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Six issues that could end the Biden-Bennett honeymoon

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(JTA) “Behind closed doors” is a phrase that crops up a lot in conversation with senior United States and Israeli officials these days. That’s the place both sides want to settle disagreements.

So far, that strategy has worked to repair the structure of the diplomatic relationship between US Democrats and the Israeli government, frayed by years of open and sometimes heated contentiousness.

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu in particular repeatedly clashed in public. But in spite of their ideological differences on paper, President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett have projected a convivial and united front.

“Biden, I think it’s visceral with him, given his historic commitment to Israel, and also not wanting a repeat of the Obama years,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with ties to both the US and Israeli governments. “And with Bennett and Lapid, they don’t want to repeat the Netanyahu years.”

Still, an array of issues have begun to swirl over the past several months that threaten the current calm.

Bennett has allowed for the construction of thousands of new settler homes. Biden is pushing to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, formerly the principal venue for US-Palestinian relations. Last month, the US sanctioned two Israeli spyware companies.

Then there’s the ongoing strife over Iran’s nuclear programme, a point of contention that those who analyse the US-Israel relationship say could eventually blow the doors wide open.

“The Iran issue is where the two parties don’t control developments,” Makovsky said. “And that’s where Israel is concerned.”

Here are the issues that could drive a wedge between the two countries.

Iran

This week, talks on what conditions the US wants to see before re-entering the Iran deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, resume in Vienna. The JCPOA swaps sanctions relief for Iran rolling back its nuclear programme.

Former President Donald Trump, with Netanyahu’s encouragement, exited the deal in 2018, reimposing suspended sanctions and adding hundreds of new ones. Iran retaliated, suspending some of its compliance with the deal.

Biden campaigned on re-entering the deal brokered in 2015, when he was vice-president, seeing it as the best means of stopping a nuclear weapon. Bennett and Lapid are sceptical but have said they are willing to wait and see if Biden negotiates better terms with Iran.

Israeli officials have said they believe Iran is weeks away from nuclear weapons capability; the country is enriching uranium to 60% purity, perilously close to the 90% needed for weaponisation. This week, Axios reported, Israel warned the US that Iran was on the verge of 90% enrichment.

Makovsky said what Iran did this week could set off any number of calculations from the US and Israel that could lead to open confrontation between the allies.

“I think the US-Israel relationship will be tested in terms of how each side responds to this uncertainty,” Makovsky said.

Settlements

The call that Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz took on 26 October was the first of its kind in almost five years. There was a US secretary of state on the line, livid about the announcement that week that Israel had greenlighted more than 3 000 new units in the West Bank. Some were located in “E1”, the corridor that separates the Maaleh Adumim settlement from Jerusalem, and which Palestinians say is critical to the existence of a viable Palestinian state – the Biden administration’s favoured outcome to the decades-long conflict.

An anonymous Israeli aide described the call by saying, “The US gave us a yellow card,” Axios reported. In soccer, a yellow card is a strong warning over conduct handed from a referee to a player – two yellow cards in one game equals an ejection.

In other words, Blinken’s dressing down was just a warning, not a signal of a new status quo in US-Israel relations.

Palestinian NGOs

Last month, Gantz designated six leading Palestinian human rights organisations operating in the West Bank as terrorist groups. The designation would allow Israel’s government to shut the groups down, although it’s not yet clear if the government has taken those steps.

Gantz argued that the nongovernment organisations are affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, designated by the state department as a terrorist group. But international condemnation of the move was swift.

The Biden administration also said it was caught off-guard by the designation. Anonymous Israeli officials countered that the US was forewarned and that intelligence about the groups had been shared. European officials have said the intelligence they have seen isn’t persuasive.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has signalled that the Biden administration remains less than convinced by whatever intelligence Israel is proferring. She has made a point of expressing support for Palestinian NGOs.

“This week, I had the chance to meet civil society leaders in Ramallah,” Thomas-Greenfield said on Twitter on 20 November after a visit to Israel and the West Bank. “I was inspired by their work to advance democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity for the Palestinian people. We support Palestinian NGOs’ role in monitoring human rights abuses wherever they occur.”

On Tuesday, Thomas-Greenfield told the United Nations Security Council that settler attacks created a “serious security situation” for Palestinians, and said she had raised it with Israeli officials.

The National quoted her as saying she had heard of “Israeli settlers attacking Palestinians, ransacking homes, and destroying property in the West Bank” and that “this is an issue that I discussed extensively with Israeli counterparts”.

The Jerusalem consulate

Biden campaigned on reopening the US consulate in Jerusalem, which was the site of US-Palestinian relations until Trump closed it in 2019. Both Bennett and Lapid, Israel’s more centrist foreign minister who is slated to rotate into the prime minister role in 2023, have said that can’t happen.

The Biden administration says it’s determined to make good on the pledge, which the president sees as key to reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks toward a two-state outcome.

Lapid has sought to persuade his counterpart, Antony Blinken, that forcing the issue could endanger the Bennett-Lapid government.

That’s because there’s no way the consulate could reopen without explicit Israeli approval, and giving that approval would put the Bennett government in the position of acknowledging a Palestinian claim to the city – the third rail in Israeli politics.

The old consulate predated Israel’s existence, which meant that until Trump closed it, there was no need to seek Israel’s approval for its ongoing function. That’s no longer the case, according to Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace think tank, who from 1992-1994 was a US diplomat at the consulate.

“A diplomatic mission operates as, literally, an island of foreign sovereignty within the territory of the host country, staffed by foreign diplomats who [for the most part] enjoy immunity from the jurisdiction of the host government,” Friedman wrote last month in her weekly roundup of congressional action related to the Middle East. “No nation can simply rent/buy a property in a foreign country and declare it, unilaterally, under their own country’s sovereignty. The host country must consent to giving up its sovereignty to a foreign nation.”

Israeli officials say that they are seeking a way out that would save face for both sides, perhaps by opening a consulate in an area of the West Bank not seen as Jerusalem.

Spyware

The Biden administration this month sanctioned two Israeli spyware companies, NSO group and Candira, saying that repressive governments are using the tools to “threaten the rules-based international order”. Apple sued NSO for selling its cellphone hacking spyware to governments that used it to spy on activists and journalists.

Israel’s Defense Ministry must approve exports of Israeli security technology, and Biden officials have made it clear they want answers. Nevertheless, the Biden administration says no action against Israel’s government is forthcoming.

“We look forward to further discussion with the government of Israel about ensuring that these companies’ products are not used to target human-rights defenders, journalists, and others who shouldn’t be targeted,” said Ned Price, a state department spokesman.

China

One issue that has simmered over from the Trump to the Biden administrations: Israel’s increasing trade with China.

Like Trump, Biden is wary of what he sees as China’s increased belligerency and is set on confronting the country. As of now, he is considering a diplomatic boycott of next year’s Olympics in Beijing.

Both the Biden and Trump administrations made it clear to Israel that it was expected as an ally to roll back its ties with China, especially in areas of infrastructure that risk exposing US technology.

But Israel has yet to alter its course. In October, Israel refused to sign a UN statement condemning China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group in China that has been forced into “re-education camps”, which some have compared to concentration camps.

China was perhaps the most sensitive issue at a meeting between Lapid and Blinken in October.

“The importance of China to Israel’s economy is substantial, and we have to find a way to discuss this subject in a way that does not harm Israel’s interests,” an official close to Lapid said at the time.

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App ups the game for KDVP leaders

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Dannica De Aguiar, Amira Karstaedt, and Aerin Cohen leave King David High School Victory Park with a combined tally of 24 distinctions, but they also leave behind an app to help the school’s future matriculants.

Amira Karstaedt

Aerin Cohen

 

The app they created, called EVE, was introduced by the student representative council (SRC) last year.

“It serves as a platform for students to stay up to date with any important information, to express concerns, and share ideas,” says De Aguiar. “Ultimately, this app was developed by students for students, to meet their needs.”

As head girl, De Aguiar’s main role was to lead and support the SRC, while Karstaedt was its chief whip.

Cohen, the school’s deputy head girl, came up with the idea for the app when she noticed that students needed a platform to express their needs and have their voices heard.

“EVE was created to make the normal school day easier and happier, as well as to provide an easy way for students to communicate new ideas and concerns,” says Cohen. “We found a platform that allowed us to develop and distribute our own app.”

The student leaders, in turn, responded to the submissions from students on the app and took necessary action. EVE is also the place where students can access timetables, find out about the school’s upcoming events, and order from the tuck shop.

“EVE was constructed for the well-being of students,” says Cohen. “Therefore, in addition to a holiday countdown that boosts morale and motivation, EVE provides details of how students can reach out to [counselling service] Hatzolah Connect.

“This app has great potential for growth and I hope that one day, EVE will be developed professionally to serve many more schools and their students,” she says.

EVE is being further developed by Victory Park’s deputy head girl and boy and SRC of 2021/22.

During De Aguiar’s time as head girl, she represented the students and the ethos of the school as best as she could, and ensured the smooth running of numerous procedures.

Together with the SRC, she oversaw a variety of portfolios. “We had the opportunity to run initiatives, committees, and introduce [activities],” she says.

Karstaedt was involved in assisting various portfolios to execute their ideas, and ensured that each SRC member was heard and supported. She helped to organise the Fempower virtual event along with the rest of the school’s executive committee, which she describes as “a memorable and inspiring project”.

As mayor of the Johannesburg Junior Council, a prominent youth-led, non-profit organisation, Cohen was responsible for ensuring that fellow councillors had the support, guidance, and motivation they required to reach their goals.

“It was my role to encourage and organise to make sure that all councillors had the opportunity to learn together while serving the community around us,” she says.

Two Grade 11 students are elected to represent the school on the council each year. “I was honoured to be elected with my best friend, Paris Obel, who served as head of arts and culture,” says Cohen.

Deciding to run as mayor, Cohen went through multiple rounds of impromptu and prepared questions and speeches before the council voted her into the position. “I was up against some of the most brilliant minds and inspirational young people. I suppose I just really believed in myself and in my ability to turn passion into real, tangible change.”

De Aguiar considers receiving the Aileen Lipkin Sculpture for Good Fellowship her biggest success in her final school year.

“This award was voted for by my peers, and is awarded in recognition of commitment to the values of integrity, tolerance, and respect as well as commitment to the school,” she says. “This award is special to me because although good marks are something to be proud of, they don’t define you as a person.”

Karstaedt won the Israel Quiz in 2020, and achieved full colours in creative writing.

“My path to success in the 2020 Israel Quiz was gradual, requiring endurance and dedication,” she says. “But being able to expand and refine my knowledge of Israel’s history, culture, and geography during the three years I participated in the quiz was a rewarding and enjoyable experience.”

Her passion for creative writing has been a constant in her life, and was further consolidated when she became a member of the Writing Club in Grade 8.

“I especially love writing poetry,” she says, “and am thankful for the many opportunities that I received throughout high school to share my poems with others and listen to some of the exceptional pieces written by my peers.”

Karstaedt and De Aguiar put their good results down to hard work in a matric year in which they wrote mid-year exams at school during the third wave, and having early morning lessons and bi-weekly webinars.

“I worked hard to obtain the results that I expected of myself, and that motivation played a significant role in my approach to completing assignments, studying, and writing exams,” says Karstaedt.

“You need to focus in class, practice at home, and put in the hard work to prepare for your exams,” says De Aguiar.

She says 2022’s matrics should expect a tough year, but they should accept the challenge and rise to the occasion.

“In the end, you’ll be rewarded for all the effort. Most importantly, make sure you remember to have fun and enjoy the year.”

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Hostage crisis hits close to home for Cape Town rabbi

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It was the middle of the night when Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation’s (Temple Israel’s) Rabbi Greg Alexander (Rabbi Greg) heard that a fellow faith leader was being held hostage in a Texas shul on Saturday, 15 January.

Although the shocking event was unfolding across the oceans, it hit hard as he realised he knew the rabbi being held hostage.

“Suddenly the world felt small again. It took a moment to register that this was happening,” says Rabbi Greg. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants escaped around the same time that an elite FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) hostage rescue team breached the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, after an 11-hour standoff. The hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram, was killed.

“My wife, student rabbi Andi, and I met Rabbi Charlie in 2001 when we lived in Jerusalem,” recalls Rabbi Greg. “Andi and Rabbi Charlie’s wife, Adena, studied together at the liberal Bet Midrash on King David Street. Rabbi Charlie was a rabbinical student. We spent some Shabbatot together, and stayed in touch when they went back to the United States and we moved to London.

“We met them at the height of the Second Intifada when there were bombings in Jerusalem,” he says. “It was a time of fear and uncertainty then, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like now to be in that synagogue, or for her watching and waiting…”

“We haven’t seen Charlie or Adena for nearly 20 years even though we have followed each other online, and have gone in similar directions in our rabbinic work,” he says. “They are such amazing people, and are working every day for a better world. It’s so important to know in talking about this attack that of the many social-justice causes he initiated, his synagogue has specifically reached out to local Muslim communities and hosted them for Ramadan.” Temple Israel has done the same.

As the hostage crisis unfolded during an online Shabbat service, Rabbi Greg was alerted to the news a million miles away in time and place, late on Saturday night (South African time).

“We found out while Rabbi Charlie was still being held with the other hostages in the synagogue. The network of progressive rabbis around the world were all sharing what little information they could find, and we watched with horror to see what would unfold. Many people davened for their safe release. Of course, you immediately think of your own shul, wondering if it could happen to you. We are blessed in South Africa not to have experienced the levels of antisemitic violence we have seen in Europe or America, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Please G-d it won’t, ever.”

At times like this, “his synagogue could be any synagogue”, he says. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.” In fact, when Rabbi Greg posted on Facebook that he was praying for the safety of Cytron-Walker, a local Chabad rabbi commented on his post, “We are all praying for their safe release. Please G-d we will hear good news soon.”

Rabbi Greg says Cytron-Walker is “the definition of a good guy – a mensch of the first order. He’s kind, generous, and quick with a smile. As a rabbi, he has always emphasised peace work, social justice, and interfaith work. Everyone has commented on how calm and unflappable he was throughout the crisis.”

He says this isn’t the time to lose hope in connecting with other communities. “We will continue to reach out to our interfaith partners to build bridges of understanding in our local community.”

Asked if he ever imagined something like this happening in the shul of a fellow rabbi, Rabbi Greg says, “I’m well aware of how incidents of unapologetic Jew-hatred have increased in the world in the past decade. Ten years ago, nobody thought we would be living through this kind of violence and verbal attacks, but it’s now sadly commonplace.”

In fact, after the deadly Pittsburgh attack in which 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue on 27 October 2018, Cytron-Walker wrote to people from other communities who had supported his congregation by expressing their grief.

“When I heard about the deadly attack in the middle of our Sabbath service, the feeling was all too familiar,” he wrote at the time. “The emptiness and the pain, the anger and the helplessness. Too many times in Jewish history we faced tragedy without love or support. Too many times to count, we were left to pick up the pieces of tragedy and destruction. Believe me, the love and support matters. It’s something we all should be able to expect of each other. Thank you for helping us through these dark times. Thank you for standing together. When it comes to hatred and violence, we must all stand together.”

In the aftermath of his own ordeal, he once again thanked others for their support. “I’m thankful and filled with appreciation for all the vigils, prayers, love, and support, all the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all the security training that helped save us. I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for the CBI [Congregation Beth Israel] community, the Jewish community, the human community. I’m grateful that we made it out. I’m grateful to be alive.”

His words echo that of a psalm which Rabbi Greg says is one to remember at this time. “Psalm 116: 7-11 from the full Hallel in Rabbi Edward Feld’s beautiful translation in Siddur Lev Shalem reads: “‘Be at ease,’ I said to myself, ‘for Hashem has done this for you.’ You have saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I shall walk in G-d’s presence in the land of the living.”

“I hope Rabbi Charlie and the congregants taken hostage can ease their hearts with Hallel psalms,” Rabbi Greg says. “There’s nothing like tehillim for articulating how it feels to be freed from terrible danger.”

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From pandemic to “twindemic” as global cases soar

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As South Africans heave a sigh of relief at the improving COVID-19 situation, other nations are recording record infection levels, reporting new variants, and even worrying about the rise of a “twindemic”.

Although Israel has been mustering record morbidity levels amid the Omicron-driven wave, new coronavirus guidelines for Israeli schools came into force on the weekend with vaccination rates no longer a factor in whether classes can meet in person.

The country had been adopting a “traffic light” plan, in which the vaccination rate of each class determined if students attended school in-person or remotely.

A bigger stir has been caused by a woman in Israel being diagnosed with “flurona” at the start of January. However, this condition has been around for at least two years. Flurona is just the term for having COVID-19 and flu at the same time.

Strict measures to control the spread of coronavirus were expected to prevent flu transmission, which appears to have largely held true for 2020. Efforts to track flu cases face challenges, as flu tests are scarce and the illness can be confused with others, including COVID-19.

Israel is noticing flu spikes this winter after historically low case levels last year. After hitting record lows as coronavirus surged, flu cases in the United States (US) are rising this year. Europe’s flu season, meanwhile, is just starting.

Although Australia successfully contained outbreaks of coronavirus, about 86 000 of the 1.1 million cases it has amassed since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in the past two weeks. It’s now getting close to attaining record levels of COVID-19 infections following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Several countries in Europe have already achieved that feat. On Wednesday, 12 December, daily cases in Germany (80 000) and Bulgaria (7 062) hit record levels, while Turkey logged a record level of more than 74 000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.

In contrast, on 12 January, the United Kingdom (UK) reported that COVID-19 cases fell nearly 45% from the previous week in what was the biggest drop since the arrival of Omicron. Professor David Heymann, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claimed that the UK would be the first country in the northern hemisphere to tame the pandemic.

The picture isn’t so rosy in the US, where COVID-19 hospitalisations reached a record high on Monday, as a surge in infections strained health systems in several states. On Tuesday, the Indiana health department reported that more people were hospitalised with COVID-19 in its state than at any other point in the pandemic, and Oklahoma reported record-high numbers of new COVID-19 cases on the weekend.

Faring north, the Canadian province of Quebec, facing a new wave of infections, has announced plans to impose a “health tax” on residents who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccination for non-medical reasons.

In terms of new variants, a Cyprus researcher recently discovered Deltacron, a reported new variant of COVID-19. It apparently combines the Delta and Omicron variants.

And, according to scientists in France, the new B.1.640.2 variant, named IHU, could be stronger than the Omicron variant. IHU has been detected in a vaccinated man who travelled to Cameroon, the host of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Researchers say this doesn’t mean IHU originated in the central African country.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 310.5 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.49 million. More than 9.46 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.

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