TIME Technology & Media

The Evil of WhatsApp: $19 Billion App Angers Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis

Paper cites New York rabbis as saying the app causes the destruction of Jewish families and businesses

Is the social messaging startup WhatsApp worth the $19 million Facebook is paying? That’s for the market to decide. But the company’s extraordinary success is on display in a particular subculture not typically associated with social networking.

“The rabbis overseeing divorces say WhatsApp is the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business,” the New York newspaper Der Blatt reported last month, in a headline written, as the entire newspaper is, in Yiddish. The translation comes courtesy of The Jewish Daily Forward, an independent mainstream English-language site that has documented the complex relationship between the faith’s strictest adherents and the smartphone. The specific temptations are pointedly left unstated in the Der Blatt story, but any breach of modesty is a serious matter in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known for their black suits and wide-brimmed fedoras, go to great lengths to segregate themselves from the modern world, building whole communities committed to enforcing the strict moral codes taken from scripture and expressed in the vestments of pre-Enlightenment Eastern Europe. Against this ideal, the digital world presents a consistent challenge.

“The siren song of the Internet entices us!” a man named Eytan Kobre proclaimed outside Citi Field on May 20, 2012, the day the home of the New York Mets was filled by 40,000 ultra-Orthodox men attending a rally to denounce the Internet. Kobre was the event’s spokesman, telling reporters: “It brings out the worst in us!”

And because smartphones bring the Internet as close as your pocket, the devices are seen as particularly pernicious. One rabbi compared them to a weapon. Another smashed one in public. In Israel, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef inveighed so frequently against the gadgets that, when he lay on his death bed last year, a supporter urged breaking 10,000 iPhones to restore him to health.

And yet, the supporter posted his plea on Facebook, and the rabbi had his own smartphone app (one that secular Israelis claimed was used to turn out voters for the Shas political party Yosef led). Rather than enforce a total ban on smartphones, some rabbis set out to neuter them. “Kosher phones” are stripped of applications that tap into the Internet or are deemed at risk of promoting unhealthy distraction by The Rabbinic Committee for Matters of Communications, which answers to the top ultra-Orthodox rabbis worldwide. The Forward reports that, of 20,000 apps, only 600 are approved for the faithful by “rabbinic advisers” consulted by an Israeli supermarket chain that offers a “Kosher” LG-Nexus 4. Facebook was banned, as was YouTube. But somehow WhatsApp was overlooked, and ultra-Orthodox men flocked to it in recent months, the newspaper reports.

The messaging service allows its 450 million users worldwide to send and receive photos, videos and text, among a small group. It’s not exactly Snapchat, the messaging application that automatically erases an image moments after it’s sent (making the world safe for sexting). But Der Blatt said WhatsApp was destroying families by distracting parents from their children and worse.

The Forward quotes religious users arguing that the WhatsApp’s group messaging function actually enhances community cohesion but the site reports the company that filters smartphones for one Hasidic sect is preparing to block WhatsApp’s functionality. Lipa Schmeltzer, a Hasidic pop star who’s been called “the Jewish Elvis,” told reporter Josh Nathan-Kazis the ban makes little sense given that the authorities have already forbidden the Internet.

“It’s like banning a shopping center and then feeling the need to ban particularly aisle nine,” Schmeltzer says.

TIME Egypt

Egypt Militants Up The Stakes With Tourist Bus Bombing

EGYPT-UNREST-SINAI-BOMB
A picture taken on February 16, 2014 show the wreckage of a tourist bus at the site of a bomb explosion in the Egyptian south Sinai resort town of Taba. AFP—Getty Images

A Sunday bombing attack on a tour bus on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula near the Israeli border which killed at least 3 people, including 2 South Korean tourists, amounts to a declaration of war on the already staggering Egyptian economy

Correction appended: Feb. 17, 2014

The bombing of a tourist bus on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, just a few hundred yards from the heavily fortified border crossing with Israel at Taba, represents a substantial escalation in the Islamist insurgency that erupted in the country last summer.

Until Sunday’s bombing, which killed at least three, including two South Korean tourists, militants in Sinai had taken great care to restrict their attacks to police, army and other sovereign representatives of the Egyptian state they view as illegitimate.

Those attacks came overwhelmingly in Sinai’s northern section, where the Egyptian military had deployed helicopter gunships, armor and troops in answer to a surge of attacks following the military’s removal of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi as President on July 3. Sinai’s once robust tourist industry suffered, but the only attack to actually occur in the south was the car bombing of a police station at El-Tor, well off the tourist path.

(MORE: Cairo Bombs Raise Public Outrage Against Muslim Brotherhood Despite Denials)

The bus attack changes everything. The bombing — which early reports suggested was either a suicide bombing or an RPG attack — amounted to a declaration of war on the already staggering Egyptian economy, which relies heavily on tourism. It recalls the 1997 mass shooting at Luxor, which killed 62 people, most of them Swiss tourists, at one of the major tourist attractions in Egypt. That attack, carried out by an earlier generation of Islamist extremists, brought a thunderous reaction from the Egyptian government of then President Hosni Mubarak, resulting in the roundup of thousands of citizens suspected of supporting the militants.

This time, the battle lines have already been drawn by Egyptian Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and the military-backed government put in place after the removal of Morsi, who had been fairly elected. Anyone who expresses support for Morsi’s reinstatement risks being called a terrorist. The entire Brotherhood, which officially eschews violence, now bears the official designation.

If the bus was targeted because it carried Christians — returning from a pilgrimage to St. Catherine’s, the Greek Orthodox monastery below Mount Sinai, where tradition says Moses brought down the Ten Commandments — the attack would be even more freighted.

(MORE: A Great and Terrible Wilderness: Egypt’s Sinai Has Become the Latest Battleground for Global Jihadists)

“The instability in Sinai reflects the instability all over Egypt in the last two years,” says Aviv Oreg, former head of the al-Qaeda desk in the intelligence branch of the Israeli military. But Sinai, which dangles like a shark’s tooth between “mainland” Egypt and Israel, is famously difficult to control.

A few hours before the bombing, reports emerged that Egypt was creating a “buffer zone” between its border and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave ruled by the militant group Hamas, which controls hundreds of tunnels reaching into Egyptian territory. The tunnels are used both for trade in goods, and for transfer of weapons smuggled and stored in Sinai in great numbers.

“You name it,” Oreg says, “you can find it in Sinai.”

MORE: Monks in Egypt’s Lawless Sinai Hope to Preserve an Ancient Library

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the monastery the tourist bus was traveling from. It is St. Catherine’s, not St. Mary’s.

TIME Middle East

Arab Donald Duck Quacks No More After Anti-Israeli Tweet

Disney's Donald Duck in a street side advertisement in Cairo.
Disney's Donald Duck in a street side advertisement in Cairo. Francois Perri—Redux

Wael Mansour, the Egyptian voice actor performing Donald Duck for Disney's Arab broadcasts, revealed he was fired for an anti-Israeli tweet

In Egypt, it appears the voice of Donald Duck may also be the voice of the people. Wael Mansour, the young Cairo resident who voiced Donald in Arabic dubs of Disney cartoons, lost his job over a post on Twitter calling for Israel to be “demolished.” The episode has unfolded at the intersection of popular culture and social media, bringing instant fame to a buff young voice artist in a country where anti-Israel sentiments are still embedded in the population 35 years after leaders of the two countries made formal peace. The last reminder came in September 2011 when rioters breached the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Mansour announced his dismissal in a Feb. 6 Tweet, punctuating the news with a single word: “Proud.” By the next day, he was celebrating his 5,000th follower. By Wednesday the total had tripled to 30,000. His most recent post linked to a Lebanese television report on the flap on YouTube, which though not available in English will satisfy any reader’s curiosity about what Donald sounds like in Arabic.

The offending tweet went out last Aug. 4 and stopped short of the anti-Semitism that still inflames some quarters of the Middle East. “I hate Zionism,” Mansour wrote, naming the ideology on which modern Israel was established in 1948, as a homeland for Jews on land also claimed by Arabs—700,000 of whom fled the fighting or were driven into neighboring countries by Jewish forces. “I have so much hate inside me with every single child they murder or land they seize!”

It was apparently the 1,700 re-tweets that undid Mansour. Those, and a Twitter bio that proclaimed his status as the voice of Donald Duck in the Middle East. “Repellent, of course,” Abigail Disney, niece of Walt, replied when asked (on Twitter) if she had any reaction.

Israelis weighed in too. One reader comment following the story in Haaretz took the long view: “Since Exodus we know that Egypt is not a good country for Jews.”

TIME Middle East

Palestinian Official Says ‘Armed Resistance’ an Option If Peace Talks Fail

IRAN-PALESTINIAN-DIPLOMACY
Jibril Rajoub, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority, left, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran on Jan. 28, 2014 Azin Haghighi—AFP/Getty Images

Jibril Rajoub, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority, tells TIME there may be an outbreak of violence should the current rounds of peace talks with Israel fail

The Palestinian official who headed Yasser Arafat’s security force at the start of the Second Intifada is warning that armed conflict may well follow the failure of current peace talks with Israel.

“They should expect a reaction,” Jibril Rajoub tells TIME in an interview. “We have to ring the bell. Uncle Sam should understand that there is a new fascistic doctrine among the Israelis, and this is a real threat to their interests in the Middle East, and even in the whole world.”

Rajoub, who now holds the title of minister of youth and sport in the Palestinian Authority, stops short of declaring the West Bank will erupt if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry fails to coax a final agreement from the talks, set to end in April. But the vehemence of Rajoub’s message is clearly meant to draw attention, as was the place he first delivered it–a television studio in Tehran.

Rajoub’s Jan. 28 visit to Iran was extraordinary for a senior official of Fatah, the secular movement that dominates the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas. Iran has been the major sponsor of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that drove Fatah out of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Rajoub says Abbas sent him to Tehran in order to encourage Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani in his effort toward a more moderate foreign policy (including outreach to Gulf countries that are close to Fatah) and to enlist Iran’s efforts in Fatah’s long-promised reconciliation with Hamas.

But Tehran also provided an effective stage for broaching the option of violent struggle — something Fatah has avoided for at least a decade. Abbas continues to forswear violence, instructing PA forces to work with Israeli security to thwart any attacks. Should the peace talks break down, the confrontation he calls for would be limited to the diplomatic arena, including the option of charging Israel before the International Criminal Court.

But violent incidents have risen on the West Bank over the last year, and a recent poll found a plurality of Palestinians believe armed resistance more likely than negotiations to deliver the statehood that has not emerged from two decades of talks.

“Now we are engaged in negotiations. We hope this will lead us to our national goals,” Rajoub says. “But if talks fail or collapse, the Israelis will not keep behaving as the bully of the neighborhood while enjoying security and stability, expanding settlements and humiliating Palestinians. Resistance will be an option, including armed resistance, within the [Occupied] Territories against the occupation.” He rules out the possibility of attacks in Israel, pointedly telling his Iranian interviewer “there must not be bus bombings in Tel Aviv.”

The warning is only that — Rajoub says a decision to return to arms would be a collective one — but Rajoub is a fitting choice for delivering it. Jailed for 17 years by Israel, he was a militant in his youth, running Fatah cells in the Hebron Hills. As head of Preventive Security under Arafat, he ran the largest intelligence and enforcement apparatus across the West Bank. After the 1993 Oslo Accords promised Palestine a state, he also worked closely with Israeli security, in order to thwart violence aimed at derailing the pact. Interviews with former chiefs of Israel’s domestic security agency make up the entirety of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, and when their talk turns to discovering that some Palestinians turn out to believe ardently in peace, the image on the screen is Rajoub’s. He lowers his gaze at the reminder.

“Who, you think, changed?” Rajoub asks. He says the good faith shown to Palestinians by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is gone with Rabin, assassinated in by a militant Jewish settler in 1995. Hard-core supporters of settlements, which currently number 200 and keep Palestinians off more than 40 percent of the West Bank, now dominate the right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has announced regular expansions of settlements during the current round of talks—an act considered illegal by most of the international community. Meanwhile, extremist settlers routinely harass Palestinians on the ground, uprooting olive trees and vandalizing mosques.

“Enough, enough, enough,” Rajoub says. “Dogs enjoy rights in Europe and America better than the Palestinian in their homeland.

“I am still committed, but my people are losing hope.”

TIME Iran

Iran’s Rouhani Blocks Missile Test, Fights Hardliners

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
President Rouhani during interview with Swiss TV station at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Jan. 23, 2014. SIPA

As he seeks harmony with the West, Iran's president Hassan Rouhani flew in the face of conservative hardliners at home when he blocked a planned military test by pulling its funding

Two dozen conservative Iranian lawmakers are complaining that President Hassan Rouhani canceled a military missile test by withholding funding required for it. The complaint, reported by the semi-official news agency IRNA on Sunday, is the latest public display of the intense push-and-pull between the new president elected on promises to moderate Iran’s troubled international image and the fundamentalist ideologues responsible for its isolation.

So far, Rouhani has been holding his own, though the strain is evident. On Wednesday night, after a live interview with him on state television did not begin as scheduled, Rouhani turned to Twitter to blame by name the head of state broadcasting. The flap was reportedly over who would interview him–a reporter sympathetic to his moderation effort or a hardliner. When the program finally began, 90 minutes late, he ended up taking questions from both.

It was a fitting compromise. Rouhani himself has a foot in each camp, and Iran is of two minds about the potential new era heralded by the interim deal on the Iranian nuclear program that was forged in Geneva last year. The deal itself appears to enjoy broad backing. While Tehran’s most fundamentalist elements dubbed it a “nuclear holocaust,” conservative power centers including the Revolutionary Guards have praised it. “The diplomatic apparatus has met the aspirations of every single Iranian,” said a recent statement from the Guards, whose extensive economic holdings stand to benefit from an easing of the U.S.-led sanctions under the pact.

Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei made clear on Saturday that Rouhani – who served for years as his national security chief – should have room to maneuver after only “a few months” in office. “Authorities should be given the opportunity to push forward strongly,” the Leader told an audience of air force officers. “Critics should show tolerance towards the government.”

Khamenei himself has withheld comment on the interim pact, a reticence that’s actually typical. Rouhani has written that the Leader declined to weigh in even privately on the last nuclear agreement, signed with European powers in 2003 – but later interceded to discard the deal. Khamenei’s current silence may again permit him the freedom to at some point halt the talks without appearing to reverse himself. But it also reflects the realities of a new situation that, from Iran’s point of view, is complex even by the fluid standards of a government that communicates constantly via Twitter, a service it still blocks inside the country.

“We struggled during Pahlavis’ repressive times,” Khamenei said in Feb. 4 tweet, referring to the country’s American-backed monarchy that was toppled in the 1979 Revolution. “Today we struggle against bids of aberration in the world, a more complicated struggle.”

Iran is treading a thin line. On the one hand, Khamenei seeks removal of the economic sanctions that the Carnegie Endowment for Peace estimates have cost the country north of $100 billion. Yet the Leader also remains deeply skeptical of a wider rapprochement with The Great Satan. “American officials publicly say they do not seek regime change in Iran,” Khamenei also said Saturday. “That’s a lie. They would not hesitate a moment if they could do it.”

And so, the commander of Iran’s northern fleet announced Saturday that warships were headed for the U.S. coast, a symbolic if militarily inconsequential bit of gunboat diplomacy that could be framed as the reply of a proud nation to frequent U.S. naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the Mehr news agency reports that lawmakers also complain of Rouhani’s Foreign Minister preventing foreign military advisers from helping Iran with its missile technology – potentially a significant development: Iran’s most formidable missiles are from North Korea, and would deliver the nuclear weapon its critics fear Iran is developing. Like the Leader said, “a more complicated struggle” indeed.

TIME Israel

Obama Approval Rating Dives In Israel

Less than a year after President Obama left Israel to the sound of loud cheering after he assured Israelis in Hebrew that they “are not alone,” a new poll has found that 70% of Jewish Israelis do not trust Obama to safeguard their nation’s vital interests in negotiations with the Palestinians.

The survey, published Friday in the Israeli weekly Sov Hashavua, is the latest in a string of recent polls demonstrating a precipitous fall in the confidence Obama appeared to have restored during his three-day visit last March. On Jan. 26, a Times of Israel poll found only one in five Israelis trust Obama to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as he has vowed to do. The same survey reported just one in three Israelis has a favorable opinion of Obama. Last May, in the afterglow of his state visit, 61 percent in a Pew poll expressed “confidence” in Obama.

What’s happened since? The answer is: two negotiations, and a lot of tart exchanges.

The first negotiation was with Iran: In November, the United States and five other world powers made an temporary pact with Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried as a “a historic mistake.” Some prominent Israelis were less critical about the pact, which merely froze for six months a nuclear program that Israel wants to see dismantled, but Netanyahu’s ministers echoed his rhetoric, casting Obama as a sucker for an Iranian charm offensive.

The other negotiation was the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that Secretary of State John Kerry has relentlessly pursued. The talks, intended to last for nine months, showed so little progress around the half-way point that Kerry has begun assembling a “framework” that would justify an extension. The effort pushed the most contentious elements of any deal into public view as politicians were forced to float possible compromises.

It also made Kerry an object of increasing resentment. Last month Netanyahu’s Defense Minister, Moshe “Bugie” Ya’alon, was forced to apologize publicly after the State Department objected to his referring to Kerry as “obsessive and messianic.” Then Israeli officials lambasted Kerry for warning Feb. 1 of the downside for Israel if the talks fail, including “talk of boycotts.” The reference was to an incipient international movement aimed at pressuring Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories using the kind of economic pressure brought to bear on South Africa when it enforced apartheid.

But Netanyahu’s government seized on the warning as a threat. Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said Kerry’s remarks were “hurtful..unfair…intolerable” and amounted to asking Israel to negotiate “with a gun to its head.” Netanyahu said “attempts to impose a boycott on the state of Israel are immoral and unjust.” The State Department read Netanyahu’s statement as a conflation of Kerry with the hazard he was flagging, and issued a statement of its own admonishing “all parties to accurately portray his record and statements.” On Monday night National Security Advisor Susan Rice joined in, posting on Twitter: “Personal attacks in Israel directed at Sec Kerry totally unfounded and unacceptable.”

But in Israel, at least, the damage was done. Friday’s Israel Hayom daily carried yet another poll, this one showing only 21% of Israeli Jews thought Kerry was speaking out of “concern for Israel.” Sixty percent, the survey said, took his warning as a threat.

TIME Iran

Iran Says It Will Reduce Military Potential of Nuclear Reactor

A view of Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities is seen, near the central city of Arak, in 2011.
A view of Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities is seen, near the central city of Arak, in 2011. Hamid Foroutan / ISNA / AP

If Iran follows through the move could increase trust in further nuclear negotiations

Iran is willing to make changes to the nuclear reactor it is building near the city of Arak, 180 miles southwest of Tehran, that would make it more difficult to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon, the head of Iran’s nuclear agency said Thursday. The unexpected announcement, made in an interview with a state television channel, apparently signaled the first major concession from Iran on its nuclear program, and appeared to come outside the give-and-take of formal negotiations on the subject with the United States and other world powers.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization, emphasized to Press TV that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were peaceful, but acknowledged there were “valid questions” over why Iran was pursuing two technologies that could produce nuclear weapons. One part of Iran’s program involves enriching uranium – spinning it in centrifuges to render it suitable for producing power or, if enriched to a much higher level, to fuel a nuclear weapon. At the same time, in Arak, Iran is nearing completion of a “heavy water” reactor. Heavy water is an expensive, denser water (thanks to the presence of of the hydrogen isotope deuterium) used to moderate the atomic reaction in the plant’s core, a process that produces a substantial amount of plutonium, which once removed can also fuel a bomb.

Salehi indicated Iran was prepared to heed calls to substitute ordinary or “light” water in the Arak reactor, significantly reducing its potential for military use. “Here we can do some design change,” Salehi said, “in other words make some change in the design in order to produce less plutonium in this reactor and in this way allay the worries and mitigate the concerns.”

The modification would be the first permanent scaling back of Iran’s nuclear program. All Iran’s concessions in the interim agreement with the United States and five other world powers, announced Nov. 24 in Geneva, were temporary and easily reversed. The Geneva agreement was meant to freeze Iran’s program for at least six months while negotiations aimed at a permanent pact went forward.

“Politically, it’s quite significant, because the world has been worrying about Iran going on the parallel track to a nuclear weapon, which is the plutonium track,” says Ephraim Asculai, a former official in Israel’s nuclear agency and senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The issue of making Arak a light water reactor has been raised before. This is the first time I’ve heard that they’re considering it.”

Both Salehi and Asculai separately pointed out that a light water reactor also produces plutonium (the Iraqi reactor that Iran bombed in 1980 and Israel bombed in 1981 used light water). But experts say plutonium from a light water reactor is much less accessible for use in a weapon than from a heavy water plant. “Technically, getting the plutonium out of the fuel is not that easy,” says Asculai.

Though it came as a surprise, Iran’s announcement of a likely shift to using light water may have been in the works for some time. In May 2013, Iran informed the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency that it planned to use ordinary water in tests at the Arak facility, mystifying nuclear experts who said even a tiny amount of light water would contaminate the system designed for heavy water. The plan prompted speculation that Iran might be planning to take the Arak reactor online ahead of schedule, thwarting any potential military strike. In light of Salehi’s interview, it now appears at least as possible that Iran’s technicians were simply implementing a change its politicians are only now revealing.

TIME Iraq

Four Car Bombs Explode in Baghdad as Death Toll Keeps Rising

Smoke rises after a parked car bomb went off at a commercial center in Khilani Square in central Baghdad, Feb. 5, 2014.
Smoke rises after a parked car bomb went off at a commercial center in Khilani Square in central Baghdad, Feb. 5, 2014. Karim Kadim / AP

Four car bombs exploded in Baghdad on Wednesday, and two rockets were fired into the heavily fortified Green Zone. The targets were the Iraq government that the United States left behind two years ago – a regime dominated by the country’s Shiite Muslim majority and facing an insurgency of its own from al-Qaeda-linked extremists in the Sunni minority. But casual observers could be forgiven a certain disorienting familiarity.

Wednesday’s attacks, which killed at least 24 people, were only the latest in a horrendous barrage that included seven bombings on Monday, and claimed more than 1,000 lives in January alone. Photos showed streetscapes Americans came to see often during the eight-and-half-year occupation: boulevards boxed in by towering concrete Jersey barriers, strewn with blackened steel, and patrolled by dun-colored Humvees.

“Wow, it’s like Groundhog Day. What year is this?” the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson asks in a Twitter post linking to the latest attacks.

What has changed? Not as much as hoped from a U.S. investment of well over $1 trillion. Iraqis no longer have an American occupation to resist, but combatants find ample fuel in the sectarianism that claimed 50,000 lives there from 2006 to 2008. The situation is aggravated on the one hand by the exclusionary performance of the Shiite-heavy government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s, and the resurgence of Sunni extremism in the heavily sectarian civil war in neighboring Syria, which has spilled across the border. Last month Iraq’s deputy interior minister said al-Qaeda-linked forces now back in Fallujah, 44 miles west of the capital, held weapons “huge and advanced and frankly enough to occupy Baghdad.”

The capital contains institutions like the Foreign Ministry, which was among the targets Wednesday. But Shiite neighborhoods are frequently targeted as well in the once-cosmopolitan city. Iraq’s Interior Ministry says half of some 500 car bombs detonated in Iraq last year exploded in Baghdad. The website Iraqi Body Count calculates the city’s death rate from violent acts at eight per 1,000 residents per year. In the world as a whole over the last half century, year by year, that’s just about the rate per year of deaths from all causes, according to the United Nations. And in Iraq, the rate is once again rising.

TIME Middle East

Israeli Officials Stay to Hear Iranian Minister’s Presentation

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon attends a meeting session of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Feb. 2, 2014.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon attends a meeting session of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Feb. 2, 2014. Xinhua Press / Corbis

In an apparent warming of relations, Israel's Defense Minister sat and listened to Iran's Foreign Minister during a conference in Germany over the weekend

When Iran’s Foreign Minister took the stage at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, Israel’s Minister of Defense made an unexpected decision. He opted to remain in his seat. The move – or, rather, the lack of a move – made headlines in Israel, where it was read as a diplomatic opening between the Jewish State and the Islamic Republic. In September, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, stood up and marched out of the General Assembly as Iran’s celebrated new President, Hassan Rouhani, arrived to make his address. On Sunday, Prosor stayed in his seat along with the Defense Minister, the proudly hawkish Moshe “Bugie” Ya’alon.

What does it mean? An innocent might observe that Ya’alon knew he was on the next panel, and didn’t want to hold things up. But there was wide agreement among observers that something deliberate was going on.

“It seems to me that Israel made a public outreach to Iran,” writes Meir Javedanfar in The Iran-Israel Observer, a blog devoted to relations between the two countries. Javedanfar, who was born in Tehran and lectures in Iranian politics at the postsecondary IDC Herzliya sees Ya’alon’s respectful presence before Iranian envoy Mohammad Javad Zarif as “a small positive step forward in order to test the waters. To see how the Iranian side reacts in the future. Israel wins no matter what,” he says. “If Iran reacts positively then it would show that moderation and good will works. If Iran does not react or continues with its rhetoric against Israel then Israel could say that it is the other side that does not want to change, no matter what. This would strengthen Israel’s case against Iran’s nuclear program.”

It’s possible that Zarif warmed to Ya’alon’s presence. When asked on the panel about Iran’s stand on the Palestinian aspirations for their own state, on a portion of the land both Jews and Arabs claim as a homeland, Zarif pointedly disassociated the government he represents (Rouhani’s) from that of its immediate predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, notorious for calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, and for questioning the Holocaust.

“Of course we don’t make the same statement the previous government made,” Zarif said. “But [Israeli] policies have deprived the Palestinian people of the most elemental rights. Until this is discussed the crisis is not going away.” As for the Holocaust, Zarif called it “tragically cruel and should not happen again.”

That appeared to complete two of three of the demands given by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leaving before Rouhani spoke at the UN: “When Iran’s leaders stop denying the Holocaust of the Jewish people, stop calling for the destruction of the Jewish State, and recognize Israel’s right to exist, the Israeli delegation will attend their addresses at the General Assembly.”

All in all, Zarif’s remarks were in line with Rouhani’s campaign promise to end the international isolation that Iran suffered under the potent combination of Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and the U.S.-led economic sanctions aimed at the regime’s nuclear ambitions. Harsh rhetoric still comes out of Iran; in November, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred to Israel as a “the sinister, unclean, rabid dog of the region.” And both Ya’alon and Zarif had plenty of unpleasant things to say about the government of the other. But at least they no longer found the presence of the other too abhorrent to tolerate.

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