Archive for June 28th, 2017

Jewish group cancels meeting with Netanyahu in protest

June 26, 2017

JERUSALEM (AP) — A high-profile group of Jewish leaders cancelled a gala event with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to protest his government’s decision to scrap plans for a mixed-gender prayer area at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

The stunning move reflects an unprecedented gulf that has erupted between Israel and the Jewish diaspora over how Judaism can be practiced in Israel. Most American Jews belong to its more liberal Reform and Conservative streams and feel alienated by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox authorities that question their faith and practices.

The board of governors of The Jewish Agency, a nonprofit that works closely with the Israeli government to serve Jewish communities worldwide, said it was calling off its dinner with Netanyahu and altering the agenda of its annual meetings to address the crisis.

The government decision has set off a cascade of criticism both in Israel and abroad, where Jewish leaders warned that it could undermine their longstanding political, financial and emotional support for Israel.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was just one of senior officials who condemned the move, saying it undermines Jewish unity and calling on the government to reverse course. “This gives a very strong message that you (the diaspora) are not important to us,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.

Dennis Ross, a former top U.S. peace negotiator and currently chair of The Jewish People Policy Institute, said he was afraid that American Jews would no longer see Israel as a home. “We’re a small people. We are, in a sense, in one house and there shouldn’t be any exclusion and there shouldn’t be those who define for others whether or not they’re Jewish,” Ross told the radio. “It is dangerous if there are steps taken here that would alienate the vast majority of American Jews.”

The dramatic about-face at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting followed the initial approval of the plan in January 2016 to officially recognize the special mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall — the holiest site where Jews can pray. The compromise was reached after three years of intense negotiations between liberal Israeli and American Jewish groups and the Israeli authorities and was seen at the time as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox authorities govern almost every facet of Jewish life.

But the program was never implemented as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu’s coalition government raised objections to the decision they had initially endorsed. Under ultra-Orthodox management, the wall is currently separated between men’s and women’s prayer sections and those attempting to hold egalitarian services in the area are often heckled and harassed.

Sunday’s nixing of the planned $9 million plaza, coupled with another government decision to promote a bill that would enshrine the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions, sparked the immediate ire of liberal Jews.

Highlighting its sensitivity, the issue was not listed on the Cabinet’s agenda and no official statement on the decision was made. Netanyahu himself notably refrained from addressing it in a speech to young diaspora Jews on a Birthright trip to Israel and has kept mum amid the outpouring of anger, even among some of his closest allies.

Elazar Stern, a modern Orthodox lawmaker from the centrist Yesh Atid party, asked the attorney general on Monday to review what he called a murky decision-making process. “Cancelling the Western Wall agreement causes a severe crisis between Israel and the Jewish diaspora and when such a decision is taken secretly, away from the eyes of the public and without ministers having a chance to prepare for it adequately, a large shadow is cast upon it,” he wrote.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices in Israel such as weddings, divorces and burials. The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment sees itself as responsible for maintaining traditions through centuries of persecution and assimilation, and it resists any inroads from liberals it often considers to be second-class Jews who ordain women and gays and are overly inclusive toward converts and interfaith marriages.

The liberal streams have made some progress in recent years, but have encountered a wall of ultra-Orthodox resistance when it comes to official state recognition and breaking the monopoly on religious practices.

“We made a mistake. We believed the government, we believed the prime minister, we believed that we needed at last to end this squabbling among ourselves over the Western Wall, and we agreed to a compromise arrangement,” Yizhar Hess, head of the Conservative movement in Israel wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. “But the Cabinet’s decision last night — a cynical, even wicked decision — took this historic agreement and threw it in the faces of millions of Jews around the world.”

Columnist Amihai Attali wrote the decision was even more outrageous, given how much Israel relies on the donations of the Jewish diaspora. “The Jews of the diaspora are our reserves,” he wrote in Yediot.

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Russia fires missiles from Mediterranean at IS in Syria

June 23, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has fired cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea on positions of the Islamic State group in Syria, the Defense Ministry said on Friday, Moscow’s latest show of strength in the conflict wracking the Mideast country.

The ministry said in a statement that two frigates and a submarine launched six cruise missiles on IS installations in Syria’s Hama province, destroying command centers and ammunition depots. It did not say when the missiles were launched.

Moscow has fired missiles from the Mediterranean at militants’ positions in Syria before, including launches from a submarine and a frigate in May at the targets in the area of the ancient city of Palmyra.

Russia is one of the strongest backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and has been carrying airstrikes in the country since September 2015. Separately on Friday, a senior Russian lawmaker said Moscow is “nearly 100 percent” sure that the IS top leader was killed in a Russian airstrike last month.

The Defense Ministry first made the claim last week, saying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death in the May 28 strike on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa was still “being verified through various channels.”

Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense and security committee at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, told the Interfax news agency on Friday that Russia’s intelligence about al-Baghdadi’s death is “nearly 100 percent” certain.

“Russia would not want to be on the list of the countries that have said before that he was killed and then al-Baghdadi would resurrect,” Ozerov added. The whereabouts of the shadowy al-Baghdadi, with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head, have not been known. His last public appearance was almost three years ago in the Iraqi city of Mosul, at the 12th century al-Nuri Mosque from where he declared a “caliphate” in the territory that IS had seized in Iraq and Syria in July 2014.

That mosque, along with its famous leaning minaret, was destroyed on Wednesday night, blown up by IS militants as their control of Mosul increasingly is slipping away. The mosque would have been a symbolic prize for Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in the fight for Iraq’s second-largest city.

Key moments in Russia’s campaign, involvement in Syrian war

June 16, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s announcement that the Islamic State group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been killed in a Russian airstrike in Syria in late May — if confirmed — would be a huge military coup for Moscow as a key player in Syria’s civil war and strengthen its hand in future peace talks.

It would also mark a climax in Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, in which it has sided with President Bashar Assad’s government, from the first days of the air campaign two years ago to boots on the ground in the city of Aleppo.

The airstrike would also highlight the capabilities of Russia’s modernized military, which has tested new precision weapons in Syria. Here are some key moments in Russia’s military campaign in Syria.

QUICK DEPLOYMENT

A series of major battlefield defeats suffered by Assad’s army in 2015 prompted Moscow to intervene to protect its long-time ally. On August 26, 2015, Russia signed a deal with the Syrian government on deploying an air force contingent and other military assets at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s province of Latakia, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite religious minority.

In a matter of weeks, Russia’s military built up the base so it could host dozens of Russian jets. It delivered thousands of tons of military equipment and supplies by sea and heavy-lift cargo planes in an operation dubbed the “Syrian Express.” On Sept. 30, Moscow declared the launch of its air campaign in Syria — Russia’s first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the federation’s collapse.

TENSIONS WITH TURKEY

The Russian intervention angered Turkey, which has pushed for Assad’s ouster and backed Syrian opposition forces since the start of the conflict in 2011. On Nov. 24, 2015, a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber on the border with Syria. The pilot was killed by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters as he parachuted from the plane, and a Russian marine was also killed during an operation to rescue the second pilot. Turkey said the Russian plane violated its airspace but Moscow denied that.

Putin described the downing as a “stab in the back” and responded with an array of economic sanctions, including a ban on the sales of tour packages to Turkey and imports of Turkish fruit and vegetables. The Russian military also beefed up its air defenses in Syria with the long-range S-400 missiles to force Turkey to back off.

FIGHTING FOR PALMYRA

In April 2016, Assad’s forces, relying on Russian air support, scored a major symbolic victory by taking the ancient town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group. Russia deployed field engineers to clear mines from the world-famous archaeological site and then celebrated the victory with a concert by the St. Petersburg Mariinsky orchestra, led by renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.

In December 2016, however, the Syrian army again lost Palmyra to IS. Assad’s forces recaptured it in March, again under the Russian air cover and following fierce fighting. BOOTS ON THE GROUND Though most attention was focused on Russian airstrikes, Russia also became actively involved in ground operations. Senior Russian military officers were deployed alongside Syrian government troops to provide training, plan offensive operations and direct them in combat. Russia also dispatched special forces to conduct intelligence and coordinate air strikes. There were also some indications that Russian artillery units were deployed in key battlefield areas.

Russia’s Defense Ministry never said how many troops it has in Syria, but turnout figures in voting from abroad in the September 2016 parliamentary elections indicated that Russian military personnel in the Arab nation at the time likely exceeded 4,300.

Russia has lost 38 servicemen in Syria so far, according to official data.

BATTLEFIELD TESTS

The Syrian war provided an arena for Russia’s military to test its latest weapons in combat — including state-of-the art Kalibr cruise missiles launched by Russian strategic bombers, navy surface warships and submarines. The long-range precision-strike cruise capability has given a major boost to the Russian military.

In another first, Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean last fall to launch the first carrier-borne combat missions in Russia’s navy history, during the months-long battles between Syrian government forces and the rebels for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once its commercial hub.

Other weapons for the first time tested in combat included the Su-34 and the Su-35 warplanes, and the Mi-28 and the Ka-52 helicopter gunships. President Vladimir Putin said in a national call-in show on Thursday that the Syrian campaign provided a “priceless” experience for the Russian military.

BATTLE FOR ALEPPO

In December 2016 the Syrian army won full control of Aleppo, Assad’s greatest victory in the war, now in its seventh year. The fall of the city, which was divided into government- and rebel-controlled parts since 2012, demoralized the rebels, depriving them of the largest urban area under their control. Russian air support helped cut rebels’ communications and supply lines.

Assad’s victory followed ferocious battles, in which thousands died, and left the rebel enclave in ruins. Russia now has deployed hundreds of military police to patrol the city’s former rebel-held eastern part.

RUSSIA-TURKEY RAPPROCHEMENT

Faced with massive damage from Russia’s economic sanctions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to mend ties, offering apologies for downing the Russian warplane in June 2016. Putin responded by strongly backing Erdogan during a failed military coup in Turkey.

Since then, the two leaders have held several meetings and frequent phone talks to narrow their differences on Syria. Turkey is also credited with playing a key role in negotiating the withdrawal of the opposition forces from Aleppo.

Also, earlier this year, Russia, Turkey and Iran brokered several rounds of Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. Those meetings — though separate from the U.N. backed Syria peace talks in Geneva — brought together the Syrian government and its foes. In May, the three powers, which back opposing sides in the war, negotiated in Astana a deal on so-called “safe zones” in Syria, which was welcomed by the U.N. But the parties are still to finalize the boundaries of the zones and work out monitoring details in talks expected to be held in the coming weeks.

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