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

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

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

News Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JTA

 
 

White House charm offensive pays off:  Wiesel says tension ‘gone’

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – When Elie Wiesel says it’s all kosher, it’s good.

For now, anyway.

President Obama capped an intensive two weeks of administration make-nice with Israeli officials and the American Jewish community by hosting Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust memoirist, for lunch at the White House.

News Analysis

“It was a good kosher lunch,” was the first thing Wiesel pronounced, emerging from the White House to a gaggle of reporters.

And not just the food.

“There were moments of tension,” Wiesel said. “But the tension I think is gone, which is good.”

That echoed Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, who a few days earlier told leaders of the American Jewish Committee that the “slight disagreements are behind us.”

The tension and the “slight” disagreements, of course, were between the United States and Israel — and by extension, the mainstream pro-Israel community — and started March 8, when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden rebuked Israel, but it didn’t stop there. Next came an extended phoned-in dressing down from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and claims by Clinton and other U.S. officials that Israel had “insulted” Biden.

Then, when Netanyahu arrived in Washington to address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Obama all but snubbed the Israeli leader, agreeing to meet him only without photo ops.

The pro-Israel community was virtually unified in its reaction: Yes, Netanyahu had screwed up, but this was piling on.

As the recriminations grew more pronounced, so did concerns about the relationship: Did this portend a major shake-up? Was Obama distancing himself from Israel?

In private, Jewish organizational leaders reached out to White House friends and said, whatever you’re selling, you need to explain it before “tensions” become a full-fledged “crisis.”

There were signs of that, with messages — some blunt, some oblique — about the dangers of pressing Israel on Jerusalem. The author of one of the messages, in the form of a full-page New York Times ad, was Wiesel.

In response to such rumblings — around the time of Israel Independence Day, mid-to-late April — the Obama administration launched its love assault. If you were a Jewish organization, no matter how particularized, you would get administration face time from Clinton (the American Jewish Committee) through Attorney General Eric Holder (the Anti-Defamation League) down to Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board (American Friends of Hebrew University.)

Clearly there was a checklist for the speakers:

• Mention that there is “no gap — no gap” (and say it like that) between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security. (Jim Jones, the national security advisor, to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; his deputy, Daniel Shapiro, to the ADL.)

• Repeat, ad infinitum, the administration’s “commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” (Clinton to the AJC; Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran policy, to the ADL and just about everyone else.

• Make it clear that while resolving the conflict would make it easier to address an array of other issues, the notion that Israel is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in the region is a calumny. (Robert Gates, the defense secretary, at a news conference with Barak: “No one in this department, in or out of uniform, believes that.” Shapiro to the ADL: “We do not believe this conflict endangers the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.”)

• Resolve to resolve differences “as allies” and don’t forget to criticize the Palestinians as well, for incitement and for recalcitrance in refusing to come to direct talks (proximity talks are resuming this week).

• And explain the fundaments of what is good about the relationship: defense cooperation.

The most pronounced evidence of this approach was in the ADL’s double whammy: The civil rights group got two speeches from two officials, Ross and Shapiro, who had not spoken publicly since taking their jobs in the administration. Each was in a position to go into detail about the details of the defense relationship, Ross handling the Iran perspective and Shapiro handling Israel and its neighbors.

“We have reinvigorated defense cooperation, including on missile defense, highlighted by the 1,000 U.S. service members who traveled to Israel to participate in the Juniper Cobra military exercises last fall,” Shapiro said. “We have intensive dialogues and exchanges with Israel — in political, military, and intelligence channels — on regional security issues and counterterrorism, from which we both benefit, and which enable us to coordinate our strategies whenever possible.

“We have redoubled our efforts to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, which has been publicly recognized and appreciated by numerous senior Israeli security officials. And we continue to support the development of Israeli missile defense systems, such as Arrow and David’s Sling, to upgrade Patriot missile defense systems first deployed during the Gulf War, and to work cooperatively with Israel on an advanced radar system to provide early warning of incoming missiles.”

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, was impressed, saying this was more than just rhetoric.

“We’ve heard all kinds of phraseology in the last few weeks, but this is an inventory,” he said.

Tom Neumann, who heads the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, agreed that the defense relationship remains strong — but wondered whether the rhetoric did not portend more substantive changes.

“On a soldier-to-soldier basis it remains solid,” Neumann said. “But much of the defense relationship is ultimately dictated by the administration. Obama may yet put pressure on Israel through the transfer of arms through how to confront Iran.”

JTA

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
 
 

Settlement freeze, Iran, peace talks to headline vital Obama-Bibi meeting

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rear left, and President Obama, flanked by Israeli and U.S. officials, are pictured at a Sept. 22, 2009 meeting in New York. The pair are scheduled to meet on July 6. Avi Ohayon /GPO/Flash 90/JTA

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters this week that he was misheard when he was quoted as telling Israeli diplomats that a “tectonic rift” was emerging between Israel and the United States. The Israelis didn’t get it, said the U.S.-born Oren: He meant there was a “tectonic shift.”

Whether there is a difference, and whether it’s meaningful, no one was going to say. The point was to get it right this time when the U.S. president and Israeli prime minister meet at the White House on July 6 or face a worsening of U.S.-Israel ties.

“The Americans and Israelis with whom we’ve met all seem quite optimistic that both sides are intent on having a positive meeting,” said the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, who is in Israel this week. “Both sides understand that there’s a lot at stake in having a positive outcome.”

As opposed to the last two — or almost two — times.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last visit to Washington, in late March, was marred by the aftermath of the tensions that followed Israel’s announcement about two weeks earlier of new building in eastern Jerusalem just as Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel for a visit. Top U.S. officials called the announcement an insult, and when Netanyahu and President Obama met they kept their deliberations behind closed doors, failing even to issue a summary statement.

Both sides spent subsequent weeks making up, with Obama administration officials emphasizing practical U.S. defense support for Israel and Netanyahu pressing hard for direct talks with the Palestinians. By the end of May, things looked good for a June 1 meeting at the White House.

But then came Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla. Netanyahu, already in North America, canceled his White House meeting and rushed back to Israel.

The Obama administration ostensibly supported Israel during the widespread outrage that followed, but the administration also pressed Netanyahu to set up an investigatory commission and flip its Gaza sanctions policy: Instead of a “white list” of permissible products to be allowed into Gaza, Israel created a blacklist of products it would bar from import to Gaza. That allowed a much broader array of goods into Gaza and marked a diplomatic loss for the Israeli government.

The sides are likely to come to the July 6 meeting with two items unresolved: What Israel plans to do once its 10-month partial freeze on west bank settlement building lapses in September, and how the sides plan to confront Iran.

The first issue is likely to be the most contentious: The Obama administration wants to keep the Palestinian Authority in the process, having finally lured it into proximity talks. But if Netanyahu doesn’t have direct talks to show for his efforts, it will be a hard sell to keep his right-leaning cabinet on board.

As an extra burr, Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat — who has national ambitions — is pressing ahead with plans to build in Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem.

On Iran, the difference may be more fundamental. Ostensibly the news for Netanyahu is good: The U.N. Security Council passed expanded sanctions this month against Iran in light of its recalcitrance on making its nuclear program transparent. The sanctions themselves lacked serious bite, but they set the stage for much tougher sanctions — one set approved by the European Union and another passed by the U.S. Congress.

The congressional sanctions are the toughest ever, targeting third parties that deal with Iran’s energy and financial sectors. They have been welcomed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, signaling the likelihood that Obama will adopt at least some of them. Already the Treasury Department has expanded sanctions targeting Iran’s shipping and banking sectors based on existing law.

The problem is, Israel’s establishment no longer believes sanctions will be effective and is eager to hear what, if anything, the Obama administration has planned for the military front. Obama thus far has laid back on such plans, or even on whether he would consider drawing up such plans for such a contingency.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the United States last week, and in his meetings with Clinton, national security adviser James Jones, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Barak outlined what is shaping up as his proposal to synthesize the two emerging crises: Barak wants Netanyahu to announce a bold peace initiative with the Palestinians as a means of freeing Israel diplomatically to operate in the military sphere should the need arise with Iran.

It’s not clear what his American interlocutors thought of the plan or whether it has resonance in Israel. A key element involves bringing into the government the centrist opposition party, Kadima, whose leader, Tzipi Livni, in recent weeks has indicated receptiveness to such overtures.

An Israeli initiative is necessary “to prevent our descent into isolation,” Barak told reporters after his meetings. “It is the only way to achieve real freedom to act when there are security events.”

JTA

 
 

First sign of the new U.S. political reality — Bibi’s swagger

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Randy Altschuler, right, a Republican who holds a slim lead in his suburban New York congressional district, campaigned this summer with Rep. Eric Cantor, at present the only GOP Jewish lawmaker in Congress. Courtesy Randy Altschuler for Congress

WASHINGTON – The sharpest signal of what last week’s elections meant for Jews came not from Washington but from New Orleans, Nova Scotia, and Australia.

In New Orleans, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech Monday calling for moving beyond sanctions to mounting a “credible military threat” against Iran as a means of avoiding war.

News Analysis

“Containment will not work,” Netanyahu said in his address to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.

The prime minister’s remarks echoed the precise terminology used by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in Nova Scotia two days earlier, when he told the Halifax International Security Forum that “containment is off the table.” The likely new majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), referred to a “credible military threat” in the days before the election.

It was a clear sign that Netanyahu feels empowered by the Republican sweep last week of the House of Representatives to trump the Obama administration’s emphasis on peacemaking with the Palestinians with his own priority: confronting Iran.

The emerging gap between Israel and its Republican friends on one side and the White House on the other could presage a repeat of tensions in the late 1990s between Netanyahu, in his first term, and President Clinton — tensions that pro-Israel officials found themselves brokering, often to their discomfiture.

Obama administration officials have indicated that they will not be taking cues from anyone in setting foreign policy.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking Monday in Melbourne, Australia, where he is on an official visit with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivered a rejoinder to Netanyahu’s remarks.

“We are prepared to do what is necessary, but at this point we continue to believe that the political-economic approach that we taking is in fact having an impact in Iran,” Gates said.

Gates’ response implicitly rejected not only an escalation but Netanyahu’s claim that sanctions are not working. It also signaled that the Obama administration was going to protect its foreign policy turf — the traditional White House posture when opponents take one of the houses of Congress.

That was clear already last week when Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s top aides, told sympathetic nongovernmental groups in an off-the-record phone call that the White House would be unwavering — even after losing the House majority — in pressing Israel and the Palestinians to return to the peace talks.

“The president has made it very clear that he is committed to doing whatever he can to foster talks in the Middle East,” said Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser for public engagement. “That’s not a partisan issue; his commitment to that is unwavering.”

But Netanyahu, speaking at the federations’ General Assembly, expressed confidence that he had U.S. backing in resisting Palestinian demands. He listed a number of items the Palestinian Authority is seeking, including a freeze on Jewish west bank settlement activity and a final-status deal that would remove Israeli forces from the west bank.

Netanyahu, however, told the crowd in New Orleans that Israel would stay in the Jordan Valley, the eastern part of the west bank, “for the foreseeable future.” The audience applauded.

“The Palestinians may think they can avoid negotiations,” Netanyahu said. “They may think that the world will dictate Palestinian demands to Israel. I firmly believe that will not happen because I am confident that friends of Israel, led by the United States, will not let that happen.”

GOP love for Israel

Beyond the ramping up of Iran rhetoric, the first signal that new Republican members who swept into office last week were going to make Israel a priority came from Marco Rubio, the Tea Party-backed candidate in Florida who romped to victory in the race for that state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Rubio, 39, the son of Cuban exiles, punctuated five days of celebrations with a trip to Israel with his wife. He left Sunday on the private trip, which will include holy sites. Rubio, who converted from Roman Catholicism to Southern Baptist, plans an official visit after assuming his seat, a campaign official told the French news agency AFP.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which for decades has managed to secure the support of the leadership of both parties, responded to last week’s elections with a positive message.

“It is abundantly clear that the 112th Congress will continue America’s long tradition of staunch support for a strong, safe, and secure Israel and an abiding friendship between the United States and our most reliable ally in the Middle East,” AIPAC said in a statement. “Many of the strongest friends and supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship were re-elected on Tuesday.”

The statement named Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the once and future Senate majority leader, and Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio), likely to become the House speaker; Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is losing the speakership and is vying to become minority leader along with Steny Hoyer (D-Md.); and Cantor, who is vying for majority leader. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, also is a staunch Israel supporter but was not up for re-election last week.

Backing Democrats, growing unease with Obama

Exit polls showed Jewish support for Democrats remained strong, although commensurate with other recent polling showing increased misgivings about President Obama over his economic policies.

J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” group, conducted the only national exit poll. It showed that 66 percent of Jews supported Democrats in congressional elections, compared with 31 percent for Republicans. An American Jewish Committee poll conducted in September and October showed 57 percent of Jewish respondents supporting Democrats vs. 33 percent for Republicans. The numbers are sharply down from the 78 percent of Jews who voted for Obama in 2008, according to exit polling.

The J Street poll was conducted by Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications on Election Day, Nov. 2, and surveyed 1,000 voters who identified as Jews as part of a broader consumer panel. It had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. Jim Gerstein, the pollster, is on J Street’s advisory council.

J Street and Gerstein also conducted an Election Day statewide poll in Pennsylvania, where conservative groups targeted Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) as anti-Israel in part because he was backed by J Street. The J Street poll showed 76 percent of Jews favoring Sestak to 19 percent for the winner, Republican Pat Toomey. The Republican Jewish Coalition also conducted a statewide poll of Jews the same day showing the break favoring Sestak 62 percent to 30 percent.

The difference apparently was that the RJC canvassed only Jews who were affiliated with synagogues. When unaffiliated Jews were polled — as they were in the J Street poll and as they are in AJC’s polls — the gap between Democratic and Republican support widened considerably.

By the numbers

JTA reported last week that Congress lost seven Jews in both houses, and gained two. The gain might be three.

In New York’s 1st Congressional District, a recanvassing of the voting machines erased Republican Randy Altschuler’s 3,400-vote deficit, propelling him to a lead of 392 votes over incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), who represents eastern Long Island.

Neither party was set to declare victory, as counting had yet to begin on 9,000 absentee ballots, but Bishop said Monday that he would demand a hand recount.

Altschuler, who owns a recycling company, would become the second Jewish GOP congressman, joining Cantor. His win would bring the number of Jews to 28 in the House, along with the 12 in the Senate.

A little farther upstate, GOP candidate Nan Hayworth, a physician, ousted Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) from the 19th District. Hayworth is a Lutheran but belongs to a synagogue with her Jewish husband and her two sons, whom she has raised as Jewish. That makes her the mirror image of Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who was elected from his Baltimore-area district in 2006. He is Greek Orthodox but belongs to a synagogue, and with his Jewish wife has raised his children as Jews.

JTA projected a win for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), and that became official last Friday night. The victory means a third term for Giffords, who was first elected in the GOP-leaning district in the Democratic sweep of 2006. She embraced tough immigration policies as part of her campaign this year, distancing herself from national Democrats.

Welcoming Blumenthal, Cicilline

The other two new Jewish congressmen are New Englanders: Sen.-elect Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), until now the state’s longtime attorney general, and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the mayor of Providence.

Cicilline is the first Jewish Rhode Islander elected to national office, the Providence Journal quoted David Goodwin, a historian of the island’s community, as saying. The state has elected a number of Jews to statewide offices, however, including governors.

Cicilline, whose mother is Jewish and a congregant of Temple Beth-El in Providence, also is the third openly gay male in Congress — and the third openly gay Jewish male in Congress, joining Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.). The only openly gay woman in Congress, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), is not Jewish.

Success in the states

As Blumenthal’s election demonstrates, election to statewide office often is a steppingstone to federal office. Count four more such steppingstones on Nov. 2: Jews won statewide races in Massachusetts, Arizona, Georgia, and Ohio.

Republicans Tom Horne in Arizona and Sam Olens in Georgia were elected attorney generals. Both are active in their communities and with the Republican Jewish Coalition.

So is Josh Mandel, a Republican state lawmaker and former Marine who was elected treasurer in Ohio. In Massachusetts, Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president and ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also won the treasurer spot.

Pro-Israel insiders in Washington noted that, in different ways, Mandel and Grossman both have been leaders in the effort to sanction Iran and now are positioned to make sure that their states enforce such sanctions. As a lawmaker, Mandel led the effort to divest Ohio from Iran. Grossman, as AIPAC president in the mid-1990s, lobbied for the Iran sanctions passed by Congress at that time.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Inside the beltway

Of spies and sanctions

Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process continue to dominate American foreign policy, subtly influencing other goings-on in Washington. The Obama administration recently received two letters from members of the House of Representatives, one calling for clemency for convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, and the other questioning a proposed multi-billion-dollar weapons sale to Saudi Arabia.

Questioning Saudi Arabia

Reps. Scott Garrett (R-5), Steve Rothman (D-9), and Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-5) have signed on to a letter with more than 190 other members of the House who questioned a proposed $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The letter, sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Nov. 10, asks for clarification on how the sale advances U.S. interests, if any conditions have been placed on the sale, and what threats the sale is intended to address.

“We do that in light of the concerns we raised of the failures by Saudi Arabia to meet the levels of commitments in other areas we hope they would raise before we engage in such arms sales,” Garrett told The Jewish Standard during a phone interview last week.

The letter also raises concerns about Saudi Arabia’s regional policies, in particular with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

According to the letter, members of Congress “have serious concerns about the nature of Saudi involvement in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly since the Saudis have failed to take steps toward normalization of relations with Israel or to augment their financial support of the Palestinian Authority.

“Likewise, Saudi officials have often made clear their anxiety over the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. But what action, if any, has Saudi Arabia taken to address this threat?”

The letter, Garrett said, is “a strong message that we’re looking for answers in a timely manner.”

Rothman said the letter is meant to ensure Israel’s military advantage in the region.

“My initial conversation with military and intelligence leaders who are most aware of the realities on the ground indicates that Israel’s qualitative military advantages would not be compromised by such a deal,” Rothman said, adding that the letter’s purpose was to get specifics as to how that advantage would be sustained, if not enhanced, by this deal.

Rothman’s office received a letter in response from Clinton and Gates earlier this week. According to that letter, the secretaries “ believe the proposed package promotes U.S. strategic and foreign policy interests, and it is a key component of our overall regional strategy.”

The letter cited the close “political-military relations” of six decades with Saudi Arabia, “a primary security pillar in the region.”

The secretaries also cited the Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia as well as attacks on its border with Yemen. They also concluded, according to the letter, that the sale will not impact Israel’s military advantage in the region.

“I will now be doing my own due diligence with regards to the statements made by Secretaries Gates and Clinton,” Rothman said.

To read both letters in full, visit http://www.jstandard.com.

Only Einhorn can go to China?

As the United States continues to push for tougher sanctions against Iran in the United Nations, China and Russia have consistently fought against harsher measures. Garrett recently met with Robert Einhorn, special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control and the Obama administration’s point-man on sanctions enforcement, for a briefing on a recent meeting with Chinese officials. Einhorn has worked on nuclear proliferation issues in almost every administration since Richard Nixon’s. In September, he went to China with a list of Chinese companies and banks that continue to violate sanctions against Iran.

Garrett raised questions about that list and China’s response. During his conversation with the Standard, Garrett stayed away from specifics about that list, but said it would be a subject of continuing talks with Einhorn.

Sanctions can be effective, the representative said, but they need to lead to something.

“The endgame is not to simply be implementing sanctions, but to bring about a change of behavior by Iran and we have yet to see that,” Garrett said.

Calls increasing for Pollard’s release

Calls for clemency for convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard are gaining steam in Washington, with a letter to the White House signed by almost 40 members of the House of Representatives. Pollard is serving a life sentence on charges of espionage on behalf of Israel.

Reps. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-8), Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), and Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) sent the letter to President Obama Nov. 18 after collecting signatures from 35 other members of the house, including Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9).

“We are not questioning Mr. Pollard’s guilt, but rather appealing for clemency based on the vast disparity between his sentence and his crime,” said Pascrell in a statement to the Standard. “Israel is one of America’s strongest allies, and I believe that 25 years behind bars is far too many for Mr. Pollard, especially considering the sentences to those convicted of similar crimes on behalf of countries who are not our friends.”

Pascrell, who visited Pollard in federal prison in 1998, has made Pollard’s case one of his main issues.

Pollard’s lawyers submitted a request for clemency to Obama last month after it was revealed that Pollard’s sentence may have been influenced by the anti-Israel attitude of the late U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. The Jerusalem Post also reported Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to ask Obama for Pollard’s release as part of an incentive package for Israel to extend its settlement freeze.

“In the end, the reasons why now is the appropriate time or whether Mr. Pollard’s release on clemency grounds would dovetail with other activities occurring in the Middle East or at home are irrelevant,” Rothman said. “What is most important is that the injustice of Mr. Pollard’s continued incarceration — albeit for an extremely serious act of treason that he committed — be granted immediately.”

Pollard’s sentence, he said, “has so grossly exceeded” the sentences of other Americans tried for similar crimes, Rothman said. The 25 years Pollard has already served meets the needs of punishment and deterrence, he said, adding that Pollard has expressed remorse for his actions.

Garrett did not sign the letter, which he said he had not seen. He declined further comment on the issue of clemency until he reads the letter.

For more on the Pollard issue, see Timing, noodging advance new push for Pollard.

Josh Lipowsky can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

 
 
 
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