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Free upgrades, divorces down, plug-in cars

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Project Better Place founder Shai Agassi, right, talks with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat about the pioneering electric cars Agassi is introducing to Israel. (Better Place)

Project Better Place founder Shai Agassi, right, talks with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat about the pioneering electric cars Agassi is introducing to Israel. (Better Place)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Here are some stories from the past few days in Israel that you may have missed.

Israeli divorces down

The number of Israeli Jews who divorced in 2009 dropped by 2.3 percent over the previous year, Israel’s Rabbinic Court announced last week.

Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, director general of the Rabbinic Court Administration, told the Jerusalem Post that the drop probably occurred because couples could not afford the financial cost of separation.

While divorce rates fell between 3 percent and 7 percent in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Rishon Lezion, the rate in Jerusalem rose by 4.2 percent.

In all, 9,986 Jewish couples divorced in Israel in 2009.

Last year marked the first since divorce rates began to be tracked in Israel that the rate declined. Tracking began in 2003.

The cases of 162 women who had been unable to divorce because their husbands refused to grant them religious writs of divorce known as "gets" were concluded in 2009, but another 180 such cases remain open, according to the court. About 20 women are officially classified as agunot – women “chained” to recalcitrant husbands refusing to grant them gets. These women have exhausted all alternative options to obtain divorces, and their husbands are either in hiding or in prison for refusing to grant a get.

A number of couples remain married with cases open because wives have refused to accept gets from their husbands.

Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay, sort of

Rocker Rod Stewart confirmed he will appear in Israel this summer, one of several major music stars to announce performances here in the coming months. Others include Elton John, Metallica, Rihanna and Bob Dylan.

But last week, singer and guitarist Carlos Santana canceled a June performance in a Jaffa stadium even though tickets were selling so fast that organizers were considering adding a second show, according to Ynet.

Santana’s agent told Ynet that the concert was nixed due to a tight schedule, but an unnamed source from the Israeli production company working on the performance told Ynet, "Our clarifications revealed that he received messages from anti-Israel figures who pressured him to cancel the performance. Of course, no one there claimed that any connection between these pressures and the show’s cancellation, but we are certain there is a very close connection.”

Free upgrades
Legislators aren’t known for pleading and cajoling, but like all airline passengers they occasionally find themselves resorting to such tactics in requesting upgrades to business class.

Israel’s Knesset members came very close this week to never having to whine again — at least at the airport check-in desk.

On Monday, the Knesset’s director general issued new regulations stipulating that all lawmakers who travel to foreign countries on official business can fly business class. But Tuesday, following heavy criticism, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin froze the implementation of the decision while members of the ethics committee and house committee review the new plan.

Until now, Knesset members could get an upgrade only on flights longer than six hours, and only  with a specific request. The bill is footed by the Israeli taxpayer.

Several unnamed lawmakers told the Jerusalem Post Monday that the new regulations were "realistic and purposeful," saying that they had been harassed by the passengers in economy class. Other lawmakers decried the move, saying that the Knesset should tighten its belt at a time when many citizens are doing so.

In reality, Rivlin’s office told the Jerusalem Post, fewer than a dozen Israeli lawmakers actually have traveled in economy class in recent years.

"Knesset members attend discussions that require great alertness," Rivlin told Army Radio in defending the decision. "Just now, a delegation left for talks in the U.S., and they were meant to attend meetings the minute they landed. The same thing happens with flights to Europe. Last week Knesset members had to participate in a symposium in Poland just after they landed."

Voting rights for Israelis overseas

Israel does not allow absentee voting except in the cases of diplomats or diplomatic staffers on assignment., but that could change by next election if Benjamin Netanyahu has his way. On Monday the prime minister proposed the change, saying it “will add to the connection with and to the strength of Israel.”

The proposal fulfills a coalition agreement Netanyahu made with Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Members of Netanyahu’s coalition are split on the proposal. Some would like to establish limitations on extending voting to Israelis abroad, such as limiting the vote to Israelis who served in the military or pay taxes.

Many Israelis who oppose Netanyahu’s proposal fear extending the vote would skew elections and raise the possibility that Diaspora Jews would obtain Israeli citizenship merely to acquire voting rights and influence elections. This presumably would help right-wing parties.

Others don’t want to make it easier for Israelis to live overseas.

“There are a half-million people who have passports overseas,” Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman, a Labor Party member who lived abroad for more than a decade, told the Jerusalem Post. “I think they have to be here. This bill won’t strengthen Israel; it will weaken Israel.”

The Absorption Ministry says 750,000 Israeli passport holders live abroad.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni called the proposal "immoral."

"Elections in Israel are about Israel’s character and future,” she said. “Such decisions should lie with those who live here.”

Plug it in and go

Beginning next week, Israelis will be able to test drive the fully electric cars that are expecting to debut in Israel by March 2011.

Project Better Place, which is building electric car battery recharging and switching stations across the country, opened a visitors’ center near Tel Aviv last week to showcase the electric car concept. The center, which was created in a renovated oil tank at a fuel depot near Tel Aviv, includes a driving course to allow visitors to test drive the refitted Renaults.

Better Place already has signed agreements with 92 Israeli companies to convert a portion of their car fleets to electric vehicles once the electric cars hit the road.

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