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Despite progress, Obama appears hesitant about Netanyahu meeting

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 06 November 2009

WASHINGTON – With President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set to appear at the same convention of Jewish activists, and their governments nearing a deal on the thorny settlements issue, it would seem like a great time for a sit-down.

But there’s a problem: the reluctance of the Palestinians — and by extension the Arab world — to climb on board for renewed negotiations.

News Analysis

The close-but-no-cigar atmosphere prevailing in Washington is what’s behind Obama’s reluctance to meet next week with Netanyahu, insiders say, although both leaders will be addressing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in the U.S. capital. (See Big stars, nuts and bolts at the GA.)

Spokesmen at the White House and the Israeli Embassy said there are discussions about a meeting, but as of Tuesday nothing had been scheduled.

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President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured at a White House meeting in May, will address the upcoming Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, but it remains unclear if they will meet at the Washington event. White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

With Netanyahu set to arrive Sunday, the continuing uncertainty shocked Jewish communal insiders: No one could remember a time when an Israeli prime minister was this close to coming without a meeting in place.

“Someone’s playing chicken,” one insider said.

The sense is that Netanyahu wants a meeting and Obama isn’t so sure.

The ducking and weaving was all the more unusual for what Americans and Israelis agreed was a good meeting over the weekend between Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton came to Netanyahu’s defense when a reporter asked the prime minister at a joint press availability Sunday why Israel would not agree to a settlement freeze as a means of luring the Palestinians back to the talks. Netanyahu replied that such a freeze was never a precondition for talks, but that he was ready to impose a qualified freeze in any case.

“I said we would not build new settlements, not expropriate land for addition for the existing settlements, and that we were prepared to adopt a policy of restraint on the existing settlements, but also one that would still enable normal life for the residents who are living there,” he said.

Clinton jumped in and noted that what Israel was offering was unprecedented.

“I would add just for context that what the prime minister is saying is historically accurate,” she said. “There has never been a precondition. It’s always been an issue within the negotiations.

“What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements, which he has just described — no new starts, for example — is unprecedented in the context of the prior two negotiations.”

Clinton quickly added that “for 40 years, presidents of both parties have questioned the legitimacy of settlements,” but Arab capitals were buzzing with protests within minutes.

Clinton, who was on her way to Morocco to attend a summit of Arab foreign ministers — and to make the case for increased Arab involvement in the peace process — was under pressure, insiders said, to “walk back” her statement before arriving in a lion’s den.

Hence the statement that Clinton issued Monday, saying Israel’s current offer “falls far short of what we would characterize as our position or what our preference would be.”

“But if it is acted upon,” she added, “it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth.”

There was a degree of understanding for Clinton’s position in the pro-Israel community in Washington, and no one was ready to walk back the praise they had lavished upon her for backing up Netanyahu in the first place. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee “applauded” Clinton, and the pro-Israel lobbying group called on the Palestinian Authority and Arab states to return to talks.

If anything, pro-Israel insiders say, the relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu teams is on a good footing and improving. Obama’s officials are pleased with the restrictions Israel has lifted in the west bank; Israel backs Obama’s strategy of containing Iran through engagement backed by the threat of far-reaching sanctions.

And the Israeli army and the U.S. European Command carried out a joint exercise Tuesday witnessed by Netanyahu, who called it “an expression of the meaningful relations between Israel and the United States.”

So what’s behind Obama’s reluctance to meet Netanyahu?

Insiders suggested that the U.S. president still feels burned by the summit he had in September at the United Nations in New York with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that produced no results and led to sniping between the Israeli and Palestinians sides. Obama wants the promise of substance before another meeting takes place.

Ori Nir, a spokesman and analyst for Americans for Peace Now, said a frustrated Obama administration is no longer looking for a boost in peacemaking and instead simply wants to usher along whatever components of the process it can.

The problem now, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is that Abbas faces elections in January.

“The general rule is that neither side makes concessions during an election,” said Makovsky, who has just co-authored a book with Obama’s senior Iran adviser, Dennis Ross, called “Myths, Illusions, and Peace.”

Vexing the matter further is that Abbas, while popular throughout the Palestinian areas, does not rule the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas terrorist group is in control. Hamas has made it clear that it will not allow elections, and Abbas has yet to decide whether to hold an election in the west bank alone or to suspend polling until he reaches an accommodation with Hamas.

Clinton pressed Abbas on where he stood on whether to go to elections and more broadly on rejoining peace talks. He has yet to answer.

JTA

 
 

Iran sanctions likely to pass — thanks to Iran

WASHINGTON – For years the pro-Israel lobby has been pushing more punitive steps to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But with enhanced U.S. sanctions increasingly likely by early next year, opponents and supporters agree that the case was finally made — by Iran itself.

The key to the accelerated path to a sanctions bill that insiders now believe will land on President Obama’s desk within a month was Iran’s belligerent rejection of a Western offer to substantively enhance its peaceful nuclear program in exchange for greater transparency.

News Analysis

“There’s no lack of appetite for passing the sanctions,” said an official of one of the centrist pro-Israel groups that has pushed for legislation targeting third parties, including countries that deal with Iran’s energy sector.

“It’s evident,” the official said, that the Iranians “do not want talks. They’re not going full speed ahead, they’re going full nuclear ahead.”

Even a leading opponent of sanctions, such as Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council, conceded that such a measure now seems inevitable — and that the Iranian government’s behavior in recent weeks was behind the accelerated pace.

“There’s a very justified disappointment with how the negotiations have gone and with how the Iranians have conducted the negotiations,” he said.

In October, Iran initially accepted the offer to hand over much of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for further enrichment to medical research levels. It also agreed to allow inspectors to examine a second, secret nuclear enrichment plant at Qom, just days after President Obama revealed its existence, based on Western intelligence reports.

Within weeks, however, Iran reneged on the deal — despite claiming that it had suggested the deal in the first place — and obstructed inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, from thoroughly investigating the second enrichment site.

Parsi asserted that the resistance arose not from a regime implacably opposed to engagement with the West, but instead from elements that oppose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government and seek to undermine it by painting the government as undermining Iran’s national interests. The paradox, Parsi said, is that these elements are otherwise perceived in the West as friendlier to rapprochement.

Nonetheless, Iran’s recidivism led two of the most critical opponents of enhanced sanctions — China and Russia — to join in an IAEA resolution blasting Iran for not cooperating. Iran countered that it would build an additional 10 enrichment sites.

Iran’s actions whittled away the reluctance of a number of key players who had worried that new sanctions would pre-empt Obama’s efforts to resolve the crisis through direct talks with Tehran — chief among them the president himself, who is now considered likely to sign a sanctions bill.

It was Obama who dispatched his most prominent Iran hawk, Dennis Ross, and Jeffrey Bader, both senior staffers on the National Security Council, to China in late October to make the case for signing on to the IAEA resolution. Ross’ argument reportedly was simple but effective: Help contain Iran, or we won’t be able to contain Israel.

Another domino to drop was U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. He not only lifted his hold on the proposed House legislation, but is fast tracking it for a vote by next week. There are similar plans in the Senate, although they may be delayed past the Christmas break because of the vexed health-care debate.

In the Jewish community, tougher sanctions have been pushed for at least a decade by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and, more recently, by other centrist, established pro-Israel organizations. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a politically and denominationally diverse umbrella organization consisting of more than 50 groups, issued a statement over the weekend urging both chambers of Congress to pass sanctions legislation by the end of the year, if possible.

“The timing for this vote is especially significant,” said Presidents Conference chairman Alan Solow and executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein in the statement. “Should the IRPSA legislation pass the House, it has the potential to seriously impact the Iranian economy. The prospect of the sanctions in this bill and the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which overwhelmingly passed the House in October, are essential to pressing Iran, the leading violator of human rights and state sponsor of terrorism globally, against pursuing a nuclear weapons capacity.”

Signaling just how widespread Jewish organizational support is for the sanctions, they now have the support of J Street, a lobbying group that generally advocates stepped-up U.S. diplomacy rather than confrontation.

For months, J Street has said it backed the sanctions in principle but opposed pushing them forward while engagement was under way. But Monday the group issued a statement expressing support for the congressional measures, citing “Iran’s continued defiance of the international community and its rejection of the most recent diplomatic offer on nuclear enrichment.”

“We’re not jumping for joy for supporting this legislation,” said Hadar Susskind, J Street’s political director. “Iran has showed itself to be bad actor.”

The legislation, Susskind said, “is not perfect, it doesn’t resolve every problem, but it shows Iran that the United States and other nations are serious about this.”

One pro-Israel group remains actively opposed: Americans For Peace Now says the sanctions would backfire by turning Iranians toward a regime now fending off accusations of illegitimacy.

The group is lobbying Congress to loosen the legislation’s restrictions on the president’s ability to waive the sanctions — saying that tying his hands undermines their usefulness as a diplomatic stick.

“Rather than ‘empowering’ the president with additional authority,” as the bill promises, Americans for Peace Now said in a letter to House members, “HR 2194 would sharply limit his authority regarding both existing sanctions and potential new ones.”

Steve Clemons, a senior analyst at the liberal New America Foundation, said such posturing plays into the hands of a regime eager to blare its nationalist credentials in the wake of a summer of protests that undermined its credibility.

“They are trying to create external crises to consolidate internal power,” he said. “We shouldn’t help them.”

Parsi said rushing forward the unilateral U.S. sanctions would undercut efforts by Obama to sign on the international community to multilateral sanctions by early next year, adding that unilateral sanctions might have the effect of alienating Russia, China, and key European nations by targeting major companies in those nations.

“Are you going to have a bomb by Christmas Eve?” Parsi asked, referring to the accelerated congressional schedule. “You don’t want to give the impression that people are dying to go for sanctions because that casts the diplomacy in doubt.”

Underscoring the sinking standing of the Iranian regime, Parsi’s organization blasted the Obama administration this week for not making human rights as much a priority as nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s human rights abuses must be addressed now and not just when our focus turns to punitive measures,” he wrote in a column on the Huffington Post blog.

“Otherwise, the administration will unintentionally signal that the rights of the Iranian people are used solely as a pressure tactic against Iran when it fails to compromise on other issues.”

JTA

 
 

Environmental leaders roiled by oil plan

President Obama’s announcement last week that he intends to allow drilling for oil off the Atlantic Coast drew swift condemnation from area political, environmental, and Jewish communal leaders.

Oil is “like coal, it’s not good from square one,” said Rabbi Lawrence Troster, a Teaneck resident who has worked with a number of Jewish environmental organizations. “They can’t guarantee there aren’t going to be oil spills and other things that won’t devastate the shore.”

Obama’s energy strategy called for the exploration off the Atlantic coastline from the coast of Florida up to Delaware. Obama also announced a series of car and truck fuel and emissions standards, and the purchase of 100 plug-in electric cars for federal agencies.

Troster called the oil exploration announcement “a calculated move,” a concession, to create leverage for Obama to tackle larger issues such as climate change.

The president “has some Democrats who are not on board on some of the climate change issues; this is a way of balancing some of the interests,” Troster said. “On environmental issues this particular administration is doing a much better job than the previous administration.”

He noted that it would be several years before offshore drilling became operational and even if the U.S. were to drill all of its domestic oil resources, it still would not be enough.

U.S. energy independence, he said, would not come from domestic oil drilling, but rather from pursuing sustainable alternative sources such as wind and solar energy.

“It’s really important in the 21st century and today’s economy to focus on modern techniques,” said Sybil Sanchez, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

COEJL condemned Obama’s drilling announcement but praised other parts of the president’s strategy, such as improving fuel efficiency standards and regulating automobile greenhouse gas emissions.

“This administration is looking to take a comprehensive approach and we hope it will accomplish that,” Sanchez told the Standard. “We’re concerned when we see offshore exploration for oil drilling. We want to see more of a focus on clean technology.”

Reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a matter of national security, Sanchez continued, but reducing fossil fuel dependence in general is also a national concern.

Obama emphasized in his speech that the emissions caps and domestic exploration are “part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

The Gulf of Mexico contains 36 billion to 41.5 billion barrels of undiscovered, recoverable oil and 161 trillion to 207 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, recoverable natural gas, according to the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service.

The Interior Department intends to hold two lease sales — one 50 miles off the coast of Virginia and the other in Alaska — by 2012. It is the Virginia plan that has drawn the ire of New Jersey’s politicians from within the president’s own Democratic party and the Republican party, despite its past support for domestic oil exploration.

“Even though the president’s draft plan does not propose drilling off the Jersey shore, it does allow oil and gas exploration just south of Cape May. That concerns me a great deal,” said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) in a statement to the Standard. “Furthermore, any oil spills resulting from drilling operations further south could easily follow northerly currents and end up washing onto our beaches.”

The United States cannot drill its way out of its foreign oil dependence, Rothman said. The country needs to focus on the development of new, alternative energy and on conservation.

“Drilling off the Virginia coast would endanger many of New Jersey’s beaches and vibrant coastal economies,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in a statement sent to this paper. “Giving Big Oil more access to our nation’s waters is really a Kill, Baby, Kill policy: it threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life, and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars. Offshore drilling isn’t the solution to our energy problems.”

The Garden State’s new Republican governor, Chris Christie, also condemned the plan.

“I oppose the idea of drilling off the coast of New Jersey,” Christie said in a statement. “New Jersey’s coastline is one of our economic engines and I would have to be really convinced of both the economic viability and environmental safety of oil and gas exploration off our coast. At this point, I’m not convinced of either.’’

According to Christie, Obama’s proposal so far includes areas off Virginia and the northern tip of Delaware near Cape May in the Delaware Bay. Though New Jersey’s coast is not included in the plan, an oil spill could have serious ramifications for the Jersey shore.

“That’s a reasonable fear,” Troster said. “When I hear there’s going to be more environmentally sensitive oil drilling, [I consider it] an oxymoron. It’s a very dirty form of energy production and I don’t think you can change that in any significant way.”

 
 

Poll: Obama struggling with Jews, but not on Israel

WASHINGTON – A new survey shows President Obama struggling with American Jews — but not on Israel-related matters.

The American Jewish Committee poll of U.S. Jews found that Obama’s approval rating is at 57 percent, with 38 percent disapproving. That’s down from the stratospheric 79 percent approval rating among Jews that Obama enjoyed about a year ago, in May 2009. The AJC poll was conducted March 2 to 23 and surveyed 800 self-identifying Jewish respondents selected from a consumer mail panel.

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This question, in the American Jewish Committee’s new survey, asked: “Do you approve or disapprove of the Obama Administration’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue?” AJC

Obama’s advantage among Jews versus the rest of the population appears to be eroding. The latest Gallup polling shows Obama with a national approval rating of 48, nine points below Jewish polling. Last May, general polling earned him 63 percent approval, 16 points below Jewish polling.

Despite the drop — and weeks of tensions with the Netanyahu government — Obama still polls solidly on foreign policy, with a steady majority backing his handling of U.S.-Israel relations, according to the AJC poll.

It is on domestic issues that the president appears to be facing more unhappiness.

Jewish voters are statistically split on how Obama has handled health-care reform, with 50 percent approving and 48 disapproving. On the economy he fares slightly better. Jewish voters who favor his policies stand at 55 percent, while 42 percent disapprove.

The last AJC poll on the views of American Jews, released in September, did not address domestic issues, so there’s no measure to assess any change in support on the specific issues of health and the economy. Indeed, this is the first poll in at least 10 years in which the AJC has attempted to assess views on the economy and health care. However, Jewish voters in solid majorities describe themselves as Democrats and as liberal to moderate in their views, and traditionally list the economy and health care as their two top concerns in the voting booth.

Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the relatively low score on domestic issues underscored what he said was a steady decline in Democratic support among Jewish voters.

“This indicates a serious erosion of support,” he said. “It’s a huge drop. There’s no silver lining” for Democrats.

Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, countered that the poll did not account for Jewish voters who might be disappointed with Obama from a more liberal perspective — for instance, over his dropping from the reform bill of the so-called public option, which would have allowed for government-run health care.

Additionally, much of the AJC polling took place before Obama’s come-from-behind victory on March 21, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed health-care reform, Forman said. Since then, Democrats have said they see a turnaround in the president’s political fortunes. “The narrative was the president was in the tank,” Forman said. “This was when it was thought his initiative was dead.”

Obama fares strongly with Jews on homeland security, with 62 percent approving and 33 percent disapproving — a sign that Republican attempts to cast Obama as weak on protecting the nation have had little impact in the Jewish community.

He also scores 55 percent approval on how he handles U.S.-Israel relations, which is virtually unchanged since last September, when his handling of the relationship scored 54 percent approval. At that juncture, the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem were kept at a low bubble and were confined to U.S. insistence on a total freeze of Israeli settlement and the Netanyahu administration’s reluctance to concede.

The latest questions, however, coincided almost exactly with the period when U.S. officials accused the Netanyahu government of “insulting” the United States by announcing a new building start in eastern Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting, and when the president refused to make public gestures of friendship during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s subsequent visit to Washington.

A question on Obama’s handling of Iran’s nuclear capability showed a statistical dead heat on the approval side between last September — 49 percent — and now, at 47 percent. However, disapproval ratings rose moderately, apparently borrowing from the “uncertain” column: Back in September 35 percent disapproved; now 42 percent give a thumbs down.

The marks compared favorably, however, with Bush administration figures. Bush scored 33 percent approval ratings on Iran in 2006, the most recent year that AJC asked the question.

Support for U.S. and Israeli attacks on Iran to keep it from making a nuclear bomb appeared to drop slightly. Asked about a U.S. strike, 53 percent said they would support one and 42 percent were opposed, as opposed to 56 percent and 36 percent in September. On an Israeli strike, 62 percent supported and 33 percent opposed, as opposed to 66 and 28 percent in September.

The only other question in the most recent survey directly addressing Obama’s foreign policy also showed strong support for the president: 62 percent of respondents agreed with Obama’s decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. This contrasts with the consistently negative Jewish assessments of Bush’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, except in the period immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Approval of Obama’s foreign policies contrasts with increasing uneasiness in the Jewish establishment with the administration’s approach. Several influential pro-Israel organizations have spent months, to little avail, pleading with the administration to confine its disagreements to back rooms.

A handful of prominent Jewish backers of candidate Obama also appear to have had second thoughts. Most pointedly, in a New York Daily News column Monday, Ed Koch, the former New York City mayor and a supporter of Obama during the 2008 general election, said he was “weeping” because the president had “abandoned” Israel.

And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the most influential member of the Senate’s Jewish caucus, on Sunday pointedly avoided answering a question on ABC’s “This Week” about whether he agreed with a Netanyahu confidante who said Obama was a “strategic disaster” for Israel. Brooks, the Republican, predicted a tide of defections. “You’ll have a number of candidates” in areas with a strong Jewish presence “asking him not to campaign for them,” he said.

David Harris, AJC’s executive director, cautioned that low approval ratings did not necessarily translate into electoral losses.

Brooks said that he would advise GOP candidates to hammer Democrats hard on foreign policy, particularly in tight races in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where Jewish voters trended less liberal than on the coasts. “If Republican candidates are smart, they will make Democratic candidates in these races answerable to whether they support Obama’s policies of pressuring Israel,” the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition said.

Jewish Democrats are already preparing a response strategy of arguing that the relationship remains close on defense cooperation and other matters, despite heightened rhetoric on settlement differences.

Harris suggested that the polling showed that the American Jewish public would prefer to imagine a closeness rather than deal with tensions. Obama and Netanyahu scored similar solid majorities — 55 percent and 57 percent, respectively — on how they handled the relationship.

American Jews “don’t want to be forced to choose,” Harris said. “They would rather say a blessing on both your houses than a plague on both your houses.”

According to the survey, 64 percent of Jews think Israel should, as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, be willing to remove at least some of the settlements in the west bank. But 61 percent rejected the idea that Israel should be willing to “compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction.”

The poll had a margin of error of plus/minus 3 percentage points. Interviews were conducted by the firm Synovate, formerly Market Facts.

 
 

Elena Kagan seen as brilliant and affable — and a mystery

WASHINGTON – Rabbi David Saperstein runs through a shopping list of superlatives on Elena Kagan — “self-evidently brilliant” and “steady, strategic, and tactical” — before acknowledging that he doesn’t have much of a handle on what President Obama’s choice to fill a U.S. Supreme Court seat actually believes.

In the Jewish community Saperstein, the head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, apparently is not alone.

Community reaction to Obama’s selection of Kagan, the U.S. solicitor general, is enthusiastic until officials consider what it is, exactly, she stands for.

Kagan, 50, has never been a judge — she would be the first Supreme Court justice without bench experience since 1974. It’s a biography the White House touts as refreshing, but also has the convenience of lacking a paper trail of opinions that could embarrass a nominee in Senate hearings.

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President Barack Obama meets with Solicitor General Elena Kagan in the Oval Office last month. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“When someone’s a solicitor general, it is really difficult to know what is their own position and what is the position of the state they are charged to represent,” Saperstein said.

A similar murkiness haunts how Kagan handles her Jewishness — she has alluded to it, but has not explicitly stated it since her nomination.

Her interlocutors in the Jewish community say Kagan is Jewish-savvy, but they are hard pressed to come up with her own beliefs.

The White House strategy going into Senate hearings appears to be blame whatever controversy trails her on her employer, on her client — on anyone but Kagan herself.

The first such controversy to emerge since Obama announced the nomination Monday was Kagan’s defense, as dean of Harvard University’s Law School, of the campus practice of banning military recruitment through the main career office (veterans were allowed to recruit independently) because of the military’s discriminatory hiring policies on gays.

Kagan inherited the policy when she became dean in 2003, but she was not shy about agreeing with it. When the Bush administration in 2004 threatened to withdraw funding, she rescinded the ban, but wrote to the student body, according to the authoritative SCOTUS Blog, of “how much I regret making this exception to our anti-discrimination policy. I believe the military’s discriminatory employment policy is deeply wrong — both unwise and unjust. And this wrong tears at the fabric of our own community by denying an opportunity to some of our students that other of our students have.”

Such stirring defenses are absent from White House materials that have emerged on the matter. Instead, the Obama administration is distributing an opinion piece that appeared Tuesday in the conservative Wall Street Journal by her predecessor at Harvard Law, Robert Clark.

“As dean, Ms. Kagan basically followed a strategy toward military recruiting that was already in place,” Clark wrote, not mentioning her stated ideological investment in the matter.

Another debate pertains more closely to an issue that divides the Jewish community: federal funding for faith-based initiatives.

Kagan clerked for Thurgood Marshall in the late 1980s, and in a memorandum to the Supreme Court justice, she said there was no place for such funding.

In her Senate hearings last year for the solicitor general post, Kagan outright repudiated the position she had forcefully advanced in 1987.

It was “the dumbest thing I ever read,” she said. “I was a 27-year-old pipsqueak and I was working for an 80-year-old giant in the law and a person who — let us be frank — had very strong jurisprudential and legal views.”

Her defense was convenient — Marshall, of course, is long dead and unable to defend himself — and troubling to Saperstein, whose group joins the majority of Jewish organizations in opposing such funding.

“People aren’t quite sure what to make of that,” he said.

The Orthodox Union’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, on the other hand, knows just what to make of it — hay.

“As strong proponents of the ‘faith-based initiative,’ and appropriate government support for the work of religious organizations, we at the Orthodox Union find Ms. Kagan’s review and revision of her views encouraging,” he wrote on his blog Tuesday.

Saperstein noted that the Religious Action Center — along with other Jewish civil liberties groups, like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee — is preparing questions for Kagan to be submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee. RAC is soliciting questions from the public as well at a Website, AskElenaKagan.com.

These groups have welcomed the nomination; the National Council of Jewish Women has endorsed it. NCJW President Nancy Ratzan cited Kagan’s affirmation during her solicitor general confirmation hearings of Roe v. Wade as established law protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, and her defense of federal campaign funding restrictions as solicitor general before the Supreme Court — a case the government lost.

“She gave us clarity as a champion for civil rights,” Ratzan said of Kagan. “We think she’s going to be a stellar justice.”

Other groups say that whatever she argued as solicitor general — or whatever she said in seeking the job representing the U.S. government before the high court — might be seen more as reflecting the will of her boss, Obama, and is not necessarily a sign of how she would function as one of the nine most unfettered deciders in the land.

“There’s a lot we have to learn,” said Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of national and legislative affairs, even after 15 years of interacting with Kagan dating to her days as a Clinton White House counsel on domestic policy.

Foltin and others who have dealt with Kagan say she is affable and easy to get along with, simultaneously self-deprecating and brimming with confidence. She accepts with equanimity the nickname “Shorty” that Marshall conferred upon her, and charmed her Senate interlocutors at her solicitor general confirmation hearings when she said that her strengths include “the communications skills that have made me — I’m just going to say it — a famously excellent teacher.”

In addition to his interactions with Kagan during her Clinton years, Foltin — a Harvard Law alumnus — was impressed as well by her ability as dean of the school to bring conservatives and liberals together.

“This is an incredibly smart attorney who is able to reach out to people, take in diverse perspectives, and bring people together,” he said.

Obama cited Kagan’s outreach in announcing her nomination.

“At a time when many believed that the Harvard faculty had gotten a little one-sided in its viewpoint, she sought to recruit prominent conservative scholars and spur a healthy debate on campus,” he said.

Saperstein, who also recalls Kagan from her Clinton White House days, says she brings the same deep understanding of all sides of a debate to the Jewish community.

“She was quite aware of where there were differences — aid to education, government funding of religious institutions,” he said.

Kagan, whose nomination is believed to be secure — Republicans have said they are not likely to filibuster over it — would bring the number of Jews and women on the highest bench in the United States to three. That’s unprecedented in both cases. She would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer as Jewish justices. Sonia Sotomayor, like Kagan a native New Yorker, is the third female justice.

Stephen Pease, whose book “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement” chronicles disproportionate Jewish representation in the law, in academe, and in the arts, said a third Jewish justice was not remarkable. Kagan would be seen as getting the job on her merits: clerking to two famous judges, teaching at the University of Chicago, advising the Clinton White House, heading Harvard Law, and then as the administration’s second most important lawyer, all by the age of 50.

“She’s done some pretty incredible stuff fairly quickly in her career,” Pease said.

Despite Kagan’s familiarity with the Jewish community, there are few clues as to her Jewish preferences. Her late father was on the board of West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist shul in Manhattan, where she grew up on the Upper West Side. She had a bat mitzvah at the synagogue and, according to a New York Times profile, argued with the rabbi — over what it’s not clear.

Like Obama, she is close to Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and a law professor at the University of Chicago. It’s not clear, however, whether she shared Mikva’s deep involvement in the Jewish community. During her years as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, from 1991 to 1995, she was not involved with the local federation.

The White House did not shy away from Kagan’s Jewishness in making the announcement, nor did it make her faith explicit. Invitees to the announcement included the usual array of representatives from Washington offices of national Jewish groups: the AJC, ADL, NCJW, and RAC, along with the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“Elena is the granddaughter of immigrants whose mother was, for 20 years, a beloved public schoolteacher — as are her two brothers, who are here today,” Obama said.

Kagan added that “My parents’ lives and their memory remind me every day of the impact public service can have, and I pray every day that I live up to the example they set.”

JTA

 
 

Obama, Jewish lawmakers discuss Israel, Iran

Amid perceptions that U.S.-Israel relations are at an all-time low, President Obama met with Jewish members of Congress last week and reportedly assured them that the relationship between the two countries is as strong as ever.

“It was a meeting of friends designed to talk about a very serious and important subject to all, namely, the safety and security of the Jewish State of Israel,” said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), one of the 37 members of the House and Senate who attended the hour and a half White House meeting on May 18.

A White House statement called the meeting “a wide-ranging and productive exchange about their shared commitment to peace and security in Israel and the Middle East.”

Obama, Rothman said, has been more supportive of military cooperation with Israel than any other American president. He pointed to $3 billion in military aid in Obama’s budget and an additional $205 million the president earmarked for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

The congressional delegation thanked the president for that support, according to Rothman, and for Obama’s role in Israel’s entry earlier this month into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which Rothman said would not have happened without the president’s intervention.

Rothman pointed to the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system, jointly developed by Israel and the United States to intercept long-range rockets from Iran, as well as David’s Sling, jointly developed to intercept short-range missiles and Kassam rockets from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. He also noted last October’s Operation Juniper Cobra, which showcased American and Israeli defensive technology.

“The president thanked us for recognizing his military and intelligence efforts,” said Rothman. He noted also that he pressed the president on Iran, emphasizing that stopping the Islamic regime from obtaining nuclear weapons was separate from the issue of forging Israeli-Palestinian peace. The president agreed, Rothman said. According to the congressman, Obama reiterated that a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran was unacceptable and all options — including a military strike — remained on the table.

The level of Obama’s support for Israel has been questioned lately as the two countries squabbled over East Jerusalem construction and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s perceived snub during a recent White House visit. Some Israeli pundits have suggested that the Obama administration has purposely given Netanyahu the cold shoulder, while rolling out the red carpet for Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Rothman dismissed such accusations.

The president, Rothman said, acknowledged and “was pained by” what the congressman called mistakes by his administration and Netanyahu’s during the recent row. Many at last week’s meeting thought the United States overreacted following the announcement of new construction during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel earlier this year, Rothman said.

“The president thought both parties should have done a better job in managing that situation, that the Netanyahu government felt the same way, and that both sides had learned lessons from that incident, and now put that dispute behind them,” Rothman said.

Turning their attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the president told the delegation that no one could or should impose a solution on the Israelis and Palestinians, dismissing rumors in Israeli media that he was preparing his own plan. Obama said a solution could only come from the Israelis and Palestinians, Rothman said.

“It was clear to me that the president wants to get beyond the issue of settlements and have the parties begin direct negotiations to resolve their differences and come to an agreement,” Rothman said.

Rothman said he warned the president that the Palestinians have historically rejected opportunities for statehood and may do so again. Obama told him that he would do all he could to encourage both sides not to miss the opportunity for peace and to move quickly to direct negotiations, Rothman said.

“The president also went into some details as to how he had privately and publicly communicated to the Palestinians that their acceptance and participation in acts of incitement of hatred toward Israel and Jews — in the Palestinian Authority media for example and in actions by Fatah — were completely unacceptable and in violation of the Road Map,” Rothman said.

Many of the congressmen encouraged Obama to publicly condemn Palestinian demonization of Israel and the Jewish people more frequently, Rothman said.

Finally, the congressional contingent encouraged Obama to make a trip to Israel and directly express to the Israeli people what Rothman called Obama’s “unwavering, heartfelt, and unshakable commitment to the survival and prosperity of the Jewish State of Israel.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, was the only non-Democrat at the meeting. Other attendees included New Jersey’s Sen. Frank Lautenberg, New York’s Rep. Anthony Weiner, Wisconsin’s Rep. Russ Feingold, New York’s Rep. Eliot Engel, Massachusetts’ Rep. Barney Frank, and New York’s Sen. Charles Schumer.

Sen. Arlen Specter, who lost last week’s Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, did not attend.

Lautenberg released a statement ahead of his meeting with the president, shortly after meeting with a contingent of local Jewish leaders last Monday about U.S.-Israel relations.

“Israel is a critical ally of the United States, and we must not forget our shared values and shared security interests,” the statement said. “I look forward to emphasizing this important strategic relationship in my meeting with President Obama and to continuing an open dialogue with members of the Jewish community.”

The president was “receptive” and “genuinely interested” in the advice of the congressional delegation, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler said in a statement issued after the meeting.

“We stressed that the U.S. must not in any way seek to impose a settlement on Israel, and the president agreed, stating that he would not do so, and that any agreement had to be negotiated between the parties,” he said. “We also urged him to make clear to the Palestinians that the U.S. will not do their work for them.”

Engel released a statement before the meeting about moving past the recent disagreements between the United States and Israel.

“Through quiet dialogue, we will overcome differences and learn from each other, and, in turn, our nations will become stronger and our relationship deeper,” he said.

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout: Political poker

New Jersey’s elected officials on both sides of the aisle appeared steadfast in their support of Israel after last week’s flotilla raid as Jewish leaders continued to lobby on behalf of the Jewish state.

“The most important thing that we as Americans can do,” said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, and former president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “is let our elected officials know that we feel strongly that Israel’s insistence on inspecting goods that are being brought into Gaza is entirely justified. If the tendency by some in the United States to curry favor with the Muslim world trumps the absolute requirement for fairness and support for the only democratic regime in that area, then we’re giving up the moral high ground.”

It is not in America’s best interests, Cole continued, to weaken in its support of an ally — in this case Israel — lest other allies begin to feel they cannot count on U.S. support.

The State Association of Jewish Federations, which represents New Jersey’s federations in Trenton, is pressing state legislators to support Israel. Its director, Jacob Toporek, issued an open letter to Gov. Christie and the 120-member state legislature last week outlining the reasons for Israel’s blockade and its actions. Almost immediately, he said, he received a call from Republican Assemblywoman Amy Handlin of Monmouth County, who said she would introduce a resolution supporting Israel based on the letter.

“That’s a terrific response, unexpected, and we’re very pleased by it,” Toporek said.

“It’s all a public relations game. This open letter and resolution would be very, very helpful.”

Christie’s office acknowledged the letter on Wednesday but had no comment at that time.

“Hopefully as time passes and the outside world sees how Israel is really treating groups trying to bring in outside aid,” Toporek said, “they’ll realize what happened is a confrontation set up by those supportive of Hamas and who intend to put Israel in the worst light.”

NORPAC, the Englewood-based pro-Israel lobby, has been calling members of Congress to emphasize that Israel’s blockade is more of an arms embargo on Hamas, said the group’s president, Ben Chouake. Response on the Hill has been very positive, he told The Jewish Standard.

“They fully understand that Hamas is a terrorist group, that they’ve been overtly aggressive to the civilian population of Israel; they oppress their own people, and a flotilla of militants provoked violence against Israeli soldiers who gave them adequate warning and were peacefully trying to enforce an arms quarantine,” Chouake said.

At least among New Jersey’s representatives in Washington, NORPAC appears to be getting its message across.

“My colleagues understand that Israel has a legitimate right and important need to protect its citizens from rockets and guided missiles being brought to Gaza,” Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) told the Standard on Wednesday. “There is some regret over the loss of life, not withstanding the fact that those killed were almost certainly armed and well-trained jihadists bent on provoking Israel’s violent reaction and creating an international episode.”

Asked why President Obama has not firmly come out in support of Israel in this incident, Rothman credited the president for preventing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel and calling for an international inquiry.

“In diplomacy, it is often the case that the most powerful and effective operations occur behind the scenes and that is what’s happened here,” Rothman said. “In my opinion — and in the view of the good guys as well as the bad guys around the world — actions always speak louder than words. Sometimes soothing words are possible along with quiet diplomacy, but sometimes they are not.”

Rothman’s colleagues in Washington issued their own statements supporting Israel’s actions.

“Israel has every right to defend itself and enforce its blockade against the terrorist Hamas government in Gaza,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg said in a statement sent to this newspaper. “The organizations operating the flotilla made their intention to violate the blockade clear and refused Israel’s repeated offers to process the aid through appropriate channels. Clearly, there were people aboard the lead ship who were intent on violence and sparked the tragic events.”

In a statement to the Standard earlier this week, Sen. Bob Menendez outlined the necessity for Israel’s blockade.

“If the blockade were to be broken,” he said in the statement, “it would be impossible to tell which vessels were carrying humanitarian supplies and which were carrying deadly rockets. The bottom line is that the attempt to prevent materials that could be used against Israel from reaching Hamas is of vital interest to Israel and to its national security, and I fully support it.”

The senator went on to emphasize that the international reaction to last week’s incident could legitimize Hamas, which would undermine the peace process.
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) said that it was regrettable that lives were lost in the raid but praised the bipartisan support for Israel in both houses of Congress. He affirmed Israel’s “right to protect its citizens.”
“It is crucial for the United States to stand beside Israel during these tumultuous times and I am heartened by the bipartisan Congressional support for Israel’s recent actions,” he said in a statement to this newspaper. “I believe the strategic relationship between our two democratic governments will continue to withstand the threats and actions of terrorists who seek to create a rift between our two nations.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8) pointed to the need to keep weapons out of Gaza.

“Israel has the right to defend itself and its borders and to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons and missiles that it has proven it will use to attack innocent Israeli civilians with little restraint,” he said in a statement to the Standard on Tuesday.

Pascrell took a more sympathetic tone toward the people of Gaza, pointing out what he called “the ongoing humanitarian crisis” there. The current situation there, he said, is “unacceptable and unsustainable.”

“I am pleased the Israeli government has shown signs that it will consider modifications to their blockade,” the statement continued. “I believe that we can allow humanitarian goods to enter the territory while still ensuring that weapons are not imported and Hamas is not resupplied.”

Breaking from his colleagues, Pascrell called for the creation of an independent commission to conduct an impartial investigation of the flotilla incident.

“We are grateful that the leadership of the United States has been supportive in this matter,” Chouake said. “They well recognize the need for Israel to defend itself against the terrorist group Hamas and it is important to prevent arms from reaching these terrorists.”

 
 

Bork turns Kagan process into fight over Israeli justice

It was an unexpected headline in an otherwise relatively mundane U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process: Bork tries to Bork Barak’s Elena Kagan with Barak card.

Like a ghost from confirmations past, failed Reagan nominee Robert Bork grabbed headlines last week when he spoke out against President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the high court. At the top of his complaint list: As dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan once referred to former Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak as her “judicial hero.”

Conservative bloggers quickly ran with Bork’s complaint, painting Barak as the prototypical liberal activist judge and insisting that Kagan’s praise of the Israeli justice was grounds for rejecting her nomination. By the weekend, a few Republican lawmakers were giving voice to the concerns, albeit in less absolute terms. Next, at least two GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeffrey Sessions (R-Ala.), floated the issue in their opening statements on the first day of Kagan’s confirmation hearings.

And on Tuesday the issue took center stage, as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) put the question directly to Kagan — who then unapologetically affirmed and explained her praise of Barak, saying it was rooted in her Jewishness and admiration for Israel.

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Aharon Barak, formerly Israel’s top justice, recently became an issue in Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation process. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90

“I am troubled by the fact that you hold up Barak as a judicial role model,” Grassley said. “He’s been described as creating a degree of judicial power undreamed of by most U.S. justices.”

Grassley quoted Barak as saying that “a judge has a role” in the lawmaking process, and asked Kagan if she agreed. Kagan responded that she did not, but also noted that Barak operated in a fundamentally different system — one without a written constitution.

“Justice Barak’s philosophy is so different from anything that we would use or would want to use in the United States,” she said.

Instead, Kagan added, she admired Barak for creating an independent judiciary in a young state surrounded by enemies.

“As you know, I don’t think it’s a secret I am Jewish,” Kagan said. “The State of Israel has meant a lot to me and my family. And — and I admire Justice Barak for what he’s done for the State of Israel and ensuring an independent judiciary.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, exercised the rarely used prerogative of rebutting Grassley, quoting conservative judges who have praised Barak.

In Israel, Barak has been subject to criticism from the left and the right, both for his expansive notion of judicial powers in upholding democratic values and for deferring to national security considerations in a number of cases involving Palestinians.

“It’s typical of young lawyers going into constitutional law that they have inflated dreams of what constitutional law can do, what courts can do,” Bork said during a June 23 conference call organized by the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life in an effort to rally opposition to Kagan in the U.S. Senate. “That usually wears off as time passes and they get experience. But Ms. Kagan has not had time to develop a mature philosophy of judging. I would say her admiration for Barak, the Israeli justice, is a prime example. As I’ve said before, Barak might be the least competent judge on the planet.”

Following Bork’s comments, liberals in the United States rushed to defend Barak and Kagan by noting that the Israeli justice has received praise as well from judicial conservatives, most notably U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. A darling of conservatives, Scalia glowingly introduced Barak in March 2007 when he was honored by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (with the Supreme Court’s two Jewish members, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in the audience).

In its report on the introduction, the Forward paraphrased Scalia as saying that “no other living jurist has had a greater impact on his own country’s legal system — and perhaps on legal systems throughout the world.” According to the report, Scalia went on “to celebrate his fruitful and long-standing relationship with the Israeli judge, and to affirm a profound respect for the man — one that trumped their fundamental philosophical, legal, and constitutional disagreements.”

Told of Scalia’s remarks, Bork dismissed them as sounding “like politeness offered on a formal occasion.”

At the National Review Online, Ed Whelan argued that Scalia’s comments about Barak could not be compared to Kagan’s use of the phrase “my judicial hero.”

In an e-mail to JTA, David Twersky, a veteran journalist and analyst for Jewish organizations, recalled that at a New York Sun editorial dinner at the Harvard Club he asked Scalia about Barak.

“To my great surprise, he had nothing but good things to say and said he would never second-guess Barak,” Twersky said. “So I can tell you from personal experience that Bork is wrong.”

Twersky recalled Scalia as saying, “I mean they don’t even have a constitution over there.”

The Israel-lacks-a-constitution theme has been echoed in recent days by Barak’s defenders, who argue that the different legal traditions in Israel and the United States make it difficult to read too much into Kagan’s praise of Barak.

“Kagan wasn’t saying that she would decide every U.S. issue the same way Barak would decide the same matter in Israel,” Aaron Zelinsky wrote in a column for the Huffington Post. Instead, added Zelinsky, an American who once clerked for Barak, Kagan “respected what he stood for and had accomplished, in particular the furtherance of ‘democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and justice.’”

The Orthox Union has taken issue with Barak’s record, accusing him of improperly attempting to “impose his ideological vision” on matters when Israel’s Jewish and democratic values are seemingly in conflict. But even as it reiterated those criticisms, the organization on its Washington blog dismissed Bork’s attack on Kagan, like oter Jewish groups, suggesting her praise was merely “social convention.”

“Israel gets pulled into enough disputes around the world these days, and its Supreme Court continues to spark debates too,” the OU blog declared. “Can’t Judge Bork and the rest of Kagan’s opponents find something else — and less bizarre — to attack her with?”

Both the OU and the Reform movement waded into the confirmation process, though they stopped short of taking an actual position on the nominee.

In a letter to U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the OU said it found Kagan’s record “encouraging.” It noted her repudiation in confirmation hearings of her 1987 memo, when she clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, rejecting any government funding for faith-based charities providing social services.

The OU also noted memos she wrote as a domestic adviser to President Clinton backing religious freedoms in the workplace.

The Reform movement, meantime, forwarded to the Judiciary Committee members what it considered to be the most compelling questions it solicited from its membership on the website AskElanaKagan.com.

“What limits does the Establishment Clause place on government funding that flows to faith-based organizations?” was one question.

“Do states have a right to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman? What should be the Federal role concerning marriage?” was another.

Nancy Ratzan, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, issued a statement rejecting Bork’s criticism of Kagan and promised that the NCJW would continue to push its members to take action in support of her nomination.

Kagan’s Jewishness also took center stage later in the day. Graham, probing Kagan on threats to the United States, asked her if she was unnerved by the Christmas Day bomber.

“Where were you on Christmas Day?” Graham asked.

“Like all Jews,” she responded, “I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

“I could almost see this one coming,” Leahy quipped.

Then Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) jumped in: “Those are the only restaurants that are open!”

JTA

Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

 
 

Netanyahu hints at flexibility on Jerusalem

It was an otherwise wholly unremarkable stump speech before a friendly audience in New York.

On the evening of July 7 at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, the Israeli prime minister addressed a roomful of more than 300 Jews on the subjects of Iran, his government’s eagerness for direct peace talks with the Palestinians, and the swell meeting he had just had with President Obama at the White House.

News Analysis

But then, in an off-the-cuff remark to a question on Jerusalem from the audience, Benjamin Netanyahu dropped a hint that his government’s insistence on Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem might not be ironclad.

“Everybody knows that there are Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that under any peace plan will remain where they are,” Netanyahu said in response to the question read by the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein.

The implication of Netanyahu’s remark — that other neighborhoods of Jerusalem may not remain “where they are,” becoming part of an eventual Palestinian state — was the first hint that the Israeli leader may be flexible on the subject of Jerusalem. Until now, Netanyahu has insisted that Jerusalem is not up for negotiation.

While the prime minister surely did not intend the gathering under the aegis of the Presidents Conference to serve as his forum for opening up negotiations over Jerusalem, the impromptu remark before an audience of prominent New York Jews and a handful of elected officials cast a slim ray of light on what Netanyahu thinks might be the Israeli capital’s ultimate fate.

He reiterated the point on Sunday in an interview with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”

“Are you willing to put East Jerusalem as a possible capital of the Palestinian state on the table?” Wallace asked, according to a transcript provided by Fox News.

Netanyahu responded, “Well, we have differences of views with the Palestinians. We want a united city. They have their own views. We can — this is one of the issues that will have to be negotiated. But I think the main point is to get on with it.”

The remarks on Jerusalem were significant because Netanyahu’s true intentions regarding the peace process remain largely opaque, the subject of much debate from Washington to Ramallah. Netanyahu was a latecomer to the two-state position — endorsing the idea of an eventual Palestinian state only a year ago, after much prodding by the United States — and the governing coalition he has assembled is composed largely of right-wing parties that do not believe in the current Palestinian Authority as a partner for negotiations.

In public, President Obama declared last week that he believes Netanyahu is genuinely committed to seeking a two-state solution.

“I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace,” Obama told reporters following his Oval Office meeting with Netanyahu. “And during our conversation, he once again reaffirmed his willingness to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians around what I think should be the goal not just of the two principals involved but the entire world, and that is two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Privately, however, some U.S. administration officials have expressed doubts about Netanyahu’s ability to make good on that vision. Other Obama supporters have questioned Netanyahu’s commitment to that goal, and the Palestinian Authority leadership says Netanyahu’s interest in negotiations is not serious.

“Words, not deeds,” was the assessment of chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who dismissed Netanyahu’s lip service to the peace process in an interview with The New York Times following the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. “We need to see deeds.”

Netanyahu insists he is serious about peace talks, and that it is the Palestinians who are playing games.

“You either put up excuses or you lead,” the Israeli leader said in his New York speech. “I want to enter direct talks with the Palestinian leadership now,”

“I think we can defy the skeptics,” he said, recalling the doubters that abounded when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin began talking to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the lead-up to the Camp David Accords, and when Richard Nixon visited China. “This is a challenge I’m up to.”

Was it hyperbole or a sign of the legacy Netanyahu hopes for himself?

If Netanyahu is interested in following Begin and Nixon’s model, leading a conservative government to a historic rapprochement with a longtime foe, eventually he will have to include Jerusalem in negotiations with the Palestinians; they won’t sign a peace deal without it. If not, Netanyahu is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the skeptics.

“This is going to be a very, very tough negotiation, but I’m prepared to negotiate,” Netanyahu insisted last week. “But I cannot engage between someone who won’t sit at the table.”

JTA

 
 

Israel, Iran, court, entitlements — what would a GOP Congress mean?

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The likely prospect of Republican control of at least one chamber of Congress has triggered broad speculation about the remainder of President Obama’s time in the White House, Republican bids for the presidency in 2012 — and the very course of the nation, if not the West.

The issues that preoccupy Jewish voters and groups have a narrower cast. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, along with the more remote possibility of a Republican Senate, could mean sharp turns in foreign policy and domestic spending. Here’s a glance.

Israel

The biggest Israel headlines of Barack Obama’s presidency have had to do with the renewed direct talks with the Palestinians and with the Obama-Netanyahu administrations’ tensions that preceded them.

Such tensions have informed tight congressional races, where an array of Republican candidates have pledged to stand closer by Israel and painted their opponents as pawns of a president who is cool, if not outright hostile, to Israel.

In reality, the peace talks are not likely to be affected by a switch of congressional leadership. Obama’s opposition to Israel’s settlement policy has been expressed through rhetoric and not any action. In fact, Obama’s main substantive shift has been to increase funding for Israel’s defense and enhance defense cooperation as an incentive to make concessions to the Palestinians — intensifications of the relationship a Republican Congress would likely embrace.

If there is a change, it might have more to do with politics than policy. An adversarial Congress may force the White House to tamp down public criticism of Israel ahead of 2012 presidential elections.

The single substantive policy a GOP House might influence is the massive increase in funding for the Palestinian Authority launched in the last years of the George W. Bush administration, from occasional spurts of $20 million in the early part of the decade to today’s $500 million annual expenditure, including half in direct funding.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the GOP whip, has suggested that continued funding could be contingent on PA recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. (See related story.)

Theoretically, putting a stop on such funding could threaten U.S.-backed programs, especially training for Palestinian security services.

In fact, such foreign policy funding confrontations in the past have rarely led to defunding. Instead the executive branch — under Democratic and Republican presidents — has dipped into approved funds to keep programs going while it works out new arrangements with Congress.

Congress also is less likely to defund programs favored by Israel. The Israeli defense establishment, while not as gung-ho as the Obama administration in praising PA nation-building, nonetheless appreciates the increase in stability in recent years brought about in part by U.S.-led financial backing for the moderate west bank government of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Still, even the congressional threat of a U.S. cutoff of funds can inhibit growth and investment.

The more substantive possibility for change on Israel is in Cantor’s pledge to remove defense funding for the nation from the overall foreign aid package and place it elsewhere — perhaps in the defense budget.

In the short run, all this means is that Israel will continue to receive $3 billion in aid annually while the Republicans attempt to gut backing for nations they do not consider reliable allies.

Pro-Israel officials, speaking on background, have said they would work hard to beat back such a proposal because of possible long-term consequences. They see aid for Israel as inextricably bound with the broader interest of countering isolationism.

These officials are concerned, too, that elevating Israel above other nations might be counterproductive in an American electorate still made up of diverse ethnic groups. They also believe that such a designation would make Israel more beholden to U.S. policy and erode its independence.

Iran

Republicans have sharply criticized Obama’s outreach to Iran and said he was too slow to apply sanctions.

Over the summer, however, Obama dialed back the outreach to the Islamic Republic and signed a sanctions bill. His Treasury Department already has intensified sanctions, particularly against Iran’s financial sector. U.S. and Israeli officials say Iran is feeling the bite.

The principal U.S.-Israel difference remains timing, or what to do when: When does Iran get the bomb — and what happens then?

Cantor, in his interview with JTA, emphasized that Obama must make it clear that a military option is on the table.

Congress, however, cannot declare war by itself, and while a flurry of resolutions and amendments pressing for greater confrontation with Iran may be in the offing, they will not affect policy — except perhaps to sharpen Obama’s rhetoric ahead of 2012.

Should Obama, however, return to a posture of engagement — this depends on the less than likely prospect of the Iranian theocracy consistently embracing diplomacy — a GOP-led Congress could inhibit the process through adversarial hearings.

Social issues: abortion,
church and state

The two Supreme Court justices more likely than not to uphold liberal social outlooks who were itching for a Democrat in the White House so they could retire — David Souter and John Paul Stevens — have done so. Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan replaced them following smooth confirmation processes.

No other such resignations are imminent. However, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who also tilts liberal in her decisions, is 77 and has battled cancer; Antonin Scalia, a reliable conservative, is 74; and so is Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote who tilts right more often than not.

In case one of them retires, don’t expect the smooth transitions that characterized Obama’s first two appointments. Republicans may not control the Senate, but they will likely have a stronger filibuster in January.

Republicans now control 41 seats — one more than is needed to keep a nomination from advancing to a full vote. After Nov. 2, more among their numbers are likely to be diehard conservatives and less likely to cross the floor to break a filibuster.

They will want Obama to tailor a judge more to conservative likings under those circumstances, especially if he is replacing Scalia or Kennedy.

Earmarks

The House’s GOP caucus imposed a yearlong moratorium on its own earmarks last March. An extension is likely, Cantor said, and a GOP majority will be able to enforce a moratorium on Democrats.

That prospect concerns federations and Jewish groups that care for the elderly and infirm. Earmarks, less lovingly known as “pork,” are the funds lawmakers attach to bills in order to help their districts. Such funds have helped spur forward the Jewish Federations of North America crown project, naturally occurring retirement homes, among other programs for the elderly.

Medicare, Medicaid, and health care

No matter who wins next week, both parties have pledged cuts to entitlements like Medicare, the program that funds medical assistance for the elderly, and Medicaid, which provides medical care for the poor. Jewish groups draw on both programs to help fund assistance for the elderly and provide the Jewish poor with kosher meals.

Targeting entitlements misses the point, say Jewish professionals whose expertise is elderly care. They say the real savings come from addressing burgeoning health care costs overall and not just entitlements.

“Let’s go after health-care spending and health-care costs and see how we can make the system more effective,” said Rachel Goldberg, the director of aging policy at B’nai B’rith International, the largest Jewish sponsor of senior housing in the United States.

The Republican leader in the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), has said he will lead an effort to repeal the Obama health-care reforms passed this year by the Democratic Congress. It’s not clear that Boehner has broad party support, and he likely would not be able to override Obama’s veto of such a bill.

JTA

 
 
 
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