service, and already work part-time. Means-testing might be an equitable way to determine how much individual students should pay. Some private universities in the US have eliminated tuition altogether for students whose family income falls below a certain level.

WE'RE GRATIFIED that the threat of a university strike appears to have been removed. And we urge all sides to work together in good faith to implement the premier's instructions.

But let's not lose sight of the bigger challenge. If we do not invest more and better in education - from elementary school through post-graduate studies - our pool of educational talent will simply dry up. It's already beginning to happen.

We spend roughly 6.9% of our GDP in education - on a par with the US and UK - yet a recent OECD survey suggested we're not getting a sufficient return on this investment. Israeli teachers are underpaid, our classrooms are overcrowded and our students no longer excel in math and science.

Israel's economy is a technologically advanced one. Even those who run our farms, dairies and agricultural enterprises use state-of-the-art equipment. When people think of Israeli industry, they think of our hi-tech exports in such fields as aviation, communications, software design, medical electronics, fiber optics and pharmaceuticals. All this takes brainpower.

We need to press our politicians, civil servants and university presidents - as well as the heads of all teachers unions - to make the courageous strategic choices that will allow Israel to sharpen its intellectual qualitative edge for the 21st century. When it comes to nurturing our nation's brainpower, our ambition must exceed the Shochat recommendations.

Hug your newspaper
These are tough times for those of us who are passionate about newspapers. Yediot Aharonot, the biggest Hebrew-language tabloid, is reportedly planning to cut its budget. The circulation of Ma'ariv has fallen below that of Yisrael Hayom, a free handout. Ma'ariv's management is said to be planning yet another round of cuts.

Overseas, The New York Sun has ceased publication. The Star-Ledger of New Jersey plans to cut its newsroom staff by a staggering 40 percent. The Los Angeles Times is cutting 75 newsroom jobs. The Gannet chain, which owns 85 newspapers, has announced more layoffs (in addition to 1,000 jobs cut over the summer). Even The New York Times has instituted a partial hiring-freeze.

The combined weekday circulation of America's top 500 newspapers now averages 38 million - 4.6% below last year.

Apart from USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, whose readership numbers are flat, all of America's leading newspapers - including the Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, New York Post and Los Angeles Times - lost readers in the past year.

Newspaper advertisement revenues worldwide are declining; Web site income has generally failed to make up the difference. Virtually all newspapers have spent years economizing. Some have been cut to the bone.

Now comes news that the well-regarded Christian Science Monitor will be suspending daily publication in April 2009 and, instead, emailing paid subscribers its paper in PDF form.

The news is no better in the UK. For instance, five years ago The Independent was selling 218,567 copies daily; today, revamped as a tabloid, it sells roughly 144,050. Similarly, paid circulation is down at The Times, which also went tabloid, and at The Guardian, which moved to a "Berliner" size, somewhere between broadsheet and tabloid. The Daily Telegraph, which maintained its broadsheet format, has also lost readers. Even the give-away Metro, distributed in 16 cities across Britain, is laying off staff.

THE DARK clouds hanging over the "old media," however, give way to a bright future for "new media." Google this week announced a "historic" arrangement, the outcome of a court settlement between the search engine and representatives of publishers and authors that will allow readers - so far only in the US - to purchase full digital access to millions of copyrighted books. The deal protects intellectual property while dramatically expanding Web access to the printed word.

Perhaps the biggest clue about where the future may be headed comes from, which is marketing a wireless reading device - again for use in the US only - known as Kindle, which it insists "looks and reads like real paper." The gadget makes it possible to purchase books or newspapers and have them auto-delivered wirelessly (without the use of a computer or telephone line) in less than one minute.

Even before 1450, when German inventor Johannes Gutenberg introduced the movable-type printing press, mankind had sought to improve how the written word was disseminated. Over five centuries later, we're well into an epoch which will see paper and ink largely disappear, replaced by digitized "content."

Some insist that readers of traditional newspapers absorb more of what passes before their eyes than those who rely on click- and-scroll. Perhaps. What is certain is that quality journalism is being underfunded as advertising revenue falls in the shift to cyberspace.

Still, you won't find Luddites here at The Jerusalem Post. In fact, was the first Web site to provide news and comment from Israel, and it remains the most-read English site in Israel. Fortunately, we are also blessed with a strong and faithful readership in hard-copy.

As we survey the changes affecting our industry worldwide, we can't help but feel a twinge of sadness at the thought that one day the thump! of a newspaper being delivered will be forgotten, as will the smell of newsprint. The hope is that disciplined, carefully prioritized content and elegant, efficient presentation of traditional newspapers will live on in the PDF format. At the very least, there will be no one to complain of smudged fingers...

Ours is perhaps the luckiest of generations. We can relish the traditional newspaper, even as we reconcile ourselves to the technologies that are replacing it.

Barak, social democrat?

Kicking off the Labor Party's campaign for the 18th Knesset on Monday, party chair Ehud Barak denounced "piggish capitalism."

"We differ from other parties because we understand that it's time to do away with the capitalistic greed that the Right has been a proponent of, while offering solidarity, sensitivity and social responsibility."

Playing to the proletariat has worked for Barak in the past. In the 1999 campaign, which saw him defeat the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu, the Labor leader predicted that Netanyahu's government "will fall because of the trampled honor of the unemployed, because of one child's crying into his pillow at night, and another child, and another child, and another child..."

It's an approach that may not work now.

Ten years on, Labor aspires to represent the working man and woman; it maintains its membership in the Socialist International. Yet the party is so closely identified in the public mind with many of Israel's top entrepreneurs, industrialists and moguls as to make an anti-greed electoral strategy problematic.

Over the years, for instance, Labor has raised money abroad from the Bronfman family, from Swiss industrialists Nissim Gaon and Bruce Rappaport, from Slim-Fast diet company founder S. Daniel Abraham and the late Swiss-British billionaire Octav Botnar. Local benefactors have included Gad Ze'evi, Muzi Wertheim and Stef Wertheimer.

These supporters may see themselves as progressives, but could voters reasonably think of them as enemies of "capitalist greed"?

As for the party leader himself, it's true that Barak was raised on a kibbutz - Mishmar Hasharon - but he has since graduated to an entirely different life-style, exemplified by his spacious home on the 31st floor of Alfred Akirov's Tel Aviv tower. It's an apartment purchased for $2.5 million in 2006, which Barak is now trying to sell for $11 million. Plainly, the Labor leader has engaged in capitalist enterprise (serving on corporate boards and the like).

We do not begrudge him his comfortable lifestyle. He would do well, however, to explain to Israelis where enterprise ends and greed begins.

Labor's origins are traceable to the Zionist socialism of the Mapai Party, which dominated our politics and our economics first through the pre-state Jewish Agency, and then in government.

Today's Labor Party encompasses the remnants of the neo-Marxist Achdut Avoda Party as well as David Ben-Gurion's splinter Rafi Party. The factions merged in 1968, though the Labor Party as we know it now emerged only in 1991. Ever since, it has struggled to refine its identity. In 2003, several of its more dovish luminaries quit to join Meretz; and in 2006 others who in the wake of the second intifada saw themselves as centrist or pragmatists quit to join Kadima.

WHERE DOES all this leave Labor now? Polls show the party garnering 11 Knesset seats, compared to the 20 it holds now. The global economic crisis notwithstanding, voters are telling pollsters that security tops the economy as the issue that most animates their preferences. Assuming Shaul Mofaz plays a critical role in Kadima's campaign and Moshe Ya'alon - another general - runs with Likud, Barak's appeal to voters on security grounds is diminished.

The ethnic and working-class vote is likely to go to Shas; sincere neo-Marxists troubled by "capitalistic greed" will probably be more comfortable voting Meretz. Thus Barak's "capitalist greed" rhetoric is unlikely to be Labor's salvation.

Britain's Labor Party spent its "wilderness years" (1979-1997) - while Margaret Thatcher and her successors kept the Conservatives in power - reinventing itself as New Labor. The Israel Labor Party never gave itself much time for that. When it wasn't ruling the country for 29 consecutive years, it was, for roughly 17 years, a coalition partner. Arguably, the party became little more than a vehicle for seeking office.

At this stage, it's far from obvious that even a spell in the opposition could rebrand Labor as Israel's "social democratic party." In its post-Amir Peretz incarnation, it is outflanked on its economic left by Meretz and Shas, while the center is held by Kadima.

Should Kadima flourish under Tzipi Livni - championing, moreover, a centrist approach to negotiation with the Palestinian Arabs - many will wonder whether Labor, led by Ehud Barak, has any future at all.

Bye-bye, bazaar?

The Knesset's winter session opens today, but there will be no keynote address by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who announced Sunday that, under "the current circumstances," he would not press for a legislative agenda.

Following her election five weeks ago as Kadima's new chair, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni struggled to pull together a Knesset majority so that she could replace Olmert without going to the polls. Yesterday, on live television, Livni told President Shimon Peres: I can't do it.

She started out with Kadima's 29 mandates. To this, Ehud Barak added Labor's 20. But for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Livni still needed Shas's 12 mandates. She also wanted the Gil Pensioners Party's seven seats for a more comfortable, 68-seat majority. But the old-timers backtracked.

The Sephardi Shas Party demanded budget-busting allocations for child allowances; it fancies itself the champion of the working poor. More accurately, however, it mainly champions patronage to its own institutions.

Livni refused to play by the old rules. Nor would she pledge, as Shas demanded, not to negotiate with the Palestinian Arabs on what to do about Jerusalem in the context of Israel's commitment to a "shelf agreement."

Now what? Peres could, over the next several days, try to use the prestige of his office to bring Shas and Kadima together. He could even give opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu three weeks to try his hand at building a governing coalition. Opinion surveys show the Likud - which has only 12 seats - as now being the most popular party.

But the most likely scenario is that Peres will call for new elections, which could take place as early as February 17.

Then the cycle of haggling to form a government begins anew.

OLMERT, who still faces possible indictment, remains in place as Israel's caretaker premier.

There are those on the Right who worry that he will use the coming months to cut a bad deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (himself under pressure to step down when his term expires in January). Critics worry that Olmert will do anything not to be remembered chiefly for the collection of scandals which led to his resignation, and for his inept handling of the Second Lebanon War. He wants to be remembered for his commitment to peace.

He's lately gone on record as breaking with the Israeli consensus by essentially calling for a withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines.

Post diplomatic reporter Herb Keinon has pointed out, however, that Olmert's ability to reach a deal with the Palestinians or the Syrians is severely constrained. Any accord would need cabinet and Knesset approval - something he's unlikely to get. Moreover, Olmert's Arab partners are unlikely to publicly commit to what for them would be "concessions," fearing that a new government might reject these as insufficient.

On the other hand, Israel cannot freeze its diplomatic and security agenda. Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran can be expected to exploit the perception of an Israeli leadership vacuum. The global economic crisis isn't going away. Neither is the growing lawlessness among extremist elements in the settler movement.

We would like to think that Olmert will rise to the occasion and navigate the country with wisdom until his successor can finally take over. During this period, he needs to work as much as possible in concert with Livni, Netanyahu and Barak on any decision that would bind the next government.

It would be entirely appropriate for him to travel to Washington after America's November 4 election to meet with the president-elect; and to maintain open channels with our Arab interlocutors.

LIVNI is being criticized for mishandling the negotiations by those who say that a more skilled bargainer could have cajoled Shas into joining a coalition.

This misses the point. Whatever the details of the 17th Knesset's premature demise, the more substantive lesson to be learned is that our political system needs reforming. The stranglehold sectarian parties have over the allocation of resources must be broken. We applaud Livni for saying that she refuses "to pawn Israel's future for the prime minister's seat."

The new Kadima leader might just have steered the country in the direction of representative democracy, and away from "government by bazaar."

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