Speaker scuttles Iran vote to maintain House discipline

Rep. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, scuttled a vote on Iran sanctions to punish tardy lawmakers.

Ryan’s closing of the vote Wednesday postpones consideration of the bill, backed by Republicans, until after the Martin Luther King Day congressional recess next week – and likely after the next stage of the Iran nuclear deal kicks in.

Ryan, R-Wis., shut down voting after the requisite 15 minutes as part of a pledge to tighten discipline in the House. The bill passed, 191-106, but more than 130 lawmakers failed to vote, leading Ryan to reschedule,according to The Hill, a congressional daily.

U.S. and Iranian officials say Iran within the next few days is likely to meet its nuclear rollback requirements under the deal, which would trigger a lifting of sanctions.

If that goes according to schedule, the next time the U.S. House of Representatives considers the bill, many of the sanctions it seeks to keep in place will have been lifted.

President Barack Obama has vowed to veto the bill, which is backed only by Republicans and would restrict his ability to waive sanctions. Obama says the bill’s provisions effectively re-litigate the Iran nuclear deal, which the Congress failed to kill last year.

The bill would maintain sanctions on Iran for backing terrorism and testing ballistic missiles. The Obama administration says the deal focuses narrowly on stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and as long as Iran abides by its agreements regarding its nuclear sector, it makes more sense to address its disruptive behavior in the region through other means.

‘Unless I’m told otherwise, I will be Jewish’: Peter Jacobson on his TV career

During his 25-year career in Hollywood, actor Peter Jacobson has played doctors (“House M.D.”), lawyers (“Ray Donovan,” “Law & Order”) and studio chiefs (“Entourage,” “The Starter Wife”). But his role in the USA series “Colony” is less conventional — and a lot more complicated. 

The series is set in Los Angeles in the aftermath of an alien invasion, and the unseen occupiers have appointed collaborators to keep order, including Proxy Alan Snyder as governor. Snyder sides with the enemy, but he is not a cookie-cutter villain.

“His life has been turned upside down, just like everybody else. He’s clearly sold himself out and is willing to collaborate. But I also felt a current of very strong conflict and it was clear that he wouldn’t be a straight-down-the-middle bad guy,” Jacobson said. “I could see clearly what he was thinking and why he was doing what he was doing.”

As the series, which premieres Jan. 14, progresses, Snyder “gets even deeper and more torn. At the end of the season, you see him do some things that are surprising,” Jacobson added. “If we go ahead with other seasons and continue to deepen this character, I look forward to exploring that.”

If he were in Snyder’s shoes, would he collaborate or resist? 

“It’s hard for me to think about doing anything other than protecting my family. That’s probably where most people come from. It’s just a question of how far you’re willing to go,” Jacobson, a married father of one son, Emmanuel, replied. “I think I’d go pretty far.”

While many of his characters have been Jewish, including Dr. Chris Taub on “House M.D.,” Randy Dworkin on “Law & Order” and Lee Drexler on “Ray Donovan,” Alan Snyder’s religion “was never made explicit, and there were never any moments where it was referred to,” Jacobson said. “But for me, Snyder is Jewish. It’s just a part of me that I bring to any role. Unless I’m told otherwise, I will be Jewish.”  

Born and raised in Chicago, a fourth-generation American but descended from Russian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian immigrants, “I was certainly aware of being Jewish. There was a strong connection to a Jewish community, though it didn’t have a religious angle for me, because my folks were not religious Jews,” Jacobson said. He didn’t have a bar mitzvah or attend synagogue, “but we did have seders. Nothing too regular, but enough to keep me intrigued.”

Jacobson got a taste of show business when, as a boy, he’d accompany his father, Walter, a local newscaster, to work. “There was something about the lights and the cameras that appealed to me,” he said. He’d started acting in plays in the fourth grade and made his musical debut in “Fiddler on the Roof” as one of the townsfolk.

Later, at Brown University, Jacobson majored in political science and intended to go to law school, but the lure of the theater proved stronger, and he moved to New York to attend Juilliard. 

His parents gave him their blessing “with a wary eye and nervous caution. They realized that there was no stopping me. They saw how serious I was. They were nothing but supportive. But I understand their concern, because this business is so unstable,” Jacobson said. “I’ve been able to pay my way working as an actor. I feel very lucky, but I’m nothing if not tenacious. I get a lot of that from my dad.”

Although Jacobson has called New York home since his Juilliard days, he often works in Los Angeles, most recently on “Colony.” 

“My stepbrother lives there, so I stayed with him for a while and we rented a place when I was on ‘House.’ We always stay by the water if we can. I love L.A.,” Jacobson said. “If the right show comes along at the right time, we might make the move.”

He’s currently developing an idea for a TV show with a partner “to become more involved in the creative process. I’d like to have more control over what I do,” Jacobson said. “There’s a part or two that I could play very well but the priority is to get the show going and on the air.”

A passionate sports fan, he grew up going to Chicago Cubs and Bears games, played soccer and now coaches his son’s soccer team. “Maybe it’s the actor in me that loves the inherent drama of it. It’s more intense than any play you could ever do. I’ll go to any game, anywhere, anytime, any place,” Jacobson said. 

His son recently turned 13. “We’re figuring out whether we want him to be bar mitzvah,” Jacobson said. He and his wife, writer Whitney Scott, “are not raising our son in a religious household, but we feel the same sort of tug of community and tradition and we think it would be important for our son to have that experience. We’re juggling all the different possibilities,” including going to Israel, which Jacobson hasn’t yet visited. 

The desire to find more time to “relax, take it slow and enjoy the moment, and read a book” notwithstanding, Jacobson is satisfied with his life and career. “It’s been a slow, steady, upward trajectory,” he said. “Given my personality and potential for stress and anxiety, I’d like that big break so I’d never have to worry. But I’ve had breaks along the way that have helped nudge me faster or further, like ‘House.’ I feel very blessed and lucky.”

‘House’ showcases the art of futuristic Israeli dance

Longtime Israeli collaborators Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar first met when Behar was throwing legendary underground raves in Tel Aviv, and Eyal was a performer with Batsheva Dance Company. She went to the parties to let loose and dance.

“At one point, we just fell in love,” Behar recalled over the phone from Tel Aviv. “She told me that she’d like me to see a rehearsal. I’d never seen a rehearsal of a dance performance before in my life. I came to the studio, and, you can imagine, I was shocked and amazed by what I saw. It was a piece she’d created for Batsheva. I told her what I think; she asked for my opinions, we talked about it. She said it’d be nice if I came the day after. And that’s it. From this moment we started working together.”

“It’s a nice story, no?” he added with a laugh.

Eyal, 43, and Behar, 37, founded L-E-V in 2013. The company’s name spells out the Hebrew word for “heart.” Their choreography is more emotional than narrative — there is no story to tell, only feelings to express. L-E-V’s Los Angeles debut will be a performance of their new show, “House,” which runs Nov. 20-23 at REDCAT. It’s a sensual, experimental fusion of dance, light and music. 

The work’s title could be a reference to the style of techno music that Behar played at his parties, or to the home they’ve created through their dance company, or to their own family. They have two children, ages 6 and 13. Eyal, however, dismissed all of those interpretations. “We have deadlines, and we have to give names,” she said by phone from Ottawa.

“These names for pieces, it’s a bit like giving names for kids,” Behar said. “The piece is so emotional and comes from such a deep place, it’s really like giving birth. And the funny thing about giving a name to a kid, somehow the name fits him later on. It’s really a mysterious fact, but it’s a fact.”

“House” appears as if it would be just as at home in a Hollywood nightclub as in a theater. The movements are fluid yet precise, the dancers are incredibly — almost inhumanly — flexible, and the choreography manages to be both sensual and robotic, the performers pushing against each other, animalistically or synchronously, in large packs.

The dancers wear skin-tight, flesh-colored costumes that leave little to the imagination. All of L-E-V’s performances have used equally minimal outfits. 

“The decision of the nude is something that connects to the place that you want to see. And you connect to the dance because of the inside, and not the color of the shirt or the pants,” Eyal said. “I love to see the body of the dancers.”

The show changes from one performance to another. It began as 40 minutes long and has now been extended to an hour. The movements are choreographed but leave the dancers some freedom to play within those boundaries.

Even the music changes slightly. Ori Lichtik, a DJ and childhood friend of Behar’s (Lichtik said they met when they were 2 years old; Behar insisted it was at 1), has been performing with Eyal and Behar since 2006. The dancers rely on his musical cues to stay in sync, but the work still allows him some room for improvisation.

“I’m not really doing anything that touches the timeline and the flow of the work, but I do color it and put some effects and dynamics that are a bit different every time,” Lichtik said over the phone from Vancouver.

The music is a mix of electronic, tribal field recordings and Stravinsky. It’s a unique form of collaboration, with Lichtik working with the dancers from the inception of a piece until the end.

“I’m in the studio with my equipment, and I just start shooting out ideas and tunes and samples and stuff I’m working on, and they can bring the stuff that they want to get inspiration from, and I will mix it in,” Lichtik said. “We play a lot at the studio, and record everything, and then during the process we just pick up what we like. Much of the process is just cleaning it out and shaping the piece.”

Eyal danced with the Batsheva Dance Company from 1990 until 2008 and began choreographing during that time. She also served as the associate artistic director of Batsheva from 2003 to 2004, and as house choreographer from 2005 to 2012. She brings much of Batsheva’s distinctive style — which she helped develop — with her to L-E-V.

“It was something that came because it had to come,” she said of her decision to leave Batsheva. “It’s just growing up from an amazing place to a different place. But all my love and what I learned is from Batsheva. It’s like a continuation for me.”

Batsheva’s trademark style stems from a dance technique called Gaga, developed by Ohad Naharin, artistic director of the company since 1990. It encourages creative exploration by tapping into a dancer’s childhood ignorance of the body’s limitations. Batsheva dancers cover the dance studio’s mirrors during practice to encourage the ensemble’s imagination.

“I adore Gaga,” Eyal said. “I think it’s one of the most amazing tools that dancers can have, and people can have. We use it every day with our company. This is our warm-up and our classes, and I will always believe in it. It’s something that cleans you from the inside. It brings the potential of dancers to a different level. It gives you freedom to be yourself.”

L-E-V also uses no stage design or props. “It’s very minimalistic. There’s the movement and the music and the lights and the spirit of the piece,” Eyal said. “It’s about the clean feeling, without extra.”

And although the company is based in Tel Aviv, Behar downplayed the effect of their Israeli roots on the creative process. 

“We don’t think about it at all, if it’s Israeli or not. A lot of our dancers are not Israelis, and the dancers are a huge inspiration for the creation. And we travel a lot,” he said. “It is Israeli, but it’s also everything else that influenced us.”

Still, Behar said, he’s happy to offer audiences a different association with Israel than what is often presented in the news. 

“It’s not only about the negative or positive, it’s also just to have a different perspective,” he said. “For people who are for Israel or against Israel, it’s always one thing — it’s about the war. Especially for us, we don’t create in a political way. We just create.”

 L-E-V performs “House” Nov. 20 at 8:30 p.m. Through Nov. 23. Tickets are $25-30 (general), $20-25 (REDCAT members, students) $12-$15 (CalArts students). REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., Los Angeles. (213) 237-2800. redcat.org.

House bill would defund colleges that back Israel boycotters

Universities that “significantly fund” groups that boycott Israeli academic institutions would be ineligible for federal funds under legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Under the bill proposed Thursday by Reps. Pete Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief deputy whip in the House, and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), the boycotters  would “not be eligible to receive funds or any other form of financial assistance.” It was not clear what would constitute “significant” funding.

The bill, first reported by the Washington Free Beacon, also would require the secretary of education to make public a list of universities designated as supporting a boycott.

Speaking Tuesday on the House floor, Roskam said he would soon introduce the legislation, which was prompted by the decision in December by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities. Roskam described the ASA move as clearly an “anti-Semitic effort.”

Legislatures in New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania are considering the reduction of funding to institutions that back boycotts or condemnations.

Government shutdown over, Iran sanctions force back at full strength

The U.S. government returned to work, and officials who track Iran sanctions compliance were working at a full complement.

Hundreds of thousands of government employees who had been furloughed since Oct. 1 returned to work on Thursday after Republicans in the House of Representatives agreed to pass a funding bill advanced by the Democratic-led Senate the previous night.

A spokesman at the U.S. Treasury confirmed that the employees included officials of its Office of Foreign Assets Control, the office responsible for monitoring international compliance with U.S. sanctions targeting Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Obama administration officials had said the shutdown was having an impact on sanctions compliance, and suggested that it could cost the United States leverage as it leads negotiations renewed this month between the major powers and Iran on its nuclear program.

The deal ratified in the Senate and House did not meet demands by House Republicans that any extension on funding government spending should be tied to undoing parts or all of President Obama’s 2010 health care reforms.

As peace talks kick off, right wing intensifies efforts to influence their outcome

Israeli settler leader Dani Dayan has made it his mission over the years to warn members of Congress, particularly Republicans, of the perils of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Dayan has been a regular visitor to Washington, his trips often coinciding with developments in the peace process. During the Annapolis talks in 2007-08, Dayan would watch Israeli officials as they met with the media in the lobby of the venerable Mayflower Hotel, just blocks from the White House, and then move in to offer his own spin.

In June, Dayan met with GOP House leaders in a meeting organized with help from the Zionist Organization of America. The meeting was followed by a Washington Jewish Week report that another settler leader, Gershon Mesika, met with 20 Congress members just days before the relaunch of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

The intensive cultivation of relationships on Capitol Hill appears to be bearing fruit.

Within days of talks kicking off in Washington last week, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a freshman who attended the June meeting with Dayan, drafted a letter asking the U.S. attorney general to hinder the release of Palestinian prisoners — a move approved by Israel to help kick-start negotiations.

Dayan didn’t ask Salmon to write the letter. That request was made by the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a conservative lobby funded in part by gaming billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

But the congressional measures now being undertaken to impact the trajectory of peace talks have their roots in the warm relations that settlers and their American friends have forged in Congress over the past two decades.

“It was important to meet with the Yesha people,” a GOP official said of the June meeting, using the Hebrew acronym for the settlers’ council, “to find out who the settlers are, what they feel obstacles to peace are, what Judea and Samaria means from a historical perspective.”

In addition to Salmon’s letter, a perennial effort to tighten a 1995 law requiring the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem reappeared just as talks resumed. The strengthened law would remove a presidential waiver that has enabled successive presidents to delay the move on the grounds of national security.

Members of Congress behind both initiatives deny that the measures — neither in timing nor in substance — are intended to scuttle the peace talks. On the contrary, the lawmakers say they are intended to improve the chances of success for the talks by strengthening Israel’s bargaining position and making American parameters clear to the Palestinians.

“There will never be clear sailing as long as there are people who do not recognize Israel as a Jewish nation,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), one of the sponsors of the new Jerusalem bill.

But the settler leaders and the right-wing pro-Israel groups that support them are more blunt about their objectives.

“I told the congresspersons that the strategic choice that John Kerry made to go on with the conventional peace process to try to renew negotiations … will have catastrophic consequences for the American national interests,” Dayan said. “Because when he fails — and he will fail — the fact that the secretary of state of the United States failed will be noticed very clearly in Tehran and in Damascus and in Moscow and in Pyongyang.”

Daniel Mandel, the director of ZOA’s Center for Middle East Policy, said his group was gearing up to push back against talks it believes are doomed because the Palestinians remain unwilling to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

“Our strategy now that negotiations have resumed is to unblinkingly focus on the unregenerative nature of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority,” Mandel said, referring to Mahmoud Abbas, the P.A. president.

Efforts to exert congressional pressure to affect the outcome of peace talks are not new.

Following the launch of the Oslo peace process in the early 1990s, right-wing Israelis and their allies helped pass a congressional bill that would move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move that would buttress Israeli claims to the city whose ultimate fate was to be determined by Israelis and Palestinians.

A separate bill sought to prevent U.S. troops from patroling the Golan Heights to help cement a peace deal with Syria. Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli prime minister, expressed his frustration at both moves.

Back then, the right-wingers had mainstream allies; the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied for the Jerusalem law. AIPAC did not respond to requests for comment on the new Jerusalem bill, which is backed by the ZOA.

Republican House officials say their members are deeply skeptical about the renewed talks, which were launched after an intensive round of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry. Sensitive to Republican mistrust of President Obama’s foreign policy agenda, Dayan said he attempted to persuade House leaders that the peace process would harm U.S. interests.

“I would like Congress to explain to the State Department that this is a morally improper way to conduct diplomacy,” Dayan in an interview this week.

Sarah Stern, the director of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, said her primary concern was for the families of those killed by the released prisoners, but she acknowledged there was a dividend in alerting Americans to the dangers of the peace process.

“I can’t petition the Israeli government as an American citizen, I can only petition our officials,” Stern said. “But as a sidebar, it’s painful to see Israel has to go through so much just to get the Palestinians to sit down, and it’s a very sad thing that Israel has been subject to so much pressure by Kerry.”

House overwhelmingly votes to add new Iran sanctions

The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to add new sanctions on Tehran that would drastically reduce Iran’s trade.

The bill, which passed Wednesday evening by a vote of 400-20, would expand sanctions to shut down U.S. trade with any entity that trades substantively with Iran. Until now, such sanctions were imposed on entities that traded with Iran’s energy sector. The law maintains humanitarian exceptions for food and medicine.

The House bill on sanctions will not be taken up by the Senate until September, after the congressional recess. The bill, initiated by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the committee’s senior Democrat, comes days before Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, is inaugurated.

[Related: Rohani or no Rohani, we must increase the pressure on Iran]

Rohani has said he wants to talk with the United States about making Iran’s nuclear program more transparent. The Obama administration has indicated that it might consider an alleviation of some existing sanctions.

Some 131 House members last week wrote Obama urging him to take up Rohani’s offer, and most of them also voted for the new sanctions. However, 14 House members, all Democrats, urged the House leadership to delay the vote, saying it would embolden Iranian extremists who seek to marginalize Rohani.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, said in his floor speech that conciliatory gestures should come after substantive moves by Iran, and not just as a result of statements.

“America’s policies must be based on facts and not some hope about a new government in Iran that will somehow change the nature of the clerical regime in Tehran,” Cantor said. “We must respond to Iran’s policies and behavior, not to its rhetoric.”

In a statement praising the House vote, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee urged the Senate to quickly take up the new sanctions.

“The window is rapidly closing to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” the AIPAC statement said.

Jewish groups praise fiscal cliff deal, remain concerned about future cuts

While not totally satisfied with the results, many Jewish groups have come out in support of Congress’ last minute efforts to reach a fiscal cliff deal.

Linda Slucker, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, said her organization welcomed the part of the deal that protects Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security while extending unemployment benefits and raising taxes on those making more than $400,000.

However, she said in a statement, “We remain concerned about what is to come.”

“Those favoring further austerity before the economy fully recovers are busy trying to skew the public debate ahead and promise to use the need to raise the debt ceiling to extract more spending cuts,” Slucker said.

She added that the country needs “policies that promote jobs and growth, not a reduced standard of living.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued a statement saying that he was “pleased and relieved” that a deal had been struck. But he said the center was “deeply concerned that decisions in the coming months could threaten the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Saperstein also said, “We urge our government to honor its historic commitment to caring for the most vulnerable in our communities, especially in the face of economic turmoil.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, echoed the call to keep America’s safety net and praised politicians for “coming together to avoid dangerous across-the-board economic disruptions.”

However, he said in a statement, “We remain concerned about the future of important programs that support the most vulnerable and provide pathways to prosperity for millions of Americans including Head Start, workplace training programs, important research and development, and food for low-income mothers and children.”

B’nai B’rith International President Allan Jacobs expressed “significant concerns as we look ahead to another sequester — debt limit — deadline.”

“What will be on the negotiating table next time? Probably the same menu as this time,” Mark Olshan, B'nai B'rith's associate executive vice president, said in a statement. “Non-discretionary domestic spending programs that help the elderly, sure, but we’re also going to hear calls for cuts to Medicare and Medicaid again. We certainly hope Social Security would be left out because it is self funded and doesn’t contribute to the deficit but we have reason to be concerned about that as well.”

Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice called Congress’ actions “an imperfect deal, yet nonetheless one worth supporting.”

The deal “clearly establishes the principle that deficit reduction cannot and should not be achieved purely by cutting spending,” Bend the Arc CEO Alan van Capelle said in a statement. “As Jews and as Americans, we believe in the responsibility of the individual to the community and of the community to the individual.”

House, Senate pass final Iran sanctions enhancement

Congress approved a broad array of new sanctions targeting Iran, and the White House suggested it would implement them.

The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate each passed the final version of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act on Wednesday—the House by a 421-6 vote and the Senate by unanimous consent, enabling passage by advancing a motion as long as no senator objects.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbied for passage, praised both houses and particularly the bills sponsors, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Sens. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

“Each passing day affords the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism the ability to advance its illicit nuclear program,” AIPAC said. “America must lead the effort to exert the maximum economic pressure to get Iran to change course.”

The bill expands sanctions on insurers dealing with Iran’s energy sector; sanctions anyone affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps; expands sanctions on energy and uranium mining activities in Tehran; and freezes the assets of individuals and companies that enable Iran to repress its citizens through the use of techology.

It also reduces the threshold for incurring sanctions from $20 million in annual dealings with Iran’s energy sector to $5 million.

Also, for the first time in actionable legislation, the measure defines the capability of building a nuclear weapon as posing a threat to the United States.

The Obama administration, with support from Senate Democrats, managed to roll back some provisions backed by the House and Senate Republicans. Under the final version, for instance, the president has considerable leeway to postpone sanctions on insurers in order to give them time to comply.

In a conference call Tuesday on the eve of the votes, top White House officials said the bill would be a useful tool for them in ratcheting up pressure on Iran, suggesting that they were ready to implement most of its provisions.

“We certainly share the goal, and we believe it can be an important tool in adding to the sanctions regime we have in place,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said on the call. “We are reviewing the specific text of the bill that was produced, but we’re quite optimistic that we’re going to be able to continue to work in lockstep with Congress with this new legislation that’s working its way through Congress as we increase pressure.”

Presidents traditionally reserve the right to reject provisions of foreign policy bills, citing executive privilege.

House considering Jewish refugees bill

A bipartisan group of six Congress members is sponsoring a bill that would ensure recognition of the plight of 850,000 Jewish refugees displaced from Arab countries since Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

Their bill in the U.S. House of Representatives also would recognize other displaced populations, including Christians from countries in the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf.

The legislation specifically calls on the Obama administration to pair any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees with a similar reference to Jewish or other refugee populations.

“The suffering and terrible injustices visited upon Jewish refugees in the Middle East needs to be acknowledged,” said U.S. Rep. Jerrod Nadler (D-N.Y.), the lead sponsor of the measure. “It is simply wrong to recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees without recognizing the rights of nearly 1 million Jewish refugees who suffered terrible outrages at the hands of their former compatriots.”

Joining Nadler as cosponsors are Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Howard Berman (D-Cal.), Ted Poe (R-Texas), Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Bob Turner (R-N.Y.).

“Jewish refugees who were forced to flee Arab countries and Iran endured unimaginable hardships,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a news release sent to JTA. “Their plight has been ignored by the United Nations, other international bodies and many responsible nations. Any comprehensive Middle East peace agreement can only be credible and enduring if it resolves all issues related to the rights of all refugees in the Arab world and Iran, including Jews, Christians and others.”

Both B’nai B’rith International and the World Jewish Congress were among those who applauded the proposed legislation.

“We want to ensure that the United States makes the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab nations a priority in multilateral discussions about the Middle East conflict,” said Eric Fusfield, B’nai B’rith’s international director of legislative affairs. “Any time refugee issues are discussed in the context of the peace negotiations, the rights of Jewish refugees need to be given their proper place.”

Justice for Jews from Arab Countries has been pushing the issue for many years and was instrumental in obtaining a House resolution on the matter in 2008. The resolution noted that for any “comprehensive Middle East peace agreement to be credible and enduring, the agreement must address and resolve all outstanding issues relating to the legitimate rights of all refugees, including Jews, Christians and other populations displaced from countries in the Middle East.”

A similar resolution is being considered by the U.S. Senate.

House, Senate agree on enhanced Iran sanctions [UPDATE]

Congressional negotiators have settled on a bill enhancing Iran sanctions, and President Obama announced new sanctions targeting fronts for Iran.

“This bipartisan, bicameral Iran sanctions legislation strengthens current U.S. law by leaps and bounds,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committee and a chief sponsor of the bill, said in a statement released Monday after House and Senate negotiators finalized the legislation.

“It updates and expands U.S. sanctions, and counters Iran’s efforts to evade them,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “The bill sends a clear message to the Iranian regime that the U.S. is committed, through the use of sanctions, to preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.”

Obama administration officials likely will cite the enhanced sanctions bill, due to pass both houses in its final version before week’s end, in their efforts to persuade Israel not to take military action against Iran in the coming months.

Separately on Tuesday, President Obama introduced new sanctions that target fronts for Iranian entities already subject to sanctions.

The new sanctions, Obama said in a statement announcing his executive order, are “authorized for those who may seek to avoid the impact of these sanctions, including against individuals and entities that provide material support to the National Iranian Oil Company, Naftiran Intertrade Company, or the Central Bank of Iran, or for the purchase or acquisition of U.S. bank notes or precious metals by the Government of Iran.”

Singled out for citation were the Bank of Kunlun in China and Elaf Islamic Bank, for having “facilitated transactions worth millions of dollars on behalf of Iranian banks that are subject to sanctions for their links to Iran’s illicit proliferation activities.”

“By cutting off these financial institutions from the United States, today’s action makes it clear that we will expose any financial institution, no matter where they are located, that allows the increasingly desperate Iranian regime to retain access to the international financial system,” Obama said in his statement.

The congressional bill, likely to land on Obama’s desk later this wee: expands sanctions on insurers dealing with Iran’s energy sector; sanctions anyone affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps; expands sanctions on energy and uranium mining activities in Tehran; and freezes the assets of individuals and companies that enable Iran with technology to repress its citizens.

It also reduces the threshold for incurring sanctions from $20 million in annual dealings with Iran’s energy sector to $5 million.

It also for the first time in actionable legislation defines the capability of building a nuclear weapon as posing a threat to the United States.

“Capability” is Israel’s red line, while for years the U.S. red line has been “acquisition.” The “capability” red line has appeared in recent months in non-binding legislation.

The Obama administration, with backing from Senate Democrats, managed to roll back some provisions backed by the House and Senate Republicans.

Under the final version, for instance, the president has considerable leeway to postpone sanctions on insurers in order to give them time to comply.

Also omitted from the final version are sanctions that congressional hard-liners had sought on individuals associated with SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, as long as the body continues to deal with Iran’s central bank.

Obama administration officials in a conference call with reporters would not commit to signing the bill or endorsing all its facets, but said they were “optimistic” about working with Congress to continue isolating Iran.

House leadership, following ban on commemorative resolutions, blocks Munich 11 vote

The House Republican leadership blocked a vote calling for a moment of silence to memorialize Israeli athletes and coaches slain at the 1972 Olympics.

Resolution 663 was not voted on this week in the U.S. House of Representatives because the body’s leadership does not allow what it calls commemorative resolutions to come to the floor for a vote, U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the legislation, told JTA.

In 2011, the House leadership agreed to ban most such resolutions in an effort to speed up the voting process.

“Today they allowed a resolution of outrage against what happened in Aurora, Colo.,” Engel said of his GOP colleagues, referring to last week’s massacre at a Denver-area movie theater that left 12 dead and 58 wounded. “They did that and I felt that the moment of silence should have been one of” the exceptions.

The resolution, for which Engel was the main sponsor and had GOP co-sponsors, unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The Senate, which is controlled by the Democrats, passed a similar resolution 100-0.

“This is not just some commemorative resolution commemorating some Rotary club,” Engel added. “This is something of paramount importance and substantive importance, and it was topical.”

Engel said he recently approached Cantor on the House floor about the matter.

“Eric’s a friend and he was sympathetic and offered to do a letter with me or a press conference, but he felt that since they had this prohibition that he couldn’t make an exception,” he said. Republicans “can’t say that they were for it because they wouldn’t vote on it.”

A Cantor spokesperson confirmed that Cantor and Engel spoke about the matter, and that Cantor was willing to help in the ways outlined but could not violate the House leadership’s rules.

Chicago Chabad House avoids foreclosure

A Chicago Chabad House avoided foreclosure by filing for bankruptcy.

The brownstone housing the Lubavitch Chabad of the Loop, Gold Coast and Lincoln Park was to have gone on the auction block Wednesday, but the bankruptcy filing this week gave Chabad additional time to repay a bank loan, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The group has found a way to pay its debts but needed more time, Rabbi Meir Chai Benhiyoun said, according to the Tribune.

Seven years ago, Chabad sought to build a new center at Chestnut and Clark streets, on Chicago’s so-called “Gold Coast,” and used its building on North Dearborn as collateral to the bank on the $4.9 million loan.

Following the economic downturn, donations for Chabad took a hit, the bank changed its rules and the organization was unable to finance its loan on the new property.

The Chabad House has served as a residence, classroom and a place to stop for Jewish travelers on visits to Chicago.

In first, bipartisan House letter seeks Pollard’s release

Congressional Democrats and Republicans are joining forces for the first time in an effort to secure Jonathan Pollard’s release.

A bipartisan letter is circulating in the U.S. House of Representatives soliciting signatures on a letter to President Obama asking him to commute Pollard’s sentence to time served. The “Dear Colleague” letter is signed by veteran House members Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.).

“What Mr. Pollard did was wrong. He broke the law and deserved to be punished for his crime,” the letter to Obama reads. “Mr. Pollard has now served more than 25 years in prison, many of which in solitary confinement, for his actions. There is no doubt that he has paid a heavy price, and, from the standpoint of either punishment or deterrence, we believe he has been imprisoned long enough.”

The letter comes as Israeli President Shimon Peres visits the United States, where he is scheduled to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama on Wednesday. Peres said he would raise clemency for Pollard, a civilian U.S. Navy analyst who was sentenced to life in 1987 for spying for Israel, when he meets Obama prior to receiving the honor.

“I will speak one on one with the president about Pollard,” Peres told reporters after arriving Monday ahead of the Medal of Freedom ceremony on Wednesday. “The Israeli president also has the power of clemency—I understand all the problems associated with clemency. Clemency is not an extension of the judicial process, it includes considerations beyond and outside this area, and I’ll explain this to the president. I expect that I will explain my position, beyond that I can’t say—I don’t know what his considerations are. I intend on focusing on the humanitarian aspect.”

Efforts to persuade Obama to extend clemency to Pollard have intensified in recent months. Pollard is said to be in poor physical condition.

Meanwhile, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Itamar Rabinovich told Israel Radio on Monday that American officials suspect that there were other spies besides Pollard.

“The Americans suspect that Jonathan Pollard was not alone, that there were other Pollards and that Israel, despite all its promises, did not reveal all its cards,” he said, adding that in its sentence of Pollard, the U.S. was punishing Israel and “expressed their anger more with Israel than with Pollard.”

Numerous American leaders, who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, have called for a commutation of Pollard’s sentence.

Meanwhile, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. cited Pollard’s imprisonment in accusing America of hypocrisy for condemning her country’s 33-year prison sentence for a Pakistani citizen who helped the CIA find Osama Bin Laden.

“How can the country that is holding Jonathan Pollard in prison for close to 30 years claim that we do not have the right to judge a spy in our own country as we see fit?” Maleeha Lodhi, the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., said during an interview over the weekend with CBS. “The country that put Jonathan Pollard away for spying for its close ally, Israel, should understand that other countries, too, punish those who spy for an erstwhile ally.”

House rejects increase to U.S.-Israel energy cooperation funding

The U.S. House of Representatives voted down a Democratic procedural motion to the energy appropriations bill that would have provided additional funds for U.S.-Israel energy cooperation programs.

The motion to recommit the legislation back to the Appropriations Committee would have allocated an additional $1 million to the $2 million already in the bill for the programs.

The procedural vote was defeated 233-185 mostly on party lines with one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa, voting for the motion to recommit.

This is at least the fourth such attempt this Congress by Democrats to add pro-Israel language to a bill at the last minute. Republicans have accused Democrats of using the motions to recommit to score political points.

During floor debate, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), who offered the motion, said the additional funds were in the U.S. interest. 

“Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East, without question, and one of our strongest allies across the globe,” Boswell said. “And, as such, our ability to work together to advance the interests of both our nations is crucial.” Boswell said.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), the chairman of the Appropriations energy subcommittee, argued that the $2 million already in the bill was the figure proposed by lawmakers who back the program, and said there was no need for an additional increase.

“This is a completely unwarranted increase, considering our bill already maintains funding for this very important program at last year’s level, even while we’ve cut so many programs in our bill to stay within the budget,” Frelinghuysen said on the House floor.

In March, a bipartisan, bicameral group of 44 senators and congressman sent a letter to Appropriations Committee leaders, urging them to ensure the $2 million of funds for U.S.-Israel energy cooperation. 

That appropriations request was led by Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), along with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Following the vote on the motion to recommit, David Harris, president and CEO of the National Democratic Jewish Council, criticized House Republicans.

“It is very disheartening that so many pro-Israel Republicans who believe in American energy independence voted the way they did,” Harris said in a press statement.

House committee to hold hearing on Chasidic Jew held in Bolivia

The House Foreign Affairs human rights subcommittee will hold a hearing about the plight of a Chasidic Jew from Brooklyn being held in a Bolivian jail.

New York businessman Jacob Ostreicher has been on a hunger strike for nearly two months until he is either put on trial to defend himself against money laundering charges or released on bail.

Ostreicher’s wife and daughter, and a retired FBI official, will speak before the panel on Wednesday, according to The Hill website.

Ostreicher, a father of five from the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, belonged to a group of investors led by Andre Zolty of the Swiss firm Lexinter that sunk $25 million into growing rice in lush eastern Bolivia. He was arrested a year ago by Bolivian police. During his arraignment, the judge alleged that Ostreicher did business with “people wanted in their countries because of links with drug trafficking and money laundering.”

The judge also determined that Ostreicher should not be allowed to post bail because “being free, the accused could destroy [or] change evidence that could lead the attorney general to discover the truth.”

U.S. lawmakers and Ostreicher’s family believe that the U.S. State Department has not provided an adequate response to Ostreicher’s detention.

House explicitly counts out Iran war nod in bill

The U.S. House of Representatives explicitly stated that tough measures it recommended for Iran in a major defense bill did not authorize war.

“Nothing in this Act shall be construed as authorizing the use of force against Iran,” said an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, the bill that directs defense spending, passed in the House on Friday.

The act includes substantive references to Iran, among them a “declaration of policy” that the United States shall “take all necessary measures, including military action if required, to prevent Iran from threatening the United States, its allies, or Iran’s neighbors with a nuclear weapon.”

It also authorizes combat assessments of Iran’s forces and sufficient forces in the Persian Gulf to face Iran.

A number of dovish groups, including several within the pro-Israel community, have been lobbying lawmakers to include explicit denials in various legislation that such proposals authorize war.

The amendment counting out a war authorization was initiated by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Walter Jones. (R-N.C.).

Americans for Peace Now and J Street praised the amendment’s inclusion.

“Having urged Congress since the inception of these Iran-related motions to clarify that they are not aimed at authorizing the use of force against Iran, we welcome the adoption of this amendment, as well as other important verbal statements,” Ori Nir, APN’s spokesman, told JTA.

Dylan Williams, J Street’s director of government affairs, said the amendment “slams the brakes on those in Congress who would drive the United States toward a third war in the Middle East.”

House rejects Iran ‘containment’

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution that rejects containment of a nuclear Iran.

The non-binding resolution that passed Tuesday evening “strongly supports United States policy to prevent the government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran; and urges the president to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and opposition to any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.”

President Obama has in recent months made explicit his opposition to “containment” and his preference for “prevention.”

The resolution, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, had 314 sponsors.

A similar bill in the Senate, introduced by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has 74 co-sponsors but has yet to be introduced to the floor.

The House resolution passed under suspension rules, meaning that there was no opportunity to amend it.

Americans for Peace Now had urged Congress members in a letter to amend the resolution to make explicit that it did not authorize use of force and to substitute “acquisition of weapons” for “acquiring a nuclear capability.” APN argued that “capability” is too vague a term to establish a “red line” triggering military action.

Israel’s “red line” is nuclear capability, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been seeking the same commitment from the Obama administration. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes. The status of its suspected nuclear weapons program is not precisley known, although in recent days some reports have suggested that the Iranians have achieved the capability to manufacture weapons.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) urged the U.S. and Israel on Monday to align their “red lines” on that would trigger a military strike on Iran, The Hill newspaper reported.

McCain, speaking toto the to the center for Strategic and International Studies, did not elaborate on what the “red lines” should be.

A report released Tuesday by the Rand Corporation, a think tank that has strong Pentagon ties, strongly recommended against an Israeli or U.S. military strike on Iran and suggested that containment, while “dangerous”, would be preferable.

“An Israeli or American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would make it more, not less, likely that the Iranian regime would decide to produce and deploy nuclear weapons. Such an attack would also make it more, not less, difficult to contain Iranian influence,” it said. “To prevent the rivalry between Israel and Iran from escalating into armed conflict, the United States should continue to discourage an Israeli military strike while strengthening Israeli capabilities in preparation for a future in which Iran may have managed to acquire nuclear weapons. U.S. leaders should bolster security cooperation and intelligence sharing with Israel while maintaining pressure on Iran, thus weakening its capacity to project power and fueling the debate within Iran over nuclear weapons.”

Separately, an amendment passed in the Senate to a bill reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank Act that would ban any assistance to companies that violate Iran sanctions.

In a press release, the amendment’s sponsors, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark kirk (R-Ill.), said that under its provisions, $900 million provided in 2007-2008 in loan guarantees and other assistance to Reliance Industries in India would not have been possible, as that company sells refiled petrouleum products to Iran.

House subcommittee OKs $680 million for Iron Dome

A U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services subcommittee authorized $680 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

The approval came during the Strategic Forces subcommittee’s markup on Thursday of the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. A markup is when a subcommittee votes to refer a bill to the full committee; the act in question authorizes defense spending.

The Obama administration gave Israel $205 million in 2009 on top of its $3 billion defense assistance to help launch the system. President Obama’s original budget proposal had no funding request for the missile defense system, but in recent weeks Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, citing its success in repelling barrages of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip earlier this year, said the administration would agree to additional funding.

In March, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) introduced the Iron Dome Support Act, which authorized the president to provide additional assistance to the missile defense program. The legislation has garnered 74 co-sponsors.

Following the Strategic Forces subcommittee’s approval of the $680 million, Berman released a statement noting that “Iron Dome is a game changer, saving innocent lives and protecting Israelis.”

“Securing additional funding to deploy additional Iron Dome batteries is an Israeli necessity, an American priority, and a strategic imperative,” Berman said in the statement.

House committee to propose Iron Dome boost

The House Armed Services Committee reportedly is proposing $680 million in additional funds for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

A number of news outlets reported over the weekend that the Republican-majority Armed Services Committee plans to increase the funding in addition to the $205 million that was appropriated under President Obama’s 2013 defense budget.

Capitol Hill sources told JTA that a final figure has yet to be determined.

Two congressional leaders pushed for the increase in funding the Iron Dome system when they introduced legislation in March.

The Iron Dome Support Act was introduced by Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). The act currently has 66 co-sponsors.

A week following the introduction of the legislation, the Pentagon announced that it would “request an appropriate level of funding from Congress … based on Israeli requirements and production capacity.”

The Armed Services Committee will begin marking up the defense budget on Thursday.

Hopeful Dems eye top committee spots

Amid the election season tumult, behind-the-scenes campaigns are also under way for who will be the next top Democrats on two key congressional committees — with Jewish lawmakers in the running for both leadership slots.

Two veteran congresswomen, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who is Jewish, are vying for the leadership of Democrats on the Appropriations Committee, perhaps the most powerful of the U.S. House of Representatives committees because it determines spending.

And Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who is facing the Foreign Affairs committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), in a redistricting-fueled battle, has declared that he wants his fellow Jewish Democrat’s committee leadership post if he prevails. But if Sherman prevails in his House race, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a Berman ally, says he would vie to become the committee’s top Democrat.

Irrespective of which party ends up controlling the House after the 2012 elections, the two committee leadership fights are significant.

If the Democrats win back control of the House, they would be able to appoint the committee chairs, who have broad discretion in determining what legislation makes it out of the committee and onto the House floor, and what issues deserve oversight. The minority party’s leaders, while not as powerful as the chairs, may convene hearings and often work with chairs in shaping and advancing legislation.

At this stage the campaigning — among other members of the caucus, the congressional leadership and donors, and, to a degree, in the media — has been more about who plays well with whom than it has been about issues. But bubbling below the surface of the contests are two issues that are central agenda items for Jewish groups: abortion rights and Israel.

Kaptur is in line to be the appropriations committee’s most senior Democrat now that Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) has announced that he is not running for re-election. Lowey is ranked fourth in seniority on the committee among Democrats. Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), who is one slot above Lowey and one below Kaptur, is not considering a bid. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who is ranked seventh, also is considering a bid but is considered a long shot.

Lowey, 74, who was active in Jewish women’s groups before she launched her congressional career in 1989, is making her support for abortion rights an issue in her outreach, her staffer said. Republicans, the Lowey staffer said, tend to flood appropriations bills with amendments that would inhibit abortion as an option in the United States and overseas.

“It’s important to have someone who is willing to stand up for women’s health and who can be relied on,” the staffer said.

Kaptur, a Roman Catholic who represents a relatively conservative northern Ohio district, has been rated a “mixed choice” by NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights advocacy group, while Lowey scored a “fully pro-choice” rating.

Lowey’s reputation as a premier pro-Israel lawmaker also may figure in the calculus of who gets the spot, although she is not making it an issue in her campaign. She has been a leader in securing assistance for Israel and has an unusually strong partnership with the foreign operations subcommittee chairwoman, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), based in part on their commitment to the Israel-U.S. relationship.

Kaptur is closer to J Street, the liberal Israel advocacy group. In January 2009, in the midst of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, she said that “the proportionality of Israel’s response to Hamas’ incessant terrorist rocket launches is lamentable.”

Kaptur’s communications director, Steve Fought, said that Kaptur was committed to assistance for Israel, as she was to overall foreign aid. In any case, her bid for the committee’s top Democratic spot was based more on economic issues.

“It’s still about the economy, stupid,” he said, noting that Kaptur opposed NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying that it brought job losses — and that she has been able to cobble together allies from both parties in pushing back against such agreements.

Just as Lowey’s emphasis on abortion implies an unstated dig at Kaptur, so does the NAFTA reference seem to undercut Lowey, one of a minority of Democrats who voted for the trade agreement in 1993.

Lowey may have the edge with the leadership; she allowed herself in 2007 to be dissuaded from standing for the committee leadership to make way for since-retired Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), which earned her good will. Additionally, Kaptur has clashed with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader, over the health care package that in 2010 was the then-speaker’s signature achievement.

Meanwhile in California, the Sherman-Berman race is already infused with pro-Israel politicking, and Sherman’s declared candidacy for the top Democratic spot on the foreign affairs committee only intensifies that element of the race. Berman, 71, and Sherman, 57, are both Jewish.

Sherman, in a statement, suggested that his tough postures on sanctioning Iran and supporting Israel were salient to his leadership bid.

“I have the breadth of experience to do the job and have worked tirelessly to help our caucus achieve a majority,” he said. “My record on Israel and on Iran sanctions is well known to all who read JTA reports.”

Berman would not comment for this article. However, the outline of their increasingly bitter race in the San Fernando Valley race already has seeped into this battle. Sherman’s backers have sought to depict Berman as bound too closely to the Obama administration and averse to aggressively confronting the president on Israel’s behalf. Berman’s defenders have countered that he is more reliable in securing the support and action that Israel needs — most recently the broad Iran sanctions packages — and advances Israel’s interests better as an influential insider.

Sherman, who has been far ahead of Berman in some polls, may not have helped his case by announcing for the committee leadership so early, before the outcome of his House race.

Much of the congressional leadership is rooting for Berman, albeit unofficially, according to a source close to party leaders. Pelosi has been publicly praising Berman, even as she has not made an endorsement in the race. Berman also has been endorsed by the overwhelming majority of California’s congressional Democrats.

Engel, who is also an outspoken supporter of Israel, has announced his intention to bid for the top spot if Berman loses to Sherman, although he said in an interview that he hopes that does not happen.

“I feel a little awkward, but I’m letting people know I would go for the job. I can’t allow someone who has nothing to lose to talk to people,” he said of Sherman, “and not talk to people.”

House members urge Obama to advance 2-state solution

A J Street-backed letter from 74 Congressional lawmakers urged President Obama to reaffirm support for a two-state solution in the Middle East.

The members of the U.S. House of Representatives, all Democrats, signed on to what was the key agenda item during J Street’s advocacy day on March 27, which coincided with its annual conference.

“In our view, support for a two-state resolution is inseparable from such support for Israel, its special relationship with the United States, and its very survival as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people,” the letter said.

Seven Jewish members signed on to the letter, including two of the letter’s chief sponsors, Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). Other notable Jewish members to sign the letter were Reps. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Bob Filner (D-Calif.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Another signatory was Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking member of the budget committee.

In a press release announcing the letter’s signers, J Street’s director of government affairs, Dylan Williams, noted that the lawmakers “are making clear that to be pro-Israel is to support active U.S. engagement in achieving a two-state solution.”

“If the U.S. Congress does not make a viable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a cornerstone of foreign policy in the region, then we are not truly helping Israel to face one its most critical challenges,” Williams said in the press release.

Netanyahu seeks delay in Hebron home eviction

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested a delay in the eviction of Jewish settlers who moved into an Arab-owned home near the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Netanyahu on Monday evening asked Defense Minister Ehud Barak for the delay until the several dozen settlers have an opportunity to prove in court their ownership of the house, the Defense Ministry said. Under an eviction order issued earlier in the day by the Israel Defense Forces, the settlers must leave by 3 p.m. Tuesday or they will be evacuated by the army.

The settlers say they bought the house and have the papers to prove it. Hebron Mayor Khaled Osaily told Army Radio on Tuesday that the sale papers are forged and that the person who sold the house to the Jewish settlers is not the owner.

The eviction order issued by the IDF’s Civil Administration says that the settlers’ presence in the home violates public order. The residents of the home, which includes families with young children, also did not request nor receive a required purchase permit from the Civil Administration.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz of the Likud Party visited what is being called the Machpelah house Tuesday morning to express his support for the building’s residents. The Cave of the Patriarchs is known as the Ma’arat HaMachpela in Hebrew.

“We are not making any preparations to evacuate and have no intention of leaving,” Shlomo Levinger, a resident of the house, told Ynet. “We plan to hold the Passover seder here.”

A special ministerial meeting to deal with the issue is scheduled for late afternoon Tuesday, after the 3 p.m. deadline.

Rabbi Michael Lerner’s home vandalized again

The northern California home of Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive Tikkun magazine, was vandalized for the fourth time in the last year.

In an e-mail sent to Tikkun supporters, Lerner said that on Tuesday evening, two black-hooded men pasted signs on the outside of his house and garage saying that “Palestine is an Arab fantasy.” The statement was a reference to Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who called the Palestinians an “invented” people.

Earlier in the day, Lerner had appeared on a local National Public Radio affiliate to discuss his book “Embracing Israel/Palestine” and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“It seems obvious to me that the attack, while responding to the NPR interview with me this morning, is part of the same attempt to terrorize me and my family as the past three assaults,” Lerner wrote in his e-mail. “As the police made clear to us the last time, the goal is not to destroy property as much as to remind us that they know where we live, and that we are not safe.

“Needless to say, in a world where Israeli right-wingers this past week burned a mosque and assaulted an IDF (Israeli army) post for allegedly being too pro-Arab, there is no way to be sure that all these warning shots at me are only meant to scare and do not suggest that worse may be coming if my book gets more attention.”

Lerner said that he would not let the incident intimidate him.

House committee chair places hold on Palestinian aid

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is holding back nearly $200 million in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) is keeping her House of Representatives committee from considering approval of $192 million in humanitarian program assistance, two Capitol Hill sources said.

The money is separate from assistance to the Palestinian Authority, $200 million of which has already been distributed, and instead is earmarked for nongovernmental groups.

Such holds on NGO money have been held in the past pending oversight to show that the NGOs are not working with terrorist groups. Ros-Lehtinen in recent weeks has expressed concern that a tentative agreement to unite the Palestinian Authority with Hamas is already in effect. Hamas is the U.S.-designated terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

The Americans for Peace Now website is reporting that other House Republicans also are holding the money, and that Republicans in the House and Senate are holding $150 million in security assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

Republicans and Democrats have warned that such money may be withheld if the Palestinians do not pull back from their attempt to gain statehood recognition through the United Nations and absent peace talks with Israel.

The Arab League on Sunday called on the Arab states in the region to replace that missing aid with their own donations.

“The Arabs will assist the Palestinian Authority,” Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi said Sunday in Cairo after a meeting with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “This will be the strongest answer” to the U.S. cuts.

Erekat said that “The Palestinian people refuse to allow economic aid to become an instrument of blackmail regarding its rights to membership of the United Nations.”

The U.N.‘s Security Council is now considering the PA’s statehood bid, which the United States has said it will veto.

Giffords votes in House; colleague says preparations readying for re-election run

Following her dramatic return to Congress for the first time since she was shot, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords announced that she would run for re-election in 2012.

Giffords (D-Ariz.) made the announcement Tuesday morning on “The Early Show.” The CBS program promptly tweeted the news.

The announcement that Giffords, the first Jewish women elected to statewide office in Arizona, would be seeking her fourth term in Congress came the morning after she surprised her colleagues in the House of Representatives by appearing on the House floor to vote for the debt ceiling package, which passed the $2.5 trillion deal. She received a standing ovation from the chamber, creating a brief moment of unity after weeks of fractious budget debates.

“The Capitol looks beautiful and I am honored to be at work tonight,” Giffords said in a tweet before appearing in the chamber, the first tweet made in the first person since she was shot Jan. 8 in an assault that killed six people while she met constituents at a strip mall in her congressional district in Tucson, Ariz.

Giffords walked onto the House floor accompanied by her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, and her closest friend in Congress, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), to building applause from both sides of the aisle.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), like Wasserman Schultz a close Jewish friend and a fundraiser for Giffords, rushed over to hug her.

“This is a day for the history books,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “We saved our country from going into default, and my beloved friend and ever-optimistic colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returned to the floor to cast her vote in favor of the future of our nation.”

Gabrielle Giffords returns to House, votes for debt limit deal [VIDEO]

From CBS.com:

Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona made a surprise return to Washington Monday to vote in favor of an agreement to raise the debt limit.

“Gabrielle has returned to Washington to support a bipartisan bill to prevent economic crisis,” her office said in a Tweet.

Lawmakers offered Giffords a standing ovation on the House floor when she showed up in the chamber.

Read more at CBSNews.com.

House committee set to pass tougher conditions for PA aid

A House committee is expected to advance a bill that would and toughen conditions for funding for the Palestinians.

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee is likely to approve the measure, which also mandates moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, on Wednesday.

The State Department financing bill would make funding for the PA conditional on the Obama administration proving that “no member of Hamas or any other foreign terrorist organization serves in any policy position in a ministry, agency, or instrumentality of the Palestinian Authority” and that “the Palestinian Authority has halted all anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian Authority-controlled electronic and print media and in schools, mosques, and other institutions it controls, and is replacing these materials, including textbooks, with materials that promote tolerance, peace, and coexistence with Israel.”

The new language, drafted by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the committee’s chairwoman, would broaden existing U.S. policy of not dealing with PA governments that include Hamas ministers to include lower-level employees, and would make the provable exculpation of incitement a condition for funding. It also limits the president’s ability to waive the policy for national security reasons.

The bill would remove the waiver that has allowed successive presidents since Bill Clinton to delay moving the embassy to Jerusalem, setting a Jan. 1, 2014 deadline for the move. The bill must pass the entire House of Representatives before facing reconciliation with the U.S. Senate version; the latter’s tougher provisions are unlikely to survive reconciliation.

House warns P.A. on statehood moves

The U.S. House of Representatives threatened to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority if it pursues recognition of statehood outside negotiations with Israel.

A resolution passed Thursday night 406-6 “affirms that Palestinian efforts to circumvent direct negotiations and pursue recognition of statehood prior to agreement with Israel will harm United States-Palestinian relations and will have serious implications for the United States assistance programs for the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority.”

The non-binding resolution is similar to one passed last month by the Senate.

It also calls on the Obama administration to review assistance to the Palestinians, which runs to about $500 million a year, in the light of negotiations with Hamas toward a unity government.

The Palestinian Authority has said that absent negotiations, it will bring its case for statehood to the United Nations in September.

Palestinian negotiators refuse to return to talks unless Israel freezes settlement; Israel will not consider talks with the Palestinians unless the P.A. breaks off its talks with Hamas. Israel also wants the framework of the talks to include recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, an end to refugee claims and a longterm Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee was urging its activists as late as Wednesday to press Congress, mired in budget debates, to pass the resolution.

In the end, only six lawmakers—three Republicans and three Democrats—voted against.

Among those voting against was a freshman, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who is affiliated with the Tea Party conservatives and who is said to be the first congressman of Palestinian descent.

Tea Party candidates were an unknown quanity to pro-Israel groups last year and since then, the Republican leadership has endeavored to secure assurances of support for Israel from the caucus.

Most have done so, although there are holdouts like Amash.

House approves Rep. Weiner leave of absence

The U.S. House of Representatives approved Rep. Anthony Weiner’s request for a leave of absence.

Weiner (D-N.Y.) requested a two-week leave of absence in order to enter a treatment center to deal with his addiction to having inappropriate online relationships with women.  He reportedly entered treatment over the weekend. House memebrs approved the leave request Monday with a unanimous voice vote.

Calls for Weiner to resign have mounted from his own political party, including from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-Fla.), chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

House Majority leader Eric Cantor (R.-Va.) last week called on Weiner to resign, and on Monday he suggested that Weiner should be stripped by his party of his place on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, his only committee assignment.

President Obama addressed the controversy for the first time on Monday, saying during an interview on NBC’s “Today” that “if it was me, I would resign.’’

“When you get to the point where, because of various personal distractions, you can’t serve as effectively as you need to, at the time when people are worrying about jobs, and their mortgages, and paying the bills — then you should probably step back,’’ Obama said.