Wednesday 25 June 2008

As truce barely holds, Israeli parents hope for return of kidnapped son

June 25th 2008

By Matthew Kalman

French president Nicolas Sarkozy met with Noam and Aviva Schalit, the parents of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, in Jerusalem on June 23.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy met with Noam and Aviva Schalit, the parents of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, in Jerusalem on June 23.

JERUSALEM - A five-day-old truce between Hamas militants in Gaza and the Jewish state was hanging by a thread Tuesday after terrorists lobbed three rockets into Israel.

"This is a blatant violation of the calm, and we will weigh options," an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said of the hit on Sderot, a frequent target where two were injured.

The parents of a kidnapped soldier held by terrorists for two years are hoping the cease-fire holds long enough that Israel can win back their son.

The attack on the border town of Sderot by Islamic Jihad came hours after Israeli troops killed two Palestinian militants in the West Bank city of Nablus.

"We cannot keep our hands tied when this is happening to our brothers in the West Bank," an Islamic Jihad spokesman said.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri, while condemning Israel's West Bank raid, said his group "is keen to maintain the calm."

The first big test of the truce struck last Thursday comes as Israel works for the release of a 21-year-old soldier held by militants for two years.

Egypt, which brokered the cease-fire, is trying to win the freedom of Cpl. Gilad Schalit, kidnapped when he was 19 during a cross-border raid that in 2006.

His dad, Noam Schalit, has accused the Israeli government of "abandoning" his son by not including his release as part of the original cease-fire agreement.

"Until now, I have not spoken bluntly because I feared I might, heaven forbid, damage negotiations," a frustrated Schalit told the Daily News.

"We are trying to make sure there will be a link between this cease-fire and negotiations regarding the release of Gilad or (any prisoner swap)," Schalit said. "The agreement has disconnected between the two issues."

Schalit and his wife Aviva on Monday lost an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court to tie any easing of the economic blockade of Gaza to the fate of their son.

Gilad's parents have received only three letters and a video message to prove that their son is still alive. The most recent was a hand-written letter delivered earlier this month by representatives of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

"I still think and dream of the day I am freed and see you again, and still I keep the hope that that day is near, but I know it is not in your hands or in mine," the soldier wrote.

Friday 20 June 2008

Tentative peace in the Middle East brings doubts

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE : Friday, June 20, 2008

Nevertheless, political leaders on both sides expressed doubts that the other would keep their part of the bargain. Israeli army tanks continued to patrol the border fence and Palestinian fighters kept their weapons close at hand. But as evening fell, neither side had fired since the truce went into effect at 6 a.m. Thursday.

In Sderot, the Israeli town of 20,000 inhabitants near the Gaza border hit by more than 4,000 rockets since Hamas seized the Gaza Strip a year ago - including 20 on Wednesday alone - most residents greeted the truce with wary hope. "Calm for how long?" factory worker Meir Kroytoro told the New York Times.

In the Jabalya Palestinian refugee camp, scene of numerous Israeli invasions and rocket attacks, shoppers in an open-air market expressed the same sentiment.

But there was a rare agreement that the cease-fire has been a diplomatic success for Hamas and another political blow for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is mired in a corruption scandal that threatens to topple him from power.

Noam Schalit, father of the abducted Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit, delivered a withering criticism of the cease-fire, accusing Olmert of abandoning his son, who has been held for two years.

Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the weakness of the government for failing to include Schalit's release in the first stage of the deal. If the cease-fire holds, Israel will ease its blockade on Gaza before resuming negotiations on Schalit's plight.

On Tuesday, Olmert will try to restore his flagging popularity when he visits Egypt for talks with President Hosni Mubarak, which are expected to produce a deal in which Schalit is released in exchange for several hundred Palestinian prisoners.

"This is still very complicated and controversial. It might take some time, but the ball is in the Israeli court," Hamas policy adviser Ahmed Yousuf said. "There is a list of names, and actually there is a timetable for everything."

At his office at the Hamas Foreign Ministry building in Gaza City, Yousuf said the cease-fire is good for both sides.

"I think it's a win-win situation for both the Israelis and the Palestinians," he said. "I think this will lay the foundation for future steps for a real commitment from both sides that they will respect the other.

"The Palestinians are looking to stop all the Israeli aggression and incursions, and the Israelis also hope that the Palestinians will stop firing the rockets on them. I do believe that from our side we will keep our commitment. I hope the Israelis also will keep to the things they promised."

Even Izzedine Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas responsible for numerous attacks on Israel, issued a statement backing the cease-fire.

"We believe that calm is a need to ease the suffering of our people, to promote the option of resistance and the steadfastness," said a statement published on the group's Web site.

But in the dusty alleyways of Beit Hanoun, a favorite launching-pad for Palestinian rocket attacks across the border, and target of repeated Israeli military reprisals, a masked Izzedine Qassam Brigades commander brandished an M16 assault rifle, hand grenades and pistol.

"We're used to holding our weapons in the enemy's faces," said the militant, who identified himself as Abu Khaled and boasted of personally firing 30 rockets into Israel in the past year. "We were forced into this, but we hope that good comes out of it. We will always have our weapons with us, ready to fight the enemy. We will respond to any violation of the cease-fire agreement by the Israelis. We are still committed to the destruction of Israel."

Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said that if the cease-fire holds, the blockade on Gaza would be gradually lifted and supplies of cement, fuel and other goods restored to previous levels. About 80 percent of its 1.4 million residents depend on food aid, according to U.N. figures.

"Now we will be able to make sure that many of these raw materials will be allowed to cross to Gaza, and that means you give a chance to thousands of Palestinians to go back to their work," said Yousuf, the Hamas policy adviser.

But in Jabalya refugee camp, ordinary Gazans were skeptical.

"Even if the gates are open between us and the Israelis, this will not solve the economic situation here in Gaza because most people will not be able to cross into Israel to earn a living," said Hosein Wadi, a 50-year-old father of eight who used to work as a driver in Israel. "For 10 years, I have been sitting doing nothing. No one looks after the ordinary workers. We need money."

E-mail Matthew Kalman at

This article appeared on page A - 12 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Israel backs Palo Alto man's electric car plan

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE : Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tel Aviv -- Shai Agassi, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, pledges that he can beat the spiraling cost of gasoline with the world's first mass-produced electric car.

In January, Israel's government endorsed the Palo Alto businessman's ambitious joint venture between his startup company - Project Better Place - and Renault-Nissan.

Agassi says he raised $200 million to get the $500 million dollar project, which will include a network of charging and battery-exchange stations by 2010, off the ground.

Project Better Place also has signed an agreement with Denmark to begin a similar operation by 2011. In Denmark, a pioneer in developing wind power, batteries are expected to be recharged using wind-powered turbines.

Agassi, a 39-year-old Israeli, co-founded Project Better Place after he quit his post in 2007 as president of the products and technology group for the German software giant SAP AG. Although some insiders say he left after losing out in a power struggle to become SAP's chief executive, Agassi says he left to focus on "issues that are important to me," including alternative energy and the future of Israel.

140 miles on a charge

Agassi is banking on his electric-powered sedan revolutionizing life on the roads, cleaning up the environment and reducing dependence on oil. The cars are expected to have a range of up to 140 miles per charge and a top speed of 68 mph - the speed limit in Israel.

Last month, he invited reporters to test-drive a prototype that looks a lot like the Renault Megane, a four-door sedan. The car is noticeably quiet and has no exhaust pipe, an electric socket in place of a gas cap and a dashboard gauge that measures the charge of the vehicle's 450-pound lithium-ion battery.

In the United States, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle has said she is interested in her state becoming the first to embrace the electric-car network. Mayor Gavin Newsom also has reportedly expressed interest in making San Francisco the first U.S. metropolis to place electric cars on city roads.

Agassi said that because most rides are less than 100 miles, drivers can recharge batteries at home, at work or at thousands of charging points throughout Israel. On longer trips, they can exchange batteries in a five-minute operation at about 200 "swap stations."

"We have a second battery for every driver in the swap stations. It's waiting for you in case you need it. You don't need to carry it with you in the trunk," Agassi said.

Moreover, Nissan's global product planning chief, Tom Lane, has said his firm will soon announce a battery breakthrough, one that could increase driving range to around 200 miles per charge while recharging in as little as 20 minutes.

The cars are also expected to be more economical than a typical gas-driven sedan due in part to tax breaks from the Israeli and Danish governments. Agassi also says the development of the lithium-ion battery has significantly lowered the cost of electricity at a time when oil prices are soaring. Gas currently costs $10 a gallon in Israel and more than $8 a gallon in Denmark.

"Within a decade, the cost of energy for a single year of fuel supply for a combustion car should cost more than the cost of energy for an electric car's entire life, even when taking the cost of battery into consideration," Agassi said.

As with cellular phones, where the service providers install an infrastructure that allows users to make calls and send text, Project Better Place plans to charge $550 a month and provide 18,000 miles a year for the use of the batteries and charging and swap stations. The customer doesn't own the battery - the cars are designed to have easily removable battery packs that can be exchanged.

'Another nutty idea'

But not everyone is convinced that electric cars are the answer.

Jerry Flint, automotive analyst at Forbes magazine, wrote that the project looks like "another nutty idea. Electric cars have limited range and take a good while to recharge. I am still skeptical about how quickly manufacturers will solve the lithium-ion batteries' problems, such as overheating, and be able to put the batteries into mass production."

Nevertheless, the project has won the endorsement of Israeli President Shimon Peres and Idan Ofer, chairman of Israel Corp., one of the nation's major industrial conglomerates, who has invested $130 million in the program.

"I consider this to be a revolutionary project, and I believe that most of the public will drive an electric car within a decade," Ofer said.

Meanwhile, Agassi said he will continue driving his customized electric Toyota RAV4 EV - one of only 1,000 - on Northern California roads.

"I wish I had a battery swap station where I can drive to. We don't, so I manage my energy," he said. "It's one of the most fun cars I've ever driven, because every time I go by a gas station, I feel like I cheated."

The man behind battery-swap plan

Shai Agassi, 39, is an Israeli software entrepreneur who founded TopTier Software in Israel in 1992. He later moved the company's headquarters to Northern California.

In 2007, he co-founded the startup Project Better Place after he quit his job as top executive at the German software giant SAP AG.

Project Better Place wants to produce electric cars as an alternative to current fossil fuel technology.

The automobile that could revolutionize Israel - Denmark could be next

For the most part, foreign automakers - including Nissan-Renault, BMW, Audi, Mitsubishi and Subaru - are developing electric cars to meet California's zero-emission vehicle mandate, which requires at least 7,500 electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on state roads by 2014.

In the United States, electric vehicles are not a large part of U.S. automakers' plans - for the time being. And mileage per charge is not high. But in Israel, the joint-venture Nissan-Renault/Project Better Place electric car is expected to have a range of 140 miles per charge. For longer drives, motorists will be able to replace the battery at about 200 swap stations to be built throughout Israel by 2010.

Project Better Place also has signed an agreement with Denmark to begin a similar operation by 2011. Both the Israeli and Danish governments have agreed to provide tax incentives to stimulate the program.

U.S. explorations into the electric car arena include:

Chevrolet Volt: The Volt's plug-in batteries will handle around 40 miles, enough for a daily commute; the car can switch to gas power for longer drives. The Volt, which is expected to be available by the end of 2010, is the centerpiece of General Motors' push to develop alternative-fuel vehicles.

Tesla Motors: The San Carlos company makes an electric sports car that can do 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds. The nearly $100,000 car can be plugged into a standard wall socket for six to seven hours. Or drivers can use a recharging station designed by Tesla installed in their garage.

E-mail Matthew Kalman at

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday 12 June 2008

'Israel Lobby' Professors Get Hospitable Greeting in Israel

June 12, 2008

Jerusalem — The first appearance in Israel by Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer since the publication of their controversial book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, impressed a largely student audience at the Hebrew University, but left some faculty members wondering about their honesty.

A threatened boycott failed to have any effect, and the talk passed off with nothing more dramatic than some lively debate and repeated declarations from the pair that they are neither anti-Semitic nor Israel-haters.

Their presentation, "Is the 'Israel lobby' good for Israel?," attracted 200 people. Mr. Walt told The Chronicle that they were visiting Israel at the invitation of the veteran left-wing campaigner Uri Avnery and decided to add a university appearance to their schedule.

Mr. Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Mr. Mearsheimer is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

Their work has been criticized as anti-Jewish and intellectually dishonest, charges that led some to call for the lecture to be canceled.

"Any discussion of the Israel lobby takes place in the shadow of centuries of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories," said Mr. Walt. "John and I reject any one of those anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The Israel lobby is a normal U.S. interest group. There's no conspiracy, no cabal, no secret plot here."

Robert Wistrich, a professor of modern European history and director of the university's Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, said he was willing to assume that they are not anti-Semitic.

"I don't think that's the point, though," he said. "Those who object to their kind of discourse about the lobby are right to point out that in a very attenuated and benign form, with all the academic qualifications they make, it is uncomfortably reminiscent of very familiar arguments that clearly were anti-Semitic in the past. Some of it is disingenuous. It's a kind of cover." —Matthew Kalman

Monday 9 June 2008

American Professors Who Wrote 'The Israel Lobby' Face Cool Reception in Israel

Monday, June 9, 2008

Jerusalem — Some Israeli academics are not too happy that Stephen M.
Walt and John J. Mearsheimer, authors of The Israel Lobby and U.S.
Foreign Policy, are scheduled to speak on Thursday at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem. The title of their talk: "Is the 'Israel
lobby' good for Israel?"

Both men have also courted controversy in the United States with their
argument that Israel wields disproportionate influence on the United
States' foreign policy.

Mr. Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard
University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Mr. Mearsheimer
is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

"Their decision to come here means they are looking for a good fight,"
said Akiva Eldar, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, told
The Guardian, a British newspaper.

Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan
University, won support from some colleagues when he suggested in an
e-mail message that the American authors should address "an empty

"Their articles and books are not academic," Mr Steinberg told The
Chronicle. "It's not research, it's a polemic. It doesn't belong in a

But Menachem Klein, a colleague of Mr. Steinberg's at Bar-Ilan, said
it was inappropriate for Israelis to call for shunning visitors when
Israeli academics are themselves the targets of attempted boycotts by
British lecturers and others.

"I am against boycotting anyone," Mr. Klein said in an interview.
"Academia is about arguing, free debate, and free speech. If you have
good arguments, go there and debate." —Matthew Kalman

Tuesday 3 June 2008

Israel's Supreme Court Chides Government for Ban on Study Abroad

Tuesday, June 3, 2008



Israel's Supreme Court joined a chorus of dismay over an Israeli army
policy that bans Palestinian students from leaving Gaza to study
abroad and asked the government on Monday to "reconsider the policy."
Israel imposed the ban after the Islamist group Hamas took control of
the Gaza Strip in a violent uprising last year.

Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein told Israel's state attorney
at a hearing that the ban seems "no less harmful to the Israeli
interest because we have to live with the Palestinians in the future,
too." Mr. Rubinstein said that denying Palestinians access to
education "harms chances for some kind of coexistence."

Mr. Rubinstein demanded a response from the government lawyers within
two weeks and strongly hinted that he expected them to modify the ban.

Israel's Supreme Court has often taken a tough line on human-rights
abuses by Israel's security branches, pushing them to modify their
behavior and overruling them when they fail to act on their own

After the hearing, an Israeli government spokesman told The Chronicle
that the entire policy on student mobility was now under review.

Unable to Leave Gaza

The judge was considering a petition brought by Gisha, an Israeli
human-rights group that campaigns for academic freedom of movement, on
behalf of two Palestinian students from Gaza who have been prevented
from taking their places at colleges in Britain and Germany.

Coincidentally, the hearing was held the day after the Israeli
government apparently reversed an earlier decision not to allow seven
Fulbright scholars to leave Gaza. Israel's earlier stance had prompted
the U.S. State Department last week to suspend the scholarships (The
Chronicle, June 2).

After the intervention of senior State Department officials and a
public dressing-down by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli
authorities agreed to process the Fulbright scholars' applications,
the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem informed the students on

But, according to Gisha, several hundred more Palestinian students
have been refused permission to leave for foreign study under a
blanket ban imposed by Israel on any Palestinian's leaving the Gaza
Strip except for urgent humanitarian cases.

Monday's petition was filed on behalf of two of those students, Wissam
Abuajwa, 31, who has a full scholarship for a master's program in
environmental science at Nottingham University, in Britain, and Nibal
Nayef, 27, who has a full scholarship for a doctoral program in
computer engineering at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern, in
Germany. Neither course of study is available in Gaza.

"Universities in Gaza don't have a track for environmental studies,
and my dream is to return from my studies abroad and to establish an
environmental-research and study institute here," Mr. Abuajwa said in
a written statement. "In Gaza there is an urgent need for
environmental experts, especially because of the recent deterioration
in the infrastructure and quality of life of the residents."

Ms. Nayef said that even if Israel allowed her to leave in two weeks'
time, she would arrive in Germany already behind in her studies.

"My classes have already begun while I'm still stuck here in Gaza,
unable to attend them. It's so important to me to reach my studies as
soon as possible," she said in a written statement.

Growing Criticism

Last Wednesday the Knesset Education Committee heard testimony from an
18-year-old Palestinian student who was banned from leaving Gaza to
study engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairperson of the legislative committee,
described the travel ban as "immoral and unwise."

The mounting criticism appears finally to be having some effect.

"Clearly it would be a problem if we only grant permission to the
Fulbright students," Peter Lerner, spokesman for the coordinator of
Israeli activities in the occupied territories, said on Monday. "A
review is currently under way regarding the entire issue at the
moment. We will be informing the court of any decision in two weeks,
as requested today."

Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, said she hoped the increasing pressure
on the Israeli authorities would finally move them to change their

"The ban on students leaving Gaza for study abroad is part of a policy
of closure and collective punishment that is trapping 1.5-million
civilians," she said. "I hope that the Defense Ministry will listen to
the reasoned voices of the U.S. secretary of state, the Knesset
Education Committee, and the Supreme Court—and allow Palestinians in
Gaza to exercise their right to freedom of movement and to access

Sunday 1 June 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to the Yeshiva

Teen comedian Alex Edelman just spent a year in Jerusalem and came away with more faith than ever in his stand-up abilities

While in Israel, Alex Edelman performed often at the Off the Wall Comedy Basement, Jerusalem's first comedy club.

While in Israel, Alex Edelman performed often at the Off the Wall Comedy Basement, Jerusalem's first comedy club. (Photos by amnon gutman/wpn for the boston globe)

June 1, 2008
By Matthew Kalman Globe Correspondent
JERUSALEM - The plaintive message from a fellow comedian on Alex Edelman's MySpace profile says it all: "Come back to America. Boston comedy needs you!"
The 19-year-old, yarmulke-sporting Edelman is already a stand-up veteran. He began performing in comedy clubs at age 15, coming home from Maimonides School in Brookline, telling his parents he was off to study at the library, and sneaking away to perform at Roggie's near Boston College.
"I felt like I had written something that I wanted to say in front of people," Edelman recalled after a recent show here in Israel, where he has spent a year immersed in yeshiva studies before majoring in English at NYU. "I don't even remember the jokes. People laughed politely. It was awful."
By last summer, he was performing a dozen times a week at Boston's Comedy Studio and other venues - but never on the Sabbath, which ruled out Friday nights and most of Saturday evening.
Edelman's parents - he's a cardiologist and Harvard professor, she's a real estate attorney - only found out last year, when one of his signature jokes was quoted in a newspaper story on open mike nights in Boston: "I go to a Jewish school where we do all the usual stuff - math, science, media control, world domination."
"My parents initially were not so thrilled about it," he admitted. "It was a drain on other things I could have been doing - like studying."
They were somewhat won over when they attended a show at which Edelman performed with local comedy mainstay Tony V., whom they had seen 20 years before.
"Tony V. came up to my parents after the show and said to them: 'If you want me to tell you that your son should drop doing comedy, then you're coming to the wrong guy. He has a talent for it. I think if Alex sticks with it, he'll be something good.'
"My parents were really supportive after that," Edelman added. "But there was a bit of a sense when they sent me here to Jerusalem that maybe I'd really connect to my Judaism and become more religious."
But with the same natural comic timing that informs Edelman's stand-up routine, no sooner had he landed than the Holy City opened its first comedy club. He quickly became a headliner at the Off the Wall Comedy Basement in downtown Jerusalem, which is run by David Kilimnick, an American campus rabbi turned stand-up comic and comedy entrepreneur.
"He's a great comedian and a smart young man," said Kilimnick. "He has a future in this. He started when he was young but he has not let comedy control his life."
"In Boston, I'm just another comedian; there are a ton of very good ones," admitted Edelman, who has been learning Hebrew but performs only in English. "[In Jerusalem] it was nice to kind of be a bigshot for a few months, to be a headliner and do 45 minutes and see if I'm ready to do that in the United States."
For an Orthodox Jew from a Hebrew day school who has just spent a year in Jerusalem and returned last month, Edelman uses very little Jewish material, though his choice of subjects is heavily influenced by his age. Topics include teenage work experience, candy bars, underage drinking, and being stopped at the Canadian border with his mother in the car and asked if he had any drugs: "Dude, not in front of my Mum."
"During my set last week I saw him sitting on a bar stool studying me and absorbing," said Charley Warady, a veteran club headliner from Chicago who moved to Israel a decade ago and is now part of the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour. "That's a wonderful thing to see in a young comedian. It's what I did when I started out. He takes all that in and makes it his own."
Since he was 15, Edelman has been writing jokes almost every day. He now has 18 notebooks full of ideas which have been drafted and re-drafted until they were just right. "I always carry a notebook with me, always," he said. "When I was younger I was obsessive about them. I log the process of every joke."
On one page, there is a quip about whether the Jews built the pyramids. ("Clearly not, because there's no rental space.") Edelman used it for a TV audition. Marginal annotations show it was first written in book 3, revised in book 6, and re-revised in book 14.
Some pages have been torn away. "I have a philosophical problem with doing a joke that any other comedian has done," Edelman said. "That's why these books are filled with rip-outs. These are all jokes that I feel are too much like somebody else's."
Edelman says he feels fortunate to have served his comedy apprenticeship in Boston. "I've seen a lot of jealousy in other places, but in Boston everyone's happy for the other people when they do well," he explained.
It was Gary Gulman, another hometown comedian, who persuaded Edelman to accept his parents' recommendation to spend the year in Jerusalem. "He knew I didn't want to go to Israel but he said I should," Edelman said. "He said comedy grows out of life experience, and that's why it's impossible to become a good comedian when you're young because you don't have that life experience yet."
Apart from his regular performances at the Comedy Basement, Edelman spent his year in Jerusalem studying Talmud and other ancient Jewish texts, traveling the country, and attending Shimon Peres's conference to mark Israel's 60th anniversary. He also visited the Nazi death camps in Poland.
With its audiences from dozens of countries and religious sensibilities that made sex jokes largely taboo, Jerusalem has extended his range, Edelman said.
If anything, a year meant to turn his head away from joke-telling hasn't done the trick.
"I've grown addicted to comedy," Edelman said. "The chances are I won't be the next Jerry Seinfeld or Steve Martin, but I can try."