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Differences emerge on sanctions

WASHINGTON – As long as the Iran conversation was broad and dealt only with “sanctions,” the Congress, the White House, and the pro-Israel community seemed to be on the same page.

But now that Iran has rejected just about every bouquet sent its way and the talk has turned to the details, longstanding differences over how best to go forward are taking center stage.

News Analysis

With the backing of many Jewish groups, Congress appears to be pressing ahead with a package that targets Iran’s energy sector.

While the White House appears to support new congressional sanctions, it appears to favor more narrow measures targeting the Iranian leadership and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, considered especially vulnerable because of the recent anti-government turmoil.

In part the debate is over which approach would do more to help opposition forces in Iran. But also playing a role is the Obama administration’s continuing emphasis on securing international backing for tougher measures against Tehran, the idea being that sweeping U.S. sanctions aimed at the Iranian energy sector could turn off several key nations.

Additionally, the Obama administration has not counted out the prospect of engagement with Iran, although the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government has put to rest any notion that it will entertain the West’s offer to enrich Iran’s uranium to medical research levels in exchange for transparency about the Islamic Republic’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

“Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements, without contributing to the suffering” of Iranians, “who deserve better than what they currently are receiving,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a news conference Monday.

Opponents of the congressional sanctions, which target just about any investment anywhere in the world in Iran’s energy sector, say they would be inhumane and rally support for the regime.

“Having opposed the adoption of crippling sanctions all along, Americans for Peace Now is glad to see further affirmation from the White House that it does not seek such crippling sanctions,” said Ori Nir, a spokesman for APN, the only major Jewish group opposing the congressional package.

In defense of the proposed legislation, one insider from a centrist pro-Israel group recounted a much-repeated scenario: The cab driver who runs out of gas in the middle of a traffic clogged street, gets out of the car, and raises his fist and curses — not the West as he might have just a year or so ago, but Ahmadinejad and the rest of Iran’s leadership.

“In tyrannies, the fiction that keeps people under control is the trust they have in government to take care of them and the fear they have of confronting the government,” the insider said. “In Iran, the trust is gone and the fear is still there, but going.”

Concerns that the congressional package will lead to human misery are overstated, its backers say. The bills include provisions for presidential waivers and are meant first as leverage.

Similar sanctions packages passed by Congress in the 1990s also were never implemented by Presidents Clinton and Bush, yet they had an almost immediate effect because of the threat of being implemented. Major Western traders pulled out of Iran, which is partly why the country’s refinement capabilities are in disarray. Iran, a major oil exporter, still must import up to 40 percent of its refined petroleum.

The principals in shaping the previous sanctions — in Congress, the Clinton administration, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — now openly admit that they were playing a coordinated “good cop-bad cop” game: Republicans who backed the sanctions would quietly shape their criticisms of the Clinton administration in consultation with administration officials; Clinton officials then would cite that “pressure” in getting European nations to join in efforts to isolate Iran.

It’s not clear now whether a similar dynamic is at work between the White House and Congress. Some insiders say it is; others say the Obama administration is genuinely wary of punishing sanctions and is unhappy with the pressure from Congress and the pro-Israel community.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed its sanctions package in late December, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has pledged to attend to the Senate version as soon as the chamber reconvenes Jan. 19.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he is willing to consider the White House’s objections, particularly to a proposed blacklist of companies that deal with Iran and to sanctions that target third-party entities — companies and nations that deal with Iran.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is moving ahead with the following actions:

• Pressing other major powers to back a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution that would expand existing sanctions on travel and business dealings to 3,000 individuals associated with the Revolutionary Guards;

• Intensifying enforcement of existing U.S. sanctions on doing business with Iran;

• Intensifying efforts to uncover and fine companies that cover up their financial dealings with Iran.

JTA

 
 

J Street, Oren mending fences — but wariness lingers

WASHINGTON – After months of high-profile feuding, the breakout dovish lobbying group J Street and Israel’s ambassador to Washington appear to be reconciling.

The two sides have been talking — through the media and directly in private — with the goal of ending the hot-cold feud that dominated much professional Jewish chatter in the latter part of last year.

Both sides say that while there have been strides in the rapprochement, much needs to be bridged — underscored by a persistent Israeli government wariness of the group.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador, dropped J Street a bouquet in a Feb. 10 interview with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles in which he said that the organization had moved “much more into the mainstream.” It marked a sharp turn from his characterization of the group late last year as having positions dangerous to Israeli interests.

“The J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving,” Oren said in the interview. “The major concern with J Street was their position on security issues, not the peace process. J Street has now come and supported Cong. [Howard] Berman’s Iran sanction bill; it has condemned the Goldstone report; it has denounced the British court’s decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, which puts J Street much more into the mainstream.”

Oren’s comments come as some pro-Israel activists continue their efforts to marginalize Jewish groups on the left, including J Street, that they see as being hostile to Israel.

The comments were no slip of the lip, said sources close to the ambassador. They were a quid pro quo arising out of recent statements J Street has released, including an admonishment to the United Nations to treat Israel fairly and an endorsement of immediate passage of new U.S. sanctions against Iran.

For its part J Street, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians in pursuit of a two-state deal, has endeavored in some recent statements to cast the embassy and the Israeli establishment as a friend and an intimate. At a time when some voices on the left were criticizing Israel’s rescue mission in Haiti as a cynical ploy to distract attention from continued opprobrium arising from last year’s Gaza war, J Street was effusive in its praise.

“Israel’s swift response to another nation’s needs speaks to the very best of the values underpinning the Jewish tradition and the best of what that country represents as the national home of the Jewish people,” J Street said. “It did, in this instance, serve as a real model for the international community. We urge those who might otherwise disagree with Israeli policy and action to commend Israel for reacting so swiftly and making a positive contribution at this time of urgent international need.”

And this month, when Oren came under verbal assault when he delivered a speech at University of California, Irvine — a hotbed of anti-Israel activism — J Street was calling for civility. (See pages 15, 17, and 20.)

“We believe that universities should be a place for an honest discussion about tough issues,” the group said. “While appropriate and respectful protests are a legitimate and important part of the conversation on campus, anti-Semitic, racist, disruptive, and inflammatory actions and language are simply unacceptable.”

Hadar Susskind, the J Street policy director, said such statements arose out of recent efforts to reconcile after a tense 2009.

“We’ve been having ongoing discussions with the embassy making clear our different positions,” Susskind said. “We’ve said all along we would welcome a good productive relationship with them.”

Officials close to the Israeli Embassy confirmed the conversations.

J Street was established in early 2008. What little relationship it had developed with the embassy was shattered in early 2009 when the organization issued a statement that seemed to blame Israel and Hamas equally for the Gaza war.

Worsening the situation was J Street’s position until December that the time was not right yet for sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector, even as many Jewish groups were pushing for such measures. Israel considers containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions its signature issue, beyond how it deals with the Palestinians.

Oren, who assumed his post last summer, launched his tenure with a stated policy of reaching out to Jewish groups across the spectrum — and then he pointedly avoided J Street. He declined to attend the group’s inaugural conference in October, and in December told a group of Conservative rabbis that J Street’s views are dangerous for Israel.

Neither side needed the tension. Oren’s description of the group as “dangerous” earned a rebuke from Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy — an official with whom he would in theory work closely. Centrist and right-wing Jewish groups closed ranks behind Oren, but the Obama administration made it clear it was not unhappy with Rosenthal’s remarks.

J Street has a dependable cadre of 40 to 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives ready to heed its voting recommendations. Congressional insiders say J Street’s green light in December for Iran sanctions nudged the bill from the super majority that traditional lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee usually turns out to officially “overwhelming”: 412-12. That sent the Obama administration a clear message to hurry it on up, the insiders say.

And J Street, however much its reputation is made on a willingness to take Israel to task, also needs to work with the leadership in Israel in order to maintain any credible claim that its critiques will have an impact. Its first congressional delegation visiting the region this week met with top Palestinian and Jordanian leaders — but in Israel, its top interlocutor was Dan Meridor, one of five deputy prime ministers.

There’s a way to go, both sides acknowledge: J Street is not yet on the “must call” list for the embassy when the ambassador calls a meeting of the Jewish leadership.

Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups also are watching the developments. J Street earned much pro-Israel resentment at its outset by “punching up” — issuing blistering attacks on groups that were larger and better known such as AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, and The Israel Project.

CUFI spokesmen said they welcomed J Street’s recent efforts to pull back from such attacks, but noted that as recently as last week, J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami maintained that the Christian group hoped to “precipitate” an Armageddon through support for right-wing Israeli policies. CUFI says its pro-Israel work is informed by political, not theological, sympathies for Israel — and in any case, says its theology has no place for sparking the end of the world. (See page 15.)

“J Street seems to employ a strategy of publicity through controversy without considering the harm that policy does to the pro-Israel community,” CUFI spokesman Ari Morgenstern said.

JTA

 
 

Why bother with Iran sanctions again?

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The United Nations Security Council, shown in session on Feb. 18, has passed sanctions measures three times against Iran but has failed to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe

For years, sanctions have been the world’s answer to Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Three times already — in 2006, 2007, and 2008 — the U.N. Security Council passed sanctions measures aimed at obstructing Iran’s nuclear capabilities and prodding the government in Tehran into cooperating.

News Analysis

The result: Iran moved ahead with building clandestine nuclear facilities, installing centrifuges and enriching unranium while refusing full access to international weapons inspectors and turning down deals with the West. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report saying it had evidence of “past or current undisclosed activities” by Iran to build a nuclear warhead.

Tehran repeatedly has made clear that its policy toward the West — on the nuclear issue and other matters, including last year’s disputed election — is defiance and obduracy, not cooperation or capitulation.

Now, in the face of mounting evidence that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb continues unabated, pro-Israel groups and U.S. and European governments again are pushing for new sanctions.

Given that sanctions haven’t worked in the past, is there any hope that things will be different this time?

“We won’t know the answer until we actually try,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the main U.S. Jewish umbrella group on Mideast-related issues.

“Sanctions can have an impact if they’re the right kind of sanctions, if they’re not going to be put off,” Hoenlein said. “The question is implementation. It’s not moving fast enough. The Iranians only understand one language: They have to understand this is showdown time.”

For now the approach among Jewish organizational leaders who have led the campaign to halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is to continue to promote sanctions — both by the United Nations and by individual countries, including the United States. The thinking is that sanctions under consideration are considerably tougher than earlier rounds and must be tried before any other options can be explored.

“If we’re willing to put meaningful, painful sanctions in place, it can work,” said Josh Block, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has been the main lobbying group pushing Congress for sanctions on Iran.

“Do we have the ability to create significant economic pain for the Iranian government? Yes. Are they willing to change their behavior based on that impact? We don’t know,” Block acknowledged.

The new U.N. sanctions would target Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and more severely restrict Iran’s banking industry. For enactment, nine of the U.N. Security Council’s members must vote for them, and none of the five permanent, veto-wielding members — China, Russia, the United States, Britain, and France — can block them.

Russia, an early holdout, is sending signals it favors new sanctions, but China has yet to agree. Four more yes votes would be necessary from the 10 rotating members: Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina , Brazil, Gabon, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey, and Uganda. The four votes are not yet in place, insiders say, and the date for a vote on sanctions continues to be pushed back.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is set to pass broad unilateral sanctions that would target Iran’s energy sector.

As the day of reckoning with a nuclear Iran fast approaches, advocates in the Jewish community are being forced to confront the question of where to go beyond sanctions.

There are no sure answers. Sanctions have not worked so far, and the U.S. administration doesn’t appear close to considering the military option.

Even if Israel were to circumvent the United States and strike Iran, it would be hard to wipe out the country’s nuclear facilities, which are thought to include sites that are hidden, underground, scattered, and heavily fortified.

Some Jewish groups have begun talking about how to live with a nuclear Iran.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder and president of The Israel Project, said that even if sanctions couldn’t stop Iran from going nuclear, they still could help deter a nuclear Iran from using its weapons.

“The idea that the game is over if Iran has a nuclear device is mistaken,” Mizrahi told JTA. “As long as Iran hasn’t used a nuclear device to shoot anybody or give it to terrorists, we still have to give it a full-court press.”

It’s possible, she noted, that Iran already has obtained a nuclear device from North Korea or other clandestine methods.

“Even if they were to have a nuclear device and a rocket today, it would still be useful to have sanctions,” Mizrahi said. “They can still be dissuaded from using their weapons and giving them up.”

With the time remaining for effective sanctions to have an impact on the Iranian regime dwindling, is it time to go to Plan B?

“There are plan Bs,” Hoenlein said. “We have not advocated military action. We don’t believe that’s our role. We believe all options should be on the table, including that. If they don’t believe all options are on the table, they will never move.”

Plan B, he said, could entail anything from a naval blockade to military strikes. The United States does not yet appear to be at that point, but of course Israel at any point could move to its own Plan B.

Even as they concede that serious questions remain about the efficacy of new sanctions and other options, U.S. Jewish organizational leaders are canvassing the country and holding meetings around the world to warn about the dangers of a nuclear Iran — and not just so they can feel that they’re doing something or to give their audiences a reason to lay awake at night.

“I’m not trying to suggest this as a panacea,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a policy umbrella group. “We still have to get the sanctions thing passed.”

Talking about the dangers of a nuclear Iran can energize people to lobby their elected representatives, press the issue at consulates and embassies, and talk to associates with business interests overseas about the imperative to isolate Iran, he said.

The point, several Jewish officials said, is not to give up.

“Because of our history, because of our teachings, I think we’ve been taught that one cannot just sit by and watch evil win,” Gutow said, citing Theodor Herzl’s famous line “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Mizrahi also cited Herzl.

“I’m not optimistic about any of these things, but as Golda Meir put it, Jews don’t have the option of being pessimists,” Mizrahi said. “If every time the world said it’s impossible for Israel to accomplish something, if they’d listened, Israel wouldn’t have gone back to reclaim the land, drain the swamps, and build the country. I believe very strongly in what Herzl said.”

JTA

 
 

U.S.-Israel search for Middle East peace: Beyond Ramat Shlomo

 

‘We prayed with our feet’

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Member of Knesset Shlomo Molla and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner at the AIPAC conference. Courtesy Rabbi Kirshner

Mayor Corey Booker of Newark once said, “Democracy is not a sideline sport.” If ever one wanted to prove that statement true, one would only need to spend three days in Washington at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

This week, 76 members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter joined the ranks of 7,724 (close to 200 from Bergen County alone) others — Jews and gentiles, Republicans and Democrats, men and women, old and young — and ran on to the field of the American Israel relationship. Little did we know when we signed up for the policy conference, some as early as 11 months ago, that Israel and America would be embroiled in a public relations mess that would not only take some of the focus off of health care but would also serve as a re-examination and reiteration of the core principles of the 62-year-old partnership. It made for an exciting, engaging, and energetic conference.

First Person

The topnotch speakers included Benjamin Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz, Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton, members of the Israeli Medical Corps who serviced Haiti, and many more. But perhaps one of the most moving was Member of Knesset Shlomo Molla, who was brought to Israel in the middle of a cold and dark night from somewhere in the desert of Sudan more than 25 years ago. His story of perseverance and determination was powerful.

As a young man living in Ethiopia, he faced a communist regime that did not allow him or his community to practice Judaism. The country continued to enforce more obstacles to normal living and cruelty to the point where Molla and thousands of others had to flee. They escaped, barefoot, with no possessions and little food and water. Their journey eventually led them to the African Sudan. Some 4,000 of their brethren did not make it. The punishing elements took their lives. But Molla and others were airlifted by the Israel Defense Forces to Israel, where they made a home within a homeland and created a family surrounded by new and familiar brothers and sisters.

This story rang the bell of our memories to the Ethiopian children and the Russian grandmothers who walked down the stairs to the tarmac of Ben-Gurion Airport and danced and kissed the ground as our arms opened for their embrace and our collective eyes welled with tears of gratitude. In each of our mind’s tickers ran Theodor Herzl’s words, “If you will it, it is no dream.” The foundation of the state and the spirit of the state was realized; a home for every Jewish person, then and now, will endure.

Today, Molla, a distinguished member of the Kadima Party, spoke to the AIPAC plenary and at various smaller sessions, too. Many were reminded, when we listened to him and his story, why we were in Washington just before Passover — because we are still making the case for Israel to live in peace.

We took the information we learned from our sessions and speakers, along with the words of our political leaders and Molla’s spirit and determination, and we took to the streets. Tuesday morning we realized Booker’s words, and the AIPAC delegates met with representatives in each Senate office and more than 400 offices in the House of Representatives to lobby in support of a strong Israel-America relationship. We underscored basic principles critical for the continued strength of the Jewish state: the need for quickly passing crippling sanctions against Iran, continuing to condemn the flawed and non-factual Goldstone Report, and encouraging the Palestinian Authority to come to a meeting table with the Israeli leadership immediately for discussions followed by negotiations for peace and the creation of a two-state region. It was a life-changing experience for our new participants. As almost every AIPAC rookie said to me, “This is my first AIPAC event, but certainly not my last.”

When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., Heschel proclaimed that he was praying with his feet. That is how many of us felt as we boarded airplanes and trains back to Bergen County rejuvenated by our time spent in Washington. We prayed with our feet. The foundations of Judaism and the core fundamentals of America are similar; we celebrate our voice and how we share it, our hand and how we and both America and Judaism are as much about our possibilities as they are about our histories and traditions. Those shared values are the reason the Jewish people have thrived in the United States.

On the eve of Passover, may we never take the freedoms of Shlomo Molla and the State of Israel for granted. May we realize the freedoms afforded us as Americans, and may we use our voices, our feet, and our passion to celebrate America’s and Israel’s unbreakable bond.

 
 

At AIPAC, Clinton gets friendship, Bibi gets love

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to thousands of pro-Israel activists in Washington at the annual AIPAC policy conference on Monday. AIPAC

WASHINGTON – Hillary Rodham Clinton to AIPAC: We’ll keep complaining about building in Jerusalem.

Benjamin Netanyahu to same: And we’ll keep building.

Guess which speech got the bigger cheers.

To be sure, in speeches this week at the annual AIPAC policy conference, all sides repeatedly stressed complete confidence in the durability and necessity of a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship, and highlighted areas of agreement, first and foremost the need for tough action to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Several key differences were on display, however, as the Israeli prime minister, the U.S. secretary of state, and the leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee did not back down from their bottom lines.

AIPAC officials insisted that disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington take place behind closed doors. Clinton said the Obama administration will make its unhappiness clear and public when it regards an Israeli action as undermining the peace process.

For Netanyahu and AIPAC, Jerusalem is off the table; for Clinton it’s very much part of the discussion.

Clinton went out of her way to praise the Palestinian Authority; Netanyahu went of his way to criticize it.

The two speeches Monday — Clinton for breakfast and Netanyahu for dinner — culminated two weeks of tensions sparked when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that had been aimed at underscoring the close U.S.-Israel friendship and restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“It is our devotion to this outcome — two states for two peoples, secure and at peace — that led us to condemn the announcement of plans for new construction in East Jerusalem,” Clinton said. “This was not about wounded pride. Nor is it a judgment on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be settled at the negotiating table. This is about getting to the table, creating and protecting an atmosphere of trust around it, and staying there until the job is finally done.”

Clinton’s mild rebuke brought surprising, if light, applause. It was a mark of the success of repeated pleas from AIPAC’s leadership to more than 7,500 activists in attendance to keep things civil. Clinton earned standing ovations coming in and out, and there was no audible booing.

Netanyahu’s Jerusalem encomium, by contrast, brought the house down — delivering perhaps the biggest cheers during this year’s conference.

“The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today,” he said. “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.”

Netanyahu’s message in meetings with U.S. leaders, his spokesmen said, was that the dispute over Jerusalem could delay peace talks by a year.

AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr and President Lee Rosenberg were equally as determined to make Israel’s point, almost to the word.

“Jerusalem is not a settlement,” Kohr said in the line of the morning that brought the greatest cheering. “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.”

Kohr also made the case for keeping such disputes out of public view.

“When disagreements inevitably arise, they must be resolved privately as is befitting close allies,” he said.

That’s been the mantra of AIPAC, along with the center and right in the pro-Israel community — and Clinton turned it around.

The announcement of new construction in the west bank and eastern Jerusalem, she said, “exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit. And it undermines America’s unique ability to play a role — an essential role, I might add — in the peace process. Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree to say so, and say so unequivocally.”

It was clear, though, that Clinton was sensitive to Israeli and pro-Israel complaints that the opprobrium she had heaped onto Israel — she called the building announcement an “insult” — was one-sided and that she had ignored Palestinian violations.

In fact, her spokesmen have condemned Palestinian incitement. And Monday, Clinton picked up the two signal issues that have exercised Israel’s advocates: the naming of a public square in Ramallah for a terrorist who led a deadly 1978 attack, and Palestinian rioting greeting the rededication of an Old City synagogue destroyed during the 1948 Independence War.

“These provocations are wrong and must be condemned for needlessly inflaming tensions and imperiling prospects for a comprehensive peace,” Clinton said to applause.

Clinton leavened her calls for an end to incitement by attempting to shift blame for the naming of the square from the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority to Hamas. And she had praise for the PA leadership.

“We commend the government of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad for the reforms they’ve undertaken to strengthen law and order, and the progress that they’ve made in improving the quality of life in the west bank,” she said.

Netanyahu had only criticism.

“What has the Palestinian Authority done for peace?” he asked. “They have placed preconditions on peace talks, waged a relentless international campaign to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, and promoted the notorious Goldstone report that falsely accuses Israel of war crimes.”

AIPAC, Israel, and the Obama administration have differences on Iran as well. AIPAC activists pushed hard for enhanced Iran sanctions when they lobbied Tuesday afternoon on Capitol Hill, while the administration wants time to exhaust the prospect of multilateral sanctions.

Here, though, Clinton was able to throw the crowd some meat, saying that whatever sanctions emerged, they would not be glancing.

“Our aim is not incremental sanctions but sanctions that will bite,” she said. “It is taking time to produce these sanctions, and we believe that time is a worthwhile investment for winning the broadest possible support for our efforts. But we will not compromise our commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring these nuclear weapons.”

Rosenberg, just inaugurated as AIPAC’s president and a key fund-raiser in candidate Barack Obama’s presidential run, also made sure to hit affectionate notes, noting Clinton’s pronounced pro-Israel record in her eight years as a U.S. senator from New York. Among other things, she led the successful effort to force the International Committee of the Red Cross to recognize Israel’s Magen David Adom.

Netanyahu made sure to praise Obama for increasing security cooperation.

“From one president to the next, from one Congress to the next, America’s commitment to Israel’s security has been unwavering,” he said. “In the last year, President Obama and the U.S. Congress have given meaning to that commitment by providing Israel with military assistance, by enabling joint military exercises, and by working on joint missile defense.”

Kohr, the longtime AIPAC director, used the policy conference to outline the group’s priorities. He focused on gaining Israel its deserved entry into the international community through membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which coordinates economic policy in the developed world; getting Israel a seat on the U.N. Security Council; and forging a closer relationship between Israel and NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

All have been Israeli priorities for years, but throughout the Bush administration and the prevalence of neoconservatism in its foreign policy, AIPAC’s embrace of these issues was low-grade. In fact, in making the case for advancing Israel in the United Nations, Kohr even asked: “Now, some of you may be asking, why does it matter?”

He ran through an explanation of the U.N. Security Council’s powers, but left unsaid why else it matters: The Obama administration’s emphasis on multilateralism and on working out differences in international forums. Kohr was telling his activists that this was the new Obama order.

News Analysis

Perhaps most telling was where Clinton ad-libbed away from her prepared remarks and revealed a soft affection for Israel and its friends.

She delivered a prepared line about “pioneers who found a desert and made it bloom,” then paused and said, “There were people who were thinking, how could that ever happen? Ahh, but it did.”

She amended a line about warriors offering peace to describe them as “so gallant in battle.” Clinton asked the crowd if they thought she thought it necessary to speak “because AIPAC can get 7,500 people in a convention center? I don’t think so.”

In her lengthiest unscripted passage, Clinton recalled traveling the world during the 1990s, the heyday of Arab-Israeli peace talks, and never hearing anyone mention the conflict outside the confines of the Middle East. These days, she said, its periodic explosions into war is often the first item, however far-flung her travels.

It was a gentle unsettling of the belief that the Israel-U.S. relationship exists in a bubble unaffected by outside realities.

“We cannot escape the impact of mass communications,” Clinton said. “We can only change the facts on the ground.”

JTA

For a first person account of the AIPAC conference, go to ‘We prayed with our feet’.

 
 

Passover 1945

The Passover blog

The following round-up is adapted from JTA’s Passover blog, blogs.jta.org/passover:

Helping interfaith families navigate Passover

The Jewish Outreach Institute has launched a “Preparing for Passover” blog. The catch: It features women from other religious backgrounds who are raising Jewish children.

One contributor identified as Elizabeth took to the blog to recall her spring situation from last year:

“My parents live 800 miles away, and wanted to come spend Easter with the kids. We don’t celebrate it, but anytime they want to come and under whatever context, that’s fine. The problem — they were scheduled to arrive at four on the afternoon of the seder. While I would be making my four dishes for the dinner, getting dressed up and dressing the kids, stowing the spare chairs and tables in the car, getting our ritual objects out of the attic, rehearsing the four questions with my youngest. But really, it wasn’t the logistics that bothered me. It was whether to invite them. Invite them to an event that would be held half in Hebrew, three hours long, after two days of driving, with people they don’t know and rituals that they had their own Christian interpretations for? I didn’t really want to spend my seder being the explainer, holding everyone and everything together and feeling all of that stress myself. ...

“[Eventually] I sucked it up, decided I could handle this and invited them. But they didn’t come — it was Holy Week and they wouldn’t miss going to church that night. Duh. Another interfaith religious dilemma solved itself here in my little corner of the tent.”

If anyone out there is facing a similar situation this year, Levi Gibian Fishman of the Jewish Outreach Institute has put together a list of tips for conducting an “inclusive interfaith seder.” One of his suggestions: Honor the newcomer.

“Go further than merely acknowledging the newcomers sitting around your seder table,” he wrote. “Let them know their presence is truly a blessing. By choosing to partake, the newcomers are aligning themselves with the Jewish community and casting their lot with the Jewish people. Vocalize your appreciation during the seder by expressing how thankful we are for their participation.”

Twittering the plagues

Stephanie Simon and Ann Zimmerman of The Wall Street Journal reported on Rabbi Oren Hayon’s innovative initiative: Passover twittering.

“Building on a growing movement to add a bit of fun to the plagues and pestilence, he has recruited a handful of fellow rabbis to act out the Passover story in 140-character Twitter messages, accessible at twitter.com/tweettheexodus.

“The drama began [March 16] with a link to a trailer for the 1956 film ‘The Ten Commandments’ followed by @The_Israelites complaining: ‘We have much to fear from @PharaohofEgypt. He tires of us… ‘ The improvised dialogue will continue for two weeks.”

Keep it simple

That’s the main piece of advice from Tamar Fox of MyJewishLearning: “When Passover approaches, it seems like everyone in the Jewish community goes a little bit (or more than a little bit) crazy. You start hearing about people going through every page of every book in their house, trying to eliminate minuscule crumbs. Kosher stores are clogged with families inspecting the new Passover-friendly products, and elaborate Passover recipes are getting passed around, each of which seems to call for potato starch, and seven egg yolks.

“If you’re into that, go for it. But if you don’t have an endless supply of time and money to buy and cook for Passover, then let me give you my foolproof Passover food tip: Chill out, and go as simple as possible. You do not need a kitchen full of new supplies, a full slew of kosher-for-Passover spices, or a new cookbook to get you through the week of Passover. In fact, you need the opposite. Strip it all down to the bare minimum.”

Matzoh balls and strikes

Matzoh balls won’t be the only spheres being served up on Passover — the Major League Baseball season opener is on April 4: Mariners vs. Giants and Yankees vs. Orioles. But what to eat if you’re going to the game? A hot dog on matzoh? There’s a great children’s book (ages 5-9) on just this theme, “Matzah Ball: A Passover Story,” by Mindy Avra Portnoy and Katherine Janus Kahn.

Seder rations

Need a seder that’s ready to go and ready to eat? Here’s one all individually packaged. What’s the catch? To order it you need to be in the U.S. Armed Services. Served up by the Defense Services Agency, each ration includes 1 disposable seder plate, 8 packets of horseradish, 2 cans gefilte fish, even 1 white yarmulke, and much more packed in a white recloseable sturdy box. (Sorry no wine, but there’s juice.) Order early.

Hillary plays Exodus card

The U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, ended her speech at the AIPAC conference with a Passover flourish.

“We are entering the season of Passover. The story of Moses resonates for people of all faiths, and it teaches us many lessons, including that we must take risks, even a leap of faith, to reach the promised land. When Moses urged the Jews to follow him out of Egypt, many objected. They said it was too dangerous, too hard, too risky. And later, in the desert, some thought it would be better to return to Egypt. It was too dangerous, too hard, too risky. In fact, I think they formed a back-to-Egypt committee and tried to stir up support for that. And when they came to the very edge of the promised land, there were still some who refused to enter because it was too dangerous, too hard, and too risky.

But Israel’s history is the story of brave men and women who took risks. They did the hard thing because they believed and knew it was right. We know that this dream was championed by Herzl and others that many said was impossible. And then the pioneers — can you imagine the conversation, telling your mother and father ‘I’m going to go to the desert and make it bloom’? And people thinking, how could that ever happen? But it did.”

JTA

 
 

Israel-diaspora relations: A new equation

 

AIPAC, congressmen seek to add teeth to Iran sanctions

WASHINGTON – Rules without enforcement don’t mean much.

That’s the new tone the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its supporters on Capitol Hill are taking when it comes to Iran sanctions.

Last week, congressional appropriators close to AIPAC moved to introduce enforcement language that would penalize federal agencies that contract with companies doing business with the Islamic Republic.

“If the existing lock on the door was not doing the job, this is a much more powerful lock we’re placing on the door of companies who would want to do business with Iran,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who is pushing the language with fellow U.S. House of Representatives appropriators, Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). All three are known for close ties to the Jewish state.

Setting the wheels in motion for the new legislation was the revelation in The New York Times on March 6 that sanctions busters had garnered $107 billion in U.S. government money for procurement business, grants, and loans.

In a rare move for a lobby best known for its behind-the-scenes profile, AIPAC sent letters to every member of Congress expressing its outrage over the sanctions violations.

“These ongoing financial dealings undermine longstanding American efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” the letter said. “While Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama may have discouraged some investment in Iran through their rhetoric, the United States has sent the American and international business community a contradictory message by failing to enforce the law.”

AIPAC’s letter has had an effect.

Rothman said he already was planning action as soon as he read the story, but the calls and e-mails he received made it a must-do. “My Blackberry was burning,” he said.

Rep. Israel raised the issue with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on March 25 in a hearing of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. Geithner was receptive.

“We would be open to any effective means for bringing greater pressure to bear on this government,” he said. “We share your commitment to this and we’ll work with you to explore any feasible means to bring greater pressure to bear on this government.”

Rep. Israel later said he was satisfied.

“The administration clearly got the message,” he said, noting that Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, had not enforced the sanctions for both of his terms. “I don’t want to proclaim victory yet; we still have work to do.”

The legislation would attach “limiting” amendments to all 12 budget bills that Congress must pass, preventing funds from going to companies that engage in activity eligible for sanctions or own or control any party that engages in such activity. This latter practice was a common dodge by U.S.-owned companies to enable foreign-owned subsidiaries to deal with Iran.

The legislation came the same week that AIPAC drew nearly 8,000 attendees to its annual policy conference. AIPAC activists lobbied March 23 for final passage of bills to enhance sanctions in existence since the mid-1990s. Bills have passed in the House and Senate and are now undergoing “reconciliation.”

The existing sanctions banned most U.S. business dealings with Iran. Yet the Times found in its March 6 report that 49 U.S. companies were doing business with Iran, and those doing business with Iran’s energy sector had gotten $15 billion.

The existing sanctions restrict access to U.S. markets for foreign entities doing business with Iran’s energy sector. The enhanced sanctions would outright ban U.S. business with any entity doing business with Iran’s energy sector and would also target Iran’s financial sector. The sanctions also would reduce the $20 million ceiling for overseas companies doing such business to $1 million. The idea is to force overseas markets into a choice between trading with the United States or with Iran.

The Times revelations were a bitter pill for AIPAC’s activists. The flagrant violation of the 1996 bill that AIPAC had been instrumental in supporting was a damper for AIPAC activists famous for their enthusiasm.

“It’s frustrating, a dead end,” said Debbie Farnoush, 26, from Los Angeles and a founder of the Iranian-American group 30 Years After. “I feel like we’re not going anywhere.” Still, she said, she wasn’t going to give up. The United States needs to be “more aggressive,” she said.

Bruce Wiener, another activist, was optimistic about the prospect of tougher enforcement. “Most members of Congress are sympathetic,” he said. “It’s not a matter of convincing; it’s a matter of implementing.”

Keith Weissman, who headed AIPAC’s Iran desk until 2005, said that Clinton administration officials made it clear to him from the beginning that the bill was never going to be enforced because it crimped U.S. trade with foreign businesses. Clinton’s 1995 executive order banning business with Iran’s energy sector had been enforced for a short period and had spooked the oil industry enough that the 1996 bill was used as leverage — but never in deed.

Part of the problem, Weissman said, was that after years of threatening and not implementing, the U.S. government was perceived as crying wolf by companies that wanted to deal with Iran.

“Once it was clear they weren’t going to enforce it, it wasn’t going to work any more,” Weissman said.

Weissman and his boss, Steve Rosen, were fired by AIPAC in 2005 under pressure from prosecutors seeking an indictment against the men for relaying national security information to journalists, colleagues, and Israeli diplomats. The prosecution dropped the case a year ago after the presiding judge ruled that much of the government’s case violated constitutional principles, including free speech rights.

Weissman, who no longer believes sanctions to be effective, said the amendments now under consideration would create a cumbersome bureaucracy, with multiple U.S. agencies vetting hundreds of businesses.

“What, are you going to vet the company that provides food to soldiers, that helps export oil from Iraq, that caters parties at the Baghdad embassy?” he asked.

Rep. Israel dismisses the idea that the amendments are unworkable.

“There can be no argument that once a law is passed and signed by the president that it’s too complicated to enforce,” he said. “Whether it’s a contract, a grant, or a loan, whether it’s a penny, a dime, or a dollar, we will not allow them to spend the money.”

JTA

Eric Fingerhut and Melissa Apter contributed to this story.

 
 

Obama spreads the love, keeping Jewish leaders happy — for now

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is projecting a new attitude when it comes to Israel, and is selling it hard: unbreakable, unshakeable bond going forward, whatever happens.

Jewish leaders have kicked the tires and they’re buying — although anxious still at what happens when the rubber hits the road.

News Analysis

“It’s a positive development,” Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of the recent Jewish outreach blitz by the administration. “There are two questions, though, that will only be answered over time: Will the outreach be sustained, and will the policy be consistent with the positions being expressed in the outreach?”

Tensions between the administration and Israel were sparked in the first week of March, when Israel announced a major new building initiative in eastern Jerusalem during what was meant to be a fence-mending visit by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden’s rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the trip was followed by a 45-minute phone berating by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then statements by senior administration officials that the announcement had been an affront.

That in turn spurred howls of protest by top Jewish figures saying that while Netanyahu indeed had blown it, the backlash should have ended with Biden’s rebuke. Worse, opinion-makers in Washington had seized on a paragraph in 56 pages of Senate testimony last month by Gen. David Petraeus in which the Central Command chief said that one of many elements frustrating his mission in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli peace freeze.

The turning point, Solow said, was the letter he received April 20 from President Obama.

“Let me be very clear: We have a special relationship with Israel that will not be changed,” Obama wrote. “Our countries are bound together by shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests. Many of the same forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States and our efforts to secure peace and stability in the Middle East. Our alliance with Israel serves our national security interests.”

Obama suggested that the letter was prompted by the “concerns” Solow had expressed to White House staff. Solow said the letter was a surprise.

Whatever the case, the letter was only one element in a blast of Israel love from the administration, including speeches by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day festivities, and to the National Jewish Democratic Council; Clinton to the Center for Middle East Peace last week and to the American Jewish Committee this week; Petraeus, keynoting last week’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s commemoration at the U.S. Capitol; Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, meeting recently with a group of 20 rabbis; Jim Jones, the national security adviser, last week at the pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Jones’ deputy, Daniel Shapiro, addressing the Anti-Defamation League next month.

The main theme of the remarks is, as Jones put it, “no space — no space — between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.”

Petraeus especially seems to have developed a second career keynoting Jewish events. He also spoke recently at the 92nd Street Y in New York and is addressing a Commentary magazine dinner in June.

Much of his Holocaust address, naturally, concerned itself with events of 65 years ago, but he couldn’t help wrenching the speech back into the present tense to heap praise on Israel.

Speaking of the survivors, he said, “They have, of course, helped build a nation that stands as one of our great allies.”

The blitz also has assumed at times the shape of a call and response. After the initial “crisis,” a number of Jewish groups wondered why the administration was making an issue of Israeli settlement and not of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to renew talks until Israel completely froze settlement-building and of continued incitement under Abbas’ watch.

In fact, the administration repeatedly warns against any preconditions and has made a consistent issue of Palestinian incitement, but Clinton appeared to get the message that the message hasn’t been forceful enough.

“We strongly urge President Abbas and his government to join negotiations with Israel now,” she told the Center for Middle East Peace on April 15. She also called on the Palestinian Authority to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.”

Jewish leaders also were wounded by what they saw as a dismissive attitude to Israel’s contributions to the alliance.

“It is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world,” Lee Rosenberg, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee president, said April 14 at Israel’s Independence Day celebrations. “Israel’s military expertise and the intelligence they share with us help the United States remain on the offense against those who seek America’s destruction in some of the darkest and most difficult places on the planet.”

Cue Jim Jones, addressing the Washington Institute exactly a week later.

“I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America,” Jones said. “Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities, and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats.”

The feel-the-love show extends to Israelis as well, a marked change from the no-photos snub Netanyahu received when he met at the White House with Obama in late March.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates rolled out the red carpet for his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, on Tuesday, a signal that the sides are coordinating closely on Iran containment policy. And when the Israeli defense minister met at the White House with Jones, Obama dropped by Jones’ office to chat informally — a signal that presidents have traditionally used to underscore the closeness of a relationship.

Furthermore, the administration is not limiting its message to Jewish audiences. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke last week to the Arab American Institute and made points that essentially were the same as Clinton’s when she addressed the Center for Middle East Peace.

“Our position remains clear: We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” Rice told the Arab American group. “Israel should also halt evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority should continue to make every effort to ensure security, to reform its institutions of governance, and to take strong, consistent action to end all forms of incitement.”

Differences remain — like Rice, Clinton has emphasized that the Obama administration is not about to let the settlements issue go. More subtly, Obama is not going to concede in his overarching thesis of a “linkage” that has been repudiated by Israel and its defenders here: that Arab-Israeli peace will make it much easier to secure U.S. interests in the region.

“For over 60 years, American presidents have believed that pursuing peace between Arabs and Israelis is in the national security interests of the United States,” Obama said.

That’s essentially true — Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, made the same point multiple times, but not with the doggedness and emphasis of Obama.

Jewish leaders said they would closely watch the aftermath of next month’s visit to Washington by Abbas, when the sides are expected to announce the resumption of talks. The nitty-gritty of the talks may yet derail the new good feelings; how that works depends on communications, said William Daroff, who heads the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“This charm offensive is part of a prefatory way of setting up the communications so that when we get to proximity talks we will all move forward instead,” he said.

Critical to that success was listening, said Nathan Diament, who heads the Orthodox Union’s Washington office.

“Too many of the tensions of the past months have been generated by a lack of communication,” Diament said. “But just as important is for the administration to talk with, not just at, the community. The president benefits from having more input inform his policy choices.”

JTA

 
 
 
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