Subscribe to The Jewish Standard free weekly newsletter

 
Blogs
 

entries tagged with: Ros Lehtinen

 

Jewish groups adjusting agendas for new GOP-led Congress

WASHINGTON – Faced with a new Congress intent on slashing the U.S. federal budget, Jewish groups are trimming their agendas to hew to its contours.

On issues from Israel aid to the environment to elderly care, Jewish organizations are planning to promote priorities that would find favorable reception in the new Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives. The groups are trying to build alliances based on shared interests and recasting pitches for existing programs as Republican-friendly.

“Some parts of our agenda won’t have much traction in this new climate,” acknowledged Josh Protas, the Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We are looking for items that have bipartisan priorities.”

To be sure, Democrats still control the White House and the Senate, and many conservative initiatives will die in the Senate or by the stroke of a presidential veto. But the House, with its considerable oversight powers and its ability to stymie legislation, remains extremely important.

Protas says the JCPA, an umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, already has had meetings with staff members of the new House speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio).

On domestic issues, many of the major Jewish organizations are devoted to policies that directly contradict Republican approaches. According to Protas, Boehner’s staffers told JCPA representatives that the best strategy for working around that is to cherry-pick the smaller issues within the broader agendas that could appeal to Republicans.

“We definitely got the sense that smaller, more focused legislation is what we’ll be seeing, so we’re trying to look at more discrete cases,” he said.

For example, on elderly care, a signature issue of the Jewish Federations of North America. The JFNA will seek to frame Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs, one of the jewels of the federation system, as a cost savings, according to William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations’ Washington office.

NORCs have been pitched previously as appealing earmarks for lawmakers to insert into bills. But Republicans say they will eliminate earmarks, or discretionary spending by lawmakers; the Jewish Federations’ emphasis on cost-effectiveness is an attempt to hit a popular Republican note.

“Programs like NORC,” Daroff said, “shift governmental policy away from expensive institutionalized care to less expensive” programs.

Daroff invoked Republican talking points in explaining how the Jewish Federations would continue to seek funding for security for Jewish community institutions. Security funding, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in recent years, has given local law enforcement the power to decide exactly how the money is spent, not federal officials.

“It’s not a nameless, faceless bureaucrat in downtown Washington making a decision but someone in a community allocating funds to what a community feels its needs are,” he said.

Another strategy is to establish relationships with Republican Congress members based on mutual concerns, and then trying to make the lawmakers aware of what drives Jewish community concerns, said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

He cited international religious liberty issues, including the persecution of Christians around the world.

“You have to go member by member to find people’s interests,” he said.

Jewish organizations will continue to promote some issues even if the Republican-controlled Congress isn’t interested in them. Protas and Pelavin cited cuts in funding for the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or food stamps, as an area where their groups would push back against GOP cuts. Daroff mentioned plans by some fiscal conservatives to disburse funding for Medicaid and poverty assistance in bloc grants to states, which would dilute spending on programs for the disabled.

Israel funding is likely to remain steady, Capitol Hill sources said, although there are concerns about how the funding will take place given the Republicans’ interest in trimming foreign spending.

Some leading Republicans, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the new chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, say Congress could separate funding for Israel from overall foreign spending, allowing conservatives to maintain current levels for Israel while slashing foreign spending for countries they don’t see as friendly or programs they oppose.

The pro-Israel community sees such a proposal as disastrous, in part because it will make Israel a “special case” after years of efforts to make backing Israel a natural extension of foreign policy. That could engender resentment of Israel.

Correspondingly, the pro-Israel lobby sees foreign aid as a means to bolster support for the U.S.-Israel alliance in the international community. Pro-Israel groups in Washington often have taken the lead in lobbying for Israel-friendly countries in the past.

One proposal has been to make Israel funding a part of defense spending. Insiders say they have been reassured that Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, has no intention of giving up funding for Israel and the power it yields her.

It also remains unclear what Republicans mean when they say they plan on keeping funding for Israel steady. Israel and the United States are in the middle of a 10-year agreement that incrementally increases assistance year by year between 2007 and 2017, so that it averages $3 billion a year.

Does “keeping funding steady” mean maintaining the 2010 level of $2.775 billion, or keeping to the agreement and upping the amount to $3 billion this year?

Officials say the best asset available to Jewish organizations dealing with domestic and foreign policy is the grass roots — not the lobbyists in Washington, but the activists across the country who make appointments to see their lawmakers on home visits.

The lesson of the Tea Party, the grass-roots movement that propelled Republicans to retake the House, should not be lost on Jewish groups, says Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women, which will advocate this year for President Obama’s judicial nominees, pay equity, and immigration reform, among other issues.

“The inside-the-Beltway strategy is to find our friends where we can, on a bipartisan basis,” she said. “But also to get the grass roots to speak out — that’s key, that’s what always turns the tide. If the Tea Party taught us nothing, it’s that getting folks to speak out and be persistently involved makes a difference.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

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

 
 

Rethinking the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 11 February 2011
image
Protesters pray in front of a tank in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Jan. 30. With the unrest in Egypt, a debate in Washington is emerging over whether to continue U.S. assistance to the country’s military at $1.3 billion a year. Iman Mosaad

WASHINGTON – The consensus on U.S. assistance to Egypt is that it has delivered bang for its buck: The $1.3 billion in annual defense aid has stabilized a key ally and strengthened America’s profile in the Middle East.

But in the wake of massive unrest that could unseat Egypt’s autocratic leader, the question now emerging is whether sustaining the aid to the Mubarak regime would advance a democratic agenda or squelch it — or whether that should be an American concern at all.

The Obama administration, speaking after the outbreak of the protests, initially said it would “review assistance” to Egypt. But now the White House seems to be quietly backtracking as long as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime makes a transition toward greater democratic freedoms.

It is a debate that pro-Israel groups will be watching closely.

Assistance to Egypt is rooted in the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace deal and has become a cornerstone of preserving the quiet along Israel’s southern flank. The question that Israel and its allies in Washington will be considering as the Egyptians shape a new government is whether continuing such assistance sustains the peace treaty or bolsters its detractors, chief among them Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

In a paper anticipating such considerations, the Congressional Research Service said last week that the day might finally have come to recalibrate assistance to Egypt, which for more than 30 years has gone mostly to the military.

“The unrest of January 2011 suggests that the terms of recent debate over U.S. assistance to Egypt may change significantly in the coming months,” the paper said. “Although U.S. assistance has helped cement what many deem to be a successful 30-year Israel-Egypt peace treaty, as time has passed, critics of continued U.S. assistance to Egypt have grown more vocal in arguing that U.S. aid props up a repressive dictatorship and that, to the extent that any U.S. funds are provided, policymakers should channel them toward supporting opposition or civil society groups.”

The problem with that formulation, said Graham Bannerman, who for years lobbied for U.S. assistance to Egypt, is that it ignores how deeply woven the military is into Egyptian life.

“They are the ultimate preserver of life and stability,” he said, noting the army’s role in calming protests in recent days and separating antagonists.

Egypt’s access to U.S. hardware and training elevates its profile as an Arab leader — a status that Egyptians of all political and social stripes embrace, Bannerman said.

“The army has a role in the region; a competent military force improves your political standing,” he said. Forcing Egyptians to replace democracy with military assistance is “like the Boy Scout walking the old lady across the street when she doesn’t want to so he can get a merit badge.”

According to the Congressional Research Service report, the $1.3 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt is split into three categories: acquisitions, upgrades to existing equipment, and follow-on support/maintenance contracts. The U.S. money accounts for as much as 80 percent of Egypt’s procurement power, CRS estimates. Bannerman said that translates into major acquisitions such as aircraft, tanks, and ships, as well as training.

As upgrades and support become more and more expensive, and the $1.3 billion remains stagnant, that effectively means aid to Egypt is shrinking, CRS notes. By contrast, military aid to Israel — scheduled to reach $3 billion this year — rises commensurate with cost increases.

The assistance to Egypt, along with years of training by and alongside U.S. forces, has created a military loyal to U.S. interests, analysts say. For U.S. forces, Egypt waives the restrictions on traveling the Suez Canal that are imposed on other nations. Without Suez access, the United States might otherwise have to double its naval presence around Africa, Bannerman said.

The Congressional Research Service report points out such benefits.

“The U.S. Navy, which sends an average of a dozen ships through the Suez Canal per month, receives expedited processing for nuclear warships to pass through the Canal, a valued service that can normally take weeks otherwise required for other foreign navies,” it said. “Egypt also provides over-flight rights to U.S. aircraft.”

The signature U.S. military assistance to Egypt is the co-production of the Abrams tank in Egypt, in place since 1988. Some parts are manufactured on the outskirts of Cairo, and the product is assembled there. Egypt plans to buy a total of 1,200 tanks, CRS says.

The program, combining defense spending with job creation in Egypt, is typical of how the Egyptian army functions — not just as a defense force but as a major property owner and public employer.

Robert Springborg, an Egypt expert at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., told National Public Radio this week that the Egyptian army has its hand in manufacturing automobiles, building infrastructure, clothing, kitchen appliances, tourism, and a range of other areas.

U.S. money does not fund such ventures but helps facilitate them.

The pervasiveness of the military in Egyptian life has net positives and negatives, according to U.S. diplomats. A 2008 memo from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt notes that “the military still remains a potent political and economic force,” and praises its role in producing bread to meet shortages and “sometimes can successfully step in where other government agencies fail,” which ensures stability.

It also said, however, that the military’s power has diminished in recent years, rendering it vulnerable to corrupt overtures of co-option by Gamal Mubarak, the Egyptian president’s son and until last month his designated heir.

That complex interface and am American tendency to kick against militarized societies have led to congressional efforts to move funds from military assistance to democratization.

In 2008, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), then the chairman of the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, led the passage of such a law, but the Bush and Obama administrations have waived it.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), another advocate of moving military assistance earmarks to democracy development, is now in a position of influence. As the newly installed chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she scheduled two days of hearings this week on assistance to Egypt and Lebanon.

Ros-Lehtinen once was an advocate of moving funds to democratization.

It is “incumbent upon us to assess United States aid to Egypt, and find effective solutions to resolving the freedom deficit there while providing for our security priorities and ensuring regional stability,” she said at a 2006 hearing.

Now, watching the developments unfold, Ros-Lehtinen has yet to say where she stands on military assistance, but she has suggested its continuance depends on a government dedicated to bottom-line U.S. agenda items, including support for Israel.

Last week, she said, “Opposition leaders must categorically reject the involvement of extremist elements who are trying to use this crisis to gain power, hijack Egypt’s future, and seriously damage Egypt’s relationship with the United States, Israel, and others.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

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

 
 
 
Page 1 of 1 pages
 
 
S M T W T F S
1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30