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Spotted in Istanbul: Former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak

Former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was spotted at an Istanbul airport this morning (Saturday). Barak was accompanied by his wife and a security guard. The trio was in transit and spent four hours in an airline lounge.

Barak served as defense minister during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 and the 2010 flotilla offensive, in which nine Turkish nationals were killed by Israeli commandos onboard the Mavi Marmara. Both events led to a severe deterioration in Israeli-Turkish relations, which were partly mended recently when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the incident. Negotiations over compensation for the families of the deceased are currently taking place.

Israeli officials, ministers and high ranking officers have avoided Turkey in recent years, also due to legal proceedings against those involved in the attack on the Flotilla.

Ehud Barak didn’t take part in the last Israeli elections and holds no official position in today. It is not clear whether his landing was coordinated with Turkish authorities. In the past, when Israeli officials or senior officers feared arrests during layovers, they preferred to stay on the plane.

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Confessions of a voting virgin

‘I cast my first vote ever today. It was in the Israeli elections where one vote really makes a difference, and I truly cherished this moment.’

I’m in my mid-30s and I’m embarrassed to say I had never voted. For me, voting in the U.S. – where I spent much of my time – had sadly and frustratingly proven to be inconvenient and lacking of potential for impact. Make no mistake about it, I’m not an apathetic person and I treasure the value of the vote, especially after having seen first-hand, places where people don’t have it and what not having it actually means. So let me explain.

In the U.S., one is required to know in advance where one will be on election day, which as a traveling journalist – especially a journalist who usually worked on election day itself – wasn’t always possible. Hence, the inconvenience. Second, in the U.S., I had only ever been eligible to vote in two places: California and Washington, DC. California – even without my one vote – always went (and will continue to go) to the Democrats, thanks to the electoral college system that is based on a state-by-state winner-takes-all calculation. Thus, I could say with quite certainty that my one vote wouldn’t have changed the outcome. The same can be said about Washington, DC, a non-state district that lacks voting rights in the U.S. Congress but is still allocated an electoral college vote. Washingtonians vote for Democratic candidates by a whopping 20:1 margin. Again, my vote would not have changed much.

That said, on Tuesday, January 22, 2013, I cast my first vote ever. It was in the Israeli elections. It’s a country-wide vote without district representation. One vote really makes a difference and I truly cherished this moment.

But in the days leading to the vote, I had been unsure for whom – or for which party – to cast my ballot.

In the U.S., I and others often mock the undecided voter. He or she is usually wooed by Republicans and Democrats all trying to get these kingmakers to put them over the top, most notably in so-called “swing states,” where those votes can make or break a candidate. A comedy sketch show, days ahead of the last American election, even mocked them in a skit. “Who are these undecided voters?” the sketch pondered. “We went out to find them.” Then you...

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Palestinian MK Zoabi: Voting in Israeli elections is part of the struggle

The Arab League has called on Palestinian citizens of Israel to vote in Tuesday’s parliamentary elections. The unprecedented move by the multi-national Arab group, which in the past supported the Saudi Peace Initiative with Israel, comes as a voter turnout among the Palestinian citizens of Israel – roughly 20% of the Israeli population – is expected to drop yet again.

A decade ago three-quarters of Arab-Israelis voted. In the last election, only half did. The majority voted for Arab parties, which are historically excluded – and their voices with it – from coalition-formed governments. Some Arabs end up voting for the Jewish parties, and a few Arabs secure seats on their lists. (Several of the Zionist parties include Arab candidates.)

But the Arab parties themselves are split, most notably into Islamist, communist and nationalist camps. Parliamentarian Hanin Zoabi (Balad) comes from the last group. On Saturday, I caught up with Zoabi as she addressed supporters in Kufar Manda, near Nazareth.

Speaking to young Arab voters from a stage draped in a Palestinian flag, I could not help but think of the accusation often made by Israel’s Jewish nationalist camps that these citizens aren’t loyal to the State. For a number of reasons, including most notably her participation in the deadly Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010 – Zoabi is considered to be among the leaders of the “disloyal pack.” But Israel’s Arabs are twice as likely to be unemployed as its Jews, and two-thirds of their children are deemed poor. That’s triple  the rate compared to the country’s Jewish population. So I wondered: how loyal has the State been to them?

To the dismay of some of my Israeli friends, I will admit that I have developed a certain respect for Zoabi. It’s not because I agree with everything she says – I don’t. But I admire someone who challenges the system. All too often, successful politicians are those who use their position of power to impose their will on the weak. That’s cheap and easy. Zoabi is the type of person who speaks out for the silenced in the face of those who silence her. And that, in my opinion, is commendable. And she is perhaps as unpopular among Jewish-Israelis as she is popular among Arab-Israelis (one possibly being a direct consequence of the other).

The following is my interview with MK Zoabi in Kufar Manda, shortly after she addressed her supporters.


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Abbas' Fatah holds anniversary rally in Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip

Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement turned out for an anniversary rally in the Gaza Strip. It is the first such celebration that Hamas officials in Gaza have allowed since the two factions split nearly six years ago.  

It was a sea of yellow in the streets of Gaza City, as thousands upon thousands of Palestinian supporters of Fatah came out to mark the organization’s 48th anniversary. And, for the first time in more than half a decade, were allowed to display that support publicly.

Fatah’s yellow flags are a rarity in Gaza nowadays. Its activities in the Hamas-controlled coastal strip have been banned since 2007, following a violent split between the two factions. Even the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – who is also the head of the secularist Fatah – hasn’t been to visit since. Despite various promises to do so, Fatah officials insist that his security cannot be guaranteed.

Abbas’ presence was noticeably missing from the crowd in Gaza, despite the myriad of posters featuring him and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, the late founder and leader of Fatah. Abbas instead addressed the crowd via a pre-recorded message.

Earlier in the week, Abbas lead a similar event in Ramallah, where Hamas’ green flags have similarly been banned for the last several years. Still, last month, Hamas’ supporters were allowed to mark their party’s anniversary there – a quid pro quo that was not lost on Fatah supporters in Gaza. One Fatah supporter who came out to the demonstration called the rally a “big national celebration – Fatah giving Hamas the opportunity to celebrate in the West Bank and Fatah getting the opportunity to celebrate in Gaza. This is the start of a new era for reconciliation.”

Hamas authorities estimated Friday’s turnout to be around 200,000 people, while organizers from Fatah put that number closer to half a million. It was unclear even a week ago whether Fatah’s Gaza celebrations would happen at all. Hamas had rejected Fatah’s request to hold the rally in the same square where Hamas held its celebration, citing security reasons. Fatah supporters suspected Hamas leaders feared a large turnout, and a public display of support for Fatah in the Gaza Strip.

The celebrations may bring the Palestinians one step closer to reconciliation, but it is unclear how much closer it will bring them to their final goal: an independent state. Fatah...

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WATCH: UNRWA chief says donor commitment to Gaza needs to continue

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, provides “assistance, protection and advocacy for some 5 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory, pending a solution to their plight.”

The UN agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from the global body’s member states.  UNRWA’s chief, Filippo Grandi, says the international community and donors must continue in their commitment to Palestinians and, in particular, to the people of Gaza.


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WATCH: Palestinian journalists protest attacks on Gaza media buildings

Members of the Palestinian Union of Journalists and their supporters gathered in Ramallah’s Al-Manara Square on Sunday to demonstrate against an Israeli attack on two media buildings in Gaza.  

Ramallah, West Bank – Dozens of Palestinians in the West Bank – territorially separated from the Gaza Strip – protested in the territory’s administrative center Ramallah on Sunday, accusing Israel of directly targeting journalists in an attempt to stifle the flow of information out of Gaza.

Media NGOs, including Reporters Without Borders, have condemned the strike, which wounded six Palestinian journalists and damaged the equipment of foreign media covering the nearly week-long escalation of violence. One journalist lost his leg in the attack.

The Committee to Protect Journalist‘s Deputy Director, Robert Mahoney, also condemned the strike:

Israel says it was targeting the antenna of al-Quds TV, which it considers the media propoganda wing of Hamas. Imad Efranji, al-Quds TV’s Gaza director, told Al Arabiya news that the attack was “a new crime against the media.”





Click here for more +972 coverage on the Israel-Gaza conflict.

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Israeli MK incites violence against leftists, Palestinians

It is reassuring to know that in Israel everyone can have their voice heard. Thus, an Israeli anti-war demonstration held last Thursday was countered by a rally supporting the military operation in Gaza by Israeli forces. But there should be a limit on free speech, especially when some of those voices are calling for violence against others.

In developed societies, incitement to violence is a punishable offense. Israel’s standards should be no different.

During Thursday’s rally, right-wing Israeli member of Knesset Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) is seen encouraging the chanting crowd with phrases like, “leftist traitors,” and “leftists out.” He then asks:

Watch: Right-wing demonstrators call for expulsion of leftists

When I posted this video on my personal facebook account earlier today, it had only 300 views, and I noted that, in my opinion, MK Ben-Ari should be arrested. (I still believe that to be the case, and I hope the authorities are reading this.) I got a number of responses from Israeli Jews noting, with some embarrassment, that the clip is disgusting and that Ben-Ari does not represent Jews or Israel or them:

I advise this friend (a religious Jewish female, raised in the U.S. but now living in Israel) to write about the issues from her perspective, and to not allow the likes of Ben-Ari to hijack the voice of religious Jews. Meanwhile, another friend – a secular Israeli living in the North, noted:

The sentiments are reassuring. And indeed, politically, Ben Ari – a self-declared supporter of the slain Rabbi Meir Kahane and a former member of the outlawed group Kahane Chai – has very few followers in Israel, though enough to get him and his party elected. Some of them are seen in the video with him, chanting “Gaza is a graveyard.”

But for me, perhaps more alarming than Ben-Ari and his supporters are the following:

First, that sentiment – even if not as violent in tone – is creeping into Israeli society and institutions, and it is doing so unchecked. Crackdowns on leftists are often spearheaded by the government itself. Few, except for on the Left, have spoken out against this witchhunt. And comments like “we have to get rid of all of the Arabs” can now be overheard in cafes in “liberal” Tel Aviv.

Second, more and more so, these views – and incitement to violence – are being...

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WATCH: Spanish protesters join European demonstrations against austerity

Madrid, Spain – Thousands of demonstrators took the streets of nearly a dozen Spanish cities on Wednesday, protesting against government plans to cut spending in ways they say unfairly target the poor and working classes. 

WATCH Roee Ruttenberg reporting from Madrid.



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U.S. elections: The majority voting on the rights of the minority

On Election Day in the United States, Americans are choosing between two different visions for the future of their country. And some are being asked to sacrifice their rights for the sake of one of those visions.

Boca Raton, FL and Los Angeles, CA – Every four years, around this time, people begin criticizing the Electoral College in the U.S., and its role in determining the next American president. The system, which sees a certain number of delegates giving their collective vote to the candidate who secures the highest percentage of votes in their respective state, results in certain states having more influence during the election season, and thus becoming more significant to the contestants.

The system was originally designed as a compromise between the other options: the U.S. Congress picking the President versus a single majority vote. It was feared that in the latter form – one large nationwide contest – candidates would likely spend most of their resources in densely populated areas. (If you only have 4 hours to campaign, one would – in theory – do so in a state with tens of millions of people, and thus potential votes, rather than in smaller less populated ones.)

The majority of states usually go one way or another. California and New York, for example, are considered to be liberal meccas. They will always remain “blue states,” meaning the democratic candidate can count those states and their delegates among his “safe states” count.  Other states, like Ohio and Florida, are what are known as “swing states,” meaning it is unclear which candidate will emerge with the highest percentage of votes. In election, that might go “red” – for the Republican, while in others they might go “blue” for the Democrats.

But there are even “safe” parts within a state. In Ohio, the metropolitan area of Cleveland is solidly “blue,” while other areas – like the conservative Hamilton County with the city of Cincinnati – tend to vote Republican. Ohio thus becomes one of those “every vote counts” states, which will see voter turnout reaching 80 percent.

Today, on Election Day, I am in Los Angeles. California usually has a voter turnout which is around 55 percent, with many people thinking their vote does not count, as the big contest – the presidency – is already determined in their state. (Many still vote regardless of the presidential race, as...

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As national resentment grows in Ukraine, far-right party gains support

Although it has been accused of anti-Semitism in the past, the Svoboda nationalist party’s newfound success has more to do with a growing number of people who are disillusioned by mainstream politics and disappointed by a sluggish economy, than with people harboring genuine hatred of Jews. 

KIEV, UKRAINE – On Sunday, millions of Ukrainians cast their ballots in thousands of polling stations across the country in the parliamentary elections. Some did so in Eastern Ukraine, where a love for the Russian language and (often) a longing for them-good-ole-Soviet days still prevails. There, particularly in densely populated cities and towns, the ruling “Party of Regions” does particularly well. (It is those places which also report their results first, giving those that are strong there a slight public relations advantage when it comes to exit polls and preliminary results.)

Some cast their ballots in Western Ukraine, where many do not speak Russian and stick to their national language, Ukrainian. It is there that many are frustrated with the government’s handling of affairs, its love of the Russian language, its closeness to Moscow, its growing distance from Brussels, and its general distaste – they would argue – for European ways.

It is in the Eastern part of Ukraine that those opposing the government of President Viktor Tymoshchenko – his own position not up for re-election until 2015, though his parliamentary party was – showed this lack of faith at the ballot box. They chose parties they know are unlikely to join forces with the ruling Party of Regions. One of those parties, the “United Opposition” is not actually a party, but rather an umbrella of eight different parties all united to defeat – or damage – the ruling party. The party’s leader, the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshchenko, is currently serving a seven-year prison term (ironically for a deal she signed with Russia), though she is still very much a figure in the elections. In her absence, the United Opposition rides off of her image, failing to harvest a strong personality as its leader. (The de facto leader is Artseniy Yatcheyuk. He is a former Foreign Minister, but when I met him, he came across a bit like an accountant.)

Among the other parties not included in the “United Opposition” are eighty or so small parties, most of which did not pass the 5 percent parliamentary threshold. But two of them are worth mentioning.  (As...

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African refugees must be processed by Israel, not criminalized

When it comes to the issue of refugees, or ‘infiltrators,’ emotions often get the best of those who are defending one term or another. But facts are facts, apples are apples, oranges are oranges.

I was reminded of the above when reviewing Oren Ziv’s images of the mother and daughter being arrested at a kindergarten in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Naturally, no human can deny the human emotions as evident in the photos. Some will say that the Left is exploiting such images to make those who are for deportation feel and look bad. The Left will use these photos as evidence that people who have done nothing illegal are being treated as criminals.

Hence, you need the facts.

Entering a country without legal documentation is not a crime if you have legitimate reasons for doing so. In most cases, those reasons are based on the notion of having escaped persecution.

Few would argue that the Syrians who have crossed into Turkey are not refugees, except, ironically, the Turkish government (which labels the camps which house them as “recovery centers” rather than “refugee camps”). Yet many would argue that the Africans currently in Israel, and those arriving, are not legitimate refugees. They are, their argument goes, jobseekers.

Whether it is the former or the latter, there is only one way to find out: processing those that are in Israel.

The Israeli government has refused to do so, fearing that the majority of those from Sudan and Eritrea, who make up the majority of the asylum-seeking Africans in Israel, are, according to international law, legitimate refugees. If they are confirmed as such, Israel would be required to provide them with temporary housing (a refugee camp being an acceptable standard), freedom of movement, and the ability to work. Ironically, the guidelines are in place thanks to Israel of the 1950s.

By not processing them, the Israeli government of 2012 – and thus the Israeli people – get to absolve themselves of any responsibility. The result is that these people live in a state of limbo, exploited by a right-of-center bloc seeking reelection based on, among others, instilling fear in the minds of the general public.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) defines a refugee as someone who:

(Gender and sexual orientation are not explicitly included within the initial UNHCR definition, and their absence has been the source...

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WATCH: Ukrainians vote in 'test for democracy'

Voters in Ukraine are casting their ballots on Sunday in the country’s parliamentary elections. As of Sunday morning, there were already complaints of bribery near some polling stations.

KIEV, UKRAINE – The ruling “Party of Regions” is likely to keep its majority, thanks to a revised election system that will allow single-mandate district winners to caucus with the party-in-power. The means that even though opposition groups, including the United Opposition (lead by the jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshchenko) and UDAR (led for the world boxing champion Vitali Klitshchko) will likely do better in the proportional representation part of the race, which accounts for half of the 450 seats in the Rada (parliament), the ruling party will likely stay in power thanks to its ability to lure the first-past-the-post winners to join them.

The vote is less about issues and more about one individual: Tymoshchenko. The government has made an example of her, the opposition has made a martyr of her.

The European Union is closely watching the vote, which the High Commissioner Baroness Catherine Ashton has dubbed a “litmus” test for democracy in Ukraine.

More than 3,500 international election observers are on hand, from the CIS (former Soviet countries) and the West, including the United States, Canada, and Israel. As of Sunday morning, there were already complaints of buying votes near some polling stations, to which the police responded.

The results are not likely change the face of Ukraine’s leadership. Though if the opposition does well, particularly Tymoshchenko’s party, it could give them momentum for the more critical vote in the presidential race in 2015. Tymoshchenko is still in jail, having just completed her first of seven-years jail sentence over a gas deal signed with Russia. That deal saw Ukraine buying the most expensive natural gas in Europe, at an annual government subsidy of nearly five million dollars. Still, European leaders have expressed their concerns that Tymoshchenko is being selectively persecuted by the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukoych, who they fear has pressured the courts. Her case is currently under review by the European Court of Human Rights, which could force Kiev’s hand in releasing her.

WATCH: Ukrainian voters prepare to vote

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