Putting a question mark on Jewish earmarks

This year’s loss of earmarks, the spending amendments lawmakers attach to larger bills, has cost Jewish federations millions of dollars, officials say. And earmark-reform proposals could present even more headaches in coming years.

The new Democratic majority in Congress, backed by some conservative Republicans, is considering reforms that would curtail lawmakers’ ability to anonymously insert funding for local projects into spending bills.

The aim is to stop the proliferation of non-essential programs and pet projects, but the earmark reforms also could inhibit funding favored by Jewish nonprofit organizations, including programs that benefit seniors, the disabled and the poor.

The decision by Democrats to remove all earmarks from the 2007 budget is already having an effect. Gone from the appropriations bill that covers the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services is more than $9 million in earmarks for Jewish groups and programs, according to an analysis of reports that accompanied the draft bills.

“There are real people in the Jewish community that will not receive critical services due to the lack of earmarks this year,” said William Daroff, United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) vice president for public policy.

Democrats blame Republicans in the last Congress for the earmarks’ removal, saying that after the midterm elections ended their 12 years in the majority, Republicans all but abandoned the lame-duck session and left behind a vindictive mess by failing to pass nine of 11 appropriations bills.

“The Republicans have taken their ball and gone home and are pouting,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the new majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, said last month.

Debate on the 2008 budget starts next week, which Democrats say leaves them little choice but to abandon much of the process that would otherwise attend the 2007 budget, including earmarks and new spending. Instead, the 2007 budget is now likely to be funded by “continuing resolutions” that hew to the broad outlines of the 2006 budget.

Some social services would be affected, Hoyer acknowledged, but “we want to make that suffering as short-term as we can.”

The earmarks affecting Jewish groups were mostly for less than $500,000 each and served a variety of programs, from equipment upgrades to Jewish hospitals to Jewish community service programs for the mentally ill and educational programs.

Earmarks are preferred by local Jewish groups, which maintain strong constituent relations with lawmakers. The earmarks allow federations to garner millions of dollars for social service programs without having to compete for grants from federal agencies.

They have been used to support Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs, fostering programming in areas with large numbers of retirees, allowing them to live semi-independently and close to family.

Local NORC programs so far have received $25 million from the federal government, all through earmarks, UJC officials said. About $7 million in NORC funding was stripped from the 2007 spending bills.

In 2004, the omnibus spending bill included 37 earmarks for programs with “Jewish” in the name, amounting to more than $9 million.

Including the terms “Hebrew” and “Sephardic,” the number climbed to 41 earmarks and more than $10 million.

Many other projects of importance to local Jewish communities may not have identifiably Jewish names and could be buried in the vast spending documents.

Despite such salutary effects, earmarks are more notorious as pork, or federal funds funneled to lawmakers’ campaign contributors and for local initiatives. A slate of recent scandals has led to the reform proposals.

Those have drawn mixed reviews from the Jewish community. Jewish groups long have sought political oversight and reform, but at the same time have benefited greatly from spending measures inserted by lawmakers.

“We wholeheartedly endorse measures that are intended to increase the transparency of the spending process,” Daroff said. “We think deals that are cut in the middle of the night is not good government, so we encourage reforms.”

But cutting all earmarks would not be wise, Daroff said. The earmarks Jewish groups receive are not designed to help big companies but are for essential community programs.

Hoyer said worthy earmarks would stay in place.

“I am a proponent of not eliminating earmarks,” he said, noting that the president has considerable spending discretion and giving up earmarks would “badly skew the balance” between the two branches.

“Congress ought not to give up that authority,” Hoyer said. “Some earmarks are good, some bad, but we’re going to make sure the public knows about them. Is this a good investment of American taxpayer dollars?”

UJC and the federations back such transparency, supporting reforms that would require lawmakers to attach their names to each spending provision rather than inserting it anonymously.

“The House passed earmark reform earlier this month as part of its rules package.

The Senate is now considering measures that include attaching naming to spending provisions, as well as allowing senators to strike earmarks from spending bills and prevent earmarks from being added to the final drafts of legislation that emerge from House-Senate conferences.

Jewish leaders acknowledge that as earmarks fall out of vogue, they will need to garner funding through federal agencies. UJC was able to secure language in the Older Americans Act to authorize a national NORC program, which will distribute funding for the senior-citizen initiatives across the country through the Department of Health and Human Services. UJC will seek funding for the program in the next budget.

Most of the federal funding Jewish groups receive comes from agencies, largely through the Medicare and Medicaid programs. But Daroff worried that removing earmarks would hurt the ability to fund pilot programs such as NORCs and other innovative solutions to social-service issues.

“The Jewish federation system will adapt to the changing environment and will do what it needs to do to bring necessary services to the community,” he said. “Our initiatives are innovative public policy approaches that are welcomed by members of Congress because they see it as not funding the same old program the same old way.”

Pullout Plan Sparks Clash on Legitimacy

As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon powers ahead with plans for disengagement from the Gaza Strip, charges are flying between proponents and naysayers determined to gain monopolies on legitimacy, each side accusing the other of trampling democratic norms.

The settlers claim Sharon does not have a popular majority for his plan and accuse him of "behaving like a dictator." Sharon retorts that the settler claims are a deliberate ploy to justify undemocratic, violent resistance.

To settle the legitimacy question and take the sting out of the settler campaign, some pundits and politicians are suggesting a national referendum on the evacuation issue.

Sharon says no. He argues that these proposals are a ruse to hold up, and ultimately sink, his plan, which also includes evacuating some West Bank settlements.

The arguments over legitimacy and the referendum proposal will almost certainly dominate public discourse in Israel in the coming months.

In a front-page editorial, Amnon Dankner, editor of the mass circulation Ma’ariv newspaper, compared the current situation with that in the months leading up to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin nine years ago. Dankner implied that Rabin had ridden roughshod over democratic norms and so provoked the settlers’ anger and violence that led to his assassination, and that Sharon was now doing the same thing.

The Rabin government, Dankner wrote, had only achieved a majority for the Oslo accords by "buying" the vote of right-wing Knesset member Alex Goldfarb, making him a deputy minister and providing him with the Mitsubishi sedan that came with the position. This, wrote Dankner, was "democracy only in name, not in spirit, not true democracy." And, he continued, "it’s obvious how this pushed the settlers into a corner, and how it lit the fires of incitement and murder."

Now, according to Dankner, Sharon is doing something similar: He has ignored party votes against his plan and fired right-wing ministers simply to obtain a Cabinet majority for it.

"The prime minister," Dankner wrote, "is pushing the disengagement plan with a blunt, crude and ugly trampling of democratic values and majority decision," and, like Rabin, would be partly to blame for the consequences.

In Dankner’s view, the way to avoid this would be to reinforce the legitimacy of the prime minister’s policy by holding a national referendum — a vote he is virtually certain to win. Although Dankner was criticized for implying that Rabin was largely to blame for his own assassination, several pundits and politicians agreed with his demand for a referendum.

The most outspoken of them was Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He argued that the Gaza pullout plan is tearing the nation apart, and that a referendum would help reduce tension and preserve unity.

He proposed expedited Knesset passage of a referendum law, which would be required to even hold a referendum. Then should a referendum be held, he supports putting just one simple question to the voters: "Are you for or against the gradual evacuation process approved by the government?"

But as simple as it seems, Netanyahu’s proposal highlights the complexity of the issue. He speaks of expedited passage of a referendum law, but legal experts say it could take months, if not years.

First, there is the general question of what circumstances could lead to invocation of a referendum. Then, there is the matter of the referendum question. Sharon would never accept Netanyahu’s formulation; the prime minister wants to carry out the evacuation process in one fell swoop, rather than in stages.

Moreover, legislators could haggle for months over whether the referendum would need a simple majority or a plurality of 60 percent or more. Opponents of Sharon’s plan could delay things further by challenging the legislation to create a referendum in the courts.

Sharon’s allies suspect that Netanyahu’s proposal is merely intended to embarrass the prime minister by putting him in a no-win situation. If he accepts Netanyahu’s proposal, passing the legislation will take so long it will sink the evacuation plan; if he doesn’t, he will appear undemocratic, afraid to put his plan to the nation for approval.

Sharon confidant, Ehud Olmert, argues that the very raising of the referendum idea by Netanyahu implies that Sharon’s evacuation plan does not have full legitimacy and requires the further imprimatur of the people. But, says Olmert, Israel’s trade and industry minister, all the prime minister needs in accordance with the Israeli system is approval from the Cabinet and the Knesset — and he is assured of the support of both.

Sharon says the referendum proposal is a transparent attempt by his opponents to gain time. His confidants go further. They say the settlers are bandying the referendum idea about, knowing full well that Sharon will reject it, in an effort to delegitimize the evacuation process and legitimize the use of force against it.

Tough right-wing statements and actions suggest swelling undercurrents of violence. Netanyahu’s father, Bentzion, along with other family members, recently signed a petition describing the planned evacuation as a "crime against humanity" and urging soldiers "to listen to the voice of their national and human conscience" and refuse to carry out evacuation orders.

Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, Hagi Ben Artzi, a settler, noted that "only the Nazis had transferred Jews" and intimated that there would be violent and even armed opposition.

Baruch Marzel, a former member of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s now-banned Kach organization, has set up a new radical right-wing group called the Jewish National Front, dedicated to resisting evacuation.

Another former Kach member, Rabbi Yosef Dahan, has said that, if asked, he would be willing to carry out a "Pulsa da-Nura," a religious curse condemning Sharon to death. Extremists performed Pulsa da-Nura ceremonies against Rabin in the weeks leading up to his assassination in 1995.

In this volatile situation, settler leaders admit to playing a canny double game. On the one hand, they are trying to win the hearts and minds of mainstream Israelis just in case there is a referendum. To this end, they are consciously toning down settler rhetoric.

At a huge settler demonstration in Jerusalem Sept. 12, they took pains to silence extremists and take down banners that went too far. But at the same time, they admit to turning the flames of incipient violence "on and off" and allowing the threat of civil war to hover uneasily in the air.

As the showdown over evacuation approaches, both the prime minister and the settlers are acting within brittle parameters of legitimacy and perceived legitimacy and resorting to on-the-edge brinkmanship. In both cases, it is a dangerous game that could get out of hand.

Israelis Debate Peace Proposals

The regulars who take their morning coffee at the sun-bleached Good Day Cafe aptly have nicknamed the spot "Moshe’s Parliament."

Sitting on red plastic chairs and leaning over flowered tablecloths over the weekend, retirees dissected and debated the various new Middle East peace proposals.

Yonatan Assaf, an 81-year-old retired employee of the electric company, said he has little faith in the government or its capacity for changing its policies.

His friend, Eli, a 76-year-old retired tour guide, said the government should be the sole party making peace.

"Whoever wants to make peace with the Arabs needs to be in the government," said Eli, who asked not to be identified by his last name.

Their discussion over the weekend mirrored that of Israel’s government, as they sat around sipping cappuccinos and debating the unofficial "Geneva accord" peace plan, which has sparked national debate in Israel over how the country can move pass its impasse with the Palestinians.

The Geneva accord, along with a few others being debated here, have tapped into a national malaise resulting from three years of intifada, striking a chord with those tired of the status-quo of frequent terrorism and severe economic hardship.

Even within the government, calls are increasing for action on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Last Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot as saying that in the absence of a deal with the Palestinians, Israel should plan a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. He said Israel risked losing its demographic edge as a Jewish State if it maintained control over all of those territories and the Palestinian populations within them.

A longtime stalwart of the Likud Party, Olmert swiftly was denounced by many on the Israeli right, and posters depicting him standing beside Hitler appeared in Jerusalem over the weekend.

For all the debate it has inspired, the Geneva proposal is opposed by most Israelis.

A poll published last Friday in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv found that 29 percent of Israelis support the Geneva accord; 45 percent oppose it.

The accord, proposed by Israeli opposition figures with no government authority to negotiate on Israel’s behalf, would give, in exchange for peace and quiet, the Palestinians a state in the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, divide Jerusalem and give the Palestinians control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The accord is ambiguous on the Palestinian demand for a "right of return" to Israel for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Ettie Masika, a hair stylist working in her tiny, butterscotch-yellow hair salon announced that she threw out the accord, which was mailed to every Israeli home in a broad direct-marketing campaign, as soon as she received it.

"Many people just threw it in the trash," Masika said. "It does not speak to me. It’s so hard to hear about things that will not happen. Every day we hear about peace, peace, but nothing comes of it."

Heska Boneh, who sat waiting to have color treatment rinsed from her hair, disagreed. She said she read the document closely and has been discussing it with family and friends.

"I hope it leads us somewhere good," Boneh said. "The world needs to see that we don’t want war and terrorism. We really are prepared for concessions. We want peace."

Among the proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace is a grass-roots statement of principles called the Peoples’ Voice, which is aimed at influencing leaders on both sides through a nationwide petition campaign. The one-page petition of principles for reconciliation, drawn up by former Israeli security official Ami Ayalon and Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh, includes a two-state solution, permanent borders based on Israel’s pre-1967 border and a shared Jerusalem as capital of Israel and a Palestinian state.

So far, the petition has garnered 130,000 Israeli signatures and 70,000 Palestinian ones, with 1,000 additional Israelis a day signing it, according to the project’s spokesperson, Abigail Levy.

"I think in the past three years Israeli society has gone through a huge trauma and in a certain way we are coming to a certain awakening," Levy said. "The way to move forward is not through violence; we need to go back to the table" of negotiation, she said.

Tel Aviv University’s Peace Index, which has polled Israelis monthly on peace-related matters since the Oslo Accords were launched in 1993, found in its latest survey that 75 percent of Israelis favor returning to the negotiating table and trust Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government to decide what concessions should be made in negotiations.

"People want to see a different situation but think that the government is functioning well within the limitations of the situation," said Tamar Hermann, director of the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, which conducts the surveys.

Nevertheless, Hermann said, the peace initiatives being proposed by nongovernmental figures have managed to "breathe new life into the discussion and put on the table questions that have not been dealt with lately."

Voters are not changing their minds, she said, but are expressing a willingness to accede to concessions if they are agreed to by Israel’s conservative government.

Ofir Shelah, a commentator for the Ma’ariv newspaper, said the mood of Israelis can be quite fickle. While there may be a growing wave of support now for concessions, a massive terrorist attack could swing public opinion swiftly the other way, he said.

But the national debate on concessions should not be dismissed out of hand, Shelah said.

"People are starting to ask the question of where is all this leading us and how might it end. The questions have always been present, but until now, the anger, desire for revenge and fear took over everything else," Shelah said.

At the Wooden Horse Cafe on Tel Aviv’s trendy Sheinkin Street, young people laugh and sip frothy cups of cappuccino as a guard with an attack dog stands nearby.

The street is known more for setting fashion trends than as a locus of political discussion, but among its shopkeepers selling designer soap, chunky-heeled shoes and day-glow sweatpants are enthusiastic voices celebrating the return of debate on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Liron, who works at a candle and soap boutique on Sheinkin, said, "It’s good that something is moving now, otherwise we will have more of the same — and what is happening today, it’s just terrible."

"It’s starting a process, so people can start caring again," she said.