Weekly roundup of world briefs from JTA

 

February 23, 2018



Trump negotiators welcome Abbas’ recognition of Jerusalem as holy to Jews

WASHINGTON (JTA)—President Donald Trump’s top negotiators welcomed a U.N. speech by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that recognized Jerusalem’s holiness to Jews, a sign that the sides are edging back toward restarting peace talks.

Trump administration officials nonetheless made clear that there was no retreat from the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital made by the American president in December.

In another sign that peace efforts could soon be back on track, Abbas called for a multilateral peace conference this summer that would include the United States in a leading role.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the top administration official in charge of restarting the peace talks, and Jason Greenblatt, the top U.S. Middle East negotiator, were seated directly behind Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for the Abbas address.


“We appreciated the opportunity to listen to his speech,” White House spokesman Josh Raffel said in a statement emailed to JTA.

“We were hoping to hear some new and constructive ideas, and the recognition that Jerusalem is holy to Jews in addition to Muslims and Christians is a step in the right direction, but as Ambassador Haley warned, setting forth old talking points and undeveloped concepts for each of the core issues will not achieve peace,” the statement said.

“We are trying to do the opposite and will continue working on our plan which is designed to benefit both the Israeli and Palestinian people. We will present it when it is done and the time is right.”

Eastern Jerusalem, Abbas said during his speech, “is our capital which we wish to be a city open to all the faithful of the three monotheistic religions.”

The Palestinian Authority leader in recent years has angered Israelis and Americans by noting only Muslim and Christian roots in the Holy Land.

Abbas had angrily rejected a leading U.S. role in brokering peace talks after Trump’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but in his U.N. speech he called for convening a peace conference in mid-2018 with “broad international participation” but one in which the “foremost” conveners were the five permanent members of the Security Council and the members of the Quartet, the four entities guiding Middle Eastern peacemaking.

The United States is a leading member of the Quartet and the Security Council, signaling Abbas was again ready to defer to U.S. leadership on the peace process.

But gaps to bridge remained seemingly before peace talks could reconvene, as Haley had alluded to in her speech dismissing “old talking points and undeveloped concepts.”

“We have already heard them again and again,” she said

Abbas in his speech said that an outcome of the peace conference should include a freeze on the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem—although he did not set such a freeze as a precondition for convening the peace conference. U.S. officials have said that the embassy could move as soon as next year.


Haley said about the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital: “You don’t have to like that decision, you don’t have to praise it, you don’t even have to accept it, but know this—that decision will not change.

“You can choose to put aside your anger about our embassy and move forward with us,” she said. “Our negotiators are sitting right behind me ready to talk, but we will not chase after you,” she said, referring to Kushner and Greenblatt.

Another area where Abbas appeared to retreat from his hard line was in describing calls in December by the Palestine Liberation Organization council to rupture ties with Israel. Instead, he said, it is “reviewing” its relationship with Israel.

One thorny issue besetting the peace talks is what happens in the Gaza Strip, where the terrorist group Hamas is in control. Abbas proposed a referendum on any peace plan to be approved by the Palestinian people. Polling in the past has shown there would be popular support for a final peace deal that settles all issues, although it is not clear that Hamas would allow a referendum or respect its outcome.

In his response to Abbas speech, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, described a history of peace talks that often ended abruptly when Palestinians withdrew once Israel had made an offer. Danon said Abbas is always welcome to directly negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but chooses not to.

“Rather than driving just 12 minutes between Ramallah and Jerusalem,” Danon said, “he has chosen to fly just 12 hours to New York to avoid the possibility of peace.”

Netanyahu in his own statement said Abbas “offered nothing new” “He continues to flee from police and continues to pay terrorists and their families $347 million,” he said in a statement sent from his office to reporters. Netanyahu referred to PLO payments to the families of Palestinians killed or captured while attacking Israelis.

Such Israeli statements notwithstanding, Netanyahu has said repeatedly he is committed to the Trump administration’s peace efforts, and Israel would likely follow the U.S. lead should talks restart.

New bribery scandal centers on fraud case against Sara Netanyahu

JERUSALEM (JTA)—A former spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu is accused of offering to make a judge attorney general if she agreed to close a case against the Israeli prime minister’s wife.

The suspected bribe was first reported Tuesday morning by reporter Ben Caspit of the Hebrew-language daily newspaper Maariv.

Caspit reported that Nir Hefetz, who served as media adviser to Netanyahu for three years starting in 2014, made the offer to Hila Gerstel, who has since retired from being a judge. Israel Police confirmed the suspected bribe without naming names. Gerstel has testified about the incident as a witness in another corruption case.

Gerstel said she turned down the offer and was “deeply shocked” by it, Maariv reported. It is not known if she turned to police at the time to tell them about it.

Attorney General Avichai Mandleblit told the Israeli media on Tuesday that he did not receive a similar offer before being tapped for the post in February 2016.

Sara Netanyahu is accused of using public funds for personal expenses, including hiring an electrician who was a member of the Likud party Central Committee to do work on the prime minister’s residence without offering a tender for the work and purchasing furniture that purportedly was bought for the official residence in Jerusalem and then moving it to the Netanyahus’ private residence in Caesarea.

Hefetz reportedly was arrested on Sunday in connection with Case 4000, a corruption case that involves Israel’s telecommunications giant Bezeq and the prime minister.

Mandleblit informed Sara Netanyahu in September that she would be indicted for fraud pending a hearing that has not yet taken place.

Teacher Scott Beigel did not want to be remembered as a hero

(JTA)—Funerals were held for three more Jewish victims of the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Hundreds of family, friends, students and colleagues attended the funeral on Sunday of teacher Scott Beigel at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida, that was live-streamed on the synagogue’s website.

Beigel, 35, a geography teacher and cross country coach at the school, saved students’ lives by opening his classroom door and ushering the students in. He was shot while closing the door behind them.

He reportedly told his fiance, Gwen Gossler, who he met at Pennsylvania’s Camp Starlight when they both worked as counselors seven years ago, that if he ever was the victim of a school shooting that she would not talk about the “hero stuff.” They had been watching news coverage of a similar school shooting on television at the time, she said during the funeral.

The Sunday funerals for first-year students Jamie Guttenberg and Alex Schachter were moved to a Fort Lauderdale hotel to accommodate more than a thousand mourners, according to reports.

The funeral for Alex Schachter, 14, who was a member of his school’s marching band, was closed to media. The Miami Herald reported that remembrances at the funeral “focused on his love for movies, his humor and his passion for the high school’s marching band, in which he played trombone,” as well as the secret ingredients in his special smoothie.

The teen’s family set up a GoFundMe page in his memory to fund a scholarship program to “help other students experience the joys of music” as well as fund increased security at schools.

Mourners who attended Jamie Guttenberg’s funeral on Sunday wore orange ribbons in her memory, which stood out against their black mourning clothes, according to the Miami Herald. Orange was her favorite color.

Rabbi Jonathan Kaplan in his eulogy tried to answer the question of where was God during the attack. He said: “God is in the teachers who protected them. God is in the first responders who went in that day. God is in the police who raced to the school, and God is in the families who waited... God is in the people, all over the world, who sent condolences.”

Funerals were held on Friday for Alyssa Alhedeff and Meadow Pollack.

US ambassador to Israel reportedly says evicting settlers ‘could lead to civil war’

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Evicting hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank “could lead to civil war in Israel,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told American Jewish leaders.

His remarks were first tweeted and reported on Israel’s Channel 10 by journalist Barak Ravid, who said he received the remarks from three participants at the meeting.

Friedman spoke Monday night during an off-the-record briefing in Jerusalem for about 100 American Jewish leaders at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations.

The U.S. Embassy and the Presidents Conference disputed the report.

“We have seen the reports on the off-the-record address held with Ambassador David Friedman. The words attributed to him were taken out of context, are incomplete, and are therefore a distortion of the ambassador’s remarks,” Stephen Greenberg and Malcolm Hoenlein, the chairman and CEO, respectively, of the Presidents Conference, said in a statement.

An embassy spokesman said in a statement: “The Channel 10 report is based upon three attendees at the conference who failed to provide much of the context behind Ambassador Friedman’s comments as well as significant additional and related remarks by the Ambassador.

“Ambassador Friedman made clear in his remarks that the President is committed to a comprehensive peace agreement that benefits both Israelis and Palestinians and that the U.S. is working on a plan to achieve that goal. As for settlements, the Ambassador believes that unrestrained settlement growth is not helpful for peace.”

According to Channel 10, Friedman also said that “the settlers aren’t going anywhere,” and this was his personal opinion. While serving as a lawyer for Donald Trump before his election, Friedman was a generous supporter of Beit El, a West Bank settlement.

He added that it could be more difficult to have the Israeli military evacuate settlements since members of the national-religious sector have taken more senior positions in the Israel Defense Forces and believe that God promised the land to the Jewish people.

According to the report, Friedman said the claim that a peace treaty is needed to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is unfounded, and supported Israel’s claim that it must hold on to the Jordan Valley under any peace agreement for security reasons.

Friedman also criticized the Palestinian leadership.

“They have not shown that they are capable of building institutions that will allow them to live in peace with their neighbors,” he reportedly said. “We must look at the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians not as a marriage but as a divorce.”

Iranian official: If Israel attacks we will destroy Tel Aviv and kill Netanyahu

(JTA)—An Iranian official said his country would destroy Tel Aviv and kill Benjamin Netanyahu if the Israeli prime minister followed through on his threat to attack Iran.

“About Netanyahu’s unwise words, I should say that if they carry out the slightest unwise move against Iran, we will level Tel Aviv to the ground and will not give any opportunity to Netanyahu to flee,” the secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezaee, told the Arabic-language al-Manar news channel on Monday, according to Fars News Agency.

The Expediency Council is an administrative assembly that provides counsel to Iran’s supreme leader, who appoints its members.

On Sunday, Netanyahu threatened to attack Iran in response to terror attacks on Israel’s soil.

“Israel will not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck. We will act without hesitation to defend ourselves. And we will act, if necessary, not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us but against Iran itself,” Netanyahu said at the Munich Security Conference.

Netanyahu waved a piece of an Iranian drone shot down over northern Israel last week, which led to Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria, and directly addressed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who also attended the conference.

Zarif later mocked Netanyahu’s theatrics, calling it a “cartoonish circus.” Netanyahu had called Zarif in his speech “the smooth-talking mouthpiece of Iran’s regime” who “lies with eloquence.”

New Jersey rabbi arrested for meeting teen prostitute

(JTA)—A New Jersey rabbi registered as a sex offender was among three people arrested in connection with the human trafficking and prostitution of a 17-year old girl.

Rabbi Aryeh Goodman, 35, of East Brunswick, has been charged with engaging in prostitution with a child and one count of endangering the welfare of a child. He runs a religious learning center out of his home.

Gabriella Colon, 18, and Richard Ortiz, 23, both of the Bronx, New York, have been charged with 11 criminal counts including human trafficking and promoting the prostitution of a child. According to a statement from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, they sold the sexual services of the teen, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to approximately 30 men from Jan. 1 to Feb. 2.

Goodman met the teen at the hotel on Feb. 1 and paid to have sex with her, according to the statement. He turned himself in nearly a week later to the East Brunswick Police Department while accompanied by his attorney.

Goodman is registered as a Tier 3, or high risk sex offender, according to Meyer Seewald, founding director of Jewish Community Watch, an organization dedicated to combating child sexual abuse in the Jewish community.

In a statement sent to JTA, Seewald said that Goodman molested a youth while serving as a camp counselor in 2001. Jewish Community Watch helped Goodman’s victim file a report against the rabbi in 2013. Goodman accepted a plea deal and served prison time. Seewald said he had been sentenced to up to 23 months in jail.

Israeli telecommunications officials arrested in corruption investigation involving Netanyahu

(JTA)—Israel Police’s corruption unit and the Israel Securities Authority have opened an investigation into the Israel telecommunications company Bezeq, part of an ongoing corruption investigation involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Several suspects reportedly were arrested on Sunday as part of the investigation, called Case 4000, in part looking into whether Netanyahu had a relationship with the company. Netanyahu has not been named as a suspect in the case.

The Israel Securities Authority recently completed an investigation into Bezeq majority shareholder Shaul Elovitch’s ties with Netanyahu and the allegation that he received political favors for Bezeq in return for favorable coverage of Netanyahu on the Walla! News website, owned by Bezeq.

A gag order was placed on details of the arrests.

In a filing with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on Sunday, Bezeq confirmed that senior company had been arrested.

The suspended director general of the Ministry of Communications, Shlomo Filber, who was previously questioned in the Bezeq case, was among those arrested Sunday, his attorney confirmed to the Globes business publication. Two former associates who worked in the Prime Minister’s office reportedly also were detained by the Israel Securities Authority on Sunday for questioning.

Walla! News CEO Ilan Yeshua and former editor-in-chief Yinon Magal also were asked to testify Sunday over the suspicion of favorable coverage, Ynet reported.

“This is another false claim. The prime minister didn’t act for Elovitch’s and Bezeq’s benefit, not for favorable coverage and not for anything else,” read a statement issued on Netanyahu’s behalf

Netanyahu is expected to be questioned in connection with the case, Haaretz reported; he not been named as a suspect in the case.

Chabad security footage shows Florida school shooter ‘casually walking by’ after attack

(JTA)—A Chabad center in Coral Springs, Florida, may have evidence that can help police bring the Parkland high school shooter to justice.

When Rabbi Hershy Bronstein of the Chai Center Chabad saw in a report from the local sheriff’s office that a suspect had been arrested at a McDonald’s across the street from his building, he checked security camera footage to see if it contained any evidence that could help police, Chabad.org reported.

The camera footage showed suspect Nikolas Cruz, 19, walking down the street and into McDonalds after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Cruz reportedly had purchased a drink at a Subway located in a Walmart along the route before going entering the McDonalds.

“My heart skipped a beat when I saw it,” Bronstein told the Jewish news website Vos Iz Neias of reviewing the security camera footage. “You see him in our parking lot, casually walking by, looking over his shoulder.”

Bronstein shared the footage with the FBI, as well as news media outlets.

“They told me it could be an important part of the case,” Bronstein told VIN. “If he takes an insanity plea, the confident way he is walking could prove otherwise.”

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt cancels Israel trip over criticism of first-class travel

(JTA)—Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt cancelled a trip to Israel after criticism of his travel expenses.

Pruitt had been expected to arrive in Israel for a five-day visit and stay at the five-star King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the Washington Post reported, citing people in Israel briefed on his plans. Israeli officials confirmed to the newspaper that Pruitt’s trip was official state business. Support staff from the E.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv were scheduled to accompany him on his travels within Israel.

“We decided to postpone; the administrator looks forward to going in the future,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in a statement emailed to media outlets.

Confrontations with members of the public caused Pruitt to switch to flying first or business class whenever possible, at the recommendation of the head of his security detail. Some of the confrontations were threatening and Pruitt’s security felt they could not protect him appropriately, according to the EPA.

Pruitt’s travel has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the Post.

Pruitt asserted that he did not make the decision to switch to more expensive flights.

“I’m not involved in any of those decisions,” he told the New Hampshire Union Leader. “Those are all made by the [security] detail, the security assessment, in addition to the chief of staff.”

 

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