Romney: Israeli-Palestinian conflict ‘unsolvable’ [VIDEO]


[JTA] Mitt Romney told fundraisers in a private meeting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “unsolvable” and that his strategy would be to “kick the ball down the field.”

“I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, 'There's just no way',” Romney said at a May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton hosted by Marc Leder, a private equity manager.

A video of the private $50,000 a plate event was released this week by Mother Jones.

“And so what you do is you say, 'You move things along the best way you can',” Romney continued. “You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem. We live with that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”

Romney and his surrogates have otherwise striven to defend the two-state outcome within the Republican Party, and rebuffed an effort in August to have it removed from the party platform.

Another passage in the fundraising video, in which Romney says 47 percent of voters would vote for President Obama because they feel “entitled” to health care, food and housing, and that these voters do not pay income tax, has dominated headlines, and has led Romney to stand by the comments, while acknowledging they were not “elegantly stated.”

In the video, Romney also says that his team of political consultants includes some who have worked for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

[REUTERS] On the West Bank, Palestinians said Romney was wrong to accuse them of not seeking peace.

“No one stands to gain more from peace with Israel than Palestinians and no one stands to lose more in the absence of peace than Palestinians,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters. “Only those who want to maintain the Israeli occupation will claim the Palestinians are not interested in peace.”

David Mamet: At what cost?


It has been suggested that the purpose of a college education is to ease the transition into adulthood. After several decades teaching college-age students, I would agree, only substituting delay and prevent for ease.

Eric Hoffer wrote in “The Ordeal of Change” (1963) that the secret of America was the trauma undergone by the immigrants. They — my ancestors and yours — came here with nothing, most ignorant of the language, most ignorant of the land and the cultures, and ignorant of what would be expected of them. Having suffered to learn the above, they were, in effect, born anew. Their strength was the lack of fear of challenge. They had paid for the immunity.

Little, and nothing of worth, is acquired without cost. Even the love of family, and even the love of God must be earned, kept and reciprocated. But the organization or individual who refuses to acknowledge cost, who demands goods, services or status as a right rejects the essence of Americanism and the hard-won heritage left us by those who paid.

There is a cost for education. Teachers must be paid. That education not paid for is appreciated by students in direct proportion to its cost.

There is a cost for housing. Someone must improve the land and build the structures. Private enterprise must strike a bargain with buyers or potential buyers and find a mutually attractive price. The cost of subsidized housing is decline in building (what builder or landlord would work to sell at a loss?) and/or quality, and increase in graft and corruption. (Someone along the line — administrator, bureaucrat or clerk or functionary — is, finally, in charge of doling out sub-cost housing; and he has a powerful incentive to subvention and theft, as the potential occupant has to bribery.)

There is a cost for food. That one-seventh of Americans are now receiving some sort of government dole in food is not a sign of compassion, but of money leached from the actual economy (free exchange of services and goods) — which money must, if left in the free market, produce jobs, which produce groceries.

There is a cost for health care. The result desired by most Americans is not improved insurance, but improved care. Semantically, this misunderstanding is about to bankrupt our country. The profession of medicine exists to promote care. Insurance exists to increase premiums and decrease service and claims. That is what insurance does. To reconfigure the patient-doctor relationship into one of patient-bureaucrat is, as we watch, the destruction of the profession of medicine, and a triumph of the notion of equality. Under Obamacare, there will be third-rate, grudging, non-responsive health care for all. The cost of this illusion will be national bankruptcy.

There is a cost for security. The cop on the corner carries a sidearm, as the community has licensed him, secondarily to use force, and primarily to advertise the community’s intention to protect itself. This advertisement would be less effective were he only to carry a bumper sticker.

The same is true globally. Peace is preserved in the world not through the proclamation of good intentions, or the sick suggestion of guilt, but by the creditable advertisement of power and of the nation’s willingness to use it. An individual, a community, a country may delude itself that “we are all alike, and if we could just sit down at a table …” and so on. But we are not all alike. The homeowner and the burglar cannot coexist happily. Nor can Israel and Islamic jihad. One must suffer.

Mobility has a cost. Energy must come from somewhere, and its location and difficulty of extraction will carry a price. The wealthy can buy electric cars and vote for entire landscapes defaced by windmills*, but how will the trucks bring them their food?

Knowledge has a cost. Magic phrases may hide but cannot change the eternal, difficult realities of war and peace, poverty and wealth. Our denial, in four years, has cost this: the doubling of the national debt, the massive increase in the size of government, a decrease in the freedom of the individual and of the states, the depletion of our armed forces, a crippled economy.

There is no way to “ease the transition” into national health, but we may accept the trauma; which is to say, face our difficulties and, like all other immigrants, figure out the price and choose to pay it.

Our choice in November is between a businessman, with expertise in cost-benefit analysis, and a community organizer who offered to trade us our cow for the magic beans. And now it’s time to reckon up the cost of his performance.

* Landscapes are also defaced by strip mining, but only one of the two processes provides useful energy.


David Mamet is a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony- and Oscar-nominated playwright, essayist, screenwriter and film director. His latest book is “The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture” (Sentinel).

Iran policy reveals split between U.S. Jewish and Israeli left


Israel’s highest-ranking female soldier, Brig. Gen. Yisraela Oron, was sounding all the right notes for her J Street hosts.

At the tail end of a U.S. tour for the left-wing pro-Israel lobby, Oron was lending her considerable security credentials to its platform: a two-state solution, territorial concessions by Israel and a robust U.S. peacemaking role.

The conversation with a group of reporters then turned to Iran and its nuclear potential, and Oron was unequivocal: yes to engagement, but on a timetable that would be tied to punishing sanctions.

“The thing that worries me and that worries other Israelis is that it is not limited in time,” Oron said as the faces of her J Street hosts turned anxious, adding that “I’m not sure I’m expressing the J Street opinion.”

She was not. J Street explicitly opposes a timetable and has reservations about proposed additional sanctions.

The awkward moment pointed to a potential split between left-wing pro-Israel groups and the Israeli constituents for whom they claim to speak. Unlike the Israeli-Palestinian issue, little dissent exists among Israeli politicians over how to deal with Iran.

That puts left-wing U.S. Jewish groups at odds with Israeli left-wingers.

“There is a more hawkish perception among virtually all circles in Israel” than there is in the United States, said Yossi Alpher, a consultant who has worked with Americans for Peace Now. “It’s very natural. Iran doesn’t say the U.S. has no right to exist and doesn’t do the equivalent of denying the Holocaust. It doesn’t deploy proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah against the United States and on its borders.”

Right now, the differences are not pronounced—the administrations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama are virtually on the same page on the need to confront Iran, and soon. That could change, however, if Iran makes a serious counter offer to Obama’s proposal to engage.

Last week, the Iranians said they had made such an offer. Its details are not known, but it will be part of the “reassessment” Obama has pledged to complete by the end of September, when the major world powers meet at the U.N. General Assembly.

“If Iran engages and the Obama administration argues that a deal has been made, the Israeli government will be very wary,” Alpher said. “This could immediately create a whole world of suspicions.”

Under those circumstances, the vast majority of American Jewish voters who backed Obama last year would be faced with the first either-or U.S. vs. Israel issue in decades, and groups that describe themselves as pro-Israel and pro-peace will find themselves for the first time speaking for virtually no one in Israel on a critical issue.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will lobby in Washington on Sept. 10 and rally outside the General Assembly on Sept. 24 for sanctions that would end the export of refined petroleum to Iran, which imports 40 percent of its refined oil.

On Israel’s left, the Labor Party, currently part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, aggressively backs sanctions. Its leader and the current defense minister, Ehud Barak, makes Iran’s isolation the centerpiece of his exchanges with his counterparts in the West.

The smaller Meretz Party, to Labor’s left, also backs Iran’s isolation. It routinely frames its arguments for robust peacemaking in terms of the need to contain Iran’s ambitions.

Former Meretz leader Yossi Beilin tells audiences that Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister who launched the Oslo process in 1993, did so principally because of his fears of Iran. Beilin told a German audience last year that he “advocates increased sanctions towards Iran in order to stop centrifugal uranium programs.”

Avshalom Vilan, a Meretz Knesset member until March, was a forceful advocate of reaching out to the nations most able to wound Iran’s economy, including Germany and India.

Across the ocean, however, left-wing U.S. Jewish groups—not to mention non-Jewish left-wing groups—are against more sanctions.

Americans for Peace Now has the most pronounced opposition.

“We don’t think crippling sanctions are right if the meaning of that is that the sanctions will not be targeted against Iran’s governments and leaders but will target Iranian people,” spokesman Ori Nir said. “We think that’s not only morally wrong but is also strategically perilous.”

Other left-wing groups also hedge on the prospect of sanctions.

The Israel Policy Forum, in a July 15 paper, encouraged engagement and said threats of enhanced sanctions were “not necessary” because Iran’s leadership knew they were forthcoming.

The most recent statement from Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, dated July 2008, rejects “diplomatic isolation or veiled threats of military action” and advocates “utilizing diplomatic and economic incentives and sanctions together.”

In a policy statement, J Street says it does not oppose further sanctions “in principle,” but “under the current circumstances, it is our view that ever harsher sanctions at this time are unlikely to cause the Iranian regime to cease weapons development.” Engagement should “not be conducted with a stopwatch,” it said.

The Reform movement, which often aligns with the left-wing groups on Israel-Palestinian matters, is a bit closer to the Israeli position when it comes to Iran.

Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform’s Religious Action Center, disputes Americans for Peace Now’s contention that the proposed enhanced sanctions are immoral.

“These were chosen as a much more targeted way to put the maximum pressure on the power structure in Iran,” he said.

The other left-wing pro-Israel groups arrived at their Iran policies partly because of their alliance with an array of liberal Democrats wary of engaging Iran in the wake of the Iraq War and its resultant quagmire. Behind the scenes, these groups have sought sanctions that would not harm ordinary Iranians.

Supporters of tougher sanctions argue that sanctions targeting the regime have been in place for years and have had little effect.

Shai Franklin, a senior fellow for U.N. affairs at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said that gravitating away from deference to Israeli constituencies may be healthy for some U.S. Jewish groups.

“It makes the conversation more interesting, and once that happens you’ll find more people getting involved, from the right and left,” he said.

Steven Spiegel of the Israel Policy Forum said differences might emerge next month over the pacing and intensity of sanctions.

“The Iran difference is part of a differentiation that has got to be addressed,” he said. “At some point there has to be a serious dialogue between American Jews and Israel and the Obama administration and Israel.”

One tactic might be to remind Israel that Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran appears to have rallied support in Europe in recent weeks for tougher sanctions.

“The doves,” Spiegel said, “accomplished what the hawks could not.”

Analysis: Gaza crisis is opportunity for Obama


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Does the mini-war underway between Israel and Hamas in and around the Gaza Strip present President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration with a crisis or an opportunity?

Israel’s aerial bombardment, the most intensive in the Gaza Strip in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has killed at least 320 people, most of them militants belonging to the terrorist group Hamas, although tens of children were reported dead in surprise attacks on the crowded strip.

The assault, which started Saturday, came after days of intensified rocket attacks launched from Gaza on Israel’s southern towns and farms. The Palestinian rocket fire, launched even before a Hamas-Israel ceasefire formally lapsed Dec. 19, has killed at least four Israelis and is emptying the south of its residents. Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, warned of “all-out war,” possibly including a land invasion

Buried beneath the fretting over whether the renewed conflict would kill talks between Israel and the relatively moderate leadership of the Palestinian Authority were hints that it could in fact bolster the negotiations, if only by marginalizing Hamas. That, in turn, could help Obama clear the ground for a breakthrough, a prospect Obama’s team seemed to recognize by limiting its reactions to expressions of support for Israel.

“He’s going to work closely with the Israelis,” David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday when asked about the outbreak. “They’re a great ally of ours, the most important ally in the region. And that is a fundamental principle from which he’ll work.”

Washington pundits and officials in European capitals are casting the flare up as a crisis that could scuttle Obama’s stated intention of developing talks — first launched a year ago by the Bush administration — into a final status agreement.

Jackson Diehl, the deputy editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page, said the war was the final failure for Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister who is to leave office by March to face corruption charges. “His failure represents another missed opportunity for Middle East peace — and probably means that the incoming Obama administration, like the incoming Bush administration of 2001, will inherit both a new round of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and a new Israeli government indisposed to compromise,” Diehl wrote in Monday’s Post.

Meanwhile, Israel is casting the war first of all as one of necessity: The bombardment of Israel’s south, in the days before Israel launched its aerial counter attacks, at times reached 70 rockets a day. The effect has been to devastate the region’s economy and to create levels of anxiety that Israelis regard as intolerable; the retaliatory strikes earned the support of the vast majority of Israelis in weekend polling.

Sallai Meridor, the Israeli envoy to Washingtons, cautioned that the action was not undertaken with the peace process in mind. “The direct reason for these activities is to remove a threat over the head of 500,000 Israelis — not a theoretical threat, a real one,” Meridor told JTA. “Three were killed only today. No country would sacrifice its citizens to terror.”

Meridor added, however, that an Israeli success could have salutary effects on the peace process. “Indirectly, the chances for peace are dependent on the weakening of the enemies of peace. If Hamas strengthens, the chances of peace weaken; if Hamas weakens, it contributes to the chances of peace.”

In remarks Sunday to his Cabinet, Olmert said the aim was to “restore normal life and quiet to residents of the south who — for many years — have suffered from unceasing rocket and mortar fire and terrorism designed to disrupt their lives and prevent them from enjoying a normal, relaxed and quiet life, as the citizen of any country is entitled to.”

Another factor might be political calculation. Little love is lost between Olmert and his government partners: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has assumed control of his Kadima Party, and Barak, who heads the Labor Party. Yet Olmert, Livni and Barak are united in hopes of keeping Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition Likud Party who has vowed to bring talks with the Palestinian to a halt, from coming to power; the first post-assault polls show their chances of doing that substantially improving.

The effect Israel’s current leadership sought was not simply to remind the public that doves are capable of defending Israel, but that the onslaught would help reinforce the current round of talks. The aim, Director of the Shin Bet security service Yuval Diskin suggested at the weekly Cabinet meeting, is to isolate Hamas. “The mood among a not unsubstantial part of the Palestinian population understands that the operation is against Hamas, which has inflicted great suffering on the residents of Gaza,” Diskin said in remarks relayed by Oved Yehezkel, the Cabinet secretary.

That approach was echoed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, in remarks Monday on P.A. television.

“I say in all honesty, we made contact with leaders of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip,” Abbas said in a translation made available by Palestinian Media Watch. “We spoke with them in all honesty and directly, and after that we spoke with them indirectly, through more than one Arab and non-Arab side … We spoke with them on the telephone and we said to them: We ask of you, don’t stop the ceasefire, the ceasefire must continue and not stop, in order to avoid what has happened, and if only we had avoided it.”

Ziad Asali, an Abbas ally who founded the American Task Force on Palestine, said it was notable that Abbas and other Arab leaders were muted in their calls on Israel to draw back.

“There is a certain withholding of outright support” for Hamas “that usually would accrue to any party in active conflict with Israel,” he said.

Arab frustration with Hamas stemmed from its refusal until now to defer to Abbas as the lead negotiator in peace talks and its insistence on armed conflict as the only way to confront Israel, Asali said.

“There is no military solution to this conflict,” he said. “At the end of the day there has to be a negotiating process, and the people who are clearly authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians are the P.A. folks.”

He warned, however, that there was a limited window to exploit Hamas’ marginalization, and joined a number of dovish pro-Israel groups — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and the Israel Policy Forum — in calling for an immediate cease-fire.

“We don’t know how the parties on the ground will react,” Asali said. “We see ever increasing human suffering in Gaza that would add to the pressure to bring about some kind of ceasefire.”

Should the bloodshed intensify, the sufferings of ordinary Palestinians, joined with public outrage on the “Arab street” with Israel’s actions and the chaotic nature of the conflict, could turn an opportunity into a crisis — and an Obama administration faced with a crisis on Jan. 21 might not be equipped to respond.

“The issue is how urgently they would prioritize this conflict,” Asali said.

Hamas’ responsibility for re-launching hostilities, coupled with a desire to corner the terrorist group into deferring to Abbas’ negotiations with Israel, was likely behind the near unanimous backing in Washington for Israel’s actions.

Most significant was the Obama transition team’s steadfast commitment to Israel’s right to respond, albeit expressed with the requisite deference to George W. Bush as the sitting president.

“The president-elect recognizes the special relationship between the United States and Israel,” Axelord, Obama’s adviser, said on CBS. “It’s an important bond, an important relationship. He’s going to honor it. And he wants to be a constructive force in helping to bring about the peace and security that both the Israelis and the Palestinians want and deserve. And obviously, this situation has become even more complicated in the last couple of days and weeks as Hamas began its shelling and Israel responded.”

Pressed, Axelrod suggested Obama’s strategy would be shaped by his own visit over the summer to Israel’s frontlines.

“He said then that when the bombs are raining down on your citizens, there is an urge to respond and act and try and put an end to that,” Axelrod said. “You know, that’s what he said then, and I think that’s what he believes.”

The Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties also issued statements squarely blaming Hamas, followed up with pleas to Israel to curb civilian casualties.

“Peace between Israelis and Palestinians cannot result from daily barrages of rocket and mortar fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza,” U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a statement. “Hamas and its supporters must understand that Gaza cannot and will not be allowed to be a sanctuary for attacks on Israel. “

The White House sounded a similar note: “Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop. Hamas must end its terrorist activities if it wishes to play a role in the future of the Palestinian people. The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza.”

LAST LOOK: Where do McCain and Obama stand on the issues?


DOMESTIC POLICY

ABORTION

Abortion is an area of sharp disagreement between the two candidates. Obama said during the Oct. 15 presidential debate that he believes Roe v. Wade was “rightly decided,” although “good people on both sides can disagree.” He added that “women in consultation with their families, their doctors, their religious advisers are in the best position to make this decision,” and that the Constitution “has a right to privacy in it that shouldn’t be subject to state referendum, anymore than our First Amendment rights are subject to state referendum.”

At the same debate, McCain called Roe v. Wade “a bad decision” and said that decisions on abortion should “rest in the hands of the states. McCain says on his Web site that the ruling should be overturned. McCain has backed a ban on abortion except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother, and he said at a presidential forum in August that his administration will have “pro-life policies.”

Obama in the same debate said he is “completely supportive of a ban on late-term abortions, partial birth or otherwise, as long as there’s an exception for the mother’s health and life.” He voted against a ban in the Illinois state Senate because it did not contain such a clause.

McCain has voted to ban such procedures, and at the debate said that exceptions for the health of the mother had “been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.” This trend, he said, represented “the extreme pro-abortion position.”

Obama said at the August presidential forum sponsored by Pastor Rick Warren that “the goal right now” should be “how do we reduce the number of abortions” and talked about ways for those on both sides of the aisle to “work together” to reduce unwanted pregnancies. He said at the Oct. 15 debate that such efforts should include “providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.”

McCain says on his Web site that he will “seek ways to promote adoption as a first option for women struggling with a crisis pregnancy” and that government must help strengthen the “armies of compassion”—faith-based, community and neighborhood organizations—that provide “critical services to pregnant mothers in need.”

The Republican nominee has criticized Obama for voting against legislation in the Illinois Senate that requires the state to provide legal protection and medical treatment to any fetus that survives an abortion. At the Oct. 15 debate, Obama said the bill in question would have “helped to undermine” Roe v. Wade and “there was already a law on the books in Illinois that required providing lifesaving treatment, which is why not only myself but pro-choice Republicans and Democrats voted against it.”

Obama has said that he does approve of the version of the bill that passed the Illinois Senate in 2005—after he had gone to Capitol Hill. That legislation had a specific clause stating that nothing in the bill “shall be construed to affect existing federal or state law regarding abortion.”

EMBRYONIC STEM CELL RESEARCH

The Obama campaign has run an advertisement claiming that McCain has blocked embryonic stem cell research, but independent fact checkers have deemed the ad untrue. In fact, support for embryonic stem cell research is one issue on which the candidates essentially agree.

McCain and Obama later voted for legislation that would have allowed federal funding to be used for research on stem cell lines obtained from discarded human embryos originally created for fertility treatments. McCain has called his vote on the bill “very agonizing and tough” and said he went “back and forth, back and forth on it.” It finally came down to the fact that “those embryos will be either discarded or kept in permanent frozen status.”

Prior to the 2004 vote, the Arizona senator was one of 14 Republican members of Congress who signed a letter asking President Bush to lift federal restrictions on the research.

In response to a questionnaire from a coalition of scientists and engineers last month, McCain said, “While I support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, I believe clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress.”

McCain differs from both his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and the Republican Party platform on the issue. The platform, adopted at the GOP convention, calls for an expansion of funding for research into adult stem cells but a ban on the use of human embryos for research.

In response to the same questionnaire from Sciencedebate2008, Obama was more emphatic than McCain on the issue. The Democrat said he will “lift the current administration’s ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines created after August 9, 2001 through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight.”

Obama and McCain do disagree on the prospects for research on adult and other kinds of stem cells. McCain has expressed hope that advances in adult stem cells could make the debate over embryonic stem cells unnecessary, but Obama said embryonic stem cells are “the gold standard” and any research on other types of stem cells should be done in parallel.

SUPREME COURT

The presidential candidates demonstrated their contrasting views on the Supreme Court in August when they were asked by Pastor Warren which of the sitting justices they would not have nominated. Obama named two justices from the court’s conservative wing, saying Clarence Thomas was not qualified at the time of his nomination and Antonin Scalia because “he and I just disagree.”

McCain named twice as many justices, citing the four commonly identified as the left wing of the court—Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens and David Souter—because he disapproved of their “legislating from the bench.” But as a senator McCain voted for Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer—Stevens was nominated before he was elected to the Senate. At the Oct. 15 debate, McCain said he voted for them not “because I agreed with their ideology, but because I thought they were qualified and that elections have consequences when presidents are nominated.”

Obama as a senator has voted against both Supreme Court nominees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. He said at the Warren forum that “one of the most important jobs” of the Supreme Court “is to guard against the encroachment of the executive branch” on the “power of the other branches,” and Roberts has been “a little bit too willing and eager to give an administration” more power than “I think the Constitution originally intended.”

McCain was also a member of the bipartisan “Gang of 14” formed to break an impasse over judicial nominations in 2005. The Democratic senators in the group agreed not to filibuster judicial nominees except under “extraordinary circumstances,” while the Republicans pledged not to vote for the “nuclear option”—a maneuver that would have allowed a majority of the Senate to change the rules requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster. Obama declined to join the group, and said in a newspaper interview in May that he didn’t think “it was a particularly good compromise” because “the Republicans got everything they wanted out of that.”

On his Web site, McCain says that he will “nominate judges who understand that their role is to faithfully apply the law as written, not impose their opinions through judicial fiat.” He also stresses the importance of federalism and separation of powers in his judicial philosophy.

At the Oct. 15 debate, McCain said he believed “that we should have nominees to the United States Supreme Court based on their qualifications rather than any litmus test” on abortion, although he added that “I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade would be part of those qualifications.”

Obama has said that qualifications for the high court go beyond academic and professional accomplishment.

“What makes a great Supreme Court justice,” he said in a November 2007 primary debate, is “not just the particular issue but it’s their conception of the court. And part of the role of the court is that it is going to protect people who may be vulnerable in the political process, the outsider, the minority” and “those who don’t have a lot of clout.”

Sometimes, he added, “we’re only looking at academics or people who’ve been in the [lower] court. If we can find people who have life experience and they understand what it means to be on the outside, what it means to have the system not work for them, that’s the kind of person I want on the Supreme Court.”

More recent, during the Oct. 15 debate, Obama said he would look for judges “who have an outstanding judicial record, who have the intellect, and who hopefully have a sense of what real-world folks are going through.” The Democrat also rejected a “strict litmus test” on the abortion issue.

FAITH-BASED SOCIAL SERVICES

Obama and McCain both want to continue President Bush’s faith-based initiative providing federal money to religious groups to perform social services. But they differ on one key point: Obama has said he would not allow religious groups receiving government funds to discriminate in hiring, while McCain has concurred with Bush in saying he would.

In a July interview with The New York Times, McCain said, “Obviously it’s very complicated because if this is an organization that says we want people in our organization that are Baptists or vegetarians or whatever it is, they should not be required to hire someone that they don’t want to hire in my view.”

And in a response to an American Jewish Committee questionnaire, McCain said, “I would permit faith-based organizations to improve their volunteerism numbers by allowing them to hire consistent with the views of the respective organizations without risking federal funding.”

Obama in a July speech laid out a vision for his Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that would include an allocation of $500 million a year specifically for faith- and community-based efforts to bolster summer learning programs for 1 million children. He said in the speech that Bush’s version of the faith-based initiative “never fulfilled its promise.”

A summary of the Obama plan released by his campaign states that recipients of federal funds “cannot discriminate with respect to hiring for government-funded social service programs” and “must comply with federal anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Obama also said he would undertake a pre-inauguration review of all executive orders related to the faith-based initiative, especially those having to do with hiring. He also said he would consider elevating the director of the initiative to a Cabinet-level post.

SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE

Both candidates have expressed support for the principle of the separation of church and state. But McCain sparked controversy in a September 2007 interview with Beliefnet in which he said, “I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.” He quickly added that all religions are welcomed, “but when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.”

A spokeswoman later said that McCain believes “people of all faiths are entitled to all the rights protected by the Constitution, including the right to practice their religion freely,” but that the “values protected by the Constitution” are “rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. That is all he intended to say to the question, America is a Christian nation, and it is hardly a controversial claim.”

In response to an American Jewish Committee questionnaire, Obama called the separation of church and state “critical” and said it has “caused our democracy and religious practices to thrive.” On the same questionnaire, McCain said, “choosing one’s faith is the most personal of choices, a matter of individual conscience. That is why we cherish it as part of our Bill of Rights.” He added that “all people must be free to worship as they please, or not to worship at all. It is a simple truth: There is no freedom without the freedom of religion.

Obama told a Christian Broadcasting Network interviewer in July 2007 that “whatever we once were, we’re no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation and a nation of nonbelievers. We should acknowledge this and realize that when we’re formulating policies from the state house to the Senate floor to the White House, we’ve got to work to translate our reasoning into values that are accessible to every one of our citizens, not just members of our own faith community.”

Asked by the AJC whether they would back legislation directed at strengthening the obligation of employers to provide a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious practice, both candidates expressed support.

I believe firmly that employers have an obligation to reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious practices,” Obama said. “I would support carefully drafted legislation that strengthens Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to further protect religious freedom in the workplace.”

“I am committed to ensuring that no Americans are discriminated against in employment because of their religious beliefs. I will support any legislation that improves our commitment to a pluralistic society, both inside and outside the workplace.”

As to vouchers for private and parochial schools, Obama said he is against them because he believes “we need to invest in our public schools and strengthen them, not drain their fiscal support.”

McCain supports voucher plans, arguing that “it’s time to give middle- and lower-income parents the same right wealthier families have—to send their child to the school that best meets their needs.”

FOREIGN POLICY

IRAN

Obama and McCain both back isolating Iran to bring an end to its suspected nuclear weapons program and have said that the military option should remain on the table. This summer, senior surrogates from both campaigns signed onto a position paper from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy advocating intensified U.S.-Israel dialogue aimed at preventing an Israeli attack on Iran.

The campaigns differ on how to isolate Iran and the degree of engagement with the Iranian government such an effort would prohibit. McCain has criticized Obama for suggesting he’d be willing to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In response, Obama has compared McCain to Bush, accusing both of hurting America’s standing in the world by turning their backs on diplomacy.

The Obama campaign has committed itself to the full list of sanctions currently advocated by Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, including targeting Iran’s central bank, getting the five major players in the re-insurance industry to boycott Iran and stopping the export of refined petroleum to Iran. The McCain campaign expresses generic support for sanctions but has resisted sharing details. In the Senate, Republicans have blocked sanctions legislation without explaining why. The Bush administration opposes the AIPAC/Israel list in part because, the White House claims, the list would upset sensitive efforts to bring the Europeans, Russia and China on board with the effort to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran.

Obama campaign officials say that after rallying international support for tighter sanctions—a top priority that would take place as soon as February, they say—they would start reaching out to Iranian officials with “carrots.” These incentives would be aimed at getting the Iranians to end uranium enrichment. No one says so out loud, but the implication is that one such carrot would be to recognize Iran’s preeminence as a regional power, giving it veto power over military decisions in the region. Other incentives would include expanded trade.

McCain’s campaign does not speak of such incentives; rather, it emphasizes isolation and sanctions as the means to bring Iran around. It also favors isolating Iran through a “league of democracies.” That formula would exclude China and Russia, undercutting a key element to Israel’s strategy on Iran, which is to cultivate Russia and China. Overall, McCain’s strategy suggests confrontation with Russia, particularly over the expansion of NATO.

Last year, Obama opposed a non-binding amendment that would have designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist entity. Obama was not present at the vote, but 76 senators favored the amendment, sponsored by Sens. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), including top Democrats. The amendment was also backed by AIPAC.

McCain favored the amendment, and his campaign has accused Obama of pandering to the Democratic base, noting that his primaries rival Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) voted for the amendment and suffered the consequences.

Obama said that he backed similar language in different legislation but opposed the amendment because it tied Iran to attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq—language that he said could be used by the Bush administration as a pretext to launch an attack on Iran. Obama has said he supported Bush’s subsequent issuance of the executive order declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist entity and subject to relevant U.S. sanctions.

ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT

Both campaigns have endorsed a two-state solution, voiced strong support for Israel, called for U.S. backing of Palestinian Authority leader Mahoud Abbas and signed on to the policy of boycotting Hamas. They have also counseled caution and exuberance when it comes to the Bush administration’s late-term push for peace.

In the Obama campaign, Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, favors intensified involvement in the peace process, and has advocated—in the context of his own writing, not as a campaign spokesman—open pressure on Israel and the Palestinians. Dennis Ross, a former top Middle East negotiator and the Obama campaign’s top adviser on Israel, says that an Obama administration would be fully engaged in brokering Israeli-Palestinian talks. But, he adds, it would avoid setting any artificial timelines for a deal. Ross says that Palestinian statehood would be impossible as long as Hamas terrorists control the Gaza Strip.

Two top McCain advisers, historian Max Boot and diplomat Rich Williamson, have expressed the same concerns as Ross, but they say the Israeli-Palestinian track will not be a top priority. The GOP running mate, however, has sounded a different note: Gov. Sarah Palin said a McCain government would sustain the Bush administration effort launched by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and said that reaching a two-state solution was a top priority. McCain himself has promised to be the “chief negotiator.”

Both candidates back an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while leaving the city’s final status to Palestinian and Israeli negotiators.

Obama stumbled when he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in May that he would strive to keep the city undivided and Israel’s capital. Palestinians, and Arabs in general, were infuriated by Obama’s remark, leading to clarifications from Obama’s campaign claiming the candidate “misspoke.”

What Obama meant, the campaign and the candidate said, was that while Obama doesn’t want to see Jerusalem divided, the city may well be shared one day by Palestinians and Israelis and that Jerusalem’s final status should be left up to negotiators. McCain’s backers used the clarification to portray Obama’s remarks as inconsistent. On substance, however, the campaigns’ positions are identical.

McCain, however, has pledged to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem right away; Obama has not. Many candidates-turned-presidents have made such pledges in the past; none have delivered.

SYRIA

Syria is an issue where there are clear differences between the candidates.

Some in the McCain campaign, like the Bush administration, have made clear McCain would discourage the Israeli-Syrian negotiations currently taking place under Turkish auspices. The thinking is that the negotiations allow Syria to maintain some degree of hegemony in Lebanon, which the United States opposes.

The Obama campaign says this opposition to Israeli-Syrian talks preempts Israel in its ambitions for peace. However, Kurtzer, in a private capacity, has warned Syrian officials that they should not expect deep U.S. involvement until the talks truly are at an advanced stage. That would consist of Syria showing a serious effort toward meeting the key Israeli demand that it peel itself away from Iranian influence.

—- Jewish Telegraphic Agency

ANALYSIS: Who advises McCain and Obama?


WASHINGTON (JTA) — When the question of recognizing Israel landed on President Harry Truman’s desk in May 1948, he had to balance the advice of his old friend, Clark Clifford, against the general he deeply admired, George Marshall.

In the end Truman went with his friend, recognizing the new Jewish state.

It may be easy to read too much into who a candidate’s advisers are during an election campaign, but it’s also risky to avoid the tea leaves.

Obama’s Advisers

In sizing up the candidates’ advisers, most of the scrutiny in the Jewish community has been on Barack Obama — in part because of his inexperience on the national stage and in part because of Republican campaign tactics.

The Republican Jewish Coalition has issued a string of statements and ” title=”Dennis Ross”>Dennis Ross, who played a lead role in peace talks during the first Bush and Clinton presidencies. Ross is now at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he is joined by a staff that has leaned more toward neo-conservatism — and Republicans — than he has. Ross’ position at the institute is a testament to his ability to cross the aisle — an approach that jibes with Obama’s insistence that he will be a bipartisan president.

Ross is widely respected in the Jewish community but has been criticized in more conservative circles for what critics say was his failure to hold Yasser Arafat accountable for failing to live up to Palestinian commitments.

In his 2004 book, Ross made it eminently clear that at times he found then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be untrustworthy. But Ross also has insisted that the United States and Israel should have done more to hold the Palestinians to their agreements — and has consistently blamed Arafat for the failure to reach a final settlement at the end of the Clinton administration.

Ross has criticized the Bush administration for not being engaged enough in peace talks — but also for announcing unrealistic goals for achieving a two-state solution.

By contrast, he told JTA, an Obama admnistration would play a more hands-on role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking — but also steer clear of any “artificial” timelines. He says the creation of a Palestinian state is impossible so long as Hamas controls Gaza.

For these reasons, Ross has suggested, Obama’s emphasis would be more on Iran. Ross is one of the principle architects of Obama’s Iran policy: engagement induced through tough sanctions. His laundry list of possible new sanctions aimed at getting Iran to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program — the re-insurance industry, refined petrol exporters, central bank — echoes exactly those of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby.

Obama’s other key advisers include:

  • Anthony Lake, Clinton’s first national security adviser and an early Obama backer, apparently hopes to return the post. A relatively recent convert to Judaism, Lake has said that rallying the international community to further isolate Iran would be Obama’s first foreign policy priority.
  • Mara Rudman, a deputy on the Clinton national security team, also could end up in an Obama administration. Since leaving government, she served as a deputy to Lawrence Eagleberger, the former secretary of state, during his chairmanship of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. Last year, she helped launch Middle East Progress, a group that puts out a thrice-weekly e-mail bulletin partly to counter the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization’s influential Daily Bulletin, which has been accused of having a sharp neo-conservative tilt.
  • Dan Shapiro and Eric Lynn are two Obama campaign officials who straddle the policy and politics arms of the campaign. Lynn is Shapiro’s deputy. Both help shape policy — Shapiro is said to be the lead writer on Obama’s Middle East speeches — and both spend a lot of time campaigning in the Jewish community. Both also have Florida connections and can boast of insider status in the pro-Israel community. Lynn was an intern at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 1998; Shapiro played a major role in drafting the 2003 Syria Accountability Act, that year’s marquee victory for AIPAC.
  • Daniel Kurtzer joined the Obama camp during the primaries. President Clinton made him the first Jewish U.S. ambassador to Egypt, and the current President Bush went one better, making him the first Orthodox Jewish U.S. ambassador to Israel. Kurtzer, who left the diplomatic corps in 2005 after his Israel stint for a teaching job at Princeton University, may have the most dovish views on the foreign policy team.

    Prior to joining the campaign this year, Kurtzer co-authored a U.S. Institute of Peace tract that advocated equal pressure on Israel and the Palestinians. While he was ambassador to Israel, the Zionist Organization of America pressed Bush to fire him. But Kurtzer’s Jewish street cred has helped alleviate concern in many pro-Israel circles — in addition to his stint in Israel, Kurtzer is a product of Yeshiva University and trains kids for bar mitzvah.

  • The word from Obama circles is that two Republican senators — Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who is retiring and whose wife has endorsed Obama, and Richard Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — could end up in an Obama administration.

    Both men have shared Obama’s concerns about the conduct of the Iraq war. Of the two Republicans, Hagel is the more problematic for the pro-Israel community. He didn’t make friends last year when he told an Arab American Institute dinner that his support for Israel was not “automatic.” Lugar has not made such missteps, but his willingness to criticize Israeli policies in Senate hearings and his advocacy of direct dialogue with Iran have raised eyebrows.

McCain’s Advisers

” title=”self-described Independent Democrat”>self-described Independent Democrat for secretary of state. Lieberman’s longstanding friendship with McCain and a shared commitment to a tough interventionist neo-conservative foreign policy led to an endorsement a year ago that helped McCain resuscitate his campaign in New Hampshire.
  • James Woolsey, like Lieberman, is one of a small army of “Scoop” Jackson Democrats at the core of the McCain campaign: Like their late idol Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.), who ran a couple of abortive presidential campaigns in the 1970s, they are domestic liberals who have set aside social differences to join conservatives in pressing what they consider the more urgent matter: American preeminence overseas.

    Woolsey, a Clinton administration CIA director, is a tough-minded environmentalist: According to Mother Jones, a Web site devoted to investigative journalism, Woolsey drives a hybrid car plastered with the sticker “Bin Laden Hates This Car.” Early on he pressed for the Iraq war, and he is notorious for being among the first to blame Iraq — erroneously — for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He also exemplifies how the McCain campaign talks tough about confronting Iran while emphasizing behind-the-scenes that the military option should be a last resort.

  • Randy Scheunemann, like Shapiro in the Obama campaign, straddles policy and politics in the McCain campaign. A veteran of years on Capitol Hill who worked principally for former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and an icon among neo-conservatives, Scheunemann has shaped some of the toughest campaign attacks on Obama, including those related to Obama’s stated willingness to sit with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Scheunemann also led efforts to pitch the Iraq war to the American public prior to the invasion.

    In recent years, Scheunemann has lobbied for a number of nations seeking membership in NATO. His expertise on Georgia helped McCain gain the upper hand over a flustered Obama during the crisis over the summer when Russia invaded Georgia.

    Scheunemann is also close to the pro-Israel community. Working with Lott, he authored the 1995 legislation that would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; a year later, Scheunemann’s advice led Bob Dole — the Republican presidential candidate that year — to pledge to do so. This year, McCain has picked up that pledge.

  • Max Boot is too young to have been an architect of neo-conservatism; at times he embraces the term and at times he chafes at it.

    A historian who is probably the McCain adviser most steeped in theory and least steeped in policy-making, Boot wrote the definitive article arguing for the expansion of American power in the wake of 9/11. At a recent retreat organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Boot said a McCain administration would de-emphasize Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian talks to an even greater degree than the Bush administration (though McCain and his running mate both have suggested that the Arab-Israeli peace process would be a top priority). Boot, currently a Council on Foreign Relations fellow, says the late push by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is regrettable.

  • Richard Williamson is President Bush’s special envoy to Sudan. His work pressing the regime to end the genocide in its Darfur region have deepened his ties with the Jewish community, which date back to Williamson’s time as a member of the Reagan administration’s U.N. team.

    Williamson’s pre-campaign writings are very much in the realist camp. A veteran of disarmament talks, he wrote an article in 2003 for the Chicago Journal of International Law praising the efficacy of multilateral treaties, a bugbear of neo-conservatives. But Williamson’s shift at the recent Washington Institute retreat to neo-conservative talking points could be a signal of how much McCain has invested in that camp.

    At the retreat, Williamson suggested that a McCain administration would not avidly pursue Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace, and he touted McCain’s proposal for a “league of democracies,” a repudiation of conventional thinking on multilateralism.

    McCain advisors: No to Syria talks, little interest in Middle East peace process


    LEESBURG, Va. (JTA)—A McCain administration would discourage Israeli-Syrian peace talks and refrain from actively engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

    That was the message delivered over the weekend by two McCain advisers—Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Richard Williamson, the Bush administration’s special envoy to Sudan—during a retreat hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy at the Lansdowne Resort in rural Virginia.

    One of Barack Obama’s representatives—Richard Danzig, a Clinton administration Navy secretary—said the Democratic presidential candidate would take the opposite approach on both issues.

    In an interview with the Atlantic magazine over the summer, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) insisted that in his presidency he would serve as the chief negotiator in the peace process. But at the retreat, Boot said pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian deal would not be a top priority in a McCain administration, adding that as many as 30 crises across the globe require more urgent attention.

    Boot called the Bush administration’s renewed efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian talks a mistake.
    He also cast Israel’s talks with Syria as betraying the stake that the United States has invested in Lebanon’s fragile democracy.

    “John McCain is not going to betray the lawfully elected government of Lebanon,” Boot said.

    Williamson was slightly more nuanced in addressing the issue of how the message would be sent.

    “Israel should not be dictated to in dealing with Syria or dealing with Lebanon,” he said, addressing Israeli and some pro-Israel resentment in recent years at pressure by the Bush administration to stifle such negotiations. “Hopefully as friends they will listen to us.”

    That Williamson was endorsing such views at all signified how closely the McCain campaign has allied itself with neo-conservatives. A veteran of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, Williamson in other circumstances would be more closely identified with Republican “realists” who have vociferously eschewed the grand claims of neo-conservatives to a new American empire.

    Yet here he was echoing their talking points on several fronts.

    McCain until the last year or so has kept feet in both the realist and neo-conservative camps. The session at Lansdowne appeared to suggest that the Republican presidential nominee has chosen sides, opting for policies backed by the outgoing Bush administration and its neo-conservative foreign policy architects.

    Both McCain advisers insisted, however, that their candidate was synthesizing the two camps as a “realistic idealist.”

    McCain would be a “leader who will press for more liberal democratic change ” and “is realistic about the prospects of diplomacy and just as importantly its limits,” said Boot, echoing what has become the twin walking and talking points of neo-conservatism: a muscular foreign policy and an affinity for promoting democracy.

    Surrogates for Obama, an Illinois senator, re-emphasized their commitment to stepping up U.S. diplomatic efforts. Danzig said an Obama administration would revive the idea of a special envoy for pursuing a peace deal.

    The “appropriate level of presidential engagement requires that the United States designate someone whose energies are predominantly allocated to this,” Danzig said.

    Someone like Tony Blair, the former British prime minister now leading efforts to build a Palestinian civil society, might fit the bill, he added.

    Surrogates from both campaigns appeared to agree on the need to further isolate Iran until it stands down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. Each side emphasized that it would keep the military option on the table and enhance sanctions.

    It was clear that each campaign had devoted a great deal of attention to the issue. Officials from both campaigns signed on to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy policy paper this summer that called for closer U.S.-Israel coordination on Iran, borne out of concerns that Israel’s leadership was getting closer to contemplating the option of a strike.

    Williamson and Richard Clarke, the former top anti-terrorism official in both the Clinton and current Bush administrations who spoke for Obama, described the near impossibility of taking out a weapons program that is believed to be diffuse and hidden in population centers. Clarke added the possibility of covert action against Iran, without details—a first for either campaign.

    The sole difference was over Obama’s pledge not to count out a meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president who has denied the Holocaust and rejected the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.

    “What could such a meeting possibly accomplish?” Boot challenged.

    Danzig replied that it would make it easier for Obama to rally worldwide support for sanctions.

    “These things require a community of nations,” he said.

    Danzig cast Obama’s emphasis on sanctions and diplomacy in terms of Israel’s security, a pitch tuned to the Washington Institute’s pro-Israel orientation.

    “The threats and dangers are more substantial than they were eight years ago,” he said.

    McCain’s advisers attempted to deflect comparisons between McCain and Bush. In trying to turn such comparisons against the Obama campaign, Boot noted that eight years ago he favored “another presidential candidate with not much experience in national security policy”—George W. Bush—“and we’ve seen the implications.”

    The Washington Institute crowd, hawkish in its predilections and likelier to favor McCain’s foreign policy, would nonetheless only allow the McCain surrogates to take the character and experience issue so far.

    Fred Lafer, the institute’s president emeritus, pressed Boot on why McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a foreign policy novice, as his running mate if he was committed to national security.

    Boot said “she has as much” foreign policy experience as Obama, prompting cries of “No!” and “what?”

    James Baker says Bush’s Syria policy is ‘ridiculous’; Sobell finally gives it up


    Baker Calls Bush ‘Ridiculous’ on Syria

    The Bush administration’s refusal to deal with Syria is “ridiculous,” said James Baker, a former U.S. secretary of state.

    Five former secretaries of state met Monday under the auspices of CNN to discuss what advice they would give the next president.

    “I would advise the president to fully engage with Syria,” said Baker, who as secretary of state under Bush’s father helped convene the 1991 Madrid talks, which for the first time brought Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and other Arab nations into the same process. “I think it is ridiculous for us to say we’re not going to talk to Syria and yet Israel has been talking to them for six to eight months.”

    The Bush administration has discouraged Israel’s talks with Syria, currently held under Turkish auspices. Israel wants to draw Syria away from the Iranian sphere; the Bush administration says it will not engage Syria until it fully disengages from Lebanon and stops its support for terrorist groups.

    Also appearing at the session were Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher, who served under President Bill Clinton; Colin Powell, who served under the current President Bush; and Henry Kissinger, who served under presidents Nixon and Ford.

    Figure in Rosenberg Case Admits Spying

    One of the co-defendants in the Rosenberg espionage case has admitted to spying for the Soviets.

    Morton Sobell, who was tried and convicted in 1951 with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges, admitted for the first time on Sept. 11 in an interview with The New York Times that he had turned over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II.

    “Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that,” he told The Times when asked if he was a spy. “I never thought of it as that in those terms.”

    Sobell drew a distinction between providing information on defensive radar and artillery, which he did, and the information that, he said, Julius Rosenberg provided to the Soviets on the atomic bomb. He said he believes the Soviets already had obtained from other sources most of the information Rosenberg provided.

    Sobell also said he believed that Ethel Rosenberg was aware of her husband’s spying, but did not actively participate. Both Rosenbergs were executed for their crimes.

    The 91-year-old Sobell, who long had professed his innocence, refused to testify at his trial and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was released in 1969 and currently lives in the Bronx, N.Y.

    He spoke as the National Archives released the bulk of the grand jury testimony in the Rosenberg case.

    Ehud Olmert should be indicted, Israeli police tell prosecutors


    JERUSALEM (JTA)—Ehud Olmert should be indicted on corruption charges, Israeli police recommended Sunday.

    Bribery is the most serious of the charges that police recommended against the prime minister to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. Others include fraud, breach of trust and money laundering.

    The corruption charges stem from two investigations of Olmert. In the Rishon Tours double billing affair, he allegedly used money from charitable organizations to fund family trips. In the Talansky affair, Olmert is alleged to have received illegal contributions from American businessman Morris Talansky over the course of 15 years.

    Police are still reviewing evidence in a third case; Olmert is under investigation in six cases.

    The recommendations, along with investigative material, will be passed on to the state prosecutor’s office. Once the material is passed on and a hearing held for Olmert, the prosecutor’s office will make a decision on filing an indictment in about two weeks.

    Police also recommended charging Olmert’s former bureau chief Shula Zaken.

    A statement from the Prime Ministers Office called the recommendations “meaningless.”

    McCain accepts nomination, offers little new on Israel, Iran


    ST. PAUL, Minn. (JTA)—John McCain used his convention speech Thursday to unveil his game plan for claiming the mantle of real change: Shore up support among conservatives by touting traditional Republican positions while appealing to undecided voters by criticizing his party’s actual performance and promising to work across party lines.

    In the process, he offered little new on Israel and Iran—possibly because of Republican confidence that the party has the upper hand over Democrats on those issues.

    Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) accepted the Republican Party’s nomination on the final night of the convention in St. Paul with a speech that promised a Washington shake-up.

    “Let me just offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first-country-second, Washington crowd: Change is coming,” McCain said to cheers.

    The McCain campaign has striven to undercut claims by the Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), to real change—a tough proposition given his advantage of being a Democrat after eight years of Bush administration rule, including six years when Republicans controlled Congress. Making the challenge even tougher is McCain’s commitment to a long string of conventional Republican domestic and foreign-policy staples.

    Stll, McCain offered a clear break from the increasingly bitter mood in Washington: He pledged to work with Democrats and independents once elected.

    “Instead of rejecting good ideas because we didn’t think of them first, let’s use the best ideas from both sides,” McCain said.

    The nominee already has made clear his most senior adviser on foreign policy—and on some areas of domestic policy—will be Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the former Democrat who became the first Jew to make a national ticket when he was tapped as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000.

    Not much in terms of policy appeared to distinguish McCain from Bush, whose unpopularity ratings are at about 65 percent, according to polls.

    This is partly because, in one critical area, dealing with Iraq, Bush in recent years has caught up with McCain: Bush has increased troops, a policy that has gone some way toward stemming the chaos that ensued in that country after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

    On education, taxes, trade and immigration, McCain appears to be on the same page as Bush. If there was a difference between the two that came out in the speech Thursday, it was one of emphasis: In his speech, McCain barely mentioned the social conservatism that characterized much of the Bush administration. He included one passing mention to a “culture of life,” a code for opposition to abortion.

    McCain opposes abortion, but has shown little taste for legislating it out of existence; additionally, unlike many Christian conservatives, he supports embryonic stem-cell research.

    Israel did not get a mention in McCain’s speech, but McCain alluded to Israel’s concerns at two points.

    First, when he outlined unfinished foreign policy business: “Iran remains the chief state sponsor of terrorism, and is on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons,” McCain said. The other reference was in outlining a pledge to promote energy independence—one Obama also has adopted but without going as far as McCain in pushing for more drilling in the United States.

    “We’re going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much,” McCain said. The world’s major oil producers include such countries as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Russia.

    When the Middle East came up during the Republican convention, it often did so in conjunction with hopes for energy independence. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s vice presidential pick, also linked the two in her speech Wednesday night.

    Republicans’ confidence that McCain will claim a greater share of the Jewish vote this November compared to recent presidential elections was evident on the margins of the convention.

    Polls have shown McCain claiming at least 32 percent in November, a leap from the 25 percent Bush won in 2004. This, despite the Obama campaign’s efforts in recent months to stress its support for Israel and its commitment to tougher action against Iran.

    Lawmakers attending a Republican Jewish Coalition event on Thursday returned constantly to the theme of McCain being a more proven friend of Israel than Obama.

    “If you care about the United States of America, if you care about Israel, this election is absolutely critical,” said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). Nevada is in play this election and its growing Jewish population could prove critical in November.

    At the same event, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared to imply that the Democratic Party isn’t pro-Israel.

    “There’s an important and fundamental difference between the two parties in Washington, and I know you’re not going to be fooled by Democrats claiming that just because they’re for foreign assistance to Israel that they’re pro-Israel,” McConnell said. “Israel’s security and U.S. security are inextricably intertwined and they involve… having an assertive, aggressive proactive approach to danger.”

    Such harsh rhetoric echoed the sharp attacks against Obama delivered by Palin and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in their speeches the night before.

    On McCain’s night, however, the nominee ultimately appeared to take his cues from Lieberman, who in his speech Tuesday night painted the GOP nominee as a maverick willing to buck his own party and work with Democrats when the national interest required it.

    Biden, Palin lead campaign clash on Mideast


    ST. PAUL (JTA)—The two vice-presidential candidates led the way Wednesday as the Obama and McCain campaigns worked to draw clear battle lines on Iran and Israel.

    In a highly anticipated speech at the Republican National Convention, Alaska Gov. and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin mocked U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for saying more than a year ago that as president he would meet the leaders of pariah states unconditionally.

    “Terrorist states are seeking nuclear weapons without delay—he wants to meet them without preconditions,” she said during her acceptance speech Wednesday night at the Xcel Energy Center here.

    Palin’s address followed a speech by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the most popular candidate among Jewish GOPers in the primaries. Giuliani warmed up the crowd with swipes at Obama, including an assertion that the Democratic nominee had flip-flopped on the issue of Jerusalem.

    “When speaking to a pro-Israeli group, Obama favored an undivided Jerusalem, like I favor and John McCain favors it,” Giuliani said. “Well, he favored an undivided Jerusalem—don’t get excited—until one day later when he changed his mind.”

    Earlier in the day, the Democrats launched their own Middle East-related attack when Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), used a 20-minute conference call with members of the Jewish media to blast the Bush administration and McCain, the Republican presidential nominee and longtime Arizona senator.

    Biden blamed the Bush administration’s sluggish diplomatic efforts for slowing up Israeli-Palestinian talks and paving the way for the ascendancy of Iran and its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. The Democratic vice presidential candidate argued that the administration has failed to respect Israel’s autonomy, citing reports that the White House at one time directed Israel not to engage in talks with Syria. And he appeared to reject the administration’s reported efforts to block Israel from taking military action against Iran.

    “This is not a question for us to tell the Israelis what they can and cannot do,” Biden said. “I have faith in the democracy of Israel. They will arrive at the right decision that they view as being in their own interests.”

    That said, Biden added, the Bush administration could have done much more on the diplomatic front to help avert the potential need for military action.

    Taken together, Biden’s press call and the GOP convention speeches underscored the ramped-up efforts by both campaigns to paint the other side as promoting a reckless foreign policy that would endanger Israel and undermine U.S. interests.

    They come as polls suggest that Obama commands about 60 percent of the Jewish vote—a solid majority, but at least 15 points below the percentages recorded by recent Democratic presidential candidates.

    Even as both sides attempted to draw stark distinctions on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, it was unclear if any exist. The clearest gap appears to be on moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

    McCain has said he would do so when he enters office. In response, the Obama campaign accused McCain of lying.

    The last two presidents made the same promise during their campaigns, but neither Bush nor Bill Clinton over the past 16 years ever even made an attempt to actually carry out that promise.

    On the wider question of Jerusalem’s final status, however, it’s not clear that the candidates disagree.

    Obama felt the need to clarify comments he made on the issue to thousands of pro-Israel activists in June, but both he and McCain have expressed essentially the same views: They share Israel’s concerns and say ultimately the two sides must decide the matter in negotiations.

    Though for years the Bush administration was reluctant to dive into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, McCain has pledged to do so. Both he and Obama favor a two-state solution, place most of the blame on the Palestinians for the failure to reach one, and back efforts to isolate Hamas and shore up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

    On Iran, however, the disagreements appear more pronounced—between Obama and the Bush administration and between the two presidential campaigns.

    In mocking Obama’s stated willingness to meet with the president of Iran, Palin was echoing a longstanding line of attack against Obama employed not only by Republicans but by Obama’s main rival in the Democratic primaries, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

    Since Obama first made the remark during a primary debate more than a year ago, he appears to have backtracked, saying he would require extensive preparations before such a meeting.

    Still, Obama and Biden have stuck to the view that hard-nosed talks between the United States and Iran could ultimately lead Tehran to change its behavior—and, failing that, make it easier to build international support for tougher sanctions and possible military action against the Islamic regime.

    McCain, on the other hand, has scoffed at the notion that talking with top Iranian leaders would do any good. At the same time, McCain has opposed several congressional measures backed by Obama that supporters say would place increased economic pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear pursuits.

    Biden argued during the conference call that the net result of McCain’s positions is that he’s offering a choice between “unacceptable status quo or war.”

    “There’s nothing in between with the McCain doctrine—nothing,” Biden said. “That is no option. That is a Hobson’s choice.”

    In her speech Wednesday night, Palin expanded the Iran debate, arguing that the energy policies she favors—in particular, expanding oil drilling in the United States, especially Alaska—would help diminish the Iranian threat.

    “To confront the threat that Iran might seek to cut off nearly a fifth of world energy supplies or that terrorists might strike again at the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia or that Venezuela might shut off its oil deliveries,” Palin said, “we Americans need to produce more of our own oil and gas.”

    (Editor Ami Eden contributed in New York to this report.)

    GOP platform offers strong support for Israel, veers right domestically


    MINNEAPOLIS (JTA)—John McCain’s Jewish supporters characterize him as a Republican maverick who shares his party’s bedrock support for Israel and combating anti-Semitism. Critics dismiss him as the standard-bearer of a staunchly conservative party at odds with the Jewish community on a host of issues.

    They’re both right, judging from the platform approved this week at the Republican convention in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

    The platform includes a call for an end to all government-funded embryonic stem-cell research and a ban on all abortions—positions that, polls show, are contrary to those of most Jewish voters. Of course, they also do not conform to the views of McCain, who has said that he would revoke President Bush’s restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell research, permit abortions in cases of rape, incest and threats to the life of the mother.

    On immigration, McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona who is the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has pressed for legislation that would provide undocumented workers with a path toward citizenship, but the platform declares: “We oppose amnesty.”

    The McCain campaign reportedly decided to avoid significant fights over the platform rather than upset leaders of the party’s conservative base, many of whom have expressed concern over the GOP nominee. His supporters argue that the platform is irrelevant to understanding McCain and that voters will make their decisions based on how they view the candidate.

    Texas state Sen. Florence Shapiro, the only Jewish female Republican in her state legislature, said that the platform is “not what guides my everyday” decision-making and doubts voters will be using it to make decisions either.

    They will and should be “looking at John McCain and his positions and record,” she said.

    Another Jewish delegate from Texas, Houstonian Stuart Mayper, said the strong “pro-life” language in the platform could be a problem for some Jews. But, he quickly added, the platform contains language strongly supportive of Israel that should be attractive to the Jewish community.

    Sources familiar with the formation of the platform say the language dealing with Israel and fighting anti-Semitism was drafted in consultation with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups.

    The platform echoes AIPAC’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for a two-state solution but placing the onus on the Palestinians to take several key steps and calling on nearby Arab countries to play a more constructive role. It also declares support for “Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and moving the American embassy to that undivided capital of Israel.”

    Both McCain and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic nominee, have said that the status of Jerusalem ultimately would be decided in negotiations between the two sides. McCain has pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem right away—a promise that the Obama campaign rejected, essentially calling it a lie.

    The GOP platform calls for the isolation of Hamas and Hezbollah and vows to maintain Israel’s qualitative edge in military technology over its enemies—all positions shared by Obama and McCain.

    In several contexts, the platform stresses the need to combat anti-Semitism—on university campuses, in Europe and across the world—and declares that “discrimination against Israel at the U.N. is unacceptable.”

    It says that Iran cannot be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons, calls for a “significant increase in political, economic, and diplomatic pressure” on Tehran and insists that the United States “must retain all options” in dealing with the situation.

    Without naming Obama, the platform draws a contrast with the Democratic nominee’s previously stated willingness to meet with the Iranian president. It states: “We oppose entering into a presidential-level, unconditional dialogue with the regime in Iran until it takes steps to improve its behavior, particularly with respect to the support of terrorism and suspension of its efforts to enrich uranium.”

    Beyond sicko


    Because this was happening a short taxi ride from the White House, I half expected someone from Dick Cheney’s office to burst in at any moment, grab the
    microphone and proclaim the conference kaput, dissolved like an inconvenient parliament.

    “I think this may be the best day of my life,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said at the opening of the 2008 Leaders-to-Leaders Conference she convened last week, along with the country’s state and county public health officials. The agenda: To build a bottom-up coalition to change how America deals with health, to shift our focus from health care to healthiness and to the bigger social factors that determine our national healthiness.

    Over two days, I heard so many encouraging ideas from the conference stage that didn’t reflexively demonize public policy-making as nanny-statism that, well, as I said, the whole thing left me looking nervously over my shoulder for political-correctness enforcers from The Cato Institute or The Heritage Foundation.

    As one speaker after another pointed out, America today ranks first among industrial nations in terms of how much we spend on health care, but last in terms of how healthy we are as a country. Pick any national metric of healthiness — life expectancy, infant mortality, birth weight, chronic diseases incidence — and America’s comparative performance is in the cellar. It’s true even when you adjust for European populations’ relative homogeneity: if you only count white Americans, we are still the low man on the healthiness totem pole.

    We Americans spend more than 90 percent of our health dollars on health care (on doctors, hospitals, insurance, machines, pharmaceuticals and the like), but it turns out that only 10 percent of how healthy we are as a nation is determined by what those health care dollars buy.

    How can that be? What could possibly determine whether America is among the industrial world’s healthiest nations, if not the thing we’re all clamoring for: universal heath insurance? The answer — and this isn’t a political opinion, it’s an epidemiological finding — lies in the social determinants of our physical condition. Determinants like income, class, education, racism, the availability of public transportation, land-use policy, environmental policy, participation in the political process and a host of other factors that don’t depend on our genetic makeup or our propensity to take personal responsibility for diet and exercise. Determinants that flow not from luck or individual choices, but from laws, regulations and priorities set at all levels of government and in the private sector as well. (If you want an alarming eyeful about this, check out the new California Newsreel documentary “Unnatural Causes.”)

    The way we currently think about health in America — about health care, that is — is completely understandable. We all want access to the best possible health care for our parents, our kids and ourselves, and we want it to be affordable, and we want plenty of choices. What’s astonishing is that even if we covered all the uninsured’s health care, we would still likely rank at the bottom of industrial countries for healthiness. The major causes of our country’s healthiness or unhealthiness are all upstream of the things that send us to doctors and hospitals and pharmacies. The causes are poverty, and stress, and the amount of control and autonomy we have at our jobs, and whether there are showers there, and what they put in the vending machines. The causes are access to early childhood education, and to day care, and whether schools are built near asthma-breeding freeways. They are whether your neighborhood offers public libraries and public transportation and walking trails, or public dumps and liquor stores and fast food franchises.

    “I had a colonoscopy the other week,” the CDC’s Dr. Gerberding told the 400 public health officials, business leaders and nonprofits she was hoping would sign on to a “healthiest nation alliance.” “Actually,” she added, “I was billed for two colonoscopies, though I’m sure I only had one.”

    Clearly she’s not unaware of the madness of our present health care system. No one facing a family medical crisis wants anything but the best possible treatment at that moment. No one should lack access to quality health care. But prevention is even more important to the country as a whole than treatment is, and the free market alone hasn’t and won’t deliver the level of prevention we need.

    To me, the underlying reason America has fallen so far behind in the healthiest nation race is the exhausted dogmas that have dominated public discourse for something like 30 years — Horatio Algerism, social Darwinism, the magic of the marketplace, deregulation is good, government is bad, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and devil take the hindmost.

    We now know what America looks like when those kinds of ideas rule, and not only in the health sector. I’m glad that, at long last, public officials are finding their voice to express politically transgressive thoughts, like the idea that income inequity and racism are bad for America’s healthiness.

    I just hope that the Ayn Rand Society doesn’t get on their case.

    Marty Kaplan is director of the USC Annenberg School’s Norman Lear Center, where some work is supported by the CDC. His column appears weekly in this space. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

    Reversal of fortune: The Mexican immigrant shift


    “Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America” by Gregory Rodgriguez (Pantheon, 2007).

    The immigration-reform debate has gripped the country and enflamed passions. Hate groups, along with mainstream media, have engaged in facile assumptions about Mexican immigration, often leading to racist stereotypes and opening the door to extremist ideology. The advent of new technology aggravates the spread of xenophobia as commentators hide behind the anonymity of the Internet, and fact gathering is replaced by speculation.

    For those who monitor and respond to extremism at the border, hate crimes against Latinos and the victimization of new immigrants, Gregory Rodgriguez’s new book, “Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America,” is a welcome resource, detailing the history, politics and patterns of Mexican immigration. His academic approach and extensive research provide much-needed factual information. His humor and straightforward style keep the reader engaged and curious. And his conclusions are well reasoned and accessible.

    Rodriguez takes us through a history lesson that tells the story of Mexican immigration through the lens of his premise that the Latin American concept of mestizaje (racial and cultural synthesis) has influenced and will continue to influence America’s view of race. He starts in the 16th century with the story of the first Spanish expeditions to Mexico and their mixed race progeny who blended Spanish, Indian, Black, Aztec and Christian customs.

    In the 17th and 18th centuries, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and California were colonized by missionaries who were predominantly mestizos. In these areas, there was only a brief interlude between the Spanish period, which ended when Mexico became an independent federal republic in 1824, and the American period, ranging from 1839 in Texas to 1851 in California.

    Even before statehood in California, the Mexican upper class accepted the immigration of working-class United States citizens looking for a better life.

    “We find ourselves threatened by hordes of Yankee immigrants who have already begun to flock into our country and whose progress we cannot arrest,” said California’s last Mexican governor, Pío Pico. “Whatever that astonishing people will next undertake I cannot say, but on whatever enterprise they embark they will be sure to be successful.”

    Californian hospitality to the American immigrants, motivated by the stimulus to the economy that the influx of cheap labor supplied, continued even after Mexico City attempted to curb foreign immigration.

    The irony of this particular history is hard to miss.

    A reversal of fortune occurred in Anglo-Mexican relations as the government structure in the Southwest shifted from Mexican to American. Between 1850 and 1930, extralegal violence in the Southwest resulted in more deaths of Mexican Americans than African Americans.

    Mexican immigration rose during this period and into the 20th century as mining and agriculture business grew. Anglos made no distinction between citizens and non-citizens.

    “To them, a Mexican was a Mexican,” Rodriguez writes.

    imageRodriguez details the history of the Mexican American response — starting with opposition to the use of Mexican labor.

    “No careful distinctions are made between illegal aliens and local citizens of Mexican descent,” former League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) director George Sánchez said in 1951. “The ‘wet’ migration … has set the whole assimilation process back at least twenty years.”

    Yet, three short years later, opposition no longer sufficed as a strategy and LULAC spoke out against inhumane deportation efforts. In the 1960s, the Chicano movement emerged and, by the 1970s, the Southwest Council of La Raza helped to establish community-based organizations and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) pursued hundreds of lawsuits to challenge segregation and discrimination.

    During the 1980s, California’s Latino population, 80 percent of Mexican origin, enjoyed unprecedented acceptance into the middle class. The population grew by 67 percent, half due to immigration, so that Latinos made up a quarter of the state.

    More Mexican immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1990s than in any previous decade, most of them without documentation. But, by the turn of the 21st century, the foreign-born were no longer the fastest growing portion of the population and, by 2040, the third-generation Mexican American population is projected to triple while the second generation will double.

    Rodriguez weaves recurring themes throughout the book. As in the 1930s and 1940s, U.S.-born Mexican Americans will “shift the cultural balance of Mexican America from immigrant to ethnic American culture.” Today, we see once again dual trends of increased anti-immigrant sentiment and mobilization by Mexican Americans to become citizens. And we see again how the Mexican American view of race, class and assimilation is reflected in the mirror America holds up to itself.

    Rodriguez’s thorough study and articulate presentation will help anyone who advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and speaks out against bigotry of all kinds. But even the casual observer of race and society in America will find the book enlightening and accessible.

    Amanda Susskind is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest Region.

    In economy-focused State of the Union speech, Bush offers no new Mideast ideas


    Just weeks after his first presidential visit to Israel, President Bush made clear his priority for his final year in office: the economy, stupid.

    If the president has a Middle East breakthrough up his sleeve, he was not ready to reveal it Monday in the State of the Union address that precedes his last year in office.

    The vast majority of Bush’s speech was dedicated to proposals to stimulate the U.S. economy and to defending his Iraq policies. His plans for Israeli-Palestinian peace and for confronting Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program were given short shrift toward the end.

    The president cast Israeli-Palestinian peace as part of the broader struggle against Iraqi insurgents, segueing from what he said was the success of his “surge” policy in that country to his recent visit to Israel and the West Bank.

    “We’re also standing against the forces of extremism in the Holy Land, where we have new cause for hope,” he said. “Palestinians have elected a president who recognizes that confronting terror is essential to achieving a state where his people can live in dignity and at peace with Israel. Israelis have leaders who recognize that a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state will be a source of lasting security.”

    “This month in Ramallah and Jerusalem I assured leaders from both sides that America will do, and I will do, everything we can to help them achieve a peace agreement that defines a Palestinian state by the end of this year. The time has come for a Holy Land where a democratic Israel and a democratic Palestine live side by side in peace,” he said.

    That led into Iran. An assessment by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies last year, which found that Iran had halted a covert nuclear weapons program in 2003, already had cast a pall over the Bush administration’s attempts to ratchet up international sanctions against the Islamic Republic to push it toward greater transparency.

    Bush has all but made explicit his frustration with the National Intelligence Estimate and his belief that it underestimates Iran’s determination to revive such a program. Yet the State of the Union speech notably abjured mention of any new sanctions, confining itself to standard warnings.

    “Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment so negotiations can begin,” Bush said in remarks aimed at Iran. “And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home, cease your support for terror abroad. But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf.”

    In the long domestic portion of his speech, what was significant for Jewish groups watching — and anxiously awaiting Bush’s final budget, to be handed down next month — was not what he said but what he didn’t.

    Jewish social action groups, led by the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization, are focused on cuts in recent years to health-care assistance to the elderly and to uninsured children. Bush’s comment on health care, much like his bromides about Middle East peace and Iran, were confined to recommitments to increased incentives for Americans to get private health care.

    “We share a common goal: making health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans,” he said. “The best way to achieve that goal is by expanding consumer choice, not government control.”

    More substantially, as part of his economic stimulus push, Bush said he would veto any spending bill that did not cut in half earmarks — funding amendments included in larger bills at the discretion of individual Congress members. Such earmarks have been key to funding Jewish programs for the elderly, most prominently the Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities pioneered by UJC.

    UJC is also leading a coalition of 150 national and local groups pressing Bush and Congress to include in the stimulus package federal funds to help states contemplating cuts in Medicaid, the medical assistance program for the poor.

    “This kind of fiscal relief is one of the best ways to help avert painful state budget cuts and tax increases,” said the letter sent to every Congress member on Monday. “This was last used as an engine to encourage economic recovery in 2003-04.”

    That earlier boost “pumped needed funds into the economy over an 18-month period and played a vital role in helping to move us out of recession,” the letter said.

    Bush’s only mention of Medicaid was a passing reference to his proposals to “reform” entitlement programs.

    The crux of Bush’s stimulus is making tax cuts permanent. Inevitably that would undercut entitlement programs, but Jewish groups traditionally have maintained a silence on tax cuts, partly because some major donors favor the cuts and partly it is a purely partisan issue, and to oppose the cuts effectively would mean opposing the Republican Party.

    The Orthodox Union (OU) found something to praise in the domestic package, particularly in Bush’s proposal to enact his faith-based funding initiatives into law. Until now these programs have been funded by executive order, and they are likely to wither if Bush is replaced by a Democrat.

    The OU also praised a Bush proposal to expand Pell grants, the program that assists poor college students, to school-age students, effectively helping to fund tuition for private and religious schools.

    Bush’s environmental legacy


    It’s time to act on Saudis’ support of terror


    King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was stunned at the hostile reception he received during a recent visit to London. It seems our British friends are much more attuned than we are to the nefarious role the Saudis continue to play in financing and fomenting terror.

    As Middle East policymakers and experts focus their efforts on Iraq, Iran and now the Annapolis gathering, the nation that is best described as the epicenter for terror continues to fly under the radar screen, at least in the United States.

    Saudi Arabia has deftly played its oil trump card while putting on its payroll an army of former U.S. diplomats who shamelessly patrol the corridors of power, trying to convince us that the king is our most reliable ally in the war on terror. Rendered virtually irrelevant is a nasty bill of particulars:

    • Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11, 2001, mass murderers were products of the kingdom and funded with Saudi money.
    • More than half of the forgein terrorists attacking and killing our troops in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia.
    • Saudi textbooks still preach anti-West and anti-Semitic hatred, trumpeting as gospel the blasphemous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
    • The Saudis relentlessly finance mosques and schools the world over that bellow deadly extremist ideology.
    • U.S. law enforcement officials have publicly aired their frustration at the continued financing of terrorist groups, despite repeated requests to the Saudis to put the enablers out of business.
    • The Saudis’ failure to prosecute known sponsors and benefactors of terrorism.

    The U.S. Treasury Department has been extremely frustrated at our supposed ally, noting with contempt the great divide between Saudi promises and Saudi action. The terms most used to describe Saudi efforts in the war on terror: “passive,” “disengaged,” “little or no progress” and “foot-dragging.”

    While certain baby steps have been taken, they amount to no more than a drop in the bucket compared to what the Saudis have been implored to do. While the Bush administration will in no way hold Saudi feet to the fire, some on Capitol Hill are fed up. Enter U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who have introduced the Saudi Arabia Accountability Act of 2007 in their respective chambers.

    The legislation demands that Saudi Arabia close any entity engaged in funding or facilitating terror and to cooperate with American efforts. Failure to do so will trigger a series of sanctions, including restrictions on arms sales.

    The Saudi initiative is one of the most important pieces of legislation pending on the Hill. It should be high not only on the pro-Israel agenda but on America’s national security agenda, as well. Indeed, one can make a strong case that it deserves to be the legislative centerpiece of the war on terror.

    Let’s not lose sight that terrorist attacks need not be of Sept. 11 magnitude to have a devastating and deadly impact. The less-sophisticated operations carried out by home-grown fanatics are just as capable of wreaking havoc. Just ask the Brits and Spaniards. Both have felt the wrath of bombings perpetrated by young Islamic terrorists who were inspired by the poison spewing from Saudi-supported mosques and schools.

    The White House and State Department, of course, will never endorse this initiative, trotting out the disingenuous mantra that the Saudis are needed in our fight against the bad guys. Never mind that the kingdom and their American hired guns all along have been assuring us that the Saudis will stand shoulder to shoulder with us — the empirical evidence proves the contrary.

    While the Saudis talk a good game, it would be the height of naiveté to expect that they will undertake any of the serious measures we have been urging for years.

    Odds are the legislation proffered by Specter, Widen and Weiner will die on the vine, never making it out of committee; I’m afraid the Saudi lobby will win this battle easily. Indeed, similar legislation in recent years has gone nowhere, even when there was the hardest of evidence proving that the Saudi government was paying the families of suicide murderers and directly supporting Hamas.

    One reason for the past failure was the lack of a concerted, unified push by the legendary pro-Israel lobby. The silence sent a clear message to Congress: This was not a matter of importance to the Jewish community.

    This time, only the Zionist Organization of America has endorsed and will lobby for the Saudi accountability measure. Unfortunately, it probably will be virtually alone in this fight. Jewish organizations would do well to remember that it was a losing battle — over the sale of AWACS to the Saudis 25 years ago — that for all practical purposes put it on the map. Some battles must be fought because it simply is the right thing to do. Taking the Saudis to task for being the hub of terrorism is one of those battles.

    Unless and until sinister activities engaged in, tolerated and effectively endorsed by Saudi Arabia are challenged head on, the war on terror is not much more than an exercise of putting our heads in the sand. The sources of financing must be dried up, and the ideology of hatred must be destroyed. The Saudis have the power and the ability to make this happen. Until now, they have demonstrated a decisive lack of will.

    The question is whether the pro-Israel community has the guts to take on this vital battle in an effort to make the Saudis see the light. Regrettably, if past is prologue, don’t bet on it.

    Neal Sher, a New York attorney, previously served as director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations and as executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He can be reached at nealsher@gmail.com.

    Bibi Netanyahu ranks high … as racist demagogue


    By rights, Binyamin Netanyahu, which every poll says is by far the most popular politician in Israel, should be ranked with Jean Le Pen, Jorge Haider and the rest of the Western
    world’s racist demagogues.

    But he won’t be, because anti-Arab racism in Israel is either supported or strategically ignored by the mainstream of the Jewish world and pretty much taken for granted by the non-Jewish world.

    What Netanyahu said last week was not new for him. He was reported to have made the same appeal to the same sort of audience — Charedi political leaders — a couple of years ago as finance minister. Then, as now, he was apologizing for the way his child welfare cuts had hurt large Charedi families, while at the same time asking the Charedim to look at the bright sides of that policy.

    “Two positive things happened,” he told a conference of Charedi government officials in Nir Etzion last week. “Members of the Charedi public seriously joined the workforce. And on the national level, the unexpected result was the demographic effect on the non-Jewish public, where there was a dramatic drop in the birthrate.”

    The once and possibly future prime minister of Israel says publicly that he’s sorry his welfare cuts made life harder for Jewish families who are “blessed,” as he put it, with many children, but isn’t it “positive” that these cuts resulted in fewer Arab children being born?

    Then Netanyahu went on to suggest a national remedy for the victims of his economic policies — but for Jewish victims only, not Arab victims.

    “I don’t think that the Jewish Agency should refrain from helping part of the Jewish public in the state,” he said, “and it is possible that additional nongovernmental bodies could have done so.”

    Imagine if any non-Jewish government official in the world cited the lowering of the Jewish birthrate in his country as an accomplishment, then recommended that his country’s founding institution raise money to help poor non-Jewish families but not poor Jewish families.

    How would the Jewish world, starting with Israel, characterize such an individual? What sort of pressure would the Jewish world apply to get him or her fired, blackballed and, if possible, indicted?

    Yet everyone knows the speech in Nir Etzion will not hurt Netanyahu at all — even though, again, this is not the first time he’s said this, and even though the statements are perfectly in line with his standing as Israel’s No. 1 fear-monger on the Israeli-Arab “demographic threat.”

    (On second thought, Netanyahu is probably only No. 2 — Avigdor Lieberman, his former right-hand man and alter ego, is No. 1. When it comes to the subject of Israeli Arabs, it’s hard to tell where Netanyahu ends and Lieberman begins.)

    The worst that will happen to Netanyahu from this is that maybe another liberal commentator or two will denounce him, and there will be a press release from some civil rights organization. Maybe not even that. If, on the other hand, we’re really, really lucky, the attorney general might have a word to say.

    (FYI, even if there was a chance of it happening, I wouldn’t want to see Netanyahu indicted. If every Israeli who made racist remarks in public had to stand trial, the courts would collapse under the load.)

    The only political parties that might censure Netanyahu are the left-wing parties, and nobody cares about them. In fact, a bad word from Meretz can only help the Likud leader in the polls.

    The Anti-Defamation League won’t say anything, and neither will the other Diaspora Jewish organizations. Bibi is just too big, too popular, too important, too much a symbol of Israel for the Diaspora Jewish establishment to say a word against him, let alone accuse him of being a shameless bigot.

    “Two positive things happened: Members of the Charedi public seriously joined the workforce. And on the national level, the unexpected result was the demographic effect on the non-Jewish public, where there was a dramatic drop in the birthrate.”

    That’s the Israeli people’s overwhelming choice for prime minister talking. I hope The New York Times, CNN and every other major news medium in the world picks up this story and doesn’t let it go until Israel and Diaspora Jewry are shamed into dumping this guy once and for all.

    On second thought, exposure as an anti-Arab racist by the international media could cause Netanyahu some problems overseas, but at home, it would only increase his appeal.

    Larry Derfner is the Tel Aviv correspondent for The Jewish Journal.

    Democrats have no beitzim


    It’s not polite to say the English word for cojones in this paper, so I’ll use the Hebrew: beitzim.
     
    Beitzim means eggs in Hebrew, but it is also slang for cojones.
     
    And as the midterm election draws near, any clear-eyed assessment of the Democratic Party would have to conclude: the Democrats have no beitzim.
     
    Plenty of them are gloating that the congressional page sex scandal will clinch a victory for them in November. But I doubt it. It wouldn’t shock me if, New York Yankees-like, the team that looks unbeatable in the playoffs gets sent packing.
     
    This is the party that couldn’t unseat a president who chose to launch a disastrous war, and who waded against mainstream opinion on everything from stem cell research to energy policy to the environment to Terri Schiavo. At every turn, Democratic candidates have failed to offer an alternative voice that makes Americans feel not just sane, but safe.
     
    I am sick of Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi and all the other so-called Democratic leaders. I’m all ears, and they’re still tone deaf. They are either smug or shrill, and for all their smarts, rarely inspiring.
     
    The most engaging, hard-hitting liberals in this country right now are Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher. But they’re not leaders, they’re jesters. They tell funny bedtime stories so that about 2 million New York Times readers can fall asleep believing the world hasn’t really gone to hell.
     
    But last time I checked no president ever won on the Snarky ticket.
     
    There are courageous, brilliant Democrats out there, including many Jewish ones. But they aren’t the party leaders, and with the exception of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), none of them have White House aspirations, and so far none of them seem to know how to inspire the masses from behind a microphone. Does Feingold? We shall see.
     
    I can carbon date the age of the Democrats’ petrified beitzim precisely. If my generation will never forget where they were when Kennedy was shot, today’s young voters will always remember where they were when JFK’s party got neutered.
     
    It happened on Jan. 26, 1998. On that day, President Bill Clinton lied to the public about his liaison with Monica Lewinsky. Instead of standing up to the Republicans and saying, “Hey, I was wrong, now get over it, because I’m not going anywhere,” he caved. The Democrats have been sorry ever since.
     
    Contrast that to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). When revelations emerged last week that he bungled an investigation into the predatory conduct of Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). Hastert admitted he blew it, but held firm. He dissembled, he got caught, then he apologized, and now he is staring down the media and the nation, like Kim Jung Il and his nukes, refusing to budge, daring them to call his bluff. I never thought I’d write this sentence, but Bill Clinton is no Dennis Hastert.
     
    “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man,” the Pirke Avot says. The vacuum in Democratic leadership has allowed Republicans to launch headlong attacks on long-established liberal bulwarks. With the Democrats offering Titanic-quality leadership, Republicans understand that even the historic Democratic voters — Latinos, blacks, Jews — are in play. What seems impossibly ingrained can change in a generation, or an election. In his new book, “Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South,” Thomas Schaller points out that until Barry Goldwater came on the scene in the 1960s, “white Southerners … trailed only the Jews and African Americans in their degree of economic liberalism.”
     
    The struggle over Jewish votes erupted in these pages in response not to an article, but to a series of ads. Smelling blood, the Republican Jewish Coalition bought full-page front-of-the-book placement in major Jewish papers across the country to make their claim that Democrats are weak on Israel and soft on terrorism. One particularly subtle ad featured a full-page photo of Britain’s pre-war Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, likening Dems to Nazi appeasers.
     
    Others offered selected quotes from anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and former President Jimmy Carter, as a way to show an erosion of support for Israel within the party.
     
    The Democratic response has been — surprise! — weak. They argue that Sheehan is not the Democratic Party — although the Democrats were happy to use her during the 2004 Presidential race — and that former President Carter is not the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Except that he was, um, president of the United States.
     
    The Democrats need to acknowledge that support for Israel is showing signs of softening among the party’s left-leaning activist base, even as blind pro-Israel fervor marks the right-leaning evangelical base of the Republicans. The Democrats should acknowledge this, address it, find a way to repair it — and fight back.
     
    They might want to point out that eight years ago every senior Israeli analyst identified Iran as Israel’s greatest strategic threat, and that under six years of President Bush, the Iranian threat — due to the fiasco in Iraq, and despite the president’s rhetoric — has increased multifold.
     
    They might want to argue that the president’s failure to wean America from its dependence on oil — despite an ideal post-Sept. 11 environment in which to boldly do so — deeply cripples our ability to stand up to Arab regimes. In his new book, “State of Denial,” Bob Woodward reveals that the president received his foreign policy tutoring from the prince of Saudi Arabia. There’s no doubt President Bush loves Israel, but good for Israel: Hey, Democrats, stop defending Jimmy Carter and make an argument.
     
    So who can save the Democrats? The Jews.

    Israeli Strategy Under Fire


    Beyond the immediate escalation, the recent Palestinian attack on an Israeli army outpost near the Gaza border raises serious questions about Israel’s security and foreign policies.

    Right-wing politicians argue that the incident, coupled with months of incessant rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli civilians, shows that the army has lost its deterrent capacity and that it will take a massive, sustained operation in Gaza to restore it.

    Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan for a major unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank also is under fire, with some pundits maintaining that the latest turn of events will further erode public confidence in his pullback strategy.

    The attack, which left two Israeli soldiers dead and seven wounded, as well as one soldier kidnapped by the terrorists and brought back to Gaza, also highlighted sharp differences on the Palestinian side. It came just days before Palestinian factions were set to reach agreement on a document meant to pave the way for negotiations with Israel and was widely seen as an attempt to torpedo the deal. It also raised questions about the limits of power of both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

    With many splinter terrorist factions acting independently or taking orders from Hamas’ more radical leadership abroad, the incident raised another fundamental question: Does any Palestinian leader have enough domestic clout to deliver on a deal with Israel?

    Israel’s response was an attempt to address some of these key issues. By sending ground forces into Gaza and making sweeping arrests of Hamas Cabinet ministers and legislators in the West Bank, Israel significantly raised the stakes in its Sisyphean struggle against fundamentalist Palestinian terror. As the military response to the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit unfolded, it became clear that Israel’s war aims went far beyond the return of the abducted soldier. Dubbed “Summer Rains,” the first major military operation since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year was intended to obtain Shalit’s release, stop Qassam rocket fire on Israeli civilians, restore Israel’s deterrent capacity, cripple Hamas politically and create conditions for an effective cease-fire.

    Israel’s government was under strong domestic pressure to take tough action. The soldier’s abduction came after months of incessant rocket fire on the border town of Sderot, where residents went on a hunger strike to protest the government’s failure to protect them.

    However, that was not the only reason for the government’s new hard line. Olmert also wanted to restore dwindling public confidence in his plan for a large-scale unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. By launching a major military operation, he was testing the government’s thesis that withdrawal from territory gives Israel considerable freedom of action if terror continues from the areas handed back. If that equation is seen to work in Gaza, the prime minister believes the public will be more amenable to a similar pullback from the West Bank.

    Though there had been prior intelligence warnings before the Palestinian attack that sparked the crisis, the Palestinian gunmen surprised the Israelis early by attacking from the Israeli side and not the Gaza side of the outpost. Eight Palestinian militiamen infiltrated through a recently dug 300-yard-long tunnel, coming out well inside Israeli territory.

    They then turned back toward the border, firing at the Israelis who were facing Gaza. Two attackers were killed, while the others made it back to Gaza, taking Shalit with them.

    Israel demanded Shalit’s immediate and unconditional release, but the abductors insisted on the release of all Palestinian prisoners under age 18 and all Palestinian women prisoners in Israeli jails — in return merely for information on Shalit.

    The Palestinian leadership was divided. Abbas, who leads the Fatah movement, ordered a search for the soldier to hand him back to Israel. Haniyeh of Hamas also favored a speedy resolution of the crisis. Both realized that they had been presented with a chance to win diplomatic points and alleviate international sanctions against the Hamas led-government.

    When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip last summer, it evolved a new military doctrine based on deterrence, rather than occupation. The thinking was that with the occupation of Gaza finished, Israel would have international backing to respond with overwhelming force to any attack on sovereign Israeli territory. However, this failed to create a deterrent balance.

    For months Palestinians have been firing Qassam rockets at the town of Sderot. When Israeli retaliatory shelling kills Palestinian civilians, the international outcry has been resounding.

    Right-wing politicians pressed the government to launch a large-scale attack on Gaza to restore the army’s deterrence. However, it is by no means clear that Israel’s use of force will have the desired effect.

    Israeli left-wingers argue that it could simply spawn more violence and terror. For example, they ask, what will happen in Gaza when Israel leaves: Will Palestinian forces loyal to the moderate Abbas impose order and cross-border quiet or will chaos reign, with more terror against Israel? Already Palestinian radicals are threatening megaterror attacks in Israel or on Israeli targets abroad.

    Much could depend on the outcome of a complex power struggle on the Palestinian side. For months, Abbas has been stymied by the more radical Hamas-led government under Prime Minister Haniyeh, some of whose more militant members owe allegiance to Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based Hamas leader abroad, who also controls most of the Hamas militias. Israeli leaders believe the escalation in violence is part of an effort by Meshal to embarrass Abbas and Haniyeh and to show who really rules Gaza.

    By arresting Hamas government ministers and legislators, Israel was trying to stack the internal Palestinian deck in Abbas’ favor. It was also sending a clear message to Meshal: That Israel will not tolerate a bogus distinction between political and military echelons, and that if Meshal and his allies continue to promote terror, Hamas could lose its hold on power.

    Meshal faces a difficult choice: seeking a compromise with Israel and very probably losing face or escalating the violence and risking even harsher Israeli measures against Hamas and becoming a target for assassination.

    In describing the Israeli military operation, Defense Minister Amir Peretz called it “one of the most significant moments in setting the rules of the game between Israel and Palestinian terror.” One of the main objectives of Summer Rains was to signal the Palestinians that the rules have changed and that Israel will not hesitate to use overwhelming force if terror from Gaza continues.

    Now it remains to be seen whether the Palestinians accept the Israeli rules as a basis for more peaceful co-existence or whether they try to find new ways to create a power balance in their favor.

     

    NGOs Feel Sting of Hamas Ban


    Nearly three months since Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority, Western governments aren’t the only ones trying to figure out how to deliver aid to the increasingly needy Palestinian population without inadvertently supporting its extremist government.

    Nongovernmental organizations — which Western governments opposed to ties with Hamas view as the most viable medium for delivering aid to the Palestinians — are themselves running into problems trying to maintain their operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

    With the Palestinian Authority in disarray and Western governments still in the process of defining what is permissible vis-?-vis links to the Hamas-run government, many nonprofit groups operating in Palestinian areas are facing serious funding problems, confusion about whom they are allowed to talk to and work with, and the challenge of having to establish ties with a completely new — and far less institutionalized — Palestinian bureaucracy.

    The situation is nothing short of a crisis, many officials with these groups, sometimes known as NGOs, here say.

    “I have never seen as much policy confusion in government as I have seen when Hamas was elected in the Palestinian Authority,” said John Bell, director of the Jerusalem office of Search for Common Ground in the Middle East.

    “Who can we have contact with? Can we be in the same room as a Hamas person? There are many legal issues for us to consider,” Bell said. “Unfortunately, we’re a bit in the realm of the absurd.”

    A variety of officials from nonprofits operating in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip discussed the challenges of operating in Hamas-run territory at a conference last week on nonprofits, human rights and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The forum, hosted by NGO Monitor, was held June 14 at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.

    Many officials from nonprofit groups complained that American, European and Israeli restrictions on contacts with the Hamas government are too far-reaching, threatening nonpolitical and even pro-peace activities, such as the teaching of coexistence curricula in Palestinian schools. Because those schools are now under the aegis of Hamas, coordination with officials from the Palestinian Education Ministry is now banned by Western governments.

    “It’s virtually impossible to fund Palestinian society today in the West Bank without encountering Hamas,” said Daniel Seideman, legal adviser to Ir Amim, an Israeli group that advocates for a binational Jerusalem and promotes services to Palestinian residents of the city.

    But many Western observers argue that the funding crisis in the Palestinian Authority — precipitated by Western sanctions — is a necessary part of getting the Hamas-run government to abandon terrorism.

    “This crisis is necessary and overdue,” said Saul Singer, an Israeli newspaper columnist who spoke at the conference. The idea, Singer explained, is to use the crisis to force Hamas to accept the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    “We’re talking about a game of chicken here,” Singer said, between the principles of Hamas, a terrorist group that mandates Israel’s destruction, on the one hand, and the principles of the international community — abandonment of terrorism, recognition of Israel and acceptance of existing Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements — on the other.

    “I think Hamas should give in,” Singer said.

    While this game is played, however, groups funded by Western governments must figure out how to adjust to the new reality of maintaining their activities in a territory where cooperation with the local government is restricted.

    There are pitfalls and obstacles everywhere, officials with these groups say.

    Other organizations report that donors’ targeted gifts are harder to use because of the new bans. Some say they have been forced to return funds to donors.

    Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, says his group does not accept funding from the Palestinian or Israeli governments in order to steer clear of restrictions and conflicts of interest. But his reliance on other governments, such as that of the United States, has come at a cost.

    According to Bell, the United States is more stringent than Israel when it comes to restrictions on nonprofits’ activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

    The United States “is putting out extremely stringent demands and conditions,” Bell said. “The Israelis are a lot more practical about it. They know things have to be done, and they’re trying to get them done while at the same time the U.S. government is prohibiting very common-sense activities.”

    Many officials with nonprofit groups say Western bans on contacts with Hamas should be more nuanced — both to facilitate easier aid to the Palestinians and to help bring Hamas around to a more moderate point of view.

    “I understand the logic behind a government boycotting Hamas,” Baskin said. “I don’t think that has to limit nongovernmental actors in trying to effect change.”

    “I would like to see the international community looking for ways that can help us to move the Hamas from where it is to a different place, to a better place, to a reformed political platform, which I believe is inevitable,” Baskin said. “We have to be very careful about both boycotts against Israel and boycotts against Palestine that prevent peaceful NGOs from doing their work.”

     

    Middle-Class Squeeze


    In the past six years, Diane Demetras and her husband, Marcel Indik, have taken one low-cost vacation and have dined out only on rare occasions. They don’t buy themselves new clothes, they drive old cars and rent movies rather than go to them because weekend activities have been whittled down to what is cheapest.

    They’ve done this — willingly and without regrets — so they could afford to send their two children, Emile and Olivia, to Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, where they feel their kids are getting a great education, a grounding in Jewish tradition and a sense of belonging to a values-based community.

    The Demetras-Indiks are solidly middle class. She is an academic adviser at USC and he is a successful commercial photographer. They co-own the fourplex they live in, and, if not for the $30,000-plus a year they spend on their kids’ school and camp (that’s including a few thousand dollars in financial aid), they would be considered comfortable in the Southern California economy.

    But it is families like theirs who are feeling the squeeze of the upward crawl of day school tuition over the last several years, which has brought the average tuition for elementary and middle school to about $12,600 and for high school to as much as $20,000. Those numbers are about 30 percent above what a year of schooling cost four years ago and nearly double 10 years ago.

    To be sure, at secular private schools tuition has risen just as sharply, and often far more so, but non-Orthodox Jewish schools are competing on two fronts: with the lure of fancy private secular schools for many who can afford to pay whatever it takes, on the one hand, and with the tuition-free option of public schools, particularly the gifted magnets or other specialized programs for those who are struggling to make ends meet, on the other. Neither socio-economic group is willing to compromise educational standards, which means Jewish schools have to maintain a high academic bar, but also give the added value of a Jewish education — making the latter a convincing selling point to those who might opt for just Sunday school enrichment.

    Most of the 10,000 students in Los Angeles’ Jewish day schools come from families with too much income to qualify for significant financial aid, but many are not wealthy enough to easily absorb such a significant hit on their budget. And there are also those who do not see themselves as “scholarship families,” and who choose therefore to send their kids to public schools rather than open their financial records for the aid applications.

    About 14 percent of school-age Jewish children in Los Angeles are enrolled in day schools, the majority of them in Orthodox schools.

    In the past 15 years, day school enrollment across the country has boomed. Between 1992 and 1998, enrollment jumped by 25,000 students, and from 1999 to 2004, another 20,000 students enrolled, bringing the total to 205,000 nationwide. Much of the growth occurred in non-Orthodox schools, new schools and in high schools.

    While Los Angeles has generally mirrored that growth, in the past five years the number of students enrolled in L.A. day schools declined by about 400 students. Last year saw a turnaround, however, with an increase that brought the number close to its 1999 peak of 10,000 students.

    But the decline has educators concerned, and while they know that cost is not the only factor — there was also an overall economic downturn and demographic dip in school-aged children — tuition increases certainly don’t help.

    Over the past 11 years, Temple Israel has seen its enrollment increase from 82 children to 200, but the school has had losses, too. Like many families, the Demetras-Indiks had to make a tough choice. Tuition at Temple Israel Day School went from $9,500 four years ago to $12,170 for the next school year. So come this September, Emile will be attending public school for the sixth grade.

    “We couldn’t handle the cost anymore,” Demetras said.

    Diminished day school enrollment — or enrollment from a narrow socioeconomic stratum — hurts the entire Jewish community. Population studies have shown that day school alumni are more likely to retain a lifelong affiliation rate with Judaism, and to educate their own kids Jewishly. Day school graduates, in a sense, boost the knowledge base of the entire community.

    “We have learned so much about what keeps kids Jewish in this world that is always pulling at them, and the day school movement is such an important contributor to the Jewish people. To not be able to make a day school education affordable for people who want it is an awful alternative,” said Rennie Wrubel, head of school at Milken Community High School.

    Over the past decade, with increasing sophistication, schools are looking to sources other than tuition to make ends meet. They are setting up endowment funds, ramping up marketing both to potential parents and donors, and nurturing new supporters — from alumni and grandparents to people and foundations previously unconnected to day schools.

    “If we believe in this, and we believe in how powerful it is — and some of us do — then we have got to have the whole community get behind all of our efforts,” said Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills. Powell believes a massive communal endowment — $1 billion — needs to be set up to cover the cost of Jewish education.

    Lisabeth Lobenthal couldn’t agree more. Lobenthal is a synagogue director who put her son, Aaron, at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy for kindergarten. A single mother who does not receive child support, Lobenthal was making $48,000 a year when she applied for financial aid. She tried to make do with the $2,500 break on the tuition of about $9,000 — she was told it was the maximum she could receive and never asked for more — but once she paid for tuition, rent, basic bills and groceries, she was, literally, penniless.

    “They called me for a donation for a pizza party, and I couldn’t give them the $10,” Lobenthal said.

    She pulled Aaron out in first grade and put him in public school, where he’s been happy, but his Jewish identity has suffered. Now 11, Aaron hates Hebrew school.

    “I’ll be happy if I can get him to have a bar mitzvah,” Lobenthal said.

    Currently, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), a Federation agency, allocates $2.35 million to Los Angeles’ day schools. For the past two years, the wheels have been turning to set up a $20 million endowment fund for day school education. The Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation have each pledged $1 million to the fund, and are working with BJE to secure lead donors. The interest from the endowment — about $1 million annually — would leverage endowment dollars raised in the schools at a rate of 25 cents to the dollar. So if a school raised $1 million for its endowment, the fund would then pay the school an additional $250,000, according to Miriam Prum-Hess, the director for day school operational services at BJE. That approach, rather than, say, discounting every child’s tuition, works for a city the size of Los Angeles. With nearly 10,000 students, a community fund to discount tuition by $2,000 per child would cost $20 million. With this model, schools have incentive to raise their own money, and then can use the money however best suits the particular schools.

    Other communities have managed to generate large gifts in the last two years. In late 2004, three philanthropists gifted $45 million to Boston’s 16 day schools, and other communities have seen numbers between $13 million and $20 million.

    “I have found a great willingness among major Jewish philanthropists to invest tremendous amounts of capital in models of Jewish education that work,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).

    Elkin also believes that with the right training, technology and motivation, the 759 day schools that serve 205,000 students nationwide can double their annual giving to cover the gap between tuition revenue and what it costs to run a school.

    In Los Angeles, while some schools have to make up about 10 percent of their budget in fundraising, others find themselves with gaps of 40 percent or more. And with a huge jump in insurance — particularly workman’s comp — and increased security costs since Sept. 11, as well as the pressure to keep teachers’ salary and benefits on par with public schools, raising tuition is a tempting way to make up the shortfall.

    But Prum-Hess, who moved into her position at BJE after serving as vice president of allocations for The Federation, hopes that schools can hold the line on tuition by tapping into unrealized revenue potential.

    This year, as part of a national Match Grant program, she helped 13 schools raise a combined $1 million from new donors, which earned the schools an additional $500,000 from the Jewish Funders Network and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. Schools also brought in $1 million in homeland security grants, with Prum-Hess’s help (see sidebar).

    She wants to see schools think more strategically, setting up endowments and seeking bequests.

    “I think the biggest problem that day schools have is that many live hand to mouth and it’s very hard to think beyond the immediate when that is the way you operate,” she said.

    Change is coming slowly. A handful of schools have already started endowments.

    Emek, an 824-student Orthodox school in Sherman Oaks, last year set up the Emek Heritage Endowment Fund, asking every family to contribute $200 a year. Now at the end of its second year, the fund garnered 100 percent participation and has $70,000, and administrators hope to reach $1 million within 10 years.

    But long-term planning isn’t going to help the Katz family (they asked that their real name not be used to protect their privacy). Jennifer is a social worker; David is in the allied medical field. Both have advanced degrees and good jobs. But between the housing market in Los Angeles and the cost of day school — even with financial aid — they have made the decision to move to Cleveland this summer. There they can trade up from their two-bedroom duplex to a four-bedroom house that costs $250,000, and they will pay $11,000 less than they do now to send their three children to an Orthodox day school.

    “We’re just not getting ahead,” Jennifer said. “We can’t take trips that we want to take to see our family on the East Coast. We’ve got three kids living in one bedroom. We work too hard for our money to have nothing to show for it.”

    Prum-Hess calculates that to send two kids to day school and live decently in Los Angeles, a family has to earn about $160,000 annually.

    “Part of the message that we need to give is that you might be earning $150,000 and saying ‘I’m earning a great salary and I can’t pencil out what is wrong,’ and we say we know you’re not making ends meet, and you need to apply for a scholarship,” Prum-Hess advises.

    All Jewish schools have scholarship programs, with a wide range of giving levels and procedures for how parents can access than money.

    At Milken, tuition and fees for the 600 students is about $24,000 each. The school gave out $1.2 million in scholarship money. New Community Jewish High School, where tuition and fees run about $22,500, has allocated more than $1 million for the 320 kids it has coming in next year.

    Pressman Academy, a Conservative K-8 school where the bottom line comes to more than $12,000, gives out $340,000 to its student body of 367. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Reform elementary school, allocated $200,000 to its 210 students last year to defray the $14,000 price tag. In the school’s seven years of existence, the temple has kicked in more that $1.5 million to the school’s budget.

    The Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood parcels out $77,000 annually among its 200 students, but caps aid at 30 percent of tuition so the school can help more families. On the few occasions where families who apply aren’t able to afford the day school, Temple Israel guides them toward the religious school, where no child is turned away for financial reasons.

    “It’s a very difficult situation for all of us who are passionate about Jewish day school education,” Temple Israel Day School head of school Eileen Horowitz said. “We want to be able to help as many families as we can.”

    Other Reform and Conservative synagogue schools acknowledge that while they only rarely have to turn students away, they don’t often see those families that truly can’t afford the education. It is an economically self-selected group that even applies.

    That is not the case in the Orthodox community, where a day school education is seen as mandatory, even when a family has six, seven or eight kids. Schools that serve the Modern Orthodox population give out about 30 percent to 40 percent of tuition revenues in scholarships every year, compared with 10 percent to 20 percent in non-Orthodox schools.

    At the YULA boys high school, last year $1 million was distributed among 195 boys to help cover the $19,000 tuition.

    “There is no such thing at YULA as a student unable to attend because of inability to pay tuition,” said boys’ school principal Rabbi Dovid Landesman. “At the same time, we will put as much pressure as we can on parents who can pay. It has to be their most important priority — they can’t say ‘we prefer a Jewish education, but not at the expense of a nice car or going to Puerto Rico for Pesach.'”

    The “no child turned away” policy finds extreme expression in the ultra-Orthodox community, where in some schools as much as 80 percent of the student body receives financial assistance, including some who pay only a nominal amount.

    At Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Toras Emes, the two principals, Rabbi Berish Goldenberg and Rabbi Yakov Krause, handle financial aid personally. Last year, the school allocated more than $2 million in tuition subvention. Goldenberg estimates that only 350 to 400 of his 1,100 students are paying full tuition, which added to fees comes to about $12,000 a year for the first child (as at most schools, there is a sibling discount and teachers get an automatic break).

    The parent body includes many teachers at other schools, as well as rabbis and Jewish communal professionals who serve the wider community. Many of them have large families.

    Toras Emes is currently phasing in a minimum tuition requirement of $3,500, so that every family is paying something. (Goldenberg expects exceptions to that minimum, too.)

    Like most yeshivas, Toras Emes functions in the red, constantly begging and borrowing to make payroll and pay bills.

    “This yeshiva exists on miracles, and you only see it when you sit behind this desk,” Goldenberg said. “Somehow Hashem [God] takes care of us.”

    “God will provide” is also the mantra at Chabad schools, which have an open-door policy for anyone who wants a Jewish education.

    Rabbi Baruch Hecht, director at the girls’ elementary and junior high schools Bais Chaya Mushke and Bais Rebbe, allocates about half his budget toward financial assistance.

    “There is no point sitting in my chair if you are not prepared to do what we do,” he said. “If you are going to run a Jewish day school, then part of that process is knowing you are going to be handing out scholarships — a lot of them — because your mission is to make sure every child has an opportunity for a Jewish education.”

    But for now, most middle-class families either aren’t willing to ask, or don’t qualify for much help. Instead, they make lifestyle choices to support their educational goals for their children.

    Joanne Helperin went back to work full time when her daughter was 2 so her two kids, now 7 and 4, could attend Maimonides Academy, an Orthodox day school in West Hollywood.

    “And I feel guilty about it every day,” Helperin says of the need to work full time.

    Helperin is a journalist, the senior features editor at Edmunds.com. Her husband, Robby, is the owner and bandleader of Spotlight Music and the Simcha Orchestra. Business is booming, but with the high cost of living in Los Angeles combined with day school tuition, they find it hard to refuse the offer of tuition help from the grandparents.

    “And the question is, will I be able to do that for my grandchild? And what about college? I think we’re going to have to work longer and retire later,” Helperin said.

    Tuition assistance programs that have sprung up in small communities across the country over the past five or six years are aimed at precisely this demographic. In Morris County, N.J., tuition was automatically capped at $5,500 for families who earn less than $120,000, and those who earn more can qualify, too.

    In the Bay Area, the Levine-Lent Family Foundation set a goal of doubling the number of day school students in Northern California by the year 2010. In 2002, the foundation gave every child enrolling in the newly opened Kehilla Jewish High School a $9,000-a-year tuition voucher for four years, and the following year entering students were offered $7,000 vouchers. The school had expected 18 students in its first class; 34 enrolled, and half of those students had not gone to a Jewish elementary school.

    But with 10,000 students at 37 schools, a similar endeavor in Los Angeles would cost tens of millions of dollars — a daunting figure.

    The Avi Chai Foundation, a leader in promoting day school education, launched a pilot program in 1998 in day schools in Atlanta and Akron, Ohio. Students were given $3,000 vouchers, but analysts concluded that while the vouchers did help attract and retain students, more important factors were the child’s happiness and the quality of the education.

    “The cost of education is not the only challenge the day school world has,” said Elkin of Boston’s PEJE. “We have to market Judaism. We have to market the quality of the education, we have to deal with concerns about ghettoization, concerns that that the schools are too narrow and that kids will be socially crippled when they get out of school. There is a whole range of selling we have to do. There is no silver-bullet panacea for the day school world.”

    In Los Angeles, where the non-Orthodox day schools compete for students not just with public schools, but also with other private schools — which cost more and are often perceived as offering more than day schools — competition has increased among the Jewish schools, which is one of the reasons tuition has gone up. Schools vie for the best teachers and pay for extras to attract kids who might end up at Harvard-Westlake or Buckley.

    “We want great teacher-to-student ratios, and great science labs and great sports,” said Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “We want an orchestra and computers and art and dance and music — and, and, and. It costs a lot of money and I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of that fact. It simply needs to be made a priority and we need to go out and raise it,” he said.

    Powell of New Community Jewish High School agrees. “How can we do any less 60 years after the Holocaust, when we have not even replaced the 6 million? How can we turn Jewish kids away from Jewish school, kids who want to learn how to live a joyful Jewish life?”

     

    School Risked Fiscal Peril for Its Students


    Esther Nir knew she wanted her daughters to have a Jewish education. Although she and her Israeli-born husband, Ofer, were living in a decidedly secular kibbutz, Nir had attended yeshiva as a young girl in Brooklyn.

    “I wanted my children to learn Torah and decide for themselves what they wanted to do when they got older,” she said.

    But when the family moved to the United States from Israel in 1990, Nir was shocked by the cost of day school education. None of the Orthodox day schools she approached could give the family a financially viable offer.

    “If a school cost $12,000 per year, they would go down by $2,000…. It was still out of reach,” Nir recalled.

    One school implied that the family was not observant enough to be accepted.

    Discouraged, the couple sent their three daughters to public school.

    Four years later, Ofer Nir saw an article in a Hebrew-language newspaper about Perutz Etz Jacob Academy, an Orthodox day school reaching out to families of all religious levels, economic abilities and nations of origin. He looked up from the paper and said to his wife, “I think we’ve found the school we’re looking for.”

    Located in a nondescript building on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue, Etz Jacob is not glamorous. The furniture is worn, the walls need a paint job and the outdoor play area is tiny.

    The Nirs were undaunted. The following year, they enrolled their three daughters: D’vorah in eighth grade, Ayala in sixth grade and Kesem in second grade. Based on the family’s financial situation, tuition was initially set at $100 per child per month.

    Etz Jacob prides itself on accepting children who would not otherwise get a Jewish education. Rabbi Rubin Huttler of Congregation Etz Jacob founded the school in 1989 as a haven for new immigrants flooding into Los Angeles from Russia and Iran.

    “Other schools weren’t accepting these children,” he said. “So we decided to take on that mitzvah.”

    Over the years, immigration slowed, but Etz Jacob continues to take students who have not been able to find a home at other Jewish schools for a variety of reasons. Some, like the Nirs, are struggling financially. Others have learning disabilities or emotional issues. A few have experienced discipline problems at other schools.

    “We see the potential in the child, not what he’s doing now,” said Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, the school’s principal. He believes it’s never too late to begin learning.

    “Rabbi Akiba started studying the alphabet at the age of 40, and he became one of the greatest rabbis in history,” he said.

    Only 5 percent of Etz Jacob’s students pay full tuition of $8,000, with the rest paying on a sliding scale. According to Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, 40 percent of all day school students in L.A. receive need-based financial aid. However, Graff noted, “Other schools with a high percentage of scholarships tend to have a support base that can sustain them from year to year.”

    This is not the case with Etz Jacob. The school’s liberal admissions policy jeopardized its very existence. Over the years, Huttler and Harrosh struggled continuously to keep the school afloat. Over time, debt mounted. Last summer, Etz Jacob Academy owed an entire year’s rent. Huttler reluctantly concluded that he would have to close the school.

    Enter Aron Abecassis. A go-getter who prospered in real estate, Abecassis had supported the school when he first heard it was having troubles making ends meet eight years ago. Then in 2004, when he learned of the impending bankruptcy, Abecassis took the school on as a personal mission. Although his three children were enrolled at nearby Maimonides Academy, Etz Jacob’s plight touched a chord: Abecassis himself had once been a poor immigrant in search of a Jewish education.

    In 1970, his family fled Morocco because of the increasingly hostile climate for Jews. “We left everything behind,” said Abecassis, who was 9 years old at the time.

    The family went to Canada, but when his father tried to find a Jewish day school for his three children, “they came up with all kinds of excuses not to admit us,” Abecassis recalled. “I always felt I missed the structure and foundation of a Jewish identity that comes through Jewish education.”

    In addition to donating his own funds, Abecassis created a business plan to save the school. He enlisted rabbis throughout the community to appeal to their congregants for help. He solicited individuals to provide $10,000 student sponsorships.

    “We’re Jews. And Jews all help people in need,” Abecassis said.

    When Abecassis approached L.A. Jewish Federation President John Fishel about Etz Jacob’s financial plight, Fishel provided the school with a $50,000 emergency gift. The gift came with two conditions: That the school undergo accreditation and that it strengthen its leadership structure.

    “Providing this support to Etz Jacob is consistent with the Federation’s aim of ensuring that a Jewish education is accessible to every Jewish child who seeks one,” Fishel said.

    Regina Goldman, a former principal of Melrose Avenue Elementary now on Etz Jacob’s board, oversaw the accreditation process. The school just received accreditation approval from the prestigious Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which gives the stamp of approval to both secular and religious schools. It is in the process of applying for accreditation the Bureau of Jewish Education. Nancy Field, previously of the Harkam Hillel Hebrew Academy, has been hired as Etz Jacob’s general studies principal.

    In what Abecassis describes as “a rescue effort by the Jewish community,” 17 local synagogues and foundations, including the Jewish Community Foundation, have provided funds to the school. In addition, 47 individuals have sponsored student scholarships averaging $10,000 each. Approximately $600,000 has been raised, enough to cover not only this year’s operating expense, Abecassis said, but also — for the first time in its 17 years of existence — Etz Jacob is now free of debt.

    Ultimately, Abecassis hopes the school will be able to build a permanent facility that would allow it to double or triple its current 100-student capacity. He’d like to break ground within three years.

    As for the Nir family, who found a haven at Etz Jacob 10 years ago, they grew more observant and eventually became baalei teshuvah. Two daughters now live in Israel, and the youngest is enrolled at Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Los Angeles. The Nirs say they are grateful for the impact the school made upon their family and heartened to hear that Etz Jacob’s future finally seems secure. “Torah is more important to them than money or a fancy building,” Esther Nir said. “The most important thing to them is giving a Jewish education to a Jewish child.”

     

    Gay Marriage Ban Could Alienate Jews


    It’s a familiar calculus in the relationship between the Jewish community and the Bush administration: a social issue that divides the country 50-50 has the Jewish community split 75-25 against where President Bush stands.

    On Monday, Bush strongly endorsed the federal marriage amendment to the U.S. constitution, which would effectively ban gay marriage.

    “Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges,” Bush said after meeting with supporters of the constitutional amendment. He was referring to the 2004 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriages.

    The bill, which was likely to be considered by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, has virtually no chance of passing. Constitutional amendments need 67 of the 100 Senate votes to pass, and no one anticipates the vote breaking 55.

    That makes it a win-win for Bush in his effort to keep evangelical conservatives on board ahead of the November midterm congressional elections. The reasoning is that the amendment will still resonate with the GOP’s conservative base five months from now, but will likely have disappeared from the memories of Republican-leaning social moderates.

    However, Jewish Republicans, who have been trying to lure Jews away from their solid 3-to-1 support for Democrats, might have been dealt a blow, at least according to the amendment’s opponents.

    “It’s unclear to me how the Republican Party will gain ground in the Jewish community by bringing forth a centerpiece of the religious right’s agenda,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “For a large section of the Jewish community, this is an issue of fundamental rights and they will be watching closely to see how their senators vote.”

    The Reform and Reconstructionist movements oppose the amendment. On Tuesday, the Conservative movement’s leadership joined in the opposition, in a statement that referred to a 2003 United Synagogue resolution opposing any such discrimination. Also in opposition are major Jewish civil liberties groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

    The National Council of Jewish Women has taken a lead in opposing the legislation, organizing clerical lobbying against it and leading an alliance of liberal Jewish groups in urging senators to vote it down. Orthodox groups, led by the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, support the amendment.

    The most recent polling on the issue, by Gallup, found 50 percent of Americans in favor of the amendment and 47 percent opposed. A 2004 American Jewish Committee survey of American Jews found 24 percent in favor and 74 percent opposed.

    Jewish supporters of the amendment suggested they would sell the amendment to the Jewish community as one that would guarantee religious freedoms.

    Proponents of gay marriage were “pursuing a deliberate plan of litigation and political pressure which will not only redefine marriage, but will follow from that to threaten the first freedom enshrined in the First Amendment — religious liberty,” said Nathan Diament, the director of the Washington office of the Orthodox Union.

    Diament, the only Jewish participant at the meeting with Bush on Monday, said the Massachusetts ruling already had a negative impact on religious freedom. He cited as example the state’s Roman Catholic Church decision to drop out of the adoption business because it would be required to consider gay couples as parents.

    “They’re trying to impose their position on society at large,” he said of proponents of gay marriage. “How a society defines marriage affects everybody.”

    That view had some backing from at least one Jewish civil rights group, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).

    Marc Stern, the AJCongress’ general counsel, cited the example of an Orthodox kosher caterer who could face a lawsuit for refusing to cater a same-sex wedding.

    A successful compromise would “recognize the marriages in the context of a secular economy, for instance by not discriminating on domestic partner benefits, but it would not force people to act in areas they find morally reprehensible,” Stern said.

    Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown University law professor and an activist for gay rights, said such arguments had no place in the public arena.

    “There are lots of ways in which a religious organization can run its business as it wishes,” Feldblum said. “Rabbis don’t have to perform a marriage that they don’t agree with, a religious organization does not have to allow lesbians as rabbis. The problem is when religious organizations are operating in the public arena, with lunch banks, day camps, shelters. Then it’s very difficult to allow a religious organization to go against the public policy of the state.”

    Republican Jewish spokesmen turned down requests for comment, but the amendment was not likely to help their efforts to appeal to Jews on domestic issues.

    The emphasis before the 2004 election on Bush’s friendship with Israel and his tough reputation on security issues failed to make much of a dent on the Jewish Republican vote, which crept up to between 23 percent and 25 percent from about 19 percent in 2000.

    Since then, Jewish Republicans have learned the lesson of emphasizing foreign policy too much and have carefully calibrated a social message designed to appeal to younger Jews. In Jewish newspaper advertisements and in stump speeches, Bush’s pro-business record is pitched to Jewish voters who may be more fiscally conservative than their parents.

    And spokesmen like party chairman Ken Mehlman, who is Jewish, bluntly acknowledge to Jews that the Democrats were on the right side of history when they backed civil rights in the 1960s; but they say that Bush has inherited that mantle with his efforts to promote democracy abroad and force education reforms at home.

    The most prominent Jewish Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would vote against the amendment. He cited classic Republican small government philosophy: government “ought to be kept off our backs, out of our pocketbooks and out of our bedrooms,” Specter said, according to The New York Times.

    Democrats said the marriage amendment would help cripple such efforts.

    “The Republicans are saddled with an agenda that’s horrific to the vast majority of American Jews,” said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

    Supporters of the amendment said they believed momentum was on their side. A similar effort in 2004 garnered just 48 Senate votes; this effort will top 50, they believe.

    Abba Cohen, the Washington director of Agudath Israel of America, said he believed all Americans would eventually internalize the amendment’s moral arguments.

    “This battle will be won in stages,” he said. “It takes time for the nation to fully absorb the implications of allowing same-sex marriage and the effect it will have on traditional families.”

    The Reform movement’s Pelavin said his impression was that time was on the side of opponents of the amendment.

    “This isn’t a fight that we picked, this is a fight that the president and the Republican leadership have picked,” he said. “This is an issue of fairness.”

     

    Marriage Conversion Rate Proves Low


    Low conversion rates among intermarried Jewish families continue to plague those working to reverse the demographic downtrends in American Jewry.

    Fewer than one-fifth of non-Jews who marry Jews convert to Judaism, according to a new study distributed by the American Jewish Committee.

    The “Choosing Jewish” report, which interviewed 94 mixed-marriage couples and nine Jewish professionals in the Boston and Atlanta areas, also painted a bleak picture of Jewish involvement for those who do convert.

    Many converted Jews — 40 percent — are described as “accommodating Jews-by-Choice.” They come to Judaism because they are asked to do so, and allow others to determine their level of Jewish observance, the report said. Jews in this category often have profiles of Jewish involvement similar to moderately affiliated born Jews.

    Another 30 percent of converted Jews are identified as ambivalent Jews — they continue to express doubts about their conversion and feel guilty about beliefs or holidays left behind, according to the report. Their children mirror this ambivalence by thinking of themselves as half-Jews.

    The report qualified only 30 percent of converted spouses as “activist Jews,” or those who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Israel. These Jews often are more committed to Jewish practice than are born Jews, and their children are virtually indistinguishable from children whose parents were born Jewish.

    The findings, compiled by Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, have widespread implications for a community grappling with the reality of mixed marriages.

    According to both the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey and surveys by Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the U.S. Jewish intermarriage rate is between 40 percent and 50 percent.

    The American Jewis Committee (AJCommittee) hopes the new data will create a road map for greater Jewish involvement among converts and intermarried families.

    The breakdown of converted Jews by category shows that we should “not treat converts as an undifferentiated mass,” said Steven Bayme, the AJCommittee’s director of contemporary Jewish life.

    Instead, he envisioned a sliding scale of Jewish involvement, ranging from those with a low level of affiliation to those who are highly involved.

    “We should not see conversion as the end of the story,” he said. “What we’re really aiming for is converts who enrich the Jewish community through Jewish activism. We need to enlarge the pool of activist converts.”

    But that requires a proactive approach.

    First and foremost, Jews need to “wave the banner of inmarriage,” advocating Jewish partners whenever possible, he said. In cases of intermarriage, Bayme described conversion as “the single best outcome.”

    “We need to be up front about our preference for conversion,” he said.

    To that end, he talked about the role of rabbi as the “nurturer of would-be converts” and the need for Jewish family members to “be clear about values and objectives.”

    In addition, Bayme advocated raising children in an exclusively Jewish household, because attempting to combine religions would be “a disaster Jewishly.”

    Edmund Case, publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community, took issue with several of these premises.

    “I think there is a real danger in promoting conversion too aggressively,” he said. “If we stand at the door, a lot of people might not come in.”

    Case said that accepting intermarried non-Jews who don’t convert — not just those who do — should be paramount.

    “The way to have more Jewish children is for interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life,” he said. “It’s important to see intermarriage as an opportunity and not as a negative or a loss.

    “I think its important to communicate a message of welcome,” he continued. “The message we need to send to [intermarried] non-Jews is, ‘We’re grateful to you and happy to have you just as you are.'”

    Case criticized the lack of money allocated to such interfaith outreach — less than $3 million a year between Jewish federations and family foundations, he said.

    Bayme said “it’s a bit premature” for the AJCommittee to recommend any policy changes based on the report but that the group will discuss the findings at several upcoming meetings.

     

    This Week – Mission Impossible


    These have been the six most difficult years in Ambassador Gideon Meir’s professional life, and when I tell you what he does, you’ll immediately grasp the reason why.

    Meir is deputy director general for media and public affairs in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What that means is he is the senior diplomat in charge of explaining and defending Israel to the world. Talk about working a tough room.

    They say the people with the highest Q ratings on television are those who are most themselves in front of the camera. That explains the success Meir has had as the face of Israel on CNN, BBC, even al-Jazeera. In person, over bagels at a Beverly Hills restaurant, he has the same wry smile, the same well-modulated voice, the same ability to make you believe he is letting you and you alone in on an urgent, heretofore unheralded truth.

    “A normal corporation will spend between 1 percent and 8 percent of its budget on advertising and promotion,” Meir said. “Israel, with a budget of $52 billion, is spending $8.5 million dollars on public diplomacy, on PR. In Yiddish, we call that bupkis.”

    As Palestinians and Israelis faced off each night on the evening news, it was Meir who more often than not explained images of Palestinian suffering at Israeli checkpoints or Israeli soldiers facing down Palestinian rioters or the bloody aftermath of a reprisal for a suicide bomber’s massacre. As the rock-throwing first intifada became the suicide-bombing second intifada, sending image and economy plummeting, Meir’s portfolio grew even more crucial. Good public diplomacy — a government’s form of PR — became an adjunct of national security.

    “You need to maintain strategic relationships with America, and convince Europeans to support the policy of Israel,” he said, explaining his job. “And this only happens if you have very good public diplomacy.”

    At the same time, Meir was fighting two other battles. One was with the government that employed him. He had to convince them that in the media age, the message and the messenger mattered.

    “The Palestinians speak with one voice, one message,” he said. “But an American reporter in Israel gets six different opinions from six different ministers and generals.”

    Many Israeli leaders clung too much to the opinion famously voiced by the late Prime Minister David Ben Gurion: “What matters is not what the gentiles will say, but what the Jews will do.”

    Meir had to convince them that transparency and explanation — not the traditional hasbara, which connotes propaganda — is crucial to winning diplomatic battles. “We didn’t learn the lessons of the first intifada,” he said. “You have to explain.”

    Meir also has had to fight Israelis and Jews outside Israel who assert that the country does a lousy job explaining itself.

    “I have to convince them our public diplomacy is working,” he said.

    Trouble comes when well-meaning supporters take matters into their own hands. I mentioned one such effort — when one group put the carcass of an Israeli bus torn to shreds by suicide bomber on a national tour. Meir, ever the diplomat, allowed himself a wince. Not a big tourism booster, that.

    The day after our breakfast, Meir is holding forth before a SRO audience of graduate students and professors in the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School of Communications. The Jerusalem-born diplomat is in demand these days as a leading expert on effective public diplomacy. He has consulted with the Danes and even the Turks. Countries, he stressed, need to be marketed just like products. At his urging, Israel is in the midst of “a major rebranding,” employing the talents of the country’s top advertising minds.

    “The major problem is the lack of knowledge about how Israel contributes to the quality of life” through pioneering work in medical and hi-tech research, he said.

    Get that image out, and people will see Israel in a positive light.

    Of course, many people would argue that Meir’s message, regardless of how it’s packaged, doesn’t matter. To spin Ben Gurion’s dictum on its head, it’s not what Israel says that hurts it, it’s what Israel does.

    Many of these folks believe there is a magic, if bitter, pill that Israel could swallow to make its headaches go away. Just give up the territories, just tear down the separation barrier, just let all Palestinian prisoners free, just turn the American Israel Public Affaris Committee into a lunch-and-learn club, and the world will climb down off Israel’s back and let it go about it business in peace.

    It’s easy to understand why people — even smart ones, like Harvard professors — would want these pipe dreams to be true, if only because they simplify a complex problem. It’s funny, in fact, how those who chide President George W. Bush for his Manichean thinking on Iraq and terrorism have no trouble reducing the Israeli dilemma to bad guys (Jews) versus good guys (Arabs).

    No doubt Israel has brought some of its worst tsuris on itself: Its settlement policy in Gaza and the West Bank has been ruinously costly, in moral, economic and diplomatic terms, for instance.

    But Israel has also faced and continues to face irredentist ideological and political forces — Yasser Arafat or Hamas, anyone? — whose claim to moral superiority at the very least deserves a coherent rebuttal. In a 24-hour media world, it means a job like Meir’s will forever verge on the impossible.

    “When I go on television, there’s always a Palestinian, too, and he says, ‘If only the occupation would end…’ and everyone knows how to complete the sentence,” Meir said. ” When I go on television and I have two minutes, I have to give the context and history and background — and who gives me the time?”

     

    U.S. Immigration Issue Hits Israelis


    These days, so much depends upon language. One person’s “civil war” is another’s “random violence.” Someone’s “unlawful wiretapping” is someone else’s “terrorist surveillance.”

    In that sense, whether you use “illegal aliens” or “undocumented residents” partly depends on how you view immigration. But whatever your political attitude, if you think that every illegal/undocumented came into the United States guided by a coyote, then think again.

    What about those who came here on a legal but restricted visa, then violated its terms? That’s too long for a demonstration placard, but it describes the status of an unknown number of Jews now living in the United States.

    Some entered the country as students or tourists, then simply stayed. And then once here, they violated the restrictions of their status, often by working. These people, too, are illegal/undocumented, and they undoubtedly include a number of Israelis, as well as Jews from the former Soviet Union and Latin America.

    In January 2006, the Department of Homeland Security published the 2004 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, the most recent government document on immigration data.

    During fiscal year 2004, authorities found 290 “deportable aliens” from Israel. In that same year, an additional 183 Israeli aliens were removed from the United States and an additional 67 Israelis were under “docket control”: ordered to depart the United States.

    That means that in 2004 alone, 540 Israelis were located, deported or about to be deported. It stands to reason that there are a great many more Israelis living in the United States, and in Los Angels, who are here illegally but have not been located by authorities.

    The Israeli consulate will not give out information on how many Israelis they calculate may be in Los Angels illegally, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of their presence: for example, ads for immigration attorneys in local Hebrew-language publications and Web sites.

    Though Jews comprise a very small part of the millions of people who are in the United States illegally, those who are will likely be affected by the proposed revisions in immigration legislation, just as they’ve been affected by changes in security policy since Sept. 11.

    Gideon Aronoff, chairman and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), said that what is needed is “to expand people’s attitudes about illegal immigration. As I understand it, something like 40 percent of the illegal immigration into the United States is composed of people who came here on a legitimate tourist or student visa, overstayed the period of the visa, and then remained here, working.” He said that though he does not have exact numbers, that percentage “would certainly include Israelis, as well as Jews from the former Soviet Union and from South America. A smarter and fairer immigration policy would also impact Jews.”

    However, Aronoff said that HIAS is not focused only on helping Jews.

    “Our interest in good immigration policy is part of our collective mandate to help other communities that we are connected to, and work closely with, such as the Latino community, and by this work to express our humanitarian values,” he said. “Sane immigration policy would mean finding a way of dealing with this issue through a compassionate change in our laws, rather than by using … law enforcement agencies to arrest those at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, like busboys and farm workers.”

    Aronoff pointed out that if we go back a couple of generations, some of our ancestors came to the United States under circumstances that were somewhat muddy, legally speaking.

    “That’s something we shouldn’t forget,” he said.

    Roberto Loiederman is a screenwriter and co-author of “The Eagle Mutiny” (Naval Institute Press, 2001).

    Jewish Groups Take Pro-Immigrant Stand


    You didn’t see many Jews amid the sea of Mexican and American flags during the recent pro-immigrant rallies that filled city streets, but Jews and Jewish groups, in largely liberal Los Angeles, have been advocating on behalf of immigrants, mostly outside the view of television cameras.

    Among local Jewish organizations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been leading the way: Its regional branch has been developing and disseminating a pro-immigrant resolution for roughly six months. The resulting declaration, recently approved by the Pacific Southwest Region of the ADL, calls for humane treatment of illegal immigrants, while also accepting the need for “security precautions … necessary to protect the integrity of the United States border and the well-being of the American people.”

    Sixteen local civil rights organizations and the Catholic church have signed on to the declaration, said Amanda Susskind, regional director of ADL. The declaration has been forwarded to L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti, with the hope that the City Council, too, will endorse the nonbinding resolution. Signatories hope the declaration will work its way to other cities and to the state Legislature as well.

    The ADL declaration is intentionally short on specifics. It does not get into details about the number of years or days per year an undocumented immigrant should work to get resident status or whether or not illegal immigrants should be required to learn English or submit to a criminal background check. Instead, the declaration condemns in broad terms “xenophobia and anti-immigrant bias as having no place in United States’ immigration policy” and also proposes the monitoring of extremist groups.

    Other local Jewish organizations also have taken a pro-immigration stance, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA). Two rabbis affiliated with the organization were part of a delegation of clergy who recently spoke to congressmen in Washington to “present a moral agenda,” PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said.

    A signatory to the ADL declaration, the alliance “takes the position further,” said Sokatch, urging community leaders “to take a stand substantially similar to Cardinal [Roger] Mahony’s.”

    Mahony has spoken out adamantly against House and Senate bills that would define illegal immigration as a felony and would also criminalize the actions of those organizations and people who help these immigrants.

    Sokatch says that the PJA would advocate civil disobedience against such provisions, which are part of legislation proposed by Wisconsin Representative James Sensenbrenner and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

    “Any law that would cater to the worst, xenophobic elements,” Sokatch saus, “would require us to civilly disobey the law.”

    Sokatch said that he did not attend the March 25 “Gran Marcha” because it was Shabbat, but he and his two daughters did attend another rally at UCLA, which included many non-Latinos, some Jews presumably among them.

    The local branch of the American Jewish Congress also signed the ADL declaration. The national organization was expected to consider its own resolution on immigration at its national board meeting this week. Executive Director Neil Goldstein said that his organization is “strongly in favor of border controls,” but prefers the more pro-immigrant approach of legislation developed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    “The historic position of Jews is that we are an immigrant people,” Goldstein says. “We support the idea of immigrants coming to America balanced with respect for the law and our border.”

    Another local signatory to the ADL declaration is the legal aid group Bet Tzedek, which represents Latino immigrants through its employment-rights project. The organization aims to prevent discrimination against immigrants “whether they’re documented or not,” Bet Tzedek Executive Director Mitchell Kamin said.

    An individual on the frontlines of a walkout was teacher Steve Zimmer, who runs intervention programs at Marshall High School. Zimmer, who is Jewish, marched with students to act as a “buffer” between the police and students. At the beginning of the day, he had no idea that he would end up walking with the students all the way from Silver Lake to City Hall, adding that he wore “wing tips much to my chagrin.”

    Once the Marshall marchers, the vast majority of them Latino, reached the crest on Spring Street, they saw thousands of other students — estimates put the total at 40,000 — some from as far away as the San Gabriel Valley. Zimmer characterized the moment when his students spotted their peers as “jubilant.” Zimmer, who knows City Council President Garcetti, prevailed upon Garcetti to talk to the teens. Later, as widely reported, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke to them as well.

    The leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles, the L.A. Unified teachers union, has passed a motion calling on teachers to have conversations with their students on immigration and to support students’ constitutional rights. The motion was proposed by Andy Griggs, who is Jewish, and it passed overwhelmingly, UTLA Treasurer David Goldberg said.

    “We want to make sure students are safe and don’t get beat up,” Goldberg said.

    Lift The Ban on Gay Blood Donors


    When students arrived at Milken Community High School on the morning of Jan. 10, they were confronted by a large banner reading: “Did you know homosexual males cannot give blood?”

    That was the start of a student-led Equal Blood Campaign to press the FDA to lift its blanket ban on all gay blood donors.

    Day One of the campaign sparked some initial shock. The ban came as news to many, and the campaign rapidly gathered more and more supporters. In addition to posters around campus, the school’s bulletin, which is read daily in small advisory groups, featured campaign related statistics and facts.

    The FDA developed its initial policy regarding gay men in 1983 because at that time there was no technology to screen blood for the HIV virus, which was then known as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). Since the ’80s, the disease GRID has been renamed AIDS and is seen as an epidemic affecting millions of people of all ethnicities and sexual orientations.

    Yet today, in 2006, when all donated blood is tested for the HIV virus, the policy remains the same — excluding homosexual males from donating blood.

    The campaign ended with a bang when on the day of the blood drive, Jan. 12, more than 250 students and faculty sported stickers reading: “I don’t discriminate against blood.”

    The petition to the FDA was signed by 270 people — almost half of the high school student body. It is important to understand that the nature of the Equal Blood Campaign was in no way against the blood drive. The campaign in fact was in association with the blood drive.

    Students decided to support the Equal Blood Campaign because they agreed that the FDA policy is outdated and reveals the stigma that AIDS is a “gay disease,” and until this policy changes, the dangerous assumption that all homosexuals have the HIV virus will remain. In addition, we feel that the FDA is ruling out a source of potentially life-saving donated blood.

    Blood products in short supply, and many favor lifting the ban. According to the FDA, an estimated 62,300 homosexuals would donate blood if the ban was lifted.

    The FDA policy arises out of a fear of passing on infected blood. Of the 12 million units of donated blood each year, 10 HIV infected units slip through, accounting for two to three cases of donor transmitted HIV infections per year.

    The main reason that HIV positive blood slips through is because there is a window of up to three months after a person contracts HIV where the virus is not always detected.

    But while banning gay men, even those in long-term monogamous relationships, the policy says nothing about heterosexual men and women who have unprotected sex with multiple sex partners and who have unknown HIV status (rigorous questionnaires at blood donor sites do take these factors into account).

    We feel even if not completely abolishing the gay ban, the FDA should change the policy from banning all men who have had sex with men, to banning any person who has had unprotected sex with any person within the past three months. Not only would this weed out promiscuous and more likely infected individuals from giving blood, but it gives the opportunity for gay men having safe sex to give blood.

    In its most recent evaluation of the issue, the FDA narrowly voted to maintain the ban on blood donations from homosexual men. The vote was 7-6 to maintain the ban, which states that any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 may not donate blood.

    I, along with my campaign co-leader, Amanda Meimin, truly feel the Milken Equal Blood Campaign — one of the first of its kind in a high school — was a success. We turned heads and not only changed views but also helped people to find a view. Ultimately we would like to see other schools adopt the Equal Blood Campaign and we’d like to see the FDA change its policy.

    The past has taught us that we can generate tolerance through destroying generalizations. Our battle begins with the stereotype that AIDS is a “gay disease.” We want to make people understand that just because they may not be gay, the issue still pertains to them. Discrimination exists everywhere and has touched everyone at one point or another. The Milken Equal Blood Campaign is about raising awareness, making change, and empowering youth to make their peers aware of homophobia in our society.

    Lisa Hurwitz is a sophomore at Milken Community High School. To get involved in the Equal Blood Campaign, contact her at lhurwitz@mchs.mchschool.org.

    A Timid Pro-Israel Lobby Doesn’t Work


    Ever since news emerged that officials at Washington’s powerful pro-Israel lobby were suspected of violating national security laws, speculation has raged over how this would affect its legendary clout. Now, two years down the line, after unceasing crises of investigations, subpoenas, surveillance, wire taps, grand juries and indictments, the consequence is clear: Unhappily, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is in peril of becoming a modern-day version of the ancient court Jew. In this case, that means bowing to the prerogatives of the Bush administration rather than using its avowed clout actually to influence government policy.

    Such obeisance was not the initial reaction. When news first broke about the federal investigation, AIPAC issued strong denials of wrongdoing that were quickly posted on its Web site (although subsequently removed). The lobby stood behind its employees.

    But, ultimately, it became clear the feds’ probe was centered on two staffers: Iran specialist Keith Weissman and Steve Rosen, the lobby’s director of research and foreign policy. Both were indicted last August on charges of conspiring to pass classified security information to individuals not entitled to receive it. Rosen was, in addition, charged with actually passing on such information.

    Shockingly, months before the indictment, AIPAC withdrew its support from these staffers. It not only fired them; it publicly denounced them.

    This was the first sign of a new and different pro-Israel lobby. In its new incarnation, AIPAC displays an almost blind deference to the positions and wishes of the Bush administration.

    How did it come to this? The answer lies partly in the truth that the accused AIPAC staffers, Rosen and Weissman, could not have been lone rangers. When the feds went after these staffers, the entire AIPAC apparatus was at risk and AIPAC knew it. The indictments recount a series of exchanges over several years with named and unnamed government officials from whom Rosen and Weissman allegedly received illicit information. Some of the exchanges date back to 1999, suggesting AIPAC officials have been under active surveillance a long time.

    Most tellingly, Rosen and Weissman are alleged to have passed on classified information they received from Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin about an imminent Iranian plot to murder Israeli operatives in northern Iraq — information the feds instructed Franklin to communicate as part of a sting operation against the two AIPAC staffers after Franklin agreed to cooperate with the feds to reduce his own vulnerability.

    I don’t think either man was without the knowledge and consent of superiors — especially in this case, which appeared to be a matter of saving lives. They were doing their jobs, and the evidence suggests they didn’t hide anything from their AIPAC bosses. We know from the indictment and other sources that Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, was briefed on the “sting” information on July 21, 2004, the same day it was supplied by Franklin. Moreover, at Kohr’s direction, Weissman put it all down on paper in a now-famous e-mail, which made clear that the information came from an intelligence source.

    The two staffers then allegedly contacted a journalist and an Israeli embassy official to relay the information.

    Is it possible that Kohr entirely washed his hands of the matter before his staffers committed the alleged transgression of passing on classified information to a foreign nation, that is, Israel? How could Kohr not have been kept up to speed, especially given Rosen’s close mentor/protégé relationship with him? If, in fact, Kohr did not stay on top of this, he wasn’t just asleep at the switch — he was in a coma, leaving one to wonder who was running the show.

    Yet, last spring, AIPAC spokesman Patrick Dorton announced Rosen and Weissman’s dismissal. Further, contrary to longstanding policy not to comment publicly on personnel matters, he issued this astonishing statement:

    “AIPAC dismissed Rosen and Weissman because they engaged in conduct that was not part of their jobs and because this conduct did not comport in any way with standards that AIPAC expects of its employees…. AIPAC could not condone or tolerate the conduct of the two employees under any circumstances.”

    On Aug. 4, U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty announced Rosen and Weissman’s indictments at a press conference — but preemptively and publicly exonerated AIPAC and its other staffers of any possible future liability. In fact, he praised AIPAC for having done the “right thing” by firing the two staffers.

    AIPAC attorney Nathan Lewin denies these two events reflected any quid pro quo. But meanwhile, AIPAC has also now reportedly refused to cover Rosen and Weissman’s legal expenses despite clauses in their contracts that appear to provide for this.

    There is one and only one scenario in which this behavior makes any sense: The authorities turned the heat way up and AIPAC buckled.

    There may well have been no explicit quid pro quo. But AIPAC’s most significant concern would have to be the Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA. That law requires registration with the Justice Department of any “agent of a foreign principal.” An agent, in turn, is defined as “any person who acts in any … capacity at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal….”

    Everyone affiliated with AIPAC has long understood that to force it or any of its officials to register as Israel’s agent under FARA would effectively be the lobby’s death knell. As the feds squeezed AIPAC to jettison Rosen and Weissman, the mere suggestion — subtle or otherwise — about possible exposure under FARA would be a Damoclean sword hanging over AIPAC’s head.

    Unfortunately, such a threat, once succumbed to, does not just cease existing. Evidence abounds that fear over this potential threat has continued to bring the lobby to heel.

    How else to explain the now-infamous decision to abandon the singing of “Hatikvah” at last year’s policy conference, a proud tradition that had always been an integral and moving part of the gathering.

    Moreover, there are reports from the Executive Committee meeting held during the conference that AIPAC leadership displayed near total deference to the administration. Former AIPAC President Melvin Dow apparently took the lead in killing any proposed policy that might step on toes at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

    This reality has been masked by a supreme irony: For AIPAC, the controversy has been a fundraising bonanza. Spurred by explicit appeals from AIPAC leaders invoking the threat posed by the federal investigation, the lobby’s supporters have poured record donations into its till. Word is that AIPAC is now preparing to purchase its own building, in the shadows of the Capitol, on prime Washington real estate. AIPAC also continues orchestrating impressive, if misleading, displays of strength and political power. Politicians of all stripes still flock to its events, as do senior members of the Bush administration. Business as usual — no, better than usual — has been the carefully honed image.

    I wish that were true. But the facts don’t bear it out.

    Now, evidence that its agenda may have been compromised can be found in AIPAC’s total failure to pursue The Saudi Arabia Accountability Act — one of the most important pieces of national security/anti-terrorism and pro-Israel legislation pending before Congress:

    Proposed by Sen. Arlen Specter in June 2005, the bill aims to halt “Saudi support for institutions that fund, train, incite, encourage, or in any other way aid and abet terrorism, and to secure full Saudi cooperation in the investigation of terrorist incidents, and for other purposes.”

    When introduced, it had bipartisan support across the ideological spectrum.

    The legislation is bolstered by the work of many serious experts — both in and out of government — who for years have alerted U.S. authorities to the dangerous and deadly activities of Saudi entities, many of which are part of or directly controlled by the government in Riyadh. The legislation’s text cites evidence, for example, that Saudi entities furnish at least 50 percent of the current operating budget of Hamas.

    Predictably, the Bush administration opposes the legislation; it has no intention to take on the Saudis, despite overwhelming evidence of their heavy involvement in financing, supporting and advocating terror and anti-American and anti-Israel hatred.

    But AIPAC’s failure even to acknowledge the legislation (check its Web site — not a word) let alone push for passage, is inexcusable. Can there be a more quintessential example of pro-Israel legislation? So, what’s the problem?

    It’s hard not to conclude that AIPAC’s timidity is directly linked to the predicament in which it finds itself. This is no time, AIPAC leaders undoubtedly are thinking, to challenge and upset an administration that already has demonstrated that it is ready, willing and able to play hardball. Having given in on Rosen and Weissman, AIPAC has sent clear signals that it is willing to pull punches, if that’s what it takes, to preserve “access” and “influence.”

    But political clout and financial resources are not ends unto themselves. The pro-Israel community has worked long and hard to build a strong and wealthy lobby. It has a right to expect — indeed, demand — from AIPAC leadership an organization with not just brains and brawn, one with the guts to take on, when the cause so dictates, even those they otherwise consider to be friends.

    The very last thing the community needs are leaders acting as though they are guests in their own country.

    This essay originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.

    Neal M. Sher, a New York-based government relations and communications consultant, formerly served as AIPAC’s executive director and the director of the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department.

     

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