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Differences emerge on sanctions

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

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

News Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JTA

 
 

Making a reservation for the Tea Party, and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

With a little more than a month to go before November’s mid-term elections, a new player has emerged on the field causing ripples in the Republican world and a mix of worry and relief among Democrats.

We speak, of course, of the Tea Party, the grassroots movement of protests that’s been sweeping the nation since early 2009. A number of Tea Party candidates have fared well in recent Republican primary elections, beating out GOP-favored opponents.

Most notably, Tea Party candidate Joe Miller upset Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary for her Senate seat, and Christine O’Donnell beat out GOP-favored U.S. Rep. Michael Castle in Delaware’s Republican Senate primary last month.

“The national Tea Party movement is the embodiment of political activism,” Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) said in a statement to The Jewish Standard. “Based on the results of recent primary elections, it’s hard to deny the influence the Tea Party movement has had on politics the last year. If the past is any indication of things to come, there is no doubt in my mind that the Tea Party movement will have an impact on the elections in November and beyond.”

Dr. Ben Chouake, president of the Englewood-based Israel political action committee NORPAC and a registered Republican, believes the Tea Party candidates are too far to the right to win in the general elections. While NORPAC focuses solely on candidates’ records on Israel, the Tea Party has put forward a cast of unknown candidates that has made life more difficult for the PAC to quickly determine their positions.

“Sometimes people are overly enthusiastic and trend toward candidates unvetted and poorly qualified,” he said.

The Tea Party victory in the Delaware primary has assured Democrat Chris Coons a victory in the race to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden, according to Chouake. Castle, a former two-term governor, was the GOP’s best hope at winning the open seat, he said.

“The likelihood of the Senate switching majorities in this cycle has become slim because of the influence of the Tea Party in the Senate primaries,” Chouake said.

Tea Partier Sharron Angle, a former Nevada state representative, won the GOP nomination to face Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in November, which, in Chouake’s opinion, almost guarantees the senator a victory.

“Sharron Angle is probably the weakest candidate in the field, at least according to the polls,” Chouake said. “While we’re neutral on the Tea Party issues, we’re happy to see Harry Reid has this best chance at re-winning his seat because he’s a good friend on U.S.-Israel relations.”

Reid visited Englewood on Sunday for a NORPAC fund-raising event — closed to the press — that drew about 30 people and raised between $25,000 and $30,000 for the senator’s re-election bid.

“On our issue he’s tremendously supportive,” Chouake said. “He has a deep understanding of the problems the Jews have had throughout history.”

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Reid is confident in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to win a peace agreement because he has support from Israel’s left and right wings, Chouake said.

Regarding Iran, Chouake said that Reid preferred to avoid military action but all options had to remain on the table because a nuclear Iran is the worst-case scenario.

Earlier this week, Senate Republicans blocked Democrat-sponsored legislation that would have overturned the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A 56-43 vote defeated a $726 billion defense spending bill that included a pay raise for troops and a repeal of the controversial policy that blocks openly gay soldiers from serving.

Democrats fell far short of the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation. Reid voted against the bill, citing a Senate rule that allows him to reintroduce the legislation later if he votes with the majority.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) condemned Republicans for blocking the legislation. “This bill provides our military with new equipment and authorizes pay and health programs for our brave men and women,” he said in a statement. “This bill would also authorize the long overdue repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ No American should be barred from serving in our military simply because of their sexual orientation.”

 
 

Unifying factor in 2010 election: Never before

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Tea Partiers rally against Nevada Sen. Harry Reid March 27 in the Senate majority leader’s hometown of Searchlight. Mark Holloway

WASHINGTON – Talk to veteran campaign watchers about this year’s congressional races, and within seconds they will tell you that they’ve never before seen elections quite like these.

“We’ve never seen a cycle where there’s been this many races this close to an election and you don’t know how it’s going to come out,” said Joy Malkus, the research director at the Chicago-based Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, or JACPAC, a group that directs funding to candidates who are pro-Israel and moderate on social issues. “And I’ve been doing this since 1982.”

Dr. Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, a New Jersey-based, pro-Israel political action committee, agreed.

“This one has taken twists and turns that surprise almost all of us that follow these events,” said Chouake, who lives in Englewood. “I’ve never seen anything like this in all the years I’ve been doing this — in my lifetime.”

Despite the unfamiliarity of the terrain, the rules of the Jewish fund-raising road remain the same: Stick with your friends and get to know unknowns as fast as possible.

In fact, the only change might be to append a “more-so”: There are many more friends at risk, and there are a lot more unknowns. An anti-incumbent surge already has had an impact in the primaries, ousting a clutch of incumbents in the Senate, where races generally are much more expensive than in the House of Representatives.

“The thing that has created the greatest demand for money in the pro-Israel world are all these open Senate seats,” said Lonny Kaplan, a veteran pro-Israel giver who is based in Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs and is a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

A greater demand and, according to insiders, a surprisingly greater supply, considering the economy’s narrow straits. Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he has never seen money flowing like this in a non-presidential election year.

“This is the largest effort our leaders have made in a midterm — ever,” he said.

Here are some races to watch in this very watchable season:

Endangered incumbents: The triumvirate

A number of pro-Israel incumbents are at risk in the Senate. Some already have been or are almost being written off, among them U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Others at risk are rallying in the final weeks and have attracted a late burst of pro-Israel attention, including Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Reid, the majority leader, is facing a tough challenge from Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-backed Republican challenger. Reid is considered critical by the pro-Israel community because he has taken the lead in helping to shepherd through Iran sanctions legislation. He’s also seen as having advanced pro-Israel defenses, most recently in a letter with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), pressing President Obama to designate the Turkish group behind the Gaza Strip aid flotilla as terrorist.

If Reid goes, and if the Senate changes hands, its pro-Israel cast is not likely to change: McConnell is also solidly pro-Israel and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the chamber’s most stalwart Israel defender (and a Jew from Brooklyn), likely would replace Reid.

Yet pro-Israel insiders say it remains a priority to keep in place a party leader who has been a proven champion of Israel.

“I’ve worked very hard for Harry Reid’s campaign, and the pro-Israel community has been very, very supportive of him,” Kaplan said. “It’s a very tough race. From my perspective we have a very friendly incumbent — it’s not hard to pick a side there.”

Boxer, a Jewish candidate who is facing former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, is likewise considered important because of the recent trend among liberal Democrats to question Israeli policies.

“She’s very liberal but also a leader,” said a donor who is close to top Democrats and did not want to be further identified. “She puts her name on pro-Israel legislation.”

Getting to know you: the Tea Partiers

Reid’s race is also considered critical also because he is facing Angle, who like most of the candidates backed by the Tea Party movement is friendly to Israel but also seeks budget cuts across the board. That makes her anathema to groups like JACPAC that are concerned about social services.

The Tea Party also makes some pro-Israel conservatives nervous because some in the movement want to slash foreign funding, although they have promised to work out a way to maintain funding for Israel. Some say that reveals a misunderstanding of the holistic nature of foreign aid: If aid is cut across the board, it signals an isolationism that can only harm Israel in the long run even if it benefits from short-term exceptions.

“The pro-Israel community has the challenge of keeping up foreign aid overall” if Tea Party candidates score major successes, said an insider associated with AIPAC.

That effort to keep up foreign aid already is under way, and pro-Israel insiders report warm conversations with Angle in addition to Mike Lee, the Republican candidate in Utah whose Tea Party insurgency unseated longtime incumbent GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, and Ken Buck, who is challenging Colorado’s Bennet.

Other Tea Party candidates have kept their distance from the pro-Israel community. They include Senate hopefuls Joe Miller, a Republican who is leading in Alaska, and Rand Paul in Kentucky.

Paul’s association with his father, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose isolationist polices have resulted in one of the worst pro-Israel records in the House, as well as the younger Paul’s reluctance to parry outside of his inner circle, have conferred upon his opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, the rare status of favored pro-Israel candidate in an open race. The pro-Israel donor community as a rule attempts to split the difference in such races, not wishing to alienate either side.

“Conway has great position papers on all of our issues — Israel, [reproductive] choice, and separation of church and state,” JACPAC’s Malkus said. “Rand Paul is not good on any of our issues.”

Unlikely challenges to incumbents — and unlikely incumbent

House Democrats facing challenging races across the country fall into two categories: Those who just months ago were seen as sure bets, and those who beat the odds to win in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats scored victories over a weakened Republican Party. In 2008, those underdog Democrats were buoyed by voters enthusiastic about presidential candidate Barack Obama.

A typical candidate who used to be seen as safe but now is in jeopardy is Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), who defeated his current opponent, Republican Allen West, by 10 points in 2008. Klein has strongly supported Israel in a heavily Jewish district that includes patches of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

West, however, has posed a formidable challenge this time, in part by linking Klein to a president perceived as less friendly to Israel than his predecessors, and in part because of anxieties among retirees over reports that Obama’s health-care reform will suck funds from Medicare, the government-funded insurance plan for retirees. An African-American Iraq war veteran, West also has an Achilles’ heel: Most recently he was associated with a biker gang that does not admit Jews or blacks as members.

Another Florida Jewish congressman is typical of the other column. In 2008, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), facing an incumbent weakened by a strong primary challenge, swept in in a district that encompasses Orlando and leans Republican.

Grayson, one of the most outspoken critics nationwide of the Republicans, is now in trouble, with outside Republican-affiliated groups pouring money into negative campaign ads. He has offset the blitz by raising four times as much as his Republican opponent, Daniel Webster, in individual donations, stemming from the joy his politically incorrect broadsides bring the Democratic base.

Grayson has accused Republicans of wanting the uninsured to die. Nonpartisan campaign watchers criticized Grayson recently for a TV ad that edited remarks to make Webster appear as if he were endorsing New Testament commands that wives should submit to their husbands. In fact, Webster was advising Christian fathers that they should ignore the commandments in question.

Which pro-Israel are you?

Two major campaigns have split the pro-Israel community: Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) vs. Alex Giannoulias for the open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) vs. Pat Toomey for the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania.

JACPAC is backing Sestak because of the organization’s twin missions of supporting Israel and moderate social policies. Toomey, Malkus notes, voted against foreign aid more often than not when he was a congressman in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

On the other hand, Sestak has been targeted by right-wing groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel for his associations with the left-wing pro-Israel lobby J Street.

By and large, however, J Street associations have not figured large in the campaign, said Kaplan, who is backing the Democratic incumbent Rush Holt in New Jersey.

JACPAC is staying out of the Kirk-Giannoulias race because of Kirk’s leadership role on pro-Israel issues in the House and his record as a Republican moderate. NORPAC’s Choauake referred to Kirk’s seminal role in shaping the enhanced Iran sanctions legislation that passed over the summer.

“He’s brilliant and hard working; he’s a mover and a shaker, “ he said of Kirk. “He can get stuff done — he knows how to strategize to get to the finish line.”

Races to watch? Try people to watch

Pro-Israel and Jewish money sometimes goes to candidates not because they need it, but because the community sees a future with the person in question.

That’s the case with Kelly Ayotte, a Republican leading in the open race for New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate seat, and Chris Coons, a Democrat in the same position in Delaware.

Ayotte “is someone who’s going to get into the Senate and do well,” Chouake said. “She’s been supported by Democratic and Republican governors as attorney general, which means she must be highly respected. She’s going to be a prime candidate for [the] executive branch if they’re looking for a young Republican woman.”

Coons, until now a little-known county executive, is also respected, said the pro-Israel insider close to Democrats.

“He’s very much up on the issues, very foreign policy attuned,” the insider said. “He pronounced [the name of Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad correctly.”

Reach out to the outreachers

Asked why he was backing Ayotte in the New Hampshire Senate race instead of Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), a Jewish congressman with a solid-pro-Israel voting record, NORPAC’S Chouake’s answer was simple: “She called me. He didn’t.” JTA

 
 
 
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