J.J. Goldberg

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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Labor Tops Likud in Polls, But Coalition Still Elusive

By J.J. Goldberg


With two months to go before Israelis go to the polls, the Labor Party opened a statistically significant lead over Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud for the first time since its mid-December alliance with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah.

Of six polls released last Thursday and Friday, January 15 and 16, one — also the largest poll, with 830 respondents — showed Labor winning 24 seats to Likud’s 20 in the 120-member Knesset, while another showed Labor leading 25 seats to 22. The remaining four polls showed Labor ahead by one or two seats, the gap that’s separated the two parties as they’ve scrabbled for the lead over the past five weeks. (All the latest polls can be found here.)

Most observers called Labor’s new lead a post-primary bump, following the January 13 party vote that boosted women and popular young social activists to the top of the slate. At the same time, Netanyahu might be suffering from the bad publicity he got from his clumsily planned and executed trip to Paris for the post-Charlie Hebdo solidarity demonstration.

The polls don’t change the fact that the Likud still holds an advantage in the bargaining to form a coalition that will follow the election. The Likud has a natural ally to its right in Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which has been polling consistently in third place with about 16 seats. Labor’s equivalent to its left is Meretz, which is polling at 5 or 6 seats. Thus Likud begins the post-election coalition bargaining with a solid 38 to 40 seats lined up, while Labor begins with about 30.

Labor’s coalition-building disadvantage could potentially be closed by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which left the Netanyahu coalition on particularly bitter terms in December and is widely considered unlikely to go back into a new Likud-led government after the election. Netanyahu himself vowed December 23 that he wouldn’t give Lapid a ministry in a new government. All this suggests that Yesh Atid will likely be in the Labor camp when the post-election bargaining begins.

Lapid will drop considerably from the 19 seats he won in the 2013 elections, but his fall doesn’t seem likely to be as severe as once feared. He was polling in single digits through much of December. Polls last week showed him winning from a low of 7 to as many as 12 seats.

Lapid is a double-edged sword for Labor, though. If the current poll numbers hold up — and with slight variations they’ve been remarkably stable for a month — then any conceivable Labor-led coalition will have to include the Haredi parties, Shas and Torah Judaism.

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Zionist Polls Open: Who's Running, How to Vote

By J.J. Goldberg


Alert readers may have read my column from last week, explaining what the World Zionist Congress is about, how the American delegation is elected and why anyone should care enough to vote.

Well, the online polls are now open. To register and vote, you need to pay $10 (via credit card) and affirm that you are Jewish (no details as to how that’s defined), live in the United States, will be 18 by next June 30 and agree to a rather bland statement of principles known as the Jerusalem Program of 1968, the text of which appears on the form. For your convenience I’ve copied it below, after the jump.

Click here to register and vote.

You’ll find a list of the 11 parties running slates of candidates. Each party name is accompanied by a link to its platform and another link to its candidate slate, listed in order. Whatever percentage of the total vote a party gets, that’s the percentage of the 145-member American delegation it can fill.

You’ll note that while most of the parties make it pretty plain who they are, if not in their name then at least once you click on the platform, several have names and platforms that sound like each other and give no clue as to who or what you’re voting for. Here, then, is a quick guide for the perplexed voter:

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Run Charlie Cartoons? Times Frets as Others Act

By J.J. Goldberg


The New York Times made an awkward attempt this afternoon to examine the presumably anxious debate in the American news media over whether or not to reproduce the new Charlie Hebdo cover with its image of Muhammad.

The trouble is, there isn’t much of a debate. The Times is one of just a handful of major American outlets that’s still unwilling to reprint the Muhammad image. Others practicing the self-censorship include the Associated Press, CNN, NBC News, ABC News and PBS.

Outlets that made the opposite decision and went ahead to show the image today included, in addition to our own Jewish Daily Forward, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Newsweek, the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, Houston Chronicle, New York Daily News, New York Post and even the U.S. government-owned Voice of America. And that’s obviously a partial list.

The New York Times explained its decision not to publish the image as “an editorial judgment.” The AP said its decision was “based on its policy to avoid images designed to provoke on the basis of religion.”

CNN’s explanation was more refreshingly blunt. A statement by network president Jeff Zucker, read on air by anchor Erin Burnett, said CNN gave priority to “our obligation to protect our journalists around the world.”

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Secret Israeli Report Sees Rift With Europe Growing

By J.J. Goldberg


A classified Israeli foreign ministry document, leaked to the daily Yediot Ahronot, warns that 2015 will see Israel’s standing on the world stage steadily deteriorating. It predicts “worsening drift in Europe toward Palestinian positions, more parliaments recognizing the State of Palestine, fear of sanctions and labeling merchandise [to separate settlement products from tariff-free Israel-proper products] and no certainty that the United States will continue after Israel’s March elections to protect Israel with its veto.”

The document is said to be a summary of an interministerial assessment roundtable convened by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and is signed by foreign ministry deputy director-general Gilead Cohen. It was circulated to Israel’s ambassadors around the world, Yediot reported.

In addition to labeling settlement products and parliamentary votes to recognize Palestine, the foreign ministry document warns of European nations halting the supply of replacement parts for Israeli equipment and demanding compensation for damage caused by Israel to European projects in the territories.

“The Europeans are creating a clear link between political and economic relations, and in this context it should be remembered that Europe is Israel’s main trading partner.”

European diplomats and politicians increasingly view Israel as responsible for the failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, claiming that Israel sets unreasonable conditions for a peace agreement in order to continue deepening its hold on the West Bank.

The tensions surrounding Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Paris this week are an outgrowth of that growing gulf of suspicion. As Haaretz diplomatic correspondents Barak Ravid and Asher Schechter both reported, French president Francois Hollande initially asked Netanyahu not to come to Paris for the Sunday solidarity rally, because he wanted to avoid injecting the divisive Israeli-Palestinian issue into the rally’s theme of national and Europe-wide unity and solidarity.

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Yes, It's About French Muslims and Anti-Semitism

By J.J. Goldberg


I was on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show on MSNBC this morning, talking about anti-Semitism in France in the context of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher grocery attacks this week. It was a 5-minute segment in the course of a two-hour panel discussion (which I was not part of) on the attacks, terrorism in France, free expression and the place of the French Muslim community. (You can see the whole discussion here.)

As you can see, Harris-Perry stepped in (at 2:32) and asked me flat-out to assure her that the “anti-Semitism problem in France is not primarily a problem of anti-Semitism from French Muslims.” I’m afraid I let her down. I cited Ilan Halimi, the school in Toulouse, the Jewish Museum in Brussels (attackd by a French Muslim), the mob attack on the synagogue in Paris last summer — all perpetrated by Muslims.

Here’s the segment:


My explanation of the anti-Jewish outbursts by French Muslims focused on radicals wanting to participate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and picking on their French Jewish neighbors as surrogate Israelis. Even though that’s the general operating assumption of Israeli intelligence agencies, I think it was incomplete as an overall explanation. I was intending to expand on it and talk about the increasing presence of pure, old-fashioned Jew-hatred in various strains of radical Islamism, especially since the 1998 merger of Al Qaeda with Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad. But the segment ended sort of abruptly and I was told I was done, so I never had the chance finish the answer.

Incidentally, if you haven’t seen it, it’s important to check out the brief essay “The Blame for the Charlie Hebdo Murders” by the progressive war correspondent George Packer, The New Yorker’s resident expert on terrorism. He makes the case for looking squarely at the ideology of radical Islamism and “the astonishing surge in Islamist killing around the world” rather than trying to “tiptoe around the Islamic connection, claiming that the carnage has nothing to do with faith.”

The murders, he says,

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Lessons of Paris — and War on Terror

By J.J. Goldberg


When you’re at war, it’s not enough simply to pick up a gun and start shooting. The other side will be doing the same thing. Of course you want to be tough and show you won’t be bullied. The trouble is, so do they. To succeed in war, you need to know certain things.

You need to know your enemy: Who are they? What are their resources? What are they after and what will make them stand down? How deep is their bench?

You need to know your weaponry: What have you got? What can and can’t it do? How long will it last? What are its possible risks and side-effects?

You need to know your strategy and end-game: How do you want things to end up? What would victory look like? What’s the most you can realistically hope to get? What’s the minimum you’d settle for?

You need to know your tactics: What can you do with your available resources to move you toward your end-game? Among your various options (there’s always more than one), which will move you closer and faster to your goals? What are the risks of each? What risks are acceptable? Knowing all that, what’s your next step, and the next three steps after that?

There’s still plenty we don’t know about the terrorist drama in Paris this week, but there are several things we can learn from it already.

The first has to do with the so-called war on terror. We can drop the “so-called.” There is a war going on.

The second has to do with understanding the enemy. During the early stages, there was a lot of media speculation about whether or not the Charlie Hebdo killers were connected to “a group like” Al Qaeda or ISIS. Question: Are Al Qaeda and ISIS really that similar?

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a point, in his Wednesday night sympathy message to the French people, of linking those two jihadist organizations to the terrorist organizations confronting Israel on its southern and northern borders, the point being that France and Israel are battling the same threat, namely the “terrorist fanatics of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.” He said “radical Islamic terrorism knows no bounds, and therefore the struggle which must know no borders.” Question: Is it really a single struggle?

The answer to both questions is no. Islamism is a broad term that denotes an ideology aimed at bringing the Muslim religion into political power. It has several variants with sharply different goals, strategies and tactics. Jihadism is one of those variants.

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Astronaut Snaps Stunning Photos of Israel. Spot the '67 Lines from Space!

By J.J. Goldberg


NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore shot a series of amazing photos of Israel from on board the International Space Station as it passed over the region on a crystal-clear Christmas morning 10 days ago. They were posted on the International Space Station’s Facebook page.

They are not color-enhanced. This is what it actually looks like from up there.

The first shot, above, looks north from above the Gulf of Aqaba. You can see the Mediterranean coastline from the Nile Delta at lower left all the way across the Sinai Peninsula, up the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian coasts to Turkey. Just south of Turkey, partly obscured by clouds, is the island of Cyprus. The vertical blue oblong surrounded by brown desert near the center of the photo is the Dead Sea.

One of the most strikingly unexpected aspects of these photos is the clarity with which you can see the Green Line, the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. It’s clearest in the next photo, which is shot from over the Kingdom of Jordan, looking west (north is to the right, south to the left). You can see the West Bank as two brown oblong shapes in the middle of the photo, with the smaller Judean region to the left and the much larger Samaria to the right. They’re separated by the dark green finger of the old Jerusalem Corridor stretching down eastward from the coastal plain.


The most visible feature in the photo is Jordan River system, running from the arrowhead-shaped Lake Kinneret (a.k.a. Sea of Galilee) at the northern end (upper right) end to the Dead Sea at the south. Directly above the Dead Sea is the pale buff-colored stripe of the Judean Desert. The Judean Hills and Mount Hebron are just above that. Samaria is to the right, directly above (that is, west of) the Jordan River itself. It’s bordered on the right (the north) by the black expanse of the Jezreel Valley. Below the Jordan River, overlooking it from the east, are the hills of Moab in the Kingdom of Jordan.

Many Israelis are under the impression that they have erased the pre-1967 lines. Looking down from the heavens it doesn’t look that way.

The reason for the sharp distinction between the Jerusalem Corridor, which is technically part of the Judean Hills, and the West Bank to its north and south, is the forestation program carried out between 1949 and 1967 by the Jewish National Fund.

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Playing Game of Chicken Over ICC 'War Crimes'

By J.J. Goldberg


Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas may have opened the door to his government’s joining the International Criminal Court on New Year’s Eve when he signed the Rome Statute, the 2002 treaty that created the court. But that doesn’t make the Palestinian Authority — or the State of Palestine, as the United Nations now calls it — a member of the court. Not yet, anyway.

The road from signing the treaty to hauling Israelis before the court on war crimes charges — the road from Rome to The Hague, as Ynet’s Elior Levy put it — is still long and complicated. Abbas has flexed some muscles and shown his people some moxie, but he hasn’t yet declared judicial war on Israel, and it’s not entirely clear that he can — or even that he wants to.

What he’s been doing, it appears, is building, slowly, step by step, a legal-diplomatic edifice that may eventually make that possible. But he still has some hurdles to cross. And there are still opportunities for Jerusalem and Washington to stop the process. His end goal is not getting Israelis thrown in jail, but getting them out of his people’s lives.

If Abbas’s State of Palestine were to be accepted as member-state of the court, it would be entitled to bring charges of war crimes perpetrated against it. At first glance Israel might not seem to be vulnerable, because the rules of the court only apply to countries that are members. Israel is not a member. However, the court specifically allows member-states to bring charges over crimes committed on their territory, even if the alleged perpetrator wasn’t a member-state.

The whole tactic of going to the court carries high risks for Abbas and his allies. He heads up a government that includes the terrorist Hamas, with its long record of intentional, bloody attacks on civilians that unambiguously constitute war crimes. Palestinian leaders might find themselves more vulnerable to prosecution than Israelis.

What could Israel be charged with? The obvious charges involve the large-scale death and property destruction wreaked on Gaza during the three wars against Hamas over the past six years. There are disputes about the proportion of civilians among the dead, but no one questions that there were a lot of them. But it’s not at all clear that those deaths, horrific as they are, would be indictable as war crimes.

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Palestinian U.N. Bid Fails by 1 Vote. Was That the Plan?

By J.J. Goldberg


The Palestinian effort to have the U.N. Security Council set a deadline for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank failed to win the necessary nine votes for approval this afternoon. Palestinian spokesmen had spoken confidently before the vote of winning nine or even 10 votes. But two nations whose support they said they expected, Nigeria and South Korea, ended up abstaining. In the end eight nations voted for the resolution, two voted no and five abstained.

The outcome ended up confirming what some Palestinian and Israeli spokesmen had said weeks ago: that the resolution would fall short if it came up for a vote in 2014. Palestinian chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat had warned in a December 15 interview with an Arabic-language Israeli radio station that the resolution didn’t have nine votes.

Jordan, which holds the Arab group’s seat on the Security Council, was said to be pushing for a delay in the vote until next week, when five new members take their seats, including fiercely anti-Israel Malaysia, which will take the Asia-Pacific seat currently held by South Korea. But the Palestinians insisted on holding the vote before the New Year’s holiday.

Jordan submitted the resolution to the Security Council Monday night, over furious objections from Israel and an American hint of a veto.

The resolution called for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement within a year and full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank by the end of 2017. The full text appears after the jump.

France tried in mid-December to put together an alternative draft resolution that eased some of the terms that most alarmed Jerusalem and Washington, in hopes of securing U.S. backing and perhaps getting unanimous council support. Palestinian officials were said to be reluctantly supporting the French effort. Just before Christmas, though, the Palestinians let it be known that they would submit their own draft, and that instead of softening the language they were hardening it even further.

That evidently made it easier for Washington to peel away enough support to yield today’s result: instead of nine supporters the resolution won eight, with two voting against and five abstaining.

The Palestinian tactics mystified Israeli and American diplomats and prompted speculation that the Palestinians were intending to lose the vote. It was thought that they wanted to put on a show of toughness to counter rising anger on the Palestinian street and increasing pressure from Hamas, but they didn’t want to anger Washington by forcing it to cast a veto at a time when it needs Arab support against ISIS.

Intriguingly, during the council discussion following the vote Palestinian U.N. delegate Riyad Mansour delivered a long, detailed, furious denunciation of Israel behavior and repeatedly criticized the council for failing to act on its “responsibility” to intervene. But he ended, incongruously, by thanking by name the five council members whose terms end tomorrow for their service: Rwanda, Australia, South Korea, Luxembourg and Argentina. Three of the five abstained (Rwanda and South Korea) or voted no (Australia) and thus provided the margin for the resolution’s narrow defeat.

Think of it this way: The council’s 15 members include the five permanent members — U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China — and 10 non-permanent members. Five of those 10 joined the council in January 2013 and leave tomorrow while rhe other five (Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania, Nigeria) joined in January 2014 and serve for another year.

Of the seven no’s and abstentions that blocked the Palestinian resolution, two came from the five permanent members, two from the class of 2014 and three from the class of 2013 that leaves tomorrow. In other words, it was the class of 2013 that provided Washington and Jerusalem their margin of victory. And that was the group that Mansour chose to salute in closing his speech.

And if you’re wondering, no — none of the other speakers saluted the departing class of 2013. Only Mansour.

Here is today’s roll call:

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Labor Quakes As Scandal Shakes Lieberman Party

By J.J. Goldberg


All bets are off regarding the outcome of Israel’s March elections, thanks to a massive corruption investigation involving senior figures in Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. See the details here.

Early signs suggest it could cripple his political career, even though he hasn’t been implicated. And it might badly hurt the chances of the Labor-Livni alliance to lead the next government.

More than two dozen people were arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of involvement in a huge bribery and kickback scheme. They include a deputy cabinet minister, a former cabinet minister, top party officials and numerous current and former local government heads and non-profit managers. Allegations include demanding and paying kickbacks in return for government budgets and contracts as well as hiring relatives of government and party officials.

The top suspect, Knesset member Faina Kirschenbaum, is deputy interior minister, secretary-general of the party organization and one of Lieberman’s closest confidantes. One of the allegations is that the Beef Cattle Growers’ Association gave her daughter Ranit a job in return for certain considerations.

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Spies Spar in Shin Bet-Mossad Turf War

By J.J. Goldberg


Tensions continue to mount between Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency and the country’s other two intelligence services, the Mossad foreign intelligence agency and the military intelligence directorate of the Israel Defense Forces. So reports military correspondent Amir Rapoport in the Friday edition of the center-right daily Maariv.

It’s a messy tangle, even by the byzantine standards of Israeli security politics. In part it reflects Israel’s uncertain status in Gaza, having withdrawn its troops from the territory without ever handing over the keys to any other recognized sovereign. Partly, too, it’s the latest battleground in the Likud’s continuing effort to move Israel’s intelligence agencies to the right.

The details: The Shin Bet and military intelligence have been sharply at odds since last summer over the still-unresolved question of whether the Hamas leadership in Gaza intended to instigate the summer war with Israel, as the Shin Bet claims, or the two sides stumbled into an unintended war through a series of misunderstandings, as military intelligence maintains (and as I wrote in July). The disagreement reportedly erupted into a shouting match at a Cabinet meeting shortly after the August cease-fire and has yet to be resolved.

Now, Rapoport, writes, there’s a growing dispute between the Shin Bet and the Mossad over responsibility for intelligence gather in Gaza. Under Israeli law the Shin Bet is responsible for intelligence gathering and interdiction against terrorism within Israel and territories under its control, while the Mossad is responsible for intelligence and interdiction in foreign countries.

Gaza is a gray area. Israel withdrew its troops and civilian settlements from the territory in 2005 but didn’t hand it over to a foreign sovereignty. Israel maintains in public statements that it’s no longer responsible for Gaza, but most of the international community doesn’t recognize the abdication, nor is any such decision known to have been taken formally by any Israel legal body.

It’s against that legal background that the Mossad-Shin Bet dispute arises. The Shin Bet has continued operating in Gaza uninterrupted. According to Rapoport, it was decided (he doesn’t say by whom) after the withdrawal to leave the territory under the aegis of the Shin Bet “in light of the close connection between what happens in the Gaza Strip and the territories of Judea and Samaria, which are under Israeli control and within the operational responsibility of the Shin Bet.”

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Tracing Rebel Roots of a Woody Guthrie Hanukkah Song

By J.J. Goldberg


For those who’ve enjoyed my holiday musical meanderings over the years, I’ve got something a little different today: a journey through the history of one song. The tune will sound the same, but the words and messages change. Or, in a way, don’t change. You’ll see what I mean.

This is about one of Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs, “The Many and the Few,” which retells the Hanukkah story in inimitable Woody fashion. The tune comes from an old Irish drinking song, “Old Rosin the Beau” (aka Resin the Bow, aka Roisin the Beau). It became a standard fiddle tune in the early 1800s in the Southern hillbilly culture that was Woody’s musical cradle. By 1860 the tune was familiar enough that the Hutchison Family Singers of New Hampshire could use it for an Abraham Lincoln presidential campaign song, “Lincoln and Liberty.” On the other hand, it was also used as a marching tune by a (possibly fictional) Confederate unit, known to some as Kelly’s Irish Brigade, that was active on the Kansas-Missouri front where John Brown got started before the war and where Jesse James continued the guerrilla war afterward.

Here’s Woody himself, singing “The Many and the Few.” (And here are the lyrics.)


The first version I ever heard, though, was an Irish rebel song from the very late 1800s, “The Men of the West,” sung by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. It tells of Wolfe Tone’s failed United Irishmen rising against the British in 1798. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, the 1798 rising came the closest and fell the most bloodily of all the Irish uprisings over the centuries. To my ear this song has some of the same feel as “The Many and the Few,” the big difference being that the Maccabees won and the United Irishmen lost. Then again, over the course of a century-plus of Maccabean-Hasmonean reign their victory turned sour, whereas the Irish defeat turned to victory just over a century later.

Here are the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem singing one of the great battle songs of freedom, “The Men of the West.” (And here are the lyrics.)


How did Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie, the bard of the Dust Bowl, come to write a whole cycle of Hanukkah songs?

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Must-See TV: Warren Slams Bank Bailout Bill

By J.J. Goldberg


Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor this evening, delivering one of the most powerful congressional speeches I’ve ever heard, attacking the provision in the omnibus government spending bill that amends the Dodd-Frank banking reform bill to restore the promise of taxpayer bailouts to big banks that lose money on crazy derivative gambling. “On Wednesday I spoke to Democrats who are against bailouts. On Thursday I spoke to Republicans who say they’re against bailouts and asked them to vote their beliefs. Today I’m talking about a third group that has tremendous power in Washington, Citigroup.”

I admit, Dodd-Frank wasn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces.


Sen. Warren in Historic Blast vs. Banks. Video to Come

By J.J. Goldberg

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren just delivered a slashing speech on the Senate floor about the Dodd-Frank rollback provision in the omnibus spending bill. She went through a list of Citigroup alumni holding top positions in the current administration, laid out the imperative for preventing the big banks from making the same crazy derivatives gambles that blew up in everyone’s faces six years ago. The provision would ease regulation of derivatives and promise future taxpayer bailouts for banks that lose big on derivatives bets.

She talked about the millions who lost their homes and jobs and are now about to have their tax dollars put on the line to bail out the banks again the next time these gambles explode. She quoted Teddy Roosevelt on breaking up the big trusts because they had too much power — not too much economic power but too much political power. And she asked how we got to the point where the big banks could now sneak through such a crazy provision, something that overwhelming majorities on both sides are opposed to, and attach it to a bill that we need simply to keep our government operating.

The American people didn’t elect us to stand up for Citigroup. They elected us to stand up for all the people.

One of the most stirring Senate speeches in memory. I’ll post the video as soon as it’s available.

She is cosponsoring an amendment with Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana to strip the provision from the bill. Not clear that Majority Leader Harry Reid will allow a vote on the amendment. Reid “filled the tree” — that is, shut off further amendments, at least for tonight. Some senators hope they’ll have another chance to raise the amendment tomorrow. President Obama is going all out for passage of the bill as is.


How Bibi Might Win: Link to Bennett's Settler Party

By J.J. Goldberg


As Israel’s March 17 snap election date approaches, the electoral map continues to change faster than Taylor Swift’s outfits.

The ink hasn’t even dried on the merger between Tzipi Livni and Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog that vaults them to first place in the polls, but the Likud’s reply is already in the works. According to a new poll released today by the Midgam organization, a merger between the Likud and Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home party would win them 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

That’s fewer than the 38 seats they’ll win if they run separately, according to current polls. But it also might be Bibi’s one path to a second term, giving him a prohibitive lead over the 24 seats predicted for the merged Labor-Livni List, or LLL, as I’m calling it. (LLL is also the yodeling mock-laugh perfected by the late David Twersky.)

On the other hand, Jewish Home might not end up offering the dowry that’s now on the table. The leader of its far-right faction, housing minister Uri Ariel, whose semi-Kahanist Tekuma party holds four of Jewish Home’s 12 current seats, is threatening to bolt. Running alone, he just might fall short of Knesset membership and disappear after the election.

But Ariel might have a new partner waiting in the wings: Eli Yishai, former chairman of Shas. Since being demoted to No. 2 after the 2012 return of founding party chair Arye Deri, Yishai has become increasingly alienated. Deri is firmly left-of-center both on the Palestinian issue — he favors a two-state solution — and on economics, where he leans social-democratic. Yishai is on the far right on both issues. Party sources are quoted (in the left-leaning Haaretz, the center-right Maariv and the right-wing Yisrael Hayom, among others) as saying Yishai is on the verge of leaving Shas and either setting up a competing Sephardic-Haredi party or joining forces with Uri Ariel.

A Yishai-led Haredi party would damage both Shas and Likud, though the damage might be slight. A joint Yishai-Ariel list, however, could badly hurt Likud, Shas and Jewish Home alike.

Answers are expected next Monday, when last-ditch reconciliation meetings are scheduled for both rifts — Bennett-Ariel and Deri-Yishai.

There’s turbulence as well at the center of the map, where three popular figures — Avigdor Lieberman, Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon — are watching their popularity slowly fade.

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Must-Watch TV: Obama on 'The Colbert Report'

By J.J. Goldberg


Watch the Leader of the Free World make fun of himself, his critics, Fox News and lots more in a hilarious “Colbert Report” appearance.

In the following clip, Obama walks on the set “unexpectedly” (he was due to show up a few minutes later for widely advertised interview) and announces that he’s going to do Colbert’s job for him by reading his “The Word” segment. That’s a recurring segment in which the faux-conservative host gives a little speech while wry comments pop up on the screen next to him. Obama’s version is renamed “The Decree,” and begins: “I, Stephen Colbert, have never cared for our president.” Obama uses the opportunity to deliver a not-to-subtle pitch for ObamaCare, in the guise of a faux-conservative attack on it.

By the way, media-savvy types will notice a wry reference to Colbert’s upcoming move to CBS to take over from David Letterman as host of “The Late Show.”

A sample:

Let’s face it, even if Republicans somehow did repeal it, they’d have to replace it with their own healthcare plan (“Fracking the Elderly?”), and once they touch it, they own it. Then if anything goes wrong, suddenly everyone will be complaining about Mitch McConnell-Care (“Walk-It-Off.gov”).

Here it is, courtesy of Comedy Central:


Bibi's $40M Settlement Giveaway Blocked

By J.J. Goldberg


Hours before Israel’s Knesset voted Monday evening to disperse and head to elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked the finance committee to approve an “emergency” grant to settlements in the West Bank of some 160 million shekels ($40 million).

Netanyahu was acting in his capacity as acting finance minister, following his firing last week of incumbent finance minister Yair Lapid.

The allocation request was blocked in committee by the ranking representative of the opposition Shas party on the committee, Yitzhak Cohen. Cohen is an outspoken peace advocate and a close ally of Shas leader Arye Deri.

A revote on the settlements grant was then rescheduled for Tuesday by committee chair Nissan Slomiansky of Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home party.

On Monday evening, following the committee’s rejection of the settlements grant, the Finance Ministry submitted a request to the committee for a $38 million allocation to the Shas school network, Ma’ayan HaTorah.

Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, condemned the school funding request as an attempt to buy Shas’s votes for the settlement grant. Yesh Atid asked the Knesset legal adviser to investigate, but was turned down.

Cohen of Shas countered that the school allocation was merely an installment of a routine allocation to Shas schools, contained within the 2014 state budget approved by the Knesset months ago. He said it would not affect Shas’s votes on the settlements grant.

The Finance Ministry confirmed Cohen’s account of the allocation request. However, the prime minister’s office said it was unaware of a previous approval for the allocation.

The settlements request included 95 million shekels ($24 million) in direct grants to settlements for security and other needs, plus 70 million shekels ($18 million) for operating costs of the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization.

The Settlement Division is a nominally independent body, attached to the non-profit WZO but funded by the government, that carries out most of the contracting work for settlement construction and expansion in the territories. Its status as a stand-alone section of an international non-profit organization is a little-known but important part of the reason why the settlement movement is frequently able to operate outside the normal constraints of Israeli law.

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