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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.

 
 

MKs: New peace initiative to rely on international law

Knesset members — one a Druze — in Englewood

Two Israeli parliamentarians and a political activist told some 35 people last week at a gathering in Englewood of their concerns about attempts to delegitimize Israel.

Ayoob Kara, deputy minister for development of the Negev and Galilee and deputy minister for regional cooperation, is a Druze member of the Knesset for the Likud Party. (The Druze, an Arabic-speaking religious community, serve in the Israel Defense Forces.)

Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev is a member of the Knesset from the Shas Party, which he cofounded in 1984. He spoke to the attendees in Hebrew; his address was summarized in English by Karen Pichkhadze, executive director of the National Organization for Political Action, which sponsored the event at a private home.

The MKs were with Shoshana Bekerman, director of the Jerusalem-based Knesset Caucus for Judaism and Global Ethics. They plan to present the Jerusalem Initiative for Peace in the Middle East to Congress and the United Nations. The brainchild of Ze’ev, who chairs the caucus and who worked on it in cooperation with Kara, it seeks to combat the delegitimzation of Israel.

Speaking at the home of Irene and Robert Gottesman, Bekerman said that the delegitimization campaign started in Europe and has spread to the United States. The fight against it, she said, “is a tougher battle that any of the wars we have had to face.”

For Orthodox Jews, she said, the right of all Jews to Israel is based on the Torah, but today “you have to talk the language of international law, as our claims have to be based on international law,” which has given Jews legal instruments throughout history to make their case.

Some of those documents are from the 1937 Peel Commission, which suggested the partition of Palestine, and the 1923 British Mandate for Palestine, which favored the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” there.

The latest document is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Bekerman said, which was adopted by the United Nations in 2007 after 20 years of formulations. One hundred and forty-four countries voted for it and four against it, including the United States. Israel did not participate in the formulations.

The declaration purposely did not define the term indigenous, she said, but the United Nations does have a “working definition” of it.

According to that definition, indigenous people have a connection to the land through religion, history, language, culture, and economics.

“We definitely fit that description,” said Bekerman.

However, she added, Palestinians have been claiming their rights as indigenous people but Jews have not made use of the declaration because they lacked knowledge about it.

That lack, she said, was also evident among the politicians the MKs and Bekerman visited in Washington during their trip, Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who told them they had never heard about the document before.

Calling Israel an “occupying power” is a misuse of the term and manipulation by groups that have received money from leftist and Muslim organizations, Bekerman said, and also historically, morally, and legally wrong.

The Jerusalem Initiative, on the other hand, bills itself as “an innovative proposal presented within the framework of the two-state solution announced by Prime Minister Netanyahu and is intended to bridge the gap between the Israeli government, the Quartet, and the Saudi Initiative.”

It urges the Quartet to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital based on the indigenous right of Jews to the city and calls for maintaining the status quo regarding its population. It also accepts that an eventual Palestinian state may have its parliament in the Arab sector of the city.

The document asks the Quartet to recognize the rights of Jewish settlements, which should not be uprooted without the consent of the “indigenous Jewish inhabitants of the settlement.”

According to the project, the issue of refugees from the Middle East must be resolved in a way that includes recognition of the rights of those displaced from Arab countries, including Jews, Christians, and other groups.

Kara, the Druze MK, was critical of several of Israel’s past policies and said the Oslo accords “gave the criminal Palestinian leadership that was in Lebanon and Tunisia the legitimacy to be leaders in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.”

Peace in the region is far off, he said, as Israel has not found a partner or someone to lead an eventual Palestinian state.

Ze’ev said that his ancestors came to Israel from 10 different Middle Eastern countries, “leaving behind everything they had, leaving empires behind to come naked to our country, where we didn’t demand everything.”

But now, Ze’ev said, “we are fighting against people who are coming to the country demanding everything they can possible get for something they did not work for.”

According to Ze’ev, Israel needs members of Congress to understand the position it is in and the fact that “you can’t negotiate with enemies; it is impossible to do so with someone who believes you should not exist.”

Asked about the Jerusalem Initiative, Ben Choauke, NORPAC’s president, said, “You need every tool available to increase the standing of Israel before world opinion and the United Nations itself.”

The Initiative was presented in Paris in July and will be presented at the European Union Parliament in the near future.

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From left are Knesset members Ayoob Kara and Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev, and NORPAC President Ben Choauke. The MKs spoke at a NORPAC gathering in Englewood last week. Daniel Santacruz
 
 

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

Cantor could help GOP take the House, but can he win over the Jews?

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U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, shown speaking at the 2009 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, hopes to shepherd the GOP to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Robert A. Cumins/Jewish Federations of North America

WASHINGTON – Eric Cantor has spent a lifetime having fun wearing the other hat.

Among Jews, the Republican congressional whip from Richmond, Va., likes to play the genteel Southern conservative, the posture that won over his wife, a socially liberal banker from New York.

Among southerners, he’s the nice Jewish boy who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and graduated from Columbia University but who has an easy familiarity with NASCAR, country music, and evangelical beliefs.

Profile

It’s an approach that has Cantor poised to become the highest-ranking Jewish member in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives. If the Republicans take the House, as the pundits and polls are predicting, he is expected to rise to the position of majority leader.

Maybe even House speaker, as the buzz goes, if the new wave of Republican lawmakers decides to dump Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), whom some conservatives see as too close to lobbyists and establishment interests. Cantor, the only Jewish Republican lawmaker in the Congress, denies that talk.

At the same time that Cantor, 47, stands on the verge of what could be his greatest victory in his young career, he faces what also might be his greatest test: reconciling the liberal tendencies of the smaller, Jewish community in which he grew up with the sharp swing right in the larger, conservative community he has embraced.

He insists it’s not such a big deal.

“The American Jewish community is not unlike others in this country,” Cantor told JTA this week in a quick phone interview from the campaign trail, where he was been spending a frenetic summer and fall in hopes of helping his party win as many as 90 seats from the Democrats. “Jews are frustrated at their own economic circumstance.”

Cantor said that American Jews have nothing to fear from the Tea Party, the disparate conservative insurgency that appears ready to propel the Republicans to victory.

“Tea Party individuals are focused on three things: One, limited, constitutional government; two, cutting spending; and three, a return to free markets,” he said. “Most Americans are about that, and the American Jewish community is like that.”

In the same interview, Cantor laid out a proposal on funding for Israel that could test exactly how “like that” is the American Jewish community — or at least its organizational leadership.

Cantor said he wanted to pull the $3 billion Israel receives in funding from the foreign operations budget so that GOP lawmakers — who in recent years have been voting in increasing numbers against the foreign funding bill — may vote their conscience: for Israel on one bill, against countries perceived as anti-American on another.

“Part of the dilemma is that Israel has been put in the overall foreign aid looping,” he said. “I’m hoping we can see some kind of separation in terms of tax dollars going to Israel.”

Other Republicans have suggested putting the Israel funding in the defense budget, noting that most of the money is for defense assistance.

Prior to that statement, a number of pro-Israel officials had told JTA on background that they feared exactly such an initiative. However, the expectation was that it would come from Tea Partiers and not the GOP leadership, whom the pro-Israel officials expected to be an ally in making the case for foreign funding in January when the new Congress is inaugurated.

Repeated attempts by JTA in the wake of Cantor’s comments to reach the same figures — among them, some of the most voluble pro-Israel advocates — went unanswered.

The silence itself was not unusual — no one in a non-partisan role wants to stand directly against an entire party a week before Election Day. But it signaled the chasm with Republicans that pro-Israel groups may be looking at come January.

Democrats and their allies were not so shy in reminding Cantor of the traditional pro-Israel argument for wrapping spending on Israel into the broader foreign aid budget.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, called Cantor’s proposal “outrageous.”

“Manipulating aid to Israel in this way would dangerously threaten continued bipartisan agreement on national security policy and programs other than direct assistance to Israel that aid in its security,” she said in a news release.

The funding, Lowey said, promotes diplomacy and alleviates the factors that create a fertile ground for terrorist recruiters.

“Because it is inextricably linked with broader U.S. national security goals, separating assistance for Israel in order to make it easier for Republican members to vote against the foreign aid bill would be counterproductive,” she said in her statement.

Cantor outlined a much different view: Israel was not like other nations, he said.

“Israel’s survival is directly connected to America’s survival,” he said. “Israel’s security is synonymous with our own.”

Bridging divides is not new to Cantor. His conservative posture on social issues — he is against gay marriage and abortion — place him on the opposite side of most Jewish voters. And Jewish advocates for the elderly strongly oppose several proposals in his new book “Young Guns,” co-authored with two other youthful conservatives, Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

The Republican trio calls for opening up Social Security and Medicare to private companies and raising the eligibility age for both plans. In addition, the book extols the GOP leadership’s voluntary freeze last March on earmarks, which Cantor wants to make permanent — and extend to Democrats, should the GOP win the House.

Jewish groups have relied on earmarks, the funds lawmakers set aside for their districts, to fund programs for the elderly.

Still, Cantor is always a welcome presence at Jewish communal events, associates say.

“He always has gotten community support, even though the Jewish community is mostly Democratic,” said Jay Ipson, a retired auto parts dealer who has known Cantor since he was a boy.

Cantor, who has a reputation for tirelessness, makes himself available to the Richmond Jewish community when he is home, Ipson says — visiting its institutions and working on its behalf. Cantor’s intervention on the state level helped Ipson establish the city’s Holocaust museum, which opened in 2003.

Richard November, a former president of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, said Cantor was typical of a younger generation of Southern Jews who refused to be circumspect about their Jewishness and would wear their identity with pride even as they ventured into the broader community.

November recalled tracking Cantor, who was the same age as his daughter, Debra, as he grew up.

“In my day — I graduated high school in 1956 — it was more isolated if you would, the Jewish kids stuck together,” he said. “During my daughters’ high school years, there was a greater acceptance of the Jewish students, the Jewish students were more aggressive in becoming involved in things that were not just Jewish.”

Cantor was well-turned-out early, he recalled.

“He always had a certain demeanor that most people don’t have at that age,” he said.

It helped win over his wife, Diana, six years his senior and a Goldman Sachs employee when he courted her while he was at Columbia.

“I said, ‘I thought you were Jewish?’ I’d never met someone who was Jewish and Republican,” she told The Washington Post in 2008.

In Washington, Cantor has made the Jewish community’s case to the Republican leadership, particularly as it applies to funding for safety net programs, said William Daroff, who heads the Jewish Federations of North America Washington office.

“He’s been helpful with legislative matters where there have been funding issues, issues around regulations, particularly with Jewish family service agencies,” Daroff said.

Some Jewish Democrats see Cantor as a friend and appreciate his outreach on Israel.

“We disagree on domestic issues, but when it comes to Israel there are no disagreements,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “His heart is in the right place when it comes to Israel.”

Cantor’s Jewish profile has, if anything, heightened as he ascended to the leadership. While his family remains Conservative, he now attends Orthodox services and, when his busy schedule allows, takes classes with a rabbi.

In “Young Guns,” his new book, he makes no bones about the Jewish values he brings to the GOP.

“I pray on Saturday with a Southern accent,” he said. “Paul and Kevin,” his co-authors, “go to church on Sunday and talk to God without dropping their gs.”

That’s an outlook appreciated by a professional Jewish class that has been stymied at times in reaching out to Jewish lawmakers.

“The Jewish community has unfortunately had its fair share of members who shy away from their identity as they embrace public life and build their careers,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch. “Eric has done the exact opposite.”

JTA

 
 

In speech, Obama misses some Jewish priorities

WASHINGTON – Civility? Check. Clean energy? Check. Health care? Check. Immigration? Check. Education? You bet.

Isolating Iran? That’s in there.

Poverty, guns, reproductive rights? Israel? Ummm.…

President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was as notable for what it excluded as what made it in.

News Analysis

Obama abjured the traditional checklist and delivered a speech centered on a grand theme, American renewal, after an election that left government splintered, with a Democratic White House and Senate and a Republican House of Representatives.

“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” the president said. “We will move forward together, or not at all, for the challenges we face are bigger than party and bigger than politics.”

That was a recipe for stirring rhetoric, but it left out the manna for groups that watch the speech to cheer on their special interests.

“What NCJW missed?” the National Council of Jewish Women tweeted on the Internet within seconds of the speech’s conclusion. “Mention of poor, middle class, reproductive rights, gun violence prevention — to name some.”

The absences were telling. Obama focused on areas where he might persuade the Republican-controlled House to join him. The missing pieces all portend clashes with the Republicans: There are increased demands to tighten regulations of automatic weapons in the wake of the shooting earlier this month in Tucson. Democrats want Obama to push back against a national Republican campaign to further restrict abortion rights. House Republicans have vowed to slash funding to the Palestinian Authority, a key element of Obama’s efforts to prop up moderates in the region.

Instead, Obama used the speech to emphasize bipartisan consensus issues, some of which are Jewish community priorities, too. He outlined a plan to boost education, including preparing 100,000 new teachers of science and technology and making a $10,000 tuition tax credit permanent. He called for 80 percent of electricity to be powered by “clean energy” by 2035 and for a million electric vehicles to be on the roads by 2015.

Obama did not entirely leave out liberal causes. He offered some compromise with the Republicans on health care, but he vowed to leave in place the coverage guarantees for people with preconditions, which became law with last year’s reform bill. Obama also pledged to revive his effort, failed in the last Congress, to create paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.

He noted the success — spearheaded by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — in the final hours of the last Congress repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule that kept gays from serving openly in the military.

Troops, he said, are “Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”

The slew of brief Jewish organizational news releases late Tuesday and early Wednesday were reduced to praising the speech’s general tone. What they’re really waiting for are the details of the president’s budget, to be released at the beginning of February. The Jewish Federations of North America pleaded for special consideration for needs for the elderly.

“President Obama is right when he says we must be cautious of the deficit,” the Jewish Federations’ Washington director, William Daroff, said in a statement. “But there are certain social services that must be preserved now more than ever. Creating more crises for our seniors and poor is not the way to stop the crisis facing our nation.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs sought to highlight the issue of poverty.

“With the president’s budget forthcoming, we are anxious to see that he follows through on his call not to balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable,” the public policy umbrella group said in a statement. “President Obama must listen to his own advice and avoid a hatchet where a scalpel is called for.”

Obama reassured Americans that he would not touch Social Security except to “strengthen” it, which got him plaudits from B’nai B’rith International.

“The benefits to seniors are modest in the big picture, but a lifeline for too many individuals, and we must continue to provide benefits at fair levels,” B’nai B’rith said. “An across-the-board domestic spending freeze could have devastating results for many of our most vulnerable citizens.”

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center set up a checklist on its website to comment on 10 signature issues as they came up in the speech. On at least five of them, including Israel, gun control, and Gulf Coast recovery, the RAC ended up regurgitating its past statements because they did not get a mention.

Israel was missing in his speech, but Obama noted his success in an area that pro-Israel groups consider key: isolating Iran.

“Because of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations, the Iranian government now faces tougher and tighter sanctions than ever before,” he said.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wanted to know what he planned to do going forward — and wondered why he didn’t mention other threats in the region.

“The president also did not mention the threat posed by Iran and Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism and efforts to undermine its neighbors, on the very day that the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis took a severe step to undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty,” she said in a statement.

Obama started by noting perhaps the most poignant element of the evening: The empty seat of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), recovering from being shot in the head in the Jan. 8 Tucson shooting that left six dead.

“As we mark this occasion, we are also mindful of the empty chair in this chamber, and pray for the health of our colleague and our friend Gabby Giffords,” Obama said.

TV stations cut later to a photo of Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, holding her hand in her Houston hospital room.

Marking the civil tone, lawmakers wore black and white ribbons, traditionally used to protest gun violence and in this case designated for the victims of the Tucson shooting.

Republicans and Democrats also sat together. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who since his freshman year in Congress in 1989 has arrived early to secure an aisle-side seat so he can be among the first to shake hands with the president, partnered this year with Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio.), who adopted the same habit in her freshman year, 2005.

The long hours spent watching out for their seats on the House floor have made the two buddies, despite ideological differences.

“In the wake of Tucson, and all the incivility, we want to make the place more civil, and we’ll be heated and passionate about it,” Engel told JTA before the speech.

Schmidt, grabbing Obama on his way out, made sure he signed her program for the evening and added: “Eliot needs one too! It’s bipartisan!”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Rothman slams incitement, meets with missile defense machers

A congressional letter by Reps. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) and Steve Austria (R-Ohio) went out to President Obama last week urging him to press the Palestinian Authority to end “all … incitement” against Israelis and to return to the negotiating table for peace talks. A similar letter, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was signed by 27 senators, including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).Rothman also met last week with the directors of missile defense programs for both the United States and Israel.

Forty-six members of Congress signed on to the Rothman/Austria letter, a draft of which was circulated (and reported on in this newspaper) two weeks ago. The letter cited a report recently released by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, called “Culture of Peace and Incitement Index,” that describes anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian schools and on Palestinian Authority television.

The letter was distributed to two panels that play a key role in Israeli-Palestinian affairs: the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee. Large majorities of both groups signed on to the letter.

“I was delighted the majority of the two committees we sought signatures from and who have the primary jurisdiction over U.S. foreign aid and foreign policy in the house signed on to our letter,” Rothman told The Jewish Standard in a telephone interview Tuesday. “Getting the majority of those two committees to sign on to a letter of this type is highly unusual and certainly should get the attention of the Palestinians.”

Regarding the letter, Rep. Austria issued the following statement: “The United States plays a vital role of encouraging direct peace talks between Israel and Palestine. Our letter insists that President Obama urge President Abbas to reenter peace talks, without preconditions, in an effort to accomplish our shared goal: a peaceful and secure Jewish State of Israel.”

Signatories to Rothman and Austria’s letter included an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee (five of each) as well as 18 Republicans and 12 Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Some members of Congress considered to be on the liberal side of the Democratic spectrum, such as Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), signed on.

“It’s not a liberal or conservative issue — everyone is against Palestinian incitement,” said an aide familiar with efforts to enlist signatories, adding that Rothman and Austria’s effort pinpointed the two committees “that oversee the policy and money the PA cares about.”

“The majority was composed of both Democrats and Republicans and I was very pleased and proud of that fact but not surprised,” said Rothman. “Level-headed pro-Israel support comes from members of both parties.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who also signed on to the letter, shared his assessment with the Standard. “Too often it seems the thrust of everything is blaming Israel for settlements, and I think that’s absurd….If you want peace you don’t perpetuate lies and incitement and that’s what they keep doing.… We need to be firm with the Palestinians about it.”

The senators’ letter, which chronicled anti-Israel incitement on the part of the Palestinian Authority, said, “The Itamar massacre was a sobering reminder that words matter, and that Palestinian incitement against Jews and Israel can lead to violence and terror. We urge you to redouble your efforts to impress upon the Palestinian leadership that continuing to condone incitement is not tolerable. We also urge you to consider focusing adequate training and educational programs in the west bank and Gaza that promote peaceful coexistence with Israel.”

Specific examples of incitement mentioned in the senators’ letter include a March 9 speech by an adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas that called for Palestinian weapons to be turned toward Israel and a Feb. 9 broadcast on the official Palestinian television station extolling Dalal Mughrabi, a woman who along with several other Palestinians perpetrated a coastal highway massacre of Israeli civilians, including children. The letter also mentioned that “in the summer of 2010, several summer camps were named after her.”

Also on the Israel front, Rothman met separately last week with U.S. Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly and with Arieh Herzog, director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, to discuss joint U.S.-Israel defense projects.

“I have worked with these distinguished gentlemen for several years now both individually and jointly,” he told the Standard, “in order to increase levels of funding for Israel-U.S. missile defense projects which should greatly benefit the national security of both the U.S. and the State of Israel.” He added that subjects discussed included “the status of various missile defense projects of each country.”

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U.S. Missile Defense Agency Director Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly and Arieh Herzog, director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, met with Congressman Steve Rothman to discuss anti-missile system development programs. courtesy of Rep. Rothman’s office
 
 

Could U.S. still fund PA that includes Hamas?

WASHINGTON – The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation may portend yet another Congress vs. White House showdown in the battle in Washington over Middle East policy.

The Obama administration has expressed its unhappiness with the compromise reportedly negotiated last week in Cairo, but it is not counting out the prospect of supporting a reconstituted Palestinian Authority in which Hamas plays some role.

Top Congress members from both parties have been more forthright: If Hamas joins the Palestinian government, there will be no more talk of moderates vs. terrorists, they said. If that happens, the Palestinians can kiss goodbye their approximately $500 million in annual U.S. aid.

The Obama administration was first to issue comment in the wake of the April 27 announcement that the sides had come to a power-sharing agreement.

“We have seen the press reports and are seeking more information,” Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman said that day. “As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace. Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians. To play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles and renounce violence, abide by past agreements and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”

The lack of clarity about the agreement emerging from Cairo, and conflicting statements on the matter from the two Palestinian sides — Fatah officials said the interim government would be calibrated to continue peace talks, while Hamas officials said peace talks were not on the horizon — gave the Obama administration some wait-and-see wiggle room.

Still, even in Vietor’s initial statement there was a sign that the Obama administration could countenance a Palestinian Authority that included an unrepentant Hamas. The restrictions applied by the administration were on the Palestinian government, not on the terrorist group itself.

So if, as reports said, the new Palestinian government were comprised of independent “experts,” with neither Hamas nor Fatah holding cabinet-level positions, the Obama administration would have an opening to maintain U.S. support.

That kind of nuance was not reflected in the either/or statement issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“You can’t have peace with both Israel and Hamas,” the Israeli leader said. “Choose peace with Israel.”

Notable by its absence was any comment from the mainstream Jewish groups, which otherwise were vocal over regional developments, including the uprising in Syria and the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. The only groups to speak up were on the left: J Street said the agreement called for caution and questions for the Palestinians, but not hostility. Americans for Peace Now said the agreement presented an opportunity to talk peace with the entire Palestinian polity.

U.S. lawmakers were not so sanguine.

“The reported agreement between Fatah and Hamas means that a foreign terrorist organization which has called for the destruction of Israel will be part of the Palestinian Authority government,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “U.S. taxpayer funds should not and must not be used to support those who threaten U.S. security, our interests, and our vital ally, Israel.”

Statements similar to Ros-Lehtinen’s were released by Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee; Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the House Middle East subcommittee; and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

The same forthrightness emerged in a statement from a bipartisan congressional delegation visiting Israel.

“The United States should not aid an entity whose members seek the destruction of the State of Israel and continue to fire rockets and mortars at innocent Israeli children,” said the statement from Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), John Barrow (D-Ga.), Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), and Larry Kissell (D-N.C.).

As of April 28, however, a top Obama administration official speaking to a pro-Israel group was still maintaining the subtle emphasis on working only with a PA government that upholds agreements — leaving room for including Hamas as a component.

“Any Palestinian government must renounce violence, it must abide by past agreements, and it must recognize Israel’s right to exist,” Bill Daley, the White House chief of staff, told the American Jewish Committee that evening.

A State Department official elucidated to the Washington Post, “If a new Palestinian government is formed, we will assess it based on its policies at that time and will determine the implications for our assistance based on U.S. law.”

Kirk, who with Lowey authored the most recent legal language banning dealings with Hamas, subsequently issued a working paper on how funding any government based on a Hamas-Fatah agreement may violate U.S. law. His paper laid down the toughest restrictions, but also implicitly suggested a path through which the Obama administration legally could support such a government.

U.S. money to a Hamas-controlled ministry: banned. U.S. funding for Palestinian Authority personnel in Gaza, as long as the strip remains Hamas-controlled: banned. Moreover, if any arrangement with Hamas is entered into, any “such government, including all of its ministers or such equivalent, [must have] publicly accepted and is complying with agreements with Israel and the renunciation of terrorism.” And in writing.

Those restrictions, however broad, still leave plenty of room for the Palestinian “government of independent experts” to operate, and would leave in the west bank the $470 million in U.S. aid that the Palestinian Authority receives for that territory each year.

That possibility seemed to inform the statement from the lawmaker with the most power when it comes to disbursing such funds: Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the House of Representatives’ foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

“Recent reports of a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah demonstrate how quickly events are changing throughout the region and reinforce the need for continuous oversight and evaluation of U.S. investments,” she said. “If a power-sharing agreement with a terrorist organization becomes a reality in the Palestinian territories, the U.S. will be forced to re-examine our aid to the Palestinian Authority.”

“Re-examine” implies tough, contentious oversight and forewarns another series of major legislative-executive branch battles that characterized the delivery of aid by the Clinton and Bush administrations to the Palestinians.

It does not carry the threat of a ban, which suggests that the Obama administration’s challenges, should it continue funding the Palestinian Authority would be political but not legal, according to an analysis by Matt Duss of the Liberal Center for American Progress.

“U.S. law currently allows aid to a Palestinian unity government whose ministers have individually pledged adherence to the Quartet conditions even if Hamas the party has not,” he wrote. “Congress, however, is likely to resist sending any aid to a government that includes Hamas.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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