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AIPAC, congressmen seek to add teeth to Iran sanctions

WASHINGTON – Rules without enforcement don’t mean much.

That’s the new tone the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its supporters on Capitol Hill are taking when it comes to Iran sanctions.

Last week, congressional appropriators close to AIPAC moved to introduce enforcement language that would penalize federal agencies that contract with companies doing business with the Islamic Republic.

“If the existing lock on the door was not doing the job, this is a much more powerful lock we’re placing on the door of companies who would want to do business with Iran,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who is pushing the language with fellow U.S. House of Representatives appropriators, Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). All three are known for close ties to the Jewish state.

Setting the wheels in motion for the new legislation was the revelation in The New York Times on March 6 that sanctions busters had garnered $107 billion in U.S. government money for procurement business, grants, and loans.

In a rare move for a lobby best known for its behind-the-scenes profile, AIPAC sent letters to every member of Congress expressing its outrage over the sanctions violations.

“These ongoing financial dealings undermine longstanding American efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” the letter said. “While Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama may have discouraged some investment in Iran through their rhetoric, the United States has sent the American and international business community a contradictory message by failing to enforce the law.”

AIPAC’s letter has had an effect.

Rothman said he already was planning action as soon as he read the story, but the calls and e-mails he received made it a must-do. “My Blackberry was burning,” he said.

Rep. Israel raised the issue with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on March 25 in a hearing of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. Geithner was receptive.

“We would be open to any effective means for bringing greater pressure to bear on this government,” he said. “We share your commitment to this and we’ll work with you to explore any feasible means to bring greater pressure to bear on this government.”

Rep. Israel later said he was satisfied.

“The administration clearly got the message,” he said, noting that Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, had not enforced the sanctions for both of his terms. “I don’t want to proclaim victory yet; we still have work to do.”

The legislation would attach “limiting” amendments to all 12 budget bills that Congress must pass, preventing funds from going to companies that engage in activity eligible for sanctions or own or control any party that engages in such activity. This latter practice was a common dodge by U.S.-owned companies to enable foreign-owned subsidiaries to deal with Iran.

The legislation came the same week that AIPAC drew nearly 8,000 attendees to its annual policy conference. AIPAC activists lobbied March 23 for final passage of bills to enhance sanctions in existence since the mid-1990s. Bills have passed in the House and Senate and are now undergoing “reconciliation.”

The existing sanctions banned most U.S. business dealings with Iran. Yet the Times found in its March 6 report that 49 U.S. companies were doing business with Iran, and those doing business with Iran’s energy sector had gotten $15 billion.

The existing sanctions restrict access to U.S. markets for foreign entities doing business with Iran’s energy sector. The enhanced sanctions would outright ban U.S. business with any entity doing business with Iran’s energy sector and would also target Iran’s financial sector. The sanctions also would reduce the $20 million ceiling for overseas companies doing such business to $1 million. The idea is to force overseas markets into a choice between trading with the United States or with Iran.

The Times revelations were a bitter pill for AIPAC’s activists. The flagrant violation of the 1996 bill that AIPAC had been instrumental in supporting was a damper for AIPAC activists famous for their enthusiasm.

“It’s frustrating, a dead end,” said Debbie Farnoush, 26, from Los Angeles and a founder of the Iranian-American group 30 Years After. “I feel like we’re not going anywhere.” Still, she said, she wasn’t going to give up. The United States needs to be “more aggressive,” she said.

Bruce Wiener, another activist, was optimistic about the prospect of tougher enforcement. “Most members of Congress are sympathetic,” he said. “It’s not a matter of convincing; it’s a matter of implementing.”

Keith Weissman, who headed AIPAC’s Iran desk until 2005, said that Clinton administration officials made it clear to him from the beginning that the bill was never going to be enforced because it crimped U.S. trade with foreign businesses. Clinton’s 1995 executive order banning business with Iran’s energy sector had been enforced for a short period and had spooked the oil industry enough that the 1996 bill was used as leverage — but never in deed.

Part of the problem, Weissman said, was that after years of threatening and not implementing, the U.S. government was perceived as crying wolf by companies that wanted to deal with Iran.

“Once it was clear they weren’t going to enforce it, it wasn’t going to work any more,” Weissman said.

Weissman and his boss, Steve Rosen, were fired by AIPAC in 2005 under pressure from prosecutors seeking an indictment against the men for relaying national security information to journalists, colleagues, and Israeli diplomats. The prosecution dropped the case a year ago after the presiding judge ruled that much of the government’s case violated constitutional principles, including free speech rights.

Weissman, who no longer believes sanctions to be effective, said the amendments now under consideration would create a cumbersome bureaucracy, with multiple U.S. agencies vetting hundreds of businesses.

“What, are you going to vet the company that provides food to soldiers, that helps export oil from Iraq, that caters parties at the Baghdad embassy?” he asked.

Rep. Israel dismisses the idea that the amendments are unworkable.

“There can be no argument that once a law is passed and signed by the president that it’s too complicated to enforce,” he said. “Whether it’s a contract, a grant, or a loan, whether it’s a penny, a dime, or a dollar, we will not allow them to spend the money.”

JTA

Eric Fingerhut and Melissa Apter contributed to this story.

 
 

Congress delays sanctions bill, with AIPAC blessing

WASHINGTON – In a sign of closer White House-congressional coordination on Iran, Congress is delaying an Iran sanctions bill several weeks to give the Obama administration time to shepherd new sanctions through the U.N. Security Council.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee blessed the delay, in part because parallel measures are under consideration that would stiffen existing sanctions aimed at getting the Iranian regime to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

“We have always said that tough multilateral sanctions are the most effective means to persuade Iran to cease its efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability — a demand repeated time and again by the international community — and we applaud the efforts of President Obama and his national security team to unite the other permanent members of the Security Council behind this urgent goal,” said a joint statement by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

The statement predicted passage by the “latter half of June.”

Both the House and Senate have passed versions of enhanced unilateral sanctions that would target third parties — including countries, individuals, and companies — that deal with Iran’s energy sector. The bills are undergoing reconciliation, and congressional leaders had said they would pass this month.

The Obama administration has lobbied hard to delay the congressional sanctions, fearing that they could alienate the major powers it has persuaded to join the Security Council’s multilateral sanctions.

The enhanced Security Council sanctions, targeting Iran’s banking sector and mandating inspections of Iranian ships, lack the bite of the congressional measures. However, they broaden multilateral sanctions to encompass whole sectors — banking and shipping — as opposed to individuals and entities. That would lay the foundations for future sanctions that could more broadly target the regime.

“AIPAC supports this decision and endorses Chairmen Dodd and Berman’s firm, public commitment to get tough, comprehensive Iran sanctions legislation on the President’s desk before the July 4th recess,” the lobby said in a statement. “We urge President Obama to sign and implement that legislation immediately upon its arrival on his desk.”

AIPAC was assuaged in part by plans to insert language in other bills that would inhibit presidential waivers on existing sanctions. Recent reports have revealed that U.S. businesses that have illicitly traded with Iran have done $107 billion in business with the U.S. government. The businesses got away with the double dealing because successive presidents have not used sanctions at their disposal since Congress passed sweeping legislation in 1996.

House appropriators announced Tuesday that they would attach language to a supplemental appropriations bill that would require contractors to certify that they are not doing business with Iran. The sanctions would still be subject to a presidential waiver, but on a case-by-case basis, and on condition of certification to Congress that the waiver was necessary for national security.

“One of the most effective things we can do to compel compliance with the Iran Sanctions Act is use the power of the purse,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who worked on the legislation with fellow appropriators Reps. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), and Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) under the supervision of Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who chairs the foreign operations appropriations subcommittee.

Israel told JTA that he was sensitive to Defense Department concerns that some companies discovered doing business with Iran also might be providing critical aid to U.S. troops, for instance with anti-explosive device materiel.

“Then the president should tell Congress, but it shouldn’t be done in the dark, it shouldn’t be behind closed doors,” he said.

Israel called attaching the language to the supplemental appropriations bill a “shot across the bow.” He was hoping to attach it eventually to all 12 appropriations bills in Congress.

Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.) launched a parallel effort to attach similar language to defense authorization bills. His amendment would suspend for three years business with contractors that falsely certify that they are not doing business with Iran.

Authorization bills permit the government to carry out programs; appropriations bills fund the programs.

JTA

 
 

Unifying factor in 2010 election: Never before

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Tea Partiers rally against Nevada Sen. Harry Reid March 27 in the Senate majority leader’s hometown of Searchlight. Mark Holloway

WASHINGTON – Talk to veteran campaign watchers about this year’s congressional races, and within seconds they will tell you that they’ve never before seen elections quite like these.

“We’ve never seen a cycle where there’s been this many races this close to an election and you don’t know how it’s going to come out,” said Joy Malkus, the research director at the Chicago-based Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, or JACPAC, a group that directs funding to candidates who are pro-Israel and moderate on social issues. “And I’ve been doing this since 1982.”

Dr. Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, a New Jersey-based, pro-Israel political action committee, agreed.

“This one has taken twists and turns that surprise almost all of us that follow these events,” said Chouake, who lives in Englewood. “I’ve never seen anything like this in all the years I’ve been doing this — in my lifetime.”

Despite the unfamiliarity of the terrain, the rules of the Jewish fund-raising road remain the same: Stick with your friends and get to know unknowns as fast as possible.

In fact, the only change might be to append a “more-so”: There are many more friends at risk, and there are a lot more unknowns. An anti-incumbent surge already has had an impact in the primaries, ousting a clutch of incumbents in the Senate, where races generally are much more expensive than in the House of Representatives.

“The thing that has created the greatest demand for money in the pro-Israel world are all these open Senate seats,” said Lonny Kaplan, a veteran pro-Israel giver who is based in Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs and is a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

A greater demand and, according to insiders, a surprisingly greater supply, considering the economy’s narrow straits. Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he has never seen money flowing like this in a non-presidential election year.

“This is the largest effort our leaders have made in a midterm — ever,” he said.

Here are some races to watch in this very watchable season:

Endangered incumbents: The triumvirate

A number of pro-Israel incumbents are at risk in the Senate. Some already have been or are almost being written off, among them U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Others at risk are rallying in the final weeks and have attracted a late burst of pro-Israel attention, including Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Reid, the majority leader, is facing a tough challenge from Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-backed Republican challenger. Reid is considered critical by the pro-Israel community because he has taken the lead in helping to shepherd through Iran sanctions legislation. He’s also seen as having advanced pro-Israel defenses, most recently in a letter with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), pressing President Obama to designate the Turkish group behind the Gaza Strip aid flotilla as terrorist.

If Reid goes, and if the Senate changes hands, its pro-Israel cast is not likely to change: McConnell is also solidly pro-Israel and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the chamber’s most stalwart Israel defender (and a Jew from Brooklyn), likely would replace Reid.

Yet pro-Israel insiders say it remains a priority to keep in place a party leader who has been a proven champion of Israel.

“I’ve worked very hard for Harry Reid’s campaign, and the pro-Israel community has been very, very supportive of him,” Kaplan said. “It’s a very tough race. From my perspective we have a very friendly incumbent — it’s not hard to pick a side there.”

Boxer, a Jewish candidate who is facing former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, is likewise considered important because of the recent trend among liberal Democrats to question Israeli policies.

“She’s very liberal but also a leader,” said a donor who is close to top Democrats and did not want to be further identified. “She puts her name on pro-Israel legislation.”

Getting to know you: the Tea Partiers

Reid’s race is also considered critical also because he is facing Angle, who like most of the candidates backed by the Tea Party movement is friendly to Israel but also seeks budget cuts across the board. That makes her anathema to groups like JACPAC that are concerned about social services.

The Tea Party also makes some pro-Israel conservatives nervous because some in the movement want to slash foreign funding, although they have promised to work out a way to maintain funding for Israel. Some say that reveals a misunderstanding of the holistic nature of foreign aid: If aid is cut across the board, it signals an isolationism that can only harm Israel in the long run even if it benefits from short-term exceptions.

“The pro-Israel community has the challenge of keeping up foreign aid overall” if Tea Party candidates score major successes, said an insider associated with AIPAC.

That effort to keep up foreign aid already is under way, and pro-Israel insiders report warm conversations with Angle in addition to Mike Lee, the Republican candidate in Utah whose Tea Party insurgency unseated longtime incumbent GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, and Ken Buck, who is challenging Colorado’s Bennet.

Other Tea Party candidates have kept their distance from the pro-Israel community. They include Senate hopefuls Joe Miller, a Republican who is leading in Alaska, and Rand Paul in Kentucky.

Paul’s association with his father, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose isolationist polices have resulted in one of the worst pro-Israel records in the House, as well as the younger Paul’s reluctance to parry outside of his inner circle, have conferred upon his opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, the rare status of favored pro-Israel candidate in an open race. The pro-Israel donor community as a rule attempts to split the difference in such races, not wishing to alienate either side.

“Conway has great position papers on all of our issues — Israel, [reproductive] choice, and separation of church and state,” JACPAC’s Malkus said. “Rand Paul is not good on any of our issues.”

Unlikely challenges to incumbents — and unlikely incumbent

House Democrats facing challenging races across the country fall into two categories: Those who just months ago were seen as sure bets, and those who beat the odds to win in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats scored victories over a weakened Republican Party. In 2008, those underdog Democrats were buoyed by voters enthusiastic about presidential candidate Barack Obama.

A typical candidate who used to be seen as safe but now is in jeopardy is Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), who defeated his current opponent, Republican Allen West, by 10 points in 2008. Klein has strongly supported Israel in a heavily Jewish district that includes patches of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

West, however, has posed a formidable challenge this time, in part by linking Klein to a president perceived as less friendly to Israel than his predecessors, and in part because of anxieties among retirees over reports that Obama’s health-care reform will suck funds from Medicare, the government-funded insurance plan for retirees. An African-American Iraq war veteran, West also has an Achilles’ heel: Most recently he was associated with a biker gang that does not admit Jews or blacks as members.

Another Florida Jewish congressman is typical of the other column. In 2008, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), facing an incumbent weakened by a strong primary challenge, swept in in a district that encompasses Orlando and leans Republican.

Grayson, one of the most outspoken critics nationwide of the Republicans, is now in trouble, with outside Republican-affiliated groups pouring money into negative campaign ads. He has offset the blitz by raising four times as much as his Republican opponent, Daniel Webster, in individual donations, stemming from the joy his politically incorrect broadsides bring the Democratic base.

Grayson has accused Republicans of wanting the uninsured to die. Nonpartisan campaign watchers criticized Grayson recently for a TV ad that edited remarks to make Webster appear as if he were endorsing New Testament commands that wives should submit to their husbands. In fact, Webster was advising Christian fathers that they should ignore the commandments in question.

Which pro-Israel are you?

Two major campaigns have split the pro-Israel community: Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) vs. Alex Giannoulias for the open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) vs. Pat Toomey for the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania.

JACPAC is backing Sestak because of the organization’s twin missions of supporting Israel and moderate social policies. Toomey, Malkus notes, voted against foreign aid more often than not when he was a congressman in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

On the other hand, Sestak has been targeted by right-wing groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel for his associations with the left-wing pro-Israel lobby J Street.

By and large, however, J Street associations have not figured large in the campaign, said Kaplan, who is backing the Democratic incumbent Rush Holt in New Jersey.

JACPAC is staying out of the Kirk-Giannoulias race because of Kirk’s leadership role on pro-Israel issues in the House and his record as a Republican moderate. NORPAC’s Choauake referred to Kirk’s seminal role in shaping the enhanced Iran sanctions legislation that passed over the summer.

“He’s brilliant and hard working; he’s a mover and a shaker, “ he said of Kirk. “He can get stuff done — he knows how to strategize to get to the finish line.”

Races to watch? Try people to watch

Pro-Israel and Jewish money sometimes goes to candidates not because they need it, but because the community sees a future with the person in question.

That’s the case with Kelly Ayotte, a Republican leading in the open race for New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate seat, and Chris Coons, a Democrat in the same position in Delaware.

Ayotte “is someone who’s going to get into the Senate and do well,” Chouake said. “She’s been supported by Democratic and Republican governors as attorney general, which means she must be highly respected. She’s going to be a prime candidate for [the] executive branch if they’re looking for a young Republican woman.”

Coons, until now a little-known county executive, is also respected, said the pro-Israel insider close to Democrats.

“He’s very much up on the issues, very foreign policy attuned,” the insider said. “He pronounced [the name of Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad correctly.”

Reach out to the outreachers

Asked why he was backing Ayotte in the New Hampshire Senate race instead of Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), a Jewish congressman with a solid-pro-Israel voting record, NORPAC’S Chouake’s answer was simple: “She called me. He didn’t.” JTA

 
 

Amid rancorous debate, JCPA pushes civility

WASHINGTON – When disagreement among American Jews on Israel-related issues runs deep, how does an organization that bills itself as the representative voice of the organized American Jewish community formulate policies and priorities?

By emphasizing civility in public discourse, for starters.

That was one of the main areas of focus at this week’s annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which drew delegates from Jewish community relations councils and national advocacy groups across the United States to talk about American Jewish public policy priorities.

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Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, addresses the annual Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum in Washington on Sunday. Courtesy JCPA

Plenum organizers said the goal was to show that while differences within the Jewish community factions are substantive, particularly when it comes to Israel, it’s possible to discuss them without rancor.

“Civility is not avoiding uncomfortable conversations — it’s our respect for the dignity of other people and careful listening,” said Ethan Felson, the JCPA’s vice president.

That approach led to sessions featuring polar opposites: Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and a doyen of liberalism, joined James Woolsey, a neoconservative icon and former CIA director, in a discussion on energy independence.

The liveliest session, delegates said, was when Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, faced off against author Peter Beinart, who argued in a controversial essay last year that reflective defense of Israel in the public sphere is alienating Jewish youngsters.

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, addressed the widening gap between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. Young Jews in Israel, he said, have more in common with the Druze and Bedouin with whom they serve in the army than with American Jewish college students.

Oren said it was critical to overcome what can seem like “unbridgeable schisms” between Israelis and Americans.

“We are united at the heart, a rambunctious, often fractious people,” he said. “While the experiences of American Jews have made them more liberal and progressive, impelled by our traumas and our disappointments, Israelis have become somewhat skeptical of peace.”

Despite his plea for dialogue, Oren was among those who boycotted the J Street conference last month after a campaign by mainstream and right-wing pro-Israel groups to keep centrist and Israeli figures away from the conference.

In a separate appearance at the JCPA plenum, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and a J Street favorite, told a questioner who urged him to denounce those who describe Israel as an “apartheid” state that such rote statements are besides the point.

“We don’t need more cheerleaders for both sides,” he said. “We need more peacemakers for both sides.”

The applause for Ellison underscored the continued liberal bearings of a large segment of the Jewish community. So did the warm reception accorded Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s top domestic policy adviser, who revealed in her address that her great-grandfather was Jewish.

Jarrett went out of her way to suggest that tensions over Israel between organized Jewish groups and the Obama administration were overstated.

She referred to the March 1 meeting between Obama and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, saying that the president “made clear that while the region will evolve, some things will never change. Among them is his unshakeable support for Israel’s security; his opposition to any effort to delegitimize Israel, or single her out for criticism; and his commitment to achieve a peace that will secure the future for Arabs and Israelis alike.”

The Presidents Conference participants described that meeting as friendly, but some were rankled by Obama’s remark that they and Israeli leaders should “search their souls” about whether Israel is serious about peace.

Most of Jarrett’s speech was devoted to the president’s domestic agenda and his efforts to push back against plans by the Republican-led House of Representatives to slash spending on education and infrastructure and assisting struggling families. She pitched legislative efforts to close the income gap between men and women.

“Now that two-thirds of all families depend on two working parents, when women make less than men for the same work, or when women go into low-paying jobs, it affects the entire family,” she said.

Jarrett’s message of sustaining the social net resonated with a JCPA agenda that focused, in resolutions and in Hill lobbying, on alleviating poverty.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the conference’s most senior Republican speaker, recognized the community’s Democratic tilt in his address Tuesday morning, before delegates lobbied their representatives. Glancing through the JCPA’s agenda, Kirk noted that as a moderate Republican he supported much of it, including two initiatives against discrimination against gays.

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

 
 
 
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