Friday 31 October 2008

Israeli Universities to Open on Time, as Strike Is Settled


Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel averted a nationwide university strike on Thursday, just three days before the scheduled beginning of the new academic year, by intervening at the last minute to direct the government to restore nearly $140-million to the universities' budgets.

The prime minister's move, which will allow the academic year to begin on time on Sunday, led the country's education minister, Yuli Tamir, to say that she could "finally sleep at night."

University presidents here had announced the cancellation of the semester in a dispute over finances for the country's seven research universities and 30 colleges of higher education, all of which are supported by the government (The Chronicle, October 24).

The universities had demanded that the government, over the next five years, restore $625-million that was cut from their budgets a decade ago. They insisted on the immediate payment of the first 20 percent, or $125-million, with the remainder to follow in subsequent years.

The $625-million repayment was a key recommendation of the Shochat Commission, a government-appointed committee that suggested far-reaching plans to overhaul higher education in Israel more than a year ago (The Chronicle, November 30, 2007).

Ms. Tamir had accused Finance Ministry officials of "dragging their feet" in negotiations that finally broke down on Wednesday.

The Finance Ministry had tried to make the additional money conditional on the universities' accepting structural reforms recommended by the Shochat Commission. But such reforms would have led to a sharp increase in tuition rates, which the government wished to avoid with a general election looming.

Demand for Money

Mr. Olmert, joining the talks between the university heads and Finance Ministry officials for the first time during the protracted crisis, ordered the ministry to transfer the entire $125-million demanded by the universities, plus an extra $14-million for new development.

"I have taken a decision, not an easy decision—certainly not for the Finance Ministry—and I appreciate the ability of the ministry to cope with the difficulties which they will face as a result of this decision," said Mr. Olmert.

"The academic year will begin as planned on Sunday," Ms. Tamir told reporters after the meeting. "The prime minister took a brave decision that will enable the year to start and enable the higher-education institutions to appoint new faculty and attract young lecturers back to the country."

"It's a very large amount of money," she admitted. "The projects are vitally essential."

Menachem Magidor, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and chairman of Israel's Committee of University Presidents, welcomed the resolution of the crisis but warned the Finance Ministry that there would be further trouble if the money did not come through in this or future years, as agreed.

"We welcome the agreement that was achieved today, and we thank Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Education Minister Yuli Tamir for their role in bringing about a solution to this crisis in the higher-education system," Mr. Magidor told The Chronicle. "We must remember that this arrangement only solves the immediate problem in the coming year. We still have to work hard to find a long-term solution to the overall problem over the next five years. We will keep working and maintain our efforts to improve the Israeli higher-education system and provide the best services and conditions for our students."

Student leaders, who had joined with faculty members in protesting the government's failure to meet the demand for funds, breathed a sigh of relief.

"We are happy the school year is beginning as planned and that some of the budget, which was cut over the last few years, was returned to higher education," said Boaz Toporovsky, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students, who was arrested during a demonstration on Wednesday outside the Parliament. "I hope that now it will be possible to find a long-term and all-inclusive solution for the system."

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Case involving Jesus' brother burial box hoax on verge of collapse

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- The high-profile trial of two Israeli antiquities experts accused of faking a burial box containing the remains of Jesus' brother and other priceless artifacts faced a humiliating collapse today after a Jerusalem judge advised the prosecution to consider dropping the proceedings after more than three years in court.

"After all the evidence we have heard, including the testimony of the prime defendant, is the picture still the same as the one you had when he was charged?" District Court Judge Aharon Farkash pointedly asked public prosecutor, Adi Damti. "Not every case ends in the way you think it will when it starts. Maybe we can save ourselves the rest."

The discovery of an ossuary or burial box inscribed "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" created a sensation when first displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2002. If authentic, it would be the only physical evidence ever discovered directly linked to the family of Jesus.

But the owner of the ossuary, Israeli engineer and collector Oded Golan, was arrested by Israeli police in 2003, and then charged a year later along with four others on 18 counts of forgery, fraud and damaging archaeological artifacts.
'Unholy Business'

In her new book on the case entitled "Unholy Business, A True Tale of Faith, Greed, and Forgery in the Holy Land," author Nina Burleigh appears to believe that Golan is guilty, but suspects his lawyers have raised enough doubts to avoid conviction.

The often explosive testimony has given a rare insight into the shadowy world behind the apparently cultured facade of priceless antiquities. Witnesses have described furtive encounters with Arab grave robbers, international smuggling and transactions involving hundreds of thousands of dollars based on a handshake.

But the collapse of the prosecution's case would be a major embarrassment for the Israeli police and Israel Antiquities Authority. They maintain the defendants faked the burial box along with other biblical-era relics that were then sold for huge sums of money and sent to major collections and museums around the world.

"This was fraud of a sophistication and expertise which was previously unknown," said Police Comdt. Shaul Naim, who headed a two-year police investigation. "They took authentic items and added inscriptions to make them worth millions."
Experts recant

Scholars appointed to a special committee convened by the Israel Antiquities Authority accused Golan and his co-defendants of taking valuable ancient relics and adding inscriptions to increase their value.

Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, had described the charges against Golan as "the tip of the iceberg. These forgeries have worldwide repercussions," he said after the indictments were filed. "They were an attempt to change the history of the Jewish and Christian people."

But under cross-examination by defense attorneys, many experts recanted some of their findings. Judge Farkash's comments, which were excluded from trial transcripts but said in open court, came after more than 80 witnesses and 10,000 pages of testimony including evidence and cross-examination of Golan and leading archaeologists and scientists from around the world.
No definitive proof

"Have you really proved beyond a reasonable doubt that these artifacts are fakes as charged in the indictment? The experts disagreed among themselves. Where is the definitive proof needed to show that the accused faked the ossuary?" Judge Farkash asked prosecutor Damti. "You need to ask yourselves those questions very seriously, and if necessary consult with your superiors in the public prosecutor's office."

The two most important items said to be fakes were the James ossuary - a limestone burial box in use during the time of Jesus and a black stone tablet inscribed with 14 lines commemorating renovations to the Temple in Jerusalem by the biblical King Joash.

Golan, a 57-year-old world-renowned expert who started collecting antiquities when he was 8 years old, has consistently denied all charges during the more than three years of proceedings.

"The James ossuary and the Joash Tablet are 100 percent authentic. I have never faked an archaeological artifact in my life," he has said.
Dozens testify

To date, witnesses have included antiquities dealers, museum curators, experts and professors of archaeology, history, epigraphy and chemical isotopes from leading universities and museums in Israel and around the world.

In four days of testimony, multimillionaire collector Shlomo Moussaieff described scenes where dealers, professors and even Israeli diplomats came to his home, produced rare antiquities from their pockets and negotiated sales worth thousands of dollars.

On one occasion, Moussaieff sent his personal banker with Golan to buy some rare seal impressions from a Palestinian villager. They parked their car on a dirt road near the border with the West Bank and when the Palestinian arrived they gave him a bag containing $150,000 in cash.
Charges dropped for 2

Charges against two of the defendants were dropped during the trial. Another man pleaded guilty to a minor charge unrelated to the main accusations, leaving Golan and antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch, who were alleged to have been the leaders of the supposed forgery ring.

"I have never faked anything nor committed any crime," said Deutsch. "The authorities have ruined my reputation and I have lost my university teaching position because of the baseless charges leveled against me. When this is over, I will sue them for slander."

Meanwhile, Judge Farkash has advised the prosecution to think about continuing the case before reconvening the trial in January.

Monday 27 October 2008

Foreign Academics Protest Denial of Visas to Attend Health Conference in Gaza

Monday October 27, 2008

Jerusalem — Physicians and nurses from Harvard Medical School and other American universities were among dozens of U.S. and European health experts denied entry into Gaza on Sunday for an academic conference organized by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and sponsored by the World Health Organization.

The two-day conference, “Siege and Mental Health Walls vs. Bridges,” opened instead on Monday in Ramallah in the West Bank with a video-conference link to Palestinian health experts in Gaza.

Eyewitnesses said Israeli soldiers and security officers pushed the physicians, nurses, and academics back from the Erez checkpoint, the only pedestrian crossing-point from Israel into the Gaza Strip.

“I wanted to be part of this conference and support the people in Gaza and contribute to breaking the siege of the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel,” Eleanor Roffman, director of the field-training office in the division of counseling and psychology at Lesley University, told The Chronicle. Her visa application, and those of other scholars, was denied by Israeli officials on October 13, she said.

The Erez checkpoint has been closed since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, in the summer of 2007, to all foreigners except diplomats, aid workers, doctors, and journalists. Only a few hundred Palestinians are now permitted to enter Israel through the checkpoint on a regular basis, but more than 11,000 Palestinians have been allowed into Israel for medical treatment so far this year.

Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Coordinator of Israeli Government Activities in the Territories, an Israeli defense-ministry unit that coordinates civilian matters with the Palestinian Authority, said the participants were told two weeks ago that they would not be allowed into Gaza and arrived on Sunday as a political gesture.

“They caused a closure of the crossing, delaying any Palestinians who needed to cross at that time,” Mr. Lerner told The Chronicle. “They knew they had no approval.”

Mr. Lerner said there had been a ban on foreigners attending academic conferences in Gaza since Hamas took over. “We do not regard this gathering as humanitarian. It is just another platform to have a go at Israel,” he said. —Matthew Kalman

Sunday 26 October 2008

General election looms for Israel after Livni admits defeat in bid to form coalition government

Sunday 26th October 2008

By Matthew Kalman

Israel is heading towards an early general election and the likely return of hardline former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was elected as head of the governing Kadima Party last month, replacing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was forced to stand aside because of a raft of corruption scandals.

After more than a month of wheeler-dealing, Livni could not persuade enough parties to join a new government under her leadership. She described the pressures exerted by smaller parties as 'extortion'.

Israel is heading towards an early general election after Tzipi Livni failed to persuade enough parties to join a new government under her leadership

Because of Israel's Byzantine political process, a general election is not expected until February.

Polls indicate that the likely winner will be the right-wing Likud Party, signaling the return to power of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a decade in opposition.

Peacemaking foundered during Netanyahu's three-year tenure as prime minister in the 1990s, and his positions have not softened since.

He quit Ariel Sharon's government because he opposed Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He also opposes ceding sovereignty over any part of east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

The political turmoil in Israel is matched by uncertainty in the Palestinian Authority, where President Mahmoud Abbas is due to end his term in January.

There are no plans yet for fresh elections among the Palestinians, who are deeply divided between Abbas's Fatah movement and Hamas, who seized power in Gaza more than a year ago.

The Middle East peace process, already in deep freeze, is now effectively on hold for the foreseeable future.

The key decision that sank Livni's ambitions was taken by the Ovadia Yosef, the octogenarian rabbi who leads the ultra-orthodox Shas Party.

Yosef ordered his followers not to enter Livni's new cabinet, apparently believing that Shas would receive greater power and bigger budgets from Netanyahu, as they did when he was prime minister from 1996 to 1999.

Livni went to the official residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres this afternoon to inform him of her decision to end her efforts at forming a coalition.

Peres said he expected the election to take place within 90 days.

Livni told reporters after meeting Peres that Shas and other parties had tried to force her into 'a government of paralysis' because of its exaggerated budget demands.

'I wasn't prepared to sacrifice Israel's economy in order to form a coalition,' she said.

'We'll go to elections as soon as possible. I'm not afraid of elections.

'The other possibility was for me to capitulate to extortion. But a government is supposed to advance processes and represent the good of the country, not just to survive in this or that coalition.

'I promised to exhaust efforts to form a government, and that's what I did.'

Thursday 23 October 2008

Israeli University Presidents Cancel Start of Academic Year

Friday, October 24, 2008



The heads of Israel's universities have canceled the opening of the academic year, scheduled for November 2, after the government did not restore $125-million in budget cuts.

University heads say the continuing crisis over the financing of Israel's public higher-education institutions, now entering its third academic year, threatens the very fabric of the country's university system.

"The universities are currently incapable of functioning and beginning the academic year," said Menachem Magidor, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and chairman of Israel's Committee of University Presidents.

The universities are demanding that the government, over the next five years, restore $625-million that was cut from their budget a decade ago. They say they cannot begin the academic year unless the first 20 percent, or $125-million, is paid immediately.

The $625-million repayment, to begin in 2008-9, was a key recommendation by the Shochat Commission, a government-appointed committee that suggested far-reaching plans for reform of higher education in Israel more than a year ago. So far the government has not found time to discuss the commission's findings in depth, nor to implement any of those findings.

The Israeli Ministry of Finance, which has wide independence in negotiating public budgets, has so far agreed to pay only $61-million for this academic year, but have not given out even that amount. Ministry officials are refusing to restore the $625-million that was cut unless the other recommendations of the Shochat Commission are also implemented. Those include an increase in tuition, which Israeli political leaders have declined to endorse in a year in which a general election is likely.

Shutdown 'a Disaster'

"Closing down the research universities is a disaster for us and the students," admitted Mr. Magidor, but he said the universities were left with no choice because of what he called the government's indifference.

The closure will affect 250,000 students at Israel's seven research universities and 30 colleges, all of which are publicly financed.

Earlier this month, the Committee of University Presidents sent out an e-mail message to the 150,000 students under its auspices warning them that the academic year would not begin on time.

"Unfortunately, under the current circumstances following negotiations with the Ministry of Finance, we cannot begin the academic year," the e-mail message said.

"The promises made by the Israeli government—that it would tackle the root of the problem and guarantee the survival of the system for many years to come—have not been fulfilled. Negotiations with the Finance Ministry have not resulted in an accord that would enable the proper function of the universities," it explained.

Yuli Tamir, minister of education, said she supported the universities' demands, but she appeared unable to help.

"Higher education and intellectual wealth are Israel's most important asset, and they mustn't be damaged," she said.

Israeli student leaders said they supported the professors' decision, even though it means that university studies will be disrupted for the third year in succession. Some students are only now finishing exams from last year after delays caused by a 90-day strike by tenured professors.

"The students understand the pressing budget needs," said a spokesperson for the National Union of Israeli Students.

Students and professors say they will stage a joint rally on Monday when the Knesset, Israel's parliament, begins its winter session.

Saturday 18 October 2008

Few results seen from Mideast teen peace camps

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank - Each year, hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers defy the violence and hatred that divides them by forging personal ties that they hope will lay the groundwork for future peace.

John Wallach, the founder of Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit group based in New York that has invited more than 4,000 young people from conflict areas to meet one another, said before his death in 2002 that such people-to-people programs have created "an enduring commitment to building a future of peaceful co-existence."

A virtual peace industry has flourished around these workshops, creating a raft of Palestinian and Israeli nongovernmental organizations. Between 1993 and 2000, Western governments and foundations spent between $20 million and $25 million on the dialogue groups, according to a 2002 report by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

But the programs have failed to produce a single prominent peace activist on either side, most observers agree. And now the first wide-scale survey of Palestinians involved in these peace programs suggests that the enterprise has been a waste of time and money. The unpublished report, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, was commissioned by an unidentified donor nation from Pal Vision, an independent Palestinian youth organization and research center in East Jerusalem that is involved in dialogue workshops.

Pal Vision is headed by Rami Naser Eddin, a 31-year-old activist who was jailed as a teenager for throwing a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli army jeep. The group surveyed nearly 400 Palestinian participants and counselors.

The survey concludes that most Palestinian groups have used dialogue funds to finance other activities, and that Palestinian participants were unrepresentative of a wider society, tending to be children or friends of high-ranking Palestinian officials or economic elites. Only 7 percent of participants were refugee camp residents, even though they make up 16 percent of the Palestinian population.

"After I saw this research, we stopped. It was shocking for me," said Naser Eddin. "Most of these projects, there is no sustainability. They just want to meet people, which is very nice, very interesting, to get to know each other. But what is the next step? What is the outcome? It's all for publicity, for the media," he said.

The results also stated:

-- 91 percent said they were no longer in contact with any Israelis that they had met through the program;

-- 93 percent said there was no follow-up to camp activity that they had participated in;

-- Only 5 percent agreed that their program had helped "promote peace culture and dialogue between participants" and;

-- Only 11 percent came away believing that "there is something that unites us with the other party."

"The long-term positive impact, if any, fades with time, because these meetings end with the termination of the program and there is absence of communication and follow-up at various levels. It is noted that these activities expire with the end of the meeting and the closure of the project," the report says.

The survey's authors also noted that Palestinian "organizations themselves refused to give any information regarding the participants and the type of programs introduced and other important information needed for this study."

Indeed, joint activities with Israelis favored by the international community are deeply unpopular in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where talking to the enemy is generally regarded as betrayal. The workshops are typically conducted in the United States or Europe.

"Public opinion that prevails in Palestine regarding the financial corruption that exists within the NGOs, which are internationally funded, especially those organizations which encourage and lead such programs, prevented these NGOs from declaring about their joint activities with Israelis," says the report.

Naser Eddin says many Palestinian organizations working with Israelis denied having any contact.

"We were shocked. They denied it because they are afraid of the Palestinian local community," he said. "Most NGOs working with Israelis don't publish it in the media or in their annual report or anywhere."

Ahmad Safi, a survey researcher from the West Bank city of Ramallah who is involved in Breaking Borders, a dialogue group for adults from each side, said the impact on teens has been minimal.

"They go there (abroad), spend 10 to 14 days in a good environment, and they have fun, but they are much too far away from the reality," said Safi. "They find they can be friends as humans. They talk. They discover they can live with each other, but in Germany or the USA, not here. Then when they return back here, they found that it is useless."

Not all Palestinian participants, however, agreed.

Hiba Nusseibeh, 17, attended a Seeds of Peace summer camp in 2005 and last year returned as a counselor. She keeps in touch with several Israeli girls that she met through the program.

"Seeds of Peace has flipped my whole life over," said Nusseibeh, who comes from a prominent Palestinian family and attends an elite girls' school in East Jerusalem. "Before, I didn't know much about politics. I was living my own life and I wasn't involved in the conflict. Now I want to make changes. Seeds of Peace has made me more dynamic, more determined. First we must achieve our rights. Then we can work towards peace."

But several Israeli teenagers mirrored the disenchantment of their Palestinian counterparts.

Amichai Graniewitz, 16, was 11 when he attended a Kids for Peace summer camp organized through the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and Atlanta. A group of 12 Jews, Christians and Muslims met weekly for several months before heading off to camp in Atlanta.

"I don't think it really changed anything," Graniewitz said. "We met once after the camp, and that was it."