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GOP upset in Mass. raises questions for health reform

WASHINGTON – The election of Scott Brown to replace the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate has thrown the future of health-care reform into doubt.

With the Republican’s upset victory Tuesday in Massachusetts, Jewish groups backing comprehensive reform must figure out how to respond. One organization said that passing the Senate version of the legislation is the best possible outcome at this point, but others are undecided.

Brown has vowed to be the crucial 41st vote against ending the filibuster on any reform of the U.S. health-care system, dimming the prospects for passage of any kind of conference committee deal between the Senate and House of Representatives. That has led some to suggest that the only hope for health-care reform is if the House passes the Senate bill without amendments, so the Senate does not have to take another vote on the issue.

The associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Mark Pelavin, said that such a step would eliminate important provisions that his group backs in the House legislation — such as the “public option” — but “is something we could live with.”

Pelavin said that while it may not be the best possible outcome, considering the political landscape it would be an “incredibly significant step” in expanding the access to and lowering the cost of health care because it would cover two-thirds of those now without insurance.

Pelavin also said the Senate bill’s controversial language restricting the health-insurance coverage of abortion, which a number of Jewish groups have spoken out against, is “troubling.” But, he added, it’s not nearly as restrictive as the provision in the House version that would not allow anyone receiving federal subsidies to buy a plan covering abortion and would not permit plans on the “insurance exchange” formed by the bill to include abortion coverage.

Sammie Moshenberg, the director of Washington operations at the National Council of Jewish Women, said the Senate language on reproductive rights is still “pretty bad” because it would allow states to decide whether abortion is covered in insurance plans and force women to write a separate check for the portion of their health coverage that covered abortion.

As for the overall legislation, Moshenberg said her organization is waiting to see how the negotiations between the House and Senate play out.

“Obviously the political dynamics on the ground have changed” and congressional leadership is “going to have to develop a strategy,” she said. “It wouldn’t make any sense for us to decide right now.

“There are things in the Senate bill that we like, and things that we don’t like.”

B’nai B’rith International also has concerns about the Senate legislation. The organization believes that the subsidies for middle-income Americans are not large enough. Also, the bill allows insurance companies to charge older consumers up to three times as much as younger customers. The House bill’s “age rating” is 2 to 1.

“It would be very difficult for the aging community” if the House decided to pass the Senate bill as is, said B’nai B’rith’s director of aging policy, Rachel Goldberg. She also expressed concern about the independent commission that the Senate bill would establish to have authority over Medicare and Medicaid spending.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and head of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, said his organization would continue to work with the Congress and Senate “in favor of the parts of the legislation we’re supportive of and oppose the parts we’re opposed to.”

The umbrella group Jewish Federations of North America has declined to take a position on the legislation as a whole, instead focusing on its priorities, which include the CLASS Act — a government long-term care insurance program that is included in the Senate bill — as well as increasing coverage for the most vulnerable and protecting Medicare and Medicaid.

Daroff was one of a number of Jewish organizational representatives who suggested that Democrats might still be able to sway a liberal Republican — such as Maine’s Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins — to vote to end a Senate filibuster and thus be able to reopen negotiations with the House.

Whatever the case, Pelavin said his Reform movement constituency is still solidly behind comprehensive reform that makes health care more affordable and accessible.

“I don’t think there’s any diminution in the commitment in our community,” he said.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, though, said in a statement that Brown’s election demonstrated the electorate as a whole has “serious concerns” about Obama’s health-care proposals.

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

Facing confluence of diplomatic events, Israel taking wait-and-see stance

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From left, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, on Sept. 14. Moshe Milner/GPO

WASHINGTON – Heading into a period of intense diplomatic activity, Israel and the pro-Israel community are taking what may appear to be an atypical wait-and-see approach.

That sentiment and the Jewish holidays explain the relatively muted tone.

News Analysis

This week, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik for their second round of direct talks. Next week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to deliver his annual address to the U.N. General Assembly — his first since the international community launched a major intensification of sanctions aimed at getting Iran to make its nuclear program more transparent.

Also next week, two separate U.N. inquiries into Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla of ships are likely to be released.

Such a confluence of events, with its potential for anti-Israel invective, normally would invite a vigorous “best defense is an offense” approach from the pro-Israel community. Instead, organizations appear to be hanging back.

The reason, insiders say, is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees the stakes as too high for nasty back-and-forths between Israel and its opponents to get in the way. Netanyhahu is genuinely invested in the peace process and does not want to hand Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas an excuse to bolt.

Netanyahu also wants the Obama administration to have room to maneuver as the prospect of a nuclear Iran looms larger.

“The Israelis are saying this is real — Netanyahu wants to talk to Abbas one on one, and they will either move this ball forward or they won’t,” said William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America, who has been in close contact with Israeli officials.

Netanyahu’s seriousness is underscored by what appears to be a shift on extending the partial settlement freeze he imposed 10 months ago. Abbas has threatened to quit the talks if the freeze is not extended past its Sept. 26 deadline, and last Friday President Obama said he also wanted it extended.

The Israeli leader, who until this week had refused an extension, suggested to his cabinet on Sunday that there may be room for compromise.

“Between zero and one there are a lot of possibilities,” Haaretz quoted Netanyahu as saying.

Key to Netanyahu’s calculations is the improved relationship he has with Obama, a critical element in selling concessions to the Israeli public. At a news conference last Friday, Obama praised Netanyahu’s freeze.

“The irony is that when Prime Minister Netanyahu put the moratorium in place, the Palestinians were very skeptical,” Obama said. “They said this doesn’t do anything. And it turns out, to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s credit and to the Israeli government’s credit, the settlement moratorium has actually been significant. It has significantly reduced settlement construction in the region. And that’s why now the Palestinians say, you know what, even though we weren’t that keen on it at first or we thought it was just window dressing, it turns out that this is important to us.”

Another calculus for the Netanyahu government in its wait-and-see plan is the Obama administration’s success in drumming up Iran sanctions. Most recently, Japan and South Korea expanded sanctions over China’s objections, joining the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and Norway in targeting the Islamic Republic’s energy and banking sectors.

Even Russia is reported to have effectively “forgotten” to deliver its promised S-300 air defense system to Iran, which would considerably boost Iran’s ability to repel a strike against its nuclear arms centers should they become active.

U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies agree that Iran is feeling the squeeze, Israeli officials have said, leading Israel to defer to the Obama administration — for now.

“We’ve seen that the sanctions have taken a bite,” Michael Oren, Israel’s U.S. ambassador, told JTA. “But they have not yet in any way stopped enriching uranium or pressing on with their nuclear program. So that’s going to be the true test. Six or nine months down the road, we’re going to have to reassess and see where the sanctions are going.”

Ahmadinejad’s planned appearance at the General Assembly next week usually would spur the major Jewish organizations to organize a major protest rally to underscore his isolation. But with the Sukkot holiday coinciding with this year’s General Assembly, the protest has been scaled down to a Central Park rally organized by StandWithUs, a student-driven pro-Israel group.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is urging nations to walk out when Ahmadinejad speaks.

“We call upon all member states that uphold democracy and human rights to manifest their rejection and disapproval of President Ahmadinejad’s incitement, bigotry, and Holocaust denial by walking out of the General Assembly during his speech,” the organization said in a statement.

Local Jewish groups are planning sustained activism on Iran, said Josh Protas, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish community relations councils.

“Several communities are planning days of action to raise community awareness about Ahmadinejad, the United Nations, the continued threat,” he said.

JCRCs are asking members to press lawmakers to keep Iran on the agenda, on the federal level and state level, where divestment initiatives are flourishing, Protas said.

“There’s a recognition that the sanctions don’t end the situation,” he said.

The collective decision by Israel and Jewish groups to lay low on the dueling reports on the flotilla raid is seen as a test of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has tried to moderate the U.N. probes of the raid.

Israel was condemned harshly after its commandos killed nine Turks when violence broke out on one of the ships during Israel’s operation to stop the flotilla from breaking the maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel’s defenders say the commandos came under attack and were defending themselves; critics say Israel used excessive force.

Pro-Israel officials expect the investigation of the incident by the U.N. Human Rights Council to be biased; the council condemns Israel more than any other nation. The other investigatory commission, however, which Ban appointed and is headed by Geoffrey Palmer, a former New Zealand prime minister, is seen as fair. Netanyahu cooperated with that commission.

The question, said Daniel Mariaschin, the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, is whether Ban will be able to maneuver his commission’s report into being the one adopted and advanced by other U.N. bodies, including the General Assembly, rather than the U.N. Human Rights Council report.

“This is a test for the U.N. and for Ban’s leadership,” Mariaschin said. “Will it be fair?”

JTA

 
 

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

 
 
 
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