Bush Takes Wary Steps in Middle East


 

Congress officially is lined up behind President Bush’s grand vision of Palestinian democracy — but it wants details along with that vision.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful International Relations Committee met last week, right after two congressional resolutions overwhelmingly endorsing Bush’s call for a Palestinian state were passed.

The lofty language of those resolutions behind them, Republicans and Democrats on the committee made clear that they now want facts: Where should the $350 million that Bush is asking for — and which almost quintupled recent requests — go? How should it be monitored? And should strings be attached?

“We have few details at this point about the administration’s plans for assistance to the Palestinians,” Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) said Feb. 10, “but I’m inclined to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on assistance to the Palestinians in the forthcoming months. However, we expect that we will receive promptly any required authorization legislation, and the administration will respond fully and in a timely manner to any legitimate questions that may be raised about the package.”

So far, at least, the administration isn’t getting any clearer. In his formal requests to Congress to put $200 million of the requested $350 million in an $82 billion war-on-terror package, Bush did not expand on his goals beyond the broad outlines he put forward in his State of the Union speech Feb. 2.

“Following the recent historic election held by the Palestinians, this request includes $200 million to reinforce these positive political developments by supporting the development of economic opportunity and democratic institutions,” said a fact sheet attached to the White House request. “This money will be used to develop infrastructure and support critical sectors like education, home construction and basic services.”

One clue to where the money might go is State Department action in spending $40 million in pre-approved funds, separate from the $350 million Bush requested.

That money is going to water infrastructure, education, job creation and health care — all distributed through nongovernmental organizations and not directly to the Palestinian Authority. That’s certain to assuage concerns by some in Congress and in the pro-Israel community, who have noted that money directed to Palestinian aid in the past often ended up lining the pockets of corrupt Palestinian officials.

Until Bush comes up with more details about his request, however, the powerful members of Congress who approve the funds are looking elsewhere for answers.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee — which has the final say on the request — rushed into the end of a Feb. 9 Capitol Hill lunch for Natan Sharansky, the Israeli Cabinet minister who has the president’s ear with his theory that stable peace can be made only with democratic regimes.

Lowey apologized for being late and asked Sharansky how he thought the request should be handled. Sharansky said the money should go to NGOs.

“That’s one of the most important things — to make sure it goes straight to people and not to bureaucracies,” Sharansky said.

The spectacle of one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington chasing a foreigner for advice underscored the degree to which members of Congress felt the need to fill in the gaps in Bush’s vision.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) put it most succinctly, toward the end of three hours of expert testimony from three top Jewish thinkers and one Palestinian: former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; Danielle Pletka, a former top Republican Senate staffer and American Enterprise Institute vice president; former top Middle East envoy Dennis Ross; and Ziad Asali, who heads the American Task Force on Palestine and who was an official U.S. observer in last month’s P.A. elections.

“What do you think our role should be, if you think we have a role at all in determining how the money is spent],” Jackson Lee asked.

Despite the broad range of views at the table, all four panelists agreed on Congress’ role: oversight, oversight, oversight.

“Congress has always been the feet-to-the-fire agency in the peace process,” Pletka said. “Congress has always been, in a very bipartisan way, the branch of government that has been most willing to do very, very serious oversight to ensure that aid is being used properly, that it is being directed correctly.”

A few minutes later, Asali, Pletka’s ideological opposite, echoed the thought and urged assurances of Palestinian accountability.

One powerful Democrat wanted accountability elsewhere as well — among Gulf Arab states that have not made good on hundreds of millions of dollars in aid pledges to the Palestinians.

“Many Americans join us in wanting to help the Palestinian people, but we can’t want to help them more than the Arabs themselves do,” said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee. “That is why I intend to pursue an initiative that will condition our aid on the demonstrated performance of oil-rich Arab states in providing assistance to the Palestinians.”

 

Jews Must Choose


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By what criteria should Jewish voters select Los Angeles’ next mayor? The March 8 election is looming as a referendum on first-term incumbent James K. Hahn.

As professor Raphael J. Sonenshein of California State University, Fullerton noted in an earlier Jewish Journal column, the Jewish community seems split mostly among three candidates.

More conservative, Valley-dwelling voters are especially drawn to attorney and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg. Centrists, city employees and others closer to the power structure tend to favor Hahn. Westsiders and progressive Jews again may lean toward the charismatic last-minute loser of the 2001 campaign, Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa.

But splitting the vote is nothing new in this predominantly Democratic community. To some, the 25-year-old divisions over mandatory school busing remain unresolved. Recently, Republican upstart Arnold Schwarzenegger carried lots of Jewish voters in the Valley — many of whom had backed Valley secession.

For the undecided, what are the desiderata of a mayoral candidate?

“The most important thing is to get to the polls,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel. “It’s sad in a way that this has to be stressed, but this is something that fewer and fewer people are doing.”

“While we pray for the peace of our city, it matters for Jews [to vote] in order to be a part of our larger community,” she continued. “Unfortunately, nowadays, not everyone takes this obligation for granted. This year is the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in America; it needs to be remembered how since then we’ve earned the privilege of electing our leaders.”

Longtime Democratic powerhouse Carmen Warschaw doesn’t hesitate to take sides. She supports Hahn.

“He’s done a good job,” Warschaw said, “and the problems with his administration,” those reported grand jury investigations and so on, “are the same ones any large-size administration has.”

It also matters to her that Hahn is a longtime supporter of Israel and Jewish causes. Hahn’s term will be remembered for his defeat of Valley secession and his decision to hire Police Chief William Bratton.

Businessman and publisher David Abel is a self-described policy wonk going way back, but that’s just one reason he favors Hertzberg, who is similarly inclined. He sees Hertzberg as “someone who will fight for the survival of the community. This city is at a turning point.”

The voter needs to pick someone who can put the entire city before everything else, Abel said, adding, “Someone who can say ‘no’ to his friends and take on the local power centers.”

Los Angeles’ mayor lacks legal authority over the local school system. But Abel asserted that Jewish voters should expect the next mayor to confront and transform the ungainly Los Angeles Unified School District.

After sitting 18 months on the citizens advisory panel for the school bond, Abel said, he grew to doubt that city schools can be greatly improved in the school district’s present form.

“Reforming East Germany was easier,” he said.

As Abel sees it, it is the next mayor’s job to make this happen. This, added Abel, is the best way to maintain Los Angeles’ eroding middle-class population.

Villaraigosa is the choice of Washington-based commentator Harold Meyerson, who spent most of his career in Los Angeles and still writes about L.A. politics. He said voters should take a more affirmative view. He doesn’t see the L.A. middle segment as eroding, but potentially increasing: “Antonio Villaraigosa wants to build up the middle class.”

Meyerson envisions Villaraigosa helping to bring the low-wage worker into the middle class through city policies and negotiations that are pro-labor. Meyerson noted that Los Angeles is usually rated the nation’s top manufacturing city. So some of corporate America must already be accommodating itself to city hall’s social agenda.

Many union leaders have concluded that this social agenda has made progress under Hahn. That’s why most of the unions are endorsing the incumbent.

For his part, Hertzberg emphasizes what he calls the city’s negative attitude toward business. He implies that being aggressively pro-labor could cost the city jobs.

For Geller, these divides over crucial issues underscore the importance of the election to Jews and everyone else.

“These are not specifically Jewish issues,” she said. “But they affect everyone. They move beyond ethnic politics and make us one community. This is the most important thing for voters to remember.”

Marc B. Haefele is news editor of the Los Angeles Alternative Press and comments on local government for KPCC-FM.

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A Four-Part Fight


 

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is picking a fight with longtime powers in Sacramento instead of trying to be everybody’s pal, raising a question of whether he can bring voters along with him who are torn by their desire for good government but angry over mounting partisanship.

Voters, according to a recent Mervin Field California Poll, are open to the governor’s four reform ideas heading into a probable November special election, even though voters don’t personally approve of Schwarzenegger as much as they once did.

The California Poll shows about half of Californians support his four reforms — basing teacher raises on merit, changing state worker pensions to a 401(k)-like system, creating an independent panel of retired judges to draw voting districts and instituting automatic budget cuts when California’s treasury runs low. Smaller numbers of voters oppose the reforms or don’t have an opinion yet.

Perhaps Schwarzenegger’s toughest sell is the least sweeping: reforming government pensions that, according to the state Department of Finance, guarantee a state secretary hired today who works 20 years and retires at age 60 will receive a $1 million payout if living to full life expectancy. These exploding costs are increasingly borne by taxpayers. Schwarzenegger’s plan, authored by state Assemblyman Keith Richman, a Jewish Republican from the San Fernando Valley, faces vociferous opposition from the powerful 140,000-member California State Employees Association.

Schwarzenegger fares better in the California Poll on his idea to give raises to teachers based on merit rather than solely on seniority. He has yet to flesh out the details, but a hefty 60 percent like the idea, likely to involve giving raises to teachers who outperform a statewide sample of teachers whose students match their own kids both economically and racially.

Although rising partisanship has hurt Schwarzenegger, some observers say he can still attract liberal Jews and others who are not natural allies but who want government to be more effective for those in need.

Ben Austin, political strategist for liberal Democrats, notes that, “because the governor has two very different constituencies he needs to speak to, the governor is in a difficult but not untenable situation. Conservatives want to see these reforms as vehicles for making government smaller and more efficient. For liberal Jews and other progressives, he needs a language to discuss his ideas in the context of making government better but not smaller: more able to serve those who progressives believe need help — children, the elderly and others.”

Not surprisingly, Schwarzenegger is working to appeal to liberally oriented groups associated with good government. He’s found some unexpected non-Republican allies.

A case in point is Common Cause, which supports an end to the “safe seats” gerrymandering scheme in California that currently allows incumbents to use computers to divide voters into bizarrely shaped voting districts specifically designed to return incumbents to office. Last fall, “safe seats” guaranteed that not a single one of California’s 173 legislative and congressional seats changed party hands.

Another group that does not typically align itself with causes led by Republicans is Education Trust-West, which concerns itself with achievement among urban and especially black children.

While not endorsing merit pay for teachers, Education Trust-West recently spoke warmly about Schwarzenegger’s idea for bonus pay for talented teachers who agree to work in inner-city schools — an idea intensely ridiculed by teacher unions.

Jews offer a bellwether into whether the governor can sell his ideas to voters who, while skeptical of Schwarzenegger, aren’t happy with the public schools, state deficits and gerrymandering.

Political analyst Pat Caddell, a former pollster for President Jimmy Carter, says it is possible Schwarzenegger has already poisoned the well with liberals, including Jews, by raising enormous sums of money — roughly $73,000 per day — to fight the well-monied status-quo groups who oppose these changes.

“If Arnold just acts like the pro-business candidate and Democrats are summed up as the anti-reform unions and special interests, I think that really fails to involve the citizenry who are affected by all this,” Caddell said. “Arnold can’t fly alone on this or he will be in big trouble. He has to reach out to the middle-class voters, such as parents who always get left out of education reform.”

Republican Jewish voters, largely thrilled with the governor’s bold strokes, believe he still has the ability to appeal to liberals.

Eva Nagler, a Republican Jewish Coalition board member and a professor of political science, notes that “because Arnold still transcends politics as usual — with Republicans saying he is too liberal — he’s still more palatable to liberal Jews than other Republicans. Arnold’s not a threat to their traditional issues of separation of church and state, environmental protection. He still has an opening.”

If approved, the four key reforms would directly affect millions of people –voters, families with children and taxpayers. Austin said that while the fight will be furious, “The governor’s ability to communicate means it’s not impossible. There is a path out of the forest.”

So get ready for the greatest test of Arnold’s communication powers so far. His real challenge is to convince Californians that while he can’t be everybody’s best friend, he’s striving to do what’s right.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at

Holocaust Denier Gets a Free Pass


 

Despite the smiling images from Sharm el-Sheikh, the fact is that Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has taken no demonstrable steps to dismantle and disarm the vast Palestinian terror networks, end the incitement or arrest terrorists. And although his rhetoric even after his election has been troublesome (calling for a “big jihad,” referring to Israel as the “Zionist enemy,” making it clear he will not use force against terrorists, and endorsing the policies of Yasser Arafat), the administration and Congress are falling over themselves to throw vast sums of money his way. President Bush has promised $350 million to Abbas, more than four times that given to Arafat by the Clinton administration.

Just as Abbas’ troubling words and lack of anti-terror action have been ignored, so has another distinctly dark part of his pedigree: the undeniable fact that he is a blatant and unrepentant Holocaust denier. In 1984, he wrote “The Other Side: The Secret Relations Between Nazism and the Leadership of the Zionist Movement.” In this pseudo-historical account, which was based on his 1982 doctoral dissertation, Abbas contended that Zionist leaders gave the green light to the Nazis to do as it pleased with the Jews as long as immigration to Palestine was allowed.

Moreover, he endorsed the outrageous contention that the Jews intentionally inflated the numbers of those slaughtered in order to engender support for the State of Israel. Citing other historical quackery, Abbas suggested that the number of Jewish victims might have been as few as “only a few hundred thousand.” And worse, he embraced the discredited work of Robert Faurisson, who shamelessly insisted that the Nazis did not use gas chambers

It’s bad enough that the mainstream press has not taken Abbas to task. But how in the name of the memory of martyred 6 million can one explain that Jewish leaders, Holocaust scholars and advocates have given him an unprecedented pass on so important an issue? It’s beyond disappointing — it’s downright offensive and sets a dangerous precedent.

During the weeklong series of ceremonies commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we were admonished never to allow or condone the desecration of memory of the victims through the distortion of the Shoah; we cannot afford to be asleep at the switch.

While we applaud that this message received such broad dissemination, it was hardly a new one for the Jewish world. While we may debate among ourselves every conceivable topic, including life-and-death issues of Israeli security, there always has been at least one issue that cut so deeply into our collective souls that it was not open to debate: Holocaust denial, from whatever source, was a scourge to be swiftly and ruthlessly challenged. When politicians like Jean Marie LePen in France, Jarg Haider in Austria and the late Franjo Tudjman in Croatia spewed their ugly views of Holocaust denial, Jewish organizations immediately sprung into action and spared no mercy in exposing the blasphemes for the anti-Semites they are.

John Roth, a well-known scholar, can certainly attest to how strongly Jews feel on this issue. Roth was not a Holocaust denier. He was, however, deprived of a senior position at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., after he had been exposed as having written offensive articles comparing certain actions of the Israelis with those of the Nazis. This was not only an ugly lie, it also diminished the horror of the Shoah. We were among many who stood up for the victims and survivors, and signed a petition opposing his appointment as someone who had desecrated the memory of those who perished.

It mattered not that an assault on Jewish memory came from the highest of offices. Who of us will ever forget Elie Wiesel’s plea to President Reagan not to visit SS graves at Bitburg because to do so would “begin to rehabilitate” the SS? Do we not, by giving legitimacy and respectability to Abbas the Holocaust denier, begin to rehabilitate Holocaust denial?

The international spotlight is now shining intensely on him as he has been anointed the great hope for peace. One would have thought this to be the most opportune moment to challenge him on his blasphemy. Instead, those who otherwise would be relentless in calling a denier a denier, have become timid; they’ve given him a pass. AIPAC issued a statement proclaiming that his election presents a “historic opportunity” for the prospects of peace. Not a word about Holocaust denial. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published an informative analysis of the Palestinian election, but ignored Abbas’ Holocaust denial. AIPAC and the ADL were not alone. Check the other organizational Web sites: nothing.

Why is there the deafening silence when it comes to Abbas, one of the most powerful and influential Arab leaders?

It is with utmost respect that we must urge Wiesel, whose courageous words to Reagan made us so proud, to forcefully speak out. After all, it is he who has always admonished us to dare not be silent when it comes to evil and lies about the Holocaust. And, why has there been silence from Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt, an expert in Holocaust denial, who also made us proud by her strong court battle against Holocaust denier David Irving? These prominent personalities, and all Jewish leaders, must publicly demand that Abbas give an unequivocal apology, fully retract his ugly lies and clearly acknowledge the horror of the Holocaust endured by the Jews.

Neal M. Sher is the former director the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations (the Nazi prosecution unit) and former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Morton A. Klein, a child of Holocaust survivors, is the president of the Zionist Organization of America.

 

Geneva Accord Stirs


After its gala launch in Switzerland this week, the unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal known as the Geneva accord is rapidly picking up international support.

Monday’s festive launch was designed to generate international and grass-roots pressure on leaders on both sides to take bold peace steps.

However, can the Geneva accord, reached by people who hold no office, become the basis for a real peace deal and break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock? Or, alternatively, will leaders not ready to go the Geneva route, but unwilling to be seen as obstructionist, be pressured into making different peace moves of their own?

Popular support for the Geneva proposal seems to be growing in Israel, but the government remains adamantly opposed. On the Palestinian side, the agreement’s main advocates have run into strong and sometimes violent opposition.

While major peace brokers like the United States and European countries are showing growing interest, none has yet adopted the Geneva draft as an official program or as a basis for negotiation.

The long, detailed document (www.heskem.org.il/heskem_en.asp) deals with such controversial issues as borders, Jerusalem and refugees. It has sparked fiery debates in Israel and among the Palestinians on the nature of a final peace deal.

It also has led to a flurry of parallel diplomatic action. Last Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dispatched his son, Omri, along with other Knesset members and government officials, for talks with Palestinians near London. Other Likud Party legislators took part in a weekend seminar with Palestinians in Madrid, and U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns returned to the region in an effort to restart the official peace process based on the "road map" peace plan.

Most significantly, Sharon himself made new overtures to the Palestinians.

The longer that other plans like the road map remain stalled, the more the Geneva alternative will beckon. That could generate a new dynamic leading to increased international pressure on both sides to cut a deal along the lines of the Geneva accord.

In Israel, sentiment on the Geneva proposal are mixed. A poll published Monday in Ha’aretz showed 31 percent of Israelis support it and 37 percent oppose it. Despite the opposition of the Likud-led government, 13 percent of Likud voters surveyed supported the agreement.

The architects of the deal were delighted. Haim Oron of the Meretz Party declared that the negotiators never dreamed the deal would win so much support so quickly. Yossi Beilin, the main Israeli architect of the plan, highlighted the multipartisan nature of the support.

The Israeli sponsors of the plan acknowledge that it is not a done deal, and they say their main purpose in making it public is to create a mind-set for peace. They say the understandings show there potentially is a Palestinian partner, and they set forth in the proposal the kinds of concessions that will be needed for peace.

Sharon’s ministers counter that the Israeli concessions in the document are excessive and that the Geneva exercise – and the international support given to it – put the elected government in an invidious position. They maintain that the Palestinians are using the Israeli left to lay down new starting points for future negotiations and to embarrass Sharon by portraying him as too hard line to cut a deal that others could.

For his part, Sharon has responded by hinting at a readiness to dismantle some Israeli settlements, coupled with the threat of unilateral action if the Palestinians spurn his overtures. The subtext is clear: Sharon is no uncompromising hardliner, but he’s not going to wait around for someone to try get negotiations going for a Geneva-type deal.

So far, none of the parallel initiatives has borne fruit, at least in public. No agreement was reached in the London and Madrid exchanges even on basic issues like ending terrorism, and both forums degenerated into arguments. The key to immediate progress lies now with Burns, the U.S. envoy, who is trying to set up a first meeting between Sharon and the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ahmed Qurei.

On the Palestinian side, neither Qurei nor Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has fully endorsed the Geneva deal, although Arafat did send a letter of qualified support to the Geneva ceremony. Israeli analysts believe that Arafat is playing a game: He doesn’t offer outright support for Geneva, so as not to be bound by its provisions and to be able to push for more. Yet he also doesn’t reject it outright, casting Sharon – who opposes the deal outright – as the rejectionist.

The Geneva ceremony highlighted growing international support for the accord. Nobel Peace Prize winners and Arab dignitaries attended, while former President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent greetings.

It is not inconceivable that at some point down the road, international players will seek to call a peace conference with the Geneva accord as the basis for discussion.

Already, the launch in Geneva is having reverberations in Washington. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) flew to Geneva for the signing and is expected to introduce legislation next week supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives, including the Geneva accord. A similar resolution was introduced in the Senate by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Nov. 25.

The Washington chapter of the left-wing group, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, hand-delivered copies of the resolution to each lawmaker’s office on Capitol Hill Monday. Beilin and Abed Rabbo will be in Washington this week to meet with lawmakers and to talk up their resolution to the U.S. media.

The Bush administration said Monday that it "welcomed" the Geneva plan, but officials expressed continued support for the road map. Official U.S. policy is not to allow other plans to deflect attention from the road map. The road map "is the only plan on the table," Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel, said Monday.

Part of the Geneva proposal’s charm is that unlike the slow, step-by-step road map, it envisions a one-step end to the conflict. But that could prove illusory, because the Israeli and Palestinian powers that be reject some of the accord’s main provisions and because closing the remaining gaps could prove problematic or even impossible.

For their part, the Israeli sponsors of the Geneva document intend to step up efforts to build domestic and international support.

The agreement is sure to become the main political message of a new left-wing party called Ya’ad, to be formed soon by a merger of Meretz and Beilin’s Shachar group. United around such a clear peace message, the group soon could be challenging Israel’s ailing Labor Party for primacy on the left.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency staff writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this story.

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