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Fate of Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance rests with Israeli high court

December 7, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Fate of Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance Rests With Israeli High Court

Israel's highest judicial and executive authorities both have weighed in on the protracted dispute surrounding construction of a $200 million Center of Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem. The ambitious Simon Wiesenthal Center project, designed by famed Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, has been stalled since February, when the Israeli Supreme Court issued an injunction halting any construction work. The court acted on a petition by two Palestinian groups, which asserted that the planned museum would sit atop an ancient and sacred Muslim cemetery.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center's founding dean, and his lawyers in Jerusalem have argued that the site has been used as a parking lot and underground garage for decades and that Islamic courts had ruled that the onetime cemetery had thus lost its sacred character.

Hier said that he had offered a number of compromises to resolve the dispute, but that the Muslim plaintiffs were stalling and "trying to run out the clock."

Attorney Durham Saif, representing the Palestinian side, said that in its most recent hearing in October, the court told the Wiesenthal Center to submit a redesign of the museum, so that construction would not damage the cemetery.

The next court hearing is scheduled Jan. 3, but in the meantime, Hier said, the delay has added more than $1 million to the cost of the project and has slowed down fundraising in the United States.

One bright spot for Hier was a rousing endorsement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been a strong supporter of the project since his days as mayor of Jerusalem. During a visit to the Wiesenthal Center last month, Olmert said that present Mideast tensions made the establishment of the museum more vital than ever.

"I knew from day one that what we really need in this part of the world is a concerted effort by a major organization that will be dedicated to one thing: to educate for human dignity, to educate for some kind of cooperation and understanding and compassion amongst all of us who are destined to share the Middle East," Olmert said.

He added that "there is nothing that can stop the creation of the building and construction of this magnificent building, and I am impatiently looking forward to the inauguration and the completion of this world-class project in the city of Jerusalem.

-- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

P.A. Prime Minister, Iranian President Meet, Vow to See Israel Eliminated

The Palestinian Authority prime minister and Iran's president, in their first official meeting, vowed to see Israel eliminated. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, on his first foreign tour since his faction took power in March, met with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Qatar last weekend.

An Iranian news agency quoted Ahmadinejad, who has stepped up support for Hamas in a bid to offset a Western aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority, as saying that "there is no doubt the Palestinian nation and Muslims as a whole will emerge victorious."

Ahmadinejad also predicted: "The continued commission of crimes by the Zionist regime will speed up the collapse of this fictitious regime."

Haniyeh, whose Islamist faction is similarly sworn to the Jewish state's destruction, thanked Ahmadinejad for Iran's support.

"The Iranian nation's brilliant stand in the rightful battles of the Palestinians encourages them and signifies their deep understanding of Islamic principles," he was quoted as saying.

Israel Scales Back West Bank Actions

Israel ordered its forces to scale back operations in the West Bank. The order was given last weekend amid efforts by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to build on a truce declared last month in the Gaza Strip and which eventually may be extended to the West Bank.

While Israeli troops in the West Bank are continuing their arrest raids, 15 suspected terrorists were taken into custody Monday. Missions more likely to lead to violent confrontations are being limited. The army also is reviewing its tactic of besieging the homes of Palestinian terrorists until they surrender, because these tend to provoke gunfights.

However, military officials made clear that there would be no letup in operations against Palestinians believed to be about to carry out attacks against Israelis.

Israeli Official Favors Barghouti Release

An Israeli Cabinet minister said he would favor freeing Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti, 47, a Fatah lawmaker, was captured in the West Bank in 2002, tried and sentenced to five life prison terms for masterminding terrorist attacks that killed five people.

However, Israeli Environment Minister Gideon Ezra said Monday that releasing Barghouti, which successive Israeli governments have ruled out, would be worthwhile if it won the release of an Israeli soldier held captive in the Gaza Strip and led the Palestinian Authority to halt violence.

"Even the prime minister has talked about the need to release prisoners once Gilad Shalit is freed," Ezra told Israel Radio, referring to the captured soldier. "It depends how big a deal we are talking about and what the other side promises in return."

Barghouti is still popular and powerful behind bars, and some see him as a potential Palestinian leader who could undermine the rule of Hamas Islamists and broker a two-state peace deal with Israel.

Bolton Resigns U.N. Post

John Bolton, a staunch defender of Israel, resigned as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The White House said Monday that Bolton would step down once his recess appointment ends.

President Bush had given Bolton the position in August 2005, but his nomination was blocked in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The appointment will expire by early January, though Bolton may step down earlier.

Most major U.S. Jewish groups broke with tradition to endorse Bolton, who, in addition to his support of Israel, is a strong opponent of Iran's nuclear drive.

Venezuela's Chavez Wins Re-Election

Hugo Chavez, who has been accused of encouraging anti-Semitism, was re-elected president of Venezuela. Chavez's victory was announced late Sunday night. He won at least 61 percent of the vote to challenger Manuel Rosales' 38 percent.

With his victory, Chavez gains another six years in power to pursue his Socialist-inspired policies.

In August, he drew fire for saying that Israelis "are doing what Hitler did against the Jews," and that Israel is carrying out "a new Holocaust" against the Palestinians.

Critics have cited Chavez's support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president who has denied the Holocaust and called for Israel's destruction.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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