“Who killed Arafat?” That was the big question on November 6, when the findings of a team of Swiss forensic experts, sponsored by Al Jazeera to figure out what killed Arafat, were made public. The team found elevated levels of polonium while testing bone samples from the late Palestinian president's recently exhumed corpse. Although the Swiss scientists refused to declare their findings as conclusive evidence that Yasser Arafat was poisoned, the presence of polonium was enough to satisfy the believers. After years of conspiracy theories, proof finally existed to support the belief held by many Palestinians that their beloved Abu Ammar had been murdered.
Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images
Polonium is a nefarious compound. It is the same substance that caused Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko to age rapidly, turn purple, and die while the world bore witness. Polonium is also at the center of a major plot line currently playing out on the daytime soap opera General Hospital. Luke Spencer, the show’s leading man since he raped Laura in 1979, was recently dying of polonium poisoning. Luke had been given the poison by his arch nemesis, Helena Cassadine. His life was saved when Dr. Robin Scorpio successfully brewed up an antidote. Arafat was not as lucky as Luke. This was the real world, not a soap opera. Arafat was never even diagnosed and died on November 11, 2004, before he could be saved by a miracle cure.
From the day he died, Arafat's wife, Suha, has dedicated her life to spending his millions and finding out who killed her sugar daddy. Like OJ looking for his ex-wife Nicole's murderer, Arafat's widow never gave up searching for the culprit. The Swiss findings finally gave Suha the ammunition she needed to go after the people she believed were responsible for killing the father of her child.
In response to the Israeli Rabbinate's monopoly on marriage in Israel, the author suggests an act of civil disobedience.
Common-law marriage is an act of protest against a corrupt system of religious marriage and divorce in Israel. Israel’s system of marriage and divorce constitutes a commercial industry that sustains itself through exclusion, discrimination and commercialization of family life. The bureaucracy at its center is a greedy arrangement that profits not only from marriages but also from the religious-status investigations, divorce proceedings, alimony hearings and custody battles under who jurisdiction it monopolizes. At its heart is a business model that keeps Jewish citizens a captive audience.
The rabbinate, which is a government-paid body, has a monopoly over family life. By criminalizing marriage they didn't authorize, they ensure their entrenched power and a healthy income. Therefore I propose that couples in Israel of all faiths, genders and statuses take back the authority over their union from an oppressive religious system and live as common-law spouses as an act of civil disobedience.
Bride Yulia Tagil and groom Stas Granin at their alternative wedding ceremony, in Tel Aviv on July 25, 2010, in protest of the law requiring Jews to marry through the Chief Rabbinate. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
Quote of the day:
"Good things are coming."
--Graffiti sprayed on walls in a Palestinian village by right-wing activists Thursday, who also set two cars on fire
- In wake of Swiss findings, Israel vehemently denies poisoning Arafat - Palestinian officials demanded probe into the 'killing.' Israel's energy and intelligence ministers tell Israeli radio stations that the Palestinian allegations against Israel were false and unfounded. (Haaretz and Maan)
- Soldiers shoot (dead) Palestinian who fired flare gun at hitch-hikers - Palestinian who shot at direction of Israelis in Tapuach Junction killed by IDF unit. Police sappers searching body for explosives. No Israelis injured in incident. (Maan, NRG Hebrew+VIDEO and Ynet)
- Settlers torch 2 cars in Hebron village, spray graffiti - settlers from Kiryat Arba set fire to the vehicles in Bani Naim, which belonged to two brothers. The settlers also sprayed threatening graffiti in the village reading "Good things are coming." (Maan)
- Israeli Islamic Movement leader convicted of inciting to violence - Court decides 2007 speech Sheikh Ra'ad Salah gave in wake of violent protests over Temple Mount excavation was incitement to violence, acquits on other charges. (Haaretz+ and Israel Hayom)
- Even before taking office, Lieberman stirs trouble - in South Africa - Avigdor Lieberman, about to be reappointed foreign minister after skirting fraud charges, says Jews should leave South Africa for Israel. (Haaretz+)
- As Iran eyes deal with world powers, Netanyahu warns of historic mistake - Iran, P5+1 may begin drafting a nuclear agreement on Thursday or Friday, Iranian foreign minister says. (Haaretz)
Last week, as 26 newly released Palestinian prisoners made their way home from Israeli jails, observers waited for the other shoe to drop. And drop it did: shortly after the release, the Israeli government announced the construction of 5,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The world has been conditioned to expect such brazen sabotage. As Lara Friedman has previously reported here in Open Zion, the Netanyahu administration has repeatedly timed settlement construction to coincide with the progress of an increasingly mislabeled “peace process.” In March 2010, right after the Palestinian leadership agreed to indirect talks, Israel announced the construction of 1,600 new units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo. Another 1,500 settlement units were approved in May 2011, on the eve of President Obama's major Middle East speech and Netanyahu's trip to Washington. In 2012, shortly after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed his commitment to peace on Israeli television, the government announced 1,200 new homes in the West Bank. And now this latest bit of transparent subversion: the prisoner release was meant as a show of good faith amidst peace negotiations in Washington. Obviously, its utility in that regard has now been nullified.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with ministers after the swearing in of the new Israeli government at the Knesset on March 18, 2013 in Jerusalem. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
Several explanations have been proffered for this damaging behavior. A common interpretation is that settlement construction is Netanyahu's attempt to bolster his image with his core constituency, which is solidly right wing. The latest sabotage was evidently the product of a backroom deal between Bibi and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who would allow the prisoner release only if connected with new construction. The lead Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, clearly believes that Netanyahu is intent on consciously undermining the peace process.
It’s painful to have one’s rabbinic credentials challenged by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. But that’s exactly what’s happened to me. In truth, it’s much more hurtful to the many people I’ve been honored to serve over the years.
In recent days, I have been informed that letters I’ve written attesting to the Jewishness and personal status of congregants have been rejected by the office of the Chief Rabbinate. I’m not the only Orthodox rabbi to have his letters rejected—there are others.
The Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Amar with a group of Orthodox Jews during a tour of the historic Ohel Rachel synagogue in China. (Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images)
I have chosen to go public because the issue is not about me, it’s about a Chief Rabbinate whose power has gone to its head. As Israel’s appointed rabbinate, it is accountable to no one but itself.
Nor could the Chief Rabbinate have denied letters from me or other rabbis without input from select rabbis here in America who, I believe, are whispering into the Chief Rabbinate’s ears. For me, they’ll whisper one thing, for another they will find some other reason to cast aspersions.
This is an intolerable situation. It not only undercuts the authority of local rabbis who are in the best position to attest to the religious identity of those living in their community, but wreaks havoc for constituents whom these rabbis serve.
Gazprom, the state-owned Russian natural gas extraction company, has been interested in Israel’s natural gas market for several years. But the Middle Eastern state's recent emergence as a natural gas production destination is making it an even more attractive target. Last week’s confirmation that the Israeli government is talking to Russia about the development of Israel’s gas fields indicates yet another potential opening for Gazprom. Israel has so far asserted an energy policy independent of Russian influence, but preserving that stance ultimately requires limiting Gazprom’s activities.
The announcement of bilateral talks on natural gas is actually a response to an accusation that Russia had already attempted to extract favorable conditions from Israel—a promise to not export gas to Europe in exchange for stopping shipments of certain weapons to the Assad regime in Syria. Europe is Gazprom’s biggest customer and accounts for 40 percent of its revenues, but Russia fears Israeli natural gas could cut into that market if export routes to Turkey or Cyprus are connected to other regional pipelines. Given that the market is already shrinking due to Europe’s plateauing demand for natural gas, it is not implausible that Russian President Vladimir Puti proposed the deal to Netanyahu. The Prime Minister’s Office insists in an official statement that these conditions were never discussed.
The Tamar drilling natural gas production platform is seen some 25 kilometers West of the Ashkelon shore in February 2013 in Israel. (Albatross via Getty Images)
Meretz chairwoman and Member of Knesset Zehava Gal-On made the accusation in a written question a few months ago, and her wariness is not unwarranted. In 2009, then-First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, who now serves as chairman of Gazprom’s board of directors, called a Russian gas pipeline to Israel via Turkey “very promising.” The plan for Israel to be part of the Blue Stream-2 system, though, was shelved in 2010 shortly after Israeli military personnel killed nine Turks on board the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara aid flotilla. Putin denied that the incident factored into Russia’s decision-making, reasoning instead that Israel no longer needed the gas due to its own recent discoveries off the coast of the Mediterranean.
A few days ago I received an attractive glossy mailer from the Jewish National Fund (JNF), celebrating the ripple effects of “Blueprint Negev.” This signature JNF campaign is working to rejuvenate and develop Israel’s southern region by investing in infrastructure, environmentally sustainable projects, and the creation of new Jewish communities, encouraging hundreds of thousands of people to move to the Negev.
But there is another, more ominous side to these efforts. The premise behind Blueprint Negev is similar to the Israeli government’s view: the development of the Negev requires the resettlement of a substantial portion of the Bedouin community, despite its historic ties to the Negev, which predate the State of Israel.
A Bedouin boy from the Zanun family walks with a toy gun on the first day of the Eid al-Adha holiday on October 15, 2013, in their village of Wadi Naam, currently unrecognised by Israeli authorities. (Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images)
The Knesset’s Interior Committee began hearings today on the “Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev,” also known as the Prawer-Begin Plan. The plan claims it will “make it possible for their children to leap in time into the midst of the 21st century, and to build a better future for them while maintaining their culture and way of life.”
The surest way to discredit your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to argue that Israel has paid an economic price for it. On both the left and right, the wisdom is that Israel has been doing just fine—so fine, that Israelis have grown inured to the potential benefits of peace.
In today’s New Yorker website, I show with the help of my colleague at Dartmouth, Yusaku Horiuchi, that the conventional wisdom is spectacularly wrong. Israelis have paid a severe economic price for the conflict since 2001—at least a full year’s GDP—while the government has forfeited between $60-70 billion in public investment. The proof requires comparing the record of Israel to “synthetic Israel,” a hybrid of similar economies to which Israel may be usefully compared.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Israeli leader's residence November 6, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Jim Hollandert-Pool / Getty Images)
Italy's former prime minister constantly trivializes the Holocaust and defends Mussolini. The question is: why do Italian Jews put up with this?
MILAN—Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's former prime minister, who was recently convicted of tax fraud, sees himself as a victim. And not just any victim: he has compared his experience as a politician and businessman to that of European Jews under Nazism.
“My children told me that they feel like Jewish families in Germany under Hitler's regime. We really have everyone against us," Berlusconi told Bruno Vespa, Italy's most famous television news anchor. The interview appears in Vespa's new book Sale, Zucchero e Caffè (Salt, Sugar and Coffee), set to hit the bookstands on November 7, although excerpts are already circulating.
Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak (L), Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (C) and Israeli President Shimon Peres attend a lunch held in the honour of Berlusconi at the President's Residence on February 3, 2010 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Miriam Alster, via Getty Images)
The ongoing violence in Syria has forced tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees to flee to neighboring countries. The majority has gone to Lebanon, where 45,000 Palestinians from Syria continue to live through the traumas of war and displacement. Most wish to return to Syria when violence subsides, according to humanitarian aid workers and U.N. officials in the region.
But when they get to Lebanon, their struggles—if not for their lives, then at least their livelihoods—are not over. Palestinians are forced to compete for low-skilled jobs, affordable housing and access to social services with Lebanese and other refugees living in Lebanon. Syrian refugees are also competing for work, especially in the service and construction sectors.
Palestinians who fled violence in the Syrian refugee camp of Yarmouk are seen at the Masnaa Lebanese border crossing with Syria as people stamp their documents before entering Lebanon on December 19, 2012. (Jospeh Eid / AFP / Getty Images)
“As can be expected from such overcrowded conditions, tension has been rising since competition for work and affordable housing has become fierce in many of the areas where Palestinians live in Lebanon,” said Laura Macdissi, public information officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) field office in Lebanon.
Monday was Women of the Wall's 25th anniversary. The sight was astounding: reportedly some 700 women came to show their support and pray at the Kotel, Jerusalem's Western Wall. The massive turnout was the result of a huge organizing effort. Many women flew in to be a part of the "International Mission to Support Pluralism in Israel," a long weekend that included seminars, meetings with Knesset members, and a gala.The prayer service on Monday was their main event.
Israeli police officers block ultra-Orthodox protestors from reaching the Women of the Wall while they hold a prayer service at the Western Wall on May 10, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
Towards the back of the wall's plaza, the group was surrounded by some 50 police officers in formation, presumably to prevent skirmishes with the other hundreds of ultra-Orthodox women and girls who came to protest. It was loud—you could tell there were cantors in the WoW crowd; some even had earpieces to centralize the group's singing, piercingly feminine against the single, microphoned male voice coming from the other side of the gender partition. Yet what was striking was not what came out of these dedicated women's mouths, but what came out of the mouths of the 18-year-old ultra-Orthodox girls I spoke to. One refrain was repeated: "They desecrate, we sanctify." Talking to these girls, I couldn't help but think that the Kotel would look and sound very different were this not the only place ultra-Orthodox teenagers interacted with a Judaism not their own.
I arrived at the Kotel a quarter of an hour late, and when I finally got inside the arm-linked formation (the police had thought I was ultra-Orthodox and gave me a hard time), I found myself next to three praying 18-year-olds. Not wanting to presume, I asked them if they were with the Women of the Wall. I hit a nerve. No, they said, they were there to protest. When I asked why, one of them answered me with the logic of a Biblical literalist: "How would Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses our sage] pray?" she asked. "Like that," she said, pointing to one of the women wearing a prayer shawl, "or like us?"
This past weekend, my 5-year-old boy and I made blueberry muffins from scratch. When it came time to add the baking powder, my son asked what it was. I explained that it made the batter rise, so our treats would be soft and fluffy. He then asked why I didn’t dump in the whole box, so we could make giant, extra-spongy muffins.
It is a simple, linear view of how things work—if a measured amount of something is good, an all-out amount of it must be better.
This is also the world view held by many of those pushing for new sanctions against Iran even as its engagement in negotiations on its nuclear program turn serious and substantive. Sanctions have compelled Iran’s mullahs to the table, they argue, so why won’t more now make them even more pliable?
Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran (L), signs of the guest book of the United Nations Secretary General on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, 2013 in New York City. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)
Open Zion will be closing at the end of the year. In order to explain, I need to start at the beginning.
For most of my professional career, I didn’t write much about Israel. Partly, it’s because I didn’t know what I thought. Partly, it’s because I didn’t want to know what I thought. Most of all, it’s because I didn’t want to lose my community.
In my house growing up, losing your community was a sore subject. Jewish South Africa, especially before my parents left, was a womb. Imagine Jewish America in the post-war years, shrunk in size and with barely any on or off ramps into the society at large. To this day, when I meet South African Jews of my parents’ generation, they often start the conversation by placing me. They tell me who my uncles or cousins or grandparents are, and in what ways I resemble them. For my father, it was suffocating. For my mother, her hatred of apartheid aside, it was Eden. In Cape Town, Shabbat dinner was a boisterous succession of relatives and friends—eating, arguing, playing cards, watching the sun descend from the mountains to the sea-—from mid-afternoon until long past midnight. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, it was four Beinarts huddled around a small table in the freezing cold. My mother spent my childhood mourning Jewish South Africa, and warning us not to become atomized, deracinated Americans, severed from family and tribe.
Peter Beinart speaking at a Center for American Progress event in 2009. (Center for American Progress / Flickr)
"From our point of view, the possibility of holding a national referendum is real and and the work of persuasion must start from now."
--Peace Now Secretary General Yariv Oppenheimer on just-launched Peace Now campaign to persuade Israelis to support a two-state solution. (See video.)
- Hamas appoints English-language spokeswoman - Isra Al-Mudallal, 23, will help improve Palestinian public diplomacy. She hoped to speak to Israelis, but Hamas was quick to remind her of ban on Israeli media. (Haaretz+, Ynet and Maan)
- Arab MK: Jewish prayer on Temple Mount will lead to Intifada - Knesset's Interior Committee holds discussion regarding making possible Jewish prayer on Temple Mount. Arab MKs slam idea. Verbal clashes between Arab MKs and rightwing MKs ensue. (Ynet, Maan, Haaretz+ and NRG Hebrew with video and photos)
- NGO films soldiers training near West Bank cemetery - Training in Palestinian villages approved by military advocate-general, though soldiers cautioned not to put local population at risk. (Haaretz+ + video)
- Jerusalem man succumbs to 4-year-old wounds from clashes with Israeli forces - Rami Bajis Zalabani, 27, died Monday evening from the wounds he sustained when IDF forces shot him in the chest with a rubber-coated steel bullet four years ago. (Maan)
- Israeli authorities halt work on 2 Palestinian houses in Idhna - Israeli forces ordered the owners of the two buildings to stop construction on their own houses in the city west of Hebron near the Green Line. (Maan)
- Israeli bulldozers uproot 25 olive trees west of Salfit - Israeli bulldozers on Monday razed Palestinian lands west of Salfit and uprooted 25 olive trees in order to to pave the way for the expansion of Bruchin settlement. (Maan)
- Witnesses: Israeli forces fire tear gas at Hebron schools - Israeli military forces fired tear gas and sound bombs at two elementary schools in Hebron on Monday. Dozens of students suffered from gas inhalation. (Maan)
For the full News from Israel.
In an article published today on Bloomberg, Jeffrey Goldberg reports U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's view that sanctions and Israeli pressure have combined to bring Iran to the negotiating table on the nuclear issue. Goldberg also records Hagel's assertion that sanctions “have done tremendous economic damage,” as well as his belief that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn't “intentionally trying to derail negotiations.” Absent from this conversation is any discussion of how the talks are actually going; of paramount importance, apparently, is the role that economic violence and Israeli belligerence have played in bringing them about. Hagel discharges the piece's brief discussion of the Iranians' willingness to sit down with a brief aside: “Whether the Iranians will carry forth on that, we'll see.”
Meanwhile, Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency quotes President Hassan Rouhani as saying that “The government is not optimistic about the Westerners and the current negotiations,” only a day after Ayatollah Ali Khameini denounced the U.S. as a “smiling enemy.” What does it mean for a figure such as Hagel to praise the talks while his opposite numbers are busy expressing their skepticism?
Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, speaks during the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly September 24, 2013 at U.N. headquarters in New York. (Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images)
Netanyahu's rhetoric about Iran echoes neoconservative rhetoric about Iraq.