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Obama expected to talk about Palestine, not Iran – if there is a government to talk to

This posting has 4 items:
1) Forward: Tensions Threaten To Complicate Obama’s Middle East Listening Tour;
2) MEMO: Obama visit is off if Netanyahu fails to form government by mid-March;
3) Ha’aretz: Netanyahu may be forced to form coalition with Lapid and Bennett;
4) NY Times: Israeli Premier Gets Extension to Form a Coalition but Faces Turmoil;

Benjamin Netanyahu makes nice with  Yair Lapid, centre, at the swearing-in ceremony of the 19th Knesset in Jerusalem, Feb. 5, 2013. But the Yesh Atid chairman is not being as compliant as Bibi expected and Israel still has no government. Does anyone care? Photo by Emil Salman. From Ha’aretz see

Tensions Threaten To Complicate Obama’s Middle East Listening Tour

President’s Trip Comes Amid Political and Social Unrest

By Nathan Guttman and Nathan Jeffay, Jewish Forward

March 03, 2013

A presidential trip designed as little more than a polite visit aimed at strengthening relations — while avoiding thorny issues — could be forced to face unexpectedly tough and substantive questions as conditions on the ground in Israel and the West Bank change rapidly.

Palestinian unrest in the occupied West Bank and an unresolved post-election coalition process in Israel are dominating developments in the region even as aides to Barack Obama plan his first trip as president to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

In the West Bank, tensions have been on the rise, leading some to speculate that an all-out flare-up, perhaps in the shape of a third intifada, could be imminent. Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still struggling to build a new coalition. This is forcing the White House to prepare for talks with a government whose makeup is still unknown.

The administration came up with a three-pronged agenda for Obama’s Middle East tour, which starts on March 20. The intended agenda focuses on Iran’s nuclear program, on Syria’s civil war, which threatens to disintegrate the country, and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Israeli official announcements, the Palestinian issue has received third billing. But recent events could force Obama to make the Palestinian issue a priority.

“I’d be astonished if he does not use the unsurpassed platform as president of the United States to try and revive public interest in the peace process,” said David Makovsky, a prominent scholar and analyst of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He made clear however, that when dealing with the issue, Obama will try to speak to Israel’s public opinion rather than presenting specific plans and ideas.

Unrest in the West Bank has been building in recent weeks, even before the announcement of Obama’s visit, following a decision by some Palestinians detained by Israel to go on a hunger strike to protest their imprisonment without trial. Thousands of Palestinians expressed their support for the hunger strikers in mass demonstrations.

Tensions ratcheted even higher, reaching a level not seen since the days of the last intifada, in 2000, when Arafat Jaradat, a 30-year-old Palestinian inmate arrested on February 18, died six days later in an Israeli prison. Israeli authorities say the cause of his death remains undetermined despite an autopsy conducted on his body by Israeli pathologists. Palestinian officials point to the autopsy’s findings of bodily bruises and two broken ribs as evidence that he was tortured.

Husam Zomlot, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah faction, told the Forward that he believes the unrest in the West Bank “should help, and it should affect the agenda for the visit, taking it from something ceremonial to something that could look at the real issues.”

Ramallah-based Zomlot, who is deputy commissioner of Fatah’s International Relations Commission, claimed that recent actions by Israel have created a situation “on the edge of explosion.” He cited in particular numerous detentions of Palestinians without trial, Israel’s re-arrest of some prisoners it released in the October 2011 deal that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and the detention and unexplained death of Jaradat.

In fact, many Palestinians believe that a backdrop of unrest will focus the presidential visit on Israeli-Palestinian peace. But widespread speculation among Israelis that the unrest has been orchestrated for this reason is being met with disdain.

The idea is “extremely cynical,” P.A. spokeswoman Nour Odeh said. “Palestinians don’t use their lives as a way to promote their cause.”

Odeh said the unrest is spontaneous. She insisted: “Nobody is interested in an escalation on the Palestinian side. That’s certainly not in the best interests of our people and certainly not the policy of our president or leadership.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat visited Washington in February to discuss the upcoming presidential visit with administration officials. Expectations on the Palestinian side run high, although officials in touch with the administration heard the term “listening tour” time and again from American officials describing Obama’s trip.

Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, said the administration was “keeping a close eye” on the situation in the West Bank, but he did not expect the White House to cancel or change the trip plans. “I doubt he will get into any specifics,” al-Omari said about Obama’s scheduled talks in Jerusalem and in Ramallah. Still, he noted that Obama could do a great service if he’d “express his commitment to the peace process, to the Palestinian Authority and to continuing U.S. aid to the Palestinians.”

Israelis would like to see Obama focus as much attention as possible on Iran and deal with the Palestinian issue in as general terms as possible.

“I think the Obama visit to Israel has one major goal or objective: that the president of the U.S. will talk as directly as he can to the Israeli public and mainly on Iran,” said Yoram Meital, chair of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University. He added that the idea is to undermine Netanyahu and any unilateral plans he may have for an Iran strike. Obama wants the Israeli public to put its faith in the United States on this issue, Meital said.

Following the West Bank unrest, Obama may focus on Israel-Palestinian peace a little more, “but it’s not the aim of the visit,” Meital said.

The veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information think tank, disagrees. “I don’t think it’s going to be about Iran,” he said. “I think the main message he’s coming to give is, ‘Forget about Iran — Iran is ours.’”

Obama will essentially be freeing up Israel from the Iran issue to seek peace with the Palestinians, Baskin predicted. And in his view, an escalation could undermine this, causing him to start “micromanaging the Israeli-Palestinian situation” instead of talking about big peace plans — or maybe to cancel his trip altogether.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on whether it believes that the West Bank unrest will have an impact on Obama’s trip, beyond directing the Forward to a statement from the prime minister’s office showing that Israeli-Palestinian peace featured prominently on the agenda when it was released, a week before the unrest began. Netanyahu “noted that the main issues of the visit will be focused on the diplomatic-security sphere — the Iranian nuclear issue, the situation in Syria and efforts to resume the negotiations with the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu’s own political situation could add another complicating factor to the president’s trip to the region.

With the deadline for forming a new government falling only days before Obama’s arrival, Netanyahu has yet to establish a new coalition. Negotiations for a coalition have reached a dead end following the unexpected insistence by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party on changing Israeli rules regarding military service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. Lapid has formed a negotiating alliance with the right-wing Jewish Home party to fortify his position.

Analysts are unanimous in agreeing that Netanyahu will eventually succeed in forming a new government. But the unclear situation is making planning for Obama’s visit all the more complicated.

“There are just so many unknowns,” Makovsky said. He noted that America’s stance toward a Netanyahu government that would include a broad centrist component would be different from one toward a narrow government in which the right wing is dominant.

Nathan Guttman reported from Washington. Contact him at or on Twitter @nathanguttman

Nathan Jeffay reported from Jerusalem. Contact him at

Obama visit is off if Netanyahu fails to form government by mid-March

By Memo
March 01, 2013

US officials preparing for President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel have told their Israeli counterparts that the visit will be cancelled if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fails to form a new government by mid-March. Obama is due to land in Israel on March 20th.

The deadline set by President Shimon Peres for the new government to be in place expires on teh evening of Saturday, 2nd March. Due to the difficulties faced by Netanyahu it is expected that an extension of 14 days will be requested; if he has still not cobbled together another coalition by the end of the extension period then another Knesset Member will be invited to do so.

According to Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Friday, political officials in Israel have confirmed that the White House is preparing for a possible cancellation of Obama’s visit.

Netanyahu’s difficulties arise from the alliance between the Yesh Atid Party, headed by Yair Lapid, and Jewish Home Party, headed by Naftali Bennett. Both have made any agreement with Likud conditional on the lowering of the age for recruitment into the army of young ultra-Orthodox men and women (Haredim) to 21, and not 24, as proposed by Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance. Netanyahu wants the older age in order to ensure the inclusion of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties in his government.

Although press reports mention an understanding between Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu and Yesh Atid Jewish Home, Lapid has said that he refuses to join a government with the Haredim parties. Likud -Yisrael Beiteinu’s chief negotiator, attorney David Shimron, said at the close of negotiations with Yesh Atid on Thursday, that a lot of time was spent to clarify Yesh Atid’s position on the inclusion of Haredim parties in the government. “The response we got,” he added, “was that, in terms of practicality, and in the opinion of Yesh Atid, there is no place for the Haredim in the next government.”

A spokesperson for Yesh Atid, meanwhile, said that the party will continue to stick to its principles. “These have gained us the trust of the public; we hope that the structure of the new government will reflect the will of the people by making changes that express the new agenda of the State of Israel.”

The leader of the Shas Party, Aryeh Deri MK, followed this up by saying that Yesh Atid leader Lapid is “waging a campaign of hatred” against the Haredim. “It has now become clear that behind the alleged concern about spreading the burden [of military service and taxation] equally there is hatred towards the Haredim,” he claimed.

The alliance between centre-right Yesh Atid and extreme right-wing Jewish Home, which represents Israeli settlers, requires that both parties should join the government or both should be in opposition; there is no room for one to split away leaving the other isolated.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has only signed-up one extra coalition partner to-date, old rival Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah Party. It has been agreed that Livni will take charge of the justice portfolio, with the party also looking after environment issues. Livni will lead peace negotiations with the Palestinians, should they ever resume. In an example of how complex coalition talks can get, Jewish Home has made it clear that it will not join a coalition with Livni in such a role. Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu denies that this is the case.

A poll published by Haaretz newspaper on Friday suggested that if an election was to be held in Israel today, Netanyahu’s bloc would see its Knesset membership fall from 31 to 26 seats. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid would, on the other hand, gain 11 seats, to end up with 31; Jewish Home would gain one extra seat, leaving it with 13 MKs. Both the Labour Party and the extreme right-wing religious parties would have reduced numbers of MKs, the poll claimed.

Source: Tel Aviv (UBI)

Sources: Netanyahu may be forced to form coalition with Lapid and Bennett

Senior Habayit Hayehudi officials hint second meeting between PM and Bennett points to a thawing in their relationship, but no change in Bennett’s stance on Lapid; Likud officials believe Netanyahu may have to give up on ultra-Orthodox.

By Jonathan Lis, Ha’aretz
March 03, 2013

Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu is said to be warming to him. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

Although the meeting between Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday went well, the Habayit Hayehudi leader is planning to stick to his alliance with Yair Lapid, senior members of Bennett’s party have said.

“Our commitment to Lapid continues even after the meeting with the prime minister,” said a senior source in Habayit Hayehudi. “From this perspective, there has been no change.”

If Bennett doesn’t agree to join Netanyahu, who is currently trying to cobble together a right wing-Haredi coalition, the alliance between Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi is likely to force Netanyahu to give in to Lapid’s demand and form a government coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Likud officials also increasingly believe that Netanyahu has realized that he will not be able to form a right-wing / ultra-Orthodox government, and is striving now to form a coalition agreement over the next few days with Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi.

On Sunday, the rabbis of Tkuma, the ultra-Orthodox Zionist faction that is led by Rabbi Dov Lior within Habayit Hayehudi, published a letter in support of Bennett and his alliance with Lapid.

Habayit Hayehudi party members were careful not to reveal any details about what occurred during the meeting held in Netanyahu’s office on Sunday, during parts of which Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman was present. The meeting went on for two and a half hours and at its conclusion was said to have been “good and practical.” Lieberman himself also stated that “the meeting went well.”

These responses from participants are likely to signify a turnaround in the relationship between Bennett and Netanyahu, after an official Likud announcement termed their previous meeting weeks ago as having been “businesslike.” This was the second meeting between Netanyahu and Bennett since the elections and also the second meeting between the two since Bennett concluded his stint as Netanyahu’s bureau chief five years ago amid unpleasant murmurs.

Since the elections, the prime minister has displayed a cold and callous demeanor toward Bennett. The congratulatory conversation between the prime minister and Bennett over the latter’s electoral accomplishment came almost an entire week after the final election results were announced. Habayit Hayehudi received 12 Knesset seats in January’s elections, quadrupling the number of seats it held in the previous Knesset.

Last January, Haaretz revealed that Netanyahu had tagged Bennett as the person responsible for three leaks from his office to the media. Bennett was accused, along with his then-bureau chief, now a Habayit Hayehudi lawmaker, MK Ayelet Shaked, of leaking information to Channel 10 about Netanyahu’s foreign travels, and to Yedioth Aharonot about Netanyahu’s campaign contributor. He was also accused of leaking information to the state comptroller and police that led to a probe over money allegedly given to Netanyahu by ultra-Orthodox businessman Dedi Graucher. In the latter case, the police determined there was no evidence to support the allegation.

Bennett recently firmly denied these accusations against him. In addition, Bennett was forced to deal with his “slip of the tongue” on the eve of the elections when he said during a Channel 10 broadcast that he and Sara Netanyahu were in the same anti-terror training course together. When asked whether he could work together with Netanyahu despite the ill-feelings between them, Bennett said that they could overcome these feelings as they served together in the same Israeli army division – the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit.

Asked whether he had also served in the same unit with Sara Netanyahu, Bennett said, “Yes, I was with Sara mainly in a terrorism course.” After a few seconds’ confusion he elaborated, “There is nothing that 15 Knesset seats won’t cure. We should stop dwelling on gossip. Netanyahu and I will work very well together.”

On Saturday, President Peres granted Netanyahu two more weeks to form Israel’s next government, after the prime minister failed to negotiate a parliamentary majority in the 28-day timeframe he was given after winning the January election. Netanyahu hinted to Peres on Saturday that the blame behind the delay lies with Lapid, and Bennett’s alliance, and the fact that it seems they will not agree to join a government that includes ultra-Orthodox parties.

On Sunday afternoon, Netanyahu met with the Shas leadership, outgoing Housing Minister Ariel Atias, outgoing Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Aryeh Deri – the first face-to-face meeting with the Shas triumvirate since the election. According to Shas officials, Netanyahu accused Habayit Hayehudi chairman MK Naftali Bennett of creating a political entanglement that will not allow Shas to enter to coalition. However, Shas officials said they had the impression that Netanyahu’s efforts in the coming days would focus on Labor chairwoman MK Shelly Yacimovich rather than on splitting up the alliance between Bennett and the Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid.

Shelly Yacimovich, Labour Party. Netanyahu would rather have her in coalition than Lapid + Bennett who have taken a common stand against Orthodox parties. Only Shas shares his refusal to make any move on peace talks.

“Netanyahu is willing to do a lot to persuade Yacimovich to come in,” a Shas official said.

A statement by a senior Shas minister on Sunday indicates that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties are moving closer to joining the opposition, in light of the crisis in ties with Habayit Hayehudi.

“We are going to walk all over the settlements, we’re not afraid. We’ll vote to evacuate outposts, we’ll vote to freeze construction, we’ll support diplomatic initiatives, we’ll vote to cut funding to the settlements,” the senior Shas official told Haaretz on Sunday.

Israeli Premier Gets Extension to Form a Coalition but Faces Turmoil

By Isabel Kershner, NY Times
March 02, 2013

JERUSALEM — Israel’s president on Saturday granted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a two-week extension to form a governing coalition, a task complicated by mathematics and chemistry.

Mr. Netanyahu, Israeli analysts say, finds himself in a bind as he tries to solve the coalition puzzle. His options have been curtailed by an unexpected alliance between two rising stars bent on preventing his longstanding ultra-Orthodox allies from joining the next government.

Yair Lapid, a former television host, stunned the political establishment when his centrist party, Yesh Atid, placed second in the January elections. It won 19 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, positioning Mr. Lapid as a power broker. Adding to his bargaining power, Mr. Lapid has forged an unlikely negotiating alliance with Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Jewish Home, the winner of 12 seats.

Mr. Netanyahu, whose rightist Likud-Beiteinu faction has 31 seats, needs at least one of those two parties — plus some of his traditional partners — to be able to form a coalition with a majority of 61 or more, and he might need both. But he would also like to maintain his long partnership with the ultra-Orthodox.

So far, Mr. Lapid and Mr. Bennett have pledged to go into the coalition together or not at all. “I do not recall such a strong alliance between two such different parties,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communication at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “These two leaders seem to have chemistry, and the one thing they share is a desire for a government without the ultra-Orthodox. Wow!”

The pair’s argument for not including the ultra-Orthodox parties hinges on their promises to end exemptions from compulsory military or civilian national service for ultra-Orthodox young men engaged in Torah studies. The demand for a more equal sharing of the burden was popular among the middle-class voters championed by Mr. Lapid and in Mr. Bennett’s camp. But Likud members say that Mr. Lapid’s opposition to including the ultra-Orthodox goes beyond that.

After talks with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home on Thursday and Friday, David Shimron, a lawyer representing Likud-Beiteinu, told reporters that Mr. Netanyahu wanted to form as broad a coalition as possible but that Mr. Lapid would rule out the ultra-Orthodox as coalition partners even if the ultra-Orthodox “were drafted at the age of 14.”

“A whole public is being boycotted,” Mr. Shimron added. “We don’t accept boycotts, and we’ll have to see how we move forward to form the government under these circumstances.”

Shas, the largest ultra-Orthodox party, representing Sephardic Jews, has been a mainstay of many governments led by the right and the left since it was founded in 1984. It was last excluded, from Ariel Sharon’s government in 2003, on the insistence of the staunchly antireligious Shinui Party, which was led by Mr. Lapid’s father, Yosef.

A brief honeymoon period between Mr. Netanyahu and Yair Lapid after the elections quickly soured after Mr. Lapid spoke about his intention to replace Mr. Netanyahu as prime minister, possibly within 18 months.

So far, Mr. Netanyahu has found only one new coalition partner: the small Hatnua Party, led by Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and a longtime critic of Mr. Netanyahu’s handling of the Palestinian conflict. She has been promised the post of justice minister and a leading role in any talks with the Palestinians.

But a government without Shas will leave Mr. Netanyahu more vulnerable; his conservative Likud Party emerged weakened from the elections, with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home each holding the power to make or break any potential coalition.

Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to run on a joint ticket with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party of his former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, “deterred voters on all fronts — centrists, Sephardim, national religious,” said Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Interdisciplinary Center. “These are the results. Mr. Netanyahu would be much stronger with Shas in the coalition. His maneuvering capability has definitely been limited.”

But political experts also note that coalition deals in Israel are rarely written in stone. Shas, despite its objections, could join Mr. Netanyahu’s next coalition later, after new legislation on the military obligations of the ultra-Orthodox has been resolved.

Most Shas voters already serve in the army, said Asher Cohen of Bar Ilan University, adding: “Shas will always want to be in the coalition. There is no historical basis to believe that it won’t.”

With an extension, Mr. Netanyahu will have until mid-March to forge a new government. If he fails, President Shimon Peres could ask another party leader to take on the task.

“Netanyahu needs to form a coalition and get through the vote of confidence in Parliament,” said Gideon Rahat of Hebrew University. “After that, he can always change the makeup of the coalition. The day after the vote of confidence, Lapid could leave and Shas could join. I’m not getting excited.”

As a politician, Mr. Rahat said, Mr. Netanyahu “is no magician.”

“But the state of politics in Israel is so bad,” he added, “that even someone who is not especially successful can succeed.”

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