Iranian-Israeli Superstar Rita Blows Kiss to Obama at Israel State Dinner

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Barack Obama, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu raised their glasses and shared a few laughs at the official state dinner in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013. As part of the festivities, Rita, an Israeli-American pop singer performed for the heads of state, even blowing a kiss to Obama.

Singer Rita blows a kiss at US President Barack Obama after performing during the official state dinner for Obama hosted by Israel's President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Singer Rita  perfored during the official state dinner for Obama in Jerusalem, March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Rita Hayan-Feruz Kleinstein was born in Iran, and moved to Israel when she was eight years old. Since then, she has been a successful actress and singer, receiving accolades for her work since the eighties. As of late, she has become a cultural ambassador, especially with her new album “My Joys,” which is a mix of Iranian and Israeli standards.

Earlier this month, on March 5, she performed to a packed house at the United Nations General Assembly, where Ban Ki Moon, as well as Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor, encouraged the crowd to unite through the universal language of music.

Complete with a smoke machine and lights, Rita and the nine other members of her band played to the mostly Iranian and Israeli crowd for a little over an hour, inspiring some to dance down the halls of the General Assembly. Her hype-man played the accordion and jumped up and down on the same spot where Netanyahu pulled out his now infamous bomb graphic just several months before.

“I’m celebrating being both Iranian and Israeli,” Rita told the crowd. She continuously preached love and unity as she recalled her Iranian upbringing in Israel. She most definitely exuded a sincere sweetness and hope. Continue reading

Shaul Mofaz Puts Higher Priority on Palestinian Peace, Not Iran

My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

Israel’s new deputy prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, put a higher priority on achieving peace with the Palestinians than on confronting Iran, on Tuesday (June 19). He proposed an interim deal on borders and security to “break the ice” in negotiations.

Speaking to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on his first trip to Washington since joining the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Kadima leader, and former defense minister and armed forces chief of staff, said Israel has a “window of opportunity” of 18 months before new elections “to  make historic changes both in Israel and with our neighbors.”

Mofaz listed his priorities as requiring all Israeli citizens — including ultra-orthodox Jews and Arabs — to perform some sort of national service, changing the political system to weed out tiny parties, making it possible for governments to last longer, passing a new budget with a beefed-up social agenda and kick-starting negotiations with the Palestinians.

“If we don’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the coming years… it is more dangerous to the state of Israel than the Iranian threat,” he said, noting demographic trends that will soon equalize the number of Jews and non-Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

“We cannot continue to rule another nation. We have to find a solution,” he said.

Mofaz said the Israelis and Palestinians should resume negotiations, which have been suspended for nearly two years, and seek an interim deal on borders and security arrangements. After that, he said, it would be easier to resolve other issues including the status of Jerusalem, refugees, water, holy sites and air space.

He also said that Israel should hold on to Jerusalem and major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. The Palestinians have refused to return to talks unless Israel suspends settlement construction. Mofaz said there should be no preconditions for negotiations.

While he described Iran’s nuclear program as an “existential threat” to Israel and complained that Iran was playing for time in talks with major powers, the Iran-born Mofaz seemed to take a much less alarmist view of Iran than Netanyahu.

Asked to explain what he meant when he said that the time for diplomacy and sanctions was “limited,” Mofaz said that military action was a “last resort” and that Iran’s adversaries could wait until Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decides to take “the last step for having a bomb.” According to US intelligence, Khamenei has not made such a decision.

Mofaz also said that Iran’s nuclear program was “a problem the superpowers should take care of” and that before using force, one should ask: “How long will we delay the Iranian program” and “What will happen the day after in the Middle East?”

MEK May Retain Terrorist Label if it Refuses to Leave Ashraf

My colleague Barbara Slavin writes:

The US State Department Monday (June 18) warned an Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), that its chances of being taken off a US terrorist list would be diminished if it does not fully evacuate its long-time base in Iraq.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland reminded the group that “cooperation in the closure of Camp Ashraf, the Mujahedin-e Khalq’s main paramilitary base, is a key factor in determining whether the organization remains invested in its violent past or is committed to leaving that past behind.”  Continue reading

State Department Recommends India Receive Waiver For Iran Sanctions

My Colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

The State Department bureaucracy has recommended a waiver for India and the decision now rests with Secretary Hillary Clinton.

An informed source speaking on condition of anonymity said India had reduced imports of Iranian oil by 8 percent in the fiscal year that ended March 31 and plans on cutting another 11 percent this year — enough to qualify as the “substantial’ cutback required by US law.

The US has offered technical advice to help India retool refineries that have relied on Iranian crude. Rising Iraqi production also affords a good substitute, the source said.

Egyptian Elections: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

With only a few weeks left until the run-off elections in Egypt, there are still many questions left unanswered.  Where’s the constitution? What role will the military play in the new regime? Where does the US stand? Will there be more protests?

Barbara Slavin moderated a panel of leading experts on Egypt, co-sponsored by Al-Monitor, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Thursday to debate these questions and what they mean for Egypt.

Despite their varying views, all three panelists seemed to agree that the choice Egyptians are left with is, for the most part, one between the lesser of two evils. On the one hand, there is the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi. On the other, former Mubarak player, Ahmad Shafiq. Continue reading

Expert Offers Calming Words on Iran Nuclear Program

My colleague Barbara Slavin writes:

In the wake of last week’s nuclear talks in Baghdad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday blasted the process as a waste of time that is allowing Iran to get closer to nuclear weapons.
But Iran’s progress toward bomb capacity is not as fast as some have feared and there is ample time for more talking, according to David Albright, president and founder of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. Albright told an audience at the Atlantic Council on Tuesday that “the technical clock is not ticking as fast” as the “political clock.” The latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on the Iranian nuclear program shows that Iran is still having trouble building more advanced centrifuges than the breakdown-prone P-1 centrifuge, which is based on a Dutch design from the 1970s that was passed to Iran by the Pakistani nuclear black market king A.Q. Khan. Iran also appears to be having difficulty getting materials for the P-1s. Of more than 2,000 centrifuge casings installed earlier this year at the underground Fordow plant near Qom, only a few hundred have had rotor assemblies installed in them, Albright said. Continue reading

Is the Islamist Vote Losing Ground in Egypt?

Al-Monitor correspondent Sophie Claudet writes from Cairo:

It is quite logical that Egypt’s liberals, seculars and most Copts would not cast their vote for an Islamist candidate in Wednesday’s election. What about the rest of  the voters?

Egypt is a conservative society, and we have seen, whether in Egypt or Tunisia, that Islamists bore the brunt of the former regime’s repressive policies and were pretty much the only organized force around, so they gained the trust of voters. In fact, in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt, citizens voted en masse for Islamists when they had the chance to participate in the first free and open general elections in decades. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice movement and the radical Salafist Al-Nour party dominate the People’s Assembly. Four months have passed since the November poll and people are increasingly disappointed with the Islamists’ performance. Continue reading

Slavin: Egypt’s Voters Lean Toward Turkish Model

My colleague Barbara Slavin writes:

Egypt’s voters appear to be seeking someone similar to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as their new president.

A poll released just before the May 23 election rates personal trustworthiness as the most important characteristic of Egypt’s next leader. Of those polled by the University of Maryland, 66 percent said Sharia should be the basis for Egyptian laws but 83 percent said Islamic law should be “adapted to modern times.”

Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, presented the findings Monday at Brookings. He noted distinctions between the characteristics Egyptians said they sought in members of parliament and as president. Where 24 percent of Egyptians rated party affiliation as the number one reason for choosing a member of parliament, 31 percent cited personal trust as the key determinant in voting for president. Continue reading