Sunday 28 November 2010

Pioneering Medical Researcher Is First Woman to Lead Israel's University Presidents

November 28, 2010

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Dani Machlis for Ben-Gurion U. of the Negev
Rivka Carmi

By Matthew Kalman
Beersheba, Israel

Rivka Carmi's new role, as the first woman to chair the Committee of University Presidents in Israel, has brought her tough challenges along with acclaim. Israeli faculty members are, on average, among the oldest in the developed world. The ratio of faculty to students is dismal. And now pro-Palestinian activists are calling for an academic boycott of Israel that she says threatens to destroy the last remnants of co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Add to that a problem she has encountered throughout her own life: that universities are not sufficiently accommodating to the needs of women.

In her new job representing the country's higher-education institutions to the public and the government, Dr. Carmi, 62, who is also president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, must recommend resolutions to those issues and more.

(Full article here)

Israel Unleashes Gold Rush for Solar Power

AOL NEWS 27 November, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Nov. 27) -- The race is on to tap into a potential $20 billion solar energy bonanza in Israel's southern wilderness that could transform the nation into the first in the world to power its electric grids through renewable energy.

The starting gun sounded Sunday with the signing of a historic agreement between the Israel Electric Corp. and a solar energy producer based on Kibbutz Ketura, a tiny collective farm in the barren Arava desert on the Israel-Jordan border. For years, Israel has been exporting its cutting-edge solar technology for use abroad, but it has never been applied at home -- until now.

The so-called power purchase agreement, signed under a special permit from Uzi Landau, Israel's minister of national infrastructure, marks the first time that any electric company in the Middle East has agreed to purchase electricity generated by renewable energy. Israel has pledged to generate 10 percent of its annual electricity needs from renewable sources by 2020.

Israel unleashes gold rush for solar power
Uriel Sinai, Bloomberg / Getty Images
Yosef Abramowitz, president of the Arava power company, visits the company's experimental solar site at Kibbutz Ketura, in the Arava Desert in Israel, on June 17.

"This agreement is very important," Landau told AOL News during the signing ceremony Sunday at his ministry in Jerusalem. "This is the first time we have signed such an agreement with electricity producers in the renewable energy field, in the solar field. This is an important first step forward, and I hope it will be a breakthrough to many more similar agreements."

A disused 20-acre field in the kibbutz will be covered with 18,000 photovoltaic panels that convert light to electricity, generating 4.9 megawatts of power -- little more than one-thousandth of the four gigawatts that Israel aims to produce from such sources by the end of the decade.

The agreement signed Sunday is modest: a commitment by the Israel Electric Corp. to purchase approximately $65 million worth of power from Ketura Sun over the next 20 years at a government-regulated price of about 40 cents per kilowatt hour. It is just the start. There are plans for a large-scale 40-megawatt field on Ketura by the end of 2012.

Some 100 corporations and investors led by Siemens and other major international players are expected to fuel the country's solar energy industry in the next five years, a development that could put Israel at the forefront of clean energy production.

For Boston native Yosef Abramowitz, Sunday's signing marked the end of a tough four-year mission to bring solar power to Israel and turn the country into "a renewable light unto the nations."

Abramowitz is the president and co-founder of Arava Power Co., a partnership with Ed Hofland of Kibbutz Ketura and David Rosenblatt, a former partner at BlackRock venture capitalists.

Abramowitz and his partners can be credited with developing Israel's solar power industry from the ground floor. In 2006, after decades of Jewish community, multimedia and environmental activism that saw him nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize three times and a Pulitzer twice, Abramowitz arrived with his wife and five children for a two-year sabbatical at Kibbutz Ketura in Israel's southern desert, where he had first served as a volunteer 25 years earlier.

Emerging from their air-conditioned van into the baking desert sun, Abramowitz said his first thought was that the kibbutz must be powered by solar energy. He soon discovered that not a single watt of electricity was being generated from renewable energy sources -- neither on the kibbutz nor anywhere else in Israel.

"It was a no-brainer. The great Israeli solar companies were producing technology for export, but not for the home market," Abramowitz told AOL News. "I thought, you've got to be kidding. So together with a couple of guys from the kibbutz, we put together a plan to set up solar panels in a field opposite and power Ketura with sunlight. We quickly ran into a whole bureaucratic battle with Israel's energy regulator. After six months, I realized that if we could win this fight for the kibbutz, we would win it for the whole country."

Abramowitz spent the next four years locked in battle with a dizzying array of government departments, electricity professionals and regulators.

One major headache was that although the Israeli government decided in 2002 to introduce renewable energy into the electricity sector, it created no legislative or regulatory framework to implement the decision.

"It was a question of extreme incompetence," Abramowitz said. "We had to overcome more than 25 separate battles with various government departments, including the introduction of new legislation through parliament and a government decision. There are17 government ministries involved in the issue that have no communication, no coordination whatever."

The next problem was finding land. Although 60 percent of Israel is vacant desert, four-fifths of that space is designated for military use, and the remainder is a protected nature reserve.

Using the model originally inspired by the sun-drenched fields at Kibbutz Ketura, Arava Power contacted other kibbutz and moshav collectives in the area that had available land and signed up half of them. Along the way, they persuaded the Israel Land Administration to change the zoning regulations, allowing them to use 10 times more land in each kibbutz than before.

At that point, competitors who had dismissed solar power as a cottage industry suddenly realized there was big money to be made. At least 100 other companies appeared on the scene, trying to cut their own deals with the kibbutzim, including some of Israel's largest development companies. Two years ago, Arava Power walked away from a bid worth more than $130 million. In August 2009, Siemens bought a 40 percent stake in the company for $15 million.

Abramowitz said Arava Power now has about half the available kibbutz land locked up and expects to emerge with a 40 to 50 percent market share. The landowners include five Bedouin tribes who have leased land they own to Arava Power for 20 years. That investment alone will help create wealth and jobs in the poverty-stricken Bedouin community for the first time since Israel was founded.

Abramowitz's ambitions are not modest. He sees solar energy as the catalyst for transforming Israel into a clean-tech economy and promoting cooperation that will contribute to Middle East peace. He is already in discussions with the Jordanian government, just over the border next to Ketura.

"This should be the first industrial-based economy in the world to go from a carbon-based economy and switch it to a solar-based economy. We can do that, and [Sunday] was the beginning," Abramowitz said. "It could be a powerful impetus to regional peace-making. To realize that the same sun shines equally on all of us, is owned by none of us, and can supply our energy needs in abundance, inherently promotes peace. The sun doesn't recognize borders."

Friday 19 November 2010

Despite Controversy, Israeli University in West Bank Attracts Arab Students

Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription) - ‎Nov 17, 2010‎

Matthew Kalman

The Ariel University Center of Samaria aspires to become a fully accredited university. Dozens of graduate students conduct research in ...

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Israel Withdrawal Plan Stirs Lebanese Village

AOL NEWS, Wednesday, November 17th

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

JERUSALEM (Nov. 17) -- Residents of Ghajar, a tiny village straddling the Lebanon's border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, were once renowned throughout the Ottoman Empire for their talents as soothsayers.

But they failed to predict today's decision by Israel's Security Cabinet to withdraw from the northern part of the village, home to some 1,500 of its 2,100 residents, and hand control over to United Nations forces.

The decision to withdraw to the "blue line" delineated by U.N. mapmakers after Israel's pullout from southern Lebanon in 2000 has been telegraphed by Israeli leaders for weeks, but it still caught skeptics by surprise.

Israel withdrawal plan stirs Ghajar, the disputed village on the border of Isael and Lebanon
Dror Artzi, JINIPIX / AFP / Getty Images
Israeli forces stand guard in the disputed village of Ghajar, which sits on Lebanon's border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel's Security Cabinet has backed plans to withdraw troops from the northern part of Ghajar and hand over control to a U.N. peacekeeping force.

Only last Sunday, the Lebanese daily Ad-Diyar cited "well-informed diplomatic sources" who said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "resorts to maneuvering on the issue of withdrawing from Ghajar every time he wants to attract more U.S. military and financial aid." They "did not expect such a move to take place in the near future."

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, called for a full return of all forces to the international border, but Israel held out. Under nominal U.N. security control, the village, with access to both Lebanon and Israel, had become a gateway for all manner of shady dealings, from espionage and drug running to terrorism. The Israeli government finally buckled today to U.N., Lebanese and American pressure and decided to return to the U.N.-mandated international border.

The timing of the move and the final deployment of forces in and around Ghajar will be negotiated between Israel and the U.N.

Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AOL News the village would not be divided.

"There will be no checkpoints inside the village, no barrier, no fence, no checkpoints, no roadblock," Palmor said. "That's the problem from the security point of view. That's something we need to solve with UNIFIL [U.N. Forces in Lebanon]. It is deployed on the northern border of the village, and it will need to adopt very tight security measures not to make this a very porous border the way it was between 2000 and 2006."

Villagers told AOL News they were dismayed by the decision, despite Israeli assurances that "both the security of Israel's citizens and the normal life of the residents of Ghajar, which remains undivided, will continue to be maintained while the new arrangements are being put in place."

Ghajar is perched on a rocky promontory that plunges into a ravine where the fresh waters of the El Wizani spring bubble into the Jordan River to the south. Its residents say the Hasbani River, 50 yards to the north, is the natural border and also the source of their water.

Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since the Six Day War in 1967. Residents of Ghajar insist they are proud Syrians from the tiny Alawite sect of President Bashar Assad's ruling circle. Some even fought for the Syrians and still have army papers issued in nearby Kuneitra. But when Israel seized the area, villagers took Israeli citizenship and have been living quietly ever since. They tend their cows and sheep in land now controlled by Israel, study in Israeli universities and work in nearby Israeli towns and kibbutzim.

"In 1967, when our people tried to cross the Hasbani River, they were beaten back by the Lebanese army,'' Hassan Fatali, a 39-year-old English teacher, told AOL News. "Israel thought Ghajar was Lebanese, but Lebanon wouldn't accept us. They said we were Syrians, which we are."

The village used to be on the south side, but it expanded in the 1950s when residents began building new homes on agricultural land to the north, Fatali said.

"It was before 1967, when this was Syria. We have documents for the buildings from 1957. The border was further north. The documents are signed by officials from Kuneitra, the Syrian region that we belong to," he said.

"We are a small village, and we live as a family. We marry each other within the village. We are all related. There are many people who live on this side and have sons on the other side. In Berlin, the wall was destroyed. Now they are going to build a wall in this small village that will divide families. It's a shame," he said.

Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, told AOL News he discerned two reasons for the Israeli decision: to boost the Lebanese government, which faces a major threat from Hezbollah, and to assuage Washington.

"The village in itself is unimportant," Khashan said. "The Israelis have been adamant when it comes to settlement construction in the West Bank, and they embarrassed President Obama. This is designed to show the Obama administration that the Israelis are not recalcitrant, that they may be tough on one issue yet they can be accommodating of American interests on other issues."

Khashan added, "This will not have a tangible effect on the balance of power domestically. Hezbollah was quick to respond, saying that Israel's decision to pull out from Ghajar village is important but the Israelis need to follow it up by other withdrawals, and also they are demanding that Israel discontinues its flights over Lebanese airspace. These are demands that the Israelis are unlikely to act upon. So in this regard it will have no impact on internal Lebanese politics."

Khashan said he had some sympathy for the villagers. "To tell you the truth, I think under Israeli control they receive better benefits than they would be getting under Lebanese control. I heard protests from the people of the northern Ghajar village. They don't want to be returned to Lebanon," he said.

Monday 15 November 2010

DiCaprio Brings Mom to Meet Refaeli's Parents

AOL News, Monday, November 15th

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Nov. 15) -- Leonardo DiCaprio and his longtime girlfriend, model Bar Refaeli, arrived in Israel for their second holiday in Refaeli's birthplace -- and this time he brought his mother to meet Refaeli's parents, stoking rumors of an impending marriage.

DiCaprio swooped into Tel Aviv last week, scooped up Refaeli in a private jet and swept her off for a weeklong holiday on the Nile in Egypt and then Jordan to celebrate the actor's 36th birthday.

They were joined by his mother, Irmelin, and close friends supermodel Naomi Campbell and "Entourage" star Kevin Connolly.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio and model Bar Refaeli sit courtside during Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2010 NBA Playoffs on April 27, 2010 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.
Noah Graham, NBAE/Getty Images
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio and model Bar Refaeli, seen here in April during the 2010 NBA Playoffs, are on holiday in Israel. The couple landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday in a private jet and sped off to the presidential suite at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv -- occupied last week by Pamela Anderson.

Israeli commentators said the security surrounding the couple -- including fast-track VIP treatment at Ben-Gurion Airport, a convoy of armored cars with darkened windows and walkie-talkie-whispering security goons armed with umbrellas to shield the stars from waiting photographers -- would not have embarrassed a visiting head of state.

Suites were booked at four different hotels in Tel Aviv to try to throw the paparazzi off the scent. DiCaprio's last trip to Israel with Refaeli three years ago was marred by violent encounters between the notoriously pushy local snap-pack and Refaeli's father, a former Mossad agent, who punched out a photographer.

They are due to stay in Israel until Thursday, with plans to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the world's lowest spot at the Dead Sea, and generally hang out with Refaeli's family at their ranch-style home, complete with horses, in Hod HaSharon north of Tel Aviv.

Refaeli, 25, and DiCaprio have remained famously tight-lipped about their four-year relationship.

"I see myself being a mum, going to university and definitely doing some kind of work to help people, whether it's hospitals or sick kids or peace projects," she told this reporter soon after her first trip home with DiCaprio. "I want to have at least three children. I hope I will be able to bring them up in Israel. I had a very beautiful childhood, and I hope that my kids will be able to experience the same thing. But I don't know. It depends on the circumstances. It depends who you decide to have your children with. Maybe it will be in Japan, because I'll choose a Japanese guy. You never know."

The couple went through a six-month break in 2009, but Refaeli said she found it difficult dating other men. They reconciled in December. Afterward, she said the split was what they both needed, as it made their relationship even stronger.

Engagement rumors began swirling after the couple were spotted at a romantic dinner in Berlin on Valentine's Day, when Refaeli wore an impressive diamond ring.

"I am not thinking about getting married," she said soon after. "I'm still young. And when I do get engaged, I might even hide the ring. I want it to remain private."

Her mother, Tzipi Levine, a former model and glamour girl who once dated Warren Beatty, told this reporter she had no objection to DiCaprio as a son-in-law.

"This is her choice. I'm happy for her when she's happy. Any man is lucky to be dating my daughter," she said.

There is one skeleton in Refaeli's designer closet: her first husband, 23 years her senior, whom she married to avoid serving in the Israeli army. Her mother said she was ill, but she walked away from an army inquiry held to clarify her medical condition.

Refaeli married Ari Weinstein, a wealthy friend of her father, in October 2003. The tiny ceremony, attended by just a dozen people, took place in secret in Petach Tikvah, northeast of Tel Aviv. They divorced in March 2004 and apparently never lived together, but her ex-husband remains ambiguous about the nature of their relationship to this day.

Haim Etgar, an Israeli show business reporter who has produced a documentary about the country's entertainment and glamour industry featuring Refaeli, managed to secure a rare interview with Weinstein, who now lives in New York.

"What was the purpose of the marriage? How did it occur? Some people, including high-ranking army officers at the time, say it was a fictitious marriage. There was a lot of dismay about using the marriage to get out of the army. It's still a hot issue," Etgar told AOL News.

Etgar says Refaeli is a "test case" of how a determined mother can help her daughter to become famous, even lining up her teenage dates with the sons of the rich and famous.

"Her mother is a brilliant person, her promoter and her agent. She's done all the right moves, she hasn't left anything to chance. But there are some people who are outraged by their behavior," he said.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Wedding bells for Bar and Leo?

Marriage rumours sweep Israel as Leonardo DiCaprio's mother prepares to meet the future in-laws


JERUSALEM (Nov 10) - Leonardo DiCaprio is on his way back to Israel with Bar Refaeli, and this time he's bringing his mum Irmelin. Last Saturday, Leo swooped into Tel Aviv on a private jet, scooped up supermodel Bar and swept her off to Egypt. The three of them are currently holidaying in Cairo with Naomi Campbell and Leonardo's buddy Kevin Connolly of Entourage fame, celebrating Leo's 36th birthday.
Leo, Bar and Irmelin are due back in Israel this weekend.
The family get-together has re-ignited rumors of a possible engagement - and even a snap wedding.
Leo was spotted last week eating dinner at the Lion restaurant in New York City with Gossip Girl star Blake Lively, prompting a slew of reports that the two were an item. But they were accompanied by five other people and did not leave the restaurant together.
Bar has been stuck in Israel for the past few weeks after what were described as bureaucratic problems renewing her US visa paperwork.

Monday 8 November 2010

Israeli Settlers Threaten to Topple Netanyahu

AOL NEWS November 8, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

JERUSALEM (Nov. 8) -- Israeli settler leaders said today they would topple the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if he agrees to renew a building freeze demanded by the Palestinians as a precondition to restarting peace talks.

Netanyahu, who is in the United States for talks with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, appears to have abandoned an unofficial moratorium on new construction in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state. Israelis consider all of Jerusalem their capital.

Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa in east Jerusalem
Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP

The Israeli government is moving ahead with plans to build nearly 1,300 apartments in disputed east Jerusalem, an official said Monday, a move sure to escalate frictions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American officials during his visit to the United States.

On Friday, with little fanfare, the Israeli government published advertisements in a Jerusalem newspaper announcing plans for 1,352 new housing units in Ramot and Har Homa, two Israeli suburbs of Jerusalem built beyond the pre-1967 Green Line border.

The news will seem like deja vu for Biden, whose trip to Israel in March was wrecked by a similar announcement of new housing units, also in Ramot. The vice president met Netanyahu over the weekend at a Jewish community conference in New Orleans and then delivered a speech seen as strongly supportive of the Jewish state.

The plan for Har Homa "C" is particularly significant since it extends the built-up area of that neighborhood to the southeast, creating a further barrier between the Arab neighborhoods of Umm Tuba and Sur Baher inside Jerusalem, and the town of Bethlehem about half a mile to the south. The construction of Har Homa, which began in 1998 during Netanyahu's first tenure as prime minister, created the first permanent Israeli presence on the empty land between Bethlehem and east Jerusalem.

Settler leaders said the new plans for east Jerusalem are the start of a burst of construction after a 10-month freeze that did little to advance Middle East peace.

The Palestinians refused to start direct peace talks until nine months into the freeze and broke them off when the moratorium ended. Since then, the Obama administration has been trying to find a formula that will bring both sides back to the table but still save face -- an apparently impossible task.

The Yesha Council of Israeli settlers in the West Bank -- which the settlers call by the biblical names Judea and Samaria -- has demanded the immediate approval of tenders for 4,321 new units in nine West Bank settlements.

Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, told AOL News today that if Netanyahu buckled to U.S. pressure and renewed the freeze, the prime minister would be ousted.

"I think it will be the beginning of the collapse of Mr. Netanyahu's government, and we will make an effort to make that happen," Dayan said, referring to the settlers' supporters in several of the parties in the government coalition, including Netanyahu's own Likud.

"Regardless of our efforts, I think that if Netanyahu makes such a decision, ultimately his government will collapse," he said. Netanyahu's first term as prime minister ended when right-wingers brought down his government over a similar dispute about concessions to the Palestinians.

Two key allies in Netanyahu's coalition -- Eli Yishai of Shas and Daniel Hershkowitz of the Jewish Home Party -- have already publicly said they will not support a renewal of the moratorium.

"The issue of extending the settlement freeze is nonnegotiable. For 10 months Israel made gestures above and beyond what was required, and now it's the Palestinians' turn," Hershkowitz said.

Peace Now, the Israeli group that monitors settlement activity and campaigns for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, said the new plans for Jerusalem had to have received Netanyahu's personal approval.

"This is a huge provocation by Netanyahu, at a very sensitive time in the negotiation process. The timing of this depositing is not accidental," Peace Now spokeswoman Hagit Ofran said. "It seems to be a calculated attempt by Netanyahu to torpedo peace talks and also avoid blame, by forcing the Palestinians to be the ones to walk away from the negotiation table."

Last March, Netanyahu said he was surprised by the announcement that tripped up Biden's visit. Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and the founder of the co-existence group Ir Amim, said this time Netanyahu himself had chosen "the timing and the context of these moves."

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"The scope of these events goes beyond simple tactical maneuvering. It appears that Netanyahu has opened up the east Jerusalem settlement floodgates. It appears that the prime minister has a special weakness for Vice President Biden -- or at least for embarrassing the man," Seidemann said. "He has rewarded Vice President Biden for his staunch support of Israel by publicly humiliating the vice president once again and sticking a finger in the eye of the Obama administration."

But Dayan, the settler leader, suggested that by its "obsession with the marginal issue of a freeze" the Palestinians and the U.S. administration had backed themselves into a corner.

"Renewal of the freeze will bring ultimately elections in Israel in 2011, which means the whole peace process will be paralyzed," Dayan told AOL News. "Then we have elections in the United States in 2012. So the ironic thing is that if Mr. Netanyahu abides by the American demands and renews the moratorium, that will be a big blow to the peace process, not only to construction in Judea and Samaria."

Friday 5 November 2010

As Netanyahu Heads to US, Israel Keeps Building

AOL NEWS, November 5th, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

JERUSALEM (Nov. 5) -- A page of gray, text-heavy official announcements published in an Israeli newspaper could torpedo President Barack Obama's strategy for the renewal of Middle East peace talks.

The announcements came on the eve of a crucial visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the U.S., where he will meet with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while Obama is traveling in Asia.

In the Hebrew daily Maariv, the Israel Lands Administration detailed tenders inviting contractors to bid for the construction of 238 new homes in two Israeli neighborhoods in East Jerusalem -- on the same day Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounced Israel's "ferocious" building in the occupied territories.

Israel Announces East Jerusalem Houses as Netanyahu Heads to White House
Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP
The East Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev is seen behind a section of Israel's separation barrier. The Israel Lands Administration has asked for contractor bids for construction of new homes in the neighborhood.

The tenders are for 80 housing units in Pisgat Zeev with development costs of nearly $4.5 million, and for another 158 units in Ramot on land valued at nearly $14 million.

The publication, prefigured but not detailed in a Housing Ministry announcement in October, finally ends an unofficial freeze on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. The Palestinians have demanded that freeze, along with a halt to settlement construction in the West Bank, as a condition for direct peace talks with Israel.

While it agreed to the 10-month freeze in the West Bank that expired in September, Israel has officially refused to halt construction in East Jerusalem, which it regards as Israeli sovereign territory. The Palestinians consider the area, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War, to be the capital of their future independent state.

These are the first Israeli housing tenders published for East Jerusalem since a similar announcement last March dropped a diplomatic bombshell in the middle of a visit to Israel by Biden. Netanyahu blamed the poor timing of that announcement on bureaucratic bungling at the Housing Ministry and said he would improve coordination to ensure that similar embarrassments did not occur in future.

So the timing of Thursday's advertisements, just days before Netanyahu arrives for talks with Biden and Clinton, is likely to be perceived as a test of the administration's diplomatic strength after the Democrats' poor showing in the midterm congressional elections.

An official in Netanyahu's office, speaking to AOL News on condition of anonymity, said there was no message in the timing of the tenders, which, unlike the announcement during Biden's visit, did not come as a surprise to the Israeli prime minister. "Israel is transparent on these issues," said the official.

"In every peace plan that's been put on the table since the peace process started, the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem remain part of Israel in a final-status peace agreement. Building inside those neighborhoods in no way contradicts the goal of moving forward in the peace process," the official said.

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and the founder of the co-existence group Ir Amim, told AOL News, "This is not random, but what it indicates about Netanyahu's intentions is very much in question.

"There are three possibilities. Netanyahu is either testing how far he can go, he's signifying the end of the moratorium or he's letting off steam protecting his right-wing flank in anticipation of a continued moratorium," Seidemann said. "I see these tenders as extremely detrimental, extremely problematic, but I don't think this is the final word. There is skirmishing going on, and this is part of it. It's a probe."

Seidemann said that if all Israeli construction plans currently in the pipeline were implemented, they would scupper the chances of both Israelis and Palestinians sharing Jerusalem and establishing their capitals in the city.

Meanwhile, Clinton said there was still hope for reviving the direct talks, which began nine months into the 10-month freeze and then were halted by the Palestinians as the freeze ended.

"We are working on a nonstop basis with our Israeli and Palestinian friends to design a way forward in the negotiations," Clinton said Thursday during a trip to New Zealand. "I am very involved in finding the way forward, and think we will do so."

But in an interview with CNN, Abbas said that unless Israel stopped all building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the talks would stop and the Palestinians will unilaterally seek recognition from the United Nations.

"To ask us to continue with negotiations while settlement activities are under way is unacceptable, because the time will come and we will have nothing to negotiate for," said Abbas, describing all settlements as "illegal."

"I know that they have built so many settlements, but this is enough, we cannot take that anymore. We cannot continue with the negotiations because the way they are building those settlements now is very ferocious," he said.

Abbas also blamed Hamas and its Iranian sponsors for trying to derail peace talks.

"Hamas and whoever is standing behind Hamas, meaning Iran, is slowing the process," Abbas told CNN. "Iran is pressuring Hamas not to be part of any agreement, so that they can use Hamas as a negotiations card in their talks with the international community and especially with the United States."

Adding to the mix ahead of Netanyahu's flight to Washington, the Haaretz newspaper said it would publish an expose on Sunday showing that the Israel Lands Administration, which supervises government-controlled land, has transferred sensitive properties in Arab-populated areas in and around the Old City of Jerusalem to nationalist Israeli groups "for low prices, without issuing a tender as required by law."

"The state and the groups involved concealed the transactions and refused to give any information about them," Haaretz reported today.

Thursday 4 November 2010

News of Government Guidelines on 'Pluralism' Alarms Israeli Academics

Israel's education minister, Gideon Sa'ar, has reignited a debate about academic freedom in Israel by announcing the imminent publication of a "document of guiding principles" for faculty at Israeli institutions of higher education...

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Israel's deputy prime minister forced to cancel UK trip after warning he could be arrested for 'war crimes'

Daily Mail, 2nd November 2010
By Jason Groves and Matthew Kalman

Israel's deputy prime minister Dan Meridor was forced to cancel a visit to London this week following warnings he could be arrested for alleged war crimes.

Mr Meridor, the Israeli minister for intelligence and atomic energy, pulled out of an event in London on Monday night after the British Foreign Office and Ministry of Justice warned him he could face an arrest warrant from pro-Palestinian activists.

The incident is an embarrassment for Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was due to arrive in Israel tonight for talks with president Shimon Peres.

Mr Meridor, 63, is the latest high-profile Israeli politician to cancel a visit to London because of concerns about possible arrest.

Dan Meridor
William Hague

Embarrassment: Dan Meridor (left) was due to be in London this week while British Foreign Secretary William Hague is on a visit to Israel

In November last year the former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni pulled out of a trip to the UK after a British court issued a warrant for her arrest over alleged war crimes in Gaza.

At the time the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband ordered an ‘urgent’ review of the law, which allows members of the public to bring private prosecutions for alleged war crimes. Unlike most offences war crimes carry a so-called universal jurisdiction in British law, which means that foreigners can be arrested in the UK for alleged crimes committed abroad.

Labour Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced in March that the law would be changed to end private prosecutions for war crimes.

The new Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said in July that the coalition Government was also determined to act. Mr Clarke said the law would be changed to require the approval of the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer before any private prosecution for war crimes could be brought. He said the change in the law would be brought forward at the ‘first opportunity’.

Critics claim the move would send a dangerous signal about Britain’s attitude to war crimes.

But Education Secretary Michael Gove, who was at the dinner Mr Meridor was due to attend, told fellow guests that ministers remained determined to change the law.

Ministers are concerned that the current law makes it too easy for activists to launch politically-motivated proecutions.


Controversial: Mr Meridor was allegedly part of the group who discussed storming an international aid flotilla which tried to reach Gaza in May

Israeli leaders say that Britain cannot play a meaningful role in the Middle East peace process if senior officials cannot travel to Britain without fear of being arrested.

Mr Meridor is a member of a tight-knit group within the Israeli government which reportedly discussed the planned arrival of an international flotilla in Gaza in May. The incident ended with a raid by Israeli commandos, which led to the deaths of nine Turkish activists and brought worldwide condemnation.

It is thought that activists planned to ask a British court to issue an arrest warrant relating to Mr Meridor’s alleged involvement in the planning of the raid.

He had been due to speak at a conference organised by the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre. Chief executive Lorna Fitzsimons said: “Israeli law officers did not think they should take the risk. Foreign Secretary William Hague intervened and the British government tried to make it work. They are committed to changing the law and it cannot come soon enough.”

A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘This was Mr Meridor’s decision to take.’

Monday 1 November 2010

Can Housing Preserve Mideast's Christians?

AOL News Monday, November 1st, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Nov. 1) -- Only days after a special Vatican Synod on the Middle East ended a week of deliberation about the rapidly shrinking Christian communities in the Arab world and Israel, Christians faced a massacre in Baghdad and renewed troubles in Jerusalem.

Fifty-eight people including a priest were reported dead Sunday after Iraqi troops stormed the Catholic Sayidat al-Najat church in Baghdad where gunmen linked with al-Qaida had taken dozens of hostages and begun killing them. It was just the latest bout of the anti-Christian violence that has sparked a massive wave of emigration from the troubled country in recent years.

In Jerusalem, it remained unclear what caused a blaze early Friday morning that swept through the Alliance Church on Prophets Street, next door to the Jewish ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. The use of the church by evangelical and Jewish messianic groups aroused suspicions that the fire could have been started deliberately, but Jerusalem police said their initial investigation did not appear to suggest arson.

Decades of discrimination, poverty and occasional violence have taken their toll on the Christians of the Middle East. Tens of thousands have left the region in recent years. Reversing the decline of the rapidly shrinking Christian communities in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and the Holy Land were high on the agenda of last week's Vatican Synod.

While the problem of violence in Iraq and elsewhere seems intractable for many Christians, in the Holy Land, church officials have hit on a novel solution: real estate.

Churches in Jerusalem and the West Bank, alarmed by the rapid rate of Christian emigration and the creeping loss of some church-owned land to Palestinian gangsters, have initiated a major building program to provide affordable housing to Christian families.

A 2006 survey carried out by Sabeel, a Christian think-tank in Jerusalem, showed that the 2005 Christian population of 160,000 in Israel and the West Bank had barely grown since 1945 due to massive emigration caused by continuous warfare, occupation and discrimination. More Palestinian Christians now live in Chile than in the Holy Land, where Christians account for less than 2 percent of the population. In cities like Bethlehem and Ramallah, which a generation ago had Christian majorities, they are now outnumbered by Muslims.

"There is a glaring shortage of houses in Jerusalem, at least at affordable prices," said Father Ibrahim Faltas, bursar of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. "We really want to help halt Christian emigration by making these houses available. Having a space of one's own and a house of one's own is an encouragement to put down roots and stay in this land."

The Custody owns 500 homes in the Old City of Jerusalem and more than 200 outside the walls. A recent ceremony handing over the keys to 68 apartments in 20 three-floor buildings of three- to six-room apartments near Jerusalem went on until 5 a.m.

"It was a magnificent night," said the Custos, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, lamenting only that there was a waiting list of 700 families who had hoped to receive one of the 68 homes.

The Custody project "Jerusalem: Stones of the Memory" has completed 100 refurbishments since 2007 at a cost of about $2 million. It has another 320 housing units in the pipeline at an estimated cost of about $10 million. Similar projects have been initiated by the Armenian, Lutheran and Orthodox churches in Jerusalem, Bethany, Bethlehem and Ramallah.

"The real danger is that immigration has become the easy solution for all problems, a trend followed by the young and in many circumstances endorsed and encouraged by the older generation," notes the Arab Orthodox Charitable Society in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. "Beit Sahour, home to the largest Greek Orthodox community in the Holy Land, is at stake of losing its strong Christian identity, preserved by the community against all odds thus far. Bethlehem and Beit Jala have succumbed long ago to the temptation of immigration and lost their Christian majority." The society has its own building project, "Dwellings for Newly Married Young Couples."

Monsignor William Shomali, auxiliary bishop at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, chairs a monthly gathering of Catholic church and charitable affiliates to monitor developments in the Catholic community. Among the projects under construction are 80 apartments in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa being built with the legal and technical assistance of the Patriarchate.

"These people came to us and said, 'We are homeless. We can not own a house.' They were young, either newly married or about to get married, and they had a problem of housing. It is cheaper to build a housing project than for everyone to build his own house because of the land and building license. So they put the project under our care," Shomali told AOL News.

Christian families traditionally were not landowners in the villages that have now become suburbs of Jerusalem, Ramallah and other major cities. That put them at a disadvantage when the population began to grow and land prices started rising.

Israeli restrictions on granting building permits to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have exacerbated the problem. Church figures show that while Palestinians make up 35 percent of the city's population, they receive only 7 percent of building licenses granted each year -- a policy that the church describes as "demographic control."

"The Christian families used to live in the Old City where there was not a lot of space to expand," Shomali said. "They were satisfied. They were in houses owned by the Franciscans or the Greek Orthodox Church. So they didn't think to buy outside the Old City when land was less valuable than it is today. Fewer people thought of it. This is the error committed by our community."

Jack Amer, 27, is hoping to move to his new home in the Beit Safafa project with his wife of two years and their infant son in 2012, thanks to a $150,000 mortgage from the Arab Bank. Amer, a native of Jerusalem who is now chief accountant at the Latin Patriarchate, told AOL News that it would have been impossible to raise a mortgage without the backing of the church.

"No banks can give us the loans that will help us because we have no guarantees," Amer said. "The church is helping Arab people to stay in Jerusalem and to let their sons and daughters stay here also.

"The Patriarch and the priests are taking all their time to help people stay in this place. We need to stay in Jerusalem. It's like you are in a war. You have to protect your rights," he said.