Dept. of Justice response on prosecuting Palestinian killers unsatisfying for lawmakers

U.S. House lawmakers want more answers after the Department of Justice reiterated the obstacles it says stand in the way of prosecuting alleged Palestinian terrorists who killed Americans.

Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch in his April 5 letter was responding to a March 1 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder from Congress members that called on Holder to pursue prosecutions against Palestinian terrorists who were responsible for killing Americans and were recently released by Israel as part of the deal to free captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The Welch letter, which was obtained by JTA, said “there are significant impediments to bringing prosecutions in the United States for attacks that occur overseas.” Welch echoed a statement that was sent in an email last month to the Parents Forum for Justice, a group of American citizens and parents whose children were killed or wounded by Palestinian terrorists in Israel.

“The crime scenes are located in places that are not under the United States’ control and, therefore, the United States is entirely dependent on the sovereign country where the attack occurred for assistance and cooperation in these investigations,” Welch wrote.

Reps. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, spearheaded the lawmakers’ letter, which was signed by a bipartisan slate of 52 members of the House of Representatives.

In a statement to JTA, Berman noted that the “challenges of pursuing crimes in a foreign nation are clear,” but he was requesting further details from the Department of Justice.

“What remains unclear is whether Justice officials attempted to investigate or prosecute these individuals, and what their findings were,” Berman said. “For instance, has the Justice Department reached out to Israeli authorities and sought to obtain evidence or relevant information regarding those individuals released by Israel with American blood on their hands? I look forward to further explanation from the Attorney General and his office.”

Walsh said he was “disappointed” by the Department of Justice response “because I don’t hear the sense of urgency.”

“The impetus of our letter was that Justice has been negligent in not looking into some of these acts of terrorism overseas for quite some time,” Walsh said. “I think they’re beginning to get that message from a number of quarters, and I’m glad they responded, but there is huge concern that they are not going to follow up on what needs to be done.”

In 2005, Congress enacted the Koby Mandell Act, which was named for a 13-year-old Maryland boy who was stoned to death by Palestinian terrorists in 2001. The act created the Office of Justice for Victims of Overseas Terrorism to investigate and prosecute cases of terrorist attacks against American citizens overseas.

However, since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Department of Justice has not prosecuted any of the 71 cases of Palestinian terrorist attacks against American citizens. 

Sarah Stern, the president and founder of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, expressed her frustration with the Justice Department’s response to Walsh and Berman. Stern was involved early on in the effort to pass the Koby Mandell Act to establish the victims’ office.

“This paltry response from the Department of Justice is absolutely revolting, and it’s a complete and total travesty of justice,” she said in an interview with JTA.

Walsh indicated that he would work with Berman to respond to the Justice Department letter about courses of action in order to move through the “significant impediments” to the prosecutions.

Brandeis students disrupt meeting with Israeli lawmakers

Brandeis University students disrupted a panel discussion at a Boston-area synagogue featuring Israeli lawmakers and Jewish community leaders.

The students, members of the Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine group, removed their shirts in Temple Emanuel in Newton, Mass., to uncover T-shirts that read “apartheid” in Hebrew. They also chanted, “Free, free Palestine,” and, “Israel is an apartheid state and the Knesset is an apartheid parliament!”

Police and security guards removed the students; one student was arrested.

The five lawmakers — Ofir Akunis of the Likud Party, Lia Shemtov and Faina Kirschenbaum of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, Ilan Gilon of the Meretz Party and Ghaleb Majadele of the Labor Party — were in Boston as part of the Ruderman Fellowship, which educates Israeli politicians about Jewry in America. 

The protesters singled out Akunis and Kirshenbaum for “sponsoring fascist legislation in the Knesset” that limits international funding to nongovernmental organizations, and Kirshenbaum for living in a West Bank settlement.

U.S. lawmakers call on Cuba to release Gross

Nearly 100 U.S. lawmakers called on the government of Cuba to release imprisoned Jewish U.S. contractor Alan Gross.

Nineteen senators and 72 members of the House of Representatives sent letters to the government of Cuba at the urging of the Jewish Federations of North America and its members. Also, eight congressmen sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urging the State Department to demand the immediate release of Gross, who marked his second year in prison on Saturday.

“The release of Alan Gross is a humanitarian issue for all Americans,” said Michael Gelman, chair of the Executive Committee of the board of The Jewish Federations of North America. “Cuba should not hold captive this individual who belongs at home with his family in Maryland.”

The White House on Friday had called for the release of Gross, 62, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba for “crimes against the state” for distributing laptop computers and connecting Cuban Jews to the Internet. He was arrested in 2009 as he was leaving Cuba.

In a statement released the same day, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington said that the Cuban government would be willing to find a humanitarian solution on a “reciprocal basis,” likely referring to several Cuban nationals held in U.S. prisons, the Associated Press reported.

The statement said that all Cuban synagogues had Internet access before Gross arrived and that he was arrested “while implementing a covert program financed by the U.S. government and aimed at disrupting the constitutional order in Cuba.” It said the activities Gross conducted would “constitute crimes in many countries of the world, including in the United States.”

Gross’ family and U.S. State Department officials say that Gross was in the country on a U.S. Agency for International Development contract to help the country’s 1,500 Jews communicate with other Jewish communities using the Internet. The main Jewish groups in Cuba have denied any contact with or knowledge of Gross or the program.

Gross’ wife, Judy, spoke last month at a protest on her husband’s behalf outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. Judy Gross said that when she last spoke with her husband, he sounded “hopeless and depressed.”

Alan Gross reportedly has lost 100 pounds while in prison and suffers from several ailments. His mother and his daughter are both currently battling cancer.

Lawmakers slam end of aternative religious wedding project

Israeli lawmakers from diverse parties slammed the decision of the religious services minister to prevent an organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis from performing religious wedding ceremonies for non-religious couples

The Tzohar organization said Tuesday that the religious services minister, Ya’akov Margi, a member of the haredi Orthodox Shas Party, told Tzohar that it would no longer be allowed to register couples with the ministry as married, effectively shutting down a service that has been marrying 3,000 couples a year free of charge.

A Jewish couple must have a religious ceremony in Israel in order to be recognized as married. Many travel abroad to marry in secular ceremonies.

Tzohar helped to involve couples and their families in the ceremony.

“Tzohar is demanding that the minister violate the law, which states that you can open a marriage file only when one member of the couple is a resident of that place,” Nissim Alkasalsi, an adviser to Margi, told Haaretz.

Weddings must be registered with the municipal rabbinate where one member of the couple lives. Tzohar had been registering couples with one of two municipal rabbinates headed by members of the organization, in Shoham and Gush Etzion.

Critics ranged from Shlomo Molla of the Kadima Party to Tzipi Hotovely of the Likud Party.

Hotovely has reportedly created a bill that would allow any rabbi whose ordination is recognized by the Rabbinate to perform wedding ceremonies, regardless of where they live, the right wing Israel National News service reported. , Hotovely also reportedly has she plans to bring up the issue of Tzohar weddings in the Knesset’s Committee for the Status of Women.

The Religious Services Ministry is ending the practice by limiting the total number of marriage certificates that each of those ministries can provide in a year to 200.

U.S. halts UNESCO funding over Palestinian vote

The United States said on Monday it had stopped funding UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, following its vote to grant the Palestinians full membership.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters the United States had no choice but to halt funding because of U.S. laws passed in the 1990s, saying Washington would not make a planned $60 million transfer that was due in November.

“The United States … remains strongly committed to robust, multilateral engagement across the U.N. system. However, Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers long-standing legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO,” Nuland said.

Nuland also said the vote Monday by the member states of UNESCO to admit Palestine as a member was “regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

The United States provides 22 percent of the funding of the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

That agency decided on Monday to give the Palestinians full membership, a vote that will boost their bid at the United Nations for recognition as a state.

UNESCO is the first U.N. agency the Palestinians have joined as a full member since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied for full membership of the United Nations on Sept. 23.

The United States and its ally Israel oppose the Palestinian diplomatic foray in the U.N. system, describing it as an attempt to bypass the two-decade old peace process. Washington says only a resumption of peace talks ending in a treaty with Israel can bring about the Palestinian goal of statehood.

Earlier Monday, Republican U.S. lawmakers demanded the funding cutoff, and the White House as well as other officials across the U.S. political spectrum criticized UNESCO’s action.

“I expect the administration to enforce existing law and stop contributions to UNESCO and any other U.N. agency that enables the Palestinians to short-cut the peace process,” said Representative Kay Granger, the Republican chairwoman of the House committee in charge of foreign aid.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the UNESCO move was “no substitute for negotiations, but it is deeply damaging to UNESCO.”

The laws passed in the 1990s prohibit U.S. funding to any U.N. organization that grants full membership to any group that does not have the “internationally recognized attributes” of statehood.

The language was intended to pre-emptively block normalization of Palestinian relations and activities in the international community, said Lara Friedman, policy director at Americans for Peace Now, an American Jewish group.

The American Jewish group J Street called on Congress to amend U.S. law to preserve American contributions to UNESCO, saying without U.S. support, the group’s work in development and expanding educational opportunities around the globe would be at risk.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told U.S. lawmakers earlier this month that the U.S. government should have the flexibility to decide whether to cut off money for such agencies if they take in the Palestinians.

Additional reporting by Debbie Charles, Andrew Quinn and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Philip Barbara

Lawmakers have no place in religious lives—even those of agunot

When it comes to politicians meddling in people’s religious lives, the answer should be clear: Don’t do it!

Neither members of Congress nor congressional staffers should be pressuring any individuals to adhere to any particular religious code.

As obvious as that seems, sometimes it gets more complicated, as the case of Aharon Friedman reminds us. Friedman is a staff member in the office of U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Democrat. Friedman also is an Orthodox Jew in the midst of a messy divorce.

Actually, from a civil standpoint, the divorce is over. According to the state, Friedman’s marriage to Tamar Epstein was terminated last April. Jewish law, however, says the couple is still married as Friedman refuses to give his wife a get, or a Jewish bill of divorce.

The New York Times reported that the couple is locked in a bitter controversy over custody and visitation issues regarding their 3-year-old daughter. It also seems likely that their ongoing struggle is rooted in the fact that it was Epstein who originally left Friedman, and he remains hurt and angry. So like many of us, Friedman is punishing his wife for having hurt him. That is not a good excuse and it doesn’t even matter in this case.

The real issue here is not two people who fail to see that they have a religious obligation to end their marriage with as much holiness as they entered it. The real issue here is that Jewish groups are asking Friedman’s employers, both Camp and staffers of the House Ways and Means Committee, to pressure Friedman or even to fire him, if he will not grant his wife a Jewish divorce.

Is it really appropriate for Jewish activists and rabbis to advocate for that kind of religious pressure? I don’t know if it is legal for an employers to do so, but I’m sure it is unwise to ask them—especially when the employer is the federal government.

What’s next, demanding the termination of those who fail to contribute the appropriate amount to charity or fail to pay their synagogue dues?

I do not mean to trivialize the tragedy of the situation. In fact, outwardly at least, Friedman appears to be a scoundrel who should be pressed to the wall within his religious community to grant his wife her divorce. But asking the government to do the work of a private religious community—to enforce its religious rules—simply is not proper, especially in this case.

Those who want Camp to fire Friedman or Hill staffers to shun him are avoiding the real challenge within the Orthodox community, i.e., that we still embrace a one-sided system in which only men have the power to divorce. Rather than address either that inequity or mobilize the Jewish community to create real pressure that affords no cover to men who exploit that inequity, people ask others to behave more morally than the community
from which the problems emerged. Bad solution.

Remedies exist to this situation, both proactive ones to prevent further occurrences and others that address those who are languishing as wives tied to mean-spirited and vindictive husbands. The only question is why people lack the will to use them. In that sense, the entire community is to blame for Epstein’s suffering.

We could change the law, though that is not likely to happen in the Orthodox community. We could prevent future occurrences by insisting that no Orthodox weddings will be performed without the use of a Jewishly binding prenuptial agreement that assures the wife’s ability to obtain a divorce should the couple ever separate. We did the same for ketubah, so why not for the prenup?

Finally, we could get serious about punishing husbands who manage to abuse their wives even after they no longer live together.

In other words, it’s time to do our own dirty work. In fact, doing this work isn’t dirty at all—it’s holy work and it’s ours to do. And as the old saying goes, there’s no time like the present.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right.”

Lawmakers urge Harvard divestment from Iran

Seventeen U.S. Congress members sent a letter to Harvard University urging divestment from Iran’s energy sector.

“As Harvard University alumni and members of the United States Congress, we support the student-initiated, student-led movement calling on Harvard to divest from holdings in companies conducting business in Iran’s energy sector,” states the letter, which is dated April 23.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Terrorism and Nonproliferation, was among the signatories. Others include Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Sander Levin (D-Mich.) and Jane Harman (D-Calif.).

The letter points out that the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act calls on states, local governments, educational institutions and private institutions to divest from companies in Iran that are associated with Iran’s nuclear industry, and that Iran has been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.

“As one of the preeminent educational institutions in the United States, Harvard University should be at the vanguard of such divestment, as it was in 2007 for divestment from companies affiliated with genocide in Darfur,” the letter said.

Israeli-Arab lawmakers visit Libya

A delegation of Israeli Arabs, including six Knesset members, is visiting Libya.

The 40-member delegation arrived in Libya on Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi’s private jet on Saturday for a two-day visit. In a meeting with Gadhafi on Sunday, the Libyan leader reportedly told the group, “We are not against Jews, but against Zionism.”

The invitation to visit Libya was extended two weeks ago via the Libyan ambassador to Jordan, Muhammad Hassan al-Barghouti. Members of the delegation were not granted Libyan visas, nor did they travel on their Israeli passports; instead they used special entry permits issued by Libya, according to reports.

Israel and Libya do not have official diplomatic ties, but Israel has not declared Libya an enemy state.  This is the first time Israeli lawmakers have visited Libya.

60 lawmakers co-sponsor Haiti-Israel resolution

A congressional resolution congratulating Israel for its Haiti rescue efforts has 60 co-sponsors from both parties.

The resolution, initiated by U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), “commends and honors the efforts and generosity of the Israelis who worked on the ground in Haiti, the State of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Israeli people for their outstanding contributions to earthquake relief in Haiti.”

The resolution has yet to be formally introduced. A letter from Johnson and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) seeking more co-sponsors is still circulating.

The non-binding resolution is supported by J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Al Qaeda urges Israel attacks; Israeli Arab lawmakers represent Hamas in court

Al Qaeda Urges Israel Attacks

Jews Try to Sell Withdrawal Plan to Jews


The hardest sell for American Jewish groups signed on to promote Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip might be other Jews.

Many of the major Jewish religious streams, lobbying groups and civil rights groups are encouraging the Bush administration, lawmakers and opinion makers to maintain political support for Israel’s July 20 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

In Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, is working to help win approval of $200 million in aid money for the Palestinians when the U.S. Senate returns next week.

The U.S. House of Representatives already has approved the cash.

“AIPAC is strongly supportive of aid to the Palestinians, provided the proper oversight is in place to ensure the money is not misspent,” AIPAC spokesman Andrew Schwartz said. “Congress is currently working on making sure that such oversight is in place.”

It should be smooth sailing, except that a coalition of Israeli settlers and their U.S. supporters are making themselves heard loud and clear. They are raising hard questions about the historic — and traumatic — removal of thousands of long-established Jewish settlers and whether their removal is worth the risks associated with turning over the region to the Palestinians.

The difficulty of the situation means having to explain the withdrawal to American Jews first of all, said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the community’s foreign policy umbrella body.

“It’s an internal issue, in that we educate people about what Israel is doing, why it’s doing it,” Hoenlein said. “The trauma is great.”

The conference’s own rocky path to endorsing disengagement reflects the divisions: It held back until late last year — almost a year after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the plan — when it issued a statement of qualified support.

On a recent mission to Israel, the group endorsed the plan more explicitly.

Fierce opposition to the disengagement plan is a concern for the Reform movement, which has emerged as one of its most avid backers.

“We’re always concerned that a fairly small minority of Jews in the United States have a disproportionately loud voice,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“We have an obligation to make clear where the vast majority of Jews are. We must make sure that political leaders, opinion leaders have the right perspective.”

To that end, Saperstein is encouraging hundreds of Reform rabbis meeting this week in Houston at this year’s Central Conference of American Rabbis to tackle the issue.

Much of the American Jewish opposition is being fueled by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and its president, Morton Klein, who calls the ZOA stance “anti-forced deportation,” and was behind an abortive effort in the House earlier this month — led by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) — to scuttle aid to the Palestinians altogether.

Meanwhile, the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has sent representatives to the United States to enlist support for their opposition to the withdrawal.

They focused especially on the Orthodox Union, which has not taken an official position. Many Orthodox Jews in America have family members in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and feel a particular empathy for those who will be uprooted. Against such determined opposition, getting out the message of support is hard but necessary, said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

“In any situation, those who are pro come out in the tens of thousands, those who are against come out in the hundreds of thousands. We need to find incentives for people to come out there,” said Foxman, whose group supports the disengagement.

Each organization is working its bailiwick: The ADL, which has a long-established presence in Israel, has focused on condemning calls for violent opposition in that country and soliciting pledges of moderation from settler supporters.

The American Jewish Committee, with its extensive ties to international leaders, is mustering overseas support for the transition.

In Washington, support for disengagement has created an unlikely alliance between AIPAC and the dovish pro-Israel groups that work the Hill, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum — although there are substantive differences over the details. AIPAC and the dovish pro-Israel lobby groups disagree over what conditions should be attached to the $200 million in aid for the Palestinians. AIPAC was behind an effort to remove the presidential waiver, which traditionally is attached to such bills, meaning every dollar must be subject to congressional review.

AIPAC was involved in adding provisions that would require additional vetting of any money that went to the Palestinians. Such vetting procedures have in the past led to funding through non-governmental organizations rather than directly to the Palestinian Authority. AIPAC opposes such direct funding to the Palestinian Authority.

Mindful of that outlook, congressional drafters removed the presidential waiver, which traditionally is attached to such bills, meaning every dollar must be subject to congressional review.

Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum want the Senate to restore the waiver, and make sure it makes the final version that lands on Bush’s desk for his signature.

“Adding new conditions on aid — and eliminating the president’s authority to waive them — sends the Palestinians a message that the U.S. Congress seeks to thwart the president’s efforts to assist them,” Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum, said this week in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Another difference is over Israel’s continued settlement activity. Peace Now sharply criticized Israel’s recent announcement that it would move ahead with an old plan to build 3,500 new units in Ma’aleh Adumim, a West Bank settlement that serves as a bedroom community for Jerusalem.

Others say Israel is not obliged to freeze settlements until the Palestinians make good on their own commitment to dismantle terrorist groups.

Controversy over the Ma’aleh Adumim expansion underscores another task for Jewish organizations backing disengagement — reminding non-Jewish leaders of Israel’s sacrifice.

“The risks inherent in what Israel is doing, I don’t think people appreciate it,” said Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents. “It’s taken for granted. We have to remind people what’s involved.”


Bush Slaps Several Sanctions on Syria

President Bush has imposed sanctions on Syria, heeding the call of lawmakers and American Jews who wanted the Bush administration to get tougher on Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The president imposed several sanctions Tuesday, banning U.S. exports to Syria, except for food and medicine, and banning all flights to and from Syria. He also left in place several sanctions imposed by congressional legislation, including a ban of "dual-use" exports that could be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and freezing assets of Syrian citizens linked to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

"Despite many months of diplomatic efforts to convince the government of Syria to change its behavior, Syria has not taken significant, concrete steps to address the full range of U.S. concerns," Bush said in a letter to Congress.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that the concerns included Syria’s continued development of weapons of mass destruction, support for terrorism and failure to police its border with Iraq.

Lawmakers had been pressing the White House to impose sanctions for months, since the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act passed Congress last year. After Bush signed the bill in December, many believed he would impose the sanctions in March.

The Bush administration made numerous diplomatic efforts to curb Syria’s links to terrorism, its attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and its continued control of Lebanon. Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Syria last year and was assured by Assad that Syria’s behavior would change.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East, had been frustrated by the administration’s delays but said Tuesday that she believed the White House’s patience showed it was trying to solve the issue diplomatically.

"Waiting this amount of time shows he has done everything possible to send the diplomatic message," she said of Bush. "It shows the president went the extra mile."

Ros-Lehtinen, who sponsored the Syria Accountability Act with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), said it was a "great day."

"No one is saying sanctions is going to bring down the government," she said. "We’re saying it’s important as a government to send a message that this is behavior that should be punished."

Engel issued a statement saying the ball now is in Damascus’ court.

"It is my hope that by implementing the Syria Accountability Act, the Untied States government is sending a loud and clear message to the leaders of Syria that we will no longer turn a blind eye to their transgressions," he said.

The Syria bill was passed in part due to lobbying from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The group is holding its annual convention in Washington next week, and members are likely to lobby lawmakers to put additional pressure on the Bush administration about Syria.

Many believed the ascent to power of the Western-educated Assad and Syria’s willingness to provide intelligence about terrorists associated with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks meant the country was willing to change its ways. But Syria hasn’t done what the United States had hoped.

"We’ve asked them to do some things, and they haven’t responded," Bush said in an interview with Al-Ahram International television last week. "And Congress passed a law saying that if Syria will not join, for example, booting out a Hezbollah office out of Damascus, that the president has the right to put sanctions on."

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said Tuesday that the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, condemned the U.S. sanctions and that Syria has worked with other Arab states to fight terrorism.

Gaza Plan Foes Face Evangelical Aid Loss

With the Gaza disengagement plan picking up momentum and
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon getting set to pitch the proposal to the Bush
administration at Camp David next week, right-wing Jewish groups are
counterattacking, hoping to forestall U.S. support for the plan. Their partners
in this fight: Christian Zionists.

It’s easy to see why the Jewish hawks have turned to the
evangelicals, but in the end, they’re almost certain to be disappointed. While
major figures in the evangelical movement do, indeed, share the anger Israel’s
settlers feel at this “betrayal” of their cause, they are unlikely to come
through in the clinch.

And the reasons offer a cautionary tale about the depth of a
new alliance that may be more talk than action.

The Bush administration is moving cautiously toward
conditional support of the Gaza plan, which officials here hope will reduce
tensions in the region and ultimately lead to a resumption of some kind of
peace process, and it’s unlikely the Christian Zionists can stop them or even
that they will expend much energy trying.

True, many of these groups seem to be in lockstep with
right-wing members of Sharon’s Cabinet who are already waging open warfare
against his dramatic plan and threatening to bring down his government.

To many of the evangelicals, Gaza and the West Bank are part
of the biblical bequest to Israel, although their views of scriptural promises
have some big differences from the Jewish view — starting with the whole Second
Coming thing.

Some evangelicals have already been on Capitol Hill, working
with House conservatives to generate pressure against any White House
endorsement of the plan. But opponents will be making a big mistake if they
expect more than a few gestures.

The 2004 presidential election is turning into a watershed
for the religious right, and it has almost nothing to do with Israel. Despite
periodic complaints from that sector, President Bush has done more to advance
the conservative Christian agenda than any of his predecessors.

He has made sweeping changes in federal rules limiting
government grants to overtly religious groups, and born-again Christian social
service providers have been by far the biggest beneficiaries. He has presided
over passage of the first federal school vouchers program; he has appointed
dozens of strongly anti-abortion judges to the federal bench and signed
critical anti-abortion legislation.

And he has brought a faith-based style to politics that has
warmed the hearts of evangelicals.

Domestically, these groups have made unprecedented gains
since 2001, and they are poised to make even greater ones if Bush is reelected
and Congress turns even more Republican. That scenario, which liberals regard
as their own personal version of the apocalypse, could include a radical
transformation of the Supreme Court, an overturning of Roe vs. Wade and support
for the anti-gay rights agenda.

The Christians may be upset about the Gaza plan, but they
are unlikely to jeopardize any of their recent domestic gains and the ones to
come by taking on an administration that is sympathetic to most of their
priorities. And despite threats to the contrary, few evangelical voters are
likely to sit out the 2004 election if Bush endorses the Gaza plan and helps
Sharon implement it.

Some of Israel’s top nationalists, including Tourism
Minister Benny Elon, have developed strong working relations with many
evangelical leaders. But that new connection does not outweigh this community’s
core political issues.

That explains why some key evangelical leaders, while
expressing concern about the Gaza plan, have refrained from directly fighting

The same dynamic holds with the congressional conservatives
who have aligned themselves with the Israeli far right. Leaders like Rep. Tom
DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader and the top religious right
supporter on Capitol Hill, have been quick to express solidarity with Israeli
hardliners and their friends here, but they have been loathe to take on the

These lawmakers breathe fire when they appear before hawkish
Jewish groups, but they haven’t shown the slightest inclination to aggressively
challenge their friend in the White House — their partner in forging a domestic
political revolution.

For both conservative lawmakers and the Christian Zionists,
growing support for Israel may be a blend of political opportunism, genuine
support for Israel and maybe a touch of biblical prophecy. But it won’t trump
their domestic concerns, and the administration knows it, which is why, for all
their complaints, the Christian Zionists haven’t really affected the
administration’s Mideast policy.

Two years ago, Bush became the first president to openly
support Palestinian statehood, despite objections from this quarter; he
continued to promote his Mideast “road map” to peace, even though they hated
it. The Christian Zionists have become the biggest U.S. cheerleaders for the
Israeli settlers movement, but that hasn’t stopped the Bush administration from
terming settlements “unhelpful” or demanding their removal.

And if Sharon can convince Bush that his Gaza disengagement
plan won’t forestall further movement toward a Palestinian state and a
negotiated settlement, the U.S. administration is likely to sign on the dotted
line — despite protests from the Christian right, which are likely to be more
rhetorical than real.  

Congress Remains Pro-Israel

Pro-Israel activists say they are confident their legislative priorities will be able to get through the new Congress, which is now under Republican control. In the final election returns, which came early Wednesday morning, a predominance of pro-Israel lawmakers retained their seats, and several new faces emerged, many of whom pro-Israel officials called promising.

The new Congress will take office at a critical time in U.S.-Israel relations, with Israel entering a heated election campaign, prospects for peace with the Palestinians at a standstill and a U.S.-led war against Iraq looming. The congressional approach to Israel and the Middle East is a significant component in those relations.

While American Jewish leaders were closely watching the poll results, there was not much concern: Officials had said they were comfortable with the candidates from both major parties in most of the congressional races.

"Everyone seems to be very good nowadays," said Morris Amitay, a veteran Jewish activist who is treasurer of the pro-Israel Washington PAC.

While the Jewish community is predominantly Democratic, Jewish groups have had much success getting legislation passed in a Republican House. Prior to the election, many said they believed they would have success no matter which party controls the Senate.

Support for Israel "is a bipartisan issue," one American Jewish leader said. "Congress is overwhelmingly pro-Israel."

Another senior pro-Israel official said his organization had spoken during the campaign season to virtually all the nonincumbent candidates who won Tuesday, and that they expected the 108th Congress to be even more supportive of Israel than the outgoing body.

Many of the candidates that the pro-Israel community targeted for defeat were eliminated in primaries or were not seeking re-election.

Republican Norm Coleman, who narrowly defeated his last-minute Democratic challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, in Minnesota, was opposed by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations as a possible Bush administration appointee two years ago because he is a "ardent supporter of Israel."

The former Jewish mayor of St. Paul, he received strong support — financial backing from the Republican Jewish Coalition and its supporters.

"He’s a passionate, Jewish representative," Brooks said.

Among other Senate results of note:

  • Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) defeated the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Max Cleland, in Georgia. Chambliss had criticized Cleland for being reluctant to speak out against comments made by ousted Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) that were deemed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Chambliss is considered to have a strong record in the House, stemming from his work as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism.
  • Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will fill the seat of Sen. Strom Thurmond, the retiring senior senator from South Carolina, having defeated his Democratic challenger, Alex Sanders. Graham spoke last month at the Christian Coalition’s rally for Israel in Washington, and is believed to be a strong supporter of the Jewish state.

The 108th Congress will get down to work in early January as both Israel and the Palestinians prepare for elections of their own, and the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq is still an unknown. Against this backdrop, pro-Israel advocates say their agenda for the next two years will focus on legislation that did not get passed this year. Those measures include:

  • An additional $200 million in aid to Israel is expected to be tackled by the lame-duck Congress later this month. That will be wrapped into the foreign aid bill, which includes $3 billion in economic and military aid for Israel.
  • The Palestinian reform bill, dubbed the Arafat Accountability Act, would deny visas to Palestinian Authority officials, restrict travel of Palestinian officials and freeze the American assets of Palestinian leaders.
  • The Syria Accountability Act would ban military and dual-use exports to Syria, and ban financial assistance to U.S. businesses that invest in Syria.

Jewish officials say a Republican majority in Congress could move the flow of legislation faster than in a divided body where partisan issues are paramount.

However, the Republican-led House of Representatives still has had to battle with the White House on several bills related to the Middle East, with the Bush administration complaining that the bills tie its hands and make it harder to implement foreign policy. But House Republicans have been able to prevail, pushing through a pro-Israel resolution last spring that called on the United States to provide additional aid to Israel and condemning "the ongoing support of terror" by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders.

Other variables, such as the changing makeup of the Israeli government after the Labor Party’s departure last week and upcoming Israeli elections, could affect congressional action on the Middle East.

U.S. action against Iraq could change things as well. If the United States attacks Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime, lawmakers are expected to rally around the flag in support of the president. This could push other Middle East issues off the agenda and make it difficult for Jewish groups to pursue legislation. However, Congress would be likely to offer strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself if attacked by Iraq in the course of a U.S.-led war.

Congressional officials say the Middle East portfolio is expected to come under the auspices of the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). If the Middle East subcommittee remains separate, possible Republican chairpersons include Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a strong Israel backer, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a lawmaker who has frequently voted against pro-Israel resolutions and foreign aid.