The pair of lion cubs born on Monday in Gaza's Bissan Zoo were hailed as a triumph -- a rare optimistic sign in a region that has been devastated by militants within the Strip and a blockade along its borders. But that sudden spring of hope was quashed quickly when zoo officials announced yesterday that the cubs had died.
"It's a huge achievement for them just to be born here in Gaza," zookeeper Mohammed Shabai told reporters when they were born. "Now they must survive." Reports have cited several possible causes of death for the cubs, who were reportedly born healthy. The lioness that birthed them refused to feed them, so zookeepers substituted whole milk and nursed the cubs by hand. The lion that fathered them showed signs of aggression toward the cubs. Zookeepers had to rely on experts in Egypt, reached by phone, for advice on the cubs' care. On Tuesday, an Israeli airstrike targeting rocket-launching militants startled the lioness. At least according to one report, she stepped on the cubs. Zookeepers brought the cubs into a warmed room to protect them from the November chill, but later told reporters that they did not have the facilities to adequately shelter the newborns. Some reports cited an unidentified illness or "pollutants," and zookeepers noted that they were not able to import the vaccines necessary to inoculate the cubs.
Three days after their birth, the cubs succumbed. They did not live long enough to open their eyes. "We were happy we had them, if just for a short time," a zookeeper said.
As with everything in Gaza, the cubs' brief life and abrupt death has been heavily politicized. The pair was born a year after Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense, a week-long convulsion of violence in November 2012 in which Gazan militants and Israeli forces exchanged heavy rocket fire and airstrikes, and were named "Fajr," after an Iranian-made rocket favored by Gazan militants, and "Sijil," the Gazan name for the Nov. 2012 conflict. Hamas seized on the lions as a symbol of Gazan resilience, publicizing their birth on Twitter. Even the process by which they were born is steeped in Gazan embargo politics: The pair of lions that parented the cubs were smuggled into the Strip through underground tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border in 2008; most of the tunnels have since been destroyed.
There are three zoos operating in the Gaza Strip. They have struggled to keep animals alive in Gaza's austere conditions, have been implicated in animal abuse scandals, and resorted to displaying the taxidermied remains of deceased animals.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
In deciding to pursue peace talks with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first had to make a tough concession: releasing 104 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody.
That decision has many Netanyahu critics at home and abroad seeing
red, since the reported list of prisoners, who will be released in phases over the course of negotiations, includes
individuals accused of carrying out devastating attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. It's also an emotional issue for Palestinians, many of whom regard the men and women detained over the long course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as political prisoners.
In an open letter to his citizens, Netanyahu described the anguish he felt in freeing the prisoners. "This is an incomparably difficult decision; it is painful for the bereaved families and it is painful for the entire nation and it is also very painful for me," he wrote. To get a sense of just how emotionally charged this tradeoff is, consider the following individuals, who appear on a list published by the Palestinian Prisoner Society on Sunday of prisoners expected to be released. (Israel's Ynet reports that Israeli authorities will eventually make the names public to allow for appeals to the country's Supreme Court, and the final list may look different; this week's New York Times and Washington Post reports on the prisoner release mention men not identified by the Palestinain Prisoner Society.) According to Haaretz, the prisoners identified by the Palestinian Prisoner Society have been involved in the death of some 55 Israeli civilians, 15 Israeli soldiers, one French tourist, and dozens of Palestinians thought to have collaborated with Israel.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
Israel is a country desperate for friends. Isolated in the Middle East and hated in large parts of the Arab world, it struggles to make alliances. The few it has, it guards fiercely. So it should perhaps come as no surprise that for years Israel has been courting China, inking trade deals and fêting one another over champagne. But that process now finds Israel in an awkward bind, one that may lead the country to compromise on its core anti-terror policies.
According to a report in Haaretz, the Israeli government is currently under enormous pressure from Beijing to suppress evidence that the Bank of China laundered money for Islamic Jihad. In 2006, a Jewish-American teenager, Daniel Wultz, was killed in a suicide bombing carried out by Islamic Jihad at a Tel Aviv shawarma restaurant. His parents have now sued for damages -- at the initial encouragement of Israel -- and allege that the Bank of China laundered funds for the terror group, effectively bankrolling the operation that killed their son. Prior to filing the case, according to Haaretz, Israeli officials told the parents, Yekutiel and Sheryl Wultz, that they would support their case and provide evidence implicating the Bank of China. Now, at Beijing's urging, they're having second thoughts. So far, Israel has declined to provide the expert testimony they promised and are currently deliberating over whether to make Uzi Shaya, a former intelligence official, available to a New York City court.
That's right, under Chinese pressure, Israel may prevent the victims of a Tel Aviv terrorist attack from extracting damages from the people who bankrolled an operation that killed their son. Chalk it up to the cost of a new friendship.
KIM KYUNG-HOON/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Amman on Friday that his shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East is paying off. "We have reached an agreement that establishes the basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis," he proclaimed. Remember the peace process? After three years of dormancy, it's back!
Well, maybe. "The agreement is still in the process of being formalized," Kerry hedged, but Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni will meet in Washington, D.C. next week to continue planning.
In case you've forgotten what all this means, here's a handy guide to the buzzwords you'll be hearing for the next few weeks.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
John Kerry may have met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the peace process on Thursday, but what's really gotten commentators worked up is the contents of the shwarma he consumed during an impromptu snack in Ramallah. Reputable sources such as the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times have reported that the secretary of state's sandwich was stuffed with turkey. But for many with ties to or interest in the region (including myself), the news made absolutely no sense. It would be one thing if Kerry had gobbled down chicken or lamb. But whoever heard of turkey shwarma?
Saudi journalist Ahmed Al Omran expressed this very sentiment in his response to the bewilderment of FP's own David Kenner:
@davidkenner there is no such thing as turkey shawarma. Like the peace process, it is probably an illusion.— Ahmed Al Omran (@ahmed) May 24, 2013
Others were downright outraged at the very notion of turkey in shwarma:
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg floated one theory about the confusion:
Meanwhile The Angry Arab implored the world to get to the bottom of the nagging mystery:
Turkey Shawarma? Is that true? Can somebody verify it was turkey and not lamb or beef or chicken? nblo.gs/LwEbX— The Angry Arab (@AngryArabNews) May 24, 2013
FP was happy to oblige. In the interest of putting the speculation to rest once and for all -- so that we can all move on to more pressing matters -- we called Samer restaurant, where Kerry ate his shwarma, to find out just what was in the secretary's sandwich.
"Chicken," said Samer, the proprietor, who seemed rather amused about the whole situation.
Excited to have stumbled upon this piece of intel, I pressed Samer to confirm that the shwarma was not in fact turkey. "Oh, yes. It was turkey," he amended. "Not chicken?" I asked. "No, turkey. We have lamb and we have turkey. He ate the turkey and really enjoyed it."
According to Samer, turkey shwarma is not uncommon in the West Bank -- though Palestinians often refer to it as chicken, which explains the confusion during our conversation. "There are people who use chicken and people who use turkey," he told me. "But people like turkey more."
John Kerry, it seems, agrees.
When it comes to U.S. foreign policy in the Arab world, Democrats and Republicans don't agree on much -- be it arming the Syrian rebels or brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace. But the shwarma -- shaved, spit-roasted meat wrapped in doughy pita and smothered in toppings -- has managed to win the hearts of American politicians from both sides of the aisle.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stopped into a West Bank restaurant to grab one of the tasty sandwiches as part of a trip to the Middle East. The AP reports:
Kerry chomped one of the meat sandwiches after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
Asked what toppings he wanted, Kerry said, quote, "I want everything. I'm all in."
After the first bite, Kerry declared, "Fantastic."
For those who closely follow the intersection of shwarma and politics, Kerry's ecstatic reaction may have brought to mind an earlier instance of shwarma consumption by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). On a 2012 trip to Libya, McCain rapturously tweeted:
Not convinced of the shwarma's unique power to straddle America's political divide? Just look to its more contentious cousin: falafel.
During his March trip to the Middle East, you may recall, President Obama whipped up a minor controversy when it was announced that he would be dining on the fried chickpea dish with Israeli President Shimon Peres. One Palestinian chef, angry that the dish was being presented as typical Israeli cuisine, told reporters, "We, a group of Palestinian chefs, are prepared to counter this flagrant Israeli attack on our culture by preparing the official dinner for presidents Obama and Abbas." He offered to make a dinner for the American and Palestinian leaders that would "reveal the fallacious claims of the occupation and its continuous attempts to rob our folklore, this time in the presence of the president of the biggest country in the world."
If only Obama had opted for shwarma.
Cement, cigarettes, and sugar are just a few of the goods transported through the many underground tunnels connecting Egypt and the blockaded Gaza Strip, which have often been described as a "vital lifeline." Now, thanks to an entrepreneurial Gaza-based delivery service, we can add a new -- if not entirely vital -- product to the list: Kentucky Fried Chicken.
That's right, although there is no KFC in Gaza (the first one in the West Bank city of Ramallah opened just last year), Gazans can now get their beloved Colonel Sanders fix from Egypt. As China's Xinhua news agency reports:
The fried chicken make their way from one of the many underground smuggling tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egypt border.
Mohammed Al-Madani, an accountant at Al-Yamama company, said they started their new business by chance. "We ordered and arranged to bring some meals for us and they arrive after four hours," he said.
Then they posted a picture for the fast food on their company's website, and soon got more orders from the people in Gaza, he introduced....
"It's delicious even as it's not hot," said Aboud Fares, a 22- year-old student, as he bit a mouthful of a chicken breast. His sister, who traveled several times to Egypt, was enjoying the KFC apple pie.
While Al-Madani aknowledges that Al-Yamama doesn't face many obstacles in getting the fast food combos from Egypt to Gaza, he says occasional delays are inevitable. "Sometimes Hamas checks the meal boxes and sometimes the taxi that picks up the orders from Sinai is late," he told Xinhua.
The company gets the word out by posting on its Facebook page each time it is making a run. And just in case you're interested, the next delivery of "Kentucky," as Al-Yamama affectionately calls it, is tomorrow. So hurry up and place your order (the deadline is Thursday at 6 pm, Gaza time).
Image via Al-Yamama Facebook Page
Paul Hansen's image of a funeral procession in a Gazan alleyway on Nov. 20, 2012 is undeniably striking. Two men, their faces warped with grief and anger, carry the shrouded bodies of their young nieces, killed in an Israeli missile strike, while a crowd of men follow behind them. When it was selected as the winner of the 2013 World Press Photo contest in February, the chairman of the contest jury, Associated Press Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon, praised the photograph's "incredible collection of powerful motifs of imagery, that when it all comes together makes for a really strong photograph."
But was it real? And what does that mean at a time when photo software can aid in collecting the very motifs that made the image so remarkable?
On Monday, British tech writer Sebastian Anthony claimed on the blog ExtremeTech that the photograph isn't really a photo at all; according to image analyst Neal Krawetz, it's three photos that were enhanced and stitched together using Photoshop. The proof is in the code, Krawetz argues, which contains a record of the composition. Applying other filters and tools to the image, he writes, shows evidence of additional manipulation including image sharpening and brightening. "Basically," Anthony argues, "Hansen took a series of photos -- and then later, realizing that his most dramatically situated photo was too dark and shadowy, decided to splice a bunch of images together and apply a liberal amount of dodging (brightening) to the shadowy regions."
Hansen, for his part, told news.com.au today that the allegations just aren't true. "In the post-process toning and balancing of the uneven light in the alleyway, I developed the raw file with different density to use the natural light instead of dodging and burning," the Swedish photographer explained. "In effect to recreate what the eye sees and get a larger dynamic range."
As I understand it, Hansen is arguing that his mild image manipulation is the digital equivalent of under- or over-developing select portions of the image in a darkroom. No fancy bells and whistles -- and definitely no composites of other photos. And as news.com.au points out, this seems to be acceptable according to the somewhat ambiguous rules for the World Press Photo contest, which states that the "content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to the currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed."
At the end of the day, an image from the November conflict between Hamas and Israel was bound to create controversy. The meaning of another photograph from that bout of violence -- depicting BBC World journalist Jihad Mashrawi holding his dead son in a hospital -- has also been subject to revisions. Initial reports claimed the child was killed by an Israeli attack, while a U.N. investigation found that the death owed to an errant rocket fired by Hamas.
Image manipulation is becoming more and more common in news photography, but many media organizations maintain certain journalistic standards for the pictures they use. Krawetz argues that Hansen's image violates "the acceptable journalism standards used by Reuters, Associated Press, Getty Images, National Press Photographer's Association, and other media outlets." Anthony, however, doesn't seem so certain:
The bigger discussion, of course, is whether Gaza Burial is actually fake -- or just enhanced to bring out important details. This is a question that has plagued photography since its inception. Should a photo, especially a press photo, be purely objective? Most people think the answer is an obvious 'yes,' but it's not quite that simple.... Is it okay for a photographer to modify a picture so that it looks exactly how he remembers the scene?
For what it's worth, the qualities that Lyon, the jury chairman, cited for the award are fundamental to the photograph:
This photo was chosen because it is so powerful.... The combination of the small size of the bodies -- they're very young children -- combined with the variety of expressions of pain and rage and sadness.... This image sums up the story very powerfully, very poignantly.
On Tuesday, World Press Photo told the Huffington Post that two independent experts will be carrying out a forensic investigation of the image file with Hansen's cooperation, and later informed Poynter that it had found "no evidence of significant photo manipulation or compositing."
Ultimately, Hansen may have edited the picture to emphasize the features that the judges cited in deeming his image the best photo of the year. But what Lyon described in announcing the award goes far beyond lighting in a dark alley.
FREDRIK SANDBERG/SCANPIX/AFP/Getty Images
On Thursday, I wrote about Google's decision to change "Palestinian Territories" to "Palestine" on the Palestinian edition of its search engine -- a move that at the very least acknowledges the quest for Palestinian statehood. Unsurprisingly, Israel is not happy about the change.
"This change raises questions about the reasons behind this surprising involvement of what is basically a private internet company in international politics -- and on the controversial side," Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Agence France-Presse.
Google, meanwhile, is defending the decision as part of an effort to put the company in line with international standards. "We're changing the name 'Palestinian Territories' to 'Palestine' across our products. We consult a number of sources and authorities when naming countries," Google spokesman Nathan Tyler told the BBC. "In this case, we are following the lead of the U.N., Icann [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers], ISO [International Organisation for Standardisation] and other international organisations."
Google's action comes on the heels of November's overwhelming U.N. vote to grant Palestine non-member observer state status, a move bitterly opposed by the United States and Israel. Following the vote, Palestinian officials asked international companies, including Google, to refer to "Palestine" rather than the "Palestinian Territories." Google's move "is a step in the right direction, a timely step and one that encourages others to join in and give the right definition and name for Palestine instead of Palestinian territories," Sabri Saidam, an advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the BBC.
Given current prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, I suppose the Palestinians will take whatever victories they can get.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
In a country where land is such a precious commodity, you might think that suddenly having more acreage would be a blessing. Instead, it's sparked yet another political fight.
As it has for decades, the water level of the Dead Sea is dropping at a rate of more than three feet a year -- largely as a result of dams built in Israel, Jordan, and Syria, and water subsidies that make agricultural irrigation cheap and wasteful. This, in turn, has caused the shoreline to recede and exposed 35,000 acres of new, unclaimed land.
Today, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that, after two years of legal battles, the Israeli Civil Adminstration has decided that the new coastline is state land. The decision comes despite the claims of neighboring Palestinian communities that their holdings previously extended to the waterline, and that the newly exposed land should therefore be theirs as well. According to the Haaretz report, the Civil Administration could not verify these claims.
Shoreline property is a particularly valuable resource on the Dead Sea. Resorts built on beachfront property 20 years ago now have to shuttle tourists to the water's edge. The sea's southern portion is hydraulically engineered and entirely artificial -- pumps transport water from the north into "evaporation pools" in the south for the production of potash and other cosmetic products that capitalize on the sea's supposed healing properties.
The Haaretz article notes that the Israeli government will use the land for tourism projects, but whether the territory can sustain development is uncertain; the exposed land is pockmarked by large sinkholes where now-dry aquifers have collapsed, and the runoff that does make it to the Dead Sea is polluted by sewage. The new land may be more trouble than it is worth, but that's not likely to defuse the fight over who controls it.
NASA image by Robert Simmon
It was widely reported last week that this year's Aipac conference, which ends tomorrow, will culminate in a mass lobbying effort by attendees to persuade law makers to officially designate Israel a major strategic ally of the United States, a designation that until now has never been awarded.
So does the bill, the "U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act," actually make a new class of alliance for Israel? Is the House about to name Israel a super-best-friend-for-life ally of the United States?
No. They're not.
The bill, which can be accessed online here, simply states that, "Congress declares that Israel is a major strategic partner of the United States." Nowhere in the bill does it define or codify this terminology; it doesn't grant special privileges like, say, being the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid or being permitted nuclear weapons without pressure to sign conventions regulating them, both of which are already part of U.S.-Israel policy. It is just a "declaration of policy," much in the way that last year's "U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012" stated:
It is the policy of the United States to reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the security of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. As President Barack Obama stated on December 16, 2011, "America's commitment and my commitment to Israel and Israel's security is unshakeable." And as President George W. Bush stated before the Israeli Knesset on May 15, 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, "The alliance between our governments is unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty."
The new legislation, which extends existing legislation on military, cyber, and energy cooperation, does not alter Israel's formal designation as a "major non-NATO ally" of the United States (other major non-NATO allies make for some strange bedfellows, including Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). At this point, in other words, there's no need for other U.S. allies to start getting jealous about new official labels -- there aren't any.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
On Monday, the Israeli government launched a new bus service to shuttle Palestinian day laborers from the West Bank town of Qalqiliya to Israeli cities where they are employed. Ynet outlined the reasons behind the two new lines, which have only been advertised to Palestinians in Arabic:
A ministry source said that many complaints expressed concern that the Palestinian passengers may pose a security risk, while other complaints said that the overcrowded buses cause the drivers to skip stations.
The development has caused an uproar both in Israel and internationally, prompting comparisons to apartheid in South Africa and the United States' own checkered transportation history. In an op-ed for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Aeyal Gross compared the new bus service to the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which deemed segregation legal in cases where it is "separate but equal." Striking a similar note, Al Jazeera went with the headline, "Israel launches segregated bus service."
The Israeli Transport Ministry, meanwhile, has defended the move as pragmatic rather than discriminatory -- a way of accommodating the growing number of Palestinians who are receiving permission to work in Israel.
Lofty analysis aside, surprisingly little attention has been paid to how the change is actually playing out on the ground. The Palestinian newspaper al-Quds described the first day of the new bus service as stressful and chaotic, with too few buses to accommodate the many Palestinian laborers trying to get across the border. Palestinians who gave up on trying to board the overcrowded buses and instead chose to cross the border on foot were refused entry.
Still, like their Israeli counterparts, Palestinians primarily voiced pragmatic rather than moral concerns about the new service. One man told al-Quds that the new lines mean he has to wake up two hours earlier and get home later each day. Another lamented that he doesn't understand "why [the Israelis] had to go and make this headache." Haaretz also reported from the scene:
One man working on the Meier-on-Rothschild luxury tower asked why the Tel Aviv bus stopped at the northern train station and did not continue on to the Central Bus Station. A group of workers looking to get to Herzliya asked why the Ra'anana-Kfar Sava line wasn't extended to Herzliya. Many wondered about the buses' return times.
As far as we can tell, there was no mention of Plessy vs. Ferguson.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Israelis are in an uproar over the recent news that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spends a whopping $2,700 per year of public funds on ice cream. The story dominated Israeli headlines over the weekend, causing outrage in a country that has faced large-scale unrest over soaring food prices and cuts in government spending. Particularly controversial was the lack of transparency surrounding the ice cream dealings:
Originally this expenditure wasn't included in the Netanyahu family's maintenance budget, but his aides managed to bypass the bureaucratic procedures - transferring one budget item to another normally requires a tender - and get the go-ahead to buy his favorite ice cream flavors from a neighborhood ice cream parlor.
Netanyahu tried to spin his penchant for ice cream -- pistachio in particular-- as being for official entertainment purposes, but the Israeli press isn't buying it. Uzi Benziman, in an editorial for Haaretz, offers a few pointed questions against the prime minister. If the ice cream really serves diplomatic purposes, why should Bibi backtrack now? Also, how could the PM possibly know his guests would prefer pistachio?
...if Netanyahu not only knows who'll be visiting him in the coming year, but also that their favorite flavors also happen to be vanilla sorbet and pistachio, then what do we need the Shin Bet and the Mossad for?
So what does the prime minister's love of pistachio say about him? One not-so-scientific look at ice cream flavor as personality test, describes pistachio people:
You are a highly individualistic and straight-to-the-point person. No one should mess with you. ...You seek to distinguish yourself from everyone else and take pride in being distinctive and exclusive. You are usually both smart and good-looking and are loved by many, even if you don't know it. However, you can be quite intolerant of certain things in life and you do not like change. You are a diligent planner and seek comfort in the routine things. Perhaps you should loosen up a little and do something spontaneous and totally unplanned - you might surprise yourself!
Ideal Partner: You get along well with banana and vanilla fans
URIEL SINAI/AFP/Getty Images
During last year's GOP primary, candidate Newt Gingrich boldly asserted that Palestinian schoolchildren "have textbooks that say, ‘If there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?'"
Could the situation really be that bad? And what about the other side? How are Palestinians portrayed in books used by Israeli children?
A recently published study, sponsored by the US Department of State attempted to answer these questions. This three year study, the largest ever done on the topic, examines "depictions of the other" in Palestinian Authority, Israeli State, and Israeli Ultra-Orthodox textbooks. To the surprise of many, the contents were really not that bad, considering the amount of built-up resentment both sides have to work with.
As Bruce Wexler of Yale University, one of the study's leading authors, said during a briefing at the National Press Club on February 6, the first US discussion of the project:
The big picture is not that there are these made up things about the other. There are, unfortunately, plenty of true things about the other that do the service of portraying them as negative without making any false statements.
Of course, there were a few egregious examples. A passage from an Ultra-Orthodox, "Israeli Studies" textbook for 2nd graders reads:
A convoy of bloodthirsty Arabs marched to that settlement, the purpose was clearly to loot the property of the Jew and burn down their houses.
And a Palestinian Islamic Studies book for 6th graders asks students to complete the following exercise:
Through studying history and experiencing the events and reality in which we live:
A - Mention some violent events against our people by the enemies.
B - How do enemies and occupiers deal with the people of occupied countries?
C - How did the Muslims deal with the people of conquered countries?"
Israeli state textbooks came out the most favorably, with 49 percent of their depictions of "the other" being negative, compared to 73 percent in ultra-Orthodox books and 84 percent in Palestinian books. But this did not stop the Israeli government from lashing out at the writers before the report was even published. In a press release, the Israeli Ministry of Education skeptically questioned the authenticity of the "study":
An examination of professionals within the Ministry of Education and outside it of the materials prepared by the bodies that "conducted the research," clearly reveals that it is biased, unprofessional and significantly lacking in objectivity.
Ironically, the report also found Israeli state textbooks to be the most comfortable with self-criticism.
More than 800,000 Americans packed the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Monday to listen to President Obama deliver his second inaugural address, but many more were listening around the world. Here are a few interesting global reactions:
In the Chinese media, Obama's promise to "try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully" and argument that "engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear" than military force was taken as a sign that the U.S.-China relationship will be at the top of his foreign policy agenda for the next four years. Of course, as the state-run Global Times notes, there's a bit of skepticism that the president will live up to his words:
"If the president really lives his words, he would agree that for the sake of the world's peace and prosperity, it is important for the United States and China to foster mutual trust, for trust is the cornerstone for every relationship, no matter between people or between nations...The words also show that he agrees that the two nations should properly solve their disputes, either economic or political."
News agency Xinhua was a little more positive, describing the overall approach Obama outlined in his Monday address as "balanced" and "decidedly progressive."
One Guardian writer described Obama's speech as "urg[ing] Americans to reclaim from conservatives the spirit of the founding fathers" and as "more inspirational than 2009," praising Obama's strong support of climate change and gay rights. Another was more cautious in hispraise, maintaining that Obama's speech was less of a populist manifesto and more of a "to-do list [covering] what he has still to do to make good on the economic promises of his first term."
Peter Foster of the more conservative Telegraph granted that Obama's speech was well-received
by the spectators on the Mall, he reminded readers just how deeply divided the United States still is: "It was apparent," writes Foster, "that only half of the nation had showed up to listen
to [Obama's] call...Overwhelmingly, the crowd of 800,000 people was filled with
the faces of the young, female, urban, African-American coalition that ensured Mr. Obama's re-election for a second term last November. They were Obama's people, and they
were there to celebrate their victory."
In his article for the Australian, Troy Bramston praised Obama's rhetoric, but argued that Obama cannot rank amongst the truly great American presidents until he "translate[s] a presidency of promise into a presidency of action."
That may be hard to do, claims Janet Hook in another article for the Australian, in which she points out that Obama's speech made little effort to readch out to the GOP.
After the inaugural address, the headline of Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat read "The decade of war is over," referencing a line from Obama's speech. Yet in an op-ed for the same paper, Abdul Rahman Rashed, though praising Obama's experience in Middle Eastern affairs, was not so sure about peace in the coming decade. "Obama's second term will possibly be reconciliatory, particularly after John Kerry and Chuck Hagel join his administration...but who can tell if the region will be in a reconciliatory mood?"
In his article for Palestinian-run, London based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi (translated into English by the Times of Israel), Abdel Al-Bari Atwan writes that Obama "completely shut the door on any military intervention, stressing that a decade of wars has ended and that the only way to peace is dialogue." "President Obama's message is very clear," the article continued. "In short, he said that he does not intend to militarily intervene in Syria; will not wage a war on Iran, succumbing to Israeli pressure; and will focus on rescuing his country from its crippling economic crisis."
Atwan continues: "Obama disappointed many of his allies in the Middle East by neglecting to mention any of them in his speech." (Obama didn't mention any foreign countries by name in his address.)
Obama's equal opportunity rhetoric made news in Mexico. In its coverage of the inaugural address, El Universal highlighted Obama's commitment to immigrants, women, and gays. The article quoted Obama's statement promising immigration reform:
"Our trip (as a nation) will not be complete until we find a better way to welcome the hopeful, striving immigrants in the U.S. are still the land of opportunity, until the brightest students and engineers are listed on our strengths work instead of being expelled from our country."
The headline of the article read, in Spanish, "Obama calls for welcoming immigrants."
The president's inaugural address was a chance for Canadians to pat themselves on the back, the Ottowa Citizen snarkily reports:
"On the key issues that President Barack Obama pledged to dedicate his second term to in his inaugural address, Canada has already made substantive progress: on supporting democracy around the world; on providing equal rights to gays and lesbians; on creating an aspirational immigration system."
It doesn't stop there either. The column went to on say that Canada has also beat Obama to the punch in securing a budget deal and repairing its economy.
When Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird hosted a largely American gathering at the Canadian embassy on Monday, he was more tactful. "This is not a time for long speeches," he said. "We have very different systems, so we don't exactly want to be bragging," a Canadian embassy spokesman said.
Rob Carr-Pool/Getty Images
Conventional wisdom for women and men choosing a perfume or cologne generally holds that one should avoid making a strong statement with a scent. Let someone else's perfume sensually assault everyone else in the boardroom.
Not so, apparently, in Gaza, where a local company's newest fragrance is called M-75, named after the long-range rockets Hamas designed and fired on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last month.
Marketed to both women and men (there are two different scents and his and hers bottles), the fragrance is meant to be a symbol of Palestinian resistance and a celebration that M-75 rockets were able to reach their targets during the eight day "Operation Pillar of Defense" in November.
According to the owner of the company, Shadi Adwan, "The fragrance is pleasant and attractive, like the missiles of the Palestinian resistance, and especially the M-75." Its goal? "To remind citizens of the victory wherever they may be, even in China."
The success of this political beauty statement has yet to be determined. M-75 costs twice as much as other perfumes in Gaza, due to its "luxurious" ingredients. Let's hope this doesn't lead to retaliation. No one wants to know what "Pillar of Defense" smells like.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
In another cautionary Facebook tale, Sacha Dratwa, the social media director for the Israeli Defense Forces, came under fire this week for posting a picture of himself on the site with his face smeared with mud and a caption reading "Obama style."
Dratwa, a 26-year-old Belgian immigrant, has since restricted access to his Facebook page, according to an ABC News blog post, but it would seem that the damage has been done. His photo, which was reportedly posted in late September, was discovered by Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese blogger, on Nov. 22, and the story was quickly picked up by news outlets.
Dratwa defended himself in this statement to Mother Jones:
"There have been attempts to make use of private photos from my Facebook profile in order to publicly misrepresent my opinions. Due to the amount of public attention I've garnered in recent days I have decided to restrict access to my page, in order to protect my privacy and prevent further cynical use of the information therein. I am, and have always been, completely candid about my beliefs and have nothing to hide - as reflected by my Facebook profile, which until recently was open to everyone. The aforementioned photos do not reflect my beliefs and have no bearing whatsoever on my position in the IDF."
The IDF's social media department, headed by Dratwa,
received quite a bit of media
attention during the recent conflict in Gaza, when it mounted an aggressive
campaign that included tweeting a YouTube video
of Ahmed al-Jabari's assassination and trading
threats with Hamas online. In a Tablet magazine profile, Dratwa
"We want to explain to people what happens in Israel, simply...We believe people understand the language of Facebook, the language of Twitter."
Apparently, Dratwa's not quite fluent in Facebook.
Throughout this year's presidential election, as talk of a possible Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities has grown louder, there has been rampant speculation about whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu favors Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, and how that preference could influence the timing of a strike. Reports of a longstanding friendship between Netanyahu and Romney only fueled the debate, especially since Netanyahu and Obama reportedly have a chilly personal relationship.
In a national security address on Thursday evening -- a day after Democratic leaders added language on Jerusalem to their platform in the face of intense criticism -- Senator John Kerry (D-MA) suggested that, in fact, Netanyahu is on Obama's side:
Barack Obama promised always to stand with Israel to tighten sanctions on Iran -- and take nothing off the table.
Again and again, the other side has lied about where this president stands and what this president has done. But Prime Minister Netanyahu set the record straight -- he said, our two countries have "exactly the same policy," "our security cooperation is unprecedented." When it comes to Israel, I'll take the word of Israel's prime minister over Mitt Romney any day.
Kerry, who was referring to comments Netanyahu made in speeches to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2011 and 2012, wasn't the only speaker at the Democratic convention to quote Netanyahu as an unwitting surrogate. Here's what former Florida Congressman Robert Wexler had to say on Tuesday evening:
Last week, Mitt Romney claimed that the president has thrown Israel "under the bus."
Perhaps Mr. Romney should listen to those who know best -- Israel's leaders.
Listen to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has thanked president Obama for "unprecedented" security cooperation and for wearing his support for the Jewish state as a "badge of honor."
Republicans have used Netanyahu's words to their advantage too. When Romney visited Israel as part of a foreign tour over the summer, the Israeli prime minister told the candidate that he agreed with his assessment of the Iranian threat. The "sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota," Netanyahu observed. The Romney campaign quickly emailed out news coverage of the meeting.
Netanyahu, for his part, has avoided jumping into the fray -- at least explicitly. In July, ahead of Romney's trip to Israel, he told CBS's Bob Schieffer that he would treat the Republican candidate like he treated candidate Obama when he visited Israel in 2008. When Schieffer asked whether he would be as comfortable with a President Romney as he was with a President Obama, Netanyahu teased him for asking the question. "You're far too experienced a reporter," he said. In another interview with Fox News, he chided Chris Wallace for asking the same question, saying "you're far too wise a journalist to think that I'm going to get into your field of American politics."
I would call the prime minister's office and ask if Kerry's speech tonight has, at long last, inspired Netanyahu to issue an endorsement. But I'm far too wise a journalist.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
With general elections potentially on the horizon, a new party has burst onto the Israeli political scene. On Wednesday, the Pirates party, which according to Haaretz "champions ‘the freedom to copy' and ‘the pirating sector,'" applied for recognition as an official political party. Despite its name, the group, led by former Green Leaf party member Ohad Shem-Tov, does not belong to the Pirate Parties International (PPI) movement, which already has an established Israeli chapter. Though the party refuses to speak to non-pirate media, its goals apparently "range from the radical to the delirious," including "the freedom to divide and copy" and social justice.
Shem-Tov is best known for forming the Green Leaf Graduates party before the 2009 following his expulsion from the original Green Leaf party, which campaigns to decriminalize marijuana. During the general elections that year, the Green Leaf Graduates forged an unlikely alliance with the Holocaust Survivors Party, running advertisements espousing a hybrid pro-cannabis, pro-survivors benefits platform.
The Pirate creed is not new to the region. In 2011, PPI member Slim Amamou joined the new Tunisian cabinet as State Secretary of Youth and Sports. PPI also made significant inroads in May, when it won 8 percent of votes in Schleswig-Holstein during German general elections, in addition to 8.9 percent in Berlin and 7.4 percent in Saarland. Israel's Pirate party stands somewhat of a chance, since the election threshold for the Knesset is just 2 percent, but whether it asks the Jewish state to recognize the Church of Kopimism is more of a gamble.
Now that the United Nations has run out of funding for children's summer camps in Gaza, Palestinian kids in the Strip have one alternative for entertainment during the summer months -- Hamas camp.
The U.N.'s Relief and Works agency had provided summer camps each year for over 250,000 children in Gaza, but at an annual cost of $12 million dollars, the agency said that there simply wasn't enough funding for summer games when people in Gaza still need food.
Gaza's governing body Hamas, on the other hand, runs several summer camps throughout the territory, which saw an enrollment of about 70,000 boys and 50,000 girls this year. Activities at Hamas camps include soccer, shooting and horseback riding for boys and baking and sewing for girls (According to one Hamas camp counselor, "girls don't like sports"). Both genders are taught and quizzed in Islamic doctrine.
Much more controversial are reports of political indoctrination and paramilitary training in the Hamas camp. In what appears to be a recruiting effort, a Hamas camp for boys 14 and older has campers scaling chain link fences, crossing water with their arms above their heads, and racing across monkey bars (check out the slideshow of these drills on Mother Jones).
A Hamas camp counselor told the AP, ‘‘Our camps are about education and play, but we can't divorce children from their surroundings.'' (The experience makes for an interesting comparison with the Israeli counterterrorism camp in Gush Etzion in which visitors can shoot virtual terrorists.)
Israeli online newspaper Ynet News reported that this year's theme at one of the Hamas summer camps is "the suffering of Palestinian prisoners." According to the article, children are led on tours of mock Israeli interrogation cells and torture chambers, and are taught to walk on rusty nails.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's grand political masterstroke has officially failed. Kadima chairman and Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz announced during a closed-door faction meeting Tuesday night that his party is quitting the prime minister's coalition because it refuses to compromise with right-wing parties on the revision of the unconstitutional Tal Law, which exempted ultra-Orthodox Israelis from mandatory military service. Netanyahu's most recent compromise offer allowed for 50 percent of ultra-Orthodox between the ages of 18 and 23 to be drafted by the Israel Defense Forces, and another 50 percent between the ages of 23 and 26 to be drafted into national service. Mofaz rejected the offer on the grounds that it "violates" the "principle of equal sharing of the burden of military service."
Mofaz's decision comes two weeks before the Aug. 1 deadline for a new law to be passed and just 70 days after Kadima joined the surprise government coalition. Kadima Members of Knesset have been demanding that their party leave the coalition for several weeks, and the faction, which holds 28 out of 120 Knesset seats, is expected to split.
Energy resources are a hot commodity in the Levant Basin days, and with 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil, 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas, and 5 billion barrels of natural gas liquids at stake, the Israeli defense ministry is asking for a "one-time budget increase" of about $760 million to boost its naval capacity in the Mediterranean Sea so it can better protect the country's offshore natural gas platforms. Though Israel purchased its fourth Dolphin-class diesel-electric submarine from Germany earlier this year to the tune of over $500 million, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz are on board with the plan, which "calls for adding four new warships to Israel's naval fleet and deploying hundreds of soldiers in the area."
Natural gas discoveries in the early twenty-first century have created a military debacle for Israel, which does not have demarcated maritime boundary with Lebanon. All of the multinational gas platforms are privately owned and fall within Israel's exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles from the coast, but they are located beyond Israel's territorial waters, which only stretch 12 nautical miles from land.
Israel's first offshore natural gas discovery, Tamar, is not slated to come online until 2013, but the defense institution fears that the platforms are already targets for terrorist attacks from Hezbollah, which receives long-range missiles from Syria. The Israeli navy does not traditionally get the lion's share of the defense budget, and top officials are worrying. As one anonymous senior Israeli military planner told Reuters, "We will do our best, but not without a major boost to our capabilities." In May, senior naval officer Capt. Sassi Hodeda told the Los Angeles Times that the navy wants to improve its radar systems and use unmanned surface vehicles to patrol, but added that they require "special technology" the navy does not have.
If the navy does receive the extra funding, the vessels it purchases "will have to accommodate an advanced radar system, a helicopter and a launch system capable of firing long-range air defense and surface-to-surface missiles." According to the Jerusalem Post, the options include designing the ships in the U.S. using foreign military aid, and building them in South Korea, but if Israel is really looking for international help, maybe it should consider ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty first.
Russia and Israel may disagree on Iran's nuclear program, but President Vladimir Putin and his entourage of about 400 officials and businessmen were warmly welcomed by Israeli officials during the Russian leader's first visit to the country in seven years. Upon arriving at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Putin was "greeted by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and an IDF honor parade." Later that day, he attended an inauguration ceremony in Netanya for a memorial to the Soviet Red Army soldiers killed in World War II, along with Lieberman, President Shimon Peres, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Speaking at the ceremony, Putin invoked Russia as both war and peacemaker:
"Russia who so greatly helped win the war is the same Russia that can help peace in the Middle East."
Putin's agenda also included a stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but his 24-hour tour made plenty of time for discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and other Israeli officials about regional issues -- namely Iran and Syria. According to the New York Times, Netanyahu said during a joint news conference that he and Putin "agreed that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran ‘presents a grave danger first of all to Israel, and to the region and the world as a whole.'"
Israeli officials, however, are not optimistic that their concerns will have any impact on Russian policy:
"Let's not exaggerate. It is a very brief visit," said a senior Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for reasons of diplomacy. He added, "Do not expect any major breakthrough."
According to Haaretz, Peres did not have much success with Putin at the state dinner that evening:
"President Shimon Peres pressed Putin further, asking that he ‘raise his voice' against a nuclear Iran. Putin responded by saying that Russia has a ‘national interest' to secure peace and quiet in Israel but did not elaborate further."
Despite the fact that talks about Iran were more process than substance, Tel Aviv University Russia specialist Boris Morozof notes that Israel and Russia do have "points of common interest," such as military technology, counterterrorism, and Israel's vast natural gas fields.
On Tuesday, Putin traveled to the West Bank, where he "inaugurated a Russian cultural and language center in Bethlehem" and toured the Church of Nativity. He also told President Mahmoud Abbas that Russia "has no problem recognizing a Palestinian state," called his Palestinian counterpart's position on negotiations with Israel "responsible," and referenced Israeli unilateral actions as "not constructive."
Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet, a diplomatic body charged with mediating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, whose members also include the U.S., the U.N., and the EU. The Quartet has made little progress since its inception in 2002, but Abbas reportedly "called for an international peace conference to take place in Moscow."
Jim Hollander - Pool / Getty Images
Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a terrorist-shooting sniper? Thanks to a program run by Jewish settlers in Gush Etzion, you too can spend a day beyond the Green Line learning how to take down extremist militants. As Yedioth Aharanoth reported recently, the experience allows tourists to "hear stories from the battleground, watch a simulated assassination of terrorists by guards, and fire weapons at the range." Sharon Gat, who manages the Caliber 3 shooting range, calls the opportunity a "once-in-a-lifetime experience" that was "created due to popular demand," and demand is certainly high among families. Enter Michel Brown, a Miami banker who brought his wife and three children to this warfare summer camp:
Upon entering the range, his five-year-old daughter, Tamara, bursts into tears. A half hour later, she is holding a gun and shooting clay bullets like a pro. "This is part of their education," Michel says as he proudly watches his daughter. "They should know where they come from and also feel some action."
By the end of the day, his trigger-happy son Jacob is confident that he can stop terrorist operatives with the best of them:
"This is an awesome experience. I learned how to stop a terrorist and how to rescue hostages. Now, when I find myself in distress, I will know how to deal."
Tourists receive a certificate at the end of the experience, and Gush Etzion Regional Council president Davidi Pearl hopes that the program will turn the Gush into "a world-famous ‘tourist gem.'"
If the program continues to be successful, we may have a small army of child counter-terror operatives on our hands.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
The first plane carrying South Sudanese "returnees" out of Israel arrived in Juba, South Sudan, on June 19.
Amidst escalating tensions over African migration to Israel, Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai described the eventual "return to their homes and countries" of [migrants] as "inevitable." Of Israel's 60,000 African migrants, the majority come from Eritrea and the two Sudans.
Greeting the plane in Juba, Joseph Lual Achuil, South Sudan's minister of humanitarian affairs, claimed that the process of return was voluntary: "People are not being deported. We have agreed with the Israeli government for our people to be peacefully and voluntarily repatriated," he said. While ‘returnees' are being offered a stipend of $1300 per adult and $500 per child by the Israeli government, the degree to which repatriation is truly a matter of choice is debatable.
While those who left Israel on the first plane volunteered to do so, the crackdown, known under the code name "Operation Going Home," has rounded up and arrested hundreds of migrants so far. The usually bustling neighborhood of ‘Little Africa' in South Tel Aviv is reportedly deserted. New laws allowing migrants to be jailed for up to three years without trial or deportation came into effect on June 3. In addition, any Israeli citizen harboring or helping migrants can now face jail time of up to 15 years.
The current government campaign to stem the flow of African migrants has begun with newly independent South Sudan -- the only one of the top three source countries which maintains diplomatic relations with Israel.
Many South Sudanese fled to Israel to escape the ongoing violence at home, often crossing the Sinai desert from Egypt by foot to reach Israel. Last week, an Israeli court ruled that 1,500 South Sudanese are no longer at risk in their homeland and can be returned home, giving the government the legal right to deport them.
Recent months have seen protests and acts of vandalism targeting African communities in Israel, an atmosphere that many claim has been instigated by the comments of some politicians. The deportation drive is also creating immense discomfort amongst many Israeli citizens, who are acutely of aware of their own identity as an immigrant nation founded by Jews fleeing persecution in Europe after World War II.
The subtext beneath the deportation process is a racial argument that cuts to the core of competing views about what Israel's identity as a ‘Jewish state' should entail. For the current government, identity is clearly framed by ethno-religious demographics. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu argues:
"If we don't stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state. This phenomenon is very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity."
Whether such a view can be justified as commensurate with Jewish values remains to be decided.
Peace between Israelis and Palestinians depends on coordinated unilateral actions, not negotiations, former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon explained during a panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on Thursday. Ayalon, who also served as a member of Knesset for the Labor Party, said that "the idea of negotiations does not exist anymore."
Ayalon presented his own plan for a two-state solution, authored by Blue White Future, a non-partisan political movement he founded. The plan, based on the Clinton Parameters, first calls for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians based on the 1967 lines and a territorial swap, should the Palestinians decide to come to the table. Second, it insists on the security fence as a provisional line and states that annexing the eastern side of the fence is not in Israel's interest. Third, the plan calls for the Knesset to pass a law enabling those settlers living on the eastern side of the fence to return to the western side, should they wish to do so. Fourth, it states that the Knesset should create a strategic plan to bring back all 100,00 settlers so as not to repeat the mistakes of the Gaza Strip pullout. Fifth, it demands that the Israeli Defense Forces remain on the eastern side of the fence to prevent any security risks. Finally, the plan requires that the Knesset pass a law that any agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians be put to a national referendum.
Robert Malley, who served as special assistant to President Clinton on Arab-Israeli Affairs, agreed that the concept of unilateralism is profound, compared to prospects for future negotiations, particularly the plan of the Quartet:
"I can't remember the last conversation I've had with a an official member from the Quartet ... who genuinely believed what they were mouthing everyday.... They don't believe it and the argument that they give for maintaining the fiction is that if you discard the fiction then you're going to leave people in a state of hopelessness and create a vacuum that bad things will fill."
Wilson Center fellow and Foreign Policy columnist Aaron David Miller, who moderated the panel, cautiously praised the plan:
"What Ami is offering is logical, it's credible. I like it because it's unanchored and unmoored to an American role in this negotiation right now or for the foreseeable future, and I also like it because it's self-directed.... Whether it will work or not is another matter."
Ayalon, meanwhile, is also putting his faith in the Israeli government:
" We understand for the time ... he cannot blame his coalition today. His coalition.... I know that in this Kensset and in this coalition, this program, this paradigm, is acceptable."
Netanyahu may have just assembled a coalition of 94 out of 120 Knesset members, a considerable mandate, but there's no guarantee that the coalition will stay intact. If history has anything to say about Israeli unity governments, nothing is ever for certain.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Though the powerful and prominent Islamist Ennahda
party has sent mixed
messages about its attitude toward Tunisia's 1,500-strong Jewish population,
President Moncef Marzouki's government
has made an extraordinary effort this year
to promote the Hiloula,
an annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba that
commemorates the death of second-century rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the father of the
Kabbalah tradition. The two-day event was canceled last year for security
reasons due to the popular uprisings that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but
it remains "the
barometer of expectations for the coming tourist season," according to the Guardian.
"So far, no more than two hundred Jewish pilgrims have joined the Hiloula.... According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event."
The Tunisian government has deployed a large security force to the area surrounding the synagogue, the oldest in Africa. Ten years ago, al Qaeda militants bombed the synagogue, killing 21 and wounding 30. Marzouki visited El Ghriba in April for a memorial ceremony, during which he declared that violence against Tunisian Jews was "unacceptable." Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali also voiced his commitment to a tolerant Tunisia:
"Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past."
The government of Israel, on the other hand, apparently sees things differently. The Israeli Prime Minister's Office issued a travel warning earlier this month advising Israelis to avoid Djerba, citing a "specific-high rating" terror threat to Jews and Israelis. Hiloula may end today, but whether Marzouki can convince the rest of the country to practice what he preaches remains uncertain.
Although the Arab Spring hasn't won Israel many friends in the Middle East, Haaretz reported yesterday that its navy "recently strengthened its cooperation with the Lebanese Navy in the Mediterranean." The partnership, Israel hopes, will prevent provocations in the form of possible pro-Palestinian flotillas to Gaza on May 15, or Nakba Day, which commemorates "the displacement of Palestinians following the establishment of Israel in 1948, and on Naksa Day, which takes place in June and commemorates the displacement of Palestinians after the 1967 war."
It's no surprise that Israel would turn to regional multilateralism in order to avoid a repeat of the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010. According to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, "pro-Palestinian activists from Sweden [have] announced their intent to organize another Gaza flotilla this year, saying they have already bought the ship."
Whether this friendly strategic cooperation will last, though, is an entirely different question. Israel and Lebanon may soon be engaged in nasty disputes over natural gas fields in the Levant Basin, which as Robin M. Mills reported for FP last year "spans not only Israel's offshore but also that of Lebanon, Cyprus, and Syria." In 2009, U.S. exploration company Noble Energy found Tamar, a deepwater field that holds 8.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas. Noble discovered Leviathan, which has an aerial area of 125 square miles and contains a potential 20 Tcf, in early 2010. As Mills noted, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the entire basin "could contain 120 Tcf of gas, equivalent to almost half of U.S. reserves."
With Tamar set to come online in April 2013, and Leviathan expected to begin production by 2016, what is for now just a dispute over maritime borders could soon turn into a regional conflict over natural gas.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
The theme at this year's J Street conference was "Making History," and that's exactly what happened on Monday evening when Barukh Binah, the deputy chief of mission at Israel's Washington embassy, became "the first Israeli diplomat to attend a conference of the liberal pro-Israel group since its establishment in 2008."
Binah, who confessed in the beginning of his address that he has only held this post for two months, also revealed that it was his his first public appearance in the United States. Perhaps it was his condescending tone, or maybe it was just the fact that he spoke on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is wildly unpopular among J Street's constituency, but the Washington newcomer's speech was less than well-received. He began with a very Netanyahu-esque reminder that the past (read: the Holocaust) is "alive and scorching."
The unpopular message continued as Binah accused the audience of not standing with the Israelis:
"We share your democratic values, but...our borders are curved and dusty and made of missiles and mayhem, and as we continue to face incurable threats we have to make decisions of life and death...At the end of the day it is we the Israelis who must bear the ultimate burden and may have to pay the ultimate price...We need you to stand with us. It is as simple as that and someone ought to say it. Internal activism is a central part of democratic society, but pressures on the elected government of Israel can present us with a problem, davka when we need you the most."
Davka is a notoriously untranslatable Hebrew word that in this sense means "especially."
He also applauded J Street for its "repudiation" of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS), noting that "our shared view in that respect is that BDS is not a form of criticism, but a blatant...attack."
No Israeli diplomatic presence would be complete without a reference to Iran, and Binah repeated the popular line that "while we seek and support peace, the ayatollah's of Iran call for our annihilation." Convincing a room full of peaceniks that the Palestinians should be blamed for thwarting negotiations was also a tough sell:
"We're willing to put contentious issues on the table, but we find that the metaphorical table was...blown up."
His talk exploding tables and rabid Ayatollahs was somewhat grim, but at least he threw in a Harry Potter reference, saying "This is not a game of political quidditch."
Despite the audible booing and hissing throughout, Binah told me after he spoke that he thought the speech was well-received, and that the embassy sent him there because of the "ripeness of time."
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert (fending off corruption charges back home) had a message more the crowd's liking, discussing the peace plan he presented to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas:
"I thought then and I think now that there is no alternative to what I proposed and one day...when we celebrate peace with the Palestinians, this peace will be identical to what I proposed to Abu Mazen finally and formally and officially on September 16, 2008."
The Olmert peace plan, to which Abbas did not respond, called for a two-state solution whose borders are based on the 1967 pre-Six Day War lines.
Olmert ended his keynote speech with the adamant affirmation that Kadima, the centrist Israeli political party he helped create in 2005, is the best alternative to Israel's political status quo. Unfortunately for Olmert, the heated race for the Kadima premiership between current chairwoman Tzipi Livni and Member of Knesset Shaul Mofaz has become just as divisive as the America's Republican candidate tug-of-war.
Between a Netanyahu talking head and an embattled politician who continues to advocate for a peace plan past its prime, the evening was a bizarre and disconnected affair that seemed to reinforce the frustrated and pessimistic mood at this year's conference.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
J Street, the "political home" for pro-Israel, pro-two state solution (read: anti-AIPAC) American Jews, kicked off its third annual conference in Washington on Saturday night. But despite its massive efforts to mobilize behind President Obama, executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami doesn't seem to be terribly satisfied with the commander in chief's track record in a press roundtable:
"We would like to see the president do more, we'd like to see the administration take a more proactive role in outlining the parameters for a resolution of the conflict, and to build an international coalition of supporters beyond the Quartet."
Ben-Ami also invoked Libya and Iran as examples for the White House to follow as it builds consensus for a two-state solution.
"The way the world was brought together around Libya and around the Iran sanctions, that's the kind of mobilization of international support that the administration will need to do if it wants to re-establish American credibility in foreign policy making."
A panel discussion held during the conference on Sunday about the current prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace took on a bleaker tone. According to Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, the current administration is simply exhausted:
"They were serious, but realized that they didn't have the political stomach...They thought they had the will to see it through, but they got exhausted."
Nadav Eyal of Israel's Maariv newspaper added that the president does not appear to be invested in the issue:
"Obama needs to come into this personally, and he has not done that."
Leila Hilal, co-director of the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force, even questioned the viability of the two-state solution itself:
"This is the time to think about new strategies. Two states is a largely hollow and abstract notion, and the Palestinian public has no interest in dead-end talks...Conditions are not ripe, and the U.S. administration cannot force proposals."
For an organization that's supposed to rally support for a peaceful two-state solution, this year's attendees seem fairly pessimistic about the chances of achieving that goal. Ben-Ami may be optimistic that the stars will someday align, but for now J Street's timing is all wrong.
Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images
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