Aides of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he is scheduled to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak next week at the Red Sea port of Sharm el-Sheik. Mubarak has played a key mediating role in efforts to retrieve Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage in the Gaza Strip. Olmert recently held his first formal peace summit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and visited Amman for talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II, spurring speculation that a new peace initiative is in the works.
Livni: We Seek Peace With Syria
Tzipi Livni said Israel considers peace with Syria a strategic goal. The Israeli foreign minister said Tuesday that Jerusalem must heed recent peace overtures from Damascus, but only after ascertaining that they're sincere.
"Israel's strategic objective is peace with Syria, but the discussion is purely tactical at the moment," Livni told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "We must assess whether the Syrians want to get into negotiations just for the sake of negotiations, or whether they are interested in achieving peace."
Israel's Mossad spy service has warned that Syrian President Bashar Assad's offers to open new talks with Jerusalem are a bid to distract from Western scrutiny Syria's support for Arab terrorist groups. Israel's military intelligence, however, has said Assad could be sincere, and that Syria would enter peace talks if this helps it recover the Golan Heights.
Israel Gets Secular Rabbis
The Tmura Institute, a group lobbying for religious pluralism in the Jewish state, this month certified seven men and two women to conduct weddings, and bar and bat mitzvahs for Israelis who reject Orthodox practice. The nine underwent three years of training in Judaism but profess no spiritual convictions. Since they will not require couples they marry to prove that they are Jewish, the weddings will not be recognized by the state. But Tmura said its achievement was more a matter of symbolism.
"We simply want to serve the majority of the Jewish people, which is not religious. We are not committed to religious principles, we are committed to pluralism," professor Yaacov Malkin, one of the program's leaders, told Ma'ariv.
Israel Plans New Settlement
Israel is building a new West Bank settlement to house former Gaza Strip settlers. The Defense Ministry announced Tuesday that it was converting Makiot, a former military base in the northern Jordan Valley, into a settlement with homes for 30 families who were evacuated from Gaza last year. Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had initiated the project. Construction is to begin next month. Most of the 8,000 former Gaza settlers have chosen to live in Israel, rather than in the West Bank.
Israel's Economy on the Rise
Based on a survey by The Economist, Globes reported that Israel rose 12 places to become the world's 36th largest economy.
The survey graded nations' economies in 2001-05, as compared with 1980-84, and ranked economies on the basis of their five-year average GDP in current dollars.
Some of the biggest climbers were in Asia: Singapore rose 20 places to No. 39, Taiwan rose 14 places to No. 18 and both South Korea and Hong Kong rose 12 places to Nos. 11 and 30, respectively. Iran fell 16 places to 33, and Saudi Arabia dropped from 15th place to 22nd.
Federation Bookkeeper Admits Embezzlement
A former bookkeeper for the Jewish Federation of Ventura County pleaded guilty to embezzlement. Susan Abrams said this week that she had stolen about $30,000 from the federation from 1998-2001. She faces sentencing Feb. 1, when she also is expected to pay restitution. She faces up to a year in prison.
New ADL Regional Leader Breaks Ground
Kevin O'Grady, a national expert in gay and lesbian issues and a longtime educator, has been named interim director at the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) Orange County/Long Beach regional office.
O'Grady, formerly the ADL's associate director, replaces Rick Shapiro, who resigned after only five weeks on the job for undisclosed reasons. O'Grady's position is expected to become permanent in the near future.
"I think the work we do is incredibly important, and to have the opportunity to lead that mission is an honor," said O'Grady, who is believed to be the first gay person to head an ADL regional office. O'Grady, 40, said he plans to work closely with law enforcement agencies to combat hate crimes, anti-Semitism and extremist groups and to expand the ADL's presence in Long Beach. He came to the ADL three years ago after a 15-year career in education in Hawaii and California, where he received a Ph.D. in education from USC. He is a native of Brighton, England.
-- Marc Ballon, Senior Writer
Similar Goals Unite Faith-Based Agencies
At a conference held last week at Loyola Marymount University, Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith-based social service agencies were urged to better coordinate their services and to work more closely with government agencies. Titled "Government and Faith-Based Communities: Working Together to Build a Civil Society," the event was co-sponsored by Loyola Marymount University, Claremont Graduate University and the Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for the Western United States.
Dr. Amy Gross of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and Jewish Family of the Conejo, Simi and West Valley columnist, Yasser Aman of the UMMA Community Clinic and Rita Chavez of the Dolores Mission described the services their organizations provide in their own communities. Citing the impressive response of faith-based organizations to major crises such as Hurricane Katrina, the Rev. Leonard Jackson, senior adviser to the mayor of Los Angeles, asked "why does it take a disaster to pull us together?"
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, gave a lucid explanation of tikkun olam and the Jewish tradition that requires Jews care for all.
"Judaism is a put up or shut up religion" he said. "We are required to act, not just to pay lip service."Jack Miles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "God: A Biography," presented the Christian point of view and stressed the opportunities afforded charitable organizations by the U.S. tax code, while Dr. Azim Nanji, director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London explained the Muslim philosophy that says "the delivery of health care has no boundaries".
According to Nazim Karim, editor of The Ismaili magazine, the genesis of the conference came at the time of the Northridge quake, when faith-based organizations first worked together. Now, he said, is the time "to see what can be done practically."
-- Peter L. Rothholz, Contributing Writer
Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency unless otherwise noted.