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Jewish and non-Jewish doves unite to press for U.S. diplomacy

WASHINGTON – A funny thing happened on the way to modifying punitive legislation targeting Palestinians — Jewish and non-Jewish groups backing aggressive peacemaking established a coalition.

The groups succeeded in toning down the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. In the process they forged an unofficial coalition of so-called “pro-peace” groups that now routinely consults on issues ranging from Israel-Palestinian matters to how best to deal with Iran — most participants oppose new sanctions.

Participants say the Jewish groups in the new coalition include Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, as well as two groups in the process of merging: J Street and Brit Tzedek V’Shalom. Officials with the groups unabashedly defend their growing ties with their non-Jewish partners, insisting that the non-Jewish groups back a two-state solution and favor other policies that will help Israel by improving chances for peace in the region.

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Jeremy Ben Ami, the director of J Street, addresses a session J Street held jointly on Oct. 25 with the Arab American Institute while Jim Zogby, center, the institute’s president, and J Street political director Hadar Susskind look on. Arab American Institute

The list of organizations from outside the Jewish community includes narrow-interest groups such as the Arab American Institute, the American Task Force on Palestine, Churches for Middle East Peace, and, more recently, the National Iranian American Council. At times the informal coalition also has included liberal think tanks such as the New America Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Center for American Progress.

The loose-knit coalition has persisted and even expanded since the election of President Obama, who is friendly to its goals of active engagement. Many of the organizations had an active role, or even helped sponsor, J Street’s inaugural national conference in October. Participants attend each other’s strategy meetings and, during intense periods — for instance, in crafting the modifications to the 2006 Palestinian legislation — speak routinely in conference calls.

“It’s informal and it’s based on personal relationships that we’ve developed over the months and years,” said Warren Clark, the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, an umbrella body for mainstream church groups from Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox streams.

For years, liberal activists — including some associated with the budding coalition — have protested the willingness of establishment Jewish organizations to embrace pro-Israel Evangelical Christians, citing their conservative views on domestic social issues and hawkish foreign policy positions. In recent weeks, however, Conservative journalists and bloggers have criticized the willingness of dovish Jewish groups to work with non-Jewish groups that have been critical of Israeli policies and oppose Iran sanctions.

Many pro-Israel groups, including AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, have made sanctions a top priority, portraying them as a means of leveraging Iran into abandoning its suspected nuclear weapons program. Several members of the informal dovish coalition oppose such steps, with the National Iranian American Council leading the way.

Conservative critics have focused on alleged links between J Street and the Iranian group, lumping together the two organizations. Yet J Street officials have always stopped short of publicly ruling out sanctions, arguing that the time was not right for tougher measures, but might be in the future to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And, indeed, J Street this week came out in favor of proposed sanctions legislation being considered in the U.S. Congress.

Americans for Peace Now, on the other hand, has joined the Iranian group, known by the acronym NIAC, in portraying the sanctions as inhumane and likely to reinforce support for the regime. In at least one mass e-mail, Americans for Peace Now directed readers to NIAC’s talking points outlining the case for opposing sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector.

In the wake of Obama’s election, NIAC called a meeting to strategize among like minds on Iran sanctions.

Lara Friedman, an Americans for Peace Now lobbyist, attended the meeting. So did Joel Rubin, then a staffer at J Street, though participants say he took part in a personal capacity.

In any case, the proposed language that emerged from the Nov. 12, 2008 meeting is broad to the point of meaninglessness, underlining the difficulties of pleasing all parties in such coalitions.

“Obviously with such a diverse group, it will be difficult to coalesce behind any specific position,” the minutes of the meeting stated. “But we all share a view that advocates a diplomatic resolution to the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, opposes military action against Iran, and agrees that sanctions are no substitute for diplomatic engagement.” (See page 26.)

Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said Friedman’s presence was unexceptional.

“We seek advice and guidance, including those that don’t share the views of NIAC — including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, of which we are a member,” he said. “Lara participated in this meeting and other meetings that included NIAC and other meetings of groups that have an interest in Iran policy.”

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

How Israel is implementing the settlement freeze

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Jewish settlers protest the government’s decision to freeze settlement-building in the west bank on Jan. 4 by breaking a house they built from ice near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s house. Miriam Alster/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – While an Israeli magician sat in an ice cube in Tel Aviv for 64 hours in a bid to shatter a world record, settler leaders in Jerusalem prepared to smash an ice cube of a very different sort this week opposite the prime minister’s residence.

The frozen block in Jerusalem that was shattered Monday by the leaders of west bank communities was meant to symbolize the 10-month construction freeze Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is imposing on Jewish communities in the west bank. Settler leaders are holding a weeklong demonstration outside the prime minister’s residence to protest the freeze, and the leader of the main settler umbrella group is encouraging people to keep building in violation of the freeze.

In the meantime, however, construction in many Jewish west bank towns has ground to a halt.

Some 230 stop-work orders were issued on projects in approximately 150 Jewish west bank towns visited by government inspectors. In addition, 36 pieces of building equipment used in illegal construction were impounded, according to a spokesman for the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, which is responsible for law enforcement in the west bank.

“The Civil Administration is carrying out the government’s decision regarding the suspension of building in Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria,” the spokesman told JTA.

Netanyahu ordered the freeze in late November in a bid to draw the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table and satisfy the Obama administration’s demand for a halt to settlement-building. While the Palestinians have rejected the temporary freeze as an inadequate measure, Israeli authorities have been laboring to enforce it just the same.

The question for many Israelis is how far, exactly, the government is willing to go on enforcement.

Israeli newspapers recently printed the contents of a leaked Israeli army memo showing detailed plans to demolish illegal buildings under construction in the west bank, and Israeli Border Police and soldiers reportedly are poised to carry out the demolition orders.

The freeze is being enforced “meticulously” and in an “extreme way,” criticized Dani Dayan, head of the Council of Jewish Settlements of Judea and Samaria, the main settler umbrella group.

Dayan said Israeli government inspectors have visited every community in the west bank and “looked with a magnifying glass” to see whether buildings under construction match aerial photographs taken the day after the freeze was announced. (Netanyahu’s freeze allows for 3,500 buildings already going up when the freeze was announced to continue construction.)

But an official at Peace Now, which advocates a full halt to Israeli settlement construction and monitors Jewish growth in the west bank, said it’s too early to determine whether Netanyahu’s freeze order is being enforced.

Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project, said the proof will be in how the government deals with freeze violations — including those she and Peace Now volunteers say they have seen firsthand in recent visits to Jewish towns in the west bank.

“There are places where construction was halted and places where they did not,” Ofran said.

While she praised the freeze as the most dramatic ever by an Israeli government, and noted that it does not distinguish between far-flung settlement outposts and the large settlement blocs near the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the west bank, Ofran said Netanyahu’s freeze still doesn’t go far enough. It should have covered construction of any kind and been long-term, she said, otherwise construction will resume with lightning speed as soon as the 10 months are up.

Netanyahu’s freeze was minimal and done to “satisfy the Americans,” she said. “On the ground, the Palestinians do not see any real change.”

But settlers are complaining that the freeze goes too far. Dayan said Israeli authorities are using “a lot of unnecessary force” to enforce the freeze, and that the halt in construction is causing great personal hardship for Jews living in the west bank.

As an example, Dayan noted that recently married couples in his own community of Maale Shomron who are ready to build new homes on recently purchased property now must shell out rent for at least 10 more months before they can begin building. Prohibiting work on homes, he said, is a violation of settlers’ “civil rights.”

Aside from encouraging people to continue building despite the freeze, Dayan said, he’s encouraging communities to continue with planning and approval processes and land development, so construction can begin immediately when the freeze is lifted in September.

JTA

 
 

Groups weigh in on flotilla confrontation

NEW YORK – The main U.S. Jewish umbrella organization is defending Israel’s raid of the flotilla heading to Gaza, but several left-wing groups are blaming the incident on officials in Jerusalem and calling for an investigation.

“We regret the loss of life and the injuries. But the responsibility for these tragic events lies primarily with those who organized and carried out this extremist mission and those that aided and abetted them,” said the heads of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the main pro-Israel umbrella group in the United States.

Several members of the Presidents Conference and other pro-Israel groups issued similar statements, including the American Jewish Committee, which accused the pro-Hamas Free Gaza movement and its supporters of deliberately provoking a violent confrontation with the Israeli navy early Monday morning.

But several U.S. Jewish groups on the left — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Ameinu — are pointing the finger at Israel.

Nine activists were killed and several dozen protesters injured aboard a flotilla of ships bound for Gaza during rioting after Israeli naval forces boarded the ships to redirect them to an Israeli port. The flotilla was attempting to break the Israeli navy’s blockade of the strip. Seven Israeli soldiers were injured.

Israel has circulated videos showing that their troops were attacked as they boarded the ships.

J Street and Ameinu called for independent investigations and cautioned observers against making any judgments before all the facts are known. At the same time, both organizations blamed the confrontation on Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza — a policy adopted in order to isolate and weaken Gaza’s Hamas rulers, help bring home captured soldier Gilad Shalit, end Hamas rocket fire on Israel, and halt the flow of weapons into Gaza.

Ameinu said that such incidents play into the hands of Israel’s enemies. J Street argued that there are “better ways to ensure Israel’s security and to prevent weapons smuggling than a complete closure of the Gaza Strip.”

In addition to slamming the blockade, Americans for Peace Now also sought to portray the flotilla incident as part of an ongoing Israeli government effort to stifle dissent. It called for “an end to the radicalization of the Israeli government’s language and policy” and endorsed the idea that Israel is increasingly earning “the brutal and violent image it acquired in the last years.”

The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest synagogue movement in the country and an organization that has backed robust U.S. peacemaking efforts, issued a statement that defended Israel’s actions and called for stepped-up efforts to “examine” any humanitarian needs in Gaza.

“We note that the Hamas government, which is committed to Israel’s destruction and which has long been responsible for attacks against Israeli forces and civilian centers, cannot expect to have open borders,” said the URJ’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie. “We also note that humanitarian aid sent to Gaza in the past has often been used as a cover for delivering weapons and military supplies.”

Yoffie added that in addition to working to address Jerusalem’s security need, the U.S. government and Israel needed to examine “the plight of those living in Gaza who require additional humanitarian assistance.”

“Recent events underscore the urgent need for real progress in addressing both sets of concerns,” Yoffie said.

JTA

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout becomes rallying cry for U.S. Jews

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Baltimore Jews rally June 4 in support of Israel. Rebecca Gardner/Baltimore Zionist District

The last time American Jews took to the streets in significant numbers to make the case for Israel’s right to defend itself, during Israel’s war with Hamas in early 2009, rockets were raining down on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

This time it’s a public relations war rather than a military one that has sent American Jews into the streets warning that a campaign is under way to wipe Israel off the map.

In indignant statements to the media, in Op-Eds, and at rallies around the country, American Jews jumping to Israel’s defense are casting the fallout to last week’s flotilla incident — and the mounting opposition to Israel’s blockade of Gaza — as part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Why did Israel even have to resort to blockade?” syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote. “Because blockade is Israel’s fallback as the world systematically de-legitimizes its traditional ways of defending itself — forward and active defense.”

“If none of these is permissible, what’s left?” Krauthammer asked rhetorically. “Nothing,” he answered. “The world is tired of these troublesome Jews, 6 million — that number again — hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide.”

As with the Gaza war, and the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel’s defenders see in the global assault on Israel’s enforcement of the blockade of Hamas-run Gaza — a territory controlled by an organization committed to Israel’s destruction — nothing less than a threat to Israel’s existence.

“Once again, my friends, Israel is under siege,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, declared at a pro-Israel rally Sunday in Los Angeles opposite the local Israeli consulate.

Some 3,000 people showed up for the demonstration, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The international outcry against Israel is an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state, Israeli Consul Jacob Dayan warned the crowd.

“Enough of the campaign of lies spread by the defenders of terror,” Dayan said. “Those on the flotilla were not peace activists.”

The precipitating incident occurred May 31, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turks upon encountering violent resistance to their effort to board a ship in international waters that was part of a Gaza-bound flotilla bearing aid materials and pro-Palestinian activists.

The incident became a rallying cry for pro-Palestinian activists, who held rallies across the country and around the world protesting against Israel, including at some Jewish sites. In downtown Cleveland, some three dozen protesters stood outside the Jewish federation building last Friday chanting slogans and holding signs including “Stop Israel Pirates.” In Washington, activists flocked to the Israeli Embassy calling for it to be shut down.

Many Jewish groups said the worldwide reaction to the flotilla incident smacked of hypocrisy.

“Why did we not hear the same voices of condemnation raised as thousands of rockets poured down on Israel or on behalf of Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas more than four years ago and held incommunicado ever since?” the main Jewish umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, asked in a statement.

The Jews countered with rallies of their own in communities across the country.

In Baltimore, several dozen demonstrators stood at a busy intersection in 90-degree heat waving Israeli flags and placards calling for the release of Shalit, an Israeli soldier, and blaming Turkey for the flotilla incident. In New York, demonstrators gathered across from the United Nations and at other rallies scattered around the metropolitan area. In Philadelphia, some 250 pro-Israel demonstrators gathered last Friday across the street from the Israeli consulate at a rally organized by the Zionist Organization of America, providing a counterpoint to the pro-Palestinian demonstration that had taken place three days earlier at the same site.

To be sure, American Jews have not been uniformly supportive of Israel’s actions on the high seas. Some American Jewish groups questioned the wisdom of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the way the flotilla raid was conducted. J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Ameinu all issued statements critical of Israel’s Gaza policies.

“There wouldn’t have been a flotilla if Gazan children had enough food, had schools, and clean water to drink,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, the left-wing pro-Israel lobbying group, told JTA.

“This is not a hasbara problem,” he said, using the Israeli term for public relations. “For decades Israel and friends of Israel have complained about a hasbara problem. What they have is an occupation problem,” Ben-Ami said. “We can either complain about the way the world views Israel or change the way we behave.”

While some American Jews and many Israelis said they support the blockade of Gaza in principle but disagree with elements of its implementation and the way the Israeli navy handled the flotilla interception, that nuance was not readily apparent at the pro-Israel rallies across the nation. Rather, the message at the demonstrations was kept simple: We stand behind Israel.

One speaker at the L.A. rally, David Pine, West Coast regional director for Peace Now, tried to deviate from that message, saying, “Despite the way one individual military operation was handled, ultimately it will take a negotiated resolution that provides for a two-state solution.” He was drowned out by a chorus of boos. When the chairman of the local Jewish federation, Richard Sandler, tried to quiet the crowd, audience members continued to boo Pine, with one yelling out, “Traitor!”

In Philadelphia, Steve Feldman, director of the greater Philadelphia district of the ZOA, summed up the approach he expected of supporters of Israel.

“I would not be satisfied,” he said, “until every Jewish person in the Philadelphia area, every person of good conscience in the area, everybody who knows right from wrong in the area, will be out supporting Israel, because Israel is in the right.”

JTA

 
 
 
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