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.”

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 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 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.

Congress passes funding until March


Congress passed a procedural resolution that sustains government funding until March.

The “continuing resolution” passed Tuesday includes the $2.75 billion in annual defense assistance for Israel. It passed 79-16 in the Senate and 193-165 in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It maintains government funding at 2010 levels. Failure to pass it would have meant that the government would run out of money by midnight.

The Republican minority in the Senate had used parliamentary procedures to block spending bills, in part because Republicans are set to retake the House in January and the party wants to use its new power to slash spending as soon as possible.

Jewish groups are apprehensive that the new Congress will slash “earmarks” for representatives’ districts, which include funding for programs for the poor and elderly favored by the groups.

Additionally, pro-Israel groups are reaching out to new members to keep foreign aid funding at current levels.

Democrats have made it clear they will make funding for Israel a key issue in pusshing back against overall GOP attempts to slash spending in the new Congress.

“The incoming Republican leadership has sent disturbing signals about the future of aid to Israel with its calls for across the board budget cuts without regard to the impact on U.S. allies and interests around the world,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the outgoing chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement.