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MKs: New peace initiative to rely on international law

Knesset members — one a Druze — in Englewood

Two Israeli parliamentarians and a political activist told some 35 people last week at a gathering in Englewood of their concerns about attempts to delegitimize Israel.

Ayoob Kara, deputy minister for development of the Negev and Galilee and deputy minister for regional cooperation, is a Druze member of the Knesset for the Likud Party. (The Druze, an Arabic-speaking religious community, serve in the Israel Defense Forces.)

Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev is a member of the Knesset from the Shas Party, which he cofounded in 1984. He spoke to the attendees in Hebrew; his address was summarized in English by Karen Pichkhadze, executive director of the National Organization for Political Action, which sponsored the event at a private home.

The MKs were with Shoshana Bekerman, director of the Jerusalem-based Knesset Caucus for Judaism and Global Ethics. They plan to present the Jerusalem Initiative for Peace in the Middle East to Congress and the United Nations. The brainchild of Ze’ev, who chairs the caucus and who worked on it in cooperation with Kara, it seeks to combat the delegitimzation of Israel.

Speaking at the home of Irene and Robert Gottesman, Bekerman said that the delegitimization campaign started in Europe and has spread to the United States. The fight against it, she said, “is a tougher battle that any of the wars we have had to face.”

For Orthodox Jews, she said, the right of all Jews to Israel is based on the Torah, but today “you have to talk the language of international law, as our claims have to be based on international law,” which has given Jews legal instruments throughout history to make their case.

Some of those documents are from the 1937 Peel Commission, which suggested the partition of Palestine, and the 1923 British Mandate for Palestine, which favored the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” there.

The latest document is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Bekerman said, which was adopted by the United Nations in 2007 after 20 years of formulations. One hundred and forty-four countries voted for it and four against it, including the United States. Israel did not participate in the formulations.

The declaration purposely did not define the term indigenous, she said, but the United Nations does have a “working definition” of it.

According to that definition, indigenous people have a connection to the land through religion, history, language, culture, and economics.

“We definitely fit that description,” said Bekerman.

However, she added, Palestinians have been claiming their rights as indigenous people but Jews have not made use of the declaration because they lacked knowledge about it.

That lack, she said, was also evident among the politicians the MKs and Bekerman visited in Washington during their trip, Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who told them they had never heard about the document before.

Calling Israel an “occupying power” is a misuse of the term and manipulation by groups that have received money from leftist and Muslim organizations, Bekerman said, and also historically, morally, and legally wrong.

The Jerusalem Initiative, on the other hand, bills itself as “an innovative proposal presented within the framework of the two-state solution announced by Prime Minister Netanyahu and is intended to bridge the gap between the Israeli government, the Quartet, and the Saudi Initiative.”

It urges the Quartet to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital based on the indigenous right of Jews to the city and calls for maintaining the status quo regarding its population. It also accepts that an eventual Palestinian state may have its parliament in the Arab sector of the city.

The document asks the Quartet to recognize the rights of Jewish settlements, which should not be uprooted without the consent of the “indigenous Jewish inhabitants of the settlement.”

According to the project, the issue of refugees from the Middle East must be resolved in a way that includes recognition of the rights of those displaced from Arab countries, including Jews, Christians, and other groups.

Kara, the Druze MK, was critical of several of Israel’s past policies and said the Oslo accords “gave the criminal Palestinian leadership that was in Lebanon and Tunisia the legitimacy to be leaders in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.”

Peace in the region is far off, he said, as Israel has not found a partner or someone to lead an eventual Palestinian state.

Ze’ev said that his ancestors came to Israel from 10 different Middle Eastern countries, “leaving behind everything they had, leaving empires behind to come naked to our country, where we didn’t demand everything.”

But now, Ze’ev said, “we are fighting against people who are coming to the country demanding everything they can possible get for something they did not work for.”

According to Ze’ev, Israel needs members of Congress to understand the position it is in and the fact that “you can’t negotiate with enemies; it is impossible to do so with someone who believes you should not exist.”

Asked about the Jerusalem Initiative, Ben Choauke, NORPAC’s president, said, “You need every tool available to increase the standing of Israel before world opinion and the United Nations itself.”

The Initiative was presented in Paris in July and will be presented at the European Union Parliament in the near future.

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From left are Knesset members Ayoob Kara and Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev, and NORPAC President Ben Choauke. The MKs spoke at a NORPAC gathering in Englewood last week. Daniel Santacruz
 
 

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

 
 

New momentum for bill to allow lawsuits against Holocaust-era insurance companies

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Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla., third from left, standing) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla., second from left, standing) at an April 21 meeting in Broward County, Fla., to discuss federal social services programs with Holocaust survivors. William Daroff

WASHINGTON – It’s becoming a D.C. perennial: Every two years, a new Congress is ushered in and lawmakers from Florida herald a bill that once and for all will bring insurance companies to account for swindling Holocaust survivors.

And every two years, congressional staffers and Jewish community professionals who negotiate Holocaust restitution say the bill’s chances of passage are nil.

But this year, proponents of the bill say, the stars are aligned differently: A passionate congressional advocate is now in a position of considerable power. And for the first time, the bill has bipartisan Senate backing.

“The survivors are determined to speak for themselves,” said Sam Dubbin, the lawyer who for years has shepherded versions of the bill into Congress only to see them disappear into a twilight zone of parliamentary procedure. “They have an irrefutable legal and moral claim to have their rights restored.”

At issue is whether Holocaust survivors and their families should be allowed to sue European insurance companies for failing to pay on the policies of Jewish policy-holders killed at the hands of the Nazis. Except in extraordinary cases, such as lawsuits against state sponsors of terrorism, Americans cannot use U.S. courts to sue foreign entities.

In the late 1990s, Jewish groups including the Claims Conference reached settlements with European insurance companies that resulted in some $306 million being disbursed for survivors and survivor institutions through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, known by the acronym ICHEIC (pronounced EYE-check). These groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the World Jewish Congress, and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, see protecting the insurance companies from individual lawsuits as key to the strategy of getting European nations and institutions to agree to negotiated restitution settlements that result in money for needy survivors.

But Dubbin and some survivor groups, like the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors, say the ICHEIC agreements never legally precluded individual lawsuits, and that legislation allowing such lawsuits against the insurance companies would correct a historic injustice. They say the ICHEIC process, which officially ended in 2007, was irredeemably weighted toward the insurers.

Opponents say that if Congress passed a bill that would allow individual U.S. lawsuits against the insurance companies, it would upend the executive branch’s exclusive control over foreign policy. Essentially, they say, it’s a jurisdiction issue.

“It would be a cruel and unrealistic increase in expectations to have people go to court to try to sue companies against [which] they would have great difficulty getting jurisdiction,” said Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s special representative for Holocaust issues at the time the ICHEIC settlements were being negotiated. Today, Eizenstat is a top negotiator for the Claims Conference.

The battle between the two sides abounds with allegations of bad faith and greed, and even the threat of elderly survivors picketing a fundraiser for a politician once seen as sympathetic to their cause.

The new bill, sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) in the U.S. House of Representatives and Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the U.S. Senate, would allow courts to proceed over executive branch objections in litigating claims aimed at insurers. Ros-Lehtinen, who has championed similar bills for years, is now able as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to expedite the bill.

Leo Rechter, president of the National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, a group that is associated with Dubbin, told JTA that he wants courts to compel insurers to produce documentation that litigants believe to be secreted away.

“Survivors were children during the Holocaust years, and we do not have information” about parents’ claims, he said.

Advocates of the legislation say billions are potentially at stake. Some survivors say ICHEIC denied claims even when they had evidence.

“Even though I have papers showing this policy existed, the ICHEIC commission allowed Generali to deny my claim without giving any proof,” Suzanne Marshak wrote to JTA, referring to a policy she says her uncle had with the Italian insurer.

Eizenstat says ICHEIC’s standards were “relaxed,” in that applicants were not required to provide legal standards of proof that they were beneficiaries.

The latest dustup between the two sides followed a June 1 story in The New York Times that alluded to allegations by Dubbin, who is based in Florida, that Jewish groups backing the ICHEIC process have profited from opposing the legislation.

The Jewish groups fired back with a June 13 letter to Nelson and Ros-Lehtinen outlining their arguments against the bill: It would raise unrealistic expectations among survivors, reopen a negotiating process that a number of Western European nations had presumed was closed, and “call into question the U.S. ability to abide by its commitments.” Such uncertainties, they said, would inhibit Eastern European nations now negotiating to settle Holocaust-era claims.

Roman Kent, a survivor and treasurer of the Claims Conference, says the legislation gets in the way of helping needy survivors now, noting Germany’s recent commitment to increase its funding of home care for elderly survivors to $180 million in 2012. This year, the figure is $156 million.

“Litigation is costly and prolonged, and there are negotiations going on that will actually produce benefits for survivors now,” he said.

On June 17, the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, which supports the legislation, said in response that separate negotiations should not impinge on the right of individuals to litigate claims and that Western European nations are unlikely to renege on separate agreements.

The largest and more established survivors group, the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, also has weighed in supporting the bill, with a caveat: Cap lawyers’ fees. Max Liebmann, the group’s senior vice president, said an overriding consideration was a recent spate of scandals that exposed lawyers ostensibly representing survivors as making unseemly profits.

“Dubbin is trying to cut in on this and make money,” he said.

Dubbin’s clients vouch for his integrity.

“He helps us with everything for so many years, not just insurance, but with getting information, with filling out papers, and he never got paid,” said David Mermelstein. “If I go to court and win, shouldn’t he get paid?”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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