The Ties that Bind

Anat Bernstein-Reich, president of the Israel-India Friendship Association and vice president of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce, meets with Narendra Modi in Israel in 2007. Modi is India's newly elected prime minister. (Courtesy of Anat Bernstein-Reich)

Anat Bernstein-Reich, president of the Israel-India Friendship Association and vice president of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce, meets with Narendra Modi in Israel in 2007. Modi is India’s newly elected prime minister.
(Courtesy of Anat Bernstein-Reich)

With a focus on Hindu nationalism and pro-market policies, newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promises to propel the country in a new direction.

India and Israel have enjoyed increasingly close military and economic cooperation over the past two decades, and Modi also brings strong personal and business ties with Israel dating to his time as chief minister of one of India’s most wealthy and industrialized states.

While traditional Israeli allies in Europe remain in economic stagnation and produce increasingly hostile rhetoric toward the Jewish state, Modi’s election may further elevate Israel’s bond with the world’s largest democracy.

“We are very confident he will give the proper attention to the relations with Israel because he understands the strategic bond,” Anat Bernstein-Reich, president of the Israel-India Friendship Association and vice president of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce, said.

Differences in size and culture aside, India and Israel have many modern and historical similarities. Hinduism and Judaism are among the world’s oldest existing religions, and both share ethno-religious components that set them apart from other major faiths. At the same time, both religions have complicated systems of laws, purity codes and dietary restrictions that define their communities. In modern times, both India and Israel achieved independence from Great Britain during the late 1940s after long internal struggles and bloody partition plans.

Yet, for its first few decades of independence, India, under the direction of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Congress Party, sought friendlier relations with Arab states and aligned itself with the third-world Non-Aligned Movement, which was often hostile to Israel. Despite similar national origins to Israel, India viewed the Jewish state as a proxy of the imperial Western powers.

This mentality didn’t change until 1992, when the end of the Cold War forced Indian leaders to rethink their global strategy, including relations with Israel. In January 1992, India and Israel opened their first bilateral diplomatic missions.

Since then, one of the most important aspects of Indo-Israeli relations has been military cooperation, with Israel becoming India’s second-largest military importer behind Russia.

“Today, military cooperation is considered to be one of the most important aspects of their ties,” said Alvite Ningthoujam, a Ph.D. candidate at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University who has researched India-Israel military cooperation with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Ningthoujam explained that the Indo-Israeli military relationship has evolved over the years “from a mere seller-buyer relationship” to a “relationship that has been transformed into that of joint collaborations.”

“India imports very sophisticated weapon systems such as missiles, arms and ammunition, electronic warfare systems, radio-communication systems, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, etc., and there are several other deals in the pipeline,” Ningthoujam said.

Even though their military ties are strong, Israel and India have shared a mixed relationship since 1992, largely as a result of the Congress Party’s years of vocal support for the Palestinian cause as well as its reluctance to criticize Iran’s nuclear program.

But this hasn’t been the case universally in India. Modi’s conservative Bharatiya Janata Party, which now has outright majority control of India’s parliament for the first time in the country’s history, has longstanding warm ties with Israel dating back to when the BJP was part of a government coalition in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“We are sure the BJP will give a boost to India-Israel relations based on past experience with BJP,” Bernstein-Reich said.

Ideological affinity aside, many inside the BJP are extremely grateful for the discrete military support Israel provided to India during its 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan, when Russia and other allies refused to help India.

In recognition of Israel’s support, top BJP officials visited Israel in 2000, which eventually led to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s historic visit to India in 2003.

Like the rest of the BJP, Modi “understands that Israel needs India for political reasons as a strategic ally, something that wasn’t there before, because India needed the oil of Arab countries, including Iran,” Bernstein-Reich said.

With his anti-terror attitude, Modi “will want to keep Israel close to him and not at a distance, like the Congress Party did,” she added.

Bernstein-Reich, who has worked as a technology entrepreneur in India and Israel for the past 17 years, met with Modi during his visit to Israel in 2007 as part of a high-tech agricultural conference. Modi, who served as chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, forged strong ties with Israeli businesses during that time. India has a decentralized form of government, in which individual states and their leadership can develop economic and bilateral ties with foreign nations.

Under Modi’s leadership, Israeli companies poured billions of dollars of investment into Gujarat in areas such as industrial research, solar and thermal power, pharmaceuticals, infrastructure, and water recycling and desalination plants.

“Modi understands what Israel can give to India technology-wise,” Bernstein-Reich said.

On the other hand, while Indo-Israeli economic ties have grown significantly to nearly $5 billion, bilateral trade between the nations has recently stagnated.

“There has been steady growth but not enough in recent years because of the recession,” said Bernstein-Reich.

Additionally, one of the outstanding issues that Modi inherits as India’s new leader will be finalizing a Free Trade Agreement with Israel.

The Free Trade Agreement has been under negotiation for the past three years, and Bernstein-Reich explained that although the Congress Party was very friendly toward Israel, they “took their time” on the trade pact.

Bernstein-Reich predicts that once the agreement is signed, bilateral trade will increase substantially.

“It will be a unique agreement with India that will give special benefits to businesses in both countries,” she said.

Modi, meanwhile, has garnered significant attention for his strong Hindu nationalism, resulting in criticism from the West — especially for Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. Yet, his views in that area may also allow him to form an ideological bond with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is similarly chastised in some Western countries.

Shortly after his victory, Netanyahu said he spoke with Modi and expressed his desire to “deepen and develop” bilateral ties.

One of Modi’s first public gestures as prime minister was to visit the Ganges River, one of holiest places in Hinduism, where he promised to restore the heavily polluted river to its former glory. Over the years, Netanyahu has taken a similar approach, focusing on securing Israel’s Jewish heritage sites and insisting that Jerusalem remain under Jewish sovereignty.

The new Indian prime minister “might warm up considerably to Netanyahu, say, driven by ideological affinities on some issues,” said Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Ningthoujam.

Modi is also surrounding himself with like-minded ministers who admire Israel and its values.

“Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is a big fan of Israel and enhanced diplomatic ties is expected,” Ningthoujam said.

Swaraj, who is the first woman to hold the post in India, has called herself a “strong fan” of Israel and a “strong admirer” of Israel’s first female prime minister, Golda Meir. She has also visited Israel and served as chairwoman of the Indo-Israel parliamentary friendship group in 2008.

Already, Swaraj’s Israeli counterpart — Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman — has reached out to her. The two foreign ministers acknowledged the “great importance” of Indo-Israeli bilateral relations.

“The fruitful cooperation between the two nations contributes greatly to tremendously important spheres of collaboration, including agriculture, water, research and development and more,” said a news statement from Swaraj.

Despite its size and natural resources, India has in recent years failed to keep pace with the advancements of China and other major Asian countries, as corruption and political divisions have caused economic stagnation. Many hope that Modi will give a much-needed boost to India in order for the country to compete globally. For tiny Israel, meanwhile, strengthening ties with major Asian nations is an important part of its 21st-century strategy.

“New Delhi [India’s capital] needs a country such as Israel who is willing to transfer technologies that are hard to procure from elsewhere, and this is not only in the field of military, but on other fronts as well,” Ningthoujam said. “Israel had already proved its credibility [to India] in the past and particularly during the Kargil War. So, it is a very important country to India.”

Knesset to hold presidential election June 10

TEL AVIV— The Knesset will vote for Israel’s next president on June 10.

The winner will succeed Shimon Peres, whose seven-year term ends July 27. Israel’s president, a largely ceremonial post, serves as the nation’s official head of state. Israeli citizens do not cast ballots for president.

Reports emerged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to abolish the presidency, limit its powers or postpone the election. Israeli media have reported that Netanyahu opposes the candidacy of Reuven Rivlin, a fellow member of the Likud party who has feuded with Netanyahu in the past.

Candidates must obtain signatures of at least 10 Knesset members by May 27 to run. Along with Rivlin, senior Labor Knesset member Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has obtained the necessary signatures.

Several other public figures have declared their intention to run. They include Silvan Shalom, a Likud Knesset member; Dalia Itzik, a former Kadima lawmaker; Dalia Dorner, an ex-Supreme Court judge; Dan Shechtman, a Nobel Prize laureate; and Yosef Abramowitz, a solar energy entrepreneur.

Before serving as president, Peres, 90, twice served as Israel’s prime minister. His predecessor, Moshe Katsav, resigned the office to face trial for sexual assault and rape, and is now serving a prison term.

Freedom of the Press?

Free copies of the Israel Hayom are distributed in Jerusalem. (Wikimedia Commons)

Free copies of the Israel Hayom are distributed in Jerusalem.
(Wikimedia Commons)

With the Summer Assembly of Israel’s 19th Knesset now in session, a highly controversial bill has drawn the ire of many from a wide range of professional fields and political backgrounds, including Members of Knesset (MKs), legal experts, media watchdog organizations, free speech activists and journalists.

A measure describing itself as the “bill for the promotion and protection of the printed media in Israel,” but informally known as the “anti-Israel Hayom bill,” is set to be brought before Israel’s powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation in the coming weeks. The proposal seeks to outlaw daily newspapers in Israel whose business model includes free distribution to the general public.

There is little uncertainly that the bill’s initiators, from parties both on the left and the right, are specifically targeting the Sheldon Adelson-owned newspaper Israel Hayom, whose free-distribution strategy has in recent years taken away a significant number of readers from its competition.

The text of the bill — submitted by MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) and co-signed by Yoel Razbozov (Yesh Atid), Robert Ilatov (Likud Beytenu), Elazar Stern (Hatnua), Ariel Attias (Shas) and Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) — claims that the measure seeks to “strengthen written journalism in Israel and ensure equal and fair conditions of competition between newspapers,” according to a Jerusalem Post translation.

But Professor Eli Pollak—chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (IMW), which calls itself the leading Israeli media watchdog organization—said the bill represents exactly the opposite of its stated goal.

“This legislation is anti-liberal and makes no sense in a free market where anyone can do what they want as long as it’s legal an ethical,” Pollak said. “It’s fair competition. There is no reason to try and close [Israel Hayom] down or stop their way of working.”

Israel Hayom has reported that two original backers of the bill, Shas MKs Yitzhak Vaknin and Yitzhak Cohen, recently decided to withdraw their support of the legislation.

MK Shaked also recently admitted to a Channel 2 television interviewer that the bill “won’t pass.” Analysts claim that Shaked — along with her party’s chairman, Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett — initially supported the bill from the political right since it essentially targeted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel Hayom has been accused of pro-Netanyahu bias.

Israel Hayom is not a newspaper. It is Pravda,” Bennett said in March, referring to the Russian political newspaper associated with the Communist Party. “It’s the mouthpiece of one person, the prime minister.”

IMW’s Pollak said there is “no question that the legislation [to ban free newspapers] is politically motivated.” He explained that “for years Yedioth [Ahronoth], which calls itself ‘the newspaper of the country,’ had a monopoly and nobody cared.”

“But when Yedioth’s and Haaretz’s [market] shares went down and other newspapers including Israel Hayom and Makor Rishon went up, that posed a problem for those that don’t want right-wing opinions to be heard,” Pollak said.

A 2011 survey by the Target Group Index (TGI) revealed that four years after its inception, Israel Hayom’s readership had surpassed that of Yedioth —formerly Israel’s most widely read daily newspaper — with a 39.3-percent market share over Yedioth’s 37 percent. Yedioth remained the most-read weekend newspaper.

The latest TGI survey, released in January 2014, said Israel Hayom remains the country’s most-read daily, with 38.6-percent readership compared to 38.4 percent for Yedioth in the second half of 2013.

Pollak cites MK Cabel’s political bias in going after Israel Hayom. He said Cabel was responsible for shutting down Arutz 7 broadcasting, the right-leading radio station in Beit El that in 2002 was denied a broadcasting license and had its studios raided and broadcasting equipment confiscated.

On the other hand, when Israel’s Channel 10 television station “was going to be closed down when it didn’t meet its financial commitments, [Cabel] defended it,” Pollak noted.

“This is a very clear political game, which won’t succeed because it’s wrong,” said Pollak. “In a democracy with freedom of the press and freedom of business, this can’t go through.”

Yossi Fuchs, a Ramat Gan attorney with 15 years of experience in Israeli constitutional law, agrees that the bill to ban free newspapers will never pass.

“I think [the bill is] not constitutional,” he said. “It totally goes against freedom of the press and contradicts Israel’s ‘Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.’”

Fuchs explained that while Israel does not have a formal written constitution, the set of “Basic Laws” passed since the country’s founding in 1948 have “the weight of constitutional laws.” Fuchs said one “can’t legislate a law which contradicts a Basic Law,” which he believes is the case with the bill purportedly targeting Israel Hayom. Even if the bill somehow gets a majority in the Knesset, “it is my assumption that it will fall in the Supreme Court,” he said.

Since it is clear by definition “that only one paper (Israel Hayom) stands to close based on the proposed legislation, [the bill] is problematic, since if it can be proven that any proposed law is written because of a vendetta, and not based on law, that is unconstitutional,” Fuchs added.

Ruthie Blum, a columnist who writes regularly for Israel Hayom, said that banning the distribution of a free newspaper “ostensibly to protect the paid print media from going bust” is “antithetical to the principle of a free market.”

“Not only would such legislation harm consumers, who deserve all the options that competition affords, but it would also be utterly pointless,” she said. “Today, most people read news and features on the Internet for free anyway. Especially appalling about this particular bill is that it reeks of a politically motivated attempt to keep the secular, Zionist and pro-Netanyahu government position at bay.”
Israel Hayom reported that after it published the contact information of the bill’s authors, the legislators’ offices were flooded with phone calls and emails from Israeli citizens expressing their adamant opposition to the measure. Requests for comment to several MKs who support the bill were denied or went unanswered.

In a recent interview with his own newspaper, Sheldon Adelson took aim at Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon (Noni) Mozes, who was rumored to be behind the bill.

“It should be obvious to anyone who reads about this that the amount of power Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes has is unspeakable; he can tailor a bill just so he can eliminate competition,” Adelson told Israel Hayom.

Asked if the proposed Israeli bill would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Adelson said, “To restrict the circulation of information is an out-and-out violation, in both letter and spirit, of the constitution.”

“Freedom of speech is the basic hallmark of democracy, the first thing people refer to in a democratic system,” he said. “And to deprive the citizens of the freedom of getting information simply because somebody is threatening the MKs and somehow incentivizing them to eliminate a competitor means that the MKs are not doing their job.”

Full disclosure: JNS.org is a distributor of Israel Hayom’s English-language content.

The New Reality

Head of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh (right) and senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed share a private moment during a news conference that announced a Palestinian reconciliation agreement in Gaza City on April 23. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90)

Head of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh (right) and senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed share a private moment during a news conference that announced a Palestinian reconciliation agreement in Gaza City on April 23.
(Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90)

With the recent collapse of the U.S.-brokered peace negotiations, the Palestinian leadership has embarked on a broad plan of unilateral action to gain recognition of a Palestinian state and to isolate Israel internationally. Couple those developments with the Palestinian Fatah movement’s unity pact with the terrorist group Hamas, and Israel is facing a complex new reality.

Without peace talks, what options does Israel have left? Will Israel be forced to take its own unilateral steps?

“If [an] agreement is unachievable, then moving independently to shape the borders of Israel is the better course,” Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli Air Force general and former head of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate, said. “While it is not the [ideal] alternative, it is better than the status quo or a bad agreement [with the Palestinians].

Yadlin, who now serves as director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), is among a growing number of respected Israeli leaders putting forth proposals for unilateral steps.

In a proposal posted last Sunday on the INSS website, Yadlin argues that Israel has more than the two options usually discussed — a peace agreement and the status quo. According to Yadlin, Israel’s four strategic options are as follows: a peace agreement along the parameters established by former President Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000; an “unacceptable” peace agreement on Palestinian terms; a status quo in which the Palestinians can dictate their own terms; or a status quo in which the Israelis dictate their own terms.

Yadlin argues that while the Clinton parameters — which include the Palestinians agreeing to end the conflict and give up both the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and dividing Jerusalem — are Israel’s “best option,” it is “highly unlikely” that such an agreement will ever be realized.

Instead, Yadlin believes that Israel should promote an “Israeli option” that preserves Israel’s objectives to remain a “Jewish, democratic, secure and just state.” He said this move allows Israel to “independently shape its own borders” with a strategy toward “advancing a two-state solution.”

In this scenario, Yadlin said Israel would “withdraw from heavily populated Palestinian areas to the security barrier, keeping the Jordan Valley for security reasons.

“[This would leave] 70 to 80 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians and allow Israel to keep 70 to 80 percent of the major settlement blocs,” Yadlin said.

Unilateralism, however, has been a taboo subject in Israel for many years since former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which many Israelis — especially on the right — look back upon as a failure due to the rise of Hamas there. Sharon suffered a stroke before he could implement plans for unilateral moves in the West Bank.

As such, Israel is likely to be cautious in considering any unilateral plans, especially given that the status quo still favors Israel.

“I don’t see the Israelis necessarily making any unilateral moves at this moment. The collapse of the peace talks wouldn’t prompt any immediate action from the Israelis, because there is no immediate threat,” Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East expert and vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said.

Nevertheless, with the ongoing unity talks between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party and the terrorist group Hamas, along with recent unilateral actions by the PA through the United Nations and other international avenues, Israel may soon realize it does not have a viable partner for peace — possibly spurring a unilateral move.

“Those are the things that I think could prompt a response from Israel,” Schanzer said.

Other prominent Israelis have come out with their own unilateral plans of action.

Historian and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said in an interview in February — while peace talks were still ongoing — that Israel needs to have a Plan B like the Palestinians do.

“The two-state solution is the preferred solution. And if we can reach a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians that is permanent, legitimate and assures Israel’s security, that is, of course, the preferable choice,” Oren told the Times of Israel.

“However, the Palestinians have intimated that if they can’t reach a negotiated solution with us, they then have a Plan B, and their Plan B is a binational state. And I think it’s important that we also have a Plan B,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli Economy Minister and Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett recently wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that urged him to annex a number of the major Israeli communities in the West Bank, including Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim, Ofra, Beit El and several more — which are home to about 440,000 Israelis.

“These areas enjoy a broad national consensus and have security, historical and moral significance for the State of Israel,” Bennett wrote.

If Netanyahu does decide to pursue a unilateral course of action, one of his toughest sells might be with the international community, which has rejected previous Israeli unilateral moves such as the annexation of Eastern Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.

In order to address this, Yadlin believes that Israel should offer the Palestinians a “fair and generous agreement” before taking any unilateral steps.

“The international community has to be convinced, as they were with [former Prime Minister Ehud] Barak in 2000 or [former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert in 2008, that Israel really offers the Palestinians a fair deal,” Yadlin said.

After nine months of negotiations that produced little results, Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the U.S. will likely take a “pause” in its peace efforts.

Without peace talks holding back the Palestinians, it is clear that Abbas is seeking to shape his own legacy and future — one that may include reuniting the Palestinian people, which split under his watch during Hamas’s bloody 2007 takeover of Gaza.

“You can make a very valid argument that all of these moves are designed to spook the U.S. and Israel and force them back to the table to yield more concessions. I would say that the trajectory is far from clear,” Schanzer said.

Yadlin believes that Israel must be proactive and not allow the Palestinians, or anyone else, to dictate their terms to the Jewish state.

“[Unilateral action] is a move done out of a position of strength and the ability to shape your own destiny according to parameters that I believe are better for the Sstate of Israel,” he said.

Taking a Stand

Yair Lapid says he would leave the coalition if the Israeli government did not "exhaust all options" in its peace negotiations with the Palestinians. (Elad Gutman)

Yair Lapid says he would leave the coalition if the Israeli government did not “exhaust all options” in its peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
(Elad Gutman)

TEL AVIV — Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said he supports freezing settlement growth to help jumpstart peace negotiations and vowed that his centrist Yesh Atid party would leave Israel’s governing coalition if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were responsible for the collapse of the peace process.

In an interview this week, his first with an American Jewish news organization since entering the Knesset last year, Lapid continued his recent shift toward placing the peace process at the top of his party’s agenda.

A year ago he told The New York Times that Israel should not change its settlement policy to advance negotiations nor should it curb its “natural expansion” or limit financial inducements to Israelis who move there.

But on Monday, Lapid said that he would sooner agree to freeze settlement growth than free Palestinian prisoners, as Netanyahu has done previously in an effort to advance the process. A fourth round of prisoner releases was due to take place March 29, but Israel reneged.

“I would choose, every day of the week, freezing the settlements over freeing prisoners,” he said. “But in this coalition, in this particular moment, this was the favorable option.”

A former television news anchor, Lapid entered politics for the first time in advance of the January 2013 elections with the aim of re-energizing Israel’s political center. He stayed relatively quiet on security issues during the campaign, running on a largely domestic platform of lowering the cost of living and expanding the mandatory military draft to include the haredi Orthodox.

But over the past year, Lapid has become increasingly vocal about the need for Israel to reach a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. And while he laid the blame for the current impasse in peace talks squarely at the feet of the Palestinian leadership, Lapid said he could not stay in the government if it did not aggressively pursue a deal.

“If I would think this coalition did not exhaust all options and it is our fault that the negotiation is not in progress or process, then I can’t stay in this government,” Lapid said. “We decided we’ll do everything in our power to back up the negotiations.”

Lapid said that overall, he is happy with how the past year has gone for his party. He dismissed criticism that Yesh Atid’s signature achievement, a bill mandating that the haredi Orthodox perform military service, is too weak. The bill defers criminal sanctions for haredi draft dodgers for three years, but Lapid said a stricter law would have been unrealistic.

“If we would just send draft bills to any young 18-year-old haredim, we’ll be the winners of some game, but nothing would have happened,” Lapid said. “The way we’ve been doing this, it will actually happen.”

Lapid also campaigned on establishing civil unions in Israel, a measure that would have broken the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s control of Jewish marriage. Yesh Atid introduced a bill to create civil unions in October, but it is opposed by Jewish Home, a religious Zionist party that entered the coalition in alliance with Yesh Atid.

Lapid sounded confident that he could get a civil unions bill past Jewish Home, possibly with support from left-wing parties. But though he vowed to continue to push the issue, he would not say if Yesh Atid would leave the coalition of the bill fails.

“I don’t think this is good partnership,” Lapid said, “to keep a coalition under threat.”

Lapid said all Jewish denominations should have equal standing in Israel, which he said would strengthen Israel’s relationship with American Jews.
He also called for ending the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriage and conversion, and for an end to all forms of religious coercion.

But he stopped short of calling for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate or for a complete separation of religion and state, which he said would hurt the country’s Jewish character.

“I don’t think the American model of total separation of religion and state is feasible in Israel because it was established as a Jewish state,”Lapid said. “I don’t want to give up this identity.

“I would favor having parallel institutions to the Rabbinate. If someone wants to get married in the rabbinate, he can. If someone wants to get married at City Hall, he should be able to do so as well.”

Yesh Atid surprised pundits when it captured 19 seats in Knesset elections last year, becoming Israel’s second largest political party. Soon after, Lapid said that he expected to be prime minister after the next ballot.

Last Monday, Lapid said his party was in the Knesset to stay, but he declined to make similar boasts about his own political future.

“I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned in this last year: There’s no problem in politics being an idiot — there’s a big problem being an idiot twice,” he said. “I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m not going to declare such declarations anymore because this is stupid.”

Boosting STEM

Zvi Peleg (left), director general of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, is pictured with students of the network's program in collaboration with the Israeli Air Force in Kfar Saba, Israel. (Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network)

Zvi Peleg (left), director general of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, is pictured with students of the network’s program in collaboration with the Israeli Air Force in Kfar Saba, Israel. (Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network)

In Israel, high school education is mandated by law, and the government grants each student an equal financial allocation for education. But a town such as Afula, with fewer residents than Tel Aviv, gets less government funding overall. This is also true for small villages of concentrated minorities.

With the backdrop of that challenge of getting enough outside funding for smaller communities, Zvi Peleg — director general of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, the largest independent network of science and technology educational institutions in Israel — wants to grant the same quality of education to every citizen in Israel.

“We are serving the secular [Jews], the religious, the Orthodox religious, the ultra-Orthodox religious, the Arabs, the Druze, all the populations in Israel,” explained Peleg.

On Feb. 25, Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization supporting the Israeli schools network, held a gala to honor five prominent supporters of the program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

“Our American Friends group plays a very important role in the success of our programs throughout Israel. There has never been a greater need to prepare our young people with state-of-the-art science and technology education to serve the growing need of industry in Israel,” Peleg said of the dinner, which honored Thomas E. McCorry of Lockheed Martin, Dr. Charlotte Frank, Dr. Lynne B. Harrison, Mark Levenfus and corporate sponsor Marks Paneth LLP.

The Sci-Tech network was first established in Israel in 1949 and today includes 206 junior and senior high schools, industrial schools, educational centers and technical, engineering and academic colleges throughout the Jewish state. The network’s schools focus on science and technology education and reach the peripheral regions of the country, including Israeli municipalities beyond the Green Line such as Maale Adumim and Ariel.

“We are not political at all,” said Peleg, himself a graduate of an Israel Sci-Tech school. “We are dealing only in education.”

A core goal of the school network is to motivate more students to focus on science and technology education. In the Sci-Tech schools, 60 percent of students choose this focus, compared with Israel’s national average of 30 percent.

This focus pays off in a country that has built itself an international reputation of being the “startup nation,” according to Shai Lewinsohn, director of resource development and external affairs for the program, who said the network’s 37 two-year colleges prepare students to be practical engineers.

The Israeli high-tech industry is built on three layers of workers. At the top is the research and development sector, mostly comprised of people with Ph.Ds. Below them are engineers, and below the engineers are practical engineers, the largest layer.

Practical engineers “are very needed in the high-tech industry,” said Lewinsohn, and about 40 percent of those in Israel are graduates of schools in the Sci-Tech program.

Furthermore, the Israel Defense Forces depends on Sci-Tech schools because the army is moving toward high-tech equipment that needs the attention of many technologically trained people.

“Forty percent of the practical engineers who are serving today in the IDF are graduates of our colleges,” said Lewinsohn. “Currently in the IDF, we have three graduates who are major generals. … One of them is the chief of intelligence, Aviv Kochavi.”

In addition, Elisha Yanai, the last of president of Motorola Israel, is a graduate of the Singalowski Technical School in Tel Aviv, a Sci-Tech school and one of the oldest and largest high schools in Israel.

Another two graduates of the school network are heading to the Pitango Venture Capital fund.

“Pitango is one of the largest funds that invests in the high-tech industry in Israel. [Managing general partner and co-founder of Pitango] Chemi Peres is the son of [Israeli] President Shimon Peres. The other [managing general partner] is Aaron Mankovski,” who has headed the HighTech Industries Association, an organization representing the high-tech industry in Israel, said Lewinsohn.

Today, Israel Sci-Tech Schools is the largest education network in Israel, working with 100,000 students from all over the country. Some of the schools have been founded by the program, while in other cases, small municipalities or developing towns that have a lower overall education budget choose to affiliate their existing schools with the Sci-Tech program.

Often, “because the brand has become so well-known in Israel and the level and quality of education is so strong, Israel Sci-Tech schools are really sought after,” said Stan Steinreich, a spokesman for the school network.

The program “will help any kind of community in Israel that asks for help,” said Steinreich. Since Israel’s minority populations tend to concentrate in particular areas, Israel Sci-Tech schools in those areas tend to include predominently students from those communities simply for geographic and demographic reasons.

“In an Arab community the school will be an Arab school, or in a Druze village the school will be a Druze school,” he said.

An exception exists when it comes to the haredi Jewish community, which comprises an estimated 10 percent of Jewish Israelis. Due to that the community’s heavy focus on religious study and religous life, few in the community are able to work full time, and the salaries of those who do are significantly lower. About 60 percent of haredi families, which usually include many children, live in poverty. By 2050, haredim are expected to make up more than a quarter of the Israeli population.

“In order to get those kids to participate, there are sensitivities, and [we are] working with local rabbis to make that happen,” said Steinreich, explaining that Sci-Tech needs to set up special schools geared to the haredi community’s needs in order to work with that community.

At the same time, there is a “warming for the concept” of education in secular subjects in the haredi community, especially science and technology, which represents the core of what the Sci-Tech network does.

“It may not be as quick [as growth in other communities], but it’s certainly changing,” said Steinreich.

Not Losing Sleep

Psagot Winery, located in an Israeli West Bank settlement, exported 16,000 bottles of wine to Europe in 2013.  (Courtesy Psagot Winery)

Psagot Winery, located in an Israeli West Bank settlement, exported 16,000 bottles of wine to Europe in 2013. (Courtesy Psagot Winery)

TEL AVIV — Of the 200,000 wine bottles Yakov Burg produced last year, 16,000 went to Europe.

The possibility of a boycott and repeated rumblings that Europe is planning to label goods produced in the settlements could decrease that number, but Burg isn’t worried.

The CEO of Psagot Winery, which is located in a settlement of the same name in the hills of the central West Bank, Burg prides himself on running a Jewish-owned business in the West Bank, even welcoming groups of Christian Zionists who want to volunteer during the harvest.

The winery’s location, though, also makes it a prime target for boycotts aimed at goods produced in the settlements.

“There are a lot of places that won’t buy the wine, so of course there’s damage,” admitted Burg. “It doesn’t scare me. We need to fight the boycott, not just do what they want.”

The effort to boycott goods produced in the West Bank, long an objective of anti-Israel activists and some Jewish critics of the Israeli occupation, has achieved some notable victories in recent weeks.

Last month, PGGM, the largest Dutch pension fund, announced it was divesting from five Israeli banks because of their involvement in financing Israeli settlements. That was followed by an announcement that Denmark’s Danske Bank was blacklisting Israel’s Bank Hapoalim over its settlement activity. Sweden’s Nordea Bank has asked two other Israeli banks for more information about their activities in the settlements.

In the United States, settlement goods were in the news recently after actress Scarlett Johansson came under fire for representing SodaStream, an Israeli company that produces home soda machines at a factory in the West Bank.

And in Europe, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands already label goods made in the settlements, and the European Union has threatened repeatedly to take the labeling continentwide. Secretary of State John Kerry warned last week that Israel could face even greater boycott pressure if peace talks with the Palestinians collapse.

But several CEOs of companies that operate factories in the settlements acknowledged that while boycotts could hurt sales, they don’t yet represent a serious threat to business.

Yehuda Cohen, CEO of the plastics company Lipski, which has a factory in the northern West Bank Barkan industrial park, says sales dropped 17 percent in 2010 when local Palestinians started boycotting his products. His company has since recovered, growing by 18 percent last year.

Though only a fraction of Lipski’s products are shipped abroad — 18 percent of total sales are for export, of which a majority goes to Europe — Cohen acknowledges that the EU move to label settlement products is a real threat. Labeling settlement products, Cohen says, could hamper relations with retailers.

“I don’t think we’ve come to the level of a boycott, but labeling is half a boycott,” said Cohen. “The retailer will say, ‘I don’t want problems. Israel is not acting well.’ ”

A European boycott could have a much larger impact on SodaStream, which, according to a 2012 Bloomberg News report, looks to Europe for a majority of sales. CEO Daniel Birnbaum subsequently told The Jewish Daily Forward that having a factory in a settlement was a “pain in the ass.”

The impact of a boycott, though hardly irrelevant, would be more limited for Psagot and Lipski, neither of which are as reliant on European business.

But neither Burg nor Cohen share Birnbaum’s sentiments about the virtues of operating a business in the West Bank. Nor does Rami Levy, the head of the budget supermarket chain Rami Levy Hashikma Market, which operates three locations in the West Bank.

For Burg, his vineyard’s location is in part an ideological statement of opposition to a Palestinian state. Cohen said he supports Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the goal of a two-state solution. Like other CEOs of companies with West Bank operations, he believes his company furthers the cause of peace by giving jobs to Palestinians.

“Not only does it not do damage, it provides an example of how to live together, how we can do business together,” said Levy. “When you open businesses, you create more jobs. Just don’t discriminate based on religion, race and nationality.”

Levy, whose chain employs about 2,000 Palestinians, was part of a delegation of 100 Israeli businessmen to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month aimed at encouraging a peace agreement. More than half of the 90 employees of Lipski’s West Bank factory are Palestinians. Cohen employs four Palestinians out of 20 total employees.

Hilik Bar, who chairs the Knesset Caucus for Furthering Relations Between Israel and Europe, said Levy’s argument won’t convince Europeans in the absence of a peace agreement. Bar strongly opposes boycotts, but the Labor Party lawmaker believes the government needs to pursue peace more aggressively.

“It’s not just the two [Scandinavian] banks; it is spreading everywhere,” said Bar, who also chairs the Caucus for the Promotion of a Solution for the Israeli-Arab Conflict. “Israel has an image as a state worthy to isolate. It’s a whole world we’re giving up on economically as long as we don’t come to a two-state solution.”

Scarlett Johansson defends deal with SodaStream

Scarlett Johansson cites SodaStream’s commitment to the environment. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SodaStream)

Scarlett Johansson cites SodaStream’s commitment to the environment.
(Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SodaStream)

Jewish-American actress Scarlett Johansson has come under fire from human rights groups for serving as a spokeswoman for Israeli carbonated beverage company SodaStream.

Oxfam International, a human rights group that Johansson is involved with, took issue with her deal due to its opposition to “all trade from Israeli settlements.”

SodaStream has long been the target of pro-Palestinian groups for operating a factory in Ma’ale Adumim, which is across the Green Line east of Jerusalem. But SodaStream employees include many Palestinian workers, and the factory includes an on-site mosque. Also, the city is expected to be incorporated into Israel in any peace deal with the Palestinians.

“I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine,” Johansson said in a statement. “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights.”

Johannson is set to appear in Soda-Stream’s upcoming $4 million Super Bowl ad.

Local Leaders Remember Sharon as Masterful Strategist

Ariel Sharon (File)

Ariel Sharon (File)

As news of the death of Ariel Sharon spread through the region, local Jewish community and political leaders reflected on the life of the former Israeli prime minister, a fierce warrior and military leader who was known as both the patron of Israel’s settlement drive and the man who uprooted those same communities.

Sharon, who passed away last Saturday at the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv with his sons by his side, was 85 and had been in a coma since suffering a series of strokes in 2006.

Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, met Sharon several times on trips to Israel. He remembered him as “brusque, quiet and tough.”

“You knew he was in the room,” said Abramson. “He was complex. He was a warrior, but at the same time he wanted peace for Israel. I think he was one of the last of the great Israeli forefathers who built the country.”

By all accounts, Sharon was known for his girth and his fearless determination to reach his objective, whether it was military or political. For his tenacity, Sharon was given the nickname “the Bulldozer.”

Yet, that blunt reputation belied Sharon’s tactical finesse. George W. Bush administration official Elliott Abrams met with Sharon numerous times in the early 2000s, when the president issued his “road map” for Middle East peace.

“President Bush liked him because Sharon was trying to do something,” said Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He was a canny and clever politician. He’d say, ‘I’m just a simple farmer,’ but he wasn’t just a simple farmer. He maneuvered his way through the Cabinet and Knesset and the Likud Party as no one else could.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) recalled meeting Sharon during his last visit to the United States and again when the senator was in Israel.

“He was an extremely impressive individual,” said Cardin. “What’s tragic, in addition to his long illness, is that before he became ill, he was singularly focused on moving the peace process forward. He was making a lot of changes, and we lost momentum after that.”

Tanks Around The Knesset
Ariel Scheinerman was born in British-ruled Palestine in 1928. It was David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, who gave him his
Hebrew surname, Sharon. During Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, he was wounded in the battle for Latrun on the road to Jerusalem.

In the 1950s, with terror attacks against Israel from neighboring Arab countries on the rise, Sharon created and led Unit 101, which was charged with staging retaliatory raids.

He fought in the Sinai in the wars of 1956 and 1967. As a reserve general, he led a controversial crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.

From early in his service, Sharon was dogged by accusations that he exceeded orders. According to Israeli journalist David Landau, whose biography of Sharon, “Arik,” has just been published, in the case of the Yom Kippur War, those criticisms were politically motivated.

“In the Yom Kippur War there were accusations flying around between the generals and the political parties that saw themselves somehow connected,” said Landau. “He was accused of stepping outside his orders by his political and military rivals and critics, of whom there were many. And he claimed to his last day that these accusations were not well grounded.”

As a neophyte politician, Sharon brought a number of parties together to form the Likud bloc headed by longtime opposition leader Menachem Begin. When Begin became prime minister in 1977, he appointed Sharon agriculture minister.

In his new role, Sharon directed the government’s expanding settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon is popularly seen as the driving force behind the settlements, but Landau says that notion is incorrect.

“Both Begin and [Foreign Minister Yitzhak] Shamir wanted to build these settlements, and Sharon’s role was the executor and not the formulator of policy,” Landau said. “It was Shamir who claimed to the American administration that he had this tough minister building settlements. But in Israel I don’t think many people thought that.”

And Sharon was willing to take down settlements as well as put them up. After the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in 1979, Sharon oversaw the destruction of the town of Yamit in the Sinai in advance of the Israeli withdrawal.

What Sharon wanted was to become defense minister, a post Begin was reluctant to give him. Begin reportedly announced that he was worried that if he put Sharon in charge of the army, one morning he might wake up to find Sharon had circled the Knesset with tanks.

“Sharon and Begin met in the men’s room, and Begin said, ‘Well you have to understand, it’s just guys joking around,’” Landau said. “But that comment certainly resounded around the country.”

Begin finally appointed Sharon defense minister in 1981. In 1982, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee to force the Palestine Liberation Organization out of rocket range of Israel’s northern border.

Ariel Sharon dies at 85

Ariel Sharon, former prime minister of Israel, a fierce warrior and military leader who was known as both the patron of Israel’s settlement drive and the man who uprooted those same settlements, died Saturday. He was 85 and had been in a coma since suffering a series of strokes in 2006.

Sharon

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Sharon was known for his fearless determination to reach his objective, whether it was military or political. For his tenacity, Sharon was given the nickname “the Bulldozer.”

Yet that blunt reputation belied Sharon’s tactical finesse. Bush administration official Elliott Abrams met with Sharon numerous times in the early 2000s, when President George W. Bush issued his “road map” for Middle East peace.

“President Bush liked him because Sharon was trying to do something,” said Abrams, now senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He was a canny and clever politician. He’d say, ‘I’m just a simple farmer,’ but he wasn’t just a simple farmer. He maneuvered his way through the Cabinet and Knesset and the Likud Party as no one else could.”

“He was commanding,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), recalling meetings with Sharon. “He had an incredible command of the room. He gave you confidence that he had a strategic plan in a diverse political climate.”

Tanks around the Knesset

Ariel Scheinerman was born in British-ruled Palestine in 1928. It was David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, who gave him his Hebrew surname, Sharon. During Israel’s War of Independence, he was wounded in the battle for Latrun on the road to Jerusalem.

In the 1950s, with terror attacks against Israel from neighboring Arab countries on the rise, Sharon created and led Battalion 101, the unit charged with staging retaliatory raids. One such raid led to the death of innocent women and children, and the unit was disbanded.

He fought in the Sinai in the wars of 1956 and ’67. As a reserve general, he led a controversial crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.

From early in his service, Sharon was dogged by accusations that he exceeded orders. According to Israeli journalist David Landau, whose biography of Sharon, “Arik,” has just been published, in the case of the Yom Kippur War, those criticisms were politically motivated.

“In the Yom Kippur War there were accusations flying around between the generals and the political parties that saw themselves somehow connected. He was accused of stepping outside his orders by his political and military rivals and critics, of whom there were many. And he claimed to his last day that these accusations were not well-grounded.”

As a neophyte politician, Sharon brought a number of parties together to form the Likud bloc headed by longtime opposition leader Menachem Begin. When Begin became prime minister in 1977, he appointed Sharon agriculture minister.

In his new role, Sharon directed the government’s expanding settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon is popularly seen as the driving force behind the settlements, but Landau says that notion is incorrect.

“Both Begin and [Foreign Minister Yitzhak] Shamir wanted to build these settlements and Sharon’s role was the executor and not the formulator of policy,” Landau said. “It was Shamir who claimed to the American administration that he had this tough minister building settlements. But in Israel I don’t think many people thought that.”

And Sharon was willing to take down settlements as well as put them up. After the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in 1979, Sharon oversaw the destruction of the town of Yamit in the Sinai in advance of the Israeli withdrawal.

What Sharon wanted was to become defense minister, a post Begin was reluctant to give him. Begin reportedly announced that he was worried that if he put Sharon in charge of the army, one morning he might wake up to find Sharon had circled the Knesset with tanks.

“Sharon and Begin met in the men’s room and Begin said, ‘Well you have to understand, it’s just guys joking around,’” Landau said. “But that comment certainly resounded around the country.”

Begin finally appointed Sharon defense minister in 1981. In 1982, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee to force the Palestine Liberation Organization out of rocket range of Israel’s northern border.

Sharon took the fight beyond the 40-kilometer goal all the way to Beirut. With Israel now controlling security, a Christian Lebanese militia slaughtered Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.

Israelis were outraged. A commission appointed to investigate the massacre found the government indirectly responsible. Sharon was accused of gross negligence and was forced to resign.

‘Too old and too extreme’

Sharon was tainted by Sabra and Shatilla but didn’t disappear from politics. In 1999 he wrested leadership of the Likud party from Benjamin Netanyahu, who had just lost the national election to Ehud Barak and the Labor Party.

“The almost universal assessment was that [Sharon] had missed any prospect of becoming prime minister,” according to Landau. “He was too old and too extreme. The Likud people said themselves that he was unelectable because he was too right wing, too pro-settlement. That in itself was part of the drama. So quickly he took over the Likud, became a credible leader of the opposition and then beat Barak in the election.”

The 2001 election came amid the Second Intifada, when Israelis were terrorized by car bombs and suicide killings. A year earlier, Sharon had taken a highly publicized tour of the Temple Mount. His appearance at the holy site was “highly provocative,” Landau said. But Sharon’s aim was not to incite the Palestinians, but a political act in opposition to Barak’s policies, the biographer said.

Nevertheless the day after Sharon’s visit, rioting broke out on the Temple Mount. The Israelis responded with live ammunition. “There was blood on the flagstones of the Temple Mount and from there the violence spread,” Landau said.

Sharon won the 2001 election and launched an offensive on the West Bank. He also began construction of a security barrier to impede Palestinian access into Israel.

Sharon distrusted Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat (“He hated Arafat,” Elliott Abrams said.) and concluded that in the absence of a Palestinian partner, Israel would act unilaterally. He determined to abandon Israel’s settlements in Gaza and withdraw Israel’s military presence from the territory.  The move was highly controversial.

“He was able to take enormous political risks,” Abrams said. “He decided it was time to settle Israel’s borders, if not for all time then for decades at least. I think he planned to do something in the West Bank – pulling settlements back to the fence line.

“It’s important to remember how embattled he was in 2004 and 2005,” Abrams continued. “He said, ‘The left can’t do anything and the right doesn’t want to do anything and if I fail no one else will do anything.’”

With the Gaza pullout, Sharon, always anathema to the left, was suddenly condemned by the right as well. More than one religious critic – including televangelist Pat Robertson in 2006 and the spokesman for Hebron’s Jewish community last week – attributed the stroke that befell him as divine punishment for pulling Israel out of Gaza.

“The main criticism from people on the right is that he was elected on a right-of-center platform and he never said he was going to get out of Gaza,” Abrams said. “In August 2005 they withdrew, without violence, which was extraordinary.”

In the upheaval over the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon left the political party he created and formed the centrist Kadima Party, where he was joined by progressive members of the Likud party and others. On Jan. 4, 2006, he suffered a massive stroke and went into a coma. He was replaced as prime minister by Ehud Olmert.

By that time, many Israelis had had a change of heart about Sharon, Landau said.

“The night that he was struck down with a stroke, there was grieving, there was crying. To me, the remarkable feature of that evening was that among the people crying were people who, when he became prime minister, were so discomfited, they were seriously talking about leaving the country. Because they just knew that the intifada in his hands would turn into a bloodbath. It didn’t happen. But that was the assumption, taking into account the prior image of Sharon.”

Sharon largely left the headlines until last week when it was announced that his condition had become critical that his life was “definitely in danger.”

Sharon, who always said he acted in the name of Israel’s security, leaves behind a gritty legacy.

“He had a fairly grim view of the possibility of peace,” Abrams said. “You could have the absence of war. You could avoid war. But peace is another matter.”

In the eight years since his sudden departure from the scene, no one has yet proved Ariel Sharon wrong.