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A very Rahm Chanukah

WASHINGTON – Rahm Emanuel had a serious message about mutual responsibility to make in a pithy, punchy speech before he helped light the “national menorah” Sunday evening on the Ellipse in front of the White House.

Still, the White House chief of staff being, well, himself, he couldn’t resist a couple of one-liners.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch, rushed in a “thanks” to the performers before calling Emanuel to the stage. After taking the microphone, the Obama aide quipped that “The U.S. Air Force Band, the Three Cantors, and Dreidel Man — sounds a little like the title of a Fellini movie.”

Chanukah 5770

Emanuel went on to make the lessons of Chanukah a paradigm for the collective responsibility for those not able to defend or care for themselves.

“Standing up for what is right, even when it is hard, is not a job for some other people, some other time,” he said. “It is a job for all of us.”

And still, expounding on the holiday miracle, he couldn’t resist a dig at his former habitat, Congress.

“The oil lasted longer than anyone expected — kind of like the health-care debate,” he said.

Chanukah started on a Friday evening this year, which meant that as a result of Sabbath restrictions, the opening ceremony had to wait until the holiday’s third day. That left Emanuel in the unenviable position of having to light three candles from the wind-blown crane he shared with Shemtov; Shemtov’s father, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov; a Secret Service agent; and a photographer.

This involved stretching to extend the shamas to the far end of the candelabrum — the younger Shemtov was ready with a cigarette lighter when the shamas blew out — to the oohs and ahhs of a thrilled and apprehensive crowd, apprehensive except maybe for Emanuel’s wife, Amy Rule, who laughed and took pictures as her husband held on for dear life.

The event, dubbed the “national menorah” by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, filled all 4,000 free seats — and then some — despite mud-soaked fields.

And add one more miracle to the Chanukah canon: Drizzling rain, which plagued the D.C.-area over the weekend, stopped just before the festivities started. JTA

This article was adapted from JTA’s politics blog (blogs.jta.org/politics).

 
 

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

 
 

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
 
 

Why NORPAC is supporting a challenger

 

Reaction mixed to announcement on easing of Gaza blockade

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On Monday, the day after Israel announced that it was easing the Gaza blockade, an Israeli truck driver walks by trucks filled with goods bound for Gaza at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Israel’s decision to loosen its blockade of Gaza is drawing both praise and criticism.

Israel’s security cabinet voted on Sunday to ease land-based civilian imports to the Gaza Strip; the naval blockade will remain in place.

The move garnered praise from the White House, which released a statement Sunday saying it welcomed the new policy toward Gaza.

“Once implemented, we believe these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza while preventing the entry of weapons,” the statement said. “We strongly re-affirm Israel’s right to self-defense, and our commitment to work with Israel and our international partners to prevent the illicit trafficking of arms and ammunition into Gaza.”

Turkey, which lost nine citizens when Israeli commandos raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla determined to break the blockade, continued to slam Israel following the announcement.

“If the Israeli government really wishes to prove that they have given up the act of piracy and terror, they should primarily apologize and claim responsibility in the slaying of nine people on May 31,” said Egemen Bagis, Turkish minister for European Union affairs, according to The New York Times.

The blockade of Gaza was put into place by Israel and Egypt in June 2007 after Hamas violently wrested power in the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. It was designed to thwart the import of weapons or weapons-capable material into Gaza and pressure the coastal strip’s rulers into releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid in 2006.

An economic blockade had been in place since Shalit’s abduction.

Pressure on Israel to ease the latter blockade, which had been climbing steadily, increased dramatically following last month’s Israeli interception of the Gaza-bound flotilla.

Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday evening to announce the easing of the blockade, reportedly played a central role in establishing the new protocols for Gaza. The Quartet — a grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia — issued a statement after Israel’s announcement calling for its rapid implementation and an easing of the conditions in the Gaza Strip.

Under the new rules, all items except those on a published blacklist will be allowed into Gaza. Until now, only items specifically permitted were allowed into Gaza. The blacklist will be limited to weapons and war materiel, including “dual-use items” that can be used for civilian or military purposes. Construction materials for housing projects and projects under international supervision will be permitted, according to a statement issued by Israel’s security cabinet.

The plan also calls for increasing the volume of goods entering Gaza and opening up more crossings, as well as streamlining the movement of people to and from the strip for medical treatment.

Despite the easing of the land blockade, Israel will continue to inspect all goods bound for Gaza by sea at the port of Ashdod.

Israel called on the international community “to stop the smuggling of weapons and war materiels into Gaza.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague praised Israel’s plan but took a wait-and-see attitude.

“The test now is how the new policy will be carried out,” he said.

German officials called for a complete end to the blockade in the wake of Israel’s refusal to allow Germany’s minister of economic cooperation and development, Dirk Niebel, to enter Gaza during a four-day visit to the region.

For their part, Hamas officials said the easing of the blockade was not good enough to relieve the distress of the Gaza population. They called the changes “cosmetic,” according to Ynet.

In Israel, the announcement received mixed reviews. Some lawmakers, including ones from the centrist Kadima Party and the center-left Labor Party, criticized the government for buckling under pressure, saying the move would strengthen Hamas. But others, such as Labor’s Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, praised it. Arab-Israeli Knesset member Hanin Zoabi called it insufficient, saying the blockade should be lifted completely.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the French news agency AFP that the blockade should be abolished altogether.

“These steps alone are not sufficient,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said, “and all efforts must be exerted to ease the suffering of the people of Gaza.”

JTA

 
 
 
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