J.J. Goldberg

Watch: Obama on Bibi, Palestinians, Reevaluation

By J.J. Goldberg

President Obama used his March 24 press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as an opportunity for a lengthy discussion of his plans to reevaluate America’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations.

It runs 10 minutes, from 34:10 to 44:54. He starts off by inviting a question from Associated Press White House reporter Josh Lederman. Below the video is my transcription of the bulk of Obama’s remarks.


Prime Minister Netanyahu in the run-up to the election stated that a Palestinian state would not occur while he was prime minister, and I took him at his word that that’s what he meant. And I think that a lot of voters inside Israel understood him to be saying that fairly unequivocally.

Afterwards he put forward that he didn’t say “never,” but that there would be a series of conditions in which a Palestinian state could potentially be created. But of course the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet anytime soon.

So even if you accepted, I think, the corrective of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s in subsequent days, there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework established that would lead to a Palestinian state even if there were a whole range of conditions and security requirements that might be phased in over a long period of time, which was always the presumption.

I don’t think anybody ever envisioned in any peace agreement, certainly not one that Prime Minister Netanyahu would agree to, or the Israeli people would agree to, that overnight you would suddenly have a Palestinian state next to Jerusalem and that Israel would not have a whole range of security conditions that had to be met and that it would be phased in over a long period of time.

So the issue has never been do you create a Palestinian state overnight. The question is do you create a process and a framework that gives the Palestinians hope, the possibility that down the road they have a secure state of their own standing side by side with a secure, fully recognized Jewish state of Israel.

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Of Sabbath Fires, Safety, Hate and Love: A Reply

By J.J. Goldberg

It seems some readers saw my Saturday night post about the deadly Brooklyn fire that killed seven children and decided it was a bigoted attack on Orthodox Judaism.

In case you missed it, I wrote that this is not the first time Sabbath fires — hotplates, candlesticks — have gotten out of control and killed people, usually children. I cited four other fatal fires since 2000. The combined death toll is 11. Several other fires have caused injuries, including one from a Hanukkah menorah. And the list probably isn’t complete. I noted as a point of comparison that the controversial Metzitzah B’Peh circumcision procedure has taken just two lives in the same period. The post was headlined “A Deadly Plague of Shabbat Fires.”

Readers had a variety of objections. Some noted that driving caused more deaths than Sabbath candles and sarcastically wondered why I didn’t address that. Others saw my mention of Metzitzah B’Peh as evidence that my agenda was to demonize ultra-Orthodox Jews or Orthodox Jews more broadly, since I was attacking practices characteristic of those communities.

A few points. First, it should be noted that neither Orthodox nor ultra-Orthodox Jews have a monopoly on Sabbath observance. I could say this in an indignant, wounded tone, but that would be beside the point. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t attacking Sabbath observance. I was noting that some of the practices we cherish carry risks and therefore require caution — and education. We tend to rely on common sense, but that isn’t enough.

Why, one reader asks, didn’t I mention auto accidents? Because they have the public’s attention already. Millions of dollars are spent each year by government, non-profits and the auto industry itself to minimize the dangers and save lives. Greater exercise of common sense could save those lives, but we do not rely on common sense alone. As a society, we do not hold poor judgment to be a capital offense. We correct our neighbors’ oversights, not out of hatred but from love.

The Good Book says:

הוכח תוכיח את עמיתֿך
ולא תישא עליו חטא

“Thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (Lev. 19:17). (I always try to keep that verse in mind when I’m reporting.)

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Israeli Left Splits on Tactics at J Street Conference

By J.J. Goldberg

J Street / Facebook

Speaking at a press conference on the margins of the J Street national convention today, a group of left-wing Knesset members split over the role they’d like American Jews to play in American diplomacy, particularly at the United Nations.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Zionist Union lawmakers Yoel Hasson and Ksenia Svetlova said they opposed a UN resolution on a Palestinian state. “We all support a two-state solution,” Hasson said, “but the UN is not the place for it. The only way is for Obama to be active, to talk to the Palestinians, to talk to Netanyahu. And the Arab states in the region can play an important role.”

By contrast, Tamar Zandberg of Meretz welcomed the prospect of a UN resolution as a way of helping Israelis and Palestinians come together around a joint framework. “A UN resolution is something Israel should support,” Zandberg said. “How can you support a two-state solution inside [Israel] but oppose it outside?”

Zandberg said she was pleased with the election results, because “the right-wing victory is clear.”

In a clear dig at Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, she added: “The most dangerous phenomenon we saw last time was parties running as left-wing, winning votes from the left and then taking them into a right-wing government. This time all the left is in opposition. It’s much clearer and more unified.”

Zandberg said she was happily surprised by what she found at the J Street conference. “I came to this conference three days after the election and was sure I would find depression and sadness. I was surprised to find energy. I met people who said they decided to come here after seeing the election because they wanted to feel the energy.”

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A Deadly Plague of Shabbat Fires

By J.J. Goldberg

The Sabbath fire that killed seven children in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn on Saturday was at least the fourth deadly blaze in the borough resulting from Sabbath and holiday observance in the past 15 years.

In all 11 people have been killed in the four fires, all but one of them children. At least six other people were injured in the four fires, including the mother of the seven children killed this weekend, Gayle Sassoon, who was fighting for her life in the specialized burn unit at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. An unknown number of others have been injured in similar fires that didn’t result in deaths.

Police and fire officials were quoted in news reports saying this weekend’s fire was caused by a malfunctioning electric hotplate in the family’s kitchen that was keeping food warm overnight in observance of the religious restriction on cooking during the 25 hours of the Sabbath.

A similar fire, also caused by a malfunctioning electric hotplate, killed an 8-year-old boy during the festival of Sukkot in October 2010. That fire, like this weekend’s, took place in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, the center of the borough’s large Syrian-Sephardic Jewish community.

Three other people were killed in two deadly fires caused by ritual candles, one in Borough Park in 2002, the other in Williamsburg in 2000, during the festival of Shavuot.

The victims in the Williamsburg fire were the granddaughter of Satmar Grand Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, Sarah Halverstam, and her 5-month-old baby Chaya.

Other Sabbath and holiday candle fires have resulted in serious injuries, including one in Borough Park in 2009, caused by an unstable oil-burning Hanukkah menorah, that wounded a 3-year-old and her babysitter, and another in the upstate Satmar enclave of Kiryas Joel in 2011 that critically injured a 70-year-old developmentally disabled woman.

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Trouble Ahead for Bibi. Plus: Why Herzog Lost

By J.J. Goldberg

In the end it wasn’t even close. Pre-election polls had Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud trailing the Zionist Union of Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni by four Knesset seats, nearly 4% of the popular vote. Analysts around the world were falling over each other to write Bibi’s political obituary. Then came election day. Exit polls found he’d amazingly closed the gap. With the two parties effectively tied, Netanyahu suddenly appeared far better positioned than Herzog to form the next coalition.

When the actual vote-count ended, it was a Netanyahu landslide. He’d left his challenger gasping in the dust, winning 30 Knesset seats to Herzog’s 24. He’s now poised to shape Israel’s next government more or less as he chooses. The only question, it seems, is whether he’ll choose a narrow coalition of the right or a broad unity government with Herzog.

So it seems. In fact, though, his situation is devilishly complicated. En route to his come-from-behind victory he left a trail of bad blood that will haunt him for months. His last-minute outcry to save Israel from the votes of its Arab citizens arguably won him the election. But it opened a deep rift in society that will take a long time to heal. He presides over a society wounded by his own hand.

The immediate damage of Netanyahu’s the-Arabs-are-coming slur mustn’t be underestimated. It infuriated Israel’s Jewish liberals and moderates along with non-Jewish minorities. It reverberated worldwide, evoking shock and revulsion even among Israel’s admirers. It will deepen rifts within the American Jewish community. It will be cited endlessly by Israel’s enemies as evidence in their ongoing campaign to demonize and isolate Israel as a racist, apartheid state. Worst of all, this is one bit of evidence they won’t be making up.

Nor was the slur an isolated incident. It came just a day after Netanyahu’s cynical declaration that he won’t allow a Palestinian state as long as he’s prime minister. Put together, the two bombshell statements make him look more than ever like a far-right extremist. They’ll increase tensions with Western capitals at a time when healing is badly needed.

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Vote Seen Too Close to Call, Herzog 'Very Worried'

By J.J. Goldberg

Ben Caspit at Maariv reports that internal polls of the two main parties show the race too close to call, Herzog camp “deeply worried.” Race might be too close to call for 4 p.m. exit polls to be particularly meaningful. Last minute surge of right-wing voters from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Eli Yishai’s Yahad back to the Likud may be doing the trick, leaving serious doubt whether Lieberman and Yahad will cross the threshold and make it into the Knesset.

On one hand, if those two disappear, it could make it easier for Herzog to form a coalition from the parties that are actually represented in the Knesset. On the other hand, the narrow gap might make it harder for him to get the president’s nod to take the first shot at negotiating for a coalition, given Bibi’s advantage in party recommendations. Remember, Herzog will need Shas and Kahlon to form a government. Shas might be available for a Herzog coalition, but in stage one (recommendations to the president) Deri promised to recommend Bibi.

So it’s really anybody’s game right now, and we may not know anything until the soldiers’ votes are all counted a week from now. And in the final analysis, it may prove true that all votes are counted equally, but the only vote that will really count will be Moshe Kahlon’s.

Turnout Surprisingly Low in Israel. Who's Hurt?

By J.J. Goldberg

Forget the pre-election spin from enthusiastic Israeli lefties and despondent righties. Forget the three-day-old polls. Don’t start popping the champagne or sitting shiva (whatever your preference). At the voting booths, it’s still anybody’s game.

Overall turnout, which was expected to be high due to the intense emotions surrounding the campaign, has been unexceptional. As of 6:00 p.m. Israel time (noon Eastern) it was 54.6% according to Maariv, almost a full point below the 55.5% who had turned out by 6 p.m. in 2013, the last time Israelis voted. (Ynet has a chart here of voter turnout going back to 1984.) It’s also not clear who would be helped or hurt by turnout. Would a strong showing mean Israelis were pouring out to register their discontent with Prime Minister Netanyahu, or that Bibi had managed to rally his troops at the last minute to turn back the leftist tide? Unclear.

There are conflicting reports about turnout among Israel’s Arab citizens. Activists have been predicting for weeks that the unification of the three Arab and Arab-backed parties — Islamist, Palestinian nationalist and Jewish-Arab communist — would increase enthusiasm and turnout, boost the Joint List up from the 12 seats predicted in the polls to 14 or 15 and effectively block the right from returning to power. Prime Minister Netanyahu played on that to raise fears among his own voters, “warning” in a video this morning that Arabs were being bussed to the polls “by the left” and voting “in vast numbers.” The left-leaning Haaretz reported just after noon that turnout was above average in Arab precincts. But Ynet reported just before 4 p.m. that Arab voter turnout was about average or slightly below, and Maariv reported the same thing from its own sources at 6:45 p.m.

Maariv said turnout was high in cities where the communist-led Hadash faction runs strong, but lower in villages where the Islamist Ra’am dominates. Ahmed Tibi, a veteran Arab Knesset member who’s regularly waved in front of Jewish voters like a red flag, told Ynet that Netanyahu’s morning video about “vast” Arab turnout had actually depressed Arab turnout by convincing potential voters that their vote wasn’t needed.

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Bibi Bops Buji or Bye-Bye Bibi?

By J.J. Goldberg

From David Letterman’s Monday night monologue, a news update explaining where things stand in the Israeli election. It works best if you read it out loud:

As Israelis go to the polls this week, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu trails significantly behind Isaac “Buji” Herzog. This is a reversal of last week, when Bibi bested Buji. But after Bibi’s baffling Boehner boo-boo and a week of bubbly Buji embracing babies and bubbies, Buji bounced, beating Bibi badly. So will it be Bibi over Buji or Buji over Bibi at the ballotbox? We’ll know by bedtime if it’s Bibi beating Buji or bye-bye Bibi.

Lame Effort To Counter Generals' Attack on Bibi

By J.J. Goldberg

A right-wing Israeli activist group tried today to counter the anti-Netanyahu campaign of a reserve generals’ peace group, Commanders for Israel’s Security, by announcing its own list of “Officers and Soldiers Against the Partisan-Political Use of the IDF.”

The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom reported on Monday that Im Tirtzu, best known for its attacks on the New Israel Fund, had gathered more than 400 signatures of retired officers and soldiers on a petition opposing the retired generals’ campaign. The petition was reported later in the day on the right-wing news site nrg.co.il, which said it included more than 1,000 signatures but didn’t mention Im Tirtzu’s role. Nrg’s report included a photo of the petition, which claims it has more than 1,000 signers, with 93 selected to illustrate .

The generals’ group, launched in November, calls for a regional peace conference with the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative as its frame of reference. It has 183 members. During the last two months, since the start of the election campaign, it has released a series of videos accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu of irresponsibly exaggerating the threats Israel faces while failing to counter them effectively, and calling for his defeat.

The rightists’ statement says the generals’ actions “border on lawlessness” and questions their military record. “To our great regret, we have learned not infrequently in the past that the security predictions of those senior officers who were influenced by their political views were mistaken and cost Israeli society dearly in blood,” the petition says.

But the new ad unintentionally highlights the seriousness of the generals’ message and the feebleness of the right-wing counter-effort. The generals’ group consists entirely of veterans with the rank of general — including brigadier, major and lieutenant generals — along with retired chiefs and deputy chiefs of the Mossad, Shin Bet and national police. In all it includes about one-third of all living former generals.

The rightists’ petition, by contrast, lists exactly one ex-general, along with three retired colonels and 15 lieutenant colonels. The rest are field officers — majors, captains and lieutenants. Given that these are the names chosen for publication, it must be assumed that there aren’t many high-ranking names, if any, lurking among the other 900-plus signers left unpublished.

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How Zionist Union Could Build Ruling Coalition

By J.J. Goldberg

With four days left before Israelis go to the polls, the battleground is noticeably shifting from the fight for voters’ ballots to the fight over the shape of the next governing coalition. Specifically, the battle has begun for position within the expected Yitzhak Herzog government. And the way things are shaping up, the person in the hot seat over the next few weeks will be Yair Lapid.

This is not to say that the retail battle for votes is over. The parties are still out in force trying to reach the last blocs of uncommitted voters who can make all the difference on March 17, as Moran Azulay explains in this excellent piece at the Ynetnews Engish-language site, examining the strategies, party by party.

But the polls over the last week have been pointing consistently downward for the ruling Likud, giving a solid lead to the Labor-Livni alliance known as the Zionist Union. Barring a big last-minute surprise (and there are nearly always big last-minute surprises) Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog will wind up with a significant plurality on Wednesday morning.

He’ll still have a tortuous climb to the prime minister’s office. Current polls show Herzog and his most natural allies, Meretz and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, with just over 40 seats between them in the 120-member Knesset by the end of Tuesday. The right-wing bloc around the Likud, including Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-rightist Yahad, would have one or two seats more than the left, or roughly 44 seats. To gain a Knesset majority, either leader would have to reach out to the four uncommitted parties, with roughly 36 seats between them. As we’ll see in a moment, Netanyahu would have an easier time winning them over than Herzog would. But because Herzog’s party would have more seats than Netanyahu’s, President Reuven Rivlin would probably give Herzog first crack at trying to form a coalition. He’d have 28 days to seal the deal, with a possible 14-day extension, for a total of 42 days.

The uncommitted players include: the Arab-backed Joint List; the two Haredi/ultra-Orthodox parties; and the firmly centrist Kulanu party of populist Likud defector Moshe Kahlon. Failing that, Herzog would be forced to try a unity government with Likud. That will be everyone’s last choice, as the government would be paralyzed on the international front and Israel’s isolation would continue to deteriorate.

The likeliest scenario is a coalition with Kulanu and the Haredim. And that is precisely where the most intense jockeying is taking place right now.

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The 'Perfect Storm' That's Hitting Bibi's Campaign

By J.J. Goldberg

Rabbi Daniel Gordis, a popular, American-born voice of Israel’s center-right, writes in Bloomberg View that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection campaign, deemed a sure thing just days ago, has run into a “perfect storm” from which it may not recover.

“It has been a steep and precipitous fall since those glory moments on the podium before the U.S. Congress,” Gordis wrote. “Netanyahu is clearly in trouble.”

In-depth polling conducted internally in recent days by the Likud as well as its Labor-led “Zionist Camp” opposition shows the same thing. Likud’s own poll analysts are predicting as few as 18 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Zionist Camp internal polling shows it leading Likud 27-21.

Gordis cites three major crises that have suddenly hammered the campaign in the last few days. One is a series of slashing attacks on Netanyahu’s leadership by the widely admired former Mossad director Meir Dagan, culminating in an emotional speech by Dagan before a massive anti-Netanyahu rally Saturday night in Tel Aviv.

Second is a hotly protested Likud television commercial that was released March 4 and quickly withdrawn the next day, but not before causing enormous damage. The ad depicted a mock therapy group of public nuisances hurt by Netanyahu’s policies, including civil servants no longer able to ignore the public and a Hamas terrorist unable to carry out attacks. Airport and port workers, traditionally Likud voters, complained that the ad likened them to Hamas terrorists and vowed not to vote for the party. Gordis notes that while Netanyahu apologized for the ad, his close ally, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, claimed Netanyahu hadn’t known about the ad — despite the fact that the prime minister appeared on camera to deliver the closing pitch on the same set where the therapy group was meeting. (Watch the ad here.)

The third crisis is the publication last Friday of a leaked document apparently indicating that Netanyahu had secretly agreed to peace negotiations based on the 1967 lines, along with a return of some refugees and a Palestinian foothold in Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, all positions the prime minister has repeatedly rejected in public. Compounding the damage caused by the document itself among Likud supporters on the right was the inept, panicky response of Netanyahu’s campaign, which first called the document fake, then denied he had agreed to the positions in the document, then claimed he now repudiated his endorsement of the two-state solution in his famous 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech. Finally, late Sunday night, he repudiated the repudiation of two states.

“Whatever the outcome,” Gordis writes,

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Why Bibi Nixed Two-State Solution

By J.J. Goldberg

Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party were backpedaling furiously this weekend to dispel an unwelcome image of diplomatic flexibility, after a negotiating document surfaced in which the Israeli prime minister appeared to offer sweeping concessions to the Palestinians on 1967 borders, return of refugees, Palestinian presence in the Jordan Valley and some undefined Palestinian claim in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu and the Likud issued a series of statements variously calling the purported document either a fake or a genuine American draft that Netanyahu’s adviser had helped to draft, even though the prime minister flatly rejected its contents. In a final effort to distance himself from the concessions, he announced on Sunday that he no longer endorsed Palestinian statehood.

While Netanyahu was trying to distance himself from that document, however, Israel’s Channel 10 Television on Sunday evening reported on yet another document offering similarly sweeping concessions in Netanyahu’s name. This second document was a letter reportedly given to Quartet negotiator Tony Blair by Netanyahu’s then-adviser Ron Dermer, currently Israeli ambassador in Washington, expressing willingness to accept the “consensus of the international community” and withdraw from all the territories Israel captured in 1967, with some land swaps. Channel 10 investigative reporter Raviv Drucker reported the Dermer letter but gave no indication of its date. (Dermer has denied offering any withdrawals.)

Forgotten amid the furor, meanwhile, is the July 2014 New Republic account of the failed Kerry peace talks, by reporters Amir Tibon and Ben Birnbaum. In January 2014, they reported, the secretary of state got a written agreement from Netanyahu that the “new secure and recognized border between Israel and Palestine will be negotiated based on the 1967 lines with mutual agreed swaps.”

In all, then, there are now reports of three separate documents in which Netanyahu or his close aides appear to accept the creation of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 armistice lines or their equivalent in area. This would seem to weaken the claims from the left that Netanyahu is incapable of making the concessions needed to reach peace with the Palestinians. Coming just over a week before Israel’s parliamentary elections, though, they pose far greater danger to Netanyahu, whose campaign for reelection is based on his image as an uncompromising opponent of Israeli concessions.

The weekend furor began with front-page report by political commentator Nahum Barnea in Friday’s Yediot Ahronot (English version here). It described a document dated August 2013, purportedly summing up a series of negotiations in London between a close adviser to Netanyahu and a confidante of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

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Palestinians Cut Security Ties With Israel — Not

By J.J. Goldberg

“Palestinians cut security coordination with Israel”? Really?

This looks like another one of those cases where the press gets out ahead of the story. The initial headlines (here, here) said the Palestinians have cut security coordination between their forces and Israel’s. The stories under the headlines said that actually the PLO’s central council had either ordered or recommended that the Palestinian Authority (which is not the same thing as the PLO) halt security coordination at some future point to be decided by Mahmoud Abbas.

The reality seems to be that Abbas, who chairs both bodies, has just given himself another cudgel to hold over Israel’s head, part of a growing collection, like the International Criminal Court and other UN agencies, that he brandishes but never really uses as he tries to pressure Israel. His goal is to press Israeli to accept his terms for Palestinian independence without reigniting the violence that’s brought such misery on the Palestinians in the past. Don’t ask how its working out for him.

Abbas’s dilemma is that the government serving in Jerusalem during most of the time he’s been in office, Netanyahu’s, really, really doesn’t like his terms for independence and seems impervious to his pressure. When the Palestinians use violence Jerusalem says it won’t be forced into conceding. When the Palestinians resort to nonviolent pressure, like diplomatic maneuvering or boycotts, Jerusalem calls it “diplomatic terrorism” or “economic terrorism” and says it won’t give in to terrorism. When the Palestinians refrain from pressure tactics Jerusalem sees no need to concede.

Coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces was one of the terms of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which agreed jointly to create the Palestinian Authority as a semi-autonomous administrative body in the territories while Israel and the PLO continued to negotiate a permanent arrangement.

Under PLO-PA chairman Yasser Arafat the coordination was, shall we say, spotty, going up and down and falling apart completely when the Second Intifada broke out in 2000. Things got better in 2003 when Abbas, then Arafat’s deputy, was appointed PA prime minister. Terror attacks dropped dramatically and the PA security forces stopped participating in them. Things got better still after Arafat died in November 2004 and was replaced as chairman by Abbas.

The real turning point came in 2007. That’s when the United States set up a training program under Lieutenant General Keith Dayton to professionalize the PA forces. Things turned around rather quickly as more and more units went through the American training bases in Jordan and returned to the field.

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WATCH: Jon Stewart on Bibi and 'Angry Jews'

By J.J. Goldberg

You might have missed these two essential video clips commenting on the week’s news. Fear not — here they are. One features Jon Stewart and Aasif Mandvi on the debate surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit and its impact on the print newspaper industry. The other, erudite meteorological comment on the horrid weather socking us as March comes in like a lion, from the late, great John Belushi.

First, the Daily Show on Bibi ads. It’s a follow-up to Stewart’s Wednesday commentary on the Israeli prime minister’s State of the Jewish Nation address to Congress. The Forward posted the main bit (here), in which Stewart comments on the reception Congress gave the Bibster. (If you can’t find it, here’s a link to the full-length version of Stewart’s commentary on the speech, courtesy of Comedy Central.)

The part you missed, though, came after the commercial break. Stewart went to senior print analyst Aasif Mandvi, who explained how the prime minister’s visit may have saved the print newspaper industry: by getting Jews to buy competing full-page ads to have their say on Netanyahu, Obama, U.S.-Israel relations and genocide.

Mandvi: Think about it, Jon. What would you have said a week ago if I had asked you what it would take to save the publishing industry?

Stewart: Oh, I would have said it would take a — a comet knocking out the Internet, or newspapers printed on chocolate. You know, that sort of thing?

Mandvi: Good ideas, but not as good as angry Jews!

Stewart: Really one of the better iPhone games I’ve played…

Watch the whole thing:

Second is a meteorological update on the nasty weather that doesn’t seem to go away. To explain the complexities, I offer the comment on Saturday Night Live by Weekend Update chief meteorologist John Belushi of blessed memory, reminding us that March doesn’t always come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. For example, he reports, in the Maldive islands, “March comes in like a wildebeest and goes out like ant — a tiny little ant…” But I don’t do it justice. This you’ve got to see:

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No, Mr. President, It Isn't Just Extremism. It's Jihad

By J.J. Goldberg

President Obama may have a fine plan in the works for combating what he calls “violent extremism,” but he doesn’t do the cause any good by tiptoeing around the problem. There are many sources of violent extremism in the world, but there’s basically just one that’s terrorizing vast sections of humanity right now, and that’s the one that identifies itself with purist Islam and jihad.

The president laid out his theory, if that’s what it is, in two forums this week. Once in a February 17 op-ed essay in the Los Angeles Times, here, and once in his February 19 speech to his summit in Washington, (text here, video here). A serious reading of the two documents makes it clear why he prefers the vague nomenclature he’s chosen, and equally clear why it makes no sense.

In the first place, his effort to show that the sort of terrorism under discussion finds roots in a variety of ideologies and religious communities has the effect of muddying the issue. In the L.A. Times he mentions the shootings in 2012 at a Wisconsin Sikh temple and in 2014 at the Kansas City Jewish community center, both by white supremacists, as examples of the sort of problem we’re up against. But they’re not. Violent white supremacists are a relatively small group with no major funding, capable of only occasional attacks. The Christian Crusades, which he cited in his talk at the National Prayer Breakfast February 5, were a millennium ago and aren’t likely to recur. Revolutionary jihadism is happening now, and it’s threatening entire countries in the Middle East, tearing apart societies as far apart as Nigeria and Afghanistan, and challenging daily life in Europe, at least for artists and Jews.

There is a global crisis right now, and it’s severe, widespread and specific to a particular faith community in a way that no other form of violent extremism is at this moment in history. Israeli intelligence calls it global jihad, which gets closer to the reality than the president’s weasel-words. Sincere, moderate Muslims may argue that the Israeli nomenclature demeans the religious concept of jihad, which is broader and deeper than the holy war that the word commonly conjures up. There’s Islamism , but that sounds too much like Islam to usefully mark the distinction. How about jihadism? Revolutionary jihadism?

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Probing Mrs. Netanyahu's Bottle Deposits

By J.J. Goldberg

Two days after Israel’s election season opened officially with the registration of party lists on Thursday, the campaign is already just about the dirtiest in memory. Various parties are suing to have the Central Elections Commission disallow the names of certain rival parties or bar individual candidates from running. And accusations of financial misdoing are flying right and left.

Lawmakers from the ruling Likud party have vowed to release a report on Sunday accusing main opposition party, the Labor-Livni alliance known as the Zionist Camp, of receiving illegal campaign donations from “leftist” foreign sources “aiming to overthrow the regime.” The accusation involves the so-called V-15 project (for Victory 2015), led by an American campaign consultant who has worked in the past for President Obama.

At the same time, the State Comptroller (equivalent to a national inspector general) said he has completed a long-awaited report on allegations of financial abuse in the management of the prime minister’s official residence, but won’t say when he’ll release it. Press accounts have reported allegations by former household of inflated spending, including some 4,200 shekels ($1,000) per month on alcohol, and diverting official funds for personal use by the prime minister and his family. But nobody knows what the State Comptroller has documented in his 18-month investigation, and he’s given no indication whether or not he’ll release the report before the election. Lawyers for the Netanyahus say releasing the report could unfairly influence the voters. Critics say withholding it could permit the reelection of a felon.

Tzipi Livni, who was Netanyahu’s justice minister until two months ago, called Saturday morning for the state attorney general to open a criminal investigation of the prime minister on suspicion of larceny. But right now the criminal justice system is looking particularly hard at the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu. Last June the daily Yediot Ahronot reported that she had ordered a set of garden furniture for the official residence in Jerusalem that was identical to an old set at their private residence in Caesarea, and then swapped the sets, moving the old furniture to Jerusalem and the new, government-funded purchase to Caesarea. The investigation of the claim, reportedly made by the former manager of the prime minister’s residence, was taken over by the State Comptroller’s office and has been under lock and key. Last week, however, new reports surfaced that the first lady had been ordering staff at the official residence to collect used bottles, return them to the supermarket for deposit and then keeping the money, said to total thousands of shekels, all of it government property. Haaretz reported yesterday that the allegations against Sara Netanyahu have been separated from the ones against her husband and the attorney general today ordered a criminal investigation into Mrs. Netanyahu’s alleged actions.

Yisrael Hayom reports that residence driver Victor Saraga signed an affidavit yesterday testifying that he took the bottles to the supermarket (after other staff reportedly refused) and put the deposit money into the official residence petty cash account.

The Latest Polls: Likud and its main rival, the Labor-Livni alliance known as the Zionst Camp, continue to run neck and neck. Of the two most recent polls, released on Friday, one by Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet had the two tied at 26 Knesset seats each (out of 120 total), while the other by Walla News had Likud up by one. (You can see all the polls here.)

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Knesset Briefs: Kahanist on Board, Bennett's Soccer Foul & More

By J.J. Goldberg

The final deadline passed this afternoon for Israel’s political parties to register for the March 17 Knesset elections. Several last-minute decisions will substantially affect the map in the weeks ahead:

Kahanism Redux: Eli Yishai, the former Shas party chairman who quit in December and formed his own religious-right party, Yahad-Ha’am Itanu (“Together - The People Are With Us”) has joined forces with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Strength”) party of Baruch Marzel and Michael Ben-Ari. Polls have consistently shown that neither of them would pass the vote threshold and enter the Knesset separately, but together they would get the required minimum 3.25% of the popular vote, which translates to 4 Knesset seats. Accordingly, it now looks like Baruch Marzel, onetime spokesman for Meir Kahane’s Kach party, who inherited the party leadership after Kahane was assassinated in 1991 and today is arguably the most militant leader on the far right of the settler movement, will enter the Knesset in March.

Yishai had tried earlier to join forces with Tekuma, the right wing, settler-dominated wing of the Jewish Home bloc led by housing minister Uri Ariel. But that fell through after Yishai’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Moshe Mazuz, forbade the placing of women on the party list. Ariel continued to support the Yishai alliance, but lost a vote in the Tekuma leadership.

Yishai was appointed head of Shas in 1999 by the party’s spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, after party founder Arye Deri was convicted of graft. When Deri entered prison in September 2000, Yishai began moving the party from Deri’s dovish, pro-Labor and moderately social-democratic policies toward his own arch-conservative views.

Among other things Yishai pulled out of Ehud Barak’s coalition in December 2000, leaving Barak with a minority government and ultimately torpedoing the Camp David negotiations that had resumed informally in August in Jerusalem. The talks resumed officially in December in Washington and then in January at Taba, but Barak had lost his majority and called for new elections, which he lost to Ariel Sharon (thanks in large part to the outbreak of the Second Intifada the previous October). From then on Shas was considered a staunchly hawkish party, firmly allied to the Likud. In 2012, though, after Deri had finished his 7-year post-prison cooling off period, Ovadia put Deri back in command, of a 3-member party troika – himself, Yishai and centrist Ariel Attias. Deri managed to give the No. 4 slot to his ally Yitzhak Cohen, who called right after the January 2013 elections for Israel to endorse the Arab Peace Initiative. Trench warfare between Deri and Yishai has been a constant ever since.

Benny Begin’s Back: Prime Minister Netanyahu took a big step toward blunting the far-right and anti-democratic image of his Likud party by recruiting Binyamin Begin, the onetime senior statesman and son of the former prime minister. Begin was named to the No. 11 slot on the party slate, a spot that’s reserved for personal appointees of the party chairman, outside the primary system.

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Reporter Who Broke Alberto Nisman Story Lands in Israel

By J.J. Goldberg

Damian Pachter, the Argentinian journalist who broke the news of the death a week ago of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, has landed in Israel after fleeing for his life on Saturday.

In an impromptu press conference (video here) at Ben-Gurion Airport Sunday morning, Pachter affirmed in fluent Hebrew that he was being followed and believed his life was in danger because of his reporting on the Nisman case. Asked in English why he fled to Israel, he replied: “I came here because I’m an Israeli citizen, I lived here the most important years of my life and this is the place I feel safe.”

Nisman had spent the last decade investigating the deadly 1994 bombing of the AMIA Center, headquarters of Argentina’s main Jewish organizations. He was found shot to death in his apartment last Sunday, hours before he was to testify to Congress on his allegations that Argentina’s president was plotting with Iranian officials to cover up their alleged role in the bombing.

Investigations have pointed to Iran’s top leaders as the planners of the bombing, which killed 85 people and was the worst terrorist incident in Argentine history. It was allegedly executed by the Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia largely controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Authorities initially described Nisman’s death as a suicide. Then, as doubts mounted, the office of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner put out statements claiming that Nisman had been used by disgruntled Argentine ex-intelligence agents to libel the president and was murdered after he was no longer useful.

In an uncanny apparent coincidence, Nisman’s death was discovered about 19 hours after the death, apparently by Israeli drone strike, of Hezbollah operative Jihad Mughniyeh, whose late father Imad Mughniyeh is believed to have led the 1994 bombing operation. A ranking Iranian Revolutionary Guard general was killed with him.

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Reporter Who Broke Alberto Nisman Story Flees

By J.J. Goldberg

The journalist who first reported the death of Argentinian special prosecutor Alberto Nisman last Sunday has now fled the country, saying he feared for his life. This is according to reports on Israel’s Ynetnews (English) and Walla (Hebrew) news sites, based on tweets on the online Argentinian Journalists’ Forum.

The journalist, Damian Pachter of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, reportedly tweeted that he decided to flee after noticing “suspicious surveillance” following him. According to Walla, he also “received hints” that he should leave. He said he left without even stopping at home to collect clothes or belongings after receiving warnings that there were unknown persons waiting for him at home. He left his car at the airport parking lot.

Nisman had spent the last decade investigating the still-unresolved bombing in 1994 of the AMIA center, headquarters of Argentina’s Jewish community. A previous investigation had gone around in circles for a decade and was capped by the disbarring and indictment of the previous chief investigator on charges of bribing a witness.

The bombing killed 85 people and was the worst terrorist incident in Argentine history — and the deadliest anti-Jewish attack since World War II. Israel and U.S. intelligence services believe it was planned and carried out by Iran and Hezbollah, but nobody has been brought to justice.

Nisman announced four days before his death that he had completed a 290-page report charging Argentina’s president and foreign minister, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Hector Timerman, with plotting a cover-up. He said the pair had planned to dismiss charges against the senior Iranian officials suspected in the plot in return for a deal to trade Argentinian grain for Iranian oil. The Financial Times of London carried an analysis on Thursday of the economic pressures driving the suspected deal.

Late Sunday night Nisman was found dead in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor of his apartment, with a single bullet wound to the head and a .22 caliber pistol lying next to him. He had been scheduled to appear hours later before a closed session of Argentina’s Congress to discuss his allegations.

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After Abdullah: What's Next for Saudi Arabia?

By J.J. Goldberg

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who died January 23 at age 90, leaves behind a legacy of monumental proportions for his kingdom, the region and the global economy. For that reason, his death leaves a cloud of uncertainty over all three realms. He leaves the country in the hands of an elderly successor, his half-brother Salman, who’s said to suffer health limitations.

Salman is expected to continue Abdullah’s gradualist reformism, though some who know him say he lacks the folksy charm that allowed Abdullah to move faster than anyone had expected.

Abdullah was the sixth monarch of the kingdom created in 1932 by his father, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. In a way, though, Abdullah can be seen as the first ruler of a new Saudi Arabia that began to emerge under his leadership. King since 2005 and effective ruler for a decade before that, he oversaw the desert kingdom’s transformation from an oversized feudal oil sheikhdom into a leading force in global politics and diplomacy.

In the process he became one of the world’s most influential heads of state. The country that was once a leading voice of Islamist extremism and opposition to Israel became the effective leader of the Arab moderate camp and an advocate of Arab-Israeli peace.

Despite its enormous wealth as the world’s largest oil producer, and its symbolic importance as the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia before Abdullah was famously reclusive and conservative in its international dealings. The monarchy was allied with the United States, but members of the sprawling royal family conducted their own virtual foreign policies, from sponsoring radical Islamist movements to funding international terrorism.

Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, Abdullah’s father, was born in 1876 to a clan that had ruled the oasis town of Riyadh in the Nejd desert of central Arabia on and off for a century. Driven out of Riyadh by a rival clan in 1890, ibn Saud retook the town with 40 followers in 1902 and went on to conquer the rest of the Arabian peninsula over the next three decades and established the deeply conservative theocracy.

The discovery of oil in the 1930s made the kingdom and the royal family fabulously wealthy. Ibn Saud died in 1953 and was succeeded by a series of his sons, who ruled erratically. Saud, the first, was best known as a spendthrift playboy. Forced to abdicate in 1965, he was succeeded by the harsh and austere Feisal, who was assassinated in 1975. He was succeeded by two popular but ineffectual rulers, Khalid and then Fahd. When Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995, Abdullah took over as regent. He became king after Fahd’s death in 2005.

Few would claim that Abdullah was a crusading liberal. Saudi Arabia is still one of the world’s strictest absolute monarchies. It still spends millions each year promoting its ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam around the world. Representative democracy is practically nonexistent. Women still can’t drive. Dissenters are publicly flogged. Public beheadings are relatively commonplace, occurring almost weekly. The country is among the world’s five leading practitioners of capital punishment, along with China, Iran, Iraq and (ahem) the United States of America.

In his own cautious way, though, the late king took significant strides. He gave women the right to vote, many now attend college, considerable numbers have entered the workforce and starting this year they can run for local office.

Before his accession, restrictions on Jewish entry were so extreme that the first visit by then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger in 1973 was considered a historic moment. Restrictions on Jewish employees of U.S. companies working in the country continued long afterward

In November 1995, the same month that Abdullah became the kingdom’s acting ruler, in a little-noticed but historic move, a 10-member delegation from the Anti-Defamation League in New York was invited to Saudi Arabia for an official visit. It was the first of several ADL delegations that have visited, met with government officials including ranking ministers and on several occasions carried messages to Israeli leaders in Jerusalem.

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