J.J. Goldberg

IDF Chief Rabbi: No Link to Temple Mount in Islam

By J.J. Goldberg

The chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Brigadier General Rafi Peretz, said during a lecture to seminary students in early November that the Temple Mount has no legitimate religious significance in Islam and that Muslims “imagine” a religious bond to the site. When they pray, he said, they bow in the direction of Mecca “with their backsides to the Temple Mount.”

Wikimedia Commons
Brig. Gen. Rabbi Rafi Peretz

“There isn’t a single place in the Quran where the name Jerusalem appears,” he said. “There isn’t. Not once. You know what? Not even in a hint.”

Immediately afterwards, in response to a question from a student claiming that an Arab told him there is a reference to the prophet Muhammad’s dream of Jerusalem, he said the student doesn’t understand, but (13:35) “Arabs don’t understand either. Arabs imagine it. It’s amazing. You know what? Ninety percent of the Arabs don’t know what’s in the Quran. I guarantee it. We know better than them.”

“You’re saying that there is some dream. Correct. There is some commentator who explained something in the Quran through this dream. But it’s not the commentary of Rashi. It’s some legend that was appended.”

He added that the only spot on the Temple Mount to which holiness is ascribed in Islam is the Al Aqsa Mosque. (referring to the silver domed building at the southern end of the plateau). But he goes on to explain that this is based on a misreading of the Quran.

The November 3 lecture was recorded in full on video and posted to YouTube in a 52-minute clip, which was then linked on the religious website Kipa.co.il on November 26. You can see it after the jump (in Hebrew). His remarks about Islam and the Temple Mount begin at 13:15. Here is the Jerusalem Post account of the the event. Here is the Haaretz account.

The Quran contains a brief description in Sura 17 of Muhammad’s nighttime journey from the sacred house of worship (al-Masjid al-Haram, referring to the Ka’aba in Mecca) to “the farthest house of worship (al-Masjid al-Aqsa) whose surroundings we have blessed.”

The incident is elaborated in Islamic commentary, or Hadith, as an event in which Muhammad, in a dream-state, is met at the Ka’aba by the angel Gabriel and taken on the heavenly white horse Buraq to al-Aqsa, where he leads other prophets in prayer and then ascends to heaven.

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Who's 'Too Right Wing' for Sheldon Adelson?

By J.J. Goldberg

Two of the hottest stars in the Republican firmament, Ted Cruz of Texas and Sheldon Adelson of Nevada, tore through the skies this week in what’s traditionally considered America’s most solid Democratic stronghold, the New York Jewish community.

The resulting sound-and-light show probably doesn’t tell us a whole lot about the fates of the two visitors, but it provides a revealing glimpse at the changing landscape of New York Jewish politics.

The biggest headline to emerge from the whirlwind tour was that Adelson doesn’t plan on backing Cruz for president in 2016. After a Monday morning chat, Adelson concluded that Cruz is “too right-wing” and would be a longshot for the GOP nomination, a source close to Adelson told the New York Observer’s Ken Kurson.

Huh? Too right-wing for Sheldon? Well, yes. While he’s best known for his prodigious Republican campaign giving and his fierce opposition to unions and government regulation, he’s also an outspoken backer of abortion rights, gay rights and immigration amnesty. During the 2012 presidential campaign he was asked why he opposed Rick Santorum and replied, “because I’m pro-choice.”

Kurson’s Observer piece offers a fascinating roundup of Cruz’s two-day Big Apple blitz, which included a series of sitdowns with prominent Jewish donors and opinion-makers. Hosts and organizers of the meet-and-greets included real-estate and media mogul (and former Conference of Presidents chairman) Mortimer Zuckerman, “Kosher Sex” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and hedge-fund legend (and former Forward vice-chairman) Michael Steinhardt. Kurson has a pretty stunning rundown of who showed up where to schmooze with Cruz, including Elie Wiesel, Open Orthodoxy champion Rabbi Avi Weiss and former UJA-Federation president Jerry Levin. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The highlight of the visit, though, was the Sunday night Justice Louis D. Brandeis Dinner of the Zionist Organization of America, a high-energy affair that annually fills the coffers — and highlights the growing clout — of the right-wing pro-Israel organization. Both the cash and the clout were well in evidence in the packed ballroom at New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, where 1,000 guests cheered the Texas Tea Party favorite with repeated standing ovations and chantts of “Run, Ted, Run,” according to accounts by those present.

Among those on hand to present or receive awards, besides Cruz and Adelson, were super-lawyer Alan Dershowitz, arch-conservative Christian Zionist pastor John Hagee, media and real-estate mogul Mortimer Zuckerman and the ZOA president himself, Morton Klein. Others in attendance included Boteach, Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus and Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann.

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Is Bibi Stalling Pick of IDF Chief to Promote Rightist?

By J.J. Goldberg

More mystery and intrigue in the senior ranks of the Israel Defense Forces: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reported (Maariv, Haaretz) to be stalling the nomination of Israel’s next military chief of staff. His reasons are a topic of hot speculation, though the facts seem to speak for themselves.

By law the nomination of a new chief of staff is the job of the defense minister. He’s supposed to present his choice to the cabinet for approval three months before the incumbent’s term ends. That deadline was November 15. Since then, though, Netanyahu has twice asked for delays so he could interview the candidates, most recently last Friday. He’s now asked to meet with the defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, before a name is presented to the cabinet.

Yaalon has stated publicly that his preference is the current deputy chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, who is also the unanimous choice of the top generals who make up the General Staff. The other nominee is Yair Naveh, a former deputy chief of staff who retired two years ago.

Suspicions are running high within the senior military command, according reporter Noam Amir in the right-wing Maariv, that Netanyahu is deliberately trying to sideline Eizenkot despite his support from the IDF and the defense minister. Officers tell Amir that if Eizenkot isn’t appointed there will be an “earthquake.” Cohen in Haaretz reports speculation that Netanyahu is weighing in to avoid accusations later that he failed to pay attention, as some accused him of doing in 2010 and in a previous round in 1998.

Eizenkot is identified with the mainstream IDF defense doctrine that favors minimum necessary use of force and activist pursuit of diplomacy to settle disputes. Naveh is an Orthodox Jew and identified with the political right, though he’s clashed with the settler movement in the past over his refusal to disobey orders involving dismantling settlements, including the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.

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3 Ex-Security Chiefs Slam Bibi for Caving to Right

By J.J. Goldberg

Three of Israel’s most senior ex-defense officials came out last week, almost simultaneously, with blistering attacks on the security policies of the Netanyahu coalition. Appearing in separate forums, the three — former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit, former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin and former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi — each charged that the government is endangering Israel’s future by allowing right-wing extremists to sabotage prospects for a two-state solution, putting the country on a path toward a single, binational state that will be plagued by continuing ethnic strife.

Two of the attacks appeared as op-ed essays in last Friday newspapers. One, by Diskin, appeared in the mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot. Titled “What lies ahead for Israel” (in English here), it argues that the current “Jerusalem intifada” is a “microcosm” of what awaits Israel if it does not resume serious peace negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. Diskin is particularly critical of the “inflammatory propaganda” and “brainwashing” that depicts Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as an obstacle rather than a partner, when in fact, he writes, Abbas is strongly opposed to terrorism and maintains a “clear policy” of security cooperation with Israel.

The second, by Shavit, appeared in the liberal-leaning Haaretz. Titled “Blindness, Stupidity, Cause for Concern” (here, Hebrew only), it worries about the “haughtiness and arrogance” among “central factors in religious Zionism,”

together with more than a bit of the messianic thinking that rushes to turn the conflict into a holy war. If this has been, so far, a local political conflict that two small nations have been waging over a small and defined piece of territory, major forces in the religious Zionist movement are foolishly doing everything they can to turn it into the most horrific of wars, in which the entire Muslim world will stand against us.

I also see, to the same extent, detachment and lack of understanding of international processes and their significance for us. This right wing, in its blindness and stupidity, is pushing the nation of Israel into the dishonorable position of “the nation shall dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9).

[Postscript: An English version appeared Monday morning under a different title: “Former Mossad chief: For the first time, I fear for the future of Zionism.” I’ve replaced some of my translations with Haaretz’s text.]

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Shin Bet Chief: Mahmoud Abbas Isn't Inciting Terror

By J.J. Goldberg

The director of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, speaking in the wake of today’s massacre in a Jerusalem synagogue, told a Knesset committee that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas “is not interested in terrorism and is not leading [his people] to terrorism. Not even under the table.”

His remarks directly contradicted a string of statements (English) by Israeli leaders, from Prime Minister Netanyahu on down, accusing Abbas of “inciting” the attack by his calls to “defend Al-Aqsa.” Netanyahu called (Hebrew) the synagogue slaughter “the direct result of incitement led by Hamas and Abu Mazen, incitement that the international community is irresponsibly ignoring.”

The security chief, Yoram Cohen, was addressing a closed meeting of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. His remarks were described to reporters afterward by participants.

Cohen acknowledged that there were “factors within the Palestinian Authority” who interpret Abbas’s criticisms of Israel as “giving legitimization to terror.”

However, in describing the sequence of events that led to this morning’s bloodbath, he said the confrontations began after the July 2 murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu-Khdeir. He said the tensions were exacerbated by Knesset discussions of a bill to permit Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, submitted last spring by Likud lawmaker Miri Regev, and by high-profile visits of politicians to the Temple Mount that are seen as supporting the legislation.

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IDF, Shin Bet in TV Brawl: Did Hamas Want a War?

By J.J. Goldberg

Israelis last week watched their defense establishment undergo its nastiest and arguably most dangerous meltdown in decades as the heads of two main branches, Benny Gantz of the Israel Defense Forces and Yoram Cohen of the Shin Bet security service, publicly traded insults and questioned each other’s integrity and professional competence.

The public dispute erupted last Tuesday, November 11. That evening the popular television newsmagazine Uvdah (“Fact”) aired a report in which senior Shin Bet officials, their faces and identities obscured, claimed the military had mishandled critical intelligence before last summer’s Gaza war. The officials said the Shin Bet had warned the army last January that Hamas was planning a July war, but the army failed to act. A military officer appeared on camera to deny that any such warning had been received.

The broadcast sparked a furious war of words between IDF chief of staff Gantz and Shin Bet director Cohen. On Wednesday morning Gantz wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Hebrew text here) charging that officials of the secretive security service had “crossed all moral and ethical lines” by appearing in public and portraying the IDF as incompetent. He categorically denied that the military had received any warning of a planned war, whether in January or later. He also charged that the Shin Bet, “as an intelligence agency,” had set a “dangerous precedent” in permitting its personnel to appear and expose classified information and methods of operation.

After a three-way make-up meeting late Wednesday between Netanyahu, Gantz and Cohen, the Shin Bet Thursday morning issued a public “clarification,” itself a rare act, saying its agents had not really claimed to have warned of a July war (despite the fact that they’d been shown on camera saying just that). Later that day, however, Cohen backtracked and counterattacked (Isn’t that an Elton John song?). In an open letter to Shin Bet retirees (here) he said he stood by everything the agents had said on television and blamed the feud on Gantz. He claimed he’d “decided to cooperate” with the newsmagazine to “show the Shin Bet as a professional, relevant organization that made important contributions to the success of Operation Protective Edge.”

Superficially, the dispute centers on the mutual accusations themselves: On one hand, the Shin Bet’s claim that it warned the IDF of Hamas’ July war plan, but that the IDF mishandled or ignored it. On the other hand, IDF’s counter-claim that there was no such warning.

On a deeper level, the incident represents an escalation of a serious debate that’s been going on since August, over whether or not Hamas actually intended to launch a war. The IDF and its intelligence directorate continue to maintain, as they have since the war began (and as I reported in mid-July), that Hamas didn’t plan the war but stumbled into it through a jumble of miscalculations and miscommunication.

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Bibi's Cabinet Rattled as Key Livni Ally Quits

By J.J. Goldberg

The Netanyahu government’s most left-wing member, environmental defense minister Amir Peretz, quit the cabinet on Sunday and declared war on the prime minister, vowing to work for a new government committed to peace and economic justice. Peretz, a onetime Labor Party chairman and defense minister, is a member of Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party.

The move comes amid growing signs of internal weakness in Netanyahu’s coalition. Just a week earlier Netanyahu accepted the resignation of interior minister Gideon Saar, a popular Likud rising star who’s long been considered a possible successor to Netanyahu. He’s now expected to emerge as a rival.

And on Thursday Netanyahu came under an attack of unprecedented fury from a senior coalition ally, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. In a speech at Bar-Ilan University Bennett declared that a “government that hides behind concrete barricades has no right to exist.” Deriding static defense tools like the Iron Dome missile defense as well as the separation barrier, Bennett called for the government to respond to the current wave of Palestinian violence with a new “Operation Defensive Shield,” referring to the massive military assault against Palestinian population centers in 2002 that broke the back of the Second Intifada.

All three moves come against a backdrop of escalating Palestinian violence that’s stirring fears of a third intifada, and the growing likelihood of new elections next spring, two years ahead of schedule.

Of the three defections, Peretz’s is of the least immediate consequence to Netanyahu, but it could have the strongest long-term impact. Saar announced his resignation in September, saying he planned to take a break from politics to spend more time with his family. Rumors abound, though, that he’ll join forces before the next election with another former Likud up-and-comer, onetime social welfare minister Moshe Kahlon (kach-LONE), who retired from politics before the 2013 elections but announced plans this year to form a “new political framework.” Kahlon soared to stardom after winning the top spot after Bibi in the 2006 Likud primaries. Saar did the same thing in 2008.

Polls have shown Kahlon winning 10 to 11 Knesset seats, mostly at the expense of Shas — because of his Sephardic working-class background — and Yesh Atid, with its middle-class economic message. That’s not enough to challenge Netanyahu’s leadership, either in the Likud or with the electorate, but it would almost certainly make him a senior partner in any future Netanyahu coalition.

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IDF Generals' Letter: 'Embrace Saudi Plan'

By J.J. Goldberg

Here’s the complete text of the open letter to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from 100-plus retired generals, Mossad directors and national police commissioners. The translation was supplied by the Israel Policy Forum and appears on their website here. The Hebrew original, which was prepared as an advertisement in the Israeli press, is here (PDF).

Reading the complete text, two points emerge that I got wrong in yesterday’s blog post, in which I described the statement based on two Israeli press accounts. First, there are 103 signers, not 106 (as Mako-Channel 2 reported) or 105 (as Yediot Ahronot-Ynet reported). That’s two former Mossad directors and three national police commissioners (four of those five left the IDF with ranks of brigadier or major general) plus 98 other retired brigadier and major generals.

Second, the letter raises the Arab Peace Initiative directly and forcefully, not implicitly. It’s fair to say that the existence of the initiative (text here) is central to the generals’ argument: The Arab states have announced unanimously (with the Palestinian Authority included as a voting member) that they are willing to make full peace with the state of Israel and “consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended” under certain circumstances, and that the circumstances can be negotiated. It may be that the gaps between Israel’s needs and their demands are too wide to be bridged. But why not find out?

Here’s the other question, directed to our readers: Many of you have responded to this and similar arguments by raising threats to Israel that you don’t think are taken seriously in this approach. My question: What do you know that these guys don’t? And if Israel’s generals are so dumb, how have they managed to keep Israel alive this long? Do you think they’ve won seven wars without understanding the nature of the threats they were facing down?

Here’s the letter:

To: The Prime Minister — Mr. Binyamin Netanyahu


Re: Political-regional outlook—two states for two peoples

Dear Prime Minister,

We, the undersigned, are IDF commanders and police officers in the reserves that have fought in Israel’s wars.

We know from experience the heavy and painful price exacted by these wars; we fought powerfully for the State in the hope that our children would live here in peace. But the reality is that we are again sending our children to the battlefields, watching them don uniforms and bulletproof vests to fight in Operation Protective Edge.

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106 IDF Ex-Generals, Spy Chiefs Urge New Peace Bid

By J.J. Goldberg

In what appears to be the largest-ever joint protest by senior Israeli security personnel, a group of 106 retired generals, Mossad directors and national police commissioners has signed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to “initiate a diplomatic process” based on a regional framework for peace with the Palestinians.

Several of the signers told Israel’s Mako-Channel 2 News in interviews that Israel had the strength and the means to reach a two-state solution that “doesn’t entail a security risk,” but hadn’t managed to reach an agreement because of “weak leadership.”

“We’re on a steep slope toward an increasingly polarized society and moral decline, due to the need to keep millions of people under occupation on claims that are presented as security-related,” reserve Major General Eyal Ben-Reuven told Mako’s Roni Daniel. “I have no doubt that the prime minister seeks Israel’s welfare, but I think he suffers from some sort of political blindness that drives him to scare himself and us.”

The letter was initiated by a former Armored Corps commander, reserve Major General Amnon Reshef. He told Yediot Ahronot in an interview published Friday, and posted in English today on Yediot’s Ynetnews.com website, that he was “tired of a reality of rounds of fighting every few years instead of a genuine effort to adopt the Saudi initiative.”

He was referring to the Saudi-backed peace proposal that was adopted unanimously by the Arab League in 2002 (here is the full text) and later endorsed 56-0 by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, with Iran abstaining. It has since been repeatedly reaffirmed and its terms softened. As currently framed, it offers full peace, diplomatic recognition and “normal relations” between the Arab states and Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal to borders based on the pre-1967 armistice lines, with negotiated land swaps, and a “just” and mutually “agreed” compromise solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

The generals’ call echoes a proposal for a regional peace conference that was floated during the Gaza war this summer by Israel’s science minister, Yaakov Peri, a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and a former director of the Shin Bet security service. It’s currently being advocated within the security cabinet by Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni.

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When Israel's Chickens Come Home to Poop

By J.J. Goldberg

The policies of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister are starting to bear an eerie resemblance to climate change: The critics all look like a bunch of whining scaremongers prophesying an implausibly apocalyptic ruination that’s sure to come in some fuzzily distant end-time. Even if it’s true, it’s too far away to worry about. That is, until one day the oceans overflow, and here we are.

Not that the arrival of payday alters anyone’s behavior.

In the case of Israel, the past week brought three headline events that look like important turning points in Israel’s growing international isolation. Two were genuine canaries in the coal mine, signals that we’re entering a new and sharply more perilous period for the Jewish state. The third was a farcical episode that doesn’t signal much of anything, except as an anecdotal mile-marker of how far we’ve slid down the slippery slope.

So which one made us sit up and take notice? Why, the third one, of course. The farce.

That would be ChickenshitGate, the international furor over an unnamed U.S. government official’s description of Benjamin Netanyahu as a bit of poultry-poop. It erupted Tuesday night, when the quote appeared online in an essay by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here.” Goldberg followed the “chickenshit” quote with a list he’s kept of other insults Washington officialdom has directed at Netanyahu in recent years (“recalcitrant,” “myopic,” reactionary,” “obtuse,” “blustering,” “pompous,” “Aspergery”) before proceeding to explain how and why relations between the two allies have gotten worse than ever.

When you think about it, “chickenshit” wasn’t really the worst insult on the list. Most of the others describe worse qualities than timidity. What caused the uproar over this latest entry was the locker room language. Apparently Israel’s leading defenders were, to quote from “Casablanca,” “shocked! — shocked!” — to find that Washington bureaucrats use dirty words when the microphones are off.

The shock was strangely lacking in self-awareness, given the fact that Israeli cabinet ministers had been directing an open stream of personal invective at Secretary of State John Kerry since January. It began with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon calling Kerry “obsessive” and “messianic.” Yaalon got paid back in October with humiliating rejections of his requests for meetings during a Washington visit with Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. And yet he still managed to find time while he was in Washington for one more insult, telling the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth in an interview that the Obama administration’s Middle East policies were based on “ignorance” and “naivete.”

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Settlements, Snub Cause Latest U.S.-Israel Strain

By J.J. Goldberg

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning a massive new wave of construction in the West Bank, according to a report Sunday night on Israel’s Channel 2 News. It’s part of a deal to calm his restive allies in the settler-backed Jewish Home party. The Channel 2 report has since been confirmed independently by Haaretz, Walla News and other news outlets.

The plans reportedly include some 2,000 new homes, mostly but not all in the so-called settlement blocs that Israel expects to keep permanently. Also included are 12 new roads, infrastructure projects, a park, student housing and the legalization of several illegal settlement outposts. The deal also includes a renovation of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a plan that’s likely to cause new flare-ups at the site, a constant flashpoint that’s holy to both Jews and Muslims.

The plans are to be finalized at a meeting Wednesday between Netanyahu, economics minister Naftali Bennett and housing minister Uri Ariel, both of Jewish Home, transportation minister Yisrael Katz of Likud and finance minister Yair Lapid. Haaretz reported that Netanyahu had not yet approved the 2,000 housing units, which he fears will increase tensions with Washington and Europe, and is trying to appease the rightists with the transportation and infrastructure projects. Lapid issued a statement following the Channel 2 report that he opposed construction outside the settlement blocs, and that the timing of the overall deal “will cause harm to Israel.” He said the plan “will lead to a serious crisis in Israel-U.S. relations and will harm Israel’s standing in the world.”

The decision comes at an explosive moment in U.S.-Israel relations. Just this past Friday analysts across the Israeli political spectrum were describing the relationship as having plunged to a historic low point in the wake of defense minister Moshe Yaalon’s visit to Washington last week. Shortly after departing Washington, Yaalon was dealt a humiliating slap when unnamed administration officials told Yediot Ahronot that the minister had been refused permission to meet with senior administration officials including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and national security adviser Susan Rice.

The refusals come in apparent retaliation for a series of recent incidents in which Yaalon attacked administration policy and personally insulted Kerry.

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Can Hamas War Be Tied to ISIS? Not If You're Kerry

By J.J. Goldberg

One of these things is just like the other: A strange new flareup in U.S.-Israeli relations erupted on Friday, after a speech by Secretary of State John Kerry drew furious objections from pair of ranking Israeli cabinet ministers.

Kerry was discussing the ISIS threat before a Muslim audience in Washington. He spoke of the need to address a string of Middle East problems that he said frustrated and angered Arab youth and thus helped ISIS’s “recruitment.” One item on his list was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israeli ministers charged that Kerry was blaming Israel for the rise of ISIS. One, economics minister Naftali Bennett of the settler-backed Jewish Home party, stopped just short of charging Kerry with anti-Semitism. “It turns out that even when a British Muslim decapitates a British Christian, there will always be someone to blame the Jew,” Bennett said.

The other, information minister Gilad Erdan, a rising Likud star and a member of the elite Security Cabinet, piped in later, declaring that Kerry was “breaking records” in misunderstanding the region. Both claimed Kerry’s words would encourage terrorism.

Their remarks prompted an angry retort that afternoon from State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. She said the Israeli critics — “especially one particular minister,” apparently Bennett — had “trie[d] to distort” Kerry’s words “for their political purposes.”

In a sign of how seriously Jerusalem took the American anger, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s two top lieutenants, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and defense minister Moshe Yaalon, jumped in on Saturday with strong rebukes of Bennett for undermining Israel’s relations with its closest ally.

Here’s the strange part: Kerry’s comment on Israel echoed — closely, though in milder tone — a fire-breathing speech by Netanyahu himself before the United Nations just two and a half weeks earlier. Netanyahu had said that Israel’s conflict with Hamas is part and parcel of the larger struggle against ISIS. “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas,” he said. He went on to elaborate:

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Is Israel Abandoning Push for Two States?

By J.J. Goldberg

In a potentially explosive report, veteran Yediot Ahronot defense commentator Ron Ben-Yishai writes on Ynet that Israel is headed toward a new confrontation with the United States and its allies in the wake of this summer’s Operation Protective Edge. The Americans and Europeans insist that Israel must strive for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, arguing that it’s unacceptable for Israel to wreak destruction on Gaza every few years, leaving them to pay for its repeated reconstruction. They also claim that renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will help them to mobilize the Arab world to join the fight against ISIS and other extremist groups, Ben-Yishai writes.

Israel, Ben-Yishai writes, is reaching the opposite conclusion. In what he calls “a dramatic reversal,” Israeli officials say that at a time of extreme instability in the Middle East, it would be suicidal for Israel to consider allowing full sovereignty in most of Judea and Samaria, even if the territory is demilitarized. Even renewing negotiations over a peace agreement is unacceptable, the Israeli officials say, because such talks would lead to deadlock, frustration and unrest on the Palestinian street. Moreover, Israeli officials express doubt that the moderate Arab states need “an incentive” on the Palestinian front to motivate them to fight the jihadists, who threaten their own regimes.

Ben-Yishai writes that Israel now seeks to “manage” the conflict with the Palestinians rather than try to “solve” it. Toward the goal of maintaining calm in Gaza as well as the West Bank, he writes,

Israel is even willing to pay a serious price for this to happen and thus — without much fanfare –— Israel waived its objection to internal Palestinian reconciliation and the formation of the Palestinian unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Israel will also work to improve economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza and ease restrictions on movement between the two territories, Ben-Yishai writes. In fact:

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Why Hamas Never Wanted War — and Knows It Lost

By J.J. Goldberg

Hamas is eager to have Mahmoud Abbas’s U.S.-trained Presidential Guard take control of the border crossings between Gaza and Israel. But the Islamist organization isn’t likely to give in to pressure from Abbas and the West to put its own military wing under Abbas’s control, nor to let officials of the proposed Fatah-Hamas unity government take the reins of civilian government in Gaza.

So says Colonel M., head of the Palestinian unit in the research department of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, in a wide-ranging interview with Arab affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff of the English-language Times of Israel website and the Hebrew-language Walla! News site.

Colonel M. (the Times of Israel incorrectly translates his title as lieutenant colonel) also describes the IDF intelligence reading of the events that led to the outbreak of this summer’s war in Gaza. He states flatly and firmly that Hamas neither wanted nor planned a war, but stumbled into it unintentionally as the end result of a series of missteps beginning with the kidnapping of three Israeli yeshiva students in the West Bank in early June. He says that published accounts of Hamas planning for a “July War” are “nonsense.” His account of the events is virtually identical to the scenario I laid out in a column in July.

The colonel emphasized, Issacharoff writes, that the views he expressed aren’t his own personal assessment or that of his unit but the consensus view of Israeli Military Intelligence as a whole. He says the assessment is shared by the Shin Bet security service. (This contradicts a recent news analysis in Yediot Ahronot by military correspondent Alex Fishman, who claimed the Shin Bet disagrees and believes Hamas planned the war).

No less intriguing than what the interview says is what it doesn’t say. Issacharoff writes that Colonel M. refused to discuss the situation on the West Bank or Abbas’s strategic thinking, “apparently out of fear of appearing to criticize the political echelon.” It’s yet another indication of the deep and growing divide between Israel’s security professionals and their politician bosses over Israel’s security needs.

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Yom Kippur Playlist: Hot Tunes for Judgment Day

By J.J. Goldberg

We’re back with a Yom Kippur playlist. I’ve tried to follow the order of the day, starting with Kol Nidre, going to the evening and morning services, the cantor’s Hineni (Here I Stand) prayer and so on. Our guests include Bob Dylan, Moishe Oysher, R.E.M., Chava Alberstein, Al Jolson (in the original Jazz Singer), Barbra Streisand, Arik Einstein, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Amy Winehouse, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Mordechai Ben-David, Paul Robeson, Dolores Gray, plus Leonard Cohen and Meir Banai (twice each) and more.

Update: Note the addition, following Mussaf and the Jonah story (after the jump) of the musical production number that delightfully depicts the depravity of the city Jonah was sent to save, Not Since Nineveh, from the 1955 film “Kismet.” It’s particularly relevant now that Nineveh and its depravity are back in the news (under the city’s modern name, Mosul).

We start as evening approaches and we prepare to stand before the Gates of Heaven. You know the drill: It’s getting too dark to see, and we’re Knocking on Heaven’s Door. The song was originally written and performed by Bob Dylan for the soundtrack of the 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” Watching the scene where he sings as Garrett shoots the Kid makes the lyric — “Mama, take this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore” — come alive more than any concert performance could. It’s about the awful reality that killing is sometimes necessary and yet utterly dehumanizing, which seems a particularly timely thought this Yom Kippur. Here it is:

Time for Kol Nidre, the iconic plea for absolution that epitomizes the holy day. The most powerful version ever committed to film, in my opinion, is sung by the great cantor Moishe Oysher in the 1939 Yiddish film “Overture to Glory” (originally “Der Vilner Shtot Khazn” or “Vilna City Cantor”). It’s a variation on the “Jazz Singer” theme with Oysher playing a young cantor who is lured from the synagogue to become an opera singer, learns his son has died, loses his voice, takes to the streets and finally stumbles back into shul for one last Kol Nidre before dying himself. Oysher joins in at 3:28.

The first Kol Nidre ever committed to film, of course, was the immortal rendition by Al Jolson in the world’s first-ever talking feature film, “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927. He’s a cantor’s son who runs off to become a vaudeville entertainer and is cut off by his father. They’re finally reconciled at the end when he comes home to daven Kol Nidre in the old shul as his father lies dying. Here’s the scene:

Both Oysher and Jolson give only a fragment of Kol Nidre. For a complete rendition, you can’t do better than this performance by Richard Tucker, the Lower East Side cantor who actually did become a famed operatic tenor. Want more? Here is a lovely Moroccan Kol Nidre sung by Eyal Bitton. And for a peek at how the other half lives, don’t miss the famous Kol Nidre sung here by the devoutly Catholic Italian-American crooner Perry Como. Hey, if Irving Berlin can write “White Christmas”…

O.K., so we did Kol Nidre and now we’re into the evening Maariv service, which more or less begins with the Maariv Aravim, Blessed is He who creates night and day and arranges the stars in the heavens. Here’s Manfred Mann’s Earth Band singing Bob Dylan’s version of the prayer, Father of Night:

For you purists, the Hebrew prayer itself can be heard here sung by an anonymous but very talented folkie with acoustic guitar. And here’s a hoot: Dylan’s Father of Night in Sicilian.

The themes and messages of Yom Kippur that we struggle with during the evening Maariv service and Shaharit the next morning have to do with reaching up and out for divine forgiveness and at the same time digging deep inside, admitting that we’re helpless and yet hoping we can find the strength to turn ourselves around. R.E.M. nailed it dead-on in their 1991 hit, Losing My Religion:

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UN Week: Obama's Pivot, Abbas's Bile, Bibi's Flub

By J.J. Goldberg

This should have been Bibi Netanyahu’s big year at the United Nations. World revulsion toward ISIS was at a peak, putting Islamist terrorism at center stage. President Obama, long derided by Netanyahu and his allies as a naïve peacenik, had suddenly become a wartime president. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, at last, the least of the world’s problems. If Bibi wanted the world to leave Israel and the Palestinians alone to fight things out in their own way, all he had to do was show up and play it cool.

But, of course, you knew he wouldn’t. He had to go and take this opportunity — nay, engraved invitation — to show gracious statesmanship and use it instead to show the petulance and short-sightedness for which he’s famous.

Obama, addressing the assembly September 24, hit all the right notes. In a 39-minute speech that ranged from Ukraine to Ebola, Iran, poverty and climate change, more than one-third was devoted to the fight against radical Islamism, as epitomized by ISIS. He called on “the world to join in this effort” to destroy “this network of death.” He declared, uncharacteristically for him, that there could be “no reasoning, no negotiation with this brand of evil.” He demanded that “the Arab and Muslim world” end funding of extremist ideologies. He called on Muslim youth to choose between pluralism and stagnation. He even pooh-poohed the “illusion” that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “the main source of problems in the region.”

The president wasn’t just talking through his hat. Before showing up in New York he’d assembled a global coalition of more than 60 nations to join the fight against ISIS. Some are just providing funds (not a small thing in these tight-budget times; that’s the role our ally Japan played in the 1991 Gulf War). Others, notably the Europeans, are fighting with us in Iraq but haven’t crossed the border into Syria.

On the other hand, five Sunni Arab states have mobilized to join our attack on the Islamist army’s bases on Syrian soil. That’s a historic achievement — getting Arab states to fight openly alongside us Western infidels to extirpate a diseased branch of Islam. You might think back to World War I and T.E. Lawrence leading Arabs against the Ottoman Turks. But that was to dismantle a bloatec empire. This is to defeat concentrated evil that wraps itself in the pages of the Quran.

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Ring In the New Year: Top Tunes to Atone To

By J.J. Goldberg

This Rosh Hashanah concert began four years ago as a sort of mood piece. I decided this year to expand it and include riffs off of some core elements in the Rosh Hashanah service itself.

To explain: The heart of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is a cycle of biblical verses read during the Musaf service, in three groupings of 10 verses each known as the Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot, or Kingship, Remembrance and Ram’s Horn verses. Each verse contains at least one mention of the section’s key word - monarchy, memory, mouth-organ. Symbolically they represent the present, past and future (the last as heralded by the blaring of the horn). Each set of readings is followed by a series of actual Shofar blasts. I’ve assembled a few songs in Hebrew and English that play off of the three themes, more or less.

Our selections range from solemn to whimsical. You’ll find performances by, among others, George Harrison, Yossi Banai, Don McLean, the Andrews Sisters, The Weavers, Yaffa Yarkoni, Louis Armstrong, Eyal Golan, Led Zeppelin, Shlomo Carlebach, Merle Haggard, Nina Simone, Connie Francis and Kinky Friedman. Plus Irving Berlin singing one of his own songs and a neglected masterpiece from Bob Dylan’s early days, with Joan Baez singing backup. Also Steve Lawrence and the late Eydie Gorme singing “Bashanah Haba’ah” (“This Coming Year”).

And, of course, Leonard Cohen, without whom no contemporary Rosh Hashanah anthology would be complete. His English rendering of the iconic new year’s Unetaneh Tokef prayer, “Who By Fire,” has come to define the Days of Repentance for many of us. It’s worth pointing out that although the best known section of the prayer is the middle, “Who by fire, who by water, who in the fullness of his years and who before his time,” it actually opens with the astonishing words that give it its name, unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom, “we give the holy day its potency.” “We give.” That can be read in a number of ways, but to me it seems an astonishing assertion of human agency and responsibility not only for our own fate but for the meaning we ascribe to it. Here’s Leonard Cohen in a terrific 1988 performance, long before his recent post-bankruptcy tour, when his voice still had most of youthful vibrancy.

One begins the new year, of course, with a bit of honey. The way things are going, though, it makes sense to put out the honey together with the stinger. Accordingly we start with Naomi Shemer’s bittersweet “Al Hadvash ve-Al Ha’oketz” (“On the honey and the sting, on the bitter and the sweet, on our baby daughter — on all these, keep watch, my good God”), better known as “Al Kol Eleh.” It’s sung here by the late superstar entertainer Yossi Banai. If you want to sing along with Yossi instead of watching him, there’s a version with the words transliterated on screen here. An English translation is here. And you can hear Naomi herself singing her song here.

On a more upbeat note, let’s ring in the new year by treating ourselves to The Champs from 1962 with a honey-sweet Shofar blast of Teqiya. Anyhow, it sounds like Teqiya. Hard to tell.

The Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah is marked by the Slihot services, in which we begin the days-long process of asking forgiveness from Upstairs. If you missed it in shul, here’s a rocking gospel number with the same message: “(Please Forgive Me, Lord) For the Wrong I’ve Done,” sung by the late, legendary Willie Banks and his Messengers.

Further on the theme of repentance and forgiveness, let’s move on to Connie Francis’s deep meditation on the meaning of contrition, “Who’s Sorry Now?” Kidding. Actually it’s a sardonic observation about the uselessness of apology in fixing a wrong that’s been done. It was written in 1923 by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Francis recorded it in 1958. It instantly became a monster hit and catapulted her to fame. If you’re interested, here are two earlier versions not to be missed: Billy Banks and his Rhythmakers in this hot Dixieland version from 1932 and this version from the Marx Brothers’ “A Night in Casablanca” (1946) with Lisette Verea singing first in French as a torch song and then leading an audience singalong. Anyhow, here’s Connie:

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Tidal Wave of Refugees as ISIS Grabs Chunk of Syria

By J.J. Goldberg

Something absolutely astonishing is going on right now in northern Syria along the Turkish border: refugees streaming on foot across the barbed-wire frontier by the tens of thousands, fleeing the advance of the terrorist army known as the Islamic State. As many as 100,000 refugees, mostly Kurds, have crossed the border in the past week — up to 60,000 on Saturday alone — while ISIS enters and occupies village after village with tanks and heavy artillery.

Hair-raising on-the-ground reports by National Geographic and Reuters reporters say ISIS has captured at least 64 Syrian villages since Tuesday, killing, burning and beheading as they go.

National Geographic photographer John Stanmeyer, reporting by phone Sunday morning:

Twenty to 40 cities fell in the last 24 hours, and ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is moving in with tanks and artillery and killing people in its path, so everyone dropped what they were doing. I was told it was a fairly stable Kurdish area until 24 hours ago.

The bizarreness of it all is that this was an influx of many middle class people wandering in wearing slacks and dresses and jackets, even carrying elegant handbags. It’s clearly a group of people that have not migrated like this before. They only brought the clothing on them or a roller, as if they were heading to the airport. Seeing them, I feel like I’m photographing myself, I’m witnessing the reality that can befall upon anyone of us.

Reuters, amid a flood of essential details about the situation, quotes one refugee, “Muhammet Abbas, a 40-year-old teacher who wore a blue cap as protection against the blazing sun” and “led a group of about 20 people including his wife and six children:

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Déjà Jew: IDF's Top Guns Slug It Out for Top Spot

By J.J. Goldberg

Fresh from the long war with Hamas in Gaza, tensely facing down simmering unrest in the West Bank and chaos on the Syrian border, Israel’s defense establishment is now bracing for what’s shaping up to be the most bruising confrontation of all: the choosing of the next chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.

The process looks to be a replay of the last race, an ugly slugfest in late 2010 and early 2011 that resulted in the selection of the current chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. That got so nasty that the lead candidates fought each other to a draw amid mudslinging and dirty tricks that ended up in criminal investigations and indictments. Weirdly enough, the lead candidates are back again.

The lead candidates that fall were Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, chief of the Northern Command, who was favored by then-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and most of his colleagues at General Staff HQ; and the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak, but fiercely opposed by the army brass. The mudslinging exploded into a scandal that effectively sidelined Eizenkot, though he wasn’t directly involved. Barak went on to nominate Galant, as expected, and the cabinet duly approved him. Days before Galant was to take over in February, however, he was suddenly charged with real estate fraud and disqualified. In the end the job was handed to everyone’s second choice, the inoffensive Gantz.

Everything fell apart so suddenly that an interim chief of staff had to be appointed, the newly installed deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh. That prompted yet another eruption when Israel’s Supreme Court sharply criticized Naveh as unfit to lead the army even temporarily.

This year all the old ghosts are returning, along with some new ones. The lead candidates are, once again, Eizenkot and Galant. Eizenkot is currently deputy chief of staff, and was thought until recently to be the heir apparent. Galant, meanwhile, cleared up his real estate mess last year and recently nominated himself for the post, announcing on television that he’d be available if “called to the flag,” as he grandly put it. He’s reportedly still backed by Netanyahu, though not by the new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon.

If past were prologue, Galant would now reclaim the job dangled by the prime minister but snatched from him at the last minute in 2011. But under Israeli law, nominating the chief of staff is the sole prerogative of the defense minister. And Yaalon shares the generals’ dislike of Galant and respect for Eizenkot.

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Could Lieberman Topple Bibi? We'll Know Soon

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Gilad Erdan

Well, I said he’d do it and he’s doing it. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has reportedly (see here and here) offered the job of United Nations ambassador to the information and homefront defense minister, Gilad Erdan, when current ambassador Ron Proshor steps down in December. Erdan’s departure would bring the next candidate on the joint Likud-Beiteinu 2013 electoral slate, Leon Litinetski of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, into the Knesset.

All else being equal, that would boost Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset representation to 13 seats and reduce Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud to 18, making Likud the second-largest party in the Knesset after Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (with 19).

Of course, all else is not equal. Netanyahu is said to have given his approval to the Erdan nomination, but “sources in the Likud” are telling reporters (Maariv, Jerusalem Post) that the party won’t accept Erdan’s nomination unless a Yisrael Beiteinu minister quits the Knesset (while remaining a cabinet minister) to make way for the next person on the joint list, Likudnik David Bitan.

Agriculture minister Yair Shamir, a Lieberman ally, was reported in August to be willing to leave the Knesset. At the time I reported that it wasn’t clear how that would help Lieberman, since trading Shamir’s seat for Litinetski’s wouldn’t change the balance between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. Now it becomes clearer.

It’s still not clear whether Lieberman can bring in Litinetski without sacrificing Shamir’s seat to preserve the current party balance, but nobody ever went broke betting on Lieberman. Martin Indyk told an audience in Aspen in July that Lieberman is “the smartest politician in Israel.” And nobody underestimates the bad blood between Lieberman and Bibi.

All things being equal, falling to second place wouldn’t necessarily threaten Netanyahu’s prime ministership. During his last term, from 2009 to 2013, he had one seat fewer than Kadima (27 to 28) but became prime minister when then-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni couldn’t cobble together a Knesset majority to form a coalition.

But again, all things aren’t necessarily equal. Bibi has trouble brewing on other fronts as well.

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